Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Nebulaceous

Posted by midiguru on August 30, 2014

A modular synthesizer is really good at making abstract sounds. If you’re seeking conventional tones suitable for melodies and bass lines — well, there are people who enjoy doing them with a modular, but frankly, there are better tools for the job.

The challenge, with abstract sounds, is how to use them in a way that makes some kind of musical sense. Because there’s nothing resembling harmony theory to fall back on, it seems to me it may be useful to be entirely intuitive — to not know, intellectually, what’s going on in a piece, and not to worry about it.

Here’s a modest example:

 

Borrowing a line from a poem by Gregory Corso, I call this piece “Scarlatti goes hip-hop through demented halls.” It was created using the Qu-Bit Nebulae, a few electronic beat loops I had lying around on my hard drive, and very little else. Well, some knob twiddling, and maybe a filter here or there. (I have no idea where the loops came from, but since they’re not recognizable, I’m not too worried about copyright violations.)

I recorded several raw tracks of Nebulae improvisation into Reason as audio, and then copied and pasted bits until I had something I liked. Generally there are at least two separate takes layered, sometimes three. The reverb on one track is Reason; everything else is straight out of the modular.

Oh, by the way — the Corso poem quoted above was published in 1958. The term “hip-hop” is not as new as you may have thought. Not that this music has anything to do with hip-hop.

Posted in modular, music | Leave a Comment »

Nebulous

Posted by midiguru on August 22, 2014

Note: At the moment, the server for my website has decided not to exist, so none of the audio in the blog is going to play. I’m waiting for a reply from tech support….

The latest addition to my modular synth is a Qu-Bit Nebulae, a nifty device that runs Csound code in its own little Raspberry Pi CPU. I haven’t yet tried loading any of my own Csound code; this morning I took Nebulae out for a spin using its default program, which does granular pitch- and time-shifting on samples.

This is a spoken vocal phrase that I happen to have lying around on my hard drive, being played by the Nebulae and processed by a ModCan Frequency Shifter and an Audio Damage Dub Jr. delay. Knob twiddling was employed — this is not an automated patch.

I figured the Nebulae and the ModCan would work well together. I was right.

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Walk Away, Rene

Posted by midiguru on August 4, 2014

The wonderful thing about modular synthesis is that once you understand how to do it, making sounds becomes a very intuitive process. Plug in a patch cord, grab a knob.

And then there’s the Make Noise Rene. Conceptually, it’s brilliant — very deep and powerful. As an actual piece of hardware, it could be improved by hitting it a few times with a hammer. And I say this with the greatest respect for Make Noise. I have two of their Maths modules, and also their DPO. Brilliant designs. Rene is another story.

The concept is, Rene is a two-dimensional step sequencer. It has 16 knobs arranged in a 4×4 grid, and you have independent control over the X and Y positions of the active step, using either a CV or a clock. If you don’t use a Y clock/CV input, the X control can either hang on one row or cycle through all 16 steps in various patterns. You can program it interactively, in real time, to skip certain steps. It has a quantized output, plus one that’s not quantized. It can glide from one output value to another. Plus a number of other features.

The knob tops are lighted so you can see what step is being played, or (in programming mode) what the current settings are. That’s good … but other than that, the user interface is really bad. There are two problems.

First, to program the rather elaborate functionality of the device, you touch one of the 18 touchplates (16 corresponding to the sequence steps, plus two for choosing program modes) with the tip of your finger. The trouble is, the touchplates are close to 100% nonresponsive. They ignore my fingers. This is apparently because my skin is not sweaty enough. I can get them to sort of respond, in a random unreliable way, by dipping my fingertip into a cup of water before touching the plate. Of course, if too much water gets on a touchplate, it may think my finger is there even after I’ve lifted it. So I dip my finger, dry it a bit on my trousers, and then it works for three or four finger-taps (maybe) before it stops working.

Second, and almost equally problematical, the device itself fails to provide nearly enough visual feedback on programming. There’s no LCD. There’s a row of six small colored LEDs that tell you which of the six programming modes you’re in. In each mode, the 16 touchplates do different things. To learn what they do, you have to consult the manual. Unless you’ve dedicated your life to learning how the device works, you may never manage to memorize all of the esoteric functions, so you’ll constantly be delving into the manual. And of course the manual is cryptic. The information is there, but you have to keep flipping up and down to different pages and … phooey.

If the touchplates worked, I’m sure I’d be able to learn the important functions within a week or two. I might even be motivated to do so. But right now, my motivation is seeping away into the woodwork.

To be fair, I have several other digital modules, including the Intellijel Shapeshifter oscillator, Mutable Instruments Braids, and the Tiptop Trigger Riot, all of which are brilliant, and none of which is exactly obvious. All three require more than a bit of manual-diving. (Shapeshifter is way deep.) Maybe I just need sweaty hands. On the other hand, they all have at least minimal data displays. You just have to learn what the lights on Rene mean by reading the manual, because zero information is actually visible on the panel.

Footnote: I contacted Make Noise, and they tell me they’ll recalibrate my unit to make it more sensitive. I’m shipping it to them today and keeping my (non-sweaty) fingers crossed.

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Back to the Modular

Posted by midiguru on August 3, 2014

I’ve been ignoring my modular synth for a few months. (Among other distractions, I was busy writing the new edition of Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming, which I’m hoping will be out by mid-January.) Today I thought I’d fire it up again. This is not a complete piece of music, it’s just a sketch:

As usual, I recorded the audio from the synth into Reason and did a bit of mixing there. The cool thing is, with a complex patch I can record up to six audio signals at once by using the Expert Sleepers ES-6, which sends ADAT-format digital audio to the PreSonus AudioBox. This particular sketch only uses three tracks, which means I can get twice as wild and crazy as this.

I’ll probably need a few more patch cords, though.

Rather than start with a musical idea, this patch started with a technical question: “Hey, can I use the Make Noise Maths as a slew limiter? I don’t remember.” Okay, that works. Let’s voltage-control the slew rate. Okay, how about running the output through a quantizer?

Yeah, that works, but I think I need to trigger the quantizer so as to produce a regular rhythm. That way, I can fire an envelope generator with the same rhythm, run the oscillator through a filter, and modulate filter cutoff.

And so forth.

This next bit, again just a sketch, wasn’t recorded all in one pass. It’s three separate mono tracks recorded using the same patch, with a few assorted tweaks. The rhythm is courtesy of Tiptop Trigger Riot, and the tone comes from a Morphing Terrarium, a digital oscillator that was indeed morphing actively (and being subjected to a bit of FM). My initial conception was to use all four sections of the Intellijel Quadra envelope generator.

I still don’t know if this type of minimal exploration qualifies as music, but I’m not sure I care.

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Culture, Creativity, and Copyright

Posted by midiguru on July 29, 2014

The law of copyright is a modern innovation. Copyright protection was developed for an important reason — to enable creative people to earn a living by doing creative work. Before the law assumed its present form, authors and composers routinely saw their popular works pirated. Unless an artist was fortunate enough to have a wealthy patron, the artist’s income was precarious.

As valuable as this legal framework has been to thousands of artists, there’s a downside. Works that captivate the public (and also, for that matter, works that remain little-known) remain exclusively owned and controlled for a number of years by the owner of the copyright. During the term of the copyright, nobody else can make use of the materials in a creative work.

Here’s a neat example of why this is a bad thing. In 1562, a long-forgotten author named Arthur Brooke published an English translation, in verse, of an Italian love story. He called it “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.” Only 30 years later, Shakespeare recast the story in a play, Romeo and Juliet. If modern copyright law had been in existence in England in the 16th century, we would not be able to enjoy that play today, because Shakespeare wouldn’t have written it. Just as likely, Brooke couldn’t have published his translation either, so Shakespeare would never have been inspired by it.

Technically, Shakespeare could have written the play — and then put it away in a drawer for 50 or 75 years, until Brooke’s copyright expired. But why would he have written it if he couldn’t publish it or have it performed?

Culture is not a private act. It’s a shared public experience, a shared human experience. Culture should not be kept locked away in tight little boxes that nobody is allowed to open unless they’ve checked out an authorized key from the Official Keeper of the Authorized Keys.

The law of copyright turns culture into a commodity. It turns the recipients and beneficiaries of culture (that is, all of us) into passive consumers. We’re allowed to enjoy the hallowed works of culture, but we’re not allowed to participate in them in any significant creative way.

Unless, of course, the copyright holder gives permission, either tacitly or overtly. The world of fanfic (fan fiction) is apparently quite healthy. People write their own Harry Potter stories, their own Star Wars and Star Trek stories. Some authors (such as J. K. Rowling) allow it. Others (such as George R. R. Martin) don’t. It’s up to the author — or, if the author has died or sold the rights, to the current owner of the copyright.

I’m sure most fanfic is dreadful, but that’s neither here nor there. The people who write fanfic are actively participating in their own culture, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Eventually, after the passage of years (and the law differs from one nation to another with respect to how many years have to pass) a copyrighted work passes into the public domain. When that happens, anybody can exercise their own creativity by freely adapting the material. Anybody can write Sherlock Holmes stories or Wizard of Oz stories, because those books are in the public domain.

To be more specific, the L. Frank Baum Oz books are in the public domain. Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Oz books aren’t, so you can use the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, but you can’t use any characters that Thompson created.

As that caveat suggests, you have to be careful. Want to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon? It was published in 1930. The legal situation in the United States is murky, but many novels published since 1923 are still protected by copyright. You might have the makings of a terrific mystery starring Sam Spade rattling around in your head, but unless the copyright owner (whoever that happens to be) is feeling charitably disposed, you could be in for a world of hurt.

This is not how culture and creativity are supposed to work. I don’t have a solution to offer, but there is damn well a problem here.

Posted in music, politics, random musings, society & culture, writing | 4 Comments »

Outfoxed

Posted by midiguru on July 28, 2014

It occurred to me this afternoon that in the past year I’ve done nine electronic arrangements of venerable Beatles tunes. Possibly a few other people might like to hear them. Some sort of digital download is obviously the distribution method of choice; nobody is likely to send me money for a physical CD.

I’d like this to be legal. Not that Paul McCartney needs the money, but maintaining legal distribution is an important ethical principle for musicians. So I wandered over to the website of the Harry Fox Agency to find out what it would cost. What I learned was a bit odd, and left some unanswered questions. There are, shall we say, difficulties.

The statutory rate for Permanent Digital Downloads (that is, files, not streaming music) is 9.1 cents per download for songs that are up to five minutes in length. Harry Fox Agency (HFA for short) licenses a minimum of 25 downloads per song. Since I don’t have what you might call actual fans, 25 may even be a good estimate. At that rate, I would be paying a royalty of $2.28 per song.

Here’s what’s weird: HFA themselves collect a fee of $16 per song (for each of the first five songs, and $14 for each song above five). At that rate, HFA would be raking in almost seven times as much money as Paul McCartney (and of course Paul’s management would pocket part of that). In concrete terms, by setting up an HFA account and becoming a legal purveyor of music, I would not be supporting the songwriters. I would be supporting the corporate machinery.

The HFA boilerplate, which for a change I actually read rather than just clicking Agree, was clearly drafted by high-priced lawyers. My money would be going, among other places, into the pockets of those lawyers. Color me less than thrilled about this.

Of course, if I were estimating that I’d sell 2,000 downloads per song, the HFA fee would fade into insignificance. But that’s just another way of saying that this is one of those places where the little guy gets screwed and the high-stakes players have an advantage.

Five of my nine arrangements are medleys containing two tunes each. Do I just pay once for the medley, or do I pay twice? If I were combining a Beatles song with a Stones song, it would make sense to pay twice … but if both songs are owned by the same copyright holder and the total length of the track is under five minutes, should I be charged twice?

The more serious issue is, how exactly does HFA propose to determine the number of downloads I’ve gotten? I have no commercial website set up to track downloads. That would be extra overhead for me, and the information would be of no value to me (unless I’m audited by HFA). What if I’m giving the files away — which is what I intend to do — and not keeping track of the number of downloads? Am I in violation of the law if I do that? To be specific, does the law require me to set up the machinery to track the downloads even if I’m not requiring my two dozen alleged fans to pay for the music?

I inquired, and received an answer from them on these points: I can give the music away, as long as I’ve paid for a mechanical license, and no metering is required. They simply require you to estimate, at the time when you request the license, the number of downloads you’ll be getting. This is good news.

The license is only good for 12 months, however. After that, I’m supposed to re-apply. And that would be another $16 per song going to Harry Fox.

The HFA FAQ explains that their mechanical licenses only cover the United States. Distribution in other nations requires separate licensing in those nations. The Internet being a more or less global thing, it’s a bit hard to see how any artist could comply with this when providing downloadable recordings of arrangements of songs by other composers. If a French fan downloads my files, I would become a criminal in France, even if I have complied with all of the U.S. licensing requirements.

I may be able to get answers to some of these questions by phoning HFA. (Well, no — you can’t even talk to anybody by phoning them. But they do answer inquiries made on their web form.) In any event, my money is still going to be feeding the corporate monster, not ending up in the pockets of the musicians. Do I want to pay Harry Fox and their lawyers a couple of hundred bucks? I can afford it, so it may be the safe thing to do.

Perusing the HFA FAQ, I learn that for a medley or an “arrangement of an existing song that alters the melody or character” (which all of my arrangements do — why else would I bother?), I have to get permission from the publisher as well as a license from HFA. It seems fairly clear that all jazz instrumental recordings of pop tunes would fall afoul of this requirement — so do all jazz recording artists have to jump through this hoop? I don’t know. But this requirement, frankly, pushes me over the line. I have no aspirations as a professional creative artist; I just want a few people to be able to hear my creative work. Clearly, the music publishing industry is NOT set up to support people like me. The music industry is set up in such a manner as to oppress people like me with burdensome paperwork and inappropriate fees.

On top of which, if I were to approach the publisher with my request, they might turn me down! Harry Fox can’t turn you down — they administer what are called compulsory licenses, a legal term meaning that legally you can’t be prevented from releasing a new recording of a previously recorded song, you just have to pay a standard rate. But we can imagine the consternation in the front office of the publisher of the Beatles catalog if I explained that I was planning to make my work freely downloadable.

Well, “consternation” is too strong a word. They wouldn’t bat an eyelash. They’d just say no. Of course, I could phone them and ask — they might say yes. But phoning them might put me and my electronic arrangements on their radar. As a practical matter, if I just upload the mp3s, they’ll never know.

So that’s what it comes to, sports fans. While crying foul about lost revenue due to digital downloads, the corporate-dominated music industry is quietly leaving independent artists no realistic alternative but to break the law.

Posted in music, society & culture, technology | Leave a Comment »

Sad for the Pad

Posted by midiguru on June 20, 2014

Some of the new music software for the iPad is amazing. So why am I feeling grouchy and irritable? Thanks for asking.

After spending a week or two poking around at various apps, using an Alesis iO Dock II as a docking station, I’ve concluded that the iPad simply isn’t a viable device for music-making. It’s a pig wearing lipstick.

First problem: The screen is simply too darn small. I’m used to making music on a full-size desktop screen. I had two screens side by side until last year, when the auxiliary screen crapped out. Music software is complicated stuff. Having acres of screen real estate isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity. Cubasis attempts to wedge something like the full functionality of Cubase into that little screen, and since I use Cubase, I can compare the experience of the two. The iPad does not fare well in the comparison.

Second problem: Compared to the mouse pointer, a fingertip is fat. In addition, when you move your hand over the screen to drop a fingertip on a control, you’re blocking your own view. Put these two factors together, mix in the complexity of the software interface, which has lots of little teensy buttons because it needs to do lots of things, and it becomes far too easy to miss whatever you’re trying to tap.

The fact that the interface is multi-touch isn’t really much of a benefit. Yeah, you can play whole chords on a displayed keyboard, but so what? I can play whole chords on my Axiom 61 MIDI keyboard. Two-handed chords covering four octaves, and with (gasp!) velocity response. If the keys on an iPad display are wide enough for you to land on the intended key in a reliable manner, you’ve got about one octave of keys visible, total. One octave? This is supposed to be a giant leap forward in user interface design?

Third problem: The docking station itself. It’s got the right I/O, no complaint there. But the iPad has to lie almost flat on the table. You can’t prop the iO Dock up vertically or get it anywhere near eye level — no, you have to hunch over it. Also, the iPad I bought last fall happens to be the Air model. It’s a little smaller than the full-sized unit that the iO Dock is designed for, so it kind of wibbles around. Oh, and Korg Gadget seems to want to run in portrait mode, while the iO Dock seems to assume your software will be in landscape mode. Dumb design decisions on both sides.

Fourth problem: AudioBus is not even close to being as usable as VST. One synth can be played through one effect. Meanhwhile, the transport controls for the receiving app are delegated to a little tiny block along one edge. No, AudioBus is pretty much a joke.

Fifth problem: File backup. Why would anybody try to do serious musical production on a device where you can’t drag-copy your work over to an external hard drive for backup at the end of every work session? The iPad doesn’t even have a way to display your stored files. You have to jump through hoops to make a backup. This is not a professional device, it’s a toy.

I’ve found some very clever apps, and some of the fresh ideas in the user interface department are worth contemplating. But the damn thing is just too small, and using it is too awkward. As a digital camera it’s pretty nice. As a platform for music-making, nah. Don’t mess with it. Get a real computer.

Posted in music, technology | Leave a Comment »

Too Many Synthesizers

Posted by midiguru on June 6, 2014

I’m perpetually looking for opportunities to write about synthesizers and related technologies. Not just because I love playing with new toys (though that’s part of it). I also like letting other people know what’s worth checking out. Maybe along the way I can give a manufacturer or two a tiny nudge in a good direction, or improve a deserving company’s sales figures ever so slightly.

Trouble is, the outlets for product reviews are pretty jammed up. Today I was talking to a magazine editor (not the editor of Keyboard or Electronic Musician) about product reviews, and he made it clear that his publication has the same problems they do. The advertisers pretty much demand coverage for their latest offerings. Meanwhile, the page count has shrunk drastically over the past decade or two.

Just in the software realm, I’d guess there are at least five times as many new music programs today as there were 15 years ago. The magazines have maybe half as much page space as they had then.

Musicians are the losers in this equation. We’re forced to base our buying decisions on three-sentence “reviews” in the online retailers’ pages, reviews written by who knows who, with who knows what agenda or level of ignorance. Yes, a video tutorial on a product can help a lot … if you can find a good one. Even so, there’s a glut of product and a shortage of solid information about it all.

Tonight I’ve been looking at Oscilab, a very forward-looking iPad app from 2Beat. I don’t even feel like pitching a review to Keyboard or EM, because neither of them has responded to my last few pitches. Not because the editors are rude (though they’re certainly overworked). The core problem is that the magazine itself doesn’t have the bandwidth.

A few years ago, Nick Batsdorf started a magazine called Virtual Instruments. Great idea, but it folded after a couple of years. I’m guessing, not enough ad dollars were coming in. The magazine was clearly needed, but the economy wouldn’t support it.

Okay, I got that off my chest. Now I can go back to playing with Oscilab.

Posted in music, technology, writing | Leave a Comment »

Mad for the Pad

Posted by midiguru on June 6, 2014

I’m pretty familiar with a wide range of music software, especially in Windows, but a lot of it is cross-platform, so the Mac scene is not too different. In the past two years, though, there has been a total explosion of music apps for the iPad.

I bought an iPad last fall, but honestly I haven’t done a whole lot with it. Now that I’m starting work on the revised edition of my synth programming book, I obviously need to learn what’s going on in the iPad world.

It’s jaw-dropping.

The basics of sound design are much the same, of course. Any number of apps give you ADSRs and LFOs. What’s new, and needs to be covered in the book, are the fresh ideas in user interfaces and performance control. Plus system-level concepts such as Audiobus and Core MIDI, of course.

iPad developers are forced to deal with a small screen, so they have to be clever about the UI. At the same time, the multi-touch interface opens up new ways to play (or just play with) the sounds.

The installed user base is huge. As a result, the pricing structure is very different from that for desktop/laptop software. Many of your customers won’t be that familiar with traditional methods of synthesis and music production, so you can present them with something quite simple, and they’ll like it.

Not all of these apps will be around next year. The scene is a bit Wild West at the moment; it hasn’t stabilized yet. This makes it tough for a book author, who has to try to write in a way that will still be at least marginally relevant five years down the road.

The good news is, I like playing with new toys. Alesis is shipping me an iO Dock II, so I’ll be able to send MIDI into the iPad and get 24-bit audio out in a convenient way.

Slide the food under the door.

Posted in music, technology | Leave a Comment »

Power Tools Update

Posted by midiguru on May 22, 2014

Good news, and you’re reading it here first: Hal Leonard has agreed to do a new edition of Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming. The book is now ten years old, and continues to sell (though not in large quantities). A lot has happened in music technology during the past decade, so it’s time for an update.

Or rather, a floor-to-ceiling rewrite. The basics haven’t changed: An ADSR is still an ADSR, and the durability of that concept is almost frightening. But enormous progress has been made in granular synthesis and additive synthesis. Software tools like Reason are light-years beyond where they were ten years ago. The iPad has emerged as a viable music tool, though of course the form factor makes it a wee bit awkward for serious work. Arpeggiators and step sequencers were barely mentioned in the first edition, but they’ve become an important production tool. Percussion software is big. And on the hardware side, there’s a resurgence of interest in modular analog instruments. Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of territory to be covered.

The new edition won’t come with a bind-in CD. Downloads are now the preferred delivery medium for bonus content. But that’s good news too. I’ll be able to do a few videos, even. And the new edition will have a beefed-up page count.

I don’t know yet what the release date will be, but look for it in October or November.

Posted in music, technology | Leave a Comment »

 
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