Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Archive for the ‘music’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Roll Your Own Theory

Posted by midiguru on May 19, 2014

Last night I started musing about how one might develop a coherent theory of harmony (that is, scales and chords) for a tuning with 31 equal-tempered steps per octave. This tuning, which we can call 31et or 31edo for short, has some very nice properties, but describing those properties in terms of conventional music theory quickly leads into a morass of confusing terminology.

Our terms for intervals, for example (second, third, fourth, and, for that matter, octave), are firmly rooted in the diatonic tradition — the white keys on the piano, in other words. But 31edo provides some scale modes that are not related to the diatonic modes.

If you hang around online, as I do, with people who do microtonal music, you’ll start hearing a lot of very specialized terminology. Things like “porcupine” and “MOS.” Might other theorists have come up with ideas that I could borrow to describe scales and chords in 31edo? This morning I jaunted over to the xenharmonic wiki to find out.

It soon became apparent that microtonal theory is an intellectual playground, or if you prefer a smoking parlor, in which everybody gets to roll their own. And sometimes the tobacco crumbs leak out the sides. Here, lightly edited, is an attempt to describe MOS, which stands for “moment of symmetry”:

“A Moment of Symmetry is a scale that consists of (1) a generator (of any size, for example a 3/2 or a fifth in 12 equal temperament) which is repeatedly superimposed but reduced within the (2) Interval of Equivalence (of any size, for example most commonly an octave), often called a period, (3) where each scale degree or scale unit will be represented by no more than two sizes and two sizes only (Large = L and small = s).”

The first part of that is clear enough. We’re going to choose an interval of some size and stack it on top of itself, periodically folding it back down so that it stays within the octave (or tritave, or whatever). But what exactly does item (3) in the definition tell us? How can a scale degree be represented by a size? How, indeed, can a single scale degree be represented by two sizes, as that sentence seems to say?

I suspect this writer is trying to tell us that we’re going to end up with two sizes of steps in our scale. If we look at a conventional pentatonic scale on a piano keyboard, for instance, we’ll find that some of the intervals in it are major seconds, and some are minor thirds.

Really, we have two problems here. The first is, there are hundreds of people developing their own concepts and terminology, most of which apply only to their own music. The second is, they don’t always explain their concepts very clearly.

Can all of this intellectual ferment be distilled down into anything useful? I have my doubts.

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More About Skeletons

Posted by midiguru on May 11, 2014

In; reading Nicholas Cook’s A Guide to Musical Analysis, it strikes me that the analysts whose work he describes (such as Schenker and Reti) have made a fundamental mistake; they’ve attempted to apply their methods across the board to all music. As both an occasional composer of not-especially-profound music and an avid listener to all sorts of music, it strikes me that a method of analysis that works well for one genre or one piece of music may not work at all for another. Frank Zappa’s music is extraordinary, but one would hardly expect it to show many common features with a Haydn string quartet. Not only that, but a method of analysis that purported to find such commonalities would be deeply suspect.

Reti’s probing search for motivic unities in Beethoven is a case in point. Those unities are unquestionably there — sometimes, when Beethoven chose to put them there (and perhaps sometimes when he was guided by his unconscious and didn’t know he was putting them there). One of my favorite examples is the melody that begins at bar 75 in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. Everybody knows that the first subject of the Fifth Symphony recurs in the third movement. But if you look at bar 75 in the first movement, you’ll find it hidden on the weak beats in a legato line. Unquestionably, Beethoven did that on purpose. But as Cook points out, Reti’s methods can far too easily reveal supposed motivic unities that aren’t really there at all.

Just for kicks, I had a stab at doing a Schenkerian analysis of the D minor fugue from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Now, that doesn’t mean the fugue has no large-scale tonal structure. It quite clearly moves up from D minor to A minor (the dominant) at the halfway point, almost exactly as if it were a binary form piece. But those upward leaps of a sixth, which are so important to this fugue, are difficult to analyze using a Schenkerian method, as are the fugal entrances, which are pretty much all over the place. There’s a lot going on, so much that trying to find a straightforward linear analysis would be perilous.

What I did discover, while examining the piece analytically, was that after reaching the halfway point, Bach stated the fugue subject in inversion five times in a row. I knew it was inverted in some of its statements, but I hadn’t noticed while playing it that the inversions were deployed so consistently. His gigues often have this form: a three-voice fugue in which the fugue subject is inverted in the second half of the binary form. Clearly, he was inverting the subject of this fugue at this spot quite intentionally. But it would be silly to assume that he invariably used the same pattern, or anything like it, in every piece, or even in every fugue. Composers don’t work that way.

I happen to know the cello suites pretty well, so I’m aware of Bach’s intentions in several of them. The opening movement of the Second Suite is a fine example. This movement is in 3/4, and the second beat is very heavily emphasized throughout. In 38 of the 63 measures, the second beat is either the highest note in the measure, the lowest note in the measure, or longer than the notes surrounding it (as in bars 40 and 42). In a couple of other measures (49 and 53) the note on the second beat is an E-flat, creating a momentary Neapolitan harmony, and in 57 and 58 the second beat is emphasized by being the top of a rising figure, though the third beat here is even higher. So really, 40 or 42 of the measures out of 63 have this feature.

Neither Schenker’s method nor Reti’s would reveal it, though Leonard Meyer’s analysis of strong and weak beats using the terms of Greek prosody (iamb, dactyl, etc.) would. But would Meyer’s approach tell us anything about the C major prelude from Book I, which is an uninterrupted stream of 16th-notes? Probably not.

All I’m saying is, don’t insist on adherence to any particular method. Just notice what’s in the music.

 

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Skeletons

Posted by midiguru on May 11, 2014

A hundred years ago or thereabouts, a fellow named Heinrich Schenker developed a method for analyzing the structure of pieces of classical music. His method, which is known as Schenkerian analysis, is of some academic importance — and that’s a shame, because it’s stupid.

What Schenker did was attempt to describe the structure of pieces of music in harmonic terms by progressively stripping away all of the surface features, until what was left was, in every case — big surprise! — a I-V-I progression. The fact that analyzing music in this way removes all of its interesting, memorable, and emotionally affecting features seems not to have bothered Schenker in the least. Nor was he concerned that his methods worked best when applied to German classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries, and poorly or not at all when applied to other kinds of music. As far as Schenker was concerned, those other kinds of music were simply inferior because they failed to follow his template, which he was sure was a universal truth.

I’ve been reading a book by Nicholas Cook called A Guide to Musical Analysis. He starts with Schenker, but I’m looking forward to getting past the opening chapter and on to something that may make more sense. (If you think “musical analysis” ought to refer to the study of shows like Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, you’re right. The correct term would be “music analysis.” But we’ll give Cook a mulligan on that one.)

Cook is not, I hasten to add, a committed Schenkerian. I got a chuckle out of this passage, on page 54: “…Schenkerian analysis of Schubert’s Moment Musical, Op. 94, No. 1, suggests that the first and last formal sections of this piece — an extended ABA — have quite different harmonic and linear functions, even though the one is the exact repetition of the other. Some critics of Schenkerian analysis have been worried by such discrepancies between surface form and analytical interpretation….”

This passage put me in mind of “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” a story by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges’s premise is that Menard, a modern author (whom Borges invented for the purpose) devoted years of effort to writing a couple of chapters of Don Quixote, not by copying it but by a deliberate process of creative inspiration. Far from producing these chapters by accident, Menard set out to duplicate the Quixote, and succeeded.

“Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical,” Borges tells us, “but the second is almost infinitely richer.” And on the next page, “The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard — quite foreign, after all — suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.”

Borges was pulling our leg, of course, but he was also making a point about how we interpret texts. In light of that, there may be some justification, however tenuous, for that bizarre Schenkerian analysis of Schubert. Insofar as there’s any justification at all for Schenkerian analysis, which is rather doubtful.

Posted in music | 2 Comments »

A Hit Before Your Mother Was Born

Posted by midiguru on May 8, 2014

Lately I’ve been recording new and slightly twisted arrangements of Beatles tunes, using Reason 7.1. This is great fun — they’re memorable tunes, and they inspire me with creative ideas. “Day Tripper” works well in 5/8 time, for instance.

But yesterday, as I was putting the Magical Mystery Tour LP on the turntable, it occurred to me that that LP is 45 years old. That’s a hell of a long time in pop music. When I bought that LP in 1969, a 45-year-old phonograph record would have been produced in 1924. That’s not quite before my mother was born — she was born in 1922. But 1924 was the year when 23-year-old Louis Armstrong left King Oliver’s Chicago band and started his own career. That fact puts the Beatles in some kind of historical perspective, I suppose.

Meanwhile, on the other channel, I’ve been looking at a bunch of new music software. Some of it I’ll be reviewing for Keyboard, so I won’t give details here, but my list of possibles includes a new Kontakt library called REV (the samples are mostly played backwards, or can be), a convolution synthesis program called Galaxy X that runs on the Magix sampler platform, a BT-style slicing and dicing rhythm machine from iZotope called BeatTweaker, and Glitchmachines Scope, a modular VST effects processor that would really rather generate off-the-wall noises on its own than process whatever signals you send it.

The connection between these two activities is that time (and music) marches on. I won’t say that I don’t understand what these extremely weird noise-makers are good for, because I’m not that far out of the loop. But I will say that they’re challenging me to think about music in new and different ways. None of them is very suitable for a Beatles mash-up, that’s clear.

Probably the challenge I’m looking at is deeper than what Armstrong would have run into had he tried playing a Beatles tune in the final years of his life. I mean, chords and melodies hadn’t changed that drastically between 1924 and 1969, though they were being interpreted in very different ways. With today’s noise-makers, though, chords and melody are almost an irrelevance. The entire aesthetic basis of music has changed.

We’re living in interesting times. As Joni Mitchell said, “Something’s lost, but something’s gained, in living every day.” And then there’s Thomas Dolby: “We’re living through the break-up, commercial break-up, here it comes again!”

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Tiny Everything

Posted by midiguru on April 13, 2014

A couple of months ago I learned one or two pieces in Book 4 of Bela Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. And recently one of the people on the Xenharmonic Alliance II group on Facebook posted a link to a really nice piece for solo piano (digital, of course) in 17-note equal temperament.

Inspired by that piece, I figured I’d try my hand at a Mikrokosmos-style piece — short, melodic, and harmonically modern, in 17et. It only took a few hours to whip something up:

I enjoyed the process so much that a few days later I tried again:

In case you’re curious: No, these weren’t played in real time. There’s a lot of hand-editing of note lengths and velocities, quantizing, trying different harmonies by dragging the notes up and down, and manually adjusting the tempo here and there.

If I do more of these, I’m going to have to call the series “Tiny Everything,” so the first piece needs its own name. How about “Antic”? The second piece, with those heavy minor chords in the lower register, seems to be called “Gloom.”

I’m still foodling with the question of how best to notate a 17-note scale on a conventional five-line staff. Or even whether to bother. If you look at the Wikipedia article on 17et, you’ll find Easley Blackwood’s method. Easley obviously put a lot of thought into questions of this sort, but I find it odd that his chromatic scale zigzags. The first three notes, for instance, are C, D-flat, and then C-sharp. Also, with his method the interval of a neutral third (which divides the perfect fifth evenly) is spelled either as an augmented second or as a diminished fourth, never as a third. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in microtonal, music | 1 Comment »

More Fun with Software

Posted by midiguru on April 12, 2014

I happen to be involved in two software-heavy pursuits — electronic music and writing interactive fiction. The differences between the two fields may be of interest to nobody but me, but this is my blog, so here goes.

The software in both fields is sophisticated and feature-rich. But there’s at least a hundred times more activity in electronic music than in IF authoring. In IF, we have probably seven or eight developers, total, who are actively maintaining authoring systems. If you want to do creative work as an IF author, you’ll be using the tools uploaded by one of these kind and generous souls.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the audience for electronic music is at least ten thousand times larger than the audience for interactive fiction. Second, writing IF is much harder than laying out music in a digital audio workstation, so the number of people who even consider writing a text game is very small. The number who ever finish and release their games is even smaller.

The audience for IF is small for two reasons: First, if you want to play a computer game, you’ll probably get more excitement out of a game with video and music. Beyond that, though, playing a text game requires that you think. Few people think while listening to music … or at least, they don’t think about the music.

I’m grateful every day to the developers for producing such wonderful tools. On the IF side, Mike Roberts and Eric Eve are my heroes. On the digital audio side, there are too many heroes for me to list them all, but sound designers like Eric Persing and Howard Scarr would be high on the list, as would Ernst Nathorst-Böös, whose steady hand on the helm has turned Reason into such an amazing music program. Keep up the great work, guys!

Posted in Interactive Fiction, music, random musings, technology | Leave a Comment »

 
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