Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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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.

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 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 alleged fans to pay for the music?

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

I may be able to get answers to these questions by phoning HFA. But 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, but will they be satisfied with my plan to estimate the number of downloads at 25, keep no records, and distribute the files for free? Will they expect me to keep paying them every year for the privilege?

Check back in a day or two. I may know more.

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.

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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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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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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 »

Soft Touch

Posted by midiguru on April 7, 2014

Bought a new laptop yesterday, a high-end Toshiba. No particular reason for choosing Toshiba — it has the features I want (wide screen, big hard drive, four USB ports), and the local Fry’s had it in stock.

Unfortunately, the touchpad is a piece of crap. It’s the kind of design that only a techie could love. Innovative! Goes over great in meetings with sales and marketing people! But for actual users — not so nice.

The left and right buttons, you see, are integral to the touchpad. They’re not separate, mechanical buttons, they’re just areas at the bottom of the pad. So here’s the result: You scoot the pointer over to the little icon that you want to right-click on, and then you lift your finger, move it down to the right-click area, and tap. But … oops! As your finger landed on the right-click area, it wasn’t traveling vertically, it was traveling at an angle. Your fingertip moved laterally across the surface as you began the right-click. And that caused the pointer to move somewhere else.

Congratulations — you’ve just right-clicked on the wrong thing. Why? Because the Toshiba Qosmio doesn’t have real click-buttons.

The two-finger scrolling is upside down, and it’s jerky. Annoying, but not a fatal flaw. Also, you dare not rest your finger lightly on what you think is the left button while moving the pointer with a finger of your other hand. In that situation, the Toshiba will think you’re using a two-finger technique. It may start scrolling the window. It may think you’re trying to do a pinch-zoom. Or it may just refuse to recognize that second fingertip at all, because it thinks you’re stationary in the left-button area.

Why? Because the Toshiba Qosmio doesn’t have real click-buttons.

I was looking for an excuse to take it back to the store. Thought I’d found one. But dang it, no. By default, a Toshiba laptop uses the Function keys for OS stuff — changing the screen brightness and so on. If you have any programs that use the Function keys, this is a big problem, because you have to hold down Fn while tapping the Function key to get at the normal behavior.

The User Guide cleverly does not tell you how to defeat this “feature.” But after a fruitless online search, I dug around in the utilities area and found the switch for reversing it. Too bad. If there had been no way to defeat it, I would have had an ironclad reason to take the computer back to the store and trade it for one with real click-buttons.

 

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When Is a Volt Not a Volt?

Posted by midiguru on January 8, 2014

Regular readers of this space (all five of you) will be aware that I’m fussy about intonation. And yet, I’ve acquired an analog modular synthesizer. Go figure. Analog synthesis is good at many things, but precise intonation is not one of them.

In order to integrate a computer with the modular synth, I’ve acquired Expert Sleepers ES-3 and ES-6 modules. These nifty devices can talk to a computer via ADAT lightpipe, with a very nice PreSonus 1818VSL interface shuttling the 24-bit audio back and forth.

The computer happens to be running Csound. One of my bright ideas is that I’d like to be able to write a fairly complex step sequencer in Csound (not especially difficult to do) and have it play the modular synth.

The oscillators in a modular system of this type are calibrated, in theory, so that when an incoming voltage rises by 1 volt, the oscillator’s frequency rises by one octave. This is called the 1-volt-per-octave standard. My oscillators have 1v/oct inputs.

The output of the ES-3 has a range of +/- 10 volts, and Csound’s audio signals are defined as having a maximum amplitude of +/- 1.000. From this, it’s easy to see Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in microtonal, modular, music, technology | 13 Comments »

Follow the Bouncing Ball

Posted by midiguru on January 4, 2014

I can’t imagine that any of the music tech magazines I write for will want me to review Musyc Pro, so I may as well tip you off to it here. It’s for the iPad, it’s a toy, it makes pretty sound patterns, it’s clever, and it’s at least modestly addictive. Good for an evening or two of entertainment, at least, and a way to amaze your friends. It’s on the App Store.

It’s sort of a user-designable pinball machine. Little circles and squares and triangles bounce around, and when they hit something they play a note. You set up the “rails” and optionally insert a couple of other objects that the bouncing objects will interact with, such as a gravitational attractor. You can choose from a variety of soundsets, or even import your own samples (though I haven’t tried that yet — don’t know if I’ll bother).

A sequencer object can spit out new objects in a regular rhythm or a steady stream. You can attach one object to another with a spring, so that they swing around one another.

MusycPro

The output conforms to some diatonic scale, but you can insert a scale object and give it several different scales. The played notes will switch from one scale to another depending on where the scale object is located as it bounces around.

The output is an irregular flurry of ambient tinkling — a highly programmable iOS wind chime, if you like. There’s even a reverb effect. You can capture the output as a soundfile, or upload it to your Soundcloud account. It’s all very silly, but extremely cute.

Posted in music, technology | Leave a Comment »

 
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