Cheesy Movies

Some of the movies I get from Netflix are unsuspected gems, but some of them are just silly. I like fantasy adventures, so I took a chance on a couple of for-TV movies from TNT. The series title is The Librarian.

Basically, they’re cheap knockoffs of Indiana Jones, with bits of supernatural spice thrown in. They’re aimed at 8th-grade viewers. What saves them, if anything does, is that you’re not supposed to take them seriously.

The first clue is that the supporting cast includes Bob Newhart and Jane Curtin. Newhart is sort of a cross between George Burns as God and Charlie in Charlie’s Angels. He’s the stay-at-home mastermind who sends the librarian out on dangerous quests.

The main reason this cheese is worth mentioning at all is a wonderful moment in the first movie. Something dangerous and mystifying has happened to the librarian, and he picks up the phone and calls his boss — Newhart. So then we get a profile shot of Newhart picking up the handset of an ornate, old-fashioned phone, and everyone who knows Newhart is bound to be thinking, “Oh, the phone bit.” And then … they don’t do the phone bit. I loved that.

Also, Newhart, who is at least 80 and looks it, gets to do a kung fu combat scene in which he knocks bad guys down and emerges unscathed. That was kind of fun too. And of course the way Jane Curtin can look deeply skeptical and disgusted without saying a word. Without the talents of those two venerable comedians, the Librarian movies would be worse than dreadful. As it is — I don’t mind stupid, if it’s fun.


Public & Private Faces

I’ve never read anything on the differing psychological characteristics of various cultures and historical periods. I’ll bet it’s a fascinating field of study. But I’ve been reflecting a bit on the Victorian era.

I suspect that this period — the late 19th century in Western Europe — represents the apogee of a separation between the public and private personae. Respectability in the eyes of society was extremely important, more so than today, and probably more so than it had been a hundred years previous. People were careful to cultivate a respectable public persona, and that sometimes created quite a rift between the public and the private. When you met a person, you could seldom be certain what sort of person you were really dealing with. The private reality might be entirely different from the public presentation.

This observation came to me while reading some of the Sherlock Holmes stories. We tend to think of Holmes as being a keen observer of minute clues — whipping out a magnifying glass to inspect the minute traces on a windowsill, that type of thing. But while those incidents certainly occur in the Holmes stories, they’re not the predominant element.

Again and again, in story after story, Conan Doyle wrote about disguises. About people who were not at all who or what they appeared to be. Holmes himself, of course, often went about in disguise. But his most frequent occupation was unmasking someone else. His penetrating eye was, in essence, the ability to discern truth where others were deceived.

The truth was, at the very least, the revelation that a seemingly good person was a villain. But Doyle’s vision often went far beyond that. In “The Copper Beeches,” a woman is hired as a governess on the condition that she cut off her hair. Her employers want her to impersonate their daughter, and without her even knowing that that’s what she is doing. In “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” a disfigured beggar and a missing middle-class husband turn out to be the same person. In “The Six Napoleons,” a plaster bust of Napoleon (symbolically, the disguise) contains a priceless pearl. In the final scene in “Silver Blaze,” a horse appears disguised, so that its identity is not known. In “The Yellow Face,” a yellow mask conceals a little girl’s black skin. In “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Stapleton is in fact the missing Baskerville heir, and the woman who lives with him as his sister is in fact his wife.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Doyle was telling us (even if only unconsciously) something crucial about the world he lived in.

Big Bottom

In trying to wrangle some music into shape for a new CD, I’m confronting my penchant for bass. There’s generally too much of it.

With older mixes, I have only a stereo master, so dialing back the bass with EQ is my only option. With new pieces, I can pull down the level of the bass and kick drum instrument tracks separately, or change their EQ, or even add overtones by opening a filter, which gives me much more control.

But taming the bass is only part of the process. I also need to understand why I turn it up so high in the first place.

Mixes that sound perfectly swell in my studio (a bedroom equipped with a pair of TOA 312-ME speaker enclosures) tend to sound as boomy as all get-out on my living room stereo (which has a more modest pair of Polk Audio monitors). This could be because the room acoustic in the studio is eating the bass. Or it could be that the Polk Audio speakers are jacking it up. Or maybe the TOAs have better mids and highs than the Polk Audios, so that what’s balanced in the studio sounds unbalanced in the living room.

One good way to test this is to take commercial CDs that sound balanced in the living room and see how they sound in the studio. But finding CDs that have the kind of bass lines that I tend to write is not easy — and that’s one of the factors I have to look at. I’m a bass player, or at least a former bass player. I hear counter-melodies on the bottom, and I write and record them. I do have a CD by Patrick O’Hearn called River’s Gonna Rise that has some good bass action. He’s a bass player, of course. So that’s a point of comparison. He tends to leave more space around the bass than I do, in terms of both the mix and the arrangement. That’s something to think about.

Another factor is the kind of bass tones I use. I need to use tones with more mids. A tone that’s mostly a rich, creamy low end can sound nice and full in the studio, but when I dial it back so that it sounds better balanced in the living room, the bass line turns wimpy. Commercial recordings (those that have moving bass lines at all) seem quite often to double the bass with a midrange instrument. This insures that the line will be audible and clear on systems that are deficient on the low end. It also makes it easier to dial back the low end, if need be, without affecting the musical content. This observation won’t help me with my older mixes, but it’s something to keep in mind for the future.

Preparing a CD is a learning process, that’s for sure.

Oops! Never Mind….

Picked up the new Michael Connelly novel (a two-fisted Harry Bosch LAPD mystery) at the library. It’s called Nine Dragons. It’s a page-turner, no question. Lots of danger and intrigue. Mysterious Chinese gangs. Guns blazing, knives drawing blood.

And then you get to the very end, after Harry Bosch has left a trail of bodies in Hong Kong, and you find out that the entire Hong Kong angle of the plot was purely a coincidence. Nine people are dead because of something that had nothing whatever to do with the case that Harry was investigating in L.A.

Sorry, Michael. You’re off my A-list. This kind of thing is pathetic. There’s no excuse for it. Yeah, you have to keep the reader guessing. An unexpected reversal at the end of the book is always fun. But when, 1/3 of the way through the story, Harry receives two dire threats in quick succession, and then at the end it turns out that the two had nothing to do with one another … no. That doesn’t work.

I’m going to spoil the book for you here. The reason there are nine people dead in Hong Kong, including Harry’s ex-wife, is because their 13-year-old daughter has staged her own fake kidnapping in order to get her father to fly from L.A. to Hong Kong. Now, granted, 13-year-old girls are somewhat impulsive and don’t always recognize the consequences of their actions. But even so, this stunt is pretty far over the top for a girl who shows no other signs of mental instability. In fact, she seems to accept her mother’s death with remarkable equanimity. The gut-wrenching pain of a girl who is carrying the terrible secret that she has just caused her mother’s death simply isn’t there. She sheds tears, takes a long shower, and then she’s fine.

Not only that, but in the course of staging the hoax, she and her friends rent a room in a seedy hotel to shoot what is supposedly to be a ransom video. They had no earthly reason to rent a room for this childish hoax. The only reason they did it was so Connelly could add to the plot suspense.

The Hong Kong gore-fest is the middle half of the book, and it’s the only part that has any action or suspense. We’re led to believe, and indeed Harry assumes, that a Los Angeles branch of a Chinese gang sent word back to Hong Kong that Harry’s daughter was to be snatched in order to get him to back off instead of going ahead with an investigation. Now, on any rational level this makes no sense whatever. The guy Harry has in custody as a suspect in L.A. is a low-level bagman for a routine shakedown, and seems to have popped a storekeeper who was late making a hundred-dollar payoff (which makes no sense either — and indeed, he’s innocent).

Why it would be so important to free the bagman from custody that word would travel like lightning up the gang’s chain of command clear to Hong Kong, where somehow the gang already knew how to locate one particular policeman’s daughter and was able to arrange a kidnapping on extremely short notice — I’m not a cop, but I can tell that that makes no sense. And when we reach the end of the book, we learn that, indeed, that wasn’t what was happening at all. But clear through the book, that’s what Harry Bosch, a 25-year-veteran of the LAPD detective squad, thinks is happening. Bosch is behaving like an idiot. Okay, he thinks his daughter is in mortal peril (as, indeed, she is, thanks to her own screwball impulse), so he acts a little rashly. Even so, as a plot device, it’s a dead fish.

The actual culprits in the original murder are just as inexplicable. A young Chinese man and woman, brother and sister, are frustrated because their father won’t sell his liquor store in the ghetto.  The family also owns a much more upscale store in a suburb, and the store in the ghetto is losing money, but out of pride and stubbornness Dad won’t close up shop in the old family store. So they convince the assistant manager at the upscale store to murder Dad, with the promise that then they’ll be able to open another new store and make him manager.

I’m not saying this could never happen. One trouble is, Connelly doesn’t give us any psychological insight into these people’s character that would make it believable. They seem like a perfectly nice middle-class Chinese family, up until the point when we learn that they’ve engaged in a bizarre plot to kill their own father. (Ross MacDonald didn’t make this kind of mistake. His middle-class and upper-class murderers were visibly unbalanced. You could understand how they might be that screwed up.)

Another issue is that the clues that lead Harry to unmask the murderers are so gosh-darn far-fetched. The dying man does something utterly bizarre — he puts an ejected shell casing in his mouth, though he has already been shot through the heart. And Harry happens to notice a college diploma hanging on a wall. If it weren’t for those two details, the murderers would never have been brought to justice. Certainly not through anything resembling actual police work.

Also, in the last chapter, Harry’s flaky partner manages to get himself killed, for no particular reason. It’s just a sort of childish impulse on Connelly’s part — “Gee, can I manage to add a little more blood and gore? Oh, sure.”

This is not the first time Connelly has fleshed out a novel with a long and intricate red herring. I believe it’s in Trunk Music that Harry Bosch goes roaring off to Vegas on what turns out to be a wild goose chase. But when the wild goose chase is prompted by a pure coincidence, when it leads to mass carnage, when the results of the mass carnage seem to occasion so little reaction on the part of the character who provoked it, and when the real murderers are so implausible, it’s pretty obvious Connelly is slipping. The perils of success, I suppose.

Hot-Swap Tuning

After grumbling a couple of days ago about the dearth of tunable software synthesizers, I belatedly remembered … hey, wait a minute. I have a synthesizer that will do most of that. I built it myself.

I used Native Instruments Reaktor. Reaktor doesn’t seem to get as much buzz these days as it did five years ago (or maybe I’m just not paying attention). It’s an extremely powerful DIY environment for developing your own visionary synthesizers. The main limitation is that for other people to use your instruments, they have to own Reaktor too. There’s no run-time-only version.

I built this synth about five years ago, and I’ve never used it, other than for a little noodling around. Sometimes just building an instrument is the fun part — but also, I have more impetus now than I did then to actually finish new pieces of music.

My tunable synth has a couple of features I’ve never seen on any other instrument. Its pitch-bend depth is defined in key steps, which means the bend will tend to have a different depth depending on what note you’re bending from and to. To facilitate steel-guitar bends, bending can be switched on or off independently for each of the 12 notes on the keyboard.

Because the raison d’etre of this instrument is just intonation, it doesn’t do vibrato. Instead, it does trills whose depth is calibrated in terms of the base frequency of the tuning. The oscillators have a linear frequency offset knob, which again is calibrated to the base frequency.  These features can produce some very rich (and unexpected) harmonies.

It has separate tuning controls for each of the 12 notes on the keyboard. Limiting the scales to 12 notes per octave is perhaps not ideal, but it makes keyboard performance ever so much easier — and in most musical situations, it’s hard to imagine needing more than 12 pitches from a single instrument in a single phrase. A bank of buttons for each key gives quick access to some of the more useful ratios, and each key also has a pair of number knobs (numerator and denominator), so the key can be tuned to any harmonic ratio you happen to want.

Last night’s experiments suggest that these features can indeed be controlled during sequence playback using MIDI CC messages. While the UI is not quite as slick as what I was fantasizing about, it works. I can change the tuning on the fly. Reaktor is kind of a CPU hog, but there are ways to manage that.

As soon as I finish my current music project, I think maybe I’ll write a few pieces using my Reaktor instrument.

Just in Time Tuning

From the 1930s on, composers in the U.S. and Europe have been exploring alternate tunings. There has been a widespread feeling that the harmonic and melodic resources of 12-note equal temperament (“12ET” for short) have been pretty thoroughly mapped out. The development of jazz harmony during that same period might suggest that the problem was overstated. Nonetheless, 12ET is a highly artificial tuning system. It’s extremely useful, but the intervals don’t actually sound very good. And by now, jazz harmony is pretty well explored too.

Composers like Harry Partch and Lou Harrison responded, back in the day, by building their own instruments that were tuned to other scales. Of course, that’s a time-consuming process — and when you’ve finished building an instrument, you’ll be the only one who can play your music, because no one else will have that instrument. Or you can retune a piano, but how many of us have the skills to do that?

In the past few years, computer synthesis has made the process of exploring alternate tunings almost infinitely easier. Almost. But not quite.

I’d love to compose some music in other tuning systems. I’ve done a few sketches. But even the latest technology doesn’t really facilitate the process. I can choose between two systems, both computer-based. One makes the composition process very friendly, but puts serious restrictions on the tuning side. In the other system, the tuning possibilities are wide open, but the composition process is horrible.

A number of software synthesizers, including my personal fave, u-he Zebra, can load tuning files in the .tun format. You can create a .tun file (if you know the secret handshake) using a terrific free software system called Scala. This file can define, with high precision, the pitch of each and every key on a MIDI keyboard. Load the file into Zebra, and your controller keyboard’s tuning is transformed.

But there are two bottlenecks. First, you’ll have to play the tuning scale on a 12-note black-and-white keyboard. If your tuning happens to need 23 different pitches, this will get extremely awkward. Trust me, I’ve tried it. Second, once you’ve loaded a .tun file, that synthesizer can only play those pitches and no others. The tuning is set in stone. If you discover you need a pitch that you forgot to include, all of your options are messy. You can edit the .tun file to add another note, but then all of your existing sequence tracks will have to be edited, because the pitches will be in different places on the keyboard. Or you can create a second .tun file and load it into a separate instance of your favorite softsynth … but now a single musical line will be split between two (or more) tracks in the sequencer. Editing the music will turn into a nightmare. And the tuning will still be fixed; it will just have more notes. Pretty soon you’ll have so many notes, you won’t know what’s what.

The other alternative is, I can use Csound. In Csound, it’s quite easy to write an algorithm in which the pitch of each and every note can be specified from the score. If you’re working in Just Intonation (which has some wonderful advantages in terms of sonority and expressive potential) and you suddenly discover that you need a note that’s 32/25 over the tonic, just type “32 25” and you’ve got the note. That’s Just In Time Tuning. It’s sweet.

But yes, I did say “type.” The downfall of Csound is that developing a complete piece of music in it involves typing hundreds upon hundreds of lines of code. Plus, you can’t use any of those great software synthesizer plug-ins with their stunning presets: You have to create your own instrument, again by writing code. And frankly, your instrument is not likely to sound nearly as good as Zebra.

My experience with trying to compose in Csound is that the inspiration quickly evaporates. There are too many options, and they all involve typing columns of fiddly numbers. I’ve written one “pure sound” piece in Csound, and I rather like it, but it involved extremely long, slowly moving notes. The entire score was only 31 “notes” in length.

What I want is to use a conventional piano-roll edit window in a sequencer, and to be able to redefine the meaning (that is, the pitch) of any horizontal line at any point in the track. “Okay, for the next three measures, I want this F# to play a ratio of 7/5 over the fundamental. Then, for two bars after that, F# will be 11/8. Then 45/32.” This is not conceptually esoteric, but nobody has written any software that will do it. The reason is not hard to see: It would be a huge job, and there’s no demand for it.

Also, can we talk about pitch-bending? Even if you’ve loaded a .tun file into a software synth, the pitch-bend depth will still be set in equal-tempered half-steps, which makes the pitch-bend mechanism entirely useless for music in Just Intonation. You can play notes, but you can’t bend them, not reliably. With music that’s about pitch, this is a frustrating limitation.

It’s not impossible to create a pitch-bend mechanism that bends a certain number of scale steps, no matter how large or small those might be. In fact, I’ve done that too, by creating my own synthesizer in Native Instruments Reaktor. But no commercial synth that I’m aware of is capable of intelligent pitch-bending when an alternate tuning is loaded. In Csound, bending the pitch of a sounding note by an arbitrary frequency ratio is rather easy (once you’ve built the algorithm). But you can’t perform the bends by moving a nice MIDI pitch wheel; you have to add them to the score by typing lines of code, a process that gets really old, really quickly.

I wonder if I could talk a software developer into … nah. There’d be no demand for it.

Talk About It

I’m very concerned about the growth of what I would call the radical right in American politics. (I’m pretty sure these folks don’t consider themselves the radical right. They most likely think they’re the mainstream.)

One of my Facebook friends recently joined a group called “Sarah Palin is a Fucking Retard.” As emotionally satisfying as that might be, I don’t think name-calling is helpful. On the contrary — all we accomplish by name-calling is to insure that the extreme polarization of views will continue. Nor do I think much is to be gained by sitting around with our friends, nodding heavily, and saying, “Ain’t it awful?”

If there is any hope at all, it lies in taking a different sort of action.

I’d like to suggest that starting an open-ended dialog on any and all of the hot-button issues of the day would be a Really Good Thing. I also think it’s pretty clear that the folks who think Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are insightful commentators are not going to initiate the dialog. For one thing, most of them are ill-equipped for it. For another, they’ve been told over and over that they’re 100% right, which if it were true would render dialog unnecessary.

If there is to be a dialog, it’s up to us to initiate it. Here are my suggestions:

First, be ready and willing to talk about political, social, and moral issues at any time. Make a particular point of seeking out those with whom you’re pretty sure you’ll disagree. Nothing is to be gained, and much is to be lost, by remaining politely silent.

Second, remain friendly and calm at all times. Resist the temptation to raise your voice. Do not wave your arms. Above all, no name-calling! You are permitted to say, “I’m sorry — I find what you’re saying rather upsetting.”

Third, look on all of your conversations on these issues as a way of educating yourself. You may even learn something that will modify your views in some way. At the very least, you’ll learn more about what other people’s views are. When they mention facts (or what they have been told are facts), don’t rush to contradict them, and especially if you’re not rock-solid about your own sources of information. Instead, say, “That’s interesting. Where did you learn that?”

Fourth, do your homework. If you’re going to talk about immigration, education, or health care, take the time to learn what’s actually going on in the world around you. Avoid sweeping generalizations. Rely more on basic research into the facts than on what you read in left-leaning opinion pieces, no matter how cogent or insightful you may think those opinion pieces are. Avoid saying things like, “Everybody knows that’s complete nonsense.” Instead, say something like, “Some of the people I know have other ideas about that. Maybe it would be useful for us all to pool our ideas and learn more about the subject.”

Fifth, begin (and continue) with the assumption that the people you’re talking to are basically kind and decent and want the same things you do. We all want to live in safe, pleasant communities. We all want our children to get a good education. We all value personal freedom. Where we differ is in our view of how these goals are to be achieved. Look for the similarities, not the differences.

If a whole bunch of people engage in this kind of dialog with their friends and neighbors, I predict that several interesting things will happen. Some of the people you talk to will begin to modify their views. You will be modeling for them the always worthwhile process of careful thinking, which is not something they will have learned from Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh. Even if they don’t change their views, they may be less inclined to demonize those who disagree, because they will have seen that you’re a friendly person who shares common concerns, not a rabid monster.

And if they just can’t manage to engage in dialog — if they insist on mouthing hateful slogans and flinging insults, if they’re entirely unable to listen — then they’ll have a good chance to see their own out-of-control behavior for what it is, because you won’t be doing anything to provoke it. They may learn something about themselves.

The Trouble with Conservatism

Dogmatic belief systems are always wrong. They can’t help but be wrong — it’s guaranteed. A dogmatic belief system is one that starts with certain a priori assumptions, or principles. Whatever they happen to be, they are not to be questioned.

Any evidence that arrives from the real world that might throw the a priori assumptions into question must be rejected by those who adhere to the belief system. Such a belief system can only be maintained by rejecting, sooner or later, the evidence offered up by one’s senses.

Conservatism is by definition a dogmatic belief system. The essence of conservatism is the idea that the values we have inherited from our forebears continue to be valid, and therefore need not be questioned. But this cannot possibly be correct. The values and principles that guide our behavior, as individuals and as a society, must continually be subject to examination and questioning. They may need to be refined, amended, or perhaps cast aside entirely.

If for no other reason, this is true because our forebears were not perfect. They were human. Being human, they inevitably erred. If your forebears were Iraqi Shiites, the principles they passed on to you will be somewhat different than if they were Mississippi Baptists or Russian Stalinists. So whose forebears were right? We dare not guide our lives Read more

Peaks and Dips

I compose and record music in a small home studio. I have what I think is a good pair of speakers, but the room itself has odd peaks and dips in its frequency response. I’m finding that this makes it quite difficult to make mixing decisions.

My older mixes don’t sound very good. I need to fix the room.

There are various ways to do this. You can change the playback system, or you can change the room itself. IK Multimedia has a software-based solution called ARC — a reference microphone and a plug-in that you park on the output of your recording software. Mike Levine gave ARC a lukewarm review two years ago in Electronic Musician. JBL has some speakers that do the same thing, but without requiring a software plug-in. They cost twice as much for the pair as ARC.

Several companies make absorptive panels. The idea is, you mount these on the walls of the studio. They suck up or diffuse the sound waves, allowing you to hear the speakers, not the sound waves bouncing back and forth between the walls of the room. Great concept. What’s discouraging is the photos of the studios where these systems are installed. Man, if I had the money to build a studio like that…! Well, first I’d need to buy a house. Or probably have one built, so it would have a nice spacious music room. Nice idea. Can I build a house for under five thousand bucks? No, probably not.

I understand that these folks want to show off their products in attractive settings. But the result is that they’re alienating me (and probably a lot of other home studio owners as well). My studio is a cramped and cluttered 12 x 14 bedroom. It doesn’t even have any blank walls where I could mount absorptive panels. It has two windows, a built-in closet, and on the fourth wall a large armoire where I store software, cables, and such.

A couple of articles I read tonight on the Web say, “Start by treating the room. Then add ARC or a similar playback EQ system if you still need it.” Yeah, thanks for the great advice.

Another Day in Paradise

…not. Sometimes you just want to shoot your computer.  Today I did some remastering work on three or four songs for the new CD I’m planning to release, and then attempted to burn a test CD so I could listen to it on various playback systems.

My nice new HP computer, which burned an audio CD yesterday without complaint, has now decided that it has other ideas. PreSonus Studio One, which has a swell utility page for mastering CDs, couldn’t manage to initialize the DVD/CD drive at all. iTunes burned a CD, but it had crackling noises in it — on some players, though not on others.

I spent two solid hours on the phone with HP tech support. At least they answer the phone, and the young lady in the Philippines was very patient. But I’m afraid we’re wandering into one of those horrible dead zones where HP says their drive is fine, it’s the fault of the PreSonus software (or maybe the fault of the CD player in my stereo, though it’s fine with every other CD in my collection), while PreSonus (whom I have only just contacted — no response yet) says no, it’s the drive, our software is fine.

Me, I think it’s the drive. I think the burn laser is misaligned. The good news is, the computer is still under warranty. The bad news is, how can I get them to send me a replacement drive if they insist that it’s the software?

If I ever get this squared away, I swear to God, I’m going to lock down this system. No more installs. No more updates. No more swapping out drivers. If anyone even dares suggest it’s the other vendor’s fault, I’m going to drive over to their house with a golf club and break their windows.

Here’s the deal: Computer technology has gotten too complicated. We don’t need all this shit. Hell, I didn’t need Windows 7. I was doing fine with XP. But you know, it’s the new OS, and I’m buying a new computer, and it’s supposed to be better. Besides, up until this month I was busy writing magazine articles on music software. I knew editors would want to read reviews that were written using Windows 7 as a test system.

I think I’ve just retired. Fuck it. I still have an assignment from Keyboard for a product review, but I am finding it more and more difficult to get psyched up to write it. If I had been able to burn a nice CD today, I would have been in a good mood, and this weekend I would probably have started on that review. But now … no way.

Footnote: The next day, it occurs to me that I still have my old PC. Transferring the files, installing the software, and burning a CD on it only took about two hours, and next time it will be quicker. Now I can get back to worrying about what I need to improve in the mixes themselves.

There is more than one way to skin a cat. Personally, I like to dangle them by the tail over a vat of boiling oil and then dip them ever so gently. Falconer’s gloves are a helpful aid in this endeavor, as the cat tends not to be happy about the prospect.