Category Archives: Music

Two Musicians and a Projector = Magic

Uncool confession time: I hated punk rock when it first came out. I thought it was badly recorded, atonal garbage, and failed  to see why anyone would want to pay attention to a bunch of untalented hacks who couldn’t actually play their instruments.

At the time, I was an overly earnest musician who had become entranced by multi-track studio production techniques and the increasingly technical hi-fi adventurism of groups like Pink Floyd. What I didn’t really appreciate at the time, was how closed off the formerly free world of rock music had become in the decades since its founding. As the 70s were rolling to a close, the rock scene had turned into a game which only an increasingly limited number of incredibly talented and well-financed acts could afford to play competitively.

What punk brought was the message of, “Screw you and your decades of mannered musical training and your hundreds of thousands of dollars of studio time! We’re going to spend about $500 to make a record based on little more than attitude and energy! Oh, and our guitarist only knows about 3 chords, our bassist got his crappy amp back from the repair shop on Tuesday, and our drummer is just some guy our lead singer met last night at the bar who’s rubbish at maintaining a steady tempo, but who does have a van that runs.”

The music industry was overdue for a great rebalancing of the old cosmic scales. It was the yin that said only the truly talented few who’d paid their dues and worked their way up were allowed to record an album vs. the yang which just screamed, “Try and stop us!” and let it rip. And yeah, the latter record had a pretty good chance of sounding like complete crap. But at the same time, it was all strangely freeing. I think it was the sudden introduction of the punk ethos  which kicked 70s corporate and soft rock to the curb, and helped usher in the golden age of experimentation and creativity which was the 80s.

The same energy even infected the rock veterans, giving them permission to take crazy chances. Did a lot of the old guard record some terrible albums as a result? Absolutely. But at the same time, that sort of wild experimentation gave us much of the music that we cherish decades later. It was, in short, the sound of a lot of musicians suddenly having a lot of fun. And as it turns out, people like fun–even better than they like perfectly produced albums.

In any creative field, there’s a constant war between the raw desire to create: the emotion, and the more technical and reserved desire to put only the most beautiful and polished work forward: the craft. If you’re among the blessedly balanced creatives, you somehow manage to marry these two forces to create work that’s both authentic and refined. The rest of us fight a constant battle between uncritically putting forth any rubbish idea which pops into our heads, or refining and analyzing our every effort so much that we wind up spending 7 years getting our screenplay together, never really feel like we’ve achieved an acceptable mix of that song demo, and never get around to finishing that novel we’ve been boring our friends talking about for as long as anyone can remember.

It’s the War of Art if you will: the battle creative folk must constantly wage against the blank page, the empty canvas, or the silent red glare of the “record” light. To anyone who faces these challenges as part of your work, I wish you courage. This is not an easy struggle.

But the bottom line is this: real artists ship. And while craft is good, it’s amazing what you can achieve if you just go out there and create things without worrying too much about it. Case in point: a quirky couple calling themselves “Pomplamoose” who has created some of the coolest songs and videos I’ve ever seen using nothing but foam core, a projector, an iPhone, and a not-inconsiderable quantity of creativity and daring:

This is very cool stuff, and by all means, check out some of their other videos. It’s inspiring to see what you can do with so little time and resources if you make your mind up to just go out there and do it. Even better, they continue to get out there and produce new work. It’s the combination creativity, work, and guts that makes them so impressive. Hats off to Jack and Nataly.

And for the rest of us: back to work!

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Do “The Kids” Manage Music Libraries Anymore?

[Edit: Apparently my memory was faulty: According to my iTunes library, I apparently own at least some songs from some 1903 CDs–not the 800 I originally posted!]

One of the casualties of the move to Nashville was a NAS drive that held my home copy of my 20,000+ song library — 1,900 or so CD’s worth — which I’d spent a lifetime building.

This isn’t a post about tech tragedy, however: I’m a massive believer in backups, and I had a second drive on a work computer (as well as a backup spare) which held nearly an identical copy of the library. The “nearly” part consisted of those disks I’d striped up to one location and not the other– a small but annoying part of the total.

Additionally, I noticed that the metadata and folder organization of the backups wasn’t quite up to the standards of the home copy, with almost 2,000 tracks that were missing their album covers, duplicates of other tracks, or with albums scattered between similar-but-not-identical artists like “Reggie AND the Full Effect” vs. “Reggie & The Full Effect”. Nothing life-threatening to be sure, but having spent countless hours getting the whole thing into shape previously, I wasn’t thrilled with the need to spend another dozen hours or so editing ID3 tags and chasing down album covers to restore my collection to a state of relative organization again.

In the past, I’d used a tool called “Tune-up” to help with the process, although their more recent “3.0” release seemed to choke utterly on collections of this size. In the years since I’d last used it, it seems the company that makes it had actually done something I’d rarely seen a company do: pull the new version and revert to development on the previous series. As a result, the current version of Tune-up is 2.7, and it did indeed help quite a bit in getting the whole library back into shape, although the software does not appear to be actively in development.

But this led me to wonder: does anyone out there even mess with this sort of thing anymore? After all, my record-collecting habit goes back almost 40 years, and as I laboriously made the move to digital in the 90s, all the time spent organizing and filing physical albums was replaced with the lesser, but still burdensome task of managing a 200 GB collection of audio files.

But for the kids of today, do they do any of this? If you never actually buy an album, but instead merely stream your music over Spotify, Pandora, or the like, is there even a reason to manage a big stash of music on a local device? Judging by the poor state of development of automated tools for helping organize such a collection, it seems to my eye like it’s possible that this is a market that is not exactly healthy. At the same time, I can’t be the only person who feels a need to actually own his precious digital music collection, vs. streaming or renting it… can I?

Under-30s in the audience: what do you do for music? And do you feel a need to organize your own music stash — or is it all just a collection of Pandora channels and Spotify playlists?

The Analog Studio Fire Sale

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When our house in San Jose didn’t immediately sell when we put in on the market, I decided to take the heartbreaking step of demolishing the 3-room recording studio I’d painstakingly built in my garage, restoring it to a plain-old two-car garage. Whether due to chance, or (I prefer to think) since it opened up my home as a potential purchase to folks who had no idea what they’d do with a recording studio, the home sold soon afterward.

Although Carolyn and I definitely worked hard to cull the herd of our possessions before making the move to our new home near Nashville, most of my former studio gear made the trip–even though I don’t have a studio in the new house. As I try to piece together my new office and work area, however, I’m starting to think that I made a mistake in hauling most of the analog studio gear across the country.

Starting tomorrow, everything from my treasured 32-channel Mackie mixing board, to my vintage Kawaii R-100 drum machine, to a rack full of effects processors is going up on eBay. And my old studio furniture–custom-designed for my control room–is heading for the dump. The mere thought of doing this is killing me, but I’m increasingly convinced it has to be done.

Music Gear vs. Technology: Fight!

Whereas classic instruments and microphones can hold or even increase in value over time, the same is almost never true of electronics. Many a musician gets a thrill playing with the controls of an original Linn drum machine, or listening to unforgettable sounds of a Roland D-50 or Korg M1 synthesizer. But now, modern musicians can simply load up the sounds and characteristics of these old pieces of gear into their DAW (digital audio workstation) instead of maintaining a private museum of vintage gear.

My rackmounted effect units weathered the test of time even less well. The effect processing powers have improved massively in the past many years, to the point where even famous effects–e.g. a Lexicon reverb–can no longer compete with the algorithms and processing that powers a modern computer-based DAW.

Perhaps more to the point, my analog effect units are starting to no longer fit into the modern recording process.

Most older rackmount effect units typically processed analog signals (such as the input from a microphone or guitar), giving out an altered signal (i.e. adding reverb) over the rack effect’s (analog) outputs. If you wanted multiple effect processing on a signal–e.g. adding a delay, some reverb, and a chorus effect to a guitar tone, mixing it in with the bass and drums, then routing the result a compressor to smooth out the dynamics of the resulting mix–you’d accomplish all this by patching the whole signal chain through numerous effect units, effects returns, and submixes, adding a little bit of distortion each time the signal had to be converted between analog and digital.

In the modern world, once a signal is digitized, it’s typically processed entirely in the digital realm, where it’s immune to the noise that comes with analog combining, as well as multiple trips between the analog and digital worlds. Instead of chaining together several rack units using patch cables, a DAW lets you create a virtual patch bay allows the musician to chain together as many digital effects as they want, while keeping the resultant output entirely digital–right up to the time it’s mixed, mastered, and pressed on CD or distributed over the internet.

In a world where you can do all this digitally, why use analog effect units at all? Possibly the best reason comes down to the ease of doing a simple effects chain by just plugging in cables and twisting knobs. But when sound quality is critical, or the effects chain gets complex, digital wins hands down. My old rackmount effects have some good tricks up their sleeve, but at some point they become John Henry working against an infinite number of steam shovels.

In a new home, without a dedicated performance room and control room, I’ve got to be able to do the entire recording and performance job in a relatively compact space. Switching entirely to a digital recording chain just seems to make the most sense at this point, even though I’ll definitely miss the immediacy and tactility of working with dedicated sound and effect units vs. the rather abstract nature of a DAW.

So, it’s with real sadness that I’m preparing to bid farewell with what are truly some of my most cherished possessions. If you’re the sort of person who loves classic gear, check out eBay in the weeks ahead for some real bargains.

 

Viva NashVegas!

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After weeks of pulling box after box out of POD storage container after POD storage container (6 in all!), we are now officially moved to our new home just outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

I’ll likely be living in the midst of U-Haul and comic book boxes for several weeks yet, and a small army of contractors are just now wrapping up the initial work to install the myriad data cables and electric runs our masses of computer and studio gear requires. It’s been back-breaking work (including the moving and stacking of some 320 comic book boxes comprising my 50,000+ comic collection!) but I think I see some cracks of daylight at the end of the tunnel.

As far as the town goes, I am becoming mightily impressed with the Nashville area, and Tennessee in general. The music scene is beyond belief–I even managed to take in a couple of shows already (including She Wants Revenge at Exit/In–a legendary nightspot in town).

Tennessee’s a beautiful place to be sure, but probably the most striking thing is how darn friendly everyone is. I’m even on a first name basis with most of the checkout staff at the local Home Depot…although the fact that I’ve been in there 3 times a day for the past month may have something to do with that.

But despite all the chaos, I am managing to type this on an actual computer, on an actual desk (instead of the the “laptop at Starbucks with the ever-colder coffee next to me” routine I’ve spent the past month with), and with any luck, I should be able to make some forward progress on some of the bigger projects I’ve had to sideline since we started the effort to sell our house move some seven months ago. So Viva, NashVegas–I’m really looking forward to all the adventures you have in store for me!

Rocksmith’s Real Tone Cable and USB 3 Ports

This is one of those “Posting of my strange technical troubles so that anyone in the same situation might find it and save some time” posts.

While attending CES, I decided to use the downtime to bring along my bass and electric guitars and try to get some much-needed practice time in. After failing to get  the PS3 I’d lugged along working with the hotel’s TV system, I decided to bite the bullet and re-buy Rocksmith 2014 for my laptop. I felt a little foolish in the process, but Vegas is the perfect place for such money-wasting foolishness, and I reasoned that if I weren’t using my time to practice my bass, I’d likely lose a lot more money downstairs in the casino practicing my blackjack.

So, program downloaded, bass at the ready, I launched the game, only to find out that it couldn’t “hear” my guitar over the known-working Real Tone cable I’d brought with me. I quickly traced the issue to the cable not working with my laptop’s USB 3.0 ports (it appeared as a non-working “hocksmit” device under Windows’ device manager).

After much fiddling around, I took a run down the street to the casino-themed Fry’s Electronics and bought the cheapest portable USB 2.0 hub I could find ($6.99). Plugged the tone cable into that, the device was suddenly now recognized, and voila–I’m off to master Bush’s “Machinehead”.

Note: there’s a rumor afoot that the newest incarnation of the tone cable works better with USB 3 ports. Can’t confirm this myself, as my cable came with the original Rocksmith game.

This One’s For Neil…

OK Go: This Too Shall Pass

Music Discoveries: Clayton Senne

As a rule, opening bands are something to be tolerated, giving you a chance to grab that extra drink before the main act comes on. Of the scores of concerts I’ve gone to, I can only think of a couple that turned out to be really pleasant surprises: Radio 4 (opening for Gang of Four) and now Clayton Senne, opening for Everclear at the Independent.

“Clayton who??” I can practically hear you say–and frankly, this sounds exactly the sort of opening act that you sort of plan to come to the show late for so you can miss. That was certainly my plan when Carolyn and I went up to the city to see Everclear, but the unknown presence of a second opener frustrated it, so I wound up catching Senne’s show anyway–and I’ve rarely been so happy to have a plan go wrong.

Senne’s the leader of a jazzy three-piece combo that would right at home in a smokin’ New Orleans club, but instead hails from Orlando, Florida. Unpretentious to a fault, he’s clearly having the time of his life with his first big tour, and he’s well worth checking out. Fan videos like this will give you some idea of what he’s about, but you should definitely check him out on his infinitely better-recorded debut disc, “Wonderland” — I’ll admit that even after seeing him play and chatting with him for a bit, I dawdled in putting his disc in to give it a proper spin, but darn this guy (and his band: bassist Mitchell Boyles and drummer Scott Hall) can really play!

Like the saying goes: check this guy’s music out, and if your toes aren’t tapping and your body moving by the third cut, see a doctor. You may be dead 😉