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October 19, 2009

Filed under: music»tools

Two Cans

For years, I listened to music through the cheapest headphones I could find. This usually meant those $10 Sony earbuds, the awful plastic ones that leave your ears physically sore and boast of "deep bass" (read: less midrange). But since I was pretty much broke all the time, and rarely bothered to bring my CD player anywhere anyway, the earbuds had to do.

I didn't buy better phones until a few years after I started working with digital audio. While I was at the World Bank's Multimedia Center, the standard for all the video stations was Sony's MDR-7506 (or its original variant, the MDR-V6). The MDRs have been pretty well-known professional units for years--they're staples of mastering and post-production studioes--and lots of people hate them, saying that they're unsubtle and overly bassy. All of which is probably true, but they were miles above anything I'd used before. Suddenly I could hear all kinds of distinct parts in the music that had previously been masked by poor equipment. It was eye-opening, like the first time that I used a condenser mike instead of a dynamic.

Today I own three sets of nice headphones. I have a set of MDR-7506s for work, a Beyerdynamic DT 770 for those increasingly rare times that I do audio editing at home, and some Etymotic earbuds for portable use. I'd say these are reasonably-priced now--only the 770s cost more than $100--but there's no way I'd have seen them as "affordable" during my painful-plastic-earbud years. Which is not to say that I couldn't have saved up for a pair, but it would have been hard to convince me to do so, since I had no exposure to anything better.

Most people, I assume, are basically in the same position. Surely that's the only thing that can explain the proliferation of those awful white earbuds on the Metro. It's a catch-22: the only way people would consider better cans would be if they listened to them, and that probably won't happen until they actually buy a pair, which they won't do because they've never heard good headphones and can't justify the expense.

Some may argue that digital compression makes headphone quality irrelevant, and that could be true in some cases. But at modern bitrates, psychoacoustic compression isn't nearly the sound-muffler that it was during the Napster days. To the extent that it has an impact, compression is way less harmful than a poor speaker setup.

So this is a plea to all those people I see on the train with $10 headphones plugged into a $200 music player (or worse, using the pack-in earbuds). I feel your budgetary pain, guys, I really do. But the next time you feel the urge to upgrade, consider putting the cash into the other end of the headphone cord. I'm pretty sure you'll appreciate it.

September 15, 2009

Filed under: music»business

The Laws Have Changed

Steve Lawson, solo bass player extraordinaire, on the relationships between musicians, fans, the Internet, and the industry:

I'd like to call attention to two great points that Lawson makes here. First, he talks extensively about the house concerts that he does, where he literally goes to play in someone's living room, then has dinner with the audience. What takes people by surprise, he says, is that he's a perfectly normal person who is nice to them--by breaking down the barrier between audience and artist (instead of maintaining the fiction that the musician is an untouchable figure), he's able to make a much more rewarding connection.

Second, Lawson makes a strong argument against doing what he calls "thinking aspirationally." Musicians evaluate business models from the perspective of million-dollar superstars, he notes, when most people will never reach that kind of income level (and probably shouldn't want to). The goal isn't to close out a month with a profit, he says, but to not end it with negative numbers on the balance sheet--aim to break even, in other words. From that point of view, the definition of "professional" musician gets both wider (no wedding-band gigs!) and more comfortable (no uncomfortable, money-losing tours!).

You may remember that I mentioned Steve Lawson when talking about Free, and this speech demonstrates why he's such a great example when talking about the levelling aspects of the Internet. To be sure, he's leveraging free social media to build his community--MySpace, Twitter, ReverbNation, Youtube, etc.--but while Anderson's book seemed to concentrate on how free distribution could make your business marketable, Lawson's mainly interested in using new media to do more satisfying work, and to eliminate the parts that he doesn't enjoy. In a world spawning a million Twitter PR drones every minute, I think it's refreshing to see someone using these tools to rethink the basic assumptions of their vocation.

September 3, 2009

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Breakin' 3: Thomas Breaks a Knee

Thanks to Jeff for the title.

Last Friday was the last lesson of my first breakdancing class (the next session starts in two weeks). If I could find my camera, I'd embarrass myself with a movie clip, but conveniently it seems to have gone missing. So what have I learned?

I've learned it's going to take a while for me to get up the nerve to enter an actual cipher with people I don't know. Which is good for me, honestly: in general I'm a quick learner, so I have a tendency to acquire new skills and then lose interest once I hit a basic level of competency. The hobbies I've maintained for longer periods--like bass, for example--required more sustained effort but are ultimately more rewarding. I think this could be one of those.

I've learned a lot about movement. I am not what you'd call light-footed: my normal gait is somewhere between a stalk and a strut. My favorite part of toprock is its constant motion, and its sense that the dancer is never really settling their weight. Although I need a lot more work before it's completely natural, I'm really having fun practicing those kinds of steps--it's a new way for me to move. The same goes for footwork and freezes: even if I'm terrible at them (and I am), they're entirely new movements for my body, and thus both a challenge and a kind of puzzle.

And technically, I've learned how to: sidestep, kickball change, hip twist, indian step, kick step, CC, six-step, four-step, three-step, helicopter, shoulder freeze, and backward roll. I may not be able to do them well, or to move from one to the other gracefully, but that's about twelve more dance moves than I've ever had before. I guess I'm all set to go be highly awkward at family weddings now.

August 18, 2009

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Breakin' 2

Electric Boogaloo sold separately.

Who Can Roast The Most?: Lessons Learned

On Sunday, the "Who Can Roast The Most?" b-boy competition came to DC for the first time ever, and my dance teacher encouraged us to go. "You'll learn a lot," she said, and I did--not the least of which is how much I've got to learn. There were some seriously skilled dancers there.

My favorite part was seeing really smooth top-rockers. Floorwork, spins, and power moves may get the biggest reactions from the crowd, but they don't always match up with the beat. The really good top-rockers, being less worried about keeping their momentum up for acrobatics, could react to the music and play with the crowd. They had more stage presence, so to speak, and as a musician I thought their performances were a lot more fun to watch. The music was great, too--a mix of funk (James Brown, in particular) and old-school hip-hop (they opened, of course, with Black Star's "B Boys Will B Boys").

I only stayed through the end of the second round, but it was enough to get me excited about learning breakdancing all over again. I'm heading to an open class in DC tonight, and will try to be better about practicing at home from now on.

Something From Nothing: Youtube As Cultural Transmitter

One thing that's been really helpful for me has been the wealth of video tutorials available online for the basic steps. Some of them suffer from Sudden Jump In Difficulty Syndrome, where they go directly from doing basic steps to a mile-a-minute routine, but there's also some really good amateur lessons online. At the very least, it's good to be able to look up how things are supposed to look, or to refresh my memory of the steps involved, when my memory starts to fade a few days after Friday's class.

I'm curious how--or indeed, if--it changes the process of cultural propagation, when it's mediated this way. And that's not just for breakdancing, obviously: I learned to play bass at least partially via online communities and resources. I learned harmonica in much the same way (thanks, HARP-L!) in high school. Eventually, I found communities both on- and offline for playing music, but it was certainly a modern twist on "self-taught" skills.

One of the interesting tidbits from my classes so far has been the way that a lot of breakdancing moves have multiple names, depending on which part of the country (or world) you're in. They're often named after the crew that invented them, or at least got the credit for introducing them in an area. Will that kind of idiosyncracy survive a transition from geographic identification to something more nebulous?

There's a paragraph from Jeff Chang's collection Total Chaos, in the section written by South African hip-hop students Shaheen Ariefdien and Nazli Abrahams, where they compare hip-hop to alchemy:

We don't mean this only in the old-school mystical chemistry way. We see hip-hop as the resilience of the human spirit, that process of transforming yourself and your environment, kinda like Common's observation that under the FUBU is a guru untapped. Imagine the oppressive conditions caused by the barbarism of Ronald Reagan's neoliberal economic strategies. The youth of South and West Bronx had little resources, were systematically marginalized and alienated, but filled with an audacity and inner capacity to want to rock the planet. No musical equipment? Well, then beatbox! We've heard many heads equate hip-hop with producing something out of nothing. We disagree. Hip-hop is about seeing the something in what we are often told is nothing.

It is, no doubt, lazy tech-utopian thinking to say something like "YouTube could influence hip-hop"--or to act like a bunch of largely middle-class kids uploading videos means anything about the direction of a culture I'm largely unqualified to comment on (like, I read a couple of books and took a class, so I'm an expert now, right?). It might be more accurate to say that the reverse is true--that YouTube's untidy mix of professional content, cultural detritus, and amateur-authored mementos sounds very much like the spirit that Ariefdien and Abrahams identified for hip-hop (even down to the critics who dismiss said content as nothing but valueless narcissism). Something to think about.

August 7, 2009

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Breakin'

Tonight I'm attending the second of five Intro to Breakdancing classes in Bethesda. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I'd been reading Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and watching Planet B-Boy on Netflix. And I've always had trouble A) dancing and B) exercising, so why not learn to do both?

It didn't surprise me that I'm a bit short on the coordination necessary to be a natural breakdancer, or that my hip-hop attitude is somewhere between Don Draper and Michael Bolton. It shouldn't have surprised me how out of shape I am, especially given how athletic a style of dancing it is, but for some reason it did. I'm hardly able to switch feet during basic floorwork, much less perform something like a chair freeze. I'll probably be able to manage a decent top-rock (dancing from a standing position) by the end of the classes, but the rest is anyone's guess.

Belle has been very gracious about all this. She snuck me into one of the gyms where she's an aerobics instructor so I could use the mirrored room, and did some practicing of her own in the other corner. I know she feels like she could be in better shape herself, but she's capable of jumping around (while simultaneously shouting directions) for one-hour classes multiple times a week, while I do about thirty seconds of indian steps and then stagger around the room gasping for air. "You looked good," she says, perhaps on the principle that the last words I hear before my atrophied lungs give out should be encouraging ones.

I'll get through this class if it kills me. But let's hope it doesn't come to that.

August 5, 2009

Filed under: music»artists»noisettes

Wild Young Hearts

What can we do about a band like the Noisettes, a band with two full-length albums as different as salt and sugar? As lead singer Shingai Shoniwa said on What's the Time, Mr. Wolf's "Iwe," who are these people? And how do we get the band from that album back?

What's the Time was one of my favorite albums of the last five years--a raucous, almost lascivious collection of rough blues-rock. Their follow-up, Wild Young Hearts, is a total about-face. It's a pop album, slick and forgettable. It's dripping in strings, overdubs, and synthesizers. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

When the album is strong, it's not bad: "Don't Upset the Rhythm" is a decent dance groove, followed by the retro-sounding "Wild Young Hearts." The 50's imitation sound is also present on "Never Forget You," and the shift into doo-wop bopping doesn't really play to the Noisettes' strengths--it's all a bit me-too. "Beat of My Heart" sees band's original rock sound re-emerge momentarily, although it starts off a bit limp and then transitions into a bizarrely out-of-place, metal-esque guitar solo. Shoniwa lets her voice stretch a little on the softer songs, like "Atticus," but the material (a lengthy, rambling metaphor touching on both To Kill A Mockingbird and Pandora's Box) doesn't really justify what she can bring to the table. And the less that's said about 80's dance number "Saturday Night," the better.

Perhaps the biggest problem with these songs is not that they're bad, although they're certainly a bit weak, but that their energy is so low. Shoniwa has a powerful voice, and she's capable of shifting almost instantly between mocking, pleading, and menacing ("I dig your smile, too/And you dig my poker face"). Seen live, she's a force of nature on stage. But here, that manic presence has been pulled back into something more polished, more restrained, and the album suffers for it. Only on "Don't Upset the Rhythm" does she come close to cutting loose--small wonder that it was chosen as the radio single--and nowhere does she reach the heights of "Nothing to Dread" or "Scratch Your Name" from their first record.

Combined with the reduced presence of the other band members (among other things, their backing vocals have largely been replaced by overdubs of Shoniwa), it's tempting to speculate that this album is an attempt at grooming her for a role that's less confrontational, more mainstream--less Sister Rosetta, more Gwen Stefani. Personally, I think that'd be a real shame. The Noisettes of What's the Time were a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale world of garage rock (at least half of which is apparently helmed by Jack White, in one form or another). But who's to say? With a sample size this small, and a shift this great, the Noisettes could go anywhere from here. Here's hoping they'll take the chance.

May 28, 2009

Filed under: music»tools»effects

Consider the Mammoth

Part of an ongoing series obsessing over effects pedals. Other posts in this series concern the Line 6 PodXT Live, MXR M80 Bass DI+, Line 6 DL4 delay/looper, Boss LS-2 Line Selector, DOD FX25B Envelope, and Z-Vex LoFi Loop Junky.

Whenever I talk about distortion, the Wooly Mammoth has almost always surfaced at some point. I've wanted one for years--it had a near-legendary status among the fuzz addicts in the Lowdown forums when I first started learning bass. I salivated over the demo video. But I didn't actually get a chance to try it out until I was in Portland, and I ended up buying the Loop Junky instead. Luckily, it turns out there's a thing called the Internet that lets you order pedals from far-away locations, so eventually I picked up a Mammoth as well.

The Wooly Mammoth is, no kidding, basically the greatest bass distortion of all time. It's also kind of an oddball pedal. When Bass Player did a big effects issue a while back, they called the Mammoth an "archetypal boutique stompbox" with an "eccentric" circuit, and they weren't kidding. It doesn't like hot or low-impedence inputs (read: active basses), it lacks a blend function, and two of the knobs are labeled "pinch" and "wool." Chords may emerge mangled, especially triple-stops. Crank the wool too high, and it actually begins to feed back on itself somehow, self-compressing and adding weird harmonics. In short, the Mammoth, like the Loop Junky, has character.

Still: all is forgiven for a fuzz like this. It nails the bass sound from 'Hysteria' by Muse: that thick, chainsaw-like roar, but with each note perfectly distinct. The gating comes partly from the Pinch knob, which does something unholy to the distortion harmonics and eventually turns the fuzz into a square-wave synth. It's also immediately obvious why the Mammoth doesn't have a blend function: you don't need it. This is the first distortion pedal I've ever seen where the signal emerges with more low-end, possibly due to some kind of octaver/synth effect. I'm not sure how it happens, frankly--like I said, it's a weird circuit--but I'm glad it does.

This is becoming uncomfortably fawning. Perhaps it's appropriate to raise the question of cost: of course it sounds good, it's a ridiculously expensive piece of equipment. But is it really that much better? Is there an excuse for spending so much money for a single pedal? Indeed, these questions expose three facts you may want to take into consideration. First, I'm a distortion nut, so I can justify a lot in the name of a good fuzz. Second, I mostly play solo, so I don't have a lot of sonic competition or cover. Finally, anything this expensive often provokes a defensive attachment that's out of proportion to its actual worth.

More importantly, the above questions highlight a real conceit for many modern musicians: the idea that we're buying these gadgets for anything but our own satisfaction. With a very few rare exceptions (Bootsy's envelope filter, the ping-pong delays of the Edge), chances are the audience can't tell the difference, or bring themselves to care (those that do care are usually musicians themselves, and that way madness--or Steve Vai--lies). It's not to say that nice gear is a bad purchase, but it is a reminder of a truth that many of us sometimes forget: in the end, it's really about the song and not about the gear.

I like the Mammoth very much, and I'm glad I picked it up. It's far more fun than my MXR fuzz, although I miss the M-80's clean channel. But I'm under no illusions here--I know that it's on my pedalboard just for me. And at some point, I've got to start writing some new tunes, instead of just playing the old ones through new equipment, because that--and not the contents of a signal chain--is the real measure of a musician.

April 28, 2009

Filed under: music»business

Zune Out

Previously, both here and in real-life, I've recommended the current Zune Pass highly--it's a subscription service that also lets you keep 10 free songs per month, many of which are in MP3 format. That's a pretty good deal, probably the best digital music plan out there at the moment.

A caveat, though, that I've just discovered: MP3-format songs bought with the free credits, once downloaded, cannot be downloaded or purchased again. Last night, I shut down my laptop without thinking in the middle of an album download and only got half of the songs. When I opened it back up, the rest were unavailable, and I couldn't re-download them. Instead, it just spits back error code C00D12EA (for people who may find this post by Google, that's what's gone wrong). Zune support is no help--there are no refunds on MP3 songs or free credits.

It could be worse: first, the Zune client doesn't delete the subscription versions until the batch download is complete, so I've still got the music (albeit in the subscription WMA format). Second, I was grabbing part of a deluxe edition album, so next month I can get the MP3s off the regular version for free. It's frustrating, but in this case, not a disaster. Worst case scenario, I've just wasted my credits this month. And if there weren't an album variant, I might have to go to Amazon to buy the MP3s.

So be aware, if you have or are considering the Zune Pass: when you click "Buy" in the marketplace, leave that laptop lid open until it's done! Trust me on this.

March 17, 2009

Filed under: music»tools»effects

POD People

Part of an ongoing series obsessing over effects pedals. Other posts in this series concern the MXR M80 Bass DI+, Line 6 DL4 delay/looper, Boss LS-2 Line Selector, DOD FX25B Envelope, and Z-Vex LoFi Loop Junky.

There are three pieces of Line 6 gear in my collection: the DL4 (possibly retired), the Variax Bass, and the Pod XT Live. Of the three, the last is probably the only one I'd recommend without exception. It's also descended from the most important musical product that Line 6 ever made, one that can legitimately claim to have changed the industry.

In 1999, Line 6 introduced the first Pod, named because it was a thick, red, kidney-looking thing. Its purpose was to provide a virtual guitar signal chain in one unit: pedals, preamp, power amp, and speaker cabinet. Later models added microphone and acoustic simulations to the mix. The Pod wasn't the first modeling processor--Roland's been making them for years, among others--but it took off in a way that its predecessors didn't, probably because its controls directly mimic the modeled amplifiers, making it simple enough for guitarists to use. Pods found a niche in a lot of home (and some pro) studios, as well as being used sometimes for live musicians that wanted flexibility onstage. They've gotten a lot better over the last decade: I know guitarists can be picky about them, but they sound eerily accurate for my purposes.

The Pod XT Live is the second or third generation of these modelers (depending on how you count--there's both a Pod 2.0 and a Pod XT series before the Pod X3), and it integrates a floorboard into the design. Run it straight into a power amp and a relatively flat cabinet, and it's a cover song machine--particularly with the Variax, which links up digitally to the Pod. I've set up flattering amp and effect combinations for my favorite bass models: a Jazz bass through a GK amp (my general-purpose rig), Rickenbacker through an Ampeg stack (great classic rock/punk sound), Stingray with a scooped Sunn/4x10 combination (for slap), and a few crazy models (like the twelve-string into an ultra high-gain "lunatic" amp). Even though I don't lust for amps the way I do for effects and instruments, I could still tweak the settings on these all day long. It's terribly addictive.

That said, the Pod isn't important because it lets me sound like Geddy Lee when I want to play "Limelight." It's important because it represents the democratizing effects of modern music technology. A pedalboard Pod like this will run you about $500 if you want the latest version, and you can knock off a couple hundred if you settle for scratch-and-dent stock of the previous generation. That's roughly 1/2 to 1/3 of the cost of one of the cheaper amps it models, and for amateur recording purposes it's probably a better deal--after all, most people can't crank up a Dual Rectifier in their apartment anyway, and the sound would be terrible if they did. Modeling tech might not make you Rick Rubin, but it gets you close enough. And while you can pull a lot of the same tricks with a $100 audio interface and a VST host, it's nowhere near as simple or foolproof as a Pod--trust me, I've tried.

I'm not really advocating that everyone should be aiming for slick production, of course. I'm a huge fan of messy, unprofessional recordings (audience: "You would be!"). But look: sometimes you just want a decent guitar or bass sound, and you don't want to fiddle around with expensive microphones and amplifiers and acoustic spaces for hours--or you can't afford to, in terms of time and/or money. I don't think you should have to, the same way that nobody should have to find an echo chamber or a plate reverb unit in the age of digital delay and 'verb units. Musicians should be able to cut straight through to making music. For me, that's when the Pod really comes in handy.

February 6, 2009

Filed under: music»tools»effects

Do Not Hold in Hand

Part of a series of meandering, tedious posts about the effects I use to make music. Other posts in this series concern the Line 6 DL4 delay/looper, Boss LS-2 Line Selector, DOD FX25B Envelope, and Z-Vex LoFi Loop Junky.

In addition to the obvious sonic convolution, a good pedal delivers a kind of emotional kick when activated. It comes from a combination of the cultural context associated with the sound (the 70's swagger of a wah, the jazz-club cool of a chorus), the short thrill of sudden change from one sound to another, and the intrinsic appeal of the effect itself on an individual. Everyone has one kind of effect to which they respond strongly. For me, that's distortion. There's something about the sharp, rich, aggressive roar of a high-gain fuzz pedal that puts a huge grin on my face every time I switch it on.

As usual, unfortunately, bass players face particular challenges when looking for a good distortion. Not only do effects designers seem to see the instrument as unworthy (or unprofitable) compared to the guitar, but bass frequencies often don't play nice with stompboxes: either the results are muddy and indistinct, or all the low end is hollowed out--or, in the case of distortion pedals, possibly both. Some bassists, like Amy Humphrey from Clatter, get around this by splitting the signal between an overdriven guitar amp and a clean bass amp. Sadly, for budgetary and volume reasons, this is not an option for most of us.

I've tried a lot of guitar-oriented distortion pedals, looking for the kind of "assault by wrathful deity" quality that makes me happy, and often came up short. The worst, by far, was a DOD Grunge pedal that made my bass vanish in the mix completely. I'm not alone in hating this pedal. Kurt Cobain is rumored to have been given one as a joke, and he loathed it so much that he lobbed it into the crowd at a show. At the other end of the spectrum, the ProCo Rat had a decent bass sound--literally, a decent sound. The Rat is not known for versatility, and while I'm not a fanatic about flexibility in my pedals, it's nice to be able to tweak things at least a little.

I've had better luck with the relatively few distortion pedals made specifically for bassists. What's different? In general, these units add a blend control, so players can mix in the original bass signal, thus replacing the low frequencies and transients missing from the distorted signal path. As a strategy, this is often a mixed success. One of the first distortion pedals I was actually happy using, the Digitech Bass Driver, somehow managed to produce a "blend" that sounded more like a clean bass and a very fuzzy bass playing side-by-side, perhaps due to a very sterile-sounding digital mixing bus (although Boss's all-analog OD-3 bass distortion shares this problem, in my opinion). Bass distortion pedals may also tune the distortion differently, hoping to add an edge without fuzzing the sound out completely.

The distortion pedal I use now, an MXR M-80, is a good example of success via attrition. It's still not quite my platonic distortion ideal, but it's been better than the other contenders so far. The fuzz is brash but controllable, thanks to a workable blend and a noise gate that tames some of the inevitable hum at the super-high gain settings I like. I'd prefer a parametric EQ, but the existing controls--with the mid boost centered at around 800Hz--do an effective job in getting different sounds, or adapting to different acoustic spaces. All in all, a decent distortion that does what I need it to do.

That said, the killer feature of the M-80 is that it's a two-channel unit: in addition to the distortion, there's a "clean" setting that runs the bass through the pedal's preamp and EQ system. If you press the "color" button next to the clean volume knob, it adds a preset EQ scoop that (to my ears at least) turns my single-coil jazz bass into something more like a Stingray or Sterling humbucker, perfect for slap bass and percussive looping. I could make do without that preset--loop-based musicians soon learn to pull different tones out of the instrument with just their hands--but it does make my life a lot easier. Any distortion pedal that takes over from the M-80 will have to be truly fearsome to make up for the loss of that second channel.

Still, like I said, I think everyone has one kind of pedal that appeals to them on a deep, irrational level, so I don't expect that I'll ever stop looking--or, as with the virtual pedalboard experiment I tried about a year ago, attempting to mix my own. I imagine it's something like what drives hot pepper fanatics, always on the lookout for a new capsaicin thrill. It's hard to explain to non-addicts--either of the pedal or the pepper variety--but maybe for these kinds of simple pleasures, it's best not to try.

Future - Present - Past