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August 5, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»voice

Voice to Go

Via Make, the personal voice over recording booth. It certainly beats the solution that I've usually heard about in hotel room recording: dragging mattresses over to the corner and recording behind them.

Likewise, Rain Recording has one of its advice columns on how the voice studio benefits from digital tech, a viewpoint that may be natural coming from a company that builds dedicated audio workstations, but with which I happen to agree. There's some good links in that article, too, if you ever feel the need to do a little voice acting/VO work.

July 30, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»digital»daw

Waiting for WaveRT

One of the features that Vista was supposed to introduce, and which audio professionals were cautiously optimistic about, was a new kind of driver model meant to provide low-latency, sample-accurate sound. Windows has always had low-latency sound, but it's gone either through the WDM/Kernel-Streaming drivers, which are kind of a hack, or ASIO, which is a third-party driver standard created by DAW maker Steinberg. Windows has never had a built-in, professional-level audio subsystem the way that OS X has Core Audio and Linux has... well, whatever the hot new Linux audio API is this week, most likely JACK on top of ALSA. So an upgraded sound layer for Windows, one that would offer both ubiquity and performance, was welcome news.

Still would be, actually.

Now, I'm generally bullish on Vista, so don't get me wrong: I do appreciate the new sound mixer, which offers per-app mixing and better quality than the old mixer. I dig the multimedia scheduling process, so media playback is more reliable than it was previously. And driver support for the old standards has reached entirely satisfactory levels--I'm not lacking for external interface support any more. But the new driver model, WaveRT, shows no signs of being able to replace ASIO or WDM/KS on my laptop, for a couple of reasons.

The first cause for concern is that the driver model for WaveRT wasn't designed correctly in its initial incarnation. When digital audio is output from a sound card, it comes from the front of a buffer of samples on the card. Applications periodically refill the buffer by adding new samples onto the end. If they don't add samples before the buffer empties, the soundcard runs out of gas, so to speak, and the result is skipping or popping audio playback. Most driver models, like ASIO, include a mechanism for the hardware itself to notify the software when the buffer is running low, so it can be topped off.

WaveRT's original implementation, as these posts from Cakewalk tech guru Neil Borthwick explain, did not use a notification mode for some incomprehensible reason. Instead, it required the audio software to poll the audio hardware--to manually check on the status of the buffer. What sounds pro-active is actually problematic, since real-time audio works typically uses buffers as short as 128 samples, which on CD-quality audio means that the buffer empties itself more than 300 times a second. Under the polling mode, therefore, the CPU spends a large amount of time checking the status of the sample supply instead of using that time to render audio. Inevitably, samples go missing and quality suffers.

Late in Vista's development it became obvious that this polling-based model was unworkable, and Microsoft added a notification mode similar to ASIO or Core Audio. And apparently it works great--although WaveRT is unavailable for FireWire or USB devices, users report that for onboard or PCI-based solutions, they get very stable, very low latencies. Onboard sound, of course, is hardly a substitute for a pro interface, but for mixing/composing on the go, it does just fine. Cheers all around.

Unless, like me, the OEM who built your computer hasn't updated their sound drivers to include notification mode, in which case you're basically back to using WDM/KS and ASIO, if possible. Worst case scenario, and I'm looking right at you, Analog Devices SoundMAX HD, the driver doesn't even support sample rates other than the oddball 48KHz using any driver modes, and so you're basically locked out of using onboard sound for any production at all.

Unlike graphics cards, where drivers are available directly from the hardware manufacturer (with the caveat that a modified INF may be required), audio drivers are usually "firewalled" behind the company that designed the computer. I can get a generic driver from Nvidia for my Quadro 140M card (and I have, since it doubles the framerate in Stalker and Sins over Lenovo's latest version), but for audio features I'm basically stuck until Lenovo gets around to it. There is no generic SoundMAX driver to download, a symptom of both the sad state of laptop sound and the lack of a decent audio hacking community.

To their credit, when I filed a request to find out about the availability of updated drivers, Lenovo promptly called me back for clarification and told me that they'd be sending a note on to their technical hotline. It's not as helpful as actually getting my hardware to function properly, but they were at least very nice about it. Score one for the service contract, perhaps.

The blame here is threefold. It's Microsoft's fault that they didn't get WaveRT into workable shape from the start, since audio buffers are a solved problem. It's Analog Device's fault that they either haven't written a compliant driver or they refuse to release it. And it's Lenovo's fault for lagging in their own driver updates. No doubt the audience for Thinkpads is a bit thin among media professionals, making it a low priority for support staff. But the machine is exemplary by other standards: fast, stable, tough as nails. It is unfortunate--although par for the course in this industry--that its audio capabilities can't live up to what's been promised.

June 27, 2008

Filed under: music»recording»mp3

Thumbs Up

If you love the sound of kalimba as much as I do, you may enjoy the pad I created for CQ's upcoming DTV Transition explainer:

MP3 download

Best soundtrack instrument ever. It's just exotic enough to add interest, but not so strange that it distracts from the video. If I had a set of gamelan samples to mix with it, I'd be a happy man.

May 22, 2008

Filed under: music»business»distribution


Wired reports that Pandora will be partnering with Clear Channel to stream music on CC websites, although founder Tim Westergren insists that Clear Channel will not be altering the feed in any way.

The last time that I got a chance to speak with Westergren, for an Ars interview that didn't work out (I wasn't happy with my questions, and my recorder malfunctioned), he said that Pandora actually saw Clear Channel (and the rest of terrestrial radio, to be fair) as their competition. I wonder if this is a step forward for them, or a step backward?

May 13, 2008

Filed under: music»artists»black_keys

Strange Times

Tonight the Black Keys are playing at the 9:30 club here in DC. Gotta remember my earplugs--they're loud.

In the last couple of albums, the Keys have stepped away a little bit from the dirty garage aesthetic that originally drew me to them. It's good music, but Rubber Factory's still my favorite album.

Live, though, the band still pulls out all the stops. And they've got a few new songs with that old energy. This is them doing "I Got Mine" on Letterman about a month back.

May 5, 2008

Filed under: music»artists»nin

The Slip

There's a new NIN album out--online only for now, and it's completely free. Reznor's been prolific lately, what with the Ghosts halo just late last year. As a friend said when he forwarded the announcement email, "Is there a new NIN album every month now?"

Maybe. Because--and I don't know the man, and he doesn't know me, so this is just conjecture--I suspect that Trent Reznor is really enjoying this. It seems to me like he's enjoying the feedback, and he likes being able to put out material direct to his fans, and perhaps most importantly, he's getting a real kick out of frustrating his label's plans to monetize his output.

I mean, this is a musician who has had a long, long history of label fights. There was the lawsuit and public struggle with TVT, followed by a lawsuit against the guy who helped him found Nothing Records, and then most recently his disparaging remarks about pricing in Australia and UMG in general. This is a musician who used to release something once every five years, and now it's more like every five months. It sounds like he's energized to me.

Which I'm not complaining about. But it is a real change from the guy who used to literally write songs based on his notebooks of goth poetry. Even if the music's not as good, I'm kind of happy for him.

Update: The music's not bad at all, actually. And Reznor's done a very cool thing with the MP3s: they've got huge, high-res, individual pieces of artwork as the "album" art for each, by longtime collaborator Rob Sheridan. It strikes me as a very cool update of the LP album art, which was thought lost after CDs created packaging that's so much smaller. Now the music's shrunk to insubstantial dimensions, but it's reacquired that visual, almost tactile element. Between his earlier commercial experiments and this small touch, it's obvious that Reznor has put a tremendous amount of thought into this whole online music thing.

April 22, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»digital


For my own future reference, two free tools for making music on a Symbian smartphone:

  • BeatEd is a drum machine that supports custom kits, developed by the unfortunately-named ByteRapers.
  • Syntrax looks like the fusion of a tracker with an analog monosynth--if Reason were made back in 1983, this is what it would look like. The tutorial videos show off something that looks like a pretty capable, albeit clumsy, workstation.

April 21, 2008

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Musical Sketchpad, Session Thirteen

Better Off Dead, as made famous by Bad Religion:


Been a while. Give me a chance to explain this one.

Bad Religion's Stranger than Fiction caught my ear again a couple months ago. It's the album with a lot of the classic BR songs on it: Infected, 21st Century Digital Boy, and Incomplete, for starters. But there's an impressive level of songwriting in evidence, with sharp lyrics and chord progressions that--if not incredibly original--are more complicated than they sound, and certainly more involved than punk deserves.

In fact, I like the songs so much, I've had an itch to do the whole lot of them as acoustic, voice-and-bass covers, inspired in part by the sound of the baritone guitar on the most recent Evens CD. "Better Off Dead" just happened to be the first one I picked. I think it'd be a fun project, to cover the album from start to finish this way.

There's not much technique on display here, either in terms of production or musicianship. I experimented with doing some fingerstyle arpeggios, but in the end I just strummed and sang. This mix has barely even been mixed, and has had no EQ or compression or mastering, as far as I can remember. I don't know how it'll sound through your speakers. But I'm pretty happy with the performance, and still oddly taken with the idea--although I won't subject anyone else to it anymore. Just this once.

April 8, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»digital


File under "Things I Write for Ars Which Are Also Very Cool on Their Own:" MySong is a Microsoft Labs/University of Washington project that creates simple accompaniment for a vocal melody. You sing into a mic while it plays a metronome to keep you on tempo, then the software figures out a basic set of chord changes to go with your song. The chord choices can be tweaked using "happy" and "jazz" sliders, which is one of the best user interfaces I've ever heard about. If only Word had sliders for "happy" and "jazz" it would make my writing much more fun.

What's interesting about this is not that it's some kind of advanced technology--it's actually very simple, and could probably run on a cell phone. But if you watch the video on their project page, it looks like the kind of thing that's just naturally enjoyable--the audio equivalent of the Photo Booth that comes with OS X. People with media production experience tend to look down on "beginner" tools like Sequel or Garageband, but we forget that there's a whole class of people for whom even those tools are both difficult to use and unnecessarily ambitious. I know a lot of people who are not necessarily musical, but would still be delighted to sing a song to their computer and have it add a backing band, no matter how simple or generic.

March 17, 2008

Filed under: music»technique»lyrics

What Plugs To Pull

Monster Magnet has a line in one of their songs, "Bummer," that basically sums up the entire genre of stoner rock:

It's against my second nature
Not to chase you down that hole
I need a fistful of medication
Just to keep it in my pants
Although it's not quite the same without Dave Wyndorf's derisive "HAW HAW HAW HAW" after it.

What other lyrics so succinctly sum up their genre? There's got to be a bunch, but I'm having trouble thinking of them. For the blues, it's probably hard to beat this gem from Willie Dixon's "Third Degree":

Got me 'cused of taxes
I ain't got a dime
Got me 'cused of children
And ain't nary one of 'em mine
Bad luck
Bad luck is killin' me
Dixon, of course, wrote a great deal of Muddy Waters' repertoire, and had his songs ripped off by Led Zeppelin. If anyone represents the genre, it's him.

Anything coming to mind for anything else? It seems to me like it's harder to do the less codified the subject matter for a given genre--blues has a pretty straightforward thematic set, so it's far easier. Hip-hop, metal, and country are probably likewise simpler to find (and subgenres like stoner rock or nerdcore are even easier). But what to do for something like indie, or jazz?

Trivia experiments like this always make me want to try to write something that goes way outside of the standard definitions for a genre's subject matter. A nerdcore blues song, for example, would be a fun thing to attempt.

Future - Present - Past