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March 2, 2008

Filed under: music»recording»production

Why Records DO Sound All the Same

There's a little-watched video on Maroon Five's YouTube channel which documents the torturous, tedious process of crafting an instantly forgettable mainstream radio hit. It's fourteen minutes of elegantly dishevelled chaps sitting in leather sofas, playing $15,000 vintage guitars next to $200,000 studio consoles, staring at notepads and endlessly discussing how little they like the track (called Makes Me Wonder), and how it doesn't have a chorus. Even edited down, the tedium is mind-boggling as they play the same lame riff over and over and over again. At one point, singer Adam Levine says: "I'm sick of trying to engineer songs to be hits." But that's exactly he proceeds to do.

...from Tom "Music Thing" Bramwell's article in Word Magazine.

Every year someone writes an article along these lines--between digital technology, aggressive mastering, and the monolithic industry control of radio, they say, music's all shot to hell and we're all going to die. I mean no disrespect to Tom, who (as always in these articles) raises a lot of points I happen to agree with. But you're preaching to the choir, friends.

A lot of this is just disguised fervor for the good old days of analog, when making music was hard and expensive. That can be safely discounted. For the rest, which basically laments that "commercial" sound, what's there to say? I personally doubt that cheap earbuds are going to end the trend, and frankly high-def sound formats show no sign of taking off. Compression and pop mastering are here to stay.

But look at it this way: The Shins made Chutes Too Narrow in 2003, and no-one would call that a "polished"-sounding record. After Garden State, everyone may well be sick of the album, but the point remains that people are still making music without a stereotypical studio sound. I can name three or four without even trying hard. They're not on the radio, though, and they're not going to be.

In the meantime, berating the music that is on the radio when it's commercial-sounding is a lot like burning yourself on the stove and then getting angry at it for being hot. What did you expect? That's what it's for. If you don't like it, quit sticking your hands in the flames.

February 21, 2008

Filed under: music»recording

Free Rain

Rain Recording, an company that makes computers for audio production, asked if they could use an old post of mine for their "Pro" section. It's up now (with some revision) as the newest addition to the page: In the Garageband. Yes, there is some irony in writing a piece about cheap and free music software for a company that makes a $10k recording workstation, but I guess after spending that kind of money you'd be tempted to cut back elsewhere.

January 16, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Lace Helix

Reminds me of the Rondo Retro that I wanted so badly in a bass version. It's interesting, that Lace seems to have been motivated partially by environmental factors:

The Helix bass is equipped with the revolutionary Alumitone pickup, designed by Jeff Lace. These Alumitones are a 'current driven' design, rather the traditional voltage based pickups, allowing the musician a higher fidelity or 'broad-band response' that helps to create a tighter top-end, more mid-range and a huge bottom end. This passive pickup outperforms many active systems, and the sonic output level generally exceeds that of similar preamp equipped basses. With today's increased environmental concerns, Lace also wanted to create a lightweight, advanced pickup that doesn't contribute to pollutants caused by discarded batteries. "By using the Alumitone, the need for conventional pickups with a preamp and battery are eliminated, and you lose almost two pounds of weight, without compromising output or performance," states Jeff Lace.
Ignoring the marketing-speak, I hope that this is something more luthiers will start to keep in mind. I doubt that the industry is equivalent to e-waste in terms of impact, for example, but the use of exotic hardwoods has often been something that made me wince about Warwick's basses, for example.

It's not terribly expensive, either. The bolt-on version is $420 at Musician's Friend. Not that I need another bass.

January 10, 2008

Filed under: music»recording»production

Rubber Factory

A little while back, David Byrne had a piece in Wired about the new digital landscape for musicians. He's now published some corrections based on feedback from musicians who say that you can't possibly make a record for nothing, as he claimed.

Well, it's true that he exaggerated, but I'm not sure that his correspondents aren't doing the same.

"While it's true that the laptop recording setup made self-produced recordings worlds easier than before, the simple truth is that laptops alone don't make records. First off, there is the peripheral equipment needed...microphones, stands, cables, pre-amps, sound cards, headphones, speakers, hard-drives, instruments, etc. And while the cost of the aforementioned has cascaded in the past decade, a complete and flexible home studio setup still comes at a price. Then, of course, there is the issue of know-how--recording skills and technique--two incredibly important factors in making a decent sounding recording, and two things that don't come "with the laptop". Lastly, there is mastering, currently hovering (at the low end scale) at around $750-$1,000. Even these moderate costs can make recording out of reach for many bands.

All tolled, in addition to the laptop, a band is looking at between $5,000 - $10,000 in extra costs just to have the ability to record themselves (I am talking about having enough equipment to record a four-piece band live with enough channels to mic a drum-kit). Yes, there are alternatives, rental being one of them. But, that still doesn't account for the skills and technique part of the equation. The only analogy that comes to me is, you can buy a cheap pair of scissors at every corner store, but that doesn't mean everyone (wants to or) should be out there cutting their own hair."

There are a couple of respectful objections I think should be raised: First, rock bands are not the end-all and be-all of home recording. Not everyone needs to simultaneously record a full drum kit with the rest of a four-piece. Not everyone even has a drummer. Many genres of music--techno, industrial, dance, hip-hop, and some of the weirder indie stuff--can easily be done using minimal hardware, recording one track at a time. Even rock and blues can be done on a shoestring: the Black Keys' Thickfreakness was recorded on a Tascam 8-track from the 80s in the drummer's basement, and Rubber Factory--which I told someone the other day is my pick for the top album of the decade--was done in an abandoned building. It's only the obsession with perfect clarity and the "processed" sound that says that you need to do things with lots of tracks and expensive equipment.

Second, the question of mastering seems to me like it's less urgent in these days of shuffled MP3s, and given the emphasis on digital distribution in Byrne's article. How much mastering do you need to put something online? I'm not the most experienced engineer, but I think you can do pretty well with an analyzer, a decent EQ plugin, and a limiter (Kjaerhaus gives away their old mastering limiter for free, and I've had good results from it). Most people just aren't listening to music that closely for it to matter whether you had it professionally mastered.

But there are good points to be made about the cost of equipment. I'm lucky enough to scratch my purchasing itch regularly, but most people--particularly many people who want to be "professional musicians" can't do that. So it occurs to me that although the last thing the world needs is a new social network, there should be a place for musicians to get together and pool their resources for playing and recording. If I own a laptop, and you own an interface, and she owns some drum mikes, and that guy over there owns a decent preamp, it only makes sense for everyone to help each other out. Add some reputation systems to the mix, and see what self-organizes.

January 2, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»synth

How to Create an FM Piano for Your Alesis Micron

I decided that I really do need to get serious about improving my keyboard skills, which have not been helped by the fact that my only instruments were either a 25-key USB keyboard (cramped) or a Yamaha DX27 (no velocity sensing, hard to program, the size of a small Volkswagon). So I used some of my Christmas money to buy an Alesis Micron, which is a virtual analog synth with 37 keys.

"Virtual analog," of course, translates to "can sound like a Moog Mini and a bunch of other synthesizers from the 70's." It doesn't do samples, and it doesn't do physical modeling. Those things don't bother me terribly much. It's still a really cool little box--eventually I will learn to use the built-in drum machine/pattern sequencer, and I will be crowned DANCE MUSIC KING OF ARLINGTON.

Conspicuously absent from the prodigious list of included patches, however, is a decent piano. Granted, classic analog synths were also notoriously bad at simulating acoustic piano, and the Micron does aim to mimic them. But it also includes basic FM capabilities for its three oscillators. As this video shows, they're more than capable of pulling of a piano imitation at least as good as my aging, 4-operator DX27, even while the patch creator is needlessly cryptic about how he put it together.

Well, I feel no need to be cryptic, and I'm annoyed by the fact that there seems to be relatively little information out there for Micron programming, short of a Yahoo! group that I don't particularly want to join. So after poking around in FM synthesis research, pulling the presets out of the Yamaha, and fiddling with oscillator tunings for about a day, here are my piano patch settings.

Obviously the voice is polyphonic with no portamento or analog drift. The important parts of the voice are that it needs a small FM amount (2.8%) and an FM type (lin 2+3). I left all three oscillators as sine waves (as far as I know, the DX synths only used sine waves for their operators), but oscillators 1 and 2 are shifted down one octave. Oscillator 3 is shifted up one octave and seven semitones. To remove some of the harshness from this sound, I add the Oberheim filter (ob 2pole) set at 1.307kHz with no resonance, keytracking, or offset.

Now we need to set the envelopes for the amplitude and the FM modulation. The former sounds natural to me with an attack of 1.99ms, decay of .5ms, sustain time of 1.816s, sustain level of 75%, and a release time of 214.7ms. I also send 75% of the velocity scaling to the envelope, to give the playing some dynamics. For the pitch/modulation envelop (Env 3), I use a .5ms attack, 96.6ms decay, 835.4ms sustain at 100%, and a 2ms release time. Looking at my settings, I'm not actually sure that this envelope is being used, but I'm including it here just in case.

The only thing left that's important is the modulation matrix. Envelope 3 is sent to the FM amount, with no offset or level (guess it really isn't doing anything, but setting level to .7% can add a little edge). I send M1 to the FM amount, which is useful for turning the piano into a harpsichord, and M2 is used to add reverb through FX1 (I prefer just a little bit of plate 'verb). By setting the x, y, and z knobs to control FM type, Osc 3 octave, and Osc 3 semitone transposition, you can experiment with the "tone" of the piano, making it harder or more bell-like to taste.

It's not as realistic as a sample-based piano, but it's a classic FM piano sound, and it will do for stage purposes. It also illustrates, I think, just how versatile the Micron actually is. I've only had it a couple of days, but so far I think it's a very impressive little box, and great for portable practice sessions.

December 28, 2007

Filed under: music»performance

Carry OK

For my family, Christmas is a time to sit around and talk. For Belle's family, my impressions are that it's quite a bit noisier, and involves karaoke.

I'll be honest: I never really got the appeal of karaoke before. It always seemed silly to me. To a musician, the idea of performing with a pre-taped backing track is vaguely akin to cheating--not to mention not nearly as much fun as playing the songs for real.

But on Tuesday, I had a kind of an epiphany while watching people sing along with the cheesy MIDI versions of "Desperado" and a long set of Filipino pop songs. There's a kind of feeling that comes from being in a band and playing music with other people--performers share energy through the act of coordinating rhythm and melody. It's a communal experience. Karaoke is a way for people who think that they're not good at music to get that same feeling.

It reminds me of a passage from Daniel Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music:

Jim Ferguson, whom I have known since high school, is now a professor of anthropology. Jim is one of the funniest and most fiercely intelligent people I know, but he is shy - I don't know how he manages to teach his lecture courses. For his doctoral degree at Harvard, he performed field work in Lesotho, a small nation completely surrounded by South Africa. There, studying and interacting with a local villagers, Jim patiently earned their trust until one day he was asked to join in one of their songs. So, typically, when asked to sing with these Sotho villagers, Jim said in a soft voice, "I don't sing," and it was true: we had been in high school band together and although he was an excellent oboe player, he couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. The villagers found his objection puzzling and inexplicable. The Sotho consider singing an ordinary, everyday activity performed by everyone, young and old, men and women, not an activity for a special few.

Our culture and indeed our very language makes a distinction between a class of expert performers - the Arthur Rubensteins, Ella Fitzgeralds, Paul McCartneys - and the rest of us. The rest of us pay money to hear the experts entertain us. Jim knew that he wasn't much of a singer or dancer, and to him, a public display of singing and dancing implied he thought himself an expert. The villagers just stared at Jim and said, "What do you mean you don't sing?! You talk!" Jim told me later, "it was as odd to them as if I told them that I couldn't walk or dance, even though I have both my legs." Singing and dancing were a natural activity in everybody's lives, seamlessly integrated and involving everyone. The Sesotho verb for singing ( ho bina ), as in many of the world's languages, also means to dance; there is no distinction since it is assumed that singing involves bodily movement.

That's the value of karaoke, and of Guitar Hero and Rock Band: they break down the barriers between "musicians" and "the rest of us," and allow people who don't think of themselves as musical (due to a deficiency in our cultural attitudes) to get in on the fun. For these purposes, the technical proficiency of the performance is less important than the community feeling it fosters. Criticising them for not being "real music" is beside the point.

December 23, 2007

Filed under: music»artists»nin

Album Review: Year Zero

In some ways, Year Zero is a return to form for Nine Inch Nails. As opposed to With Teeth, which stepped sideways into the rock tradition, Year Zero sonically evokes The Fragile, both in sound (Reznor seems to have become comfortable with his synth palette, and there's not much experimentation) and the strong sequencing of the songs. The latter may be what makes this feel most like a Nine Inch Nails album to me: it's once again something I can't bring myself to shuffle.

Unfortunately, not everything here is as strong as The Fragile, or even With Teeth, which makes the sequencing a little transparent. With this CD, I started to realize just how similar the progression of NIN studio releases has been:

  1. Big metal-sounding intro, often an instrumental.
  2. Two rockish numbers, not much in the way of dynamics.
  3. Groove-oriented song (see: "Closer" or "Into the Void")
  4. Another set of rock songs, becoming increasingly elaborate in terms of production.
  5. Quiet instrumental break ("The Downward Spiral" or "La Mer"), leading into:
  6. Over the top screamer (optional).
  7. Closing ballad, usually featuring Reznor's piano skills surrounded by a melancholy noise pad.
It's not so much that this hasn't been obvious before, maybe, as this is the album where I was most conscious of it. So Year Zero may not be a tour de force, but there are brilliant tracks here. This is supposed to be a political work, and while I'm not sure that it expresses a story as such, the change in lyrical content from the usual goth teenager angst has been for the better. "The Good Soldier" evokes the war in Iraq and the mixed messages surrounding it, while "Capital G" attacks modern right-wing ideology:
I pushed a button and elected him to office and
He pushed the button and dropped the bomb
You pushed the button and could watch it on the television
Those motherfuckers didn't last too long huh-huh
I'm sick of hearing about the haves and the have-nots
Have some personal accountability
The biggest problem with the way that we've been doing things is
The more we let you have the less that I'll be keeping for me
Yeah, subtlety's still not a real strong point here. "The Great Destroyer," on the other hand, is titled like a song with a lot more political content than I think it actually has--and it's the third stand-out song, despite the Aphex Twin-like TB-303 breakdown that consumes the second half.

Year Zero takes some getting used to, since (much like its predecessor) the vocals often involve odd ticks and inflections. "Survivalism," for example, has a great chorus, while it throws traditional stanza rhythms out the window during the verse, leaving the listener off-balance and confused (no doubt the point). But then, most fans of Nine Inch Nails are probably used to that by now, as well as accustomed to the slow process of becoming acclimated to Reznor's evolving work.

It's hard for me to imagine, in fact, how newcomers would approach this. I came late to Nine Inch Nails, only really starting to listen about four years ago, but since then I've developed a real taste for it. Year Zero wouldn't be the halo I'd recommend first, but I'm happy to say that it's hardly the disaster that I was expecting from the preview tracks I heard a few months back.

December 13, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Preset Button

Plugin effect and synth presets get a bad name among digital musicians, for two reasons:

  • Using the presets isn't very creative. You can't be a real musician, apparently, unless you've agonized over the knobs of a synthesizer for hours creating your own unique sounds.
  • Preset patches are generally considered unsubtle, and are often designed to sound good solo instead of fitting into a mix, much as store-display TVs often have the brightness and contrast cranked up.
I see both of these points, the latter more than the former. Certainly I've spent probably days tweaking my bass sound, and I wish I had enough time and energy to learn my synths and effects with the same level of detail.

But I love presets, because they make me far more productive. For the same reason, I'm a huge fan of general MIDI samplers--Cakewalk's TTS-1 general synth has been an unexpected perk of Sonar so far, and on Pro Tools (for lack of better options) I often found myself working with their X-Pand! offering. In fact, general MIDI synths combine the best of both worlds--they present a wide range of sounds, and limit the amount that you can typically spend tweaking them at all.

As a result, I'm able to cut through the urge to find that perfect tone, and instead I get on with the process of making music, which is where I think the creativity should actually be. Working with budget sample libraries does carry risks, but in general it simply means that I learn which sounds are limited and should only be used in certain circumstances, and which ones are simply bad and should be avoided, instead of trying to fix them up.

In fact, the more options I'm given, the fewer I tend to use. I've been looking at sample libraries lately, because I do love having orchestral sounds available, and those tend to be the most useful for work compositions. And invariably, what I'm looking for is something that will work right out of the box. Life's too short to spend all my time twiddling knobs instead of tracking music.

October 30, 2007

Filed under: music»recording

The Groove

One can only hope that Wired's article on audiophiles choosing vinyl over digital formats is true. Not because vinyl actually offers a better sound. It doesn't: the noise floor is roughly 50dB higher than CDs, the high-end response is limited, the media itself tends to warp and erode, and the format is far larger than it needs to be. But at least this way, we'll have a more reliable sign of sound system gullibility. "Oh," you can say. "You've got a nice collection of vinyl. Excuse me, I have to go make up lame excuses for leaving this conversation."

Choice quotes from the piece:

Another reason for vinyl's sonic superiority is that no matter how high a sampling rate is, it can never contain all of the data present in an analog groove, Nyquist's theorem to the contrary.
I love that little jab at Nyquist. Because as I found while researching A/D converters last week, Claude Shannon's elaboration on Harry Nyquist's original paper means that a sampled analog recording does, in fact, contain every bit of information under the Nyquist limit. That's the whole point of the theorem--given a bandlimited signal, there is only one possible way to recreate it using the samples. Saying that digital "can never contain all of the data present in an analog groove" is not only hyperbolic, but it's also completely false.

This objection is often paired with the myth that people can somehow perceive frequency content beyond a CD's 22.05KHz Nyquist limit. And again, that's just bogus. The average adult's hearing flat-out stops at 16KHz, and above that it requires extremely high amplitudes for even the most sensitive ears. Considering the fact that modern digital recordings are probably captured and mixed at twice the sample rate of CD-quality audio (or higher), the whole argument is snake oil.

Golden-eared audiophiles have long testified to vinyl's warmer, richer sound.
Sure they have. They also buy $3,000/meter audio cables, so maybe we shouldn't be going by the word of these "golden-eared" listeners. It should be added, of course, that everyone claims to have near-magical hearing perception. At least one listening test, however, has shown that "expert" listeners actually vary wildly in their capabilities for detecting audio errors. There's no such thing as a naturally "golden" ear, in my opinion--merely people who have trained themselves to listen closely, or convinced themselves that they can hear the difference.
San Francisco indie band The Society of Rockets, for example, plans to release its next album strictly on vinyl and as MP3 files.

"Having just gone through the process of mastering our new album for digital and for vinyl, I can say it is completely amazing how different they really sound," said lead singer and guitarist Joshua Babcock in an e-mail interview. "The way the vinyl is so much better and warmer and more interesting to listen to is a wonder."

This could just be clumsy writing, but it sounds to me like he's comparing mastering for MP3 and vinyl--in which case, yes, I'm not surprised that it sounded good during mastering. How would the CD sound? How does it sound at home? How does it sound after 100 listens? And can we really consider people to be distinguishing listeners when, according to the Matador rep, they're enthusiastically pairing their vinyl purchases with MP3 downloads? I've come around some on MP3, but I don't think anyone has ever argued that it's a premium-quality format.

As far as I can tell, the point of all this vinyl frenzy (such as it is--Van Buskirk's evidence of a rebirth is far from conclusive) is the nostalgia of it all, not how the material actually sounds. The experience of putting a record onto a turntable, and hearing the inherent rumble and flaws of the medium, makes some people happy. It makes them feel like they're closer to an "authentic" experience. Just don't tell them that they could do the same thing with a plugin, or a cheap tube preamp with the tone turned down--in other words, don't explain that their authenticity is highly constructed and artificial. We wouldn't want to spoil their fun.

October 24, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Voltage Reference

Having set out to write a third AudioFile guide on A/D converters, I began doing research on the subject and rapidly realized that I might have bit off more than I could chew. Most of the texts on the topic are written for engineers, and include a great deal of math as "proof." Of course, a proof is only useful if you understand it, and I usually don't, since I was never trained as an electrical engineer, and because I never really enjoyed math past trig.

At times like this, the deficiencies of chain bookstores become increasingly irritating. They all carry the same selection of titles, and none of them were what I was trying to find. Amazon doesn't necessarily make it easy to locate something in a niche like this, but I eventually did locate a couple of helpful textbooks that aren't too expensive, and I'd like to recommend them now. My piece distills out a lot of information from these and other sources, but anyone with an interest in audio would do well to have one of these as a general reference, in my opinion.

Nika Aldrich's Digital Audio Explained: For the Audio Engineer is a truly great resource that's clearly aimed at people who work with audio and are familiar with the concepts but not the technical details. In other words, it was perfect for me. There's even a section in the back for "myths of digital audio." A short set of chapters on human hearing and the physics of sound means that complete newcomers might even be able to use this as a primer. If I have any criticisms, it's that the graphic design and layout of illustrations are often unhelpful, but the text itself is clear enough that readers can figure it out without them.

Principles of Digital Audio, by Ken Pohlmann, is twice the size of Aldrich's book, and it's a little less user-friendly. On the other hand, it may be the only digital audio text you would ever need, so a little more complexity is a small price to pay. Newcomer to the field will have a hard time with this, but Pohlmann stays as close to a layman level as he probably can. Inside the 800-odd pages, he covers A/D/A conversion of all kinds, CDs, magnetic storage, digital interconnection, DSP, DVD, MP3, and an ungodly amount of other material. I haven't had time to read the whole thing, obviously, but everything I've looked up has been--if not perfectly accessible--at least better than the Wikipedia page for the same topic, and certainly I'm far more confident in its accuracy.

Future - Present - Past