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October 1, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital»daw

The Whole Package

With relatively little fanfare, Cakewalk released Sonar 7 this month. It looks like it has some really nice features. I've got the Studio edition, and I'm going to review it for Ars. There's just one problem:

Where to start?

It's possible, with Pro Tools, to feel like it's a very simple program. That's mostly due to the window layout, which is incredibly friendly and simple. Pro Tools rarely (if ever) has more than 3 windows onscreen at any time--Edit, Mix, and Plugin. There are menus and subsections for those windows, but when they added right-click support in 7.3 it meant that you could basically ignore 90% of those. So even though the software is actually fantastically powerful, you don't really notice most of it.

Sonar follows a different kind of metaphor. It's more like Cubase. There are lots and lots of windows and palettes and menus. It doesn't make it hard to use, necessarily. In fact, because almost everything in Sonar can be customized, including the menus, you could probably make it look a lot like Pro Tools. But out of the box, Sonar looks like something complicated, and a little overwhelming. It doesn't let you forget just how much there is.

Because let's face it, these packages--any of them, from Live to Logic--are really unbelievably full-featured. Any tool at this level is. That's one reason why people complain about Word: it is stuffed full of functionality for working with text--so much so that you sometimes can't find the feature you need. Final Cut Pro has the same kind of in-your-face complexity. Don't ever press a button on the keyboard unless you absolutely know what it does in Final Cut. They're all mapped to something. I accidentally hit the keys with my elbow the last time I did an editing project, and it took me five minutes to put everything back.

So how do you review something that big? Where do you start? Surely, I can't review everything in the package. It would take me months. And that's assuming I even know what to do with those features--like Word, each of them is probably used, but perhaps only for certain kinds of projects.

My plan is to use Sonar like I would do my work projects--meaning that I'll do a little radio recording, a little instrument recording, and some midi composition. I'm also going to download some of the NIN multitrack files and load them in as a way to test the mix engine in 32- and 64-bit modes--I doubt any of the material I have lying around is high-fidelity enough to make a difference.

There's also some standard bullet-points that are different from the other DAWs, and I think it's important to test those. So I'll be putting AudioSnap, ACT mapping, sidechaining, and the various VST instruments under as much scrutiny as I can apply. I'm open to other suggestions, but I think those are the main points.

The bad news is that no matter what I do, I'll feel like I haven't done it justice. But the good news is that DAWs have reached the point where the basic functionality is the same from system to system, so I hope most users will be able to fill in the gaps.

September 14, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Just Add Host

For my own future reference (although, the fates willing, I shouldn't need it again soon): Create Digital Music made the world a better place when they posted The Best, 100% Free Windows Music Plugins. Every time I start installing a DAW, or whenever I feel the need to find some new sounds, I load that post. It is a fantastic resource of good-sounding plugins. My personal favorites are the Kjaerhaus Classic series (covering the entire range of studio rack units), E-Phonic's fantastic Lo-Fi distortion/bitcrusher/pitchshifter, and the Fish Fillets mastering plugins.

September 3, 2007

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Musical Sketchpad, Session Twelve

Plenty More

Around 1996, the Squirrel Nut Zippers had a song on the radio from the album Hot, starting a tiny swing revival that lasted just long enough for high-schoolers to realize that swing music was really kind of a dorky fad. Hot sold a lot of records, but I don't think most people ever bought a copy of the previous album, The Inevitable. Which is unfortunate, because it was a dark, feverish little gem. I wrote a whole movie with it as a soundtrack in my head. "Plenty More" closed it out, and has long been a favorite of mine for its cynical swagger.

This is not a particularly original cover, nor is it flawlessly-executed. My copy of Sonar hasn't arrived for the new laptop yet, and so I recorded it on the Pro Tools rig at work, where the air-conditioning has been turned off all weekend. So I haven't cleaned up my terrible drumming or the other timing issues. But I've wanted to do at least a quick recording of this song ever since Something Awful called me a "a shakier, less confident version of John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants (when he does his goofy lounge singer voice, no less)".

Yes, it's terribly cheesy. I have no taste in synths. Now go buy the original.

August 27, 2007

Filed under: music»artists

Beyond Who

EQ Magazine has some nice features up this month. The most meat comes from an interview with Pete Townshend. It's a little disjointed, but good. Then they also toss in a few questions with Kid Beyond, who just released a CD of his looped beatboxing titled Amplivate.

August 22, 2007

Filed under: music»artists»rilo_kiley

Shovelful

There are bad reviews, and then there's Pitchfork:

Finding the band's music polished to an almost blinding sheen, Blacklight is not a commercial album so much as Rilo Kiley's conception (or misconception) of what a commercial album is. It's their "Project Mersh", an alternate-universe sell-out move. But beneath that surface-- and Under the Blacklight is at first listen almost overwhelmingly surface-- Rilo Kiley must know they're full of shit. Either they're utterly serious about their flirtation with the mainstream or they're taking the piss with a wink. In both cases, the songs suffer a smothering slow death by context. ... At the same time, the fun-- or maybe "fun"-- disc stresses how humorless and full of shit Rilo Kiley's former indie brethren remain, scared stiff of the prospect of unabashed pop in the true please-the-masses sense. But it's still an audacious, fascinating exploration of banality, almost to a patronizing point.

... Ah, L.A., where there's a thrift shop on every corner, the breakfast spots bustle well into the night, the lines at clubland bathroom stalls snake to early 1980s lengths, acts get signed at karaoke bars, and the plastic surgeons know just the thing to do with all those rough edges. Forget that Rilo Kiley's songs namedrop Brighton, New York, and Laredo: Under the Blacklight adds up to the familiar headline "California Band Makes California Album." Were all the AOR indulgences at least tied together into a concept they might have been more easily forgiven. And were any of those lyrics a little more pointed and less generalized, like they were in the anomalously galvanizing anti-Bush protest "It's a Hit", they'd add up to more than just a 40-minute short story collection on tape (with incidental music).

For the relative few who really, really care, debates may rage over whether Under the Blacklight marks some sort of progress, though what's just as likely is that Rilo Kiley's earlier output was artificially regressive in a bid for some sort of cred. ... Song by song it goes down awfully easy, but be warned. The band sure cleans up well, but there's a fair amount of guilty washing and hand-scrubbing to be done afterwards.

One asks: What does that even mean? Isn't it all just a bunch of rambling, snobby pseudophilosophy from someone who evaluates albums based only on some ill-defined indie authenticity? Doesn't this show, once again, that Pitchfork reviews are less about the mechanics and expression of music, and more about getting back at someone's Creative Writing 101 professor?

Yes. It is, and it does. This has been another edition of short answers to rhetorical questions.

Filed under: music»tools»digital»daw

In the Garageband

How many "pro" musicians are using Garageband as a serious music production tool? Peter at CDM sorts them into a few basic categories in a post on improvements in Garageband '08, which finally includes some features that I would say a real DAW needs to have: plugin automation, multiple time signatures, and multi-take recording. It's still a toy, but it's becoming a decent entry-level recording tool, instead of just another ACID clone.

It's been said that Microsoft should think about offering a comparable production program for Windows, so PC users can also have a (sort-of) free music creation tool. But I'm not so sure that we need it. I'm not terribly conversant with the state of OS X freeware, but there's lots of free software on the PC that offers the same functionality (or more) as Garageband, and after three years of experimentation on the cheap, I think I've probably used most of it. Here's a few good options for newcomers to audio production on Windows:

  • Cubase LE - No, it's not technically free, since it only comes with OEM hardware. But look at it this way: on any computer platform, if you're doing more than just dragging loops onto a timeline (and please: we have too much of that already), you're going to need to buy an external interface anyway, because built-in sound cards are really bad input devices. There's a lot of great hardware that comes with Cubase LE, including stuff from Tascam, Lexicon, and Presonus. And this is, in my opinion, as close as you can get to pro software at this price level. It's got full automation, lots of tracks, records up to 8 inputs at a time, uses regular VST plugins, and includes a decent set of built-in effects. Honestly, there's not much missing here.
  • Krystal - Krystal is free from Kreatives, and has a lot to recommend it. It's a multitrack recording program with an attractive and straightforward interface and VST support (with four plugins included). It's roughly comparable to Garageband 2, but doesn't have the looping support. It also lacks MIDI functionality, plugin automation, and more complicated routing options, and the input routing is a little weird. But for all that, again, you can do pretty well with Krystal if your goal is simply to record and mix audio. I wouldn't hesitate to use it if I needed to track a band at the last minute, especially coupled with a few tools (freeware drum machines, for example) to supplement its functionality. There's supposed to be an updated version (K2) coming soon, but they've been saying that for a couple of years now.
  • Reaper - Like Cubase LE, Reaper isn't technically free. It's supposed to be $40 for personal use, and $200 for commercial purposes. But you can download the shareware version, which has full functionality and never expires--Justin Frankel, the head programmer, is the guy behind WinAmp and Gnutella, and he's not a real stickler about licensing. The good news is that Reaper does everything that Sonar, Cubase, and Pro Tools do, and some things that they don't. Reaper has unbelievably flexible routing options and prides itself on its ability to change almost anything while recording. It shows up as an ASIO sound card for recording from other applications, or it supports ReWire if you want. It's gotten rave reviews from music mags. The installer is only two megs. The only bad news, as far as I'm concerned, is that some parts of Reaper still look and feel a little clumsy. It's skinnable, but that doesn't necessarily make it easier to use. Still, usability has improved immeasurably since I first used it (version .62, I think), so it'll probably only get better. This is an insanely powerful tool, and there's nothing on Mac or PC that competes with it in terms of value.
  • Audacity - I include Audacity as a word of warning only. I actually don't recommend using it for recording projects, for a variety of reasons. It doesn't have much in the way of plugin support, it only records in stereo, there's no support for low-latency recording like ASIO, and it distorts at the drop of a hat (I'm guessing it actually mixes at the same bit depth as the project). Audacity is one of those things that people recommend all the time, but really shouldn't. It teaches a lot of bad habits, and there are much better options out there for free.
  • Ableton Live Lite - Ableton Live (the full version) is a real paradigm shifter for audio software. Live Lite, the OEM version that comes with just about everything M-Audio makes, lets you see all the great stuff from the full version, but locks a lot of it away from actual use. This is frustrating. The good news is that it's practically free, much like Cubase LE. Buy a MIDI keyboard, and you'll probably get Live Lite. Buy any of Line 6's computer products, and you'll get Live Lite. I've owned four or five of these CDs, at least, and had to give them away to other people--you could probably ask around and get a copy, if you have musician friends. For free, Live Lite's not a bad deal--it's basically a 23rd century four-track tape machine. Ableton just released Live LE to try to cater to the beginner/low-cost market, but it's crippled down to practically the same level. If you're curious about Live, start with Lite and upgrade, instead of LE.

There's also a whole world of standalone, budget (~$100) software "for beginners" out there, but I tend to think that it's kind of a waste, depending on the package. Midrange copies of Sonar or Pro Tools are just not that much more money than something like Sequel or Project 5, and the capabilities they offer go much farther. Even the low-end versions, like Sonar Home Studio, can be pretty good, and the upgrade path is easier on the wallet.

July 23, 2007

Filed under: music»business

Manifestation

Does everyone feel sorry for the major labels yet? I know I do. Must be a hard life, finding time to count their money after a full day of exploiting guileless musicians and overcharging for CDs. Somehow, they manage, bless their little souls.

But noted music advice-donor Moses Avalon wants you to know that he is concerned. It's the evil tech-companies, he shrieks! They're trying to get rid of DRM--and if they do, your music will be worthless!

If the Tech world loses this campaign, they will simply have to pay a bit more for their loss leader item. Since they tend to bundle music with other products this expense will not be felt in any significant way by the consumer. It will just shave the tech industry's gross a tiny bit to about $87 billion.

But if art loses this war, that is to say, if record companies/artists lose their ability to control who gets to license their work and at what price, the music business, as we know it, ends. Music itself will suffer as an art form and the Tech-Masters will absorb the labels, bundle their catalogs, and in a few years you'll buy a lap-top and it will come pre-loaded with an entire Juke Box of Classic Rock, Rap, Jazz, whatever.

This may sound great if you're a consumer, but if you're a music company you will make only a small licensing fee and your artists and songwriters will see a paltry fraction of this sum. The trickle down effect for studio owners, producers, lawyers, managers, etc, will naturally be devastation.

...

Major Labels are the 'banks' of our industry. They loan money to 1000's of artists, who then spend it in 1000's of studios and with 1000's of producers, who hire 1000's of engineers, who buy gear and invest in new artists, who sign with labels, and so on.

Even if you're an independent or emerging artist, you are in the wake of this economy. Big artists draw people into music outlets/venues and thus expose them to new music. Also, the big spending by Majors pushes down the off-peak rates on studio time, materials, and CD replication. It also creates the upside potential to justify investment in emerging artists.

The fantasy that 'if Majors die a Phoenix will rise from the ashes' is very unlikely. The higher probability is that in order for there to be a viable music industry at all Majors need to stay in business.

...

So called experts and analysts who applaud EMI's 'wisdom' and curse the RIAA's defense of copyrights are just sucking up to the Tech-Masters who give them a media platform. Then disgruntled music executives grant interviews and ignorantly agree just to relieve their angst. This bandwagon effect is helping Tech-Masters load the gun they have pointed to our heads.

Think people! Have you ever heard a technology spokesperson agree with labels or argue in favor of copy protection? NEVER! They argue for DRM-free music to make a more 'consumer friendly experience.' They are arguing that the consumers' rights are senior to the artists'. Let me repeat that: they are arguing that the way consumers buy music is MORE IMPORTANT than the rights of the people who create it.

All sarcasm aside, it takes a lot of chutzpah to write a sentence directly equating "art" and "record companies." To some degree, I respect that. It's completely idiotic, but respectably so.

The most telling part of the essay, however, is Avalon's belief that the major labels are banks that pay out lots of money to keep the art alive. Avalon is most well-known for a book about not getting screwed by the music business, so I'm a little astounded by his misconception of the word "bank." But it's easy for him to make that mistake, because he's a producer: he actually does profit from the industry spending. Actual musicians, however, do not. Don't just take my word for it. Two fine essays on the ways that recording contracts exist to exploit artists are Courtney Love Does the Math and Steve Albini's The Problem with Music.

If the music industry wants to be taken seriously as a business, it needs to realize that it is not automatically entitled to customers. It's only the vast vertical ownership and integration of the industry that let them get away with it for as long as they have. That vertical integration--the fact that labels are owned by enormous media companies controlling every part of the signal chain from work-for-hire contracts to final distribution--is part of what makes Avalon's plea so comical. The same thing happens in next-gen video, of course. It says a lot about how the debate is being framed when we're supposed to be worried about media piracy, and not about the fact that the same three or four companies own the entire media production process from top to bottom.

July 17, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Variax 700 Bass: Final Thoughts

This is a hard instrument to describe. "Conservative" may be the most accurate word--not in the political sense, but in the way that it really takes no chances with either its styling or the modeling technology. I tend to think that's a disappointment, but the Variax does make it a phenomenal recording instrument. After five months with it, I'm not sure I'd take it live, but it's a real asset to the home studio, especially at the current, reduced price.

Physically, the Variax is kind of a Super Stingray. The body style, neck width, and the sheer heft of the thing are all very similar to the revered Music Man basses. It's a heavy, chunky bass with a solid feel. Clearly, the Stingray has been a broad success, and Line 6 probably made a wise choice to ape its look and feel. But the imitation is also a little stifling. For one thing, what I tend to notice first is the wide string spacing. Ever since replacing the bridge on the All-Star with an adjustable Gotoh model, I've stuck with a very narrow distance from string to string, which feels faster to me. The Variax's wide neck and bridge put a lot more space between each string, and aren't adjustable. That's understandable, since I'm sure creating a fully-adjustable piezo bridge is very difficult, and it's great for slap-happy Stingray fans, but it's frustrating that a modeling bass (with several small-scale or narrow-necked instruments on tap) locks players into a single bridge configuration.

Of course I'm going to complain about the fret access on the Variax as well. But it's not so much that the frets are limited--21 still seems a little cramped after learning on 24, but it's honestly only 3 fewer semitones, and that's why I own a Whammy. I'm more frustrated by how hard the body style makes it to reach those last few notes. Like many Fender-style instruments, the Variax has a lower cutaway but it's not contoured into the body to accommodate the fretted hand. It's painful trying to reach up past the 19th fret or so. Players who tend to stick to the bottom octave of each string aren't going to find this objectionable--but again, why make a modeling bass so stingy and unforgiving, especially since several of the models (particularly the Thumb and the Alembic) prominently featured the high frets?

Let's talk about the models, while we're on the topic. With more experience using each of them, I've definitely found some favorites. The usual suspects (Fenders, Stingrays, and Rickenbackers) are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from their inspirations in the mix. The Hofner Beatle Bass and Gibson EB-2D models offer a very cool glimpse into instruments where their flaws have become strengths--the Hofner's lack of sustain and the Gibson's woofy, indistinct bassiness are both modeled well. The acoustics are wonderful, especially since real acoustic basses (either acoustic-electric or upright) can be so finicky. With that said, the flatwound models are still not terribly convincing, and the eight-string bass is still awful, with pitch-shifting artifacts all over the place. I'm not sure why the twelve is better-behaved, but it's much more convincing, as long as you don't let notes sustain too long. There's one caveat on that, however: I've noticed that sometimes the EQ for the 12-string goes out of whack, and notes become unbearably tinny. It's not something I can reproduce reliably, but it does seem to happen more often when playing chords. I'd hate to imagine it going haywire live.

Even setting aside the useless flatwound settings, there are still several models on here that just seem to have been included for trivia purposes and not for any distinct sonic character. It seems silly, for example, to imitate a Steinberger on a bass that's so physically its opposite. I also can't imagine that anyone actually needed four jazz basses just for the fretless and active preamp options, especially since the Variax effectively adds active EQ to all its passive models. I'd have easily traded several of these models for the ability to create custom presets like on some of the guitar Variaxes--considering that I'll never use the eight-string bass, it's kind of a pain that I always have to hit an additional selector knob to skip it and go to the 12-string. The fusion with the PodXT Live (which also powers the bass, eliminating the intrusive power adapter) no doubt addresses these picked nits, but it's another $400.

All of these little frustrations make the "user interface" for the Variax a slightly mixed experience, one that doesn't make for a lot of customization in either software or hardware. And the sounds themselves, while excellent in quality, are also fairly conservative. There's nothing really off-the-wall here. The bass even feels a little stiff and unresponsive--although it has no problems with dynamics and it never feels "computerized," what it doesn't do is respond to playing on different parts of the string. I suspect this has to do with the piezo inputs, which only see the string at its very end, compared to the wider central viewpoint of a traditional pickup. It's disconcerting, after learning to manipulate tone manually on a passive bass, to move from plucking at the bridge up to the neck and not hear much of a difference.

Yet that same control is part of what makes the Variax a great recording tool. You can be pretty sure that you can get any classic tone you want out of it, without too many variables to mess it up (the noiseless piezo is very nice in an unshielded electrical environment, I must admit). And although the generic feel of the instrument is inferior to your favorite, customized bass, that's not the point. Once you get used to it, the Variax provides basically the same thing for instruments as the Pod did for amps: it's a good sound in a very small space, accessed in a way that isn't going to thrill anyone, but also isn't likely to send them screaming for the hills either. You need some small amount of engineering skill to get the best out of the Variax. You shouldn't expect it to replace a primary axe, especially for live use. You absolutely should not learn to play on a Variax. But I'm rather fond of it as a utilitarian tool for doing fast, effective recording. If you go in with that as a goal, I think you won't be disappointed.

June 28, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Fired Wire

Two days ago Ars Technica noted a new published report on why FireWire is doomed. And all I can say is, good riddance.

Look, I know the technical arguments. I know that FireWire uses less CPU time because it enables direct memory access. I know that it has faster sustained throughput than USB2, and that it carries more power to its devices. I know that it allows smarter daisy-chaining, since each connection can negotiate its own bandwidth needs and transfer details. Thanks to this fascinating page, I know that FireWire has a better connector design (at least in its original 6-pin plug) than USB does.

I know all of this, and I don't care. FireWire is an unholy pain.

If you hotplug a Firewire device, it can destroy either the computer or the device ("rendered permanently inoperable" is a nice turn of phrase). FireWire's power requirements are high enough that most laptops (even those that include the full-sized 6-pin port) will not provide bus-power while running on batteries, or even at all, requiring users to carry an extra power brick for each device. FireWire devices here at work sometimes conflict with each other--one editing rig in our studios will only recognize the second external hard drive if we first unplug the DV-CAM deck. Firewire is prohibitively expensive, in part because Steve Jobs got greedy about licensing fees. The cards that aren't expensive tend to be flaky when used for pro applications. The FW800 and FW400 standards use completely different connectors, meaning that we have to buy adapters and new cables to use them. And while the USB connector is not a great design, both its host and device sides are still better designed than the flimsy and shallow 4-pin FireWire plug (the little one that most PC laptops accept).

I suspect that it may survive in the audio and video markets for a while--it's still the best way that I know of to get media in and out of a computer without using PCI cards. I'm stuck with it for a while. But I can't wait for someone to come up with a better solution.

Fun fact from Wikipedia: The standard FireWire connector is based on the Gameboy Multilink cable, since it had proven reliable, solid, easy to use, and childproof.

June 25, 2007

Filed under: music»recording»production

Arpeggios and Pedagogy

The next couple of days are all about the WBI Learning Week event--and more specifically, for my part, they're all about the expert interview podcasts. I wrote this theme on Friday for the podcasts, and then spent about an hour over the weekend beefing it up and remixing it. The defining feature is a three-octave arpeggio of a chord that I can't entirely place (I think it's a C major with a flatted 7th, the components are C, E, G, and Bb). I also hooked a drum map into the arpeggiator, latched the whole bunch, and then split the keyboard so that I could play the string accompaniment on the rest of the keys. It was a surprisingly effective way to put together a tune, and something I would have probably never done on my little two-octave keyboard.

Frankly, I'm writing more music nowadays on synth at work than I am on bass at home, and I still feel like my theory knowledge could be stronger (see limited chord knowledge above). So I have decided that I need to relearn how to play keys, and I might as well brush up on my reading while I'm at it. One of the video editors has a Yamaha DX27 that he brought in and abandoned, and I may see if he'll let me borrow it until I can save my pennies for a synth of my own. Next stop, Ben Folds transcription book.

In case you are wondering (you probably aren't), the arpeggios, string pad, high-hat, and kick in the theme are the X-Pand! synth--in fact, they're all on the same track, thanks to that split keboard trick and X-Pand's multi-voice patches. The indian flute, tamborine, cabasa, and choir are all Sampletank SE. I have to work around the bargain-basement palette of these two plugins most of the time--for example, I wanted the swells at the end of each phrase to be muted trumpets, but neither synth does them well, so instead they're a combination of choir and cello section. I imagine it would be interesting next year if my successor starts looking at soft synths come purchasing time, but it wasn't a priority this time around.

Future - Present - Past