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April 2, 2007

Filed under: music»artists»black_keys

Strange Desire

They say you can't appreciate some bands until you see them live. It's news to me. But from the Black Keys website, I found Fab Channel, which has collected an alarming number of live concerts in full, including the Keys:

You might also be interested in a few other shows they've got there:

  • Bloc Party - I've always liked "This Modern Love" since I heard Final Fantasy cover it, although I could pretty much take or leave everything else.
  • Living Colour - These guys are underrated.
  • Marcus Miller - One of the great bass players. There's a smoking cover of "Power of Soul" there.
  • Nada Surf - "I'm popular..."
  • Spoon - I watched most of this one, and the keyboard player spends more time adjusting his sound than actually playing.
  • The Arcade Fire - Despite the popular buzz, I'm pretty sure this band is just not very good. But plenty of people disagree with me.
  • The Pipettes - Just for Dan.

March 29, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Really Explore the Space

Have you got a fever? And the only prescription... more cowbell?

Rad Monkey Cowbells has the cure for what ails you. Not only do they offer the first ever electric cowbell, but they've got a preview up for the VLC800, which uses digital modeling to emulate 12 classic cowbell sounds. If only Gene Frenkle had lived to see this day.

(Yes, it is a joke. The same people created the Sonicfinger plugins, including "Virtual Studio Visitor" and the "Dead Quietenator.")

March 25, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Variax Practice Impressions

The problem with judging the Variax bass is that it really needs to be put into a live or recording context for a real evaluation. For one thing, the differences between the modeled instruments are often not entirely apparent at low volumes, so you need to be able to turn up the volume. Also, like all instruments, it sounds different in a band context, and that's really where the models come into their own. When solo'd, they tend to sound very similar, because at heart all basses are still just vibrating metal strings bolted to wood. But with other instruments, the individual attributes of the modeled basses start to come through--the bounce and snap of the Stingray's preamp, for example, or the thick boom of the T-Bird's humbuckers. At the very least, you need to hear these basses with drums. So to get a bit more of that perspective, I took the Variax to one of my band auditions this weekend. I don't think the band is likely to work out, but I'm happy with how the bass sounded.

The space itself was a small practice room, which tended to accentuate the treble a bit. On most active basses, you'd want to turn down the highs, and you can do that with the Variax on both passive and active models. Unfortunately, when you change models, the knobs reset to their saved positions. So the first performance lesson is that room-tuning has to be done from the amplifier--probably the best place to do it anyway.

The band concept this audition was a kind of funk/hip-hop/rock fusion, and the tracks I played with had lots of synth pads and samples already worked into them. The bandleader said he was interested in the kinds of extended-range bass that I do, but that kind of music (Tupac meets Prince, in his words) really calls for an old-school thump from the bass. I used the Thunderbird and the P-bass models for the most part, and was pleasantly surprised by them. I'm not entirely sure if they're accurate models, but they're both good bass sounds. They've got plenty of impact, and they cut through the mix to support it without really stepping out in front.

In fact, that tends to be what I find most interesting about the Variax so far, and also what I find disturbing. When my main axe was the All Star, which is a J-bass clone, I learned a set of techniques for getting different sounds on it: variations on where to pluck the strings, the interactions between the pickups, and the tone knob. I had to learn those, because a passive instrument doesn't really have much in the way of tone-shaping. On an active instrument, you have an EQ built in, which adds a new layer of versatility. The Variax actually models both the passive and active tone circuits of its basses, but I found myself using the models themselves as tone presets instead of spending much time with the treble and bass controls. Until I get to know them all better, that's probably how it's going to go: I've basically got about 10 new basses to learn, after it took me three years to really feel like I was wringing good stuff out of a single instrument.

We also played some of my own stuff, which is... interesting... when adding a drummer and guitarist. The Rickenbacker has rapidly become one of my favorite sounds on the Variax, and it sounded the way I thought it should. There's definitely some of that piano-ringing clarity to the sound that I would expect from a Rick. I also flipped back to my J preset, which solos the neck pickup, and got pretty much exactly what I'm used to, although it seems a little stiffer than the All-Star. It's so hard to do precise comparisons of these things, especially since they're not modeling my instruments (although that would be a nice touch), but a set of vintage basses that I've never touched.

Overall, it was a pleasant experience. The Variax never felt digital or artificial, although I didn't expect it to. I did find that the synth sounds, using my presets, came across as thin and weak, although with a little tweaking they started to stand out a bit more. But the bass sounds are solid, and they really do start to distinguish themselves a bit more in context. I don't think it's a good first instrument, because I think musicians need to learn (as I did) on something that makes them work a little harder and develop their technique to compensate for any limitations of the hardware. The Variax doesn't replace a great instrument, either--now that I've heard the model, I'm even more interested in a real Rickenbacker. But it does replace the instruments that players can't afford, or wouldn't play enough to justify buying. And it's definitely got value as a workhorse for people who only want to carry one bass, or who want to experiment with different tones.

March 22, 2007

Filed under: music»artists»nin

Nothing Studios Tour

I think I missed this the first time that CDM posted it, but's tour of NIN's recording space is very, very cool. I listened to The Fragile again this weekend from start to finish while walking the dog, something I hadn't done since Tony Scott's hideous Man On Fire almost ruined it for me. The change from that sound to the more stripped-down aesthetic of With Teeth is striking, and Reznor's studio setup sounds like it lent itself to that process. Also: lots of gear pictures. What I would give for just one of those racks.

March 19, 2007

Filed under: music»recording

Making the Doctor Who theme

This documentary of creating the Doctor Who theme is very cool. It shows how the music was assembled, piece by piece, using just analog synthesizers and a tape machine. What I love about modern recording, though, is that you can pack all the equipment required for the same kind of work into a laptop and a MIDI keyboard. When I write music for work, I do it almost exactly the same way, but it's all in software now.

March 5, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

One bit at a time

As a follow-up to my earlier post on how music companies should be selling (and we should be listening to) higher resolution, uncompressed recordings, CDM recently mentioned Korg's brand-new one-bit recorders. It sounds silly, but basically instead of running a set of filters to get a full multi-byte description of the waveform's state, these sample the waveform millions of times a second, checking only to see if it has gone up or down. The advantage is that they don't require filtering for noise that results from the Nyquist theory, which states that sampling may produce sine-wave artifacts at frequencies higher than 1/2 the sampling rate (thus the reason that CDs are set at 44.1KHz rates, which is slightly more than twice the 22KHz boundary of most human hearing). Instead, a one-bit digital-analog conversion is turned straight into voltage changes, for a theoretically cleaner sound--although they are vulnerable to extremely high frequency noise, well past the limits of perception but enough to mess with some older equipment.

Korg has a nice intro paper online to explain this in a little more detail, and to give context: they're basically selling these recorders as ways to hold onto mastered content in a completely lossless format. Sound on Sound reviewed the units in this month's issue, and they were impressed with them, although the mic preamps are apparently weak. I'm also unclear on why they're selling one of these in an iPod-style form factor, but I'm strangely tempted by them. Apparently you can get a whole 22 minutes of incredibly faithful audio per gigabyte of storage with one of these. I feel more exclusive just thinking about it.

Filed under: music»business»distribution


Wired's music writer asks the obvious question: if we've got increasing amounts of storage nowadays on our music devices (even the flash drives are multi-gig now, whatistheworldcomingto...), why are we still buying compressed music? Why aren't we listening to the 24-bit, high sample-rate masters that came out of the studio?

Because honestly: an 80-gig iPod full of .mp3 files will still be playing when the sun explodes and flash-fries the Earth into a crispy, carbon-based donut-hole. And yet you hear about people who are proud of this. "I've got 70,000 hours of music on my MP3 player," they'll say, and any relatively-sane listener should be asking, "Why? When will you listen to it? How much of it have you actually heard?"

And perhaps more importantly, given the length of those playlists, how much time do you spend fiddling with the scroll wheel instead of doing something productive, like digging your own grave?

My steady complaint about production trends has been the constant prioritization of "more music" over "quality of sound." It certainly started with the use of brick-wall limiting to create "loud" albums for CD and radio play, but it only got worse when digital compression started stripping frequencies out of the material, just because flash memory was small and expensive. Now that we have all of this disk space available, why can't we use it to listen to better-than-CD quality, instead of jamming it full of inferior noise?

And then people can ruin that high-quality music through a set of $3 Apple earbuds. But at least then I'll have something else to yell about.

Filed under: music»tools»bass

The Watchers

There are fourteen people "watching" my Cort bass on eBay. They've been there pretty much the whole week. No-one has bid on it yet. No-one has asked any questions. Maybe they just like to watch.

It makes me kind of nervous.

February 28, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Variax First Impressions

I like it. But then, I like just about anything for three days or so. I've made an .mp3 of a few of the better models, complete with rambling narration. The executive summary is that the jazz bass sounds are pretty good, the Stingray's not bad, the 12-string is better than the 8-string, the acoustics are believable, and I really love the synthesizers. There are a few that I can see being useful--the Alembic is a good sound, but I've never even been near an Alembic, so I couldn't say if it's accurate. I think the weakest models are the flatwounds, the Hofner, and the Gibson EB-3, but the worst of all is the Jaco fretless imitation.

So far I don't feel ripped off. Let's see what I think next week.

February 27, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»internet

Myspace is Terrible: Got My Own Thing Now Edition

I just got a friend request from someone who makes vegan guitar straps. Well, technically I was befriended by the vegan guitar strap itself. "I am a very vegan guitar strap," says the description, concluding with "I am cruelty free, I am sweathsop [sic] free, but, most importantly, I rock harder than the strap your brother got you at Guitar Center."

I am not sure I am ready to be friends with inanimate objects, much less ones that are proud of their cruelty-free status. Most of my human friends are not cruelty-free, even just in the interpersonal sense of the word. But I approved the request anyway, because you never know when that kind of thing might come in handy.

Future - Present - Past