Friday, February 27, 2009
Liner notes coming soon.
Created for the 2009 RPM Challenge. 8 songs, 35 minutes. Download it (69.1 MB ZIP file).
Video updated with photography credit for James Carrière, who created the amazing images.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
A brief update on my RPM Challenge record: I finished the last song last night. Looks like the album is 8 songs, and just under 36 minutes in length. Despite my initial reservations, I'm very proud of this record. If you've liked any of my past music, I expect you will enjoy it quite a bit.
Master photographer James Carrière shot some incredible imagery which Iran is assembling into a book to accompany the record. These photos are so perfect I am quickly running out of appropriately hyperbolic adjectives and will resort to banging rocks together. I am beside myself with excitement about the project.
I'll post updates when everything is all done. I will finish the mastering and CD assembly tonight and the book should be available by Saturday at the latest.
If you're interested in a copy of the CD, e-mail me. I'll have links up for purchasing the book once it's on Blurb with my other books. This year I should also have a full PDF available as well.
You can read all my RPM Challenge blog entries here (including those for 2007 and 2008).
I have to admit I am probably as guilty of this as anyone. I think as technology advances, our expectations rise as well. At this point, so much is possible that we all start to assume that anything is possible, and damn it, it should be fast and free, too.
I will refrain from old fogeying up the joint with a list of "when I was a kid..." comparisons. I will resolve to marvel at the world I live in at least for today, instead of grinding my teeth because my portable supercomputer takes a few minutes to boot up and load 5 office programs simultaneously.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
The answer is "of course not" - there will always be more methods of generating sound discovered and implemented, at least by researchers if not musicians.
But the real question to ask is "Does it even matter?"
The art or practice of subtractive synthesis (what a Moog, Prophet-5, Oberheim, and all the other non-DX-7 classic synths use) has been refined and matured to a point where its techniques are robust and powerful. One cannot make "any" sound with it, but the range of sounds a talented programmer using a decently flexibile instrument can create is staggering.
Subtractive synthesis starts with an oscillator generating a simple waveform (triangle, sawtooth, or pulse) with rich harmonics. A filter (usually low pass) is applied to subtract some of the harmonics of the base waveform, thus changing its timbre (and giving the synthesis method its name). Add some envelopes to control volume and the filter over time, and some other modulation and you're done.
When one adds custom waveforms to the usual triangle-sawtooth-pulse combinations, it gets more interesting - other waveforms provide different harmonics to manipulate with the filter and thus produce different timbres. Synthesizers like the Korg Wavestation used this technique. Factor in wavetables (a sequence of waveforms) or samples (very long custom waveforms) combined with subtractive techniques and the possibilities multiply.
Frequency modulation (FM - what DX-7s use) is also extremely powerful, but far more complex to master. Then there's granular synthesis (limited use in instruments today) and additive synthesis.
There are already entire universes of sound that musicians won't explore. Most players use the presets in their synthesizers with little modification. Programming synthesizers becomes more difficult as the instrument gets more powerful. Learning to or wanting to create new sounds is a different thing than learning to or wanting to compose or perform. Many people end up specializing in one or another. After all, how many composers build instruments?
With today's mature synthesis methods, the ability to combine those methods (either in a single instrument or by layering instruments), and the incredible array of effects available, it is easily possible to transform any arbitrary sound into almost any other arbitrary sound using simple tools on a cheap PC. The field is far from played out.
Given that it is usually frustration, dissatisfaction, or boredom with the status quo that drives inventors or artists to look for something new, it's not difficult to see why there's less going on here. When one factors in the business reality that most customers don't want more complex instruments to program and can barely wrap their heads around the existing decades-old technologies, it becomes less likely that we'll see commercial development of new synthesis methods. However, new user interfaces for synthesis that either reduce complexity or try to work in more intuitive or inventive ways are highly likely.
One wonders what Karlheinz Stockhausen could have done had he been interested in using all of today's modern technology and developing new methods of synthesis.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
And of course, to encourage people to get the book once the record is done...
Update: Link should work now.
Monday, February 16, 2009
I have a Fender Mustang bass from the 60s. My Rhodes is likely from the 70s. I can get either fixed to "like new" condition for a few hundred dollars and fully restored for not much more than that.
I used to have an Akai S1000 sampler. When I needed to replace the display (a critical part with a built-in lifetime), it took months and hundreds of dollars. Now you can't even get parts for it, so what was several thousand dollars new becomes not merely obsolete, but useless.
Many synthesizers out there use custom integrated circuits. Once the production runs for those custom ICs are finished, there just aren't anymore made. Doing another production run later is prohibitively expensive, assuming you can even get access to the schematics or dies (and you can't).
So when/if your favorite synth blows one of these chips, you need to find another chip from another synth of the same ilk to replace it. Assuming such a thing is possible and you're able to find someone to do the work for you. For many old synths with leaky or dying caps and surface-mounted stuff, forget it. It's dead. The sounds are gone forever. You move on to the latest digital whatever it is that doesn't sound the same or work the same.
Entropy is continually whittling away at the number of available "old" electronic hardware instruments. For some, it's not the insides, but the membrane keypads used as cost-cutting measures as a user interface.
And then there's the coming disaster of software synths. At some point, the latest computer operating system will not support your favorite old un-updated vintage softsynth.
I look forward to the ouroboros - Eventually Native Instruments (or their equivalent) will be offering a virtual virtual synth - "Remember the sound of the DiscoDSP Discovery? Check out 'Recovery', which brings it back to life!" - promising to emulate (in software) the software you used to use (which may itself have been an emulation of an actual synth).
In the meantime, don't get too attached to those synth sounds you love. They probably won't be around in 10 years. Almost certainly not in 20.
Friday, February 13, 2009
Mr. Fairey admits he used the photograph as a "visual reference". The Hope poster has gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Mr. Fairey says he put most of the money he made from the posters into making more of the posters.
Whatever you may think, copyright law arguments are supposed to ignore whether the alleged violation "makes money" or not and focus on several other tests. It's not more or less of a violation if you make or don't make money from it.
There are several legal "tests" used to determine whether or not there's a violation:
- Is the alleged violation "transformative" in nature? This test asks whether or not the new work "transforms" the old work significantly. The new work cannot be a mere replication of the original. It has to "add new meaning". There's a clear, solid argument that it is transformative. This is the essence of what artists like Mr. Fairey do. This is obviously a manipulation of the original image to create a new mood, perspective, and, frankly, image. Mr. Fairey took a portait that I find rather unflattering and was able to recast it as something entirely different. And he did it by changing the original.
- Is it for the purposes of parody or criticism? I think Mr. Fairey could make some sort of argument here, but if so, it's a rather weak or oblique criticism or parody. This argument will be undermined by the poster's use and endorsement by the Obama campaign.
- How much of the original is contained in the new work? It would be one thing if Mr. Fairey had literally taken the original photo and slapped "HOPE" across the bottom. That would mean the derivative work contained 100% of the original (and thus the "essence" of the original, which is another goofy test that I don't think remotely applies here). But Fairey's image is several steps removed from the original. It's not clear to me if he scanned, traced, or free-hand drew/painted his version, but the obvious changes (color palette, detail) and subtle changes decrease the amount of the original contained in the new work. If this test passes, it would mean that many others who have taken similar portraits of Obama could also theoretically file claims.
- What is the financial impact of the new work on the old? This, for me is where it gets interesting.
In this case, AP is arguing something like this:
- Mr. Fairey's work is a copyright violation
- Mr. Fairey's work is hurting AP financially
- AP should be entitled to damages and potentially some or all of the revenue from the violation
Unless Mr. Fairey admits otherwise, AP will have a hard time proving that their photo was the only "visual reference" Mr. Fairey used. They may have a hard time proving that he "copied" it by tracing or computer scanning (I don't know how Mr. Fairey works and I haven't seen any overlay comparisons).
Put another way, the poster is, to the average viewer, not a direct re-use of the original AP image. End of story.
AP will also have a hard time proving that he couldn't have created the poster without using their photo. The smart thing for Mr. Fairey to do (and what I suspect his attorneys will ask him to do in the future) would have been to say "I used many different images of Mr. Obama as part of my artistic process, but ultimately the work came from me and my impressions of Mr. Obama."
This article from SFGate notes that some people are saying "well, why didn't he just get a license from AP?" Without knowing the specifics of their licensing process, I'd start by saying "he shouldn't have to, because he's not duplicating or copying their image!"
Imposing a licensing option like this means AP effectively gets control over what Mr. Fairey or you or I or anyone else can do with these images. They can charge too much money. They can require ugly logos pasted everywhere. They can say "no".
Think about Marcel Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q.", one of the best 20th century works. Duchamp created this work by taking a cheap postcard representing the Mona Lisa (so there's already a layer of abstraction) and then adding a moustache , Van Dyke, and the caption "L.H.O.O.Q." (if you say those letters in French, it sounds a lot like French slang for "she has a hot ass").
This piece was scandalous and controversial, as all of Duchamp's best work is. I think it also raises some great questions. Of course, it's knocking the old art world (which venerates the Mona Lisa). Beyond that, it's asking things like "how little does an artist have to do to create something new?"
L.H.O.O.Q. gets much of its effect from the viewer's familiarity with the Mona Lisa image. It's even more powerful if the viewer is someone with a deeper understanding of art history and the art world. But remember, this is built on a cheap postcard knock-off of the Mona Lisa, not the actual painting. Does that make it better or worse?
To me, it makes it even better, because it's starting from a debased and slightly off take on the Mona Lisa. Starting with a postcard also minimizes the "you're just copying" argument, because everybody is copying the Mona Lisa - it's not some lofty thing anymore, it's a poor copy on postcards, coffee mugs, t-shirts and so on.
The graffiti touches are clearly iconoclastic and, to me, hilarious. Much like the Groucho nose-and-glasses, I always find this sort of thing funny. Especially when doodled on Leonardo's masterpiece. Duchamp could have simply added the caption to a straight reproduction of the Mona Lisa. That would have been provocative. But it's the total combination that "works".
I think L.H.O.O.Q. would pass enough of the copyright tests. It's transformative, for sure - it's surprising to me how little he had to do to fundamentally change it (but that's the genius of Duchamp). It also does not hurt sales of Mona Lisa images. If nothing else, Duchamp could hide behind the "criticism/parody" test and get a pass. But today he'd find himself sued by the owners of the rights to the image of the Mona Lisa (yes, there are such fiends) as well as the owners of the rights to the image of the knock-off postcard. And those two groups would likely be facing each other in court as well.
I think AP is going to lose the case, and I think AP should lose the case. Their arguments are weak, their motives disappointing (greed, nothing more, nothing less), and their desire to make culture richer is clearly low.
If, perchance, AP does win, will we ever see another Shepard Fairey or Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol or Robert Rauschenberg or Pablo Picasso or any other artists who, forget about collage, just look at pictures before they create? Or even actual things in real life?
Thursday, February 12, 2009
The short term reasons for their financial crisis are simple - they have a ton of debt they need to refinance. For fairly obvious reasons, this isn't a great time to try to refinance millions of dollars of debt. Especially given their past performance.
Another is their primary method of acquiring new subscribers has been through the sales of new cars and trucks. Again, not a great time to be looking for customers there.
But there are deeper, more fundamental reasons why their business is in trouble. Many of their choices have been extremely expensive, which has placed them in a position of needing unrealistic scale for their business.
Sirius XM rely on satellites launched into space to provide service. Launching satellites into space is expensive and risky. As regular readers know, I have a general rule about investing - when someone approaches me with an opportunity that involves launching things into space, I run the other way.
Due to the massive cash outlay to get started with the satellites, the company needed to achieve scale quickly, so they spent something like $500 million (combined) on advertising to drum up business - remember those awesome David Bowie ads?
When that didn't drive traffic fast enough, Sirius resorted to spending lots of money to pull Howard Stern off regular radio and into satellite. It definitely helped their business in the short term but set a bad precedent (excessive valuation of talent) and again drove them to need even more subscribers.
Finally, the fundamental nature of their product is a problem. They require dealing with the music content cartel, which charged them an arm and a leg for permission to broadcast music. Satellite radio isn't actual "terrestrial radio" and thus requires its own set of negotiated deals. This put huge limits on the amount that Sirius XM could expect to make. If the deals they got are anything like the Internet music business, Sirius XM was never going to make significant cash.
Sirius XM requires the listener to purchase a special receiver to get the transmissions. Initially, these receivers were around $200, which isn't cheap. Especially compared to an iPod or FM radio. iPods provide more control and FM radio is free (if annoying as hell). On top of buying a receiver, listeners had to pay a $10-ish monthly fee (like cable TV or Rhapsody).
All to get about 100 channels, most of which you're not interested in.
Their service is fine - the sound quality is adequate (but not more than adequate) and if you like the radio model of "we'll play a bunch of music at you", they do a pretty good job, with a larger pool of songs than regular radio (but not as large as Internet radio) picked by "radio experts".
And then there's the Internet. Sirius XM operates on an old-school broadcast model. The youth of today aren't into tuning into the same stuff everyone else is. They want a custom feed they control and the ability to check out what their friends are listening to. Music lovers today are used to iPods and control, cover art, ratings, and of course, the ability to listen anywhere they can get WiFi.
Sirius XM is a poor fit in that world, and that, combined with their inherent and short term prices, probably means they'll file for bankruptcy and disappear. Like Iridium, the "world phone" provider (another satellite investment company) their satellites will end up silent, used for other purposes, or smash into other satellites.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Unlike past years, I decided to send some rough mixes around to friends to get their thoughts on how things are sounding and whether or not the songs work for them. The good news is the response has been very positive and the feedback has been very helpful. The bad news is now the pressure is on...and all that great feedback translates into more work on the tracks.
I felt that I needed to get something else done, so last night I started working on "I Remember L.A.", sketching it out pretty quickly. I was going for a David Sylvian/Christian Fennesz type of thing.
I came up with a nice melody, somewhere between a lullabye and a children's song. Reminds me a little of "On Top of Old Smoky". I also created a very simple set of chords to accompany it and mapped out some appropriate bass notes.
After creating a minimal, nearly inaudible beat, I recorded the bass.
I recorded 4 individual guitar notes and broke them out to individual tracks, looping them and letting them drift out of sync.
Next I processed each note individually - one getting distortion, one getting a granular delay, and so on. I also recorded a few tracks of noise and hum and processed that as well.
I sung a decent vocal take and started "painting" the guitar parts around the melody, dropping them in and taking them out as I saw fit. I wasn't sure if it would work, but it ended up sounding very good.
I did a quick mix and called it a night. Getting up today was tough. I did my morning exercises and brought the mix up. Vocal was nice, but a touch too simple. It needed some harmony to give it some motion and interest, and to keep it from being too monotonous.
I raced through the vocal a line at a time dropping in harmonies I thought were good and ran a mix off.
While the mic was up I re-ran some of the vocals for "The Signal" and for "Resigned".
A bit late for work, and the bass was way too loud, but man, "L.A." sounds good. More or less what I wanted.
Tonight I ran through my mix notes - fixed the bass, tweaked some processing, danced some levels around. I think it's done, or very close. I then turned my attention to working on "The Signal" to integrate the vocal work I had done today.
Some of the takes aren't usable - I was too congested or something, and the original takes sound better. But it's good enough now that I think I can move on.
It's 11:58 pm and I'm tired but satisfied. 3 songs all but done. 13 minutes down, 22 to go.
Update: These are final mixes, uploaded now that the album is done.
Monday, February 09, 2009
There have been a number of serious attempts over the last 10 years to make electronic books - Rocketbook, Sony's eBook...the Kindle is just the most recent.
I don't think electronic books are going to change the world. Let's set aside the technology improvements required, chief among them being affordable, high resolution color screens. Let's think about the total experience of a regular, old fashion, analog book.
Books are one of the most refined and mature technologies humans have. Books are easy to duplicate, either at the time of printing or after the fact. In quantity, they're dirt cheap.
They are a very robust technology. Books can be readable for hundreds, if not thousands of years, can survive immersion in water, burial, and extremes of cold and heat. They don't require a power source. They have no boot-up time. They are useful and readable even with some data loss or physical damage.
Some have primitive search technologies built in (tables of contents, indices). They can support text and high resolution graphics. They're portable.
Books can come in a variety of sizes. Different paper stocks allow conveyance of different meanings and experiences. Books serve as visual indications of status, intellect, and tastes.
At the gym a few months back I saw one of the freak parade talk show hosts giving their guests some great American cargo cult advice - "Rich people have a lot of books in their house, so go buy some books" (because presumably then you'll be rich).
A stack, pile, or wall of books at someone's home or office tells you about that person. If you walk into the same situation and only see a Kindle or a laptop, it tells you something else. These cultural elements are strong and slow to change, especially given books' longevity as a technology.
Even though the above things have nothing to do with "reading" (as in "getting the information from the text") I believe in the case of books they are as important, and in some cases more important, than getting the information from the text.
The creators of electronic books are either unaware of these elements of books (unlikely) or they're choosing to ignore or minimize them, believing them irrelevant to the greater feature set offered. Despite the fact that I arguably work on the same thing, but for music, I think they've misjudged things, and that's one reason electronic books will not be a mass market technology.
I believe these devices do have potential markets once they're a little more refined. Yes, there's the "road warrior". I know one of these guys, and he loves his Kindle. He's also on a long plane flight at least every other week. Are you? Small market.
One obvious market is replacement of college textbooks. The hard-nosed businessfolk who are "forced" to charge outrageous prices for college texts will gladly stop trying to guess how many heavy, boring, and soon out-of-date books they have to manufacture. They will dance in the streets out of fiscal joy when they realize they can DRM or license the books to individual readers and kill off the used book market. They may even choose to lower prices.
Students will benefit from being able to carry all their texts with them anywhere, write in the margins, search, and do all the other wonderful ebook things they've been promised.
The other area that makes sense for me is replacement of periodicals. The manufacturing and distribution of this ephemeral content will make less environmental and financial sense as time goes by.
Electronic versions of magazines could be "printed" without the multi-month lead time required by today's magazines, updated frequently, and would provide an instant, easy way for subscribers to store every issue they ever receive. Your neighbors can't steal electronic newspapers and magazines, and the post office (assuming they're still around) can't shred the crap out of them either.
But I'd also note that any of the improvements required for electronic books to succeed will almost certainly be ported to other technologies - the laptops and handhelds and monitors we all use. The high resolution color screens will appear in all of these areas. They'll also end up as your desk surface, your wrist watch, and billboards.
The fact that a laptop will be "good enough" for most users (and thus represent a huge market) will continue to undermine the electronic book market. A likely outcome is that dedicated electronic book readers may have marginally "better" qualitative experiences, and potentially get some content in advance of the PC world. Ultimately, though, I think they'll remain a niche product.
I use "electronic book" to refer interchangeably to both the content and the device, because they're largely the same. Vendors won't create content with color imagery and covers if the devices won't support it. The devices won't add the cost to support it unless the vendors are going to invest in it. (Hint to both parties: Comic book geeks will love you if you get this right!)
I won't go into the problems and absurdities of the current closed and DRM-protected formats - it's like the record business. All you need to know is "these formats don't matter", and I would advise only making purchases you don't care that much about. You'll get a better lifetime out of a used paperback than a DRM-protected electronic book.
Another reason electronic books won't catch on is the idiocy of the content industry, as evidenced here. Much like the music business, or perhaps the government, they're so busy trying to "protect" their business they're actually destroying its future.
Sunday, February 08, 2009
Today I managed to get one of the new songs to "kick over" - to get to a point where it actually sounds like it will work and is tolerable. Even my lovely wife said it sounded good, and she's a tough critic, especially of my computer-involved music.
The track is tentatively called "The Signal". I took it from being a 1:30 sketch to a reasonably interesting 5:00 track. It still needs some drum touches and final vocals, but I think it's otherwise nearly done.
Yesterday and today I also moved the lyrics along quite a bit. I've got some momentum going now. It always gets easier after the first couple of tracks.
On a more technical note, I'm recording at 24 bit, 88.2 kHz, which is "better" than my previous 24 bit 44.1 kHz settings. I initially tried 24 bit 96 kHz, but it was just too unstable and not as suited for CD conversion. I have to be a bit more careful about plug-in usage with these new settings - it definitely is harder on the CPU.
I think I'll have to go back to using the Pod a bit more for amp emulation. Reaktor does a fine, or at least interesting job, but it's too much CPU for not enough difference. I think I'm better off treating the sounds afterwards. I don't need the extra flexibility. Either that or I need to print the effects sooner.
Tomorrow I will make some efforts at a David Sylvian/Fennesz-influenced track.
Friday, February 06, 2009
I've been unusually tired. Getting up at 6 every day isn't helping, and it's made the idea of staying up late to finish anything a non-starter.
I'm still going over the chorus for "Resigned" - Not sure if the melody is good, not sure if the lyrics are good. I'm going to commit this weekend, no matter what. Or at least get it to a point where I can stop thinking about it. I just want to stop looping it in my head and trying new things. I sort of felt this way about "Daemons" last year and that ended up being one of my favorite tracks.
I've also been doing a little work on the second track, which is tentatively called "The Signal". I wrote some lyrics - enough to sketch out the idea and point in a direction to finish the track.
I've got a bit of guitar down and a beat. I've started experimenting with what David Torn calls "cell guitar", where I'm chopping up bits of parts and/or repeating sections. It's started to sound a little more interesting and I think is a good direction to explore for a few tracks.
That experiment has helped me sketch out a kind of spectrum for the record, where at one end is semi-straight-ahead stuff like The Church and the other end is Fennesz and David Sylvian. If I can have songs all across this spectrum, I think I'll have something interesting.
If nothing else, Air King Sound likes the beats I'm making, which is good news. The Konkrete drums are very different from what I've used in the past. Of course, my initial reaction is to be concerned that it doesn't sound "right", but then I tell myself my objective is to do something different anyhow.
Day 5 brought some much-needed rain to the Bay Area. Work and appointments kept me busy enough that I couldn't go to the gym. By the time I got home I was extremely tired and just listened to the tracks a few times before leaving for a friend's send-off party (6 months in China).
On the way home I started getting a new song idea. Wrote down some words and sang a melody.
My objective for the coming weekend is to finish these first 2 tracks and at least start on a third. Failing that, I'll start a bunch of new ideas (3 at least) and finish them up over the next few weeks.
I forget how hard this can be.
Monday, February 02, 2009
This year I plan to try to record something every day, even if it's just a doodle or an overdub. So before I did anything else, I recorded a little idea - just something simple on guitar with a little bass underneath it.
Then I spent a few hours finishing some basic studio preparations - sorting drum kits, creating file templates, changing strings, tuning.
But I could hear the clock ticking and felt the day slipping away, so I pulled out my lyrics book and started working on the first song idea that felt strong to me.
I wrestled with it for a while - as I suspected, I'm not comfortable writing on guitar or bass these days. So of course, that's what I did. I'm making it even harder by not allowing myself to use the chords and ideas I would normally fall into.
I plan to try to get more unusual timbres from the guitar and bass, but for now I just wanted to get something down. I sketched out a basic idea with a nice drum kit. Not happy with the guitars at all, but at least I could hear it. Then off to the gym.
I hadn't gotten more than a few blocks from the house when I got a new idea for the verse melody. I could tell I'd have to re-track the bass and throw away the guitars. Still no melody for the chorus yet.
Post-gym, I tweaked the drums a bit. Put down the modified bass and whispered a quick guide vocal to check the melody idea. Put down a few ideas for some backing vocals on the chorus.
And then started endless lyric revisions. Not happy with it yet, but it's coming along. Funny how these ideas start to come poking out as I scrape away at the words.
So far, this song is about a former spy (McGoohan/6? Westen? Dad?) and it owes a debt to The Church. Working title is "Resigned".