Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Moog Movie

I went to see "Moog", a documentary about synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog. The film had been widely hyped in the film and synthesizer community. I found it strangely lacking for a number of reasons. 

One is that the film never really explains why people consider Moog's synthesizers to be "better" than any of the others. Even if you just focus on "classic analog synthesizers", the competition is pretty stiff - the Arp 2600, Yamaha CS-80, Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, for example. If they'd even had a few musicians talking about "that Moog sound" or the panel layout or something it might have been enough. 

The film doesn't explain why Moog's designs beat out other, more radical/interesting concepts by contemporaries like Don Buchla. It doesn't explain why Moog's instruments have endured to be classics like Fender guitars. (In fact, a lot of those vintage instruments' value comes from the "Moog" name alone.) 

Another is the general shapelessness of the film. Bob Moog's life story so far has a very powerful dramatic arc: Young genius starts making Theremins, wows music world with breakthrough synthesizer "modules", rockets to success, is bad at business, makes some mediocre/bad/disappointing products, loses control of company and name, lies low, starts new company, re-buys rights to name and makes "triumphant return" making basically the same instrument he succeeded with decades ago. 

Instead, we get a bunch of rambling interviews with a few folks, many of whom are far from key players in the Moog story. For example, the inane commentary of Money Mark, who doesn't even pronounce "Moog" correctly (in case you're wondering, it rhymes with "ROGUE"). 

In particular, the lack of inclusion of Wendy Carlos (who would be a good documentary subject as well!) is absolutely unforgivable. Other noteworthy folks such as Tomita and Jean-Michel Jarre are conspicuously absent. 

Moog himself has frequently said he wants to make instruments that are warm and expressive. Yet most of the music heard in the film is exactly the sort of "blippity-bloop" cliché that turns most people off to synthesizer music in the first place. None of it approaches the power of Clara Rockmore's Theremin performance in the "Theremin" movie. 

So what does it do right? Well, it tells you that Bob Moog is a really nice guy - the sort of person you wish you were related to so you could see him at family gatherings. And it had one or two very entertaining Moog-related stories. That's about it. I am willing to cut the filmmakers a bit of slack for some things - it was a "low-budget" independent film, after all. 

But the more I think about it, the more disappointed I am. This is inevitably going to be considered the "definitive" Moog movie, and that's a shame. My advice would be to go and rent "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey" instead. It's much better all around.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Re-issue Issues

Or "How the Remaster is my Master".

Apparently, I am a sucker for re-issued/remastered CDs. I have been buying music in compact disc format since 1986, when I got my first CD player. Back in the early days, you were just happy that anything you wanted came out on CD, regardless of what it sounded like.

But many early CDs sounded terrible. They were sloppily mastered for CD, if at all. Analog-to-Digital converter technology was relatively primitive back then.

Now, over 20 years after the CD was introduced, people are done "converting" all their vinyl records and cassettes to CDs. What can the industry do to keep the cash flowing?

New format? Well, SACD and DSD and DVD-Audio aren't taking off for all kinds of reasons, the least of which is no one has the players for them in their car, computer, and everywhere else people want their music. So that's out.

But what about selling us CDs all over again? Digital technology has improved quite a bit, and people actually know how to make digital sound good. So they're reissuing CDs.

And they sound great. Seriously. I didn't want them to. But almost every one I've heard does, and it's killing me, or at least my wallet.

It started when I heard a promo copy of Peter Gabriel's 2-disc "Hit" set. I had owned his "Security" album on cassette, vinyl, and CD. And it never had the detail and high end presence I felt it should, especially given that it was one of the first all-digital recordings. The liner notes said it was the first in re-issuing his entire catalog remastered.

I found Peter Gabriel III/"Melting Face" and "Security" used at Amoeba. I couldn't believe how good they sounded. Warm and detailed. Fortunately, those are the only Peter Gabriel albums I think I want.

I thought it was over at that point. Sure, Astralwerks reissued some early Brian Eno albums, but I had a bunch of the ambient tracks on the Sony 20-bit "Eno Box". The difference was striking, but I figured I was OK for now.

Then I found out that David Sylvian had remastered Japan's entire catalog, included bonus tracks and nicer packaging. And he'd done his whole solo catalog, including a full "Gone To Earth" that restored the tracks removed from the double LP to fit it on a single, crappy-sounding CD.

Sylvian's "Gone To Earth" CD in particular was a good example. The original CD sounded so inferior to the vinyl that I hated playing it. I had destroyed my first copy of this out-of-print vinyl record through a combination of playing it and having it warp from sunlight. I had bought my vinyl copy used, and as luck would have it, I was able to find another one used. The CD just couldn't compare to the power, warmth, and depth of the vinyl LP.

But a remastered CD? Well, OK. Why not? So I bought that one new. It was expensive. But as soon as I started listening I knew I had made the right choice. It sounded better than my worn vinyl had ever sounded.

I just bought 6 of the new Eno reissues from Astralwerks. I can't wait for them to get here. I am trying to tell myself that I really don't need to re-buy Japan's "Tin Drum" and "Gentlemen Take Polaroids". But I think I might.

Worse, there's The Cure. They've started remastering their back catalog. I have their first 4 albums in my Amazon shopping cart. Over $80 to buy "better versions" of CDs I already own. Yeah, yeah, they have a bonus disc of crap I'll never listen to. Thing is, the original CDs sound bad. Really bad. I know these new ones will sound better. But $80 better? I must be a sucker.

I also read that Kraftwerk is remastering their entire catalog. I listened to Cleopatra's appalling US release of "The Man Machine" today.


Just tell me where to send my money, Florian. And get it right this time!

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Bad attitudes

Yesterday, Victim Nation played at a "music festival" out in Tracy, California at the famous Altamont. We almost cancelled due to the weather - better than 50% chance of rain, and the show was outdoor.

Still, the band decided to go do it. So we loaded up and out to Tracy we went. The skies were gray and threatened rain until we crossed the pass into Tracy, at which point it started to rain. We arrived a few minutes later to find out that when the venue said we were scheduled to go on at 5 pm, they meant 6:45 pm. And of course, there was nobody there, despite promised hundreds of attendees.

The band playing as we arrived busted out a harmonica solo during each one of their ZZ Top-meets-Foghat sound. A good lead-in for a punk band. We looked uncomfortably at the old, wet, moldering hay bales provided for seats and waited for the next band.

Now, so far, none of this was unusual. I've been playing music for 20 years, and this is pretty much the way these things go. I stood around wishing I was at home and tried not to be too catty about the ZZ Top band (who were actually pretty good sounding, if you like that sort of Homer Simpson/Kings Of Leon blues-rock).

The next band started setting up and I started wincing. They looked painfully hip, all skinny, tight jeans, funny haircuts. The singer was even wearing an "Aquaman" t-shirt. Looked like indie rock. From looking at them, these guys were going to suck. This day was pretty much shot.

The band got "onstage". The singer, in accented English, said they were called "Last Amanda" and they were from Sweden. I figured this was a joke.

Then they started playing. As the rain started coming down.

The guitar players were digging into their guitars as though there were thousands of people in front of them, instead of 5. The bass player leaned back and pointed his bass to the sky. The drummer pounded away. The frontman started to howl.

For a second, I thought these guys were too over-the-top, too cheesy, what with the rock moves and giving their all to no one.

Then I realized they were really, really good. Perhaps a bit derivative of U2, but their songs were big without being overblown, and catchy without being insipid.

I was ashamed of my bad attitude. These guys were making the best of a poor situation and playing the way real musicians - professionals - should.

Lesson learned. When it was our turn, I played as hard as I ever had. And I bought a CD. Thanks, Last Amanda. I owe you one.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Things to remember

Playing in a punk rock band is fun, but challenging. I have been the designated bass player in bands before, but most of the time it was music that was much slower. I just don't have the hand dexterity and strength to pick at those big, heavy strings as fast and precisely as I'd like. I am trying, though.

"Simple" does not mean "easy". And "easy" does not mean "simple".

Victim Nation will be playing at the Cherry Bar this Friday (April 22) at 9 pm. If you like your punk in classic SoCal style, come on by.

Monday, April 18, 2005

P2P vs. "iPod Piracy"

Which is worse:
  • Illegally downloading a some tracks of dubious quality from the Internet via one of the various P2P-type systems out there
  • Copying one or more of your friends' entire music libraries
The record industry is focusing like crazy on the former. But I believe the latter is far more dangerous and devastating to their business model. iTunes (and other applications) frequently provide the ability for users to make "data CDs" of their music files. It's quick and simple for anyone to take all the non-DRMed files they want out of anyone else's library. And if they burn a CD, they have a back-up copy, which can itself be duplicated.

As of a few days ago, Apple has sold 350 million tracks and about 15 million iPods (each of which can hold hundreds or thousands of tracks). It is obvious that most of those tracks are not purchased from the iTunes Music Store (which is the only place to buy tracks for the iPod).

The real question is how many tracks users actually "own" and how many they don't own.

Really, the argument could be made that iPods are doing far more damage to the record industry than anything else. But you don't hear anybody saying that.

Friday, April 15, 2005

If everyone has a soapbox...

...who is left to listen? I don't really know. However it is time I stand up on mine and opine when I feel the need. So here we go.