Music Technology Posts from March, 2007

MOG Goes Alpha

Friday, March 30th, 2007

It was announced today that has finally shed its beta status and emerged as a fully-fledged musical powerhouse. New features to look out for are the highly addictive MOG TV which pulls a stream of video from YouTube according to the users’ individual preferences and tastes – the result being your very own ‘music-tv-as-it-should-be’. You can also use the ‘Magic Button’ to cut straight to the chase – it finds posts, songs, reviews and videos about artists you like, and ones you might not have heard yet but will probably want to.

Performing Live With a Laptop

Friday, March 30th, 2007

The primary concern of a laptop musician when performing live is reliability. Your hardware simply has to be able to deliver rock-solid performance, time after time, so that you can concentrate on your set and not worry about catastrophic crash scenarios. This is one reason why so many performers like dedicated outboard hardware – it just doesn’t crash. However, the amazing power, convenience and malleability of software emulation is really hard to beat once you get it right.

The first choice is whether to go Mac or PC. This will probably be determined by which you are most used to. Macs have a reputation for being more reliable, but they can (and do) crash. You still have to be careful about how you implement your software and settings.

Here are some things to consider when purchasing a PC laptop to take you through the toughest of club nights:

  • Battery life: make sure it’s long enough – laptops can generate a ground loop buzz when powered from the mains.
  • Chipset: research the chipset/motherboard for features and reliability – try to get one with a Texas Instruments Firewire controller if you plan on using Firewire equipment.
  • Memory: at least 1GB, preferably 2GB – and FSB speed is important too, the higher the better.
  • Cache: bigger cache is better, especially if you use a lot of memory-intensive material (large audio samples or streaming).
  • Hard disk: 7200rpm SATA will do nicely, the larger the better – if you can get a second hard drive in there, then do (very good if you use a lot of audio, not important if you only use MIDI).
  • Processor: at the moment, Intel Core 2 Duo is the way to go. AMD still offer excellent price/performance, but the performance crown has now been wrested away from them by Intel’s latest dual-core offering. Get the 4MB cache version if you can.
  • Graphics: avoid shared/integrated graphics solutions if possible – get a dedicated video card that has its own memory, so that it doesn’t take some of your RAM.
  • Sound: laptops have poor sound, so you’ll be using an external sound card anyway, either USB or Firewire.

This is a very broad outline of what you need to look out for, and i’ll be posting a more detailed analysis in the Podcomplex PC Guide section soon. In the meantime, you can check out Tom’s Hardware or Sound on Sound for good equipment reviews.

Regarding the gig I played last night, I feel it was certainly a worthwhile ‘experiment’ – however, the first thing I would change was the fact that I didn’t have a microphone. Even if you have no intention of singing, it can make a huge difference to a performance (particularly in a more intimate venue) if you can talk to the audience, and maybe tell them a bit about what you’re doing. This is important when you are playing a guitar that is making noises like a bag of rastafarian pandas being run over by a herd of tin elephants, rather than the usual plucked string sounds that people are generally used to.

Time to Interface the Music

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

Following the theme of yesterday’s post, I have a gig tonight where I will be playing my Roland GR-33 guitar synth live for the first time. In the past, I have played gigs in the more ‘traditional’ format of the laptop musician – that is, with a laptop and MIDI keyboard. Although this is fine for the purposes of control, it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of audience experience – there is no real way for the listeners to connect your movements to the music that they are hearing, and in many cases, you might just as well be checking your email.

But how ‘live’ can electronic music be anyway? Well, that depends on a lot of things – what sort of music it is, the personality of the musician, how extravagant a stage show you want to put on, the expectations of the audience… sitting watching some guy staring at his laptop and wiggling his mouse around is quite a different experience from a Daft Punk gig, even if the music might be very similar.

The difference comes down to whether it is effectively a ‘live’ set or a ‘DJ’ set – are you playing back songs and putting different bits through filters, or are you actually performing something that wasn’t pre-recorded? If it’s the latter, then the audience would like to see what it is you’re doing. If it’s the former, they probably couldn’t care less (unless they’re musicians themselves).

It takes a lot more effort to bring a guitar rig on tour than to just slip a laptop and keyboard in your backpack, so i’ll be interested to see how this new technique works out, and if it’s worth that extra workload.

I’ll be using a Fender Strat with GK-2A pickup plugged into a Roland GR-33 guitar synth. This will be patched through a Boss RC-2 loop station into my Hercules 16/12 FW sound card, which is of course connected to my laptop. I’ve set up the guitar so that certain notes on the sixth string activate Reason’s transport controls, which allows me to start/stop the sequencer, set loops and so on. Then, I can switch between playing straight guitar sounds, the GR-33 synth sounds and Reason’s own sounds – without needing any controller other than the guitar itself. And, if the worst happens and the computer crashes, I’ll still have the Roland to fall back on…

Why We Need More Control

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

Tage Skotvold is a music technology blogger who delves into the technical side of music creation, experimenting with new modes of producing or controlling audio output. He has assembled an interesting list of interfaces for musical expression, with a selection of YouTube videos that demonstrate their use.

Featured interfaces include Sonic City’s wearable controller jacket, Eric Singer’s entertaining sonic banana, and the futuristic-looking, very impressive ‘reactable’ from the music technology group of Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

Whilst I am always interested in new technologies and new means of musical expression, many of these are one-off experiments, and unlikely to ever emerge into the mainstream of music creation hardware (and of course, this is not their purpose). As technology itself advances, it will become ever easier for musicians to construct customised interfaces that suit their own individual needs and playing style. This is of particular importance to musicians who have physical disabilities which prevent them from playing more traditional instruments.

Perhaps the most famous device in the area of music therapy/accessibility is Soundbeam, which is brilliantly described as the ‘invisible, expanding keyboard in space’. It uses sensors to detect physical movement (calibrated to suit the performer), which triggers audio and/or video as desired. This can be a wonderfully liberating experience, and is being used to great effect by music therapists worldwide. If you have any sort of physical hindrance which you may have thought precluded you from creating music, then you should have a look at the soundbeam site and see some examples of how it can be used.

The Drake music project also have put the unit to good use, and more information can be found about their activities on their website, where they feature music and videos from musicians using a variety of ingenious techniques, including soundbeam and the group’s own E-scape software.

If you would like to find out more about the Drake project in Ireland, or get involved in some workshops, check out the Drake music project’s Irish site.

Pump Gets Snocapped

Monday, March 26th, 2007

Pump Audio and Snocap have begun a collaboration which will allow Snocap-registered artists to license their work through Pump. Although Pump is actually open to artists to submit their work directly – Podcomplex is currently working on licensing our artists for media sync through Pump – this pooling of resources should make the process far simpler for Snocap composers.

Pump audio provides a database of music to industry professionals who wish to find high-quality, low-cost music for TV, film and multimedia projects. This is a win-win situation, as producers have instant access to a huge range of pre-licensed tracks, and composers get paid anytime their music is used in a production, without having to be involved in legal discussions, licensing debates or haggling over fees. If you have some music you think might be suitable for such purposes, pop over to Pump and fill out the form.

Stuck in a Creative Rut? Time to Storm

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

I recently completed a very worthwhile project called the RPM Challenge, which threw down an interesting gauntlet to musicians – compose and record an entire album in 28 days (specifically, the month of February). Without a doubt, my productivity for this month was way above what it would have been otherwise, and it also provoked me into altering my approach to songwriting and music composition.

How to Sell Your Music

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

For many aspiring musicians, their ultimate ambition is to become rich and famous and play sell-out gigs in massive arenas around the world. Other musicians are quite happy to just get on with the creative side of things without being bogged down by trying to ‘make it’ in the industry – after all, most do what they do purely because they love it, and will continue to make music regardless of whether they earn any money from it, or if anyone is listening.

However, it is still very pleasant to be in the position whereby you can earn a living from doing something you love…and it is possible to achive this, if you are dedicated enough, talented enough, and know how to put yourself out there in the most effective way.

Some of the best advice I’ve ever read on this topic can be found on Derek Sivers’ advice page – he covers a huge range of issues, including band promotion, how to get college gigs, developing your website, how to know when you’re doing something wrong…the list goes on, and it’s well worth a read.

If you want to sell your physical CD online in the States, then CDbaby is a good starting point. They even provide a UPC barcode, and your album will be automatically registered with Nielsen Soundscan, ensuring that you will be featured in the charts should sales of your disc suddenly go through the roof…

Propellerheads Coming to Ireland

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

The Propellerhead Producers Conference is on the go again, and they have a slot lined up for Ireland on the tenth of May next. I attended a presentation by James Bernard in the Temple Bar Music Centre last year, when he was promoting the release of Reason 3.0. Even though it was a relatively short session, he still managed to cover a lot of ground, providing a good overview of the new modules in the latest release, as well as some neat production tips (including a clever time-stretching cheat/workaround). He also introduced us to a live setup that involved a Mac mini – which can be used to perform an entire set without requiring a computer monitor.

I would definitely recommend signing up for the upcoming event – it promises to be a very educational and stimulating experience. You can read more about the event on the website.

No Such Thing as Old Technology

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

Every now and again, when discussing the notion of computer-generated or ‘electronic’ music, a cry goes up claiming that this is not ‘real’ music, that the technology used by the electronic musician somehow makes the music you create with it invalid, as it simplifies and automates the process of creation to such a point that anyone can do it. This, of course, is a fairly naive (if understandable) argument.

There was a similar outcry upon the invention of the piano, which is of course a revolutionary example of music technology. I read in Rowan Simpson’s Blog today a couple of pertinent quotes from Don Tapscott’s book, ‘Growing Up Digital’:

“Technology is only technology to people born before it was invented” Alan Kay

“That’s why we don’t argue anymore about whether the piano is corrupting music with technology”
Seymore Papert

With regard to electronic technology simplifying the process of music creation, this is undoubtedly true, but the same can be said for the mass production of guitars…once upon a time, a guitarist would have to make his own guitar before he could begin to play – now, modern technology enables everyone to buy one cheaply. This doesn’t make you a better guitarist though – you still have to have ability and dedication.

The same can be said of computer-based music – anyone can open up a few samples, string them together and have a stomping techno tune in a matter of minutes. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s any good – in fact, it will be almost completely unoriginal and uninteresting. To create something unique, you still have to have spend some time at it and actually have the ability and talent to create something unique. Computer technology vastly expands the arsenal of instruments at your disposal – you can command an entire orchestra in your bedroom – but you still need to be able to write the score.

Although the technology makes it easy for anyone to create music, unless you have your own talent then this music will sound exactly like the music anyone creates.

Portable Podcast Strategies

Thursday, March 15th, 2007

When you’re out and about with your portable studio, you don’t always have the perfect acoustic environment to record in. If you have to record an interview in a room with bad sound distribution, you can create a mini-vocalbooth using a few pieces of acoustic foam and an appropriate container (well, a box of some sort). Put your microphone in it and it will be protected from much of the sonic interference of the room. Harlan Hogan writes about how to make such an enclosure at He also mentions a great emergency tip – if all else fails, one of the best acoustic spaces readily available to the roving podcaster is the modern automobile (if you can convince your interviewee to sit in, of course).