Music Technology Posts from April, 2007

Music By Any Other Name

Monday, April 16th, 2007

The method by which musicians name their creations is often quite haphazard, and I suspect that many of the song and album titles we know and love are entirely serendipitous. For example, the Pink Floyd album ‘Atom Heart Mother’ was named after a headline in a newspaper. In his blog, Kourosh Dini describes his own approach to naming musical compositions – that is, he simply uses “the first words that come to mind”. Although this might seem an arbitrary approach, in fact it probably enables a more honest and evocative title, brought about by an instinctive, perhaps subconscious, translation of the song itself into a crude verbal signifier. Assuming that one is naming the song after it is complete, then an instinct-based nomenclature provides a new layer to the creation, a subliminal leap from music to words, which may be based more on sounds, structure and feel than semantics.

Personally, this is an approach that I also have adopted, although since I moved to using computers as my primary recording tool, I now tend to name a song much earlier in the process of its creation. Due to the nature of digital composition, it is vital to save your work on a regular basis, which means that a song should be saved before it is fully complete. The choice then is to save the song with a generic name (song10-4) and then rename it later, or to give it a name at this early stage of its life. I usually choose the latter option – after all, aren’t we all named before it becomes clear what our true character is?

Of course, if you are writing a song (on a guitar, for example) that has lyrics and is actually about something in particular, then your title will probably be derived from that – and the issue of saving doesn’t really come up. However, with electronic songs, particularly those without lyrics, the name will be the the only word(s) used to define or refer to it. In this case, it makes perfect sense to let your wordsmithing instincts respond to the music directly when creating a title, and not to worry too much about crafting a title that accurately describes the mood/structure/rhythm of the song. Words and music are too different for such deliberate translation.

Getting Started With MIDI

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) has been around for a long time – when I first encountered it in the early 1990s, it was already an old standard. It is quite remarkable that it has survived for so long, but that is probably because of its greatest strength – simplicity.

Magnetic Music Technology

Friday, April 6th, 2007

Sachiko Kodama and Yasushi Miyajima have created a remarkable visual art installation which really puts software-based music visualisation programs to shame. It’s entitled “Morpho Towers — Two Standing Spirals“, and consists of two sculpted iron spikes sitting in a pool of ferrofluid.

eBay Snubs Music Gift Economy

Thursday, April 5th, 2007

Alas, just when it seemed a good idea was getting off the ground, its wings were abruptly clipped. eBay has banned Celeste H and his music commissioning auctions, citing the abuse section of the EULA as the reason. Although this is certainly a setback, there have been some encouraging signs to support his endeavour – there were indeed bidders on his auctions, and it looked like he was going to get his first commissions under his belt before the rug was pulled.

At least he has the buddha machine to cheer him up.

It is certainly an interesting and somewhat volatile time for the music industry. New economic models are emerging by the day, and many will of course fail, but some will succeed and go on to define the standards of music consumption to which our children will become accustomed. The Internet will be central to these changes, and musicians themselves now have the power to influence (and enact) distribution channels in a way never before possible. Those who embrace the vagaries of Web 2.0, social media and new models of perceiving, discovering and consuming music will be in a strong position to take advantage of them. Gorillavsbear posted an interview with John Vanderslice which covers his perspective on the uncertainty surrounding what was once known as the music industry. Although I wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything he says, it is an interesting interview which poses many questions regarding the future of music production and its benefits to both musicians and fans.

Music Commissioning on eBay

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

There will always be a new way of using the Internet to sell whatever it is you want to sell – it’s just a matter of thinking of it. In the case of Celeste Hutchins, he is using eBay to auction his music commissions. He also defines an interesting economic theory to support his venture – the creation of a music gift economy. His commissions are not targeted at companies, major record labels or media production enterprises, but at the fans. According to Celeste, music is data, and data wants to be free – no amount of DRM is going to stop it, and attempting to do so ultimately reduces your exposure to potential fans, and irritates the ones you already have. So what’s the solution? Set the music free – and if it comes back, it’s yours. On a more practical level, you give your fans a real motivation to invest in you – if your fans actually commission your work, their name is attached to it, they become part of it, and they themselves will then be invested in it (not just their money). This has to be good for you as an artist, and greatly increases the social significance of your work.

I think this is an extremely interesting approach, and I wish him every success – I would certainly agree with the ethos behind it, and I would strongly consider implementing such a factor in my own work. Perhaps I will take the concept to the PodShop – Podcomplex artists could offer songs for sale which haven’t been written yet(!). These then would not be songs, but rather commissions, and once the customer pays for it, then the band can go about composing it, perhaps following some guidelines provided by the ‘client’. Such guidelines could be instructions on what instruments to use, how many instruments, song length, perhaps nothing more than a song title, perhaps nothing at all. The fans could then become part of the work in a way previously only available to rich ‘patrons’.

For those of you paying attention, the exclamation in the previous paragraph is an acknowledgement of the irony of my conclusion – in fact, many of the tracks in the PodShop at the moment have not been written yet. For example, the band ‘Electric Petrol’ do not exist at all, and neither do any of their songs. This entry was created during the testing phase of the shop, but now Celeste has given me an interesting way of presenting it – rather than removing the ‘band’, I could simply rebrand it as a ‘commissionable entity’. Not only could a music fan commission their own songs, they could commission their own artist – becoming a sort of ‘instant music management mogul’ in the process. I wonder what sort of regestive path this is all leading us down…

More Laptop Tips for Gigging

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

Once you have decided on the ideal laptop for your gig, you’ll need to set it up the way you like it. If you are running on batteries (as mentioned before, sometimes having your laptop plugged into the mains can generate an unpleasant humming noise, or ground loop) the you had better make sure that any ‘power saving’ features of your machine are disabled, such as PowerNow or Speedstep. Although these do prolong battery life, you need your machine running at full power during a gig – a momentary glitch in your audio can ruin a track and really throw your confidence. Basically, such power saving techniques rely on reducing the processor speed when the tasks you are running don’t require much work – which is fine if you’re just writing an article or browsing the Internet. However, if you’re running a sequencer where only one or two tracks are playing, and suddenly the song takes off with a whole bunch of new samples and plugins kicking in all at once, then there’s going to be a huge spike in processing which the power management might not be able to keep up with – leaving you a nasty blip to contend with.

Also, it is wise to disable any screensavers or unnecessary background/scheduling tasks that might sap your computer’s punch. However, as an addendum to the previous article on choosing a laptop for live performance, I would say that for most purposes, even the lowest-end computer nowadays is more than capable of doing a decent job. In fact, it will be more powerful than anything available five years ago, and although it’s always nice to have the best there is, in reality most musicians won’t come anywhere near pushing the limits of what their hardware can do. The most important thing is to make sure it’s set up correctly. If you’re using Windows XP, have a look at the optimisation guide to see what you can do to make the most of your OS.

For a few more observations on live laptops and ASIO, have a look at rekliner.

CMC Seeks Record Label Survey

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

The Contemporary Music Centre in Dublin is currently seeking tenders for the production of a report on the “feasibility of setting up an Irish recording label and/or download platform for specialist/non-commercial musics”. The aim of this study will be to examine the reasons behind the lack of availability of new recordings by Irish composers, and to determine if this shortfall can be addressed by the creation of a dedicated specialist label.

The report will include an analysis of current production of non-commercial recordings and available distribution outlets, research on international best practices in such recordings (and how these can be applied to an Irish context), Irish market analysis and an examination of the effectiveness (or otherwise) of online distribution technologies over traditional CD distribution.

More information can be found in the brief on the CMC site.

Earthquakes, EMI and the End of DRM

Monday, April 2nd, 2007

Two musical breakthroughs were achieved over the weekend – firstly, the world record for the longest concert was set in Japan. Over 900 musicians played for 184 hours non-stop, despite the occurrence of an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale. A break in the performance would have ruined the record attempt, but fortunately the pianist on stage at the time of the quake was able to continue her rendition, despite the best efforts of the universe to spoil the party.

The second ‘breakthrough‘ comes with EMI’s statement that they will begin to sell digital music online without copy-protection. The stated goal for the music giant is to generate a quarter of its revenues from the Internet by the year 2010, according to chief executive Eric Nicoli. This is a response to growing frustration amongst consumers regarding the limitations imposed on them by the current DRM regime. Songs bought on iTunes, protected by Apple’s own DRM features, can currently only be used on iPods, and not on any other brand of mp3 player. Removing DRM will enable consumers to listen to music files (which they have bought online) on any player, at any time.

EMI have further declared their intent to exploit the wealth of opportunity the Internet represents by being the first major label to sign up with eListeningPost’s new ‘social promotion‘ technology. The idea is that bands can release special ‘ePreview’ versions of songs and videos to their fan base, which allows the user up to five free plays of the track. These ePreviews can be sent to mailing lists or placed on a website. One of the first to use this promotional technique is the innovative Japanese artist Cornelius, whose new album ‘Sensuous’ has just been released on Warner Music’s Korova label.

For more information on the eListeningPost technology, have a look at their website.

Setting Buffers and Latency for your Audio Interface

Sunday, April 1st, 2007

This is an important step in setting up your DAW, and many musicians new to digital hardware may not be aware of its significance. When you attach a sound card (audio interface) to your computer, you will have the option of setting buffer sizes, which will directly affect the latency of the signal through your interface.