I wrote what I believe is the The Awl’s first technical white paper.
Tag: audio technology
The merger is an unusual one: Gracenote owns a massive library of media metadata, and the Tribune Company is best known as the publisher of print newspapers and tabloids, most notably its flagship paper in Chicago. Five years ago, Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy as advertising revenues declined, the result of the global recession; at the time, Gracenote had just been acquired by Sony for almost $100 million more than its most recent price.
Last year I interviewed Mark Johnson of Playing For Change for the Village Voice. It was a companion piece of sorts to my field recording column Cast In Concrete, and as such we really connected when it came to discussing and complaining about the logistics. We kept in touch, and this has culminated in a technical interview in issue #96 of the audio production magazine Tape Op, which came out today. If you do not already have a subscription, you should pick one up now, because they’re free.
As the head of Playing For Change, Mark Johnson travels the world with a small crew, a high-end mobile recording rig, and video cameras, to capture buskers and other undiscovered musicians — perhaps a drummer deep in the Congo, a guitarist on a New Orleans street corner, or a choir in South America. But this isn’t just an anthropological expedition — after a little coaching, johnson has them all play the same song, along with the same metronome and/or backing track, stacking overdubs to create a “virtual collaboration” between musicians who otherwise would likely have never met. The resulting videos and albums have turned his project into a viral sensation. The humanitarian spirit of peace and unity at the root of all this makes the goals lofty and the logistics difficult; yet, somehow, Johnson cuts no corners, even in the wildest destinations.
Vijith Assar: One could argue that fidelity is not the point of a project like this.
Mark Johnson: With a lot of music documentaries, whenever you would hear street musicians it was always some camera mic picking them up. I always felt like they never got a fair shake. We realized if we brought good microphones, used different windscreens, a nice clock, good mic pres, and recorded it at a higher quality, we could give these things a chance to actually be represented properly to an audience. So, that’s why we wanted to bring the studio to the street.
For Slashdot, a complaint cheekily titled “How DRM Won” which explains why current business practices at streaming media companies like Spotify are culturally destructive:
In 2009, when Apple dropped the Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions from songs sold through the iTunes Store, it seemed like a huge victory for consumers, one that would usher in a more customer-friendly economy for digital media. But four years later, DRM is still alive and well—it just lives in the cloud now.
I have an interview with the mighty Squarepusher, jazz bassist and musical programming geek par excellence [PDF], in issue #89 of the wonderful audio production magazine Tape Op.
Do you feel that you program like a musician or play like a programmer?
People will talk about “playing with feeling,” but what someone might describe as “feeling” is a particular kind of idiom to me. There are guidelines, and the people who do it most convincingly would probably brush away any kind of suggestion that they’re following guidelines. For a while I was trying to extract that – I was trying to play like a robot, with no feeling whatsoever; to extract all conventional idioms and make it sound totally mechanical, like a sequencer. One of the first things I did in order to achieve that was [record at half-speed and then speed it up], because it completely interferes with human fallibility regarding timing. The whole thing just goes unnaturally tight. That was governed by the influence of programming on my playing, but it’s not the only example. My album Hard Normal Daddy was an example of the process going the other way, trying to program like a player.
Tape Op is awesome, so if you do not already have a free subscription, please sign up immediately. Squarepusher is also awesome, of course; if you have no idea why I’m so excited about this, start with the material I collected in the cheat sheet addendum.
It’s time once again for the Blip Festival, about which I have written far too many times already, so this year I took a step back and used it as a way to more generally discuss the ongoing conversion of music into a heavily technical endeavor.
When his predecessor first took office, even basic familiarity with a Web browser was considered the exclusive domain of geeks, but Mayor Bloomberg kicked off his 2012 with a tweet resolving to learn programming. Facebook built an empire from thumbs-up clicks, as evidenced by last week’s IPO. The march toward the future might be relentless and inescapable, but sometimes it’s still easy to overlook the largest strides. Music is likewise an increasingly technical game, from creation to promotion to distribution. Which brings us to this weekend’s Blip Festival, the annual celebration of retro video games and one of New York’s geekiest music events.
It was fantastic and I learned a lot — enough to compel me, finally, I think, to actually patch together some of my ideas instead of just admiring the platforms from afar (don’t get too comfy, SuperCollider, because eventually I’m coming for your ass too).
So maybe that’s the big landmark for post #100 on this blog. I didn’t have much time last night when all the drinking and writing was done, but my resolve did manifest in a blitzkrieg attempt to program an alarm clock in Pure Data that would wake me up the following morning with a reminder to get this show on the road. Surprisingly, it did not take me long at all. Even more surprisingly, it actually worked, and I made it to my 10am appointment on time.
I’m sure I will eventually find this patch extremely embarrassing. But, well.
There’s my ballot, of course, and Glenn McDonald’s usual statistical analysis (he was quite fittingly tapped by the Voice to run the official numbers this year), but also this time a short bit in the commentary portion of the program.
As a displaced second-generation, it warmed my heart a bit to see legendary Indian film composer A.R. Rahman finally get his due in the States thanks to the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, the ensuing performance during the Grammy Awards broadcast, and, of course, that crucial assist from M.I.A.’s tidy soundbite referring to him as “the Indian Timbaland.” It’s a shame, however, that it took six years to come up with a suitable follow-up to Jay-Z championing Panjabi MC. Come on, second-most-populous country in the world, get your act together.
(Also not me, but getting warmer, I suppose.)
Since the Petey Pablo song is a good six years old at this point and “Jai Ho” as sung by the Pussycat Dolls makes me die a little inside with each masochistic tick of the iTunes play count (yes, I downloaded it, shut up), I’ll instead point you here to “Mann Chandre” from his decent (if ultimately not quite ballot-worthy) ’09 album Connections. I’m not so sure about the Voice’s section heading, which is “Yes, I ‘Actually’ Like It: More music to love, loathe, fear, and tragically fail to avoid,” but I’ll guess I’ll just assume the first option there unless explicitly told otherwise.
Now, I’ve voted before, but this time my guiding logic was a lot more interesting (a relative term there, I realize).
First, the unranked singles portion. I was far better equipped to handle that part this year, in large part because I’ve been closely following former Stylus Magazine writer Will Swygart‘s awesome new Singles Jukebox blog, in which he aggregates the scores and witty blurbs about current pop singles from his own fairly killer lineup of music critics; it’s a bit like a daily P+J pill, in a way. The Jukebox first crossed my desk around the time they skewered Parachute, a pop-rock band based in Charlottesville which I wrote about on several occasions for The Hook; it was both brutal and captivating, and I’ve been addicted ever since. The caveat here — and it’s a big one — is that I didn’t manage to get around to sifting through Pitchfork’s 2009 best-of yet. It’s been compiled into a single handy download, available via your favorite troublemaking website. Say what you must about other aspects of their editorial coverage — there’s some baggage there, at least — but I really can’t argue with the taste; 2007 and 2008 (also available via the same) were superb. (I will also point out, however, that somehow my stated preference for the wonderful remix of Das Racist’s otherwise grating snack food devotional chant “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell” was not preserved, and the votes for both were apparently collapsed when tallied.)
The album portion will require a bit more explanation.
See, while I am a voracious listener and obsessive hoarder, for the most part I am quite over the album as an arbitrary grouping construct for listening; Smart Playlists > iTunes Genius > Shuffle, and so forth; no big surprises there, I’m sure. But in addition, I still tend to listen more as a fan and a musician rather than as a critic, which means that I’m looking for things I can love and/or learn from (ideally both) rather than pontificate on or publish about. Come to think of it, even when I’m wearing the critic’s hat, I’d say it’s of far more value in the long run to spend my energy making friends with established works of far-reaching cultural relevance than running around trying to obsessively catalogue everything that’s new and undocumented. More bluntly, and obviously: I care more about what it sounds like than when it was released. However, I write in various forms for what can only sensibly be considered the mainstream music press, which overwhelmingly tends toward discussing new albums. Thus, I have a little conflict on my hands.
I should therefore be considered fairly incompetent with this sort of thing, grand statements about evaluating the best albums of the year and so on, hence my even-steven ten-point ratings across the entire group. Honestly, it all just amounts to a mad dash every November or so to find ten that I’m not horribly embarrassed to throw my support behind. (I realize there’s plenty of amazing stuff being made, though, so that’s less a cynical humbug in which I hate all contemporary music and more like an admission that I’m not particularly inclined to look for it in my increasingly-rare elective listenings when there’s still so much Mingus or whatever which I haven’t learned yet.)
Anyway, last year I barely made it to the tenth. This year, I found nine. This brings us to another substantial disconnect between my head and my writings, and then to what just might be the strangest album represented in the poll this year.
Thanks to other facets of my life (I have them, I swear), I have a substantial amount of training in things like music theory, arrangement, audio engineering, and production technology, and though they all certainly inform my evaluations when I’m writing critically, they’re fairly difficult subjects to address directly unless I’m dealing with a specialty publication like Tape Op, Create Digital Music, or Indaba (although I did recently get away with dropping some theory on Lady Gaga for PopMatters). So given the opportunity, and finding myself in a bind just hours away from the submission deadline, I decided to give slot #10 over to my hyper-technical side.
I’ve been doing a lot of web development in PHP lately, specifically with the “object oriented” paradigm, in which the functionality is captured in small modular chunks and recalled asymmetrically instead of simply run from the beginning of the script through to the end. That logic is just a way of organizing concepts, though, and has also been used to great effect in several audio-specific programming platforms that I’m really interested in learning as a way of taking my interest in controlling audio technology to its logical extreme. They essentially let you sculpt sounds using the most low-level fundamental elements your computer can possibly control — oscillation frequencies controlled by mathematics controlled by data flow structures, and so on. Max/MSP and PureData are the most popular graphical options among these, but I’ve lately developed a particular interest in a similar textual platform called SuperCollider, mostly due to its elegant program infrastructure and also its ability to export to Apple’s industry-standard Audio Unit plug-in format, which allows finished projects to be run as fully-integrated elements of more common audio workstations like Ableton Live or Apple’s own Logic and GarageBand.
It’s quite incredible. It runs on code and equations, like so:
And I find putzing around inside quite fascinating even though I don’t really know how to drive it yet. It even shares vague syntactical similarities with PHP.
So then a funny thing happened earlier this year among SuperCollider users: presumably as equal parts a show of coding virtuosity and a means of much-needed social interaction, the finest among them started sharing their sound creation codes using Twitter, which obviously meant that a complete idea had to be executed in under 140 characters (in some cases even leaving room for the #supercollider hashtag, which is of course all the more impressive). Some of them are quite captivating, all things considered. Immediately after submitting my ballot, I fully intended to write my own 140-character tidbit by the time the issue came out, but damn, this shit is hard! Not quite there yet, unfortunately. So instead…
(As far as I can tell, the code is also the title of the piece, which is either cute or infuriating, depending.)
A sort of best-of was promptly curated by UK tweako-tune mag The Wire for digital release (aka “woohoo we made a zip file!”) as SC140. I am sure you’ll be shocked to learn that I’m the only guy who voted for it.
I’m part of a really cool Yearbook project over at eMusic — they asked ten writers to submit essays about musical trends during one year from the last decade in an attempt to sum it all up. We were basically given carte blanche with regard to possible angles and approaches, so what resulted is an intriguingly varied set of reflections on and refractions of the last ten years, both musical and otherwise.
For example, my piece zeroes in on retro R&B and soul label Daptone Records, which put out some of its strongest in-house records thus far in 2007 while simultaneously helping coax out chart-topping releases from Amy Winehouse and Jay-Z. (This was actually the second time I’ve had a chance to shoot the breeze with Daptone head Gabe Roth, the first being the technically-oriented interview [PDF] I did for Tape Op that year inquiring about his production techniques.)
The other essays are all very much worth your time too, though. I suppose I’ve already done quite enough gushing over eMusic’s editorial crew, but it bears repeating briefly here — these are all writers whose work I’ve been following for years, so I’m delighted to have made the shortlist for this.
- 2000: Slate‘s Hua Hsu on the awkwardness of technological puberty
- 2001: Rolling Stone‘s Melissa Maerz on New York’s rebirth after September 11th
- 2002: The A.V. Club‘s Michaelangelo Matos on the role of DJ’s
- 2003: Magnet Magazine editor Matthew Fritch on the Canadian indie rock invasion
- 2004: Needs-no-introduction Douglas Wolk on geopolitical unrest
- 2005: Living legend Chuck Eddy on the last gasps of major label hard rock
- 2006: Pitchfork‘s Jess Harvell on emo’s maturity or lack thereof
- 2007: Yours truly on old-soul funk as the anti-Radiohead
- 2008: The Village Voice‘s Christopher R. Weingarten on the election as the end of days
- 2009: eMusic editorial director J. Edward Keyes on erasing elitism
Some cool recent pieces:
For Tape Op, I complain about Simon Cowell some more and then ponder McNugget rappers Das Racist and — wait for it — the implications for audio professionals of the remarkable remix of “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell”.
In related news, I’ll be hanging out with the Tape Op guys at stand #849 at the AES convention in Manhattan today.
One of Kieran Hebden’s more aggressive outings under the Four Tet moniker, Everything Ecstatic veers away from the rustic acoustic guitar loops which, for better or worse, came to represent his earlier work. Here, he replaces those sounds with low-pitched synth rumbles, buried beneath the drum machines like the unrelenting drone of a factory assembly line.
As an aspiring music writer, I’m always following bylines and tracking other writers as they hop around between publications, which is why I was able to conclude long ago that eMusic’s editorial division is probably the strongest on the internet. I’m still a little woozy at the thought that I’m now part of it myself. Since I know most people don’t obsess over critics the way I do, a quick run-down of some of the other eMusic contributors whose work I’ve admired elsewhere:
- Amanda Petrusich of Pitchfork and the New York Times
- Michaelangelo Matos, formerly of Idolator and Seattle Weekly
- Will Hermes of the New York Times, who is also quite possibly my absolute favorite Rolling Stone writer
- If it’s not Will Hermes, it’s probably Evan Serpick
- Robert Christgau, the longtime Village Voice writer widely considered the “Dean of American rock critics”
- Chuck Eddy, former Village Voice music editor and Rolling Stone contributor
- Joe Levy, once music editor at the Voice, then the editor of Rolling Stone’s music section, then editor-in-chief at Blender (and now staring at pretty girls all day for Maxim following Blender’s unfortunate demise a few months back)
- Pitchfork managing editor Mark Richardson
- Andy Beta, hyperactive freelancer for Spin, Paste, and the Village Voice
- Andy Battaglia of Pitchfork and The Onion‘s AV Club
- Jess Harvell of Pitchfork and Idolator
- Melissa Maerz, once of New York Magazine and now with Rolling Stone
- Philip Sherburne, electronica guru for Pitchfork (and, notably, a Hot Chip sanctioned composer in his own right)
- Matthew Perpetua, founder of Fluxblog, quite possibly the first-ever MP3 blog
- Chris Weingarten, the go-to guy for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice who started reviewing records on Twitter after deciding that this industry was going to hell in a handbasket
- Thurston Moore, frontman for Sonic Youth
It’s really amazing that they’ve been able to collect all these heavyweights under one masthead. Most dizzying of all, though:
That’s right, I’m now writing alongside Kurt Loder, whose MTV News briefs were a staple of my after-school vegging-out through the 90’s and present every step of the way — prodding me along, actually — as I grew to become an obsessive music fan.
Here’s the thing, though — eMusic isn’t, as you might think, a music magazine.
Rather, it’s an MP3 download store in the vein of iTunes. Its prices are considerably lower, however, and its catalog is heavily skewed toward indie labels. Particularly in the earliest days of the digital music Wild West, it made for a much more customer-friendly download service than Apple’s. For one thing, the audio encoding algorithms were better, a detail about which I care quite a bit, and there wasn’t any Digital Rights Management, a sort of catch-all term for the various forms of nefarious copy protection horseshit that the major labels once demanded the download stores employ before they’d permit inclusion of their tracks. Your previous purchases could even be downloaded repeatedly if need be — say, in the event of a hard drive crash or laptop theft.
Most striking of all, though, was that rather than $1 a-la-carte purchases, a low monthly subscription fee would get you unlimited access to the catalog, meaning that you could explore new music with reckless abandon. A few people used to complain about the selection, which excluded almost all major label content, but I’d just run searches for phrases like “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits,” and the results would overflow with guys like Hank Williams and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Andrew Lloyd Weber — all hugely influential artists that I felt compelled to teach myself about even if they were off the beaten path. With said path being beaten mostly by dolts like My Chemical Romance, it was hard for me to see this as a problem.
eMusic started enforcing monthly limits on customer downloads in 2004 after independent music became hip again and the site’s popularity increased accordingly, which was unfortunate for the customers, but an understandable move overall because the free-for-all obviously wasn’t financially sustainable if proper royalties were to be paid out to the artists. The landscape has changed a lot since then, but even though iTunes has since dumped DRM and doubled its audio encoder bitrates, and even though eMusic has since increased its prices and embraced major label content, I still think they’re doing something remarkable. If you haven’t already, go check out the page on which my review appears and/or one of the artist pages. You will, in a manner of speaking, see the entire internet at a glance.
I spend a lot of time navigating the intersections between art and technology, and can unequivocally say that eMusic’s site is a case study in awesome. They’re able to pull in data from other places — Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, the All Music Guide — by sending queries through cross-site connection protocols called APIs. (That’s “application programming interface,” not “Automated Processes, Inc.,” although I can see where the ambiguity comes from.) For example, if they send an artist’s name as specified by the All Music Guide’s API, they might get his bio in return, and then by doing the same per YouTube’s instructions, they can return all his related video embeds.
This is all then rendered as part of the page content, and the effect of so many API’s working successfully and in synchrony is quite breathtaking, producing an evolving aggregate snapshot of the music you’re inquiring about compiled from sources all over the internet. At the risk of sounding like a raving partisan lunatic, especially given my earlier thoughts regarding their other writers, eMusic’s may be the most technically remarkable, staggeringly efficient music discovery platform I’ve encountered. In fact, though I’ve let my payments lapse on a couple occasions — mostly because the music submitted for the coverage I was writing for The Hook had piled up ominously — I’d usually still log in and browse around even though I couldn’t download anything. eMusic might not be able to offer unlimited downloads the way they once did, but the site makes for a very compelling substitute.
As for the ways in which the art — by which I mean both my writing and the songs I write about — collides with the technology, it’s pretty clear to me that eMusic considers their writers an important part of the equation. Just as the writer in me is thrilled about getting filed away alongside Kurt Loder, the geek in me is excited to watch as the writer gets a seat right next to the Wikipedia API. Welcome to the machine, and so forth.
First, although I’ve been published by the Voice a few times before, that was the first article which was long enough to get me into the table of contents. It’s crazy to see my own name next to those of Rob Tannenbaum, Tom Robbins, J. Hoberman, and of course Michael Musto.
Second: predictably, the Anamanaguchi guys and I spent a lot of time discussing synthesizers during the interview, but since that material wasn’t really appropriate for the Voice, I instead sent the tech talk to Create Digital Music, an awesome and remarkably high-traffic niche blog which consistently publishes some of the best coverage of music technology you’ll find anywhere.
Vijith: Do you write using a guitar or a Nintendo?
Pete: The music is pretty melodic, so it’s pretty transferable from instrument to instrument. Anything I write on guitar I can put on the Nintendo, and anything I write on the Nintendo I can usually play on guitar – unless it’s way too fast, which it usually is.
Even speaking strictly as a reader, I really can’t recommend CDM highly enough; publisher Peter Kirn is both a music software programmer and, by day, a professional writer, so the posts are always informed, insightful, and far more literate than most studio trade rags. If your interest in creative technology tends elsewhere, you may want to check out Peter’s other sites instead, including Create Digital Motion, which is aimed at animators and visual artists, and the community-oriented Noisepages.
And now, a couple recent items — both related, in a way, to dramatic changes in pitch — for those brave souls willing to follow me out to my geekiest musical fringes.
From the audio engineer: at Tape Op, “In defense, unsuccessfully, of Autotune,” wherein I ultimately give up and instead go on a Google expedition to find the haunting voice from the competing software‘s demo video.
Some activity of note on various blogs other than this one:
Also, for the past couple months, I’ve been contributing some posts to the blog run by Indaba Music. Their conceptually remarkable project pairs a social network for musicians with an online audio editing platform to facilitate collaborative recording over the internet; think Apple GarageBand running as a Java blob in your browser with Facebook Lite spackled on top.
Now, I’m just on board to feed occasional articles to the community of participating musicians, but the the geek in me is fascinated by this intersection between web development and audio production. Music distribution has been radically transformed by communication technology in the past decade, and now we’re starting to see the creative end change as well — Ableton recently started hosting a repository wherein Live users can share their sessions, and scripts and patches for Max, Pd, and other software platforms are now sometimes shared via Subversion, a kind of version-controlled incremental super-FTP which was previously the domain of hardcore programmers. That’s to say nothing of the online libraries and torrents used for distributing the tools, of course, which are plentiful, if sometimes of dubious pedigree.
As you can see from my archive, however, the Indaba posts are not always technical — some of my favorites thus far have discussed the insect response to Led Zeppelin and the social elements of Green Day’s latest album release and even attempted to earn back the $12 I wasted on seeing the goofy Star Trek prequel. That said, I’m also quite happy with the epic treatise on my favorite delay pedals, mostly because I can’t get away with that sort of post anywhere else.
Well, except for the new blog run by the magnificently eccentric DIY music-making mag Tape Op, that is; you can also occasionally find me there in between articles for the print edition, which aren’t made available online. I should probably post more frequently since I’m the guy who talked the editor into launching a blog in the first place, but if anything, I need to spend less time and energy talking about these things and more time using them.
At PopMatters, a review of Blipfest 2008, the largest chiptune show of the year.
I’ve fiddled with the programming enough to know that this stuff doesn’t come easily. There’s a certain sameness to a lot of it on the surface—all lo-fi electronic music in 4/4 with house-derived “drum” sequences which rely on filtered white noise—but after taking in a couple of sets, the differences between the artists become more readily apparent. Bucket-headed spaz-dancer Sulumi’s restless melodies were a fantastic highlight, skipping across the room like so many chips of shale across a Mario 2-2 swimming level, but geek-chic Asian chick Bubblyfish had the most depth, with an enthralling opener which expertly transitioned from jovial Katamari plinks to ominous Metroid gloom over the course of ten minutes.
Jeremiah Johnson makes lo-fi techno using video game hardware, and you’d be astonished at how competent it is.
The assumption that Johnson is mixing together sets of different video game soundtracks is a pretty common mistake. The guts of this process are actually considerably more interesting, though: Specific timbres and pitch sequences are programmed using special cartridges—some homebrew software burns on blank cartridges made with expensive proprietary writers, others imported from Europe thanks to an industrious German—and are then sent through an amplifier several hundred times larger than the carts they start on. But it’s not quite that simple—first, the signals have to pass through Johnson himself.