Tag: Tape Op

The Technology Of Playing For Change

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

playing-for-change-nepal

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.

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Squarepusher interview

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

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.

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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.

Why I’m terrible at Pazz and Jop (or, grumble grumble dork)

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

I have a small spot this week with the Village Voice for the 2009 “Pazz and Jop” music critics’ poll.

2009-pazz-and-jop-issue

(Not me.)

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.
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ar-rahman

(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:

supercollider

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…

By Batuhan Bozkurt:
play{AllpassC.ar(SinOsc.ar(55).tanh,0.4,TExpRand.ar(2e-4, 0.4,Impulse.ar(8)).round([2e-3,4e-3]),2)};// #supercollider with bass please… [mp3]

By Micromoog:
play{VarSaw.ar((Hasher.ar(Latch.ar(SinOsc.ar((1..4)!2),Impulse.ar([5/2,5])))*300+300).round(60),0,LFNoise2.ar(2,1/3,1/2))/5}//#supercollider [mp3]

(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.

eMusic end-of-decade “Yearbook”

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

yearbook

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.

Audio dork checkup

Friday, October 9th, 2009

das-racist

Some cool recent pieces:

At the Indaba blog, I jovially report on the tremendous recent drop in price of Pro Tools and consider how emerging online functionality could shape audio production software in the near future.

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.

Of Montreal

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

montreal-mango

Finally free from months of purgatory in the PopMatters editorial chain due to a changing of the guard, my recap of the time they sent me to the Montreal Jazz Festival over the summer. (That would be a preposterously ornate mango I bought from a street vendor.)

Sorry if I tricked you into thinking this would be about Kevin Barnes and his glam-pop band; I did interview him [PDF] for Tape Op a while back, though.

Indabalamadingdong

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Indaba

Some activity of note on various blogs other than this one:

First, at PopMatters, a quick look at NOBOT‘s awesome score for the delightfully depressing animated short Subprime.

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.