George Cochrane

Like a Creative Octopus, with a Few Fewer Arms

The iPad and the Chuckles Thereof

OK, let's get this straight. For most hardcore Apple fans who also happen to be computer geeks, artists, musicians, or anyone looking for something other than a pretty frame through which to view other people's content, the iPad seems like somewhat of a wet blanket. Or, at least it should.

No Wacom-like pen support. No support for "real" OS X apps. No real ports. No flash. There's just this cavern-like, resonating paucity of expandability, connectivity, or, to be frank, utility. If you wanted this thing, you already bought a Chumby, or a really cheap Netbook, or, hey, an iPhone— with which you can do nifty things like make calls and take pictures!

...and then there's the name. People all over the internet are tripping over themselves for the chance to deride it. HOW DARE APPLE NAME THEIR MESSIANIC NEW PORTABLE MEDIA FAUCET AFTER A FEMININE HYGIENE PRODUCT?!?!?!11INTERROBANG

This misstep has been called "disastrous", "disrespectful", and "a major marketing faux-pas" by media outlets that are supposed to be credible. To be honest, it took me a full six hours after I saw the announcement and got done laughing (to keep from crying) over the specs, to realize the correlation to those handy absorbent lady napkins. By the time I connected those dots, the matter was practically done being a trending topic.

Am I the only one that sees this as shatteringly juvenile? I mean, is the word "pad" so inexorably linked to menstrual health that *everyone's* mind raced to that connection before, say, these examples?

"They named the new tablet after a debilitating vascular condition! My god, that's a major marketing faux-pas!"

Wow... Just Wow. (Dirty Projectors Live Singing)

This is some of the most impressive singing I've heard lately. This song illustrates well how music technology has such an odd, parabolic effect on the way we make music. When I first heard this clip, I was certain that the voices were samples being played by a sampler plug-in, triggered by a keyboardist or sequencer. The influence of vocal sampling is clear in the clipped, overlapping way the singers phrase their notes in this song. When I realized that they were really executing those lines right there in the room, I was flattened (and I went and bought a bunch of Dirty Projectors stuff).

Sampling has done wonders to the way we as humans expect to hear voices. From the staccato, repeating fugues of early-90s club music to the dreamlike, parroting robo-choruses evoked by folks like Scott Herren, vocals have become just another textural element to be twisted, bent and spray-painted to our needs. When artists see what digital technology has done to our expectations, then take that same feel and sound and replicate it with actual strings, membranes, vocal cords, and wind, it can really throw us for a loop. Remember the first time you ever saw The Roots nail the perfect choppy SP-1200 hip-hop beat without a single sample in the mix? I sure do!

I love stuff like this.

(Thanks for the video, @questlove!)

Adventures In Spooky Sprites

(Whoops, some sort of compression artifacts messed up Skelly.  Will fix.)

I'm working on some animation sprites for a one-week game dev contest called PyWeek. It's my first time drawing pixel art, my first time animating it, and wow, this is fun.

After a search for the optimal pixel art tool, I found GraphicsGale, one of those tools you know was created by a user, for users exactly like them. It's simple, it addresses animation really well, and the tools are geared specifically for dealing with individual pixels. I used the free version, and found it a (somewhat anachronistic) joy to use.

I'm also doing music and sound effects for the game, all done in Ableton Live. Here's the suitably evil climax loop:


The Spoils of the Modern Scavenger

My office is doing a grand purge of all electronic and useless. Carts all over the building are being loaded up with all manner of broken, outdated, unloved or forgotten equipment. In a week or two, they'll all disappear. Right now, they're a constant source of entertainment and free, nasty old gadgets. Every time I pass by the local cart, people can be found ogling the piles of old CRTs, rooting through boxes of ancient keyboards (from which I've already pulled a couple of interesting specimens), and considering whether or not to avail themselves of the wealth of blown speakers, SCSI drives, miles of dusty cable, and briefcase-sized Powerbooks from 1990. Today, as I went to fill my teacup, I spied a nice-looking pair of AKG headphones amongst the flotsam.

I went and tried them out, expecting the worst. Sure enough, the right side speaker wasn't working. Before I knew it, I was prying off the little gold metal coin-like cover and wrestling with tiny screws that seemed to be made out of something more resembling balsa wood than steel. Finally, I coaxed the earcup open, and saw the issue- a broken wire. Score.

A quick trip to a nearby soldering station later, and the phones were back at 100%. I sat there feeling pleased with myself for a few minutes, really getting into the sound and comfort of these trash-picked beauties. Eventually, I started feeling guilty for snagging a $100 pair of headphones for the cost of two minutes' tinkering and a speck of solder, so I stuck this up back by the cart.

I'd have made a lousy vulture.

Logitech Marble Mouse Review in Cool Tools

The good people over at Kevin Kelly's  Cool Tools site have published another of my gadget reviews. This, as you might know from the last CT-related post, know, made me jump around my office like a die-hard NKOTB fan upon hearing Donny's got a new solo record on the way... 

Logitech Marble Mouse

While I've always spent a lot of time computing, the precise, all-day cursor movements of professional writing and designing (a recent switch) got me vexed with my previous mouse's lack of control and an aching wrist. After borrowing a friend's $70 trackball and enjoying the fingertip control and comfort, I set out to get tracking at the lowest possible cost and highest possible comfort. I settled on the Logitech Marble Mouse.

Shaped like a low, oval hill, this $20 mouse is a nice inverse of the natural curve of a hand. The trackball sits naturally under the index and middle fingers and moves very smoothly. The sizeable left and right buttons are situated directly under your thumb and ring finger, while the two smaller buttons above them can be designated for a variety of functions like scrolling and zoom. The symmetry also makes it ambidextrous, which is great for any left/right-handed families that share a home computer.

I did try a few thumb-operated trackballs, but a slight weirdness in my right thumb joint causes some discomfort when I move it a lot. Every time I put my hand on the Marble Mouse, I'm able to keep it totally relaxed. The mouse is large enough for comfort, but still relatively small enough to take on the road. The build quality is solid, and it's easy to clean. Best of all, my wrist no longer smarts after a long day's editing.

Bonus: the heavy, low-friction ball makes a nice desk toy when you need a break.

Article w/comment thread here.

The Korg NanoKEY. Little. White. Different.

Recently, I got a review published in Cool Tools, one of the first gadget blogs I ever got addicted to. As small a thing as that is, it made me pretty darned giddy. I've been reading Cool Tools for at least 5 years. From the site: Korg nanoKEY

A USB-connected MIDI controller, Korg's nanoKEY looks much like a mutated computer keyboard. It weighs less than a pound and takes up less room in one's bag than a paperback book. At first blush, it seems impossibly thin and a bit cheaply made, but after a few minutes, I found it to be playable just like any other keyboard. It has a trio of buttons that approximate a full-sized keyboard's pitch and modulation wheels (albeit in a binary fashion, no nuance available). There are also buttons that shift the keyboard's range up or down several octaves, and a special CC mode that makes each key output a MIDI continuous controller value when struck (instead of a MIDI note) which is handy when trying to get a hold of the dozens of little buttons that festoon modern music software. There are several behavioral options under the hood, too, and the included editor makes tweaking things simple.

So far, I've taken the keyboard with me on several trips and countless public transit rides. It has allowed me to take down ideas -- direct to my laptop -- that I never would have chronicled otherwise. It's also just plain fun.

I've been making music on computers since the early 90s, and the march of miniaturization and affordability in computer music gear has never ceased to astound me. The equivalent of a setup that once cost thousands of dollars to assemble and occupied an entire second bedroom now runs on a laptop which comes with me everywhere. But one of the main things that remained a challenge to small-ify was the MIDI keyboard. M-Audio's Oxygen 8 led the charge, being small enough to throw into a large backpack with one's laptop, but it was still rather heavy and chunky. In time, various other keyboards were created that slimmed things down even further, but the form factor remained that of something you needed to create space for in one's bag, and lugging one around all day was not a fun prospect.

Finally, the nanoKEY seems to have gotten it all right. Now I can always have a keyboard with me, wherever I go, with little weight or space penalty. Lovely.

Around $50 US at at Amazon.

Creative Finality Vs. Infinite Choice

It goes without saying that today's music production technology, advancing as it has from the days of tape and consoles through to the formidable Audio/MIDI workstations many of us sit in front of (for increasingly worrisome chunks of our lives), presents a very different creative paradigm to us than was on offer to musicians in the past.

When I began working in audio, much equipment was expensive, fickle, and limited.  Not limited by the standards of the day- these tools were already worlds cheaper and more powerful in many ways than those of the previous generation- but compared to 2008, they were primitive.  They were a means to an end- these blunt instruments helped me make my ideas tangible.  I learned their ways, I bent them to my needs, and got the job done.

They did have their inspirational moments.  The rush of ones' first arpeggiator, the promising smell of a new keyboard, a really game-changing new signal processor, another 4 tracks to work with- these all came with their own motivational magic.  However, a lot of times they yeilded a "Right on!  I can finally do that thing I've been wanting to do" breakthrough, rather than a push past the idea in one's minds' eye.

Fast forward to today.  Virtually every DAW system comes with near-petabytes of loops, pre-sequenced drums, preset effects and virtual instruments of every stripe- more sounds than the entire pro audio department of your local music store could have mustered in 1999.  A relatively small amount of money will get you anything else you need, and I won't even get into what loose morals and a Bittorrent client are capable of.

So, in the face of this embarrassment of sonic riches, many people sit and trawl through sounds for hours, searching for that magic bullet to inspire them.  It's a bit like sitting down to write the Great American Novel, but first flipping through the entire Library of Congress. Even if someone steps to the plate with a well-formed idea, they'll often spend hours in the thrall of their endless options instead of mentally "writing" each part to fit an instrument they know well. That spark has a short expiration date, and nothing snuffs it like hours of technical bureaucracy.

To combat this, I use two studios.  One's in a commercial space, and one's in my 2nd bedroom.  They are set up very differently.  The bigger place is awash in gear- processors, mics, keyboards, guitars, drums, turntables. It all centers on a Pro Tools HD DAW system, and *shock horror*, a lot of my MIDI work is done on an old, beige Akai sequencer, for the sake of speed and keeping edititis to a minimum. Most of what I create there starts with something physical. Even MIDI sequences are recorded and manipulated as audio as soon as possible.  I've lived with this equipment for years, so I know how to get the best from it.  When I go to that studio with a head full of ideas, something switches on.  I bend the gear to my needs, and get the job done.

My home studio's much smaller, and is based on Ableton Live and a raft of MIDI controllers. There, I use all the tech I can get.  Live's an incredibly fluid writing tool.  It draws things out of me I didn't know I had, and sound-warping and variation over time is so simple that I sometimes wonder who's running things- me, or the computer!  With its ease of sound design and wealth of available content, limits are few. When I work there, it often feels like playing a video game- lots of intricate technical stuff happening, hunting down the "best sounds", diving deep into editing.  When I'm in flow, hours start to disappear and cool parts stack like firewood.  Then, once I snap out of my trance, I have a song, somehow.

...but when it comes time to finish that song, I often take it back to the big studio and get the job done with a modicum of distraction. My editing and mixing skills are fastest in PT, and it sounds best, too.  Even without those pluses, the big studio feels like a workshop full of hand tools, rather than a blossoming mind-melding experience.  That gives me the power to say "That's it, that part is how I want it, and the tweaking ends here." Sometimes a hammer beats a CNC machine.

However, for the lack of either, the other would suffer.  Keeping a couple of separate ways of working available can be a huge boon- and you don't need two studios to do so, of course- just a willingness to shift gears and juggle file formats.

Wiimote MIDI Control for Fun and Profit

One of the most eye-opening new additions to my live performance rig has come from an unlikely source, my entertainment cart. I first heard of people doing this as some sort of murky rumor, and mused on the possibility of pairing the Wiimote via Bluetooth to my laptop, but how to interface it? After catching a few YouTube vids and reading up on a few enthusiast sites, I had my answer and a pretty wicked adrenaline buzz, thinking of all the things I could do with gestural control.

My laptop is a Windows machine, so my intermediary app of choice is a free utility called GlovePIE. It has a fancy scripting interface that allows you to specify what MIDI signals the Wiimote generates, and how. You can also make it output keystrokes, mouse moves, and more.

In my script, the controller's buttons are all mapped to MIDI notes, and the "Wiimote.RelAccX" parameter is set up to trigger another MIDI note when it's whipped downward like a drumstick. These all correlate to a special Drum Rack setup I built in Live. At the moment, I find the CC generation (from movement/tilting) a bit too fiddly to trust onstage, so I'm not using it. The latency and timing are also not perfect, so plan to have your sequencer quantize your input.

While also simply being a lot of fun, this new setup allows me to connect with the crowd in a new way; one that's tough to do when you're squinting at a monitor and trying to find the correct knob in a sea of dozens. I can even walk out into the crowd and keep playing (haven't stagedived while sequencing yet.) Next I'll be adapting it to spice up my DJ sets, and I could even mount a Wiimote to my bass guitar. The mind boggles.

Here's a text file with a tutorial on setting yourself up, and here's my simplified copy of the stock GlovePIE Wii MIDI script- feel free to hack it up and make it your own. (Many thanks are due the GlovePIE dev team and user community)

All Wrong, but so Right.

The Mission: Add a touch of chaos to a solid but sort of vanilla-sounding drum mic configuration. (not to scale)

The Ingredients: A passive speaker cabinet, a Smokey Amp, and your recorder of choice.

On a session a couple of weeks ago, I had a drum set mic'ed just so. It sounded big, spatial, and present, but there was something missing. Grime. A light dusting was all I needed, but another boring plug-in or signal processor just didn't sound dangerous enough.

Using a speaker cabinet in reverse (as a dynamic microphone with a GIANT diaphragm) is an old studio trick. You plug the cabinet's 1/4" jack into a DI input, add gain, and you've got a veritable sub-bass vacuum. It's perfect for beefing up anemic sources, but I didn't just want subs, I wanted something nasty.

Enter the Smokey, a tiny, crunchy plastic guitar amplifier with a 3" speaker. We'll be using it as a preamp, and come out of its line output, which retains all of the enormous gain and fuzz the Smokey normally blasts out into the room.

Position the speaker cabinet somewhere near your source. Plug it into the Smokey, whose output should then be run into a line input on your recorder. You won't believe the results. Record it to its own track, layer with your normal mics, and experiment at your own risk.