Gesture-based Music Apps are Getting Good

Jimmy Page at the Theremin

I have been watching music mobile apps that harness accelerometer and gyroscope for a while. Many of these implementations have been pretty clumsy and toylike rather than offering a serious expression alternative that a serious musician/DJ might be tempted to use. This new $20 AirJ is looking really powerful. You can see it in use with Ableton Live here:  Sonic State – News (Video Item) BPM10: AirJ App Transmits Native MIDI Over Wifi

Put your hands in the air and trigger something.

Microphone Love

RCA 77 ribbon mic
RCA 77 ribbon mic

I have come to realize that a healthy lust for classic microphones is something to be proud of.   It shows an appreciation for the quality of a time gone by. It indicates a romantic desire to hold a beautiful sound in one’s hand. It is one of the affinities that separates men from apes. When I was a teenager I used to enjoy listening to the crusty old local jazz pros debating the relative merits of various models of RCA ribbons like some would argue sports cars. I am afraid I was never the same. My favorite mic site:

The Many Mysteries of Rudy Van Gelder

analog tweaking
magna tweaking until the cows come home

Rudy Van Gelder is considered to be the vital ‘fifth Beetle’ on a zillion of the best jazz records ever made. Though he considers himself strictly a recording engineer, the Van Gelder sound is as signature as any great musician’s. Have you ever mucked about trying to get his sound or even kinda sorta his sound on a direct to 2 track session at home? I have and it has not been pretty. I have come to the conclusion that there are 3 main reasons for my failure:

  1. I don’t have his mikes and it is almost impossible to find out what his mikes are. He uses decoys in photos.
  2. I don’t have his room nor do I have his understanding of room acoustics.
  3. I am not Rudy Van Gelder.

If anyone can help me overcome any of the above please get in touch and I will try again.

Here is a 2008 NEA jazz interview of the man himself.

Nudge – a seriously fun browser synth

The subversive geniuses at Hobnox have just released one of the most musical browser based synths I have ever played. Nudge enables you to step-enter 8 sounds into a looping 4/4 grid. The grid is pentatonic instead of full chromatic but there is still a surprising amount of creative flexibility. It is as fun to just throw a lot of stuff in there and then reduce it down as it is to carefully build things up one piece as a time.  You can adjust volume and pan for each sound and set the master volume and tempo. Once you are pleased with your little creation send it on to your friends with the included permalink or embed the player on your site like I have below. This thing is dangerously addictive if you have a synth problem.

The Cigar Box Synth

Critter and Guitari keypad cigar box synthesizer
Critter and Guitari keypad cigar box synthesizer

Back when I was a wee lad my Dad used to bring me empty cigar boxes to play with. I had dozens of them. Some were converted into garages for matchbox cars, some became building materials, others were used to store priceless assets like string and wires. When I was about the same wee age, one of my favorite Christmas was one of those Science Fair 40 in 1 electronic science kits (bought at RadioShack of course). One of the coolest things you could build was a monophonic sine wave generator. I liked to hook it up to a telephone keypad. The mad scientists at Critter and Guitari have managed to combine these two seemingly disparate elements of my childhood into one working instrument : The Keypad Cigar Box Synthesizer. Brilliant.

In praise of the Juno 106 Librarian

In praise of the Juno 106 Librarian
Juno 106 Librarian Screengrab

The Roland Juno 106 is a true anolog-digital hybrid swiss army knife that invites deep experimentation like few other synths I have messed with. The single DC0 per voice makes a thin reedy sound on its own but boy can you fatten it up with lowpass filter and the ridiculously fat internal stereo chorus. I have been enjoying the Juno 106 Librarian and I have to say that it is a very well coded tool. If you can run Java on your computer you can run this little app. It uses MIDI SysEx to gain full control of your 106 from the computer. The Juno 106 is one the first MIDI Rolands and one of the last synths to have a really nice gadgety control panel but I don’t have space in my little studio to have it at arm’s length at all times. Over the years I have created a bunch of libraries on tape and now it is possible to maintain these from the editor. You can prototype a bunch of sounds for a song and not worry about over tweaking them and loosing your way back -the editor can act as a version control system for the library revisions.

Clavinova Love

Clavinova Love
Yamaha Clavinova Supernova

I am a pretty serious piano snob so a lot of people have been surprised that I bought a Yamaha Clavinova about 6 months back. I came to this conclusion because I live in an apartment and I sometimes like to wake up at 3AM and play my little heart out. When I used to do this with my (very loud and very awesome) baby grand it resulted in nasty phone calls making me feel I was doing something bad when I was making music which is supposed to be making me feel good. Musical bad mojo is hard to shake and is to be avoided in my opinion. Once again, just like my high school guidance counselor warned me, life is all about trade offs and here I had to make an important one. I decided that I was willing to give up a certain amount of ‘piano-ness’ in order to retain the freedom to play whenever I want. There are others who would say that they would NEVER have purchased a digital piano over an acoustic but my guess is most of these people don’t actually play a lot of piano at 3AM nor do they live in an apartment. It is easy to to have rigid idealistic beliefs when you are not in the trenches. I have not regretted this decision one bit and it turns out the trade-offs were minor. The Clavinova is not an acoustic piano but it is damn close. To put it in terms we can all understand, the Clavinova is not that sad inflatable sex doll that Hopper drags around in Blue Velvet. No this is a true Cylon – a piece of technology that can actually ‘pass’ for the real thing in many applications including recording. It feels very good to play, is always perfectly in tune and I can play with headphones on at a satisfying volume any time I want. …and I do. So take that Mrs Ratouche in 1C! You, Madame, will no longer hamper my musical creativity you intolerant music-hating nightsleeper! Frankly, I pity you.

There are a lot of models of Clavinovas out there. The number of models is actually ridiculously confusing and seems rather excessive but Yamaha must know what they are doing. I ended up going with the CLP-240 which is a mid-level model that has the good piano touch and nice speakers without a lot of extra features like tons of silly sounds, room character-sensing digital effects and cruise control. Highly recommended.

PZM live piano miking

PZM live piano miking

I decided a while back that it would be fun to record my steady piano gig. I thought it would be good for my playing to listen to what I was doing after the fact and I also hoped that I just might capture the odd moment. I have a nice portable DAT machine but the problem was figuring out how to set up a couple of mikes. This is a pretty suboptimal recording situation to say the least. The room can be pretty loud. I came to the conclusion that the best way to deal with this was the trusty Realistic PZM. These were inexpensive mikes made by Crown for Radio Shack in the 80s that have maintained a loyal cult following because they sound amazingly good. I had one lying around from when I was in High School and just grabbed another one on eBay. They really do an amazing job isolating the piano if i record with these guys taped onto the lid and the lid closed. Things do sound a little “boxy” but the stereo separation is good and I think I can do some postproduction to make it sound a little less like I am playing in a coffin. Apparently you can convert these things to run on Phantom Power but I haven’t done that yet.