Privacy On These Internets

July 31st, 2010 at 9:04 pm (Dan Griping About "The Modern World", Random Stuff)

I’ve been noticing a lot more targeted advertising in my web browsing these days, and have been wondering what to make of it.  It’s a little disorienting to be shown ads about small-diaphragm condensor microphones whilst reading an msn article about Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.  And we’re talking about very specific microphone models I have been researching.  Then today, the Wall Street Journal runs a big story about “spying on consumers” for the purpose of creating targeted advertising.  The Journal conducted its own study on the nation’s 50 most visited websites, and found that they each installed, on average, “64 pieces of tracking information.”  These would be “cookies” and “beacons” that are downloaded to your computer, giving the computer a coded indentity that is then used to track the websites you visit, perhaps even analysing keystrokes, to compile a profile of your consumer tastes and then sold to advertisers.  The article portrays it all in a pretty dark light.  Says that Congress is investigating privacy concerns, considering a law, blah, blah, blah.  The companies that collect this information defend themselves by saying that they are providing consumers with useful information and advertising targeted to their tastes.

You know what, I’m inclined to agree.  I am regularly shown ads with tasty pictures and special offers for Domino’s Pizza — big brother internet having learned somehow that I like a good pizza — and I have to say, that’s far more useful to me than ads for Botox or Victoria’s Secret.  Repeated ads for the Neumann Km 184 just remind me how much I want that mic, and thus serve a useful purpose for me, unlike, say, an ad for a Rolex on the second page of the print edition of the Wall Street Journal (I have no inerest in buying a Rolex).

The fear surrounding this targeted advertising would seem to spring from an expectation that what we do on the internet is private.  Which brings me to a personal philosophy regarding the internet: it just ain’t that private.  Using the internet means exchanging data with servers in distant, unknown places, and that means you have limited control over that information and who sees it.  I assume on principle that everything that goes up on facebook, or any other supposedly protected social networking site, is fully public.  It’s amazing how much more comfortable you feel with the internet when you adopt this philosophy — and how much more careful you are about actually keeping private the information you want kept private.  I would like to presume, of course, some security and privacy when using a credit card on the internet, but I nonetheless pay for several million dollars worth of identity theft insurance.

Such is the brave new world of the internet.  On a related note, it was for a moment disconcerting when I stumbled upon a home video on YouTube of a middle school music concert I once accompanied.  Sure enough, there I am at the piano.  I guess home videos aren’t kept at home anymore.  Look folks, I like print newspapers and the radio, but I’m willing to adopt the internet with its many benfits while acknowledging and accepting its more uncomfortable aspects.  I’ve always felt a heightened desire to do my best when my piano playing is being recorded, because “you never know” who will end up hearing that recording.  I suppose that now includes the possibility of it going viral on YouTube.

And by the way, dear internet: at the moment, I think I prefer Papa John’s over Domino’s.  Could you maybe hook me up with some Papa John’s coupons next time I’m on facebook?

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Noodling

July 23rd, 2010 at 1:16 pm (Musical Fragments)

Another “Making of City Dreams” post is coming soon, I promise!  The coming entry will be discussion on the track “Downtown.”

I was at the church late last night experimenting with some recording techniques, and diverged into some noodling, as sometimes happens:

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The Culture of These Internets

July 20th, 2010 at 3:08 pm (Dan Griping About "The Modern World", Random Stuff)

Over a beer (or two) last night, Jack explained to me how text message exchanges tend to fall into a “cadence” — i.e., if I take 30 min to respond to a message, then I should expect to wait 30 min for a reply, and then probably wait 30 min to reply back (certainly don’t respond immediately, 30 min being the now-established “cadence” of the exchange), etc.  He also exasperatingly discoursed with me on the definition of the term “facebook stalking.”  He said trying to explain modern communication to me was like “shoving bamboo under his fingernails.”  Oh well.  At least I’m trying.

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Gershwin Rips Through "Rhythm"

July 14th, 2010 at 8:00 am (Notable Music)

On fire. According to Terry Teachout: “A 1931 newsreel of George Gershwin playing “I Got Rhythm” at the old Manhattan Theater (now the Ed Sullivan Theater) in New York. This is the only surviving sound film of Gershwin at the piano.”

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Unknown City Dreams Fan

July 13th, 2010 at 12:50 am (Random Stuff)

Carousel rehearsal last night.  Paul Farus is playing woodwinds, and is one of the biggest fans of City Dreams — at least, he seems to know about all the lyrics and can play any theme off the album.  He also did the sax solos on “Silent Hour” and “City Dreams.”  Anyway, at a particularly boring point in the rehearsal, Paul played the synth-lead theme from “City Girl”, and somebody in the theater — I couldn’t see who, but I didn’t recognize the voice — said: “Hey, I like that song!”  I’m slightly flattered.

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Eminem’s Got Something On You

July 12th, 2010 at 8:00 am (Music Commentary)

Rapper B.o.B’s much anticipated release B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray has put two singles on the Billboard Hot 100 — “Nothin’ On You”, which dropped in February, and “Airplanes”, which I’m pleased to note is currently hanging at number 4 on the Hot 100.  B.o.B did a smart thing on this album, inviting guest singers to sing catchy, pop-styled choruses to complement his rapped verses.  When I first heard “Nothin’ On You” on the radio back in February, I mistakenly guessed that the boyish tenor on the choruses was actually the main artist — and the rapper the featured guest.  You won’t be surprised, then, that I consider the pop choruses the main draw of these singles (I wonder — did B.o.B write the choruses, or did the singers?).  Both “Nothin’ On You” and “Airplanes” sport sick beats, too; I’m a sucker for snare dancing, especially with that lo-fi sound.  B.o.B defintely deserves credit there.

An extended version of “Airplanes” features Eminem rapping a chorus.  Props to the young B.o.B for attracting the attention of such a renowned and influential rapper.  But unfortunately, Eminem’s verse really contrasts with B.o.B’s: B.o.B, it turns out, just isn’t that great of a rapper.  Having heard B.o.B rap uneventfully for a few verses on the extended “Airplanes,” Eminem enters, and his energy and ingenuity — and his smooth, solid control of rhythm — jump out of the speakers, and we wonder what we’ve been listening to for 3 minutes.  (I’m not even a huge fan of Eminem; more on that later).  Eminem, of course, has just released a much-talked-of studio album, and his single featuring Rihanna (it would seem this featured pop singer thing is a succesful formula) leaped handily to the top of the charts.

Not to knock B.o.B.  I think he’s put together a great package in “Nothin’ On You” and “Airplanes”: Cool beat, catchy and meaningful pop chorus, and some unnoffensive — if undistinguished — rapping for flavor.  Hook line and sinker; I bought both singles from iTunes without reservation.  But calling B.o.B a rapper doesn’t exactly pay tribute to his best talents.


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Break Your Heart Cover

July 11th, 2010 at 6:26 am (Notable Music)

I find this song so much more meaningful when Laura Brehm does it.  Alice 105.9 added the Taio Cruz version (the original version, currently #12 on the Billboard Hot 100) to its playlist of like 10 songs, so I guess I’m going to be hearing a lot more of it when I tune in to get my Slacker & Steve fix.

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Making of City Dreams Part 2: The Gear List

July 8th, 2010 at 8:00 am (Making of City Dreams Series)

Part 2 in an ongoing series about the making of City Dreams.

This entry is primarily for you a/v nerds out there, or those thinking about buying equipment for a home studio.  Admittedly, I’m always interested in what equipment was used in the making of particular records, especially if made in a home or “project” studio.  Please be sure to read the introduction in the previous post, especially before spending any money on audio gear.  Descriptions here are kept pretty simple, so feel free to ask me questions for clarification or about my experience with different pieces.  Click on titles for more info:

MacBook Pro: The center of the studio.  Never regretted this purchase for a second.  They’re expensive but worth it.  4 gig of RAM, and for audio stuff, you really want as much as possible.

Logic Studio: Apple’s own digital-audio-workstation (DAW) software upon which the simplified, less-powerful Garage Band is modeled.  All sequencing, tracking, and mixing was done with Logic Pro, and I used a number of software instruments, plug-ins, synths, and other tools that came with Logic Studio as well.  Logic Studio is really a great, powerful package (particularly for the price!).

Dynaudio BM5A (2): My nearfield monitors.  The Dynaudios were a great purchase; I was lucky that an outspoken audio enthusiast who happened to be hanging out at Guitar Center steered me toward them before I nearly bought a pair of heavily advertised, overhyped Mackies.

M-Audio Project Mix I/O: This seemed like a great purchase for a home setup, and in theory it was.  It’s a firewire interface for getting audio in and out of your computer, with 8 simultaneous inputs (so: you can record to your hard drive eight tracks at once, and they’re recorded separately and lined up as separate tracks in Logic), 8 outputs, and eight faders and loads of programmable buttons to bring that “tactile” experience to computer mixing.  Problem was — and I don’t like complaining about products, but — it was a terrible piece of equipment.  It broke several times in the first year, while still under warranty, and calls to tech support almost always involved an hour or two on hold.  I could go on at length, but I’ll just say the last straw occurred when I had shipped it to M-Audio for repairs for the second or third time, having reported that the connection with the computer was intermittent and the second channel was not working.  After 5 weeks, I got it back, to discover that they had fixed the broken channel, but hadn’t fixed the intermittent connection (which was the more critical problem, as it rendered the thing useless).  I was finished.  I’ve since learned M-Audio has a pretty bad reputation for the quality of its stuff.  Craig took the Projectmix to see if it worked better with his PC, and I stand ready to dispose of it if it doesn’t.

Apogee Ensemble: This was my replacement solution after getting rid of the ProjectMix.  I spent a lot of time researching interfaces, and bought the Ensemble both because the Apogee A/D converters are so highly regarded, and because it runs natively (and exclusively) with Apple (so: no driver problems, and I had had plenty with the ProjectMix).  I also learned it was better to get something that excelled as a quality interface, rather than a mediocre all-in-one solution (i.e., interface, control surface, eight mix preamps).  Have not been disappointed.  Some of City Dreams was recorded with the ProjectMix, and some with the Apogee, and I’ll point out what along the way.  Everything was mixed using the Apogee, however (i.e., the D/A conversion for monitoring while mixing).

Audio Technica 4033: Large diaphragm condenser microphone I used to record some of the vocals.  A good mic for the price.

Audio Technica 4060: An upgrade mic (also a large diaphragm condenser), which I researched and bought after I was dissatisfied with the quality I was getting recording vocals of singer-songwriter Joslyn Sarshad as a side-project with the 4033.  Some of City Dreams recordings used this mic, and I’ll point out which along the way.  I selected this mic after doing a blind “taste test” of about 40 mics using a CD that provided audio samples of each mic.  I know that’s not a perfect way to evaluate microphones, but it’s interesting to see what mics your ears like, and what mics they don’t — some famous, expensive mics didn’t rank.  The 4060 ranked for me, was in my price range, and I’ve long been a fan of Audio Technica mics.

7 panels of acoustic treatment from RealTraps (specifically, the “small room kit”), used to reduce the impact of the acoustic qualities of the room, both during recording and in mixing.  This is very important, and one of my best purchases.  The acoustics of the room in which you’re mixing can really affect what you’re hearing — and not hearing — and thus adversely affect your mix decisions.  Acoustic treatment goes a long way toward solving that problem, and RealTraps is a great small company and its owner, Ethan Winer, is very knowledgeable and passionate about acoustics.  I’ll refer you to Ethan Winer for everything you want and need to know about room acoustics.

Yamaha CP300 — The keyboard I use for practicing and gigging, and was used as a midi controller for sequencing in Logic.

Plugins (i.e., software instruments and processors used in Logic):

Logic Studio: As mentioned, I used many of the processors provided, as well as many of the drum kits, synths, and string patches.

Vienna Symphonic Library: Along the way, I realized the string patches in Logic (as good as they are) weren’t going to cut it sonically for the big orchestral sound I was going for.  I bought the “Special Edition Strings” package, which contains samples of violin, viola, cello, bass, with different quantities of players and different articulations.

Vienna Bosendorfer Piano: Sampled from a Bosendorfer.

Garritan Steinway: The only piano sample library authorized by Steinway.  I bought this fairly late in the project because I thought the demos sounded great (its creation was a labor of love), and to get a warmer, darker piano sound than the Bosendorfer offered for certain places on the album.

Scarbee Electric Piano: An amazing sampling of a fender rhodes.  Also bought the dedicated processor plugin for this instrument.  Bought this before all Scarbee products were sold by Native Instruments.  Used mainly on “Silent Hour.”

Sonic Specialists Urban Fire: Some R&B drum samples to add to the Logic Studio library.

UAD Solo 2 Laptop: The external card for UAD software plugins.  Takes a load off the computer’s processor.  Bought this two months into the mixing process (everything had been sequenced and tracked) as I struggled with the mixes, and realized that not all processors and plugins are created equal, and some sound better, and function better, than others (mainly: that I could use more than the handful of excellent processor plugins that came with Logic Studio).

UAD Plugins (the specific plugins I purchased):

UAD 4k Buss Compressor: Magic for drum busses.

UAD Precision Enhancer kHz: I’m not a big fan of enhancers, but this is pretty good.  Came in handy on my own dull vocals.

UAD Precision De-Esser: Vocals recorded with the AT4060 had strong sibilance in particular.

UAD LA3A: A fantastic compressor for bass-guitar.

UAD Neve 88RS: Not sure I really needed this, but it’s a nice channel strip for string busses.

UAD Neve 1073: Famous EQ sound which I bought to try to solve some issues, but haven’t actually used much.  It does help make dull software-pianos sound better.

UAD 1176: A really famous, standard, cool compressor.  Used much for piano.

UAD DreamVerb: Really nice sounding digital reverb.  Still not totally sure how to program it.

UAD Cambridge: My favorite precision EQ (i.e., not modeled after a specific piece of hardware).  Lots of parameters, a graphic display, and it sounds great.

UAD RealVerb-Pro, Pultec EQ, CS-1 (all-purpose channel strip): These came with the UAD card, and were useful at times.

Waves Renaissance EQ: I went back and forth on Waves stuff — they’re truly used by the pros on a lot of famous records.  I demo’d several Renaissance processors (Joslyn’s vocals on “Calico” were compressed with the Renaissance Compressor), thought they sounded great, but not necessarily a must-have over other options.  I got the EQ just to have a quality EQ that ran off the computer’s processor for when I ran out of space on the UAD card.  Kind of wish I had gone for the Sonnox Oxford EQ instead, though.

Sonnox Oxford Compressor: A really great all-purpose compressor.  You get the precision control that software compressors offer, and don’t get with the vintage software models in the UAD plugs.  And you can dial in a “warmth” setting to get some analog character if you want it.

PSP Vintage Warmer: A compressor that adds that “vintage” analog sound.  Used especially on “Childhood.”

That’s what I had and used by the end of the 2.5 year project.  At the beginning though I just had my laptop, Logic Studio, the ProjectMix, and some headphones, and I only made additional purchases when I felt something was lacking sonically, and had researched a new tool I thought would help.  Interestingly, looking back at the TweakHeadz website, I’ve pretty much built what Rich calls the “Dream Mac Studio” without realizing it.  It’s a great set up, and worth remembering that I have tools, particularly software, that engineers in some of the top studios in the world 40 years ago would have killed for.

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Rihanna’s Rude Song

July 8th, 2010 at 5:51 am (Music Commentary)

Rihanna’s latest singleRude Boy” has slipped to 33 on the Billboard Hot 100, and in my humble opinion, that’s not far enough.  Fortunately, the track seems to have fallen out of regular rotation on 95.7 The Party, the local R&B-hits station.  Featuring a recurrent pre-chorus that goes “Boy, I want, want, want whatchu want, want, want/Give it to me, baby like boom, boom, boom” and a chorus that leads off  “Come here, rude boy, boy, can you get it up?”, “Rude Boy” first came to my attention in March when my sister mentioned how shocked she was that such an explicit song was getting heavy radio play.  “Rude Boy” joins the other hit single “Hard” (I’ll let you make your own judgments) on the album titled Rated R, Rihanna’s fourth studio release.  The title and cover apparently hope to draw us in with the allure of uncensored material.  What I would say to Rihanna is this: Sex holds an old and hallowed place in pop music; but talking about sex in absurdly blunt terms is not the same as being sexy.  We want you to be sexy, Rihanna.  We want your pop songs to feel sexy.  “Rude Boy” is not sexy.

“Rude Boy” and “Hard” both succeed, like many of today’s hits containing painfully self-aware awful lyrics, because of their downright catchy beats and hooks (I find myself, in utter frustration, humming the choruses to “Rude Boy” and “Hard” on occasion).  The vocal performances are decent, and the production is flawless.  And so I find myself forced to swallow the tasteless lyric with the hip production.  The iTunes review praises Rated R for venturing successfully into darker territory than previous Rihanna releases — apparently on the tracks that didn’t make the Billboard Top 10 — so perhaps the complete album bears a listen.

Lest you think I’m grumbling generally about the decline of music, let me assure you Top-40 pop holds a special place in my heart.  But could we maybe strive for lyrics with a pinch more integrity?

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Making of City Dreams Part 1: Introduction to the Equipment

July 7th, 2010 at 5:07 am (Making of City Dreams Series)

Part 1 in an ongoing series about the making of City Dreams.

To begin with, some words are necessary regarding equipment.  Recording is technical, so it requires equipment of some sort, whether that be one of the world’s renowned, pimped-out, multi-million dollar studios, or simply a tape recorder with a built in microphone (or anywhere on the wide spectrum between).  Plenty of lousy, forgettable records have been made with the former, and a number of very meaningful, very good musical ideas have been recorded with the latter.

When I started on City Dreams, I knew very little about recording or about what equipment to use.  I approached buying and learning equipment with the philosophy that the creative aspects of the music were far more important than the gear, and I was really only interested in getting the simplest and least amount of equipment necessary to get the job done.  Rich the TweakMeister, who has written a website full of great beginner’s recording instruction (http://www.tweakheadz.com/ — if you’re new to home recording, you absolutely must read everything on this site), articulates this philosophy well: “Great music recorded on a crappy cassette deck will win more hearts than a turd polished at 24/192.  Your talent is more important than anything else, and you can’t buy that.”

So sorry for the lecture.  Which brings me to the flip side: So long as we never forget (and I have to remind myself often) that of first and foremost importance is the songwriting, the creative production ideas, and the performances, then — finally — equipment does matter, provided we have the skills to use it.  Good equipment, when combined with good recording technique and skill, is necessary to create a high quality product, and if we have worked hard to produce good creative material, then we want it presented in as high quality as possible, and audiences will find it most accessible in high quality (but audio quality is only a means of getting the audience to the emotional content of the song!).

Referring back to my recent post about the Alanis Morrisette record that was made in a home studio and was so successful.  Sure, it was made with producer Glen Ballard’s home equipment, but it was still good equipment.  Ballard says the album was made in a “professional situation” but not “a commercial studio.”  Which, to me, reads: he had a limited rig at home comprised of workhorse equipment, and he really knew how to use it to capture that raw, emotional quality we associate with those famous Jagged Pill tracks.  It didn’t take a commercial studio to put Morrisette’s writing and performances in 15 million CD players, but it did take some decent equipment in the hands of a master producer.  But given an ADAT multi-track and some good mics, the most important elements in that project’s creation were the musical material and the skills of Morrisette and Ballard.

Fortunately, computers have made high-quality, lowish-budget home recording realistic.  With that massive caveat, I had intended to provide a gear list, but I fear this post will get way too long, so the list will wait till the next edition in the series.  Those contemplating putting together a home studio, please keep this grand caveat in mind and don’t fall victim to (and we’re all tempted from time to time), what a gearslutz.com contributer labeled, “gear acquisition syndrome.”  Skill and experience always take precedent.

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