Thursday, December 30, 2010

"The Mortal Enemies of Rock and Roll" by Lemurian Congress

Another solo Lemurian Congress song, this one has been in the pipes for a while.

This began as an experiment with Camel Audio's Alchemy, using one of the basic exercises in the manual. I put the closing bars of "Somebody Super Like You" from "The Phantom of the Paradise" into Alchemy, modulated its "location" setting with a Ramp Up LFO, and then modulated that LFO with a bunch of other LFOs to make the playback slide around in a bunch of different ways...

...then, I sent the output through all of my effects processors sequentially, tweaking them as I went along. The result was eleven minutes of howling "DONG!" noises.

I've learned over the years that eleven minutes of howling "DONG!"s does not necessarily become an interesting audio composition. Granted there's value in chill-out ambient or extreme "deep listening," but the flipside is downright tedium.

When I first started making music I was happy to -- literally -- load up two samples into my sampler and then put a lead ingot on one of the keys and let them just play, to find out what sorts of convolutions the samples would get up to. While working with Eli McIlveen at CKMS, however, I became intrigued by his more disciplined approach of cutting longer pieces together to make a single MORE INTERESTING piece.

That's why in "The Mortal Enemies of Rock and Roll" you get a six-minute composition with only NINETY SECONDS of howling dongs, and everything looking like this.

At the same time I was working on the music video for "Sandbar," and I had a bunch of film clips with audio recordings made near a local wastewater facility: crickets, cataracts...and some kids who stumbled upon me crouched in the weeds. Just before the "breakdown" you can hear the kids, a girl who is laughing at a South Park joke her brother just told, then notices me there with my tripod, then yells "Let's GO!" in some sort of complex human response to embarrassment and surprise (afterward one of the kids said "I didn't think old people came down here.")

The source recordings were the hardest to deal with because they were never intended to be used. They were recorded by my crappy little camera and contained a devious bunch of clicks and hums which I struggled to remove...particularly bad were the clicks in the "Let's GO!" sample, which -- typically -- didn't manifest until the project was finished and bounced...I couldn't bring myself to lose the sample but I was unable to get rid of the brain-exploding clicks (like I said, I need a spectral editor), so at the last minute I performed some clumsy level changes. Sigh.

The "Choir" at the beginning was from IK Multimedia's Miroslav Philharmonik, and the high pitch noise was from TAL-U-NO-62's Juno synth emulator, with a notch filter sliding around to make it more interesting.

There are a lot of other odds and ends integrated into the piece, but the most prominent are a series of samples culled with my SP-404 SX sampler. The middle "beat" section is a sample from a Beloved song mutilated with the SP's DJFX looper, and the entire "rock and roll" ending is a bunch of similarly-triggered samples (among them Tim Fuller and Santana) sent through a bunch of filtered auxiliary channels and an auto-wah.

To glue it all together there are some improvised ESQ-1 additions on the last few tracks: the "bomb" noises, the little mouse noises, the "wooooom" noises, and the final guitar-ish accents.

The hardest part of this track by far was the mastering...not so much the ACTUAL mastering, but the WORRYING about the EVENTUAL mastering. I was paralyzed with fear, wondering if an experimental piece like this NEEDED to be mastered. Might the mastering process only be useful for more conventional songs?

My conclusion: no, it's useful for any sort of track, but in a different way. Stereo widening and low-frequency compression can help any song, I think, but loudness processing and harmonic excitation must be used even MORE sparingly than usual.

Monday, December 27, 2010

"End Credits (To A German Film)" by Pico & Alvarado

When I'm not writing I'm usually working on music, and since I rarely updated the blog this month you know what that means: a new "Pico & Alvarado" song! This one is called "End Credits (To A German Film)" and contains piano and music box contributions by Kathryn Jones:

Photography by Patrick!

Here is the usual track postmortem, for those who enjoy that sort of thing.

As so often happens, Kevin Cogliano sent me tracks containing a number of electric guitar variations and a bass guitar. He'd envisaged a "Krautrock" sort of song, and though I'm not sure if we achieved that in the end (my knowledge of that genre is still limited) I think we came up with something sort of special.

After adding a Moog bassline of my own (the same pedigree as the one that showed up in "Scrubland") and some stoic electric drums courtesy of EZDrummer, I found myself playing with some samples that I'd recorded on my SP-404 SX hardware sampler. I added a sampled Bif Naked acoustic guitar and a looped country-style guitar courtesy of The Weepies (which you can barely hear), but "Sweetkraut" really kicked into high gear when I added the "BASH" track: a guitar, drum, and bass slam culled from the same Bif Naked track and DRENCHED in reverb.

By delaying the "BASH" until the melody had played a few times we already had our first big hook. I added an abrasive ARP-style synth (the TAL U-NO-62 plugin) and some extremely atmospheric Camel Audio Alchemy pads, and Kevin sent additional guitar figures, and we got very excited indeed...excited enough to call in Kathryn to improvise some keyboard accents that were far more deft than I could have accomplished.

I arranged Kathryn's work throughout the song (using the beautiful Steinway EXS24 samples and the EVP88 for the "music box" middle)...

...but I started to worry because it just kept repeating, and I couldn't think of a way to break out of the melody, particularly considering the wonderful structure that had already been built. I couldn't just tear it all down, and I wasn't even sure if that was the right direction...maybe the repetitions were part of the song's strength, and I was only getting paranoid because I'd heard it 1000 times already?

Kevin and I decided on the latter opinion, and I decided that all the song needed was a bit more punch and variety. I played a Roy Orbison sample with the SP-404 -- using the hardware's live pitch adjustment to conform to the melody, and then using Melodyne to correct the wildly off results (hence the final oddness) -- and added some distorted Front 242 drum loops and the angsty German samples because I like a nice burst of speech (you can figure them out for yourself!)

All that was left was to use pan and EQ to resolve a crucial problem: the "slowarpdelay" guitar, the punchy guitar, the piano, and the "Moody Bloody" Chamberlain melody all shared similar frequencies...and they all tend to play at the same time. I couldn't bring myself to cut any of them out so I spent a lot of time tweaking, riding virtual faders, and sobbing. This was the best I could do. I also had a terrible time removing sample clicks from the guitar fadeout and eliminating a high-pitched artifact in the Orbison on the list of planned purchases is a good spectral editing program.

Harmonic excitement, a bit of compression, a touch of loudness processing, and...we decided to change the name. "Sweetkraut" suddenly seemed rude when a German woman was shouting during the song. Kevin's new title is much better and adds an evocative touch, I think!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Scrubland" by Lemurian Congress

I haven't been blogging lately for two reasons: I'm trying to write some previews for the upcoming Open Ears festival, and I've been working on "Scrubland." It's the first thing I've finished under the "Lemurian Congress" name!

(Thanks to Justin Mathews for the photograph, which I have shamefully cropped)

This started as an experiment in sidechain gating. I'm frequently reading articles about the endless power of a well-chosen sidechain gate, but obviously I didn't choose mine well because you can't even hear it in the song. By the time I'd added a pair of looped drum tracks (one from Front 242, another from EZ Drummer), sent them through some parallel auxiliaries with odd effects preceded by bandpass filters, and tapped out the first few chords with Camel Audio Alchemy, I was already in love. The sidechain stuff wasn't necessary. Something more interesting was taking shape: a minimal trance journey from somewhere to somewhere else.

Two other things inspired this track, and they were both new plugins: Replicant from Audio Damage (which is most obviously used to stutter the drum loops, but is more subtly used elsewhere for various glitchiness) and Melodyne from Celemony. I mostly bought it to correct vocals (hopefully performed by other people) but its "Direct Note Access" feature allows you to meticulously alter (or completely remove) the sensible elements WITHIN a sample.

You see, originally the "Oooooooo" sound was part of the "Doo-doo-doo" vocals that you hear at the end of the track (from a Lyda Husik song, by the way). While using Melodyne to remove the guitar elements from the vocals, I also stripped out the "Oooooooo" and made it another element altogether. I had to timestretch it in Logic (because Melodyne's timestretch is inexcusably bad) but the implications are pretty amazing. You can turn a sample into something totally different if you're willing to play with it enough, which lends itself to the sort of endless possibilities that paralyze me with choice.

Anyway, some of the other samples were taken from quiet bits of Jane Siberry's "The Bird in the Gravel, with the looped oboe going through the DOD effects processor for human-style tweaking. The choir at the end (from IK Multimedia's Miroslav Philharmonic) was a totally unsubtle touch but seemed necessary.

The problem was that something ELSE seemed necessary: a payoff. Transitioning from floaty ambience to the grounded nature of the "Doo-doo-doo" vocals required the song to get off its butt at some point. I dipped my toe into Logic's Ultrabeat for the drums (why did I never explore this before?), added an Alchemy arpeggio...and then had a hell of a time with the bass.

Bass is difficult, especially for those of us without a subwoofer. Some bass sounds have a nice low-mid grunt to them, and some have a punchy sub to them, but few have both. You often need to mix the two together...but WHICH two?

For the "grunty" part of the bass I mixed Taurus I and Minimoog samples (with IK Multimedia's amazing SampleMoog), then -- at a loss for a matching sub -- I bought the Alchemy "Electronic Bass" expansion. Some overdrive and compression and I was there. And incidentally, the recurring echo keyboard notes are from Logic's ES2 synth.

I've had enough mastering experience to know that a GOOD MIX is essential before mastering can even begin. This means stuff like getting your levels and your frequency usage to a pleasant spot, but a really PRACTICAL step is to remove sample-pops before mastering turns them into painful "TICK!" noises. Fade, crossfade, notch filters, and waveform editing (to BOTH stereo channels) can save you lots of grief before harmonic enhancement turns your beautiful mix into the sound of celophane getting hit with a bubble-wrap hammer.

The "Doo-doo-doo" stuff was particularly bad for this, especially because it dwelled in the same frequency that sample-pops tend to so I couldn't just add a highpass filter.

A quick pass through iZotrope's Ozone 4 for loudness, stereo enhancement, and final EQ...and voila! To me, the song is about the day in the life of a bunch of scrubwomen...gearing up for work, washing down, relaxing, listening to the sound of the mudbath (or wherever it is they work), then really getting to it at the end. "The Bird in the Gravel" had this sort of approach as well and I think I adopted it subconsciously.

Oh, and the drips and drops in the middle portion? Not actually drips or drops, but that's a secret for another post.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

"The Snake Pit," Plus Bonus Memories From the Psychiatric Hospital

At the end of the 1948 movie "The Snake Pit," our newly-sane heroine tells her heroic doctor that she knows she has recovered her sanity because she's no longer in love with him. The same woman in the original 1946 novel has a similar moment of epiphany...but for entirely opposite reasons.

I've just finished reading the novel after years of enjoying the film, and the glaring differences between the book and the film are almost as fascinating as the themes that both products share. They are both about the institutional experiences of a woman following a nervous breakdown, and they both give insights into what is effective and what is counterproductive when treating mental illness, but when you compare the book and the film you learn an awful lot about Hollywood -- both then and now -- and about what happens when men who haven't been there adapt a book by a woman who has, and about the fundamental differences between life, art, and entertainment. Mary Jane Ward's fictionalized account of her own experiences is the life and the art...the movie is the entertainment.

I've loved the movie since I first saw it as a teen, and there's no doubting it had an impact on American policy regarding state-run institutions (though how much impact is up for debate). It's heart-wrenching and quite beautiful. Olivia de Havilland -- as protagonist Virginia Cunningham -- is an absolutely jittering wreck and she more than earned her Academy nomination. Helen Craig is also excellent as the vicious Nurse Davis, and Betsy Blair is also pretty spectacular as the silent and dangerously bottled-up Hester. You might also recognize Marie Blake as "Patient Awaiting Staff," twenty years before she became Grandmama in The Addams Family (if there's anybody you'd expect to see in an asylum, it's her!)

But one thing always bothered me about the movie: Sigmund Freud is practically a co-star. His picture hangs on the wall of saintly Dr. Kik's office, overseeing endless psychotherapy sessions and actually taking center stage during the final, Perry Mason-ish explanation that Virginia's problems started when she wasn't given enough affection as an infant. You see, interspersed with gritty scenes of institutional life are long sequences when Dr. Kik probes Virginia's childhood. She had a nervous breakdown because -- in a textbook case of Freudian psychology -- she transferred her love from a cold mother to a warm father, then hated him when he sided with her mother, then felt guilty because he died after she wished he was dead, then felt even guiltier because she accidentally caused the death of a father-surrogate fiancee.

This always seemed like so much bullsh*t to me, even more so after many years studying Psychology (including All Things Freud) in University. So I was wary about reading the book...if the Freudian angle was so significant in the movie, imagine how much Elektra complex backstory I'd have to wade through in the book?

Well, I finally read the book, and the answer is: none. Oh, there IS a Dr. Kik in the book, and he IS a Freudian therapist...but--

(are you ready for this?)


If you've seen the movie, think about that for a second. Mary Jane Ward -- who WAS Virginia Cunningham, for about 18 terrible months of her life -- credits Dr. Kik's psychotherapeutic approach with actually HOLDING HER BACK. By insisting that Virginia's nervous breakdown was the result of guilt about the death of her fiancee after a long illness and her subsequent marriage to her fiancee's friend, Dr. Kik did nothing but chase his tail while neglecting what Virginia REALLY needed...

...which was a healthy environment, an understanding ear, a realistic assessment of her capabilities, and some frigging books to read. Instead, she was kept underfed and cold in a succession of wards where the staff were too busy to notice that she wasn't as capable as they thought she was, then she was punished horrifically for falling short of their (and Dr. Kik's) expectations. She spent the entire time wearing dirty clothes, sitting around women with unspecified skin conditions ("Not syphilis!" says one doctor), usually on the floor, with nothing to occupy her day except confusion and utter boredom. In fact, she suspects that many of the women in Ward 33 (where you're sent if you've been at the institution for more than a year) talked to themselves and created imaginary friends because they had nothing else to occupy their minds.

I mentioned horrific punishment. Some of Virginia's earliest memories of the institution -- all of which are muddled and foggy -- are of a succession of shock treatments. Later she is subjected to the dreaded "tubs," continuously flowing baths that were meant to sedate patients, but involved them basically being wrapped in canvas and submerged up to their necks in tepid water.

The worst torture in the book, however, and one that was whispered among the patients as the ultimate punishment for disobedience: "packing." This was a hydrotherapeutic technique called a "wet sheet pack," where the patient was wrapped in cold sheets, around which were wrapped blankets, then held down on a rubber mat by series of tight sheets over the body.

I suppose there's a fine line between shocking a person to attention and teaching them to avoid terrible punishments, but there's no indication in the book that these treatments helped Virginia (in fact, whereas in the movie the shock treatments are administered as a last resort and are presented as helping Dr. Kik "make contact" with Virginia, in the book it seems that Virginia was getting them constantly since her arrival, and she suggests they may be blamed for much of her disorientation and memory loss).

So if the point of the movie was that psychotherapy and gentleness helps patients and that institutions need to be run with more consideration, what is the point of the book? Well, it's pretty much the same point, except for two things: psychotherapy is barely mentioned, and the entire situation is much less black and white than it is in the movie. There's no explanation for the onset of Virginia's illness -- thyroid trouble and difficulty adapting a life in New York City are the primary suspects -- and even less a resolution for why she actually got better.

In the movie, her recovery is solely the result of Dr. Kik's miraculous unraveling and exposure of Virginia's background. There is absolutely nothing like that in the book: maybe it just took eighteen months for her to recover, or maybe the treatments (and the endless doses of paraldehyde) DID help her focus. A contributing factor seems to have been diversionary  and social occupational therapy that she could actually perform, as opposed to types of work that she was incapable of doing properly due to her well-hidden confusion (or -- in the case of the dreaded floor polisher -- her lack of upper-body strength).

What IS apparent in the book are the signs that she's getting better: she begins to understand jokes and she actually starts to find them funny. She starts engaging in the only sort of therapy she's allowed: "thinking therapy." And -- as is touched on in the movie -- she starts to become selfish, as result of her renewed acquaintance with time:
The softness is leaving. The sympathy. Yes, and the generosity...I no longer distribute cigarettes the way I used to. it is a queer way to judge your sanity...I am able now to take heed of the day to come. I have three cigarettes and if I look ahead I'll see that I cannot order more until the day after tomorrow. Therefore I shall not share my supply but I shall hoard it so that each day I can be sure of having one smoke. That, dear lady, is sanity.
Incidentally, sympathy and generosity are presented as contributing factors to the decline of Miss Sommerville from nurse to patient. The nurses in the book are simply too busy to be able to really help anybody (let alone everybody), and poor Miss Sommerville finds herself walking around the ward keeping track of everybody's bowel movements. As an indication of the differences between a gritty novel and a slick Hollywood film, consider Miss Sommerville in the film: she takes people's temperatures. The film also neglects other significant themes in the book: Virginia's amusing anecdotes about her "True Trotskyite" friends, her less amusing anecdotes about the bathroom arrangements in the institution, and the plight of black patients dealing with white nurses.

You should read the book if you find the subject even remotely interesting. It is superbly written and surprisingly funny -- all hilarious scenes from the movie have been taken word-for-word from the book, including the repartee about "The Hopeless Diamond" -- and it is REALLY gripping from beginning to end. Unlike the movie character, the Virginia in the book is not a cringing little kitten looking for daddy to save her (or husband or therapist, which amount to the same thing). The book's Virginia (that is, Mary Jane Ward) is terrified on the inside but visibly strong and capable (which is ultimately part of her problem).

As a hilariously ironic indictment of the movie's deviations, I give you the following dialog from the book:
Well, the hell with my subconscious. What I'm interested in is getting the old conscious to working again. You know, maybe my subconscious did cook up something like Dr. Kik said, but if it did I'm sure it was for a novel. I always did have a secret, anyhow I hoped it was secret, ambition to write tripe.
Bonus Memories From the Psychiatric Hospital

For several months during the early '90s I volunteered in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. My job was to help manage recreational activities for the patients on Sunday mornings.

Since I was the new volunteer I was required to take direction from the more keen and seasoned organizers. We'd breeze into the recreation room at 10am, and one of the announcers would say "Hello everybody! Here are some old magazines and some Bristol board. Let's make collages about our favourite sports!"

I couldn't believe it. The patients were uniformly either depressed elderly people or depressed university students. They were adults, and we were telling them to make COLLAGES.

And they WOULD. Next week the announcer would say "Let's make decorative coat hangers!" and these grandparents and adolescents would shamble up and start working with the yarn. I stood there among the cardboard crafts and thought: these people need dignity, and we are stealing it from them. We are making them worse.

So I spoke up. "Here's a deck of cards. Does anybody want to play cards, or chess?" and people would stare at me in amazement. One University student -- a major in NUCLEAR PHYSICS -- came up to me and whispered "THANK YOU SO MUCH" and we played chess together. When I asked him why people came to these things even though they hated them so much, he said something that pretty much convinced me that I was in the wrong major: "If we don't show up, they think it's an indication that we're antisocial and getting more depressed."

You get that? These people were being trained to do something totally abnormal -- to take part in a degrading activity that they hated -- under the belief that doing so would make them BETTER. Their sanity was judged in inverse proportion to how insane they behaved. I was immediately reminded of the rug scene in "The Snake Pit," a huge rug in the middle of the dayroom that the patients were forced to huddle AROUND instead of standing ON because the nurses were afraid of getting it dirty.

Here's what I read today in "The Snake Pit," a book I wish I'd read a long time ago:
That afternoon she was invited to a popcorn party. [Nurse] Vance thought that was just too super for words. When the Popcorn Ladies were summoned, Virginia stumped over to the door to join the group. If you were going to get out of this prison it looked as if you'd have to do what they said, even to the extent of going to a damn popcorn party.
I guess some things never change...but they should. Anyway, I already hated the place because they kept the electroshock therapy bed in the entertainment room beside the ping pong table. When one of the organizers said "This week I've got a Jane Fonda workout tape...we're going to march around the room!" I quit.

Work: Telemarketing, Plus Bonus Stripper Stories

After a year in University I realized that I needed to get a job. Fortunately I'd fallen in with the members of industrial/noise band "Mindsculpture," and two of the members -- Jared and Jim -- were working as telemarketers during the summer of 1992. They recommended me to their boss and I was hired.

I only lasted a few weeks. I have a deep-seated hatred of the sales game and I particularly hate being annoying to random people over the telephone. Each day we'd be given a page out of the local telephone book -- no high-tech database for OUR company -- and we'd call every number on the page. In order. For hours and hours and hours.

My co-workers and I operated out of a single room in what is now the Eaton's Lofts. There were approximately fifteen of us and we'd sit at long tables that were arranged along the walls, all of us looking in at each other. Each of us had a telephone and we'd call our numbers in sequence: "Hello, I'm calling on behalf of the Policeman's Association. Were you aware that the Policeman's Circus is coming to town this fall? Well, this circus is a charity event for the Children's Fund, and we're offering single tickets and family passes for this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle..."

Most people said "I'm not interested," and I'd say "Okay! I'm sorry! Bye!" and hang up. Then I'd look at the posters on the walls, which showed anthropomorphic telephone creatures saying things like "Turn a negative into a positive!" and "No means yes!" I'd look down at my empty pad of paper where I was supposed to write the names, addresses, and payment details of all my sales.

In my entire time as a telemarketer I sold a grand total of four tickets, to two different people.

The other employees were either detached from their roles, uncomprehending of being nuisances, or outright mercenary in their approach. In the first category were Jared and Jim, who did the bare minimum just to keep a job that was relatively easy. The second category contained almost everybody else: a bunch of public school boys who saw this as an alternative to a paper route, each somewhere between the ages of fourteen and sixteen.

The sole person in the final category was a man I'll call Rick. He was in his early 40s and was a professional telemarketer. He wore a suit and carried a briefcase and his hair had long ago receded. While the rest of us just slouched around and doodled during our calls, Rick leaned sideways into the corner and plugged his ear, talking intimately and urgently into the telephone. At the end of the day he had a stack of invoices on his end of the table. He earned COMMISSIONS. He was the COMPANY STAR.

You might think that Rick would feel out of place working with a bunch of pubescent boys, but no: he bought them pornography. Every week, when the boss was out of the room, the kids would hand over their hard-earned money in exchange for the girlie books that Rick kept in his briefcase. Jared, Jim, and I viewed Rick with utter disgust and disdain, but that didn't bother him...he was a hero to his mental and emotional peers. He had found his niche.

During our final week Rick started to call us from across the room. He'd figured out how to dial our phones internally. He'd say "I'm hiring a stripper for the boss on his birthday. Everybody's donated ten dollars except for you guys. Are you in?"

"I'm not in, Rick. I already told you." I'd say.

"You can't watch the stripper if you don't pay up."

"I told you, I'm not in."

"Then you can't watch her."

"I'll take the day off," I'd say, and look across the room where Rick was crouched in his corner, knees crossed high, staring at me from the side of his eyes. Jared, Jim, and I called in sick that day, and the following day I just stopped coming in. I'm sure they didn't miss me.

Bonus Stripper Story

Before my first year of University I had never seen a stripper, and like most sensitive virgins I had considered a woman's nether regions to be sacred, inviolable, and absolutely private. The thought that women would voluntarily lower their genitals from the mental pedestal I'd constructed for them was unthinkable and could only be due to the exploitative influence of Nasty Men.

During my second year I went to Toronto with a guy I'll refer to as "Monkey Boy," and in between shopping and clubbing we found ourselves with three hours to fill. "Let's go to a strip club!" said the terminally horny Monkey Boy, and since I looked up to him and he styled himself a Enlightened And Realistic Feminist Ally, I agreed.

We went to a place called "The Brass Rail." It was not happy hour at the club -- whenever that is -- so except for some laid-back truckers and a drunken Japanese businessman we were the only men in the audience. Having splurged on outrageously expensive non-alcoholic drinks, we watched as a series of skinny bored women swung around a metal pole, always to classic rock, always with the same appearance except for their height and hair colour.

Meanwhile, Monkey Boy was farting. He farted when he was nervous, and women made him REALLY nervous. He was also living exclusively off the discounted cheddar cheese that his fiancee brought home from work. So there was a constant stench of cheese and farts to my left.

The seat on my right had been occupied by the drunken Japanese businessman, who kept leaning against me and slurring in an incomprehensible language, pointing at the girls, pointing at me. In between songs the girls would leave the stage and I'd sit there drinking my warm 7-Up, Monkey Boy farting on one side and the Japanese guy poking me on the other.

You can understand why this was a bad first experience. And besides all that, even if I were to go to another strip show, I would not be able to think that the women on stage were doing anything besides working. It is not fun to watch people at work, and I think the whole stripping/burlesque thing is too complicated anyway.

Final Bonus Stripper Story

After a string of women who performed to songs like "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and "Thunderstruck," a statuesque blonde stripped to "How Soon As Now" while wearing thigh-high vinyl stilettos, long before that kind of thing would have been common. The strangeness of it was the only highpoint of the night.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Picked You"

I picked you because of your sweet voice,
your softened Rs and your awkward drawling vuh.
"How vewwy stwange" you said to me when I made a joke
and you didn't look nervous, like you didn't know you were doing it.
Talking to you, I thought, must be endlessly pleasant.
I could hear your voice and not even notice my own.

I picked you because your job conferred the impression of brilliance.
You did not have the eyes of the dim and the vacant.
Your wit must be as polished as your Rs, I thought,
your temperament fine, your patience velvet.
I would really like to hear about the things you did at work today,
I really would like to know.

I picked you for your anamorphic hips
as wide as they could naturally be,
and the way you goaded your body with a touch of grace
though you were not a floating swan, if we're honest,
and you're always pulling at your sweater
because designers draw blanks when they look at you.

I've picked you, and I must be a prize!
I'll write about you and imagine you
in quick-cut scenarios that I swear are mostly innocent.
I will, simultaneously, view you as a perfect vision,
and recognize in my heart that you usually don't look
the way I've seen you, and might never look that way again.

In terms of gallant action I will glance at you over shelves
and admire your valiant, struggling poise
and wonder if you are in a bad mood because you're working,
or because I'm watching you,
or because I'm watching you without saying anything,
like a screwed-up scary murderer would.

Friday, November 26, 2010

"Style Kitchen" By Pico & Alvarado

Thrilled with the results of our first collaboration, Kevin Cogliano and tackled the next one: "Style Kitchen." Kevin sent the guitar and bass to me and I added drums, keys, mixing, and mastering, without altering his original style much at all. Here it is (with another great picture by Patrick):

Want more demystifying details? Here's the arrange window for the project, slightly more sane and restrained than "Sandbar" was:

The bass has been treated with some amp simulation and CamelPhat's "Acid Movement" preset, which adds a certain bum-shakiness. There's a rhythmic "jangly guitar" in there which was hellish to separate from the lead guitar, which I tried to fatten by panning two separate instances, detuning one slightly, and carving each a separate set of frequencies in the EQ.

I'm not entirely happy with the lead can sound flimsy on some speakers, and there's a terrifying lopsidedness around 3k throughout the entire song (even more terrifying when mastered to bring the guitar out further). But they always say "trust your ears, not the meters," so I decided to just go with it, aware that we were deliberately invoking the tinny-guitar sound of '80s pop.

I made the mistake of choosing iZotrope's iDrum for the fundamental drum pattern, because I wanted it to sound like it was programmed on a somewhat limited pattern-based drum machine (which is what iDrum IS). But this program is SO goddamn flaky for me. Every time I wanted to tweak the mix a bit I had to weigh the possibility that iDrum might refuse to give me a workable drum track; about 60% of the time it will miss a beat during a bounce, stuttering a bit, which means you can't even walk away and let the bounce happen, you need to sit and listen to the whole damn thing.

In conclusion: I am finished with using iDrum as a pattern-based drum machine. It turns any sort of serious work into a nightmare, and all their technical support can say is "Have you tried reinstalling it?" I can still use iDrum as a MIDI-controlled sample-playback plugin, but I won't waste any more time trying to get it to do what it's supposed to do.

Reader, if you're looking for a drum machine, do not buy iDrum.

On a plus side I've discovered the joy of Logic Pro's EXS24 sampler, and their Steinway Piano patch is the piano stuff you're hearing throughout. I can't play the piano to save my life, so it's pretty much just a bunch of chords cut up to sound the way I imagine a semi-proficient (but ham-fisted) piano player sounds.

The pad sounds are also thanks to the EXS24, and they're from a beautiful set of Solina multi-samples courtesy of SampleTekk. People swear by them and I love all the samples I've purchased from them (the Solina, the Prophet, the Baroque Organ, and the "Anvils and Churchbells"), but their download procedure is archaic and they provide no installation instructions, just a bunch of samples in a bunch of cryptic folders.

Anyway, the Solina sounds beautiful. I melt every time I hear it, thanks to the opening minutes of Mike Oldfield's "Hergest Ridge."

The lead synth is a layered series of ARP waveforms from SampleTank's "SonikSynth 2" collection, the tinkly bells are from Logic's EFM1, the wobbly bass is actually a funky electric piano pitched very low, and the squishy rhythmic guitar mutilation is -- surprise -- CamelPhat and CamelSpace.

One other thing: I had a high-minded plan to live up to Kevin's proposed "Style Kitchen" title by actually RECORDING myself making food in my kitchen, along the lines of Pink Floyd's "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast." The song would start and end with eggs cracking, bacon sizzling, and water boiling, and right in the middle there'd be the "DING!" of my toaster oven.

There were two problems with this plan: the only sounds my cooking usually produce are the sounds of my microwave running, and actually recording all that stuff would be a pain far out of proportion to the potential benefits to the song. Instead I just grabbed the "small bell" sample from Logic Pro's library and played with it until it SOUNDED like my toaster oven. Same result, no grease-spattering.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Don't Be a Farty Bugger When You Get Old

I rarely throw down a book in disgust, but after twenty pages of "You Had To Be There" by Robert Collins I feel like tossing it in the trash, and THEN streaking through an old folk's home.

Here's some advice for Mr. Collins, and for you as well, reader: If you're going to complain about the behaviour and beliefs of a younger generation, stop and ask yourself if your parents said exactly the same thing about YOU. If so, shut your farty old bugger mouth and get reacquainted with the world. If not, shut your trap anyway, because nobody likes a smug blog-reader who has nestled into the generation gap like it were a comfy couch or the very vagina of God/Family/Country herself.

First, the younger generation is not fundamentally different from yours, with the possible exception that they generally don't believe the same things you believed, probably because you wouldn't shut up about those things during their formative years.

Second, your generation was not The Best Generation Ever. Disregarding all the selective memory and willful blindness and massive generalizations you make about other people based on your own narrow peer group, don't forget that YOU BROUGHT THE YOUNGER GENERATION INTO BEING. It was YOUR social structures, YOUR upbringing, YOUR revolutions (or lack thereof) that brought us to where we are today. Before you point fingers at "the kids," ask yourself who their ARCHITECTS were. You, goofy!

And finally, your anecdotes about the superiority of your idyllic development are worth nothing whatsoever from a sociological standpoint. They are skewed and selective and personal and do not say anything about the development of the other people around you. Likewise, the snapshot behaviour of some teenager who cut you off in traffic does not a generational trend do you think your grandparents felt when some kid almost ran them off the road during a drag race, Big Bopper tunes all a-blastin'?

I get this increasingly from a baby boomer family member who is CONVINCED that the world is going to hell. I'll grant that the population density is higher than it was (partly because those boomers just couldn't stop making babies), but when this person bemoans urban crime or the latest child-sex scandal, I can only point out the increasing millions of dollars that the Catholic church needs to spend to redress the long-ago crimes of pedophile priests. I can point to books from EVERY generation which describe that decade's Unprecedented Urban Crime. I can point to endless editorials from every year in every age about how Those Damn Kids Have No Respect.

When Robert Collins -- under the guise of teaching the next generation how their grandparents live -- tells me that his own generation was so chaste and patriotic, I say PHOEY. Kids his age were having sex, getting venereal diseases, and going to unlicensed practitioners to abort the children they'd conceived in the stable/carriage/roadster. A sizable proportion of Collins' fellow citizens wanted nothing to do with the second world war and did everything they could to stay out of it. Phoey again!

Collins is the archetypal crotchety senior citizen who wants to boost is own sense of nobility by denigrating others. The first twenty pages of the book are peppered with constant digs at the lazy baby boomers...those same boomers who now berate subsequent generations for their laziness.

Whenever somebody tries to start a conversation with me about "kids today" and the first words out of their mouth (or the first paragraphs in their book) have something to do with the immorality or incomprehensibility of contemporary popular music, I know immediately that there's no hope for them. They are crotchety old fogies already. They have already forgotten KISS, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, and every jazz orchestra that got their start in a Harlem nightclub.

Nobody's generation can claim superiority or wash its hands of today's problems, which is why "You Had To Be There" is going in the garbage can, and then I'm going to run through an Adult Education Center without any pants on, as soon as it's a bit warmer.

Time Machine Can Bite

Mac users have a wonderful resource called "Time Machine." It automatically backs up and maintains your files in a series of memory-efficient snapshots, allowing you to quickly resurrect a file or -- as I had to do -- recover from a total hard drive failure. It's an integral part of the operating system and it runs without you ever realizing it, doing its essential work in the background. The only time you need to know about Time Machine is when you need to find an older file.

When Time Machine works, it is an amazingly-engineered godsend. But when it DOESN'T work, it's a freaking NIGHTMARE.

You see, sometimes the external backup drive can become inaccessible -- hard drives aren't perfect and neither are their connections -- but if this happens during a critical period of Time Machine's operation, the drive just...hangs, leaving Time Machine in an endless "Calculating Changes" state. If you try to cancel Time Machine it gets stuck in an even MORE endless "Canceling" loop. You cannot access the disk and you cannot cleanly unmount it. You cannot reboot the computer. The disk just sits there...and Time Machine -- along with its bosom buddy Finder -- just keeps trying to shake it, like a dog who won't let go of something gross no matter how many times you chastise it.

I have tried EVERYTHING to fix this -- troubleshooting steps, killing processes -- and the ONLY thing that works is the one thing you're supposed to never, ever do: forcibly turning the drive off. By doing this you risk corrupting all your data, but there's simply no other solution: it's either that or keep your computer on forever while Time Machine keeps saying "Almost done! One more second!"

This used to happen to me at least once a day, when I had the hard drive daisychained through my Presonus Firestudio Project hardware. After I swapped the order and put the hard drive FIRST in the chain, and also changed my System Preferences so the drive is never sent to sleep, everything's been fine...

...until this morning, after a week or so. Had to turn off the drive and reboot. Just like the old days.

I have no doubt that this STARTS as a drive issue (it's an Elephant Storage device) but I can't help wondering: what sort of operating system can't recover from something like this? I know, I know, operating systems aren't perfect, and Mac OS is otherwise beautifully stable...but this problem has been happening since Leopard (and before, if you believe the forums), and nobody has stepped in with a piece of code that says "If external drive will not respond after X minutes, pop up a message that tells the user there's a problem and request direction. If user chooses to stop waiting for the drive to respond, then shut down Time Machine, forcibly kill any processes that are still trying to access the drive, forcibly unmount the external drive, and tell users to set up their Time Machine again and that a reboot of the drive may be necessary."

Yeah, easier said than done maybe. But there is NO excuse for an endless loop that requires drastic user intervention just to turn the system off, especially not when such users might not be particularly computer-savvy.

Time Machine, I love you, but you're too damn stubborn.

Catl Overdrive, Plus More

Every year I escort my mother to the Kitchener Blues Festival. I love good music but I have a certain impatience with Michael Bolton and his descendants: easy cover songs, slick delivery, the session musicians who have "done it" so many times that they sound like Automated Soundtrack Mannequins Who Have Eaten Too Many Ribs. The Blues Festival can be a bit like that.

This year we had just escaped the off-key moaning of Miss Angel and were making our way down the line: from the "A" stage, to the "B" stage, past the people selling terrible confectionery and beads and patchouli....

...and then I heard the most wonderful noise, coming from a tent that had been placed in the Kitchener Blues Festival equivalent of Dead Man's Valley. An exuberant, distorted, joyous noise. It was...Catl.

CATL at Kitchener Blues Fest
(Picture by Patrick!)

My mother stoically endured Catl long enough for me to solidify my fandom: a guitarist, a drummer, and keyboard/percussionist, playing some form of music that I cannot really identify. Blues? Rockabilly? The darkest muck of the Mississippi river from a forgotten island that Huck Finn never visited...hell, Mark Twain could never have conceived the beautiful sound that was Catl, let alone invent a funny accent for it.

I bought the CD, I loved it, I joined their Facebook group, and I had NO EXCUSE for avoiding their surprise show at The Boathouse tonight.

It was an amazing show. Watch this YouTube clip...

...and then imagine yourself sitting there, watching them, a tight-knit trio just SLAMMING that music out, electrifying, sounding like the aural equivalent of knob and tube wiring. A real estate agent would run SCREAMING from a house designed by Catl, but I want to live in one despite the fire hazard. Throaty hollering. Overdriven organ keys. Soulful drums. A virtuoso guitarist who seems to always be on the verge of losing control for sheer passion. A drummer who really DOES wear sunglasses at night. Wow!

Is it obvious? Catl was great, and you should see them at your first opportunity...but the night wasn't over!

Ginger St. James was next, and she was a super-charged belter. I have immense respect for singers whose lungs are made of nitroglycerin and roses, who can produce a beautiful and powerful noise without ever breaking a sweat...perhaps slightly easier tonight because the stage looked pretty cold. She and her guitarist are apparently monthly features at The Boathouse and I look forward to seeing them again; the two of them had a sweetly personal stage presence reminiscent of a rehearsal in your parent's rumpus room, after a game of Spin The Bottle, except she can sing and DAMN can Mr. Slim play his guitar!

Finally: Von Crippon. Words fail me again. Super-tight surf rock with heart, soul, and funk. Two guys driving a non-stop steamroller of music; no pretensions, no illusions. And that was the fantastic thing about all three bands: there were no sly winks or ironic subtext, just a string of songs that they loved and delivered with verve and honesty.

Why can't we hear more of this sort of thing, everyday, in our heads?

PS: End of night, last few songs by Von Crippon, I decide to dance. I am still trying to find a "non-drag" presentation, and it's only when I'm slightly drunk that I can stop worrying about how I'm being perceived and just let loose. So I'm up there enjoying myself, slowly shedding the Muffy-husk and simply enjoying myself...

...when the nice guy walks up to me and asks "Have you ever seen Breakfast on Pluto?"

"No," I say. "Why?"

"It's about a gender-confused person, it's a great movie, you'd love it!" And I'm like, HOLY COW! Is this the legacy of fifteen years of drag? Even when my eyebrows have fully grown out will I still be perceived as "gender-confused?" I feel like a chubby girl who's always being asked when her baby's due, with the added bonus of not being either chubby OR a girl.

Don't get me wrong, the guy was being nice, and I have no illusions that I'm macho or anything. Heck, most guys dance like manic-depressive kangaroos anyway. But it was a bit disheartening that my simple expression -- and perhaps my whole demeanor during the night -- boiled down to a single comment about gender confusion. Like it's a massive punctuation point in my life. A tad alienating to say the least.

Conclusion, after that last little thing: You should see Catl, Ginger St. James, and Von Crippon. And you should dance the way you like. And you should enjoy the wonderful things that are out there for you to enjoy. And try to put some money in their coffers.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Closing In on the Car Heater

A few years ago I realized that automobiles weren't magically invented with heaters already installed. By coming across random references to motor robes I became aware that car heaters were uncommon until at least 1940, and the earliest reported sighting of a car heater that I could find was in a 1951 Plymouth (thanks, Gary!)

I'm pleased to report that we can narrow the field down even further, thanks to "The Boys' Book of Engines, Motors, and Turbines" by Alfred Morgan. Published in 1946, the book lists "car heaters" among the devices in which a curious suburbanite boy might find an electric motor...and since their inclusion in the list is totally blase, I assume that they were quite common by that time.

Therefore we can safely say that car heaters became standard devices between 1941 and 1945, based entirely on anecdotal evidence and my sort-of-quirky and extremely lucky reading habits. Anybody care to find a patent or a catalogue to back me up?

PS: This book is fabulous. When I started reading it I had no idea of how engines, motors, or turbines worked, and now that I'm halfway through I even know what a camshaft is, how hydroelectric power is harnessed, and that if you try to blow out the fire in your miniature steam engine you'll scatter burning alcohol around the room and "singe your whiskers."

Blog Comments

Although I have my email address set up to receive comment notifications from Blogger, it seems that I only get notified for every tenth comment or so. This has been happening for a few months now.

So if you think your comments are being spurned, it's probably because I don't know they're there. For now I'm checking recent posts frequently for new comments, but hopefully I'll figure out the problem soon.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Rolling Blackouts

Past releases by "The Go! Team" have left me slightly flat...I love their "drum corps and skipping song" aesthetic, but the intense tinniness of their albums -- possibly an attempt to recreate the nostalgic 70s sounds of listening to music on transistor radios -- quickly leads to ear fatigue.

Their upcoming album ("Rolling Blackouts") sounds like it's going to be GREAT, though! More variety, same good stuff, perhaps a little less treble:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Three Arrivals, Always in the Morning #1

Every weekday we'd drive to the parking lot of the obscure company and stand on the pvement, eating take-out breakfasts and making awkward conversation in the cold. The sun would come up and melt the frost in the wasteland of scrub and river around and below. When conversation faltered I'd watch that big empty space while we shivered and waited for Oscar to come out of his office.

Oscar relished our days together because we were young idealists and he was a wise, no-nonsense populist with extreme ideas. He'd bring us fresh coffee and reveal inklings of a generalized xenophobic hated. When he'd finished venting and the sun was up we'd drive our rickety vans a hundred kilometres, avoiding the weigh station with a long detour through undeveloped hills and farms, returning to the highway just in time to rendezvous again at the bankrupt company building.

The building was the only one in sight, otherwise just cars and trees and a lone microwave tower that I never got to visit. Oscar would unlock the front gate and then lock it again behind us, and for the rest of the day we'd be imprisoned, doing something that was probably illegal, protected only by our presumed innocence and the big steel fences.

Oscar gave us clipboards, then he'd disappear to prepare the vans and do his own mysterious paperwork. We, the employees randomly drawn from a temporary student labour force, picked an area within the building and systematically dismantled it. In the garage where the gardening tools for the bankrupt company were stored, we'd disregard safety regulations and hang from high shelves, dropping picks and shovels into the hands of fellow workers who would load them into Oscars' trucks.

Oscar was not innocent, he was informed and guilty and cheerful about his job. He told us to remove everything but the paint on the fresh new walls. In the bathrooms we'd unscrew soap dispensers and lighting fixtures and toilet paper rolls. In the meeting rooms we'd take down corkboards and put all the push-pins into the drawers of desks that we'd also move downstairs, out the door, into the vans. Then we'd go back up and remove the carpets, piece by piece.

One day, while we were on our lunch break, a black car arrived and a man in a suit approached the fence. He tried to give us a piece of paper. "Just take it and hand it to your supervisor," he kept saying, pushing the rolled-up paper through the fence, and the three of us stood back, afraid he'd grab us and take us to jail. We said no, no, no. Oscar had told us never to take papers from anybody. The man smiled at us and drove away, and when Oscar heard about it he was proud.

We drove the vans back the same way we'd come, even more careful to avoid the government weigh stations. The vans were old and not meant to hold a company's entire assets. They were sluggish and creaking and they rode low to the road with wide gaps in their carriages, and it was a relief to return to our starting point and unload the contents into storage sheds.

Desks, tools, carpets, fax machines, and paper documetation...everything was pushed into the sheds and locked up, hidden away from everybody who wanted it. Oscar was very happy at the end of every day, standing under a sky that had become warm and lazy, watching us spray water into the vans that leaked rusty mud out of every crevice. Every day he'd say "See you tomorrow, kids!" until the last day, when we were finished, and we handed in our clipboards and he said "You never did any of this." We forgot everything we'd done, like he'd cast a magic spell.

The Strangeness of Muffet

I live with a delightfully strange cat. People have asked me how Muffet and I have been getting along, and the best short answer I can give is "delightfully strange."

The long answer is that she's incredibly annoying and funny. If she were slightly more annoying or slightly less funny she'd be unbearable, but even when she's going completely bonkers -- ricocheting off walls five feet in the air, for instance, while emitting a constant babble of shrieks and growls -- she is still entirely lovable. And sometimes she knows to leave well enough alone (though rarely).

She's too curious and active. She needs to explore everything, and if she can't climb inside something she needs to either push it or break it. Socks must be removed from sock drawers and shower curtains must come crashing down, usually at 3am. She must also be allowed a certain time on my shoulders, a game which we call "hunchcat" and which sometimes ends with her biting my neck.

Did I mention the fighting? We're always fighting. When she rolls onto her back, that means she wants to mutilate my right hand. I am a bad parent because I do not let her win, and at the end of it all I clutch my bleeding wrist and she looks at me with hatred in her eyes, huffing peevishly.

So yes, she's annoying and requires constant maintenance and she will destroy things if I don't pay attention to her. But I love her to death, and she puts on a convincing charade of loving me. At the roller derby last weekend I sat next to a woman who had to entertain her precocious eight-year-old daughter, and I saw an uncanny reflection of my own behaviour: the coaxing, the distracting, the humouring, the happiness, and the unfeigned tolerance and love.

SIDENOTE: A few months ago she managed to climb the bookcase where I keep her treats, and by the time I caught her she'd eaten half of a full bag. I put the treats in an even higher and more inaccessible spot, and the next day she'd managed to eat the other half. She expanded into a very fat cat shortly afterward and it's been a struggle to maintain her new diet, but let's just say she doesn't get treats anymore and that my shoulders have needed to become a lot stronger.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Sandbar" by Pico & Alvarado

Feeling like my musical development was stagnating, I asked Kevin Cogliano to let me remix some guitar tracks he was working on. I added keyboards and drums to his bass and guitar, then he sent more guitar tracks my way, and before we knew it we had "Sandbar." Kevin and I kicked around band names before we decided on "Pico & Alvarado." I am Pico, and here is our first song.

This was, by far, the most complicated piece of music I've ever worked on. This partly because of the changes that the song goes through, but also because I overdid the "wall of sound" by a factor of ten; many of the subtleties are not apparent in the final mix, and many of them could have been accomplished without duplicating tracks quite so much. See below for the final project (excluding auxiliary sends and buses without automation).

Care to know more? Well, the bass is reminiscent of New Order partly because that's how Kevin plays it, but also due to the Logic Pro Bass Amp plugin set to Top Class DI Mid, and also due to the "Guitar Dream" setting in CamelPhat.

There are four drum tracks, each with multiple outputs for individual treatment. The electronic-type drums are thanks to Toontrack's "Electronic" EZDrummer plugin, and the acoustic drums are from Toontrack's default settings. Both of those were sent to my DOD delay processor for additional weirdness, and some additional "sub" kicks were added with iZotrope's iDrum when necessary.

The guitars! Kevin sent me a whole bunch of guitar tracks...rhythmic pieces, hooky stuff, accents, etc. The hardest part was making sure they all stood out in the mix, and I thank Roey Izhaki's book "Mixing Audio" for panning, reverb, and EQ guidance. The "crunchy" guitars during the "harsh" section use CamelPhat's "Gtr American" setting for added presence. I love all things Camel Audio. I use their plugins in every single project.

The keyboards! Some of them are patches from my ESQ-1 synth, including the primary marimba sound (which is complimented by a Korg M1 Le patch and one of Logic's EXS24 harps). The "sample and hold" synth from the intro is Logic's ES1, and the choppy keys are from the free TAL U-NO-62 Juno-emulation plugin. The angelic keys that end the song are from Camel Audio's brilliant "Alchemy" sampler/synth, Logic's "Strings" plugin, and a bit of bassiness thanks to Logic's ES M soft synth.

The samples? Besides the recurring "brrrr" sound (which I snagged from EZDrummer), there are some crowd noises and quotations from the "Gimme Shelter" documentary...I initially just wanted Grace Slick saying "Easy...easy" to follow the "harsh" section, but I couldn't isolate her voice without making it sound weird. Instead, the "yahoo!" crowd noises found their way in, as well as a brief snippet of a Hell's Angel about to make a speech. Happy accidents!

Add to it all some guitar pedal "wash" effects provided by Kevin, some mixing advice from Vanilla, some Lexicon reverb, and the removal of a whole bunch of extra sounds that didn't need to be there, and "Sandbar" was born!

Then it needed to be MASTERED...which is a story I'll tell some other day. You'll also get to hear about the "video mix" and maybe even see the video (if I ever get around to finishing it). In the meantime you can just enjoy the photograph, which Patrick took with his Holga camera and kindly allowed us to use.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Welcome Back!

Things have changed here!

For regular readers of the blog, the first thing you'll notice is that I'm posting under my real name; after years of humming and hawing I have decided to put Muffy St. Bernard to rest, at least temporarily. There are a lot of reasons for this (and I've discussed many of them before) but the upshot is that I can redirect my energies: instead of spending time, energy, and money (not to mention razors) on doing drag, I can focus more on making music instead.

Hence the new title of the blog: "Lemurian Congress." Ten years of "UPhold" were enough, and the name change signifies a somewhat more polished direction. I've been collaborating with other musicians recently and we're doing some great stuff...stay tuned for samples.

Third: less New Yorker articles. For whatever reason I don't find myself reading the back issues at the moment. Hopefully my own original writing will be a suitable replacement.

I hope you'll stick around and that you'll find the blog as interesting and diverse as it always was. So welcome back!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Creepy Pedro Reviews "Infest Wisely"

The best science fiction films show us the world as it may someday be: the boinking of "A Clockwork Orange," the tasty vittles of the "Soylent Green," the drab and dusty coattails and derbies of "Michael Palin's Brazil."

This new film, "Infest Wisely," presents the most frightening future of all, where an influence has caused appalling actors mumble improvised lines in a world that not even the writer has explored. This future will be captured on film by a cameraperson who does not understand the verb "to film" and it will be edited with the only tool available in the future: The Lazybones Splicer with Snooze Attachment, 2050.

In the future, I imagine, this film will be shown to colonists on Jupiter when all the other films have been stolen by displaced Jovian natives, and the colonists will admit that even considering their immense hardships living inside titanium exoskeletons on a deadly gas planet they have yet to see something so awful as that. Perhaps, they hope, the next movie from Earth will star Terri Garr, and to forget their troubles they will write deceptively cheerful letters to their girlfriends in their private outerspace journals.

Creepy Pedro Reviews "Dillinger is Dead"

Italy is the strangest movie I have ever seen.

Creepy Pedro Reviews "Austin Powers"

The rumours are true: Mike Meyers can do no wrong!

This is not because he hasn't tried. Before he starts working on any movie he wonders "How can I make this go wrong?" and then he says "I know, I'll make these jokes not funny! My jokes will require too long to happen!" But somehow when the camera is on him we laugh at his cute ways, and when he is ad libbing the libs he ads are funny, and the movie is another big hit no matter what Mike Meyers intended to do. Ka-ching! He buys another expensive thing for his enjoyment!

Like Eddie Murphy, maybe he thinks that if he plays all the parts in the movie he will have a greater influence to mess it up. This would be a good plan, except that when he finds himself in his makeup chair he is suddenly a different person, a cute ad-libbing character who does not want to do wrong. And the audience agrees with this performance! We laugh! Unlike the way we respond to Eddie Murphy!

"Austin Powers" is a good example of a movie where several characters may or may not be Mike Meyers. If you are a film critic like me then you often wonder "Is this Mike Meyers on the screen, and is he doing anything wrong?" You ponder this for only five minutes before you are laughing uncontrollably, and you think to yourself "These are things about sex that I never knew!" and eventually, when the time comes to write your review, you can only say "Funny man!" You might also say "Excellent lighting and an obscure geopolitical subtext!" because you are a film critic after all.

I disparage the sexy females in the "Austin Powers" movies because they are not Mike Meyers, they are not as funny. Meyers has been called a "Woman's Writer" because he writes meaningful parts for women, and when he sees them with their breasts and hips he shouts "Oh, HORNY, baby!" And God help us, we laugh!

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Scrutable Poetry Corner: "It Rolls On" by Morris Bishop

A poem for the uneasy modern, from the November 1, 1930 issue of The New Yorker.
This is the time of wonder, it is written;
Man has undone the ultimate mysteries.
(We turn from the Chrysler Tower to watch a kitten,
Turn to a dead fish from Isocrates;

Drinkers on five-day boats are gladly smitten
Unconscious on the subjugated seas;
Einstein is even more dull than Bulwer-Lytton;
You cannot smoke on the Los Angeles.)

Science no longer knows the verb-form "can't,"
Fresh meat will soon be shipped by radio;
Scholars are harnessing the urgent ant
And making monstrous bastard fruits to grow,
Building machines for things I do not want,
Discovering truths I do not care to know.
You can find out more about Morris Bishop and his elf-loathing here.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

How Long Can Marriage Last...In a Cocktail Setting?

I love the qualification in the Mark Hellinger endorsement: one of the best novels IN ITS CLASS. Just so we're not confusing it with Dostoyevsky or anything.

Monday, August 02, 2010

"Earth" Review, Plus Bonus John Candy

The New Yorker film reviewer of 1930 ("J.C.M."), after pooh-pooing the trend toward larger-format films (so-called "three-dimensional films" that "fill the whole proscenium"), provides a great review of a movie that has always confused me: "Earth" by Alexander Dovzhenko (translated in this case as "Soil").
To conclude my memoirs on a lofty and dignified note, I should mention "Soil," a new Russian film. The picture is concerned with the favorite dramatic theme of the Soviet artists: the introduction of new methods of farming to the local wheatlands. Of more interest to these unusual people than the awakening of pure love or the dawn of passion is the coming of the tractor. I must say, too, that there are more persons in this town absorbed in this subject than one might suspect. Down there at that little Eighth Street house, where the picture has been shown, the crowd gets very excited, and there is applause, and even now and then a hiss... In "Soil," a silent picture, a caption was thrown on the screen, a comment of the older peasant as the tractor comes over the hilltop. "There is no God," he says at the sight, and this statement was suddenly met with applause by some of the guests. You will be happy to learn that at once the faithful downed the applause with pious hisses. The whole moment was very intense, and it was a great relief to everyone when the picture passed on to some closeups of apples seen from various angles.
I can certainly understand and appreciate most propaganda, but "Earth" left me totally confused. I couldn't figure out if it was a love song to the soil, a warning to farmers, or an outright parody. Maybe it was all three?

You can hardly say the same about "Hey Giorgy!" This was one of several hilarious SCTV spoofs of Russian television.

Giorgy! If he's not helping somebody, he's helping somebody else! Featuring a bevy of Eastern European immigrants waving at John Candy somewhere in North York.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Here's How to GET RID of Prohibition

As best as I can glean from the pages of The New Yorker, 1930 was the year of:
  • Backgammon. All the department stores were selling deluxe sets and offering free lessons and tournaments.
  • Tom Thumb golf. Suddenly there were courses everywhere. Rather than the low-rent "mini golf" of today, the fad was marketed to the Gay Young Things as an after-club pastime drunkenly played in evening gowns, tuxedos, and high heels. Much ado was made about the damage to the courses caused by high heels.
  • Maybe this "depression" thing isn't going away?
  • Even the staunchest defenders of prohibition are getting sick of it. Like, to the point where virtually everybody wants to somehow repeal it.
The most obvious sign of the anti-prohibition fever so far is this advertisement in the October 18, 1930 issue. It sums up everything I've been reading (click for a larger view).

Joseph S. Auerbach seems to have been a moderately well-known lawyer...well-known enough to have been publishing books before and after this one, at least.

The Volstead Act would not be repealed until 1933, so it will be interesting to see if this vocal opposition continues to swell, or if it will simply be viewed as a fait d'accompli in the laps of the lawyers.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Don't Tell That Guy Anything

Andy Prieboy has put a "musical sketchbook" online entitled "Don't Tell That Guy Anything," consisting of six rejected songs that were lying around on his hard drive. Besides being wonderfully eclectic and giving insight into his own songwriting process, they're great songs (and they're cheap!)

The first one I heard (and the one that still resonates the most for me) was "Thunderbird (V-8 Wonder of the Western World)," with a video created by Edwin Vacek here:

In his writeup about the song, Prieboy reveals interesting things about the music (it was an Apple Loops experiment) and the lyrics. I find the subject of passive destruction and unsolvable hypocrisy to be endlessly fascinating, so it's amazing to see somebody combine those things into a series of beautiful and concise words.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Expanded Barracks Home Studio

Ladies and gentlemen, it's the newly-updated and fully-equipped Barracks Home Studio.

I've splurged a bit during the last few weeks. Errrr, actually, I've splurged quite a lot. My desire to raise my setup to the next level -- a level capable of semi-pro mastering -- has opened the floodgates in a terrifying way: when you find out how little you know, you also find out how much more you NEED.

Replace "Need" with "Want," if you like.

But my mixing and mastering quest will be detailed in another post. For now, this is where my studio stands today. And like an egocentric goof I'm going to tell you what's inside, in order of when it was acquired (more or less).
  • Akai S700 Sampler: The first instrument I bought that I still actually use, though its disk drive died several years ago. I picked this up mid-90s from Sherwood Music so I could hold my own within Mindsculpture, a band I was in at the time. It's incredibly easy to use, has a large sample capacity, and sounds pretty damn good...but the single mono out reduces its usefulness unless you're manually playing the thing.
  • Tascam Portastudio 424 Cassette 4-track: My second 4-track, after the first one suffered a tragic head loss. Most of my old pre-DAW music was recorded on this thing. Effect sends and returns, variable speed control, 2-band EQ, and extremely smooth operation. For a while I used it as a mixer and a pre-amp, but it's so noisy that it's almost useless. Now I just use it to get at my old master tapes.
  • DOD Digital Delay System R-910: I don't remember where I got this, which makes the following fact even stranger: it has almost no online presence whatsoever. No pictures. No manuals. No description. That's strange because it's so much fun! You can change your effects (flange, chorus, double, and echo) on the fly, apply a repeat hold, change all your settings's a real-time dub monster! Strictly monophonic, however, and it sounds a bit sharp. Here's a picture:

  • Ensoniq ESQ-1 Keyboard: About five years ago my neighbours had a garage sale, and this was the little gem they were selling FOR TEN DOLLARS. They were unable to get any sound out of it so they assumed it was broken (they were plugging a stereo headphone jack into the right mono port, no doubt), and I gleefully gave them twenty for it because I hated to see them get ripped off. Well, the battery immediately died (which is a huge deal for these keyboards), which also erased all the presets. I splurged on a Syntaur soundset cartridge and was back in business. It sounds weird and complicated in all the right ways, but I have yet to really devote the time to explore it. Downsides: you can't smoothly edit sounds while you play them, and there is no MIDI thru.
  • iMac Aluminum Desktop Computer: Now we're entering the modern era. Wonderful computer power. I'm running Logic Pro.
  • Korg NanoPad, NanoKontrol, and NanoKey Controllers: They certainly have their uses, but I get frustrated having to FIGHT them so often. Whether it's flaky detection thanks to their custom USB drivers, or an inability for their Kontrol Editor to update the devices occasionally, or keys getting stuck on they keyboard...well, you DO get what you pay for, and I certainly still use them. Here's my recent assessment.
  • Lexicon MX300 Effects Processor: I use this mainly for lush stereo reverb applied selectively to the mix, not to alter individual tracks...but now I can be more flexible because of...
  • ...the Presonus Firestudio Project 10x10 Firewire Interface: I've upgraded from the old 4x6 Firebox, for the simple reason that I was craving more effect send/receive capability. It's working perfectly and was an easy transition from the Firebox. Its editing software is SO simple, and it doesn't run NEARLY as hot as the Firebox (though maybe that's because it has a bigger surface area). Anyway, this is the lynchpin of the new studio setup.
  • Vox ToneLab LE pedal/effects/amp modeler: I bought this from my father and am only now really exploring it. I've had some bad impressions so far with a consistently harsh digital distortion, but that may be because of my source material, my amp settings, or my volume setup (probably all three). The expression pedal is beautiful just on its own for adding dynamics to a synth pad.
  • Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro Headphones: These started me on this upgrade project, because they revealed to me everything that was deficient about my equipment and my technique. Some things you don't WANT to hear, unless you have the means to fix them! Now I do.
  • iZotrope Ozone 4 Mastering Plugin: Do you want to know how much better and more professional your music can sound? Just try the demo. I can vouch that it operates just as sweetly as you can imagine. Even if you aren't trying the product, you should read their "Mastering with Ozone" guide, which is FULL of tips, information, and explanations for the neophyte mastering student.
  • KRK Rokit 5 G2 Close-Field Studio Speakers: I bought these today to finally bring my studio to a functional state. They're small (and I need to elevate them about two feet somehow) but they give an even tone that's far beyond anything I've ever owned before.
How does all this fit together? Basically I use Logic Pro as the central hub, with the Firestudio Project as a router for all my effects, external equipment, and monitoring options. It's a beastly patchwork of equipment but it all fits together now, and my hope is that I can finally CRAFT some music instead of simply hacking away at it.

Several projects are on the go, including a few collaborations that are far outside my comfort zone. More on that soon!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mathematics from Macy's

By extension, if you're wearing the WRONG clothes then games are only half as much fun.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The New Yorker Hitler-Watch

I am near the end of the 1930 issues of The New Yorker, and I am interested to see when Adolph Hitler begins appearing in the pages. I knew he really began consolidating his power after the depression hit Germany, but I didn't realize he was already internationally-known by October 11, 1930.

Here is a brief jokey comment in the "Of All Things" section of that issue. It marks -- as far as I know -- the first mention of Hitler in the magazine.
Hitler threatens to cut off some important German heads unless the demands of his party are met. He evidently means to set up a dictatorship of decapitalists.
Such is the style of New Yorker political commentary at the time: puns, puns, and more puns.

Anyway, it's obvious that Hitler was a visible figure to Americans at the time -- they don't even bother to mention his first name -- but I wonder what the charming fellow was up to and which demands he wanted met.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Works Automatically...Won't Burn Toast!

You might remember the spectacular introduction of the Toastmaster back in February of 1929. But holy shit, have you seen the new and improved Toastmaster? These two ladies in fur coats are looking at it right now!

Stop it, ladies! NO WATCHING! Don't watch it! Do something else for a while!
Of the hundreds of thousands who saw the remarkable first model which revolutionized toastmaking in America, not one would have believed it could ever have been improved upon.

Yet--that has been done!

It is even more simple, more amazing, more beautiful!
How has the Toastmaster improved in the last two years? They replaced one of the levers with a "small, new-type indicator," and it comes with "cool-type carrying handles" so you won't burn your pretty-type hands, and it also can't overheat and start your fur coat on fire at the flaming breakfast table! It won't burn your tabletop! It now does two slices at once! It's wonderful!

Ladies and Gentlemen, these ladies and I honestly don't think this toaster can get any better.