Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Tying it all Together

Here are some links to various places on the web that relate to me for anyone who is interested.

MySpace - My MySpace (Or My_____ as it's now known) music page - My uncle's page - some of my earliest recording work

Soundcloud(s) - My Soundcloud. Not much there now, but I have stuff ready to post - A soundcloud I use for covers - Not mine, it's my friend Jonsie's soundcloud, but I did write and perform the piano part on the track "The Bother of Love". Check his stuff out, he's a fantastic drummer and a good engineer.

Blogs - A blog I had to put together for my music diploma discussing different genres of music. It's nothing fantastic, but I've included it for the sake of completeion - Admittedly this won't make much sense to someone outside my family, and it's been dead for a while, but it's a blog we kept going with spoof news and articles. It was fun while it lasted.

Youtube - Go watch my old videos if you have a spare 10 minutes

StumbleUpon - Just a cross section of what I look at on the web. Feel free to subscribe, or just have a look through my stumbles.
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Friday, 25 March 2011

I hate music technology! – Part 1 – Compression

Okay, that’s not strictly true, but there are elements of it that drive me up the wall. Music tech has made music what it is today; vibrant, varied, high quality and accessible, and for that I am grateful. However, it has lead to several practices within music – especially mainstream pop that make me want to seal up my ears with concrete.

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first; compression. For those who aren’t familiar with compression, it is a process that alters the dynamics, or loudness, of a recording by reducing the volume when the level goes above a certain point, turning a recording with lots of volume changes into one that is a lot smoother.

Sounds useful, right? Well it can be, and indeed in many cases it is essential. It is often required to even out the levels of vocal recordings, and when used correctly on a bass guitar you get that fantastic thunky bass sound. Even compression and limiting at mastering can be useful – but in moderation!

Looking at the amplitude envelope (a visual representation of the amplitude of a waveform over time) of a couple of songs that I happen to have a couple of versions of it is easy to spot the increase in volume. The first song (How Soon is Now by The Smiths) is noticeably louder in the second instance, and if you look at the right channel in the second instance (lower waveform) you can see that most of the dynamic range has been squeezed out of the track. It is also worth noting that the envelope of the remastered recording is like a big block, all of the peaks have been trimmed down to maximise the overall volume without causing distortion.

The Smiths - How Soon is Now (Amplitude Envelope Comparison)
The second song (Tom Sawyer by Rush) doesn’t suffer this loss of dynamics because it was fairly constant to begin with, but notice again that the peaks are being cut in order to squeeze the track under the 0dB threshold.*

Rush - Tom Sawyer (Amplitude Envelope Comparison)

So what’s the problem? Louder is better, right?

By compressing the music this much you no longer get the contrast between loud and quiet, a musical device that composers have used for centuries in order to give life to a piece. By removing those dynamics the loud sections lose their power, because they’re not much louder than the quiet sections. Granted, in electronica and hiphop overcompression is a big part of the sound, but this culture of remastering albums and sucking the dynamic range out of them just to boost the volume seems a tad unnecessary to me. Also, after listening to heavily compressed music for a while your ears begin to get tired. This will happen anyway, but it sets in a lot faster with heavily compressed music.

Compression is an important tool for producers, but it’s a tool that has been abused. I don’t hate compression, but the way that older recordings are being remastered and given the brick wall treatment makes me think twice about buying a remastered recording. Compression may solve many problems encountered in the studio, but the way that recordings are being squashed and squeezed has sucked the soul out of some of my favourite recordings, and that makes me hate it.

Today (25th March 2011) is the second annual Dynamic Range Day, set up to highlight the effects of the loudness war, and to try to educate musicians and engineers about the dangers of overcompression. Their message is simple - music with dynamic range sounds better. The website has plenty of information about the loudness war so it's well worth checking out.

Next time I’ll be looking at what I call preset culture, and how the sound of pop music has been affected by the advances in synthesizer technology.

*In digital recording the highest level you can record before encountering clipping is 0dB. The minimum depends on the bit depth of the recording, but for CDs the standard is approximately -96 dB, and on commercial recording systems using a sample size of 24 bit the range is roughly -144 dB. The higher the bit depth the greater the dynamic range.

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Monday, 21 March 2011

Tidiness...or lack of it

Some people are tidy. Some people are not.

Three guesses which category I fall into.

It’s not that I don’t try to be tidy – just last week I cleared my bedroom floor, threw away all of the rubbish on my desk and shelves and cleared my laundry backlog. I can do it, but I just get lost in everything else.

Anyone who knows me well enough to have seen the inside of my bedroom will probably agree that it’s a messy place. I keep it clean, but my floor is usually very cluttered. I remember one day being out with a friend and deciding to go back to mine for a cup of tea. The mess was just too much for her, and after 10 minutes or so she began tidying up.

Tomorrow I’m going away for a couple of days, and I’m not packed. My dirty washing is just that – dirty. I’m working in the morning, so I’m going to have to make a whistle-stop trip to the laundry between finishing work and setting off, pack, repack (I always forget something) and go to the train station. I suppose I should clear my desk too, and put away the music gear I’ve been using.

I find myself in these situations more and more these days, and I always think the same thing – “why couldn’t you have done this when you were [insert procrastination activity]??” Problem is, as soon as I begin thinking about all of that stuff my brain goes into safe mode, and I drift off into a daydream. Before I know what’s happened I’m sitting on the computer stumbling or buggering around in Reason and I’ve lost an hour.

I suppose I’ve grown up in the sense that I’m no longer leaving assignments until the last minute – something I did a lot at New College when I was doing my BTEC. My assignments are finished with enough time for proof reading and printing, so I suppose I’ve won that battle at least.

Now…where did I put my keys…

Mr Messy and the Mr Men are copyright © Mister Men Limited (a Chorion company)
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Wednesday, 16 March 2011

My Piano

I'm a synth player; I love the sound of a well-programmed synthesizer patch. I love getting down to low level editing and creating new and interesting sounds, adding effects, making sounds that you couldn't possibly produce organically. Having said all that, I'm in love with the piano; the sound, the feel, the sheer size of the thing. The piano is not an instrument for those who want convenience; it’s heavy and hard to tune, but it’s such a satisfying instrument to play.

Unfortunately, because I move a lot it’s not practical for me to have an acoustic piano – even an upright would be too much hassle, but I do have a digital piano, and even though it’s getting on (coming up to 9 years old) it’s still a very solid, reliable, and above all realistic sounding piece of kit.

I’ve always liked Roland digital pianos, to me they’ve got the best grand piano sound on the market and the best hammer action weighted keys (Yamaha and Casio being too soft and clicky, Kurzweil being too heavy and rigid). I’ve used a few of the RD line, and I own an F-100, and they have all sounded great.

A formidable pair - my Roland F-100 with my Juno-G. Taken a few years ago in my flat in Durham

It’s hard to be sentimental about a piece of technology – I could get a new laptop tomorrow and as long as I had my files I wouldn’t care if I never saw this one again. That’s not to say it’s a bad laptop, because it’s a damn good one, but I don’t feel anything for it emotionally. My digital piano on the other hand, that’s a different story. It’s prepared me for some major events in my life; my music GCSE performance, my audition for New College Durham, the NCD shows. I’ve learned to play some of my favourite pieces of music on it. I’ve composed music on it; some of which I am incredibly attached to. These days it spends most of its time hooked into Reason and Pro Tools via MIDI, so I don’t use the internal sounds as much anymore, certainly not for recording, but I still play it every day, and most of my new musical ideas begin with me sitting playing my piano.

Me playing Please Don't Ask by Genesis on the F-100 (using Reason's Piano refill as a sound source)

To someone else it’s a few bits of wood, metal and plastic. Indeed in its current form it’s not even especially attractive (I took the wooden sides and pedal bar off in order to make it more portable), but to me it’s been a source of great joy and inspiration.
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