Aloha Rhapsody

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Aloha Rhapsody, composed in Hawaii, follows the concept of George Gershwin’s famous Rhapsody in Blue. It combines jazz and classical music with the latest electronic genres and modern Hawaiian hula. The suite’s six compositions convey a pleasant, intimate, story: an experience of aloha. Like scenes of a ballet, the compositions are meant to be played without a time gap for the best experience. Since half of the audio player programs can’t do this, the album also contains a seventh file which contains all six parts joined.

It is an auditory treat for the discerning listener; written for those special moments when one dims the lights, closes the door, gets comfortable and seeks a special musical experience with deeper emotions and meaning.

The high-energy Bach Classicstep is a study how well the latest EDM (electronic dance music) compositional innovations mix with traditional classical counterpoint and harmony (Bach conceto in C BWV 1061, movement 1, with a Shakespeare sonnet for lyrics). Quite pleasantly, it seems, so the future looks promising…

A tip of the hat to Rane, the original pianist to the stars and founder of Late Night With The Piano Kid, whose interest convinced me, it is finally time to unveil the Aloha Rhapsody. Thank you, Rane

Zinging the studio blues

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The real challenge is not to write music. It’s to finish it before the gear hangs.

Play the violin and mosquitoes line up to bite you. Now there’s a hint.

We all work in show business. Some just don’t realize.

What you call Gregorian chant sped up 8 times? Rap.

Anyone can play a difficult piece at 10,000 bpm. Just sit on the piano keys.

They call Apple’s composing software Logic for what it seems to need more of.

To do the same thing and expect a different result is the definition of insanity or a music career.

To find the iPhone users in the room, play some marimba.

If Beethoven composed on a computer, he might have completed three works in his life.

What musicians need is a Spotify Bank where one can take out unlimited funds for $9.99 a month.

What’s the bundle of TNT sticks in this grand piano? Oh, Steinway now uses copy protection?

The less sense one’s job makes, the more trumpets announce him.

A harp is a peeled piano.

I’m learning the iTunes Player. I put in a Skrillex song, pressed “Shuffle” and Beethoven’s 5th came out.

“Create any sound. Limited only by your imagination!” – first ad draft for triangle. Perplexingly rejected.

Cymbal: round discs which produce a spectacular crash at the song’s climax. Just like software.

He was a ventriloquist with a puppet first. Then he sold parakeets. Now he plays piano for a singing diva.

They score porn with dance music in case we want to dance to it. You noticed, right?

One needs a recording studio to go through all the mistakes. Mostly the manufacturers’.

I asked the saleslady for a Music Minus One Chopin Mazurkas CD. She said sure and gave me a drink coaster. Even score.

Why hijack a flight? Just practice singing on it until enough $$$ collects for a ticket.

Had God tried to use this harmonizer, we’d have 11 Commandments today.

A great classical composer can synthesize all the musical know-how. Except how to make a living of it.

Say, when they started this Stalingrad Symphony recital, didn’t Stalingrad still stand?

I write a zinger whenever studio gear frustrates the daylights out of me. Guess you can tell I’ve been using the harmonizer again.

Car chair to studio (computer) chair

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A composer will spend tens of thousands of hours perfecting his trade. People who play keyboards like I do will spend a lot of this time in a chair. If you have more than one keyboard stacked vertically, your sitting height will not be a standard 20" from the ground. Adding books to a standard piano bench I measured my optimal seat height as 26" tall for my studio rig. Guess what? They only chair you can buy at any price with a 26″ seat height is a drafting chair. I sat on one in an office store to try it, the leg rest broke right off. Rickety as they are, drafting chairs are rated for “light use” only,1 to 3 hours daily. At 3 hours a day, learning for 20,000 hours would take 18 years.

Boeing 727 chair on ebaySo one starts thinking where people use chairs for extended sitting sessions. Decommissioned airplanes! A quick check on eBay, and yup, someone is selling a Boeing 727 observer’s seat for just $175. Looks more like a WW2 military latrine cover, though. Tell studio visitors this came out of a Boeing, and they’ll just laugh. Time for Plan B: let’s head for the Elegant Leather Seat Forest. Also known as the city’s car junkyard.

The junkyard operators found me a perfectly working leather seat in a new Acura TLS (see picture) the owner lovingly wrapped around a tree. One can’t say enough good things about bad driving. It makes the car last as long as you do, supplies YouTube with an endless stream of crash videos, and provides upcoming composers with genuine fake leather seats. Acura

For $75 a technician expertly removed the seat for me. If $75 seems high, remember I got probably the only still working part out of that Acura. As I carried the leather chair into the house, my neighbor couldn’t help but remark, “George, your car is shedding parts this badly?” I replied, “Nope, this is my new Acura. I’m just buying it piecemeal.”

I bought a worn office chair for its rotating / adjustable leg part for $15 at Salvation Army, but on the way home I found a much nicer silver one abandoned on the side of the road. (Long live parrot poop what got it tossed!) For the wooden plate to join the car chair top with the office chair legs, I picked up a 5-layer composite 14″x18″ board from Home Depot’s cull box, for a hefty price of $1. Adding Gorilla glue, black spray paint for the wood parts and four finger-thick metal nut/bolt combos, the total was roughly $105.

Cutting the metalMy Plan A was to remove all car seat rail screws to make the two rails flat. Then I can attach a wooden plate to the rails, and the office chair leg to the plate. Look Ma, no welding! Nice plan, but a few twists to the round screw heads of the seat rail quickly convinced me, they won’t come off during this Presidential administration. Nor the next.

So instead I cut off the metal rail parts that extended down more than 1 inch with a power cutter (see picture). I spray painted the 1.5" tall wood bricks black, and as soon as the spray paint dried on them (and on yours truly), I Gorilla glued them to or near the chair rails’ ends with the chair resting upside down. Since this glue stinks to high heaven, I did all this at an open air location I had access to.

Final chairOnce the glue set, I put together the car chair, the plate and the office chair leg, trying to get a feel where to center things for the best balance. At the best setting I sprayed from underneath to get a black dot on the wooden plate where the leg part’s screw holes fall. I drilled the wooden plate at those locations and spray painted it black next.

After the paint dried, I screwed the office chair leg with its orginial four bolts to the freshly drilled wooden plate, and I glued the whole to the wood bricks with the chair upside down again. Gorilla glue’s long time reliability seemed a tad doubtful. So the final step was to drill right through the wooden plate and bricks and the metal car seat rail and with four finger-thick bolts and cap each bolt with a nut.

From a car chair I built a computer / keyboard chair that wouldn’t look too out of place in a Boeing indeed. (See final picture.) It cost less than what a fabric drafting chair would have cost in the store. Besides, which drafting chair has a side air bag? And a seat belt socket I can pull out anytime I want to? From 26″ seat height it can go as high as 32″, it can tilt or lock, it turns around 360 and feels comfy like real leather. George Gershwin, here I come! If I can only sweet talk my better half to sit elsewhere from it.

Computer Independence Day

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George Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue after 16 years of learning; J. S. Bach composed his first famous fugues after 18 years of study. Would you buy a composing tool if you knew that you will loose it in 10 years? No? How about your computer? Apple changed its CPU every 10 years; it happened in 1984, in 1994 and in 2004. Each time apps that might have taken years to master were lost. Software companies love to fret how their products work as well or better than dedicated hardware. Not one ever added, "except the metal running it will be gone in 10 years at most."

Great composers usually use the same, well-learned composing tool throughout their lifetime. Bach had a clavichord. Gerswhin used a piano. Today the tool might be a bunch of programs, and sound libraries on a computer. How do you preserve this for a lifetime? By loading it into a virtualization program.

For those who never heard of these, a virtualization program like VMware’s Workstation or Oracle’s VirtualBox runs like a computer inside your computer. You can install and run operating system(s) and program(s) into its window, which can be enlarged to full monitor size. The program saves its whole virtual enchilada, called "virtual machine" (VM, in short) to hard disk as one file; like a giant synthesizer patch. Open this VM file on any new computer that has a matching virtualization program and bingo, your whole work toolset springs back to life as it was on the old computer. (Some programs, plugins or sound libraries may require reauthorizing on the new computer, but this is rather minor compared to having to reinstall everything from scratch.) So you can take your tools on a vacation on a laptop, or migrate them to a new computer, switch them from PC to Mac or Linux or vice versa – you just became independent from your computer’s lifespan. Welcome to Eternal File…

i7-920 desktop @ 4.3 GHz, 18 GB of RAM. Lower Ableton CPU % is better. Click screen thumbnails for close-up

Host Ableton CPU % on host OS Ableton CPU % in Windows 7 VM Ableton CPU % in OSX VM
Win7 10% 13% in VMware Workstation 7.1 20% in VMware Workstation 7.1.
64bit Screen Shot Screen Shot Screen Shot
OSX 13%, unstable; 17%, stable @ 3.3GHz 21%, unstable; 27%, stable @ 3.3GHz "No audio" in VMWare Fusion 3.
64bit Screen Shot Screen Shot Screen Shot
Linux Program not available for Linux 29% in VirtualBox on Open Artist 32% in VMware Player on ArtistX


Milk Carton Screen Shot Screen Shot
Linux Program not available for Linux 21% in VMWare Workstation on Ubuntu 10 34% in VMWare Workstation on Ubuntu 10


Milk Carton

The cost? Time, mostly. You’ll need to recreate your composing environment in a virtual machine – once. Some programs claim they can convert your existing computer setup to a VM, but I have to see one useable result yet. Most of these conversion utilities are free though. Also, a music DAW program has slightly lower performance in aVM than on the host operating system (OS). On my i7 PC overclocked to 4.36 GHz, the standard Ableton test file used 13% CPU capacity in a VMware virtual machine, versus 10% on the host Windows 7. (See table below.) Without overclocking, the same file required 14% on the host Windows 7, so a bit of overclocking can give you more CPU boost than what virtualizing takes away.


Bottom line: if you’ll live just another 40 years (a very conservative estimate) and you buy a new computer ever 2 years, you’d have to reinstall (er, "migrate") and relink all your working apps and plugins and sound libraries and what-have-you 20 more times. Given that relinking the files of a single moved Ableton sampler library alone may take 5000+ hours as I discovered at my own detriment, 20 computer migrations can add up to half a lifetime wasted. If Bach had to work this way, he’d have completed a total of 5 songs in his life. On the other hand, if you virtualize your work tools just once, you are set…

Notes: in spite of its numerous good sides, virtualization (in its present form) has shown some shortcomings too. On Windows 7, the OSX VM offered no screen resizing, only cropping of the OSX desktop. On OSX only 6GB of RAM from the 18 Gigs present were recognized and OSX misread CPU speed as well. A boot OSX allowed only OSX server (not plain $29 OSX) in VM. Windows XP x64 (64-bit) touted as the best potentional host OS of all, crashed with every 64-bit VM in fact. Finally, all current virtualization programs lack support for FireWire and certain PCI cards. The discussion on composing tool longevity continues on several places, between them this Motifator thread, where new ideas such as "synth block design" and "recording black box" are also introduced.

Test: VR Goggles in a recording studio

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Vuzix’s iWear VR920 video goggles are well known in PC gaming circles. I’m not a gamer, but I saw several potential uses in my Mac-centered recording studio. Nighttime songwriting without lighting the whole house up with the big screen, being able to watch two computers simultaneously, interacting with a computer only I can see, playing the keyboard while I weld, looking like an albino Ray Charles… so I decided to try Vuzix for muzix.

The first thought one gets when opening the box is that there is no paper manual. You get a PC disc with a PDF manual on it. One would think, if you can read the manual with the goggles then you don’t need it (and vice versa) but this might be just my anti-smartass medication wearing off. My second impression is, the goggles pack about 15 times the weight of my driving glasses. They won’t make your nose fall off, but my sniffer had two red dips after just 10 minutes. It was time to call upon the mother of all computer repair materials – loo paper. I rolled up half a slice, slid it under the nose bridge, and … ahh, instant relief. Hmmm, let’s see what happens if I use a whole rolled-up slice? I cad’t breathe, I overdosed od doilet paper! OK, back to the smaller pad, it makes me look so Charmin.

The goggles with my nose bridge pad

Look Ma, no eyes!

The normal view at key bay 1

Studio headphones *and* the VR goggles.

My studio rig consists of more than a dozen hardware synths, a G5 and a i7 composing Mac. The brunt of the composing happens on the G5, with its’ hundreds of apps amassed through a decade. I set both Macs to the goggles’ 1024 x 768 max resolution in advance. I plugged the goggles VGA and USB plugs into the i7 Mac… and there I was, with a nicely humming computer and pitch black video. Yay, I see an elephant’s butt in 3D! As it turns out, 1) one must restart the Intel Mac for the goggles to start working, and 2) if you plug the goggles into an inactive USB slot like the one I picked first, they won’t get power to run. After I fixed these two errors, the i7 video came up fine, albeit too dark. Switching the color profile from Vuzix 920 to General RGB in the Displays system preference fixed this. Sometimes it helps not to know what you are doing.

On the G5 the goggle hookup went smoothly from the first. At 1024 x 768 the text was a bit hard to decipher, so I downshifted to 800 x 600. It caused Ableton Live to warp itself off the screen, but a restart fixed this. OK we got picture, my favorite music programs like Ableton Live and Karma M3 work, let’s unplug the goggles and plug back the 42" LCD… but what resolution was it at originally? Shoot, I forgot to write it down. I clicked a choice from the suggested ones, and the big screen went into a video restart cycle that no Escape key or hard restarts could stop afterwards. Wow, I just invented a jumbo strobe light! Here I am with no desktop size monitor nearby, and an OSX which lacks a "boot at base resolution video" key command. I borrowed a small screen next day, hooked up to the G5, and set the resolution back to 1024 x 768 through it. Done! Well, nope. As soon as I removed the small screen, and reconnected the big LCD, the video strobing resumed. The G5 would be probably still doing it today, had I not remembered that I have a 4-way VGA splitter box laying around, which always forces the host computer video to 60 kHz and 60 Hz . I hooked the box up… and the G5 works fine with the 42" LCD again, as long as the VGA splitter runs between the two. As they say, if you cannot fix it with a hammer, it’s a software problem.

A recreation of how the view changes at key bay 1 with the goggle on. If I move my head a bit I can see the second, or third synth. If I move my head a lot, I fall on my back.

I did not try to run the goggle as a second monitor besides the existing one because the video cards in both Macs sport an extinct ADC out for the second port. Apple’s April Fools gags usually take the form of custom video connectors and the occasional CPU switch. The good news is, we have good video on the goggles from either the i7 or the G5 Mac, we are in business. If I shake my head, the second screen shakes along with it, a new experience. How about audio? It plays if you select the VR920 as the output in the Sound system preference. The VR920 shows up as an audio output device on whichever Mac has its USB cable connected. (Yep, this means you can watch the video from one Mac via its VGA while you listen to the audio from another Mac via its USB, I tried.) But…earbuds? I’m no "budding artist’, thanks, I prefer my pro studio headphones. Luckily the buds are removable. Selecting the VR920 as the Mac’s audio output, would also stop audio going to the output that normally feeds one’s mixing board. So it’s better to stick to the mixer and to the pro headphones from the outset. With the big studio headphones on your head, the Vuzix goggles fits only at a slight angle, rendering the very top and bottom of its screen a bit blurry. But yes, you can have both devices on your head simultaneously (as my picture shows) and even hop around the keyboards if you add a long enough VGA and USB extension cable leash.

Test: Linux in the recording studio

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Ahh, Linux. The sweet sounding promise to end a musician’s daily hassles. Free! No more copy protection hassles! Developed by millions! Available in 20+ different flavors! Did I mention it’s free?

Linux panorama

Every review you read in the tech press raves about Linux, but those are written my seasoned Linux hacks to whom having to type Terminal commands like

ACTION==”add”, SUBSYSTEM==”usb*”, ATTRS{idVendor}==”0763″, ATTRS{idProduct}==”1010″, RUN+=”/sbin/fxload -s /usr/share/usb/maudio/MidiSportLoader.ihx -I /usr/share/usb/maudio/MidiSport1x1.ihx -D %N”

to install a MIDI interface is not even worth a mention in the review. So how does Linux really work, when a real world studio musician tries it? I took the plunge at tested ALL 20+ Linux music distributions on a mass-market Hewlett Packard a1519h computer, zapping several of its components during the adventure. What worked and what didn’t? The chronicle is here.