Watch The Black Madonna DJ live from … inside a video game

Algorithmic selection, soulless streaming music, DJ players that tell you what to play next and then do it for you… let’s give you an alternative, and much more fun and futuristic future. Let’s watch The Black Madonna DJ from inside a video game.

This is some reality-bending action here. The Black Madonna, an actual human, played an actual DJ set in an actual club, as that entire club set was transformed into a virtual rendition. That in turn was then streamed as a promotion via Resident Advisor. Eat your heart out, Boiler Room. Just pointing cameras at people? So last decade.

From Panorama Bar to afterhours in the uncanny valley:

This is less to do with CDM, but… I enjoy watching the trailer about the virtual club, just because I seriously never get tired of watching Marea punching a cop. (Create Digital Suckerpunches?)

Um… apologies to members of law enforcement for that. Just a game.

So, back to why this is significant.

First, I think actually The Black Madonna doesn’t get nearly the credit she deserves for how she’s been able to make her personality translate across the cutthroat-competitive electronic music industry of the moment. There’s something to learn from her approach – to the fact that she’s relatable, as she plays and in her outspoken public persona.

And somehow, seeing The Black Madonna go all Andy Serkis here puts that into relief. (See video at bottom.) I mean, what better metaphor is there for life in the 21st century? You have to put on a weird, uncomfortable, hot suit, then translate all the depth of your humanness into a virtual realm that tends to strip you of dimensions, all in front of a crowd of strangers online you can’t see. You have to be uncannily empathic inside the uncanny valley. A lot of people see the apparent narcissism on social media and assume they’re witnessing a solution to the formula, when in fact it may be simply signs of desperation.

Marea isn’t the only DJ to play Grand Theft Auto’s series, but she’s the one who seems to actually manage to establish herself as a character in the game.

To put it bluntly: whatever you think of The Black Madonna, take this as a license to ignore the people who try to stop you from being who you are. It’s not going to get you success, but it is going to allow you to be human in a dehumanizing world.

And then there’s the game itself, now a platform for music. Rockstar Games have long been incurable music nerds – yeah, our people. That’s why you hear well curated music playlists all over the place, as well as elaborate interactive audio and music systems for industry-leading immersion. They’re nerds enough that they’ve even made some side trips like trying to make a beat production tool for the Sony PSP with Timbaland. (Full disclosure: I consulted on an educational program around that.)

This is unquestionably a commercial, mass market platform, but it’s nonetheless a pretty experimental concept.

Yes, yes – lots of flashbacks to the days of Second Life and its fledgling attempts to work as a music venue.

The convergence of virtual reality tech, motion capture, and virtual venues on one hand with music, the music industry, and unique electronic personalities on the other I think is significant – even if only as a sign of what could be possible.

I’m talking now to Rockstar to find out more about how they pulled this off. Tune in next time as we hopefully get some behind-the-scenes look at what this meant for the developers and artists.

While we wait on that, let’s nerd out with Andy Serkis about motion capture performance technique:

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Eurorack’s prices are dropping, as Herr Schneider laments

With the proliferation of modules, the phrase “Eurorack bubble” has been floating around for a while. But now it appears to be translating into falling prices.

The basic problem is this: more demand means more interest, which translates into more manufacturers, and more production. So far, so good. Then, more distributors pick up the goods – not just boutique operators like Schneider, but also bigger chains.

Where’s the problem? With too many modules out there in the marketplace, and more big retailers, it’s easier for the big retailers to start to squeeze manufacturers on price. Plus, the more modules out in the world, the greater the supply of used modules.

Andreas Schneider has chosen to weigh in on the issue personally. You can read his statement in German:

Jetzt auch XAOC bei Thomann ..

And in an English translation (with more commentary by Schneiderladen in English):

HerrSchneiders statement on current developments in the Eurorack market [stromkult]

There’s actually a lot there – though the banner revelation is seeing the cost of new modules suddenly plummet by 30%:

You asked for it: Due to the increased demand for Eurorack modules in Europe, even the large retailers for musical instruments are now filling the last corners of their warehouses and buying complete production runs from manufacturers and everything else they can get. Some manufacturers might be happy about this, but the flooding of the market already leads to a significant drop in prices here and there, some modules are already available with a 30% discount on the original calculated price and yet were still quite hot the other day!

As SchneidersLaden we have decided to go along with this development and of course offer corresponding products for the same price to our customers, although most of them have already bought them when the goods were still fresh and crisp! We’re almost a little sorry about that, but hopefully the hits are already produced and the music career is up and running? Nevertheless, sorry – but the decision for this way lies with the manufacturer and was not our recommendation!

By the way… we don’t advertise with moneyback-warranty… we’ve always practiced it. But please: get advice first, then buy – like in the good old days. Because it’s better to talk to your specialist retailer – we know what we are selling. And by the way: We do free shipping throughout Europe and there are Thursdays on that we are in the shop until nine o’clock in the evening …and real CHAOS serves creativity.

That had to be said – end of commercial break.

Okay, so some different messages. To manufacturers, with whom Schneider seems to place a lot of the blame, the message is to avoid glutting the market by selling so many units that then they lose their price margin. (That seems good advice.) There’s also a “dance with the one that brung you” attitude here, but that’s probably fair, as well.

To buyers, work with specialists, and please research what you buy so you don’t shoulder retailers and manufacturers with lots of returns. That seems good advice, too.

(Hope I’ve paraphrased that fairly.)

It does seem there’s a looming problem beyond just what’s here, though. For the community to continue to expand, it will have to find more new markets. It does seem some saturation point is inevitable, and that could mean a shakeout of some manufacturers – though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The used market should also be a worry, though on the other hand, some people do always seem to buy new.

I’d echo what the two posts here say, which is the synth maker world will likely be healthy if manufacturers and consumers do some research and support one another.

Before anyone predicts the sky is falling, I’ve had a number of conversations with modular makers. Those with some experience seem to be doing just fine, even if some have expressed concern about the larger market and smaller and newer makers. That is, those with some marketing experience and unique products still see growth – but that growth may not translate to greener manufacturers who are trying to cram into what is becoming a crowded field.

Other thoughts? Let us know.

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Synths may be spared worst of US trade war – for now

Following Moog Music’s alarmed email regarding US trade policy, some in the synth industry have responded that the immediate impact on manufacturers will be minimal.

Okay, so what’s going on?

The matter of discussion is still a document by the US Trade Representative regarding proposed tariffs or import taxes. These are 25% additional tariffs imposed by the USA on Chinese goods as they’re imported into the United States.

This document has changed over the past months. But the USTR does provide a public comment period for any changes – meaning, while these tariffs are set to go into effect this Friday the 6th of July, theoretically there shouldn’t be any additional changes.

And that’s where there’s a legitimate problem with the way Moog Music – and my own writing here on CDM – presented the problem.

Paul Schreiber, an engineer who has worked with multiple companies in the industry, posted a heated rebuttal to the Moog letter. That was not necessarily to defend Trump administration policy, but rather to suggest that Moog and others may have overreacted or mischaracterized the immediate realities of the policy.

See, previously:
Moog urges US citizens to take action to stop Trump import tax

Long story short: the idea is, the tariffs apply only to small components, like LEDs and potentiometers, but not to more significant expenses like the “circuit boards” Moog mentioned in their email.

And in fact, the cost of those really shouldn’t significantly impact the cost of US-made products, including Moog’s – even on an instrument that’s covered in LEDs and stuffed with circuits, those particular parts make up a relatively small portion of the cost. They’re not meaningless – shaving dollars and even cents off individual components is a pretty major part of the design process. But they’re not the sort of thing that would disrupt jobs or hurt the economy.

The area of confusion may be around circuit boards, as Schreiber observes – and I’m forced to admit, I agree with his assessment. He writes in a follow-up post:

If you search the tariff PDF for ‘printed circuit assemblies’, you get many hits (ATM machines, radiation detectors, etc) and here in Section 90, this one listing.
The ‘issue’ is that the listing of the tariff codes are an ABBREVIATED DESCRIPTION, not ‘as formally written’ in the ACTUAL codes.
The 9030 section of Chapter 90 is SPECIFICALLY talking about oscilloscopes. And this 9030.90.68 is referring to a non-US company, importing a ‘kit of parts’ into the USA, including a stuffed pc board, and then building a scope in the USA.

That’s not necessarily a definitive list, and it is open to interpretation but … I do tend to agree with this interpretation, unless someone can present a compelling alternative reading.

There are still reasons for the electronic musical instrument building community to be concerned. An escalating trade war between the USA and its trading partners could pose unexpected problems in the near future. And if these trading difficulties hurt the US economy, that impact could be felt, too. But it’s important to separate that from the immediate impact on making synths, which for the moment may indeed be negligible.

Other industries have greater cause to worry. The US automakers in particular are seriously concerned about costs for raw materials and retaliatory penalties abroad – but they’re impacted differently than US synthmakers are. Agriculture are concerned, too, as punitive measures cut off markets they need for exports. (And, okay, yes, synthesizers make up a much smaller part of the US economy than cars or agriculture, obviously. I guess we still have work to do? Or we have to figure out how you can ride synthesizers to different places, or … eat them.)

The DIY community I shared in my original post are harder hit, too, as a lot of their products are just these components – see Boing Boing’s story on maker products.

And there’s the fact that the US President is saying threatening things about the EU in general.

But in a heated political climate, it’s important to separate long-term risks from immediate problems, and to keep concerns in scale. For now, it’s reasonable for makers like Moog to protest isolationist or protectionist US trade policy, or heated up trade rhetoric and potential trade wars. But the rules going into effect this week, when viewed just inside the context of our industry, likely aren’t catastrophic – not yet.

I’m awaiting further comment from Moog on their activism and will update this story when that’s available.

Feature photo (CC-BY Paul Downey.

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Trump’s tariffs could be costly for made-in-the-USA music gear

Industries like automative (and motorcycles) may be getting the attention, but music gear and even Eurorack could feel the impact of trade restrictions in the United States.

This is CDM, not the Economist, so let’s back up and review the issue but stick to the impact on makers of synthesizers, guitar pedals, and the like.

First, it’s important to note that for now, this is all talk – a threat by the Trump Administration meant to provoke rival China. Specifically, we’re talking about a the Trump Administration threat last week to impose stiff import tariffs on $200 billion in goods produced in China. But even the talk is relevant, as tensions between the superpowers can turn a threat into reality – especially if they cause the negotiations to fail.

Here’s what’s happened. Early last week, the Trump Administration threatened new tariffs on Chinese goods:
U.S., China Rattle Trade-War Sabers in Vowing Harsh Tariffs [Bloomberg]

Bloomberg immediately speculated that electronics could be hit hard. The result could be higher prices for consumers of those goods in the USA – presumably including some Chinese-made electronic music gear. CDM readers from South America, for instance, can attest to this reality – ask someone from Brazil, for instance, how expensive it is to get a popular music controller or mixer. Those tariffs hit the bottom-line cost of goods, so the penalty is passed on to the consumer, not necessarily the manufacturer (though more on that in a moment).

Then things got more specific – and interesting. The US Trade Representative (USTR) – essentially the office that both develops the President’s trade policy and represents the US on behalf of the Administration – published a list of just which Chinese goods it had in mind.

There’s a lot in that document, if you feel like reading it:
https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/Press/Releases/301FRN.pdf

According to the USTR, this exhaustive list of products is selected based on goods that “benefit from Chinese industrial policies, including Made in China 2025.” (That in itself is a pretty striking statement – even in a western country like the USA, it’s hard to imagine that industries don’t benefit from government policies.) Then, from that list, the USTR claim they’ve removed products that would disrupt the US economy.

And then the whole lot of these products gets a proposed 25% increase in tariffs – on top of what’s already there.

The whole process of identifying this list is based on public hearings and comment. So if you’re a US citizen, you can actually participate in a public comment process if these tariffs would impact you.

And then you get into the list. The way the global trading system works is, you have a set of codes that describe specific categories of goods, to an absurd level of detail. Here, you have pages of particular kinds of steel and aluminum and machinery.

But one thing the list has a whole lot of us is electronics components: motors, batteries, but also LEDs, capacitors, diodes, transistors and the like. There are also a whole lot of machines and components used in the manufacture of electronics, from injection molding to electronics assembly.

There are also weird things, like electrical particle accelerators and nuclear power reactors, but we can forget about those.

The bottom line is, a lot of the ingredients of electronics are included under the tariffs, but then a lot of the assembled goods – including, as near as I can tell from this list, musical instruments and music and sound electronics – are excluded. Assembled TVs and (perversely) tape VCRs are taxed. But most other finished goods aren’t.

So if you thought your made-in-China pocket recorder or keyboard would be slapped with a tariff, that’s not what’s happening – not in the proposed list. In fact, it’s the made-in-the-USA gear that winds up getting more expensive, because American makers use components purchased from China.

The tech press has responded accordingly:

Gadget makers are bracing for Trump’s trade war: Trump’s tariffs could spell doom for small hardware startups [The Verge]

But maybe even more interestingly, DIY-focused site Hack-A-Day weighs in:
MAKING ELECTRONICS JUST GOT 25% MORE EXPENSIVE IN THE US

For example:

This will hurt all electronics manufacturers in the United States. For a quick example, I’m working on a project using half a million LEDs. I bought these LEDs (120 reels) two months ago for a few thousand dollars. This was a fantastic buy; half a million of the cheapest LEDs I could find on Mouser would cost seventeen thousand dollars. Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.

(Emphasis mine.)

Potentiometers are included. PCB components.

A 25% increase in parts costs is fairly significant. It’s eating directly into profits. And what’s strange to me is, an easy way to avoid the tariffs would be to assemble the product outside the United States, since for most product categories – as ours are in music – the components are impacted but assembled products are not.

Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.

For now, all of this is hypothetical. And I don’t want to overstate the case here. Trade and economic instability would likely threaten boutique music gear makers far more than these kinds of tariffs. That is, those boutique synth makers might be able to work out a way around the increased tariffs, and/or adjust prices. But if a massive trade war between the US and China erupts and crashes the economy, lost demand for synths would hurt more.

I do think this illustrates two important points, however.

One, even as electronic music offers some respite from politics and headlines, the news will inevitably reach electronic music and gear. You can’t escape the news in the end.

Two, it’s more clear than ever that the world is an interconnected place. DIY music and independent boutique music gear makers have exploded thanks to both the Internet and global trade. That’s included cheap access to prototyping, cheap components and machinery – even for those makers producing in the USA. For other engineers, cheap and expanding Chinese manufacture has allowed people to become manufacturers who otherwise never would have done so.

That’s not to get into the deeper questions of how positive these trends have been, or what impacts they may have had along the way – societal, environmental, human.

But the world of 2018 sees musicians and inventors tied together across borders and distance in ways they never were before. And with that world order shifting fast, those connections are likely to change along with them, in unpredictable ways.

Okay, you’re now free to go apply some unpredictable modulation to an oscillator if all of this made your head hurt.

All comments welcome. (I’ve reached out for comment to some manufacturers; I expect an ongoing conversation here around these issues, especially as we get more news.)

Feature photo (CC-BY Paul Downey.

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Minds, machines, and centralization: AI and music

Far from the liberated playground the Internet once promised, online connectivity now threatens to give us mainly pre-programmed culture. As we continue reflections on AI from CTM Festival in Berlin, here’s an essay from this year’s program.

If you attended Berlin’s festival this year, you got this essay I wrote – along with a lot of compelling writing from other thinkers – in a printed book in the catalog. I asked for permission from CTM Festival to reprint it here for those who didn’t get to join us earlier this year. I’m going to actually resist the temptation to edit it (apart from bringing it back to CDM-style American English spellings), even though a lot has happened in this field even since I wrote it at the end of December. But I’m curious to get your thoughts.

I also was lucky enough to get to program a series of talks for CTM Festival, which we made available in video form with commentary earlier this week, also with CTM’s help:
A look at AI’s strange and dystopian future for art, music, and society

The complete set of talks from CTM 2018 are now available on SoundCloud. It’s a pleasure to get to work with a festival that not only has a rich and challenging program of music and art, but serves as a platform for ideas, debate, and discourse, too. (Speaking of which, greetings from another European festival that commits to that – SONAR, in Barcelona.)

The image used for this article is an artwork by Memo Akten, used with permission, as suggested by curator and CTM 2018 guest speaker Estela Oliva. It’s called “Inception,” and I think is a perfect example of how artists can make these technologies expressive and transcendent, amplifying their flaws into something uniquely human.

Minds, Machines, and Centralisation: Why Musicians Need to Hack AI Now

IN THIS ARTICLE, CTM HACKLAB DIRECTOR PETER KIRN PROVIDES A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CO-OPTING OF MUSIC AND LISTENING BY CENTRALIZED INDUSTRY AND CORPORATIONS, IDENTIFYING MUZAK AS A PRECURSOR TO THE USE OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE FOR “PRE-PROGRAMMED CULTURE.” HE GOES ON TO DISCUSS PRODUCTIVE WAYS FOR THOSE WHO VALUE “CHOICE AND SURPRISE” TO REACT TO AND INTERACT WITH TECHNOLOGIES LIKE THESE THAT GROW MORE INESCAPABLE BY THE DAY.

It’s now a defunct entity, but “Muzak,” the company that provided background music, was once everywhere. Its management saw to it that their sonic product was ubiquitous, intrusive, and even engineered to impact behavior — and so the word Muzak became synonymous with all that was hated and insipid in manufactured culture.

Anachronistic as it may seem now, Muzak was a sign of how tele-communications technology would shape cultural consumption. Muzak may be known for its sound, but its delivery method is telling. Nearly a hundred years before Spotify, founder Major General George Owen Squier originated the idea of sending music over wires — phone wires, to be fair, but still not far off from where we’re at today. The patent he got for electrical signalling doesn’t mention music, or indeed even sound content. But the Major General was the first successful business founder to prove in practice that electronic distribution of music was the future, one that would take power out of the hands of radio broadcasters and give the delivery company additional power over content. (He also came up with the now-loathed Muzak brand name.)

What we now know as the conventional music industry has its roots in pianola rolls, then in jukeboxes, and finally in radio stations and physical media. Muzak was something different, as it sidestepped the whole structure: playlists were selected by an unseen, centralized corporation, then piped everywhere. You’d hear Muzak in your elevator ride in a department store (hence the phrase, elevator music). There were speakers tucked into potted plants. The White House and NASA at some points subscribed. Anywhere there was silence, it might be replaced with pre-programmed music.

Muzak added to its notoriety by marketing the notion of using its product to boost worker productivity, through a pseudo-scientific regimen it called the “stimulus progression.” And in that, we see a notion that presages today’s app behavior loops and motivators, meant to drive consumption and engagement, ad clicks and app swipes.

Muzak for its part didn’t last forever, with stimulus progression long since debunked, customers preferring licensed music to this mix of original sounds, and newer competitors getting further ahead in the marketplace.

But what about the idea of homogenized, pre-programmed culture delivered by wire, designed for behavior modification? That basic concept seems to be making a comeback.

Automation and Power

“AI” or machine intelligence has been tilted in the present moment to focus on one specific area: the use of self-training algorithms to process large amounts of data. This is a necessity of our times, and it has special value to some of the big technical players who just happen to have competencies in the areas machine learning prefers — lots of servers, top mathematical analysts, and big data sets.

That shift in scale is more or less inescapable, though, in its impact. Radio implies limited channels; limited channels implies human selectors — meet the DJ. The nature of the internet as wide-open for any kind of culture means wide open scale. And it will necessarily involve machines doing some of the sifting, because it’s simply too large to operate otherwise.

There’s danger inherent in this shift. One, users may be lazy, willing to let their preferences be tipped for them rather than face the tyranny of choice alone. Two, the entities that select for them may have agendas of their own. Taken as an aggregate, the upshot could be greater normalization and homogenization, plus the marginalization of anyone whose expression is different, unviable commercially, or out of sync with the classes of people with money and influence. If the dream of the internet as global music community seems in practice to lack real diversity, here’s a clue as to why.

At the same time, this should all sound familiar — the advent of recording and broadcast media brought with it some of the same forces, and that led to the worst bubblegum pop and the most egregious cultural appropriation. Now, we have algorithms and corporate channel editors instead of charts and label execs — and the worries about payola and the eradication of anything radical or different are just as well-placed.

What’s new is that there’s now also a real-time feedback loop between user actions and automated cultural selection (or perhaps even soon, production). Squier’s stimulus progression couldn’t monitor metrics representing the listener. Today’s online tools can. That could blow apart past biases, or it could reinforce them — or it could do a combination of the two.

In any case, it definitely has power. At last year’s CTM hacklab, Cambridge University’s Jason Rentfrow looked at how music tastes could be predictive of personality and even political thought. The connection was timely, as the talk came the same week as Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, his campaign having employed social media analytics to determine how to target and influence voters.

We can no longer separate musical consumption — or other consumption of information and culture — from the data it generates, or from the way that data can be used. We need to be wary of centralized monopolies on that data and its application, and we need to be aware of how these sorts of algorithms reshape choice and remake media. And we might well look for chances to regain our own personal control.

Even if passive consumption may seem to be valuable to corporate players, those players may discover that passivity suffers diminishing returns. Activities like shopping on Amazon, finding dates on Tinder, watching television on Netflix, and, increasingly, music listening, are all experiences that push algorithmic recommendations. But if users begin to follow only those automated recommendations, the suggestions fold back in on themselves, and those tools lose their value. We’re left with a colorless growing detritus of our own histories and the larger world’s. (Just ask someone who gave up on those Tinder dates or went to friends because they couldn’t work out the next TV show to binge-watch.)

There’s also clearly a social value to human recommendations — expert and friend alike. But there’s a third way: use machines to augment humans, rather than diminish them, and open the tools to creative use, not only automation.

Music is already reaping benefits of data training’s power in new contexts. By applying machine learning to identifying human gestures, Rebecca Fiebrink has found a new way to make gestural interfaces for music smarter and more accessible. Audio software companies are now using machine learning as a new approach to manipulating sound material in cases where traditional DSP tools are limited. What’s significant about this work is that it makes these tools meaningful in active creation rather than passive consumption.

AI, back in user hands

Machine learning techniques will continue to expand as tools by which the companies mining big data make sense of their resources — from ore into product. It’s in turn how they’ll see us, and how we’ll see ourselves.

We can’t simply opt out, because those tools will shape the world around us with or without our personal participation, and because the breadth of available data demands their use. What we can do is to better understand how they work and reassert our own agency.

When people are literate in what these technologies are and how they work, they can make more informed decisions in their own lives and in the larger society. They can also use and abuse these tools themselves, without relying on magical corporate products to do it for them.

Abuse itself has special value. Music and art are fields in which these machine techniques can and do bring new discoveries. There’s a reason Google has invested in these areas — because artists very often can speculate on possibilities and find creative potential. Artists lead.

The public seems to respond to rough edges and flaws, too. In the 60s, when researcher Joseph Weizenbaum attempted to parody a psychotherapist with crude language pattern matching in his program, ELIZA, he was surprised when users started to tell the program their darkest secrets and imagine understanding that wasn’t there. The crudeness of Markov chains as predictive text tool — they were developed for analyzing Pushkin statistics and not generating language, after all — has given rise to breeds of poetry based on their very weirdness. When Google’s style transfer technique was applied using a database of dog images, the bizarre, unnatural images that warped photos into dogs went viral online. Since then, Google has made vastly more sophisticated techniques that apply realistic painterly effects and… well, it seems that’s attracted only a fraction of the interest that the dog images did.

Maybe there’s something even more fundamental at work. Corporate culture dictates predictability and centralized value. The artist does just the opposite, capitalizing on surprise. It’s in the interest of artists if these technologies can be broken. Muzak represents what happens to aesthetics when centralized control and corporate values win out — but it’s as much the widespread public hatred that’s the major cautionary tale. The values of surprise and choice win out, not just as abstract concepts but also as real personal preferences.

We once feared that robotics would eliminate jobs; the very word is derived (by Czech writer Karel Čapek’s brother Joseph) from the word for slave. Yet in the end, robotic technology has extended human capability. It has brought us as far as space and taken us through Logo and its Turtle, even taught generations of kids math, geometry, logic, and creative thinking through code.

We seem to be at a similar fork in the road with machine learning. These tools can serve the interests of corporate control and passive consumption, optimised only for lazy consumption that extracts value from its human users. Or, we can abuse and misuse the tools, take them apart and put them back together again, apply them not in the sense that “everything looks like a nail” when all you have is a hammer, but as a precise set of techniques to solve specific problems. Muzak, in its final days, was nothing more than a pipe dream. What people wanted was music — and choice. Those choices won’t come automatically. We may well have to hack them.

PETER KIRN is an audiovisual artist, composer/musician, technologist, and journalist. He is the editor of CDM and co-creator of the open source MeeBlip hardware synthesizer (meeblip.com). For six consecutive years, he has directed the MusicMaker’s Hacklab at CTM Festival, most recently together with new media artist Ioann Maria.

http://ctm-festival.de/

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BBC gives away 16k WAV sound effects, but disallows you using them

Maybe it’s time for the idea of a “commons” to get a new boost. Whatever the reason, BBC’s 16,000 sound effects are available to download – but with strings attached.

The BBC Sound Effects site offering has gotten plenty of online sharing. This is a sound effects library culled from the archives of the BBC and its Radiophonic Workshop, a selection of sounds dug up from broadcast sound work. There’s both synthetic sound design and field recording work – sometimes not really identified as such. I know this, because I used what I believe is the edition of this that was once released on a big series of CDs.

If you just want to listen to some interesting sounds, you can stream or download WAV files of sounds ranging from “‘Pystyll Rhadn’ falls, North Wales, with birdsong” to lorries, and, this being England, lots of exotic sounds from the far reaches of the former British Empire and a bunch of business to do with ships. (There’s a reason English is dotted with obscure boat-related idioms like saying someone is “two sheets to the wind” when they’re drunk.)

And it’s good fun. Right now the sound of a parrot is trending:

http://bbcsfx.acropolis.org.uk/

The catch is, you’re probably thinking of downloading those files and making a Deep House track with the parrot. But you can’t – not legally. If you want, you can wade through the murky terms, which seem to be written for schoolchildren in terms of language level, but oddly evasive about what it is you’re actually allowed to do:

https://github.com/bbcarchdev/Remarc/blob/master/doc/2016.09.27_RemArc_Content%20licence_Terms%20of%20Use_final.pdf

I can save you the trouble, though. There’s no explicit allowance for derivative works, which rules out even “non-commercial” sampling. That is, your parrot track is out, even if you plan to give it away. Non-commercial use itself suggests you need to have a site that not only has no ads (like this one does), but may even explicitly have some educational purpose. “Personal” use implies you can sample the sounds, so long as no one else hears your remix, which rather defeats the point. So you almost certainly can’t sample the parrot and even upload the result to SoundCloud.

The easy way to look at this is, you can build an educational app around these sounds or listen to them on your own, but you can’t really use them the way you’d tend to use sound samples.

For that, you need to buy a licensed product. Sound Ideas has the full library for around four hundred bucks. And then you can use, they advertise:

1936 Raleigh Sports Bike
Euston Railway Station
St. Paul’s Cathedral
1986 Silver Sprite Rolls Royce
Audience Reactions at the Royal Albert Hall
County Cricket Match
Big Ben
Markets in Morocco, Algeria, Niger, Zaire, Ethiopia, Kenya…

I’m sure the CDs themselves also had a lot of license restrictions attached, though owning a physical object might make you feel as though you had purchased rights for use.

British taxpayer license fees fund this sort of work, just as taxpayer money funds media in many countries of the world. That raises the question of what a government funded archive should be, and how it should be made available.

For background, this project came out of a now-ended four-year project to make UK archives publicly available:
https://bbcarchdev.github.io/res/

I’m not arguing the BBC have made the wrong choice. But it’s clear that there are two divergent views on public archives and content in the public sphere. One looks like this: the government retains copyright, and you can’t really use them beyond “research” purposes. The other is more permissive. For instance, the US space program actually does allow commercial use of a lot of its materials, provided an endorsement is implied. So even while releasing content into the public domain, the US government is able to avoid implications of endorsement or people posing as their space agency, which the BBC agreement above does, while allowing people to get creative with their materials.

And that ability to be creative is precisely what’s lacking in the BBC offering. Restricting content to “research” and “noncommercial” uses sounds like a lofty goal, but it often rules out the activities of artists – the very impulses that generated all those BBC sound effects in the first place. The reason is, unless you explicitly allow derivative and (often) even commercial use, it’s too easy for those creative uses to technical qualify as a violation.

It seems like this idea of commons could use a fresh boost, around the world. (The British taxpayer-funded sounds should have been an easy one; it gets much harder as you go to other parts of the world.)

The US government’s notions of public access content date back to the 1960s. But there are signs governments can begin fresh, digital-friendly initiatives. For one example, look to the European Space Agency, who last year managed an open access programs across a variety of different governments and private contractors (no small task):

http://open.esa.int/

Anyway, for now, it is still fun listening to that parrot.

http://bbcsfx.acropolis.org.uk/

By the way, speaking of Creative Commons: the feature image for this story comes from Paul Hudson, taken at Rough Trade East (of a tape machine from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop collection), under the attribution-only CC-BY license. It was released on Flickr, from a time when this sort of license metadata was deemed important.

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Adobe drops QuickTime support, as visual artists look for a solution

The story: Apple leaves QuickTime securities unpatched on Windows; Adobe drops support in their product line. But that leaves creative people stuck – including live visual artists. And now they’re looking for solutions.

First, here’s the sequence of events – and if you’ve been watching the general mayhem in the US government, you’d be forgiven for missing what was happening with, like, QuickTime for Windows security.

First, from the US Department of Homeland Security (really, even if the headline looks more like Macworld):

Apple Ends Support for QuickTime for Windows; New Vulnerabilities Announced [US-CERT Alert (TA16-105A)]

And from a private security firm:

Urgent Call to Action: Uninstall QuickTime for Windows Today [TrendMicro]

To follow that advice, you can perform that installation on Windows as follower (macOS users aren’t impacted):

Uninstall QuickTime 7 for Windows

That is, Apple had already dropped QuickTime for Windows development, including fixing security vulnerabilities – and this known one is bad enough to finally uninstall the software. It’s a Web-based vulnerability, so not particularly relevant to us making visuals, but significant nonetheless.

Developers should already have begun removing dependencies on QuickTime some time ago. But because of the variety of formats artists support, this starts to break some specific workflows. So here’s Adobe:

QuickTime on Windows [Adobe blog]

And before you get too smug, Mac users, you can expect some bumps in the road as cross-platform software generally tries to get out of QuickTime as a dependency. That could get messy, again, with so many formats out there. But let’s deal with Windows and Adobe software.

What works: uncompressed, DV, IMX, MPEG2, XDCAM, h264, JPEG, DNxHD, DNxHR, AVCI and Cineform), plus “DV and Cineform in .mov wrappers.”

What breaks: Among others, Apple ProRes (the big one), plus “Animation (import and export), DNxHD/HR (export) as would workflows where growing QuickTime files are being used (although we strongly advise using MXF for this wherever possible).”

Moreover, Adobe is dropping QuickTime 7 codec support on all April releases of their full CC product line:

Dropped support for Quicktime 7 era formats and codecs [Adobe support]

Adobe advises customers to move to newer codecs, but that isn’t always an option. PC World have a tough appraisal of the situation (one I’m sure Adobe could live without):

Adobe on QuickTime: You’re up the creek without a paddle [PC World]

That’s by Gordon Mah Ung, the editor who has been around this business long enough not to mince words.

David Lublin of Vidvox writes CDM to let us know that in the short term, this also impacts Adobe software support for their high performance, open Hap format (plus DXV and many other legacy codecs VJs may tend to use). I also spoke with Mark Conilgio of Isadora, who said he was sad to see QuickTime support go, and that it would prevent cross-platform file support, Isadora 3 will remove QuickTime dependencies and work with native file formats on the respective platforms.

Hey, Adobe: Get Hap!

A silver lining: this may be a chance to “shake the tree” and convince Adobe to add native support for Hap, a high performance format that leverages your GPU to delivery snappy playback, ideal for live and interactive visual applications. And given that’s an open source format, and unlike anything else available, that’d be great. There’s already a proposal online to make that (hap)pen:

https://adobe-video.uservoice.com/forums/911311-after-effects/suggestions/33853372-support-the-hap-codec

Hap was built in collaboration with talented developer Tom Butterworth. And Adobe has incorporated his code before: in 2016, Character Animator added support for Syphon, the inter-app visual texture pipeline on Mac:
https://www.adobe.com/products/character-animator/features.html

Work with Hap right now

For Hap support – and you really should be working with it – here are some immediate solutions.

Encoding to Hap from the command line using FFmpeg

Converting movies to the Hap video codec

But I’d love to see Adobe support the format. It’s just a codec; there’s no real UX requirement, and the code is there and flexibly licensed.

Meanwhile, perhaps this is a nice illustration of how important it is that live visual art move to open, cross-platform de facto standards. It makes work and art future proof and portable, and removes some overhead for developers making both free and commercial tools. And given that computers are based on many of the same architectures, it makes sense for the ways we store video and express graphical information to be portable and standardized.

For Vidvox’s part, there’s a nice summary on their page of what they support – and a lot of the formats they’re championing can be used by developers on Windows and Linux, not just macOS:

Open Source At VIDVOX

The post Adobe drops QuickTime support, as visual artists look for a solution appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Adobe drops QuickTime support, as visual artists look for a solution

The story: Apple leaves QuickTime securities unpatched on Windows; Adobe drops support in their product line. But that leaves creative people stuck – including live visual artists. And now they’re looking for solutions.

First, here’s the sequence of events – and if you’ve been watching the general mayhem in the US government, you’d be forgiven for missing what was happening with, like, QuickTime for Windows security.

First, from the US Department of Homeland Security (really, even if the headline looks more like Macworld):

Apple Ends Support for QuickTime for Windows; New Vulnerabilities Announced [US-CERT Alert (TA16-105A)]

And from a private security firm:

Urgent Call to Action: Uninstall QuickTime for Windows Today [TrendMicro]

To follow that advice, you can perform that installation on Windows as follower (macOS users aren’t impacted):

Uninstall QuickTime 7 for Windows

That is, Apple had already dropped QuickTime for Windows development, including fixing security vulnerabilities – and this known one is bad enough to finally uninstall the software. It’s a Web-based vulnerability, so not particularly relevant to us making visuals, but significant nonetheless.

Developers should already have begun removing dependencies on QuickTime some time ago. But because of the variety of formats artists support, this starts to break some specific workflows. So here’s Adobe:

QuickTime on Windows [Adobe blog]

And before you get too smug, Mac users, you can expect some bumps in the road as cross-platform software generally tries to get out of QuickTime as a dependency. That could get messy, again, with so many formats out there. But let’s deal with Windows and Adobe software.

What works: uncompressed, DV, IMX, MPEG2, XDCAM, h264, JPEG, DNxHD, DNxHR, AVCI and Cineform), plus “DV and Cineform in .mov wrappers.”

What breaks: Among others, Apple ProRes (the big one), plus “Animation (import and export), DNxHD/HR (export) as would workflows where growing QuickTime files are being used (although we strongly advise using MXF for this wherever possible).”

Moreover, Adobe is dropping QuickTime 7 codec support on all April releases of their full CC product line:

Dropped support for Quicktime 7 era formats and codecs [Adobe support]

Adobe advises customers to move to newer codecs, but that isn’t always an option. PC World have a tough appraisal of the situation (one I’m sure Adobe could live without):

Adobe on QuickTime: You’re up the creek without a paddle [PC World]

That’s by Gordon Mah Ung, the editor who has been around this business long enough not to mince words.

David Lublin of Vidvox writes CDM to let us know that in the short term, this also impacts Adobe software support for their high performance, open Hap format (plus DXV and many other legacy codecs VJs may tend to use). I also spoke with Mark Conilgio of Isadora, who said he was sad to see QuickTime support go, and that it would prevent cross-platform file support, Isadora 3 will remove QuickTime dependencies and work with native file formats on the respective platforms.

Hey, Adobe: Get Hap!

A silver lining: this may be a chance to “shake the tree” and convince Adobe to add native support for Hap, a high performance format that leverages your GPU to delivery snappy playback, ideal for live and interactive visual applications. And given that’s an open source format, and unlike anything else available, that’d be great. There’s already a proposal online to make that (hap)pen:

https://adobe-video.uservoice.com/forums/911311-after-effects/suggestions/33853372-support-the-hap-codec

Hap was built in collaboration with talented developer Tom Butterworth. And Adobe has incorporated his code before: in 2016, Character Animator added support for Syphon, the inter-app visual texture pipeline on Mac:
https://www.adobe.com/products/character-animator/features.html

Work with Hap right now

For Hap support – and you really should be working with it – here are some immediate solutions.

Encoding to Hap from the command line using FFmpeg

Converting movies to the Hap video codec

But I’d love to see Adobe support the format. It’s just a codec; there’s no real UX requirement, and the code is there and flexibly licensed.

Meanwhile, perhaps this is a nice illustration of how important it is that live visual art move to open, cross-platform de facto standards. It makes work and art future proof and portable, and removes some overhead for developers making both free and commercial tools. And given that computers are based on many of the same architectures, it makes sense for the ways we store video and express graphical information to be portable and standardized.

For Vidvox’s part, there’s a nice summary on their page of what they support – and a lot of the formats they’re championing can be used by developers on Windows and Linux, not just macOS:

Open Source At VIDVOX

The post Adobe drops QuickTime support, as visual artists look for a solution appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

SoundCloud adds scheduled releases, in creator and podcaster focus

SoundCloud last summer rescued its future financially and promised a renewed focus on creators. The first small steps of that creator focus are starting to appear – including one small but useful addition.

Last week, SoundCloud rolled out scheduled releases. From the ‘edit’ page on a track, you can choose a date and time to publish content publicly. They also have suggested some possible use cases – no doubt heard from their wealth of users:

  • Podcasts
  • Mixes that release at the end of a live set
  • Scheduling across time zones on tour

You need an Unlimited Pro account to use the feature (but this is probably only of use to heavy users, anyway).

For most producers and labels, I suspect the major uses here will be timing publication of full streams with the release of an album, and scheduling those around exclusive streams for the press. (I’ll definitely be using that functionality myself.)

Functionality like this really matters. Much of the (understandable) frustration with SoundCloud came from users who were closely tied to specific features in apps and the Web platform, then had those features suddenly taken away. That might cut it for general consumer Web services, but serious users of creative products build elaborate workflows over time, and they’re going to remain loyal to providers who are mindful of their needs. In their push to growth, it’s clear SoundCloud didn’t entirely maintain that relationship. Now we’ll see if some attention to functionality can rebuild it.

In the meantime, users and content are still widely on SoundCloud, whatever hysterical headlines you’ve read. That is, for all the complaining, a lot of us rely on SoundCloud in absence of any real competition. That’s not just because SoundCloud has a big user base of potential listeners – it’s also because for many users, SoundCloud’s feature set is more convenient. (Narrowly focused on just adding players, that may not be true, but if you want a player with a network behind it, it’s another story.)

In other words, whatever the service, features make a difference. I’d also like to see this kind of functionality on Bandcamp. Label management and navigation there to me is simply failing to improve, with some major oversights that can make operating it a pain. (In fact, you can’t schedule releases on Bandcamp. You can add a release date, but you have to manually publish. Maybe there’s a rationale for that particular instance, but… that’s just one example.)

SoundCloud first?

The other ploy from SoundCloud in March to win back serious creator users is the “#scfirst” campaign.

Users who tag their music with #SCFIRST have a shot at being included on a “First on SoundCloud” playlist, and SoundCloud Twitter, Facebook, and newsletter promotion. SoundCloud also says they’ll “fast track” consideration for opening up Premier monetization which shares revenue from streams.

They also launched the service with a marketing campaign built to showcase a selection of artists using the program. Those users also highlighted music acts using SoundCloud and interaction with fans there as part of how they built up their reputation. (Most were selected from the USA, with a couple from western Europe, which tells you something about SoundCloud’s present market focus – or who’s likely paying for their subscriptions.)

On this one, it seems a bit too early to judge. Spotify and iTunes each do editorial promotion of some music, and exclusives are often part of the deal – but as with many other aspects of those services, individual producers have a very low probability of being picked up. (Bigger labels and distributors tend to fight hard to get those spots for themselves.) So here, there seems a chance – however narrow – for the independent musician and label to even out the odds. Then there are stores like Beatport that will also likely tie exclusives to particular promotion.

Juggling exclusives is itself a bit frustrating, though. Synchronizing availability is generally what artists and labels would tend to want to do to maximize exposure; getting tied down to exclusives is essentially gambling away that control and wide audience in the hopes the exclusive partner will make up the difference. And in the case of “#scfirst,” it’s really a shot in the dark, since by definition you don’t know in advance whether you’ll be picked up.

Then again, “shot in the dark” pretty much sums up the process of releasing music in general.

As with the new feature focus, it’s really up to SoundCloud to demonstrate that this stuff will pay off for users. What I will say about SoundCloud the service is, they have the potential to be an ally of the people making the music and releasing it independently. That’s just not true of a lot of what’s in the online music space.

The post SoundCloud adds scheduled releases, in creator and podcaster focus appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

An online and mobile DAW called BandLab just acquired Cakewalk’s IP

Cakewalk may not be all dead. A developer of online and mobile music creation tools has snapped up the former PC DAW maker’s complete intellectual property.

As I wrote earlier this week, Gibson Brands, the guitar maker-turned-wannabe consumer electronics giant, is hard up for cash. So, while they discontinued operation of their Cakewalk division, apparently they had not found a buyer for one of pro audio’s biggest names.

That changes today. Signapore-based BandLab announced they’ve acquired the “complete” intellectual property and “certain assets” in a deal with Gibson. There’s no word on what those assets are, and BandLab say they’re not making any additional announcement about the specifics – so we don’t know how much cash Gibson got or what those assets were. If the Nashville Post numbers are correct, it seems this will make little difference to Gibson’s debts, but that’s another story.

So Cakewalk’s codebase, product line, trademarks, everything go to BandLab. BandLab also has confirmed to CDM that some former Cakewalk team members will join the new company. (That itself is big news.)

And there’s some relief here: all those thirty years of accumulated expertise in making music software may not go entirely to waste.

BandLab is a familiar idea. There’s a mobile app with multiple tracks, automatic pitch correction, guitar/bass/vocal effects, and cloud sync, plus a grid-style riff interface and more traditional track layout. And there’s a free online tool you can use to collaborate with other people on the Internet and DAW features.

BandLab’s browser-based DAW.

Of the two, it’s the online DAW that looks most interesting, at least in that it’s more ambitious about incorporating desktop tools than some rivals. There’s built-in time stretching, automation, a guitar amp, and virtual instruments, for instance. I’m impressed on paper at least – I hadn’t heard of BandLab before today, to be honest, though it’s easy to lose track of various competing online solutions out there, since they tend to be somewhat similar.

And that raises the question – what’s the Cakewalk angle for BandLab?

I presumed on first blush this would be limited to assets relevant to their existing mobile products, but it seems it’s more than that. From the official press statement, it sounds as though you’ll see Cakewalk’s line of software – possibly including the flagship DAW SONAR, virtual instruments, and other tools – continue under the BandLab name. That’s been the case with other acquisitions of media creation software, if with mixed results in terms of development pace. From the press statement:

The teams at both Gibson and BandLab felt that Cakewalk’s products deserved a new home where development could continue. We are pleased to be supporting Cakewalk’s passionate community of creators to ensure they have access to the best possible features and music products under the BandLab Technologies banner.

[emphasis mine]

Then there’s the product that was just seeing the light of day right when Gibson shuttered Cakewalk operations, the one with the unintentionally ironic name:

https://momentum.cakewalk.com/

Momentum even looks quite a bit like BandLab’s mobile app. The mobile app and cloud sync solution runs on iOS and Android, with four-track recording, editing, looping and effects. And it cleverly captures ideas as recordings (via something with the dreadful name “Ideaspace”), then makes them available everywhere.

Momentum also has something that BandLab lacks – a VST/AU/AAX plug-in for Mac and Windows. Here’s the thing: it’s all fine and well to start talking about making music making easier, and reaching people with phone and browser apps. But even though big desktop DAWs don’t look terribly friendly, they’re still reasonably popular. Ableton Live alone has a user base the size of most major cities. Adding that plug-in could bridge Cakewalk’s product line and other desktop products with BandLab’s own mobile solutions.

And it’s not just the plug-in – Momentum also had an integrated cloud sync service and server-side infrastructure. (Plus don’t forget the ScratchPad iOS app. Well… maybe.)

BandLab’s mobile apps might be complemented either by Cakewalk’s mobile/cloud offerings or desktop products – or both.

So, we’ll see what BandLab are planning. Of course, the nostalgic part of me wants to see some of the soul of Cakewalk in what they do.

It seems from the way BandLab are handling the announcement that they share some of the same emotional attachment to Cakewalk that a lot of us do. For evidence, see what they’ve done to Cakewalk’s website, where there’s a headline reading:

“The news you’ve all been hoping for…”

Follow through to their own http://cakewalk.bandlab.com landing page for the acquisition, and there’s a charming ASCII art reading Cakewalk and a line reading “Cakewalk is dead. Long live Cakewalk!”

I’ve asked if any of the former Cakewalk team are joining the new effort. That would inspire more confidence than just selling these DAWs with minimal updates as-is. BandLab for their part promise a product roadmap and other details soon.

http://cakewalk.bandlab.com

So yeah, Cakewalk? Dead?

The post An online and mobile DAW called BandLab just acquired Cakewalk’s IP appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.