The Sony compact cassette recorder that went to space and predicted the Walkman

Sony’s Walkman turned 40 earlier this month. But look to the TC-50 before it for some of the technology and usability innovations that changed the world – and joined the Apollo mission – plus a glimpse of where music might boldly go next.

Sony’s story will sound familiar to a lot of today’s sound DIYers, synth makers, and Eurorack inventors. The operation began with a cheap disused space and a few people learning on the job by repairing electronics. The company might be known for transforming cassettes, but earlier projects involved a rice cooker and an electric cushion.

But long before Apple, it was Sony that introduced the world – and especially the lucrative American market – to the idea of miniaturized portable electronics. That included the TR series transistor radio. (Oh, note the other similarity – yes, it’s a safe bet that Roland’s Western-friendly brand name and XX-NNN product names are inspired by the likes of Sony and Sanyo.)

And that brings us to the TC series cassette recorders. There’s really a lot in these devices that predicts not only the Walkman, but devices like the iPhone, as well. As with transistor radios, miniaturized electronics enable a design that becomes personal and portable, which changes the whole relationship of user to device.

The 1968 TC-50 looks elegant and modern even by today’s standards. It combines a number of key innovations that make that possible – not necessarily invented by Sony or by the TC-50, but combined in a single product in a way that transforms that technology into user experience:

Integrated circuits. ICs are what has brought us the entire consumer electronics – and musical electronics – revolution. The chip replaces whole circuits of separate components. On the TC-50, that lets the design revolve around the user’s hand, the controls, the mic, and the cassette – everything else more or less disappears. Sony began in the 50s designing its own components, thanks to tech it had licensed from Bell.

Compact component mounting. This is actually equally as big a deal – each component’s mounts are also reduced, which further miniaturizes the design.

Built-in microphone. This is the innovation that’s the reason the TC-50 went into space – and while we take it for granted now, it’s what cleared a pathway for the likes of the iPhone. Sony’s custom mic design is small, integrated with the device, but still records high-quality audio. When NASA equipped its astronauts with the TC-50, it was for personal memo recording, not mix tapes (though more on the latter in a moment). That personal functionality also establishes the handheld device as a portable companion. If that seems a stretch when talking about the iPhone (even with “phone” in the title), I might also observe that Apple has told me its Voice Memos app is one of its most popular.

One-handed, wireless operation. Here’s the other big innovation that brings it all together. The entire design – placement and operation of buttons, form factor – is built to enable one-handed operation. Just as with so many accessibility innovations, that in turn yields unexpected advantages. In the case of the TC-50, it meant astronauts could record audio while wearing their bulky spacesuit gloves, starting with Apollo 7 and most famously on the Apollo 11 moon voyage. That kind of usability thinking would go on to inspire companies like Apple, and it’s always worth revisiting. (When I worked on WretchUp with Mouse on Mars, I did a lot of adjustment work with Andi to design gestural controls that you could use with a single hand, and even without looking closely at the device, for onstage use.)

Natural industrial design, focused on materials. You can almost hear Jony Ive marveling at the luxurious, exposed “aluminium” – and yes, years before he met Ive, Steve Jobs also saw Sony as a personal design inspiration (alongside Braun and Mercedes-Benz). The TC-50 came too soon to benefit from the 21st Century’s economy of scale, so you can bet the “luxury” of that aluminum surface had a price tag attached. But Sony excelled at modern adoption of these material processes, which had allowed it to work with companies like watchmaker Bulova back to the TR-55 transistor radio. And so it is that today’s smartphones also telegraph their use of strong materials. See also this excellent story on the 1972 TC-55, which starts to look more like a Walkman, and moves public perception from “cheap plastic” to “fine metal.”

Apollo and the TC-50

NASA astronauts definitely used portable cassette recorders, the Sony TC-50 being one. They also made famous use of a modified Hasselblad 70mm film camera, including on the lunar landing during Apollo 11 (see National Air and Space Museum).

I found some differing accounts of which missions the recorder was aboard. Sony themselves note the TC-50 debuted on Apollo 7, the mission that was the first Apollo to carry a crew (and the first human spaceflight mission after the conclusion of Gemini and the tragic Apollo 1 launchpad fire). The TC-50 also got pretty close to the moon on Apollo 10, the key mission that simulated the lunar descent.

From the accounts I’ve read, it sounds as though there was a TC-50 on Apollo 11, but it probably didn’t go “to the moon” in that it seems it stayed aboard the Apollo Command Module, not the Lunar Module that made the trip to the moon’s surface. And Buzz Aldrin did request a mix of music for the trip, dubbed to the compact cassette format of the TC-50.

Astronaut Walter Cunningham during Apollo 7. You can’t see the Sony cassette recorder, but you can see an equally iconic piece of AV equipment of the Space Age – the Hasselblad, at top. (You can hear the Sony, slightly, on the voice recording of Apollo 11.) Photo: NASA.
One more of Cunningham, who piloted the lunar module on Apollo 7. Did I mention usability considerations were important in space? Yeah, the crew using the TC-50 relied on it being accessible in extreme situations. Photo: NASA.

Vanity Fair learned the details of the Apollo 11 mixtape from record exec Mickey Kapp in an interview late last year:

Music on the Moon: Meet Mickey Kapp, Master of Apollo 11’s Astro-Mixtapes

They made the essential playlist for Spotify, natch:

One Aldrin favorite, now featured in the upcoming documentary on the mission, is this poignant – and self-critical, self-aware, hardly jingoistic – John Stewart release:

There’s nothing particularly cosmic in the mix; the choices are sentimental, personal. When they go to the lunar theme, they’re lush and romantic as much as trippy. And they’re singular; this isn’t background music. I think that says something about our connection to music, something that generative tunes or machine learning are unlikely ever to replace – they’re still, you know, songs.

The mix for Buzz was made in a living room, reports VF, complete with mistakes. That’s something that’s been unquestionably lost, and even at the time must have stood in contrast to the mission-critical clockwork of a space mission.

I wonder, though, if the TC-50 doesn’t point us to a fresh perspective on music. Right now, so much of our thinking about how music should be shared is stuck in the past. Whether lamenting the loss of tangible media and record stores, or defending them by stalwartly DJing with “vinyl only” sets, the whole conversation is framed by what was.

The TC-50, apart from having been aboard humankind’s most audacious mission yet out of our planet’s orbit, isn’t bound by any of that past. It’s informed by watchmaking-quality metals and the iteration of electronics. But it’s designed anew around the best quality of each of those disciplines. It looks familiar and inevitable to us only because we are the children of the age it shaped.

That is to say, maybe the first and most reasonable answer to the question of “what should music listening look like in the future” might well be I don’t know. The people at Sony didn’t know right away. They cut their teeth on rice cookers in the wreckage of a ruined empire, dug deep into the latest advances from Bell in the USA, and spent incalculable hours just disassembling someone else’s electronics, and putting them back together so they worked again. Sony’s first introduction to the cassette was hitting on a technology that improved on primitive wire recorders they’d seen in military use. Apollo for its part was built on iterations from missiles and ran on computers whose memory was woven together, literally, by textile workers.

We live in an era that values fast answers and quick financial returns, but the very breakthroughs that make those people so rich weren’t brainstormed in a coworking center on a whiteboard by someone microdosing LSD. They were crafted over years through hands-on, sweat and tears work on physical materials and engineering.

Maybe we don’t need new devices or new physical media for sound – that’s possible. We’ll certainly need devices to record sound and to play music; anything that must be touched can’t simply be streamed.

I suspect, too, that we may see new devices for listening, built around new developments in immersive sound.

I also think it’s telling that the TC-50 was a recording and creation device as well as listening device, and that those functions were ultimately linked. The smartphone fits that mold, of course – but other as-yet-undreamt-of devices could go there, as well, in ways the smartphone can’t.

So why not return to some of that day-in, day-out engineering and craft to find the next big thing?

Some of the TC-50s still work, too:

Image at top – Dave Scott peeks out of the Apollo 10 Command Module, in this photo shot by Rusty Schweickart as the Lunar Module was docked, in a “dress rehearsal” of Apollo 11. Photo: NASA.

PS – I have no idea what kind of audio or film equipment was used aboard Soviet missions of this period, so maybe my Russian friends or space buffs can answer that.

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No, Beatport’s subscription will not kill music – here’s how it really works

Pioneer and Beatport this week announced new streaming offerings for DJs. And then lots of people kind of freaked out. Let’s see what’s actually going on, if any of it is useful to DJs and music lovers, and what we should or shouldn’t worry about.

Artists, labels, and DJs are understandably on edge about digital music subscriptions – and thoughtless DJing. Independent music makers tend not to see any useful revenue or fan acquisition from streaming. So the fear is that a move to the kinds of pricing on Spotify, Amazon, and Apple services would be devastating.

And, well – that’s totally right, you obviously should be afraid of those things if you’re making music. Forget even getting rich – if big services take over, just getting heard could become an expensive endeavor, a trend we’ve already begun to see.

So I talked to Beatport to get some clarity on what they’re doing. We’re fortunate now that the person doing artist and label relations for Beatport is Heiko Hoffmann, who has an enormous resume in the trenches of the German electronic underground, including some 17 years under his belt as editor of Groove, which has had about as much a reputation as any German-language rag when it comes to credibility.

TL:DR

The skinny:

Beatport LINK: fifteen bucks a month, but aimed at beginners – 128k only. Use it for previews if you’re a serious Beatport user, recommend it to your friends bugging you about how they should start DJing, and otherwise don’t worry about it.

Beatport CLOUD: five bucks a month, gives you sync for your Beatport collection. Included in the other stuff here and – saves you losing your Beatport purchases and gives you previews. 128k only. Will work with Rekordbox in the fall, but you’ll want to pay extra for extra features (or stick with your existing download approach).

Beatport LINK PRO: the real news – but it’s not here yet. Works with Rekordbox, costs 40-60 bucks, but isn’t entirely unlimited. Won’t destroy music (uh, not saying something else won’t, but this won’t). The first sign of real streaming DJs – but the companies catering to serious DJs aren’t going to give away the farm the way Apple and Spotify have. In fact, if there’s any problem here, it’s that no one will buy this – but that’s Beatport’s problem, not yours (as it should be).

WeDJ streaming is for beginners, not Pioneer pros

This first point is probably the most important. Beatport (and SoundCloud) have each created a subscription offering that works exclusively with Pioneer’s WeDJ mobile DJ tool. That is, neither of these works with Rekordbox – not yet.

Just in case there’s any doubt, Pioneer has literally made the dominant product image photo some people DJing in their kitchen. So there you go: Rekordbox and and CDJ and TORAIZ equals nightclub, WeDJ equals countertop next to a pan of fajitas.

So yeah, SoundCloud streaming is now in a DJ app. And Beatport is offering its catalog of tracks for US$14.99 a month for the beta, which is a pretty phenomenally low price – and one that would rightfully scare labels and artists.

But it’s important this is in WeDJ as far as DJing. Pioneer aren’t planning on endangering their business ecosystem in Rekordbox, higher-end controllers, and standalone hardware like the CDJ. They’re trying to attract the beginners in the hopes that some of those people will expand the high end market down the road.

By the same token, it’d be incredibly short-sighted if Beatport were to give up on customers paying a hundred bucks a month or so on downloads just to chase growth. Instead, Beatport will split its offerings into a consumer/beginner product (LINK for WeDJ) and two products for serious DJs (LINK Pro and Beatport CLOUD).

And there’s reason to believe that what disrupts the consumer/beginner side might not make ripples when it comes to pros – as we’ve been there already. Spotify is in Algoriddim’s djay. It’s actually a really solid product. But the djay user base doesn’t impact what people use in the clubs, where the CDJ (or sometimes Serato or TRAKTOR) reign supreme. So if streaming in DJ software were going to crash the download market, you could argue it would have happened already.

That’s still a precarious situation, so let’s break down the different Beatport options, both to see how they’ll impact music makers’ business – and whether they’re something you might want to use yourself.

Ce n’est pas un CDJ.

Beatport LINK – the beginner one

First, that consumer service – yeah, it’s fifteen bucks a month and includes the Beatport catalog. But it’s quality-limited and works only in the WeDJ app (and with the fairly toy-like new DDJ-200 controller, which I’ll look at separately).

Who’s it for? “The Beginner DJs that are just starting out will have millions of tracks to practice and play with,” says Heiko. “Previously, a lot of this market would have been lost to piracy. The bit rate is 128kbs AAC and is not meant for public performance.”

But us serious Beatport users might want to mess around with it, too – it’s a place you can audition new tracks for a fairly low monthly fee. “It’s like having a record shop in your home,” says Heiko.

Just don’t think Beatport are making this their new subscription offering. If you think fifteen bucks a month for everything Beatport is a terrible business idea, don’t worry – Beatport agree. “This is the first of our Beatport LINK products,” says Heiko. “This is not a ‘Spotify for dance music.’ It’s a streaming service for DJs and makes Beatport’s extensive electronic music catalog available to stream audio into the WeDJ app.” And yeah, Spotify want more money for that, which is good – because you want more money charged for that as a producer or label. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the locker, the other thing available now:

WeDJ – a mobile gateway drug for DJs, or so Pioneer hopes. (NI and Algoriddim did it first; let’s see who does it better.)

Beatport CLOUD – the locker/sync one

Okay, so streaming may be destroying music but … you’ve probably still sometimes wanted to have access to digital downloads you’ve bought without having to worry about hard drive management or drive and laptop failures. And there’s the “locker” concept.

Some folks will remember that Beatport bought the major “locker” service for digital music – when it acquired Pulselocker. [link to our friends at DJ TechTools]

Beatport CLOUD is the sync/locker making a comeback, with €/$ 4.99 a month fee and no obligation or contract. It’s also included free in LINK – so for me, for instance, since I hate promos and like to dig for my own music even as press and DJ, I’m seriously thinking of the fifteen bucks to get full streaming previews, mixing in WeDJ, and CLOUD.

There are some other features here, too:

Re-download anything, unlimited. I heard from a friend – let’s call him Pietro Kerning – that maybe a stupid amount of music he’d (uh, or “she’d”) bought on Beatport was now scattered across a random assortment of hard drives. I would never do such a thing, because I organize everything immaculately in all aspects of my life in a manner becoming a true professional, but now this “friend” will easily be able to grab music anywhere in the event of that last-minute DJ gig.

By the same token you can:

Filter all your existing music in a cloud library. Not that I need to, perfectly organized individual, but you slobs need this, of course.

Needle-drop full previews. Hear 120 seconds from anywhere in a track – for better informed purchases. (Frankly, this makes me calmer as a label owner, even – I would totally rather you hear more of our music.)

There should be some obvious bad news here – this only works with Beatport purchased music. You can’t upload music the way some sync/locker services have worked in the past. But I think given the current legal landscape, if you want that, set up your own backup server.

What I like about this, at least, is that this store isn’t losing stuff you’ve bought from them. I think other download sites should consider something similar. (Bandcamp does a nice job in this respect – and of course it’s the store I use the most when not using Beatport.)

The new Beatport cloud.

Beatport LINK Pro – what’s coming

There are very few cases where someone says, “hey, good news – this will be expensive.” But music right now is a special case. And it’s good news that Beatport is launching a more expensive service.

For labels and artists, it means a serious chance to stay alive. (I mean, even for a label doing a tiny amount of download sales, this can mean that little bit of cash to pay the mastering engineer and the person who did the design for the cover, or to host a showcase in your local club.)

For serious users using that service, it means a higher quality way of getting music than other subscription services – and that you support the people who make the music you love, so they keep using it.

Or, at least, that’s the hope.

What Beatport is offering at the “pro” tiers does more and costs more. Just like Pioneer doesn’t want you to stop buying CDJs just because they have a cheap controller and app, Beatport doesn’t want you to stop spending money for music just because they have a subscription for that controller and app. Heiko explains:

With the upcoming Pioneer rekordbox integration, Beatport will roll out two new plans – Beatport LINK Pro and Beatport LINK Pro+ – with an offline locker and 256kbps AAC audio quality (which is equivalent to 320kbps MP3, but you’re the expert here). This will be club ready, but will be aimed at DJs who take their laptops to clubs, for now. They will cost €39,99/month and €59,99/month depending on how many tracks you can put in the offline locker (50 and 100 respectively).

You’ll get streaming inside Rekordbox with the basic LINK, too – but only at 128k. So it’ll work for previewing and trying out mixes, but the idea is you’ll still pay more for higher quality. (And of course that also still means paying more to work with CDJs, which is also a big deal.)

And yeah, Beatport agree with me. “We think streaming for professional DJ use should be priced higher,” says Heiko. “And we also need to be sure that this is not biting into the indie labels and artists (and therefore also Beatport’s own) revenues,” he says.

What Heiko doesn’t say is that this could increase spending, but I think it actually could. Looking at my own purchase habits and talking to others, a lot of times you look back and spend $100 for a big gig, but then lapse a few months. A subscription fee might actually encourage you to spend more and keep your catalog up to date gig to gig.

It’s also fair to hope this could be good for under-the-radar labels and artists even relative to the status quo. If serious DJs are locked into subscription plans, they might well take a chance on lesser known labels and artists since they’re already paying. I don’t want to be overly optimistic, though – a lot of this will be down to how Beatport handles its editorial offerings and UX on the site as this subscription grows. That means it’s good someone like Heiko is handling relations, though, as I expect he’ll be hearing from us.

Really, one very plausible scenario is that streaming DJing doesn’t catch on initially because it’s more expensive – and people in the DJ world may stick to downloads. A lot of that in turn depends on things like how 5G rolls out worldwide (which right now involves a major battle between the US government and Chinese hardware vendor Huawei, among other things), plus how Pioneer deals with a “Streaming CDJ.”

The point is, you shouldn’t have to worry about any of that. And there’s no rush – smart companies like Beatport will charge sustainable amounts of money for subscriptions and move slowly. The thing to be afraid of is if Apple or Spotify rush out a DJ product and, like, destroy independent music. If they try it, we should fight back.

Will labels and artists benefit?

If it sounds like I’m trying to be a cheerleader for Beatport, I’m really not. If you look at the top charts in genres, a lot of Beatport is, frankly, dreck – even with great editorial teams trying to guide consumers to good stuff. And centralization in general has a poor track record when it comes to underground music.

No, what I am biased toward is products that are real, shipping, and based on serious economics. So much as I’m interested in radical ideas for decentralizing music distribution, I think those services have yet to prove their feasibility.

And I think it’s fair to give Beatport some credit for being a business that’s real, based on actual revenue that’s shared between labels and artists. It may mean little to your speedcore goth neo-Baroque label (BLACK HYPERACID LEIPZIG INDUSTRIES, obviously – please let’s make that). But Beatport really is a cornerstone for a lot of the people making dance music now, on a unique scale.

The vision for LINK seems to be solid when it comes to revenue. Heiko again:

LINK will provide an additional revenue source to the labels and artists. The people who are buying downloads on Beatport are doing so because they want to DJ/perform with them. LINK is not there to replace that.

But I think for the reason I’ve already repeated – that the “serious” and “amateur”/wedding/beginner DJ gulf is real and not just a thing snobs talk about – LINK and WeDJ probably won’t disrupt label business, even that much to the positive. Look ahead to Rekordbox integration and the higher tiers. And yeah, I’m happy to spend the money, because I never get tired of listening to music – really.

And what if you don’t like this? Talk to your label and distributor. And really, you should be doing that anyway. Heiko explains:

Unlike other DSP’s, Beatport LINK has been conceived and developed in close cooperation with the labels and distributors on Beatport. Over the past year, new contracts were signed and all music used for LINK has been licensed by the right holders. However, if labels whose distributors have signed the new contract don’t want their catalog to be available for LINK they can opt out. But again: LINK is meant to provide an additional revenue source to the labels and artists.

Have a good weekend, and let us know if you have questions or comments. I’ll be looking at this for sure, as I think there isn’t enough perspective coming from serious producers who care about the details of technology.

https://www.beatport.com/get-link

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Welcome to YouTube Hell: A MIDI pack reseller silences criticism

YouTube is elevating new voices to prominence in music technology as in other fields. But the platform’s esoteric rules are also ripe for abuse – as one YouTube host claims.

The story begins with around a product, the Unison MIDI Chord Pack. This US$67 pack is already, on its surface, a bit strange. Understandably, users without musical training may like the idea of drag-and-drop chords and harmony – nothing wrong with that. But the actual product appears to be just a set of folders full of MIDI files … of, like, chords. Not real presets, but just raw MIDI chords. They even demo the product in Ableton Live, which already contains built-in chord and arpeggiator tools.

You can watch the demo video on their product page – at first, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. They claim that this will help you to create chords “with the right notes, in the right order” without theory background – except most of the drag-and-drop material is made up of root position triads, labeled via terminology you’d need some theory to even read.

It’d be a little bit like someone selling you a Build Your Own House Construction Set that was made up of a bag of nails… and the nails were just ones they’d found lying on the ground. Maybe I’m missing something, but I definitely can’t figure out this product from their documentation.

Ave Mcree aka Traptendo, a well-known YouTube host, decided to take on the developers. Calling the product a “scam,” he says he pointed to other, free sources for the same MIDI content – meaning that, as it wasn’t actually original, at best the Unison product amounts to plagiarism.

As if it weren’t already strange enough that these developers were selling MIDI files of chords, they then responded to Ave Mcree’s video by filing a copyright claim. At this point, our story is picked up by Tim Webb at the excellent Discchord blog, who choose a nice, succinct headline:

Fuck Unison Audio [Discchord]

I’ve reached out to Unison for further comment.

Ave writes:

A video about Unison Audio copyright striking my “Unison Audio Chord MIDI Pack Scam” video! This is a channel strike which is affects my monetization rights and could get my channel deleted. I don’t care if that happens because I’m not going to stand for people hustling you. It’s sad that YouTube allows shills and dishonest companies to strike honest reviewers. It’s censorship at it finest! YouTube as a company has lost all of it’s charm when it stop caring about the community on here. Do I like doing videos like these? No, but it’s necessary when people are using their influence for the wrong things. I’m not knocking their hustle by NO MEANS, but offer a product that is 100% YOURS!!!!!

What makes this story so disturbing: not only is YouTube’s lax structure vulnerable to abuse, it seems to actively encourage scammers.

The copyright claim appears to be based on the the pack included for demonstration purposes in his video. While I’m not a lawyer, this should fall dead center under the doctrine of fair use as well as the royalty free license provided by the developers themselves.

Here’s where YouTube’s scale and automation, though, collide with the intricacies of copyright law requirements (mainly in the USA, but possibly soon impacted by changes in the European Union). It’s easy to file a copyright claim, but hard to get videos reinstated once that claim is filed.

As a result: there’s almost nothing stopping someone from filing a fraudulent copyright claim just because they don’t like your video. In this case, Unison can simply use a made-up copyright claim as a tool to kill a video they didn’t like.

You can read up on this world of hurt on Google’s own site:

Copyright strike basics

After all the recent fears about the EU and filtering, automated filtering doesn’t result in a strike – strikes require an explicit request. The problem is, creators have little recourse once that strike is processed. They can contact whomever made the complaint and get them to reverse it – which doesn’t work here, if Unison’s whole goal was removing the video. They can wait 90 days – an eternity in Internet time. Or they can file a “counter notification” – but even this is slow:

After we process your counter notification by forwarding it to the claimant, the claimant has 10 business days to provide us with evidence that they have initiated a court action to keep the content down. This time period is a requirement of copyright law, so please be patient.

Counter Notification Basics [Google Support]

It was only a matter of time before music and music tech encountered the problems with this system, as YouTube grows. Other online media – including CDM – are subject to liability for copyright and libel, as we should be. But legal systems are also set up to prevent frivolous claims, or attempts to use these rules simply to gag your critics. That’s not the case with YouTube; Google has an incentive to protect itself more than its creators, and it’s clear the system they’ve set up has inadequate protections against abuse.

What kind of abuse?

Fuck Jerry, the Instagram “influencer” agency that ripped off memes and helped build the ill-fated Fyre Festival, used copyright strikes to remove a video critical of its operation.

And the system has produced a swarm of copyright trolls.

And it gets worse from there: the system can result in outright extortion, with Google proving unresponsive to complains. The Verge reported on this phenomenon earlier this year, and while Google claimed to be working on the problem, observed that even major channels needed their woes to go viral before even getting a response from the company:

YouTube’s copyright strikes have become a tool for extortion

This isn’t the only problem on YouTube’s platform for music and music technology. While the service is promoting new personalities, disclosure around their relationships with sponsors are often opaque. Traptendo also observes that videos touting various tutorials on working with harmony may be sponsored by Unison Audio, with little or no acknowledgement of that relationship.

That same complaint has been leveled at CDM and me not to mention… okay, all the print magazines I’ve ever written for. But we at least have to answer for our credibility, or lose you as readers. (And sometimes losing you as readers is exactly what happens.) YouTube’s automated algorithms, by contrast, mean videos that simply mention the right keywords or appeal to particular machine heuristics can be promoted without any of that human judgment.

YouTube has unquestionable value, and to pretend otherwise would be foolhardy. Traptendo’s videos are great; I hope this one that was removed gets reinstated.

At the same time, we need to be aware of some of the downsides of this platform. And I’m concerned that we’ve become dependent on a single platform from a single vendor – which also means if anything goes wrong, creators are just as quickly de-platformed.

And regardless of what’s going on with YouTube, it’s also important for humans to spread the word – at least to say, friends don’t let friends spend their money on … chords.

I don’t believe all music “needs to be free,” but I would least say triads are. Actually, wait… I could use some spare spending money. Excuse me, I’m going to slip into the night to go sell some all-interval tetrachords on the black market.

Here’s Traptendo showing you how to mess with harmony in FL Studio – minus the overpriced “pack”:

Oh yeah and – check out Ave’s site on the open Web, complete with full blog:

https://djavemcree.net/

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Oops: April Fools’, at best, gave us stuff we actually want

Well, congratulations – you’ve survived another April Fools’ holiday. At worst, it can be unfunny and confusing. At best, though, it raises a different question – should we actually start dreaming up and making more ridiculous ideas?

Okay, I don’t necessarily want to be the grinch of April Fools’. And maybe now is not the right time to raise this – like, someone might say that it could have something to do with the fact that I attempted a product launch on the holiday, uh, yesterday. (What? That was me? Oh, yeah – it was. MeeBlip geode is not a joke. We are really making it. And um… yeah, that did wind up hitting some confusion, even though there’s nothing particularly April Fools-y about geode.)

While it’s had some glimmers of clever parody, the collision of April Fools’ with an attention-starved Internet has led to a noisy confusion of a bunch of people deciding to write parody press releases and videos, and the ideas can get repetitive. And it can confuse everyone about real news – not just ours. This year, the date came between two of the bigger synth and electronic music events of the year – sandwiched not more than 24 hours apart from Synthplex in the USA and Musikmesse in Frankfurt, Germany. (Yes, Messe is again a thing; even with Superbooth in Berlin stealing away modular makers, there’s a lot of musical instruments business outside modular, a lot of distributors in Germany, an entire industry around lighting tech, the music education business in Germany, and a competitive Messe organization slashing rates on booths, so expect it to stick around.)

But about the fake products we wish were real products … sigh, again.

Biggest culprit: KORG.

Yeah, okay, it’s probably not terribly practical for KORG to make a cassette volca. On the other hand, it’s not just the Rickroll video that’s tonedeaf to 2019 – lots of us have repurposed our cassette decks. I have a Yamaha multitrack sitting next to me in the studio wired up. People are making tape loops with Walkmans. There are tape labels. Bastl Instruments and Teenage Engineering, among others, have made digital decks that reimagine tape loops and tape playback. And having seen weird tape players show up on Amazon, I expect it’s not impossible to make new hardware that includes mechanical tape playback in it.

So the joke’s really on KORG here. Instead of getting pranked or sharing this because it was funny, literally thousands of people jumped on the idea of a KORG volcasette. (Obviously the biggest clue in – using KORG’s volca series nomenclature, it should have been KORG cassette or KORG tape. Just sayin’.)

The proposed features of this thing already exist on multitrack tape recorders, but the mind reels with other possibilities – looping, sampling, strange custom tape echoes…

And yes, of course there was the Ableton’s ReChorder – maybe the one amusing part of the parody there was, the awful music at the end does kind of remind me of some terrible demos of unusual instruments over the years. This one we can at least leave out of the instances of products people would want.

But even silly April Fools’ products can go viral – perhaps because we live in a world where brands are doing such strange things already, it’s not clear how you could make a joke that was any more absurd.

So, a HYPERX CUP MIX-IN pair of headphones shaped like two Cup Noodles containers and a fork had some of us … wanting instant ramen … and others actually wanting to try to buy the product. (Various blogs even picked this up assuming it was real.) I have a pair of Beats by Dre headphones in white that I suddenly want to mod to actually do this.

Useful? No. Possible to DIY? Yes. Tempting? Oh, indeed. (I’m sure some sort of ramen container housing could work.)

CUP NOODLES®
HYPERX CUP MIX-IN

Then there was this USB-C hub covered in legacy ports. Except… yeah, I definitely would buy something like that. (SCSI for old drives? Actual analog video? Tons of extra ports, or card readers?)

Sure, this is … not totally possible. But parts of it are and … you know you want it. Their ridiculous specs, though take any subset of these and you might be happy.

Thick, heavy, substantial styling.
Built-in 100Wh / 27000mAh airline-safe battery pack
2-in-1 speaker and space heater using the same front air vent holes (temperature depending on the number of active connections)
USB-C hub with a total of 40 ports
9 x USB-C
9 x USB-A
2 x microSD
2 x SD
1 x 3.5mm Audio Jack
1 x HDMI
2 x DisplayPort
1 x Mini DVI
1 x VGA
1 x Ethernet
1 x Modem RJ-11
1 x Optical Audio “Toslink”
1 x Firewire 400
1 x Firewire 800
2 x RCA
1 x Parallel Port
1 x Serial Port
1 x PS/2
1 x AT Port
1 x 3.5” Floppy Disk Drive

Hyper Releases The Mother Of All USB-C Hubs

Hey, there is a lot of bandwidth on Thunderbolt 3. I think this particular device might catch fire. But it is possible to have more ports.

Part of the reason this isn’t a joke: a friend urgently needed to pull files off a SCSI drive. I wound up looking back at Apple machines from just around the turn of the century, which in fact had every port you could imagine. The bronze keyboard PowerBook G3 Series, for instance, includes both USB and SCSI – and since it runs used for $200, you can actually buy that entire laptop to transfer data from legacy drives more easily than you can buy a modern SCSI adapter. (The adapters appear to be both more expensive and more scarce than the entire computers.)

Or for a more extreme example, consider the PowerMac G3 Series. This machine was everything Steve Jobs stamped out at Apple – boxy, with a beige slightly curved-out ID design language that mostly evolved under CEO John Sculley. But it sure had ports. Photo (CC-BY-SA) Miguel Durán.

Maybe you’ll rescue the legacy devices, but I do miss analog video – badly. And the notion of professional machines where you might actually connect various hardware, that bit still seems relevant. I love compact and friendly devices, but I also love choice.

And of course the only real joke is trying to figure out how to buy a USB-C device or cable … ahem … (to say nothing of those Apple cable prices).

Maybe the bottom line here, though, is that one person’s joke is another person’s dream. Some of the best, most creative ideas start as jokes. April Fools’ as far as I’m concerned in tech just needs to go away – it’s a day that adds noise and confusion to media that don’t need more of that, ever. But here’s another approach: maybe we should be willing to dream up absurd ideas the other 364 days of the year.

You know.

See any April Fools’ jokes you wish were real – and anybody up for actually making it happen?

Time to pick up a Walkman at the next flea market and start hacking; that’s for sure.

[Side note – unless you think I’m alone in this, The Verge has been pointing out April Fools’ as the (literally) Medieval time waster that needs to die. And Microsoft also banned April Fools’, which might itself seem like a punchline, except that … no, we really want you to be focused on your damned software, actually, so agreed.]

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Years of MySpace music deleted; Internet weeps

It’s not so much that anyone expected MySpace to be alive at this point, let alone a safe place for music uploads. The demise of years of MySpace music is more like a sad reminder of the direction of the Internet.

First, there’s actually a few events in the timeline of how so much music disappeared from the service in the first place.

Remember that about ten years ago it had only just been surpassed by Facebook. Since then, relative traffic, revenue, and headcount have plunged dramatically. The 2016 acquisition by Time Inc. was of a far weaker company, but even then ad revenue was seen as its value. Part of what Apple, Spotify, Facebook, and Google-owned YouTube have done, arguably, is weaken the overall market for ad revenue and premium services in music. That’s why it’s still worth watching SoundCloud’s creator-driven strategy, in contrast to the rest of the industry.

In the midst of the business meltdown, the circumstances of MySpace’s “loss” of years of much are highly suspicious.

Users on reddit have been the ones to chronicle what was going on at each step. Keep in mind, here they’re referring to their own user-uploaded content.

About one year ago, reddit users reported being unable to access a lot of previously available music, and got this cryptic response from MySpace:

There is an issue with all songs/videos uploaded over 3 years ago. We are aware of the issue and I have been informed the issue will be fixed, however, there is no exact time frame for when this will be completed. Until this is resolved the option to download is not available. I apologize for the inconvenience this may be causing.

Also from March of last year:

We’re in the process of doing a huge maintenance project for videos and songs. Due to this maintenance, you may notice some issues playing songs or videos. During this process, there may be possible downtime. We are actively working to ensure there is little to no issues with your listening experience. Please bear with us.

You may also notice missing artwork during this transition. We’re diligently working to get this resolved asap.

Please also note, all FLV videos can no longer be played due to an update to the player. We updated our player to HTML5. Unfortunately, we do not offer a way to play or download these videos.

Eight months ago, the player displayed this notice:

As a result of a server migration project, any photos, videos, and audio files you uploaded more than three years ago may no longer be available on or from Myspace. We apologize for the inconvenience and suggest that you retain your back up copies. If you would like more information, please contact our Data Protection Officer, Dr. Jana Jentzsch at DPO@myspace.com.

The timeline of news around the issue this week is actually incorrect, because it appears that all of this happened about a year ago. Seven months ago was when one redditer got a notice from the company saying files had been deleted. Yet only this week it seems mainstream sites (including this one, erm, okay mainstream sites plus this one) took notice.

You’ll notice what happened there. Files disappeared without notice, then messages suggested that they might be somehow part of a migration, then suddenly they were “corrupted.”

By the way, Dr. Jentzsch apparently a third-party legal counsel in Germany, not MySpace management.

This paints a clear picture. It’s highly unlikely that this was an engineering error so much as the company poorly managing messaging about dropping old content entirely. That was the theory put forward on Twitter by Andy Vaio, veteran of Kickstarter, waxy, upcoming.org, and others:

Uh, yeah:

In fact, the language used (“corrupted,” “server migration”) also appears not to be written by an engineer – in that an engineer would be more specific.

BBC and I are at least seven or eight months, maybe one year late on this, but yes, it’s on BBC:

MySpace admits losing 12 years’ worth of music uploads

But, okay, this part is obvious.

Equally obvious: you shouldn’t count on services to be the only copy of your stuff. These services generally have no obligation to keep things accessible.

Also equally obvious: a lot of us know that and do it anyway.

Obvious follow-up: we should go right now to places with our music, download it, and put it multiple places that are safe – both physically and online.

No, like right now.

And we should be particularly mistrusting of big services this month, in which both Gmail and Facebook suffered major, multi=hours outages for which their enormously wealth corporate owners provided absolutely no explanation.

There’s a broader issue, though, beyond our own stuff. We need to begin to properly archive online content, and imagine how it will be more widely available – what we assumed the Internet would do in the first place. And there, folks like Jason Scott of the Internet Archive have been working on just that.

Charmingly, he’s even archiving skins for Winamp:

But I think we need a complete reboot of what we’re doing with the Internet for music. I’ll be writing about that in coming weeks and trying to get your input (readers) and the input of other people involved in projects from the past, present, and future.

The situation right now is bleak – and the fact that people really were still looking to MySpace for their music demonstrates how bleak. Music uploaded to the “old Internet” may quickly be lost forever. Music now disappears into a black box of distribution services. Some of those distributors will actually remove music from streaming and download sites if the creators or publishers don’t pay up on a regular basis. And once on these sites, many artists will never see any amount of real, measurable income – whatever Spotify and Apple may be quarreling about currently.

In fact, I’d go as far as arguing that the focus on whether music makers get paid for their work ignores the fact that a lot of music makers feel they aren’t heard at all.

Which brings us back to MySpace. The early days of the Internet were full of music – even illegal music. It was the age of the netlabel. And then MySpace was the dominant social network from 2004 to 2010 – meaning that social media was dominated by music.

Obviously, that’s not the case now. Now we have “influencers” and selfies and literally Neo-Nazis and hate speech and fake news and almost everything but music.

If people are suddenly lamenting the loss of years-old data on MySpace, it could be because music online hasn’t grown as we hoped it would.

There’s still time to change that. We’re not getting any younger – and neither is the Web. So that time is now.

The post Years of MySpace music deleted; Internet weeps appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

A plea to DJs: make sharing part of digging

Many DJs still believe track lists and track IDs are proprietary information to be guarded … for some reason. But however defensible this position may have been in the past, opening up information matters now like never before.

The issue blew up again in the past 24 hours as The Black Madonna and other responded to Developer, the label chief for Modularz. Developer argued that people should “find their own gems” and he had no interest in sharing track listings or track IDs because he spent “hours” digging for tracks. He has since deleted those tweets (including one reply to me suggesting I go use Shazam), and didn’t respond to my request for comment. He did, however, leave up various retweets of people defending the position.

But this isn’t about Developer – and on the contrary, I’d rather he and others changed their minds. I totally agree with his learn to hunt idea. But what I don’t understand is why you’d brag about hiding tracks in the first place. So there’s clearly some disconnect here.

Some DJs I quite like keep doing … this every time someone asks for a damned track ID:

Noncompliant puts it succinctly:

This is about producers. Electronic music is now flooded with new people DJing, new people making music, and new people becoming music fans. That should be a healthy combination, one that supports the people making music.

Making music involves a heck of a lot of vulnerability. A lot of artists are desperate just to be heard – not widely, to be heard and appreciated in some real way even once often means a lot. They fight depression and insecurity and day jobs and the need to do tax accounting to put music out there for an audience that often ignores them.

Total obscurity is toxic to expression. It robs makers of fans, and fans of experiencing something unique. And there’s a lot of music being condemned to that fate. Music streaming isn’t just lowering the value of music returned to creators; it’s raising the cost of getting your music heard – because it’s being consolidated in the hands of a few major companies (Apple, Google, Spotify) who then fix algorithms and channels based on mainstream tastes and inward-turning circles of machine learning. Meanwhile, independent journalism has dwindled, dominated by large corporate interests and pay-for-play schemes even at smaller sites and … okay, I’ll just stop. It’s not all bad, but there are some major challenges out there that can be devastating to some great music.

With streaming poised to take over DJ booths, far from defending the exclusivity of DJing, we are fighting against a possible future where most DJs select music based on algorithms and Instagram influencers. (There’s some better scenarios here, but some of them are indeed scary.)

But then that makes me utterly mystified why DJs would pick this moment to get precious about their playlists.

So, okay, let me address that crew now, even if it means I have to duck into a phone booth (kids, ask your parents) and change into my not-at-all-secret superhero identity – [Disney Marvel Studios presents] CAPTAIN OBVIOUS!

Photo (CC-BY) jlggb.

You don’t have to answer pests. I get it – there’s that person at a club who ought to be dancing who won’t leave you alone. I’m not talking about any of them; that’s fine to refuse them. And if your Facebook page or Instagram inbox is overflowing with requests, I get that, too. Don’t stress; you’re free to ignore them.

But don’t sell yourself short. Come on. What DJ has ever only made a mark only based on picking obscure secret weapons? You’re a good DJ (or you’re not, but then you really shouldn’t be arguing here). It’s about mixing and placement and edits and adjustment and reading the crowd and the narrative of the evening and the moment and … are you seriously arguing you’re giving away something if you tell someone the name of a track you liked? I’m sorry, I’m still mystified as to why I’m even having to write this, but here we are.

That said …

These tracks aren’t yours to protect. Okay, apart from if you made the track yourself, in which case this resistance is exceedingly weird, what the Hell are you doing? Someone made a track that you played and someone loves it. Don’t you owe it to the person who made that track to give them credit? And speaking of which –

Encouraging people to buy music is great. I found it especially odd that DJs were complaining about people going and buying $2 downloads. Uh… that’s not normally something labels and artists are opposed to having happen more often.

But you know, even apart from that:

We’re lucky to share our passion with other people, right? I talked to Noncompliant who talked about enjoying showing people record sleeves back in the day. Hell, I’ve had the most fun in the booth when people do ask me for IDs or I wind up striking up a conversation with a friend who’s playing. Sometimes those tracks are rare; sometimes they’re totally obvious but still lovable.

We’re living in scary times. The solution to protecting the value of the DJ is not to hide your tracks – because that will only accelerate a trend where music is unknowable and left to unseen forces, and those unseen forces are not benign. It ought to be a privilege to play other people’s music, not a burden to share the authorship of that music. And if DJs go and dig up rare and obscure sounds, nothing will illustrate that like letting people know.

No high tech solutions needed. There are plenty of interesting techie solutions to publishing playlists via Twitter or Pioneer’s servers or Richie Hawtin’s servers or Skynet or whatever, but I’ll leave that for another time.

You can show people record sleeves. You can hit the INFO button on a CDJ someone can see (thanks again to Noncompliant for both of those). You can tell someone or write them a note. You can share playlists manually on Facebook or Twitter or your website, as many people now do, and then you won’t get nagged.

But it’s not just me saying this. And this isn’t just “kids today” wanting all their information free so they can talk about it through fancy Snapchat filters while they eat Tide Pods. In fact, I’m totally biased as a producer first and an independent label and generally a pain in the ass. So here are some other people saying it, using fewer words because they’re not me.

Look, I’m not here to make a point. I really do hope this message spreads.

We need you, DJs – every ID, every listener makes a difference.

#digandshare

Photo at top: CC-BY Irma Daidone.

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Why is this Valentine’s song made by an AI app so awful?

Do you hate AI as a buzzword? Do you despise the millennial whoop? Do you cringe every time Valentine’s Day arrives? Well – get ready for all those things you hate in one place. But hang in there – there’s a moral to this story.

Now, really, the song is bad. Like laugh-out-loud bad. Here’s iOS app Amadeus Code “composing” a song for Valentine’s Day, which says love much in the way a half-melted milk chocolate heart does, but – well, I’ll let you listen, millennial pop cliches and all:

Fortunately this comes after yesterday’s quite stimulating ideas from a Google research team – proof that you might actually use machine learning for stuff you want, like improved groove quantization and rhythm humanization. In case you missed that:

Magenta Studio lets you use AI tools for inspiration in Ableton Live

Now, as a trained composer / musicologist, I do find this sort of exercise fascinating. And on reflection, I think the failure of this app tells us a lot – not just about machines, but about humans. Here’s what I mean.

Amadeus Code is an interesting idea – a “songwriting assistant” powered by machine learning, delivered as an app. And it seems machine learning could generate, for example, smarter auto accompaniment tools or harmonizers. Traditionally, those technologies have been driven by rigid heuristics that sound “off” to our ears, because they aren’t able to adequately follow harmonic changes in the way a human would. Machine learning could – well, theoretically, with the right dataset and interpretation – make those tools work more effectively. (I won’t re-hash an explanation of neural network machine learning, since I got into that in yesterday’s article on Magenta Studio.)

https://amadeuscode.com/

You might well find some usefulness from Amadeus, too.

This particular example does not sound useful, though. It sounds soulless and horrible.

Okay, so what happened here? Music theory at least cheers me up even when Valentine’s Day brings me down. Here’s what the developers sent CDM in a pre-packaged press release:

We wanted to create a song with a specific singer in mind, and for this demo, it was Taylor Swift. With that in mind, here are the parameters we set in the app.

Bpm set to slow to create a pop ballad
To give the verses a rhythmic feel, the note length settings were set to “short” and also since her vocals have great presence below C, the note range was also set from low~mid range.
For the chorus, to give contrast to the rhythmic verses, the note lengths were set longer and a wider note range was set to give a dynamic range overall.

After re-generating a few ideas in the app, the midi file was exported and handed to an arranger who made the track.

Wait – Taylor Swift is there just how, you say?

Taylor’s vocal range is somewhere in the range of C#3-G5. The key of the song created with Amadeus Code was raised a half step in order to accommodate this range making the song F3-D5.

From the exported midi, 90% of the topline was used. The rest of the 10% was edited by the human arranger/producer: The bass and harmony files are 100% from the AC midi files.

Now, first – these results are really impressive. I don’t think traditional melodic models – theoretical and mathematical in nature – are capable of generating anything like this. They’ll tend to fit melodic material into a continuous line, and as a result will come out fairly featureless.

No, what’s compelling here is not so much that this sounds like Taylor Swift, or that it sounds like a computer, as it sounds like one of those awful commercial music beds trying to be a faux Taylor Swift song. It’s gotten some of the repetition, some of the basic syncopation, and oh yeah, that awful overused millennial whoop. It sounds like a parody, perhaps because partly it is – the machine learning has repeated the most recognizable cliches from these melodic materials, strung together, and then that was further selected / arranged by humans who did the same. (If the machines had been left alone without as much human intervention, I suspect the results wouldn’t be as good.)

In fact, it picks up Swift’s ticks – some of the funny syncopations and repetitions – but without stringing them together, like watching someone do a bad impression. (That’s still impressive, though, as it does represent one element of learning – if a crude one.)

To understand why this matters, we’re going to have to listen to a real Taylor Swift song. Let’s take this one:i’

Okay, first, the fact that the real Taylor Swift song has words is not a trivial detail. Adding words means adding prosody – so elements like intonation, tone, stress, and rhythm. To the extent those elements have resurfaced as musical elements in the machine learning-generated example, they’ve done so in a way that no longer is attached to meaning.

No amount of analysis, machine or human, can be generative of lyrical prosody for the simple reason that analysis alone doesn’t give you intention and play. A lyricist will make decisions based on past experience and on the desired effect of the song, and because there’s no real right or wrong to how do do that, they can play around with our expectations.

Part of the reason we should stop using AI as a term is that artificial intelligence implies decision making, and these kinds of models can’t make decisions. (I did say “AI” again because it fits into the headline. Or, uh, oops, I did it again. AI lyricists can’t yet hammer “oops” as an interjection or learn the playful setting of that line – again, sorry.)

Now, you can hate the Taylor Swift song if you like. But it’s catchy not because of a predictable set of pop music rules so much as its unpredictability and irregularity – the very things machine learning models of melodic space are trying to remove in order to create smooth interpolations. In fact, most of the melody of “Blank Space” is a repeated tonic note over the chord progression. Repetition and rhythm are also combined into repeated motives – something else these simple melodic models can’t generate, by design. (Well, you’ll hear basic repetition, but making a relationship between repeated motives again will require a human.)

It may sound like I’m dismissing computer analysis. I’m actually saying something more (maybe) radical – I’m saying part of the mistake here is assuming an analytical model will work as a generative model. Not just a machine model – any model.

This mistake is familiar, because almost everyone who has ever studied music theory has made the same mistake. (Theory teachers then have to listen to the results, which are often about as much fun as these AI results.)

Music theory analysis can lead you to a deeper understanding of how music works, and how the mechanical elements of music interrelate. But it’s tough to turn an analytical model into a generative model, because the “generating” process involves decisions based on intention. If the machine learning models sometimes sound like a first year graduate composition student, that may be that the same student is steeped in the analysis but not in the experience of decision making. But that’s important. The machine learning model won’t get better, because while it can keep learning, it can’t really make decisions. It can’t learn from what it’s learned, as you can.

Yes, yes, app developers – I can hear you aren’t sold yet.

For a sense of why this can go deep, let’s turn back to this same Taylor Swift song. The band Imagine Dragons picked it up and did a cover, and, well, the chord progression will sound more familiar than before.

As it happens, in a different live take I heard the lead singer comment (unironically) that he really loves Swift’s melodic writing.

But, oh yeah, even though pop music recycles elements like chord progressions and even groove (there’s the analytic part), the results take on singular personalities (there’s the human-generative side).

“Stand by Me” dispenses with some of the ticks of our current pop age – millennial whoops, I’m looking at you – and at least as well as you can with the English language, hits some emotional meaning of the words in the way they’re set musically. It’s not a mathematical average of a bunch of tunes, either. It’s a reference to a particular song that meant something to its composer and singer, Ben E. King.

This is his voice, not just the emergent results of a model. It’s a singer recalling a spiritual that hit him with those same three words, which sets a particular psalm from the Bible. So yes, drum machines have no soul – at least until we give them one.

“Sure,” you say, “but couldn’t the machine learning eventually learn how to set the words ‘stand by me’ to music”? No, it can’t – because there are too many possibilities for exactly the same words in the same range in the same meter. Think about it: how many ways can you say these three words?

“Stand by me.”

Where do you put the emphasis, the pitch? There’s prosody. What melody do you use? Keep in mind just how different Taylor Swift and Ben E. King were, even with the same harmonic structure. “Stand,” the word, is repeated as a suspension – a dissonant note – above the tonic.

And even those observations still lie in the realm of analysis. The texture of this coming out of someone’s vocal cords, the nuances to their performance – that never happens the same way twice.

Analyzing this will not tell you how to write a song like this. But it will throw light on each decision, make you hear it that much more deeply – which is why we teach analysis, and why we don’t worry that it will rob music of its magic. It means you’ll really listen to this song and what it’s saying, listen to how mournful that song is.

And that’s what a love song really is:

If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
Or the mountain should crumble to the sea
I won’t cry, I won’t cry
No, I won’t shed a tear
Just as long as you stand
Stand by me

Stand by me.

Now that’s a love song.

So happy Valentine’s Day. And if you’re alone, well – make some music. People singing about hearbreak and longing have gotten us this far – and it seems if a machine does join in, it’ll happen when the machine’s heart can break, too.

PS – let’s give credit to the songwriters, and a gentle reminder that we each have something to sing that only we can:
Singer Ben E. King, Best Known For ‘Stand By Me,’ Dies At 76 [NPR]

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Haken’s ContinuuMini is expressive, post-keyboard sound for $899

Want some evidence that the future of expressive digital instruments and MPE is bright? Look to Haken’s ContinuuMini, which emerged over last year, bringing greater portability and a US$899 price to the out-there controller.

Forget anything else, and listen to this gorgeous video (using a clever setup with an Onde acoustic resonator*:

Why does the ContinuuMini matter?

Expression really is a combination of sound and physical control. Say what you will about piano keyboards (and some electronic musicians who hate them certainly do) – the reason an acoustic piano is still expressive has to do with the sound of a piano.

So when we talk about MPE, a scheme for allowing polyphonic expression through MIDI, we’re really talking about allow greater depth in the connection of physical gestures and sound.

If this is going to catch on, it’ll require more than one vendor. I think it’s wrong to assume MPE’s future, then, is tied solely to ROLI as a vendor. From the start, MPE was an initiative of a range of people, from major software developers (Apple, Steinberg) to hardware inventors (ROLI, but also Roger Linn and Randy Jones of Madrona Labs, for instance).

And Haken Audio has been a boutique maker pushing new ways of playing for years – including with MPE on their Continuum. The Continuum may look arcane in photos, but feeling it is a unique experience. The ribbon feels luxurious – it’s actually soft fabric. And the degree of control is something special. But it’s also enormous and expensive – and that means a lot of people can’t buy it, or can’t tour with it since it won’t fit in an overhead.

I believe that what makes an instrument is really finding that handful of people to do stuff even the creators didn’t expect, so if you can lower those barriers for even a run of a few hundred units, you could have a small revolution on your hand.

That’s what Haken have done with ContinuuMini, which closed crowd sourcing late last year and has started shipping of the first hardware.

Here’s what sets it apart:

It’s a Continuum. Well, first, nothing else feels like a Continuum. That feeling may not be for everyone, but it’s still significant as a choice.

It’s continuous. Because you aren’t limited by frets or keys, there’s a continuous range of sound. This is a controller you’ll want to practice, finding intonation with muscle memory and your ear. And there are artists who will want that subtlety.

It has internal sound. Like its larger sibling the ContinuuMini has an internal sound engine. That means that it’s not just a controller. Haken have conceived control and sound in a single, unified design. You can play it without connecting other stuff. And the builders have worked on both the physical and aural experience of what they’ve made. I think that’s significant to anyone making an investment, particularly in an age in which abstract controller hardware tends to stack in our closets.

It’s 8-voice polyphonic, as well. The ContinuuMini isn’t just a controller: it’s a complete, gorgeous polysynth and a controller, for this one price.

It connects to other gear, without software. Bidirectional digital control – MIDI, with MPE, MPE+ – and bidirectional control voltage analog (with converter) are possible. That means you can play the ContinuuMini with gear and software (like recording MIDI and MPE in your DAW for playback), and likewise the ContinuuMini can control your software and gear. There are also two pedal inputs so your feet can get in on the action.

It’s only a quarter kilogram. 9 oz. You can tote the bigger ones with a case but – the ContinuuMini is incredibly portable.

It feels like an extraordinary development.

https://www.hakenaudio.com/continuumini

* Synthtopia has a great, in-depth interview on the Onde and Pyramid, acoustic resonators that make an electronic instrument feel more like an instrument and less like “something disconnected that produces sound through speakers” as with conventional monitors:

La Voix Du Luthier & The New Shape Of Electronic Sound

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Resident Advisor shuts down comments; what’s the forum for non-toxic chat?

Resident Advisor announced today it’s shuttering comments on its site, closing on-article commentary on one of the world’s leading venues for electronic music information.

Comments are already closed on the article, so — sorry, toxic commenters, no chance for you to chime in! But many of the comments on Twitter are in the “’bout time” category:

Hateful comments aren’t victimless, and the victims are disproportionately women, minorities, and LGBTQ members of the community. That means shutting down comments could have a major positive impact for those people. And note the link above – the conversation continues elsewhere.

But that raises a question: how do you make online conversation more productive and inclusive and less hurtful? The editorial announcing the change seems to blame comments for being antiquated:

Social media introduced a more broadly accepted way for people to communicate online. Comments sections served an ever-smaller portion of users, not just on RA but across the internet.

That raises a question, however: did social media absorb mainstream conversation, leaving toxic commenters in threads on articles? Or has social media itself inflamed ever-lower standards of interaction? Haven’t social media channels been blamed for exactly the same sort of toxic chatter?

When RA’s own Will Lynch singled out sexism in comments a couple of years ago, it was Facebook, not article comments on RA, were originally the case in point:

Opinion: Misogyny and mob mentality

And that’s just one case; countless others have seen Twitter, comments on Facebook posts, comments on Facebook and YouTube videos. Maybe comments on articles serve few enough readers to warrant turning them off. But toxicity is alive and well on mainstream social media.

RA for their part promise “new ways of fostering community that are more in line with the times and, most importantly, that are welcoming and inclusive to everyone.” For now, we can’t really fault them or credit them, not knowing what they have in mind or how it will work.

In the meantime, there are no shortage of ways of communicating with RA. Part of the challenge of a site today is the sheer magnitude of moderating all those social media channels. But note that all those channels are operated by large corporations, each of which sets the rules for how moderation works.

RA in the same editorial encourage readers to communicate with them on “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.” For the record, that’s:

Facebook, Inc.: California-based, publicly-traded corporation, 2.2 billion active users (01/18), established 2004.
Google, LLC: California-based, publicly-traded corporation. (YouTube LLC is the California-based subsidiary, established 2005).
Facebook… again.
and Twitter, California-based, publicly-traded corporation, 300+ million active users monthly, established 2006.

I don’t mean to implicate RA here – far from it. I started writing online (and in print) in the early 2000s. RA was established in 2001; CDM in 2004, publishing regularly starting early 2005. You can see the problem from the dates above: YouTube and Twitter didn’t even exist yet. Google had recently gotten into blogging with Blogger. Facebook existed but was still limited to campuses. Now the world has changed. And while this is a topic for a different article, I think it’s fair to implicate these large corporations for worsening the problem, by resisting moderation (especially human moderation), and emphasizing “engagement” in the interest of rapid growth and corporate profits. That “engagement” often translates to turning up noise and down signal.

I’ve certainly made major missteps running CDM (mostly single-handedly – mea culpa). I’ve failed at administering online forums – twice. I’ve had the site overrun with spam – numerous occasions – and even once compromised by a right-wing European group. (That was an interesting day.) I’ve screwed up on major social media sites, too.

Comments will continue here, but we’re fortunate to have built up a community here over 14 years. I know a lot of regular readers personally now. And this site is obviously on a much smaller scale than RA. I’ve stepped in when comments turned ugly. I believe firmly in moderation, and as I hope CDM does expand its community offerings some time in the future, that means designing moderation into it.

In fact, let me pause and say this – thank you. This site got its start partly thanks to what you’ve written in comments – your ideas, your corrections, heck, your copy editing, your constructive criticism, your tips. If anything, I think I owe it to the readers to find new ways of creating online community because you’ve demonstrated what that community can be. And if that’s because this site is small and niche, well, maybe there are some good things about small and niche.

But this is about more than this site. I hope we can make a platform to start to discuss what online community can look like – technologically and culturally. This is surely as much a part of music technology today as a drum machine or a DAW. And it’s also been a place with arguably the least innovation, in a field dominated by those massive transnational information megacorporations that now dominate traffic on the Internet.

I’m glad to see RA comments go. But we all need to come together to create something better – and we can’t count on Silicon Valley to do it for us.

Worth reading:

Opinion: Why we’re closing comments

I welcome your … comments. Still open below. What should future discussion look like? And is there a place for comments on articles at least on smaller sites like this one? (Okay, selection bias there, but sound off!)

Try not to call me or anyone else names. Actually, me, I can take it – just not anyone else. Thanks.

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It’s time for music and music technology to be a voice for migrants

From countries across Europe to the USA, migration is at the center of Western politics at the moment. But that raises a question: why aren’t more people who make music, music instruments, and music tech louder about these issues?

Migration – temporary and permanent – is simply a fact of life for a huge group of people, across backgrounds and aspirations. That can involve migration to follow opportunities, and refugees and asylum seekers who move for their own safety and freedom. So if you don’t picture immigrants, migrants, and refugees when you think of your society, you just aren’t thinking.

Musicians ought to be uniquely qualified to speak to these issues, though. Extreme anti-immigration arguments all assume that migrants take away more from a society than they give back. And people in the music world ought to know better. Music has always been based on cultural exchange. Musicians across cultures have always considered touring to make a living. And to put it bluntly, music isn’t a zero sum game. The more you add, the more you create.

Music gets schooled in borders

As music has grown more international, as more artists tour and cross borders, at least the awareness is changing. That’s been especially true in electronic music, in a DJ industry that relies on travel. Resident Advisor has consistently picked up this story over the last couple of years, as artists spoke up about being denied entry to countries while touring.

In a full-length podcast documentary last year, they dug into the ways in which the visa system hurts artists outside the US and EU, with a focus on non-EU artists trying to gain entry to the UK:

Andrew Ryce also wrote about a visa rate hike in the USA back in 2016 – and this in the Obama Administration, not under Trump:

US raises touring artist visa fees by 42%

Now, being a DJ crossing a border isn’t the same as being a refugee running for your life. But then on some other level, it can allow artists to experience immigration infrastructure – both when it works for them, and when it works against them. A whole generation of artists, including even those from relatively privileged Western nations, is now learning the hard way about the immigration system. And that’s something they might have missed as tourists, particularly if they come from places like the USA, western Europe, Australia, and other places well positioned in the system.

The immigration system they see will often come off as absurdist. National policies worldwide categorize music as migrant labor and require a visa. In many countries, these requirements are unenforced in all but big-money gigs. But in some countries – the USA, Canada, and UK being prime examples – they’re rigorously enforced, and not coincidentally, the required visas have high fees.

Showing up at a border carrying music equipment or a bag of vinyl records is an instant red flag – whether a paid gig is your intention or not. (I’m surprised, actually, that no one talks about this in regards to the rise of the USB stick DJ. If you aren’t carrying a controller or any records, sailing through as a tourist is a lot easier.) Border officials will often ask visitors to unlock phones, hand over social media passwords. They’ll search Facebook events by name to find gigs. Or they’ll even just view the presence of a musical instrument as a violation.

Being seen as “illegal” because you’re traveling with a guitar or some records is a pretty good illustration of how immigration can criminalize simple, innocent acts. Whatever the intention behind that law, it’s clear there’s something off here – especially given the kinds of illegality that can cross borders.

When protection isn’t

This is not to argue for open borders. There are times when you want border protections. I worked briefly in environmental advocacy as we worked on invasive species that were hitching a ride on container ships – think bugs killing trees and no more maple syrup on your pancakes, among other things. I was also in New York on 9/11 and watched from my roof – that was a very visible demonstration of visa security oversight that had failed. Part of the aim of customs and immigration is to stop the movement of dangerous people and things, and I don’t think any rational person would argue with that.

But even as a tiny microcosm of the larger immigration system, music is a good example of how laws can be uneven, counter-intuitive, and counterproductive. The US and Canada, for instance, do have an open border for tourists. So if an experimental ambient musician from Toronto comes to play a gig in Cleveland, that’s not a security threat – they could do the same as a tourist. It’s also a stretch of the imagination that this individual would have a negative impact on the US economy. Maybe the artist makes a hundred bucks cash and … spends it all inside the USA, not to mention brings in more money for the venue and the people employed by it. Or maybe they make $1000 – a sum that would be wiped out by the US visa fee, to say nothing of slow US visa processing. Again, that concert creates more economic activity inside the US economy, and it’s very likely the American artist sharing the bill goes up to Montreal and plays with them next month on top of it. I could go on, but it’s … well, boring and obvious.

Artists and presenters worldwide often simply ignore this visa system because it’s slow, expensive, and unreliable. And so it costs economies (and likely many immigration authorities) revenue. It costs societies value and artistic and cultural exchange.

Of course, scale that up and the same is true, across other fields. Immigrants tend to give more into government services than they take out, they tend to own businesses that employ more local people (so they create jobs), they tend to invent new technologies (so they create jobs again), and so on.

Ellis Island, NYC. 12 million people passed through here – not all of my family who came to the USA, but some. I’ve now come the other way through Tegel Airport and the Ausländerbehörde , Berlin. Photo (CC-BY-ND
“>A. Strakey.

Advocacy and music

Immigration advocacy could be seen as something in the charter of anyone in the music industry or musical instruments industry.

Music technology suffers as borders are shut down, too. Making musical instruments and tools requires highly specialized labor working in highly specialized environments. From production to engineering to marketing, it’s an international business. I actually can’t think of any major manufacturer that doesn’t rely on immigrants in key roles. (Even many tiny makers involve immigrants.)

And the traditional music industry lean heavily on immigrant talent, too. Those at the top of the industry have powerful lobbying efforts – efforts that could support greater cultural exchange and rights for travelers. Certainly, its members are often on the road. But let’s take the Recording Academy (the folks behind the Grammy Awards).

Instead, their efforts seem to fixate on domestic intellectual property law. So the Recording Academy and others were big on the Music Modernization Act – okay, fine,
a law to support compensation for creators.

But while the same organization advocated on behalf of instruments traveling – domestic rules around carry-on and checked instruments – but not necessarily humans. So it could be that there’s more interest in your guitar getting across borders than people.

I don’t want to be unfair to the Recording Association – and not just because I think it might hurt my Grammy winning chances. (Hey, stop laughing.) No, I think it’s more that we as a community have generally failed to take up this issue in any widespread way. (I sincerely hope someone out there works for the record industry and writes to say that you’re actually working on this and I’m wrong.)

More than anything else, music can cross borders. It can speak to people when you don’t speak their language, literally. When music travels, emotion and expression travels – artists and technology alike.

It’s personal – isn’t it for you?

I personally feel the impact of all of this, now having been seven years in Berlin, and able to enjoy opportunities, connections, and perspective that come from living in Germany and working with people both from Germany and abroad. I feel hugely grateful to the German state for allowing my business to immigrate (my initial visa was a business visa, which involved some interesting bureaucracy explaining to the Berlin Senate what this site is about). I’ve even benefited from the support of programs like the Goethe Institut and host governments to work in cultural diplomacy.

I’ve also had the chance to be involved writing in support of visas and financial backing for artists coming from Iran, Mexico, Kazakhstan, and many other places, for programs I’ve worked on.

And all of this is really a luxury – even when we’re talking about artists traveling to support their careers and feed themselves. For many people, migration is a matter of survival. Sometimes the threats to their lives come from geopolitical and economic policies engineered by the governments we come from – meaning as citizens, we share some responsibility for the impact others have felt. But whether or not that’s the case, I would hope we feel that obligation as human beings. That’s the basis of international rule of law on accepting refugees and granting asylum. It’s the reason those principles are uncompromising and sometimes even challenging. Our world is held together – or not – based on that basic fairness we afford to fellow humans. If people come to where we live and claim their survival and freedom depends on taking them in, we accept the obligation to at least listen to their case.

Those of us in the music world could use our privilege, and the fact that our medium is so essential to human expression, to be among the loudest voices for these human rights. When we live in countries who listen to us, we should talk to other citizens and talk to our governments. We should tell the stories that make these issues more relatable. We should do what some people I know are doing in the music world, too – work on education and involvement for refugees, help them to feel at home in our communities and to develop whatever they need to make a home here, and make people feel welcome at the events we produce.

That’s just the principles, not policies. But I know a lot of people in my own circle have worked on the policy and advocacy sides here. I certainly would invite you to share what we might do. If you’ve been impacted by immigration obstacles and have ideas of how we help, I hope we hear that, too.

Some likely policy areas:
Supporting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers
Supporting refugee and asylum seeker integration
Advocating for more open visa policies for artists – keeping fees low, and supporting exchange
Advocating the use of music and culture, and music technology, as a form of cultural diplomacy
Supporting organizations that connect artists and creative technologists across borders

And so on…

But I do hope that as musicians, we work with people who share basic beliefs in caring for other people. I know there’s no single “community” or “industry” that can offer that. But we certainly can try to build our own circle in a way that does.

Some examples from here in Berlin working on refugee issues here. I would argue immigration policy can find connections across refugees and migrants, asylum seekers and touring musicians, as everyone encounters the same larger apparatus and set of laws:

Photo at top: CC-BY Nicola Romagna.

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