Category Archives: ENGLISH

LOUD

Why do guys out here in LA play so loud?!?

It is the nuttiest thing I have ever seen. Brilliant musicians, all turning their amps up to 11 and jamming with earplugs in! Why?!?

Just turn it down!

Hints:

– Play at a volume that is acceptable over a sustained period of time. If your ears can handle it, the audience can, too. If you need earplugs, you are playing too loud!

– Play to the room. Let the drummer play alone, without amplification, for a few minutes, so he can gauge how loud to play before the room starts to resonate uncomfortably. Have other players adjust to that level. Make the drummer understand that he should be playing at an average level below that, so there’s some room for crescendos and fortes.

– The bass is extremely room-sensitive. There can be lot of build-up and standing waves at high volume, which can effectively alter the way we perceive the pitch of the instrument. This has happened to me many times. In some rooms, at high volume the bass will sound almost a semi-tone higher than what is played. It is excruciating to try and play along in what sounds like a different key!

– When a player turns it up a little for his solo, remind him to turn it back down when he is done with it. It is amazing how often people will forget to turn it down (and that includes me, yes).

– To get an idea of what music sounded like before we brought 5 kW amps to the gig, do a couple of acoustic gigs. It is amazing how much difference that can make. Remember, there was a time when an entire big band would play with an unamplified double bass.

 

Really, guys, who are we kidding? I don’t know about you, but I can’t even play well with those earplugs in. I will use them on occasion when I fear the sound pressure could cause hearing damage, but it changes everything, and it feels and sounds unnatural to me. That is NOT how music is supposed to be made.

 

Turn it down, people. There is no need.

 

 

Microsoft faces karmic debt

It has been all over the news, at least in the geekosphere, Google has blocked Microsoft’s new Youtube app for Windows phone.

Microsoft’s official statement here: http://blogs.technet.com/b/microsoft_on_the_issues/archive/2013/08/15/the-limits-of-google-s-openness.aspx

Google has yet to respond publicly, but I think Microsoft’s statement is a remarkably uncharacteristic display of transparency. And I’m surely not the only one who has had a chuckle at this ironic turn of events. The mighty Microsoft of yore routinely attracted antitrust lawsuits with its unapologetically monopolistic practices, so it is not without glee that I see them at the mercy of their heir apparent.

But Google needs to not be evil. Period.

computers (or how a boy became a geek) pt. 1


I was 10 years old when a very exciting event was about to take place. My father, a high-school math teacher, had followed a course in computer programming and he was going to put his newly acquired knowledge to good use and buy a computer.

Nobody really understood what computers were, or what they did. but everybody knew that they were the future, and that one day everything would be done by computers. What we kids knew, was that you could play games on them, and these games were totally cool and fun.

Handheld video games (as they were called then) were in vogue, and the Arcade was the most exciting place in the world. That was the extent of my knowledge, so the prospect of our own personal computer at home was one that kept me awake at night with anticipation.

The day came. In our sleepy rural town there was only one computer shop. We drove down there, and dad looked intelligently at a number of models. Other people were pecking away at the keyboards while strange indecipherable words appeared on their screens. It was nothing like the Arcade.

Dad talked at length with a salesperson and finally we walked out with a brand new Commodore 64, plus Data Tape recorder and -woohoo!- a cassette of Crazy Kong.

At home we could barely contain our excitement as pops unwrapped the machine and connected it to our black and white TV.

**** COMMODORE 64 BASIC V2 ****

64K RAM SYSTEM 38911 BASIC BYTES FREE

READY.

…and a blinking cursor. What did it all mean? Basic is the programming language, dad explained. And 64K RAM means that there is 64000 bytes of memory. One byte consists of eight bits, which are either a one or a zero, and from long strings of ones and zeros commands were created and eventually these commands could make the machine do something.

Wow, dad. Can we play Crazy Kong now? It was a poor imitation of Donkey Kong (the most popular game of that day and a precursor to SuperMario) and disappointed we left it for what it was.

Dad got into programming, explained the fundamentals to me, and soon I got into it as well. but my ambition came to a premature end one day when I managed to create a rather advanced multiple choice program (for a 10-year old anyway) only to run out of memory before I was even halfway. And when the memory was full you could not save your work to tape. I was stuck and in frustration I switched the damn thing off. Bye bye programming, forever.

Dad stayed at it, even got some of his creations published, left his teaching job and went corporate. The new job meant a new PC. This time a real computer. By now I had come to understand that the Commodore was not a ‘professional’ machine but rather a ‘toy for consumers’.

Our first real PC came. It had a whopping 640 Kilobytes of RAM, a floppy disk drive and a hard disk drive! What? That is a large-capacity disk permanently mounted inside the computer, explained dad. But what if it gets full? That won’t happen, dad smiled, it can hold 40 Megabytes of data, more than 100 floppies! And it can access this data much faster than a floppy disk drive can.

New games came. Adventure games from Sierra. Our favorites were Space Quest and Lazy Larry. Unlike the Commodore, our new PC did not do Basic but ran on MS-DOS. It also had an easy-to-use interface called Windows 2.0, but dad removed it because “it does not serve a purpose”. The games were grrrrreat, fun with just the right amount of irreverence for political correctness and loveable 8-bit graphics and sound. Adventure games weren’t as fast-paced and exciting as the arcade stuff, but they were every bit as involving, perhaps even more so.

Yeah, computers were totally cool, and soon I’d discover that even cooler things could be done with them!

to be continued

Clavia Nord Piano 88

Nord-Piano-Front-570x256

I don’t know how we happen to be in July already, and I have yet to write my first blog of 2013! But I am happy that my first post of the year is about the Nord Piano. I have primarily reviewed software over the last two years or so, and the NordPiano is the first keyboard I have bought since my FantomX purchase back in 2005.

I have already written about the NP88 here and I can only say that my initial impressions have pretty much stood the test of time. It sounds remarkably consistent on a variety of different speakers and amps, sounds good in mono (except for one occasion where an intricate mono-cum-headphone-out-summed-to-other-mono introduced a nasty phasiness that made the piano sound, well, nasty) and best of all: it makes me want to play.

This review could end right here, because that last quality is one that renders all others irrelevant. Sure, I could blab on about the sound quality, which is good but not outstanding, the action, which is probably the most criticized aspect of this keyboard, and for a reason.

But at the end of the day, the NP88 just feels right to me, and isn’t that the most important thing? I even record with it at home, as the finger-to-sound connection of the board makes me play better than I do with the multi-GB piano sample libraries now hibernating on my hard drive. I don’t worry about the realism of the recorded sound. It sounds way better than any real piano on 1970’s recordings, so it is a total non-issue for me.

My only concerns are a lack of proper pianissimo samples, a minijack input that -inexplicably!- can only be routed to the headphone out and not the line outs, and the absence of layer/split functionality.

The minijack issue is a great example of a missed opportunity, as many solo pianists with restaurant gigs would have welcomed the ability to play along to backing tracks on their iPod/iPhones without the need for an external mixer.

The layer functionality has been added in the NordPiano2, as well as the ability to load up sounds from the Nord sample library, so it is conceivable that I may trade up to that at some point in the future.

But for now, I don’t even look at other digital pianos anymore. The NP88 is not the perfect DP by a long shot, but I am perfectly satisfied with it.

Galaxy Vintage D

Galaxy Vintage D

test system: MacPro W3520-12GB RAM-Cubase 5.5.3 (32bit) and 6.5.2 (64bit)-NI Kontakt 5-Avid Mbox3Pro

I guess this review would have been different had I not purchased a NordPiano just a few weeks after I bought this. Ouch.

Ever since I went virtual I have been looking for that perfect piano sound in a VI, and just not finding it. I started with the now-discontinued Garritan Steinway Basic, was disappointed by Goliath’s pianos, found something I liked better in HalionSonic’s Natural Grand, bought into the pre-release hype of Cinesamples’ Piano In Blue, and finally I got Galaxy’s Vintage D.

Some might say I should have just forked out the big bucks for either Synthogy’s Ivory II, EWQL’s Pianos or VSL Imperial but I promised myself I would not spend that kind of dough on a software piano unless I could take it to the stage.

So the Vintage D, then. Nice, I guess, but I have only used it a few times. Like I said, I bought the NordPiano shortly afterwards, and haven’t bothered with any of the virtual pianos since. But I can say this, in the few weeks before the NordPiano, I found out I still like HalionSonic’s Natural Grand better than all the other software pianos.

Again, the Vintage D is not bad, and for $135 it is reasonably competitive, so if you are looking for a software piano in that price bracket, check it out.

As for me, I’ve gone hardware. And I’ll tell you all about that soon.

Update (May 5, 2014):

I’ve tried it some more and I have discovered that I can’t get the velocity response right. Like the PiB, it is either too sensitive or not sensitive enough.

On a different note, you have a bunch of parameters that all change something, but none of them make anything dramatically different, let alone better.

I tried playing a part first on the NordPiano and have the MIDI recording trigger the Vintage D. That doesn’t quite work either.

Hate to say it again, but I suppose it is another case of YouGetWhatYouPayFor. I hope Ivory and/or TrueKeys will work better.

Native Instruments Komplete 8

NI Komplete 8

test system: MacPro W3520, 12GB RAM, OSX 10.6.8, Cubase 5.5.3 (32bit) and 6.5.2 (64-bit), Avid MBox3Pro

I’m not gonna pretend to do a comprehensive review of all that Komplete 8 offers, there is a lot of stuff and I have barely scratched the surface of stuff like Absynth, Massive and Reaktor. I don’t use those all that much, so this review focuses mainly on Kontakt 5, Battery 3, FM8 and Guitar Rig.

I bought Komplete 8 mainly for Kontakt, which costs $379 alone, so it seemed like a good deal to get all the other stuff for just $120 more. And you get a LOT of stuff. Really, really a lot; more than 80GB on my HDD, which is odd as NI’s website claims 110GB, but whatever.

Anyway, the installation did not take as long as I feared so a good four hours later I was in business. Like I said, there is a LOT of stuff to wade through, and even now I haven’t heard and tried all of it. But while you get a lot of stuff, a lot of it is bloat, in my opinion. I bet much of this is to ensure backward-compatibility for longtime users, and they will undoubtedly be happy with that, but as a result a very sizable chunk of the bundle sounds dated and dusty. Again, there’s plenty of good stuff and you need not feel shortchanged because you do get value for money. But I could easily do without nearly half of it and never know the difference.

You need Kontakt as it is the de facto industry standard for third-party libraries, and it is easy to see why. It is tremendously flexible and very reliable. but man I hate the GUI. It is firmly stuck in 1990’s and in desparate need of an overhaul. While it’s a good thing that just about every parameter imaginable can be controlled and adjusted, something as simple as adding multiple outputs becomes a counter-intuitive and convoluted process.

But the new stuff is good. I LOVE the Scarbee Rhodes and Wurlitzer, easily the best of their kind. The acoustic pianos, on the other hand, are mediocre, although the New York Grand is much better than I remember it to be.

There are a few new kits with Battery 3, but -like Kontakt 5- its user interface is an exercise in frustration for new users. In fact, I remember Battery 1 to be a lot more user-friendly than the current version. I’m still trying to figure out how to change a sound’s default playback from one-shot to as-played. Probably a RTFM thing, but for me it’s easier to just open an instance of Steinberg’s simple but excellent GrooveAgentOne and do it there.

One thing I really looked forward to was the FM8, as I have always like the classic Yamaha DX7, but I find myself not using it much. And that goes even more so for the heavier synth stuff, like Absynth, Massive and Reaktor.

I’m sure that Komplete 8 is a synth programmer’s dream, but I’m a preset tweaker who needs quick results before I’m out of the zone, and as such the Komplete 8 bundle doesn’t deliver like I thought it would. There is a plenty of good stuff in there, but not more so than the much cheaper and more contemporary sounding HalionSonic.

That is not to say that Native Instruments dropped the ball here, au contraire, it’s just that Steinberg’s sound has gotten that good. However, NI’s considerable VI experience really shows in terms of efficiency, stability and reliability. Kontakt 5 easily trumps Halionsonic, Spectrasonics’ STEAM and EastWest’s PLAYv3 in this regard.

As for Guitar Rig, it’s got a gazillion good-sounding effects and I would really love to use them more, but the fact that you have to open an instance of guitar rig to get to them is somewhat of a deterrent to me. As a guy who started out on old-skool hardware, it simply does not make sense to me to open a guitar signal chain to compress a snare drum. And again, as good as GR is, it’s not distinctively better than Cubase’s own amp sim.

But with all that said, if you are serious about computer music, you can’t really afford to be without Kontakt 5, and for just $120 more, Komplete 8 is a no-brainer.

Avid MBox 3 Pro

I have had the MBox3Pro for a year now, long enough to share a few of my observations.

First of all, it is very heavy for its size. I kind of like that as it gives the unit a nice, solid feel, but it is something to consider if you plan to move it around on a regular basis. It is portable, but you’re going to feel that weight in your backpack.

Let me relay the negatives first: at first I had trouble with the headphone outs. Half the time they wouldn’t work on startup, requiring a reboot (or two), to activate them. A few times they would produce a loud hissing noise, requiring another restart. Very annoying, although powering off and on again (once or multiple times) would always fix the problem.

This is a known issue, and Avid has been working on a fix.

What’s more, I only got the included direct-monitoring reverb to work once, it has been MIA since. That is actually a good thing because the one time it DID work it sounded awful (and mono).

The good news is that a driver update seems to have fixed the headphone issues, I haven’t had any problems with them since, so fingers crossed. I am a bit mystified as to how this problem was solved, because even after the driver update I continued to experience these problems for a while. These days, however, everything is great. Maybe I’ll get the reverb to work properly (and in stereo) with a future update, too.

On to the positives: it sounds good (disclaimer: I do not have a $10,000 signal chain to validate this statement) and once in operation it just gets out of your way and on with the job. I really like the GUI of the mixer and it is flexible enough for my modest needs at home. You can get separate cue and headphone mixes on all outputs, or use them in parallel.

It is also noticeably more efficient than my Saffire LE. I’m primarily a Cubase/Nuendo user, and on my old iMac I would regularly have to freeze VI’s to keep the system running. With the MB3P the same projects could run without freeze. I have since moved on to a quadcore MacPro and I hardly ever run out of room with the buffer set to 128 samples.

The mic pres do the job well enough, although you’ll never mistake them for Neves. The softlimit function is handy, but it seriously chokes the sound when pushed, so you’d be advised to adjust your gains carefully. There is plenty of gain, btw, for both my mic and keyboards.

The mono button is a real selling point, but I find myself not using it as much as I thought I would, and when I do I find the increase in loudness irritating. This is obviously not a design flaw, but it would be nice to be able to attenuate the summed mono signal to levels more proportionate to its stereo counterpart.

All in all I like the Mbox3Pro, but you’d better make sure it fits your needs. Compared to similarly priced units from the competition, it has limited connectivity and zero expandability. I also dislike the combi breakout cable for SPDIF/wordclockIO/MIDI and the external PSU. Not something to complain about at this pricepoint ($629 +tax, in my case), though.

One last gripe, Avid support requires a support ticket, and one is issued when you register your product online. When I wanted to contact them about the headphone problems I found out my ticket had expired (I think it is like 60 or 90 days after registration) and I should purchase a new one for $40.

Of course, I didn’t. Paying $40 to get someone on the phone because your product has a design flaw? I don’t think so. So even if I’m generally happy and satisfied with my Mbox3Pro, I shan’t be buying from Avid again anytime soon.

Straight Ahead! Jazz Drums

Straight Ahead! Jazz Drums

test system: 2009 Apple MacPro 2.66GHz quad, 12GB RAM, Cubase 6.5.1, Kontakt 5.0.2

This product was given to me by the developer for review.

Jazz drums have always been somewhat slept on in the VI realm. While there are plenty of excellent rock/pop drum libraries to choose from, I am not aware of any dedicated jazz drum libraries, and other than the obligatory “brushes kit” the major VI developers seem to have little interest in this field.

Understandably so, as jazz is a much smaller market to begin with, and the improvisational and interactive nature of the style does not encourage use of preprogrammed drums. Indeed, while I think SAJD is a great library for those who need it, I can’t really think of a scenario that requires it. That said, if you DO need a believable-sounding jazz kit and authentic loops, this is the one to get!

For me, the best thing about SAJD are the loops. I hardly ever use loops as I’m more a play-and-program-it-yourself kind of guy, but these are in a different league. The ride cymbal patterns are better than anything you can play/program on a keyboard, and since there are four different tempo regions to choose from they aren’t time-stretched beyond credibility.

While the idiosyncratic keymapping of individual hits and velocity-switching of loops require some getting used to, it did not take me very long to produce convincing drumtracks, even if the instruction manual was rather uninformative. Straight Ahead says they have updated the manual since, by the way, but I haven’t looked at it.

On to the heart of the matter, playing along with these loops is just plain fun! It’s like playing with a great drummer, and for me it is certainly preferable over the tired Aebershold stuff. Load up the appropiate tempo range, trigger the loops, add some Trillian upright bass and pretty soon I’m jamming.

On the flip side, while I do understand the design choices they had to make, I do not care for the non-standard keymapping. I like to play much of the fills and accents myself, but that is kind of hard because the individual hits are so spread out. Playing a snare/tom/cymbal fill requires you to stretch your fingers over two octaves, and that can be awkward with more complicated stuff.

I’m not exactly a fan of GeneralMIDI, but having at least one GM-compatible kit would greatly simplify adding SAJD to existing projects. Here’s hoping that will be included in a future update.

Another gripe is the differences in volume between some of the invidual hits and loops, which occasionally makes self-played fills disproportionally loud compared to the ride cymbal loops. Carefully adjusting velocities helps somewhat, but reduce them too much and you trigger a different sound. Not saying this can’t be fixed in the mix, but I’d rather be able to sort that out in MIDI. And oh, this may be a matter of taste, but I would have preferred a slightly heavier bassdrum, as it currently sounds much like a floortom.

My last complaint is the lack of brushes. StraightAheadSamples explains that the importance of brushes in jazz requires a dedicated library (one they are working on right now) but their absence in SAJD does limit its usefulness as an all-purpose jazz drums solution.

The sound quality is good, although I initially felt it was too dry. But as it is, the dry sound lends itself extremely well for processing, with a little bit of compression (2 or 3dB) greatly increasing presence and brightness, and your choice of reverb will blend seamlessly with the original sound.

The aforementioned complaints notwithstanding, SAJD is a great little library, and I definitely recommend it. It is a lot of fun to jam with, it inspires and with a bit of programming you can get results nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. It is a solid first product from StraightAhead, and I am looking forward to see what they will do with the brushes.

For more info: http://straightaheadsamples.com/

Rig Upgraded: Hello Nord, it's been long :-)

It’s been here for more than a week already, but I’m loving my Nord Piano more everyday. It has that “more-than-just-the-sum-of-its-parts” thing that characterizes a great instrument.

When the original NordLead came out, I was one of the first people in the Netherlands to buy one. It was my main axe (next to the MPC) and I loved it to bits. One night, after a long session at another studio, I took the train home and fell asleep. Upon reaching my stop, I woke up with a start and made a dash for the door just in the nick of time. Inexplicably, I did not realize I had left my NordLead on the train until the next day, when I needed it for a session at my home studio. I called the railways, only to find out that the train I had left it on was the international train to Paris…

I bought a NordLead 2 as a replacement, but had to sell it when I moved to Kenya in 2002. I always missed it, though, and kind of regretted not having held on to it.

Although I always dug the Rhodes sound of the Electro, I found it waaay too expensive for what it was, and the Stage didn’t change that opinion. But when this particular Nord Piano went up for sale, I decided to give it a try, even if I wasn’t in the market for one.

I originally wanted to get a Yamaha MO-X 8 as it seemed to meet all my requirements (except for aftertouch), but the more I played the more I disliked it. So I decided to pass on it, great value though it was

Although it was far more limited than what I thought I’d need, something about this NordPiano just convinced me to buy it. I don’t think would have pulled the trigger at its original retail price, but the seller gave me a reasonable price, and that sealed the deal.

As it turns out, I’m very happy with it!

Cinesamples Piano in Blue

test system: MacPro 2.66GHz (Nehalem), 12GB RAM, Avid Mbox3Pro, Cubase 5.5.3

The story is a captivating one: highly regarded sample-library makers Cinesamples got the opportunity to record a classic Steinway D, just hours before it was decommissioned. It was the piano used on Miles Davis’ classic “Kind of Blue” album and Glenn Gould’s “Goldberg Variations”, and Cinesamples managed to capture its sound and preserve it for posterity in the form of a Kontakt instrument.

I was just about to purchase Galaxy’s Vintage D, but when P.i.B. appeared on the radar I changed my mind last minute and got this instead. Cinesamples enjoys an enviable reputation as purveyors of high-quality sample libraries, so I had no doubt that this would be a fantastic instrument.

As it turns out, it is not. Rarely have my impulse buys turned out to be great investments, and this is no exception. But let’s start with the good stuff, because P.i.B. is not quite the trainwreck, either.

For starters, the sound is pretty good, if vintage vibe is your kind of thing. You can tell this is not a brand-new Japanese grand in an A-list concert hall, and that can be a good thing. PiB sounds intimate and smoky, and I can see how this would work great for film noir stuff.

There is three different mic positions: close, room and surround. Combining the first two options usually results in a rich and full sound. Adding the surround mics adds brightness, but not clarity. I find that all mic positions sound unimpressive in isolation, and some kind of blending is necessary.

I also like the GUI, it is well laid-out and easy to use; not always a given with Kontakt instruments. Changing velocity settings is straightforward and produces audibly different responses, and the included reverb is pretty good, too. However, I do wish devs would offer numerical value input in addition to virtual knob twisting.

Frankly, all the pieces for a great instrument are in place, which begs the question: where does it fall short?

To sum it up: playability. In all fairness, this is a highly subjective thing, and perhaps there are others who feel differently, but from what I have heard I am not alone with this assessment. For one, while the adjustable velocity response is great and effective, I have yet to find a setting that works for me. It is either not dynamic enough or way too much, with notes jumping out randomly.

Again, this may very well be a personal thing, but the inherent lag is not. Upon striking a key, there is a tiny hesitation that makes for a disconnected feel and playing experience. This not much of a problem at lower tempi or when you space out the notes, but for something a little more involved it just falls flat.

And although I mentioned that combining the close and room mics produces a rich and full sound, it also introduces a certain phasiness that I find unpleasant. The close mics in isolation sound bland, and the room mics in isolation reveal a room that really doesn’t sound all that great. You can disguise this with the included reverb, but I don’t really wanna go there.

Now, none of this stuff is beyond remedy. The instrument’s character is charmingly old-skool and it lends itself well for acoustic stuff (think double bass and brushes). If Cinesamples could tidy up the programming to address the lag and the velocity response I would like this a whole lot better. Here is hoping for a software update.

September 20, 2012 update:
v2 came out just last month and it would appear that they have addressed some of the concerns voiced in the review above. I updated yesterday and will report back soon.