Analogue vs Digital Synthesis

What can I say on this subject that hasn’t been said before?

Try this…

I’ve never been convinced by the fetishisation of analogue synthesis (or outboard gear, or recording…). Soundwise, Analogue is what you want when have one synth part to carry the whole weight of the track – so it needs to be big and powerful. In the days of the monosynth, it makes sense to have a fat, bassy, harmonically rich sound as the *only* synth line. But in multilayered music, it’s a damn sight easier to mix and less tiring to listen to if each layer’s sound is a bit thinner and less harmonic. (I suspect Albino3 produces sounds that slot nicely into the mix because it is quite digital-sounding. For the same reason I used Finger Bassline to do the acid on my latest instead of Rebirth – less authentic-sounding, perhaps even a bit “plastic” if you look too closely at it, but I hardly had to do anything to get it to play nicely with the many other layers). I’d probably only use a genuine 303 if it was a 303-only track, Hardfloor style, then I’d want to hear all those harmonics singing away. But with many other layers above and below, pads and leads and squeaks and runners and basslines, those harmonics would be inaudible, their only effect to cause unwanted lack of clarity around their frequencies and make it much harder to get it mixed right. I reckon an analogue acid line would tend to melt into a somewhat background instead of being sharply defined,

I see Digital as having its own special powers. You’ll never get an analogue lead synth to cut right through the mix, or to trepan straight into your brain like cold steel and deliver a precise, controlled, zap of electricity, the way a nice sharp-edged digital sound can. And the psytrance kick is an example of Digital’s strengths – tightness, precision, highly focussed power, efficiency (use only the required frequencies and minimum necessary energy), exact reproduceability (leading, before long, to ubiquity… but unlike every other sound that has ever been in fashion, everyone seems content for it to remain the standard indefinitely, as it works so perfectly in balance with the typical psytrance bass, and it sounds flippin awesome on Funktion 1).

Analogue vs Digital to me is like Wood vs Metal. We need them both. You can’t say either one is objectively better. Both are useful in sombunall situations, for sombunall types of widget/music, in ratios that may vary significantly according to what you are making, and preference.

I’ve always tended to write the kind of music that, as well as being multilayered, has a certain feel to it that somehow implicitly mandates a fully- or mostly-digital soundscape. Without ever having planned it, almost all of my music evokes a backdrop of outer space. or hyperspace, or mindspace… There’s something a bit “sci-fi” about it. Such journeys call for a shiny sleek silver spaceship, not a wooden horse.

Wood’s home is down to Earth, down on the farm, in the lounge or kitchen, at a barbecue or chilling in the park, sweat and claustrophobia, flesh and blood, humour and lust and the unexpected happenstances of life… Wood is organic, and only a wide, rich, harmonic, organic, alive sound can appropriately convey the complexity and enormity of lifeforms, of life, of being alive. Whales have been synthesising suitable substrate sounds for the Song of Gaia for millions of years, but if you’d like to join in, an analogue synth is a rather more portable and easily controllable instrument, though let me be absolutely clear that they are unlikely to work underwater, and it is generally recommended to use the internet for communication, rather than the sea channels, not least in case some randy sperm whale misinterprets your wobbly bassline as a threat (or worse, an invitation)…

In short, take the rough with the smooth. Make room in your heart and in your DAW for both analogue and digital, and use your instinct to decide which should dominate for a particular track according to its setting, its feel, and its complexity.

Creativitus interruptus

Listening in the car to an old tune of mine called “Funkmuppet” (subtitled “Dance Like A Muppet”) I suddenly realised that it’s in need of a rap. I’ve never written one before, but I immediately knew precisely how the rhythm of the lyrics should play out, how my tone should undulate, what style of rapping I wanted to do. It was crystal clear.

But just as I began to consider which topical subjects of the day I might want to cover in my lyrical discourse, Afrika Bambataa started rapping over it in my head instead. “What’s this phoney ceremony, hanging around…”, lyrics that are familiar to me solely due to their use by Bassheads in their classic upfront progressive house tune “Is there anybody out there?”. It fitted perfectly.

Now my role in the piece seems to have been relegated to waiting until he sings “Just get up and dance, you got to get up and dance, y’all just get up and dance” and then shouting “LIKE A MUPPET!”.

I think perhaps it’s best if I just try to forget that any of this happened.

Perl-Powered DJ

No, it’s not really my DJing that’s script-powered, but over the last couple of years that I’ve been doing regular net radio shows, I have written a number of Perl scripts to help with some of the more tedious aspects of the job, particularly related to the posting of the MP3 archives and tracklists of those shows (and my occasional promo mixes) on quextal.com, but also for the broadcasting process itself.

In fact one of the first scripts I wrote was to assist with the fact that I broadcast (using darkice on my Linux box) on different stations, necessitating having multiple different configurations for darkice. What began as a one-liner to do the equivalent of darkice -c /path/to/darkice/configs/$1.cfg then expanded to do things like shut down certain daemons before broadcasting, and start them again afterwards, as my elderly PC would occasionally struggle to cope with the demands of running two MP3 encoders if it was also dealing with a large incoming mail or a disk-heavy cronjob.

I then tired of hitting reload on the server stats page to keep an eye on my listener count, so now I have a script which fetches that page every couple of minutes, parses the relevant number out of it, and shows it with a timestamp, so I have a full record of how many were tuned in at each point of the show, what the peak was etc.

Scripts followed to automate filling in the ID3 tag, and renaming darkice’s output spool name into a standard format prior to uploading it to the site.

quextal.com is a WordPress-based site with a heavily customised skin and a couple of extra plugins, nothing too fancy. After writing the first few posts by hand, I came up with a simple template-driven script which would simply wrap my plain-text tracklist of the show in some HTML to make it look a bit prettier for the site. This evolved so that it would read the metadata from the MP3 (eg filesize, bitrate, length in minutes and seconds) and put that info in there as well.

After a while I decided to have my online tracklists in table format rather than just reproducing what I write in plain text. So this meant adapting the script to split up each entry in the tracklist for the separate columns. I had the prescience to choose a roughly standardised format for my plain text tracklists anyway — at its simplest, it’s just “Artist – Title” or “Artist – Title – Label” — but over time it’s evolved a number of variations to deal with, for example, marking out who played which track when I have a guest in. I sensed it was time to create a separate library (Perl module) to parse tracklists into separate information, and a number of my scripts now use this.

Just this year I expanded the templating script into a more complex system which interfaces directly with the WordPress API. It determines which radio station the broadcast was on (which is in the filename), searches for some of my past mixes for that station on the site, and offers a selection of their post titles so I can choose one (eg with, or without, a guest DJ, as applicable) on which to base the default title for the new one, helping to keep the title format consistent. Both my current regular shows feature the number of the show in the title – the script will automatically increment this, be it in ordinary numerals or Roman numerals. Appropriate tags are chosen automatically, and any additional words for the article can be added before the script posts it directly to the site via the API.

Why stop there? Since my Tracklist library conveniently gives me information about the artists and labels played in each show, the script now also creates a Custom Field entry for each. I don’t really know why I’ve done that… just a vague sense that it might be useful at some point in the future. For now, a slight tweak at the WordPress end provides A-Z lists of artists and labels for each mix at the end of the article. At some point, if so desired, it should make it easier to search for all the mixes containing a specific artist or label…

Most recently, the thing I was finding particularly time-consuming was to fill in the label for each tune, which information I often don’t have handy during the show when I’m writing down the track. So now I have a couple of scripts to help with that. The first just looks for the “artist – title” string in all my previous tracklists and copies the label info from there if it finds it. The second, which is a work in progress, attempts to automate looking up the track details on the sites where I do most of my tune shopping, and screen-scraping the label from there.

Curiously, the net effect of all this automation has not really made it significantly quicker or easier to post a mix, compared to when I first started out and was doing it all by hand. What it has done is escalated the amount and quality of information I’m putting up, its consistency and reliability, while taking about the same amount of time and effort. Obviously that doesn’t include the effort required to write the scripts… but that’s not effort. That’s fun. It’s been a whole series of interesting little coding tasks… which of course is the main reason I did it.

Me v Wordle

Of all the lame excuses, I’ve been putting off registering for this year’s JISC Dev8D conference because the registration form says they’ll be using Wordle to make badges for everyone, and there’s a space on said form to provide a blog/RSS feed or bunch of text which can be fed into it to summarise our interests.

I’ve got three personal blogs including this one, although the fact that I only frequently update the one about my musical activities under the alias of Quextal, and that until very recently, Source Of Life, to which I have occasionally released potentially-useful but dreadfully hacky Perl programs, had probably been broken for months, says a lot about the current priorities in my life.

Unfortunately, feeding Quextal into Wordfondle fails to give a decent summary of what that site is about. Useful things like the titles of posts, their tags, categories, and the contents of Pages, are all ignored by the analyser, and so the result ends up dominated by the artists who most often feature in the tracklists of my recent mixes. Apart from giving the impression that I’m some kind of music industry plugger / agent / record label boss, it also makes me look like a complete stoner because of my support of one particular artist.

Using ContentedLife (wot you are now reading) instead doesn’t fare much better – I guess it conveys quite well something of my tendancy toward an interest in random disparate topics, yet utterly fails to bring out what I consider to be the most important waymarkers within that randomness.

If I’m to be represented by a disconnected soup of words, I want at least some of those words to be a reasonable reflection of my real interests and character, leaving room for a bit of serendipity of course.

So this got me thinking… how would I “tag” myself? What limited set of keywords would I choose to represent myself to a bunch of complete strangers, if I had the choice? Which I do…

As music is my first and truest love and passion, I’d have to start with some descriptions of my current musical boatfloatery 1: epic evolving psybreaks / electrobreaks / nuskool breaks, chunky progressive psychedelic techno, journeying synthorganic minimal techno, glitchy breakbeat crunk, and miscellaneous interstitial trippy electronica. Of which, psybreaks is my particular speciality. Obviously, trying to describe music using language is an exercise in futility 2 — especially my music — but as far as I know, there’s no MP3 player in these badges, so I have to use these clumsy labels as bait to tempt and seduce those who may enjoy the kaleidoscopic taste sensations of my synaesthetic electronic cocktails

(1 I am so pleased with my invention of the word “boatfloatery” (at the time of writing, not a single other hit for it on Google) that I intend to shoehorn it into a conversation at least once a day from now on, propagating its usage until someone I’ve never met adds it to Urban Dictionary…)

(2 The traditional quote is: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Usually attributed to Elvis Costello, but there’s some doubt about that. Anyway, I don’t reckon that’s quite right. I think of it like this: Trying to describe music is like trying to describe sex. It’s perfectly possible to do it, but it rather misses the point…)

I’d want to relate the fact that I’ve been hacking about with Linux, Perl, PHP and MySQL for so long that I’m about ready now to give the whole lot up and try gardening instead.

There’d be (in some cases, necessarily oblique) references to psychedelics and consciousness, healing and mysticism, Now, Spirit, Love, Nature, Gaia, and faeries. Ayahuasca would be explicitly named, for being all of those things while transcending them all.

It would make sense to throw in a selection of ideas that I find fascinating and engaging even though I’m never likely to get even close to fully understanding them, such as quantum physics (and metaphysics), fractals, stochastic resonance, sacred geometry, tectonics, astronomy, biochemistry, psychology, geography, weather, and basically anything that seeks to answer the question “How?” (even though we know that the real answer is it’s all just gnomes).

For the sake of a complete picture, I’d need to reference Eris, the number 23, and The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (furthermore known as The JAMs, also known as The KLF) — no longer the obsession they once were, but still resonant in the formation of my character. And yes, for the same reason, Monochrome would have to be there too… initiator of countless lasting friendships, not to mention an eight year relationship, and the two best kids in the world…

And, although it’s not really anything to do with my character (“you are not your job”, as a wise man once said), I suppose it would be sensible — given that this is a conference, after all — to include a couple of phrases about my present paid employment as a Linux sysadmin and developer, which currently involves a fair bit of hacking around with EPrints and other Perl 3 shenanigans.

3 Gets a repeat appearance to ensure it due prominence over that other scripting language beginning with P. No, not that one, don’t be obtuse. Although, basically, all programming languages whose name starts with that letter are rubbish, except Perl. True fact. It should by now be obvious why I make that exception. I, too, am Pathologically Eclectic…)

My original plan was to post an entry containing just these tags, repeating the ones I consider most helpful in summation of the mess of contradictions that is Me (psybreaks, for example, would have to recur several times). But while this would generate a more accurate badge, it wouldn’t exactly be an interesting read, and it may also cause search engines to believe that I’m attempting to spam their results. The ranking of this site has suffered enough from the demise of its old domain, I don’t want to get it completely blacklisted.

So, the idea now is, to write more entries to explain and expand on many of the terms above.

Hey, it could happen… somewhen…

Meanwhile, here is some music. And one more mention of psybreaks, because there isn’t enough of it in the world (a situation which I’m doing my best to rectify, in case you hadn’t guessed…)

Addendum

Feeding just this post into Wordmangle (using the single-post feed link) results in a far more apposite summary of my interests than anything I’d hitherto managed. Exactly as I’d hoped. And using an article written about the process to feed into the process appeals to my (and probably every developer’s) aesthetic appreciation of the Meta, the self-referential.

With most of the emboldened words above only having a single instance in the text, many of them are getting left out. Perhaps that’s for the best. It seems to be picking a good subset, and while for example I feel Ayahuasca should be in there, so that it can be found by people who are looking, it oughtn’t be too big: it isn’t always a great idea to shout about such things to all and sundry (been there, done that, learned lessons). So I’m generally happy with the outcome. But it omitted The KLF, and Eris. For some reason, I feel they need to be in there, subverting the whole silly idea from within. So now they are. All hail! Fnord.

Final result of feeding this post into http://www.wordle.net

Review: Edirol UA-25 24-bit 96kHz 2in 2out USB soundcard

I’ve become quite a fan of this sound device since I got it about a year ago.

For its price, the sound quality is excellent. It’s fairly packed with features, has a good range of options for input and output connectivity, plus MIDI. And it works flawlessly, out of the box, with Linux — no special setup or drivers required, ALSA knows what it is and how to deal with it in any mode.

The same is true of Mac OS, but only in the basic mode which restricts you to 16-bit 44.1kHz I/O – a driver is required for Advance mode to get up to 24-bit 96kHz support (either in, or out – we’ll come to this under Limitations). This driver can be downloaded free from the Edirol website, and seems to work fine on my new unibody Macbook Pro with OSX 10.6 Snow Leopard, though I haven’t used it extensively on there yet.

I guess it probably works in Windows too, but I wouldn’t know anything about that 🙂

The sound quality (for what I’ve used it for anyway) is very good. It’s stacked with features, and quite versatile… within certain limits.

First we’ll take a quick look at the features packed into this gadget, which is information you could probably find elsewhere but I include for ease of reference, and after that we’ll get to discussing those limitations in more detail.

Continue reading Review: Edirol UA-25 24-bit 96kHz 2in 2out USB soundcard

M-Audio Xponent Woe – an update

You may have read my generally glowing review of the M-Audio Xponent. I’ve been meaning to update you all with some important news on that front. After I wrote the review, my Xponent developed a fault. I’d had it less than a month, and it had had only fairly light use, maybe 8-10 hours total.

One of the audio channels started cutting out (on both Main and Booth out). Started as just a bit of distortion, then it was really quiet and badly distorted, then it cut out completely. The headphone channel wasn’t affected.

I surmised that this was a bad electrical connection. To test this theory, I did what any self-respecting techie would do: gave it a whack (well, a gentle tap on the side, and then lifting the right-hand side of the unit by about an inch and letting it drop). That did the trick: the sound cut back in, diagnosis confirmed.

Obviously I was mortified that the unit should have such a trivial manufacturing fault (it wasn’t the only one either… I’d already started to uncover some much more subtle and minor problems, like one of the pots being centred at controller value 66 rather than 64). So it was sent back to DV. A month later, repairs were still not done and there was no ETA, so after some argument and quoting of the Sale of Goods Act, DV graciously agreed to a refund.

All of that prompted a reassessment of what I was aiming for with DJing, and whether computer-based mixing would really work for me even if I got a fully working Xponent. Was I happy to be staring at a monitor to mix? No, I do that all day for my day job. Could I imagine taking a laptop and console out to a club every time I play out? No, I’d just worry about it getting nicked, broken, and the hassle of setting it up. Was I content with the quality? Sort of, but in my heart I knew it wasn’t ever going to be as good as a pro quality mixer. If I’m serious about DJing, I might as well do it on the equipment that is already there in every club the length and breadth of the land.

So I decided to invest in Pioneer CDJ1000s and a new mixer after all. That has definitely turned out to be the right choice for me. I’m having a lot more fun now than I was doing it on the computer, and getting professional-quality results that I don’t think I’d have got from the Xponent. All at much higher cost, of course, so it comes down to considering it as an investment rather than an expense. I’m glad I tried out the computer mixing option first, and did it with a console that (manufacturing defects aside), can seriously claim to be the best or one of the best out there. That left me in no doubt that I needed to pursue a different approach, rather than just a different console.