Friday, August 24, 2012

Don't Kill Yourself (honestly, that's all this is about)

I just learned of the suicide of yet another close friend of mine.  I'm mad, hurt, and so, so, so sad.  Part of me thinks, "I don't get it, how do you get that low?  How does not existing anymore seem preferable to your troubles?"

Of course, my two friends who killed themselves believed in God and an afterlife.  So, in their minds, they were not ceasing to exist, but just changing planes in the great jetway of the cosmos.  But I don't get that either.  Doesn't every belief system preach that killing yourself is a one way ticket to pain and suffering.  Surely an eternity of suffering is worse that trying to figure it out here.  Right?

I'm back to where I don't get it.

Obviously, after you learn something like this, you mind goes looking for clues, "could I have foreseen this?"  prevented it?  Were there signs?

Of course there were fucking signs.  Everyone has their bad days, the key seems to be getting past the bad days.  A super long string of bad days or a few super bad days seems to bring out the urge to live no more.  I'm sure everyone has had at least that in their life, even if they never thought of taking their life.

I never got to say good bye.

In 2008 I learned that one of my dearest friends, O, had killed herself in 2007 after a long bout with Schizophrenia.  We'd been estranged for many years, but I always imagined us together as old people, as friends or lovers, once all the other stuff was out of the way, careers, kids, the things that can get in the way of living.

I'd been searching for O for a long time and the internet always held promise, but I never figured out how to use it effectively.  She was private and paranoid, even when I knew her, so it was always going to be hard to find her, plus at least one other person shared her name and career path, making searches more difficult.

I eventually had the idea of looking for her sister and was talking to said sister on the phone within a day of finding her.  If I'd thought of that a year earlier, I could have spoken to my friend, as she would have still been alive.  It was my belief in Facebook that lead me to look for O's sister.  I truly feel, in the Facebook era, you can locate anyone, as long as their name is unique enough.  By contrast, good luck finding the John Smith you're looking for.

Hearing of O's demise I felt robbed of my future with her.  She was a fighter.  I couldn't believe she, of all people gave in.  Still, there were those signs, the paranoia.  Part of me was not surprised at all.  It seems 911 was the trigger for her downfall.  Evacuated from her home she took the attack personally, internalized it, and never really came back to reality, at least the reality we all accept and know.  It seems she'd never forgot me either, meaning, I could have made some difference, maybe not "the" difference, but some.

Yesterday, I learned of the death of my mentor, who killed himself decades back, though, as I said, I'm only just learning of it.

G was my counselor at camp the last year I was able to attend.  He was magical and magnetic, everyone was drawn to him and uplifted by his optimism and good cheer.  Being the oldest of his campers he made me his unofficial assistant counselor, since he hadn't been assigned one.  I'd always wanted to get to know G better, but fate put us in the best possible position to become friends.  In time my great respect for him was returned as he seemed to take a liking to me too.  My camp session ended and I left, but my little brother was attending the next session, meaning I'd return a few days later, only to say hi really, but it allowed for another turning point.

One issue G had helped me cope with was a girl named L and the demise of my relationship with her.  He didn't have a high opinion of her, so I couldn't figure out why I liked her so much.  She was beautiful and she showed an interest in me, need I say more?  But I didn't see it like that then, so in the day between my session of camp and my little brother's session of camp, I wrote out a seven page, college ruled, history of my relationship with L (which had spanned two summers and letters in between).

When we went to pick my brother up I asked G if he'd read what I wrote and our friendship took another turn because he was, as he described it, dumbstruck with the quality of my writing (I'm not going to say I've maintained that quality, as I haven't kept practice, lol).  Not only that, but regardless of what he thought of my ex, L, he now understood why the relationship had meant so much to me.  (On I side note, I now believe that my relationship with L was sabotaged by one of my closest friends who actually wanted to be my girlfriend, as she often relayed messages between L and myself, but that's another whole post which I'm not likely to write).

I think those seven pages convinced G to be pen pals with me, and we remained in regular contact for years, right up to his death, as I now know, but back then, his letters just stopped.  I assumed we just lost touch, because I was moving a lot at the time (my father was in the Army) and I changed addresses three times the year he died, so it was easy to imagine letters getting lost when they stopped.

In those letters, G helped me so much.  It was the darkest time of my life (isn't adolescence the darkest time in everyone's life).  And I came the closest to suicide I ever did while we were writing.  He's the one who first suggested Lao Tzu to me, and it helped so much.  But now, I'm looking back on that, realizing, while he was helping me to stay alive, he was within months of taking his own life.  Read on.

And this is the ultimate irony.  G was the first one to tell me "it gets better", long, long, long before it was an internet meme.  And, having guessed at the circumstances which lead him to take his life, I only wish I'd had the chance to tell him, "it gets better".  Because it does.

Don't kill yourself!

Don't kill yourself!

Don't kill yourself!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Loops or No Loops with that EDM (part 1)

Hate starting with an unattributed quote, but it's so good, I can't let it pass.  Some designer in some documentary I watched once said, he didn't really know what he had designed until years after the fact.  Because, he explained, for the first year a woman owns one of my garments, she wears it the way she thinks it should be worn, or the way she believes I think it should be worn.  It's only after it's been in her closet a year that she begins to wear it the way she wants to, and it's only then, when I see it on the street, that I really know what I have designed, when my customer stops caring what I think.

I don't design clothes, but this characteristic he's talking about is pervasive when engaging in any creative endeavor and I think it is closely related to the 10,000 hour rule.  I think it's especially true when it comes to new technology for creativity.

I first opened the music making program Garageband in 2005.  I hadn't really made any music in about 7 years, when the PC running my midi system died.  I had purchased a guitar in 2001, not with the idea of making music, but with the idea of learning how to play guitar.  I practiced on and off, leaning scales and chords, not songs.

I opened Garageband because I needed music for a video.  Once again, video was driving me to make music.  I was curious to try Garageband, because I knew that even non musical people could make "original" music with it, and I was curious to see how that worked.

I had seen other programs for non musical people to make music with, but they were all too limited, in the sense that, everything sounded like it came out of that program, not like it came out of the "composer".  I could quickly see how, in Garageband, you could make music with no skills at all, and how you could make something really original if you made unusual choices (say, mixing a classic rock acoustic guitar riff with a reggae drum pattern and a jazz organ loop).

At the time, I'd recently launched a business designing iPod products, but before that I'd really been concentrating on painting and photography.  I had no plans to start making music as my primary means of creative expression, but I really liked Garageband and wanted to delve deeper into it, to see how good it could be, using it as it was designed to be used by non musicians.

I built a jazz track, using jazz and "non" jazz elements.  Taking midi loops designed for one instrument, and assigning them to a different one.  Using the same midi loop between two different instruments to have them "talk" to each other.  As I built more tracks, my imaginary "band" started to take shape, the leader played the sax, the talented drummer played all styles (jazz, rock, electronica, reggae, you name it).  The bass player played all three types of bass, acoustic floor, electric, and keyboard.  And the guitarist could also double on the keys when needed.  I knew where each member of the "band" would stand during their shows and placed them there in the mix when making "my" songs.

Funny to call these "my" songs, since I didn't write a single phrase of music for them.  Thought I transposed and rejiggered some of the loops into new musical phrases, mostly they were melodies written by others, but in my songs, they became the leaping off point for some "improvisational" jams my virtual band performed.

I have a friend who really likes jazz, so I decided, at some point, I would do an entire album of these loop based jazz songs for him as a Christmas present.  A one of a kind CD that he would have the only copy of, in the world.  If Garageband was the designer's garment in my closet, the jazz album was my first 6 months with it.  I was trying to use the program to the very limit of how I thought it was intended to be used.

The next 6 months saw me realize a dream I'd long had of doing a Christmas album that blended Rock and Electronic Dance Music.  I love non-traditional Christmas albums and have a little treasure trove of them.

Now I felt like I was going to take Garageband a little bit outside of it's intended use.  Employing the same methods I'd used making the Jazz album, I began to build my Christmas tunes.  Of course, I couldn't use the musical loops in Garageband this time, because I needed traditional Christmas tunes.  However, once I had the main melodies in midi form, I constructed the tracks exactly the same way I'd constructed the Jazz tracks, but leaned the style towards the rock/EDM hybrid I was aiming for.  I was still using Garageband's loops for drums, though I had also found some additional sources of drum loops, which I was using as well.  When I finished the Christmas album, I felt I had really used Garageband up to and past the point of its intended use.  And that was important.

Because, along the way, painting and photography had become impossible to pursue, owing to the state of my apartment at the time.  The business designing iPod products had reached a successful conclusion.  And I had decided to try devoting all my free time to the making of music.  I could see the possibility of doing original music in Garageband, and getting very good results, but I had to exhaust the program first.  I had to use it to it's very limits before I could begin to go beyond its scope, which was necessary if I was to create some truly original music.  Almost more importantly, this time, video would not be driving me to make music.  It would exist for itself, a departure for me, a scary one.

To be continued.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Challenge of the Challenger

I just recently finished the video for I See You (I am Empty) and the making of the video went very smoothly, for the most part, hence I have very little to write about the experience.  The most obvious problem I had making this video, which was obvious long before I even started, was that the main source was analog audio without a time code.  This was exacerbated by the fact the the video was produced as a videoSong, meaning, the actual recording of the song had to be incorporated into the video.  I didn't stand a chance of getting true sync for this footage.  The sync is okay though, not actually too bad.  I had to incorporate some cuts that weren't part of my original plan, because some of the imagery started to creep out of sync with the audio.  By making a cut, I could re-align the errant images.

Another thing that was not part of my original plan was to make visual references to the lyrics (like when I say "Yugo" you see a Yugo on the screen).  This came about because, after I started cutting away from the performances, I thought the video got a little dull.  My original idea was that you would see each of the four tracks performed in their entirety, to really see how the song was made.  Once I started cutting, I became selective and started cutting away more, to "justify" the necessary cuts and make them look more intentional.

Most of the added imagery was pretty much predictable and workman like, with one exception, the Space Shuttle Challenger.  It was challenging, for sure.

You can actually download footage of the tragedy on NASA's website.  I watched it a few times and considered including it.  But it seems so wrong to me.  I know I included a reference in the song, and that felt genuine, I mean, I remember it, it seems valid to talk about my experience of it.  In contrast, it would be weird if I wrote a song about experiencing the Kennedy Assassination, since I wasn't yet born, unless I was working in some historical fiction context.

In referencing it, I'm still telling my story.  But if I was to use the footage, suddenly, I'm no longer telling my story, I'm telling an American story about people who are not with us anymore.  It stops being about the witness.  And it seems wrong to do that in a song about a guy dating a robot.  And if it's not wrong, it's very distracting, overshadowing the fictional drama I'm writing about with events that actually happened.

Since many of my visual cues are still images, I decided to go that route and the image of the shuttle I chose is not even the Challenger, but the Space Shuttle Atlantis.  And rather than give it an abstract "flight" path like most of the other sprites in the video, I gave the still image of the shuttle a realistic path.  However, at the top of the screen, when the lyrics describe the explosion, the image of the shuttle just fades away and disappears and it's so much more effective than the real footage would have been. IMO

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and I explained why I couldn't use the actual footage.  But as a result of not using the real thing, I came up with something even better, for my purposes.  The challenge of the Challenger, resolved.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dave Smith and Roland are Geniuses

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm going to midi convert my Korg Monotribe.  Anyone who's not a musician probably just though, "what the hell does that mean"?  The Monotribe is this really cool little analog synthesizer from Korg, whose main drawback is a tiny keyboard that is all but unplayable by adult fingers.  Fortunately, the good people at Korg put a midi interface on the circuit board of the Monotribe, which allows you to modify the unit and connect a full sized keyboard, making the whole instrument much more useful.

It still doesn't get to the question of what mid is though.  Using computer terms, midi is both hardware and software that allows musical devices to communicate with one another.  The name comes from Musical Information Digital Interface.  What makes it so useful is the amount of event based data that midi can transmit, almost instantly.  And, although it was developed for musical instruments, it can be used to control any time based equipment, even old analog devices.

For example, years ago, if you went to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, mid day on a Tuesday and wanted to hear the organ, they would play you a little tape of the organ being played.  It did not convey the scale of the instrument at all, only a vague approximation.  Now, however, the organ is fitted with a midi controller, so they can record not the sound, but the performance data of any one who comes in a plays the instrument, and then they can play back that performance and the actual organ creates the sounds.  With your eyes closed, you would not be able to tell if a human or the computer was playing the instrument.  That's a big improvement over a silly tape recording.

If you ever saw the original production of Les Miserables, with that giant spinning platter of a stage where the action occurred, believe it or not, midi was controlling that platter.  Midi is great for providing time based event data with extreme precision.  If you've ever been on a motion ride at an amusement park, they are also controlled by midi.  Some have speculated that one day it will be revealed that the space shuttle was midi controlled (but don't hold your breath on that one).

Of course, people who played computer games in the 90s have a very bad feeling about midi, perhaps with good reason.  A lot of bad video game sound tracks in the 90s relied on midi and the default musical instruments that shipped with the computer or sound card.  I have heard some of these and they leave a lot to be desired.  However, midi is unfairly blamed as the culprit.  I would say the fault lies more with poor orchestrations and poor instrument quality on the sound cards of the day.  The beauty of the midi interface is you can apply the performance data to any instrument, a good one or a bad one, the instrument it was intended for or a different one.

Midi was developed jointly by synthesizer engineer Dave Smith and the engineers at Roland  Musical Instrument corporation in Japan.  There had been precursors to midi, which allowed data to be transfered between musical devices, but there were different standards and the amount of data was limited.  The development of midi standardized the information so the equipment of different companies could be connected together.  It also expanded the amount of event/performance data that could be captured.  Now the system could not only request a Middle C note, but it could specify how loud that note should be, and request it to come from any number of available channels (different devices or instruments).  Almost overnight musicians gained the ability to connect a bunch of electronic instruments together for a live performance controlled by a computer, which allowed previously impossible compositions to be realized.

As I mentioned before, back in the 90s I had a robust midi setup running out of my desktop computer.  The sequencer (which typically manages and deploys midi data) controlled three different devices I had, two synthesizers and a Rompler module that played sounds sampled from real instruments with often surprising realism.  I could compose in the computer by "writing" out notes, or I could input the notes by playing them on a keyboard.  The sequencer could control all three devices simultaneously, allowing me to make rich music without playing a single note.

At the time even experts agreed it was a bad idea to run music through your computer.  The power supplies and boards inside were very "dirty" and would create a lot of audio noise.  Yet with midi, I could produce super clean sound, because the computer was only controlling the data, not the actual audio.  I  never really understood how this was possible, why the noise inside the computer didn't infect the instruments connected to it.  Until I started to learn how to modify my modify my Monotribe for midi.

One of the items you need to perform this mod correctly is an "optocoupler", which I had never heard of, but understood instantly, it uses LED light to transmit data, and it's part of the original design of midi, as I understand it.  Completely brilliant.  Using light isn't just fast, but it also isolates the devices from each other, to avoid contamination of noise, hum even dangerous spikes that can damage expensive musical gear.  This is why my post has the title it has, because the cleaver use of the optocoupler is one of the key elements that makes midi as good as it is, and less talented engineers would have skimped or skipped that crucial step.

I should tell you, I don't use wikipedia to write these things, so the facts I get wrong are facts that are wrong in my head.  If I remember where it was I picked up one of these tidbits, I'll tell you, but for goodness sakes, don't assume any "facts" in these posts are actually true.  My version of other people's lives may be wildly inaccurate, but generally, I'm here to tell a story or make an observation based on that understanding (true or not), and hopefully the veracity doesn't really alter the observation all that much.  The previous story may not be true at all, I haven't verified it, not because I'm too lazy, but mostly because I'm too busy at the moment.  Obviously, if large portions are untrue, it kind of blows the whole thing out of the water. Apologies if that is the case.

Friday, July 13, 2012

I Thought I Missed the Boat

I love synth pop.  For as long as I can remember.  The first album I ever bought at a record store was Yellow Magic Orchestra's debut, which, being a Japanese import, cost almost three times the normal price of a record. My mom asked if I was sure I really wanted it.  I still have it and still listen to it regularly.  One of my all time favorite albums is Dare, by The Human League.  It's one of the few albums I've owned in the three formats of my life (cassette, LP, and CD).  However, I always felt I was born too late to make synth pop myself.  By the time I started to make music in 1989, that ship had sailed, and I had only begun to learn my craft.

Flash forward 23 years, and I'm still a novice (but getting better, I hope).  And my desire to create synth pop is as strong as ever, but with a twist.  Thanks to Mr. Simon Holland's Bedroom Tapes project, I was thrust into the production of a synth pop tune.  I was almost reluctant at first, because he'd precluded the use of guitar, and since I'd always thought I was too late for synth pop, I'd always included guitar in my pop songs (with rare exceptions).  It's funny to say now, because I'm so on board with the "no guitar" aesthetic, but at first I was apprehensive.

Of course, the fact that it's 2012 means I would have a hard time convincing myself to create a whole album devoted to a genre that pretty much fizzled out almost 30 years ago.  I kind of view it as a waste of time, we should live in the moment, the present, experience zeitgeist.  But therein lies the true genius of Mr. Holland's project, at least as far as I was concerned.

What Simon really wanted was tape recordings made in the 1980s, not 2012 facsimiles.  It was only out of kindness that he let such deceptions into his compilation, but he made a caveat, which was, he wanted it to really seem like the contemporary tracks had been made in the past.  Not just sound like they were old, but also have a faux history and (if possible) old cassette box art for the submitted song.  In short, he was requesting that even 2012 facsimiles of 1980s songs appear to be the real thing, in sound, pictures and provenance.

For some people, this might be an inconvenience.  If all you want to do is make an 80s tune, it might be off putting to have to make some 80s style art to go with it.  But I loved that part of the project too.  In the end, it's was gave me the justification for producing a whole album of songs created in this manner.

Because, while it's a waste of time, to me, to make a group of 80s songs in the synth pop style in 2012, it's actually an interesting challenge to create an album that pretends to be from the actual 80s.  For most people this would be some semantic difference, a trivial thing making no difference.  Obviously, to me, it makes all the difference in the world.  From "waste of time" to "worthy pursuit".

Because, for the months it will take me to complete this record, I will imagine it is the time of the early 80s again, immersing myself in only that music.  It will be hard to ignore all the music that has come since, and it's influences, so I will not expend too much effort doing so.  Instead I will just think about the music of the day and the days that proceeded (50s, 60s, 70s . . . ).  And I will try to imagine, if I had been an adult then, what interests I would have had lyrically, and how to realize them in song form.

When you consider this approach, you can see it's very different than trying to make synth pop from a 2012 perspective.  If I was making synth pop for 2012, it would have elements of Trance and Dub Step.  And lyrically, I would have to reference the web and smart phones and all kinds of cultural things that didn't exist in the early 80s.  And then, in being more of a handshake between past and present, it becomes a bit quaint or nostalgic.  In making a "fake" artifact from the 80s, a collection of songs pretending to be from that time, it becomes less about being nostalgic and weepy for a past that is gone and more about trying to travel to the past in my present body, to be in the moment, when that moment is long ago.

If I was to make a sports analogy: It's not sitting around on the sidelines, drinking a beer with your high school teammates, remembering the good old days.  It's more like suiting up with them and convincing the members of your old rival to do the same, playing the game, and keeping score.  Not to pretend it's high school all over again, but to enjoy the game, fresh. (This is a thought experiment only, I am not responsible for the injuries of people actually attempting this and don't recommend you do so.  Music is not a contact sport, so I am safe.)  Like many analogies, this one is imperfect.  Apologies.

But the real beauty of it all.  I get to make synth pop.  Ignore the mental hoops I'm making myself jump through, I finally get to make an album of synth pop without being self conscious of doing something "dated", because it's completely, intentionally "dated" and I'm not pretending otherwise, lol.