Sunday, August 28, 2011

Multitrack DAW on iPod Touch

I've been trying out some of the more recent music creation apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch. I wrote about ThumbJam the other day, and I've just bought and tried out another amazing little app, Multitrack DAW. "DAW" means "digital audio workstation," and this app is a pretty credible rendition for a pocket-size device (and for just $10 with 8 available tracks). It can be upgraded to 16 ($8) or 24 ($15) tracks through an in-app purchase.

Yesterday we prepared our house for the approaching Hurricane Irene, and today we are "hunkered down" and waiting for its powerful wind and rains to pass by. So far so good as far as damage and flooding (none) and electricity (haven't lost it). So in honor of the hurricane (now "only" a tropical storm), and to test out this new recording app on something simple, I recorded a short version of the classic "Goodnight, Irene" with acoustic guitar, multiple vocals, and finger snaps. It works quite well, and the user interface makes excellent use of the small screen space and touch-screen controls. In the screen shot above, you can see the big pan control that pops up when you select the small one on the track.

Multitrack DAW is missing a few things that full-size recording programs like SONAR have, most notably any sort of reverb or delay (it does have compression and EQ). This is not a horrible limitation if you use this app for its most obvious purpose, which is as an always handy "scratch pad" for song and recording ideas. It has very complete file transfer features via a WiFi network, allowing for import/export of individual tracks as well as complete mixes. Once I get a new PC to run SONAR (my old home desktop PC died recently), I will be able to transfer works in progress easily enough.

In the meantime, I will experiment with ways to integrate the various music apps to help me write some new songs. Many of them now support some sort of copy/paste between music apps, though currently there are a couple of competing standards so you can't directly transfer between all music apps. Another limitation is inputs. On the iPod Touch, you can plug in a combination microphone/headphone device for direct audio input. I have also ordered an adapter that allows line-level inputs (with headphone monitoring) so I can directly record other devices (keyboards, guitar processors, quality microphone pre-amps, etc.). This adapter costs more than the app itself (about $30)!

When you think about the old 4-track cassette systems that cost hundreds of dollars and had far less capability, this app is amazing, even if you spring for the extra $15 for 24 tracks for a total of $25. Crazy.

Update: I learned that ThumbJam supports both common iOS music copy/paste formats when it copies, so I can actually copy a track from TJ and paste it into Multitrack DAW. Excellent!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

ThumbJam: Where the Songs Are

Songwriting comes and goes for me. A project like my 2010 "Message from Tomorrow" CD will typically inspire a bunch of songs, although not as many as I would like. Actually there are usually many songs started, just not very many finished. But fortunately for my first two CD's, I had a small backlog of older songs that I still liked well enough to want to rediscover and record. Now those old chestnuts have mostly been mined, leading me to wonder where the inspiration will come from for my next recording project.

Now I know. I discovered ThumbJam for the iPod Touch (and iPhone), the first music app I've found that I believe can really help me with songwriting and recordings. Basically it's a bunch of  nicely sampled instruments with a simple loop recording system and a brilliant interface for playing the instruments. Rather than trying to make a guitar fretboard or conventional black and white keyboard fit the iPod/iPhone touchscreen, Thumbjam presents a simple full-screen panel of notes in a chosen scale and key (you can play up to 6 notes at a time if your fingers will fit). Simple controls line the edge of the playing area, and the accelerometer is used to provide intuitive control of volume, pitch bending, vibrato, and tremolo. It's crazy good. Check out some of the videos here.

My big obsessions in life are music and flying, and right now I'm in a long-delayed flying phase, but over the next few months, increased business travel and fall/winter weather will reduce the flying as it always does. But I'm already thinking about getting a new PC for recording and flight sims (my 2002 desktop recording PC has finally died). I have recording software, drum machines, guitars, a MIDI keyboard, sample libraries, music apps, etc., and I have used all of these things to inspire and help me write songs. But none of those things brings the control of instrument sounds, scales, keys, and rhythms into an accessible, intimate, intuitive, powerful, and always handy form as Thumbjam does. I've already recorded three new song ideas in the first 3 hours of playing with it. I think it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Great Band: The Grip Weeds

With the help of Pandora, I recently discovered a band I really love, The Grip Weeds . Although they have been around since the early 90’s, I had never heard of them until a song of theirs showed up on Pandora (on a station based on Winterpills, a favorite indie band from Massachusetts). They are sometimes labeled as power pop or psychedelic rock, and there is definitely something from the sixties in their sound. While they are not emulating any particular band, I can hear hints of the Who, Buffalo Springfield, Spirit, CSNY, The Beatles and others. Their harmonies and guitar parts are great. Great drumming too. While I love the rocking electric guitar driven songs, some of my favorites are acoustic tunes like "Give Me Some of Your Ways" and "Life and Love, Times To Come" (cool Indian instruments on this one).

I bought their 2008 collection “Infinite Soul: The Best Of The Grip Weeds” and their 2010 double album “Strange Change Machine.” Both are wonderful. You can currently get a free 8-song sampler from SCM by signing up with an email address at their web site. You can buy the 24 song double album as a download there as well for $9.99 which is considerably cheaper than the price at Amazon or iTunes (about $16). The band probably makes more money that way too. They are definitely worth supporting.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Beech Tree Book Serendipity

I've always loved bookstores, new and used. For me, serendipity is the major draw of the small independent store. Amazon can offer me anything I want if I know I want it. But what about all the promising books that I probably would want if I only knew about them? This is the role of the physical bookstore, which unfortunately is fast becoming an endangered species (thanks in no little part to Amazon and other internet booksellers).

So I was happy this weekend to discover a brand-new used book and record store literally down the street from my house. Beech Tree Books and Records is located at 9 Maple Street in West Boylston, Massachusetts, less than a mile from me and just a few minutes drive from Worcester. They opened on July 30 and readily admit to being a "work in progress" as they continue to add stock to lightly filled shelves and record and CD bins. But I managed to find two "must have" books on my very first visit, including Rockets, Jets, Guided Missiles, and Space Ships by Jack Coggins and Fletcher Pratt, a 1951 (!) illustrated book for kids, with an introduction by Willy Ley! It's heavy on the V-2 (which was practically the latest in rocket technology at the time) but bravely delves into orbits, space stations, moon landings, and even the exploration of Mars and Titan. What a great find for a space geek like myself. One of my favorite paragraphs from this 60 year old book is from Ley's introduction (with quoted words as written):
What are the next twenty years going to bring? One of the great things to come is under discussion among scientists right now. It is the "orbital rocket," a small rocket which will circle earth outside our atmosphere for "ever." This means, of course, "for a very long time," months, years, decades, possibly centuries. Such an orbital rocket would not carry any people but only instruments, instruments of the type which can be "read" from a distance because they are coupled with an automatic radio transmitter and continuously broadcast their findings.
Beech Tree Books and Records is already a great little store with a lot of cool books, records, and CD's already on display at very reasonable prices and with more on the way. If you're in or near central Mass. and you like books, you should definitely check out this store.

Friday, August 12, 2011


I love this. My son-in-law is a post-doc and he says it's pretty much right. Graphic by Matúš Soták.