Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Light and Weather in Microsoft Flight Simulator

Fans of flight simulators often talk about how “immersive” a sim is. It’s about how much the sim experience makes you feel like you’re flying a real airplane. Visuals are obviously a key component, and VR can take this to a higher level in terms of feeling truly surrounded by a 3D environment made up of the structures of your aircraft as well as all the natural and human-built objects in the simulated world around you. Sound is also very important, as are physical controls like yokes and rudder pedals (controlling an airplane with a keyboard is definitely an immersion killer). Realistic ATC (Air Traffic Control) communications are important especially for airliners and military flight sims.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 addresses all these components, but to me, lighting and weather are the pieces that really pull it all together. Things we take for granted in real life like shadows, reflections, transparency, refraction, and color shifts are all well-simulated in MSFS. Making things look real also requires careful attention to materials and to how light interacts with them, including their colors and how shiny or rough they appear to be, which also affects color.

MSFS uses techniques called PBR (physically based rendering) to pull this off. Notice how the yellow features in this Stearman paint scheme (above) are reflected and distorted in the shiny blue fabric panels of the wings. The colors are shifted by these reflections as well as by shadows and by the angle from the sun at which you are viewing the surface. PBR techniques are also used to make buildings, runways, and other surface objects appear more realistic, often in combination with photogrammetry. 

Photogrammetry uses photographic imagery for measurement purposes, and in MSFS, this real-world data allows many cities to appear nearly photorealistic. Based on the resolution of the captured data, objects as small as signs on buildings may be readable, depending on your position and altitude. Technologies such as radar and lidar can also be used to accurately measure the height of terrain, and such data is often available to simulation modelers. Although MSFS recreates the entire surface of the Earth, the level of available detail varies by location, with many major cities covered by detailed photogrammetry (like New York City, shown in a VR stereo pair below), while many others depend on AI-based “autogeneration” of 3D objects including buildings, mountains, trees, etc. 

The appearance of objects in a simulation naturally depends on light sources, and MSFS incorporates multiple light sources starting with the sun and the moon (both accurately positioned based on the location, date, and time of day). I believe starlight is also modeled. Human-made light sources include streetlights, vehicle lights, light from building interiors, airport lighting, etc., and what amazes me is  when light sources interact with surface properties (reflecting or scattering) as well as with atmospheric properties like clouds, mist, rain, and snow. The resulting scenes can be uncannily realistic.

Speaking of rain and snow, weather is the other big piece of “immersiveness” I wanted to briefly discuss here. It’s a critical subject in real life aviation and in the sim. Microsoft and Asobo and their partners have placed huge emphasis on making weather look and feel right, and the system they developed is incredibly detailed, flexible, and easy to control.

Not only can you adjust any location's time and weather to your choosing - from clear skies to heavy clouds, to snow and storms – with “Live Weather,” you can even set it to match real conditions taking place in that part of the world. But if you don’t like the time of day, the wind, the height of the clouds, the height of the waves, or the depth of the snow cover, you can change any of that without even stopping your flight, using the interface shown above. 

Rather than drone on and on about this, allow me to recommend two brief developer videos that clearly explain how they managed to make the weather so real, it can get scary at times. Fortunately I can switch to clear skies anytime and (usually) not hit the mountain that was behind that cloud!

Feature Discovery Series, Episode 2: Weather 

Partnership Series: Meteoblue - Weather Forecast System

Monday, November 01, 2021

Why Things That Fly Are Cool

I blame my main life obsessions on John Glenn and the Beatles: things that fly and making music. The flying bit started first, in 1962. In February of that year, John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. I was nine years old and for reasons I don’t fully understand, the whole space thing was immediately very exciting to me. I must have watched the launches on TV and seen the pictures in LIFE Magazine. I started reading everything I could about the astronauts and soon learned that they were first military jet pilots. So I decided that’s what I would be. I’m sure around a million other American kids decided the same thing. The Beatles and making music came a few years later.

I stuck with my Air Force Academy, jet pilot, test pilot, astronaut dream for around three years until it was shattered by myopia. I get that military pilots must have uncorrected 20/20 vision, and even though I was too nearsighted to fly for the Air Force, my interest in space and aviation continued. I decided I would be an aeronautical engineer. I read books and built dozens of model airplanes, and when I was around 12, I joined Civil Air Patrol (CAP). It was something like boy scouts sponsored by the Air Force, but even better – they had airplanes! Cadets could go on demonstration flights in a Piper Cub! They would even let you fly the plane! It was the best thing ever.

CAP faded in high school as I developed other interests (e.g., the Beatles) and my parents got tired of schlepping me to the airport. I still built model airplanes and loved everything about flying, and I still assumed I would study aeronautical engineering and get a private pilot’s license as soon as I could. Of course, “life happened” and I tried a few different majors, quit college for a while to try being a singer-songwriter, and ended up studying physics and optics instead of aerospace engineering. A lot of other stuff happened too of course, like a family and a career.  I eventually did get a private pilot’s license, but not until I was 48 years old. That was great, but for various reasons, I couldn’t fly as much as I had hoped I would.

Which finally brings me to PC flight simulators. I played with a few in the mid-90s, military ones that were fun but not very much like real flying. By 1999 when I started taking real flight lessons, PC flight simulators had improved enough to be useful for some aspects of flight training, e.g., practicing some specific tasks like VOR navigation. But they didn’t look or feel very much like a real airplane, and I only used sims for a few things like preparing for a cross-country flight.

For a couple of years, the flying bug seemed to fade, other than reading my monthly AOPA Pilot Magazine and listening in to the cockpit audio on my United Airlines flights. In 2005, I discovered the free space flight simulator Orbiter, which reawakened my interest in space and in flying, since some of the simulated spacecraft in Orbiter had wings, like the space shuttle. This “space phase” lasted for a few years. It launched this blog and led me to become a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, a volunteer educational outreach program for space and astronomy. I’m still a sucker for a rocket launch or landing, and I would go on a space flight in a heartbeat if I could manage it.

Flight Sim Renaissance

Throughout the 2000s, flight simulators continued to improve, but I didn’t pay any attention until sometime in 2020 when I heard that an amazing new version of Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) would be released in August. I started reading articles and watching preview videos, thinking that it might be interesting to play with, since like many people, I was stuck at home due to the pandemic. Early in 2020, I had also started to get heavily involved in orchestral composition with sample libraries, so I decided I would wait a while before trying MSFS 2020. I was working with a composition coach and had started entering some competitions.

But by mid-September, the MSFS videos I was seeing were just too exciting. It was clear that MSFS 2020 was something entirely new and different, using modern cloud computing to model the entire world in incredible detail and with beautiful graphic quality. Not to mention airplanes! So I bought it, and within a month, I had upgraded to a new computer and monitor to run it better. My music took a back seat.

Why Is This Still Interesting?

Human dreams of flight started long before the Wright Brothers, and my personal dreams of flight started early in my life. Since I was also interested in travel and in foreign languages, I guess I hit the jackpot with the job I recently retired from, which would send me on international trips 6-8 times a year over many years. I spent a lot of time over the Atlantic and Pacific. And I spent some 120 hours at the controls of small airplanes (including flight instruction time) – a “low time” pilot for sure, but I’m grateful for the experiences and the memories.

With all that, you might think a flight simulator would pale in comparison. It’s definitely not the same as real flight but it still holds my interest for a few reasons:

  • It exercises the same “muscle memory” as real flight – the simulation is accurate enough to follow similar flight procedures and see similar results, both good and bad.
  • The simulated world and systems are accurate enough to allow for realistic flight planning, including “Live Weather” based on real-world data.
  • If I choose to navigate visually (VFR) in a familiar area, my real-world knowledge applies directly, which is quite satisfying. So I can navigate by "IFR" (“I follow roads”).
  • I never learned to use advanced GPS flight navigation systems that have become widespread in recent years, but now I have – and the simulated systems are very close to the real ones, which is fun to experience. So I can navigate by IFR (“instrument flight rules”).
  • Using multiplayer features and communication software, I can fly and talk with other sim pilots from anywhere in the (real) world. On many group flights, I have toured national parks and various international destinations, adding some of them to my “must visit” list for future real travel. New Zealand is at the top of my list once it opens for international visitors. 
  • I can learn what it’s like to fly airplanes I could never experience in real life, from a Stearman biplane to an F-14 Tomcat to a Boeing 787. Is it exactly the same? Of course not, but the better models highlight the critical flight characteristics and flight systems, rewarding you for handling them correctly, and "punishing" you for mistakes (RTFM to minimize this).
  • The childhood model airplane builder in me appreciates that I can easily acquire a collection of visually stunning airplane models that I can also fly in the simulator, unlike the plastic models from years past (though I still have a few die cast models of favorite airplanes).
  • As I mentioned in an earlier post, virtual travel is also a big attraction for me. It’s especially fun to fly around cities I know well from years of business travel, especially Tokyo, Paris, Seoul, and London. I like to recognize familiar sights and discover new ones I plan to visit.

Finally there is VR, a totally different way to experience simulated flight, where you feel like you are inside a cockpit and where clouds and buildings look 3D and startlingly real and massive mountains truly look massive.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Joys of Virtual Travel

Is this thing on? This blog I mean. Since I haven’t written a post since 2018, I thought maybe the whole blog thing was over and nobody told me. We certainly seem to have passed the heyday of blogs if there ever was one. It was sort of cool back in 2005 when I was excited about Orbiter, a new space flight simulator I had discovered, and I decided to share my fascination with real and virtual space flight with anyone who cared to read those early posts. Cool to me anyway. I met a few other space bloggers and Orbiter fans and there was even a small online community of sorts for a while. Woo-hoo! If there are still any blog readers or old space blog colleagues around, welcome! Leave a comment! All my old posts seem to still be out there and we’ll soon see if this one joins them.

Of course, now it’s late 2021 and things have changed. You know what many of them are, but in addition, I retired from my job a few months ago, and between that and COVID, my travel has been sharply curtailed. But things have come full circle in a way. Last year I rediscovered an old interest, non-space flight simulators, and specifically Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 (MSFS). I had played with various flight sims from 1994 to 2004, and between 1999 and 2004, I got my real private pilot’s license (2001). I didn’t fly as much as I hoped I would, but I feel lucky that I got to fly at all. For more information on that, please visit my other moribund blog, Flight SchoolRetrojournal.

When I say I didn’t fly much, I meant only as a pilot. As a passenger I flew constantly from 1983 until late 2019, just before COVID started. Hundreds of international business trips and a few cool vacations. I do miss that part of my working life, going places, seeing things, meeting people, doing things. It was great. In retirement, my wife and I plan to do some fun domestic and international travel once things settle down with COVID and a few other issues. Maybe next year.

In the meantime, MSFS allows me to experience some of the joys of flying and “virtual travel” from the comfort of my own office chair, with or without a VR headset. I’ll spare you the details you can learn from any number of websites or YouTube videos, but MSFS takes full advantage of the power of fast PC’s, graphical accelerators, and cloud computing to create a highly detailed simulation of the entire world, complete with “Live Weather” and stunning depictions of terrain, human-built structures, many different airplanes, and even other simulator pilots sharing the skies with you over the internet. It’s an amazing experience with a large high-res monitor, but even better with a modern virtual reality headset. I have the Hewlett-Packard Reverb G2 which works great with MSFS.

Where Have I Been?

I have spent some simulator time in a Cessna 152 flying around Central Massachusetts as I did in real life 15-22 years ago, and it’s fun to see how well Asobo has done recreating airports, towns, and terrain familiar to me (Asobo are the French makers of Microsoft’s current flight simulator). It is detailed enough to navigate “VFR” using familiar landmarks. You can usually even find your house! But with the whole world at my fingertips, and with a stable full of airplanes from ultralights to business jets to a Boeing 747, I’m not usually so close to home. When not flying a Beech Bonanza G36 or a tail-wheel XCub, I tend to favor an old Stearman biplane or the Aermacchi MB-339, an Italian-built jet trainer, both bought from third-party developers. 

Human and Robot Tour Guides

One thing I have enjoyed is a weekly group flight organized by Jules Altis, who happens to be an active private pilot as well as a simulator enthusiast. For months he focused on US National Parks of which there are many worth touring from the air. He would research the history and special features of each park and share those presentations and videos along with the flight plan for all of us to follow in the simulator and on Twitch or Discord. Olympia National Park, Washington, was my personal favorite. More recently he switched to a more informal format with international destinations like the Amalfi Coast of Italy, the Great Rift Valley of Africa, and the Tokaido Road in Japan. He makes use of a great free add-on developed by others called Bushtalk Radio which provides computer-narrated tours within the simulator of over twelve-thousand points of interest around the world. I’ve helped in small ways with Bushtalk Radio, especially with this brief trailer video that introduces it in the same synthetic “English lady” voice used for the actual tours (the music is mine).

Favorite Places

In addition to the “standards” like the Grand Canyon, Mount Fuji, and New York City, there are so many lesser-known mountains, lakes, cities, bridges, and dams, not to mention so many great airports. If you love airplanes you’ve got to love airports! Many of these sights are beautiful right out of the box, but there is also a facility for “add-ons,” both free and paid. In addition to an expanded air fleet (fancy a Spitfire or F-14 Tomcat?), you can find hundreds of airports with added details. Duxford Airfield, England is a current (free) favorite of mine. Scenery enhancements are also popular, many free, but many great commercial ones that are well worth a few dollars, like this improved version of Seoul, Korea which reminds me of my many visits there over the years.

I have created many videos which are usually short flights in some cool area I’ve discovered. I’ve experimented with adding my own music to a few, like this one of a Spitfire (White Cliffs of Dover, of course) or this flight around Tokyo. One of my favorite videos is this one (not mine) of many beauty spots, set to an instrumental version of “What a Wonderful World.”

This is already a long post so I will end here. I’ll probably write another one talking about what it is that makes the Microsoft Flight Simulator experience so engaging for me.

MSFS screenshots above, from the top (* add-on aircraft):

1. Stearman* over north Australia; 2. Dorand AR.1* (WWI) over Minnesota; 3. Stearman* passing through Tower Bridge, London; 4. Diamond DA-40NG over Sphinx Observatory, Jungfrau, Switzerland; 5. Cubcrafters XCub, Milford Sound, New Zealand; 6. Cessna 208 on a group flight in Iceland; 7. XCub on floats, Nahuel Huapi National Park, Argentina; 8. Beechcraft G36 near Lotte World Tower, Seoul, Korea; 9. Nieuport 17* (WWI) over Duxford Airfield, England; 10. Aermacchi MB-339* somewhere over Ireland

Here's a link to a shared Google Photos album with a few other screenshots from Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

My Inner Space Child

Not very deep inside me is a still-space-obsessed Inner Child who thinks space flight is the coolest thing ever. As a kid in the sixties, I was super-excited to follow the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo missions as they happened, and I covered the walls of my bedroom with the space posters NASA would send me by the ton whenever I wrote to ask. Space was real then. Apollo 8 orbited the moon in 1968, and in that same White Album year, 2001: A Space Odyssey convinced me that space ships full of people would be tooling around the solar system before I was even 50 years old. I wanted to go!

Of course it didn’t quite pan out that way. The moon landings ended in 1972 and I never got to be a test pilot and an astronaut which was my plan since I was ten. We did have a cool space shuttle for a while, and astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) still circle the globe every 90 minutes. We’ve also sent a bunch of amazing robots to tool around the solar system on our behalf. This isn’t as exciting as the 2001 movie, but I like all of that stuff too.

Even though my obsession is usually turned down to a low simmer, every once in a while something will trigger my Inner Space Child and I will get super-excited again. Sometimes it’s a book, often by Kim Stanley Robinson. Sometimes it’s a movie like The Martian in 2015. But most often it’s something Elon Musk says or does. NASA is still doing lots of important work but it seems that SpaceX gets all the glory. That’s probably because of Elon Musk’s hyperactive Inner Child, and because Elon (yes, I call him Elon) has huge ambition, a huge fortune, and a huge ego, so he can say, “wouldn’t be cool if we could build a rocket that’s bigger than a football field that could fly dozens of people to Mars” and the SpaceX engineers will all say “I’m on it.” And they are. That’s the already-in-work “BFR” which stands for “Big Falcon Rocket” (sure it does). I’ve also seen it called BFS for Big Falcon Ship, and if it really happens as planned, it will certainly be the first true space SHIP, huge and fully re-usable. Elon says that “short test flights” will begin in 2019. That probably means 2020 or 2021, but still. They are seriously building a space ship to colonize Mars (it will do lots of other stuff too).

This week I got excited when I learned about a new SpaceX add-on for the Orbiter 2016 space flight simulator. Orbiter is a free space-flight simulator that runs on a PC. It has accurate physics and beautiful graphics and it is a Space Nerd Inner Child’s dream come true. I spent about a year obsessed with it when I first discovered it in 2005. I even wrote a book about it, Go Play In Space, which teaches you how to do just that.  I still fire up Orbiter on my PC every now and then, usually when I hear about some new features or some cool new add-on developed by someone in the Orbiter community.

The new add-on is a model of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft that is set to start carrying astronauts for NASA in 2019 (an “add-on” is a user-developed set of 3D models and computer code that work within Orbiter to simulate a specific spacecraft). This one was the latest work of “BrianJ,” a talented add-on creator who has also made an add-on of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket needed to carry the Crew Dragon or other payloads into virtual orbit. In late 2017 another prolific add-on maker (“francisdrake”) created a model of the SpaceX BFR.

To capture the picture above, I created a scenario in Orbiter 2016 with the Crew Dragon docked to the “top” of the BFR in low Mars orbit (BFR's "wings" are actually solar panel arrays that deploy like Japanese fans). For scale, the SpaceX Crew Dragon with its “trunk” is about 27 feet or 8 meters long, taller than a two-story house. So you can see that the BFR is indeed a Big something Rocket. Search for "BFR size comparison" and you will find many illustrations of its incredible size. Also check out this speculative but suggestive cutaway diagram of the interior of the BFR's second stage (the part that will go to Mars). 

But Orbiter add-ons are more than just pictures or even 3D models. They are working models of the spacecraft, so they can be launched, flown to orbit (or to Mars), maneuvered, entered in the atmosphere, and landed. The Falcon 9 first stage and the BFR are “tail sitters” so they land with rockets blazing. I haven’t tried this yet with the BFR, but I have flown BrianJ’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy a few times (the built-in autopilot makes this rather easy). If you’d like to see it without bothering to install Orbiter, you can watch a video like this one. It's really amazing to see the first stage boosters turn around and fly themselves back to their landing pads. 

Is it weird to be so obsessed, still space-crazy after all these years? Maybe. But I prefer to think that I’m nurturing a sense of wonder that never quite left me. Or something like that. 

This picture shows BrianJ's SpaceX Crew Dragon orbiting the moon in Orbiter 2016.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Center Of It All

I have a new album! Center Of It All is available for download on CD Baby, and actual CD's will also be available there within a couple of weeks. It is also available on Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify, YouTube and other download and streaming sites.

I'm really pleased with how the album came out. I've been working on this project on and off for six years, since my last album Look At You in 2012. This is the fourth album produced by my friend Roger Lavallee, and as usual, Roger also came up with great arrangements, played most of the guitars, programmed the drums, and accomplished what still blows my mind every time I hear it -- he made it sound like a record! I also want to thank my friend Craig Collins for designing the cover graphics. He did a beautiful job of integrating my interests in music and space and in visualizing the idea of the "center of it all." Thanks also to my two co-writers (Rob Simbeck on "Center Of It All" and "Saving the World" and my brother Doug Irving on "Foggy Morning London Town").

Here are the album notes I wrote for the album page on CD Baby:

Writing and recording songs can give you a rich fantasy life. Like when you watch an episode of "The Americans" (great show) and out pops the song "Rough Days." Or when you imagine being so down and out that you wish someone would airlift you away and voila, "Angels Are Hiding." Think you're tired? Try flapping your wings 1500 times a minute like the characters in "Hummingbird." How about a pep talk from a quasi-Rastafarian? That's "Hey O Way O." An early morning stroll down Abbey Road? "Foggy Morning London Town." A helicopter getaway? "When Charlie Went AWOL." There's a song just called "Who?" What's that all about? Or who?

It's not all crazy talk. There's some of the usual sensitive guy "what's it all about" stuff too, like "In the Name of Love," "No Second Chances," and even "Saving the World." "Center Of It All" was inspired by memories of my Mom who passed away just recently - she really was the center of it all for me and my family.

There's a lot of rock, a ton of harmonies, a bit of folk and country, and just a dash of jazz. An album 6 years in the making with twelve very different and dare I say rather good songs (yes, I dare say). And I must ALSO say that if you like cool guitar solos, my producer, friend, and Local Guitar God Roger Lavallee has really outdone himself on this project. Smoking.

It's a good album. You'll like it. Trust me. Why would I lie?

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

What If Space Really Sucks?

I read an interesting essay on The Space Review by Dwayne Day, titled “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,” quoting Bernie Taupin in Elton John's song “Rocketman.” That 2017 essay was inspired by the SF TV series The Expanse, which is now in its third season (I bought the first season and watched a couple of episodes on Amazon Video -- I liked it but never returned to it since it’s not my wife’s thing and I have so many other time sinks). He doesn’t talk too much about The Expanse except to describe it as “gritty” and to say that it depicts a settled solar system a few hundred years in the future, and guess what? There’s politics and war and crime and inequality and oppression of asteroid colonists by Earth and Mars people, and resentment of Earth by Martians who are struggling to make their planet livable, and not just a place defined by its independence of Earth. There are many other problems too, e.g., agriculture collapses on Ganymede because the engineered environment is not as robust as natural environments of Earth. This is something that Kim Stanley Robinson addresses in his colony-starship novel Aurora  which I read and wrote about back in 2015 and found really fascinating (as I do most of KSR's books).

I guess the bottom line is that people are people, and that moving to Mars or a space colony or anywhere is no magic bullet. If there are multiple people anywhere, there will be conflicting needs, priorities, goals, etc. that will need to be managed. Even if you build a seemingly robust, prosperous, and somewhat fair and democratic society like the United States, it won’t be prosperous and fair to all its people, and a scam artist like Donald Trump can come along and try to ruin it for everyone except himself and a few of his wealthy supporters and Russian friends. That’s our now. I don’t think Trump will ultimately succeed in ruining the American Experiment, but he might (or he might drag us into wars that will screw up everything for everyone).

To me, space is not a religion or a utopia or even a next frontier that is needed to inspire humanity to be better. I think it is a source of materials, energy, and yes, space for future populations to exploit, in ways that at least have the potential (in the very long run) to relieve pressure on Earth-bound ecosystems and societies. And for now at least, exploiting those resources will not displace or destroy anyone else as the Europeans did when they invaded the “New World.” I think the profit motive will play a key part in having a reason and the means to get more people in space, even if it’s not the only reason, with Elon Musk and SpaceX serving as Exhibit A for this approach. Having a long-run backup plan for humanity doesn’t seem crazy to me – as long as it isn’t coupled with the idea that we can just abandon this planet. Earth is really perfect for us, because we co-evolved with it. So as KSR and many others suggest, we have to make this planet work. That doesn’t preclude also using asteroids, the Moon, and other planets for their living space and resources. But we shouldn't expect them to be perfect societies or utopias. They will be imperfect, human creations, just like everything else humans have created (with the exception of Mozart's music). 

But I also think that AI is going to have a very big part to play in space and in every aspect of life going forward, which may be bad news for old fashioned flesh-and-blood humans like us. If engineered “mind children” are the ones that reach the planets first... well, I don’t know what I think about it. For sure they won’t need life support, just energy sources. And maybe they won’t need meat machines like their parents to slow them down. I hope they still like us and remember to send us a postcard now and then.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Finding My Muse (Score)

It's funny how things happen. A few months ago, I switched from Sonar to Studio One as my main music recording software. I got a special Black Friday deal from Presonus. I really like Studio One and I've been writing and recording songs with it, so I'm happy, right? Then in January Presonus sent me a special offer on another piece of music software for Windows, Notion 6. It's a music notation and composition program which also interfaces with Studio One. Of course I didn't really need it but I'm always musically curious, so I bought it and started to fool around with writing little instrumental pieces to learn the interface. I learned that they have an iPad version, even cheaper ($15) and file compatible with Notion 6. Cool. I can write music anywhere, even on my iPhone.

So now I'm writing simple stuff and searching for scores to learn from. I found a site called musescore.com and learned that this is an active community of composers and classical music enthusiasts of all levels. In addition to many classic scores, I quickly discovered several rather impressive amateur composers to follow. There is also a free, open source composition and notation program called MuseScore 2 which I downloaded. It turns out to be better on Windows than Notion 6 in many respects, not least of which is the fact that you can upload your scores to musescore.com to share and discuss them with others (you can also import/export MusicXML, MIDI, and other file formats to transfer scores between different notation programs, including Notion). .

What's funny about this is that I can barely read music. Actually I know the notes and quite a bit of music theory, though I don't read and write notation fluently. I rely mostly on my ears. But with programs like Notion and MuseScore, this doesn't matter too much. Much like writing songs, I can try things, hear them instantly, and fix or improve them interactively. It's fun and educational. I've always regretted not being stronger with theory and notation, and this gives me a reason and a means to improve. When I told my friend Peter Inglis that I was embracing notation, he said "finally!" He's been urging me to learn to read and create musical "source code" for years! So I finally am. I've already noticed improvement in my ability to follow and understand scores. And write some too.

My early exercises are mostly brief pieces in string quartet form just because this gives you a small number of voices to explore. One I especially like was inspired by the fictional oboe player Hailey Rutledge on the Amazon Prime TV show "Mozart in the Jungle." It's called "For Hai Lai" (watch the show).

I am FlyingSinger at musescore.com if you want to check out any of my scores -- or skip those silly things and go right for compositions by those who really know what they're doing.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Hey O Way O

Do you remember the children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Just substitute "year" and that pretty much sums up 2017. I don't want to talk about it.

My readership (both of you) may have noticed that I haven't written a blog post since April 2017. Yeah, I have pretty much stopped blogging in favor of writing in my journal. I use an app called Day One, and if you have any interest in keeping a journal on an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, I can heartily recommend it. I started in July 2014 and now, 1,266 days and 3,055 journal entries later, I'm still writing two or three entries a day. I guess I still like to write.

And I still like to make music, even when things are crappy. I've written maybe a dozen songs in 2017 and recorded a few with my friend and producer Roger Lavallee. Roger and I have been working on music together since 2002 and he is totally amazing as a guitarist, drum programmer, arranger, producer, and engineer. I decided to share our latest "nearly complete" song on SoundCloud today. It's part of a long-rumored 2015, oops, 2016, oops, 2017, oops, 2018 album project.

This song is a quirky sort of pep talk to a friend. Or something. It's called "Hey O Way O" because, why not? I say that a lot in the song. The lyrics are on the SoundCloud page if you're interested. This happens to be the first song we completed in Studio One 3 after using Cakewalk Sonar for many years (Roger is a ProTools guy but he adapts amazingly well to new recording software). The goal is to make music, whatever the tools, but Studio One (S1) has a clean and modern interface that really makes it easy to learn and use. I jumped ship when I heard that parent company Gibson is stopping development of Cakewalk products. A half-price Black Friday sale also helped ($200 for the Professional version). It's nice that most of the plugins I have for Sonar work with S1 too.

Let's all hope that 2018 will be a better year for all of us. Cheers!