Thursday, March 21, 2013

Audiobus Shakes Up iOS Recording

I've been writing and recording songs using iOS apps on my iPod Touch for a couple of years. In the last year, I've also done a lot of writing and recording on the iPad, whose larger screen makes it much easier to use with simulated synth keyboards and recording consoles. I've gotten good results with apps such as Thumbjam, Chordbot, and especially Apple's own Garageband app. Most of these apps support some sort of data export or audio copy/paste, which allows combining sounds from different apps, although this is usually an awkward trial-and-error process.

Sometime last year, an app called Audiobus was released, described as the missing link or "cable"  between other iOS music-making apps. For apps supported by Audiobus, this allows nearly effortless real-time combination of different music apps. The makers of Audiobus and the various music app developers have been steadily adding to the library of iOS apps that work with Audiobus. I bought it a few weeks ago and have been experimenting with various combinations. But the other day was the breakthrough for me - Apple released version 1.4 of Garageband, with Audiobus support! Now I can work in my most comfortable iPad recording environment and easily incorporate the sounds of the many synths and other music making apps I have.

This takes the iPad almost into the realm of "grownup" recording applications on other platforms, such as Sonar X2, which I use on a Windows 7 laptop. It certainly competes in the variety of available "soft synths" and exceeds the Windows/Mac world in touch-specialized interfaces, best exemplified by Thumbjam. Of course there is always more to want: with all the instruments I can now use in Garageband, how can I get by with only eight tracks? Yes, I know the Beatles made Sgt. Pepper with only four track tape recorders (and like producer George Martin, you can bounce sub-mixes down to stereo to free up some tracks for more parts - just add genius, and you're the Beatles!).

Of course I still have Sonar to use for projects requiring dozens of tracks, so there is no reason to complain, especially when the iPad travels so well. One problem that I have in both environments: dozens of wonderful tools with enormous depth and breadth of features that I have barely started to discover. Do I spend time getting better with the tools? Or do I spend time creating new music? I try to do both at the same time!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Beautiful Earth Views from ISS!

Some space advocates decry the fact that humans are currently "stuck in low Earth orbit." While I too would love to see humans branch out to the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and perhaps further, I have to say that low Earth orbit is still a pretty cool place to be. Case in point: I recently learned that the current ISS commander, Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield, frequently posts pictures from the ISS on Twitter and Facebook. So I "liked" Col. Hadfield on Facebook, and I now receive daily reports and photos from the ISS. Pretty amazing stuff (you can also see his pictures on Tumblr).
I also found a wonderful video compiled from ISS photography, including time-lapse views of auroras and other beautiful images of Earth. Christoph Malin's "Making the invisible visible" is a 15 minute video that is described as "a tribute to the International Space Station Program as well as Dr. Don Pettit, NASA Astronaut and ISS Astrophotographer." The screen shot below is from the video, looking north over New England (notice the hook of Cape Cod in the lower center). Also note the green aurora along the limb of the Earth. You should watch this video, preferably in HD.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What's on My Nightstand?

Here's a snapshot of my reading dilemma - the Kindle books on my iPad, something like my current reading list. A few of these are books I have already read but like to dip into once in a while. A couple are sort of referencey (e.g., Revolution in the Head, a song-by-song history of the Beatles).  It's a lot of books, but at least they aren't heavy. I've had The Making of the Atomic Bomb (in hardcover and paperback) since probably 1987 and I'm finally reading it thanks to Kindle. I somehow never wanted to take that 886 page book on an international business trip which is when I do most of my long-form reading.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Orchestra App on iPad

The Orchestra is one of the coolest music, education, and entertainment applications I have ever seen. It is what multimedia was meant to be - an intimate exploration of 8 pieces of classical music, conducted and explained by Esa Pekka-Salonen, with the Philharmonia Orchestra. It is made specifically for the iPad and makes great use of the touch interface and the large screen.

Basically, there are 8 short pieces of classical music (most are excerpts), from Haydn to modern, played by the orchestra while the score scrolls and videos are shown of Salonen conducting and of sections of the orchestra. There is also a diagram of the orchestra where each active instrument "lights up." All of this is perfectly synchronized with the music, and is adjustable in various ways (e.g., piano roll display instead of music notation for the score).There is also optional commentary by the conductor and select orchestra players.

There are also brief video interviews with the conductor on special aspects of each piece, text information about the history of each piece, and a fantastic tour of all the orchestra instruments, with a brief video comment and demonstration of each one.

I enjoy a lot of classical music, but as a largely self-trained musician, I have often felt that I am missing a lot of what is going on. So i have sought out books and software to help me with this over the years. When CD-ROM arrived in the early 90's (pre-Internet), some of the first multimedia programs were musical explorations similar to this. I remember having one by Microsoft on Mozart's "Dissonance Quartet." That was good, but not nearly as interactive and instructive as this new app.

So far I've explored two of the pieces (Debussy and Haydn) and some of the orchestra and background features. There is much to see, do, and learn here.

Two small complaints. It's expensive by app standards at $13.99, but compared to a music CD or DVD, it is a fantastic bargain. There is so much artistry and work in this product. And with the exception of Debussy's brief but complete "Faun" prelude, all the pieces are excerpts. This is because as a self-contained app, all content must fit in 2 GB, the iOS app size limit (the app is 1.8 GB). They apparently made a choice to showcase multiple works from the 18th century to now, rather than choosing one complete work to analyze. I think that was the right choice. If you explore these excerpts, I think it will greatly increase your appreciation and understanding of the complete works, and of other music as well. I have already learned things I never knew about conducting and orchestral instruments.

First World Problems & Rationalizations

I just saw a Facebook post complaining that the iPhone doesn't offer a shortcut to immediately scroll to the bottom of a page (there is a top scroll shortcut). Someone commented that this is a "first world problem." This made me think about some of my own first world problems (in addition to suffering with this one).
  • Too many books and magazines I want to read, hundreds of which now follow me everywhere in the Kindle app on my iPhone and iPad. And yet I buy more. 
  • Too much music I want to listen to. Amazon Cloud has almost all of my music, 27,465 songs, roughly 97 days of music (that's 24 hour days). This too follows me everywhere, and yes, still I buy more.
  • Too many ways to write and record songs, making it hard to decide which of these dozens of tools (many of them apps on the iPad and iPhone) I should choose when I want to create some music. This is so challenging that sometimes I give up and watch a movie instead. And yes, I buy more music apps. There are so many cool ones!
  • I have to fly economy class when I take business trips to Europe and Asia. Lest this start to sound too much like whining, I have to say that I don't really mind this. For one thing, the fact that I travel on business to Europe and Asia at all means that I get a nice break from the daily routine, that I get to see various international friends and colleagues, and that I can sometimes practice my French or Japanese. And oh yes, that I have a job. 
  • Too much food I want to eat, leading me to weigh too much. I'm working on this one using the Weight Watchers online program (mostly on the iPhone, making it convenient to track everything I eat). I started January 12 and have so far lost about 18 pounds. I spend 25-40 minutes a day on the treadmill fast-walking to gain "activity points" to help the process along. The game-like aspect of tracking points (and weight loss) seems to help me, though of course the trick is to keep it up over long periods. 

There's a rationalization connected with the Weight Watchers (WW) thing (I'm always rationalizing things). While the WW point system and app are well-designed and have helped me to lose weight, I wonder if this is really worth the roughly $18 a month it costs to subscribe. There are probably cheaper ways to track food and activity that would also work. But here's the rationalization: before I started this, I would buy an afternoon snack from the vending machine at work almost every day. Now that I'm tracking those points, I don't do that anymore (I carry fruit and carrots to work since those are "free" on the WW point system). Now I can say that I'm spending that roughly $20 a month on WW instead! 

I guess this is all just a strange way to say that I have a lot to appreciate with these various first world "problems."