Category Archives: Music

Songs The Brothers Warner Taught Me – A Review

As this is a review of a piece of art (an album) I should start by declaring that I have a potential conflict of interest, in that I know the artist through social media. But that doesn’t stop me liking it any the less, so any enthusiasm detected is that of a music-lover, rather than a shill.

Weird title, eh? The brothers Warner – or Warner Bros if that doesn’t ring any bells – produced a large number of cartoons under the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies brands – but have you ever wondered why? Until my encounter with this piece of work, I most certainly hadn’t. I had been quite happy to see cartoon characters fall off cliffs, get blown up, have anvils dropped on them – and always walk away. (A sort of guiltless violence, as the victim is always back in the next scene – but that’s another story altogether!)

This work, by Megan Lynch, aka @may_gun is, well, best let her describe it:

Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies were originally created to popularize songs from Warner Bros. musicals and songs that Warner Bros. owned the publishing rights to. So music and song has always been integral to them. Like many of my generation, my first exposure to classical music and jazz standards was via Warner Bros. cartoons. However, we usually only hear 5 seconds or less of the lyrics. Now you can hear these songs in context, as they were written.

Bear in mind that the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoons were produced from the early 1930s to the late 1960s – so, considering the previous statement, the songs in question would pre-date these. (I may be wrong.)

So, we have a collection of songs from the early C20th, played on acoustic instruments, with vocals. When I listened to it, something seemed – wrong. It was then that I realised that there was nothing wrong at all, it’s just that I was expecting the clipping of mechanical (or early magnetic) recording, and the scratches of a shellac disc! [This is from someone who regularly listens to classical music, 100s of years old, played on period instruments; but there were no recordings of the original performances – this must be the difference.]

So, how does it actually sound? Well, it feels authentic. The recording sounds dry – and that’s a technical term – what you hear is what was recorded, hasn’t been buggered around with, tarted up, and all those little delights that make a “studio” album. I’m pretty sure that things WERE done to the recording, but it’s subtle, and doesn’t detract from the period nature of the pieces. If I were sitting in a studio, say, 90 years ago, this is what I would expect to hear. (Although, to keep with the times, I’d probably be choking to death on cigarette smoke.)

I feel that Megan’s voice is particularly suited to this genre – but then this is probably doing her a disservice, as I haven’t heard how she deals with other genres! (We’re talking about a professional vocal artist, here.) The instrumental side Just Works. The guitar on one of the tracks (sorry, wasn’t taking note,) recalled to mind Reinhardt, which probably further made my mind listen for the non-existent scratches, since these abound on all my Reinhardt/Grappelli recordings.

I feel strangely moved by having listened to this; I’m not great at processing speech (I tend to treat most song lyrics as music, rather than spoken language,) but I caught quite a few of the words listening to this – likewise for pieces actually recorded in that period – and picked up a lot of humour, often ironic, and a certain joie-de-vivre.

How to conclude? Oh, that’s simple – just go and buy the bloody thing, support the artist directly, and enjoy some great music from a century or so ago, as it should be heard.

Here it is, on BandCamp. Enjoy! (Because I did.)

Beautifully Haunting: A Blessed Unrest by The Parlour Trick

Most of my recent musical discoveries of recent years have been a serendipitous process, with one discovery leading to the next. The most recent gem, however, came from literature, rather than music. I spotted a post on Twitter by William Gibson – one of my two favourite living authors. (Twitter: @greatdismal) Gibson was giving a plug to this Kickstarter project, crowdsourcing funding for the production and promotion of an album of “retro sci-fi/quasi-Spiritualist parlor songs.”

I had a look at the Kickstarter page and decided that this sort of musical project was most certainly up my alley, so backed it for the price of a retail CD. (For which the artist generally gets only a very small percentage.) I restrained myself from looking at/listening to any of the preview media, as I wanted the album to come fresh, as a surprise, once the project was funded. (It had already reached the funding goal at the time of my backing, so I knew that Things Were Happening.)

The Parlour Trick – Meredith Yayanos (Twitter: @theremina) and Dan Cantrell – is an awful lot of musical talent manifesting in two people. In the sound of A Blessed Unrest, acoustic instruments predominate, with electronics there, but not blatant – a very sensitive and satisfying combination. (The Theremin, played by Yayanos manifests to me almost as though it were a “real” instrument rather than an electronic one. Hearing a Theremin so well used, I am quite inspired to get back into my Building An Electronic Instrument project.))

I don’t want to insult a piece of art like A Blessed Unrest by tearing it apart and subjecting it to critical analysis (thinking of the books I was put off for life, by their treatment at school) so my review of this work will be two simple words: hauntingly beautiful. Or possibly beautifully haunting. Both reflect my perception of this most excellent project.

I really hope that we will be hearing more from The Parlour Trick – ready and willing to support their next Kickstarter, should there be one.

The digital version of The Parlour Trick can be obtained through this Bandcamp page.

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Serendipity and German Popular Music

Preamble

I have been listening to two German bands since I was in my early teens: Kraftwerk and Nena.  Last year, in building my collection of the music of these two bands (mostly replacing long-lost vinyl,) through means serendipitous I discovered more modern German music which I liked very much.  For those who don’t mind music with lyrics in a foreign language, here are some suggestions to widen the horizons.

Kraftwerk

My father recorded (on open reel) a radio broadcast of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn”; he was fascinated with this track, especially the stereo effects.  It is one of the pieces of music that is now stuck in my mind as “music of my childhood”.  My first direct contact with Kraftwerk (ie: not via my father) was The Model.  I loved that track.  I then went and bought “The Man Machine” (from which The Model comes) and Autobahn (the album) on vinyl. Note that we are still talking ancient history here.

Years went by, including ones where I listened to very little music. With the arrival of my iPod (or eyeProd as I call it,) I decided to start rebuilding my music collection.  Some of my vinyl (which – to the best of my knowledge – is sitting in a friend’s loft in England) had already been replaced with CD. All my CDs were “ripped” to iTunes.  Kraftwerk was one of the bands for which I wished to increase my collection.  The iTunes Store yielded only one album, if I remember correctly (Tour de France.)  All other Kraftwerk albums had to be obtained on CD via amazon.com or amazon.de.

Nena

Remember 99 Red Balloons?  That came out the year before I took my German ‘O’ level exams at school.  We all loved it.  I bought the UK release “Nena” album which had English re-works of some tracks on Side A and some of the original German ones on Side B.  Whilst there is a certain timelessness to the works of Kraftwerk, Nena is one of those bands that might come and go as fashions change.  However, as I have grown older, my love for the music of Nena has been undiminished.  I assume that dates me somewhat.

When I lived in the UK, I had the one Nena album – on vinyl.  This was before the days of Amazon and way before the days of music over the Internet.   Over the last five or so years, I have continued to build my Nena collection – from iTunes Store where possible, with older stuff coming on CD via amazon.de

I’ve loved every single album.  For some reason, “Willst Du Mit Mir Gehn” didn’t gel with me for the first two playings.  I was actually thinking “oh no, what has happened?”  But now I do not understand the earlier antipathy – I really like this album, which is great for long trips, like the bus from here to Adelaide.

It was when I purchased my last Nena CD from amazon.de that I was given a recommendation of:

Klee

Klee is a band that has backed Nena on tour.  Through Amazon’s preview system, I was able to hear a couple of brief samples and decided to give them a go.   Their first album, Unverwundbar, remains my favourite to date.

Once again, due to the lack of content on the iTunes Store, I was forced to buy a Klee CD through amazon.de.  When I purchased this, I was given a recommedation of:

Rosenstolz

Klee is good pop, but Rosenstolz (site in German, WARNING: Flash-based site) is far more my cup of tea, especially the earlier stuff.  Kassengift, to me, is their definitive album.  I also note that this duo is of my age group, not that this is really relevant to the discussion.  Anna’s vocal delivery on Kassengift tend towards the operatic, which I love.  (I like opera.)

The track “Total Eclipse” on the Kassengift album – which is actually a cover of a song by Kristian Hoffman for Klaus Nomi – has been re-worked with Marc Almond and:

Nina Hagen

Nina Hagen, what can I say? Find out what you need to know about who she is on Wikipedia but be advised that she is one of a kind; somewhat alternative, with operatic training and a voice that – I am lost for words to describe it.  If you like punk, if you like opera, if you like the unconventional, if you want a real musicians’ musician, Nina Hagen is for you. I have yet to acquire a complete collection of her works (some are rather pricy on amazon.de,) but she has become one of my firm favourites.

Conclusion

Assuming that you, dear reader, are familiar with the works of Kraftwerk and Nena, you may wish to broaden your horizons with regards to popular German music.  There really is some fantastic stuff out there.  My oral German is very poor – I can understand very little of the sung lyrics in what I have described, but this bothers me not.  It just sounds good. (I also like the operas of Richard Wagner and I can’t understand a word of what is sung there.)  Go forth, discover, enjoy!

 

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Enter the eyeProd

Preamble

Even though I hail from the Walkman era, until recently, I had never owned a personal/portable music player. I toyed briefly with the MP3 player facility on my mobile phone but found it a shocking piece of software and an absolute pain to use. Back last November, for some reason I cannot recall, my wife decided that she needed a personal MP3 player. After a quick read of some Choice (the Aussie version of ‘Which?’) reviews, it appeared that the most appropriate unit would be the Apple iPod Nano.

We quickly decided that such a device would also take care of my Christmas present, so a his’n’hers pair was ordered. And no, we did not wait until Christmas to open them; our Christmas was actually over by the end of November.

The big worry – are forty-somethings too old for such things?

Small, But Not Fiddly

I was not quite prepared for how small the iPod – or eyeProd as I decided to call them – was. With my less-than-nimble fingers, I was a little concerned as to whether I would be able to operate such a dinky device. However, my fears were ungrounded; the ergonomics of the controls are better than they look although I would have preferred a more tactile interface.

The screen, whilst a tiny 2 inches in diagonal, is clear and bright.

The only aspect that I do find a little fiddly is plugging in the USB cable – I think that the body of my eyeProd may be slightly distorted so there is something of a knack getting it plugged in.

Ear Cruds

Ear bud type phones have never appealed to me; I have fairly small ears and every type I have tried have a tendency to fall out unless I hold my hands over my ears. The Apple ear bud phones were no different in this respect from others of previous experience. Whilst in the right position, the sound quality was suprisingly good. However, having to sit or lie still without breathing was about the only way that I could prevent them from shifting and thus changing the sound.

In my mind, these ‘ear cruds’ detracted somewhat from the overall product so I was little disturbed when fate struck them a fatal blow.

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I was sitting down listening to my eyeProd through my ear cruds when one of the dogs wanted to go out. I stood up and somehow the cord got caught around the dog and eyeProd and all got dragged across the room. Luckily, I keep the eyeProd in a plastic safety-case so no damage was sustained there. However, that was the end of the left channel of the phones. A quick poke around proved them to be anything but maintainer-friendly, so no repair was possible.

Bereft of the Apple phones, I tried my ancient, beloved and much-repaired Yamaha YHD-3’s. Much to my horror, the sound was absolutely ghastly. Fiddling around with the equalisation settings (sadly all presets) on the eyeProd just yielded various different forms of ghastliness – nothing that I would want to listen to. The next test was a pair of recently-acquired Jabra C820s noise-cancelling phones. (I got these for when I really need to concentrate on my work.) The sound from these was consistently boomy, irrespective of EQ setting, but I think that is a characteristic of these phones.

This left me with only one solution – to buy a new set of phones.

Sennheiser – We Make Speakers, Not Computers

A couple of hours Googling and reading reviews persuaded me that the Sennheiser PX200’s were the phones to go for. Whilst I did need to make an EQ tweak (I am using the ‘Acoustic’ setting) on the eyeProd, these phones proved to be a good match.

I suppose that it is inevitable that headphones made by a manufacturer of loudspeakers should sound better than those from a strangely cult-ish computer company. The PX200’s are everything that the Apple ear cruds weren’t: they are the most comfortable over-ear phones I have ever worn (better even than my trusty Yamahas), sound excellent (even when moving), have a property called ‘build-quality’ and look like they are the result of some fairly serious design work.

The PX200’s fold up very cleverly and can be stored in a plastic case which even keeps the cord tidy. The case is very similar in size and appearance to a spectacles case – see the photograph for comparison. Initially, I thought this was just a gimmick but this storage system is very practical and, once again, shows that some fairly serious design went into this product. Insert obligatory comment about German engineering if you will.

eyePrunes – Filling Up the eyeProd

The part of the whole eyeProd thing that makes me unhappy is having to use Apple’s iTunes (or eyePrunes, as I call it) software to get media on and off the device. This software is available only for Windows and (of course) Macintosh, which leaves those of us who use other operating systems rather out in the cold. I think that the main reason for this is DRM – Digital Rights Management. This is the means by which Apple can sell you encrypted music that can’t be shared illegally (unless you decrypt it – also illegally). DRM upsets some people terribly to the point of foaming at the mouth. I don’t really care about DRM myself – I just object to Apple’s monopolistic attitude. I’m surprised that they even condescended to provide a Windows version of eyePrunes.

Having got that minor rant out of the way, I will go on to say that there is software available that will supposedly let you use your eyeProd with Linux, but the one I tried (can’t recall what it was) trashed the database on the eyeProd causing me to have to do a factory reset and then load everything on again.

Until a couple of weeks ago, I was having to reboot my laptop into Windows XP every time that I wanted to add or change anything on my eyeProd. Unfortunately, as the laptop normally runs Linux, which keeps time as UTC rather than local time, the clock on Windows is always incorrect for my timezone as it assumes that the system time (in UTC) is the local time. This means that in a dual-boot situation, the clock on the eyeProd always shows UTC. Having recently deleted the Windows partition from my laptop and installed Windows XP under VMware instead, these issues are things of the past. I can now fire up eyePrunes in the Windows virtual machine – no reboots required and no issues with the clock being out-of-whack.

With the eyePrunes software, one can ‘rip’ CDs (even my modest collection took a fair while to transfer – a friend with a large collection has been at it for a couple of months) or purchase music downloads from Apple.

Buying Music From Apple – the iTunes Store

Through the eyePrunes software, one can search and purchase music directly from Apple. It really is a quick and simple process, given a decent Internet connection. I have started to try to rebuild much of my old music collection that got left in England due to it being on vinyl or cassette (well, the bits I still like, anyway). Purchasing from Apple is not only quicker, but also marginally cheaper than buying CDs. I still have to buy some CDs through Amazon, as some of the more obscure stuff (like early Kraftwerk) simply isn’t available from Apple. Say what you like about the DRM issue, but the eyePrunes Store works for me.

I have a long-held belief that you can only really judge the quality of a vendor or service provider after something has gone wrong. It just so happened that I had purchased the album ‘Foxtrot’ by Genesis from Apple and found a digital ‘blip’ a little way into the first track. (For those who still use vinyl, that’s like a bad scratch.) Using the appropriate mechanism on eyePrunes (another reboot!), I reported this and the very next morning received a very snotty e-mail from Apple along the lines of ‘tough luck, no refunds, read the terms and conditions.’ I wrote back pointing out that I didn’t want a refund, just an uncorrupted copy of my music and that, by the way, we do have such things as consumer laws in Australia. The next mail from Apple was of an altogether different tone, apologising profusely for the first e-mail (I have a mental image of someone at the other end being given a whack round the back of the head a la Basil Fawlty and Manual), refunding the purchase price and giving me some extra credits to use as I wished.

To conclude on this issue, Apple appears to have some excellent customer service staff – I just happened to stike a complete pillock first time round who is now probably cleaning the staff loos rather than being allowed anywhere near the helpdesk again.

Whilst I am more than happy to buy music from Apple, I am delighted to learn that Amazon will be extending its MP3 download service to countries outside the USA later this year (or so they tell me). Competition is a wonderful thing.

Back It Up!

The only option in eyePrunes for backing up ones music is to do so onto CD. No, I can’t find any way to make it work with a writeable DVD and there is no way that I want to be backing up several gigabytes of data onto CDs. My usual way of backing things up – in the Unix world – is using rsync. After some thought, I installed Cygwin on my Windows partition and set up a little shell script that could be invoked through a Windows batch file that would rsync my entire eyePrunes directory onto my file server. It works like a dream, all done over the network, no fiddling with blank media. My article on VMware describes this further, including how I was able to reverse the process to get my old eyePrunes directory onto my new Windows virtual machine. I’m sure that there are other ways to do this, but this works best for me. (Works best when plugged into my Gigabit Ethernet backbone rather than trying to do it over a wireless connection – that’s just a bit slow.)

Conclusion

Whilst I was able to get the bulk of my CD collection into the eyeProd’s 8Gb memory, music purchased from Apple means that I now have somewhat more than will fit on so a certain amount of juggling is required. It was quite impressive when I had all my Wagner operas – including the entire Ring Cycle – on there, but I now have to be a little more selective and only keep stuff on that I am likely to want to listen to before I next plan to plug into the computer. Not that plugging into the computer is the big issue it once was.

Now that I have a decent set of headphones to go with it, I have to say that I am very pleased with my little eyeProd. There are a few issues that I would like to talk to the software interface designers about, but these are things that I have got used to. It sure beats having to lug a laptop everywhere, which was how I listened to music before.

I give the iPod Nano 3rd Generation experience, including iTunes Store but excluding the Apple headphones a Smiffy Score of 8.5 out of 10.

And no, I’m not to old for one of these things.

Linux ALSA Recording Very Mini HOWTO

This is the information that I wished that I had had earlier this morning. The object of the exercise was to create an mp3 file by talking into my Logitech USB headset.

  1. Have a working ALSA audio system – mine uses standard Gentoo ebuilds.
  2. Find out what device your headset is – with USB this can vary session to session unless you do some clever stuff with udev: arecord -l. My headset was Card 2, subdevice #0.
  3. Do the recording: arecord -f cd -D plughw:2,0 -t raw | lame -x - foo.mp3 …where plughw:2,0 is Card 2, subdevice #0.
  4. Use CTL-C to stop the recording.
  5. Play back foo.mp3 to make sure that it worked.

For more details use man arecord, remember that Google Is Your Friend, and visit the ALSA Web Site.

I have used this method to provide an audio transcript of this article (size: 1.9Mb).

Linux Recording – Second Thoughts

A short time ago, I wrote about using arecord (the ALSA recording programme) with lame to record and code mp3s. After further research, I have discovered that there is a much easier way, at least for those working with a graphical user interface.

I have only just installed audacity, but it is looking very good indeed. Once installed, I was recording, trimming, cutting and pasting audio in just over a minute – compared with the hour or so of research into using the command line tools.

Audacity is free, open source software for recording and editing sounds. It is available for Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux, and other operating systems.

Sounds good, eh?

An audio transcript of this article is available. The recording has been speed and pitch-shifted, using audacity, to cut play time and thus file size (583kb).

Name and Shame!

If you have a mobility impairment, and a permit to park in mobility/disability parking spaces, you have experienced the inability of using those spaces because someone who didn't have a permit parked there illegally. It happens, everyday, everywhere.

Thus begins the introduction to caughtya.org a new, international, initiative to name and shame those who park in disabled (handicapped) parking spaces who have no right (or need) to do so.

Whether the inconsiderate type of person that actually does this would respond to (or even notice) being stigmatised for their actions remains to be seen, but this blogger rather likes the idea.

UPDATE – I have added this to my new category, Accessibility Rogues Gallery, as this site is performing much the same task, to my mind. Name and shame! Heh, heh!