Video Wednesday: dPad

Yeah, I’m on the fence about the iPad, too. It’s really sleek and elegant, but it’s not going to replace my laptop or iPhone. The device sits in between both of those products, trapped in a weird (untapped?) no-man’s land of electronics. It doesn’t fit in your pocket like the iPhone….yet it still runs on the iPhone OS. It accesses the Internet with Wi-Fi…but some models can use a 3G connection. Come on, iPad, make up your mind!

Anyway, if I end up buying one, the app below is the first thing I’ll download.

Billions and billions

Don’t you sometimes think we’re going to “run out” of music? Maybe we won’t run out of sounds, but we’ll surely run out of songs. Think about it. Let’s adopt a fairly rigid definition of music—basically anything melodic. A child mashing the keys randomly doesn’t count as music; one note held for three minutes doesn’t count as music (at least for our purposes). There’s got to be a limit to what we can create, right?

Here’s the deal: there are 88 keys on a piano. These keys are combined to form melodies. But with only 88 different notes, there’s got to be a finite number of combinations. Likewise with drums—there are only so many arrangements of bass/kick/snare/cymbal. Someday we’ll exhaust every combination and music will be declared over. There won’t be any new songs. Depressing to think about, right? We’re all in a race to complete the discography of the universe. Luckily, it’s not going to happen. Here’s why.

First off, the 88 keys on a piano represent a fraction of all the possible sound combinations. In between, say, the E and F keys are other pitches and harmonics. Anyone who’s ever played a string instrument knows this to be true. (For further proof, pay close attention to that THX sound at the beginning of a movie. It captures the entire spectrum of frequencies; it doesn’t play a scale like a pianist might.) The piano is rigidly built around specific frequencies, but an infinite number of undefined notes exist in between those 88 notes. Our ears have been “westernized” to certain frequencies and note combinations, but other cultures don’t take as narrow an approach to musical composition.

What’s more, the entire spectrum can be shifted. Imagine taking all the keys of the piano and tuning them down the same amount. They keys would still be in tune with each other, but they wouldn’t be in tune with your neighbor’s piano. That’s actually the reason why many classic rock songs are difficult to play on guitar. Band members would tune their instruments to each other; but they wouldn’t use any standard tuning.

So we’ve established that there are frequencies in between piano keys that most musicians don’t use very often. There’s more to the story. The human ear can only hear a part of the sonic spectrum, typically between 12Hz and 20Hz (much less if you’ve been to a lot of loud concerts or work heavy construction all day). We’re making music at frequencies humans can hear, but we could just as easily make music that “exists” but our ears don’t detect. The frequencies would have to be detected with machinery. If I make a song that nobody can hear, is it still music? (Whoa, that was deep!) In fact, that’s exactly how a lot of those anti-mosquito contraptions work, by pumping high frequencies that drive bugs crazy but don’t affect us. (Sidenote: wouldn’t it be cool if someone invented a hearing aid that let us hear higher frequencies? Does this already exist? Is it even possible?)

So there are a lot of frequencies we don’t usually listen to; they exist in between our piano keys and at the high/low ends of the spectrum. But there’s more. Frequency isn’t the whole story. After all, a C played on a piano sounds different than the C from a trombone. They’re both resonating at the same frequency but they sound different. Lil Wayne and I can both rap the same lyrics over the same beat, but only one of us will go triple platinum. Add another layer to the mix.

It’s still getting more complicated: new sounds are created all the time. Two hundred years ago, there wasn’t a synthesizer. There was no electric guitar and no DJ-scratching noise. New equipment is created; that means new sounds are created, too. (Or maybe they’re discovered? That’s another debate…) Imagine what Mozart would’ve done with a synthesizer. How about Bach behind two CDJs or Brahms in the studio using Ableton? It’s fun to think that we’re hearing sounds today that people couldn’t conceive of fifty years ago. Even if we ran out of combinations on the piano, we have a lot other instruments to use.

Oh, and let’s not forget that anything can sampled these days. Remember when Timbaland sampled that baby voice on Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody? Or when he reversed Missy Elliot’s vocals to sample on “Work It?” Sounds around us can be used melodically is sampled properly. Major Lazer used a horse’s neighing on their first album. Horses certainly aren’t making music by themselves (or are they?), but their sounds can be used in a song.

There are a lot more things I can say about this topic. Sound is affected by air pressure. The same song on MP3 and CD and cassette and vinyl sounds a little bit different. The state of the listener affects perception of music (doesn’t Journey always sound awesome when you’re drunk?). Time signature matters, too. Sound waves are more complicated than I understand. But I think I’ve made my point. Are we running out of songs? Nope. And we never will. Get back in the studio.


My inbox is always full. There’s just too much music and not enough time. Here’s the first problem: I listen to everything sent my way. So I’m always behind. And here’s my second problem: I always listen to music with headphones on. It lets me get a better feel for the production value. But the other day my headphones were out of batteries (err, battery, it takes one AAA) so I fell even further behind my listening schedule. I thought about clearing my inbox by plugging my laptop into my speakers but, well, that’s just not how I roll. Come on, a high-quality 320 kbps MP3 file deserves high-quality headphones.

I’m glad I bought batteries before I listened to this LA Riots remix that was sent over by a duo from Canada named BOTNEK. Otherwise, I probably would’ve missed it. This song is a good example of how to effectively combine different frequencies in a song. The bass track is low and loud; it sounds like the beginning of an earthquake. (The remix is aptly titled “Big Bass Remix.”) At the same time, the melody is littered with high-pitched beeps and bloops. Some horns in the middle complete the sound. It all works together quite nicely. Listen to this one as loud as you can. It’s worth the hearing loss.

LA Riots – The Drop (BOTNEK Big Bass Remix)

(Right-click the above to download. Sorry we couldn’t get a direct link on this one. We’re having some server issues right now. I promise we’ll be back online soon.)

Video Wednesday: Mission Secret Neon

So here’s the plan. I roll into a packed party wearing grey sweatpants, dirty sneakers and a stained hoodie. I look like a total slob and nobody wants to talk to me. I’m the weird kid who nobody invited and shouldn’t be there. A friend of a friend, a relative you don’t see very often. “Are you going to the gym after this?” some guy asks me, high-fiving his buddies. I ignore them all.

A little after midnight the party really gets going. I wait in line for the bathroom. When I get inside, I text my accomplice: Alpha to Cobra, initiate phase two. Then I wait. Everything’s going according to plan.

Suddenly, all the lights go out. It’s a blackout. The power line has been cut, but the DJ equipment has been (secretly) attached to a back-up generator. Sneaky, right? People don’t know what to do. Is the party still going? Are we going to dance in the dark? Maybe we should just call it a night….

Then the bathroom door swings open and I run out into the middle of the dance floor. I’m a fucking hero because I’m wearing one of these:

Stop Telling Me What to Do!

Has anyone ever considered how weird it is that by choosing to take part in a particular musical/physical scene, certain genre’s of music (and sometimes even individual artists) are automatically selected for you as “acceptable listening material” while others become “blacklisted?” Check this out.

You just put a quarter in one of those Zoltar fortune-telling machines, and I’m about to pull the last five years of your life out of thin air. The year is 2005, and if the 2010 version of you were to travel back in time and inform old you that in five years you’d be listening to music that’s made almost entirely on a computer, the ghost of Christmas past would likely be heading home with broken nose. You are a firm believer that all good music is centered around a guitar in some way shape or form. That’s not to say that you’re morally opposed to synthesizers in a band’s lineup, but electronics can only compliment guitars and drums, not replace them altogether. Your collection of music includes a couple of electronic musicians here and there, though to be fair, most of them are the ones that are talented enough to prevent you from ever considering how their music is made.

You may permit the occasional M83, The Album Leaf, or perhaps you’re younger than that and are more keen on the untamable shrieking of the Blood Brothers. But mostly you’re attracted to bands like Bloc Party, Midnight Juggernauts, and VHS or Beta. Bands that are rather talented and trick you into forgetting they’re electronic at all. Long story short: while you may be able to pull it off on rare occasions, the majority of the time you wouldn’t be caught dead listening to anything more than The Faint for fear of being associated with (shudder) techno.

Then 2006 comes around and suddenly Daft Punk is okay. What’s the deal with that? They’re completely electronic, and there’s no getting around it, but for some reason, everyone you know has their discography, and it is not cool to make fun of them for it, nor is it cool for you to point out the fact that Homework was released in 1999. Nope, you’re supposed to eat your words and act like all three albums were released that very year. So what do you do? You accept it for what it is: Daft Punk = cool. Infected Mushroom = still not cool. Titanic theme song techno remix = definitely not cool. You’ve officially added all of Daft Punk’s albums to your collection. Other than that, not much has changed. You’re still wearing your hair like the dude from AFI (a haircut that would later make it’s way into the electronic music scene in the form of DJ Paparazzi), and you still can’t tell me what a four on the floor beat is. But here’s where the line really starts to blur.

Late 2006- Early 2007: The year your one friend who happened to know about the Hype Machine at the time discovered __________ (insert either MSTRKRFT or Justice in the blank). Now, this kid was always a little strange with his music taste, so when he hands you one of his two earbuds and plays you (Easy Love / Waters of Nazareth), you’re reluctant at first. That is, you know it sounds good, and you know it’s fresh, but at the same time, you’ve spent years defining yourself as one of those guys that respects music too much to sink down to the level of electronica, and you’re not about to just up and say you like it. You decide that “sounds interesting” is the appropriate response, and you put it on the back burner, intending to forget about it. But it haunts you. Every time you finish an album and consider the ever present “what should I listen to next?” enigma, your mind jumps to that “The Looks/Cross” torrent you downloaded a week ago. Is it the right time? Are you feeling confident enough in your musical masculinity? Eventually you cave, and you give them album a once over to get it out of your system–except your plans change, and somehow, it makes it into your daily rotation, and before you know it you’re listening to an entirely electronic album just as much as you listen to everything else. What’s going on? You’re not allowed to like this. You try even harder to convince yourself that you don’t like it, but it’s impossibly clear that you do, and there’s nothing you’re going to be able to do to change it. This feels even worse than that time you got caught telling your shampoo bottle to “Move bitch, get out da way.” The stone cold realization hits you: You’re going to have to change scenes, because (and trust me, there’s definitely no pun intended here) the “scenesters” just aren’t going to accept the person you’ve become.

Before you know it, your Misfits shirts have gone out the window, and you’ve replaced them with graphic tees depicting mostly naked women. (And it’s okay because the look is “artsy” and “in good taste.”) You’ve discovered house music, and with each new album you acquire your pants become a little bit more colorful. (I’d say they got tighter too, but that wouldn’t be fair to those who had already maxed out the slim cap by stringing dental floss through their leggings.) Suddenly, you find your music collection is growing as though it had invested in Google. By the time another year has gone by, not only has your music collection doubled in size, but you also find that listening to Avenged Sevenfold just doesn’t seem appropriate anymore. Even further, you now find yourself slightly repulsed by those who haven’t managed to follow the same path you did, and you’re constantly asking yourself how they can be satisfied listening to the monotonous drone of same-sounding guitars, when there’s a world of unlimited potential for sound into which they haven’t even considered wandering. However, the one thing you don’t consider, and likely still haven’t considered even now as were moving through 2010, is the impact that your transition into the hipster scene has had on your perception of music in general.

So Now What?

So here we are now. We’ve arrived in the present, and are now faced with a new set of rules. Give me an artist, and I’ll give you a number between 1 and 10, indicating how acceptable it is for a member of the hipster scene to listen to them/him/her (1 being completely unacceptable).

Daft Punk: 10
Slipknot: 1
Laidback Luke: 10
Sigur Ros: 9
Green Day: 3
Oasis: 7 (They’re not electronic, but they’re one of those bands that is, for some reason, accepted as remixable.)
Massive Attack: 7 (Electronic, but not so hipster-y. Minus three.)
Royksopp: 9
Paul Van Dyk/Oakenfold: 5 (Electronic but dated; better left for outsiders and the uninformed.)
Rusko: 9 (So-called purists would likely protest)
The Bloody Beetroots: 8 (Used to be a ten, but they’ve since been rejected by the mainstream opposition.)
The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s: 8 (For the same reason as Oasis. though to be fair, remixes are more acceptable than originals.)

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. The big picture themes are nothing more than:

A) Electronic dance music is always okay, unless it’s trance, drum ‘n’ bass, or was produced before 2006.
B) Rock is sometimes okay, depending on what the people in the band look like, and how remixable their material is.
C) Classics are allowed, assuming you either remix the tunes, or use them tastefully.
D) Metal, and all it’s derivatives, is never allowed, unless you make it with synthesizers and call it dubstep.
E) Dubstep is okay, unless it sounds too much like metal.
F) Punk is okay if it incorporates some kind of electronic component.
G) Hip-hop is treated like a controlled substance. It essentially boils down to circumstance, and depends on how far-removed from electronic dance music it is. Artist intelligence is also a contributing factor.
H) Classical is okay, as long as you listen with confidence.
I) Most everything else is neither acceptable nor unacceptable, but if you get too into any of it, it’s just weird.

So that’s how it works. By reading this blog, you’re defining yourself as a hipster, and as such, your music of choice is not, in fact, music of choice at all. It’s chosen for you. And just like so many of us were missing out on electronic music when we were busy convincing ourselves that it wasn’t okay, who’s to say we aren’t still missing out on a world of fantastic music by allowing our hard drive’s to be brain washed by the momentum of expectations? I won’t stand for it!

Today, for the sake of liking good music for good music, we’re bending all the rules and listening to all the tunes we technically shouldn’t touch with a ten-foot poking stick. And who knows, maybe tomorrow, we’ll still be doing it.

Spor – Aztec
[It’s Drum N Bass, and I don’t care]

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Me Gusta – Megadrive
[It’s Hip-Hop, and I don’t care]

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Flux Pavilion – Got 2 Know
[It’s trancy, and I don’t care]

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Rusko – Da Cali Anthem
[It’s both massively mainstream and poorly produced, and I don’t care]

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Video Wednesday: Grandma’s Vocoder

Auto-tune, I’m sorry everyone hates you these days. Blame T-Pain. Or Kanye. Or anyone else who went a little vocoder-crazy during our collective five year bender.

Sure, you take the human element out of singing. But thanks to you, I never have to listen to anyone sing off-key. Besides, every other instrument gets mastered and processed during post-production. Why should vocals be treated differently? I’m on your side.

Please No Politics, Please

I was home sick from school the day of that first Major League Baseball session in congress discussing steroids. Maybe you remember; it was the one where Mark McGuire kept saying he wanted to “talk about the future” since talking about the past would mean admitting he was juiced out of his mind for his record-breaking ’98 season. Anyway, all the big channels were covering it, so I watched. At the end of the hour or so, absolutely nothing had been accomplished. Nobody had admitted any wrongdoing, nobody had presented any plans for moving forward. There had been no rational discussion of the facts at hand. Everybody knew steroids were rampant in the league and the problem had to be addressed, but congress’s session was nothing more than a bunch of name-calling, finger-pointing and question-evading. Ugh. I hate politics.

No, I mean I really hate politics. I hate everything about them (except, of course, really good political cartoons). I hate how politics is boring and vulgar. I hate how it’s damn near impossible to get anything done (proof: recent health care bill). I hate politicians themselves; they’re generally sleazy and dishonest. Everyone says whatever he or she needs to get votes rather than trying to solve problems. None of these adultery/bribery scandals surprise me any more. I’ve got a ridiculously cynical view of everything even remotely political (and I’m only twenty-one!). So it should come as no surprise that one of my least favorite things is—you guessed it—when musicians get political.

First, I hate when musicians voice their political opinions off-stage. Musical talent doesn’t warrant your preaching ideals. Just because you can play guitar doesn’t mean you’re allowed  to tell us who to vote for. And it drives me crazy that some people might actually be swayed by what musicians/actors/entertainers think. Still, all that talking-head and sound byte garbage can be forgiven or ignored–just listen to the music and forget the people who made it. What  I hate even more is when politics affects the music.

I’ve always disagreed with the idea that music can/should be used as a political tool. I know, I know—art can inspire revolution or challenge authority and all that stuff. I’ve heard the story about how the Rite of Spring caused a riot. Still, please keep politics out of it. That’s not why I listen to music. I have my own political opinions, but I don’t derive them from my favorite songs or lyrics. I read books and newspapers; I deal with facts and statistics and sound arguments. Music can make us feel a range of emotions, but level-headed debate and logic are the only way to run a country. Political lyrics drive me crazy. I like rap songs about money and cars and expensive clothes. Who cares what Young Jeezy thinks about the the economy? Keep writing rhymes about your Maybach.

Besides, musicians who “raise awareness” through their songs aren’t really doing much. They’re largely singing to people who already know about the problems we face. And it’s hard to argue that singing a song about how we need to cure cancer is more useful than spending the same amount of mental energy in the laboratory. Maybe that song can capture a specific emotion and make us vicariously feel the pain of cancer, but it won’t make any progress in curing the disease or getting more government funding. Music is aurally pleasing. That’s it.

One of the many reasons I love electronic music is that the genre has nothing to do with politics. It’s “all about the music, man.” Many electronic songs don’t have lyrics. Or maybe they have “lyrics,” usually just a looped sample with the same phrases repeating and stuttering for an entire track. But those phrases aren’t about the income tax or farm subsidies, they’re about partying or sex or having fun. I can’t name a dance song that has politically-driven lyrics. And that’s a good thing. When I’m dancing, the last thing I wanna think about is who to vote for.

Keep in mind that this is just one music lover’s opinion. People listen to music for different reasons, and I understand that. I know a lot of people who strongly disagree with everything I’ve just written. (Many of them play acoustic guitar in the park by my house and aren’t particularly talented.) Seriously though, I think music should be an escape from the mundane, ugly world of politics. It shouldn’t be contaminated. Music doesn’t and shouldn’t tell us how to live our lives or what to think about the mid-term elections.

And now that I think of it, readers of this blog probably don’t give a shit about my political views either. So let’s keep music blogs and politics separate, too. Deal? Here’s a song that won’t tell you what to think about global warming. But it sounds damn good. And that’s all that really matters, right?

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Fred Falke – Back to Stay