Wednesday, May 4, 2011

It's All in the . . . Timing

There’s an old joke about a comedian convention where the celebrity comics are scheduled to tell jokes at the event’s big banquet. Everyone in the audience knows all the jokes already because the jokes have been catalogued for the convention. To save time, the speakers decide to just say the joke's number instead of telling the whole joke. The first speaker is a star, a legend in the business. “Forty-seven!” he calls out to laughter all around. “One-hundred and sixty-two!” The audience explodes with deep belly laughs and leaps to its feet in an ovation. The second speaker, a newcomer to all this, thinks, “Wow, this is easy.” When it’s his turn, he strides onto the stage and in his best stage voice proclaims, “Twenty-six!” Silence. Undaunted, he tries again: “Eighty-four!” Silence again, and the audience is now shifting uncomfortably in its seats. With a mighty roar the newbie lets loose with his finale, “One hundred and thirty-five!!” Crickets. After his ordeal, the shaken comic approaches a veteran and asks, “What happened? I did everything the guy ahead of me did. But I bombed. Why?” The old comedian puts his hand on the younger man’s shoulder and says gently, “Kid, you just didn't have the timing.”

Music, like comedy, is all about the timing. And it’s just as hard to master when playing a minuet as it is to entertain an audience of seasoned showbiz types. A student can memorize the pitches and rhythms of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, but it takes a concert-level artist to bring out the special musical expressiveness of the piece that makes it a transcendent listening experience. To do that requires a command of timing. Everyone has seen amazing videos on YouTube of young children executing incredibly difficult pieces with technical mastery. But the common complaint that fills up the comment spaces is that the performance lacks feeling and emotion. What they’re talking about is “expressiveness,” and that, it turns out, is closely related to timing.

At least that’s what new scientific research asserts. In a project conducted at McGill University, a scientist has determined that timing, and to a lesser extent volume changes, are the key ingredients listeners use to determine whether a piece of music is expressive. In other words, after working hard your whole life to a metronome to develop your timing, you may have to abandon it to become more expressive.

Dr. Daniel Levitin, Director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University, devised a series of experiments to test how humans measure expressiveness in music. In one of them, he uses a set of Chopin Nocturnes, first played by a pianist with timing variations according to his taste, and then programmed as a MIDI file with no variation in timing or duration (all notes were quantized to their written, sheet-music value). Then a third track was created, which was quantized exactly halfway between the human and fully quantized versions. Not surprisingly, musicians and non-musicians ranked the original, musician-performed version as the most expressive of the three.

That by itself may not seem that revelatory, but that was just the first question in the experiment. In subsequent tests, percentages were changed, and factors other than timing were brought into the mix. In one listening test, expressive factors in the human performance were amplified by 150%, with volume and tempo variations exaggerated from the original human rendering. Interestingly, listeners found that too much expression had a counterproductive result—losing effectiveness if you take it too far. Human players, it seems, know how to appeal to human listeners in a way that machines can’t replicate. At least not yet.

Dr. Levitin gave his listening subjects music examples where only the volume was changed while the timing was maintained as it was in the original, and then the converse—where the timing was altered while the volume was kept constant. These comparisons are more difficult to hear, but listeners still came down on the side of timing as being the expressive factor in the majority of the results. In other words, of the two principal factors involved in conveying expression—volume changes and timing alterations—it is timing that humans find has the more expressive power.

In these experiments, all the listener had to do was pick the more expressive example of three. But since we’re all musicians here, let’s raise the bar. Take the test yourself, but instead of just choosing, say, answer A as the most expressive, go ahead and identify the other two choices, according to the info in the experiment's introduction. Try to identify not just the most expressive of the three, but which is the straight MIDI rendition and the other the “150% humanized” (or exaggerated) version, or which track has only volume changes and which one has timing changes. The differences are sometimes subtle, so to make it challenging, see if you can do it on one pass. It gets more difficult when the choices involve not just timing or volume, but timing and volume together, in various combinations. (The tests also included randomness in addition to uniform percentages.)

Go to the New York Times website and take the test. The article thoughtfully includes pdfs of the sheet music for further study. After you run through the experiments, try a different approach to your music. If you've been running scales to a metronome, working out with drum machines, or invoking your synchronized arpeggiator to quantized grooves, try injecting some rubato into your music. It will give you a new take on expressiveness, and it might even improve your ability to tell a joke.

Takin' Your Music to the Cloud

This week Amazon launched a major new online locker service called Cloud Drive. It is so named because it follows the current trend of “cloud computing,” which is just a fancy name for “online.” If you use gmail or yahoo mail, you’re already engaged in “cloud computing,” and all it really means is that you’re accessing something (music, email, word-processing functions) online instead of from your device’s internal hard drive, SD card, or other internal storage medium.

As far as digital data being moved around in cyberspace, Amazon is hardly doing something revolutionary. YouTube and Rhapsody have been streaming their content to you from the Web since their inception. But Amazon is unique and ahead of the curve in one respect: Cloud Drive is specifically targeted to music listeners and purchasers of music on Amazon Music, and it beat to the punch both Apple and Google, who were concurrently developing similar services.

Here’s how it works: You buy a tune from Amazon Music, just like you normally would. But instead of the file being downloaded to your computer, as is done now and as Apple’s iTunes does, the song is shunted over to your locker in Cloud Drive. When you want to listen to your song, you just “summon it from the cloud”—that is, have it streamed to your player. You also have the option of downloading it, of course, just like a conventional MP3 purchase. And you can also upload your own tunes, ones that didn’t come from Amazon. Amazon gives you your first five gigabytes of storage free, with songs purchased through Amazon not counting against that amount. Accessing your music—Amazon-purchased and self-uploaded—is smooth and elegant using Amazon’s browser-based interface.

Digital music vendors needed to take this step, and Amazon was the first, so they should be applauded for their forward thinking. Subscription music services are growing and the convenience of streamed music is convenient and reliable. It’s only the record companies’ tight grip on their product—and their cluelessness in taking advantage of digital distribution methods—that have prevented such services from emerging before. In fact, when tried to introduce the very same business model in the past, they were shut down by panicked but powerful legal forces in the record industry.

But Amazon isn’t so easily cowed by record companies. Since they already sell you music (as iTunes does), they’re just introducing the intermediate step of storing it for you. When asked by Billboard Magazine if he thought to seek licenses from the labels, Amazon’s Director of Music Craig Pape replied, “We don’t believe we need licenses to store the customers’ files. We look at it the same way as if someone bought an external hard drive and copied files on there for backup.” In other words, “We don’t need no stinking licenses.”

Cloud Drive users will enjoy several benefits. First, you don’t have to worry about storage space on your mobile device. You have access to thousands and thousands of tunes, but they don’t all need to be physically resident on your device. You also don’t have to keep up with the sometimes confusing process of synching several devices and keeping track of which one is up to date (a routine some of my non-technical friends still can’t wrap their heads around). Another bonus is the issue of backing up. I don’t care how careful you are, Amazon is better at it, and their servers will always be more reliable than any individual’s hard drive, DVD, or data stick.

The one obvious disadvantage is that you can’t hear your music where there’s no online access. And if you’re not in a Wi-Fi hotspot, you’ll eat up cellular minutes by listening to music. This will become more of a concern as carriers move away from unlimited data plans to tiered-usage ones. And there’s one aspect that may be a disadvantage, depending on how you feel about it: Amazon will now have one more way to track and monitor your listening habits.

Another aspect that may not be seen initially as a disadvantage, but that will certainly provide bumps in the road for everyone, is that record labels are being shut out of the “digital music locker” revenue stream if only Apple, Google, and Amazon can provide them—and do so without additional licensing from the labels for this new delivery medium (one that is growing in use). That will just spell trouble for everybody, if only for the distractions that the inevitable lawsuits will generate.

But the horse is out of the barn, the gauntlet has been thrown down, and there’s no going back. Once Google and Apple follow, the record companies will have to focus on getting a share, rather than trying to turn back the tide. Even with a few setbacks and sideshows, the technology of Cloud Drive and its ilk are a boon to mobile music listeners everywhere.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Kindle Envy

Every musician knows what it’s like to suffer buyer’s remorse in a gadget or equipment purchase. This is the feeling that manifests itself sometime between one minute and 24 hours after you finally plunk down your hard-earned cash. You suspect that the company you’ve just supported by buying their product will instantly relegate that model to the scrap heap and release something more powerful, cheaper, shinier, and happier. And inevitably, they do. If you stay in the technology-buying game long enough, you will swear that the company is simply waiting for you to buy before they announce their new releases.

To look at it from a non-musical perspective for a moment, let’s take the case of the Kindle, which I own. To say that the new version, just released last month, is an improvement over the original laughably understates things. It positively trumps its predecessor in every conceivable benchmark. The new Kindle costs less, has a smaller footprint (while retaining the same viewable screen area), is lighter and thinner, faster, more readable, has more memory and a better keypad, offers a choice of configurations (you can buy a cheaper Wi-Fi-only version or the full wireless version), and it even looks better (a more mellow charcoal-gray versus glaring appliance-white). And the biggest kicker: if you have an old one, you can’t update it for any of the newer features.

All of this made me resent Amazon for its closed-system approach to technology. I can’t even upgrade my memory? I have to buy a new unit altogether? I have to dispose of my working version in a landfill to keep up? What is this, 1980?

But then I got a grip. My original still does every single thing it does the day I bought it. My experience reading everything from Moby Dick to the Eleven Rack manual on my original Kindle would have been no better than on the new Kindle. The realization opened my eyes to a bad habit: I’m focusing on the tools again.

Let’s go back to music technology. How new your interface is has absolutely nothing to do with the music you create on it. Wouldn’t you rather have a five-year old audio interface than no audio interface? Among other things, it would mean that you’ve been producing work on it while your careful friend waits for the preamps to get just a little more transparent. Thinking about the next one down the line takes your eyes off the prize and will make your crazy. And there’s actually a paradox in updates: The only true hedge against obsolescence, the only sure way to make sure you buy only the latest model, is to make your purchase the day before you die.

Buy the best thing you can afford today, run it into the ground, and when you come up for air, look around to see what’s happened while you’ve been busy working. Isn’t it the best feeling in the world to be able to say, “I can’t upgrade my OS this weekend because I’m on a creative roll. No time to do anything but write.” This time the artist wins against Big Technology.

Jon Chappell ( is the author of six books in the well-known “For Dummies” series, including Rock Guitar for Dummies and Blues Guitar for Dummies, as well as The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Digital Home Recording (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill).

Proper Netiquette Is for Keeps

“Young man, if I catch you doing that, it will go on your permanent record.” Certainly these words were leveled at me (more than once) to try to make me behave by instilling the fear that my mischief-making would have lasting consequences. (I don’t think it worked, most of the time.) We know now that these threats are largely empty, as kids are protected by laws prohibiting disclosure of most youthful transgressions. But even if kids are shielded, real life on the Internet holds more perils of indelibility.

For example, comments you post on a forum can stick around for a long, long time. If your online identity is close to your real one, or if it’s thinly veiled enough to discover who you really are, you have to be very careful of what you say. But don’t misunderstand me: As one who does not separate his online identity from his real-life one, I can tell you that that is a good thing. You think real hard before you speak—just as we’ve learned to do with emails and talking to people face to face. My posts are better for it.

Too often people use aliases to behave badly on message and comments boards. If they had to use their real names, posters would be a lot more polite, for a start. An anonymous alias, as a device for non-face-to-face communication, is a recipe for bringing out the worst in some people. And it only takes a couple of bad apples to really stink up a barrel of forum posts.

Sometimes even good people post bad things. Case in point: A poster for a forum I administer contacted me in my admin capacity to change his screen name. The reason? The screen name was close to his email address, and he’d said some embarrassing things he didn’t want around in perpetuity, and tied to his email. He was sincere and apologetic, so I changed his name for him. On many forums, screen names are dynamic, so all posts created under someone’s old screen name will change to the new screen name. But what didn’t change were his words that were quoted by others. Those are static text strings that get “flattened” when someone copies or quotes another’s post. Screen names that are part of a quote stay intact. So this guy is going to have to live with his posts being held up as an example of bad behavior.

It’s a good lesson in taking responsibility for your actions and for the long term effect your words can have. The original idea of screen names is that they allowed you to assume an anonymous role—so you could travel cyberspace without worrying about being targeted for posting unpopular beliefs. It’s an almost fanciful notion—a sort of masked ball where different aliases all engage in uninhibited expression. That was the theory, anyway. But I’ve found it’s a short trip from masked ball to hooded mob. One of the advantages of Facebook is that you’re not anonymous. It encourages more civil behavior than you find on a forum. So the moral is, imagine people know who you are before you post. Avoid ad hominem attacks. Be constructive, helpful, and kind. And think before you post.

Multi-tasking . . . or Multi-taxing?

Everyone thinks that multi-tasking is a good thing—or at least a necessary skill worth mastering for these modern times. Well, just because we’re forced into multi-tasking for work and home life doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Witness texting while driving: That’s multi-tasking, and that’s clearly an unsafe, bad, illegal thing to do. Many experts argue that simply talking on a cell phone in a car is dangerous, and that the whole “hands-free” loophole doesn’t really address the basic problem—that dividing your concentration ultimately makes you less successful at either activity.

It’s proven more and more that humans don’t process in parallel, and the best they can do is serial processing quickly, and they’re not even really good at that. We are, as a species, uni-taskers. Or at least we’re at our best when uni-tasking. Think of all the great feats of human achievement in sports and inspired musical performances. From pitching a perfect game to playing a flawless version of the Minute Waltz, what’s the common ingredient? Focus!

Those of us who work creatively should take note of the basic lesson of texting-while-driving and apply it to our own pursuits. If you have Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Instant Messenger open—plus a beep and a little window that appears whenever a new email arrives—are you really going to be able to concentrate on a demanding problem? Not likely. Because the sad fact is, you use these little interruptions as an excuse to break away from the difficult tasks that face you. These tasks don’t even really have to be that odious or unattractive; even if they’re just a little taxing, you find ways to avoid them.

Even very-accomplished, mega-prolific sorts deal with the same productivity-soaks that us mere mortals do. For example, best-selling author Jonathan Franzen has rigged his computer that it can’t get on the internet. How? By gluing an Ethernet cable into the port of his laptop, and then cutting off the end. Glue? Yes, glue. That’s how serious (or weak-willed) he was. And this is a guy who clearly has discipline and makes millions through writing—and finishing—long books. So if that’s what it takes for him, wouldn’t you do the same thing?

Now, you don’t actually have to go through the process of permanently destroying a part of your computer to achieve isolation (though you have to admire Franzen’s commitment). You can simply disable the networking. A program called Freedom (ironically, the name of Franzen’s latest novel) will disable your computer’s ethernet and wireless functions for up to three hours at a time. The only way to get them back is to reboot. By the time you’re doing that, hopefully you’ll catch yourself and stop. You might think that buying a separate program to help you with your vow of social-networking silence is gimmicky, but consider that the real danger in online distractions is how insidious they are: you go to them without even realizing it! So any help here is worth serious attention.

Many productivity specialists tell us to just cut out the multi-tasking. Some refer to it as “chunk time”—where you’re “allowed” to do only one thing during certain hours of the day: compose, practice your axe, or manipulate loops, but not do email, answer the phone, or check Facebook and Twitter. Other “attention management consultants” (this is a real term) will tell you to create separate stations for separate tasks. I practice this at home: Even though I use a computer for music creation as well as online surfing, word processing, and Photoshop, I keep the music separate. It’s the most important thing I do, so it gets the better environment (my man-cave/studio as opposed to my family-shared office) and the better machine (my new Mac vs. my old PC).

This helps me focus my attentions on music—at least when I’m in the music space. The trouble is, I can’t quite bear to turn off the internet yet on the music computer. But at least I am more aware that when I’m in the music space, I shouldn’t be Facebooking. Perhaps I will install Freedom on that machine. That seems a better solution than injecting glue into the ports. Or maybe I’m just not dedicated enough. How far would you go—if it meant you could be really productive?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In the Waiting Game, Technology Always Wins

As Ben Franklin famously opined, "Only three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and a new Apple model announced in the spring." Okay, he obviously didn't contribute the last bit (he was more of a Linux guy), but it might as well be added to that short list of life's inevitabilities. Industry watchers and consumers fearing a seasonal bout of buyer's remorse dread the early part of every new year, because the rumors start flying about what you would have gotten if you had only waited. Sure, there will always be something new on the horizon, but it doesn't mean you can't demonstrate bad timing in your purchasing.

For example, in the second week of April 2010, my family wanted to do something nice for me: surprise me with a new Apple laptop. I hadn't had a new Mac in years, preferring to staple on upgrades to my ancient G5 until it was a computational Frankenstein, wheezing and belching just to keep up with simple tasks. A new MacBook Pro was certainly in order. And my birthday was in mid-April.

But my tone-deaf reaction to my new, surprise gift was that my loving family had exhibited spectacularly bad timing in buying this "new old stock" laptop. As gently as I could, I pointed out that if they had waited three days, they could have chosen from the new crop of laptops that featured the faster i5 and i7 processors and the extended-capacity battery technology. Off we went to the Apple Store for a full refund. I returned four days later and was one of the first in line. And, in time, they forgave my ingratitude.

But really, how could a normal (i.e., not technology-obsessed) person possibly know about "expected releases" if he didn't spend way too much time lurking on blogs and message boards to glean—with no firm evidence—that Apple always releases a new computer in the spring and a new iPhone in the summer? One can't; one just "has to know." But even if you don't need the latest and greatest, it still makes sense to wait for the new releases, as the price for last year's model will drop significantly. If you're OK with a used or eBay-purchase, your buying leverage goes up significantly.

So here we are in Q1 of 2011, and the frenzy of new tech is upon us. If you're looking to buy a new tablet and consider one running Honeycomb (Android's tablet-specific operating system) as a worthy competitor to the Apple iPad, boy, do you have your work cut out for you! You will be spending a lot of time reading through reviews and sorting hype from reality. Be consoled knowing that much the same fate awaits phone and computer buyers of course.

In fact, so chaotic is this spring season of new tech that we actually have two announced technologies with the same name: Thunderbolt. To smartphone shoppers, the name refers to HTC's latest flagship Android-based model, due out in mid-March. To computer users, Thunderbolt is the new communications protocol invented by Intel and that will appear on new Apple MacBook Pro laptops.

If you haven't heard of Thunderbolt (the computer-related one, that is) until this editorial, you need to read up on it at Apple's website, as well as your favorite message boards, including this informative thread in the Harmony Central forums. It will significantly change how you move data and signals to your peripherals, and has profound potential for high-bandwidth pursuits like high-def video, high-resolution and surround audio, and large-project and system backups. Thunderbolt has some compelling specs besides superior I/O throughput speed (20 times faster than USB 2.0, 12 times faster than FireWire 800, and twice as fast as USB 3.0) too. Of course, it will backwardly accommodate USB and FireWire for now, but T-Bolt champions hope to ultimately replace those two aging technologies. That's by no means inevitable, however. Remember, we still have USB 3.0, which is less than a year old and is an upgrade to a proven platform. Plus, you already own the cables for it. We will just have to live through it to see how it all shakes out.

One thing is for sure though: A year from now, you won't even consider a device that doesn't supersede Thunderbolt (if it's a smartphone), or—if it's a computer—includes it or offers an alternative, whether that's USB 3.0 or something else. Either way, your vocabulary must now include this stormy compound word. And like some technological Thor, you will need to wield it with authority in order to prevail.