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RPM Challenge

posted January 29th, 2013 in Guitar,Music

It’s that time of year again… when a couple thousand musically-inclined souls gather for the RPM Challenge and try to put together 10+ songs and/or 35+ minutes of new music. I did it in 2009, 2010, and 2011 (barely), but last year I threw in the towel halfway through the month on the grounds of being unable to actually finish anything and having very little motivation.

We’ll see how it goes this year… I have two different ideas for what I’m going to do, one possibly with a group instead of solo. If I can wrangle them into it and convince them that yes, it is possible to put together an album (even if it’s rough around the edges) in a month.

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Peavey AT-200

posted January 3rd, 2013 in Guitar,Music

I dropped by Guitar Center tonight and finally got a chance to try out the Peavey AT-200, which I’d first seen in demo videos from last year’s Winter NAMM show. (Aside: woot, it’s almost time for another Winter NAMM!) I guess they’ve been on the market for a while, and GC has even had some in stock near me for a month or so, but I hadn’t sat down to try one yet.

The guitar was (probably intentionally) even more out of tune than the average display guitar at GC, but as advertised it popped right into tune after a single strum and pushing the volume button. I guess I should’ve tried comparing the sound of the guitar autotuned to the sound of it, you know, actually tuned, but it worked well enough. The sample tunings they demonstrate in the video — drop D or baritone — worked pretty well, too. And the most exciting bit to me was that it sounded good in the couple of open tunings I tried, open D and open Dm. Of course, those took a little bit of thought to figure out what to fret to get the autotune to end up where I wanted — ultimately you fret the number of half steps UP that you want the open string to be DOWN. (I guess that means if you want to tune any open string up, you have to tune everything down an appropriate amount and then capo up, which sort of defeats the purpose of the autotuning but is workable.)

And then I got to the fun (==ridiculous) things. I’ve always wondered about just how far you can push these tuning modelers, since they seem to usually demonstrate them at a baritone tuning at the furthest. But of course djent with 8-string guitars with a low string around F# is in right now, or if I didn’t own a bass I might want to be able to play bass parts on my autotuned guitar. Unfortunately, running a regular guitar through a pitch shifter or octave pedal usually sounds nothing like a real bass, to say nothing of the fact that they can’t track multiple pitches simultaneously — they’re useful as an effect but you would probably never be able to actually use one as a bass replacement. I think the AT-200 would be CLOSE to being usable as a bass, although I’m not sure. I autotuned it down at least as far as a bass in drop D, and I might’ve gone even further than that, and it sounded more natural than a pitch pedal but probably less natural than a bass guitar. (Obviously, running it through a guitar amp put some limit on the usefulness as a bass…)

From a practical perspective, I would still rather get a James Tyler Variax, because of the wide variety of tweakable modeled instruments it comes with on top of being able to model retunings. It would also fit in quite naturally with my HD500, which last I heard supports storing the guitar configuration along with amp configuration in presets. From what I’ve read, technically the AT-200 supports firmware upgrades to allow it to model instruments as well, but my understanding is that they will be paid upgrade packages instead of just being a standard part of the guitar. Of course, the cheapest JTV is more than twice the cost of the AT-200, which you would probably not reach even with all of the upgrade packages; on the other hand, Line 6 has pushed out several free updates for the JTV to improve its value proposition. But playing with the AT-200 did convince me that something with this simple retuning magic is something I “need” in my creative arsenal.

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Sweetwater and Musical Wishlisting

posted December 2nd, 2012 in Guitar,Music

I had checked all of the Black Friday-Cyber Monday sales at Sweetwater, Guitar Center, and Musician’s Friend in hopes of finding a Line6 James Tyler Variax (any model, really) on sale for sub-$1k. (There were a couple possibilities, except that no coupon at Guitar Center or Musician’s Friend seems to apply to the JTVs…or, any piece of gear I want, for that matter.) All I ended up with was ordering a copy of Superior Drummer 2.0 from Sweetwaer. This was the first time I’d actually ordered something from them; I’ve been on their mailing/calling list for a while, courtesy entering several of their gear giveaways. (Fingers crossed for their Christmas giveaway to win a full Toontrack pack or the Protools rig!)

Anyway, along with shipping my order out, they sent me their Winter 2013 “Gear Encyclopedia” — they had occasionally sent them before, although since I hadn’t ordered anything or entered any contests recently they had been sending them to an old address. So now I have a 500+ page catalog of music toys showing up right before Christmas. It reminds me of when I was a kid and one of the exciting things at Christmas was when we would get the giant Sears Christmas catalog and go through circling or marking the toys and games that we wanted, like a proxy list for Santa.

Maybe I should go through and mark everything exciting in this catalog and then hand it to my wife…

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Thoughts on Spotify, Part 2

posted July 20th, 2011 in Music

Now that Spotify has finally launched in the US, and now that I’ve gotten an invitation and have had an opportunity to try out the free version…

One of the benefits of Spotify is supposed to be social discovery, easy sharing of playlists and whatnot. Of course, with this limited rollout, I only know two or three other people with accounts, and I don’t think anybody has shared playlists. Then again, neither have I. I did see one person sharing a track on Facebook, using the Spotify FB app, but for now I’m not installing that connectivity — it asks for way too many permissions without giving any good reason for why.

Barring social discovery, I wish it had a better exploration mechanism for discovery. On the one hand, the ability to browse by artist works really well, and it includes all of the albums they have available by that artist as well as all of the collections they’ve appeared on. Or, on the first day I’d logged in and messed around with it much, I found a dozen or so Vitamin String Quartet albums (the guys who do the “String Tribute To…” series) to add to a list to listen to later. But about the best it does for other discovery is a handful of random albums on the front page, or 5 or 6 “similar artists” listed when you go to an artist page. I kind of wish there were a good genre browser, with more specific genres instead of just lumping virtually everything under “rock & pop,” although for that matter it wouldn’t even hurt to be able to browse all rock & pop, all jazz, all bluegrass, etc. I’m sure that, theoretically, curated genre playlists are a part of the social discovery.

The collection is also sort of weird. I think I’ve read that it has the largest catalog of any comparable service, with Wikipedia quoting “15 million, growing by 10,000 per day.” But the actual contents are uneven. I started off searching for Loreena McKinnett’s “Mummer’s Dance,” which failed (not least of which because it doesn’t have a very good “did you mean x?” feature for misspelled names). I did find a slightly different version that had appeared on some kind of compilation CD, but they didn’t have her full CD that had the original track. But then it has apparently every VSQ album, tracks from a variety of indie labels, and a smattering of albums that really surprised (and pleased) me (like Jeff Kollman’s Shedding Skin (spotify link)). When I searched for Porcupine Tree’s Voyage 34, instead it came up with a track from an audiobook. They don’t seem to have anything by 3, and they’re missing a variety of older CDs that I checked ranging from bands like Tribal Tech to Coheed & Cambria.

The ad-supported nature can be frustrating, just because your playlists will be interrupted with a loud ad that usually has nothing to do with what you were listening to. And spoken ads I don’t really mind, but when it comes on in the middle of a jazz fusion playlist with this (terrible) R&B song they’re pushing pretty hard, it’s jarring. Maybe they’ll eventually be able to extend their ad base and that problem will go away.

The interface is quirky but acceptable. The biggest problem is that double-clicking on a song in a results page enqueues that song and then every other song on the page after it, which makes building playlists on the fly kind of…weird. Enqueueing a song later will insert songs in the order you would expect, but then once you’re done queueing things up it goes back to whatever was on the page when you originally played the first song.

So I’ll keep using the free service for now and put up with the annoying ads, but I don’t know if I’m excited enough by it yet to pay for a subscription, even when it switches to only having 10 hours per month and a max 5 plays per track. The benefit of the $10/month subscription would be being able to listen to the full library from a smartphone, but I usually have my Zune or the CDs handy for most music I would come up with to listen to on the road. (Plus, you know, the whole not having a smart phone thing.)

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On Spotify

posted July 7th, 2011 in Music

So it’s official: Spotify is coming to the US. I’d heard something to that effect last weekend, when MetalSucks claimed that a well-informed insider had confirmed that the last holdout, Warner Bros., had finally gotten on board with the service.

On the one hand, this is pretty exciting. I’ve been waiting a while for a way to access Spotify after hearing about all the great stuff it can do from people on the other side of the pond. Specifically, a musician I follow on Twitter would frequently post Spotify playlists for music he was into at the time or thought other people should check out. And of course, the press ravings make it sound pretty excellent, with nice text-bites like “the celestial jukebox” and “a magical version of iTunes in which you’ve already bought every song in the world.”

On the other hand, I’m a little dubious about the end result. For a long time, Spotify was free and ad-supported, but looked to make most of its money off of getting people to pay for an upgraded solution that included offline access to music. Of course, that offline access to music is only good if you’re paying for the subscription, so that means it’s DRMed, which (deservedly) usually gets a knee-jerk reaction. But after realizing they weren’t really going to stay afloat on that model, they changed to try to get more conversions: the current free version is only truly unlimited for 6 months, and then switches to a limited version with only 10 hours of listening time per month and a max of five listens per track.

So let’s compare that to the various music services that exist or have existed in the US, based on my understanding of them (which means I’m not going to do the research to doublecheck these, so feel free to let me know in the comments if I’ve missed something):

Ruckus Network : Free, ad-supported, DRMed music service. Ruckus was initially available only to students at certain universities but eventually opened to everybody with a .edu address who was willing to put in a graduation date. Unlike Spotify, there were no audio ads, just usually a really annoying ad on the landing page and then banner ads throughout the rest of the site. And I guess the Ruckus downloader/player had ads, too, although you didn’t have to listen to music through that interface. I thought it was great, but it never really took off, partly because they never worked out (or, never released) a way to take your music on mobile devices. Actually, the real problem was that it was all based on Windows Media audio files, which basically cut out any Mac users and precluded songs from even being played on an iPod. I think you could authorize two or three machines, and had to reconnect to the service once every 30 days to reset your DRM licenses. It went dark in February 2009 without warning, presumably due to lack of revenue from ads.

Spiralfrog: Basically the same thing as Ruckus, as far as I could tell, although without the .edu limitation, and with a much (MUCH) dodgier interface. Nothing ever wanted to download, the library was more limited, and it didn’t even centralize the downloader with a media player. Still, it was a nice holdover…for about a month, before it went dark, too.

Zune Pass: No free model that I’m aware of; for some fee ($15/month, maybe?), you get unlimited listens on PCs and Zune-compatible devices, plus 10 tracks to keep. So if it’s $15, you basically buy a CD and then pay $5 for unlimited listening to anything else. Better than Spotify’s paying to take it on the go but losing it if you ever quit subscribing… but of course, still relatively few people have Zunes or Windows 7 Phones, and the DRM is (again) implemented as Windows Media audio files that the iPodders can’t play.

Rhapsody: My understanding is that this is kind of like Spotify except again with no real free model to speak of, and none of the social sharing features.

So really, what it seems like Spotify has over the apparent best-by-features of those is social features, a limited free model, and presumably DRM that will be more general across devices. That said, I’ll probably use the free version as long as I can, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to pay for it. (But then again, I’m one of those semidinosaurs who still prefers to have a physical CD whenever possible.)

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