Archive for September, 2009

Where to get legally free music

I am spending way too much time hunting down legally free independent alternative rock music, but it’s paying off: I now have about 2,000 such songs in my library. About 50% of them have 3 stars in my iTunes library, 30% have 4 stars, and about 20% have 5 stars. Here’s how I find them: every morning, I visit the following sites to preview their legal, free download collection:

* StereoGum
* Better Propaganda
* AOL Spinner
* RC.RDBL
* FingerTips
* InSound
* KEXP Radio
* PitchFork Tracks
* PitchFork Forkcast
* XL8
* Magnet Magazine
— Not chronologically sorted —
* Spin.com
* PureVolume (download from “Pro” artist accounts only)
— Live sessions —
* Daytrotter Sessions
* HearYa Sessions

And then of course, if you would like to go cherry pick the best songs yourself manually, there’s the various artist’s official web sites, and indie labels that usually host loads of mp3s, like SubPop, Vagrant, Matador, Merge, etc etc. And finally, there are the PR companies, like IODA, Beggars, Tool-Shed and many more! Yup, all legal, and most of it, exceptional!

Daily Twitter Update for 2009-09-30

  • Watched Smokin' Aces. Pretty good action flick. #
  • Our order of the special Manuka honey arrived today in the mail. The packaging was disgraceful. It's a miracle its box arrived in one piece. #
  • WD TV2: Give me Hulu, Netflix, Vimeo, accelerated Flash, 1080/60p up to 64mbps for h.264, and an iPhone Remote app, and then we're talking. #
  • Roman Polanski should be extradited to US. Even if he didn't know the true age of the girl, he went on her even if she repeatedly said "no". #

Blitzen Trapper at The Independent

After missing both their shows in the Bay Area back in April, JBQ and I caught up with Blitzen Trapper in San Francisco, Sunday night, at The Independent venue. Aside from having our hair smelling like pot (or something) at the end, we had a great time during our stay (at least I did). The sound at The Independent was definitely better than it was at the Cafe du Nord venue a few months ago.

I had my first big personal surprise right after walking in. We decided to sit toward one of the sides, next to another random couple. I kindly said “hi”. And the guy replied “Hi, Eugenia”.

WTF ???

My first thought was that I had a tag with my name, I so quickly gazed through my breasts. Nope. No tag. At that point my face probably looked like a surprised LOLcat.

Chris McKillop“, the guy said. Suddenly it all made sense. Chris and I have been geeking out online for many years about OS stuff when I used to write for OSNews.com (Chris has worked for QNX, Apple’s iPhone, and he’s now at Palm working on WebOS) but I had never met him in person. I had even interviewed Chris back in 2003, when he was still working for QNX. 10 seconds in, I remembered reading once that he’s also a fan of the Trappas. I asked him how he recognized me, and he said that… I look the same as in my Facebook picture (I am sure it’s my crazy witch-hair :o).

To make the long story short, the world is a very small place.

Later, I bought a Blitzen Trapper t-shirt, since ther was no new tour CD available. Drew Laughery (keyboards) was a very sweet person to talk to. Later, I quickly talked to Erik Menteer (guitar/keys) telling him that their Black River Killer video was amazing. He said that no more videos are planned for the Furr album, as the band will now focus on their next one. Both Drew and Erik were very kind and cool to talk to.

20 minutes later, the supporting band, the Wye Oak, took the stage. They sang about 5-6 songs, which were pretty good, but not exactly exceptional. Except “Take it In”, their main hit (free, legal download), and their last song, the rest kind of felt flat to me — not enough melodic variation. JBQ liked them more than I did. One thing is for sure, Andy Stack should be given a medal for being able to play the drums with one hand and one foot, the keyboards with the other hand, and either supporting vocals or using woodwind instruments with his mouth! A true instrumentalist super-hero.

Then, when the Trappas took the stage, I moved directly below the stage, and they rocked my world. The band started very strongly with two very hard rock songs, and then they became a bit more folky and mellow. The band obviously had fun, and joked around a lot.

In between of one of these songs I professed my love for the band’s leader & singer, Eric Earley, by yelling his name, sending him a kiss and winking at him. He saw me that one time, and he cracked a smile, hehe. I’ve been infatuated with his genius since earlier this year when I read that he was homeless (I guess my motherly instinct took over).

Going back to the gig, the Trappas have amazing energy on the stage. Towards the end, where they played mostly rock songs, the audience went wild. However, both JBQ and I agreed that the middle part of the gig, where Eric did a few mellow folk solos, were the weak part of the experience. Eric Earley is an amazing writer and performer (his vocal range is amazing), but the mellow stuff took too long. In my opinion, only Black River Killer and Furr of that bunch should have been performed, and the rest of the songs should have been a selection of their more hard rock feel. If the crowd’s reactions are any indication, I think most would agree with me.

At some point Marty (guitar) started singing a capella, and that was much fun. Then, Marty asked the crowd which song they would like to listen, so I yelled: “Sci-fi Kid“. Yup, that request was mine!!! Eric started playing the song, and then the unthinkable happened: he forgot the lyrics and he stopped the song! Oh my! See, the band doesn’t play that song live anymore, and that’s a big shame. Sci-fi Kid is my favorite song of the Trappas (with Gold for Bread coming second), and I believe that if they were to write more such songs they would become super-stars, since these two songs are more modern-sounding than their usual ’70s-styled music.

I was able to take video snippets from about 1/3 of the gig, but then the Independent’s staff asked me to turn off my camera. Oh, well, their loss. “Independent” my ass.

There was also one brand new song that the Eric performed (“The Man Who Would Speak True“), which I thought it was pretty good. However, I believe that the song could be produced in a way that sounds more modern, and by using harsh electric guitars in the chorus instead of the harmonica. If the final album version uses the harmonica like with Furr, I believe that this can be one big loss for the Blitzen Trapper in terms of winning out the alternative rock stations/fans.

Towards the end, the tempo picked up again with hard rock, and the crowd went crazy. Overall, this was the best live experience I had in my life so far. I love the energy the Trappers bring on the stage, and I hope their next album makes them even more successful. Catch them up if they are coming to your town, they worth the attention!

Daily Twitter Update for 2009-09-28

  • I started editing the music video, 18 tracks so far! Thank God I use a 1920×1200 monitor for editing, and a 1920×1080 monitor for preview! #
  • Some people thought yesterday that @jbqueru and I are newlyweds. We keep kissing & embracing a lot you see, but we've been married for 8 yrs #
  • While the Canon 7D has a pretty good meter, and histogram support in stills mode, it's not as convenient as actual zebra in video mode. #
  • I just decided to not buy the Canon 7D. Yesterday's music video shoot proved to me one more time that I can't live without zebra support. #

Daily Twitter Update for 2009-09-27

  • One thing interesting about X-Files (1993-2003) while watching the series in episode order: you can see how cellphones got improved over time! #
  • While shooting the music video this morning over the Cliff House in SF, someone called the cops on us. Supposedly we made too much noise… #
  • My "clean" Vista64 PC with just our editing/PS stuff in it is misbehaving. I think it's the graphics driver. I wish we had XP64 in there. #
  • Just came back from a day’s music video shoot in the City for Andy Kong. Went well.
  • Watched Bangkok Dangerous. Not as bad as people say it is.
  • Dollhouse. The worst show on television. That was painful.
  • I am definitely a geek, and not a nerd.

Another weird dream

I had a weird dream this morning (not my first, not my last). I spent the first part of my dream trying to protect a massive octopus, who was apparently a God. He had a book that I kept for him while he was captured by bad humans. There were pictures in it from my genealogy and my village in Greece. I tried not to read its text, but my eye did caught a prophetic verse that was something like this:

10:25 AM to 11:00 AM: Humans are standing up
11:01 AM to 11:04 AM: Humans’ best times
11:05 AM to 11:07 AM: The end of the humans

I felt the need to blog about it, and profess my belief for this octopus God, but at the last moment, my atheist self won out. In fact, my brother could not see him earlier, while I could. I thought that I might be getting crazy, so I gave up to the whole octopus God thing.

I then found myself at my village, between my father’s home and my uncle’s. I was in the middle of the street when I noticed that the sun had become huge, and there was another planet behind it too. It was burning and I could visibly see the fire around it. Suddenly I saw my mother, and I told her to run towards our house to protect ourselves from the solar flares. I tried to find my brother, but there was no time.

Just as we were running towards home, I stopped under a bridge. My mother continued running. I shouted at her to come back, but she continued running. I saw her bursting in flames.

At that point I lost all hope, and I prepared myself for the inevitable. I took some big stones tried to build a quick wall around me, under the bridge. Suddenly, this 40-something guy walks in under the bridge, and unlocks a door that have been there, but couldn’t see before. I followed him in, and there were some stairs, going deep underground.

It became obvious that this was a shelter: there was food, lots of water. Soon, more people arrived. I asked the guy who was he and how did he know about the flares and prepared himself. He said, he was the Octopus God, saving just a few of us. He said that the people that were going to be saved, will instinctively find the door under the bridge.

At this point I started begging him to save my brother. He said that only the chosen ones will be saved. I knew that there was no point arguing about that, so I gave up, and tried to help a few half-burning people that were coming in.

I tried to help a guy lying on the floor, who had been protecting himself with some cloth. I took the cloth away. And it was my brother! He had passed out, but he was not visibly burned. I started shouting at the octopus God to help him!

My heart started pounding fast, and I had trouble breathing seeing my brother lying there not moving. That was when I woke up.

Review: Flashforward

“LOST” is in the end of its life (last season starts this February), so ABC is hard at work trying to find the show that will replace it. Apparently, while “LOST” doesn’t have as many viewers as some other shows, it is very consistent with the 18-49 demographic, which is what brings money in to TV networks. Plus, its DVDs sell very well, despite being one of the most torrented shows in the world, and all its episodes being available for free HD viewing on abc.com and Hulu.

So the show that is set to supposedly replace LOST in the the hearts of us geeks, is “Flashforward“. The first episode aired tonight, puts forward the story for a strong mythology, mysteries, conspiracy and other theories, and of course, personal drama. The first season storyline is building up on the fact that the whole Earth population blacks out for 2:17 mins, and during that time they have a lucid vision of themselves 6 months in the future. The main hero, an FBI agent, tries to put the pieces together.

At this point though, the similarities to LOST are too great to ignore:
– The show starts with a major catastrophe, with the first scene being the main character waking up in this chaotic situation (just like Lost’s Jack woke up in the jungle and ran towards the fallen plane).
– Just like the polar bear on Lost, Flashforward features a kangaroo! A kangaroo out of nowhere running amok in downtown LA.
– Towards the end of the episode, a guy in black, shown to be unaffected by the universal blackout. This guy is the equivalent of the “smoke monster” on Lost, also shown at the end of the Lost pilot episode.
– Two Lost actors have been recruited on Flashforward (Lost’s Penelope and Charlie).
– The show asks philosophical questions about destiny; Lost has dealt with the concept greatly too.
– Heck, there was even a big sign of the Oceanic Airlines in the beginning of the episode, ABC’s way of paying homage to LOST!

Unfortunately, Flashfoward’s pilot doesn’t come close to Lost’s pilot in terms of sets, directing, intensity. It’s a good pilot, but not a masterpiece. The main problem is that apart the main character, the rest of the characters are not as interesting or strongly defined as Lost’s — they feel flat. There’s no Sawyer, there’s no Hurley, there’s no mysterious Locke sitting at the beach not talking to anyone and only smirking away! There are just a bunch of people acting as they would in any other drama. LOST on the other hand, clearly defines its characters from the get go — they feel unique.

Additionally, the main cast seem to be comprised by 14 people, the same amount of actors as in Lost’s first season, however, Lost has a gazillion of supporting actors via flash-backs/forwards/other, enriching the show greatly. Flashforward instead, seems to rely mostly on these 14 characters and very rarely is going to add any more important characters to it. This can make the show feel “smaller” and its plot less significant than the global ramifications it should actually communicate to the viewer. The story should be more epic.

Another thing that bothered me was that the show was not as smart as Lost. For example, when the main character lied to his wife that “he saw nothing else in his vision”, the director/editor shows (again, for a 3rd time in 30 minutes) the part of his vision where he relapses and becomes an alcoholic again. If that was Lost, the viewer would have to figure out what was what in that scene and what was insinuated, rather than having the editor spelling it out for us like we are 5 year old. There were 2-3 more such scenes that Lost would have dealt differently in terms of writing/directing/editing.

Overall though, the first episode definitely made me want to watch more. It is the best new show I’ve watched this fall season so far, and I expect it to stay that way until LOST starts again in February. However, many viewers already complain about how to sustain this plot and keep it interesting: apparently, its writers have said that they have already plotted away 5 seasons for the show. They know where they are going, and most importantly, they have an end date: which is super-important in serialized shows like this (as Lost proved).

I only pray that the show doesn’t become too much of a drama — as was hinted by one of its actors recently — and retains the mythology, action and mystery.

32bit grading & lighting processing

Part of color grading is re-lighting a scene. Unfortunately, Sony Vegas doesn’t have a 3D lighting system like After Effects has, but it’s still possible to hack together some basic re-lighting using Bump Map plugin’s “spotlight” template.

For some weird reason, stacking 3 Bump Map plugins in their own tracks (to emulate a 3-point lighting) is very sensitive to 8-bit processing, and they end up canceling each other out. However, it works lovely, and as it should, when using 32bit processing in Linear mode (mode is available only on Vegas Pro).

Here’s an example of how important grading, lighting, and 32bit processing is.

Original file:


Picture by Melissa Ann Barrett, licensed under the Creative Commons “Attribution/Share-Alike” 2.0 license.

The best I could do with Vegas Platinum’s 8-bit processing while trying to re-light the scene. Project file here (load the .vf file, using the picture here).

Grading and re-lighting with Vegas Pro’s 32-bit linear processing. The result is much more pleasing. Project file here (load the .veg file, using the picture here).

I hope that Vegas will eventually introduce proper lighting functionality, so this way the need for 32bit is minimized. Nevertheless, this article should show you the need for re-lighting while color-grading. Turn on/off the bump map plugins on the project file linked above to see how much re-lighting helps.

Hitting a wall with Vegas

Quite a few Sony Vegas users read this blog, but I might have to move to CS4 or FCS soon. While Vegas is possibly the best *editor* in terms of usability, it doesn’t satisfy me regarding color grading — which is the main thing I do.

Even when using the 32bit mode to grade, I get blotches and ugly artifacts. Using a mask without having too much halo is impossible too. Using motion tracking is not supported. Basic color plugins like a vector-based rainbw-color plugin (like the super-buggy third party Aav6cc) are missing. And if that’s not enough, Red Giant Software has stopped maintaining Magic Bullet for Vegas, does not develop any new products for Vegas, and BorisFX also left the Vegas camp too a few months ago. In other words, Vegas becomes much-unsupported by third party plugins, and itself doesn’t have all the features (or the usability in the current tools) a colorist needs. In my view, Vegas is irrelevant right now, even if it has thousands of users and it gets a lot of new ones every day (who buy it because it’s the best *frame editor* for the price). The problem is with actual support (like on things I wrote here), advanced features, and the nonexistent third party plugin support.

Check this amazing grading done in AE by Charles-Etienne Pascal, where he didn’t use any third party plugins at all (special thanks to Charles-Etienne for letting me use the grabs). The outcome is milky. Doing a similar 32bit grading on Vegas resulted in visible artifacts (when viewed in 1:1). For some reason, Vegas’ own color plugins don’t take a lot of pushing before they show artifacts.

For those interested on how it was done, it involved 3 video tracks, one with a mask around the eyes to lower the gamma in them and make them visible, a track with a mask around the head to change the face color using Color Corrector, change the lighting on the face using bump map’s spotlight option, and some unsharpen mask, and a third track that changes the gamma/colors on the background to make it darker.

The easiest way to come somewhat close to that look without having to use all these tracks and masking, is by using the “punchy” Magic Bullet Looks template modified, and unsharpen mask.

Nevertheless, Adobe’s CS4 might be in my near future.

Editing Canon 5D/7D footage on Windows

Canon chose a pretty bad format for their consumer digicam and video dSLR products: h.264 in the MOV container, without B-Frames. This creates a kind of format that is very difficult to edit in real time. As I type this, even the fastest desktop PC on Earth can’t decode in real time that footage under Sony Vegas, or even Premiere. As of now, here are your editing options with such footage:

1. Edit as is
It is possible to edit these files as is, by dropping them in the timeline, but you should expect anything between 0.3 and 5 fps. Which means that it’s unbearably slow to do educated guesses on how to cut your project. Additionally, Vegas has very poor support for Quicktime, so after you add a few of these files in the timeline, you should expect crashes.

2. Proxy Files
Proxy files allow you to use small-sized, low-quality copies of the original files that edit faster — and just before you export, you switch to the original files, to export at full quality. Here are tutorials for Vegas Platinum, Pro, and Premiere. The problem with this method is that, at least with Vegas, there’s still a big risk of crashing during exporting (because it would use the original MOV files). Also, exporting is very slow, because the decoding is slow (before it even starts encoding).

3. Cineform
This is the best solution for the problem. You buy Cineform NeoSCENE (or NeoHD), and you drop the files in its utility to transcode them. Cineform is pretty fast decoding h.264, and transcoding the 4:2:0 files to a 4:2:2 format, that’s visually lossless, and easy to edit. The only downsides are that the created filesizes will be double over the original and the gamma will slightly change, but these are a small price to pay for having a stable, and fast format to edit with.

Q&A

Q. Why not use Divide.Frame’s accelerated decoder?
A. Because it’s unstable, and it doesn’t work with all versions of Vegas or Premiere.

Q. What format should I use for proxies?
A. I would suggest you use 640×360 mpeg2 at 1.5 mbps. It’s the easiest format to edit, by far. The Premiere tutorial linked above can be modified to create such proxies rather than its suggested h.264 proxies.

Q. Why not use mpeg2, or XDCam or other high bitrate format instead of Cineform?
A. Because they are not lossless.

Q. Why not use another lossless codec then, like the freeware Huffyuv, Lagarith, Avid DNxHD?
A. Because they are almost as slow to edit as the original files.

Q. How about Matrox’s mpeg2 I-Frame 100 mbps codec?
A. This is a good codec and it works well with Premiere. But it doesn’t work as well with Vegas. More here.
UPDATE: Version 1.0 of the codec fixes the problems!

Q. Which format would have been best to be used by Canon?
A. AVCHD for their consumer digicams, and AVC-Intra for their video dSLRs.

Q. How are the Mac users dealing with the problem?
A. The footage has to be transcoded too, to the intermediate ProRES/AIC codecs before it is able to be edited. There is also Cineform NeoSCENE for the Mac too.