Archive for January, 2010

Music deconstruction

I spent two very nice hours with JBQ tonight deconstructing music. JB has studied theory of music, so he delivered on my hopes to make me understand why I don’t like the hipster bands, namely Animal Collective (AnCo), Dirty Projectors (DP), and Grizzly Bear (GB). So we compared them with my favorite experimental band, the Cloud Cult, and a few other bands. Here’s what we found out:

1. We found that Cloud Cult, one of the few experimental bands that I like, actually pass themselves as experimental, but the constructions of their songs is very classic: there is always a rhythm, albeit usually hidden from the listener, but still there to not throw him/her off. And there’s melody and harmony at all times. One of the great features of Cloud Cult songs is how they start with 1-2 instruments, the song then transforms to a classical piece, and then somehow transforms back to rock. In contrast to most experimental bands out there that change their songs mid-way, Cloud Cult never change their tempo, even if they change music styles within the same song. Also, the songs’ transformation is slow enough that the listener can follow the genre changes without feeling that he has had the carpet pulled out of his feet. So basically Cloud Cult is more of a smart classic band rather than full-on non-accessible experimental.

2. I always thought that what drove me crazy with AnCo’s music is that it has no melody. Apparently, it’s not the melody, but the rhythm/beat. AnCo’s electronic music is very jazzy usually, where the instruments don’t play in sync with the vocals or other instruments. This jazzy feel confuses me musically because I don’t know to which instrument I should be holding on to in order to find enjoyment. A massive proof for that is that I LIKE the few AnCo songs that are faithful on a rock-style (as opposed to jazz-style) rhythm! Namely: Grass, My Girls, Summertime Clothes. I can’t stand jazz, so it’s no surprise that I don’t like most of AnCo’s songs. I need a “beat” to music. An instrument or vocal that tells me WHERE to latch my brain and follow it. Jazz is the exact opposite of that, and I guess, I’m just not used to it. Then again, most people don’t like jazz (at least in the environment I grew up). Some of their songs, also lack harmony (e.g. “Guys Eyes”).

3. Further proof for all that is the fact that I don’t like Nine Inch Nails either (I like maybe 2-3 songs overall from them too). While NiN are not as jazzy as AnCo, the vocals are usually off the beat, enough for me to dislike their songs. Red Hot Chili Peppers are also off in their drum and bassline, but they somehow complement each other every time in a way that does not throw me off. So NiN are out, Red Hot Chili Peppers are in, even if they’re not exactly classic in terms of music construction.

4. For Dirty Projectors, we agreed that they have no harmony. There is a melody, and there is rhythm. But there is no harmony in the vocals, so their songs sound like a bunch of kids who don’t know how to sing. The music itself feels bare and undeveloped too. The band tries to break conventions in order to “break new ground”, but all it does really is breaking well-researched parts of music theory. This is no different than the market being full of finger-friendly capacitive screen smartphones, and these guys decide to create a new phone that uses a stylus! It’s not pretty. It’s doing it differently for doing it differently, and that’s just not good enough for me to like something. As JBQ put it, that’s just a band to piss off your 40 year old parents when you’re 16 and angry at them. They offer nothing more useful than that to my ears. Without harmony in the vocals, some of their songs feel like when my neighbors are fighting for attention.

5. Grizzly Bear have harmony, rhythm, and some melody. But they’re boring as hell. It feels like they didn’t even try to write music. It’s like a bunch of lazy kids sitting on the balcony and getting sun, and someone walks to them and orders them to “write music, or there’s no dinner for you tonight”, and then they looked at each other and say “you write something”, and then they all reply “no, I don’t feel like writing anything, you do it”, “no, you do it, take one for the team”. Finally, someone replies, “oh, whatever, I’ll do it”.

Tonight we established that we don’t want to hear DP & GB ever again in our lives. They’re annoying as hell. We established that we, like most humans, require both rhythm, harmony, and melody, plus a joyous, and/or catchy beat. If all these requirements are met, we usually like the song. If not, they fall apart for us.

The new Canon AVCHD cams

Today Canon announced a slew of new AVCHD camcorders, as they do every year at CES (I hope you didn’t buy an AVCHD cam for Christmas, always wait for CES). The particular model of interest for most readers of this blog is the new HF-S series, the HF-S21. The particular new features that are interesting to high-end consumers are only two:

1. True 24p. No need anymore for pulldown removal. Yay!
2. Touch & Track. You just click on the huge 3.5″ touchscreen LCD, and the system will automatically track the object while you move with the camera. Particularly useful if you’re using a steadycam for music videos or short movies.

The rest of the new features are just fluff for clueless consumers, or nasty software hacks (e.g. the claimed “better low-light support” that this camera now has, while it’s the same sensor/glass as the previous model).

However, the HF-S21 is still missing the point. No full manual control, no real focus ring, and no bigger sensor at around 1/2.0″ (to combat the dreadful low-light performance this sensor/lens combo has on that model). And no 720/60p either (the hardware can do it).

What’s important to remember here is that the Canon 7D is eating away the high-end consumer and much of the prosumer market. The 7D has the best performance/price ratio for what it gives you. And that includes good low light, a selection of lenses with focus rings, 720/60p for good slow-mo, and of course, full manual control. Any serious amateur filmmaker would root for the 7D instead of any of the AVCHD Canon cams.

In other words, the 7D has up’ed the bar. For the engineers at the consumer department at Canon to keep their jobs they MUST have offered the equivalent of a high-end consumer camcorder in the face of the HF-S21. They don’t have the luxury anymore to do incremental updates as they do every year. The high-end consumer model has to be _serious_. They needed a new HV20-style AVCHD camera feature-wise. When the HV20 came out in 2007, it changed the landscape. That’s the kind of product (in spirit of course, not in features) that Canon’s consumer department needed TODAY.

Oh, well, here’s one more year waiting for that Canon department to get off its ass. If I hadn’t already bought the 5D (for reasons I explained in a previous blog post), I would still be with the HV20 and not upgrade until Canon got it right.

U2’s Bono needs a clue

U2’s Bono calls for control over internet downloads, says on his guest column at NYTimes.

I fail to understand how this can be done though. He mentions child pornography as being combated successfully by law enforcements, but thing is, child pornography is less widespread than… mp3s. And it’s ALL illegal, while not all mp3s are illegal. It would cost an arm and a leg to get officers tracking down every possible mp3 on the internet, since it’s not just bittorrent we’re talking about, but also a lot of “music blogs” that link to illegal files, and PR/artist/label/music magazines that link to LEGAL files. So how do you know which ones are illegal and which ones are promos/freebies? The only ways to really regulate the situation fast-enough, and cheaply-enough, are two:

1. Make ALL downloaded media file formats illegal. No exceptions. This of course is not a very practical or even constitutional solution.
2. Require that all WMA/AAC/MP3s files are digitally signed. Not DRM’ed, but signed with a license. It’s the only way to easily find out via a ‘crawler’ utility that FBI could build if an offered mp3 is a promotional free-as-in-beer file, or an illegally uploaded one.

And this would create massive problems to indie and Creative Commons artists, because it would make every artist a registered provider. Given that most of them can’t even complete their mp3 tags properly on their free promo mp3s before uploading on their server, I fail to see how the same people would be able to properly get a license to give out mp3s. Such a measure won’t only make users outlaws, but some of the artists as well! In other words, such measures for file distributions would have the exact opposite effect of what that Bono claims to “the young, fledgling songwriters who can’t live off ticket and T-shirt sales“.

The music magazines will also be hit with the problem because they won’t be able to give out mp3s as easily anymore. Which would mean less exposure to the artists. I mean, I spent most of my holidays tracking down legal mp3 promos. I added 2.7 GBs of legal mp3s in my music collection the past 10 days, and I found some really good artists this way that I actually later bought their full albums or more mp3s from them. Under a new regime, downloading mp3 promos would be an ordeal, and an added risk. The magazines wouldn’t bother, the users wouldn’t bother. Too much trouble about nothing. Who’d pay the price for it? The indie artists.

The major labels and artists won’t be hit much from it, since they almost never give out free promos anyway! If such a law ever passes, it will be a massive kick in the nuts for the indie industry and Creative Commons artists, because the promos or freebies are the only way for these artists to be heard. In fact, according to reports, the average indie artist is making increasingly more money these days rather than back in 2000 — despite the rampant piracy that’s going on in the last 10 years. Obviously, restricting the media transmission will bring the world back to a pre-internet era, where the major labels have the upper hand again, because they would be controlling the internet too, in addition to TV and radio, while the indie artists will be dying of hunger.

Not to mention that wild rumor that’s going around for a while now that RIAA is preparing an international copyright treaty where people would be questioned on the airports about where they got their music files from. Think of having to give out your iPod to a special machine during security checking to check for all the embedded licenses. What would happen on the older files that have no licenses? CD-rips? Not to mention that going through 120 GB of data is enough to make you miss your plane too (these hard drives are dead-slow). Sure, this is just a rumor for now, but there’s no smoke without a fire. This is why I _always_ update the “comments” tag of all legal mp3s I download with the URLs I downloaded them from, to prove that it was from either an artist/label/PR site, or a well-respected music magazine. Might prove me wise in a few years time.

And if airport checks might never realize, house-to-house checks might. I trust RIAA to lobby for things like that. Just like you get your door knocked in UK by officers to check for your TV license, there’s no reason why an officer wouldn’t knock your door to check for your mp3s on your computer, if such a law passes. I trust that if they find “what seems to be illegal” mp3s on your drive they won’t charge you with thousands of dollars per song, but certainly $100 or so. There would be enough volume to pay for these officers, and RIAA, and the government. Who loses again? All the citizens, artists and not.

Sure, this sounds like a “police state” to you, that “will never happen”. But if you had a time machine and you could transport yourself back to 1920s, and you mentioned to the people of that era that by 1980 everyone would need a license to have chickens in their garden, they would laugh at you and tell you that you’re fucking crazy. Sorry guys, but that’s how most political shifts happen in a capitalistic environment. Slowly, but surely, usually induced by lobbying. It’s never a swift change, it’s always done gradually.

And finally, the other problem of file-signing is technological innovation. If the governments of the world require all AAC, WMA and MP3 files to be digitally signed, then it might make it illegal to use a different file format, simply because the government won’t have ways to check licenses on newer media formats. And if not illegal, certainly a trouble-making experience. So basically, the media formats would be a “locked” affair, since no one would want to jump to another format, from fear of what might happen to them. This would kill R&D on audio and video formats. This is how technological innovation dies. With fucked up laws and regulations like the ones Bono aspires to.

So, my dear Bono, as South Park so elegantly put it, your ideas are the biggest pieces of crap in the world. Well, either yours, or the RIAA/UMG prick who wrote that article for you.

Music Tastes