diary music

Greedy Apple threatens to shut down iTunes

Wow! Apple iTunes declares itself too poor to actually pass on its profits to music artists! Gosh, and you’d think the poor press would make them think twice about absorbing this cost. I guess we should all just look for some free torrents now. Or maybe visit an actual music store and buy a real CD, if there are any left…

NME News: Apple to shut down iTunes?

In a statement submitted to the board last year, iTunes vice president Eddy Cue said that Apple would not stand for an increase:

“If the [iTunes store] was forced to absorb any increase in the… royalty rate, the result would be to significantly increase the likelihood of the store operating at a financial loss – which is no alternative at all,” the statement read.

Cue added that Apple would have no qualms about shutting iTunes down if it was not making enough money.

“Apple has repeatedly made it clear that it is in this business to make money,” he said, “and most likely would not continue to operate [the iTunes store] if it were no longer possible to do so profitably.”

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But the video gives me a bit of headache


(Edit: video removed)

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XioSynth… the perfect portable controller/synth?

Being old and such, the Christmas presents don’t pour in like they used to… thus I easily caved in to an impulse buy temptation and bought myself an early Christmas present, the new(ish) XioSynth 25 from Novation. Tiny (468 x 68 x 190 mm), light (a mere 1.4 kilos!), and with a built-in USB audio interface complete with phantom-powered mic preamp… it seemed like the perfect portable controller/synth for me to cart around while I backpack around the world with my trusty ‘ol Powerbook.

Right out of the box… Build-quality wise it didn’t stand out much with its all-plastic exterior, a keyboard that felt exactly the same as all the other cheapy keys out there, and some buttons that weren’t quite on straight, but I suppose that’s the tradeoff for being incredibly dirt cheap at a price of US $329 (and of course plastic is really light, too). The onboard menu didn’t exactly spell everything out for me, but I did manage to mostly figure out the necessary basics — changing and manipulating patches — without having to resort to the manual. I loved the sounds of many of the default patches, which were also fun and easy enough to tweak… no computer necessary.

As a portable controller/synth, I decided to go with the XioSynth over the MicroKorg — the only contender I considered since my primary concern was as small and light a form factor as possible and I’d already ruled out the Micron due to not liking the interface with its few flimsy knobs — because I felt it really won out in portability and features. As far as the synth quality goes, both produce a variety of sounds that appeal to me just as well and that I can see applying to the same sort of applications. But since I’ll probably often be carting it around to record stuff in conjunction with my Powerbook, it made more sense to go with the XioSynth for the USB connectivity options, circumventing the need to carry a nasty wall wart (I don’t feel comfortable relying batteries for something I could conceivably leave on for hours and hours on a regular basis), USB/MIDI converter cable for controller purposes, and an external audio card (you can record the synth audio output right into your computer just through the USB connection… and there’s always the analog inputs and phantom-powered preamp for anything else). I also prefer the XioSynth’s full size keys just slightly more than the little MicroKorg keys, but not by much since they both have that cheap toy feel resulting in hard-to-control velocity-sensitivity, compounded by lack of aftertouch. But the XioSynth does attempt to compensate somewhat by providing a touchpad, which I suppose could be a cool way to control the sound if I can get used to it.

And the bad… Coming from a classical piano background, the cheap feel to the keys and lack of aftertouch on the XioSynth is most annoying to me. This is made worse by the lack of a standard MIDI in on the unit which would prevent using it as a live synth (i.e. sans laptop and with a nicer more expressive keyboard controller). Does anyone know if a MIDI/USB converter box/cable can give it the MIDI in it desperately needs? I also prefer standard pitch/mod wheels to the XioSynth’s joystick control… though again maybe it’s just something I have to get used to.

Anyway for the lack of nice keys and a MIDI in, I wish I had considered the slightly larger/heavier (88 mm deeper/1.1 kg heavier) X-Station, which has all the standard old MIDI connectivity options and the added bonus of more knobs/buttons (don’t really need/want), faders too (ooh but I like a few faders!), a pressure-sensitive (!) touchpad, and the ability to be used as an analog effects box via the audio inputs (nifty!). Ah well… depending on how often I end up ACTUALLY using my XioSynth, I may trade-up… or maybe something better and just as portable will eventually come along…

In the meantime I suppose I’ll be recording a bunch of crunchy synth-bass driven song ideas with my new toy… whee! Now I really need more hard drive space…

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Drum and bass

Today was spent laying down drum and bass tracks for an upcoming recording project, a collaboration with Edria‘s Cyrus Julian. HUGE thanks to Shawn Poh (formerly of Astral) for doing a fantastic job as our “session” drummer! Thanks, Shawn!

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Recording and engineering

Yep, I’m working on some new song recordings and this time around I’ll be sharing engineering duties with my collaborator, which means that I am still doing much of it myself for pretty much the first time ever (oh YAY!). Aside from the fact that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing (but hey I AM some kind of engineer, right? Pfft, I can figure this out!), it’s frustrating to have to make do with my extremely limited equipment and severely underpowered computer (a 1.5 GHz Powerbook G4 with a mere 1GB of RAM… sigh). Well I don’t really have any good software plugins anyway. And who knows, it may be interesting! I stand by the philosophy of “as long as it sounds good to me.”

Over the course of the last several months I have learned several things:

  • 2″ tape is awfully heavy!
  • Metric Halo’s Mobile I/O ULN-2 is way better than my old M-Audio Firewire 410. Considering the price difference it damned well better be! The pres sound really nice, however the stepped gain control knob is annoying. There’s something really nice about a continuous gain control knob. Oh well. I wish it had TOSLINK connectors in addition to coax and AES. And hmm I also wish it had separate headphone and monitor routing control. And while I’m at it I wish it were smaller and lighter than it is (it’s not quite 1U and is about 4 pounds). Anyway, other than all that it’s simple and easy to figure out and use. I like the meters up front. The software mixing console is nice and simple too… though I did find a couple of quirks that thankfully don’t affect usability: when you click on the block diagram it will continue to darken with each click and you can only fix this by quitting and reopening the console application; also you can’t get the console window back if you close it but don’t quit, unless you quit and reopen. Weird.
  • Ableton Live 5 is great for assembling loop-based music, but only REALLY nice once the samples are all nicely cut and faded perfect loops. The good: manipulating samples through warping and playing with the beat markers can make for some really cool sounds. The bad: not being able to do any fine-tuning/destructive edits within Ableton (I suppose rendering a sample is an okay workaround); not being able to snap to zero crossings (Ableton lets you fade the start and end points, but it’s something that’s either on or off); not being able to crossfade adjacent audio edits in the arrangement view. Hmm. I guess it’s REALLY not meant to be an editor. Complete takes are good anyway, right?
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Warning to musicians: CdBaby’s Hostbaby service is a huge rip-off!

Hostbaby is CdBaby’s hosting service. They advertise it as “web hosting for musicians” on the CdBaby website, and it’s such a horrible service that I can’t bring myself to even provide a link to it from here.

Considering the free open source CMS (content management system) options out there, the fact that the whole point of a CMS once installed and setup is to allow users to do their own updates (meaning that CdBaby people spend little to no time doing any actual work on your site since the setup process is likely automated), and coupled with all the free hosting options out there, $20 a month for Hostbaby’s basic CMS (no e-commerce or video) and limited hosting plan is OUTRAGEOUS! I can’t believe a company whose supposed philosophy is to HELP small-time independent musicians make money from their music would turn around and overcharge them by so much! Yes, every musician and band should have a web presence. Granted, reliable hosting will cost a bit more than nothing. But charging $20 a month when MySpace is free (and has video too now, though many people still use YouTube) should be an indication that this pricing is way off! And $10 a year per domain is at cost? Yeah right!

It makes me even angrier when I think of CdBaby ripping off some poor unknown starving musician who automatically goes with HostBaby because s/he sees it advertised on CdBaby’s website, and doesn’t know of any other (fairly-priced) option. And CdBaby has that whole “indie” rep thing going on which makes them seem more trustworthy to such people, which in the realm of websites and hosting is totally false. Come on, Derek Sivers, don’t be a hypocrite and abuse your responsibility to help independents! Lower your hosting prices to a few bucks a month and give musicians your CMS for free. Or offer the CMS + hosting for free and do something else entirely for revenue, like integrating the CdBaby store into the e-commerce portion of the CMS.

Anyway, I recommend that all musicians out there just avoid this nasty Hostbaby thing entirely. If you’re looking for a professional website the best thing to do is to hire an independent to customize a website or content management system for you (which WILL cost you, but if you find the right person it will actually be worth it, and it will be CUSTOMIZED), and host it somewhere for really cheap (there are a billion hosting companies out there, many quite reliable, and hosting itself is just getting cheaper and cheaper). Honestly with the exposure and popularity of MySpace you’d actually even be WAY better off there than with some crappy Hostbaby CMS/generic template design, and as an added bonus you’d save all that money. Just keep your CDs on CdBaby to leverage their advertising/distribution channels (which is really what they’re good for), but link back to your website and also consider selling your CD direct on there using a cheap payment service like Paypal or Google Checkout for a price slightly less than CdBaby (since selling a CD on your personal site means you don’t pay CdBaby’s markup).

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Korg padKontrol

I thought I wanted the M-Audio Trigger Finger but I just did some research and found out about the newer Korg padKontrol:

Not that I’m any kind of beatmaker but… I WANT ONE!

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M-Audio Firewire 410 troubleshooting

I’ve been testing out the M-Audio Firewire 410 on my Powerbook G4 (1.5 GHz) since Sunday. It’s a nice small silver metal box… with flimsy plastic connectors and knobs. Oh well, for $250 what can you expect?

Installation and setup was straightforward. Download latest drivers on website (I have no idea if the included drivers would have worked; the website claimed only the latest drivers were for use with OS X 10.4 and the included drivers were a few revisions old), shut down, plug in and power on box, power on computer, select M-Audio Firewire 410 in the sound control panel. Play audio as usual. It worked great for the first hour and half as I just played audio through it on iTunes. Aside from the annoyance of having to power down before plugging it in or risk burning out your firewire ports on both ends, I thought it all worked pretty well.

Trouble hit when I launched an audio file in Quicktime. It didn’t play. Instead I got continuous clicking noises as the play bar crawled along and eventually locked up. I checked the box panels and the output lights were no longer lighting up. I launched the M-Audio Firewire interface software app, and it launched just fine which meant it detected the box. Okay. Launch iTunes. Clicks, crawling, crash iTunes. So I power down the box. Whoops, bad idea. OS X gives me the gray “you must restart your computer” message and the system locks up.

I restart with the box plugged in and powered on. Play audio. Same problem. I attempt to uninstall drivers, but the uninstall utility hangs. Okay, so I shut down, turn off and unplug the box, power on my computer, uninstall and reinstall drivers, restart with box plugged in. Play audio. Same clicking, crawling problem. Argh! Then I notice that the “sample settings” detects a sample rate of 192kHz. Hmm, that’s not right and where is that even coming from? There are no apps running, and I just did a clean reinstall! Sync source is set to internal so I switch it to external and back to internal a few times, but nothing changes.

So I do the whole uninstall and reinstall process again. Search for info on how to reset the damned thing, but can’t find any. Then I try the setting of the clock to internal and external several times, relaunch the app, repeat… and finally it detects 48kHz! Yay! So I try to play some audio, and it works… sort of. The audio plays but it’s all garbled and static-y. Hmm. Restart computer. Audio plays again, clearly!

Anyway that was Sunday and it’s now Wednesday. I’ve put my computer to sleep several times since then (haven’t rebooted though) and I haven’t run into any more problems. Sometimes if I have a bunch of apps running I’ll get little blips of static, but nothing continuous. I don’t know what the cause of my initial problems was and it disturbs me to think that it might happen again, because I don’t even know exactly what I did to fix it. I was almost ready to return this thing and buy another firewire box but I really want it all to just work as advertised since it’s a cheap portable Pro Tools option (why is the Mbox 2 still USB 1.0?!). In the meantime I suppose I should resume testing. But having searched the net and M-Audio knowledge base for solutions, it seems like my troubles were an isolated case. I’m kind of surprised I had problems; I have a pretty standard-configuration system. I sure hope M-Audio is good about support for drivers for this thing and OS X. Who knows though, now that those Intel macs are out?

The audio interface software is simple and very easy to use. I like it. My only other concern is that this thing work seamlessly with whatever apps I use it with.

I’ve done some quick tests of the analog inputs through the M-Audio interface app and can get sound in just fine. They’re way less noisy than the built-in audio, but that’s no surprise at all. Haven’t tried the digital I/O yet but I figure I’ll do that at some point using my CD player and MD recorder just to see if it all works. Unfortunately I have no MIDI equipment to test the MIDI I/O with. I want my Technics SX-P50! But it’s still in Boston along with 95% of my stuff.

Update: I’ve been using this box for a few months now with no real issues. Since figuring out that this messed up sound happens when the M-Audio driver gets confused about what the sample rate should be, I’ve found that the easiest fix is to fire up Ableton, which will allow you to set it explicitly. (Opening up GarageBand will also automatically set the rate to 41 kHz.)