The downside of not playing out

As I continue on my journey to record and capture some of the music in my head, I have come to a realization. Alas, my preponderance of playing solo, and without others, I lack something of the ability to “fit“. This will take some ‘splaining…

When listening to an orchestra, you hear the whole piece together, where all parts fit. From the woodwinds, to the strings, to the percussion, all the musicians have their own part to play. Isolate one instrument, and you might not recognize the piece. But as you add the individual parts back in, you begin to see the thread.

I have long known that writing for an orchestra is an art, and requires more than just musicality, but the ability to spatially separate the instruments, and to visualize (audibleize?) how they will sound together. It is why the greats (Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and on and on) wrote music hundreds of years ago that still captivate and enthrall us today.

But this is much the same with modern music as well. Think of the simple power trio. Cream was Eric Clapton on guitars, Ginger Baker on drums, and Jack Bruce on bass/vocals. The three of them played together perfectly, complementing, and intertwining their masterful musicianship. Each was borderline virtuosic, but balanced each other out, and the net result was kick ass music.

My problem is that I have almost never played with a complete group like that. Sure, I have jammed with a bunch of fellow axe slingers, belting out some simple Dylan or Zeppelin riffs, trading licks and lead lines. Heck, even some original stuff was shared.

But, playing with a solid timekeeper? Not much, except very early on in my journey with an old Heathkit metronome.

Back to recording

It is clear to me that this lack of practicing with a beatmaster is a problem. Laying down a track, and listening to it is getting better (getting around the “blinking red light syndrome”) as I am sounding more how I know I can. But due to my lousy practice regimen, I slow down and speed up during riffs, and as I map it against the measure markers on Garageband, I can see my imperfections.

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that you have a problem. Or so they say.

Two things are amply clear.

  1. I need to practice more. A lot more. With more structure. I need to work on matching notes to a beat timing, and to become more aware of that.
  2. I need a simple drum machine, or other aid. Yes, I can do the click of a metronome, but something with the ability to accent the start of a measure, or to alert me to the sections of something I am playing is an aid I need.

Fortunately, these are both simple things to address. Well, except for the blood sweat and tears of practicing.

While I have been playing for over 30 years, and at one time was practicing 4-5 hours a day, my diligence has waned, and when I pick up the guitar, my instinct is to play things I know well, and have riffed to for a long time.

I definitely need to expand in to uncomfortable territory to break out of ruts. I need to work on building a composition one track at a time, and to learn to better use the tools at hand.

One last thing: I am clearly not ready to share my work, but I will admit that I am progressing. One day, I will post a song.

Spotify – It’s Over

Apple Music has won my latest battle for my ears. As is often the case, Apple isn’t first to market (or even second), but when they do get to market, they have the best service, most polished interface, and it “just works“. After only 3 weeks of my 3 month trial, it is time to dump Spotify.

Dear Spotify,

I know this may be hard to take, but it is time to move on from your service. It isn’t you, it’s me. Wait, who am I kidding, it is you and the shortcomings you have. I can’t blame you, as I am sure that some of it is due to your agreements with the rights’ holders. But regardless, it is time to say “goodbye“.

I remember when Spotify came to the US, and I eagerly got in the early access list. The thought of access to a huge library of music, with the ability to sample as much as I wanted whenever I wanted. At the time, the only other option were the Internet Radio stations, and while I liked Pandora, I found that it took endless grooming of their stations to match my tastes.

With your service, I could create as many playlists with just the music I wanted. No limit on how often I could listen to the same songs. It was like having my library wherever I went.

I jumped at the chance to pay for the service, never once questioning the $10 a month. The Spotify app for my iPhone was a great way to take my tunes with me.

There were some second guesses along the way. Google’s Play music service when they launched the “All Access” subscription was briefly a contender. They had good coverage of genre’s in my taste in their library. Plus they had the benefit of having my entire music library uploaded. But alas, their streaming performance, uh, what is the term? Yes, “it sucked donkey balls“. Skips, pauses, and general shitty-ness. Even when they released a Chrome extension to better integrate it, it sucked.

So I returned to Spotify after flirting with the $2 a month cheaper Google All Access service.

I was satisfied, but there were still some issues. Your curated playlists for classic rock, and hard rock were stale. Worse yet, had some odd selections (note: in no universe does the Foo Fighters qualify as “Classic Rock”) Listening for hours each day, you quickly hear your “radio” stations repeat tracks. Yeah, I get that they are just a play list with some randomness tossed in, but I buy my music and listen to my library to not have the top 40 bullshit crammed down my throat.

The final nail in the coffin was the launch of Apple’s new streaming service. I am about 3 weeks into my 3 months free trial, but I already know that it will be the one that I keep. There are lots of reasons, but off the top of my head I have noticed:

  • The curated playlists are great. It is like they can read my mind, when I am trying to put together a mix CD. Doesn’t matter the genre, Heavy Metal, Classic Rock, Guitar Heros, Jazz, Blues, they nail it.
  • The “For You” Suggested listenings. Like when I was a Pandora user, if you painstakingly groom your stations, their algorithms pick some awesome tunes. The “For You” selections are a few suggested playlists rolled out and refreshed daily. Each day, there are some great things to listen to, playlists that are 70 – 90 minutes long. Last Wednesday, it offered up Deep Tracks of Yes. 90 minutes of outstanding music.
  • I have access to my entire library. Minor point, (or maybe it is major) but my entire collection of music is in the Apple cloud, so if I feel like digging up an ancient Yngwie Malmsteen track from his first album, it is there. So even where Spotify had holes (like for the longest time with AC/DC, or still with Paul Gilbert) I can just call it up.
  • User experience. A lot of people bag on iTunes. Hell, on Windows, I will concede that it blows chunks. However, the last two major revisions Apple has done a lot to improve the usability, and reduce the clutter. As a product manager, I know that iterative releases, and the tendency to glom shit into the main application is hard to battle, so clearly iTunes had become a multi-headed hydra. But it is getting a lot better.

While I could afford to keep two streaming services going, I am not going to lie, I haven’t fired up Spotify in over 2 weeks. It has already lost the battle.

From the outside looking in, I am not even sure that I could offer advice as to how to improve the service to beat Apple’s Music. I suspect that you will have a valid market position for the people who loathe Apple and all things it releases. But will that be enough to keep you close enough to profitable? Time will tell, but my bet is that Spotify will try mightily, but fail to grow to be consistently profitable.

Music Embarrassment – King Crimson

I have been on a nostalgic twist in music lately, reliving my early days of prog rock fandom, and reminiscing about all the vinyl I used to have and got rid of in my flurry of moves in the 1990's. Ah good times indeed.

There is one classic prog rock staple that I am embarrassed to admit that I have never owned any of their albums, but have followed many of the band members' later careers. I speak of King Crimson. Greg Lake, Robert Fripp, Pete Sinfield (who was credited with writing in the ELP realm), are among the many illustrious artists who were instrumental with the rise of Prog Rock.

So I am adding King Crimson to my collection, and kicking myself for not doing so earlier. Now listening: In the Court of the Crimson King. Very very tasty.

Simple pleasures – Going back to vinyl

Early in my life, I became a music buff. Sometime in High School (probably by my sophomore year), I pieced together a simple hifi system, saved my paper route money, bought a decent turntable and the best needle I could afford, and started buying records.

A vinyl LP recordLots and lots of records. I could be found at Tower Records in Campbell California at least once a week. When I started driving (at 16) we would trek over the hill to the record stores in Santa Cruz (can’t for the life of me remember the names) to buy exotic, rare, used, and even ahem, bootleg albums.

Then in 1982, Sony and Phillips rocked the world with the introduction to the audio compact disc. Clean, clear, digital perfection. A format that didn’t wear out. I bought an early player, and started accumulating CD’s instead of LP’s.

Somewhere along the line, I sold or gave away all my vinyl. The turntable failed to make one of my (many) moves, and I was all digital.

Fast forward to today

My father in-law passed away a couple weeks ago, and we’re all gathered for his memorial, and to sort through the lifetime of memories and ‘stuff’. Sitting on an entertainment center (that doesn’t have a TV) is a simple component stereo. Amplifier, receiver, CD changer, and a turntable all setup.

My father inlaw’s tastes ran to a lot of big band from the 30’s and 40’s, some jazz, and classical. But lots and lots of vinyl instead of the ubiquitous CD.

Firing up the turntable, dropping on some Glen Miller or Miles Davis (including an album where John McLaughlin) was the axe slinger). Some great background, and nostalgia is in the air.

I won’t lie, I can’t hear the sound being any “warmer” than a well encoded/digitized CD, something that vinyl freaks swear by. But there is something tangible about removing the album from the sleeve, cleaning the accumulated dust off, getting the speed right on the turntable (it has a stroboscopic speed gauge), and dropping a needle.

Having to get up and walk across the room to flip the album, something that I had forgotten about, is a nice way to break things up. And then the ritual of replacing the album, and selecting another disc of black plastic to repeat the ritual.

I have become so cocooned by the digital world. Playlists on my iphone that run for days, streaming via Spotify or iRadio, really good sound that never degrades from over playing, that a trip to the past is a bit of delight. Delight I thought I would never succumb to.

No, I am not likely to give up my digital library. I have enough music to fill a room with albums. I am not going to hunt down vinyl for all my purchases (but I will probably buy some). But having an old school system will allow me to indulge in my origins.

I am just bummed that all those boxes of LP’s are long gone. Sigh.

I have hinted to my wife that I wouldn’t mind if she claimed the LP collection and the gear to play it.

The dark ages of music

No, this isn’t bitching about a genre, or a period of music per se, but instead it is a grumble at the practice of turning sub standard live recordings from the 70’s and 80’s into “new” albums. 

In this period, many bands began recording themselves at all their shows. The Live albums were a popular addition to the catalog, and let fans enjoy their music with some variances. Great live performers came alive, and delivered phenomenal renditions. The inevitable guitar solo (which I mostly like) and drum solos (which are lame, unless you are Carl Palmer or Neil Peart) were bonuses.

However, much of this recording was done on crappy analog tape, with piss poor microphones, and a shit-ton of muddle, and washed out highs and lows. Ugh.

There were some great recordings (Frampton Comes Alive is one such, as is UFO’s “Strangers in the Night”), a lot of mediocrity.

But all the good recordings from that era have all been made into records. 

But today, it seems that everytime a washed up group stumbles across some old tape, they feel compelled to turn it into an album and release it. 

Case in point: 

I have long been a fan of progressive rock, and Emerson Lake and Palmer were titans in the 70’s and early 80’s. One of the first “Super groups”, they had a fabulous live album, “Welcome back my Friends …”, a triple disc set that I wore out on my stereo before buying a CD of it.

In 2011, they found some moldy tapes (I am guessing here) of a concert they did in Montreal in 1977. It is available on Spotfy, and I have fired it up. 

Groan. It sounds like it was recorded on a $40 panasonic cassette recorder. If it was a bootleg, I would be satisfied, but this is the real deal. Suckage.

Please, regardless of how tempting it is to release new stuff 25 years after your band dissolved, DO NOT release crappy live recordings.  

The only thing positive about this is that I didn’t buy the CD.

Is the music collection headed for the dustbin of history?

When I first started making money (delivering the San Jose Mercury News), I put together a hifi system (old components, amplifier, and turntable) and started buying music.  I was addicted to the extension of my collection, which ran to hundreds of LPs, including some rarities, and bootlegs. I remember the thrill when I first got a car and was able to drive to Santa Cruz, not to visit the beach, but to visit the huge used record stores on Pacific Grove.

Then the Compact Disc revolution started (1983, I bought a very expensive for me, Technics CD player).

Fast forward 27 or so years. I no longer have the LP’s (they were sold during a move, sadly), but I still have hundreds of CD’s. Of course, I have jumped on the digital bandwagon, and have bought a few thousand tunes from the ITMS and Google Play store.  My collection runs to some 18K tracks, spanning many genres, as well as some rarities.

But that is at risk of becoming obsolete. I have found that a 150G music collection is formidable to keep sync’d across all my devices and computers. It is just too big.

Fortunately, the Google Play and iTunes Match means I can stream it to my devices as will. But even with that convenience, I find that I am using itunes or google play less and less.

This is because of my subscription to Spotify. Their streaming is so good that I don’t miss my tracks. And the selection of music is wide.  I have discovered some great bands that I would never have taken a risk on buying a track (Panzerballet is one).

Of course, there are some downsides.  Some artists are absent (AC/DC, Paul Gilbert, and Led Zeppelin come to mind), so I will need my catalogs of these songs. As the licensing deals are reached, I expect those gaps to lessen, and while they won’t disappear, it will become much less annoying.

I welcome the change. Managing and preserving a 18K track, 150GB music collection takes a lot of work. But for everyday listening, Spotify rocks. I do worry about the economics. While getting the major labels less pivotal to the music distribution game, I fear that the remuneration for artists will remain low (An excellent piece in the NY Times in January highlighted this), and thus make them less likely to open their catalogs.

I still buy tracks from the various stores, and occasionally a CD when the tracks aren’t available (Paul Gilbert’s band “Racer X” comes to mind), but Spotify has disrupted the music market for the better.

Music Streaming – conclusion

TL;DR version: Spotify wins

To round out the saga, I needed to make a decision on whether to keep Google  All-Access or Spotify for my online streaming pleasure. If you recall, I signed up for a trial of the Google all access, and was comparing it to Spotify.  While I am an Apple fan, I am not sure their entry this fall into an ad sponsored offering is going to be worth my time. (Perhaps if it was free with my iTunes match subscription …) Primarily, it is because I need to use it on my windows machines as well as my Mac, my iPhone and my Android tablet. iTunes sucks donkey balls on the PC, so unless Apple does something amazing, I am discounting it without trying it.

Early on, Google All Access was plagued by the glitches that I experienced with my tunes in their database. Skips, pauses, and long halts in playing. Spotify pulled into the lead, because their dedicated application was really solid, and whatever magic they do buffering, it has almost no issues (except when my crappy work network connection flakes out).  But about 2 weeks ago, Google got their streaming act together, and it became solid. Almost as reliable as Spotify.

However, I am going to stick to my Spotify premium account, and turn off the all access.  While it is $2 cheaper, and it is better integrated with my Android tablet, the Spotify apps make the difference. A quality user experience across platforms, coupled with great streaming, and a good catalog. Spotify FTW.

Aside: One thing that I never did much of was use the radio option of spotify. I compared the radio option of Google All Access versus spotify, and I like the selections of the Spotify radio stations a wee bit better than on All Access.  Both services have holes in their catalog (due to licensing issues, I would believe), but points in All Access’s favor is that since I have all the Led Zeppelin and Paul Gilbert tracks (legally) they get in to the mix. But that isn’t enough to save its bacon.

Winner: Spotify

Feeling like an underachiever

Sometimes you stumble across someone who has accomplished so much in life that it makes you ponder your own life path. This happens frequently with me, but a few days ago, I bought the latest Paul Gilbert album, Vibrato (kick ass guitar work), and on it is a song that sounded familiar. Blue Rondo a’la Turk.  This sounded vaguely like some Keith Emerson pieces so I went searching (Paul Gilbert had done a live cover of the ELP staple “Karn Evil 9”). 

Instead, as any true jazz afficionado will attest, that it is from the Dave Brubek Quartet’s seminal album “Take Five”. Fortunately, spotify has a lot of Dave Brubeck music.  But since I know nothing about Dave Brubeck, I hit wikipedia. Damn, what a long, and storied career. Here is his entry

Feeling mighty small indeed. Still grooving to the Dave Brubeck quartet.

The first Supergroup – Emerson, Lake and Palmer

This weekend, I completed my collection of ELP albums.  I started listening to them in the 70, and had worn out so many copies of Brain Salad Surgery (with the H. R. Geiger art on the cover), that I was glad to finally be able to buy it as a CD.

Ah, great times, great tunes, and in awe of Keith Emerson’s keyboard prowess.  From the piano pieces, to the wailings of the Moog.  Just awesome.

Great drive in music today – Steve Vai set

About 2 minutes into my drive to the office today, a great set of tunes popped up on the ol’ iPod plugged into my stereo.

From the forgettable movie, “Crossroads” (the Ralph Macchio one, not the britney spears one), there is a scene where Macchio’s character cuts heads with Jack Butler (played by Steve Vai), a guitar player who sold his soul to the devil.

The scene has for parts, “Fried Chicken”, “Butler’s Bag”, “Headcutting Duel” and the victorious response, “Eugene’s Bag of Tricks”.  Fantastic guitar work, and the piece de resistance, is the Eugene’s Bag of Tricks.  It is really one of Pagannini’s Caprices arranged for the guitar.  (In the soundtrack, all these parts are played by Vai, naturally).

What a great way to make it into the office.