Monthly Archives: February 2013

Tonematrix

A few years ago a friend introduced me to Tonematrix. Tonematrix is an online application that allows people of any musical skill level to create interesting music. The user is intended to click on different squares, causing them to light up and create different tones. The music is on a loop, moving chronologically from left to right, and varying vertically in pitch. Here’s a video of how it works:

Everyone can use this application easily, but that doesn’t mean aspiring musicians should shy away. This is a tool with loads of potential. The combinations of pitches are pretty much limitless. All of the squares fit together musically, so it is really difficult to create unpleasant sounds (unless you light up all the boxes at once). The only downside to the pitches all fitting together is that it’s hard to create dissonance if you want it. Regardless, this is an easy-to-use tool that musicians can take advantage of.

I’m not sure where this app originated, but it is fairly easy to find. You just type tonematrix into Google and it’s the first link. It should be here. When you get there, just start clicking around. Experiment! Let your right brain run wild! You should really check it out, but be careful. It’s really easy to spend several hours playing around with it!

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Pandora Internet Radio

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Photo taken from Google image search

In today’s society convenience is everything, so it would only make since that we want our music to be the same way.   One of the first stations that was around, before Spotify, was Pandora Internet Radio.  Pandora was a breakthrough for its time, and Tim Westergren is the person responsible for changing the way we listen to music.  Being able to relate artists and songs through breaking down every type of music, every artist, and every song into what is relatable.  They would break

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This a a chart of how some types of music may be broken up.

it down using a technology we know as the music genome project.  The Music Genome Project is one of core technologies currently used by Pandora to play music for Internet users based on their preferences.

Lets talk a little about the founder of Pandora, as I stated earlier that is Tim Westergren.  Tim started out his career as a musician.  He played in numerous bands that had varying levels of success.  He also worked by writing music for film scores.  While working at composing film scores he took note that directors want different kinds of music for their films.  He began to wonder if there was a way that he could break down the music to what the people wanted.  This led him to form his own company the Music Genome Project which opened in 2000.   Within the first four years it led to the development of Pandora Internet Radio.

One of the cool fetures about Pandora is that it actually records your preferences.  And based on your preferences it will play music that suites your taste.  Another cool feature that Pandora offers is that it will tell you why a song is being played on your station. 

As of today over 35 million people that listen to Pandora.  And on top of just using your computer to listen to Pandora, many smart phones now have Pandora apps on them that allow you to listen to your stations. 

Below is a helpful link on how to actually use Pandora.  It goes through step by step on what to do.

  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbCizQyS9eI

Spotify: The MTV of Generation X

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 The social-media craze that kicked off with having Xanga, then led people to have a Myspace, and ended up with the all-powerful Facebook is now crossing boundaries into music and music technology. Spotify has taken the lead in the music world when it comes to streaming music and connecting people. The highly controversial company has revolutionized music in the same way MTV did, Napster (who remembers that?), and has taken online streaming ten steps farther than Pandora ever dreamed.

 

A little background

Spotify originated in Sweden in the fall of 2008 and after two years they had 10 million people subscribing and by the end of last year they had about 20 million users on the music service. What is incredible is this rapid growth has little to do with the U.S. market as it was not added until summer of 2011. Currently there are two main user options for Spotify; (1) free subscription, acts a lot like an online profile connected to a persons email, but gives them access to music but with commercials; (2) a paid subscription which comes with various benefits, the two biggest being offline access to the Spotify library, and also the elimination of the pesky and annoying commercials.

            Currently Spotify is available in more than 20 countries, and music is available in the native language but any user can access any of the 20 million songs in the library regardless of language. Currently the Spotify headquarters are located in London, England, but all of the developments for the program are run through the original Stockholm, Sweden location.

            Also notable, the vision for this music to company is to become an “operating system” for music as Huffington points out. This means the streaming service is constantly improving the user’s interface, and also developing various applications that run off of the Imagesystem to enhance the user’s experience of Spotify. One might think of Spotify as iTunes on steroids. Despite the rapid growth of 1 million paying subscribers in March of 2011, to 4(+) million paying subscribers currently, Spotify still has yet to turn a profit. Many Wall Street analysts will be quick to point out that many great companies take awhile to become profitable. When you have people like Sean Parker as a financial backer, you get an extended grace period to turn that profit.

 

Speaking of Sean Parker, did I mention there is a big controversy with the use of Spotify? If unfamiliar, Parker founded the infamous Napster (while a teenager) which was an illegal music file-sharing website that subsequently launched him into millionaire status. This also brought about Parker’s uncanny ability to help develop social media as portrayed in the movie “The Social Network” (2010), essentially think of Sean as having the computer Imageknowledge of Zuckerberg, and the social skills to make stuff happen. He is the Midas of the social media realm where anything he touches literally turns into gold which has helped establish him as a billionaire internet guru.

 

So what’s the big deal anyways? A streaming music site opens up a world of music accessibility unparalleled in history ever. If anything it is a great success keeping in mind that recording technology is not very old, especially considering the first playback came from a cylinder made of wax. While an avid user of Spotify, many are concerned about this advance for several reasons.

 

1. Music culture globalization.  The world is shrinking, and that has been overall effect of the Internet, it wasn’t a concern of musicians until they realized their languages were losing unique identities. The more music that is written the harder it is to create and write in an original voice. This means having a niche sound becomes nearly impossible. There have been a few bloggers complaining that their local scene is becoming diluted by the same sound, which is also what happens to be trending simultaneously due to services like Spotify.

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2. Payment. Spotify when first starting out was notoriously awful about what they gave to artists per stream. They still are only paying fractions of a cent for a play but they have been getting better. Last year their numbers put them at spending $150 million in payouts per stream. When you have 20 million songs in the collection it still does not end up being a lot, especially when you consider that each fraction of each cent goes to the Label. The label then takes their keep and passes it on until it finally reaches the artist. This amount pales in comparison to record sales as well and there hasn’t been much correlation between users listening on Spotify and then buying the album.

 

These are just some of the complaints I’ve found so far, and while I have not extensively gone into them, it is because a lot of these are more emotionally and intellectually based arguments, coming from musicians who have sat and stewed over the issue for sometime on their own. Other bands/management have also had qualms with Spotify such as Coldplay, and the Black Keys (pardon the French), yes, even Adele. The questions remain. How is distribution through Amazon, iTunes, and Spotify shaping music and are what are the long-term effects of our desire for instant and cheap music that is also super accessible? Most importantly, how do we handle this responsibly so creating new music to be distributed is encouraged, and we allow these artists the opportunity to make a living from music without needing to be a celebrity either? This will be interesting to see what happens down the road and the ramifications we are accruing.

 Spotify is also responsible for bringing people awesome videos like this one with a personal favorite of mine, MUTEMATH. 

Don’t get me wrong either; I’ve been using Spotify while I’m writing this blog. I’m an avid user but I still reserve my skepticism too. I’m still waiting to see how beneficial this is, in this scenario the consumer has won, the users have won, the labels are in a middle ground and many artists find themselves losing or pressured into going with system. All I’m asking is for heightened awareness, and to be reminded that if something is too good to be true, it most likely is.

MUTEMATH and Electronic Music

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Last winter, about this time, I was looking for new music. The quest for music for me is always challenging because this desire longs to be filled by sound that is new, fresh, unique, and not trendy but still stylishly correct. Good aesthetic and authenticity always go hand in hand (or at least they should), which means popular artists rarely hold much weight with me. Lyrics should come from the soul of a person’s being not from a producer who needs an artist to crank out a chart topper for greater job security. This rant is just to give an insight into how important quality music is to me.

Image                                                                                                                                                                                          These limitations, or guidelines (whichever way you look at it) usually has a way of excluding anything with a sense of technology or effect-heavy music with the large exception of U2 and the handiwork of The Edge . It also rules out most electronic driven music, at least it used to. In my searching for something fresh I found a band called MUTEMATH. The name had been filed away a few years previously when one of my worship-pastor-friends had mentioned them but were quickly shadowed by my curiosity in Death Cab for Cutie at that point in time. MUTEMATH resurfaced and thanks to the genius (and highly controversial) Spotify I was able to get into MUTEMATH and quickly fell in love with there sound.

I did a little deeper digging and found out the lead singer, Paul Meany, grew up in New Orleans, and MUTEMATH started out as a Christian worship band known as “Earthsuit” and any material written under the name “Earthsuit” is extremely hard to come by. This past summer while on tour with a praise band I came across a sound-guy who had scoured the Internet looking and found their first album which was a live release of some original and other covered worship standards. The sound still remained though. Listening to both groups back to back was like seeing a soul transplant take place between two different bands. My new friend and I spent an hour talking that night just about the band and their roots. Earthsuit grew old quickly for the lead singer/front man and after being pursued by a couple of CCM recording labels the group decided to not go down the CCM route in fear of being too small and limited. They continued on as MUTEMATH and were signed by Warner Bros. in 2004 after releasing an EP and came out with their first album, self-titled, in 2006.

Talking about MUTEMATH and listening to them on iTunes is one thing, experiencing MUTEMATH in concert is a completely different story. Just listening to the difference between their studio albums and live concerts, there is a noticeable change in energy; you can tell the group loves sharing their music because their musicality increases as they have a heightened sense of awareness to their own interactions and those with the audience. Being in the audience is nothing less than mesmerizing. A wall of sound envelops the audience as soaring riffs transfer from bass to guitar with some incredibly unique organ pads under the riffs and then there is Darren King driving the whole sound behind the drums.

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Yes, I get it, I’m gushing. You’ll understand when you listen, or maybe I am overly impressed. The thing about this band is they have heavy electronic components woven into their sound, but it never gets in the way. Not ever. A lot of bands I’ve witnessed fall into this trap where electronics become the driving force behind the sound and music is shoved in the back seat or falls out of the bus entirely. Electronic music requires a certain responsibility to keep aware of the notes taking precedence over the effects that go behind the notes.

The music of MM contains a heavy New Orleans influence between certain blues riffs, and jazz influenced beats, but their music is intricately layered, textured, and woven together, with much attention paid to the details in a similar way to Radioheads’ sound. What is even more incredible in the live music sense is how the band has complete control over everything that is happening electronically and is best experienced in their song “Reset” which is typically the encore to every show they perform.

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Todd Gummerman is the lead guitarist for the band who joined and helped write the 2011 release “Odd Soul,” has an incredibly complex set up to produce the sound he has. Todd even has it down so he can reproduce the sounds of the band’s previous guitarist, Greg Hill, and learned all of Greg’s guitar parts within weeks of going on tour with MUTEMATH to promote “Odd Soul”. Granted, if you do a quick search of Todd’s name you’ll quickly discover words such as “guitar-genius” and “prodigy” being thrown around. I found his blog and he wrote an excerpt about trying to find the balance of technology and music while on tour:

Other mishaps inevitably have happened, like: the rhodes collapsing shortly after Paul stood on it, Darren stabbing himself in the eye with a broken drumstick (yes, accidentally), knobs of pedals breaking right off in my fingers, calling B3 repairmen every four days, and the temporary failure of just about every piece of gear at least once, and of each facet of the drums- at least three times.  Actually I was recently thinking to myself that it often feels like we’re professional troubleshooters first, and musicians second.  That being said, we’d be seriously screwed without our invaluable crew, who I’ve mentioned before.  Because even if we can diagnose the issue, they are usually the ones with the know-how and tools to actually fix said problem.  They are forever watching over us: (proof)…

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Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas is the bassist for the band is primarily writing the majority of the guitar parts on Odd Soul, and the video talks a lot about his role in the band, and also his control and knowledge of his electronic set up. You can check out JHS pedals too, most worthy of attention if you are serious about electric guitar tone.

While originally I was not attracted to bands who use a lot of synth-driven, guitars laden with effects, and drums with triggers all over them, MUTEMATH has stolen my heart as far as this kind of music is concerned. While not the trendy synth-driven, drum-loop back, pocket driven music of Owl City or the newly formed Hawk in Paris, MUTEMATH has helped define a generation of alternative rock. If other bands follow in the same path while creating their own identity, I believe the music industry has a hope of not looking like some of the artists it is backing right now.

Patrick Watson

I first heard Patrick Watson a few years ago on Pandora, an online radio station from the Music Genome Project that creates stations and plays music based on the user’s song/artist suggestions and responses to the songs they hear. After analyzing the attributes of other songs I liked, Pandora began to play a song that captured my attention: Wooden Arms; a slow, melancholy waltz with wispy vocals. After a few listens, during which I grew accustomed to the unique aesthetic, I gave it a “thumbs-up.” Not long after, Where the Wild Things Are (yes, based off the book) began to play. I had never heard anything like it. Driven by the quick repetition of a single note on the piano, the song merges in and out of thickets of pizzicato, eerie background vocals, electric guitar chords, and various booms and clacks and jangles. I was fascinated. Before long, I took the album (Wooden Arms) out on an inter-library loan. I listened to it constantly. I requested and received the album as a gift for my birthday, and it remains a favourite of mine to this day.

Patrick Watson, contrary to typical assumption, is not one man but actually a band centered around the eponymous lead singer. Watson’s high tenor and unaffected falsetto carries the lyrics through the lush soundscapes painted by Watson’s fellow musicians. While the complexity and creativity of the instrumental atmosphere might be one of the group’s trademarks, they don’t shy away from simplicity, either. One of the most poignant songs, The Great Escape, features only Watson’s voice with a simple piano accompaniment.

Avant-garde composer John Cage proposed that all sounds are musical. Patrick Watson certainly seems to apply this theory. One of the most fascinating elements in their music is the percussion, which often employs unlikely objects—including garbage lids and bottles— to create interesting sounds. (My mother and sisters sometimes think there is something wrong with the car if I play certain Patrick Watson songs during a drive.) The intro to Man Like You includes a guitar played with a couple of spoons, and Beijing features both a spinning bicycle wheel in the background and a tremendous “drum solo” by the talented percussionist, who has apparently added a number of pots and pans to his drum set.

I’m picky about the music I listen to. I can count on one hand the number of concerts I have attended, but Patrick Watson’s was by far the best. The Grand Rapids venue, a converted lecture hall called the Ladies Literary Club, was small and intimate. My friend and I hardly breathed as the band opened with Lighthouse: tiny lights hovered above the black stage, attached to the musicians’ hands to provide just enough light for them to play their instruments. Gradually the stage became illuminated as the lights flashed with the accents of the music. Throughout the set, the lighting and video components were tastefully used: the effects were not merely a spectacle, but complemented and enhanced the music. The female violinist stood unassuming in the back as she coaxed magic out of the strings, but the other four moved around sometimes between songs, switching instruments with casual ease. The drum set seemed to be ordinary, although on more than one occasion the drummer produced out of nowhere a handsaw and played it with a violin bow or mallet. On select songs, special microphones distorted or added reverb to Watson’s vocals. Watson himself is an eccentric performer, but charismatic: weaving his head, hopping between phrases, skewing his mouth, but always engaged with the music. One of the highlights of the evening was the performance of Into Giants: the band began as a simplified ensemble of voice, tambourine, and two acoustic guitars. They huddled around a single microphone, the vocalists taking turns leaning between the two guitarists to sing their alternating parts. By the end of the song, they had spread out again as the music progressed into an ebullient climax.

How to categorize the music of Patrick Watson? The assigned genres range from singer/songwriter and folk to art pop and indie rock, but you’ll have to decide for yourself. At the end of the concert in Grand Rapids, the members of the group came to the front for discussion and a questions and answer session. One of the main things they said they wanted to create at every concert was a musical experience, something that they hoped the audience would be able to enjoy along with them. As an audience member, I could say that I was captivated from the first note. As a listener at home, I can say the same thing. If Patrick Watson aims to provide a unique musical experience for the listener, it definitely delivers.