My Parody and How To Avoid YouTube Content ID Detection

My most recent video “Parody” is about the frustrations of copyright trolls on YouTube. This video is now the subject of an ongoing battle with copyright trolls on YouTube. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so annoying.

Based on Pharrell’s “Happy”, I thought it would be safe under the Fair Use Act as a form of commentary on the legal hurdles of the song and any other major label tune. It turns out that’s not the case. Even though I’m complaining about the copyright of the song, monetizing the track means they can still claim the melody (I guess?) and they can take it down if they want to.

One of the most frustrating things about Content ID, which is YouTube’s content and metatag crawler, is that the appeal and dispute is set in increments of 30 days. 30 days to acknowledge, 30 days to appeal, 30 days to wait for the claimants response to your appeal. Of course they always wait as long as they can to respond, or if they know they can’t refute the dispute, they don’t ever say that. They just let it lapse, which takes, you guessed it, 30 days.

In the above video, since I’m not commenting on the song directly (I’m making fun of the dumb lines and non sequitur metaphors, but I’m not specifically stating they’re bad) and I’m not specifically refuting the heart of the work (my song’s not called “Crappy”, which would be a direct response to the theme of “Happy”), I’m probably just out of luck.

Three things you can do to avoid Content ID on YouTube

  1. Record every part yourself. If you re-record every part yourself, especially if each track is distinctly different (as they are here since I do them all vocally instead of using the same instruments as the original), Content ID will have a difficult time recognizing the similarity to the original.
  2. Don’t tag your video with identifying content. If you put the name of the artist and/or song in your video tags, Content ID will flag you even if you don’t have any content in your video. What’s hilarious about this is that, in your appeal for an erroneous identification, there is no option that simply states “This video was mistakenly flagged”. Seriously. Their system makes constant mistakes, but they refuse to admit it. Weird, huh?
  3. Don’t put the name of the artist and/or song in your video title. Same as with the tags. Since Content ID isn’t good at identifying your song if you re-record all the parts, it will use your video title to try and see if you’re using copyrighted content, even if you aren’t.

You’ll notice these tips will negatively affect your search results in a big way. This is certainly not accidental. And if you’re doing a straight cover, odds are it will still catch you on word recognition in the lyrics. But I believe the above is correct because, after watching this helpful video directed at videogame reviewers, I avoided the above three steps and had no problematic claims on my video. They want you to think their crawler is some uber-accurate identigod, but mostly it just reads whatever you type in your description, tags and titles.

It wasn’t until about a month after the initial release and my social media views were drying up that I added the tags and extra info in the title mentioning the words “Pharrell” and “Happy”, after which my video was quickly hit with three different copyright claims. I’ve successfully disputed two out of three claiming the Fair Use Act, but unfortunately EMI Music Publishing/CASH/UMPG Publishing has chosen to reject my dispute and reinstate their claim. The page in which this all happens looks like this:

Parody copyright dispute screenshot

I have now re-appealed my dispute, which is identical to the first one and which I adapted from the video linked earlier. It reads like this:

This recording is a parody and form of commentary and critique and uses no source material from the original recording. As an acappella recreation the audio is transformative and by sending this very notice becomes relevant to the critique of the piece and its legal status inherent in my parody. The video and audio were created entirely by myself on my own property. My parody is considered Fair Use by both YouTube and Federal Copyright Law. A Fair Use parody does not legally require the copyright holder’s permission, and I have every legal right to upload original content in the form of a parody. For further proof and information on Fair Use, please refer to: http://www.copyright.gov/legislation/dmca.pdf and additionally http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S521VcjhvMA&t=14m16s Thank you for taking the time to verify the clips to see that my usage does not violate copyright.

Five reasons this sucks hard

  1. I will probably have to wait another 30 days (or close to it) to find out what their response is.
  2. Their response is literally at their whim. They just click whatever they want and aren’t accountable for their choice at all, even if it’s illegal.
  3. If they reject my dispute, even if their rejection is illegal, I get a strike on my YouTube account. Three strikes and they delete your account.
  4. They can get my video taken down at any time, even if that request is illegal.
  5. We are all arguing about, literally, nickels and dimes here. I make almost no money off of ad revenue because I’m just not popular enough. These arguments are entirely for the principle of the thing. I just hate to watch bullies win.

Parody is going to reach 1,000 views faster than any other video I’ve made. That isn’t much to them, but it’s huge for me. Just let me put up my video and not have to deal with these jerks who are making the most ironic copyright claim in history. Thanks for reading, and I hope you learned something. Or, if not, at least enjoy the song :)

The Gender Dictionary According To Facebook – an explanation of all 55 new gender options

So, Facebook just did an awesome thing: they added a “Custom” option to the Gender options for your profile. To change yours, go to About, then click Edit under Basic Information and select Custom, then type in one of the below choices (or anything else under the sun)!

I’ve compiled a list of all the options that pop up when you start typing a letter and will give an explanation of each one. Maybe one day we’ll live in a world where “Male” or “Female” isn’t even an option any more, but until then, we’ve got awesome platforms like Facebook. Keep up the good work, you creepily invasive social network you!

Many definitions derived or directly lifted from Wikipedia or the Gender Wiki.

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World Music and Rhein Percussion’s Debut Album

In grad school, at least in my grad school, they did their best to, as politely as they could, shove world music down your throat. This has interesting consequences. As hard to believe as this is, not all world music is good. In fact, most of it is bad. Because the phrase “world music” covers, like, 90% of music. It would be really weird if all of it was good.

Maybe because I grew up listening mostly to some strange combination of jazz, Arabic music, and my school bus driver’s favorite R&B top 40, I don’t tend to go nuts for music just because it has a world beat. Great, this uses maksum, how awesome. It’s still just another bad rap track. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the very first time I heard Big Pimpin I flipped out, but a young half-Syrian kid can only handle so much.

What I’m saying is that it’s easy to write off world music as something kitschy, or some kind of gimmick, and sometimes you’d be right. This happens even in the world of academic chamber music… but not even remotely in the case of Rhein Percussion. Rhein means “to flow”, and they seriously do. This album grooves, regardless of how uneven the meter might look on paper, and it does so in a natural, authentic-but-super-fresh manner. They flow seamlessly between improvisation, complex tala and electronics, sometimes combining all three at once.

These guys played on my recital, and many have since said their performance was a highlight. Rhein Percussion consists of a core group of CalArts drummers, with a rotating cast of collaborators. The tracks on their self-titled debut are all composed, mixed, and recorded by ensemble members and friends. Their signature sound combines world rhythms and instrumentation with drum set, and some truly profound soundscapes emerge. Amir Oosman, as I’ve said before on this blog, is a master kit player. Dan Ogrodnik’s knowledge of hand drumming styles knows no bounds. Josh Carro, it’s been rumored, must now carry around an extra set of tablas because the ones he’s playing sometimes spontaneously burst into flames of ecstasy.

On two tracks, Brian Foreman‘s unique brand of electronics and live processing casts the group’s already modern sound into a deep, dark future filled with buzzy beats and rhythmic surprises that modern live electronic production so often lacks. Other collaborators who should blow your mind just by seeing them all on one album: Matthew Clough-Hunter on gamelan, drummers Sean Fitzpatrick and Etienne Rivera, and Ryan Bancroft, Rusty Kennedy, and Andrew Rowan on conch shell. How cool is that?

When the electronics fade, this excellent album rounds out with a couple live performances. The ensemble has already started performing around Los Angeles, just recently at the awesome Blue Whale with the world famous Hands On’Semble, and they were even featured a coveted slot on the 2013 CalArts Jazz CD. Take a listen below, follow them on Facebook, and name your price for their album on Bandcamp.

Niyomkarn – Hue

I am currently listening to Niyomkarn’s new headphones album, Hue. It was produced on the open source program SuperCollider and is entirely in 3D audio (hence the requirement for headphones). I’m now about halfway through the third track, 28 [FISH], and suddenly we’ve gone from the sound of oily fingers on alien glass to a softly rising sun with TV static, then back to the alien glass except now there’s bugs on it.

There are parts of this album that make my ears and brain very uncomfortable in the most pleasant of ways. Other moments are so delicately constructed, especially in terms of panning, that I had to lie down and close my eyes. Between the chaotically rhythmic blips, beeps, drones, noise, static and sirens is an introspective silence from Niyomkarn, an insistent, calm little plea to listen closely. This is my favorite kind of message in music, and some would say it’s the only message.

Too often, composers compose for a purpose. I know I am very guilty of this, if “guilty” is the right word. But some music adamantly exists merely to point out that sound is awesome. That’s what Hue is. An electronic painting of nothing the eyes can see. It’s full of surprises in a genre that often encounters the problem of being so unpredictable, everything is predictable. Maybe in Hue’s case, this is achieved with the three-dimensional mix. The sounds will parade about inside your head, like a fairy circle if the fairies were surrounded by totally rad forcefields and constantly zapping between superpositions.

I’m now on If and Only If, the center track. Two soundscapes faded back and forth, as if vying for attention, giving way to a massively dead center full-spectrum pulse tone called Drops. This drops into (it’s an accurate title) an Indian Rag-esque tabla jam, and it works so well here. Maybe going to CalArts prepares you to be ready for itinerant rag-esque tabla jams popping out at you from every direction. But Jason Guthrie’s drums are soaked in electronics. They feel utterly appropriate. The live performance of this music is really apparent here.

On the other side of If and Only If, we are faced with music that has discovered sampling, harmony and rhythm, but it has unearthed these strange objects on its own and so come to us as hints and dream-thoughts. The effect is palpable. Theory II is a paramecium rave, leading then into lush swaths of harmonic and vocal sampling in Hers.

And this ending. This ending right here. I won’t spoil it, but I can safely say Hue is a journey I’m glad I took. Though the music may scare you at first, I’m here to tell you that music is supposed to do that. It’s supposed too make you uncomfortable in a way that refuses to let you go.

Find Niyomkarn’s album on Bandcamp. Listen there or via the player below.

Bjork, Biophilia, and My Vespertine Friend

I have always had an interesting relationship with Björk’s music. When I was very young, her melodic content often struck me as too non-sequitur. At the time I listened almost exclusively to electronic music, so the fact that I wasn’t head-over-heels for Björk was always a point of contention with my group of friends.

I was introduced to her music videos in 1999, and that was the beginning of a slow descent into fandom that has taken about fifteen years to culminate (which reached its inevitable conclusion two nights ago at the Hollywood Palladium). I always loved Human Behavior because of the groove and Michel Gondry’s signature quirkiness, and of course when I first saw/heard her collaboration with Chris Cunningham in All Is Full of Love I was just as affected by it as anyone else. But I have to admit, I listened more to the Plaid remix, because at about 2:10 it starts to sound like some electronic Baroque symphony, and also because I used to be crazy for anything having to do with Warp Records.

It was a girl I knew in Tennessee who introduced me to Vespertine. It was a summer thing, a friend of a friend, and she was a beautiful blonde Buddhist in the Bible Belt, and we clicked. One night I confessed that I appreciated Björk but didn’t listen to her much. Vespertine had just come out, and my friend insisted that we drive around one foggy night and listen to it in my car. It opens up with Hidden Place, and as soon as the choral swell came in I knew it was a different sort of album. The spectacle of her previous incarnations had always had the feeling of searching to me, not quite settled. But Vespertine was thoughtful, quieter, more complex, and to me more aurally holistic. I was hearing the live-sampled nature of the source material, the shufflings and cracklings helped along by Matmos. For once, it was as if, rather than being shouted at to come over! get to know me!, instead I was being intimately invited into another’s sanctuary, maybe some warmly lit hollowed-out tree, and told to please keep my voice down because she’s got something very private to say.

It was a wonderful gift my friend had given. And I was aghast to discover that so many reviews, though favorable, still compared it diminutively to earlier albums like Homogenic. I remember being particularly livid when I heard Vespertine described as “too feminine”. I suspected then that the majority of her fans sexualized the massive beats in a strange way, as if they were only allowed to like to like a woman’s electronic music because it came across in what they interpreted as some oddly androgynous masculinity. It has certainly always put Björk in a strange position, because it seems so hard for people to realize that she could quite possibly maybe even a little bit be producing her own damn beats. Vespertine was new and honest in a way electronic music rarely is, and hearing it changed my life.

It was about five or six months later, I don’t remember how long exactly. I was a sophomore in college, as was my Vespertine friend at a different school about two hours away. I remember our last conversation on the phone. I had wanted to attend a music festival she was working at, but I didn’t have enough money to make the drive back to Nashville to see her. She said she was disappointed, but she understood. A month after that conversation, she walked off the top of a tall building, ending her own life. I’ve never told anyone about that phone conversation before this post, and not going to Nashville to see her that day is one of the only true regrets I have in life. There’s no way I could have known, but I will never forgive myself for it anyway.

I’ve never been able to make it through Vespertine since. I just tried tonight, actually, but found it’s hard to type when your vision’s all blurry. Apparently, even just typing about it I’m running into the same problem. Suicide is a horrible thing, and it leaves behind scars on the souls of the living that never go away. So please don’t do it. Okay.

The Biophilia Tour, it turns out, is more of a traveling installation residency and educational fundraiser. All proceeds from VIP sales go toward the Biophilia Educational Program, a fun and creative organization that teaches Icelandic children to interact with science and nature in interesting ways. All of the live video during the performance was scientific in some way, from really colorful cartoony stars to an animation showing the recently discovered mechanism by which the DNA double helix is encoded and assembled. In another video, the nuclei of cells turn into lips that sing the chorus. If you didn’t click the above BEP link, it involves this really adorable video of Icelandic preteens watching educational videos, playing Björk’s custom interfaces, jamming with drummer Manu Delago, and even playing the musical tesla coils.

The Hollywood Palladium, at first [insert word like “glance” but with your ears], was not my cup of tea. I later discovered there’s a reason I’d never been to it before: electronic acts tend not to play there because it’s got a notoriously mucky sound. It turns out, however, that this is only true if the performance actually takes place on the stage. Björk had set herself up in the round, with chairs to one side of the floor but allowing audience members to wander and enjoy from any angle they’d like. To top it off, my friends and I spent most of our time about fifteen feet from the Tesla coils, and man those suckers are loud. The show sounded fabulous. Palladium promoters, take note.

In addition to his signature hang drums, Manu played an elaborate, mostly electronic drumset. The samples were triggered by a drum brain, which were also sometimes channelled to Matt Robertson, who ran numerous controllers from his station, including a Novation Launchpad, a Reaktable, and what I believe was a Lemur, all run through Ableton Live. Matt was processing most of the audio input channels, as far as I could tell, but his live manipulation of Manu’s playing was particularly striking.

She had several keyboard-like instruments done up to accept MIDI information, including a bespoke pipe organ and a gameleste, arguing once again that portmanteau is the highest form of semantic expression. Also, the stage was practically littered with iPads. There was a harpist as well, and of course the lovely Icelandic female choir Graduale Nobili, whom I had the good fortune to get to know a little after the concert (also check out Lyrika!). Everyone was very down to earth and grateful for the opportunity to work with Björk for such a good cause.

The Tesla coil was important to me, because it’s an electronic instrument that doesn’t have a bitrate. It requires no post-amplification or line out. It just is. It’s what electricity sounds like to the naked ear. But after a conversation with one of my friends, I came to agree that the gravity harp was the instrument that most accurately communicated the intention of the residency. Watch it playing during her performance of Solstice below:

Controlled by resident pendulologist Frank Arthur Cassata, designed by Andy Cavatorta and interfaced by James Patten, the gravity harp is four giant robot pendulums outfitted with tuned, rotating sleeves sporting eleven strings each. As the pendulums naturally swing back and forth, a fixed guitar pick plucks the string closest to it. As the pendulum swings out again, the sleeve can stay on the note, rotate to another, or rotate fully to create a rest. The motion of the pendulums is controlled mostly by the simple interaction of mass and gravity. It’s never quite regular, creating a hauntingly near-human cadence that stays with you long after the performance has finished. My brother actually uses an inverted pendulum model in his PhD studies on human walking, and in our talks about his work I’ve come to realize what fascinatingly elegant and endlessly inspiring machines they are.

All this sonic geekery is well and good. It’s a thorough and thoughtful production, both educational and forward-thinking. But at the center of it all, of course, is Björk and her powerful voice, her poetic lyrics, her spritely dancing, and the music. I’ve seen so many sound installations in my day, especially since attending grad school at a place like CalArts. But no matter how elaborate your machines, or how clever your interfaces, in the end it means nothing without the music and a personality like Björk’s to tie it all together.

And, as it turns out, a large part of this tour involves songs from Vespertine. When she launched into Hidden Place, and that gorgeous live choir swelled, ladies and gentleman, I lost it. I went back to a time before I lost my friend, driving through a light fog in the hills of Tennessee, and I cried. And her ability to elicit that kind of emotional response out of electronic music, singing about scientific themes and techy installations, and to have that effect on someone who took over a decade to finally get around to admitting it… that’s what makes Björk one of the most important musicians and performers of our time. I’m so grateful I had a chance to see this show, and if it is even remotely possible, go and see her festival set at the Hollywood Bowl today. I promise, you won’t regret it.


(The images bookending this entry were taken by Paige K. Parsons. Go support her, she’s awesome!)

Lightning in a Bottle: Off the Grid Electronica

Now, let me point out from the get go that I am not a music festival person per se. Huge music festivals often fall into the trap of more vibe than music, which is awesome for people looking for a good vibe but maybe not such an awesome venue to see your favorite band ever surrounded by mud and screaming people who’ve never heard of them, all of which at a timeslot conflicting with your other second favorite band who you really wanted to see too.

But niche festivals like Lightning in a Bottle are different. First and foremost, the LIB performances are pretty well spread out as far as I can tell. Secondly, the whole shebang feels extremely Californian, which I dig. West coasters like PANTyRAiD, Tycho, Eskmo, ChrisB, Desert Dwellers, Goldroom, Sex Pixels, and I’m sure several others I didn’t recognize will all be there rocking everything from glitch hop to downtempo. I can support a local festival that supports my friends and their friends. Finally, it’s not just a music festival. There are workshops and seminars on everything from green living to African mythology. Well, actually I can see how those two things can be related, but like, there’s one called “Tits & Asstrology”. So, yeah. That happened.

Anyway, with workshops sporting such colorful titles as “Magic in the Mandala” and “Cosmic Sound Concert” it’s all a bit like bringing Venice Beach to Temecula, which is chill, and plus there’s a didgeridoo class! How cool is that? I totally want to go to that. But what I really started thinking about while looking up this festival is the convergence the ever-evolving DIY mentality has taken us to. How different is a workshop teaching you to build your own green home out of natural materials than learning to program your own MIDI controller through an Arduino, really? In fact, my brother once helped green up his home by turning his window blinds into robots that opened and closed with the sun, and he did that with an Arduino for less than $30. See? Same thing. Basically.

Going even deeper, recalling the common dilemma of being less the music and more the vibe, in this case LIB has done an excellent job of having one support the other. The type of people interested in future music are also those interested in future in general, in abstractions of truths like astrology and whatever a cosmic concert means to them. Because thinking of the future by definition means you can’t rely on the status quo. This festival has put together music, seminars, and workshops all for a demographic who are trying to think a little ahead of what’s accepted. There’s a lurking problem with ego in that previous statement, but in this case I think overall it’s quantifiably true, whether the ego thing will end up being properly mitigated or not.

The DIY future is impending. Everyone knows it. As technology becomes cheaper and information more accessible, nothing we now consider “normal” will be safe. LIB has chosen which end of the spectrum they’d like to be on: the electro-future thinkers full of didgeridoos and asstrology. I think I can support that.

To Be A Master; or, Embracing Amazonian Tactics

Hello, friends and readers, internet denizens and explorers. I have officially graduated with my Masters of Fine Arts from California Institute of the Arts, which is all sorts of arts up in here. It was an amazing experience, in which I learned, grew, and evolved as an artist, even if those three previous verbs turn out to be redundant semantically. I now know an incredible network of talented friends and good people who truly believe in the power of the arts as a way to make the world a better, more understanding sort of place, even if those two previous adjectives also turn out to be redundant.

From another angle, what I’m trying to say is that I’ve now joined the ranks of hopeless indebted Americans with a degree notorious for making survival difficult. But hopefully this blog will help make that a slightly less accurate stereotype! I love this blog, and though my post frequency experienced a deliberate and considerable dropoff over the past two years, I’m thrilled to be able to go back to it and hopefully post on a roughly daily basis again.

To the above end, I have decided to become an Amazon Affiliate. This means that for certain links on this website, I can get a small amount of money if someone buys something after clicking it. I’ll only ever promote products I use myself or believe in very strongly. I hope to be able to help out artists and authors that I feel deserve it, which I’ve been doing for free for the last several years already. If any ads show up, they will be personally selected by myself, which means they will be trustworthy and non-animated, because seriously, I don’t enjoy money nearly as much as I hate animated ads.

Below I’ve compiled a list of my gear. I will add to it (pun?) as I (hopefully) acquire more professional equipment (toys) in the future (present). They will be archived at my new gear page. Please click on everything a thousand million times and buy all of them, because they have literally made me into the musician I am today.

Thanks for your continued readership and support while this blog was on semi-hiatus, and please stay tuned! More in the works. Maybe even an ebook? Okay, moving on!


PRESENTING: PAUL’S MASTER GEAR LIST!



Macbook Pro

While to some it may seem obvious, my Macbook is the brain of my entire operation, and the main point I’d like to make here is that switching to Mac from PC was the greatest decision of my life. If you even remotely plan to perform using your laptop, ever, one night you’ll be having the set of your life when suddenly your PC will crash. It just will. Be very careful with your third party plugins and (if you’re a beast) Max patches or whatever, and your Macbook will treat you so very right.


MOTU Traveler
MOTU Traveler

If my Macbook Pro is the brain of my studio, my MOTU is the heart. I mean, their company name stands for “Mark Of The Unicorn”. How can you get more endearing than that?

When I bought this piece of gear which was (and still would be) very expensive for someone like me, my whole life changed. I had previously owned an M-Audio 2-channel external soundcard which, to its credit, performed exactly as the box said it would. But I couldn’t stereo multitrack, the MIDI latency was atrocious, and the sound of the inputs made me grind my teeth at night. So I researched for months, and finally bought the Traveler, and it saved my life.

I was living in the living room of a 1-bedroom apartment. I would travel around Los Angeles after work, recording in strange places, mixing everywhere. I’d go to friend’s places and record there. I’d even go overseas and record while abroad. And my MOTU went with me. It doesn’t require a power cable, which is incredible. It has premium sounding mic pre-amps, four of which are dual XLR/quarter-inch. It supports daisy chaining, just about any cable format you can think of, and because of the dual action gain knobs essentially doubles as a mixer. 8 ins and 8 outs! A digital mixing board that fits in a backpack! And it supports near-zero latency MIDI!

No other unit in my studio gets more use or more love than my Traveler. I can’t recommend it enough for the highly mobile laptop audiophile.




Ableton Live 8 Suite

Now, you’ll notice I’m not talking about the brand new Ableton 9 and its Push Controller. This is not because I don’t want to. Indeed, nothing would make me happier than to tell you that I own these things and that you should too. But I can’t afford them, and so I can only speak to Live 8. And what I will speak to it is that it is the best, most intuitive, most useful solution to the Digital Audio Workstation in existence. Ableton changed my life in the same way the Traveler did. I’ve been forced to use ProTools over and over again, and the one thing that keeps running through my head (besides “No, I do not want a detailed report, dammit!“) is this question: “Why are we still trying to recreate an analog recording setup when analog recording setups are becoming obsolete?”

Enter Ableton Live. It was built from the ground up as a live performance space, and then evolved into a fully functional DAW from that perspective. Since it’s a platform meant to allow one to improvise synthesized and sampled music, there’s no better program for composition and performance out there. And for a while, that’s all it was best at. But now, and especially with what I’m told is a nice update to their digital/analog conversion algorithm in version 9, Ableton has become a platform that can run your entire studio, leaving dinosaurs like ProTools and Logic to the meteors.

This opinion of mine is the subject of an incredible amount of controversy. ProTools was revolutionary, and people still get angry at me for badmouthing it. And, seriously, to each their own. I’m not really hating on either ProTools or Logic (much), but for me, and for anyone who considers themselves a composer, Ableton Live is the only program that makes any sense whatsoever.




Rode NT1A Condenser Microphone

When I bought this microphone in 2004, the world was a different place. As I see it, there were two main differences in terms of microphones: first, the concept of buying Chinese-made knockoffs was laughable, and second, the online DIY community was a tiny, burgeoning infant still struggling to get its IMG SRC code right. Now remakes like the MXL 603S exist and are really hard to discount, excuse the pun, and DIY microphones have me drooling more and more with each successive Google query.

So, if we’re being honest here, I have no idea if I’m still allowed to tout the NT1A like I do. But I can tell you that, having worked in six serious recording studios in last ten years, this is still one of the quietest, most universal, best sounding microphones $200 could ever buy, especially if you record a lot of vocals. I get sentimental about my NT1A the same way I do about my MOTU. I’ve beat the poor thing to a pulp, spit buckets into it, thrown it in backpacks and hauled it across oceans, and the little guy just keeps on chugging, like the little engine that could, sounding great, avoiding hiss and if anything sounding better over time. Plus, Rode is a fabulous company who take great pride in their microphones at any price level. Had I ever had to get my mic repaired, they would have done so for free, just like Seagate. But that has never happened, and that’s why I still recommend the NT1A as a multi-purpose condenser mic after all these years.




Audix OM2 Dynamic Microphone

Compare this simple dynamic mic to the Shure SM57 or SM58 on both price point and frequency response, and the OM2 wins out every time. It’s $20 bucks cheaper and doesn’t have weird bumps in the response that suspiciously match tape stock compression.

Look, I know that every studio on earth has like, boxes of Shures. Sound engineers stick with what they know, and in the first half of the 20th century these simple machines were only encumbered by the occasional angel choirs that would sing after a particularly heavenly recording experience. I get it. But we have come so far now. I love the Shures as much as the next studio engineer, but you are wasting cash buying one these days when you can get a better, cheaper dynamic mic from someone like Audix.




KRK Rokit 5 Studio Monitors

One day, decades from now, producers of the future will look back on these speakers as the Yamaha NS10s of our generation. They may not be perfect, they may not get much respect, but they are the people’s speaker. In the wild west that is the current music production scene, these speakers give you the sound you need to connect with your listener. Beginning and end of story. They have an impressive bass response, not flat but nudged just right. These are the speakers Skrillex mixed his breakout “My Name Is Skrillex” album on. KRK makes a ton of great speakers, but the people have spoken, and for the price these simply can’t be beat.




Beyerdynamic DT880 Headphones

Noise complaints have always been the bane of my existence. That, and the carrying weight of a studio monitor pair. So I had to get mixing headphones.

There’s a lot of things to think about when purchasing mixing headphones. First of all, you have to think of any possible way you can avoid it. No matter what you do, psychologically and laws-of-physicsly, your bass levels are going to be off. Another of your most important considerations is comfort: are you really going to want to wear the damn things on your ears for eight hours a day? Just physical comfort-wise?

These headphones have been the trick up my sleeve for years. I auditioned many, many pairs, and when I finally placed these around my earholes, A-and-B-ing between monitors and headphones, at first I wasn’t sure if the headphones were plugged in! True story. They sound extremely true, and that is not something I would say lightly. I developed a workflow where I could get the sound good enough on my headphones, then adjust a few bass levels after a listen in my car, and that was my ghetto mixing flow that ended up working wonders. (Typing that out, it’s actually probably a candidate for accidental genius. Headphones, computer speakers, and car speakers? Basically the entire world’s listening palette these days.)

Disclaimer: These are absolutely NOT recording cans. The giant cushions create far too much bleed; you’ll hear your click in everything. But no matter what anyone tells you, the best recording headphones you’ll ever find are earbuds. They don’t even have to be all that nice. Nowadays any medium-grade earbuds are more than sufficient for recording thanks to the iPod revolution. They’re comfortable, unobtrusive, and create zero bleed. You take that one home for free.




M-Audio Keystudio MIDI Controller

Out of all my workflow, this is probably the most basic element. I was broke and needed something with more than one octave. You’ll find a similar controller keyboard sitting in front of every composer’s workstation in the world. You need a mod wheel and a pitch bend. Everything else is gravy.

They get much more complicated. Honestly, I’m eyeing a smaller interface with knobs to twiddle and sample pads to mash. But, philosophically, we are taking what’s in our human heads and converting that into very long series of numbers. Your controller is one of the ways we’ve found to keep that transition as human as possible. Get a keyboard, or a Launchpad, or something, but if you don’t have some kind of interface your music will suffer.




Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex External 1.5TB Hard Drive

This may be the most insider recommendation I have. There are hundreds of different versions of hard drives out there, and, I don’t know about you, but it seems like no matter how big the drive, internal or whatever, I always manage to fill it up in no time. I’m collecting hard drives like some crazy digital content hoarder. But with all the backups we have to make (you do backup religiously, right?), plus the demands of higher and higher format resolutions, digital storage space is a specter that’s always looming.

I worked in digital storage for years. I worked at a top tier digital post production house in Hollywood, and we operated what was at the time the largest digital storage facility on the west coast. This was used entirely for hi-res video FX and colorization filmouts. And do you know how they were solely delivered? Digital tapes and EIGHT MILLION DIFFERENT TYPES OF HARD DRIVES. And I had to deal with every single one, every single awkward, rickety-assed firewire some FX producer had dropkicked into the backseat of their pickup before shoving it through our mail slot. And do you know the one drive that always, always worked?

Seagate. I have some kind of Pavlovian response to seeing a Seagate label. If I saw one of these come through the pipes, I knew I could relax. Their drive would be efficient, quick, and reliable every damn time. In the rare case there was an issue, I knew that it would be fixed quickly, because they have a lifetime parts and data recovery warrantee. No one ever lost shots on a Seagate. This model that I own has a separate Firewire 800 adaptor that finally broke after two years of mistreatment, and they mailed me a replacement within a week, no questions asked, for free.

And though the newest models are usually a bit pricy, the “old” ones go on sale all the time. All of their drives are 7200 RPM. With a Firewire 800, USB 3.0, or Thunderbird attachment, this means that I can get performance speeds off my solid-state Seagate anywhere I go. I can load up my sample libraries, Atmosphere, all the big dogs and not have to worry about bitrate lag. And the thing is tiny! I can easily fit it in the pocket of my jeans. Not that I do that, mind you, I’m just saying, it’s technically pocket-sized. Take it from someone who hates hard drives: this is an awesome hard drive.


As I said, I’ll be adding to this via this page as time goes by. Any little click helps. And there will be an ebook based one of this blogs most popular posts, with updated and expanded sections. Exciting! See you, space cowboys!

Black Betty: On the Use of Metaphor in Blues, or: The Oldest Hook in the Book

I originally started this article with the intention of delving into the history of the song Black Betty. I wanted to trace its murky origins to back when it was a field holler, first recorded by Iron Head Baker and made famous in the above-linked medley released by Lead Belly in 1939. Numerous versions of Black Betty have popped up since, notably Ram Jam’s huge (and only) hit and the more recent Australian band Spiderbait’s banjolin/drum machine… release… hit… thing. During the process of researching the subject however, I soon felt this route had been travelled to its inevitable conclusion countless times already: no one really knows for certain what the song is about.

The various interpretations touted by armchair music historians are fascinating and diverse. Here are a few popular wild guesses at meanings:

  • An old flintlock rifle with a black headstock. The internet seems to think the child would be Brown Bess, but I remember hearing somewhere the child was a bullet fired.
  • A bottle of whiskey, as recorded by Ben Franklin in 1827 (he’s kiss’d black Betty).
  • A prison guard’s bull whip.
  • The prison transfer wagon, or possibly a combination of this and the whip.
  • A an actual person, i.e. a prostitute, slave, troublesome significant other, etc.
  • Heroin, speed, or some other type of drug.

And while I’d love to go around picking up examples and attempting to draw conclusions, CocoJams has already done a stellar job collecting and analyzing various versions of the text, and there’s no way I could do the job half as well as they have. My article would have ended up simply plagiarizing theirs, a sure sign it’s better I just don’t write it in the first place. So go read up and listen to some wonderful versions and then head back here. I’ll wait.

…Great. So then I started to pull back a bit and research double meanings in the blues in general. This, I would say, was fruitful, in the same way someone looking to bait their hook stumbles into a warehouse full floor-to-ceiling with cans of worms. As it turns out, not only is the double entendre prevalent in early blues songwriting, but you make a strong case for defining one as the other. It seems the entire purpose of the blues was appearing to sing about one thing while really singing about another. Take for example this outstanding 1927 article written by Guy B. Johnson, one of those saints of early twentieth century social anthropology who recognized the influence of African culture as the revolutionary tour de force it was. Johnson made a career of interviewing and cataloguing early black American culture (including publishing the oldest known printed version of the ballad of John Henry, which is incredible) and in this article shines a light on the rift between two musical traditions in which language plays a noticeably different role.

Guy Johnson’s article focuses only on double meanings as pertaining to sexual acts and body parts, which admittedly makes up for the majority of double meanings in blues. This being the case, I’ve always personally thought of Black Betty as a flintlock rifle and a prostitute (or some generic troublesome woman) at the same time. Even if the song did used to be just about a rifle, eventually some folks got clever and made it about whatever they wanted, but left the old verses in too. It’s just a guess really, but I do so with millennia of folk songs to back me up. Even in present day, if you look at, oh I don’t know, Daft Punk’s Harder Better Faster Stronger, it’s a a mostly aesthetic lyric about working hard to produce music. Kanye’s version Stronger keeps the same chorus, but re-contextualizes it as simultaneously being about sex and the state of the music industry by adding his own words around the originals. Pop music is contemporary folk music, and folk music has been constantly undergoing this process since the first time someone less talented heard someone else’s really good chorus and ran with it.

We can then draw the conclusion that Black Betty is probably about at least three things at the same time. The multiple allegory is distinctly made possible by the ambiguity of the lyrics. Had the subject matter been specifically stated (“Whoa-ah, Black Betty, the flintlock musket / Whoa-ah Black Betty, she performs really well in wartime if you oil her / Bam-ba-lam”), we would never have heard of her. The direct relationship with metaphor is as important to the blues as the twelve-bar structure.

We’ve come a long way since Guy B. Johnson’s initial publications, and most people nowadays can probably figure out what “black snake moan” means without too much mental strain. There are even exhaustive online dictionaries that can interpret certain blues terminology for those of us that don’t quite speak the blues but are interested in the culture. Who hasn’t heard the terms mojo, shimmy, son of a gun, and so forth. Blues lyricists were American Shakespeares, in the sense that we all use the terms without realizing where they come from. It’s a lovely example of adversity giving rise to excellent poetry, due in this case to the necessity of hiding one’s true intentions.

One of the most important points evident in the Johnson paper and the online dictionary is that many (if not most) terms had two or more interpretations. There are so many hidden meanings that have nothing to do with sex (killing floor, crossroads, etc.) and I think it’s a bit dismissive. It’s so easy to repeatedly answer the question “What’s this song about?” by simply saying “It’s about sex, duh.” They’re basically all about sex on some level. That doesn’t answer the question. The reason certain songs seem to last and get covered over and over again is because there is, as Jack Lemmon used to say, a method under the mattress. And that lasting quality is what I’d like to cover in the next section of this post.

Okay, here we go. One of the most important parts of popular music is memorability. Here are some surefire ways to get people to remember your lyrics:

  1. Rhyming. Everyone knows this. Humans have been rhyming for thousands of years, in order to help
    bards remember really long epic tales of heroics and the people to remember which religion is the best. The less non-rhyming words between the ones that rhyme the better. (Note: this also explains Eminem.)
  2. Alliteration. When you know what letter the next word starts with, you have a big head start on remembering
    what it is.
  3. Interesting words. The more you have boring words like if/the/and/is/what/that/so/etc., the more extraneous material you have around your deeply meaningful words, the more syllables, notes, non-rhyming nonsense someone has to keep in their head.
  4. Surprise. People will be more likely to remember your lyrics if they’ve never heard those words combined
    before. This is a tricky one, because if your words are completely unassociated they won’t merge as a cohesive unit, and then no one will care anyway.

What I’m describing here, of course, is a hook. It’s a gray area, but somewhere between Virgil and Tears For Fears (“Shout” is still the shortest, catchiest hook ever written, runner up only to “Shout” by the Isley Brothers) lies the line at which prose becomes poetry becomes lyrics becomes a hook. And from the standpoint of songwriting, “Black Betty” is at least three of those things.

Even in terms of song structure, Black Betty follows the cardinal rule of songwriting as laid out for us by Dave Grohl, taking inspiration from Roxette: Don’t bore us, get to the chorus! So let’s look at Black Betty:

Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam

Holy crap, folks. Look at that line, knowing what we know now. Just stare at it. Bask in its beauty. It’s technically not a chorus, though, it’s a refrain. So the full chorus goes like this:

Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam
Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam
Black Betty, Black betty, Bam-ba-lam
Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam

My god. This is literally the greatest chorus, built off the greatest refrain, which features the greatest hook, ever written, sung, or stared in awe at by jaded bloggers. Let’s look at that first word.

Whoa-oh!

An extension of “whoa”, the mantra of Keanu Reeves and excited everypersons everywhere since the beginning of time, the exclamation could be that of celebrating friends at a barrelhouse, or just before one tumbles through tempests on a high seas adventure, or just before climaxing with the greatest lover you’ve ever seen or will see. Who is that lover? Perhaps…

Black Betty!

Maybe you’re at war, and all that’s keeping you alive is your flintlock, spit-shined to a sheen of coal black steel, or maybe she really is that woman to whom you can’t say no, and ain’t that woman just like a bottle of rye? In this life, you give up the woman for the whiskey or the other way around, but either way Black Betty’s gonna getcha.

Bam-ba-lam!

Talk about surprise! Here we were just talking about Betty, when BAM! Ba-LAM! Do you even realize, one paragraph up, how hard it was to type “Black Betty” but not follow it with its 150 year-old onomatopoeic successor? Since the mid-1800s, people have been following Betty with the explosions, and it feels wrong to separate the two for the purposes of this post even for that brief paragraph. Two pairs of Bs on repeat (all the alliteration you want) and not a single extraneous preposition among them. Here’s another incarnation of the chorus:

Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam
Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam
Jump steady Black betty, Bam-ba-lam
Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam

Jump steady! Boy, what a rhyme, and what an exciting phrase, both challenging and gratifying at the same time. Did that phrase even exist before it was laid out here? It seems perfectly about a gun here, doesn’t it? What more would we want than to have a nice clean kickback upon firing. Far better than the damn thing gone crazy. But when we ask her to shake that thing, maybe she’s shaking something she’s shooting at, but more likely she’s shaking her ya-ya, or if she isn’t we’d strongly like her to. The subject matter is sexy, a little racy, or maybe violent… in other words, this short little piece of music is its own little self-contained Hollywood blockbuster, practically already in negotiations with Michael Bay’s people for the summer time slot.

I could go on writing like this about Black Betty (which you may have gathered is a personal favorite) for days. It’s not that the song as a whole has some particular meaning that I or countless others are drawn to. The point is that each phrase/word/sound/syllable/phoneme has so many levels of enjoyment and meaning that the listener is free to attach whichever specific, personal association they choose. What’s more, the concept of “the hook” has always been a folk staple, but in the marriage of African rhythmic sensibility and European harmonic language, America gave birth to the pop genre which would eventually rule the world. Black Betty is one of the prime relics of the birth of the American chorus.

By writing songs in an environment that forced musicians to avoid specifics in favor of metaphor and coded language, the blues repertoire was able to convey deep sorrow, frustration, and heartache in a more universal manner than previously possible, thus infusing the cross-cultural charm that allowed the blues to break across borders and be translated into endlessly diverse genres, a process that continues to this day. While Buddy Guy may give a frankly bleak outlook on the future of blues as a distinct format, he refers more to the aesthetic than to the tradition. In a hundred years, whatever music sounds like at the time, whatever instruments technology will have given us, rest assured they will be using them to record yet another cover of Black Betty, one of the oldest and greatest hooks ever written.

Joomanji’s new album free for 48 hours

In a soundscape overwhelmed by inhuman beats and 200late electro-wobbles, groove collective Joomanji follows up their 2012 self-titled debut with Manj, taking us even deeper into what’s possible when good production meets virtuosic jams from across the cultural divide. With its core of instrumentalists, including producer/wizard Jonah Christian and drum prodigy Amir Oosman, Joomanji brings with it a small army of talented friends, each with their own individual flavor.

This collaborative mentality, the fearlessness of appropriation from any musical tradition, never shying away from getting further outside than expected, and the electronic samples and textures are what make the overall soundscape of this release so relevant in the current hip hop/jazz scene. This crossover genre needs to happen more, and California seems like the perfect breeding ground, spearheaded of course by the likes of Joomanji.

Check out Jamal Moore’s deep flute freakouts between Arielle Deem‘s vox on earworm Around the World, or Nick Bianchini’s beautiful trumpet textures sprinkled throughout. Not to mention soon-to-be-world-renown entertainer Austin Antoine rapping, often freestyle, in his default blow-your-mind state. You’d never expect it all to come together, because you probably haven’t heard it work before. But Joomanji pulls it off, and that’s why this is one band to keep an eye on in the weeks, months, and years to come.

Listen for free below, or name your price and download from their bandcamp for the next 48 hours. This blog does not take responsibility for any excessive head bobbing injuries sustained while listening to Joomanji.

If It Sounds Good, It Is Good: an interview with Micropangea composer Brendan Byrnes

Composer, guitarist, and recent CalArts alum Brendan Byrnes stopped by to talk about his debut album, synesthesia, boutique netlabels, and Katy Perry.
 


So, first things first. It’s called Micropangea.

It is called Micropangea.

You are Brendan Byrnes.

Yes.

It’s got 8 tracks. Is Fever Swimmer the only live track?

Yes.

But there are live elements on most of the other tracks.

Yeah, live drums and guitars.

Michael Day did most of the drums and percussion, right?

And one guy named Mike Horrick, who’s a drummer in LA I lived with in Chicago. He listened to that song on the drive up and just nailed it in a couple takes. He wants to be a session drummer. He’s that kind of guy. He’s in a lot of bands, and we’ve done things in the past.

A lot of people at CalArts are doing just intonation and alternate tunings because of Wolfgang. You took his class I’m guessing?

I did. I took the intonation course both semesters, and I studied with him privately.

How much influence would you say he had? Did he give you, like, scales to use?

No, honestly, Wolfgang and I treat microtonality a bit differently. And he’s kind of come from the line of great German composers. He maybe sees himself in that lineage. So he’s writing for instruments that don’t have fixed pitch. And when you’re dealing with instruments where the player can actually tune on the fly really easily, JI is pretty much the only way you can go. You can tune just intervals because there’s a moment of quietness that you get with just intervals. They stop beating, stop sounding out of tune in a sense. My approach is more based on scales, having a fixed set of notes that I use that are weird, and they might be just or they might be tempered, it depends. But I have it laid out on a guitar or a keyboard or at least conceptually. He’s more about the infinite pitch spectrum, but dealing with that with a limited range of prime limits. Have you heard of prime limits?

No, what’s that?

Prime limit is basically… you’ll often hear a 7-limit, or a 13-limit or 11-limit, and the number corresponds to the partial in the harmonic series. So if you’re dealing with 7-limit, that means you’ll have the natural 7th in play, and that against other intervals will be a 7-limit interval. If you have 11-limit, you’re using that quarter tone that’s between the 4th and augmented 4th, so that expands your harmonic space.

So, when you talk about that with his way of composition, that’s a lot more, “Okay, we’re gonna have an orchestra, and you guys all play like 32 cents down here, and 17 cents up here.” Is that what you’re talking about?

Yes.

Whereas you tune the instruments to a scale, and have everybody play the scales you’ve put together beforehand.

Yeah, in a sense. And on the album I’m mostly dealing with synthesizers, so I have a fixed pitch then. But I do intend to bring this into the live realm, and retune pianos and re-fret guitars, that kind of thing. So the pitches are given, and that allows you to use different scales, like different divisions of the octave. Which all have their own character, sort of a color palette, which I find really interesting.

For example, is it Zibra Island that has the non-repeating octave thing?

Non-octave scale, yeah.

To me, that was the scale that sounded the most crazy. Plus you have these rising motions on that one, so no matter what, at some point, it’s just going to sound crazy out of tune.

Yeah, it just never shows up again, and as a composer you’re like, “What the fuck? Where’s my octave?”

When you’re composing with that, is there a tonic that you’re using? Are there base frequencies that you go back to?

With this particular piece, that scale, no. Sometimes there’s close octaves, they might be out of tune, and sometimes you can fake it, but sometimes you have nothing available to you. So it does shape the way your composition is going to go. But there is a pretty popular scale called the Bohlen-Pierce scale which is 13 equal divisions of a perfect 12th, which is an octave plus a fifth. So instead of, in JI terms an octave is 2:1, a perfect 12th is 3:1. It’s the next most consonant interval, so if you give that equivalence and divide that up, you’re making a fifth plus octave. So in that kind of a scale there is a base to stand on. But in this scale it was just wacky.

Are you a Logic guy?

Yes.

And are there a lot of soft synths that you had a keyboard attached to?

Yeah, I used a MIDI controller pretty extensively, and I used this program called Lil’ Miss Scale Oven.

Everybody I know who took Wolfgang’s class, all they ever wrote in was intonation and crazy scales. It’s like hacking your brain. Someone told me Wolfgang can’t listen to pianos anymore, because they sound out of tune to him.

Yeah, they do. I mean I tune pianos semi-professionally, and… yeah. It’s weird. But at the same time I’m really glad that I do that, because there is something to tempered scales, and beating sounds really beautiful to me. I love 12-tone equal tempered, it’s given us hundreds of years of awesome music. It’s a great scale. And JI, it’s like new consonances, kind of like a beatless sound, and that’s cool, but JI music always sounds like JI music. Which isn’t a bad thing.

Does it feel like a movement to you? We can do it more easily now with computers, whereas before we really couldn’t, or it was really difficult to get performed. So do you think it’s going to catch on?

Well, I’ve done a lot of research online and joined various chat groups. There’s a big group on Facebook called Xenharmonic Alliance. It seems to be growing, and it seems that there’s more and more music coming out, and there’s more and more people getting interested in it, I think in large part because it’s so much easier to retune things now. There’s a program called Scala which is free and people are using it… In the year or two that I’ve been paying attention to it, it seems to have been growing, and people seem to be more enthusiastic. Maybe I’m biased because I’m at CalArts and there’s a bunch of people into it, and there’s classes on it and it seems very natural at this point.

But all around the world… There’s this guy Toby Twining, who’s a composer in New York, he just wrote a massive work for choir that’s all JI. It’s heavy, it’s amazing. It’s one of the more important works that I’ve heard for the 21st century. So it seems to be catching on. And I think when people hear it, even if they don’t know it’s microtonal, it has that thing where it’s like, “Oh, it sounds kinda different, what’s going on there?” So for that reason alone I think it could catch on.

You said you wanted to move in a direction of performing it live. Are you going to do a guitar choir, or a band?

I think it’s going to be an ensemble with at least a few guitars. I recently just got a junkie piano and retuned it to just intonation. So, I can’t carry a piano around, but I’m starting to move toward acoustic instruments and get out of synth land.

Which I think is good.

I think it’ll translate.

And you sang too, right?

Yeah, I sang a little bit on one song, Vacant City.

Talk about the process of writing lyrics and singing for a microtonal JI track.

You know it was a lot easier than you might imagine. I mean, you would understand, as a member of a choir, you just adjust. And I’m singing in what is considered 5-limit, which means I’m not singing quarter tones. I’m essentially singing in a mean tone, or 12-tone equal tempered system, it’s kind of the same range. So I’m using familiar intervals, major 3rds and minor 7ths and all that stuff, and adjusting depending on the harmony. It took me a while to really find where I wanted it to be, but I’m not singing crazy quarter tones.

It was more like the leaps I feel, and there were a couple times, like the line “there’s no sound in the air”.

Yeah, like that half step is small, that kind of thing.

Did you do that all in one take?

No, I had the demo in my car a bunch, and I just sort of worked on it.

And just did it intuitively.

It was intuitive, yes. I didn’t have a synthesizer where I was checking stuff. If it sounds good, it is good.

And you said that you use guitars that combine together and make the scale, because they hocket together or something?

Oh, on the last track. So that’s in 17-EDO, which is 17 equal divisions of the octave. I tuned six guitars to that scale. In 17-EDO the fifth is 705 cents, so that means 4ths are good, octaves, and 5ths are good. So on a guitar you just play 5th frets, and fret 12, 17, 19. So that was the only thing the players could play. But each guitar was in a different tuning system so I could cover the whole ground. I had a keyboard with stickers on it to make sure I could get all the notes, and then wrote essentially one guitar part, just played between a bunch of guitars.

This is a concept album too. There was one really cool description on the site talking about the colors that you see.

Yeah, I have synesthesia a little bit. It helps me compose and that’s how I experience music. Songs or albums to me have a definite color scheme and I can’t change that in my brain. I guess it’s useful in a minor degree, but it’s more or less just kinda fun.

Did you talk to the website designer about the colors?

Yeah, I gave her a color scheme and described the locations that I had in mind when composing for it, and she totally took it in her own direction. It was just, “Here’s the very basic bare bones information, do what you will.” She did an amazing job. It’s her own work of art.

You’re graduated with a Master’s now. I’m curious about the practical side of doing music like this. Obviously this isn’t trying to be the next Top 40. It’s a passion for you.

Exactly.

So, especially for people interested in doing this kind of music, what would your advice to them be?

Well, my advice would be to completely ignore your theory from the get go, and tune your keyboard, or your instrument or whatever you got to something fucked up and try to make some music with it. And then, once you do… I mean that’s what clicked for me. Honestly, I took Wolfgang’s class for a year and just sat there and took it. It was like, “Wow, that’s far out.” But it wasn’t until the summer that I had time to retune my keyboard, and as soon as I got an idea working a lightbulb went off. And that’s when I dove into real research.

When you would do a new tuning, how much did you know going into it? Or would you just fuck around?

Well, I had Harry Partch’s Genesis Of A Music, and in the back he has an appendix of all the JI intervals he has on his chromelodeon and the set values. So I made a copy of that and put it on my wall in front of my workspace. And I was like, “I wonder what that interval sounds like?” And I would tune it to that and listen and go, “Whoa, that’s weird, I’m gonna keep that in the scale,” or “I don’t like that interval,” and construct a scale just to try the intervals initially. Some of the scales worked as an entity, some of them didn’t, and then I just started writing pieces. Eventually I realized there were all these other temperaments, different divisions of the octave that weren’t possible on a 12-note repeating scale, and that’s when I realized I need to get Lil’ Miss Scale Oven and start hacking into the applications.

Once I did that it was off to the races. I think you need to understand music and theory to a certain extent, but you can really use your ears a lot. I think the important thing that I realized is that there are interval categories that you can’t erase out of your brain, like major 3rds, minor 2nds, stuff like that. But there are other interval categories that we don’t have access to in 12-tone equal temperament, like neutral intervals, that quarter tone that I mentioned, the 11th partial, some argue the natural 7th partial, we just don’t have access to those notes in our scale. But other scales you do, and in different divisions of the octave you get good approximations of those intervals. So, just getting your brain wrapped around those, and using those compositionally… it’s trial and error. There are theory books out there, but, I guess if you have the right type of brain you could go that route. That’s cool, but for me, I just made music with it and tried to understand it.

What are some intervals that you’re particularly fond of?

Well, I think when you’re first starting, the 11/8, that’s the clincher for most people. The 11/8 is that quarter tone between the 4th and the augmented 4th. Because when you hear that as a consonance, and it’s a note you haven’t heard before, and it’s an interval category you haven’t heard before… it’s not a fourth, it’s not a tritone, it’s like this weird thing, and that it sounds beautiful… that is pretty cool. And notes based off of that are neutral intervals. Because it’s a quarter tone, you get a neutral seventh, which is between a minor 7th and a major 7th, but it’s consonant. There’s neutral 2nds which I think are really beautiful. I guess I’m just really into neutral intervals.

All of these tracks are either in 4 or 3 time, aren’t they?

Yeah, there’s not very much odd meter at all.

Was that a conscious decision, or more because you had that intuitive approach?

I love 4/4, I love 3/4, I love 6/8… I mean I love odd meter stuff too, but to me there was enough craziness going on, I didn’t want to get any more confusing than I already was. And I wanted to make something very listenable, not pop music, but something very melodic, very simple structures, just to make it more listenable for myself and for listeners too.

Some people might say you’re crazy for making a listenable microtonal album.

I mean… Yes. I do consider my audience, but at the same time I think people’s ears are pretty open nowadays. So many people listen to hip hop, especially early hip hop, some of that stuff is so noisy and dissonant and weird, then you put a groove over it and it feels great. So there’s some of that approach in the album. And I mean honestly, I love really shitty pop.

Like what? What’s your kind of shitty pop?

There’s a Katy Perry song out there, I think it’s called Wide Awake? It’s fucking incredible. Maybe because I’m a production nerd.

I’m totally the same way. Every once in a while Kanye will come out with a track and I’m like, “Oh fuck it, I love this song.”

Oh yeah. Totally. You hate yourself for a minute, and then you’re like, “No, this is great!”

Have you been getting reactions to this from people? I’m sure it’s been pretty positive.

Yeah, it’s been really positive. People have said, and I’ve heard this a number of times, that it’s taken a little bit of time to sink in to the weirdness of the tunings. But it hasn’t taken that much time, and once they’ve sunk in it feels pretty natural.

Time into the album, you mean?

Yeah, and I think into each individual song. But I really focused on melody a lot, so even though it’s instrumental I think it really helps people connect.

Yeah, I think I’ll always be a melodist at heart.

I like melody. I don’t think you can get away from melody, it connects with people. And it helps me connect, and I thought it was really fun to have all these weird-sized intervals. I mean, there’s just so much about tuning, it’s the new thing. You have all these new chords and melodies.

I’m assuming you’re planning on releasing more albums.

Yeah… well, actually that’s not true, I might just release stuff now.

Just individual tracks?

Yeah, I’m on Bandcamp, I have a Soundcloud… Right now I just have works in progress on the Soundcloud.

In the future, do you think you’d have a period where you would narrow it down to one scale or intonation and focus on that for a while?

Um… no. There’s practical reasons, like if I have an ensemble that’s a couple guitars that’s we’ve re-fretted, I can’t just keep buying more guitars and re-fretting them.

Well, not with that attitude.

Touché. But I like the diversity of scales, especially when it comes to different divisions of the octave and non-octave scales. They each have their own personality that I think is really fun to exploit and explore. And yeah, you could stick to one tuning system and discover a whole bunch of stuff, but I like the ability to bounce around. There’s actually a guy who’s on the same label as me who released a record maybe three or four months ago, and it was all in 17-EDO, the whole thing. People have their favorites for different reasons that they approximate consonance really well… I don’t know, maybe at some point it’ll be fun to settle on one and really dive in, but at this point it’s so new to me I just want to see what’s out there.

And all these are different, right? There’s no repeating scale?

No.

Talk about Spectropol, too, what’s the deal with those guys?

It’s awesome. It’s basically one guy. It’s based in Washington, it’s a netlabel, and he releases pretty much whatever he likes. But he likes stuff that’s really hard to categorize, polystyle, really into a vast spectrum of music. Everything on the label… the only thing that it has in common is that it’s outside the mainstream.

How’d you find it?

He found me. I posted something on a microtonal forum and he listened to it, and he listened to my Bandcamp and he was like, “Hey I really like the new microtonal stuff you’re doing! Can you make more and I’ll put it out?”

So cool. And you put up Trillopod right?

Yeah, I think that’s what he heard.

So you’re a pioneer, basically.

Well, I mean, a lot of people have written microtonal music.

You’re so humble.

Well, this stuff actually has a tradition that started with Ives, he was kind of the first, and then there’s Partch, and for like fifty years there were only two or three dudes. Then Lou Harrison and Ben Jonhston. In the eighties there was this guy Ivor Darreg who really started the equal temperament movement.

Now, I don’t think there’s really a celebrity microtonal composer like those guys. You could argue Toby Twining, Wolfgang maybe in some way, there’s Kraig Grady, who’s actually an LA guy but he lives in Australia now, he’s doing a lot of JI scales. Probably the most important musical theorist, at least in terms of microtonality, is Erv Wilson. A documentary just came out about him called Sonic Sky, it’s pretty cool. A lot of people studied with him, I think he lived in Mexico and just taught out of his house. I mean it was all oral tradition. I think he wrote some papers for some people, but it’s basically information that was all just passed on.

He was really big with what are called MOS scales, which stands for “moments of symmetry”. It’s more like a formula that he came up with. You have a generator, the size of the interval that you stack on top of itself to create the scale. So in 12-tone equal temperament the generator is 700 cents, a 5th is 700 cents. A period, which is what you reduce it to, so an octave, and then it has to have two step sizes. So like we have semitones and whole tones and you get all of the intervals from that. Those are the only three requirements. And you can have different MOS scales within different divisions of the octave. He was a really important theorist in that sense.

So yeah, Kraig Grady, Toby Twining… There’s this guy Aron Kallay. He’s a microtonal pianist, and he’s associated with this organization in Chicago called UnTwelve. They’re really great, it’s run by this guy named Aaron Johnson. So there’s little things like that, these little pockets…

Which are expanding.

Which are expanding. Absolutely. And I believe CalArts is one of those places. Which is great.

CalArts is definitely one of those places. I mean, if anything, all this is like an easy way to be different.

Exactly! It helps a lot, really.

Are there scales out there that have never been written in?

Oh yeah. Totally. And you can make your own scale, and put your name on it and throw it up on the Xenharmonic wiki, and that is your scale. It’s like naming stars.

Is there anything else you want to say that we haven’t touched on about this beautiful work of art that you’ve put out into the world from your soul unto reality?

I hope people listen to it, and I hope people other than microtonalists enjoy it to a certain extent. And if you’re a musician or a composer, try retuning your instruments to something weird and see if you can make something out of it, and you’ll probably be inspired like I was.

 


Listen to the album in its entirety at the amazing Micropangea.com with full explanations of tunings used in each track, designed by Kerstin Larissa Hovland.