Friday, 30 January 2009

R.I.P. John Martyn

John Martyn (1948-2009)

Monday, 26 January 2009

It's raining tunes:

Cloud-based computing is all the rage right now. Google's rumoured GDrive, cloud-based media content sites like Soundcloud, etc - everything is geared up to being available 'out there' on a cloud somewhere, rather than physically existing in your home or even on your hard drive.

How would you feel about a scenario where every single piece of music ever made, was made available for streaming from a cloud at MP3 quality with the option to download?

Streaming rights (your own personal radio station basically) would be subscription fee-based. All subscription income would go directly to the cloud provider (a very large company like Google or Apple - somebody who can handle that kind of traffic and data storage).

This income would then be used to cover the expenses of maintaining the cloud, plus a small handling fee as incentive for providing such a service. Any remaining income would then go to the owners of copyright (a label or an individual), the publishers and the artists.

Every stream would be logged and revenue shared upon a % of total stream traffic for that month. To qualify, a time point would have to be reached for a stream to be logged - perhaps two-thirds of the track. Tracks streamed for less would not count towards the stream traffic and no income generated. 

Subscribers would be limited to the number of plays per month for a particular track. This would prevent misuse by record label employees, artists or "street teams" who might try to boost the "stream count" artificially. The limited number of plays per month, the time point at which a track qualifies towards the stream traffic count and the monthly subscription fee must be carefully correlated to make any artificial attempts at boosting streams unprofitable.

The cloud-provider would then charge for downloads in addition to the subscription rate. The download option would be price structured for different formats. Three different prices for MP3, 16 bit or 24 bit quality. All of this revenue would then be divided between copyright holder, publisher and artist.

Weekly charts would be based upon downloads only.

The user would effectively have the world's largest record library to select from. Stream a track to see if you like it. If you don't like it and turn it off before two-thirds has elapsed, then no revenue is generated for that track. If you do like it and play more than two-thirds, but don't like it enough to download, then at least the rights holders and artist will see some revenue. If you like it enough to download for unlimited playback, then you pay extra - depending on what quality you prefer - and all of that revenue goes towards the respective owners.

Social networks of the kind already building up around streamed music content and "DJ's" (such as Blip.FM) can easily be built around such a service. Rather than playing tracks on radio and having to worry about playlists, demographics of listenership, station politics, pressure from pluggers, etc - you could have "followers" who would become your "audience" - turn up to your gigs, or listen in to your radio shows based upon your recommendations of streaming/download history. Conversely, subscribers can follow DJ's who they know have similar music tastes and can recommend tracks or point them in the right direction.

Will it be "raining songs" or is my roughly sketched vision of the ultimate music service just "pie in the sky"? How will file-sharing and piracy affect such a model? Is iTunes a better model?

500 Series:

API "Lunchbox"

It may well be time to finally enter the 500 series format of audio processors. The format has seen a huge growth in design options since API announced various alliances with other rack manufacturers. The format has grown from strength to strength with a multitude of new and established boutique audio manufacturers releasing 500 series format designs on a seemingly regular basis.

NAMM 2009 saw the announcement of yet more 500 series designs - and despite the current weakness of the £ against the $, it does now seem a seriously good time to invest in this space-saving, cost-effective format.

The original API 500 series Mic Pre and EQ are still a solid standard for the format, but it's a few new designs that have really caught my eye recently.


Alta Moda AM-10

I'm a big fan of FET based compressors. Both the UA1176 and Daking FET II compressors feature heavily in my productions from the past several years. The AM-10 is a FET-based compressor/limiter that packs a lot of features into a small footprint. 

It has both stereo linkable compression and/or limiting sections, has a 'vintage' feedback style topology - soft-knee type for compression, hard-knee type for limiting. Attack and release for the compression section can either be manually controlled over a wide -range or set to Auto. The limiter can be set to Fast or Slow.

Both compressor and limiter have hi-pass filter sidechain settings useful for avoiding low-frequency caused pumping and have useful LED gain reduction and output displays. 

The finishing touch is the on-board ability to perform 'parallel compression'. Using the units Mix section, both the dry and effected signals can be blended - allowing the subtle reinforcement of audio without the loss of the source's original dynamics.

Obviously the unit will ultimately be judged by its sound, but design-wise the only downside I can potential see is the rather limited metering (a problem for all 500 series modules due to sheer lack of space). Everything else is logically and neatly laid out, with neat little toggle switches and dual concentric knobs enabling a large feature set to be crammed into the small 500 series format.

Price-wise it is excellent value. Vintage King currently listing them at just under $700.

Chandler "Little Devil" Compressor

Another FET-based design, this time from US manufacturer Chandler - best known for their units based upon classic EMI workshop designs and the recent "germanium" based units known for extreme coloration and character.

The "Little Devil" compressor promises more of the same character as it features knee-shapes based upon either the Zener diode or Germanium units which Chandler makes in regular 19" rack format. This, coupled with a "clean/dirty" toggle setting (presumably to impart some harmonic distortion) says a lot about how this unit aims to follow its colorful larger predecessors in the Chandler range.

Input and gain are fully manually controlled, as are attack and release times. Compression ratio is selected using a three-way toggle (Lo-Med-Hi), and a final knob controls a wide-ranging hi-pass side-chain filter with no less than five settings for very precise control of low-frequency material.

An imposing feature is the traditional VU mater housed at the top of the unit. This not only ensures accurate, easy to ready ballistics - but it looks fantastic! 

Another feature packed unit - albeit with no limiter, the Little Devil compressor is another potential winner if the sound matches up to its promise. It's a slight shame the unit is relatively pricey (currently just over $1000 on Vintage King's site). 

Shadow Hills Optograph 500

A typically eye-catching design from boutique manufacturer Shadow Hills Industries. The Optograph 500 is a mono version of their rack format Dual Optograph compressor.

As it's name suggests, this compressor is based around an optical design - usually a somewhat smoother, slower design than FET based compressors, and takes up 2 500 slots.

Large 24 position switches control compression threshold and output gain, whilst two 4 position sliders select various compressor or sidechain filter settings. A unique feature on the Optograph is the Desaturate setting which eliminates any distortion from the custom output transformer for a super clean, transformer-less type sound.

The sidechain filter includes a band-pass setting which causes the compressor to react to mid-range material rather than high or low frequency sound.

A suitably vintage looking VU meter completes this fascinating design currently listing at just under $1500.

Book Choice #4:

Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road

The kind of book that makes you want to go out and buy the authors entire works. A stunningly incisive study of a bad marriage, self-destructing under the weight of suburban family life. I wonder how the film will compare?

Friday, 23 January 2009


Now this looks interesting... but will take me some time to get my head around! MOTU have announced a forthcoming Instrument Plug-In that will take MIDI, automation data or internally generated LFO's and triggers and convert them into DC voltage. This DC voltage can then be routed to the audio outputs of a regular audio interface and travel via audio cables to the CV inputs of a modular synth. 

The audio from your modular synth is then routed BACK into Volta (presumably via an audio interface's inputs) so it effectively acts like a regular plug-in instrument that can be 'frozen', etc. All synced to the tempo of your DAW!

Volta will also continually calibrate your VCO's to be in tune and can work with odd voltage scales such as those used by Buchla.

MOTU claim the resolution of the control data is unlimited with no stepping (compared to MIDI's 128 step resolution). The audio is returned at sample accuracy back to the DAW via Volta and up to 96 channels of DC can be used (four instances of Volta) - providing of course you have 96 spare audio outputs on a bank of audio interfaces.


RIP David "Fathead" Newman

David "Fathead" Newman (1933-2009)

Texan saxophonist. 

My pick of his work being the early-seventies albums on Atlantic featuring Roy Ayers: Lonely Avenue and Newmanism.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

DAW update madness:

When Apple announced Logic Studio 8 - a more intuitive, simplified version of their complex sequencer/DAW, I finally felt comfortable enough with it to reluctantly abandon my aging Pro Tools Mix 24 system.

I love Pro Tools. I had been using it since I bought an Audiomedia III card back in 1997. In contrast, I disliked Logic. I always found it too clever for its own good - too many features, options, unintuitive layout and the dreaded Environment.

Problem was, for years Pro Tools lagged behind Logic when it came to MIDI editing and song creation. So for years I ran both systems, synced via MTC. I would get all my initial track creation and MIDI programming done in Logic - and record the audio, edit and mix in Pro Tools.

I ran Pro Tools on a beige G3 Mac, and Logic on a standard PC. I needed both platforms because Pro Tools was Mac only and Gigastudio (which I used at the time), was PC only. Except for the odd sync problem this cumbersome method served me well - but I longed to just have an all-in-one DAW that did everything. 

Digidesign gradually added better MIDI capabilities to Pro Tools, whilst Emagic seemed to make audio editing and mixing even harder in Logic. When Apple bought Emagic and announced Logic would be Mac only, it was the excuse I needed to dump Logic for good and exclusively use Pro Tools. 

To complicate matters, Ableton Live came along and was a revelation for both DJing and song-creation. Using ReWire I used the ultra-intuitive Live for getting together initial track ideas and imported the audio into Pro Tools for further editing and mixing.

In 1999, I had purchased the very latest Digidesign bundle - a Pro Tools Mix 24 system, with 888/24 interface and a G4. This system served me well up until last year when I decided I needed to take advantage of the improvements in Digital convertor technology and improve upon the rather average quality of the now aging 888/24 interface.

My dilemma: Digidesign offer two systems - HD, the top of the range TDM system which replaced Mix 24 and uses DSP chips alongside the host computer's CPU for power. HD is compatible only with Digi's top-of-the-range interfaces, or a limited number of expensive third-party options with HD adapter cards. Alternatively they offer a native LE system, which is track-limited, relies on the host computers CPU power and is only compatible with Digi's lower-cost range of interfaces such as the 003 or M-Box series.

An HD system was prohibitively expensive - even with Digidesign's discounted upgrade path for existing Mix 24 users. I don't mind paying out if needs be, but unlike when I purchased the Mix 24 system, I no longer thought the outlay value for money considering the quality of alternative Native based systems using third-party interfaces superior to Digi's own brand.

It was around this time that Apple announced Logic Studio 8 - a stripped down, more intuitive re-write of Logic. Not only was it superbly priced, it came bundled with previously paid-for extras such as Space Designer, the convolution reverb. It was a no-brainer to buy Logic to get up to speed with it on my MacBook Pro until I decided which system to buy.

After a few weeks with Logic 8 - it was obvious this was no longer the bloated, overly complex program I struggled with years earlier. Surprising myself therefore, I started to seriously consider switching to a Logic only system based around a powerful new eight-core Mac Pro (more than enough power for sessions with large track-counts and more plug-in's than I'd ever need), and an Apogee Symphony system.

Apogee's Symphony system had the advantage of very low-latency (the bane of native based systems) and close collaboration with Apple. I had been using an Apogee Duet firewire interface with my MacBook Pro for awhile, so I purchased a new Mac Pro, installed Logic and the Duet and enjoyed a few weeks work. 

Just before I was ready to test-drive a fully blown Apogee Symphony system, a new interface was introduced by Prism Sound: Orpheus, a firewire based eight channel converter with onboard zero-latency mixer. I had used Prism convertors before - at Abbey Road. They were the best I'd ever heard - beating even the Radar system at a local studio I regularly use.

After glowing reports from my trusted dealers of choice Funky Junk UK, I arranged to pick up a demo unit from the Prism Sound factory in Cambridge - not far from where I live. I was so impressed by the Orpheus that I bought the unit immediately. 

After using this system for six months I was more than satisfied with the vast improvement in sound quality, but still found Logic a little tricky when it came to editing audio and mixing. These issues, combined with working in external studios where Pro Tools was standard, forced me to buy Pro Tools LE, using a little M-Box Micro USB interface. 

This is the setup I currently use: recording and programming in Logic using the Prism Orpheus - then exporting the tracks to a Pro Tools LE session for complex editing (Beat Detective and such) and back to Logic for mixing. Ableton Live still plays a role in sketching out initial ideas for tracks but mostly I use it for DJing.

This setup is still not ideal. I prefer to record at 96khz, but the M-Box Micro will only allow sessions up to 48khz. Also, Pro Tools LE is track-limited and some of my sessions run up to 100 audio tracks or more - albeit many of these can be consolidated. 

So, imagine my confusion and sad excitement after the recent release of Pro Tools 8 and the announcement of Ableton Live 8. Both these programs have "upped the ante" and it now looks like I will be using a combination of all three programs for music production!

I have upgraded to Pro Tools 8 LE already. It is a huge improvement. Digidesign had stopped supporting Mix 24 systems some years ago and my system was stuck on the last compatible release: 6.4. I had been unable to take advantage of the elastic audio features recently introduced so this was a great addition to my toolbox. 

Pro Tools 8 not only looks infinitely better, but it now has 10 plug-in slots, comes bundled with an impressive range of new instruments and plug-ins from the AIR design team, has elastic pitch as well as tempo, hugely improved MIDI editing and automation track handling increased track-count (up to 48 stereo tracks), a new comping tool, score facilities, etc, etc.

I would need to buy a new Digidesign interface with ADAT inputs to connect to my Orpheus for recording, and 96khz capability for Pro Tools to become my main DAW once again. The only feature of Logic I would miss is the sheer amount of bundled plug-ins - especially the Space Designer reverb. If I found an equivalent of this for Pro Tools I could once again make the switch.

Ableton Live 8 now has creative features and an online sharing solution that once again makes it indispensable. I find Live hard to beat for getting ideas started and now I can collaborate with other Live users in an elegant way rather than spending hours uploading full .wav or .aiff files to FTP servers or emailing guide tracks in mp3 format. Collaborators can now receive my full Live sessions over the net.

SO... it looks like I'll be needing to keep up-to-speed with all 3 DAW/sequencers... Logic Studio 8, Pro Tools 8 and Ableton Live 8. Oh... and Numerology looks interesting too....;-)

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

My Disco Top 150: (1-10)

1. Black Ivory Mainline (1979 Buddah)
For me, the ultimate Disco record. Great lyrics, big, lush arrangement with sweeping, majestic strings and punchy horns. Huge production with fat drums - the breakdown sounds enormous due to the power and punch of the drums - immaculately recorded by Tom Coyne. Written by Leroy Burgess and produced by the Black Ivory members - this track is indebted to the Philly classics but has a uniqueness that sets it apart. It never loses energy with each change in structure and the finale with its "nothing is the same... ever since you came my baby" chant against pounding drums is pure Disco heaven.

2. Double Exposure Ten Per Cent (1976 Salsoul)
A fitting track for the first ever non-promotional, commercially available 12 inch single. A Salsoul released Philadelphia-based B-H-Y (Baker-Harris-Young) classic with a ground-breaking, genre-changing mix from genius Walter Gibbons. Tape edits galore and a huge breakdown - Gibbons switches from vocal to instrumental sections, strips down the arrangement then builds it up and never loses the feel over its nine minute duration. Pioneering.

3. Chi-Lites My First Mistake (1977 Mercury)
A Disco classic with an unforgettable gear-shift into one of the most impassioned vocal performances to hit wax. Eugene Record sends shivers down the spine on the final two-thirds of this Phil Hurtt-Richie Rome penned monster. Originally released on the album "The Fantastic Chi-Lites", Mercury re-released it on 12 inch in the nineties due to its never-ending popular demand.

4. Sympho-State You Know What I Like (1979 Ze UK)
A baffling and rare track. Found on the B-side of the UK label Ze and never released at the time in the US, this epic Disco track is taken at break-neck pace and features not one, but two of the most terrific breakdowns in Disco history. Although uncredited, it's clearly the unmistakable voice of Leroy Burgess (credited as co-writer) behind Sympho-State... a true enigma of the Disco genre.

5. Motown Sounds Bad Mouthin' (1979 Motown UK)
Released only as a 12 inch in the UK, this awesome B-side is a relentless, instrumental piece of Disco that doesn't let up for it's six minute duration. Beautiful vibes punctuate the thick arrangement. Taken from the album "Space Dance", the entire project was the brain-child of Michael "Lovesmith".

6. First Choice Double Cross (1979 Gold Mind)
My ultimate First Choice track - written and produced by Norman Harris "Machine" and Ron "Love Committee" Tyson and powered along by the lead vocals of Rochelle Fleming. This classic is mixed by Bobby DJ Guttadaro.

7. The Brothers Under The Skin (1976 RCA)
Released on the B-Side of an early RCA 12 inch, this storming piece of instrumental Disco has a large production and heavy drums and bass. Written and arranged by occasional jazz producer Mitch Farber, Under The Skin has suitably solid horn solo's. Rare and highly sought-after on original vinyl.

8. Ashford & Simpson Bourgie Bourgie (1977 Warner Bros. UK)
Released as a 12 inch only in the UK, this instrumental classic - by one of Disco's most prolific song-writing partnerships - was later covered by Gladys Knight, John Davis & Monster Orchestra and others. Yet, it's this version with it's huge arrangement, large-scale production and dramatic shifts in tempo that hits the heights for me.

9. Jean Carn Was That All It Was (1979 Philadelphia Int.)
From spiritual-jazz to heavenly Disco - Jean Carn is undoubtedly one of the voices of Philly soul. This uplifting mid-tempo classic is co-produced by veteran Jerry Butler.

10. Diana Ross Love Hangover (1976 Motown)
With it's sensual half-time opening and sudden shift into a shuffling Disco groove, Diana Ross effortlessly pulls off one of Motown's seventies classics. "If there's a cure for this... I don't want it..."

My Disco Top 150: (11-20)

11. Loleatta Holloway Dreamin' (1976 Gold Mind)
Disco diva Loleatta Holloway is one of the most recognized vocalists in Disco history and this is her finest moment. Beautiful composition by Felder, Harris and Ron Tyson (of Love Committee), and an early B-H-Y production (Baker-Harris-Young).

12. Donna Summer I Feel Love (1977 Casablanca)
Donna Summer enjoyed huge chart success with various Disco hits, and alongside the infamous "Love To Love You Baby", it's this futuristic classic that has achieved legendary status. Co-produced by electronic Disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder - still goes down a storm in clubs today.

13. Al Hudson & The Soul Partners Spread Love (1978 ABC)
Al Hudson enjoyed success with both The Soul Partners and One Way in the Disco era - and the cream of the crop was this uplifting classic with a stunning arrangement with famed Motown arranger David Van De Pitte.

14. Sylvester Over and Over (1977 Fantasy)
Epic version of an Ashford & Simpson original, made his own by Disco superstar Sylvester.

15. The Salsoul Orchestra ft. Loleatta Holloway Run Away (1977 Salsoul)
Seminal Salsoul classic featuring the powerful vocals of Queen of Disco Loleatta Holloway. A slice of pure Philly arranged by Vincent Montana Jr.

16. Change The Glow Of Love (1980 Warner Bros.)
Mid-tempo, uplifting classic from the Petrus and Malavasi organization (B.B. & Q. Band, Cheri, etc). Featuring the sublime vocals of Luther Vandross and immaculately produced.
17. Ashford & Simpson It Seems To Hang On (1978 Warner Bros.)
Mid-tempo and serious Disco from the legendary song-writing partnership of Ashford & Simpson. Perfectly mixed by Jimmy Simpson.

18. Atmosfear Dancing In Outer Space (1979 MCA)
Unique, space-age Disco from the UK. Originally released on independent label Elite and soon licensed to MCA as it rocketed into the mainstream charts. 

19. Philly Devotions I Just Can't Say Goodbye (1975 Columbia)
Early Disco blueprint from Philadelphia. written, arranged and produced by John Davis who had much success with his Monster Orchestra on SAM Records later in the decade. Features an early mix by Tom Moulton.

20. Lenny Williams You Got Me Running (1978 ABC)
Former lead singer of Oakland funksters Tower Of Power, Lenny Williams scored with Disco cuts from his solo albums in the mid-seventies, including this epic, with it's super funky breakdown.

Monday, 19 January 2009

My Disco Top 150: (21-30)

21. Teddy Pendergrass The More I Get, The More I Want (1977 Philadelphia Int.)
The finale to ex-Bluenotes lead singer Teddy Pendergrass' debut solo album and for me the very best of the many classics written and produced by the trio of McFadden, Whitehead and Carstaphen. Burns along at a ferocious pace, driven by powerhouse Pendergrass' huge vocal range.

22. Double Exposure Everyman (Has To Carry His Own Weight) (1976 Salsoul)
Salsoul classic from Double Exposure focussing on a 'get yourself together' type message. Recently released in various mixes such is it's lasting popularity today. Originally released as an edited 7 inch and on the album Ten Percent. Written by Philly legends Allan Felder and Bunny Sigler and produced by Norman Harris.

23. Melba Moore Standing Right Here (1977 Buddah)
Mid-tempo uplifting classic by Melba Moore. Written and produced by the Philly team of McFadden, Whitehead and Carstaphen. Mixed by early Disco DJ mixer Richie Rivera.

24. Jackie Moore This Time Baby (1979 Columbia)
Soul singer Jackie Moore received all-star treatment on this Disco classic. Written by Bell & James (of "Livin' It Up (Friday Night)" fame), arranged by Jack Faith and produced by Philly guitar legend Bobby Eli. Co-mixed by the great John Luongo with a percussive breakdown.

25. Candi Staton When You Wake Up Tomorrow (1979 Warner Bros.)
Best known for her International hit "Young Hearts, Run Free", Candi Staton teamed up with writer Patrick Adams and others for this classic. Mixed by Jimmy Simpson with a huge percussive breakdown.

26. The Players Association Goin' To The Disco (1977 Vanguard)
Chris Hills fully produced re-make of his track which featured on the rare album Madcliff earlier in the year. Uplifting Disco with soaring female vocals, dreamy sax, proto-House piano and large-scale orchestration.

27. Double Exposure My Love Is Free (1976 Salsoul)
Double Exposure can be considered the male counterpart to those Queens of Disco First Choice. This Salsoul classic was produced by the legendary B.H.Y. team (Baker-Harris-Young) and written by Philly stalwarts Allan Felder and Bunny Sigler. Mixed in epic format by Tom Moulton.

28. Four Below Zero My Baby's Got E.S.P. (1976 Roulette)
Early mid-tempo Disco produced by Patrick Adams. Paved the way for his many slower tempo'd Disco classics. Hi hats so wide you can swim in them!

29. Ava Cherry You Never Loved Me (1980 RSO)
Relentless, sometimes frantic Disco written by soul legend Curtis Mayfield. Two killer breakdowns, full-on production and one of the best bass-lines in the genre.

30. Jesse Gould Out Of Work (1977 P&P)
Hardcore Disco on the P&P label. Keeps up a relentless pace - produced and arranged by Billy Nichols.

My Disco Top 150: (31-40)

31. Ripple The Beat Goes On And On (1977 Salsoul)
Salsoul Disco classic from funksters Ripple. Mixed with epic breakdowns by Jim Burgess.

32. Chain Reaction Dance Freak (1980 Sound Of New York, USA)
A funky Disco thumper that never fails to get a party jumping. Huge breakdown with massive drums, growling bass and rhythm guitar.

33. Norman Connors Once I've Been There (1977 Buddah)
Fusion drummer Norman Connors' finest Disco production. Beautiful strings and falsetto vocals by "Prince" Phillip Mitchell, who also wrote the song.

34. Thelma Houston I'm Here Again (1977 Motown)
Produced and co-written by soulful song-writing team Mike and Brenda Sutton (of "Don't Let Go Of Me" fame), this stylish piece of Disco picks up from it's half-time opening into an uplifting epic.

35. Bionic Boogie Risky Changes (1977 Polydor)
The ultimate Gregg Diamond production - and a blueprint for House music with it's stomping four to the floor beat and gospel piano intro.

36. Zulema Change (1978 Lejoint)
Killer solo Disco release from Faith, Hope & Charity vocalist Zulema. Co-produced by Van McCoy of "The Hustle" fame.

37. The Choice Four Come Down To Earth (1977 RCA)
Disco epic from hugely successful producer Van McCoy. This track builds up to a lengthy breakdown which works a treat on the dancefloor. Mixed by David Todd who with Nick Martinelli went on to mix many classic boogie hits in the early eighties.

38. Gregg Diamond Danger (1979 TK Disco)
Gregg Diamond produced several Disco hits - of which this is one of the finest. Serious sections with frantic clavinet and menacing vocals alternate with lush, uplifting choruses.

39. Black Ivory Walking Downtown (1976 Buddah)
Epic, fast-paced Disco classic featuring the all-star team of Leroy Burgess, Russell Patterson and Stuart Bascombe. With it's relentless handclap driven break - a track that keeps picking up steam.

40. Silver, Platinum & Gold Just Friends (1976 Farr)
An early Disco track with a big sound. Released on the small independent Farr Records.