Category Archives: Music

New Round of Custom Instruments for Rock Band

Want them already.

Rock Band drums

(I Also want bigger picture of the drums so I can make out the margin notes)

How to Talk to your Kid About Drugs…If He’s an Alice in Chains Fan

If you’re a parent, you know that part of the game is having those six or seven conversations about the Big Uncomfortable Topics (Sex, Death, Drugs, Suicide, and at least a few more).  I somehow managed to hit two at the same time tonight when Neil and I were running through the lyrics of the song “Would” by Alice in Chains (a fine piece of metal/grunge if there ever was one) while waiting for a The Movies (a Sims-type movie-making game) to install on my computer.

We decided to check out the “Would” video on Youtube while waiting, and after remarking at the raw power of lead singer Layne Staley’s voice on the track, I noted as an aside that he’s now dead.

“What happened to him?” Neil asked.

I replied by making a needle stabbing gesture to my arm and bluntly saying, “He offed himself…heroin O.D.”

This in turn led Neil to asking several great questions, ranging from “What’s heroin?” to “Why do rock stars seem to do that sort of thing a lot?”

We got to talking, although I think the whole subject is just incredibly sad. The same drug originally designed as a substitute for morphine (prominently used to stop the shattering pain of critically wounded soldiers) — can wrench the guts out of a normal person who gets addicted while using it to escape some pain in their life. With heroin especially, the physical addiction and withdrawal symptoms are legendary, and Layne Staley’s final years were ones I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

And then you’ve got the even better question of why it’s often the good times—when fame and fortune are suddenly yours after years of sweating in obscurity—that throw so many musicians off their footing. What is it about having so much money and so many new “friends” around that can make musicians and celebrities want to withdraw into themselves—or do stupid things to mess it all up?

These are great questions, and for my part, I was just glad to be having the discussion with a ten year old to whom the whole thing was entirely theoretical (although we both agreed that we’d like get a chance to see how we’d handle fame and fortune ourselves someday!)

Eventually, the game got loaded and we moved on to the task of laying out a 1920s film studio and grooming our own stable of virtual stars (who, ironically, can also get addicted to food and alcohol in the game!).

“Pfew!” I thought as the game began… well, that’s one conversation down…

“Guitar Hero” for Real Guitars?

Leaving aside the obligatory Guitar Hero and Rock Band bashing, anything which makes playing (and especially learning) an instrument more fun has definitely got my interest. So this definitely seems worth checking out to me…

The Age of Mid-Fi

I love music. I listen to it pretty much constantly; play a couple of instruments (some even competently!); and have bought about a bajillion CDs in my life. But I’ve never truly been a hi-fi purist like some of my fellow music-lovers—at least when it comes to listening to it outside of a recording studio control room.

A few years ago (a referenced in my earlier Tech Carnage post), I decided to “rip” my walls full of CDs to MP3 format in order to remove three entire storage racks of them from my living room, as well as be more easily able to listen to them when I was in different rooms or at my computer. At the time, I used a bitrate 50% higher than standard: 192KB/s, because cymbals in particular tend to fall apart on 128 KB/s MP3s. (Like most musicians, I tend to automatically tune in to my own instrument when listening, so as a drummer, 128 KB/s MP3s are pretty awful for me. 192 KB/s MP3s, on the other hand, hang together pretty well in all but my best listening environments.)

And that was part of my big realization when undertaking that project. Sure, if I close my eyes sit at the point of an isosceles triangle with my best speakers at the other corners, I can usually detect the difference between a low-bitrate MP3 and a CD, particularly on music with some subtlety and dynamic range. But when the heck do I listen to music like that anymore?

Let’s face it: 99.8% of the time I’ve got music on, it’s either coming from 1.5″ speakers under my computer monitor; the set of headphones which came with my iPod; amidst the road noise and weak speakers of my car stereo; or—if I’m lucky—on a slightly less weak set of speakers mounted to the walls of my study. An audio engineer would bust a blood vessel pointing out the huge ranges of frequency in all these environments which are either over-accentuated, obscured, or missing entirely.

Worse yet, most of the time I’ve got music on, I’m not listening to it: at least not in the sense that I’m blocking out all other external stimuli and really focusing on it. Sure, there’s some part of my brain that’s busy grooving along and memorizing every insipid lyric on the latest White Rose Movement album, but the rest of my brain is usually working on other things, like…err… blogging.

While closing your eyes and bathing yourself in the aural splendor of true high-fidelity music is a wonderful (though tiring) experience, we live in the age of “mid-fi”: music that sounds reasonably good, delivered with no irritating skips, scratches, or tape hiss…to distracted people listening in noisy environments on bad speakers. And we’re OK with that.

Rolling Stone has an excellent article on this in their latest issue (thanks, Hud for pointing it out!), including talk about how heavy use of volume compression has made virtually everything we listen to on the radio sound louder than in the past. It’s fascinating stuff.

Hey, Let’s Call Our Band “The Rhythm Mafia!”

Engadget reports that thieves hijacked a shipment of 1,000 or so copies of Rock Band in LA last night.

Look, I know you organized crime guys are as frustrated as the rest of us over the lack of availability for extra controllers, but really…

Activision blocks release of Rock Band compatibility patch

In case you missed it: Guitar Hero III’s controller for the Playstation 3 doesn’t work with Rock Band—a real problem in a world where no stand-alone controllers exist, and an extra controller is needed in order to play with a full “band” on the Playstation 3. Harmonix, the developer of the guitar controllers for Rock Band announced last week that they’d developed a patch to allow the Guitar Hero III controller to work with Rock Band, causing widespread rejoicing.

But the patch was never released. Today, Rock Band fans found out why:

From Harmonix:

The [PS3 Guitar Hero] compatibility patch was submitted, approved and had been scheduled for release by Sony on Tuesday, December 4. Unfortunately, Activision objected to the compatibility patch’s release. The patch remains with Sony, but we have been told that it will unfortunately not be released due to Activision’s continued objection.

read more | digg story

For the life of me, I’m trying to figure out how sending over a legal team to block a patch which allows your controller to work with somebody else’s incredibly popular game is a smart idea. I mean, what’s the upshot to Activision if they let Harmonix’s patch go out: they sell more Guitar Hero III sets and controllers! I don’t see a downside for them. Harmonix even did all the necessary engineering work and will suffer any technical support woes that come along as a result. All Activision has to do is sell product and make money.

Usually when companies go on legal crusades like this, they’re either sacrificing money to make a (hopefully popular) moral point, or they’re sacrificing popularity in order to make money. Here, Activision seems to be taking the rather unusual tack of sacrificing money in order to become more unpopular. Am I missing something, or is this one of the stupidest business decisions of 2007?

Capitalism Rocks!

Man, but I love capitalism! Prior to Thanksgiving, there was absolutely no need for 6-3/4″ circular rubber mufflers, or steel reinforcing plates in the form of a shoe, but thanks to a popular new music game, and the miracle of capitalism, we now have both.

Right around Thanksgiving, Rock Band shipped, and thousands upon thousands of people started playing with it. Immediately, they discovered things about the included instruments that needed fixing or improvement. A big problem with the drum pads were that they were so “clacky” when you hit them that unless you played with the game volume cranked, it sounds like you were tapping on the tables of a high school cafeteria while someone played a boombox version of the song at the other end of the room. Immediately, the message boards were full of ideas for a solution, including everything from Plasti-dipping the drumsticks to covering the pads with felt to cutting up mousepads and pasting them to the pads to muffle the noise. Within days, a brilliant composite solution was posted, complete with pictures. I can already attest that this has caused a run on black self-adhesive foam at the local craft stores (and probably nationwide). Someone even came up with a commercial version and started selling them on eBay, complete with swanky product logo (and, unfortunately, the traditional extra markup of overcharged shipping!)

A couple of Rock Band fans who happen to work in a machine shop also managed to solve another problem with the game: the relatively fragile kick drum pedal. Some of the more lead-footed players of the game were actually splitting their pedals in half, so the machine-savvy duo started cutting up diamond-plate steel (the sort of non-slip material used on utility trucks’ tailgates) using a jig in the shape of the original pedal. A bit of drilling, grinding, and six self-tapping screws later, they’d created a nigh-indestructible after-market pedal for your Rock Band drums.

Capitalism: the ability to solve somebody’s problem and make a few bucks in the process—solves problems like this all the time. What’s rare is seeing how really quickly it works its magic. It really was about two weeks from “Augh! Why does nobody make a product which solves this?!” to “Here’s the answer: what color would you like it in?”

I just wonder how long will it be before someone with the necessary plastic-tooling and electronics manufacturing facilities realizes what a huge profit is waiting if they can solve the “Can’t find an extra PS3 Rock Band guitar controller to save your life” problem?

Robotic, Self-Tuning Guitar

Robot Guitar

Now this is cool: Gibson just announced a “robot guitar” with a built-in auto-tuning system. Servos in the string winders are coupled with pitch detection to let the system automatically put itself in tune. You can choose both standard and custom tunings, letting you switch between standard and, for instance, Drop D tuning in a couple of seconds with the touch of a button:


(Music Trivia: ever wonder why Big Rock Musicians lug about 30 guitars onstage with them? It’s not just the guitarist’s gigantic ego…OK, most of the time, it’s not just their gigantic ego. Sound and style are part of it, but the need to quickly switch between different tunings depending on the song is at least as much, if not more, of a driving factor. It’s just no fun waiting for the guitarist to retune six strings to another set of notes while trying in vain to keep up stage banter, so they just bring extra guitars, pretuned to the various song requirements)

The tuning system was created by German engineer Chris Adams and his company, Tronical GmbH. It’s available both as an after-market add-on to many existing guitars under the name PowerTune, and as part of the limited edition Gibson pictured above.

For more details of this cool (but still a bit pricey) technology, check out the Gibson site at