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Archive of the Geary Yelton Category

Milton Babbitt, the First Synthesist

Saturday saw the passing of controversial composer, music theorist, and educator Milton Babbitt at the age of 94. He was a father of modern electronic music, a founder of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and the primary user of the RCA Mark II synthesizer, a gigantic instrument that was first installed at the Center in 1959. His 1961 composition “Music for Synthesizer� was particularly groundbreaking, and he often combined recorded electronics with more traditional live performers.

Born in Philadelphia in 1916 and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Babbitt joined Princeton University’s mathematics faculty in 1943 and its music faculty five years later. His students included composers Stephen Sondheim, John Eaton, Paul Lansky, and Mario Davidovsky. Among his many awards were a Pulitzer Prize citation for his “life’s work as a distinguished and seminal American composer� in 1982 and a $300,000 McArthur “Genius� Fellowship in 1986. He often took a mathematical approach to composing difficult and complex music, a style he sometimes referred to as “maximalist.� His immeasurable contributions to serial and atonal music, avant-garde, jazz, and even musical theater cannot be overstated.

You can watch a recently completed documentary on Milton Babbitt here.

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Icons and Cult Figures

Last week I attended two rock concerts that demonstrated just how diverse two recording artists can be and still be considered rock musicians. One was an icon who’s literally been a household name since his breakthrough album 40 years ago, and the other was someone I’d never heard of until recently. Both drew intensely enthusiastic audiences and sold out the house, though admittedly, one house was quite a bit smaller than the other.

The icon in question is Elton John, and the setting was the Asheville Civic Center, where tickets sold out almost as soon as they went on sale. He performed most of his hits as well as the entire album The Union, a recent collaborative effort with another rock legend who opened the show, Leon Russell. Although I’ve never owned any Elton John albums or considered myself a fan, I thoroughly enjoyed the nearly three-and-a-half-hour concert. Anyone considered a musical icon certainly has the talent to have earned that status, and you probably shouldn’t pass up any opportunity you have to see one perform.

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I was planning to see Joanna Newsom when she came to Asheville. “Who?� I replied. He insisted I’d like her music, so I googled her, listened to a few songs, and was both surprised and impressed by what I heard: very original music, flawlessly performed by a classically trained harpist with a voice that alternately resembles Björk, Corinne Bailey Rae, early Kate Bush, and Shirley Temple at her most precocious.

Intrigued, I discovered she had three studio albums on iTunes and downloaded all three of them. I could easily trace her musical and vocal progress from 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, on which she sang and played solo on harp, harpsichord, and Wurlitzer electric piano, to this year’s 3-disc Have One on Me, featuring well over two dozen musicians playing everything from Telecaster and Hammond organ to all-but-forgotten instruments like the kemence, rebec, vielle, and viola da gamba. For the most part, Newsom’s one-of-a-kind vocals sound self-consciously childlike, but her devoted fans apparently consider that part of her undeniable charm. More than anything else, her music reminds me of Loreena McKennitt’s, but much quirkier and more intimate in scope.Joanna

Her opening act at the Orange Peel was guitarist Ryan Francesconi, who played a set of steel-string guitar instrumentals. When he finished, it became obvious he would also be playing in Newsom’s band as he set up his electric and acoustic guitars, banjo, tanbur (a sort of ancient long-necked Turkish lute), and assorted other instruments. As it turns out, Francesconi not only arranged Newsom’s last album, he arranged all the songs in her live show.

Ms. Newsom’s hour-and-a-half set began with “The Book of Right On,� obviously an audience favorite, followed by the title song from her latest album. Nearly half the material that followed was from Have One on Me. Although she spent most of her time behind a full-sized orchestral harp, Newsom also played a Yamaha grand piano on several songs. In addition to Francesconi, she was accompanied by two violinists, a trombonist, and a drummer, who all played flawlessly and sang backup. Though drummer Neal Morgan played a trap set, he played more like an orchestral percussionist than a rock drummer, adding percussive punctuation at appropriate moments. Most of the time, in fact, the entire group sounded more like a chamber ensemble than a rock band.Band

Audience members often sang along and were quite vocal in their appreciation for her presence. Requests for the song “Sadie� arose at several points, and she satisfied those requests during her two-song encore. From start to finish, it was obvious that her fans love her dearly. After seeing her show, I understand why they felt that way.

Joanna Newsom wrapped up her tour a few nights ago at Carnegie Hall. If you missed your chance to see her, I can recommend any of her albums for a taste of something delightful and more than a bit different from rock music’s usual fare.

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MoogFest 2010: For one weekend, the center of the electronic music universe

The city of Asheville, North Carolina, just wrapped up two days and three nights in a grand celebration of electronic music during MoogFest 2010, held from October 29 through 31. With 20 or more acts each night spread out over five venues within walking distance of one another, well over 10,000 attendees had plenty of music to choose from. Days were filled with panel discussions and workshops on topics ranging from synth programming and theremin technique to the history of the Minimoog. The sold-out festival did its best to honor Bob Moog, and indeed, I’ve never seen such mass appreciation for one man’s contribution to the world of music.Synth Sculpture
Perhaps the most interesting panel discussion brought together Herb Deutsch, Bill Hemseth, Dave Van Koevering, and Tom Rhea—without whom the Moog synthesizer probably wouldn’t have been what it became. On another panel, I discussed synth evolution with synthesizer historian Mark Vail and Keyboard editor Stephen Fortner. All panels were moderated by accomplished musician and music historian Brian Kehew and introduced by Bob Moog’s daughter (and my good friend) Michelle Moog-Koussa, director of the Bob Moog Foundation. Other workshops featured music and lectures by synthesists Richard Devine and Tara Busch and by theremin virtuosos Dorit Chrysler and Kevin Kissinger.Panelists

Friday night’s biggest crowd-pleasers were Big Boi (of OutKast), MGMT, and Dan Deacon. Other draws included Panda Bear, Girl Talk, Mutemath, and Rjd2. And although Van Dyke Parks’ music was purely acoustic, the mostly younger crowd obviously appreciated the 67-year-old composer’s performance. The only disappointment came when Friday night’s headliner, Devo, had to cancel because guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh sliced his thumb to the bone with a shard of glass. That’s gotta hurt! I wish him a speedy recovery. Two members of Devo still showed up onstage to accept a brand-new Voyager XL from Moog Music, though.Massive Attack

Saturday night’s headliners were Massive Attack and Thievery Corporation, and both were in top form. Earlier in the evening, the audience at the Orange Peel got a sneak peak at Moog Music’s new lap steel guitar. Audiences also danced and chilled to School of Seven Bells, Jónsi (of Sigur Rós), the Disco Biscuits, Caribou, Four Tet, Emeralds, and one of my personal favorites, Matmos. Jon Hopkins, who recently completed an album with Brian Eno, spun a late-night DJ set of his own music using Korg KAOSS pads.

The action didn’t let up on Sunday, though the names weren’t quite as big as on the previous night. Hot Chip, Pretty Lights, DJ Spooky, El-P, Neon Indian, and other performers were on tap to keep the collected revelers grooving into the night. Many concertgoers were dressed in Halloween costumes of every variety on all three nights, contributing to the festive atmosphere.DJ Spooky

All told, I’m sure that absolutely everyone had a fantastic time. Promoter A.C. Entertainment was so pleased that Ashley Capps (the A.C. in A.C. Entertainment) announced on the first night that MoogFest 2011 would take place again in Asheville. Moog Music gained a ton of exposure for their gear, and the Bob Moog Foundation raised some much-needed funds to carry on Bob’s legacy.

In fact, now you can send a donation to the foundation from the comfort of your own mobile phone. Just text MOOG followed by a space and the dollar amount of your contribution to the number 27138. If Bob Moog’s work had a significant impact on your life, your career, or the music you listen to, then show your appreciation by doing it now.

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Moog Music Moves

I recently moved from Charlotte to Asheville, North Carolina, a beautiful city and the center of the universe for all things Moog. It all started when Bob Moog and his family moved here in 1978. Now, nearly five years after he succumbed to brain cancer in 2005, Asheville is home to both Moog Music and the Bob Moog Foundation. Moog Music, I’m sure you know, manufactures the Voyager and Little Phatty synthesizers, Etherwave theremins, Moogerfooger effects pedals, and the Moog Guitar. The Bob Moog Foundation is a charitable organization dedicated to preserving Bob’s legacy and educating young people about the connection between science and music.

Last Friday, Moog Music held a press conference announcing that it was relocating its headquarters to downtown Asheville’s northern gateway. The site is within easy walking distance to lots of music venues and other areas that attract tourists. Accordingly, the company plans to have a showroom open to the public, showcasing Moog products and technology. Asheville’s city officials are quite excited about the relocation, especially because the 1920s-era buildings Moog will occupy were once home to a fledgling natural foods supermarket chain and have been abandoned for nearly 17 years. To encourage the move, the City of Asheville awarded Moog a $50,000 grant toward what’s expected to be a $2.5 million restoration and expansion project.
New Moog HQ

The press conference was quite a high-profile event, with Asheville’s mayor Terry Bellamy and county commission chairman David Gantt among the guest speakers. Moog Music president Mike Adams couldn’t have looked more proud and humbled as speaker after speaker heaped on praise for his company and its projected role in Asheville’s future. At a time when many musical instrument manufacturers are struggling to keep afloat, Moog Music is setting its sights on continued growth, and that’s good news for electronic musicians everywhere.

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Mellodrama: a New Documentary about the Mellotron

Have you ever wondered about the origins of the Mellotron? You’ve certainly heard the classic keyboard that subbed for real flutes, choirs, and string ensembles in the ’60s and ’70s. What was its relationship to the Chamberlin? Both were early analog samplers that used recording tape to play back instrumental sounds. Although the Chamberlin came first (Harry Chamberlin actually invented sampling in the late ’40s), the Mellotron got considerably more exposure thanks to such popular songs as the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields� and the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.�

Mellodrama CoverYou’ll discover practically everything you ever wanted to know about the Mellotron and the Chamberlin in Mellodrama ($24.95 from Bazillion Points Publishing), a new documentary directed by Dianna Dillworth. The film was screened at the 2010 NAMM show in January and released on DVD a few days later. It features interviews with the inventor’s son, Richard Chamberlin, and with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues, Patrick Moraz of Yes, Ian McDonald of King Crimson, and many other Mellotron and Chamberlin enthusiasts.

Mellodrama traces the history of these groundbreaking instruments from their humble southern California beginnings to their 21st century resurgence and today’s cult of serious collectors. I already knew that the Chamberlin was originally designed as a home entertainment keyboard, and that the earliest samples were recordings of Lawrence Welk’s orchestra. Until I saw this movie, though, I had no idea that Chamberlin’s first salesman took the idea to England, where he claimed the design as his own and found financial backers to start the company that would manufacture Mellotrons. And that’s just one of many stories. If you’re interested in the history of electronic musical instruments, Mellodrama is not to be missed.

Upgrading to Snow Leopard

I finally took the plunge and spent the weekend upgrading my Mac Pro from Mac OS X 10. 5 (Leopard) to 10.6 (Snow Leopard). It has been a slow process punctuated by fits and starts, but it’s gone more smoothly than I had feared. Almost all my software now runs well, and I’ve found very little that I needed to update. A lot of that’s probably because I’m in the habit of installing updates as soon as they become available, and it’s gotten to the point that most audio software now supports Snow Leopard; that’s what I was waiting for. Still, installation wasn’t without its share of headaches.

Snow LeopardInstalling the new OS was easy enough. I began by repairing all permissions and backing up my startup drive. After that, I just ran the installer and waited for completion. On my first restart, Mac OS X Setup Assistant informed me that Line 6 TonePort Driver was not compatible, but that was all. (As it turns out, there’s no update for that driver, so for the moment, I’m out of luck as far as Line 6 software goes.) I ran Disk Utility and repaired permissions again, and then I ran Software Update three times to bring all the Apple software up to date.

My next step was running Logic Pro and letting Audio Units Manager approve of plug-ins one at a time. Out of 737 it tested, all but a handful passed, but it was a grueling process. Several times the computer refused to recognize my TC Electronic PowerCore, and other times it said PowerCore didn’t support the sampling rate (which was set at 44.1kHz). Logic unexpectedly quit on numerous occasions, and one time when I tried to restart the computer, I got the dreaded black screen of death. I saw a few fatal errors and some error messages I’ve never seen before. After AU Manager announced it had finished, I had to manually rescan a dozen plug-ins that either “couldn’t be opened� or “crashed validation,� and then most of those passed. In the end, only four plug-ins refused to load, and they were all older software for which no updates were available.

Next I began opening other applications. Digital Performer wouldn’t run at all, but I haven’t upgraded to DP7 yet, so I expected that. Ableton Live was no problem; Peak Pro 6, check; Soundtrack Pro, sure thing; MasterWriter, fine; and Melodyne Editor opened lightning quick. When I tried to open Pro Tools 8 LE, though, it reported an “access violation� and quit. When I tried to reboot, I got the black screen of death again. Afterwards, Pro Tools successfully finished scanning 365 RTAS plug-ins, but it didn’t see my Digidesign 003. I restarted the interface and ran Pro Tools again, and then everything worked perfectly.

I continued by opening standalone instruments. Most everything worked, but MOTU Ethno kept crashing until I just gave up. Lots of software asked me to specify an audio output device, apparently not recognizing its previous preferences—easy enough. A surprising amount of software required reauthorizing; I hadn’t expected that.

I’m still trying out different non-audio applications, and so far, so good. I can tell you that most applications do appear to run faster. Now I look forward to exploring the advantages of 64-bit processing. I’ll let you know if I discover anything else significant.

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Now We Know: the Apple iPad

Apple iPadToday Apple unveiled the iPad, a mobile tablet device that more than anything else resembles an oversized iPod touch. It runs all iPhone apps, and developers are busy redesigning their apps to conform to its 9.7-inch multitouch display. Of course, you can expect plenty of new apps specifically for the iPad. At today’s presentation in San Francisco, attendees saw demonstrations of NYTimes (a newspaper with embedded video), games from Gameloft and Electronic Arts, and the painting app Brushes, as well as Apple iWork, iPhoto, iTunes, Mail, Calendar, Maps, and the Safari browser. The iPad has an onscreen keyboard like on the iPhone (only bigger), or you can use an optional hardware keyboard.

Apple also announced the new iBookstore, making the iPad competitive with Amazon’s Kindle, but with 1,024 x 768-pixel color and full-motion graphics. The onboard e-book reader’s Page Navigator feature should make it easy to maneuver through hundreds of pages. By partnering with publishers and other content creators, Apple could lead a revolution in book and magazine publishing. (It’s about time someone did.)

And the potential for music production? The biggest problem with the iPhone is that it’s too small for serious work. The iPad is many times larger, but still more portable than the smallest computer. The iPad will undoubtedly give users an entirely new platform for making music.

The iPad weighs 1.5 pounds and is only half an inch thick. It has a built-in microphone and speakers, and it syncs with the Mac and Windows via USB. Inside is a custom Apple A4 processor, the first system-on-a-chip designed by Apple. Up to 10 hours of life for the built-in battery should be enough to compose and mix songs for the duration of just about any international flight.

Apple expects the first Wi-Fi versions to ship in late March, priced from $499 with a 16GB flash drive to $699 for the 64GB model. Versions that support Wi-Fi and 3G should be available a month later, from $629 for 16GB to $829 for 64GB. AT&T will provide 3G service—$14.99 a month for up to 250MB of data and $29.99 for unlimited data—prepaid, with no monthly contract. All of the 3G models will be unlocked.

In 1984, Apple changed the way people use computers by launching Macintosh System 1.0, which introduced millions to the mouse and an icon-based user interface. Using that OS irrefutably affected my career path. In 2001, Apple changed the way we store and listen to music with the iPod. Count me as one who thinks they’ll change things again with the iPad.

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Universal Audio Has Been Busy

Massive PassiveOne of the most obvious trends at NAMM was partnering between companies that make audio hardware and software or between manufacturers and distributors. Universal Audio, a company with a long history of collaboration, announced several new partnerships to develop plug-ins for its UAD-2 DSP platform. Working with Manley Labs, UA expects to release an emulation of the Massive Passive stereo equalizer sometime in March. Collaborating with stompbox maker Dunlop, UA is also developing models of classic effects from Dunlop and MXR.

A more far-reaching arrangement was made with the Harman Group, which encompasses numerous pro-audio manufacturers. UA announced forthcoming plug-ins that model Lexicon reverbs, AKG spring reverb, dbx compression and other processing, and even Studer tape machines. Speaking of tape, pioneering manufacturer Ampex is returning to the pro recording market after a long absence to partner with UA in emulating not only tape machines, but the tape itself. Taken all together, these collaborations will result in an even greater variety of processing plug-ins for UAD-2 owners.

Serious Ivory Update

Ivory II, the latest version of Synthogy’s flagship software, is easily the most realistic sampled piano I’ve ever heard. Ever since Kurzweil released the K250, authentic-sounding sympathetic resonance has been the holy grail of digital-piano designers, and the folks at Synthogy have finally hit the mark, doubling the realism of an already fine virtual instrument in the process. In fact, I’m probably as excited about Ivory II as anything I’ve seen or heard at NAMM.

The KAOSS Pad for Pros

Kaossilator ProFans of KAOSS are excited to hear about Korg’s new Kaossilator Pro, a touchpad-based synthesizer with built-in electronic sounds and acoustic samples, as well as 25 preset drum patterns. The x-y touchpad can cover either a single octave or the entire range of pitch. You also get a gate arpeggiator, an internal vocoder, and loop-recorder banks that allow you to create 4-bar phrases and store them to SD cards. The Kaossilator Pro has stereo I/O on RCA jacks, MIDI In and Out jacks, and MIDI over USB. It’s expected in March for $460 retail.

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The Bus, EM's editorial blog, features posts from all the EM editors on topics related to gear, recording techniques and much more. It's also home to posts from a selected group of guest bloggers.

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