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Archive of the Mike Levine Category

iPhone 3Gs Musings and Two More App Reviews

I’m sure you’ve already heard plenty about the new Apple iPhone 3Gs models that are scheduled to be available this Friday. They promise to be faster and even more fully featured than the current 3G models (which will be dropped in price to $99). For a good summary of the features and pricing, check out this story from PC World.
Current iPhone owners who don’t want to shell out the bucks for an iPhone 3Gs can still get some cool improvements with the free 3.0 operating system ($10 for iPod touch users), which will also be available on June 19th. That promises a lot of improvements including cut, copy, and paste; a landscape keyboard in the Mail app (a boon for typing emails, and a big improvement over the portrait-oriented keyboard in the current OS), turn-by-turn directions for the GPS (you’ll have to purchase a third-party app to access this feature), and, built-in voice-memo recording.
What the new iPhone models and operating system will mean for music apps on the platform remains to be seen. But in the meantime, new ones keep popping up. Here are a couple I’ve tried lately. (Read more about iPhone music apps in the EM feature story, “iPhoning it In“.)
Scale Wizard 1.01 ($1.99): Planet Waves Scale WizardPlanet WavesGuitarists looking for fingerings for virtually any scale at any fret will love this app. You can see the fingering for, and listen to (either ascending, descending, or by individual note) virtually any scale, mode, or arpeggio in any key. It’s simple to use and a boon for any guitarist.
FiRe 1.0.0 ($5.99, Audiofile Engineering). Designed as a field recorder for your iPhone/iPod Touch, this app is well-designed and very useful. Large Play and Record buttons greet you when you open the app. It defaults to mono, but if you plug in a stereo mic (I tried it with the Blue Mikey, which it only supports on the iPhone 3G not the iPod touch 2G), and restart the app, it supports stereo recording. You can easily drop in markers, add Broadcast WAVE metadata, and record in a variety of quality levels topping out at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz. Like BIAS’s iPro Recorder app (reviewed in “iPhoning it In“) the display will rotate when you turn your iPhone or iPod touch around, which is handy because mics plug into the dock port which is on the bottom of the unit. Audiofile Engineering FiReThe rotating display lets you view the app right side up when recording with an external mic. One feature that’s a bit puzzling is Overdub. You’re able to record on top of a previous recording, but you can’t hear your original while doing so. I’m not sure of the utility of this, but perhaps I’m missing something. You also get a bunch of different export options including FTP. I was able to easily download files through the browser based transfer method. I’d love to see an editing feature added, and monitoring while overdubbing, but overall, this is a very slick app.

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Propellerhead’s Bombshell Announcement

Record interface
On Saturday, Propellerhead Software introduced Record, a very impressive standalone audio recording program for Mac and Windows that can seamlessly integrate with Reason to become a fully featured and very powerful recording/MIDI sequencing environment. Rumors had been percolating about it on the Web for a while, but the company announced it officially at a series of Propellerhead Producers Conferences in London, Berlin, Los Angeles and New York, all of which took place on Saturday. Watch the video (part 1 and part 2) that I shot at the New York event.

My biggest headline about Record would be the incredibly impressive timestretching capabilities of the program. Propellerhead CEO Ernst Nathorst-Böös, who demoed Record, opened a song originally recorded at 140 BMP, and then sped it up to 160 and slowed it down to 113 as it played, with no audible artifacts. The crowded room—the event took place at Clinton Studios, a large commercial recording facility—broke into applause after Nathorst-Böös had navigated the song through its tempo changes. He then demonstrated how you can automate tempo changes, as well.

“The concept of recording stuff on a computer, from our perspective, which we like to think is the musician’s perspective,” said Nathorst-Böös. “It’s a little bit different from what’s out there today, a lot of which we think is designed from an engineer’s perspective.”

Ernst Nathorst-BöösThe mixer section of Record is an emulation of an SSL 9000K console, and includes the EQ, dynamics, and even the master bus compressor. There was an audible gasp and then applause from the gathered Reason users when the mixer screen was first shown.

Record’s editing features are designed for ease of use. It has a comping feature that appears really user-friendly and is similar in basic concept to those now included in Logic 8, Pro Tools 8, and Digital Performer 6.

As mentioned, when you run Record alongside Reason, the two programs integrate into a single production environment. You get the full MIDI recording functionality of Reason and its sequencer together with Record’s audio prowess. Reason’s sequencer tracks appear alongside Record’s audio tracks.

You also get Line 6 guitar- and bass-amp models and effects, and if you use a Line 6 hardware device (like a POD or audio interface), connected via USB to Record, you can access all of the models from that device in the software.

One area that may give pause to some users is Propellerhead’s decision to make Record a closed environment, that is, it will not support outside plug-in formats like Audio Units or VST. As a result, your plug-ins will be limited to those in Record, or Record and Reason if you’re working with both together.

Nathorst-Böös explained the decision by saying that by not having to support the outside formats, Propellerhead was able to make the system much more efficient for using its included effects (and instruments when you’re running in tandem with Reason). “It’s not that we don’t acknowledge that there’s all this cool stuff that you can use,” he told the crowd, “we figured we’d rather give you 30 or 40 channels of true, really good, mixer processing, and being able to use it on a computer you already have.”

And he demonstrated that capability by playing back a song from his MacBook Pro, and showing the huge amount of effects that were included on it (there were at least 50 different instances of effects on that song, and probably more). For situations where one wants to export a project out to another DAW, Record has an incredibly easy setup that lets you select the tracks you want to export, hit a button, and boom, it’s done—and all the tracks are automatically set to start at the beginning of the song, making syncing them in another host a breeze.

Record will ship on September 9th of this year (that’s 9/9/09 for you numerologists out there), and there is an almost fully functional public beta that is available now.

Oh, and one more thing, the street price for Record is $249 (there was another audible gasp from the crowd when that was revealed). Registered Reason users will be able to upgrade for $149. A bundle of Reason and Record will street for $499.

Record’s Rack

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I Want My Auto-Save

Okay, here goes a bit of a rant: I was doing a video edit recently, and I got so into what I was doing that I forgot to hit save for awhile and, wouldn’t you know it, my video editor crashed and I lost about 30 minutes of work. Not a catastrophe, but maddening nonetheless. Why do I bring this up? Because if my video-editor software had an auto-save feature, I would have lost no more than a few minutes of work instead of a half hour.

It got me to wondering, why don’t more DAWs, video editors, and other creative applications have auto-save options? It seems like such a no-brainer to me, and should be a basic feature common to all programs.

Kudos to Digidesign, because Pro Tools has a very useful auto-save feature, called Auto Backup, with which the user can setup how often an automatic copy of your file is made (or turn it off completely). Steinberg’s Cubase and Nuendo have such features, as does Cakewalk Sonar.

I know that some people don’t like auto-save. The complaint is that it can make the program slow down briefly when it’s saving. My response to that is: fine, if you want to work without a net, that’s your prerogative. Turning it on should be an option. Also, the feature should be designed so that it won’t save during a recording or playback (because that could cause a glitch).

Yes, we should all get in the habit of hitting Command + S (or Control +S on a PC) every time we do almost anything in a DAW, at least anything of significance. But no matter how diligent you are about saving, I’m willing to bet that there will be times when you get so into producing or playing or whatever you’re doing in the session that you forget to hit save and then…

I’m curious for your opinions: do you like auto-save features? Have you lost data due to the lack of an auto-save feature? Let me know what you think.

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Recycle Those Discs

CD Recyling Center of America

Last year EM did a story called “It’s Easy Being Green,” in which we talked of ways to make your studio more ecologically friendly. One of the suggestions was to recycle old CDs and DVDs. Some municipalities have local recycling options for such discs, and that’s obviously the best option for recycling. However, if you’re like me, and live in a town that doesn’t recycle CDs and DVDs, you might want to know about an organization called The CD Recycling Center of America. It offers free recycling of discs (apparently some companies charge for the service), and if you live in New England, you can arrange for pickup of your discs. Outside New England, you have to ship them the discs.

I recently went on the company’s Web site, and here are instructions for how to send your old discs to them for recycling:

“Discs only

1. Choose a small location in your home, perhaps a home office or the basement.
2. Place a small envelope or box there, and write on it “Recycle Compact Discs Here?.
3. Simply take a few minutes, check your car, and other areas of your house for old, scratched, used, or unwanted discs.
4. Place all the discs into the box.
5. Mark the box “CDs / DVDs / HD-DVD / Blu-ray Discs only?


1. If you have plastic cases such as a jewel case, or a slim case, please see if you can reuse them, or keep them for future use with perhaps another new disc.
2. If broken or cracked, please collect in a separate box, other than the disc box.
3. We accept all standard CD packages, cases and sleeves.
4. If your CD case is a cardboard and plastic combination, such as a DigiPak or similar, please tear off the plastic part and place it in this box, but see below in regards to the paper.
5. Mark the box “cases only?

Inserts, Covers, Paperwork

1. If you have covers, inserts, manuals or any other paper or paper board product that accompanies your compact disc, Please collect in a separate box. Please write on it “CD paperwork here?
2. Mark the box “paper only?

When your boxes or envelopes are full, please send to:
The Compact Disc Recycling Center of America
68H Stiles Road
Salem, NH 03079

Yes, the shipping may cost you a small amount, but although you may not realize it, you’ll be generating less trash, which you would have to pay to dispose of anyway. Less trash = less weight = less pickups which hopefully means fewer and cheaper trash pick ups.
Think about it…

* You’ll generate less trash.
* You’ll be helping the very planet you live on.
* Landfills will be less filled with non-decomposing plastic
* Incinerators will be generating less pollution that hurts our atmosphere.
* Your Recycling companions will love you for it.”

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Béla Fleck and the Flecktones at the Blue Note

Flecktones photo 2
I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Béla Fleck and the Flecktones perform the second set on Friday night at the Blue Note in New York. Despite some iffy weather in New York, the club was completely sold out and totally packed.

The musicianship of the band was quite impressive, with Fleck on banjo (both acoustic and electric), Victor Wooten on bass, Future Man on Drumitar and drum set, and Jeff Coffin on sax and flute. The group mostly played material from their new CD, Jingle All the Way, which contains a selection of holiday songs arranged as only the Flecktones can. (For an interview with Fleck about the recording of this CD, check out this month’s EM Cast. To hear a a couple of audio clips from the CD, click here.)

The band’s virtuosic instrumental abilities were in full display in their Friday show. Although all four musicians were amazing, the most jaw-dropping musical moments of the evening belonged to Wooten. His facility on the bass was something to behold, whether he was playing tapped melodies while simultaneously holding down the bass line or rattling off rapid-fire funk and jazz licks. (For an interview with Wooten, check out the EM June 08 cover story, which also contains a video of Wooten playing bass in his studio.)

The band played a lengthy set, finishing off with its imaginative and incredibly complex arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,? in which each day is in a different time signature and key.

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Free Kore Sounds from Native Instruments

Kore Player

Native Instruments has released its free Kore Soundpack Compilation Vol. 1, which consists of 100 sounds and 700 sound variations taken from its collection of Kore Soundpacks. These sounds are compatible with both Kore 2 and the free Kore Player .

The sounds in the compilation represent a sampling (no pun intended) of those available in the various Kore Soundpacks. Here is the Soundpack list from the NI site:

“TRUE STRIKE TENSION – Percussive, suspenseful sounds for cinematic scores
ABSYNTH TWILIGHTS – Extraordinary ABSYNTH pads and soundscapes
DEEP TRANSFORMATIONS – Extremely powerful multi-effects suite
URBAN ARSENAL – Construction kits, grooves and instruments for hip-hop
REAKTOR ANIMATED CIRCUITS – Self-generating REAKTOR soundscapes
MASSIVE EXPANSION VOL. 1 and Vol. 2 – Brand-new MASSIVE sounds
BEST OF MASSIVE – Best synth sounds taken from the MASSIVE factory library
FM8 TRANSIENT ATTACKS – Cutting-edge FM8 sounds for modern electronic music
SYNTHETIC DRUMS – Versatile collection of charismatic synthetic drum kits
BEST OF ABSYNTH – Collection of atmospheres and pads from ABSYNTH

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Unlimited Free Downloads Discontinued by Soundsnap

Soundsnap screenshot

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” is an cliché that I’ve found to be true more often than not. Until a couple of days ago, however, Soundsnap—the Web site that since its inception has been offering free sound effects and loops that were uploaded by its users—was the sonic equivalent of a free lunch. This was especially true as of late, because its collection has grown a lot since the site’s inception. But when I went to Soundsnap today, I discovered that as of Dec. 7th, it has changed over to a subscription policy. It’s annual fee for unlimited downloading is a reasonable $149, with lesser charges for shorter term subscriptions with finite, albeit generous, download limits.

There is a silver lining: for those with minimal needs, Soundsnap now lets you register for a Free Account, which allows five downloads per month. That’s still a lot better than nothing, but not nearly as generous as it once was. According to Soundsnap, growing traffic at the site (up to 450,000 visitors a month) has resulted in increased software and hardware costs, and advertising revenue has been lower than expected. As a result, the decision was made to change the business model. In these tough economic times, you can’t blame them for doing what they needed to do. But it’s a shame that the free model didn’t hold up. In any case, it’s still worth a visit, and there’s no reason not to register for that free 5-download account.

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“Recording The Beatles” Authors Speak

Kehew and Ryan
Wednesday night in New York City, I attended an AES-sponsored talk featuring Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan, authors of the acclaimed book, Recording The Beatles . The book, which was exhaustively researched, details the gear and techniques used by the Beatles, George Martin, and the various engineers, during their sessions at Abbey Road Studios between 1962 and 1970.

The talk took place at the Ed Sullivan Theater, which these days is home to Late Show with David Letterman, but was the same room in which the Beatles made their historic U.S. debut in 1964. Although the stage was dominated by Letterman’s glitzy NY skyline set, and his band’s massive gear setup to the left, you got a real sense of being in a historic place, just being in there. And I was imagining what it must have been like back on the night of the Beatles debut.

Not only did Kehew and Ryan give a lengthy talk about the book, but they also showed a bunch of photos, many of which are unpublished. Some of the shots showed the theater during the Beatles appearance (it looked totally different inside), but most were of recording sessions at Abbey Road Studios.

Although I’ve seen Abbey Road from the street, I never realized that the studios are not in the Georgian mansion that you see from that famous crosswalk. They’re actually built onto the back of that building, forming a rather massive complex. Kehew and Rhyan showed a diagram of the complex, which drove home how large it really is. The Beatles mostly recorded in Studio 2, which, though quite large, was not as big as the massive Studio 1, where most of the orchestral recording at Abbey Road takes place.

The authors showed a photo, taken back in the ’60s, from inside the live room in Studio 2, showing the winding wooden staircase on the left that leads from the floor up to the control room, which is located one flight up and looks down on the room through a glass window. They told an amusing story of the night John and Paul decided to record direct, and plugged their instruments through DIs in the control room. After a bit, George, who was setup downstairs, came trudging up the long staircase carrying his amp, wanting to get into the control-room action.

Kehew and Ryan were joined onstage by Malcolm Addey, who was an Abbey Road engineer for many years, including during the Beatles era, although he wasn’t their engineer. Still, he had a lot of insights into the inner workings of Abbey Road, and was quite an entertaining speaker.

Probably the coolest part of the whole evening was when the authors played some individual tracks from Beatles songs to demonstrate how much the band and George Martin used varispeed effects on their recordings. They played the keyboard solo from “In My Life,” which, on the record sounds like it’s a harpsichord. In fact, it turns out that it was a conventional piano, played by Martin, but recorded at half speed. First, they played the original half speed, down-an-octave track followed by the familiar, speeded up version of the solo. Also, many of the vocal tracks on Beatles songs, particularly John’s were recorded a bit slowed down and then speeded up. They also played examples of those, as well as a soloed vocal track, which clearly demonstrated the tone of the plate reverb in Studio 2.

Before the talk, I had a chance to briefly interview the authors backstage. Watch the video.

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Advice for Avoiding Crashes

At the risk of stating the obvious, I thought I’d pass on an observation: when working in audio software, the preponderance of crashes seem to occur when I’m opening up a third party plug-in. I don’t have empirical data to support this, but from anecdotal observations it seems pretty clear. And why not? It makes sense that software bugs are more likely to manifest themselves during the interaction of a host and a plug-in from different manufacturers. Yes, the manufacturers strive hard for maximum compatibility, but sometimes the two products just don’t want to work together properly in a particular set of circumstances.

To help limit the damage from such destructive interactions, I’m trying to get myself into the habit of saving before I instantiate a third party plug-in, when I’m working in a DAW. That’s one circumstance when it’s always prudent to save before going forward. Naturally, you should be saving regularly anyway (and using auto-save features if your software has them), but you especially want to do so before opening up that reverb, delay, software instrument, or whatever.

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iPhone Synth

iPHone Synth
I recently downloaded the Noise.IO Pro synth for the Apple iPhone. It’s a single voice synth with a surprisingly deep feature set. It offers a modulation matrix with which you can do all sorts of sound tweaking. However, though it’s easy to get some nice sounds out of it when you first turn it on (a lot of cool sequenced sounds are programmed in), the user interface is way cryptic. It will definitely take you some time to get the hang of it. It offers two main ways to trigger sounds, either from a little two-octave keyboard or matrix of buttons that trigger notes. Within the latter there are three different modes, offering a range of possibilities. It even takes advantage of the iPhone’s motion sensor, allowing you to literally shake your phone to modulate a sound. You also get a soft ribbon controller for further control. In addition, there are built in effects such as delay, chorus/flanger, distortion, and a bitcrusher.
Considering that it costs only $10 ($9.99 to be precise), it’s pretty cool, and a lot of fun to play around with. It has an online manual, but I didn’t find it to be as informative about basic operations as I would have liked. Be prepared to be frustrated by the Pro until you spend a lot of time learning itse ins and outs. It’s not exactly what I would call user friendly.

Although some of the presets are a little on the cheesy side, it sounds pretty darn good overall, especially if you’re listening on headphones or plugged into your computer. I plugged it into my audio interface using the iPhone’s headphone out, and recorded this example, which features four parts (two sequenced sounds, a bass, and percussion) into Ableton Live. I did a little bit of editing to tighten some of the parts up (the keyboard has a very slight delay when you hit a note, so it’s not so easy to nail rhythms spot on.) I did not add any effects in Live; these sounds are all from the Pro.

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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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