CD Comments – Tangerine Dream, the Virgin Years

(Image from Amazon, used for review purposes only.)

Next up on the music radar, Tangerine Dream. I admit that I hadn’t been familiar with Tangerine until just recently. I grew up more on Kraftwerk, which was played more often on the radio in the 70’s. I had seen the name Conrad Schnitzler mentioned fairly often in Matt Howarth’s Those Annoying Post Bros, but, in the years prior to the growth of the internet, it was really hard to get my hands on anything by him. Now of course, it’s just a question of having a net connection and a credit card. How times change.

Anyway, one of the CDs I received as a present is Virgin Years: 1974-1978. This is a collection of 5 CDs the band recorded for Virgin Records during their 4 years with the label: Phaedra, Rubycon, Ricochet, Stratosfear and Cyclone. The primary group members during this period were founder Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Peter Baumann. If you’re interested in synth and electronic music, you probably already know more about TD than I do. If you’re just getting started, then this collection is one you should be buying.

According to the wiki entry, Froese had attempted to form a band under the name Tangerine Dream starting in 1967, with various line-up changes through the early 70’s. Things settled down with the addition of Franke in 1970. Froese started as a psychedelic rock musician, but after meeting Salvador Dali, decided to go off in a more experimental direction. Having been born and raised in Germany, Froese contributed to what was later labeled Krautrock, “a tendency towards improvisation around minimalistic arrangements”. With Phaedra, you get big, sweeping orchestral notes that glide much like lazy ocean waves, occasional gongs, and then reverby voices of children playing in a park outside at the end of the track. Virgin had brought in a big Moog synth, used for the bass notes, the fun part being that because it was an early analog box, with no way of saving patches, it had to be retuned every day, and that took several hours. Additionally, the oscillators were temperature sensitive and they would detune as the equipment warmed up.

A key element of Froese’s recording approach was recalled when he later talked about making Phaedra:

“‘Mysterious Semblance’ was recorded on Dec 4th. Pete and Chris were asleep after a long day’s recording session so I invited my wife, Monique, into the studio. I called in the studio engineer and recorded it in one take on a double-keyboarded Mellotron while Monique turned the knobs on a phasing device. This piece is on the record exactly as it was recorded that day. And this practice was to continue for the rest of the session.”

All five albums have a dreamy, “new age” feel to them, with keyboard glides, frequency filter shifting, popping little notes and changes to the amplitude envelopes. If you like Pink Floyd’s “Meddle” album, then you’re going to love TD’s Virgin Years.  As I mentioned in the first CD blog post, I’m looking at these songs to deconstruct them as a learning experiment. And from this viewpoint, Virgin Years is a wealth of information.

There is a bit of repetition on the CDs, in that there are multiple versions of Rubycon, Ricochet and Stratosfear. Unless you play them back to back, you’ll probably not be able to tell any major differences between them. On the other hand, if you get the CDs (mine was a 3-CD set) used, it’s not like it’s overpriced and padded out.

Lastly, if you do like Tangerine Dream, now’s the time to show it, as the band is starting to die off. Schnitzler passed away in 2011 from stomach cancer, and Froese just last January.

Bokaro P ni Naritai, vol. 15

(Images used for review purposes only.)

I want to be a Vocaloid Producer, vol. 15, 1,500 yen, plus tax.
Well, we’re finally half way through the planned series of 30 volumes. Be interesting to see what the publisher has in mind when we get to issue 25.

New magazine features:
In the 4-panel comic, Rana happily announces that her first song is done, and therefore she is now a Vocaloid Producer. Robo-Panda reminds her that you can’t be a producer until you actually have something uploaded to the net. Rana panics because she has no idea how to do that. The classroom section then goes into a little more detail, talking about using movie editing software like Microsoft’s Movie Maker to add the song title text and closing credits, and explains the differences between Nico Nico regular accounts, Nico Nico Premium and youtube. There’s a feature on the Mixture Pop genre, and an interview with Pinocchio P. The MMD tutorial section breaks down the video you’ll be making into song segments, identifying where each motion file will be copied into the MMD keyframes chart. Finally, there’s a highlight on the Lily package (which came out in 2010), and a comment on the pop up artist for this volume, Takashige Tsukada.

New DVD Features:
The MMD model file is for the Outer Space dance stage. The comment on this stage in the magazine states that you can change the gravity settings in the room to allow for high jumps and fluttery landings. In actuality, you’ll have to handle this level of detail yourself, but that’s just a matter of how you set the keyframes, and the Gravity setting in the options menu (the Gravity setting will affect how long it takes clothes and hair to come to rest after the character moves).

The pop-up song is “Donna Fuu ni Sayonara wo iena Yoin Darou” (What’s the Best Way to Say Goodbye?) It’s a simple pop ballad with a melancholy edge. Audio track only, no dance video.

(4-panel comic, and one-half of the classroom section.)

There are a number of plug-in apps that are available for Vocaloid. One of which is Job, apparently based on the English word for “to do a job”. It is used as another interface to the automation tools. The first part of the tutorial just talks about the need for making Rana’s voice louder in the demo song. Rather than adjusting Dyn manually, you can use Job just by clicking on Execute Job Plug-in from the Job menu tab, and the option you want is Adjust Gain. Enter a positive or negative integer to change Dyn from its current value for the song time range you want, and you’re done. The next section is to use Job to change the type of Vibrato used in the song. This is followed by instructions on how to get Job for free from the online Vocaloid plug-in store, and then the tutorial finishes with a playback of the full demo song, “Chikyuu no Kaiten” (The Earth Turns).

The main focus of this lesson is on taking an analog MIDI track, saving it to file, then chopping it up into pieces and rearranging them as you like. The target is an existing drum rhythm track. To make the task easier, we’re also shown how to go into the properties menu and assign a short-cut (Alt-D) key to the “Split Track” command. Along with pasting in the desired bits of the track you want, you can shorten the bit so the full phrase plays in less time; with the drums, the result is what sounds like DJ scratching. This seems like a lot of work for what you get, but it is one approach to making something with a techno or House feel.

(Rana in space.)

Time to make a video. The publishers have included a series of pre-built poses and walk cycles that you can stitch together. First, load the Rana model, and the demo song wave file. Each of the cycles is based on a 1:8 beat pattern, and the song is divided up into an intro, the A and B melodies and the ending. Based on this information, you can write out the approximate start points for each set of pose or motion keyframes, and then copy them into the project file. In some cases, the keyframe data includes keys that you don’t need for the work you’re doing, so identify them in the preview stage and delete what you don’t want. When you get to the ending, just paste in the pose you want to close on. After that’s done, pick the stage(s) you want to use, and register it (them) as desired. All that’s left is putting in the camera and lighting effects. The editors suggest coming up with your own ideas, tweaking some of the keyframes to personalize the motions for each cycle, and then uploading the finished video to nico nico douga. The tutorial is only 7 minutes long, including the finished demo video, but you could spend weeks on this one project to create something really polished. Me? I’m just going through the motions prior to starting my own project.

Additional comments:
The sections on Vocaloid and Singer-Song Writer are pretty rudimentary and are “nice things to know”. If you already compose your own music, you’ll probably glance these over and decide what you want to keep in mind for later. However, the MMD tutorial is pretty much a “must-see” if you’re going to do animation in the future, because it’s all about creating a library of stock motion cycles to be reused when the storyboard calls for them, and includes the steps for stitching the separate cycles together to make them transition smoothly. Good stuff.

CD comments – Tubular Bells

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here about synth or electronic music. I’ve received, as presents, several CDs that I like over the last year, and I want to talk about them a bit from the technical side. I’ve written before that I’m not a musician, and that I just like messing with synths because they amuse me. I look at synth music from the viewpoint of a beginner – what does a particular control on the box do? Or, how can I get a particular effect out of any given application? So, rather than discuss the artistic merits, or emotional quality of the songs on each album, I’ll just approach this as a “what can I learn by listening to this disc”?

(Image from Amazon, used for review purposes only)

First up, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973, Virgin Records).
Per se, Tubular Bells isn’t a synth or electronic album. Instead, this is a prime example of multi-track recording. Oldfield, 19 at the time of the release, had worked with a multi-track magnetic tape recording system at the Virgin studios, playing each instrument himself one at a time, and then synching up the tracks, or doing various edits with the help of the studio engineer to get specific effects. (One example is the “Piltdown Man” section on track two.)

Multi-track recording had been used in a similar way previously, in David Seville’s Witch Doctor (1958), his later Alvin and the Chipmunks works (starting with “The Chipmunk Song” (1958)), and The In Sound from Way Out! (Perrey and Kingsley, 1966). In fact, Jean-Jacques Perrey used taped loops very extensively to produce several of the songs on “Way Out”. However, the idea was still treated as a kind of unmarketable novelty concept when Oldfield tried approaching the big record companies.

According to the main wiki article, one of the more distinctive elements in Tubular Bells, Pt. 2, the Piltdown Man (now called the “Caveman”), came from an argument between Oldfield and then Virgin Records president Richard Branson. Branson wanted lyrics on at least part of the album, and Oldfield didn’t think that was necessary. Eventually Mike got angry, drank half a bottle of whiskey, and went into the studio to shout into the microphone for 10 minutes. The thing that concerns us right here is that the engineer ran the tape at double speed, and then played it back at normal, stretching the sounds out and dropping the pitch by half. The resulting grunts and shouts were then edited in to the final mix at intervals to match the rhythm of the rest of the song.

A lot of modern composition software, like Sonar, and even Vocaloid’s Singer-Song Writer, make single-performer multi-track songwriting fairly simple. With SSW, the tutorials even tell you to cut and paste sound samples throughout the song to build up “wall of sound” productions. And with programs like Audacity, you can record anything you want, stretch or compress it, reverse or invert it, and then apply other effects before saving to a .wav file that can be imported into the composition program. On top of this, machines like the Micro Korg, and the Kaossilator, are designed to record short (i.e. – 4-second) loops that can be used for creating House music. So, yeah, multi-track and tape-loops are commonplace now. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to take them for granted.

What makes Tubular Bells stand out is that it doesn’t SOUND like one guy and a tape recorder. There are a few places where some of the instruments seem to be sliding out of synch, and one specific section is dedicated to literally introducing each instrument to the listener as it is added to the mix. But otherwise, TB as an album sounds like it could have been made using a full orchestra.

The original album has two tracks, Tubular Bells, Pt. 1 (25 minutes) and Pt. 2 (23 minutes). Both tracks are largely instrumentals (with the exception of the Piltdown Man on Pt. 2, and the “announcer” introducing the instruments on Pt. 1. The musical themes vary throughout both songs, and the titular tubular bells feature in just a few places. If you’ve only heard the Exorcist theme song then you’re going to be disappointed, because that was just taken from an excerpt at the beginning of Pt. 1.

I don’t consider Tubular Bells to be something that I’d listen to all the time. I like the first minute or two of Pt. 1, and the Piltdown Man section on Pt. 2. Everything else is either repetitive or interrupted by the announcer. But, the point of this blog entry is to look at the technical side as a learning tool. And from that aspect TB, Pt. 2 especially is fun in trying to dissect the various sounds to see how to put them back together using more modern techniques. And on that basis, I’d recommend this album to synth students as a learning exercise.

Gakken Updates

No real activity from Gakken yet. I’m posting this entry now mainly because I’ve been working on another VBScript for processing GoComics comments, this time for tracking reader reactions on various Luann strips to determine which ones got people to post the most messages in one day. That’s eaten into the time I was planning on spending on the Vocaloid tutorials.

But, the Gakken Facebook page does have two new posts. The first includes 4 photos from the Rainbow Loom kit event held on April 12th at the Musashi Murayama Aeon Mall.

The second is an announcement of the Theo Jansen art exhibit at Futago-Tamagawa (within cycling distance of my old apartment in Tokyo. Sigh.) Held from 4/24 to 5/6.

Sailor Moon Micro Block Kit

One of the people I know went to Hong Kong for a week, and when she came back she gave me this Micro Block kit she found at the airport. It’s kind of funny, I tried finding a website for this company, and I can’t (not right away, anyway). It looks like it’s based on the Japanese Nanoblock designs, which in turn, of course, are patterned on Legos. The company seems to be Loz, based in Hong Kong, but the box says “Made in China”. Hard to say if this is a pirate product, or something that’s actually properly licensed from the holders of the Sailor Moon copyrights.

Took 20 minutes just to sort out the pieces. I didn’t count all of them, but a few of the colors and shapes had one or two extra pieces over the amount given in the instructions. Fortunately, none of the pieces came up short. A rough count from the instructions comes out close to 200 parts.

From start to finish took 2 hours. I can’t imagine trying to do this without the instructions (all pictorial, no words), and even then I had problems understanding exactly what I was supposed to do in some places. I had to disassemble various parts along the way to correct mistakes or omissions. At the end, the legs, arms and hair sections kept coming apart because they were only being connected by one peg each. Then, when I tried mounting the kit on the base plate, I discovered that the spacing of the legs, according to the pictures in the instructions, were one peg too close together, meaning that the kit wouldn’t stand exactly centered on the plate. I had to rearrange the legs to line up with the plate pegs, and that makes the kit look even more “blocky”. Maybe I should have moved the feet closer together instead of the other way. The completed assembly feels so fragile that I don’t want to even carry it between rooms. It is an interesting experience, but I don’t know if I’d want to make more than one of these kinds of kits, at this point.

Total height is about 3 inches.

The head is hollow, making Usagi-chan a true “air head”.

Building a Better Tarantula

I realize that I just ran the entry on the scorpion kit only last week, and that I’d said I was going to build them one a month. The thing is that I’d actually built the scorpion kit at the beginning of March and had waited for a few weeks before uploading the blog entry. And, I built the tarantula kit on April 1st, which seemed fitting some how. (Besides, they’re only 1,100 yen ($9 USD) not including tax, so it’s not like they’re all that expensive. I just don’t have room to store them after I make the things. That’s why I’m not getting all of them all at once.)

There’s over 35 pieces to this one, not including the nuts and bolts. Again, I didn’t see a suggested assembly time, but it took me close to two hours to finish it, largely because I had so much trouble trying to hold the pieces in place as I added each of the legs. These are not kits intended for one person to build by themselves. You really need two pairs of hands.

There’s a lot of folding of the sheet metal, on the body and tail sack. At first, I was confused because the instructions said to fold the panels on the spider’s back upward, which didn’t match the finished photos. Turned out, though that the reason was to make it easier to slide the main pin bolt through the holes in the sides to hold both the front and back subassemblies (for the head, and the abdomen-connector) in place on the leg-lower body assembly. I also had to spend several minutes pushing the front and back assembles ONTO the leg subassembly to get the holes to line up flush, because the pieces required a LOT of pressure to get them to fully slide into place. After that was done, I had to fold the upper sheet metal back down and form it over the frame as shown in the above photo.

You can see from this photo that there was a lot more folding and shaping involved in making the abdomen section, too. The instructions say to use the slot of the bigger tool to bend the sheet metal. Having had to do the same thing on the forehead of the scorpion, I knew that there was a risk of putting deep scratches in the metal surfaces. So, I tried to be careful and use minimum force, but that didn’t work out so well either. The scratches show up on the tarantula much more obviously than on any of the other kits. Instead, I kind of leaned in the opposite direction and put in so many little scratches that it now looks like it’s supposed to be that way.

Putting the final two major subassemblies together was very easy – it’s just one nut and bolt running through the matching holes on both pieces. As with the other kits, the nuts loosen up too easily when you try positioning the sections to get them to look right. It would have been nice if the kits included lock washers, or if I had the courage to use loctite on them. As it is, I just have to keep my screwdriver and pliers out when I move the kits around. The legs are intended to move freely, so that’s good.

Once finished, the tarantula is the first of the kits so far where I had satisfaction in seeing it fulled completed. It’s a cool little kit (11 cm long), and it has a very “tarantula-like” feel to it. As before, the springs are just there to represent muscles in the legs and don’t actually do anything themselves.

The instruction book has 3 pages of pictures of various spiders, and one sidebar explaining why spiders are not insects.

Bokaro P ni Naritai, vol. 14

(Images used for review purposes only.)

I want to be a Vocaloid Producer, vol. 14, 1,500 yen, plus tax.

New magazine features:
The 4-panel comic has Rana obsessing over her new song. The storyline continues into the classroom section, where Robo-panda and Jasmine alternate in giving advice. One suggestion to new composers to set a deadline. You’ll never be completely satisfied with your songs, but by saying “I’ll stop working on this at the end of April 30th (or whatever)”, it’s easier to decide “enough’s enough”. A second suggestion is to go back over the tutorials from volumes 5, 6, 8 and 11 for ideas. The featured genre is Technopop, and the artist this time is EasyPop. The magazine side to the MMD video tutorial focuses heavily on the keyframes used for putting Rana into various dance freeze poses, specifically “cute girl” poses. The final page talks about the IA – Aria on the Planetes Vocaloid package, and has a brief piece on the pop up artist – Shimehebi.

New DVD Features:
The Pop Up artist song is “Furusato”. Normally, “Furusato” means “one’s home town”, but the kanji used in the title are for “old village”. It’s just the audio track again, there’s no dance video. The tune itself has a kind of quiet j-pop love song element, with dramatic base rolls in places, and an old, cheap bell accompaniment. It’s actually a charming song, and it would be nice to get a translation of the lyrics.

The accessory this time is the classroom hallway dance stage.

(Example pose for Rana.)


The subject this time is portamento, which is the sliding from one note to the next, rather than making sharp breaks between the notes. This lets Rana’s voice change more smoothly, and is set via the POR control parameter. You can pick values per note, from 0 (no glide) to 127 (strong glide).

For SSW, the task is to lay down a drum track within the piano roll view. SSW has a Note Property window that let’s you set the note volume. Then, using the General MIDI instrument voices, if you select track 10, each note number translates to a specific percussive instrument. You have to experiment by clicking each note number to find the instrument you want, but laying down the rhythm track at this point is pretty simple, and becomes more a matter of copy-pasting than anything else. There’s also a short introduction to laying down fills.

(Rana in a freeze pose, located in the hallway stage.)

As mentioned above, this tutorial is all about taking the spin turn from the last lesson, and flowing into a “cute girl” freeze pose. The DVD has the motion files for both the finished turn and Rana standing with her hand giving a “peace sign” next to her right eye. All we have to do is drag and drop both files, remove a few keys from the end of the turn to go straight to the pose, tighten up the timing, and make little tweaks to get the motion to look more personalized. The second part of the tutorial uses a second set of motion files – Rana bouncing in a rhythm cycle and then popping into a big “victory” pose. The differences in the scale of actions here is much greater, so there’s more discussion on making the transition between the two seamless by adding a jump in the middle. Finally, we take the previous side-step dance cycle and append an end pose to that as well. The transition for part 3 is pretty much the same as for part 1, so nothing really new there, just more practice deleting and moving key frames.

Additional comments:
Nothing to add here this time. I’ve just been really busy with work and other stuff, and haven’t been able to sit down and experiment with ANY of the applications recently. Vol. 15 is already out, and I hope to be able to play with it a little before having to post the next revue. We’ll see how that works out.