CD Comments – Dream Theater, Awake


I’m going to state right up front that Awake is not a good album if you’re a student of electronica or synth work. I’ll talk more about this later. First, though, a little background. A couple years ago, I’d bought my Korg Kaossilator Pro box, and had started digging in the Korg site looking for tutorial videos and support documentation for it. I followed this up with the Roland A-300 Pro keyboard, and I began sifting through the Roland site for the same reasons. Occasionally I’d find myself being redirected to youtube, and Jordan Rudess’ name kept popping up. In a couple places, he was demoing some of Korg’s new keyboards, and in at least one video he said that he’d used to work at Korg as a keyboard demonstrator. He was good, and I wanted to hear more from him. I learned that he’s the keyboardist for Dream Theater, and I asked for a few DT CDs as birthday and Christmas presents. The first one I got was Awake.

According to the wiki article, Jordan (1956-) entered Julliard at age 9, in their pre-college division, for classical music training. When he was a teenager, he dropped out and starting working as a solo progressive rock keyboardist. He was in several projects in the 80’s, but in ’94 he was voted “best new talent” in a Keyboard Magazine reader’s poll. He was then asked to join both The Dixie Dregs and Dream Theater. He chose the Dregs first, and played with them in 1994, forming a partnership with drummer Rod Morgenstein. In 1997, he was again asked to join DT, and he came on as a part-time keyboard player, forcing out the then-current guy, Derek Sherinian. He’s been with the band full-time since 1999.


(Image from amazon.com, used for review purposes only.)

Dream Theater – Awake (1994).
Now, look at those dates above. Awake came out in ’94 and Rudess joined DT part-time in 1997. This is important because the guy he took over from, Kevin, while a decent player, didn’t really stand out all that much. Awake is a good album, falling into the “progressive rock” category, but to me it’s got more of a goth vibe, dominated by the lead guitar and James LaBrie’s lead vocals. The songs are ok, but some of the lyrics are a bit hammy. “6:00” sounds like an excerpt from a bad horror movie (the wiki says that it was written to reflect the rift between then-keyboardist Kevin Moore and the rest of the band), while “Innocence Fades” was Pettruci’s take on the break-up of his friendship with Moore.

Moody, moody, moody. It’s got “theatrical rock” written all over it, and an overly self-conscious singer that wants really badly to be taken seriously. I wouldn’t mind so much, except that I had higher expectations due to Jordan’s skills, and he’s not on this album. I can’t blame anyone for this, so I’ll just say that if you like Dream Theater, you probably already have Awake. If you want to listen to synth-heavy metal, start with Metropolis Pt. 2 (1999), or anything later.

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KScope Mod


I might as well run this entry now. I’ve been sitting on it for several months, waiting for an excuse to upload it between the Vocaloid and synth CD entries.

Sometimes the best mods for a kit are accidental. I had a little transparent acrylic snowman that I used as a Christmas decoration. It had a tri-color LED, battery and switch in the base that lit the snowman up with various colors. It got knocked to the floor one too many times, and the base came off. Turns out that it’s almost the perfect size to match up with the end of the kaleidoscope that I made last year.

A few strips of scotch tape and the mod is complete.

Now, I can look at pretty images when I’m in bed at night with all the room lights turned off.

CD Comments – Tomita Greatest Hits



(Image from amazon.com, used for review purposes only.)

Greatest Hits (1977).
I think it’s kind of dangerous to release a “Greatest Hits” compilation album while the artist is still alive, because it kind of implies that everything that comes afterward isn’t going to be as great. Maybe if it was “Greatest Hits as of today, and please remember that I’m going to continue having more hits after this, but I’m not bragging and I don’t want to jinx myself by saying that my next song is going to be a monster hit and then it flops. I’m just saying that the songs on this album sold well when they came out so please buy this album and listen to what’s on it because they were monster hits. But, don’t let this cause you to stop buying my future album releases in massive quantities.” Not sure how well that would fit on the jewel case insert, but it does limit the laugh-factor of seeing a “Greatest Hits” album released in 1977 for someone that is still making new albums 40 years later. I’m just saying, is all.

Again, Tomita approaches synthesizers as instruments that can produce specific desired sounds that contribute to the kind of atmosphere he wants from the song as a whole. So, he’s not arranging songs as electronica, but rather reimagining classical songs as something more modern and “spacey”. A couple of the pieces on Kosmos resurface here, specifically “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and the “Star Wars” main theme. But then, we get “Grand Canyon Suite: On The Trail”, “Bolero”, “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” and “Firebird Suite: Infernal Dance Of King Kastchei”.

I particularly like the way “Syncopated Clock” comes together, with a solid pendulum clock effect, reverbed bells and human whistling. “Bolero” makes nice use of flanging, panning and vibrato. “Allegro Marcato” uses panning extensively, LFO on amplitudes, some weird sound effects and a few pitch sweeps, all of which I like. The one song that comes off as “heavy alternative rock” is “Infernal Dance”, with distorted guitars and a lot of base. It has kind of a King Crimson feel. “Hora Staccato” is much more of a classical piece, with little to no noticeable electronics effects. What I do find interesting is the inclusion of Holst’s “Mars Briner [sic] of War”, which had been originally pulled from the stores because Holst’s family wouldn’t give permission to Tomita to use the music. This is also a primarily orchestral performance, with a detuned radio effect in the middle of the song that makes it sound cartoony and childish.

From a synth student perspective, I think “Allegro”, “Infernal Dance” and “Star Wars” have the most going on with the synthesizers, while my personal favorites just as background noise are “Infernal Dance”, “Bolero” and “Also Sprach Zarathustra”. If you’re new to Tomita and like avant garde classical, I can recommend Tomita’s Greatest Hits as a decent introduction to his works, but if you’re looking for more examples of synth effects to study and learn from, Kosmos would be the better choice.

Bokaro P ni Naritai, vol. 20



(Images used for review purposes only.)

I want to be a Vocaloid Producer, vol. 20, 1,500 yen, plus tax.
New magazine features:

In the 4-panel comic, Rana is studying so hard that she passes out. Robo-Panda has her rest, and listen to other music for inspiration. The classroom discussion continues on the theme of using chords to make melodies, and relates them to the black and white keys on the piano. Then, Rana runs into problems with the new lyrics she’s written, because she uses English words, and Japanese Vocaloid doesn’t support English phonemes (this issue gets covered in the next volume, which I’m now really looking forward to). Plus there’s the description of the next stage – CyberSpace. To use CyberSpace correctly, you have to go into the MMD menus and turn off the floor and shadow defaults. The next music genre is ElectroDance, and the featured artist interview is with Camelia. The SSW section goes pretty heavily into the details for composing ElectroDance, concentrating on the instruments, note patterns and volume-per-note data. The MMD section has suggestions from producer Cort (the oldest Vocaloid user in existence) on how to use color selections to match the energy of the music with the animation in the video. It also has an additional mention of the CyberSpace stage model, and a description of the WiXOSS playing card accessory file. The magazine finishes with an overview of the WiXOSS card game system, and a mention of the WiXOSS: Selector TV anime series.

New DVD Features:
No pick-up artist this time. Instead, we get the WiXOSS playing card accessory that has Rana’s picture on it, and the CyberSpace dance stage model file.


(Section on WiXOSS)

Tutorials:
Vocaloid:
While the magazine is still talking about chords and melody, the Vocaloid tutorial is starting to get into the theory behind harmony. For the most part, this consists of copying the main Rana vocal track into a new track called “Rana Harmony”, and then dragging the lyrics phonemes down a couple notes (for “lower harmony”, up for “upper harmony”) and making small tweaks to get the results to sound better based on the dominant or subdominant chords. Finally, as with most of the recent Vocaloid tutorials, the last 2 minutes is a playback of the demo song (in this case, “Double Action”, which is actually a pretty decent ElectroDance piece.)

Note that I’m not a music student, so I don’t know the official names for stuff. The Japanese names are 上ハモ (Up Harmony) and 下ハモ (Down Harmony).

SSW:
Here, we work on composing EDM (ElectroDance Music), which is synth-heavy, and similar to House, Trance and Dub Step. One feature that each genre has in common is that the synthesizer settings change during the song (i.e. – cut-off filter sweeps). We’re back to using the LinPlug Alpha3 VST plug-in. With Alpha3 open, assign CC16 Controller – Filter Cutoff to the second element of the Matrix screen, and then return to the Score Editor window. Right click to add Other Control, and enter 16 for the channel number. This creates a new Automation Parameter window, similar to the Vel and Dyn windows used in previous volumes, which directly ties Controller Channel 16 to Filter Cutoff. Now, if you draw straight lines in the window, the filter cutoff will vary throughout the song for a linear sweep as desired (you can also choose sinewave or free hand drawing). Much cool, although I’d rather have physical hardware controls for this. Interestingly, though, you can edit the Auto parameter in the Strip Chart window AS THE SONG IS PLAYING.


(SSW screen cap showing the process of manually converting the volume pattern in the automation window from the sinewave to a sawtooth to get the base instrument to thump in time with the base drum.)

The second step is to create a Side Chain, which links the base instrument to the drum track. The instructions are to use the Automation window for Volume for the Base instrument channel and modulate it with a 16-cycle sinewave. This sets up the timing for volume to match the timing of the base drum, and then you can use the straight line drawing tool to create a sawtooth waveshape with the same timing, replacing the sinewave. Viewers are then instructed to experiment using similar techniques on different parameters and instruments.

Note that if you look carefully, Automation is actually a per-note ADSR envelope generator. On a real hardware synth, you’d use the EG to create the volume envelope, which would apply uniformly every time a key is pressed for that instrument. Effectively, the sawtooth above has about a 1/4 second attack, 0 sec. decay and release, and sustain is set to 0.


(Rana in the CyberSpace room, along with the WiXOSS card accessory.)

MMD:
The video starts out with an example of Cort’s work (he’s been making videos for 7 years), saying that it’s time to start pulling all the elements together to create off-the-wall dance videos. A manga version of Cort shows up, introduces himself, and then says that the most important thing is to just not give up if the going gets hard.

Point 1) Listen to the music. Get a feel for the tone and timing of the song. The trick is to get the visual elements of the video to work together with the audio elements of the song.
Point 2) Break down the song into “keywords” and “situations”. Breaking the song up into pieces can aid in developing ideas. Brainstorm as much as you like, but at the end just pick the best 3-5 words/short phrases. In the case of Cort’s demo song, the keywords he settled on were “unrequited love”, “classroom” and “night sky”.
Point 3) Then, pick a situation. This can be a theater set or dance stage. The stage will establish the circumstances of the story you want to tell. Examples: “Unrequited love” -> “In your room with your thoughts”. “Classroom” -> “In the classroom alone”. “Night sky” -> “Night sky”.
Point 4) When in doubt, go to the Chart. Cort drew up a flowchart that semi-automates the decision process.


(Cort’s decision chart.)

Additional comments:
It feels like we’re getting so close to the parts that I want to learn about. I have an idea I want to try, that doesn’t involve a music video or dancing, but does use embedded video, English text and a walk cycle. I’m hoping that what I need will be in the next issue. But, I do like seeing what the synth can do within SSW.

Note that the MMD tutorial is just an introductory lecture and doesn’t have anything for students to follow along with.

CD Comments – Kosmos



(Image from amazon.com, used for review purposes only.)

I’d seen Isao Tomita’s (1932-) album covers in the record stores before, primarily the golden mask and pyramids design for Kosmos and the deconstructed humanoid robot face on Greatest Hits, but the artwork didn’t really appeal to me at that time, and I wasn’t that interested in Japanese electronica-classical music, so I kept moving past those bins to get stuff like Alice Cooper and They Might Be Giants. Over the last 5 years or so, though, I’ve been seeing Tomita’s name mentioned in the Gakken Adult Science kit magazines (for the SX-150, SX-150 Mark II and Pocket Miku kits) as being one of the giants in the Japanese music world. In fact, Tomita was picked up in the Pocket Miku mook for his vocaloid collaboration album, entitled Tomita  / Isao Tomita / Symphony Ihatov. So, when the time came to ask for present suggestions, I added Tomita to the list of CDs.


(The Tomita vocaloid album. Image from amazon.com.)

From the wiki article: Tomita was born in Tokyo in 1932 and spent some time in China. He returned to Japan, where he attended Keio University as an art student. He graduated in 1955 and became a full-time TV, film and theater composer. He wrote the theme music for the Japanese Olympics gymnastics team for the 1955 Games in Melbourne, Australia. He also created the theme song and incidental music for Tezuka’s “Jungle Taitei” (Kimba, the White Lion, 1965) TV anime. In the late 60’s Walter Carlos (now Wendy) was doing work on the Moog, which influenced Tomita’s decision to buy a Moog III and put together his own studio.

In kind of the opposite approach to what I’ve described regarding how synth music evolved, Tomita saw synthesizers primarily as a way of recreating existing instruments (pianos, flutes, etc.) In fact, this was often what happened when established musicians started adopting electronic keyboards and was a common complaint among synth manufacturers, that “everyone buys these machines and then just uses them as pianos”. Eventually, though, Tomita discovered that the Moog could create all-new sounds, and that’s when he began incorporating them in his own work. Electric Samurai: Switched on Rock came out in 1972 in Japan, and 1974 in the U.S., as a reworking of contemporary rock songs. He applied the synth to Debussy, and released Snowflakes are Dancing in 1974. He continued producing classical music albums, but ran into problems when he came out with an SF-themed version of Holst’s The Planets, and Holst’s daughter refused to give him permission to use it, causing the album to be pulled from the shelves.

I think you can call Kosmos (1977) a cover album. In most cases, classic music IS cover music, because the conductor and/or orchestra is playing something that someone else wrote and made popular. But, Kosmos has a mix of modern and classical songs that have been given the synth treatment, starting with the opening theme for Star Wars (there are more beeps and boops, and note glides, plus the song ends with C3PO trying to teach “Fer Elise” to another droid, and messing it up). This is followed by “Space Fantasy on Themes by Wagner and R. Strauss for electronic sound”,”Pacific 231, Mouvement Symphonique”, “The Unanswered Question (I&II)”, “Aranjuez-Adagio”, “Solvieg’s Song”, “Hora Staccato for violin and piano”, and “The Sea Named “Solaris” (J.S. Bach)”.

If we look at “traditional electronica”, musicians make full use of all components of the synthesizer – oscillator pitch and waveform, envelope generation, filtering, noise and LFO-ing – DURING the song. They’re constantly adjusting the controls during the performance. With Tomita, what we’re seeing is more a matter of setting the patch before the song starts, and then playing the keyboard with the patches fixed. That is, it’s not so much what the synthesizer can do, as it is what fixed sounds it can contribute to the song as a whole. But, with Kosmos, he’s still inbetween stages 3 and 4; he wants the synth effects to stand out and be noticed, since that’s what differentiates him from competition that hasn’t embraced electronic instruments to produce “classic music”. This makes Kosmos a cover album with a bunch of computer-generated whistles and pitch sweeps.

While I do like classical music, and what Carlos did with Switched on Bach, I find most classical to be “too pretty”. That is, it’s sleep-inducing. I like “ugly” music, like “Night on Bald Mountain”, “Peer Gynt”, and “Carmina Burana”. Kosmos is interesting from a technical aspect, but if I’m going to listen to synths, I’d rather it be by Kraftwerk, or even Jean Michel Jarre.

Bokaro P ni Naritai, vol. 19



(Images used for review purposes only.)

I want to be a Vocaloid Producer, vol. 19, 1,500 yen, plus tax.
New magazine features:

In the 4-panel comic, Rana has gone into another panic. This time it’s because she can’t compose original music. Up to now, she’s been following the instructions from the class texts, but she doesn’t know how to write from scratch. The classroom section then introduces more concepts for writing melodies, including the C-Major scale, tonics, and dominant and subdominant chords. The discussion section for genres talks about the Bossa Nova. Then there’s another overview of amateur vocaloid music videos. The MMD tutorial describes a new accessory – a hook for Rana’s regular guitar along with a new set of clothing (winter jacket version of the vocaloid school uniform). The last page highlights two pairs of real-world headphones (the Yamaha HPH-MT220 and HPH-Pro500, and the Sony MDR-7506 and MDR-CD900ST) and looks at the gear used by this issue’s pop-up artist, Kanna Mute (can’t find a URL for him/her).

New DVD Features:
The pop-up song: “Hitorishizuka no Yoru” (Solitary Quiet Night). The vocals are for a soft love song, but the instrumental backing is for a louder j-pop piece with an over-driven electric guitar. Just off-hand, I’d say this was mixed wrong, with Rana being drowned out by everything else. Any sense of a “quiet night alone” is completely lost.

There’s the one accessory file for the “torsoAndHook”, a support text file for the MMD demo, and a pre-rendered version of the standard music video that has been used for the last few issues for the MMD tutorials. Which brings me to a point that I’ve been kind of trying to ignore up until now. Every time I render the MMD work files to an .avi, the resulting video is so big and bulky that it won’t play in Windows Media Player (if there’s an embedded audio track); it bogs the computer down and the video won’t sync with the audio. I had thought it was just me, and that I should be running the file through the free MMD compressor that was discussed way back around issue 3 or 4. Now, though, the demo on the DVD-ROM has the exact same problem (none of the tutorial videos have ever done this). It was just completely unwatchable, so I dragged it over to the compressor batchfile (tde277) and waited about 10 minutes for it to do its magic. Even though the original file was only 640×480, at 1 minute long it was 1.6 gig. The compressed file was only 18 meg, but very jaggy. It did play correctly, though. I guess the moral is that MMD produces bloated avi’s that MUST be run through tde277 before they can be viewed correctly on my laptop.

Note that the “torsoAndHook” file contains Rana’s winter jacket, and a hook for her guitar (White-kun)., both of which are intended to coordinate with the “Rana’s Room” stage. The hook is actually a wall mount for holding the guitar when it’s not in use. Doesn’t look like they can be isolated and used independently of each other.

Tutorials:
Vocaloid:
The goal this time is to write chords to generate a Bossa Nova-like sound. The demo song only contains Rana’s vocals, and the first four notes on a piano. There’s a bit of a walkthrough on how to pick chords, and an example of using a dominant chord. At 4:43, this is one of the shortest tutorials so far.

SSW:
The video starts out with a short history of the Bossa Nova style and how it relates to jazz, then introduces the idea of a backing guitar as styled by Joao Gilberto. There’s really nothing that the student is directed to do in terms of following along with the instructions in the tutorial. Instead, it’s pretty much all lecture and discussion of what the different instruments do in a Bossa Nova song, and examples of several approaches to composing music in this genre. The video ends with “but feel free to experiment on your own” (the publisher’s version of “the details for the exercise are left to the student”).


(Rana’s Room set, with the guitar hook and Rana’s winter uniform. Oddly, they seem to be one unit. I can’t separate them to have Rana wear the winter outfit without the hook floating alongside her.)

MMD:
This volume introduces AviUtl, a Japanese freeware video editor package available for download from Spring-fragrance.mints, among other locations. It’s going to be used more extensively in vol. 20, but the idea is to become familiar with it now by doing the install and then adding lyrics subtitles during the song and a credits roll at the end of the demo video. I’m not really happy with the idea of grabbing random freeware off the net from untrusted sites, but the tutorial video specifically uses spring-fragrance.mints.ne.jp. I have to assume it’s safe, but I wish there were more reliable sites to choose from. There’s an English port at divx-digest.com, but again, I don’t know if I can trust it.

Assuming you unzipped AviUtl to your desktop, run it, and then drag the 640×480 demo .avi file from the DVD-ROM into the main window. Change the aspect ratio from 640×480 to 640×360. You’ll see that there are two tracks, the avi video plus the audio track. Right click on the third track to add a text box, and copy paste in the lyrics from the DVD-ROM teroppu (Telop) text file. Near the end of the song, paste in the credits text and edit the main settings to make the credits scroll over the video. When done, export to .avi and compress using tde277.

Additional comments: As mentioned above, I’m extremely leery of downloading and running AviUtl in any shape or form. The tutorial video doesn’t mention security concerns at all, and I can’t read kanji well enough to know if the magazine discusses this problem. On the other hand, comments in various English DVD forums on the net do talk about how powerful AviUtl is, and how it does things Microsoft’s Movie Maker can’t. I wish I could make up my mind one way or the other here…

Why do the Japanese like robots?


Now I know.

Happy Birthday, Les!



(From the interactive Google Doodle.)

 

CD Comments – The Mix



(Image from amazon.com, used for review purposes only.)

Kraftwerk’s The Mix (1991) is (according to the wiki article) a remixed compilation album featuring songs from Autobahn to Electric Cafe. Because this period includes the Radio-Active, Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine and Computer World albums, there’s a lot of overlap with the two CD’s I’ve already mentioned. The songs Computer Love, Pocket Calculator and Home Computer come off Computer World, while Trans-Europe Express, Abzug and Metal on Metal are from TEE. For the remaining songs, in chronological order: Autobahn and Radioactivity are from the albums of the same name; The Robots is from Man-Machine; and Musique Non-Stop is from Electric Cafe. What I find fun is that Dentaku is the Japanese lyrics version of Pocket Calculator, which had been performed as part of the Computer World tour in Japan (other versions are in German, French and Italian, but aren’t included on The Mix).

To me, Computer World is a concept album, revolving around computers and programming, while Trans Europe Express, if not a unified concept, is at the least very focused on technology and transportation. Since I don’t have the other albums on my player, I can’t comment on them. But, taken as a whole, The Mix comes across as a great sampler of Kraftwerk’s music from different “eras”, and contains many of the songs that received a lot of airplay on American radio (and hence are ones that I grew up on). The wiki article says that The Mix wasn’t initially received very well in part because there wasn’t any new material on it, and because the remixes didn’t sound all that special compared to what Kraftwerk had done before. In my opinion, this is more like a mix tape, something you put together because it has the songs that you want to listen to repeatedly, without all the “B-side material”.

The Robots contains a lot of “computer sounds”, by which I mean squarewares, fast ADSR envelopes, “boingy” reverbs, LFO’d amplitude modulation, and the use of frequency filter sweeps. This would made a great “Revolt of the Robots” music video. Autobahn starts out with the sound of a car door slamming shut and the vehicle starting up and driving off, then follows with ADSR cutoff filter sweeps, pans and buzzy notes (squarewaves with resonance turned way up, and possibly some white noise added). Radioactivity has a morse-code opening, and a strong disco base line (very danceable). Finally, Musique Non-Stop incorporates the lyrics – “Boing Boom Chuck, Boing Boom Ping” plus “Musique Non-Stop” – into the song in a much more integral way, working with short samples, and shifting the pitch and reverb of the samples as if they were just another instrument. It has a strong “house” genre feel, and I could see it performed as “two turntables and a microphone”.

Taken as excepts from larger works represented by the original albums, each group of songs demonstrate Kraftwerk’s evolution as a synth/electronica band, slowly moving away from “what can we make these instruments do?” to “it’s all about the song”. Then again, in Kraftwerk’s case, the song IS about technology and what the instruments can do, so that may not be such a big jump. My point is that Musique Non-Stop sounds more mature and developed, with the instruments supporting each other, rather than just being bolted together like with Home Computer.

The one common thread throughout the entire album is the use of vocoders. This is the one thing that never changes, regardless of how simple or elaborate the lyrics and singing are – there’s always massive distortion and manipulation of the vocal tracks. Vocoding alone is the one, single reason for getting The Mix, if you’re interested in deconstructing Kraftwerk’s approach as a synth student. It’s also amusing to compare Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk side-by-side and see how two bands from the same country and era have such radically opposing approaches to using synths to make music. (Personally, I find Too Hot For My Chinchilla to be great background while writing this blog entry, and Musique Non-Stop is better when walking to and from work.)

 

Need help


Haven’t seen this in the sky so long, don’t remember what it is.
Suggestions?