KMFDM comments


Sigh. At some point, I think I’m going to paint myself into a corner with these blog entries, or (and is more likely) just completely embarrass myself into quitting writing them. At the moment, I’m going to really go out on a limb for this one, and see if it breaks.

Back around 1996 I started working for Hitachi in Dallas, and one of the engineers there liked to do everything at “11” (one of the few people I know who could crack a mountain bike frame bunny hopping street curbs riding to and from the office in rush hour traffic). He liked extreme music, so I felt compelled to ask for recommendations. To start me out gently, he suggested KMFDM and Rammstein (both of which I liked, but I only got one or two CDs each at the time, and nothing since then). One of the albums I picked up was Money. I don’t have it any more, and haven’t listened to anything by KMFDM in years. Recently, I was thinking that there really wasn’t anything outstanding synth-wise on Money, so I could ignore it.


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

Yeah, well…
I’d gotten on youtube and I was looking up an old Osman Brothers song – Crazy Horses – and I noticed that KMFDM had done a cover of it. So now of course I had to start sampling KMFDM, and that took me to WTF?! (2011). So, ok, yeah, there’s synth work ALL OVER THE PLACE HERE.

I should have remembered that, given that KMFDM is a German industrial band. They started as a performance art project in 1984, and had a rotating line-up up to 1999, when they broke up. The band reformed in 2002 with a mostly new line-up. The music, though is heavy band industrial, and uses a variety of synth effects, vocoding and samples. Which brings me to my current point – as a synthesizer student, if you work your way up in time from the early music of the 50’s and 60’s to the 90’s and later, all the distinctions start to blur. Especially when you get into Trance, Techno, House and Industrial, where the emphasis is on danceable beats, machine-like sounds, and lyrics that are actually sung instead of rapped or spoken (i.e – Kraftwerk). Composition is all about the song, which becomes all about the performance, and that is all about the message. For KMFDM, the message has strong social and political overtones, as evidenced by album titles like Angst, Money, WTF!? and Nihil.

Again, when the focus is on the music, trying to isolate out specific synth effects, beyond filter envelopes and sampling, becomes almost impossible. But, as a synth student, this is probably where you should be aiming for. Either way, I just like listening to KMFDM, so I recommend them as driving music. (They aren’t quite as good for background when trying to type up blog entries, though…)

Updates


I guess I should post something about what’s going on around here, but the problem is that the short answer is “nothing”.

Gakken’s website hasn’t been updated since January, and the only post on the Facebook page was back in June for some event with a Korean designer for the Rainbow Loom. Nothing on any of the adult science kits since the mini-Theremin came out in October. No idea if  Gakken has dropped the line completely, or what.

I’ve got 3 more CD comment entries waiting in the queue, then I may switch to something math-like again. I’ve been really busy this month with contract work that is very time-consuming, but not all that lucrative, and this has kept me from watching the Vocaloid tutorials for vol. 23. (Vol. 24 just came out yesterday and I won’t be able to pick it up until this afternoon.) The work may run until the end of the month, and then I should have more free time again.

 

Tetsuya Komuro, an Introduction


Ok, this is a departure from the CD comments entries because I don’t have any albums from Tetsuya Komuro. However, he is one of the leading current synth musicians in Japan right now, and if you’re not familiar with him yet, here’s your chance.

Tetsuya was born in 1958 in Fuchu, a town at the western outskirts of Tokyo, which was actually a 30-40 minute bike ride from my apartment when I was living in Kanagawa (prior to the 2011 earthquake). He’s credited with introducing dance music to mainstream Japanese audiences, and used to own the disco Velfarre in Roppongi. He also worked as a record producer, partnering with hitomi, TRF and Ami Suzuki. His music career began in 1979 when he worked as a keyboardist for Speedway, and he wrote the soundtrack for the Vampire Hunter D anime movie in 1980 (his band, TM Network, performed the closing song, “Your Song”). He then composed the soundtracks for “Heaven and Earth” and “Seven Days War”. TM Network changed its name to TMN in 1990, and disbanded in 1994. Komuro then entered the record production game in 1994, which peaked around 1997. He even worked with Jean Michel Jarre from 1998 to 2001. However, in the mid-2000’s, supposedly to raise money for an ugly divorce settlement, Komuro sold the rights to his songs to both Avex Group Holdings and an Hyogo-based investor for 500,000,000 yen (approx. $5 million at the time). He was arrested for fraud in 2008, given a suspended 3-year sentence in 2009, and agreed to join Avex Group Holdings to perform on tour. One of his latest singles, “Freedom” was slated to come out on July 8, 2015.

The best way to sample his works is to jump on youtube and just click on all the links there. You may notice that there are at least two obvious distinct eras as exemplified by Gravity of Love (live concert in 1991) and the Ken the 390 collaboration live concert backing some rapper in 2012). The earlier stuff, as part of TM Network, is pure fluffy j-pop where Komuro doubles on vocals and keyboards and seems to be channeling Elton John with big puffy stage costumes and eye make-up. The later videos depict Komuro as a back-up keyboardist with someone else fronting on stage. In the 390 collaboration, Komuro is very subdued and just kind of hiding behind his rig, playing it like a regular piano. In both sets of videos, there’s very little reliance on the synthesizers as machines that you can mess with during the performance, which in some ways is similar to what Jordan Rudess does.

However…
There’s one specific video that shows Komuro experimenting with what could be termed House or Techno, and the results he gets are fairly interesting, although his style is a bit over the top (mashing the keys with his fore arm, or his knee).

Direct youtube link

There are very few Japanese bands or musicians that I really like, so I’m not the best person to be recommending Japanese synth artists to the western world. So far, I only know of a few, including Komura, Tomita and Ryuichi Sakamoto (YMO), so maybe this is a field that could be expanded in the future. Regardless, if you DO like j-pop, and Japanese techno, Komura is worth keeping an eye on.

CD Comments – Devo Greatest Hits



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

Technically, I’ve been reviewing CDs I received as presents in the last 2 years. However, I had to recharge my mp3 player, and while it was plugged into my laptop I just started dragging as much music over as would fit in memory. Later, as I was walking to work, Devo’s Greatest Hits came up and I realized that I had to include it here because there’s just so much synth work going on in every single track. Just to get it out of the way, I bought this CD myself close to 10 years ago, and I’d listen to it while I drove around the Hill Country in Austin, TX.

Devo – Greatest Hits (Warner Bros., 1990)
I’ve talked about the use of synthesizers in the formation of concept albums, but Devo took the idea many, many levels beyond as a concept band. According to the wiki entry, the starting point was founding member Gerald Casale’s “de-evolution” joke, which then coupled with Jocko Homo Heavenbound, a 1924 diatribe against evolution written by B. H. Shadduck. Since “modern man” was showing signs of devolving (Casale attended Kent State university and was on campus at the time of the National Guard shooting, which helped convince him of this de-evolution), Devo emerged as the flag barrier of this backward movement.

In my view, it’s important to approach Devo as performance theater, where the act influences the choice of vocals as well as instruments. They messed with several different genres, from punk, art rock, post-punk and new wave, using a fairly minimalistic sound and semi-robotic melodies in most of their songs, highlighted in “Girl U Want” and their version of “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. The songs themselves don’t fall into categories (as with Kraftwerk), but the music is the concept – de-evolved, and that’s common throughout Greatest Hits.

There’s no particular advantage to deconstructing the synth patches in the songs, because just about every technique is used at one point or another, along with occasional vocoding. I will say, though, that Devo mixes all four stages of experimentation together and just destroys any distinctions along the way, blending “what does this do” with “how do we use this in a song” and “this is what we’re trying to get, this is what we need”. Having the overarching band concept in place provided the structure required to pull everything off.

Greatest Hits has 16 tracks, including the ones that got the most radio play – Beautiful World, Whip It, Freedom of Choice, Here to Go, Through Being Cool, Beautiful World and Peek-A-Boo. My favorite is still the song featured on the Heavy Metal soundtrack – the cover of Working in a Coal Mine. But, there’s really no “bad song” in this collection. I can listen to all of them as driving, or walking music. A few tracks, such as Gut Feeling and Gates of Steel, are even danceable.

Bottom line, if you’re a synth student, you want Devo in your collection. No question.

Word Counter Script


Over on my main blogspot blog, I wanted to find out how many words I’ve written there since I’d started in 2008. Because the photo hosting site I use, mediafile, has a reputation for losing image files occasionally, I’ve been backing up my blog entries, along with the photos for each one, in Word files; roughly 2 files per month since they easily get to 10 meg file sizes with all the photos and text. So, I have all 7 years’ worth of blog entries on disk – 150+ files, I just needed to know how to pull the word counts out of Word using a VBScript.

You’d think this would be a fairly common thing and that there’d be example scripts all over the net that I could steal from, but there aren’t. The first few examples used a “Documents.Words.Count” method call that counts punctuation and carriage returns along with words, giving a really inflated number. All of the other examples were for the wrong language, either VBA, C# or something else. I spent several hours trying to piece together snippits from these sources, and converting them into something that VBScript understood. One particular example WAS for VBScript and did come very close to what I needed, but it used constants instead of literal integers for the statisticsType for the word.ComputeStatistics(statisticsType) method, and failed to specify in the example what the constant definitions were. Fortunately, I was able to get that information elsewhere.

I really dislike wordpress, and the fact that it strips out tabs, extra spaces and those niceties we call “formatting”. Makes it impossible to read the following code example. Then again, I’m not using comments (to get the example size down) and I’m not following “common, accepted naming conventions”. So, the code may be even more unreadable than normal. Sorry about that, chief.

One more thing that I did find amusing is that when I used the Scripting.FileSystemObject .GetFolder method, it returned deleted filenames. Rather than trying to track down the method for determining file attributes, I just put in an if-statement to test whether there was a tilde (“~”) in the name, and skipped that file if true.

As I say, there may be much more elegant ways to accomplish what I wanted, and I could have written better code, but this works, and I only needed to run it once to get my answer. So, I can delete the script now and continue on with my life a happy man.

Const wdStatisticCharacters = 3
Const wdStatisticCharactersWithSpaces = 5
Const wdStatisticFarEastCharacters = 6
Const wdStatisticLines = 1
Const wdStatisticPages = 2
Const wdStatisticParagraphs = 4
Const wdStatisticWords = 0

Dim fso, fo, fls, fpath, objWord, objWordDoc, cntWords, cntFiles, totalWords

fPath        = “target directory”
set fso      = CreateObject(“Scripting.FileSystemObject”)
Set fo       = fso.GetFolder(fpath)
Set fls      = fo.Files

totalWords   = 0
cntWords     = 0
cntFiles     = 0

For Each fFile In fls
if(instr(lcase(fFile.name), “.docx”) > 0) then
if(instr(fFile.name, “~”) = 0) then

wscript.echo “Working on: ” & fpath & “\” & fFile.name

Set objWord    = CreateObject(“Word.Application”)
Set objWordDoc = objWord.Documents.Open(fpath & “\” & fFile.name)
objWord.visible = True

cntWords = objWordDoc.ComputeStatistics(wdStatisticWords)
Wscript.Echo “Words: ” & cntWords

totalWords = totalWords + cntWords
cntFiles   = cntFiles   + 1

objWordDoc.Close
objWord.Quit
Set objWordDoc = Nothing
Set ojbWord    = Nothing

end if
end if
Next

wscript.echo “Finished. ” & cstr(cntFiles) & ” files, for ” & cstr(totalWords) & ” words.”

Set fso        = Nothing
Set fo         = Nothing
Set fls        = Nothing

Star Trek Ship Collector’s Series


(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

DeAgostini publishes biweekly magazines/kits in Japan. One past kit was the Robi robot, while ongoing series include the 3D printer, an R/C drone, and the Columbo TV episode DVDs.


(Back cover)

Another ongoing series is the Star Trek ship collection. Right now, it’s up to #29, the Jem’Hadar fighter. I don’t have any particular interest in Star Trek anymore (I enjoyed the original series, got completely turned off by Next Generation, and couldn’t stand Deep Space Nine or Voyager). For the movies, I called it quits with the Wrath of Khan.


(The first 5 ships in the series.)

However. Junkudo, the big bookstore in Maruya Gardens, has the first 14 back issues on the shelves, right above the new issues section where the Vocaloid magazine gets posted for 1 day before being relegated to the overflow shelves. And I look at the ships sometimes just because I’m hoping I’ll like one of them. But, most of them are too expensive. The very first ship had an introductory price of 499 yen ($4 USD), which, given that it comes with the magazine, was too good a value to pass up. #2 was 1,300 yen, putting it out of my range, and all the rest are at 2,300 yen, which I refuse to fork over. I did finally get #1, though.

The body is kind of flimsy plastic, but the main deck and the base are good, solid metal. It looks nice, and is fairly large at about 4″ long. The magazine introduces the series, gives teasers for the next few ships, and has a couple pages on the design and creation of the first Enterprise ship. It is misleading, however, in that the pictures of the model for the box art show that some of the colored plastic parts are glowing with an internal light. This is photoshopped – the model itself doesn’t have LEDs or accept batteries. It’s just a hunk of inert stuff. Still, it’s worth getting kit 1 because of the price, anyway.

I am hoping to see photos from someone that receives the Borg cube. That DOES light up, but you have to show proof of purchasing the first 20 issues to get it ($400).

To infinity, and beyond!

CD Comments – Dream Theater, Dream Theater



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

Dream Theater – Dream Theater (2013).
This self-titled album is what I’m talking about regarding the fourth stage of innovation, where the use of synthesizers becomes “all about the song”. Jordan Rudess is a master at the keyboard, and he puts sounds exactly where he wants them because that’s what the song calls for. This is good, because if you’re looking for a tight, solid rock album (again, I think DT has a goth feel to it, and some of the guitar stings are straight out of a Dethklok cartoon), this is it. On the other hand, if you’re a student of synthesizers and electronica, it’s becoming almost impossible to separate specific synth patches from the rest of the song, and in some cases I can’t be sure if I’m hearing a fuzzed-out electric guitar, or a synth playing a guitar patch.

But there are places in several of the songs on this album where synth keyboards do stand out, either on intros or specific solos. What I find a bit disappointing is that the lyrics are usually navel-gazing pretentious pieces that border on theatrical goth, and James LeBrie often does that “Elizabethean accent slurring” you get from college students trying to write gothic stories (such as pronouncing “fear” as “feah”). There are a couple songs where he just flat-out sings, and when that happens he does a pretty good job of it. But, the songs I like best off Dream Theater are the two instrumental pieces (False Awakening Suite and Enigma Machine), which are straight heavy metal rock.

After listening to the album a number of times, I started taking notes, writing down my opinions of the songs and listing places where I recognized certain effects. I was about to type them up when my curiosity got the better of me and I went to youtube to see what LeBrie looks like (because my mental image didn’t align with what he sounds like). I watched the live footage of Illumination Theory, accompanied by the Boston orchestra and just tossed my notes away. Music in a studio recording can be manipulated so many ways that you just can’t say “this is someone playing a synth sample, and now this is someone playing an actual acoustic instrument”. But, when you see the live performance and all the acoustic players everywhere, it’s a lot easier to tell where the synth comes in. More importantly, though, the Illumination Theory video illustrates just exactly where Jordan is coming from as a keyboardist – the patches are fixed and he focuses solely on the keys and the pitch bend wheel. Everything is about the song, and not the instrument. (Well, on the performance, since he sometimes switches to a portable shoulder-strap guitar/keyboard hybrid to get out in front of the audience.)

Regardless, of all the keyboard players I’ve seen, (Wakeman, Kingsley, Jean-Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk, Keith Emerson, DEVO, etc.), Rudess is the most fascinating to both watch and listen to. I’d recommend any of his material from both Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment in a New York second.

Bokaro P ni Naritai, vol. 21



(Images used for review purposes only.)

I want to be a Vocaloid Producer, vol. 21, 1,500 yen, plus tax.

New magazine features:
The 4-panel comic has Rana retiring to her room at the end of a long day. She automatically reprograms her dress into a more comfortable top and bloomers, lets her hair down, and goes to sleep. This scene is used as justification for the next MMD model file – “Relaxed Rana” (as shown on the cover above). The classroom page goes through the steps for programming English lyrics in Vocaloid. As mentioned before, the Japanese version of the Yamaha vocaloid speech engine only supports Japanese phonemes, so there’s no way to enter English words or letters directly. Instead, the idea is to use Katakana English (approximating English pronunciation using the Japanese katakana alphabet), and then break the lyrics up as shown in previous volumes and tweak the enunciation with DYN.

The music genre section talks about “monogatari-kei pop”, which appears to be the Japanese equivalent of “story songs” (ala Jim Croce and Harry Chapin). There’s an interview with Toraboruta (Travolta?), a monogatari pops composer, some example songs in this genre, and then the text tutorials. For Vocaloid, the discussion is about writing melodies in non-diatonic chords, for SSW it’s the idea of “emotional arrangements” and expression. The MMD section continues the guidance from Cort on how to make music videos, focusing on the use of continuity sheets. On the last page, there’s an overview of MIDI keyboards, suggestions for what to look for if you want a MIDI controller, and mentions of the Korg MicroKEY-25 and Akai MPK261. Plus a section on vocaloid composer Nagisa’s work studio.

New DVD Features:
First, we have 2 pop-up songs: Sayonara no Gaisan (Approximate Goodbye), and Fukanshou (no translation). Both are just the audio tracks, no videos.
Sayonara no Gaisan starts out as kind of a light jazz, adopts a soft, breathy love song vocal for Rana, and then falls into a sort of electro-dance j-pop arrhythmic mess. It’s not really bad, but I’m not sure what the artist was trying to accomplish.
Fukansho has a strong 8-bit feel for the lead keyboard, and the same soft, breathy vocals. It’s kind of an 80’s retro with the main lyrics being chanted rather than sung. It’s a little better than Sayonara, but still nothing that I’d want to listen to more than once.

Then we get the Relaxed Rana MMD model file, and 3 PDFs from Cort. One PDF is a blank continuity sheet for animators to use in making their own dance video, and the other two are the sheets Cort drew up for the demo video he made for this magazine, building on his discussion from the last volume.


(Storyboarding.)

Tutorials:
Vocaloid:
The video pretty much mirrors the magazine text, comparing two versions of the demo song – one with Rana’s lyrics using only diatonic chords, and the other where 3 notes have been changed to be non-diatonic. The publisher asks whether the second version sounds more lively and interesting, but you really to need to play both versions back to back multiple times to notice much difference. There are no direct instructions for the student to copy, so the idea is to play around on your own to see what works and what doesn’t.

SSW:
Again, the video tutorial and the magazine section are pretty much the same thing this time, talking about getting a more “emotional” arrangement for use in story songs. It uses the same demo song as for the Vocaloid work, but with a lot more string instruments (the vocaloid version only had Rana and the piano track). The exercise is to move a few cello notes around to see how dropping them by an octave affects the overall impact of the song. This is followed by editing the strip chart for the Strings track, which works the same way as for Vel, Dyn, and Filter (on the synthesizer from the last volume). A small section of the song receives a sawtooth envelope for Expression, which makes the notes sound like the musician is varying pressure on the bow as it’s drawn back and forth. The last part of the video is just a replay of the finished song.


(Relaxed Rana model, in a side-step dance in her room.)

MMD:
While I use the word “continuity sheet” above, which is based on the Japanese word “konte” (or, “conte”), really we’re talking about storyboarding. The MMD tutorial explains what storyboarding is, and then shows how a music video is broken down into parts and drawn up on the storyboard, pretty much the same way as for an animated western cartoon. What I like about this video is that we finally get Rana sitting behind a school desk, nodding and reacting to the explanatory text, which is kind of funny in a cute way. Basically, though, the main reasons for doing a storyboard in advance are to either plot out the action you want throughout the video so you don’t forget anything, and to set the pacing of the action, or to coordinate works being produced by two or more team members. Then we get a comparison between two styles of storyboarding – text only, and illustrated with minimal written directions. Either approach is fine, depending on how well you can draw.

I’m not sure if I’m the only one that had this problem, but at about 5:30 into the video, the text overlays suddenly got really chopped up and unreadable. The good part is that it was just a summary of the highlights for using a storyboard, the bad part is that it made the video come out amateurish-looking.

Additional comments:
I haven’t really talked about this for a long while, but the publisher is trying to encourage people to buy the full series subscription upfront, rather than getting each issue every two weeks like I am doing, by giving out stuff to people that mail in proof of their subscriptions. The first couple items were sheets of Rana stickers. The third one, announced in this issue, is a special limited edition “chibi-Rana” model file for MMD. I kind of wish my situation were stable enough that I could guarantee being able receive the entire series, so I could have justified buying the subscription last Fall, just to get this model. But, oh well.