vrijdag 5 december 2008

Presenters go home

Earlier on I ranted about the ridiculous use of capitals in naming songs. But there is more. Today's topic: Presenters

In the early days of house music upcoming producers came up with the idea of using various aliases to be able to release more than one track at a time or to produce different styles of music. A rather clever approach I might say, since that gave them the flexibility to develop and test their styles and see what would work best with the crowds and the record buyers.

Essentially that same concept still lives on today. Even though most producers don't use fantasy names for their primary act anymore, there's quite a few of them that like to release stuff under aliases as well. But here's the diff: every single one of them nowadays adds their regular artist name to it as a "Presenter". Johnny Producer Presents: The Ugly Alien. What the hell is that good for?! I mean the whole idea of an alias is that people don't immediately recognize the track as a Johnny Producer track. So adding your regular name to the artist credit is just plain ridiculous. Either you release something under your own name or under an alias, but not under both, it just doesn't make any sense.

If you produce a tune and you want the public to know it's by you than for crying out loud just release it under your own name and stop using these stupid "Presenter" credits. And not just because it's ridiculous, but also to stop another trend in dance music: obnoxiously long song names:

Johnny Producer & Jamie the Recorder Present: The Ugly Alien Featuring Jody Vocal – Track Name (Jimmy the Remixer vs Blah Present: O.M.G.'s W.T.F. Stupid Title Remix)

By the time that title has scrolled over the screen of Joe Average's iPod the song is already finished. Come on guys, if you want us fans to take you serious then stop this nonsense. Whatever happened to: Abba - Waterloo. Arghhhh, those were the days.

dinsdag 11 november 2008

Warning, you are a law abiding customer!

You have purchased our dvd product legally which makes you an utter fool and therefore we are forced to punish you by making you look endlessly at big black screens full of legal crap about not being allowed to play this dvd on an oil rig. Preferably in 53 different languages. And if that's not enough of a warning we will also annoy you with unwanted, intrusive and loud video clips about how illegal it is to download movies. Which of course are blocked from skipping or fast forwarding. That will teach you to buy our official product another time you criminal. So you think you're finally gonna see that movie that you payed for eh? You must be a fuckin' moron. First here's 10 trailers for other dvds you're probably not interested in but we are going to ram into your face anyway. Eat that you stupid legal dvd buyer.

No wonder people buy pirated dvds. The only way nowadays to watch a movie without having to sit through an endless stream of unwanted crap first. Way to go movie industry.

vrijdag 1 augustus 2008

DVD Review: Armin Only 2008

Although still in the middle of the show’s world tour Armin van Buuren has already released a DVD edition of his Armin Only Imagine performance as recorded at the Jaarbeurs in Utrecht on April 19th 2008. Here’s my impressions.

The double DVD comes in a foldout cardboard box. Not exactly my favorite packaging as it is very fragile, but it is finished in the well known glossy black Imagine theme and as such very well executed and nicely in line with all the other Imagine and Armin Only related productions. The first DVD presents a selection of the live show, the second one contains bonus materials.

Track selection
This is one of my two main beefs with this release. At the live show Armin played 96 tracks of which 23 were his own productions and 2 mashups partly containing own productions. That’s a self-promotion rate of 25%, which is high, but not uncommon with nowadays superstar DJ/Producers. Now since you can’t squeeze 9 hours of music into one DVD obviously a selection had to be made. However when that selection turns out to be 30 tracks of which 20 are own productions, that all of a sudden makes for a 67% self-promotion rate. And in all fairness that isn’t a genuine representation of what a 9 hour Armin Only 2008 set stands for. Of course the Imagine tracks are heavily featured and so they should. But the additional abundance of older Armin tracks really brings the value of this production down. What we ended up with here is basically a combination of the Imagine and 10 Years albums disguised as an Armin Only show, taking the “only” part out of it’s original context and painting a rather incorrect image of Armin as a DJ. Among his fans the reactions towards the “Sound of Armin van Buuren” classics hour during the show were already very mixed, but in this DVD release it is really out of place. Anyone who wants to see older Armin tunes played live can always go back to the Armin Only 2005 and 2006 DVD’s, so I truly fail to see the need for these reruns taking up 1/3 of the entire DVD and clogging up space that could have been used for an additional selection of the epic new 2008 tunes by other artists that were played during the night.

Sound quality, editing and polishing
According to Armin a lot of effort was put in the sound quality and 5.1 mixdown and that indeed shows in flying colors, because both are excellent. Another thing that is done very well is editing the selected songs together. For example the way the end of Fine without you flows into the official show intro is brilliant. If I hadn’t been there and knew it was different in the live show I would immediately believe that is how it was performed.

Unfortunately there are also a few flies in the soup and some of them could have been prevented. Since all audio was recorded on a multi track all separate channels of music, live instruments, live vocals and audience were available separately, which allowed the studio engineers to polish up any little mistake that might have happened. In some parts this was done very effectively, for example the horrible intro crash of MC Stretch was completely removed and Eller’s guitar solo in the Imagine intro (that was faded in too late in the live show) is now nicely restored. The sound of the crowd however has been cut back so much that it really reduces the "live" feeling that the original TV broadcast did have. Also a lot of the live vocals have been doctored drastically. Actually Jennifer Rene, Audrey Gallagher and Elles de Graaff’s live vocals have been completely replaced by the original studio acapellas. They did apply different reverb settings and left out second voice vocals to make it at least sound a little more live than just replacing the entire track with cd recordings like was done on the previous Armin Only DVD’s, but still it’s fairly obvious that this is not the real thing. Personally I’d rather hear Jennifer Rene sing a little off key live than the doctored up fake live performance we see now. The woman broke her hip only two months before the show for crying out loud and she was already back on stage dancing and singing. Much respect for that.

As there seems to be some sort of unfortunate curse resting on live performances at Armin Only shows in my opinion the only sensible thing to do is simply cut the bad performances out. Audrey Gallagher for example, sweet girl, but her performance was sub-par and should therefore have been cut, simple as that. But instead they decided fix it up with studio vocals. They also left in Going wrong (which was a complete fake playback performance to begin with) and then on top of that they cut out the brilliant performance of Jaren doing Unforgettable. Why all that was done is really beyond me. Another sorely missed performance is Sharon den Adel’s In and out of love. Supposedly this has to do with herself not being satisfied with her performance, but to be honest I think she is the only person on the planet who thinks that, because literally everyone I talked to thought it was absolutely great.

One last remark concerns the volume of the overdubbed vocals. In the Tuschinski preview I already noticed they have been mixed in slightly too loud, making them sound a bit too thick on top of the rest of the music. Initially I thought it had to do with the theater’s center speakers perhaps being set up incorrectly, but on my own system I still hear the same thing, albeit less intrusive. There is actually a noticeable difference between 5.1 Movie and 5.1 Music mode. If your system allows these different modes make sure you choose the 5.1 Music setting for optimal sound quality.

When I saw the TV broadcast back after coming home from the live show I was already impressed with the camerawork and the way the whole thing looked on TV. And since this DVD is based on the same footage this part is equally impressive. Could have done with a bit less boob and butt shots imo but other than that very cool. Sharing the costs of a large camera crew with a TV station was a bright move and it obviously paid off. The shots of the Jaarbeurs building that were used to create the opening scenes are simple but very effective and even a little arty. Very nice.

Bonus DVD
Overall I think the bonus DVD is a very nice package. The menu design is again strongly in line with the theme and comes off even better than on the main disk because of the higher number of menu options. The rotating sunrays are a nice touch.

Behind the scenes documentary
This is simply excellent, it’s coherent and there’s a good timeline. Sound quality is absolutely ace.

Discography section
Unfortunately this part is very poorly executed. It doesn’t display any release prior to 2004, it doesn’t show any single releases and there are multiple faults in terms of years of releases. By far the most sloppy part of the release, and rather embarrassing for Armada Music to be honest. Things like this could have been easily prevented if more attention had been put into testing and evaluating the final beta master.

Obviously a lot of effort has been put in this production and it easily surpasses for example what Ferry Corsten made of his Full on Ferry DVD. I also think it’s more relaxing to watch than Tiesto’s Copenhagen production. However as a reflection of a major Armin Only event I think this release is disappointing, mainly because of the over the top Armin-centric track selection and the botched up live performances. The nice bonus DVD makes up only partly for this. As a production it seems to be designed to please the masses and squeeze out the maximum amount of royalty money, instead of being another milestone in Armin’s DJ career, which it easily could have been. Come the time I want to reminisce that night in April I will most likely grab the DVD’s I made of the TV recording. It’s like having the choice between fake breasts and makeup or pure and natural; the latter might have it’s imperfections but it feels much better.

zaterdag 14 juni 2008

What’s Up With All These Capitals?

One Thing I Have Never Understood Is Why The Music Industry Always Uses All Capitals When Writing The Name Of A Track On A Single Or Album. I Mean Besides Thirteen Year Old Breezah Sluts On MSN Have You Ever Seen Anybody Write This Way? Okay The Germans Use All Capitals On Their Nouns But That Still Doesn't Look Remotely As Silly As This. The Funny Thing Is That It Seems To Be Some Form Of Industry Standard; Everybody Does It. Even The Brilliant Discogs.Com Web Archive Of Everything Ever Released Has Installed A Checker Module To Prevent Anyone From Making The Horrible Mistake Of Entering A Word That Does Not Start With A Capital. Your Entry Contains Capitalization Errors. Duh!

Capitalization, The Word Itself Is Already Totally Ridiculous. I Hereby Call On Everybody Reading This To Stop This Nonsense. Start Editing Your ID3 Tags And Bring Normal Writing Into Music. United We Can Make A Difference :P

woensdag 28 mei 2008

The future of digital DJing

With the digital music age kicking in in full effect the discussion about DJing with computers will be something that will flame up increasingly in the near future.

In my opinion DJing from behind a notebook doesn't look like DJing anymore, it looks more like you're checking your email or chatting with your honey. Big DJ’s like Armin van Buuren and Tiesto have stated in recent interviews they absolutely do not intend to move into that direction, simply because it looks dumb and they feel it’s embarrassing towards their fans.

And the objections don’t stop just at what it looks like on stage. Software like Ableton Live enables you to pre-program and pre-beatmatch an entire set, making the actual “live” performance nothing more than clicking a few buttons every now and then. In a way the difference to actually playing a studio prepared mix cd becomes very small here.

Part of being a good DJ is being able to perform the music that the crowd you’re playing for wants to hear. From that perspective it shouldn’t matter what technology you use to actually play that music. But the thing is there is more to live DJing than just that.

Today’s DJ is the star on the stage and the people want to see their star in action, which does not mean leaning backward, clicking a mouse every 4-5 minutes and sipping on a Bacardi-Red Bull in the meantime. They want to see hands operating decks, live beat matching and headphones going on and off. They want to see the focus, stress and dedication it takes to make every transition work and the grin of their hero when he kicks in that killer new tune and feels the flow of energy it releases from his fans.

The transition from vinyl to cd’s a few years ago basically has not affected this. Sure, it was argued a lot at the time too that DJing with cd’s was not really DJing, but the advantages of the increased sound quality, reliability, logistics (ever carried a full vinyl bag?) and flexibility to bring the latest stuff straight from the web were simply too big. It was an unstoppable change just as the cd pushed out vinyl for consumers 15 years earlier. The fact that the cd took so long to conquer the DJ-world was purely based on the absence of a logical cd successor to the infamous Technics SL-1200 turntable. But once the marvelous engineers @ Pioneer Electronics managed to recreate the touch and feel of the good ole Technics in their CDJ-1000 there was no going back. A beautiful example of virtualizing manual control through a piece of hardware that basically is the same as the original.

In the upcoming years we will see a similar discussion with the rise of the Macbook with Ableton (or similar) loaded DJ taking on the old school DJ with his CDbag and CDJ-1000’s. The discussion will very probably be much more intense than the vinyl to cd transition one from a few years ago. Because let’s face it, as stated above a DJ standing behind a notebook clicking a mouse to start a new song will be the death of public DJ performance as we know it. It is as boring to look at as a light jockey punching a knob to start a strobe.

However all is not lost. Mankind’s creativity never fails and new devices to bring back the live performance aspect of the DJ, even when his tunes actually are played from spinning hard disks, are on their way. Various companies like Vestax, Numark, Stanton and EKS have already released new devices that allow a DJ to manually control and manipulate digital files being played from a computer in a similar way that an SL-1200 or a CDJ-1000 player works, with a pitch control slider and a physical wheel to mimic the old vinyl.

EKS Otus DJ Controller

Devices like this recreate the show aspect that the DJ is known and loved for. Even better, what they do is almost eliminate the difference between laptop-DJing and cd-DJing. Anyone who has ever used a CDJ or similar device will know that they are actually much more a computer than a cd player to begin with. Sure, you insert a cd, but the first thing the device does is load your track into working memory. Wanna pitch up? It’s not the cd that will spin faster, it’s a piece of built in software that resamples the music file while being read from memory. You grab the control disk to hold the track? It doesn’t stop the cd, it simply stops the playback from memory and resumes as soon as you let go of the wheel. Open up a CDJ and you will basically find the same components that make a professional grade computer. Without realizing it we have already been watching DJ's spinning tunes with computers for a few years.

So there you have it. DJing out of a computer will be a thing of the future. The core issue however is that DJ's need to realize that their manual activities like track selecting, beat matching, starting, stopping and correcting are an essential part of their act and should therefore never be taken over by software.

The cool thing is it doesn’t stop there. Where certain DJ’s have fallen into the trap of using the Macbook/Ableton combo completely automated, others use them to introduce all kinds of real live elements into their sets. Paul van Dyk was one of the first to do this, and DJ Shah has been experimenting with live keyboards in his recent live sets as well. Dirty South from Australia is another fine example of someone who gets creative in his sets, actually live remixing tracks from his sequencer software. All we need now are graphical interfaces to project this cool stuff on video walls so the public can fully enjoy what is going on. We are on our way to live DJ entertainment that’s bigger than ever before.

Ow and talking about creative new directions, check this out :)

dinsdag 27 mei 2008

Five things that are wrong with digital downloads

Commercial digital downloads, don't get me started. Just like 20 years ago we are collectively being screwed over by the music industry. Mind you, digital downloads could have a great future but so far there are just too many things wrong with them. They are a serious threat to the joy of quality music reproduction. And it’s a truly sad thing that the general public doesn’t have a clue. Here’s what’s wrong:

1. Inadequately used compression technology
Most download stores nowadays offer 192 and 320 kbps cbr (constant bitrate) mp3 compressed files. Both are inadequate in my opinion. 192 lacks dynamics whereas 320 results in files that are too big to be considered mobile, which significantly cuts down the amount of files you can fit on an average mp3 player. Why on earth don’t they use variable bitrate compression? It offers the dynamics level of 320 whilst reducing the size to an average 192 file, hence combining the best characteristics of both in one. I only rip my cd’s in vbr and I cannot understand for 1 second why these download portals don’t use it. Not good.

2. Sound quality
Even when vbr encoding is used mp3 (or any other compression algorithm for that matter) still is a destructive way of storing audio that actually reduces the sound quality of the work of the artist. The argument here is not whether it is lower quality, because that is a given, but the fact that we as consumers are not given a choice. If Joe Average is happy with an mp3 because his Joe Average speakers can’t reproduce full hifi to begin with, than he should have the opportunity to buy an mp3. No problem there. But millions of people (including myself) actually do care about maximum sound quality. And they should at least stay able to buy uncompressed music, even if it takes on the form of a digital download.

I happen to like electronic dance music and in this scene there are a few portals that actually do offer full digital, uncompressed wav files for purchase (at a higher price, more on that later). The vast majority of digital music on offer today however is only available in compressed format. If this goes on and record companies eventually stop releasing cd’s all together we will effectively end up 25 years back in time. Not good.

3. Obscure file formats
iTunes uses a proprietary encoding algorithm (aac) that requires Apple hard- or software (aka iPod or iTunes) to play it. Useless for non Apple music players, car radio’s, etc. They claim it is more efficient than mp3 (as do wma, ogg vobis and whatever else have we seen) but the fact to the matter is that the actual difference is extremely marginal. Mp3 has been the world standard for compressed audio forever and the last thing we need is 20 other formats that are 2% better than the standard that’s already in place, but in the meantime incompatible with half of the world’s digital music players. Apple has done great things for digital music distribution with it’s iTunes Store, but in this regard they are just as arrogant as Sony (with their ridiculous memory sticks). Not good.

4. Pricing
Music is too expensive and has been ever since the cd was invented. In the early 80’s when the cd was first mass marketed the production cost of cd’s was sky high, resulting in high retail prices. The early adopters accepted this because of the enormous leap forward in sound quality the new format offered. But when cd’s broke mainstream in the late 80’s and production costs leveled with vinyl, record companies formed a global cartel and kept the price point artificially at roughly 150% of what lp’s used to cost, increasing their operational margins and at the same time creating what has always been the biggest drive towards illegal file sharing: overpricing.

20 Years later digital downloads have created a major cut in the supply chain costs of music distribution. First of all record companies no longer have to produce a physical medium (you have to provide that at your own cost) nor do they have to provide a case or a booklet. Secondly the entire cost of logistics involved with physical products has vanished. Thirdly the margin share with the retailer has been cut back since the new retailers (aka the download portals) have significantly lower operational costs than the old ones (the brick and mortar cd stores).

But despite this enormous reduction of costs the price of a digital download is on average the same as a cd. Okay, albums tend to be slightly cheaper than cd’s, but singles and ep’s are considerably more expensive than comparable cd releases. New tracks on Beatport cost a whopping 2.50 euro each. Want a full quality wav file like on a cd? 3.50 euro. Want a 4 track ep? That’s 14 euro please. Oh and by the way please pay yourself for a cd to burn it on, for a case to store it in, surf the web to find your own cover art (if they even bothered to make it in the first place) and buy a printer and cartridges and paper to print it yourself, in inferior quality of course.

Ergo: record companies have again grossly increased their profit margins per unit at the expense of the loyal paying consumer, who on top of that now gets a vastly inferior product for the same (too) high price he has been paying for years. And to mask all of this the average price of cd’s has been raised by over 10% in the last year. Not good. And you guys keep wondering why people run to illegal downloading. Tssss.

5. DRM
Drm (digital rights management, a coding technology preventing a digital download file from being played anywhere except the device where you bought it for) is actually the only negative aspect of digital downloads that has received the public outcry it deserves. And thankfully with due effect as the industry is rapidly moving away from it at the moment. In dance music it has rarely been used though, portals like Beatport, Audiojelly and DanceTunes for example never used it to begin with. But there’s still millions of drm infected files being sold daily, mainly by Apple. Still not good.

Fair enough
I have nothing against change, neither do I have anything against digital music compression technology as such (I use it myself quite often) nor do I have anything against the concept of digital music distribution. But I do have a principal objection to being screwed over.

People should be aware that if they buy a digital download today what they get is an inefficiently compressed and grossly overpriced piece of music that in many cases is not even playable when and where they want.

What digital downloads should be are vbr encoded mp3’s, costing half the current price, with properly embedded cover art and credits (id3 provides all the necessary possibilities for that), free of drm and with an always available and no more than 10% surcharge option for full digital (wav) format. That way you pay a fair price for a product that’s convenient but far away from what a cd ever was (an mp3 download) and a reasonably fair price for what eventually will be the (albeit rather lame) replacement of a cd (a wav download).