My Mom recently left me a voicemail message consisting of 30 seconds of quiet noises and a repetitive beeping sound. Of course it was just a pocket-dial, and where she was at the time was near one of any of a zillion beeping things that appear throughout one’s day (after talking to my Mom, it seems likely that it was an elevator). My mind, however, jumped straight to the conclusion that the beeps came from hospital machinery. In hindsight, I realize I’m a total idiot for not assuming the pocket-dial interpretation over the I-need-to-get-on-a-plane one. Who would leave 30 seconds of “silence” from a hospital room?
Funny how quick we* can sometimes be to jump to the worst possible conclusion. I guess worrying about my parents is just one more item to add to the growing number of signs of aging.
* And by “we” I mean “I.”
The first synthesizer I owned was a Roland Alpha Juno 1. The first synthesizer I spent any time with was probably my friend’s Korg Poly 800. I have the most nostalgia, however, for the semi-modular Roland System-100. Hours spent with it in De Anza College’s tiny practice room/synth studio, and Dan Mitchell’s classes, taught me the basics of synthesis. Before that, my understanding was relatively limited. The crutch of presets that my previous synth provided, even if it they were just a jumping off point for programming, perhaps made mastery less urgent. Working with the preset-free System 100 is when I started to really understand how synthesizers work. What moment in a budding young electronic musician’s life is more thrilling than the time this strange collection of wires, knobs and sliders emits a sound like a tuba? Well, lots of times, of course, like the discovery of all the chaos you can wring out of it. But still, for some reason I do really remember that tuba…
Anyway, what brings this to mind is Roland’s announcement that they are releasing, in addition to some digital Eurorack gear, the new 500 Series of analog synth modules. It’s been decades since the modular approach has been a good fit for my style of music making. I briefly considered diving back in a few years ago, but quickly dismissed it as impractical for me and continued creating custom software-based instruments that are more limited, but more immediate (and more portable). In the meantime, the modular world has continued its amazing explosion of new modules from companies large and small. Hardly a month goes by without some cool new module appearing, tempting me back into the world of spaghetti cables. Lucky for me, it’s still an expensive hobby, so I’m safe. For now.
As it turns out, you can improve your paper toweling technique.
I’m generally pretty hesitant to junk up my phone with attachments of any kind. I’ve only ever briefly even used a case on any of my iPhones, though I will sometimes use a battery case when needed. But as much as I love the added screen real estate of my iPhone 6 Plus, it comes at the expense of easy one-handed use. So, with some trepidation, I decided to try one of those stick-on finger straps. The one I chose has the oh-so-graceful Amazon.com title of nobiggi Finger Strap – Ultrathin – Comfortable Elastic Strap and Faux Leather Patch – Extend Thumb Reach for iPhone 6 and 6 Plus Users – Fits Most Mobile Devices (Premium Black). Aaah, just rolls off the tonge, doesn’t it? As it turns out, it actually works pretty well. I’ve only been using it for a few weeks, so I can’t vouch for it’s durability, but if you’ve been eyeing something like this it might be worth a shot.
When the iPhone first integrated Siri I spent some time with it. I asked it stupid questions, insulted it, complimented it, asked for jokes, and did all the silly and quickly clichéd stuff one does when confronted with new technology. This, a friend once suggested to me, is the period of “getting the cheese out.” Then, after that initial exploration, I largely ignored it. I suspect this is the case for most people. Siri’s utility wasn’t immediately compelling and was clearly an early work in progress. In fact, Apple even called it beta. Google’s voice technology was a little better, but I didn’t find that particularly useful either. This was partly due to it’s lack of integration into the system in iOS, and partly due to the fact that it’s still mainly useful for Google-y things.
Then one day, I noticed the little microphone button on the keyboard — or rather, I stopped ignoring it. I’ve started using voice dictation for small things like text messages, notes to myself, or Google searches. It actually works pretty well. It’s occasionally a little slow, especially if when you have poor internet connectivity, but most of the time it’s quick and surprisingly accurate. I frequently find it useful, especially in situations where it’s inconvenient to stop and type. It does, I admit, sometimes feel silly talking to my phone but if you put the phone up to your head you can always pretend you’re on a call. Plus, I live in Brooklyn, so I’m unlikely to be the weirdest person people around me see that day, no matter what inanimate object I start talking to.
What may be slowing widespread adoption of this technology is not that it doesn’t work well, but that it takes practice. When we talk we use language differently than when we write. In order to get comfortable with dictation, one has to learn how to speak the way that one writes. It can be awkward to dictate even casual communications. I often find myself starting to talk to my phone only to realize three words into it that I don’t know how to to finish my thought.
This reminds me of the moment Apple introduced the touchscreen keyboard. Legions of loyal Blackberry users declared that you would take their physical keyboards only when you pried them from their cold, dead hands. Tech pundits declared that the iPhone would never survive in the face of an Android ecosystem that included devices with physical keyboards (and of course Flash…heh). But here we are, 6 years later, and the physical smartphone keyboard is all but extinct. It turns out that typing on a touchscreen isn’t really that bad. Of course there are holdouts, but they’re outliers.
A couple of factors aided the quick transition to touchscreen keyboards. Smartphone market penetration was low when the iPhone was released in 2007, so most people didn’t have to re-learn how to type on mobile, just learn. Also, for most of us, the benefits clearly outweighed the costs: in exchange for ditching our keyboards, we get thin, light devices with large, beautiful screens. If you don’t prefer hardware keyboards, and actually I don’t, it’s just a win all around.
So now we’re in a position where everyone knows how to type on their phone. The utility of dictating to it, however, is not as obvious. Typing on a smartphone, while less than ideal, is familiar and doesn’t need to be learned. When you want to send a text message, you’re generally not looking to practice dictating a text message. But I suspect that this will change. The technology is just about good enough already. Typing on a tiny keyboard, touchscreen or physical, is still annoying enough that the utility of dictation is likely to become increasingly apparent.
If I really wanted to put my money where my mouth is I suppose I should have dictated this post. But that highlights another challenge of dictation: I work in a variety of environments and while I don’t mind looking a little crazy, I do need to respect those around me.
I thought I’d share a couple of fun internet music toys that I’ve recently come across. I’ve long been interested in instruments with strong constraints. In fact, I wrote my dissertation about that very topic. The trend in the industry is to pile features upon features so I’m always interested in seeing how others choose to strip things down.
I think its fair to say that both Plink and PollySynth are more like musical toys or games than they are like serious musical instruments, but that’s a philosophical difference I’d like to set aside for another day (why post today what you can put off posting until tomorrow?). That said, they are both great examples of designs with a minimal set of features that invite playful interaction by an audience of varying ability levels.
Both systems drop the user into an active room, (potentially) filled with random strangers with whom to share a jam session. In this case, anonymity adds to the experience. Unlike the cesspools that are most online communities, there is no opportunity to troll here because there is no opportunity for verbal communication. I suppose you could come in and purposefully play in an annoying way, but that’s pretty minor trolling. Basically, players are free to have fun and make music with others without judgment. This is very liberating; if you’ve ever seen a beginning improvisation class then you know how stifling the pressure to avoid sounding foolish can be.
Since you are playing with others, however, a player may well develop some feeling of responsibility to the group. This is a good thing. I’ve found that even in these simple and somewhat silly platforms, there was a drive to try to contribute meaningfully to the collaboration. Some people are clearly just messing around, but at times I could sense that I was really interacting with the other participants. I suspect that safe places like these would be great even for complete novices to first experience the joy of playing with others. This could lead novices to explore the next level by learning an instrument and playing with friends.
Of the two, Plink is closer to creating “normal” music. The player selects from a series of different timbres represented by a row of multi-colored squares along the right side of the interface. The rest of the space is devoted to the play area. It’s divided into horizontal channels each representing a note in a pentatonic scale. This is a natural choice for a beginner’s tool since it avoids (more or less) the potential for “wrong” sounding notes.
Little bubbles representing the rhythm that will be produced flow backwards from the player’s cursor. There’s a kick drum sound on the beat to keep a sense of time going. Clicking the mouse will cause a melody to be played in a 16th note pattern on the pitch corresponding to the channel that is clicked. This works even better with the touch interface on the iPad. On a touch interface, one can play the instrument almost like a keyboard.
With the tight constraints of rhythm and pitch, the player is presented with an extremely shallow learning curve so players of all levels can get up and running right away. There is plenty of room within these constraints to explore the instrument, with the different timbres provided each giving a slightly different experience.
PollySynth is a hybrid web/mobile instrument. First you log in to one of the “rooms” in your desktop web browser. This is where you will see the avatars representing yourself and other participants, and where the sound is generated. You then visit the same room on your mobile device, which becomes the controller for your sound/avatar.
PollySynth takes a different approach than Plink, enforcing fewer assumptions about how the music should be created. Unlike Plink, it doesn’t restrict the rhythm or scale but instead provides a simple synthesizer for the user to explore. Since the average user is going to be unfamiliar with the concepts and terminology of synthesizers, PollySynth’s challenge is to create an interface that invites exploration without being scary or opaque.
The creators came up with a clever solution to this challenge: don’t label anything. The lower half of the controller contains a smiling pair of eighth notes. This large X-Y area, the user will quickly discover, is how you play notes and control the pitch. The upper half of the interface contains 8 buttons and two sliders, all unlabeled. What do they do? Press one and see! Though someone experienced with traditional synthesizers will be able to easily give names to these parameters (I won’t provide spoilers), the lack of labels encourages novice users to explore and use their ears to play, and avoids scaring them off with terms like LFO (oops, I spoilered it a little). The result is a simple noise synth that is fun to explore.