Bang the Drum All Day

Well here we are in 2015. I hope your holidays were enjoyable and restful. Mine certainly were!

Between Christmas and my birthday I accumulated a little bit of gift money. Which I quickly blew on Toontrack EZdummer.

One word summary: Wow!

A bit of history... Drums have always been the weakest link in my recordings. I don't have a kit and even if I did, I'm a pretty crappy drummer. I had a drum machine in the late '80s and early '90s - a Roland TR-626, Back then, drum machines didn't sound very realistic. The samples were really short and lo-fidelity, and the grid-based sequencers in those devices tended to yield repetitive, regimented, and mechanical-sounding patterns, rather than something that sounded like it was played by a human being. That kind of thing might work well in EDM, but it doesn't work so well for my more traditional rock/blues/jazz stuff. For me, the TR-626 was better as a metronome than as a drum track generator, although I used it for the latter purpose as best I could.

Later, I graduated to using software and hardware sequencers to compose drum tracks manually. That was my primary way of working up drum tracks for many years. With good drum sounds, you can put together decent tracks this way, but it's an incredibly tedious job. Keyboard controllers and piano roll editors are really clumsy and ill-suited for dealing with drum parts (I never invested in a drum or pad controller). For awhile I used a Roland XP-80 which didn't even have a piano roll editor; if you wanted to edit individual drum hits, you had to use an event list editor (the MIDI equivalent of assembly language) on a 320x80 pixel LCD screen! Ah, good times. Some DAWs have grid-based editors which make drum pattern editing very easy, but then you've dumbed down your badass DAW to a hardware drum machine and you're back to stiff, mechanical beats.

I've also used audio and MIDI loops, which are the closest thing I'd found to ideal. At a macro level, loops are dead easy to work with because it's just dragging and dropping drum clips into an arrangement in a DAW. This approach can also yield very realistic tracks since the loops can be recordings of actual drummers. But if a loop isn't exactly right and you have to edit it, things get tedious quickly. If it's an audio loop, then you have to slice up the audio and rearrange it, while trying to maintain its natural sound, which isn't easy. (By the way, FL Studio has a very interesting tool called Slicex for slicing and dicing audio drum loops that I've dabbled with, but it still seems like a hell of a lot of work.) MIDI loops are a better option in my opinion just because they're easier to tweak, but even then, you're still back to the creative buzz-kill of editing drum parts in a piano roll.

For the last couple of years, I've sometimes used the Karma feature on my Korg M3. Even though Karma is really designed for live performance it has actually been a fairly decent tool for developing recorded drum tracks because it provides a way to get human-like variation in the drum part without editing notes individually. My approach was to find a drum kit I liked on the M3, then find a Karma drum pattern that was close to what I needed for my song. Then I'd map the Karma parameters that affect rhythmic, velocity, and timing variation, as well as note density to some sliders on the M3. Then I'd sync the M3 to the recording, play back the drum pattern with the song, while controlling the sliders to add fills and variation at the proper places in the song. I recorded '57 Fun this way and to my ears it sounds very natural.

But for my drum track purposes, Karma has some definite limitations. One, if I can't find suitable Karma drum patterns for my song, I'm basically hosed. It's possible to design my own Karma patterns using specialized software, but that process is incredibly tedious - especiallyh when the end goal is just to lay down a decent drum track. The second limitation is that sometimes the variations that Karma comes up with are not what I want. It's like having a drummer who has a fairly sizable repertoire of fills, but none of them are right and he refuses to learn any more. But the worst limitation of Karma for drum tracks is that Karma is just flat-out complicated! It has an enormously steep learning curve, even to get to the point where you can do the simply things I just described. Spending hours reading Karma parameter descriptions out of a manual is the ultimate creativity killer. But at least once I've put together my Karma patch, actually using the patch to create the drum track is very easy.

So, after over 25 years of doing this, all drum solutions I've tried have in one way or another been a pain in the ass. Enter EZdrummer.

At the most basic level, EZD provides libraries of drum samples and MIDI loops. But it augments that with some very clever searching and arranging features that make assembling drum tracks fast, easy, and actually fun. It also provides some Karma-like capabilities to add human-sounding variation to the loops, making the need to fire up the piano roll editor very rare. These features address pretty much all of the complaints I've had with drum recording solutions in the past.

I'll just say up-front that EZD's drum samples are excellent. There are two kits, but with several alternate individual drums to provide a lot more variety. The drums are pretty generously multi-sampled and there's enough variety in the instruments, the sample velocity layers, and the processing capabilities that you can cover a lot of tonal and stylistic ground.

For finding stuff in the libraries, EZdrummer has a nicely designed category- and filter-driven browser to drill down to sounds and loops. But even better, you can play a drum pattern into EZD live (with a mouse or with a MIDI controller) and it will find patterns in its library that provide the closest match to what you played. This sounds like one of those whiz-bang features that seems cool on paper but doesn't actually work very well. I can tell you - it works bloody great! It's much easier to play drum rhythms using a mouse than I imagined it would be. Once you find a suitable pattern, you can drag it into the "Song Creator" panel and EZD will present you with a bunch of complementary patterns - fills, intros, outros, and alternates - that fit aesthetically with your selected pattern. Its choices in that regard are very good and having easy access to complementary loops makes it really fast to find the material you need to flesh out the song. Song Creator can even spit out a full song arrangement for you if you want. Or you can create your song arrangement by stringing together selected loops, dragging them into a linear timeline called the Song Track.

The Song Track resides in EZD, not your DAW. It will follow and synchronize with your DAW's transport, so pushing play in your DAW will play back the drum track, at the right location in the song, and in sync with the rest of your recorded tracks. You can leave the drum track in EZD or export to a DAW track. You'd export it if you needed to edit individual notes. But you can't put the genie back in the bottle - once the drum track has been exported, you can't get it back into EZD. [Actually I've discovered that's not true. At the least, EZD's browser can incorporate your MIDI loops. But I don't know if the other features such as Edit Play Style can be used with your loops. I'll have to experiment and find out. I'll update this when I do...]

By keeping the track in EZD however, you're able to use my favorite feature of the program, called  "Edit Play Style". When working with MIDI loops in the past, if I needed to tweak the pattern even a little, I had to open up the loop in a piano roll editor and edit notes individually. Edit Play Style allows you to tweak the contents of a MIDI drum loop in a more musical and drummer-like way. For example, by simply dragging an icon from one instrument to another you can change a loop from being hi-hat based to being ride cymbal based. Or by turning a knob, you can adjust how busy the playing is and EZD will "busy up" the loop the way a real drummer would, by adding notes in a musical way. So if you want a more elaborate snare drum part with ghost notes and little ornamental rolls peppered in, you can just turn a knob instead of having to add the notes one-by-one in the piano roll. And you can go the other way too - if a fill is close but a bit too busy, you can dial it down and get a simpler variant.

Edit Play Style also lets you scale the velocity of drum hits up and down for the loop. Because the drum kits are generously multi-sampled and mapped to velocity levels, doing this gives you very easy control over the tone and energy level of the track. So if you, for instance, are working on an up-tempo country song and you find a fast drum pattern that's perfect except it's just a bit too metal-sounding because the drums are really being hammered, you can scale down the velocity and have it sound lighter and more relaxed so that it's more style-appropriate. And all of these things can be done individually for each drum, or on the whole kit all at once. With all the variation possible, Edit Play Style allows you to get a ton of mileage out of the loops!

Edit Play Style provides the sort of thing I was doing with Karma, but unlike Karma, it all works out of the box without having to configure anything, and with a few intuitively named controls so that you don't have to pour over a user's manual to figure it out.

There is also a simple but sophisticated mixing and effects processing system. It cuts some corners in terms of routing and control, but it strikes a great balance balance between control, ease-of-use, and sound quality. In other words, ToonTrack has cut the right corners. Based on what I've experienced so far, I think the onboard mixing and processing facilities are good enough for 99% of what I do. And for the odd project where I need more granular control, EZD supports individual outputs for the drums so I can route them to separate mixer channels in my DAW for independent processing.

Toontrack sells a bunch of sound expansion packs but I don't see myself buying more than a couple because the kits in the base package sound great, and can cover a lot of ground. The way I see it, if I were a drummer I would probably only own one kit and I would use it for whatever music I needed to. So I don't feel like I need a whole bunch of different virtual drum kits; a handful of good ones will do. But where I do need variety is in the loops! There's no escaping that. Loops are the core building block in EZD and even with all the features that stretch their utility, having a wide variety of them is necessary to keep parts fresh and to tackle a lot of styles. In fact, on the first week I had EZDrummer, I recorded a song with measures of 5/4 and 6/4 time that EZD didn't have loops for (I ended up reworking some 4/4 loops into the other time signatures using my DAW). I also set out to record a blues shuffle and couldn't find an appropriate loop in the stock set since its selection is rather thin on shuffles. So I hit the loop selection wall pretty quick with the base package. I ended up buying a 6-pack bundle of loops to augment the standard set. On the other hand, I know people who never play anything other than straight 4/4 time and could work with just the standard loops for a long time.

Realistic drums without enormous effort - that's been the holy grail for me and I think I'm now there.


Of Dogs and the Afterlife

I had a dream last night. My wife and I were in our kitchen and Edison appeared on our patio. I was so happy to see him. In my dream I knew he was dead and I kept thinking, "This must be a dream. This must be a dream."

Oh, but what a dream! My wife and I went onto the patio and greeted him the way you greet a dearly loved one who you haven't seen in too long, which he is. The dream was vivid - he looked, felt, and smelled like Edison. He was maybe slightly more subdued than he was, but other that, Edison was in my dream. My wife said, "Go get the boys." And I got up to go get them and then I woke up.

I was crying when I woke. A combination of dream-enhanced happiness, knowing even in the midst of it that it was going to be a fleeting moment, and being so vividly reminded of how much I love and miss him.

I'm a non-superstitious person and I'm familiar with the rational reasons behind dreams. Perhaps the dream was the result of my missing Edison so much. Maybe I've been dreaming about him a lot over the months since he died and I just happened to remember this one because I woke up during it. Or maybe my mind manufactured the dream to help me deal with the recent stresses and worries I've been dealing with.

The rational reasons fit the available facts and might be satisfying intellectually, but emotionally they really fail to deliver. There was something so moving about this dream that makes the rational explanations ring false. Despite my rational self, I prefer to believe that Edison actually visited me in a dream. That he sensed the stress and worries I've had lately, and he visited me from his well-earned afterlife of endless walks and doggie treats, to help me feel better. Pretty much the way he did when he was alive  by just being there and making me feel, for just a little while, like I'm the most awesome person in the universe. Or maybe he just wanted to let me know that he thinks of me too, the way I do him, and that in the end  whether the rational me believes in those kind of endings or not  it's all going to be okay.


The Nerd's Tenor


The theremin is one of those instruments that's generally a lot more fun to play than to listen to. But this performance is inspired listening. He's got a gizmo called an Electro Harmonix Stereo Talking Machine that applies a vocal formant to the theremin's audio signal, which in this case makes it sound like a human voice singing "ah". It gives a wonderful sound, but mad props to the musician, Peter Pringle! Controlling a theremin is the instrumental equivalent of wrestling a greased monkey. His ability to control pitch, volume, and vibrato so precisely and expressively is downright astonishing. Also, the retro film look on the video is a great touch!


New Wheels

I received an e-mail from Lenovo today saying that the laptop I ordered has (finally!) shipped. This will be the first time in a very long time that I've had a personal computer that was reasonably up-to-date. For many years, I've been limping along using either my work laptop or an ancient personal laptop that I had. That was sufficient when I used a standalone recorder in my music studio. But when I decided to go the software DAW route, I knew I'd need a machine I could tune for performance, which is a joke with my ancient laptop and not feasible on my work machine. My employer's IT department very reasonably wants to install security and support software on my computer and they don't give me access privileges to disable it, even temporarily. For multitrack audio recording, you need a machine where nothing runs in the background, stealing CPU cycles and hard drive access. Also, it was always risky using a work computer for music because I never knew when I might need to turn in my laptop to my employer and leave myself high and dry in the middle of a music project.

This new machine won't be completely dedicated to music. It will also be my primary photography computer. I don't think those pursuits will interfere with each other because my photography workflow doesn't require any software to be running unless I'm actively working on some photos. (Well, except for backup, and I can work around that.) So the music software should always have maximum computing resource available when I'm recording without much fuss and bother.

I'm still vacillating between using Reaper or Tracktion as my DAW. I will probably use both for awhile and see which one I like best.

When I get the new laptop I will probably use it as an opportunity to buy a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud Photography. That means I'll be migrating from AfterShot Pro to Lightroom, and I'll get to use the full version of Photoshop rather than Elements. So, there will be a lot of migration work to do with my photos. But it will should a major upgrade in capability and I'll be using the industry standard for photo software which will reduce a lot of software investment risk for me.


Five Things I'm Diggin' – 12/1/14

Back by popular demand (of one)!  Five Things I'm Diggin'.

  1. Fall in North Carolina – It's over now, but I really dug the falls colors in NC. I spent the majority of my life in Texas and the Southwest, so having a real autumn with knock-out colors is a such a treat. Unfortunately I didn't have a feel for the timing and the peak of the season so I really didn't photograph the colors at their best this year. (The photo you see here is not mine!) Next year I'll do a better job of it!

  1. Gerber Dime – I've been getting into EDC lately. Not the survivalist/weapons flavor of EDC, but the one concerned with optimizing what and how you carry the stuff that you are likely to need everyday. I'm fairly minimalist, so small, light, and pared down to the basics is what appeals to me. The Dime is pretty much perfect for that. It's tiny, about the size of a pair of AA batteries. The tool set is pared down to the stuff I would actually use. Great for carrying in my pocket, backpack, or messenger bag. All the tools are usable, except the file which sucks. It's built reasonably well for purpose, meaning it's okay for my light duty IT, photography, and home tasks, but if I've got a heavy duty task I still need to break out the proper tools. Best of all, it's also only $15 or so depending on where you get it.

  1. Master Magnetics Stud Finder – I had a cheap magnetic lever stud finder for years. The magnet in it was really tiny so it could take a long time to find a stud with it, but it worked reliably if I was patient. I bought a fancy electronic studfinder, but it wasn't as accurate, so I generally preferred to use my cheapy finder. I recently found the Master Magetics finder and finally retired my old finder. It solves the one problem I had with the lever finder – it uses a wide magnet that covers a larger area as you sweep it across the wall so it finds studs quickly. The magnet is strong enough to stick it to the wall so you don't have to mark the stud. And you can even tie a line and weight to it for a simple plumb bob, if you want.  $8 and highly recommended. 

  1. Citizen Hyper Aqualand – I bought this watch almost 20 years ago when I was dabbling with diving. Diving never really took hold with me, but I always liked the watch because it was rugged, waterproof, and kind of cool looking. Even if I wasn't diving I did have a boat and it was nice to have a watch that I didn't have to baby. However, about ten years ago, it needed some servicing. It worked fine, but I'd scratched the crystal, the band had broken, and it really needed to have its seals replaced to ensure water tightness. I'd bought a nice titanium Seiko that was a little more dressy and I started using that and never got around to repairing the Citizen. It sat in a drawer for a decade. Right before moving to NC I finally got inspired and sent it in for the needed repairs. Ah, now I remember why I like this thing so much! Now the Seiko needs a little work (the capacitor that stores the kinetic energy needs replacing; and it too could use a new crystal). Hopefully it doesn't take me ten years to get around to that.

  1. Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 – This is the audio interface I finally settled on when my Tascam recorder went south. I like it because it has been reliable (so far), the build quality exceeded my expectations, it's expandable, and it has a nice, transparent sound. It also pairs well with my mixer so I can augment it's inputs easily and record a full band. Now if only the new laptop I ordered would arrive I'd have my studio 100% ready to go.



On The Road, Again

So in my last post, I talked about why the Man abandoned the bunker in the book, The Road.

Spoiler Alert! Don't read this or my last post if you haven't already read the book!

In a nutshell, my interpretation is that the Man, knowing he will soon die, leaves the well-stocked bunker so that he can find other good people to take care of his son.

If you buy that, then it brings up an interesting dilemma.

The Boy is highly concerned about good and evil and which side his father and he are on. He constantly questions the Man about the actions they have taken, or might take, in order to survive. He seeks reassurance that they are "the good guys". The Man doesn't see good and evil as a black and white choice, but as a continuous gradient. Shades of gray. He will bend his morals in order to survive, but there are limits to how far he will go.  He is above cannibalism, but refuses to risk their lives to help the feeder humans imprisoned in the basement pantry. He won't steal from other people (living ones anyway), but he'll punish those who steal from him with certain death.

In the context of the story, the Man is a good guy, but just barely. His love and compassion is remarkably deep, but reserved solely for his son. He's highly concerned with the Boy "keeping the fire", a metaphor for maintaining his goodness and innocence. But the Man's own fire is just about extinguished. I posit that the Man takes on morally questionable actions done in the name of survival, and shields the Boy from them, in some measure to preserve the Boy's fire at the cost of his own. The Man looks at the Boy in a messiah-like way (the book is peppered with these references), and he sacrifices himself to protect not only the Boy's life, but his core goodness as well.

But the will to survive has an unanticipated cost. The Man is unable to trust anyone. He is paltry in helping a pitiful old blind man they encounter on the road, and only provides the meager help he does to appease his son. If the Man were to encounter actual "good guys", who could look after his son after he dies, his fear and distrust of everyone would not allow them to get close to him and would blind the Man from recognizing or acknowledging their goodness. So the Man himself is a showstopper impediment to his own mission.  The mission only succeeds because the Man dies. It's an interesting irony in the story.

The movie drives this point home a little more directly by implying that the Veteran (the guy with the shotgun who offers to take the Boy in) had been tracking the Man and the Boy for awhile (and may have been responsible for the sounds that spooked the Man out of the bunker), but had not been able to connect with them because the Man eluded him so well. It is only after the Man dies, that the Veteran is able to find them. Hope requires faith, and salvation is only possible when there is enough trust to reveal it.


The Road, the Bunker, and the Meaning of It All

I recently finished reading The Road. I've been on a Cormac McCarthy kick the last few months. What a remarkable book! Absolutely unrelenting in its bleakness, and yet at the same time, an incredibly moving testament of a man's love for his child.

Before I go on, I should say right here:  Spoiler Alert! If you haven't read The Road  and you have even a passing interest in doing so, don't read any further. You've been warned!

Okay, so you're still with me.

One plot point that really lodged itself in my brain was when the Man - out of food, on the run from cannibals, and near death - finds the bunker. Or rather when he leaves the bunker. It was such a game changing, no, life saving, find. It could have sustained the Man and the Boy for a long time. Why in the world would he leave it? I thought about that question a lot while reading the rest of the book and formed many thoughts, which I've written down here. [This discussion only applies to the book! The movie adaptation adds a scene at the bunker where the Man gets spooked when he hears something outside and is afraid they are going to be discovered. The movie uses this as the pivotal event that motivates the Man to leave the bunker. No such thing happens in the book. To me, there are a few problems with this added scene which weaken the story, but I won't delve into that here...]

In the book's narrative, the Man's reasoning for leaving the bunker is that it's too dangerous to stay. He acts like this is a given. The bunker is too exposed and easy to discover. They could have cannibals searching for them. And with all the bunker's provisions, they are an easy and extremely attractive target.

It's hard to take this explanation at face value because it doesn't make much sense. First, the story has already proven that the bunker isn't too exposed. After all, it's been hidden since the apocalyptic event which I reckon to be about ten years previous based on my estimation of the Boy's age. It remained undiscovered despite all survivors being in constant search for these kinds of caches. It would be relatively easy to cover the trap door close to as well as it was covered for those ten years. And given how resourceful the Man is, with some thought and effort he might have been able to conceal it better while also improving its accessibility for himself and his son.

I've read some folks on the Internet say that the cannibals would sniff them out in the bunker using dogs. I'm pretty sure this reasoning comes from seeing the movie, not reading the book. In the book, dogs are only mentioned once in passing and in a context that has nothing to do with the cannibals. It's implied that the dogs are feral, not domesticated. If you think about it, it's unlikely that anyone, including the cannibals, would have dogs since dogs are yet more mouths to feed and are themselves too easy of a food source for desperate starving people. The dogs certainly wouldn't have lasted past the first time the cannibal owners got really hungry, which is an almost constant condition in this post-apocalyptic world.

Second, basic wilderness survival (yeah, I was a Boy Scout) teaches that the most important priorities are water, shelter, and food. The bunker provided all three in abundance, plus clothing, equipment, and tools. It would have been totally worth any risk of discovery to take the time and effort to figure out how to hide, secure, and defend the bunker.

Third, and most importantly, it's an illusion that the road is safer than the bunker. The Man has no idea where the bad guys are, what lies in wait on the road, and whether he'll be able to find food and shelter when he leaves the bunker. Every day on the road is a deadly crap shoot. For all he knows, he could turn a corner and walk right into a village of cannibals. If you're trying to avoid being caught, instead of going out into the open of the road, it makes more sense to hunker down in a good hiding place (like, say, a bunker!) and wait for the danger to pass (even if temporarily). This is born out in the ending when the man with the shotgun offers to take in the Boy after the Man dies:

You can stay here with your papa and die or you can go with me. If you stay you need to keep out of the road. I don't know how you made it this far.

Given how meticulously crafted McCarthy's books are, I can't believe that he didn't think of all of this. I also can't believe that the shotgun man's conflicting assessment of the road's safety was an accident. McCarthy's not sloppy and everything seems to be written with a literary purpose. My thinking is that the Man's stated rationale for leaving the bunker isn't the true reason and that we readers are supposed to work out the reason from context.

Okay, so why then does he leave the bunker? Here's my theory...

The Man's sole reason for carrying on and not following his wife into suicide is his son. It's mentioned several times in the book and one of the main themes of the book is his love and devotion to the Boy.

He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

The book also establishes that the Man is aware that he is dying. He has a chronic, blood-tinged, and ever-worsening cough and his strength and stamina is in steady decline. From the description it sounds like tuberculosis, but more probably it's lung cancer or something similar caused by the inhalation of whatever foulness is in the air. Anyway, my theory is that the Man can't stay in the bunker because he knows he's dying and his son is clearly not ready to fend for himself even in the bunker and especially when the bunker's supplies finally run out, which they will eventually. So the Man's best bet to ensure his son's long-term survival - which is his only reason for living - is to find a better situation where somebody trustworthy can look after his son and continue to teach him what he needs to know to survive and to "carry the fire". Perhaps a community of "good guys" (as the book calls decent people), if such a thing exists. He knows he cannot find that situation staying in the bunker and with his worsening health he has limited time to do it.

I like this theory because it fits the available facts of the story, seems logical, and works well with the literary devices in the novel. The road becomes a symbol for the suffering born of perseverance in the pursuit of hope. The road is unforgiving and unknowable, but it must be endured because to not do so is to give up all hope and resign the Boy to certain doom. And similarly then, the bunker represents the temptation to end the suffering by abandoning hope, A sort of suicide of the spirit. Like suicide, the bunker is tempting because of its immediate comfort. But also like suicide, staying in the bunker is abandoning hope because the Man knows that doing so would doom his son when the bunker's supplies run out and the Boy is utterly unprepared to deal with it on his own. In fact, the easy abundance of the bunker would leave the Boy even less prepared to deal with the harsh reality outside it.

When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up.

The road, being unknowable, at least offers the prospect of hope, however dim. Yes, on the road they could walk right into a village of cannibals, but they could also walk into a village of good guys. So as tempting as the bunker is, the Man and his son must leave the bunker and endure the road.


Last Dance

Fall colors are getting pretty amazing in NC. I've got to get out there and get some more shots this weekend because I have no idea about the typical curve for fall colors here - how long they last, when they're at their best, etc. Everything could fall off the trees in one night and I will have miss it if I don't hurry up...


The Spoils of Early Rising

Another morning commute shot. Left for work early this morning and the sky was spectacular. I was pressing on though because I needed to do some work at the office before everybody else arrived. But when I saw the church it was just too good of an opportunity to pass.


Greetings from North Carolina

We've now been in Raleigh just shy of two weeks. The move itself was stressful. First, the movers underestimated how long it would take to box up our belongings. They budgeted 2 workers for 2 days, but after the first day they'd only completed maybe 25% of the work. The next day they brought in an extra person, but still didn't catch up. They were still packing when the moving van arrived on the 3rd day. That final load-in day was a long, 14-hour slog. It was exhausting for me and all I was doing was supervising. The movers also underestimated the weight, which is how they determine price. But that was their problem as I'd gotten a "not to exceed" estimate. So they had to eat the extra cost.

We finally vacated the house at about 10:30PM on that third day.  I'd booked a hotel on the other side of Houston so that we wouldn't have to drive across the city in commuter traffic when we started for NC the next morning. In the hour-long drive to the hotel, one of our cats freaked out and peed in the back of my car!  This despite the fact that I'd put a litter box in the kennel with them. So that was an additional hour of very unpleasant cleanup when I'm already exhausted. And of course it's very difficult to get rid of the smell entirely. The wife and I seriously considered dropping off the cats at the nearest animal shelter, but cooler heads prevailed. The next couple days driving across the South were less eventful, but stinky. Luckily for my wife and kids, they were in the other vehicle so I'm the only one who had to deal with it. 

We got to Raleigh the day before we were to close on the new house and everything went very smoothly with the closing. In fact, since they don't use title companies in NC, the closing event can be anywhere and my realtor chose a posh country club. Gorgeous lake view with multi-million dollar homes all around. Nice, and they didn't make us enter through the servants' entrace. Despite being new mortgage home owners, we had to stay in the hotel a few more days waiting for the moving van to arrive. And because you can never really have enough bodily fluids to clean up, my oldest kid vomited on the floor of the bathroom one night during our stay. He was in the bathroom but hurled on the floor instead of into the toilet! I cleaned it up but I also lost my cool on that one and threw my own little tantrum. I had some apologizing to do the next day. Sigh. I think I'd just had my fill of cleaning up stinky messes. I thought for sure I'd catch whatever bug he had, but somehow I dodged that bullet.

The move into the new house was blissfully uneventful. The wife and kids like the house and the kids seem to be taking to their new school well so far. So far nobody has thrown up or peed on the floor; then again we've only just moved in! We spend most of our free time emptying boxes. But the neighbors we've met have been wonderfully friendly, and the weather here has been simply gorgeous.

So it's all good.

Except for the smell of my car. I may end up having to cut the carpet out of the cargo area of my CR-V. Fortunately it's a 12 year old vehicle so I'm not that worried about it. Just glad the cats weren't in the other car which is a lot newer and more expensive.

Yesterday I was coming into work and noticed how beautifully the trees were reflecting in the river that I cross over as I near the office. So I pulled over to snap a few photos. It's a great commute actually. Compared to Houston, the drive is shorter and there's a lot less traffic. And since most of it is on beautiful, wooded country roads, it's actually a pleasant drive. I open the sunroof, turn up the podcast, and just enjoy the downtime. 

I think I'm going to like it here.


Ten Things I'll Miss in Texas

  1. The Austin Music scene - The real reason I chose to live in Austin in the first place!
  2. Barbecue - Lots of states have fine barbeque, including my new home of North Carolina. But for my money, I'll take smoked brisket and Elgin sausage, thanks.
  3. Chuy's - As a transplant from New Mexico, I could always count on Chuy's for decent green chile dishes. [Update: Turns out there's a Chuy's in Raleigh. Woohoo!]
  4. 6th Street - So many great bands, so many late night gigs, so many drunken pub crawls, so many great memories.
  5. Shiner Bock - Yeah, I know you can buy it anywhere and it's not even all that great a beer. But drinking a cold Shiner in the audience at Liberty Lunch, or on the patio at Backyard, or while enjoying some barbecue at any number of places - that's the best.
  6. No income tax - They nickel and dime you to death for everything else, but it is nice not having to pay state income tax.
  7. The Longhorns - It's been hard the last few seasons, but this is my team. I'll probably end up getting Dish network so I can watch the Longhorn Network. [Unfortunately, I couldn't get Dish. All the trees on my lot didn't give a clear line of sight to the satellite. Sigh.]
  8. The Austin high tech community - I had to leave a couple of times to advance to the next level, but in general Austin high tech has funded my adulthood.
  9. Lake Travis - I hope the drought ends soon and restores it to its past glory.
  10. All my Texas friends. That's what I'll miss the most.


Texas Tar Heel

A few posts back I mentioned that I had major, life-changing news. Well, I'm finally going to write a little about it.

I will be moving to the Raleigh-Durham area in the next couple of weeks. The short story is that my company got acquired and my new employer asked if I wanted to move there. I took them up on it. It makes a lot of sense professionally because the company is investing heavily in the area so it's good for my career at the company. The Triangle area has a much stronger high-tech scene than Houston so it's good for me professionally even if the company and I part ways in the future. On a personal level, my wife and I always viewed Houston as a temporary deal and North Carolina was on the short list of places we were considering as the next place we wanted to be. In fact, we went there on vacation last summer partly to check it out and see if we'd like to move there. And we loved it. So this opportunity was fortuitous.

But I don't mind saying that I'm a little sad and wary about leaving Texas. After several years of being pretty nomadic and living all over the world, I moved to Austin in 1989 and haven't lived outside of Texas since. For a guy who is excited by change - sometimes to a fault - that's a remarkably long stint. The majority of my past 25 years in Texas have been in Austin, a truly terrific town. When I moved there, it was the perfect place for me - young adult oriented, an educated population, appreciative of music, inexpensive, a strong high tech economy, and big but not too big. Of course it's changed so much since then! The population has doubled; traffic is pretty terrible; and it is not, in fact, as wonderfully weird as it used to be. And yet, it's still a great place to live. Best place in Texas in my opinion, and probably one of the better places in the US. Austin provided a fertile and nurturing place for me to build my career, advance as an artist and musician, meet my soul mate, and start a family. Who could ask for more? Houston and Dallas were also good to me in their own ways, advancing my career at key moments that wouldn't have otherwise happened. I will miss Texas.

And I will enjoy North Carolina. I'm looking forward to proximity to mountains! Oh man, will I enjoy that. I'm looking forward to hills, and forests, and tall trees. And I'll still be relatively close to the ocean. I'm excited to take my kids for a weekend trip to Washington DC. Most of all, I'm excited by the prospect of making new discoveries, finding new favorite places, eating new foods, trying new things - just like I did when I moved to Austin those many years ago.


Course of Empire


Back in the early '90s, I remember going to a club during SXSW to see a band that had been getting a lot of local buzz. During SXSW, a lot of clubs that aren't normally live music venues become them. I can't recall the name of the place, but it was normally a dance club with canned music and somewhat chic modern decor. A Night at the Roxbury kind of place. As such, it didn't really have a stage per se. They just put the band on one end of the dance floor. Also, the club was small but two-story with a mezzanine level that overlooked the dance floor on all sides and gave a vertical element to the venue. In this case, it really worked out well.

The band was Course of Empire. At the time, part of their schtick was to set up drums in the audience so that people could participate in the music in order to, according to Wikipedia, "eliminate the separation between performer and audience." CoE had two drummers/percussionists and many of the songs were built on repeating, tribal beats to facilitate this. At this particular venue, with no stage, the audience was almost intermingled with the band and since everybody was banging these tribal beats on the drums, the lines between performer and audience were even more blurred. And with a packed audience bearing down from the mezzanine above, it was like a mosh pitty version of a cage match.

That was unique. One could argue a little gimmicky, but definitely a neat experience. What left a bigger impact on me though was not the drumming. It was the overall vibe of the music. It was a mix of industrial, punk, and metal influences with a decidedly twisted, dissonant harmonic sensibility. The singer could evoke shades of Jim Morrison and Ian McCulloch, while the music itself reminds now, in various songs, of  Bauhaus, Echo & the Bunnymen, Tool, and Ministry. Yes, a strange mix, but it all worked and had a cohesive, identifiable sound in my opinion.


In my estimation, the singer and the guitarist were really the lynch pins of the band. The singer had a brooding voice and stage presence that worked really well with the exotic and dissonant sound of the music. He was also a great front man and a thoughtful, albeit grim, lyricist. The guitarist meanwhile totally owned the musical mood. In retrospect, he was really an amazing player with a very unique voice. He could be textural like a heavier version of The Edge, but also quite capable of laying down straightforward crunchy guitar riff-rock. He didn't play many solos, but really didn't need to since his guitar already played such a key role in all the songs. His chord progressions and voicings were filled with surprises and the songs didn't have predictable pop song structures. They were logical and cohesive in the context of the vibe of the song, but always slightly skewed and exotic sounding. The guitarist's tones weren't conventionally wonderful, but he liked to explore different sounds and put them to work adding unusual textures and parts. As a live performer I remember he looked like a total punk rocker, shirtless and sweaty with a cool retro hollowbody guitar, and he played with the sort of reckless abandon that we all aspire to.

Lyrically, the songs were very cerebral covering a lot of heady topics - politics, spirituality, alienation, sci-fi, the environment, etc.. All in all, CoE was a highly conceptualized band that played like a band that didn't over-think it. A remarkable and compelling combination. For me, anyway.


I was thinking about them recently and decided to rip my CoE CDs to MP3 to enjoy them on the way to work this week. Glad I did. The music has aged quite well in my opinion. Perhaps a couple of bits here and there that sound a little dated, but on the whole the music holds up well.

Check 'em out.


Bose QuietComfort 20i Headphones

Anything that increases signal-to-noise ratio is good in my book. That applies to life generally, as well as to audio specifically. But this post is going to concentrate on audio.

I've lusted after Bose noise canceling headphones since they first came out in 2000. One of my bleeding edge friends bought a pair and I thought they were amazing. But I could never bring myself to drop 3 Benjamins on them.

However, life has been slowly pushing me towards them for years. First, I've become a total podcast junkie. Podcasts make my 26 mile commute bearable. However, my Honda CR-V is just terrible for road noise. I'd been using noise isolating in-ear buds, which work pretty well. But I've also been traveling a lot for work lately and getting crappy airline seats near the engines. For this, in-ear buds push the discomfort threshold for me. An hour commute is just doable; three hours on a plane is too much.  Finally and most convincingly, one of my work buddies recently left his headphones at the hotel we were staying at and sent me an e-mail asking me to pick them up at the front desk when I checked out and bring them back to Houston for him. It was a set of Bose QuietComfort 15's. Of course I had to try them out again on the flight back and was reminded of just how nice that noise cancellation is.

I probably could have resisted the temptation but that very weekend I was in the mall and passed by the Bose store. I saw that they had ear bud versions (Bose 20i), which are a lot smaller and more convenient. So I tried them. They outperform the QC15's in every way.They cancel more noise. They have better fidelity. They fit into a small pouch. They're even more comfortable, which is surprising for ear buds. And they had a special on factory refurbs for 20% off. (By the way, the refurbs have the full manufacturers warranty and they replace all the ear tips so the ick factor of reconditioned ear buds is greatly reduced for me.) So I broke down and bought a pair.

The noise canceling technology is, plain and simple, astonishing. Turning it on is an almost eerie experience. You don't realize how much background noise there is until it's suddenly removed (or more accurately, seriously attenuated). It makes my noisy CR-V sound like a Prius. Seriously. And one of the best upsides of dropping the noise floor so dramatically is that you can keep your program material at a modest volume and still hear extraordinary detail in highly dynamic recordings. It is amazing.

But it's not magic. It's far more effective on steady, low frequency droning sounds - like road noise, engine hum, air conditioner drone, and the like. It's less effective on higher frequency, dynamic sounds like voices and more percussive sounds. It still attenuates these sounds a lot, but not as dramatically. So human voices are kind of strange - sort of like a tinny whisper. In any case, once you have your program material playing, anything but the loudest and most percussive sounds are pushed so far into the background that your mind takes care of the rest and tunes them completely out. It's a wonderful experience.

I mentioned that these things are comfortable. That's the other amazing aspect to them. I'd learned to accept the discomfort of shoving in-ear buds into my ear canals. The 20i's don't insert into the canal; they sort of lay over it. It's not nearly as tight a seal, but with the active noise cancellation it doesn't need to be. The buds have a little hook that tucks into one of the main creases of your outer ear and that holds them in place very well. Also, the insert pieces that touch your ear are made out of a very soft, pliable, and silky smooth silicone. The fit and materials make these headphones the most comfortable 'phones I've ever had, including over-ear, on-ear, and in-ear varieties.

I should mention that there are some practical disadvantages with the noise canceling circuitry. First it requires power which means you have to charge an internal lithium ion battery roughly every 16 hours of use. Fortunately the headphones still work when the battery's dead, it just doesn't do the noise canceling trick. Charging is done via a mini-USB plug. Oddly, Bose includes the mini USB cable but not the AC adapter! You can charge off the USB port of your computer or, if you're like me and have several adapters lying around from cell phones and other devices, you can use one of them. But really, for $300 Bose damn well ought to include one! The biggest drawback however, is that the circuitry is housed in a thin box, like an over-sized stick of chewing gum, that is inline with the cabling. The box is on the plug end of the headphone cable and it imparts a general awkwardness to your music setup. I use a hair tie to secure the box to my mobile phone when I don't want it dangling around.

Okay, let me detour a bit before I talk about the sound. I've been a musician for over 40 years. I've been doing my own music recordings for almost 30. I have a recording studio and I've tracked, mixed, and mastered my own CDs. So I've learned quite a few things about audio; I understand the technical specs; and my ears are pretty well-trained. But I'm not an audiophile. There's so much snake oil, corksniffing, and emperor's new clothes pretension with audiophilia that I just can't identify with it. It's very fashionable in audiophile circles to rip on Bose. Some of it is deserved; some of it is not.

Here's my honest take: The 20i's sound very good. Not perfect, but very good. They have a full and solid-sounding low-end, but it's not that over-hyped, sub-woofer boom that all the cool kids like. It's more adult sounding. There's an upper-mid presence to the sound that adds clarity, but not an over abundance of sizzling highs. So for example, when listening to a ride cymbal, you hear a nice ping of the stick hitting the cymbal but with a more gentle wash of the high-end harmonics than you get with a lot of 'phones. With the noise canceling circuitry engaged, there seems to be some kind of EQ curve applied that is pleasant and widens the stereo image a bit. (I think this is the "Active EQ" feature that Bose advertises for these 'phones.) It's not a sound I'd call "flat and accurate", but for music enjoyment it's very agreeable and it does enhance the immersive experience by making you feel more enveloped by the sound in a surround sound kind of way (but way more subtle than that). If you require accuracy for critical listening these are not your headphones, but for those who just want an enjoyable sound, I think most people would be very, very pleased with them. Bottom line for me, I wouldn't mix a song with these, but they're terrific for enjoying the finished product. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rate them about an 8.

And finally, let's talk price. The retail on these is $300. Ouch. That's a buttload lot of dough! I paid $240 for refurbished ones, which is still very pricey. Clearly I think it's worth it. But I've been wanting a pair for a long time and I will genuinely get daily use out of them. I probably wouldn't bother if my commute were shorter and/or I didn't travel much. For more occasional use, I think a person could save a lot of money and get headphones that sound just as good or better. But for heavy commuters and travelers, they're totally the shiznit.