Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Look Back at the Music of 2008

Well, it's the last day of 2008, and I don't know about you, but I personally cannot wait to see this year be over. It seems like everyone I know was in some way touched by unspeakable tragedy, personal struggles, health problems, the loss of their jobs, and a whole veritable buffet of SUCK. Thankfully, there was a lot of cool music in 2008 to act as a distraction.

Musically, 2008 seemed like a year with one foot planted firmly in the past - more specifically, in the 80's. Since that period was when I first got into music, that really makes me happy. Ill-advised hairstyles and fashion horrors aside, I think that period was one of the best as far as creativity in pop music went (I mean, can you imagine a band like DEVO having a top ten hit NOW?!), and of course electronics were, for better or for worse, everywhere.

I always find it presumptuous when critics and bloggers proclaim lists of "The Best" of any given year. Musical tastes are so subjective and one man's Milli Vanilli may be another man's Mozart. Plus, if you've only heard a narrow selection of what actually came out in 2008, how do you KNOW what you've chosen is really the best, smart guy? Hmm? So instead of doing that, I'm just going to post a list of a bunch of songs (in no particular order) that got a lot of repeat listens from me in 2008. Make of it what you will, and by all means, please share your own discoveries!

"Magic" by Ladyhawke

I wasn't so hot on the rest of her album, but this song from the New Zealand songstress is epic! Get it on Ladyhawke - Ladyhawke - Magic

"My People" by The Presets

While we're in that part of the world, I may as well post this one from the Australian duo's magnificent "Apocalypso" album. There really isn't a single bad song on the album, but this one stands out for me. This was also one of the few concerts I attended in 2008. Get it on The Presets - Apocalypso - My People

"With Every Heartbeat" by Robyn

I wasn't familiar with this Swedish popstar until my wife picked up her album earlier this year, but I really enjoy her stuff. The entire album is good, but this track stands out for me if only because it strays from her usual cutesy vocal approach and goes into almost Kate Bush territory. Proof that pop music doesn't have to talk down to its audience and can still be a valid artform. Get it on Robyn - Robyn - With Every Heartbeat (With Kleerup)

"Universal Mind Control" by Common

Pharrell-produced tribute to the pioneering days of hip-hop (Mantronix, Soulsonic Force, Afrika Bambaataa). Probably the best synth riff of 2008, in my humble opinion. Be sure to check out the official video which the fine execs at Universal Music Group have decided to disable embedding for. Brilliant move, guys. Heaven forbid bloggers promote that video you spent millions of dollars on. Get it on Common - Universal Mind Control - Universal Mind Control (UMC)

"Paper Planes" by MIA

Though I actually think her previous album was much better than the current one, there is no denying the catchiness of this single which was elevated into public awareness via the stoner comedy "Pineapple Express". Built around a sample of the Clash's "Straight to Hell". Get it on M.I.A. - Kala - Paper Planes

"L.E.S. Artistes" by Santogold

The debut from this ex- music exec from Philly is amazing in that it varies from post punk, to reggae, to pop, and back again while still sounding cohesive as an album. No mean feat. This was the lead-off single for the album and was what grabbed my attention. If you didn't know better, you could almost mistake this for a Siouxsie & the Banshees song... Get it on Santogold - Santogold - L.E.S. Artistes

"One of Us" by Wire

Wire were one of my favorite bands back in the day, and although they had remained active, a lot of their recent output had been decidedly "un-Wire" sounding. The release of their album "Object 47" this year proved a welcome surprise, harkening back as it does to some of the band's best periods. Get it on Amazon MP3

"Machine Gun" by Portishead
Yet another video the braintrust at Universal Music Group won't allow embedding for, so here's the direct link. This song divided a lot of people. It had been ten years since the last new material from Portishead, and many reacted with an incredulous, "This is it?" But while this is far from my favorite song off their "Third" album, I listed it because I thought it was an amazingly brave way to announce their return. It totally eschewed the trip-hop sound the band was known for in favor of a dour, lo-fi militaristic beat, Beth Gibbons beautifully mournful vocals and little else. How many bands have the balls to do that? Get it on Portishead - Third - Machine Gun

"Stuck on Repeat" by Little Boots

I'm a sucker for Giorgio Moroder, and this track really reminds me of his stuff. Plus, she was a reject on Pop Idol, so that's kind of cool. Get it on Little Boots - Arecibo - EP - Stuck On Repeat

"Ghost Hardware" by Burial

Adding more prominent vocals turned out to be the key to breaking this atmospheric dubstepper to the general public, and the sophomore album was a huge hit with fans and critics alike. I actually prefer the first album, but the atmosphere in all his material is amazing. Total "headphone music". Get it on Burial - Untrue - Ghost Hardware

"Vanished" by Crystal Castles

Unrepentant 80's synthpop cheese, but undeniably catchy. It was a bit of a mixed year for this group in that their album was very successful, but they also got nabbed for allegedly stealing some musical bits from another artist. Tsk-tsk! Get it on Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles (Bonus Track Version) - Vanished

"Graveyard Girl" by M83

Sounds more like the Cure than the Cure currently does. Get it on M83 - Saturdays = Youth - Graveyard Girl

"Booty Klap" by Yo Majesty

And the award for best song about big, jiggling booties by a Florida hardcore Christian lesbian rap group goes to... (No official video, so this will have to do. No idea who the d-bag taking pictures of himself is...) Get it on Yo Majesty - Futuristically Speaking... Never Be Afraid - Booty Klap

"Poison Dart" by The Bug featuring Warrior Queen

Credited by many as the originator of dubstep, The Bug returned this year with an album on the excellent Ninja Tune label. Incredibly simple, but the groove to this is irresistible... you haven't really experienced this one until you've listened to it on a system with a subwoofer. The bass may actually cause sterility! Get it on The Bug & Warrior Queen - London Zoo - Poison Dart

"Sci-fi Epikusu" by Burikusu!!!

Okay, I am a bit biased here since I put this band's album out on my label, but I wouldn't have put it out if I didn't think it was great. The track I think that actually stands out the most on their album is "Mikeeboi" which edits samples from a Mike Tyson press conference to make it sound like he's rapping, but there's no YouTube clip of that one and "Sci-fi Epikusu" is a fine track in its own right. The album is a rare mix of experimentation and accessibility I don't think I've ever quite heard before. Check their album here. Get it on Burikusu!!! - 2080


Crumar Bit One on Ebay

Analog polysynth sometimes compared to the Roland Juno-106, but with velocity sensitivity.
You can check out samples of all the factory presets here.

Check out the listing...

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Free Samplepack from

Music blog have uploaded a new free sample pack available here. You can find their previous efforts downloadable as an archive here. If you haven't checked out Rekkerd before, definitely do so. It's a great source of news on new sample library releases, new and updated softsynths, and great deals from manufacturers!


Stupid REX Tricks

If you do any work at all with drum loops, chances are, you've probably worked with Propellerheads's REX2 file format. Because there is always a MIDI file associated with a REX2 to ensure the beat slices play back in time, it allows you to do all sorts of things to manipulate and change the existing drum loop.

Obviously, changing the order of slices and making new beats is the most frequent use, but you can do some more subtle stuff as well that can change the feel of a beat in useful ways.

One such manipulation is changing the gate time of the slices. "Gate time" simply means how long a note sounds (in this case those notes are triggering the individual beat slices). By shortening the gate time (I use Logic's handy Region parameters box which has a section for altering the gate time of a MIDI region by a percentage...), you can do everything from cutting off reverb tails on heavily effected beats to creating artificially choppy rhythms where each note cuts off abruptly. Here's an audio example where the first two bars are with the gate set at the normal 100%, followed by 2 bars at 75%, 2 bars at 50%, and finally 2 bars at 25%.

If you REALLY want to get tweaky, go into the grid editor and adjust the gate lengths of each individual note by different amounts for more complex, funkier effects.


Circuit Bent Casio SK-1 on Ebay

I love ugly gear. Before I even played a note on it, I totally fell in love with my Waldorf XTk. I've got a custom Sequential Circuits Pro One that's the color of a Coleman Camping Stove, for pete's sake. So you can guess why this listing caught my eye.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Free Samples Round-up!

I'm back from visiting family on the east coast. I hope everyone had a nice holiday. Here are some free sample offerings from various sources that popped up while I was gone...

1.) Sample purveyors Loopmasters have put up 3 free collections of loops from their various libraries up as a Christmas gift to registered users until January 2nd, so grab 'em while you can!

2.) If you've been hiding under a rock and haven't heard of Goldbaby yet, they are a company that specializes in offering samples of classic drum machines recorded to analog tape for that extra touch of punch and warmth. For Christmas, they've offered up something a bit different, a free set of drum sounds from Sonic Charge's excellent drum and percussion softsynth Microtonic that have been given the tape treatment! Grab them here!

3.) Nucleus Soundlab in conjunction with the Musical Genome Project has put up ChordWaves, a collection of sampled synth chords programmed on modular synthesizers for free! All you have to do is sign up for their mailing list!

4.) Cyberworm offers up 102 drum n' bass loops for Christmas... that sure beats the crummy sweater grandma gave you, eh?

Did I miss any?


PPG Wave 2.2 on Ebay

The precursor to the Microwave and all things Waldorf. Used heavily on older Depeche Mode. I don't recall ever seeing one of these on eBay before, and given how rare they are (especially in working order), I suppose it's no surprise.

Check out the listing...

Friday, December 26, 2008

Devo in: An American Conspiracy

Via EastSussexRegionalTV on YouTube:

This is absolutely brilliant!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas from Waveformless!

Can I confess something? I hate Christmas music. With few exceptions, it annoys the living crap out of me. Here is one of those exceptions. (Not for the easily offended.) Merry Christmas, everyone! Hope yours is a great one!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An Early Christmas Present

When we were kids, my sister and I always used to bug our parents incessantly until they let us open one present on Christmas Eve. So, I'm going to continue the tradition with you, fine readers, and give you a little something early: 20 new sounds for Native Instruments Massive softsynth!

Use them any way you like, the only restriction is that you can't sell them. To learn how to add new sounds to your existing Massive bank, read your damn manual. ; ) Now, GO GET THEM and annoy your family with obnoxious noises all night!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Recording Hacks Microphone Database

Shopping for a microphone can be a bewildering experience. There is a dizzying array of mics available on the market, and the sonic characteristics of each can vary widely.

Good thing, then, that the fine folks at Recording Hacks have been building a database of different microphones out there with detailed descriptions of each. It's a work in progress to be sure, but it's sure to be a big help for anyone in the market for a new mic.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Interesting Study of Audio Perception

I was pretty lousy at science in school, but I still find a lot of it fascinating, especially when it comes to audio and the way our brain processes it. This is an interesting study I found showing the differences in how a sample of significantly degraded 'sine-wave speech' is perceived both before and after hearing the sentence it is supposed to be replicating. There are several audio samples on the page so you can try it out yourself.

(On a semi-related aside... Have you seen the cell phone commercial with Ozzy Osbourne mumbling to various people who can't understand him, so he is forced to text them what he's saying? Listen carefully to what he says to the psychiatrist. According to Mr. Osbourne himself, the sentence he is speaking is "I want to shave your bollocks". I thought it was nonsense he was mumbling before, but now every time I see the commercial, it's clear as day!)

Friday, December 19, 2008

When Beat-Slicing Goes Wrong

For nearly 15 years (holy crap, can it be that long?!), Propellerhead's REX (and subsequent REX 2) format has been the industry standard for chopping up drum loops. The files, created in the company's ReCycle software automatically detects attack transients in a sound file and uses that as the basis for cutting the loop up into its individual hits. It can also automatically create a MIDI file for you to import into your DAW of choice to play the sliced loop back perfectly. As you might imagine, this MIDI data is totally editable, which means you can edit and twist the beats into totally new variations that nature never intended.

What's cool about this, is that the MIDI file is in no way 'married' to the original beat. So one method of coming up with interesting 'happy accidents' is to use the MIDI file from one beat, to trigger the slices of a completely different beat. The results are totally unpredictable, so it takes a lot of trial and error before you're likely to find something that works well, but that's half the fun. Have a go at it, and you might come up with a killer new loop that inspires you to finish that track you've been putting off finishing.


Rare 4-Channel Soviet Drum Synth on Ebay

"• This auction drum synth was made in May1991 in USSR. Serial number 7699.

• Synthesis System - Analogue subtractive.

• Built-in metronome, what you can assign to one or two osc.

• Oscillators: VCO x 2 + Noise x 2, Oscillators Waves: sawtooth, square.

• Controls on rear panel for each channel: Gain, Tone, Attack, Release, Filter. There is also switch and balance between noise & tone generators and master level.

Connectors on on the rear panel - 4 trigger audio inputs and main audio Out on standard 1/4' jack, sequencer input,and phones output MONO on 5-Din.

• Power Supply: 220/240 V.

• No MIDI. You can trigger it from any audio output - synthesizer, drum machine or virtual instrument from analog output of Your soundcard."

More info at the listing...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sampling With Your Eyes Closed

Movies can often be a great place to find cool sounds or weird little effects to add to your productions. The problem is, if you are watching the visual portion of the film while searching for sample fodder, what you hear may be prejudiced by the visual that goes with it. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss when it comes to this sort of thing, and with the visual element removed, you rely only on your ears and may begin to perceive things differently. Most notably, you'll probably notice small, incidental sounds that you might not have otherwise, and these hidden treasures can sometimes become the basis for cool percussion sounds, or even odd rhythmic loops.

So the next time you want some new sounds to feed your sampler, load a DVD into your computer and use a utility such as the excellent Audio Hijack to just record the audio portion of the film. Later, load up that file in your favorite audio editor and begin listening for bits to snatch. You'll be amazed at the cool sounds you were missing before!


Indian Drum Machine on Ebay

Sure, lots of people have TR-808's and TR-909's, but how many have weird drum machines from India?! The Taal Tarang simulates the sounds of the classical Indian percussion instruments: Tabla, Pahhawaj, Duff & Dholak.

Read more at the listing...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

DVD Recommendation - Heavy Metal in Baghdad

You think you've had tough gigs before? Ever had the venue lose power due to mortar fire? Ever have your rehearsal space and instruments destroyed by a rocket? Ever have to lie about the genre of music you make on your fliers to avoid being killed for being 'satanists'? I'll just stop there, because no matter who you are, you've never had it as tough as Acrassicauda - the only heavy metal band in Iraq.

"Heavy Metal in Baghdad" follows the band after MTV did a brief profile of them at the start of the Iraq war. The Canadian film-makers became intrigued with the band and many years later wanted to meet them, make a documentary about them, and, indeed, to find out if they were even still alive. So, they snuck into Iraq through the northern border and what follows is a harrowing journey into one of the most dangerous places on earth.

They locate the band and follow their struggles in what must be simultaneously one of the most inspiring and depressing band profiles you are ever likely to see. Somehow, in the midst of perhaps the most abnormal of living situations imaginable, music serves both as catharsis and an anchor to normalcy for the band's four members in a way far more profound than anyone watching the film can probably relate to. All the usual band experiences are there... the original singer leaving the band... the struggles to get gigs... the threats to break up the band if things don't look up for them... but given the backdrop this all takes place in, it's on a far more exaggerated level.

It's unavoidable that this film also has a political angle, and this turns out to be just as fascinating as the musical one. It gives a taste of the experience of the average Iraqi and not simply the journalists and politicians we are usually restricted to hearing from. Unsurprisingly, it becomes clear that the media gets most of the story wrong.

By now, you may be asking, "But Tom, what does this have to do with electronic music?" Well... it doesn't. It just has to do with music and the power it has to get us through unimaginable times. And sometimes that's just enough.


Yamaha CS-80 on Ebay

Have you ever been playing around with Arturia's CS-80V Soft Synth
and thought to yourself, "This is great and all, but I wish it weighed more than my car and cost $5000"? Here's your chance to start that Vangelis cover band you've always dreamed about...

Check out the listing...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Free Kore 2/Kore Player Soundpack from Native Instruments

German software superstars Native Instruments have an early Christmas present for their fans: a free soundpack for Kore 2 (also usable by the free Kore Player):

"To celebrate a great year for music production, Native Instruments has prepared this free gift for you. KORE SOUNDPACK COMPILATION VOL.1 is a full-featured production-ready sound library that includes 100 Kore Sounds with 800 Sound Variations, taken from twelve different KORE SOUNDPACKS. You will find a wide range of carefully selected synthesizers, acoustic instruments, percussion, groove construction kits and multi-effects patches, instantly usable for a wide range of musical styles and genres."



Getting Dirty

It's ironic that during the days of analog recording, we spent ridiculous amounts of time trying to get the cleanest sound out of our gear as possible, but now that digital recording makes most noise issues a thing of the past, we now have plug-ins that emulate the wow and flutter of tape machines, the saturation characteristics of tape, and even the digital degradation on the old generations of hardware samplers to dirty sounds up again. There's no doubt about it, dirtying up your sounds is more popular than ever, and it really does add sonic character and interest. You no doubt probably already have a plug-in or two on your hard drive for this very purpose, but what if you want more unique results? With a few bucks and a visit to eBay or your favorite pawn shop, you can use some more unique methods to filth up those frequencies. Here are some ideas to get you started:

1. Cassette or Mini-Cassette recorders - People spend tons of money on tape saturation plug-ins, when they could get their hands on the real deal for cheaper in some cases (Obviously, higher end reel-to-reels and professional set-ups will set you back more). Try recording some drum sounds to a tape recorder and re-sampling them. Be sure to try setting the input levels on the machine a little hot so you can get some of that sought-after saturation effect. For an even more lo-fi sound, try to find a mini-cassette or dictaphone type recorder.

2. Guitar Pedals - When you've got a plug-in folder that is bursting at the seams with effects, it's easy to forget this option. Unless you're shopping for crazy boutique stuff, used guitar pedals are easy to find and pretty cheap. Get a bunch and try chaining them together in different orders to mangle your hardware synths or vocals beyond recognition. There is a mind-blowing variety of different effects available, so get a bunch and experiment.

3. Vintage Samplers - Now that software samplers have become the standard for most musicians, old hardware samplers can be had for insanely cheap. Look for some of the older generations like the Ensoniq Mirage or EPS or the Akai S612. They don't have huge sample memories, but when you lower that sample rate, you can fit a surprising amount in them and get a wonderfully crunchy distortion in return.

4. Kid's Toys - Although not commonplace, you can find cheap kids' toys with basic sampling capabilities if you look for them. Check out some of the old Casio SK-1 or SK-5 samplers which are on eBay almost constantly. They may be cheesey, but feed it your own sounds, transpose them out of their natural range and suddenly everything sounds much more sinister. Try some of the crazy microphone and megaphone/voice changer toys that are out there as well. Everyone will wonder how you mangled your vocals so severely... you don't have to tell them it was a $5 toy.

5. Your Cell Phone - If you've got a cell phone, you've already got a variety of options for getting lo-fi sounds. Try using one cell phone to call the other, speaking into one with the ear piece held up to a mic for lo-fi vocals (or if your phone has a headphone output, plug that into your mixer) . Most cell phones also have 'audio notepad' facilities you can use to record short voice notes to yourself. Use it to record any sound you can think of and sample the grainy results.

There's just a few to get you started. What's your favorite unconventional way of getting dirty sounds?