Category Archives: software

My Personal iPad Revolution

Why does this thing exist?

When the iPad was first introduced, I didn’t get it. It seemed like it wanted to fill a gap that wasn’t there. At that point in time, I was using my iPhone for everything mobile and my MacBook Pro for the heavy lifting. I didn’t see much point to trying to create a space between the two simply for the sake of filling it. Some of my friends felt the same way. Then I got my hands on one and it made complete sense.

To be clear, this device is still very new and the paradigm that it represents is fresh. It’s much more than a big iPhone and at the same time isn’t always less than a laptop. It does have a place and that place is becoming better defined every day.

This isn’t gadget pr0n. I swear.

When I was still hacking away in graduate school, I came across several attempts at touchscreen interfaces. They were first on the order of $10,000 and about a decade later dropped to the $1500 range. And that was for the interface and not the software or the synth hardware that was needed to use it. Regardless of what are now obviously crushing limitations, I got what that could do. Or I thought that I did.

The iPhone interface grabbed me because I could see in an instant how cool it would be to draw sound. TouchOSC does a great job of making that happen. On the iPad, it’s even better. I can control Logic sessions. I can pipe gestures to PureData over wifi. For experimental performers and anyone who does live sound the advantages and pure coolness are obvious. It’s enough to get a lot of music nerds to shell out for the Apple Developer License program and a pile of books to learn Objective-C. Certainly enough to drop about $50 for a catalog of apps that make this dream a reality.

If you’re really into that sort of thing, Curtis (bonus points for being named for Curtis Roads), Gliss, and DopplerPad are great apps to pick up. Why? Because they let you make cool sounds by moving your fingers and that’s what it’s all about. They turn the iPad into a unique musical instrument.

But where the iPad really shines for me is in sketching. And I have to say that my favorite tool is also the source of most of my frustration: GarageBand.


What can I do with GarageBand? Well, I can set up some smart instruments and play with chord patterns. I can take my songs and experiment with drums or bass. I can tweak some synth action that can all be sent over to my Mac, opened in GarageBand, and then sent to Logic for real work (yes, you can skip GarageBand on the Mac but I don’t for a host of reasons whose discussion is for another time). This is great. The interface is amazing for plunking out melodies and picking chord structures (in a well defined key and standard time signature – sorry prog rockers!).

What can’t I do? Well, I can’t take a GarageBand project that I tweak on my Mac and put it back onto the iPad. I understand why. The iPad version is limited to 8 tracks. There are issues with audio data formats. A lot of the innards are just different. But the fact that it’s so easy to create a project and get some momentum going on the iPad is what results in powerful frustration once I hit that first hurdle. It wrecks what could be a really, really nice workflow and replaces the opportunity for doing serious work with a piece with a host of words that make me question the parentage of the product. In short, it does everything so well that it’s a given that it should take it the whole way. That’s actually a compliment for creating a product so great that I just assume that it will do it all. But more than a compliment it’s a source of raging frustration. Yeah, it’ll get there…but I’m here now.

Life after GarageBand

So what do I do about it? Enter Studio.HD. It’s primarily aimed at folks who dig on loops. I don’t, but that doesn’t make it any less useful for me. I can take AIF or WAV files from my Mac and put them into the app via iTunes sharing (OH DEAR LORD PLEASE STOP THE PAIN!!! PLEASE COME UP WITH A BETTER WAY TO GET STUFF INTO MY APPS!!! I AM BEGGING YOU!!!) and then drop them into a multitrack environment that allows me to move snippets around and experiment with my arrangements. It’s really, really easy to use and puts a lot of power into such a tiny device.

The other thing that is great about Studio.HD is that it uses the Sonoma’s Audiocopy. That means that I can pull audio from a number of apps into Studio.HD and make cool things happen. One example is Korg’s iMS-20. It’s a modular synthesizer with a delicious interface that lets me dork around with stuff that I would only dork around with if I had it in my lap. And I do. So I do.

Studio.HD also has just enough features and effects to make working with it worthwhile. Would I use it to produce an album? Maybe. On a desert island. Or as my time for pursuing certain activities becomes so limited that I only have the seconds and minutes I can scrape together between explaining, yet again, Luke Skywalker’s family tree and checking to make sure that the house isn’t on fire. Please don’t take this as disparaging the app. It’s amazing and for $10 you can’t really go wrong.

Bottom line

I’ve mentioned before [link to last post] that I don’t have time for things that don’t work. This really comes down to the fact of my life (and maybe yours too) that I don’t have time. Period. The iPad has become my new way of feeling good about myself and my creative progress. I can open it at a moment’s notice and close it up just as quickly.

And it goes everywhere with me. I’m waiting for the man-bag to come into its own to the point where my son doesn’t refer to my messenger bag as “daddy’s purse.” I need to have it with me. It’s not an addiction like the smart phone early adopters, but rather a mature need to have what I do with me all the time so that I can feel like what’s important to me is not only in my mind, but also at my fingertips when I have a few minutes. If I can push a project along even a little bit while I’m at lunch or waiting for the doctor or even with a sleeping baby on my lap, then the device has more than paid for itself.


If you are a musician and you have an iPad, then at the bare minimum you owe yourself GarageBand and Studio.HD. For the grand total of about $15, you’ll have that imaginary studio in your hand that we were promised along with flying cars and meals in pill form.

Software Policy Rant

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

There was a time when I really, really cared about how people used computers. It was a side effect of my time with Free software. The community and the ideals around the freedom to use one’s hardware in any way one chooses is intoxicating in a way that only die-hard nerds can appreciate. It feeds into that need that some nerds (me) have to be right. Technically right. The best kind of right.

The desire to spread the gospel of Free software led me to try and convince everyone and their dog to abandon the way that they work in favor of an idealistically cleaner solution. I managed to create a few converts and did my small part to help along the adoption of all things Free. To this day, I believe that there are places where Free software is the best option. But I’m not going to tell you about it.

I got serious…

Somewhere along the line, about the time my buddy El Jeffe got me hooked on OS X, something inside of me changed. The purpose of these machines was highlighted for me. I can trace it back to the first time that I used GarageBand to record a song. Upon starting up the app, I created a new project and it was ready for me to record. That was it. No entering sample rates or file types – just press the big red button and play something into the microphone. I didn’t think about using the application. I didn’t even think about the computer. Everything was reduced to the bare minimum: the task at hand and me.

For someone who tweaks hardware and software for fun, this experience in anathema. There’s never a time that thought is eliminated from the equation. We have to consider interrupts, kernel settings, available memory, and a host of things that have acronyms longer than the URLs of most web sites. To simply use the computer made no sense at all.

But it made me serious.

Without the computer to screw around with, The Work was laid bare. There were no more excuses about the bit box. All that was left was me and my ideas – or apparent lack thereof. I had cleared the table of my unnecessary motion and made room for doing what everyone is afraid of doing: getting down to The Work.

Nerdery can hide The Fear…

I was pretty badly broken down when I was in my first year at NYU. My creative well ran dry. I was a scared little fish in the biggest ocean on Earth. I couldn’t string together two phrases to save my life and it really did fell like my life depended on it. But I was a Music Technology student. There were so many gadgets and formulae in which to lose myself, I could completely ignore the elephant on the table: what are you gonna do with all of these toys?

I spent hours every day writing code. I sampled rooms for my reverb program. I made a library of sound effects. I created environments for improvisation in Max and any other program I could get my hands on. Hell, I learned Lingo in Director! I covered myself with a blanket of software and hardware in such a way as to create the illusion of getting things done.

This was unhealthy. While I learned things that I use every day, I did it at the expense of my creative work. There was nothing in this game that enhanced what I was doing and while it’s not entirely fair to say that it was an act of avoidance, there is certainly a trace of that in there. And that little seed grew to chew up all of the time I would give it. Let’s face it, every hour spent jerking around and compiling a kernel was an hour lost for The Work. How many rabbit holes did I jump down in the endless search for a way to string applications together to…um…just because I should be able to?

What’s a “Workflow”?

When one is up to all hours figuring out what modules need to be loaded for the kernel to recognize a USB device, there really isn’t a need for a way to get things done. After all, nothing is getting done. But once the non-work falls away and it becomes obvious that there are other things that can be done with the tools at hand, it’s good to find some kind of process.

This is where the Free software evangelist exits.

My experience with the Mac showed me that everything on a system should inter-operate without my dropping to the system level. Less thinking, more doing. The applications that I selected at first were based on a few features that they had and not necessarily on how well they got along with others.

It’s not obvious at first, but the thing is, it’s rare that a single piece of software will take one all the way from capturing an idea to a finished product. Many try. Most fail. There’s always something that the monolithic program doesn’t do well. And what’s missing in all of the preceding sentences, class? The implicit “for me.”

As I developed my most basic workflow, I began to understand that my right way and someone else’s right way might not match. I had to respect that. And in respecting that, my ability to say to someone that they absolutely must do something in the way that I prescribe, disappeared. The more I came to appreciate the differences between how two minds work, the less I wanted to be so full of myself as to tell someone else how to do something. Especially if that person was producing their Work.

I don’t have applications that fail…

Interesting tidbit: the number one reason that I use a MacBook Pro instead of another flavor of laptop is that the time it takes for the machine to wake up is exactly as long as it takes me to open the lid and put my fingers on the home row of the keyboard. At first, that was really, really neat. Now, it is a requirement. The difference between then and now? Kids.

I have two children. They are at the center of my life. My creative work finds its way into the cracks and fills any extra air bubbles that develop in my life. This means the 20 or even 10 minute breaks that I have are used in the pursuit of something surrounding The Work. If it takes 30 seconds for my computer to reach a usable state, that is a significant loss for me. I’m not willing to sacrifice that time. And I am not tolerant of failure. My Mac has yet to disappoint me. I open it and it works. And all of the applications that I use work. All the time.

Wait. What?

Let me say that again. All of the applications that I use, work all of the time. But how can that be? Simple. I don’t use applications that fail.

One more time?

Here is how that works. The first thing I do is make sure that I play with a new app for a while before I become dependent upon it. If it crashes or requires me to shudder reboot, then it goes away. And if I’ve paid for that application? Well, we’ll get to that in a minute.

If it works out, then I will slowly start to integrate the app into the things that I do. Hopefully, it accomplishes something so well that I don’t even know it’s there. That’s the best ending to the story. The application becomes such a seamless part of what I do that it disappears. That’s the way Logic is for me. I don’t even know that I’m using it anymore. And that’s GREAT for me. The same can be said for Scrivener. Or Notebooks on the iPhone and iPad. Or Dropbox.

I can’t stress enough that the only way that things work for me is if I am firm with the things that fail. They go away. For good. I don’t check for updates or email the developer. I don’t read forums. I don’t tweak settings or drop to the command line. It just dies. The end.

To be absolutely clear, if I paid for your software, I paid for it with the implicit understanding that it would do what you said it would do. If I didn’t try the free version first (assuming it exists) then shame on me, but if your FTP app fails to move files, well, it’s not doing what you said it would despite the really awesome interface and gnarly profile settings. I asked it to move my files and it didn’t. It goes away.

This sounds kind of harsh and to be completely honest I’m much more tolerant of Free software to this day. But regardless of the source, if it doesn’t work, it’s out. And yes, that’s very anti-community and it’s not seen as a nice way to behave by most software developers, but turn it around for a minute. If you paid for car insurance and when you got into an accident they said, “Hey, sorry about that but we can’t pay up. Maybe wait until our release next quarter?” See where I’m going?

Software is at a point now where it’s a part of most everything we do. It mediates our communication. It informs our world. It is essential to The Work. When software fails me, it wastes my time. And I can’t get any more of that so I don’t feel that I owe anyone more of my time than I’ve already wasted.

Man, no matter how I say it, it comes out harsh. Maybe that’s because the effect of failing software is pretty harsh. It’s the nature of the beast.

And speaking of support…

So at the end of this rant we come back around to how other people use software. What platform is chosen and the reasons that feed into that decision. The thing is, they aren’t my choices. You’re free to make the choice and you are free to support it.

I used to debug computers for people. I used to install operating systems and waste hours figuring out why Word wouldn’t open a document that I didn’t create for a project that wasn’t mine. I made suggestions. I lobbied for other platforms and software, but in the end, I don’t control anyone else’s decisions or workflows. So along with my desire to change the way someone works goes my desire to apply effort to repair the failures of his tools.

Does this mean I don’t help my mom with her email? Nope. I do. Because she made me and it’s in the contract. Does it mean that I don’t help my dad load his iPod? Nope. See above. But I’m certainly not going to roll into someone’s space and get sucked down the hole of “How should I do…” The world is too big. Software is too mature. People should be too savvy for that now. Many still aren’t, but that doesn’t change my stance. If you didn’t make me or my kids, no support for you.


The funny thing is that I go looking for people who do what I won’t. I love hearing people who are passionate about their software and systems. I pick up a lot of great information that way. I learn a hell of a lot from the freaks over at Mac Power Users and Back to Work but my urge to share is tempered by my desire to do The Work.

That said, my next little ditty will be all about my experimentation with the iPad as a musical device and what I have discovered over the last month or so.

Musical Computers Again

The topic of computers and technology doesn’t ever really leave me alone. It’s what I do and as a result I tend to think about bit boxes and what they can and cannot do to make life easier. They figure in quite prominently in my musical growth and I can’t really discuss all of the things that I have done musically without a little more depth in my analysis.

When I was in graduate school at NYU, I was introduced to a piece of software called MAX. It’s named after Max Matthews and is an environment for musical software development. When I first met the software in 1995 it was still mainly MIDI. As chips got faster and Moore’s law continued to be the rule digital audio and DSP became a key component. But MAX required a Mac and money. I had neither.

And then Miller Puckette got a grant from Intel and made Pure Data. Dr. Puckette was MAX’s father. He’s a freakin’ genius and a huge influence on my thinking. Definitely a god in the pantheon of computer music. His new software ran on this weird Linux thing. So I turned my machine into a dual boot debacle with Red Hat. The pain was severe, so I switched to Debian. I fell in love with all of the things I could do!

There was so much great software. So many tools and utilities for making weird noises. Most of them didn’t work together very well. Almost all of them required different libraries or kernel modules. And all of them took time to learn and master. But I loved every minute of it. Problem solving is an addiction of mine and Free Software fed it. There was always another news group to follow. Another list to read. Another module to compile. So much fiddling and playing that felt like I was doing my work. The ideology of the Free Software community made it feel like what I was doing was really, really important. And it was.

After a while, I decided that I wanted a laptop. I settled on an Apple PowerBook because I knew what was in it. No guessing about commodity parts or weird chipsets. Besides, people had gotten Debian to run on them so I took the plunge. I made it a dual boot with OS X so that I could use things like the wifi chip that didn’t have open source drivers. That should have been a clue. I got everything running but then something happened that I didn’t expect: I couldn’t make it sleep. There was no support in the kernel for sleep. So I had to shut down my laptop every time I closed it or it would chew up battery. One day, I booted back into OS X so I could close the lid. 35 days later I checked my uptime. I’d been in OS X for 35 days.

35 days is a really long time.

It was enough time to learn something about myself. In those 35 days I produced more music than I had in the previous year. All of that work tuning my kernel and apt-getting this and ./configure -ing that hadn’t made any music. It was fun, but it wasn’t The Work. My entire world changed. I understood that the tool wasn’t the important part. The Work was the end.

Since then, I have added two kids to my life. I have added a painful commute. I have subtracted the time that I used to have available to me for fiddling. To balance the equation, I have substituted money for time. And my rule for tools is simpler. Here it is:

If it fails, it doesn’t stay.

This goes for hardware and software. If a piece of hardware fails, it simply goes away. I fired my MacBook after Logic crashed 3 times and lost a great recording (yes, I overloaded the poor beast and replaced it with a MacBook Pro immediately). My wife loves the hand-me-down, but it had to leave me. And the software I use gets fired regularly. If an app fails to launch on my iDevice? It just goes away. No, I won’t send the developer feedback. I paid for something that claims to work, not to be a tester. Does that make me a jerk? No. It makes me a customer. There is a difference.

My tool chain has no room for failure because I don’t have time for failure. There is no luxurious fiddling and messing around. I open a device, launch a program, and work.

It makes me sad that I had to leave the world I enjoyed so dearly. But ideology and money are not as important to me as time. It took me a long time to learn that, but boy am I glad I took the trip.


My last entry may sound like I’m completely pleased with my little project and that in 15 minutes I churned out a work of Art-with-a-capital-A. I have some delusions, sure, but that ain’t one of them. If this were 1970 I might have a chance of taking a tiny video like that along with its soundtrack and getting some serious attention due in no small part to the technology and techniques used. But this is 2010 and the bar is a little higher than that on most days. I did say most days.

The exercise revealed a new color for me. I don’t know that I have a really good analogy for it aside from the ham-handed “imagine that you’d never seen the color green before and then it magically appeared in your field of vision.” It’s exaggerated. It’s silly. It’s not the point.

Playing around with the video gave me a chance to see what I could do with very little time and knowledge. If I equate this to building a palette or tool box, I’d say I have crimson or a hammer. Having those things is essential. It’s a place to begin. The next time I sit down to work on something I will know that I can do what I did last time. Nail? No problem! But not every problem is a nail and unlike Picasso I don’t think that anyone is going to give me a period to experiment with only one color. Sad, but true. The thing to do now is take that tool and find more. The color analogy works better here. With crimson and white or black I can really start to do something. If I spend a little time and discover my yellow or blue, I’ll really be on a roll.

My goal for this week is to record some things and really abandon my expectations. Play a little bit with what I know won’t sound good and figure out if it’s my expectations or the actual outcomes that lack. By the end of the second quarter of the year I should have some good stuff to show for it. What a good idea! This can be my experimental quarter. I’ll keep some notes and post some sketches. I’m sure at least an EP will come of it.

With the first quarter of the year coming to a close, I’m hurrying to complete a five song EP for release. The working title is Thought Music and it’s the result of a one night recording session that lasted less than an hour. All of the material is improvised. It’s taking a chance with the way I have mixed the material for the collection. Simple solo guitar and heavily processed material co-exist. I think it works. It will certainly be complete by the end of March but I would expect it to show up sooner. I’ll do a big post about it when the time comes and pimp it heavily on facebook and twitter as is my custom. Watch this space and all that jazz!


After completing my first full project with Logic Studio 9 I was going to write up a review. After some thought, it occurred to me that what Logic did best was stay out of my way. Its highest virtue is what it is not rather than what it is. Logic is not needy and it does not crave my constant attention. For the way that I work, that’s a blessing.

I should also say that the presets to their guitar sounds and any of the mastering settings are well thought out and require minor “to taste” tweaking. Having played in some really great spaces, I have low expectations of what can be simulated. Logic takes it from acceptable to pretty darned good. I’d still prefer to have a good amp mic’d up in a great hall, but in lieu of that I’ll take some factory plug-ins. The work I’m doing now is all acoustic and a little more demanding on that front. I wonder what my opinion will be when that’s over.

The coolest new features in Logic are supposed to be the way you can beat up audio tracks and adjust them to perfection in minute detail. I have two problems with this. One, perfection is really, really boring and completely flat. Two, if you practice you don’t need to tweak things anyway.

I have a really bad cold right now. Probably the flu. It’s hard to say. With that in mind, I beg the reader’s pardon for any half-baked invective that may follow.

I’m sick to death of pitch correction. More so of tweaking rhythms and the quantization of audio. Here’s the deal: if you can’t play in tune or in time you should practice until you can. This goes for people who have been playing for a year or fifty years. The idea of saving something in the mix or removing an imperfection is ridiculous.

Before I go too far, I will wholly embrace the idea of a sound recording as more than a document. If the subject of the recording isn’t a live performance (which should never be altered save to iron out defects in the method of collection) then any kind of alteration could be fair game. There is a lot of art that is made by tending to the nuances. With that out of the way, I’m speaking more to the person who puts a mic in front of an instrument or plugs it in with the aim of recording a part.

I don’t splice my takes. I give them three tries and that’s it for the night. Given that I stick to my one hour per night ritual, it can be painful to screw something up and have to move on to something else. But if I can’t do it right with three tries at this stage in my life I’m either not practicing regularly or don’t know the part well enough to merit recording. It comes down to the following decision: would I rather do it right in one take within the confines of the time imposed by the song (real time) or potentially spend hours making a quilt out of bits and pieces from multiple takes?

In my studio I play many roles. I’m a composer, performer, engineer, and designer. Sometimes I’m a luthier or an acoustician. I’m pretty good at most of those but what I enjoy is playing an instrument. It frees my mind and gives me a sense of peace. When it works, it’s one of the most beautiful sensations. And when it doesn’t, well, it still beats sitting in front of a monitor, splicing up waveforms, and hoping that the judicious application of various effects will hide the scars. So I tend to practice. It’s easier.

Read that again: it’s easier to do it right the first time. This applies to almost every endeavor.

So I may never use some of the more highly touted features of most DAWs and in fact my needs could likely be met by a simple multitrack recorder if I had infinite synthesizers and effects processors. And if all of this equipment were small enough to fit in my bag, that’d be great too. I’ll stick with Logic. And practicing.