Tuesday, March 13, 2018

In for a penny, in for £7.50

Selected the new piece and started rehearsing the penny whistle part on my Clarke. It's a bit high. Shrill, even. Annoy-the-neighbors shrill. Of course I already have a problem since the Clarke is in D, and the drones on the Highland Pipes I'm going to try to simulate are in A.

Sorta. Neither is a chromatic instrument, and pipes aren't tuned to 440 either. Their "A" is a bit sharp of Bb. Not that it matters overmuch since my crumhorn (which according to Susato is an alto) only goes down to D itself. See what I mean about range?

So it was worth looking into a second whistle. Of course the simple questions are often the hard ones. People don't make web pages or YouTube videos answering the simple questions, they make them for people struggling with the next steps. It took forty minutes to find the ranges of various tin whistles.

In case you were wondering, the standard tin whistle reaches the D below Middle C, the E, F, and G are pitched higher, and the C and Bb are pitched lower, with the latter being the lowest of the "soprano" whistles; after that you are in the (much more expensive!) Low Whistles, with D the most typical but G not uncommon.

And so I've got a Bb Feadóg on order.

I took the Clarke to work because I can still rehearse the fingering even if the pitches are going to change. But it was too shrill there, too -- I have classes above me and an office next door. This is an increasing problem and I don't have a great solution.

To be able to practice you need to be in a place where you are comfortable failing. Where you can try things and mess up, and where you can go over and over and over an exercise because that's how you get better. It hurts your practice when you are self-conscious and aware other people can hear you. But what do you do?

Practice mutes are a stop-gap. They change the sound, they change the feel. And some instruments (like the tin whistle) don't have an easy mute. Six hundred years of development has gone into turning what had been chamber instruments into power tools that can project to the back of a symphony hall. Those years have done nothing good towards making apartments more soundproof, or providing safe spaces for practice.

(Well, honestly, the trumpet has always been a weapon of war. Even if the Renaissance sackbut is quiet enough it can do a duet with a lute. The Great Highland Pipes, of course, are a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Do you know why pipers walk while playing? They're trying to get away from the noise.)

I could take classes, and that might get me a chance to sign up for a few snatched hours in a room at some inconvenient location. Or I could pay $14 an hour for the same opportunity in Oakland. Thing is, I'm a peripatetic practicer. I have a ukulele hanging by my desk and it works out great to pick it up for a few minutes when I need a break from writing or during a slow part in a movie. I keep an instrument at work and I take it out on my scheduled breaks.

And the same problems are there for recording. Worse, in a way, because if I want to tinker with a piece I don't want to have to bundle up the whole recording rig and drive out to a rental studio just to fix a couple of notes. 

Maybe there's no one-size-fits-all. Perhaps the thing to do is to schedule around the not-quit-so-piercing instruments, and accept work-arounds for the louder instruments. Such as record (and practice) with e-violin and Silent Brass and make that work for me.

I just listened to several recordings taken through Yamaha's Silent Brass system, and it seems acceptable for where I am and what I currently want to do with trumpet. I was going to pick up a stonelined anyhow, and the changes to the sound of the trumpet of that straight mute are very similar to what the Silent Brass imposes.

And use e-violin for as many violin parts as I can get away with. My other strings are all acceptable; ukulele is quiet, guitar is sufficiently non-annoying, and the bass (actually ubass) plugs in (you can't even practice without plugging it in to something. I know. I've tried.)

Oh, and speaking of violin and lower strings; turns out the same technology that made the ubass possible has been leveraged on violins; two different companies make "octave" strings. Applied to a viola, they drop the instrument down to the exact same tuning as a cello. Obviously you don't have the same body resonance, but I've got a solid-body e-violin. So that's going to be the next life for my Cecilio; I'm going to restring it as a cello. 

And that, too, goes straight into headphones and will not disturb the neighbors.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Blowing Down

Back in the hardware MIDI days I'd spend hours typing patch names into OSC so they would pop up automatically in my sequencer. When I migrated to soft samplers I spent days building and sorting patches. Now I'm window shopping for instruments.

A composer friend of mine selected a set of sounds and once he had them, he stuck with them for years. I wish I could do that. Sampler libraries are bad enough (you are always wanting a better choir, an obscure instrument, a performance technique that isn't in your other library.) Real instruments are worse.

Register is one issue. To simulate, say, a symphony orchestra you need the low instruments as well as the high.

I just did a little experiment in Reaper. I recorded some trumpet and ran it through an octave shifter. With a little bit of additional tweaking it makes an unconvincing but functional French Horn. I could probably fake 'cello the same way, although that's also a tough sell.

But trombone? Less effective (a formant shift plug-in worked somewhat). The problem here is articulation. And that's at the root of why I started playing real instruments instead of samples. There's not just ways notes are attacked, but idioms of play that are intrinsic to the physical construction and standard technique of an instrument. It doesn't matter if the basic sound is right, you can't strum a keyboard.

But what? Learn trombone and french horn and saxophone as well? And that's just the brass section: that way lies madness.

Thinking in terms of ensembles, though, I've almost got the selection to do all the "Bardic Covers" I'd care for. The biggest noticeable holes are low recorder. And the ukulele. I still love ukulele, but it sounds like ukulele. It doesn't do well at being other kinds of chordophone ("lute," by the full Sachs–Hornbostel classification.)

Unfortunately my new Yamaha guitar, as much as I love the tone, isn't a good instrument for me. That 3/4 bridge is too narrow for proper finger-picking. I can use a pick, and I can strum, but that's limiting. Best of all for the Bardic sound would be a lute, but I'll settle for an acoustic guitar at this point.

(Pictured; Rogue soprano, Kala Ubass, Yamaha JR2 folk guitar.)

And as I said, my current recorder collection can't even reach the root note of the harmonies. I need that tenor recorder (pictured; Yamaha alto, Schreiber soprano, Yamaha sopranino, and a garklein I picked up at a street fair in Bad Munster.)

Of course I just thought of another theme that would be cute to do a cover of. But the perfect instrument for one of the emblematic sounds of the original? Bagpipe.

(Another thing? The Bardic Cover is a concept but it requires much higher levels of musicianship than I have or expect to gain in the near future.)

What are other options? Much as I just opined against having a whole set of brass, trumpet isn't enough for jazz or symphonic. I'm going to experiment with how far I can fake it, though. I'd really like to try some jazzy stuff, especially since I've got my bass working again, but I am saddened by having to synthesize the drums. Because I am not going to fit a trap set. I was having trouble even fitting an e-drum set!

Well, I think I'm going to try that new cover anyhow. Maybe I can fake a bagpipe with crumhorn and a lot of mix magic...

Fish Dreams

Two ways of telling the "Seven Against Atlantis" story. One is the military fiction route, which often includes the engineer-hero trope. The underlying trick is some technological advance that destabilizes the power balance of the Ancient World. The cat does not go back in the bag; the Hellenes can reverse-engineer the Atlantean tech or come up with their own super-science but basically society changes.

I readily admit it's a fun challenge to come up with something which an otherwise Bronze Age society could employ but that ends up making them look like cover artist versions of Atlantis complete with rayguns and flying cars and, if at all possible, glowing crystals. Always with the crystals.

The polar opposite is Atlantis has something...high technology, alien technology, magic tech (aka crystal vibration crap) but on the side of the Hellenes is they are legendary. Demigods like Achilles. And real gods in the wings.

See, in the first case it is basically an alternate history. Start with a realistic Bronze Age, properly researched and all, then add new technology and stir. In the second case it is what is called a Constructed World; a world of myths and legends come to life, which only tangentially resembles the real world.

It becomes in short a story of battling tropes, a mixing of myths modern and old, with recognizable New Age crystal magic running headlong into recognizable characters from Greek (and other!) mythology.

And yeah. It's also a heck of a lot easier to research.

On the flip side, thinking about this is also telling me I probably have enough to start into the original story. I don't need a perfect plot. I don't need to solve the mystery of the Sea People or explain the Bronze Age Collapse. I've got enough to support a story with the character arcs of the "Minoan" weaver, the Athenian mercenary, and the Egyptian scribe.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Blowing Out

Took the trumpet out to the shop on a weekend with no-one around so I could finally play without the mutes. Learned quite a bit, mostly good. My articulation and tone aren't quite as bad as I feared, but some of that slot-changing is actually more difficult without the mute. Go figure (I expect what it is, is I am used to where the slots "feel" with the back-pressure of the mute.)

Finished putting the "California" pre-amp into my SUB UBass. Everything fit just fine, even if (unlike in the California) I have to unplug the LiPo to recharge it. That built-in tuner makes it so much nicer to keep it in tune (those floppy Pahoehoe strings stretch constantly.)

I'm still thinking of a set of metal-wound strings but for now...

Went to Guitar Center and purchased.....a guitar. I checked out the ukuleles but I feel I really need guitar sounds for the pieces I've been thinking about. Dawdled a while over a guitarlele but the thing is...they aren't good at being ukes and they aren't good at being guitars. It is an interesting instrument with unique potential, but the final thing that decided me is that it has nylon strings on top and steel-wound below. Meaning most of the uke strums don't work right.

Probably because they get so many people getting a guitar for their kid, Guitar Center has a wide selection of kid-sized guitars, at mostly starter prices. What grabbed me was a used Yamaha 3/4 steel-string folk guitar. Not as deep or rich as a full-sized guitar but a sweet tone that reached out and grabbed me. I dithered for a while over a 3/4 dreadnaught with much better low end, but when I tried a little picking on that one I found the upper strings had an unpleasant boxy sound. So the JR2TBS it was.

I've been avoiding guitar because I already went through uke chords and I was afraid of how many frets you'd have to remember with six strings to work with. Turns out -- since the top three are identical tuning anyhow -- the uke chords more-or-less work. Guitars (I say this as a uke player) cheat. Many of the standard chords don't even bother to fret half the strings, and just say "please don't hit these ones on your strum."

However. I'd forgotten the reason I'd also shied from 3/4 scale instruments, preferring to go the uke route; those strings are way close together. So fretting is both easier and harder than I expected.

But I still like the tone.

I re-discovered a performer on YouTube who is probably who first put the idea in my head of going one-man band. He performs all the parts for his game and movie theme covers. With some surprising fidelity...he went out and got, for instance, udu drum, steel pan, vibra-slap. And a set of horns in black to suit the look of his James Bond theme cover.

And that last was quite informative. I could see the P-bone label clearly; that's a hundred-dollar plastic trombone. And the violin looks suspiciously like a Cecilio. So, yeah, the advanced students and the actual gigging musicians can claim, fairly, that cheap instruments sound cheap, he's getting the sound he needs out of them.

Similar note for technique. I was looking to see if he was doing arm vibrato on the violin (that's a mark of someone who has more than one year behind them) but when a camera angle came around to show his arm properly...I couldn't believe how far his wrist was collapsed. So, yeah, the spotty articulation and tone issues I was hearing are there.

I'm not saying he's a poor player. Like I said, the finished effect is great. But he is underlining something I've said before about how a skilled musician knows how to get a musical result from poor chops...or a poor instrument. Because he's playing to his strengths and arranging to the musical assets he has and those arrangements are great.

So, yeah, I've looked up additional brass and winds (and one of my major objections is I'd have to buy a whole batch more practice mutes) but what I'm going to do instead is experiment with electronic modification. Starting with octave shifting. I may want to record as many parts as I can acoustically, but I'm not silly. I fixed timing and pitch issues on the "Khajit" piece and I'll gladly do the same again.

Biggest issue I'm looking at right now is a place to record the louder parts. I'm not sure doing it at work is going to fly...

Friday, March 9, 2018

Cleaning Blues

Sudden insurance inspection -- ran around like a madman and lifted the top layer of dirt. Odd how much cleaner it feels with so (relatively) little work. Most times I set out to clean, I start by trying to figure out what to do with all the piles of semi-abandoned projects and scrap materials and reference books and so on and go directly to despair without passing go mop.

Just gave the trumpet a bath.  Also finally got around to fitting the "California" pre-amp into my Kala Ubass. The electronics part is next; have to separate and jumper the PC boards so it will fit, and switch out the coin cells for a LiPo left over from the Holocron project. As for practice, spent today fiddling (!) with the Bon Musica shoulder rest. I'm still tensing up with both shoulder and neck and I still press too hard when I fret. So still basically doing modified scales (with shifts, with no open strings, with arm vibrato; that sort of thing).

I need to jump on to the next recording project. No dithering around finding the perfect project, just get something else done and see what I learn from that. I can't help thinking I should do something that uses the trumpet and bass and leverages what few keyboard skills I have. I've sort of re-thought the idea of a "simple violin line." The violin isn't going to be suitable for even a section until I have decent vibrato.

I'm quite tempted by the thought of doing section stuff, though. Overdub the trumpet enough times for a section, the violin enough times for each chair. Thing is...there's other colors needed for a good symphonic picture. Violin is not 'cello, but that's not the worst of it. One brass does not a brass section make; no matter how many jokes there are about how to make a trumpet sound like a French Horn (stick your hand in the bell and play out of tune), you just can't reach those sounds. And then there's the wind section...

I'm already dithering over a next purchase because my ukulele really doesn't work for anything but a ukulele part -- and not even very well at that (it's a cheap uke and it is a soprano, which is a bit small for my fingers). Thing is I want them all; guitar tones, lute tones, electric guitar tones even. And if nothing else, that's a lot to learn. Heck, that's a lot just to clean and maintain!


Top of the list right now is to attempt to cover "Still Alive" from Portal in a hootchy-koochy sort of thing with wah-wah trumpet. Or do it salsa. Or I might do something original.

Or rather, originally unoriginal. I'm rather leaning on cheating my way through a pseudo-orchestral thing with no real progression or melodic content but just some of the tried-and-true chord pairs and repetitive arpeggios of far too many dashed-off movie scores. And just to be really really obvious the Ominous Latin Chanting would be along the lines of "lorem ipsum dolor sit amet..."

In the longer range, I really want to sit down and figure out how to voice a proper "medieval" sound, with or without correct period polyphony.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Stupid Jetpack Hector

I'm deep in academic papers on political structure of Mycenae, international trade in late bronze age Crete, and so on and so forth. But I'm still going to take some time to think about the new idea -- the one I've given the (farcical) working title of "Re-Sink Atlantis!"

Okay, that last is a steal from the excellent Book of Sequels from the National Lampoon authors. Just like the title to this post is referencing TVTropes and the alternate W.W.II stories with Stormtroopers flying around on rocket packs. (An even more obscure option, for you fans of Ancient Greek Playwrights, might be "Seven Against Atlantis.")

Yeah, this one intersects with a lot of memes, and the basic idea goes way back. You want bronze-age heroes going after a high-tech civilization with nothing but their wits and a sword? Let me introduce you to the Italian Hercules movies.

Right, let me step back a moment for the elevator pitch: "Homer's Hellenes go up against Donnelly's Atlantis."

That is, a coalition of relatively realistic late bronze age warrior chiefs are forced into a battle for their very existence against a 20th century version of Plato's Atlantis: one with aircraft and ray guns.

Of course I'd just been reading about both the Trojan War, and on the history and evolution of the Atlantis story. And researching the Sea Peoples, which includes the rather suspect Luwian Hypothesis (not as batshit crazy as Protochronism, or Thracomania...the point of similarity here being the huge and unlikely empires each draws on their maps.)

And also some Steampunk Roman stuff, and been contemplating questions of footprints of technology and the implausibility of most of the Ancient Astronauts nonsense, and, basically, a lot of weird stuff that was floating around ready to get pulled into the mix. And, no, the conflation of Troy and Atlantis isn't exactly new, either. The new take I'm adding is to go full Constructed World with it (not trying in any way to seat it within archaeological plausibility).

In any case, there's a lot of different ways you could go with this. There's real-world examples of numbers versus technology -- Rorke's Drift, Pizarro, Gate Pah -- and you can pick the side you want to root for. Many is the work of fantasy and science fiction where the Evil Empire has the upper hand in both numbers and force multipliers, and the heroes have to do something exceptionally clever (I'm reading a fanfic now which crosses Mass Effect and Half-Life -- more-or-less successfully). At the nadir it's all Ewoks vs. Stormtroopers, and if you can't even Zerg Rush them...

(As a total aside, I like a lot about Rogue One but I think it's biggest failure is that the Star Wars universe is inherently a heroic one. The decks are stacked so far in the Empire's favor the only convincing way to stop them is by being the hero of the story. Casting the tale in grey-vs-grey morality is powerful but it makes their eventual victory unconvincing. The Leia-bot that appears at the end of the film is appropriately out of the Uncanny Valley, because the kind of simplistic heroism she represents doesn't belong in the Rogue One universe.)

Anyhow, my temptation is to go what I call the Baen Books direction. Unable to match the Atlanteans one-on-one, the Hellenes hire Daedalus, start up their own Apollo program, and go about getting their SandalPunk on. This might be extensions of vaguely historical technology -- Greek Fire, early iron, crossbows, whatever -- or reverse-engineering Atlantean Crystal Technology. Either way, by the end of the book history as we know it is shot and the Ancient World is nigh-unrecognizable.

A different take is a variation of the magic v. technology trope, from heroes and demigods and the occasional Circe or Medea vs. the glowing crystal magitek of Atlantis, all the way out to Gods vs. Grey Aliens.

In any case, an important element in my original conception is that this isn't unabashed heroism. The Hellenes are steeped in realpolitik and no-one gets the moral high ground (even if I would't want to go so far as making them historical bronze age warriors; "nasty, brutish, and in short kilts.")

Which is going to be true whether you use historical Mycenaeans and allies (one would really hope Egypt would get involved), Homer's Hellenes (Agamemnon is an opportunist and the wily Odysseus is rather a bastard), or the 10,000 BCE Athenians of Plato (who are basically romanticized Spartans).

And, yeah, you could flip and put the poor final remnants of Atlantis on tiny Thera or something facing the unwashed hordes, but no matter which side you want to side with, it needs to be a more complicated story, with good people and bad people on both (or all!) sides.

Right. All sides. Because as frozen in time as Egypt usually is, under enough threat they will invest in new methods. The Hyksos forced them into adopting the chariot, and they made good with it. And from a writer's point of view, the Egyptian Kingdom with fancy new magitek would be way, way fun to play with.

So what is this Atlantean tech? Connected to this is a question of not how but how not. The easiest assumption is the technology is new. Otherwise they'd have conquered the world already. If it is self-limiting (say, only works within the city limits) then they aren't going to conquer anyone. And if this is ancient secrets being rediscovered...well, that just moves the question back in time and thus is no solution.

Anyhow. Assume "glowing crystals" (the typical form from 1960's onward visual representations -- I think Donnelly was the first to say it) is a story-teller's interpretation of something they didn't see first-hand. So...silicates in the form of, say, silicon wafers (aka microelectronics?) Or how about crystal as shape and molecular structure aka carbon-carbon nanomachines.

I'm not fond of either. I rather like the trick from a couple of books; of making one new thing available and the rest is built upon it using essentially bronze-age approaches. When you get right down to it, it's really about power. You have power, you have metallurgy; from copper to bronze to iron to steel is basically about how hot you can get the furnace. From Hero's engine to practical steam power to internal combustion to rocketry is largely, again, about packing potential energy (and being able to handle it!)

If you want flying cars, much less levitating platforms, you are talking power. And that's a Kizinti Lesson waiting to be taught. (Of course, the trick in military applications largely boils down to speed. A candle, a battery, a Mars Bar, a cartridge and a flashlight battery contain roughly the same potential energy, but only the cartridge releases it fast enough to put a bullet downrange. So, yeah; being able to light a street is not the same as being able to light enemy ships on fire -- Archimedes aside).

In any case, given a power source you can manage some pretty crazy tricks with even primitive engineering and materials. So, yeah, I'm leaning towards some sort of cold fusion or super-piezoelectricity or something.

The thing from the last couple decades has been information technology. Which in many applications is about making do with less. You can design weaker structures because you can calculate the margins closer. You can extract more information from cheaper sensors. You can tolerate lack of tolerances because you are employing automatic correction. Hard to figure out how to leverage this onto Bronze Age technology, though.

Oh, but then there's sciences of the mind. Biologists and psychologists probably feel the same way physicists do when "quantum" gets thrown around to excuse everything, but to someone without a lot of background in the appropriate sciences it doesn't feel at all like rubber science to have some method -- a technology, a drug, an operation, a stray meme -- that allows Big Brother levels of social control.

Because if you can control minds, you've got the Zerg rush.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

18 mos Violin

I swapped out the old shoulder rest for a Bonmusica. Now, yeah, I can get the web of my hand off that violin neck and really start practicing arm vibrato. But the hand and arm positions are different now, the cues that my muscle memory was based on are different, and basically it's like I'm back to the beginning.

Only this time I'm getting those basics down faster, and the results are cleaner. I feel like I am finally progressing again after six months of what felt like stasis.

Yeah, but that also means all my practice sessions right now are endless exercises in string crossings, vibrato, and a little shifting. Lots and lots of scales in first and fourth position.

The trumpet is also pretty much in exercise land. My exercises now are speed and tone, plus a little on keeping the articulation clean and controlled. Speed is really about the slotting (and a bit about the tonguing). I still have trouble moving from the top of the range to the bottom of the range; to get into those different slots -- particularly with a good tone -- you have to slip your lips slightly within the mouthpiece. Right now I'll start a scale, go up to my top note, but run into trouble on the way down. Especially when trying to do it fast.

The valves mean less and less as time goes on. The key muscle memory is in finding the right slot. To some extent you can play the note even if you've got the wrong valves in. It will usually be a weak harmonic and sound terrible, though. It can be very confusing, until you figure out what you did.

It's also time for another cleaning.

Thinking the next recording might be an attempt at a trio. I'm not that good with the trumpet yet, but I have a keyboard (Behringer controller, but still...), and bass. Gave away the e-drums, though.

Still think the "Bardic Covers" are amusing, and I do like the challenge of trying to work up proper polyphony on the wind parts and properly idiomatic "lute" work. Thing is, I still haven't settled on the upgrade to the ukulele. The one thing I'm sure of is I don't want soprano any more (the fingering is too tight). I'm caught, though, between guitar-like tones, lute-like tones (and look!)...and electric.

By which I don't mean piezo pickups (I have in the closet a project solid-body uke with piezo bridge pickup), but a steel-string, fender or strat style uke with real humbuckers.

I found one cheap recently, and the reviews say the biggest problems are the frets aren't dressed and the action is too high. No problem for me. (A crooked neck, on the other hand, I'd rather not deal with). But, still, that is a bit of the other dirty secret of musical instruments. Bought my first uke. Then bought new strings, and a pick, and looking for a strap. Bought a cheap trumpet, then spent almost as much for cleaning kit, then a practice mute, then another mute, and looking for a fresh tin of spitballs now. Or the violin; bought new strings. Shoulder rest. Better rosin. A new bow. Two more shoulder rests. New chinrest. Oh, yeah...and a new violin!