iOS 9 is shaping up to be a nice release.
It turns out that I share a birthday with piano inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori. Here he is, in Google Doodle form, playing some Bach to celebrate his 360th. There’s an accompanying blog post too.
I posted a Gist on using Bash to do stuff on Unix machines (like Macs) and web servers, with users new to OS X’s Terminal in mind.
I’ve started work on a new disco track and have picked up some drum samples that are quite delicious. Goldbaby is a New Zealand company that I discovered last year while trawling the web for decent sample libraries. They use analogue tape machines to sample vintage drum machines and synths. I’ve been wanting to add a bit more warmth and grit to my sound, and these samples certainly fit the bill. I got Tape Drum Machines Vol. 3 for starters. Check them out.
This post isn’t about music, but might be of interest to anyone who wants to improve their workflows on the Mac’s operating system, OS X. Musician or not, almost everyone these days has to deal with files and text, and these are the apps that make life my easier and improve productivity when developing web applications, doing my taxes, administering my musical presence on the web, sending out promo codes to blogs and journalists etc.
A quick note: none of the developers paid me to recommend their apps (I’ve yet to build a big readership here, so they’d have little incentive). I bought them all with my own, hard-earned money, thank you very much.
BetterTouchTool lets you add more gestures to your mouse or trackpad, and you can trigger multiple actions with a single gesture. For example, when editing a text file in Sublime Text, I double-tap with four fingers and the current file is saved, all the text in the file is selected and then copied to the clipboard. I then single-tap with four fingers to paste the text into another application and also trigger a keyboard shortcut to save.
The app actually does a lot more than that, but even using it for the sore purpose of moving text around has saved me time over the course of the twelve-months-or-so I’ve been using it, not to mention reduced frustration at doing the same series of keyboard shortcuts over and over again.
CopyClip gives you quick access to your clipboard history (you can store up to 230 items). I use this tool all day long, and it’s saved me tons of time. I’ve assigned a keyboard shortcut to it:
^⌥⌘C. Cool features include the ability to pin clips, and to search for specific strings — handy when looking for an older clip buried somewhere in the history.
This app, which takes the form of a popover in the menu bar, provides quick access to commonly performed tasks, folders, apps etc. It can be used to open frequently used folders, store files temporarily, upload files to a server, shorten URLs with Bitly, share stuff over AirDrop, and much more. Just drag stuff over the menu bar and it’ll open the popover. For certain tasks, e.g. opening a commonly used folder in Finder, I use a keyboard shortcut to invoke Dropzone:
This app decreases the file size of images without reducing quality; useful when uploading images to your website, or sharing them with others via DropBox etc. I have the ImageOptim icon in my Dropzone popover so that I can drag images over it to open the app and start the optimisation process. If you don’t have Dropzone, you can do the same thing by putting ImageOptim in your Dock and dragging files over it there. ImageOptim optimises in place, that it to say it doesn’t create any additional files — an approach I like. If you do want to keep your pre-optimised originals, you’ll have to makes copies manually.
When I moved from using a Windows PC to a Mac, I missed having the Microsoft Paint application to annotate screenshots. I eventually realised that I could do it in the Preview app. You can access it by clicking the Show Markup Toolbar button or by looking under Tools > Annotate.
Soulver lets you do all sorts of calculations intuitively and with natural language. As the website copy says: “It’s quicker to use than a spreadsheet, and smarter and clearer than a traditional calculator.” I use it for doing multiple-step, annotated calculations that I need to refer back to a later date. You can add different currencies together (£50 + $25 + €12), work out quick discounts (£899 for the mattress – 12% discount) and do unit conversions (6 foot 1 inch in cm). Soulver syncs documents over iCloud or Dropbox, and is also available as a universal iOS app.
In terms of productivity, SnappyApp lets you take a screengrab and have it remain on top of everything else on your desktop. Useful for keeping visible something you need to refer to, and quicker than arranging two windows side by side etc. You can also take a snap and share it on Twitter, Facebook et al. It automatically stores a history of your snaps for future reference, and you can pay to enable annotations.
This is really handy for making a note of where you are in a piece of work when you need to switch focus to another task, get up from your desk to answer a call of nature, are interrupted by a phone call etc. I use it regularly at the end of the day to remind myself of where I need to start the next morning. If I’m trying to fix a bug and have reached a mental impasse by the time 5pm rolls around, I may record some thoughts on what I’ve tried to do to solve the issue, and ideas on alternative approaches to look into the next day when I’m fresh. My chosen keyboard shortcut:
The website says it works on version of OS X from 10.7 to 10.9 (Mavericks) but it works a treat on Yosemite, too.
I’ve only recently installed Condense (hat tip to MacSparky) — and haven’t used it extensively — but it’s cool, and I can see it being useful to me down the road.
It allows you to grab any area of the screen and perform OCR on it. So if you have an image or video with text in it and want to covert it to actual text that you can paste elsewhere, try Condense. It’s accessible across the operating system, via the menu bar, or a keyboard shortcut (I’ve chosen ⇧⌘2).
All OCR apps I’ve ever tried give mixed results, and Condense does too. The bigger and clearer the text in the source, the better. And it does have a clever QuickFix feature that allows to you go through and fix words the app had trouble with, all from the keyboard. Pretty neat.
Update 7 April 2015
A couple of additions to the original list:
I’ve been trialling Smile’s TextExpander for a while, but was reluctant to hand over $35 for a license. I’ll happily pay that amount for, say, Transmit, but for a text expansion app… I’d rather not. So I decided to see whether there was an alternative. I found aText, which is much better value than and does the same job as TextExpander. It even automatically imported my existing TextExpander snippets!
(Sidenote: Smile’s iOS software is more reasonably priced. I use the excellent PDFpen Scan+ all the time for scanning and OCRing documents.)
And for a free, but less powerful, alternative to aText, try the Text tab within the Keyboard section of System Preferences.
Special character and emoji popover
^⌘Space to invoke the system-wide emoji and special character popover. This is great if you’re looking to access, say, em/en dashes or the copyright symbol. It includes a handy type-to-search feature: just start typing a word (e.g. “copyright”, “heart”) and relevant symbols and emojis will appear in real time – much quicker than digging though the categories manually. The special character popover is available out-of-the-box on every Mac running Mavericks onwards.
I’ve been meaning for some time to do something about my CD collection, which I’ve built up over about 15 years and mostly don’t listen to any more. My tastes haven’t changed much; it’s just that I’ve been listening in Spotify, Bandcamp and iTunes for years now.
Before I binned all the CDs, though, I decided to rip them and store them in the cloud. I did a bit of research and decided on iTunes Match, since all my devices run OS X or iOS, and I like keeping these types of things simple.
After a bit of logging out and back in again to prompt the whole process into action, my music library is now available everywhere I go, and I’m no longer burdened by piles of CDs. It’s been fun listening to albums I’ve not heard in years. I have a few classic recordings by Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis et al in my collection, and it’s great to know they’re safe in the cloud for as long as I want to have them there.
I ripped the CDs at 256kbps using the AAC encoder. I wouldn’t entertain 256kbps MP3s, but the AAC codec is better, so it seemed like a good compromise between quality and file size. In any case, with iTunes Match, any tracks you import into iTunes that are already in the iTunes store will be “matched” with the AAC copy that’s in the store; your local file won’t actually be uploaded unless it’s not available in iTunes.
Despite using Spotify almost exclusively for the past year, this archiving process has revealed in me an old-fashioned appreciation of owning one’s music collection. I’ve even cancelled my Spotify subscription for the time being, partly for cost reasons, but also so that I can focus on enjoying my purchased music library all over again.
Last year I decided to try making some dance-oriented electronic music. One of the major issues I had was getting things to sound loud and upfront. I sent my first attempt away for professional mastering, but it still sounded incredibly weak when compared side to side with, say, a Zedd track.
This was more than an little demoralising. I’d been happy with the way my nu-jazz EP had sounded, and thought I knew enough to create solid mixes; but this dance music thing was a whole different challenge. And so began a few months of figuring out what I could do to increase the sonic impact of my tracks, both in terms of loudness as well as general sweetness.
This post describes what I learned. I thought it’d be worth sharing. Oh, and before I get started, a caveat: I in no way consider myself a seasoned producer of dance music. This is just a reflection on my experiences which resulted in a couple of nu-disco tracks I’m pretty happy with. Also, the techniques I mention can be applied when producing any type of electronic music.
No magic bullet
One thing I did eventually realise was that there really is no magic bullet; no one plugin that I could insert into the stereo buss to make everything sound great. There are a few bits of software that do amazing things to make a track sound wider and more in your face, but they won’t save a problematic mix. That might sound obvious, but when you’re trying everything you can think of to solve the problem that is your feeble mix, it’s tempting to think it’s because you don’t have access to all the high-end gear that the “professionals” have. But that’s just not the case. Software these days is pretty advanced, and can give all that expensive analogue equipment a run for its money.
It seems to me that a great mix is the result of making good artistic and technical decisions from the composition stage through to mastering. No detail is too small to focus on and get right. It can be tortuous, but the music will benefit.
Start with the best sounds
Firstly, use the highest quality synths and samples you can get your hands on. The instruments that come with, say, Logic, are good, but if you can afford it, you won’t regret expanding your sonic palette by way of third-party synths and sample libraries. If you’re going to spend time and energy getting a track sounding loud and upfront, you want to start with the best sounds. Also, I work entirely in the box, but if you’re recording live instruments, use the best mics you can, or hire a good studio.
Consider also buying a few third-party processing plugins. Two I recommend later in this post are bx_digital and Oxford Inflator. It’s totally worth it.
Be mindful of the sonic space
When choosing sounds and while mixing, I try to be aware of the space I have to work in: from left to right across the stereo field; and vertically up and down the frequency spectrum. I find it useful to think about where I’m placing the sounds within that space, to avoid ending up with competing elements of the mix cancelling each other out and becoming a hideous audio mush.
One place where problems can occur in this regard, especially in dance music, is between the kick drum and bass. Getting a decent kick sound is a whole topic in itself, and not one I can speak about with much authority, but in the nu-disco tracks I created, I used the kick to side-chain the volume of the bass a bit, and also had the sub-bass play in between the kicks. This latter technique lent some energy to the low end (I believe it’s called the “giddy-up” bass). I also played about endlessly EQing the kick in particular, as well as experimenting with various compressors. Ultimately I was able to keep the kick fairly punchy, and the bass under control, throughout.
When it comes to synths, be cautious of ones that are densely textured. I found that they can sound impressive on their own (check out some of the amazing out-of-the-box patches in Massive, for example), but — especially if there is more than one in the mix — they need to be tamed with some careful EQing.
I found that trying to achieve volume by using the fattest and widest synth patch I could come up with was counterproductive in terms of creating a loud mix. Certain synths took up so much of the frequency spectrum that they would drown out everything else. I had more success when I started from scratch and carefully built up individual parts, being aware of their position in the frequency spectrum and stereo field, and applying EQ.
I’ve not yet mastered the art of using huge synth pads in a dance track. The disco tracks I ended up with were slightly more texturally minimalist than what I’d been trying previously. I’ll report back if I have a go at creating a totally cheese-tastic EDM track again. In any case, it turns out that the nu-disco vibe seems to be more up my street than banging trance.
Equalisation is a huge topic, but here are a few basic techniques which are easy to deploy.
I tend to gently roll off the low end on most sounds in a project. They may contain inaudible low frequencies which, if present in multiple tracks across the piece, risk combining to muddy the mix. You can see if they’re there by putting the sound through a spectrum analyser (e.g. the one that comes with Logic’s Channel EQ). I got into the habit of adding a high-pass filter to every track in the mix, just to err on the safe side. It’s even worth applying a bit of low cut to bass parts to get rid of ultra low-end dirt that might take away from the track’s energy.
I also roll off the audible lower end of certain sounds which take away clarity from the bass part. I use electric pianos quite a bit and they in particular usually need their lower frequencies tamed with a high-pass EQ.
If two sounds occupy a similar frequency range and are clashing, it’s worth attenuating select frequencies in one sound while boosting the same frequencies in the other.
I found myself EQing both with a particular part soloed, as well as in the context of the full mix. The proof of whether you’ve been successful is that the part sounds good in context, but I found it useful to focus in isolation on certain elements, the kick in particular.
Ted Gioia at The Daily Beast:
…I watched with amazement as The Köln Concert entered the mainstream culture, reaching an audience that I might have thought immune to the appeal of jazz piano. It eventually sold more than 3 million copies, and for a time ranked as the top-selling solo piano album in history.
And Jarrett did this by violating almost every rule of commercial music. The tracks on The Köln Concert were free-flowing spontaneous improvisations recorded live in concert in Germany. They lacked a holistic structure. Even worse, they were much too long for radio airplay. The opening cut was 26 minutes in duration, and the next two tracks were 15 minutes and 18 minutes long. Only the seven minute encore followed something resembling a song form, but even this sounded a world apart from the hit singles of the day.
I’ve listened to that 26-minute opening track so many times. It continues to inspire me.
Update, 3 Feb: Keith Jarrett in Cologne is a short radio piece on the concert, broadcast by the BBC in 2011. I hadn’t heard it before; it’s an enjoyable listen. It features an interview with concert organiser Vera Brandes, then only 17 years old.
From Ben Thompson at Stratechery:
Spotify and YouTube Music Key and other all-you-can-eat services are ultimately suited for music that is broadly appealing — the same sort of music that has ruled the radio for decades. For anything truly different, though, anything with a limited but intensely interested audience, they are nothing but a bad idea — a way to both limit your audience and limit the amount of money you can make from your best fans.
Sage analysis on both Zoë Keating’s recent Tumblr post concerning YouTube’s Music Key streaming service, as well as the economics of being a niche artist or selling a niche product. He talks more about it in episode 12 of his excellent Exponent podcast. As a purveyor of freely improvised jazz and other types of music similarly unappealing to the masses, it struck me as pertinent.
Most appealing to me is the addition of electronic and hip hop players to the Drummer instrument. Jamming over Drummer’s funk grooves has been a part of my practise routine for a while now. It’s nice to be able to control the subtleties of the groove in terms of both feel and instrumentation, and I’m looking forward to being able to play over the hip hop beats too. I would love to see some jazz drummers in there, too; I think I’ll put in a suggestion to Apple.
As well as being a faithful jamming buddy, Drummer is also a great tool to employ when producing demos of new tunes to present to bandmates. Programming drums manually, or messing around with traditional loops, is fiddly and time consuming, and really puts the brakes on creativity. The Drummer UI lets you get the results you want quickly and intuitively. I also use it to add a bit of icing on the cake (in the form of a hi-hat or shaker groove) to programmed drums tracks in my electronic tunes.
Logic Pro X’s companion app, Logic Remote, has also had an impressive update. You can now use it to control virtually any parameter in LP, including third party plugins like Massive. You get a similar UI to the Controls view in LP plugins — a list of parameters which you can change via sliders and popup menus — as opposed to the more intuitively presented, fully graphical UI. Even Apple’s own synths and plugins have the basic controls view, but it’s a good first step. The interface on plugins like Compressor (which has received an update in 10.1) lend themselves nicely to being controlled from an iPad, even more so than clicking and dragging a mouse pointer to control knobs etc. Hopefully we can look forward to richer plug-in UIs in future iterations of Remote.
It would also be good if Apple made it possible for third party Audio Unit developers to provide iOS versions of their plugins in app form and allow them to communicate with LP (there’s already Inter-App Audio for recording the output of synth apps into a host sequencer). Or maybe Apple could publish a protocol to allow AU plugins to describe their UI in such a way that Logic Remote can present them in a similar way to how they look in the main DAW.
In contrast to the no-frills UIs of other plugins, the Channel EQ in Remote looks almost exactly the same as it does in LP, letting you interact with Logic’s recently redesigned and improved parametric EQ plugin with your fingers. Again, I think might prefer doing it this way, rather than with the mouse-and-pointer approach. I have noticed that the EQ interface on the iPad can be, at times, less than optimally responsive, even on my screaming fast iPad Air 2. This could be related to the fact that the data needs to be transmitted to LP over Wi-Fi (which, overall, works really well).
I currently use Remote to control a jamming project from the iPad sitting on the piano music stand, so I don’t have to constantly get up and interact with the MacBook. Of course, when it comes to complex projects, a lot of stuff is still quicker to do in the traditional way — with a trackpad or mouse in Logic Pro — but in my next project I’ll try to employ Remote and see if I can integrate it into my workflow.