Game changer

January 19th, 2015

In my opinion Asus is about to truly change the game when it comes to mobile phones. I’m not kidding, a storm is a-coming! Let’s first see what $200 gets you these days: a 5″ Moto G, or perhaps a 4.5″ one with LTE, a mid-tier Windows Phone or perhaps a lesser known brand Android device with mid-range specs. The cheapest thing Apple sells will still be north of $400, and then you’re talking about a tiny device.

So what’s so exciting? It’s called the Zenfone 2 and here’s what two Benjamins will buy: 5.5″ 1080P IPS screen, quad-core Intel cpu with LTE support, 13MP camera, 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM (twice what the iPhone 6+ has!) and a 3000mAh battery. Wait? Is that right? Yes it is! Mind you, this is $200 off-contract! How the hell is this possible from a name brand to boot?

The answer is two-fold: first of all, as cell phones become more and more common, manufacturing ramping up and such, it becomes cheaper to make them. This is exactly the problem with iPhones and limiting yourself to only one brand: you remove competition from the pricing. At the same time, this price is too low to make economic sense and this is where Intel plays a role. You see, in an effort to take market share from Qualcomm, Samsung and ARM in general, it is practically giving away its Atom chips. They’re highly competitive in performance, only trailing slightly in the GPU department, but beating even the Apple SOCs in raw compute. In a way it’s a direct attack on the Fruit, maybe to try to convince it to use Intel for upcoming iPhones……

It certainly sets up the perfect playing field for the same to happen to Apple in the mobile field that happened with PCs years ago. For a while one can command a premium for something different and special, but NO company can compete with all others for very long and as feature parity develops, price matters more and more. Why, oh why would you spend $750 for an iPhone 6+ when you can get pretty much the same thing (and of course in my opinion a better system) for $200? At some point the fashion aspect becomes irrelevant, especially the more Apple falls behind in usability.

For now, at least here in the US, many, MANY still don’t realize how much they’re really paying for that iPhone. I just had this discussion with a few people at a gig, and of course musicians aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, but I can tell when they are beginning to realize I might have a point in saying that 6+ did not cost them $200. Denial is a human trait though and most quickly find an excuse to dismiss the argument or find a way to change the topic.

Verizon subsidy update

January 10th, 2015

It turns out that what I wrote earlier on these pages about the Verizon phone upgrade subsidy wasn’t exactly correct; instead of the $25 discount for not getting an upgrade, the real discount is $15 per month. Still, this means $180 per year, or $360 for the duration of the 2 year contract. That means that if you pay $300 for that iPhone 6+, plus tax on the full $750 retail price (~$50), your total cost after 2 years is $710. It’s still mind blowing that people living paycheck to paycheck would drop that kind of coin on such a disposable item, which will be outdated by the time it’s paid for…..

Network Attached Storage

January 5th, 2015

It was time…..it’s BEEN time! I finally broke down and bought myself a NAS unit, to be precise: the Buffalo Linkstation Pro Quad, with space for four drives, and two external USB devices. The LS-QVLE as it’s lovingly known was on sale for half its normal $250 price, so with 2 3TB WD Red drives I ordered along with it, it’ll give me a RAID 1 (redundant array of inexpensive drives) of 3 Terabytes double buffered, accessible to all my computers on the network at Gigabit speed. I have two regular 1.5 TB Seagates I might throw in there, or I might stick an SSD and one of the Seagates in there. The bottom line is, it was time to get seriously organized about my digital data.

I’m amazed at the amount of studios I’ve worked at that do not have a simple effective backup system in place. Many of us still don’t realize how inherently unreliable hard disks are! Let me tell you, even brand new drives can die at ANY moment, sometimes without warning. The ONLY way to be safe is to have multiple copies of whatever data you care about; after any recording, you should immediately make a copy of all data on a separate drive, preferably NOT directly attached to the computer you’re working on, as a nice power surge might fry everything hooked up to the same power source. A NAS unit somewhere else in the house is a good start, although every time I go to Holland, I leave a USB drive with all my important stuff (masters of my recordings and such) with my brother.

The cloud is awesome for storing relatively small amounts of data; just make sure it’s encrypted! But for the big stuff, local redundant copies is the ticket. On a Gigabit network, you can move data around at around 100MB/s, that’s MegaBytes, or as fast as most spinning hard drives can take. Just as a point of reference: the masters for XR7 total about 40GB. Uploading that to the web through my modest internet connection would take more than 2000 hours! That’s 83 days! Dumping it on my NAS would take 7 minutes………

It took me a while to get this thing set up, just checking the array took 25 hours, and unfortunately I accidentally turned off the power at hour 18 the first time, triggering a complete restart of the process. But eventually it finished, and the first data has been transferred. I’m looking forward to having all my video, audio, documents, Ableton and Sonar projects in one central place! More later…

Atlantis Resort: Part Deux

January 4th, 2015

We have to take Internet reviews with grains of salt, but today I decided to Google to see what others say about Atlantis and found this…….. BOY! As evidenced by some of the language some of the reviewers are not the brightest bulbs, but still, you can tell there’s something structurally wrong over there. Quite shocking for such an expensive place…..

Atlantis Resort

January 3rd, 2015

Just got back from perhaps the biggest New Year’s Eve gig I’ve ever done, at Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas, and it was quite a fascinating trip actually. I might not make a lot of money as a musician, but one of the best perks is visiting and staying at awesome places and the one thing my career has afforded me is my own room wherever we stay. I haven’t shared a room on tour in more than 15 years as a matter of fact, and this high-end gig was supposed to be no exception! I could’ve worked for just $200 less 15 miles from my house at the Woodland Hills Country Club, stress free, no parking fees, or $20 dollar sandwiches at the airport, but 3 nights at one of the most amazing resorts in the world made it worth it.

atlantis-bahamas

Unfortunately, the night before we left, I received an email from the boss: sorry, the hotel fucked up, you have to share rooms! Just like that, no offer for compensation, nothing. The obligatory “I’m doing everything to get you rooms”, which turned out to be worthless. I’m still not sure who’s fault it actually was, but I would assume that if it really was the hotel, they would’ve offered us some kind of perk: resort credit, or something! That didn’t happen, but we’ll have to see if the check I get next week has a little extra, because let me tell you: this place is PRICEY!

More about the money later, first the experience of what’s called Paradise Island. I’d seen it from a cruise ship a couple of times and of course on the web, and it does seem like Paradise, basically an entire Island, right off the coast of Nassau, owned entirely by the resort, with multiple towers in various price ranges, all kinds of beaches, a big water park, Vegas style casino, private Marina etc. One of the band members just got married, and because the hotel would give him a discount on the room, he decided to add 2 days to make it a honeymoon. The $450 per night rate, turned into $600 after all the added fees, so expectations were somewhat high. On check-in we got a sobering reminder that we were still at the lowest end of this resort’s totem-pole: the girls at the desk were cold, rude and slow as molasses! My roomie Alex and I finally got our keys and we went up to the room. Each of us got two keys, none worked! Not even a red light as we swiped, just nothing. Damn, I’m tired, too tired for this, but I guess it happens. We go down to the lobby, half a mile walk away, because there are NO house phones and are told the battery in the door is dead, to go back up and wait for security to let us in.

About 10 minutes later a dude shows up, verifies our identity and lets us in the room with a physical master key, but doesn’t fix the door! He says someone will come at some point to put a new battery in. What? I know about ‘island time’ but come on! I’m starting to get a sinking feeling when I see the room: basically on par with a Best Western, old TV, polyester sheets, foamy pillows, decent bed though, somewhat worn out stained carpet everywhere, but of course with a view of the ocean! Wow, if I had paid $500 a night for this, I’d be quite surprised and disappointed. I’ve stayed at worse places of course and I’m always willing to overlook just about anything in the name of having a good time. We had decided to hook up with a couple of the other guys to get a night cap, and when they show up they tell us they don’t have a phone in their room, and the hotel told them they wouldn’t get one until the next day! Mind you, we’re in a different country, most of our cellphones don’t work, internet is $22 a day and we have no idea what the schedule is for the next day. This is getting worse by the hour….

We go down to have a drink ($28 for a vodka cranberry and a beer BTW!), walk around for a second only to find out all pools are closed already and swimming in the ocean is not allowed anymore so it’s probably time to go and get some sleep. Alex and I get to the room: not one of the keys works, red light on all of them! You’ve got to be kidding me! On the way to getting new ones we run into the band leader and are informed of an 11PM meeting is his room. When we hit ours after, we can’t get in…..red light for all 4 new keys……. trust me, incredibly this happened 3 more times in as many days! The grumpy employees keep blaming it on proximity to cell phones, getting wet….even when we have kept them away from everything, bone dry…… this is incredible. At some point one guy behind the counter is actually smiling……but of course, his badge says he’s “in training”, I kid you not…….

The actual gig goes fine, and on this day they’re providing food and water throughout. Between sound check at the show I decide to walk around the resort and scope it out by myself, since the rest of the band pretty much lives on Facebook 24/7, glued to their iPhones. The place is packed beyond belief, not only with resort guests but also passengers from cruise ships docked nearby, who pay to hang out there for the day. There are some cool enormous fish tanks, which can be viewed from below and the water park looks decent, if not stuffed with screaming kids. There’s Dolphin Cay where you can ‘interact’ with the animals, at enormous cost of course: you’re not allowed to take your own pix, but for $120 you can get a CD-ROM with photos they take of you. That’s in addition to the fees for the activity itself! The casino is more expensive than the high-end ones in Vegas with mostly $100 minimum bets. Impressive! Time to go back and work, hopefully some fun tomorrow……

After a decent night’s sleep on polyester, four of us go to explore Aquaventure. We do the Mayan slide which sends you on an inner tube through a tube that goes through the middle of a shark tank, and another similar one that just ends in the ‘lazy river’ which snakes through the park. It’s kinda cloudy, but still reasonably warm, so it’s quite relaxing. These rides are actually free! There are pools with giant turtles, and crazy rays…. a sort of cave system with various fish tanks, containing everything from jellyfish to piranhas. Pretty cool, but honestly not that amazing. Of course I’ve been quite spoiled in my life and I can imagine that for some this is spectacular. The best part of the trip comes that night, when six of us take a cab into town to go to dinner at “Fish Fry”, a truly local restaurant with excellent food. My, my, I’m so glad I didn’t pay to stay in Paradise!

The-Reef-Atlantis-Bahamas-Waterslide

Now I fully realize we stayed with the plebs in the Beach Towers, and “The Cove”, where Beyonce stays when she’s there might be a different experience, but I cannot believe how mediocre this place is. My advice: don’t ever stay there! You can visit for a fee, but get a local hotel and enjoy the bizarre craziness that is the Bahamas! Our cabbie on the way back to ‘Paradise’ popped a bottle of beer with one hand, while driving with the other, poured most into a soda cup with ice, drank what didn’t fit from the bottle, and sipped the rest through a straw, going 80 miles an hour to get us to the liquor store before it closed! And like he said in relation to their English manner of driving: “The left side is the right side, the right side is suicide!”

IS(IS)

December 28th, 2014

There’s some tentatively positive news about Is(is): the terror organization is having a very hard time keeping its caliphate together. This comes from a Dutch reporter who’s very knowledgeable and spends a lot of time in the actual Middle East. According to the story she told, most effort is going towards plundering, rape and other assorted random violence that keeping the ‘peace’ is not possible.

You know, I was never as worried about Isis as many were; at some point, local people will have to take care of their own business, and in my opinion, there are not going to be very many, even hard-core Muslims, who want a regime that brings such indiscriminate terror. It’s obvious that a strong power, that doesn’t shy away from violence against its own people, is what they’re used to over there, and Saddam Hussein ran a pretty stable and tight ship, but this is going too far. The Islamic State has a lot of money, but you need more than that to rule the roost; you need at least reluctant cooperation of most, because you will run out of resources otherwise.

There’s still a role for global military intervention, on large scale conflicts, but it’s time for the West to stop micro-managing other territories. Deposing one cruel leader, only for the next guy to step up and be worse, is not going to help anyone. As a matter of fact, it will only create more hate towards the US. Don’t forget it was the CIA who armed Bin Laden, trained many over there! And look at the weapons Isis uses! Peace must always come from within……

Satisficer

December 27th, 2014

In the 1950s, psychologist Herbert A. Simon described a distinction between two types of humans, “maximizers” and “satisficers”. Wiki says:

A maximizer is like a perfectionist, someone who needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. The way a maximizer knows for certain is to consider all the alternatives they can imagine. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even more daunting as the number of options increases. The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about the possibility that there might be something better. Ultimately, Schwartz agrees with Simon’s conclusion, that satisficing is, in fact, the maximizing strategy.”

It’s a fascinating distinction and as we are presented with more and more choices to make in our increasingly complicated lives, a more and more important one. It perfectly explains the power of the Fruit! If you just accept (like the Lord!) that Apple is the best, the only choice to be made is which size gadget you have to buy! One of my best friends is a perfectionist, but realized the smoke screen and thus decided to go Android for his first smartphone. His process of narrowing down his choice had become almost unbearable! I understand the attraction of simplicity……

What brought me here was an article in the Volkskrant about Barry Schwartz’ book called “The Paradox Of Choice” which deals with possible negative effects of having too many options. There is even a Voluntary Simplicity movement out there, I guess competing with religions if you will. I have this discussion often with people who are against religion: people need a reduction of options, that’s where faith has its greatest strength! We humans simply cannot get rid of God or Allah without implementing a different set of rules that cannot be simply questioned.

A very interesting part of the Wiki about Schwartz’ book is the following statement:

Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues have shown that what we remember about the pleasurable quality of our past experiences is almost entirely determined by two things: how the experiences felt when they were at their peak (best or worst), and how they felt when they ended.”

It should serve as a lesson to performers who are perfectionists! Oftentimes, musicians are incredibly hard on themselves, mostly focusing on all the things they did wrong at a performance. It has its advantages, because if you want to get better, you need to know where you can improve. At the same time, the performance is the product, and if Kahneman is right, the mistakes will not be remembered, as long as you reach a good high, and end strongly. That means, NO long face at the end of the gig, because you fucked up, but a confident smile and attitude for all the things that went right!

But I digress! This piece is about choice, and every year we have more choices to make: what to wear, what to watch, what to eat, what to buy….. A lot of people are getting overwhelmed, but we have to relax about it. Remember the last two sentences from the first quote?

A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about the possibility that there might be something better. Ultimately, Schwartz agrees with Simon’s conclusion, that satisficing is, in fact, the maximizing strategy.

Right in there is some of the best advice I’ve read in years! I know it’s hard to be satisfied; it’s human nature to want more, better, faster. This exactly is the danger of advertising: it plays on one of our greatest weakness. In a world where so much unhappiness comes from unmet expectations, the last thing we need is to create more, isn’t it? Why does my buddy, who has a perfectly good (perfectionist, the thing is MINT!) Galaxy Note II desire a Note IV? I mean, why spend $750 for something that does essentially the exact same thing? The improvements are measurable, but really, in every day life even my Moto G does the same thing, albeit with a smaller screen. It’s because the TV told him to!

One more related thing. On the John Cleese episode of Dutch TV show “College Tour”, on which you get a full one hour interview with a singular guest, in front of lots of University students who get to ask some of the questions, the topic became the dumbing down of James Bond movies which Cleese blamed on their popularity in Asia. There, most don’t get subtle Enligh-language humor, but they do love explosions!  The most fascinating part of the discussion was the statement he made about Americans not understanding the phrase “enough money”. He explained that you need cash to make movies, and up to a certain point, more cash means you can make a better flick. BUT, at some point, you don’t need more! As a matter of fact, it might make the movie worse, because it needs to be made back, which means appealing to a lower common denominator.

The exact same applies to the record business and it’s where I think Los Angeles has really missed the boat. You see, with technology having advanced as much as it has, these days the gear necessary to make great sounding albums is extraordinarily low. The whole system I used to record XR7, the computer, interface, mics, preamps (16 channels!) cost $2000! That should give tremendous freedom to us to make the music we want and still be able to recoup the investments. Instead, you’d be amazed how many musicians, living month to month by the way, still believe one should buy the most expensive Mic Preamp one can afford! “Because it’s better!” I personally know people who can’t afford their lives, but are saving for $2000 units that do 2 channels…… they end up so far in debt after doing ONE album, so disillusioned with their inability to ever recoup, they will never do another!

Or, like Schwartz says: “Why more is less”

15 Million Merits

December 26th, 2014

There’s a fascinating English TV series on Netflix right now; it’s called “Black Mirror” and especially episode 2 of the first season is worth your time. Google writes:

In a sarcastic version of a future reality, everyone is confined to a life of strange physical drudgery. The only way to escape this life is to enter the `Hot Shot’ talent show and pray you can impress the judges. `15 Million Merits’ is a satire on entertainment shows and our insatiable thirst for distraction.

The story is about a boy who falls for a girl and spends the inheritance he got from his dead brother on helping her get a “Hot Shot”. What happens then is some of the sharpest and perhaps scariest critique on our modern western culture I’ve ever seen.

Advertising plays a big role in this dystopia too; every person lives in a room in which all the walls are screens, and every now and then a highly intrusive, annoying ad pops up, on ALL of them. One can stop it, but only by spending some of his or her “merits”, which are earned by mindless stationary bicycling. If you don’t have credits, you have to sit through, no, experience the ad in its entirety. Anyone who thinks advertising is harmless must see this episode…..

You see, the scariest part of this episode is not the thought that such a world might become reality. It’s the ending and what happens to our hero! Brrrrrrr…………….

Misinformation Part Deux

December 26th, 2014

The question was very simple: “Here’s a question for you guys: is there such a thing as a portable interface that can provide 6, or preferably 8, independently assignable ANALOG outs (1/4″ would be best), while being bus-powered over USB?”

I posted it on the user forums for Sonar, the audio recording software I use, in the “Hardware” section. There are many, many users of all kinds, from real pros to weekend warriors and in the past I’ve gotten good advice over there. This time, in perhaps a most telling sign of the times, the answers have stunned me!

A guy writes: “MOTU UltraLite-mk3 comes to mind…(especially since I use one)”

Funny, this thing is awesome, I am familiar with it, but it does bus-power only over Firewire!

Bob Bone writes: “Presonus Audiobox 1818VSL I have had one for about 4 years now.”

Funny, this one doesn’t do bus-power at all! Did anyone even read the question? His response: “Yikes, I’m sorry!”

OK, here comes SpaceAlf, giving me a link to Sweetwater for a search on RME interfaces. He recommends the Fireface UCX; a great unit, but….yes, you guessed it: NOT bus-powered!! Is this for real?

Then comes johnnyV to take the cake with his sage advice:

I personally don’t recommend buss power if you can avoid it. 
I have read a lot of threads here where people have issues like hum and not enugh power for phantom mikes etc. I have a friend who bought a Scarlett 2i2 who had a heck of a time with his laptop and hum. Then one of his LDC mikes will not work at all with it. 
And if your needing multi channel recording / playback that will narrow the choices down to a couple of interfaces? That’s not really a way to purchase something as important as a interface.  Like how inconvenient is it to plug in? Are you busking? 
After all , any multi channel recording will be done where there is power available so why bus power? USB was not designed to supply power so it is a compromise only for convenience and is well known to cause issues on some systems.

Who said anything about recording? Who said anything about phantom power? Of course the real kicker is that he feels confident saying USB was not designed to supply power! Tell that to all the Hard Drives, Webcams, USB sticks, keyboards, mice………..

 

 

 

Betting on the wrong horse

December 23rd, 2014

There was a short time during which the iPhone arguably did some things others couldn’t, although it was always deficient in some ways. Still, I always felt that at some point, Apple would drop the ball, not keep up with the times or tech in general, and exactly because of that, the iOS platform would be the wrong horse to bet on, no matter how attractive. Very similar indeed to marrying that beautiful 20 year old, only to realize when you’re both 40 that she’s selfish, dumb or whatever else makes you regret the move. Should’ve wed the plain one, with the brains, that only got better with age!

Lately the evidence that the Big Fruit has been the wrong bet has been piling on and today was another great example. We had a rehearsal for our New Year’s gig and the drummer hadn’t gotten the MP3s and charts. I had them on my machine that runs Ableton, so if he had had any way of storing about 100MB of data, we could’ve settled the matter right there. With an Android device we could’ve wirelessly put the stuff on it (Airdroid FTW!), with Windows Phone a standard USB cable would’ve done the trick. Unfortunately the poor guy had a brand spanking new iPhone 6+ and we couldn’t do it! All those gigs of storage, a perfectly good external storage device, unusable because of some silly arbitrary decision to lock it down. In other words: perhaps the most expensive device of its kind, unable to do what a $50 Nokia can do!

Even worse, the other day I did a recording session for an artist that didn’t bring a drive to store a backup of the session on. Here’s where the distortion field gets more amazing: I told the MacBook toting engineer who ran the session to just put it on the guy’s Samsung Galaxy S4 since there was plenty of space, but it didn’t even register in his mind as a possibility! He’s used to the Apple way (easy! just works!) and that’s not an option in that world. I said again…waited….he started talking about bringing a drive later…..said it one last time, but he didn’t even respond! WTF?

Then there’s the tablet situation. I’ve been saying for years that investing in iOS for tabs is gonna come back to bite us, and now we’re in a situation where the best ones are not made by Apple but all the sheet-music reading apps for musicians are on the iPad! Every musician that sees my XPS 18 is amazed and interested, but collectively we bet on the wrong horse, and by “we” I mean “they”. All this talk about how the iPad has “audio recording!”, “multiple tracks!”, “Looping!”….. Any x86 Windows Tab can run Ableton Live! In any normal universe that should mean game over. But the smoke screen is thick…..

Hopefully (and thankfully the rest of the world isn’t as enamored with Apple as the US, so probably) we will now see proper development for Windows sheet music apps. I’ve even toyed with the idea of designing a program myself, perhaps with the help of a real programmer.