A few months ago I wrote a post about my new office/studio set up in our new apartment. I had everything set up to make writing and recording music easier! But I haven't posted any new music in a long time... Until now!
Eileen and I (still under the name Packets and Waves) just finished recording a cover of Tegan and Sara's Call It Off. This is a really awesome song off of their record The Con! If you didn't already click on the link to the video do it! The video is just so simple and perfect for the song. I've been thinking for a while that this would be a good song for us to try. It's really simple and short and there's a good division of lead and backing vocals. Recording this was a bit of an exercise in moderation for the orchestration. I wanted it to be rich, but not busy.
One aspect I was pretty excited about was the replacement of the finger picked guitar with simple piano. I also added some strings to the synth part in the 2nd verse. For the most part, we didn't stray too far from the original song, but I think we still gave it our own touch.
Here's the full instrumenation for the song:
I feel a little guilty about the Star Trek movie joke in the title because I don't think I've ever seen a Star Trek movie all the way through, but no matter, that's not what this post is about. This post is about the Khan Academy.
For those who don't know, the Khan Academy started as a collection of You Tube videos of short (about 10 minutes long) lessons in math and science subjects. It has recently been reviving a lot of attention and is now supported by the Gate's Foundation and Google. I had heard of it a while ago, but never thought to use it in my own education because the vast majority of the "courses" were aimed at high school students and below.
More recently, I've found that I really need a solid understanding of probability theory in order to start learning some more advanced concepts that will be useful for work I'm doing in my lab. I found out that the Khan Academy has probability courses that cover concepts up to a basic college level course, so I decided that I would just sit down and do almost all of the lessons and exercises in that section. Two days and about 4 1/2 hours of video later, I really feel like I have a solid refresher of probability theory and I've become semi-obsessed with Khan Academy.
I mentioned in a previous post that I was interested in relearning any math that I feel I had missed in my undergrad. The Khan Academy is going to be a great tool for that. I am a sucker for any type of "game" with a "progress system" and Khan Academy totally exploits that. You get "points" for all the time you spend watching video and for getting exercises correct. They really do a great job of showing you metrics for your progress, which I have a tendency to get obsessed with and want to keep earning more and more. Of course such a system could be gamed, but I honestly want to learn the concepts so I think I'll be able to keep myself honest.
I manged to get through the whole probability section this weekend and I think that I'll tackle Linear Algebra and maybe Differential Equations soon. I might also go through some of the more advanced Statistics lessons because I think think they could be useful for working with quantitative data in research. Most of this stuff I have seen before, but I either didn't really get it the first time around or I haven't used it for a LONG time and I've forgotten most of it.
I really hope they add more sections and more advanced concepts because I really like this style of self paced learning with easy progress tracking. If you ever have any concept that need to learn or brush up on (especially math or science) check out the Khan Academy, it's actually a really fun, valuable resource.
As some of you may or may not know, I just moved to Berkeley, CA. Eileen is starting a masters program at UC and I'm working in a research lab at the university. It really sucked to leave all our friends in Chicago and it was especially hard for me to leave the people I've been making music with over the years.
While packing up all our stuff into a truck, driving it 2000 miles, and unpacking it someplace new was a big pain in the ass, it did provide me the opportunity to set up my office in a way that should be more conducive to writing and recording music. While I also do most of my coding and drawing in my office, the activity that takes the most setup and space is music. I wanted to be able to quickly plug in and be able to lay an idea down before I forgot it. I also really like having instruments within reach at all times so I wanted to just surround myself with gear to pick up at any time.
The end result turned out really well (especially considering how small the room is and that I have to share the office space with Eileen). I wanted to show off a few key points:
I do all my recording on Garageband on my MacBook Pro, so I need some extra desktop space to work. By putting my monitors up on a riser I can push my desktop keyboard out of the way, giving me more space to work.
My keyboard is always to my right and always on so I can just fiddle around with piano parts all the time. My rack of guitars is right behind the keyboard. I really like the whole "L shaped" setup of it.
My little M-Audio interface is sitting on the subwoofer, so it's out of the way when I'm doing non-music work, but easy to plug a guitar, keyboard, or mic into without moving it around.
I have a guitar cable with tuner setup and ready to plug into the recording interface under the keyboard.
This really doesn't have anything to do with my new office/studio set up, but I found an awesome free metronome app for my iPhone that has really come in handy, Steinway Metronome.
I have my bass amp (a 150 Watt Ampeg B3) with with me for the first time since I bought it (which was 2003, I think). It's AWESOME to be able to record out of a decent amp again. I never liked DIing my bass with the M-Audio and the shitty Crate practice amp I've been using in the past is, well, shitty.
One of the biggest problems I had with my home recordings in the past was listening to the mix. I don't plan on doing anything super professional (I'll leave that to the professionals) but I feel like I can lay down something that's not painful to listen to. Because I'm recording on my laptop I either have to use headphones or the shitty laptops speakers, so I was always mis-mixing my low end. I solved this by splitting the input to my desktop computer's speakers so that I can plug my laptop into those speakers (without unplugging my desktop) whenever I'm recording.
There are LOTS of whiteboards around. I can't stress the importance of whiteboards enough.
So, I have lots of cool toys all set up to be played with, now what? Well, without The American Autumn in my life I have a big musical hole to fill. I've been talking with Josh and Chris about a really exciting project between the 3 of us and that's just starting to take shape. I'd like to do more Packets and Waves songs with Eileen. And if I have some stuff that just doesn't fit into any of those projects I wouldn't mind doing a few songs just on my own. I've already done some small recordings and I'm really looking forward to sinking my teeth into bigger projects in this new space!
I draw most of my comics on the back of printed out notes and research papers. Maybe that's why I always felt that when I drew in a sketchbook, it should be something more thought out and high quality. The paper in sketchbooks always felt a lot nicer than what I did my real comics on, so I was always a little reluctant to waste it on mistakes and dumb doodles.
I've been trying to loose this reverence for the sketchbook by just bringing it with me at all times and spending some of my commute just drawing randomly. Sometimes I'll try to draw scenes around me, other times I'll just try to practice things from memory. This is something I should have been doing for a long time, but I had some mental block that made me not want to use sketchbooks for their intended purpose, just sketching.
Here's some samples from a few pages:
No, none of them are perfect works of art, but they shouldn't be. They're practice and I think I've learned a lot from just drawing without worrying about how good the end product is.
I've played in a lot of bands over the years; Hello Bert, Centaur, Captain Supreme, Miss April, Davenport, The American Autumn, and countless other projects. But the last time I really had any major part of the vocals in a band was Hello Bert and that was back in the beginning of high school, before we all started to realize who had a good voice and who didn't. After that, people with more vocal talent fronted all my bands and while I had a lot of input in the songwriting and often wrote lyrics, I rarely sang. My voice has just never been that strong and it was always best for the band to have someone else sing.
I've always wanted to be a better vocalist but I never really knew how to improve my voice. The technique just didn't come naturally to me and unlike all the other instruments I picked up, it lacked a visual, tangible way for me to understand it. I did better looking at the keyboard of a piano or the neck of a guitar. That made sense to me. Vocals seemed like a black art, you could either sing or you couldn't and I couldn't.
After many vows to do something about this I finally took a positive step with the help of a huge shove by Eileen. She bought me vocal lessons at The Old Town School of Folk Music (which is this awesome music organization in Chicago that provides lessons, classes, and just a cool music environment). It's an introductory group class that meets once a week. There's a lot of focus on breathing technique and learning to strengthen and engage the involuntary muscles used in singing. I was really nervous when I started, but now I'm feeling much more comfortable in the class. It's just a start, but I really think that it's helping.
I don't think I'm quite ready to front a band yet, but if I keep working on it, I think I can be much more of a vocal asset in the future.
Video game system have gotten pretty cool since I got my last console system (an NES back when it was the best thing out there)! A few months ago I bought a Wii and Guitar Hero (complete with the drum kit). While I've been having fun playing GH (and the new Super Mario game, which is pretty awesome and really hard!) the part of me that likes playing WITH things more than just playing things got the best of me.
The drum kit that comes with Guitar Hero felt a nice cheap little electric drum set and I knew that people had hooked up Wii controllers to their computer pretty easily (it's just a Bluetooth connection), so I started looking around online to see what could be done. I came across this article that showed how to turn a Wii drum kit into a MIDI powered electric drum set using Garage Band, which sounded awesome! It turned out to be really easy and didn't take long to set up.
The key to connecting ever thing is OSCulator, a piece of software that handles the connection between controllers and OSX. It's really cool and the demo version is free! Once it finds the Wii controller you can assign actions to all the triggers (for this project this means assigning MIDI signals to each pad). The GH drums I have even support pressure sensitivity, so I can use that data to control the velocity of the MIDI note!
Once all that stuff is mapped I just opened up a new Garage Band song with a software instrument track and used a drum kit setting and now I have electric drums! Garage Band automatically detects the new MIDI controller and takes in the signal.
Here's a video of me showing off my marginal skills on my new Wii-lecric drums!
A few weeks ago I made a major change to my comic, Mount Saint Awesome. A lot of the details are in the blog post for this comic, but basically I wanted to get away from doing plot based comics with the MSA characters and do more of a semi-autobiographical (but still kind of made up) strip. I still like the Mount Saint Awesome band characters and I want to do some stuff with them, but the weekly updates just didn't work well for that type of story and the writing was feeling labored.
So now I'm a few weeks into this new format and I'm really enjoying it. I just feel more motivated to make comics because each comic is a smaller project. I've been able to try out new things with lettering and coloring without worrying about continuity between strips in a larger story. For the first time since I started the comic, I actually have a backlog of strips! It's been really nice to just write about what I want and I think the quality of the comics has improved because of that. I'd like to keep doing plot based strips in the future, but I want to do them in a more episodic way rather than just a weekly update.
I still want to do a bit of redesign/visual rebranding to the site to reflect the new format of the comic, but that will have to wait until I have the time (and inspiration) to sit down and work out a new design. I like the functionality of the site (a homebrewed, hacked up WordPress setup) so I don't want to mess with that too much.
This new format has really made the comic less of an obligation that needs to get done every week and something that's just fun to do. I think that's making for better comics and I'm starting to see a better response from people about it. I'm really excited about continuing to work in this format and doing more and more things with Mount Saint Awesome.
On Friday I received an email congratulating me on my paper's acceptance into DePaul's SORCS 2011 conference. It's a small student research conference, but it's still pretty cool to get something that I was the sole author on published. The paper is the one I mentioned earlier about using genetic algorithms for the purpose of autonomous music composition. It's based on the MIDarwin project I built for my machine learning course a while ago.
Quick Overview: MIDarwin takes in a MIDI file as an example of a "good" song. I found a whole library of MIDI files of popular songs to use for this and a lot of my testing used MIDI versions of Dammit and Panama. Then the program builds a population of randomly generated songs and compares them to the example song. The songs in the population that are most similar to the example song are deemed the "fittest" and are mated with other fit songs to produce another generation of songs (there's also some survival of good songs and some random mutation). As the population evolves the best songs in the population start getting more and more like the example song with the goal of producing music influenced by an already deemed "good" piece of music. The whole process is based off of Darwinian evolution as observed in biology.
I still need to make some revisions based on the reviewer's comments, but I'm pretty exited (and a little nervous) about presenting by my self at a conference. I need to prepare a 20 minute talk, plus slides about my research. Fortunately I know the stuff pretty well ( I did write a paper on it... ), but I still need to get everything together and I'd like to make some revisions to the code before the conference. After I make my edits to the paper I might post it on this site. It's not very long, only 5 pages, but it's still pretty technical. Still, some people might be interested in reading it just because the idea of computers composing music sounds a little strange and it's pretty cool to see actual progress being made in that field.
This is my first time presenting at an academic conference, so if anybody has any experience with this and has some pointers or advice I would be very interested.
Here's a quick comic that I threw together last night. It almost makes sense.
Step eiΠ+1 : Get a better understanding of fundamental mathematics concepts
Step 1 : Apply this to understanding fundamental computer science concepts
Step 2 through n-1 : ???
Step n : Build wisecracking robot sidekick
As I get more and more interested in doing CS research I'm starting to realize that all the math classes I thought were boring, impractical, and needlessly complicated back in college would actually be useful now. It's time I stopped avoiding math and really accept how fundamental it is. Based on some "math for CS people" recommendations I've seen I'm starting to read/work through Concrete Mathematics. Donald Knuth, the author of The Art of Computer Programming, is one of the authors and it's based on a really in-depth upper level math course he started at Stanford. I found a pdf version (probably of the 1st edition), so I'm using that for now, but if I can find a really cheap copy I'd consider buying a hardcopy.
In college I found myself reading through things or listening to lectures and never going back to better understand things that didn't stick right away. Now I feel like I have bit more focus and direction with my learning. I better understand how I learn and why I want to learn things, so while the subjects won't be any easier, I think that I'll have more success with them. I actually kind of like math and it's always bothered me that since college I wasn't "good" at it. Hopefully I'll be better able to learn and enjoy the subject now.