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Stumbled Upon My Thesis Online

It’s been so long that I’d nearly forgotten, but the other day I ran across my thesis on UNT’s library website. Kinda fun to go back and read it again (and surprising to realize how many typos actually made it past all three of my professors and the librarian). Feel free to check it out if you like. If you’re into long analyses of huge Oratorio Passion settings, it’ll be right up your alley:

http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc9780/m1/1/

Giving PureData a fresh coat of paint

Gussying-up Pd

PureData – which is a program you should be familiar with if you’ve read a few of my blog posts – comes in two varieties. There is a “vanilla” version which is the one directly from the desk of Miller Puckette. Then there is Pd-extended, which contains a continuously updated collection of all of the best objects created by others for the benefit of the Pd community. Both versions, despite their different names, have the same interface. And compared to it’s cousin, Max, Pd’s visual style leaves something to be desired.

Now I ought to be the last person to complain about this. Pd is a free program with unbelievable capabilities, and I’m constantly proselytizing to anyone who will listen about what an amazing piece of software it is. In fact, truth be told, it’s simple style almost never bothered me before. But alas – after getting to know Pd for nigh-on six years, I have begun to on occasion long for an interface a little less, well, vanilla.

Well I may have stumbled upon a way to give an already amazing program just a hint more visual depth. This method doesn’t flip a switch that will make Pd look like Max, but I wouldn’t particularly enjoy that anyway. What this will do is allow you to customize the color palette for your patches.

You might already be jumping ahead of me and expecting me to talk about how you can use canvases to put some color accents and open up the properties of many different objects to change the colors. This is actually something that will require no additional canvases and will be persistent as long as Pd is open (it must be reset for each new instance of Pd that is started).

Before:

Plain-Jane Pd

 

After:

Fancy-Pants Pd

 

There is an object included in Pd-extended called sys_gui. It’s a part of the hcs library of objects and it allows you to access some of the behind-the-scenes functions of Tcl/Tk, the core framework of Pd. It will work with vanilla Pd, but you will have to download the appropriately compiled object yourself. If you send a message to the sys_gui object in the format “set canvas_fill grey”, it will change the specified object’s attribute to the color provided. There is a help patch in the browser that will show you all of the changeable attributes. If you open the help browser and go down to “hcs” and then “examples” and open up “changing_the_colors.pd”, you will see the attributes listed. As for the colors, I found this page useful: http://www.tcl.tk/man/tcl/TkCmd/colors.htm

You may notice that banging those objects won’t make an immediate change – rather, the next patch you open or create will have the new colors. Because I wanted this to be something I could set on startup and then not worry about, I played around a bit and found that you can create a “launch” patch (which in practice works something like a windows batch file) that activates the sys_gui messages on load so all subsequent patches will have the desired colors. Then instead of opening Pd directly, I make a shortcut to the launch patch. This actually kills two birds with one line of code because this will also make the default directory when you try to open an existing patch wherever the shortcut lives. I had been trying to figure out recently how to make the default project path different than the program directory and this does it without messing with the any of the configuration files, which I forgot how to change properly long ago.

 

I know. Writing this makes me a shallow person. Shallow, superficial… but resourceful.

Looping Video Game Tracks

I’m working on a track now for a potential client, and it’s occurred to me that making a looping video game track is like working on a piece of wood in a lathe. You’ve got to let it spin around on repeat for a while and trim down the parts that don’t balance well with the rest of the track. And you have to wear protective goggles, because chunks of… nope, that’s about as far as I can go with that analogy, I guess… :)

The Eternal Question of Compositional Process

It comes up often, particularly for young composers – should most of my work be done in Sibelius/Finale or by hand? Time is precious. Composers regularly question their own methods and techniques to be sure that the process is as efficient as possible.

This question came up in a discussion I was a part of recently and here was what I had to say.

When I was younger and first stumbled onto notation editors that played back what you enter, it was a hindrance. I was obsessed with hearing what I’d entered over and over again. One thing it made me do was compose from one note to the next. Because I was young and naive, I didn’t realize what a problem this was. I would work on maybe a measure at a time and listen to it repeatedly, fixing whatever I thought didn’t sound good. When you compose like that it’s difficult to have an accurate sense of form and progression. Another thing it did was indoctrinate in my mind the way the piece should sound. I wasn’t using my imagination to think about what kind of amazing things a real-life performer would apply to the music – those little nuances that make the difference between ver batem MIDI playback and living breathing interpretation. Because of that I had an inaccurate picture of the character of the piece.

These days I like to spend as much time as possible on paper and in my head. I even avoid piano until a certain point. I use 11×17 paper to sketch out concepts as a visual representation (no notation yet) and progress from there. I compose as thoroughly as I can before going to Sibelius. When I’m entering notes, I turn off the sound. Once everything has been entered, I’ll go through and listen to it, but at this stage I already have a very clear definition in my head of how the piece should sound so I have the ability to detach myself from certain aspects of the software’s interpretation of the piece.

Your mileage may vary. I think you just have to have an acute awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses and where this needs to fit in your process.

May Day Challenge

I’ve long been aware of the Jerry Seinfeld method for creative generation. Apparently Mr. Seinfeld had the goal of writing one new joke every day. Every time he did this, he would cross off the day on a calendar trying to keep the chain going as long as he could. I never really viewed that sort of thing as being practical for the kind of work I do when composing, but this month I decided to give it a shot. Since the first of May I’ve been participating in a challenge with a handful of other people called the May Day Challenge. The idea is that every day for the entire month one must complete one creative project, be it a song, drawing, poem, etc. It’s been far from easy, and with work being so busy this time of year I actually missed three days, but otherwise I’ve been pretty consistently putting stuff out there. Participating in this exercise has taught me a few things. First that if I only had one day to do all my projects, I’d never get anything done. From an organizational standpoint, starting from scratch is far more difficult for me than putting work into a project I’ve already gotten off the ground. It could be the challenge of this rapid-fire pulling of concepts out of thin air day after day that’s making it difficult, or it could just be that I work best when I have at least a day or two to consider the various aspects of a project. Another thing I’ve noticed is that in one day, completely from scratch, I can compose a piece that’s about a minute long. Would I be able to do more if I wasn’t working full time? Absolutely. But still, that’s not bad. One last thing I’ve noticed, and this relates back to my first point, is that while I can compose a short piece in one day, I really can’t be satisfied with a work unless I have a little more time to review and redact it. Once the challenge is over, I definitely think there are a few pieces I will return to and see if I can polish them up a bit. It’s been fun and interesting, and while I might not have put anything together yet that’s ready for a recital or film, it’s gotten me into a habit of work and I think that could just be the overarching goal of the challenge. A quote I once carried around with me that I believe is attributed to Beethoven: Writing well starts with writing.

 

Here is a link to one of the daily challenges, a short movement for viola and piano: Morning Rites

Some Cool News from Boston

Back in 2010 when I started to work with writer/director Kareem Gray on his film Zero One, I was still trying to get the whole composing-for-film thing figured out. While I strived to do the best work I could, I didn’t think it would be something that would resonate with so many people, let alone land me the honor I’ve just received. Imagine my surprise when I found out I had won “Best Score” at the 37th Annual Boston Science Fiction Film Festival! It’s so wonderful to receive recognition for the hard work I poured into the score and I am grateful to everyone who had a hand in making such a great film, particularly Kareem who was a real pleasure to work with (Kareem also won “Best Screenplay” at the same festival). I’ve really enjoyed branching out into the world of commercial music and hope to be able to continue to make music for film and TV alongside my concert compositions. My next goal: get my music into a game!

I’ve got some of the tracks scattered around the web. This player contains some for your listening pleasure (“Wetware” and “Decompressing” are from the film):

Tutorial: Using APE with Flash 10 in CS5

How to configure APE to work in Flash 10

Because it took me some trial and error to get this worked out, I thought I’d spell it out here as clearly as I can for anyone else having the same problems I had. Let me say up front that the root of my problems was a compatibility issue between flash 10 and earlier versions. If you’re getting thrown some compile errors that are a little unclear, play around with the publish settings. That’s what eventually led me to this solution. This is not something I discovered myself – I’m taking what I’ve read on some different forums and putting it all here.

What you will need to do to make APE compile into flash 10 is to open up the .as files and replace all occurrences of the “Vector” function call. Apparently flash 10 introduced it’s own function called “Vector” and now everytime APE tries to call it it will throw up an error. I would recommend using a text editor such as Notepad++ for this job. This program in particular has a feature that allows you to search and replace for multiple documents at once. Even without this functionality this is still an easy fix, it’ll just take a little more time.

Look in the folder that has all of the APE files you use to link with your project (should be under org/cove/APE). Open all of the files with the extension “.as” in Notepad++ (or if using another editor just one file at a time). Search and replace for the word ‘Vector’ and replace with something unique, such as ‘APEVector’. I’m a bit paranoid when editing stuff like this so rather than using the “replace all” option I instead elected to verify each one. Once I’d replaced each occurrence, I recompiled the movie and everything worked smoothly in flash 10.

Next time I’ll talk a bit about SiON and why it’s the only sound library flash will ever need.

07.01.2011 – Online Score Editor: Noteflight

Noteflight online score editing software – http://noteflight.com

Years ago as online cloud document creation began to take off, I found myself constantly wishing for a portable online score editing solution. Well a couple of years ago I was lamenting this exact situation via facebook and someone responded with this site – Noteflight. At the time, it lacked a few things I had grown accustomed to on my big fat Sibelius workstation. But more recently, I have begun to regard this site as an indispensable part of my creative workflow. Due to recent updates, Noteflight continues to close the gap between itself and it’s more fully featured desktop counterparts. And it’s free.

Here’s why I love Noteflight right now: it is an ideal sketchpad. I consider myself quite old fashioned in that I am infatuated with paper and print and sketching in the physical medium, but this program does one thing my paper cannot – it is cloud based. No matter where I am now, as long as I have a flash capable and internet connected computer, I can access scores of varying degrees of completion. And when a score starts to get to the level completeness that I need to start formatting and editing, I can (if i haven’t already) export the piece as MIDI or music XML and import directly into Sibelius. Plus, their most recent update added the ability to input using a MIDI controller (a beta that I am proud to say I was invited to participate in). I can assure you that Noteflight is nowhere near being ready to replace Sibelius for me, especially as a self-published composer. But a subscription, which opens up more features and greater storage space, will set you back $50 a year. One of the most inhibiting steps along a young composer’s path is figuring out how to get your hands on a very pricey copy of the software that you need. Now for $50 (or free!) anyone can have access to some rather impressive notation/sequencing/engraving tools.

If I could have just one gripe, it’s that I wish there was more of a mature community with which to interact. The site has a social networking element to it which I think has the potential to make this a really amazing site, but most of the people with whom I’ve interacted don’t really seem to be on a very high level of discourse on the topic of composition. Additionally, you have the option (not mandatory) to share your scores with other users. This would be another great feature if I could find some people on there with constructive insights. I don’t have anything against the users who make the site like this, in fact it’s great to see so many people involved in composing, but many of them seem to be very young and without experience.

Regardless of my subjective complaint, the editor is fully featured and the community is friendly (and you don’t have to make any of your scores public if you don’t want to). I would highly recommend Noteflight.com whether you need an on-the-go bank for your ideas or can’t yet afford Sibelius or Finale and need a fully capable editor.

02.26.2011 – Guitar Project: Codename “Eternity”

Guitar hardware

So here is the full historical rundown of my guitar-making shenanigans. The tone is a little clinical, but I had a lot of information to put out there, so if that bothers you then you can just look at the pretty pictures :)

When I started building this guitar a year ago, I had pretty high hopes. I felt pretty good after successfully building the hammer dulcimer, and if anything felt like the guitar would be simple in comparison. 3 guesses how I’m feeling about it now. I’ve teased it with some pictures on facebook, but I wanted to more or less keep it under wraps until it was finished. Well, I don’t think I could really say that it’s “finished”, but I think I’m at the point where I’m going to set it aside strategize how to improve/revamp the original design. I predict that it will be a long time before it’s completely optimized, thus the “eternity” project title!

One reason that I wanted to do this in the first place is that I felt like I could come up with a design that used custom components to create some kind of super guitar that would be really versatile and have a great sound. The body was built out of pieces of ash. I was really inspired by looking at the design of PRS guitars and thought a body based on the Les Paul shape with the curves of the PRS would be a good place to start. I was using a really great book as a guide but as soon as I started reading about the work involved in making the neck, I made the decision that I would rather order a stock neck that was already fitted with a truss rod and fretted. All I had to do on the neck was drill the tuner holes and carve out the shape. I had some fun designing the shape of the head – I gave the under-side sort of a mobius curve so that when I painted the face black, you would see this subtle transformation in the geometry.

One big problem I had was when I started cutting out the shape of the body. Let me say at this point that I do not own my own set of shop tools yet so a lot of the carpentry was done in my Dad’s garage with his help. The first thing I tried was a bandsaw. I realized pretty quickly that the wood was heavier and thicker than our saw could handle – it kept jamming up every 30 seconds. We ended up rip cutting a close rectangular shape on a table saw, which even then was a constant struggle. After that, I cut some angles that got pretty close to the outline. Once I had done that, the bandsaw was finally able to handle the contour with some versatility. When it was close enough, I fired up the router to clean up the curves. I had used the bandsaw earlier to cut out a plywood template so that I could use a deep cutting router bit and smooth the edges. Finally the body was done.

For the body cavities (pickups, electronics, whammy bar) I probably should have tried to make some more templates. I found out that I need more practice on the router to be able to cut things freehand, so I ended up using a drill press and a chisel to make the cavities. Super rough, but in the end it was super effective. At this point I was ready to paint it, which once completed would take around a month or two to cure completely. I fitted the hardware components to make sure everything lined up the way it was supposed to. I actually strung it up and played it for a couple of weeks before finally finding a place where I could let it hang for a couple of months without being disturbed. During this time I was thinking about what I would need to do with the finish once it was dry. I researched a lot of options for polishing and finishing and whatnot, but when it dried the glossy enamel I used turned out to be hard and smooth enough to stay on its own. Apparently I didn’t do a good enough job of sealing the wood before applying the paint because after it had dried there was still a faint suggestion of the grain visible. Eventually I came to terms with it and decided that the grain gave it a unique look, so it remains.

Now let me tell you about the electronics. In a way, working on the carpentry was a nice diversion because as long as I was cutting or chiseling or painting, I didn’t have to think about the insane work of wiring all of the components together. I ordered two humbuckers from guitarfetish.com, 2 double pots, a 4-pole 5-way selector switch, 2 orange drop caps for a creamy vintage tone, and an active electronics circuit that includes overdrive and EQ presets. So basically I combining all the best assets from gibson and fender design and added as many configuration options as I could. With the 5-way switch, I was able to wire the pickups in a way that you get standard humbucking but also single coil action. The problems came when I realized what kind of frankenstein monster I would have to hide inside the control cavity. It took a lot of research and planning to come up with my theoretical wiring diagram. Eventually, I was able to come up with a design that preserved 99% of my conceptual objectives. The only thing I lost was the individual volume control for each pickup. I just couldn’t figure it out, so I ended up sending the master output through a single volume pot.

Circuit "diagram"

I have never had a huge amount of experience with wiring and soldering, although I felt comfortable enough to give it my best shot. Using my super amazing diagram I drew up earlier, I spent about a week soldering when I had the time. It wasn’t the cleanest job in the world, but it seemed pretty solid and the solder points didn’t fall apart when I finally installed everything into the cavity. I must admit that I was a little apprehensive because during my reading I had read a few cautionary tales about electrical safety when hooking up the amp. After trying it out with a pair of gloves for an extra layer of safety, I felt confident enough to give it a proper test. The kitchen wasn’t on fire and I was still alive, so the test proved to be mostly a success. What I discovered, though, was that I was getting sound out of one pickup but not the other. There’s also this nasty hum whenever I touch the strings, so I guess I’ve got a bad ground somewhere.

Cavities

I have cavities

At any rate, version 1 of the Eternity guitar is about a 60% success. I can hear it in the amp, and what I hear sounds pretty nice, but more work needs to be done. I think I will probably take it down to a bare-bones wiring setup and after I get each stage of it working, I’ll add the next component. For now, I just need some more time to think and plan before I come back to it.

If anyone has any ideas or input, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Stay tuned for more developments!

02.08.2011 Promotional Consideration

Well folks, it’s been a crazy few months. In my blogging absence, plenty of exciting things have been happening in my personal and professional life. I continue to be proud of the balance I’m able to strike between my teaching, directing, and composing. Recently I sent out a slew of marketing materials as I prepare to accept the role of publisher and distributor of my own works. So if you want to know where you can buy copies of my work, come straight to me. It’s fresher that way. I’m like a farmer and my website is the farmer’s market.
All in all, I’m moving the direction I want to be moving. So really this post is more of an update than anything else; I hope you won’t mind! Keep an eye out as I’m constantly working on new things and expanding my range. What’s next, you might ask? World domination. Right after I finish building my guitar.