Sunday, December 21, 2008

In Memory of Jim Ludtke

This animation was done by a single artist, my dear friend Jim Ludtke, who left this planet far too soon. I miss you, Jim, and think about you all the time. You were a true creative genius, a one-of-a-kind human being. Jim did this all in Macromind 3D, one of the coolest 3D rendering and animation tools you probably never heard of, it wasn't around very long, but Jim made the most of it. From the Residents' "Freak Show" album and CD-ROM.

I Love the B*TTH**LE S*RF*RS

This just makes me happy. That is all.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Black Hole

The simple effects are the best!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

MacWorld Minus Mac

In a stunning turn of events, Apple today announced that 2009 will be the last year that they participate in the the venerable MacWorld Expo, held in San Francisco in January each year since 1984. This means that Apple will no longer attend any major computer tradeshow - they've bailed out of CES, NAB and the European shows, and outside of their own Worldwide Developer Conference which usually takes place in the spring/summer, they have no presence at any other technology conference of note. Also announced was the fact that Apple CEO Steve Jobs would not make his yearly keynote this January, another surprise that is stoking further rumors of undeclared health issues. What really takes the cake for me is that January 2009 marks the 25th anniversary of the Macintosh, which had many of us hoping for something exciting in the wings for the Expo. Rumors of an update to the Mac mini are setting the tone, and it ain't grand.

The New Television

Because of the reality of video on demand on the Internet, I was able to watch this absolutely wonderful episode of the classic Twilight Zone show, one that I had never seen before, and which left me in tears. I know I've had some truly positive affect on my students, perhaps helped them become better thinkers.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Death of a Library

The Donnell Library in NYC was an excellent resource, including a vast video and film library. The real estate gods of Manhattan know no mercy, so it's been closed and will reopen as a luxury hotel, because we all know that there aren't enough places to stay for $1000 a night in New York City. Here's a great blog posting by Igor, who works for They were in there digitizing a bunch of the library's collection. Very sad, but the pictures are captivating.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

To Space and Beyond

I'm not sure how I'm going to end up feeling about the new flick "The Day the Earth Stood Still", as the original is one of my all-time favorite films, but from what I've seen, it might not totally suck. Today comes news that Fox has decided to put the movie on the GalacticNet, beating lowly Internet-based media pirates to the punch. If you're on a planet in the Alpha Centauri star system, you'll be able to watch Kean..., er, Klaatu and Jennifer Connolly sometime in 2012.

Rough Rider

I did a writeup on the geniuses at Audio Damage this last summer (yeah, I know I've been slacking at updates on this blog, but hey, I'm putting one of my New Year resolutions into effect early here), and since then, they've put out a wonderful free plugin dubbed Rough Rider. It's a slick, potent audio signal compressor, capable of adding a lovely vintage bite to rhythm tracks and just about anything else you care to run through it. It adds heft and presence to recorded electric guitars, and it's great on saucy synth lines as well. Audio Units and VST, Mac or Windows, pick your poison, this is a great addition to anyone's rig, and it's more economically viable then the Big 3.

Google Magazine Search

The wonders of the Google world never cease - they've been busily scanning scores of magazines, letting you search the archives and relive past glories. I discovered this article from New York magazine, back in 1985, covering the nascent Mac graphics market. The piece opens with coverage of the animation project I worked on with musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson for the opening of the Palladium nightclub that same year. I was a ripe old 23 - exactly half my life ago - and I spent many nights in Laurie's apartment at the west end of Canal Street, fastidiously chopping up Thunderscanned Rousseau paintings into discrete elements, and adding animation with Macromind's fantastic VideoWorks software (which later morphed into Director). We were able to output the results down at Barry Rebo's video studio, and add some color with a high-end paintbox system. Laurie & I both blew off the grand opening of the Palladium, after consulting with each other on the phone, and sadly, we gradually lost touch over the years. Ah, memories!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Photoshop CS4 First Look

While it's billed as a "first look", my recent Mac|Life article on Photoshop CS4 is fairly in-depth, and a decent overview of the new features. You can also watch my screencast demos of Content Aware Scaling and nondestructive layer masks, two very cool new additions to CS4.

Vox Populi

Iceland Says... is the sister blog to Iceland Eyes, consisting of essays from Icelandic college students. A fascinating read.

Iceland Eyes

Iceland Eyes is a captivating blog, with thoughtful words and gorgeous images. The U.S. mainstream media has had little recent coverage of the situation in Iceland, I found this gem while searching for updates on their dire economic meltdown.

Friday, June 27, 2008

I'm on MacVoices

If you're interested in Audio Units plugins for expanding Apple's GarageBand software, take a listen to the latest episode of MacVoices, where I talk with host Chuck Joiner about the vast realm of third-party plugin manufacturers, mentioning some of my favorite software instruments and effects.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Roll Your Own Web Pilot

I'm a contributing editor for Mac|Life magazine, and a recent feature article I wrote for them has been posted on their website. Make Your Own TV Show is a look at the basics of putting together a pilot for a web-based episodic program, and covers the whole affair from a guerilla-videographer angle, from low-end cameras through some of the essential theory and practice of editing, and my picks for some of the websites you'll want to consider for distributing your show. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Fair & Balanced Universe

So there's this planet, and on this planet, there's a guy who made a lot of money beating people up.

What kind of money? Well, he has a home described as follows:

"The 54,000-square-foot home has 109 rooms, including 17 bathrooms, three kitchens and a bowling alley."

Yes, all that for punching people.

And he's apparently delinquent on paying his $3000 monthly child support.

If the asteroid hits tomorrow, it'll be a day too late.

Damage can be good

In my eternal quest for cool audio plugins, I've come across a bounty of wonderful, inexpensive goodies from the fine folks at Audio Damage. They make excellent-sounding effects, and I'm particularly taken with their DubStation, which is a fantastic simulation of an old bucket brigade-style analog delay - twist the delay time knob, and thrill at the recreation of the pitch-stretch artifacts that are just sooo much fun. It reminds of when I first laid my hands on an original Electro-Harmonix Memory Man delay, in 1975 - it arrived in an order I had placed from when I was a dealer for them in Caracas, Venezuela (and that's a whole 'other story from my youth), Mike Matthews had them send me a prototype (he was thrilled that he had a teenaged authorized dealer in South America). I plugged my guitar in, and was blown away by what came out of the box. The DubStation took me right back to that time, and it's only $39, the best delay deal on this planet. Their Reverence reverb is just perfect, sporting a slick sound and just about zero processor footprint, which boggles the mind. It's $39 as well, which is just ridiculous, given that the closest hardware counterpart will run you well into the hundreds of dollars. Vapor is a gorgeous, shimmering choris effect which works wonders on guitar tracks, and is subtle enough to be useful on all sorts of tracks - vocals, keyboards, drums - and it's $29. There's a bunch of other amazing plugs that these maniacs make - Dr. Device is likely to make your head explode - and they all represent a truly astounding value for the price. I can only imagine what would happen if these folks decide to make a softsynth.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Perfect Pitch

There's an excellent article about Antares Auto-Tune in the current New Yorker Magazine, with a detailed look at how this venerable pitch-correction tool gained an ancillary following based on what essentially boils down to a quirk in the software. Good reading.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Cool Online Art Toy

I just adore weird little graphics programs, and bomomo is a really nice example of what can be accomplished via a web browser. It's a ton of fun, just click on the tools and drag them around the canvas, and prepare to be delighted. I wish there was some control over colors, but hey, it's free. The closest thing I've seen are the particle brushes in Studio Artist, which are just too much fun.

Then there's Groboto, which has some similar types of fun procedural drawing abilities, all in glorious 3D. If you don't about this wonderfully creative, fun application, you should check it out, especially if you have kids who want to play with 3D and are daunted by the complexity of a typical 3D modeling program.

So why doesn't anyone build a standalone 2D painting application with this kind of functionality? Bomomo is a nice toy, but it makes me want something more substantial. Where is Mark Zimmer when you need him?

And I'll try to update this blog on a more regular basis. Sorry about the delay between the last entry and this one... life gets in the way of blogging.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I am speechless

Bruce ServicePack and the Vista Street Band.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

U-He is da bomb

So if you're into software synths, then you need to take a look - and give a listen - to the rather amazing Zebra software synthesizer. Another example of a great software instrument engineered by one primary creator, Urs Heckmann, Zebra is a smooth-sounding software synth supreme, with extensive modulation options (almost as intricate as an actual analog patchcord synth) and an absolutely gorgeous sound. It's almost a desert-island software synth, and at $199, it's a steal. In fact, if you have an old hardware synth laying around, you can get $50 off the price of Zebra by sending in a picture of your old gear with a "Retired by Zebra" sign - it's called the "Dinosaur Crossgrade", and it's got to be the coolest upgrade policy in the industry.

I should also mention that their MFM2 (More Feedback Machine) effects plugin is probably the most insane echo/delay device that you can plug into a signal path. It's got 4 separate delay lines with extensive modulation options, and is capable of producing a staggering range of effects, including chorusing, compression, filter-combing, distortion, the list goes on and on. It's $79, and it makes most of my hardware delays sound downright stupid.

We love small developers, and Urs is really cranking out gold. Must be the German beer. If you want a taste of the genius of U-He, and you're a Mac musician, check out the free Audio Units synth from these guys, Rumblence:zoyd. A simple interface, but the sounds that emit from this thing are just juicy.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Perian CODEC for Mac Users

If you're a Mac user, you've likely run into the frustration of dealing with AVI files.

Here's the answer: The Perian Quicktime component.

It's free. Download it, install it and forget about your media codec problems.

You're welcome!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Aural Holy Grail

In the realm of visual effects, no one has yet been able to create a CG human face that can blend in transparently with live action and withstand extended closeup shots. The closest anyone has gotten is the Gollum character created by the folks at Weta Digital, and the fact is that while it's a play on a human face, it's not an actual human in the film, it's just a fictional character. The primary problem with this issue is that we are all very aware of the nuances of facial expressions and details, as we spend a large amount of our life interpreting these cues from the people we interact with on a daily bases, whether in person or through our consumption of television. We're still waiting for a synthetic human face that can convince us that we're not seeing CG.

In the playground of musical technology, there's been a similar avatar: the simulation of an acoustic piano. Up until recent times, the best you could do to approximate the sound of a piano, was to employ instruments made of up samples of actual acoustic pianos. This approach has worked to some degree, with virtual sampled pianos including Synthogy Ivory, Akoustik Piano, Virtual Grand Piano and a host of other offerings. Part of the problem with these products is that they consist of many multisampled files, in order to convey the difference between notes struck hard and those played softly, and these samples tend to make the supporting audio files eat up anywhere from 15-35 gigabytes of hard drive space. On top of that, many players claim that they just don't feel right when played, that these sample-based instruments lack the responsiveness of a real piano, the entropy of the interactions between string, hammer and wood.

In the last year, this crucial milestone has been reached, and the very first software-only modeled acoustic piano has appeared on the market, and man, it's just stunning. It's called Pianoteq, and it's a true breakthrough that has caused huge ripples throughout the music industry. Created as a labor of love by a team at the Institute of Mathematics of Toulouse, Pianoteq absolutely nails the sound, response and dynamics of an actual physical instrument, and offers a deep level of control over a myriad of modeling and playback parameters, to the point where the average pianist will likely be somewhat overwhelmed. No matter, just load it up and play to your heart's content. Because it does not use any kind of sampling technology, the whole plugin weighs in at less than 15 megabytes, which is nothing less than astounding. Put this in a laptop, attach a nice 88-note weighted key controller to the computer, perhaps a pair of foot controllers (for the sustain and Sostenuto pedals), and you have the best sounding piano you'll ever be able to lug to a performance, for a whopping $360. While I'm primarily an electronic musician, the sound and playability of this marvel makes me glad that I'm alive at the moment in history when true innovations like this one exist. My hat's off to these folks, they've made something truly groundbreaking and uniquely special. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it awesome, with respect to the true meaning of that word. Check out the sound demos, you will not believe what your ears are hearing.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Is Software Innovation Dead?

This was one of the first years that I did not find myself in San Francisco in January, for the annual MacWorld Expo. I figured that I would be able to go on the web and get a sense of the kind of cool software & hardware gadgets to show up on the show floor, the one or two things that would knock my socks off and give me hope for the world of creative software.

Well, it looks like I didn't miss anything. Outside of the Apple announcement, there was precious little to see on the floor at Moscone that folks didn't already know about.

I can think back to years past, taking a trek through the Developer's Pavilion and scoping out the one or two neat software hacks that no one know about, and sharing the discovery of those cool toys with my fellow expo-goers back at the infamous "Office" (if you have to ask, forget it, I'm not saying anything else about that moniker). I clearly remember gazing at the very first version of Cinema 4D ever shown publicly, and to see it running on a dual-processor Mac G4 was quite the thrill (unlike trying to get Infini-D to work properly on a multi-processor Mac, which almost drove me to madness). When we first laid eyes on Todd Rundgren's FlowFazer screen saver, my friends & I thought we had died and gone to heaven - no one had seen anything like it on a microcomputer. Hanging out at Todd's house, messing around with all those outrageous FlowFazer modules that never did see the light of day, was just too much fun.

There were lots of gems that we would seek out, and nothing made me happier than to let people know this stuff existed, that the world of applications was bigger than word processing, spreadsheets, databases and all the other well-worn software categories. How many different ways can you move words around on a screen? Once you learn Microsoft Word, that's about as far as you go in the realm of writing, and let's be clear, the vast majority of folks who depend on the Microsoft Office, haven't explored the majority of tools, command and menu options that are in the programs that make up the suite. It's not like Photoshop is very different in this regard - I'd like to have a dollar for every Photoshop user who has never taken the time to even open the Calculations command, much less the Custom filter. Most of the program remains a mystery to everyone except the most devoted users.

When it comes to software development, Photoshop plugins are an excellent example of how much of the third-party development world has largely dried up - if you doubt this, step back and think about what cool Photoshop plugin you've seen released in recent memory. If you've been using Photoshop for awhile, consider what it was like 10, 15 years ago, with wild new plugins being released on what seemed like a monthly basis. I'm not trying to downplay the excellent work that companies like Alien Skin Software are doing, but in many cases, companies produce plugins which essentially duplicate Photoshop functionality, predicated on the lack of knowledge many Photoshop users have about how filters and other commands work together to produce complex results.

In the case of the recent MacWorld Expo, the biggest software release was... Microsoft Office 2008 (and in a rare exception, it was even available early in the year that makes up part of the name). OK, if you're an Office user, this was good news, but seriously, how many ways can you type a word? Is there anything earth-shattering about this software? Did Microsoft add Keynote-style cool transitions, is there a 3D confetti effect? I suspect that anyone happy with running earlier version of Office in Rosetta is not likely to jump at the chance of giving Microsoft more of their hard earned greenbacks. Good enough is, well, good enough.

I wonder if Apple had a dedicated demo station showing off Logic Studio, and the amazing thing which is the Sculpture synth, of the luscious sonic sweetness of the Delay Designer. I am fully aware that MacWorld Expo is a consumer show, but there are lots of people who would probably consider themselves professional media creators, who attend the show hoping to find something they didn't know about, some hidden gem that would open new creative possibilities. Based on the coverage I've seen on the web, I'm going to guess that the majority walked away from the Moscone expo hall somewhat less than blown away.

The most interesting software for doing creative stuff on a Mac - Studio Artist, MetaSynth, ArtMatic Pro, Groboto - could be seen nowhere on the show floor. The rather amazing Cheetah3D - a full-fledged modeling, rendering and animation package, Mac-only and priced at $129, was not there. I won't go into the issue of all of the music software companies which chose to pass on Expo this year - I'm gonna guess that they were all headed to NAMM instead - but the fact that most of them did not even bother to have any kind of representation at the show is telling.

I've always felt that the audio industry presented an opportunity to learn about how innovation works in high tech in general, and the fact is that the excitement and innovation these days remains quite healthy in the sound software biz. In fact, the rate of release of new software synthesizers, effects and audio libraries so far outpaces just about anything happening in video or imaging, that it's a little scary and very frustrating. Computers have more processing power than ever, to the point where we no longer lust after faster and faster processors - most of us are fairly happy with dual-core Intel Duos, and while I would personally love to have a top-end Mac Pro tower, I'm surviving quite well without it (of course, if I had to edit a bunch of uncompressed high-def video, I'd be sure to build one of these monsters into the budget). Has the software kept up with the harware? I think not, and this trend shows no signs of changing anytime soon. Who will release the next amazing, mind-blowing visual effects package? How about an image editor that takes the prowess of Photoshop and harnesses the largely-untapped CPU power to implement a next-generation interface that will do the heavy lifting?

Or are we doomed to a future of Photoshop 18.1 and Microsoft Office 2012?