A completely biased guide to DAWs

Your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is a matter of taste. As you have appalling taste, you are lucky that I have found time to instruct you in the matter.

Ableton Live.

Notably not called Ableton Compose, because trying to write actual music with this tool is like keyhole surgery, one little box at a time. Live was first developed for deejays to string together bits of other people’s music to a click track. Since that time, it has been encrusted with a tower of technical jiggery pokery that makes Live the premiere tool of ‘barbeque boys’ the world over. If you want to synchronise two machines, or write code that burps every third bar, or run a bassoon through a duct simulation you are well served. But the vast forehead of this thing remains built on the reptile brain underneath, and it fails at facilitating any attempt at flowing empathic music.

If you have live performances where you need six of this followed by seven of that and the whole thing must be panned just so – you will use Live. If you want to surprise yourself with a tantalising melody you will not.


See Ableton Live.

Pro Tools.

If you have an uncle with a large recording studio; custom furnishings, several thousand dollars on each microphone, grand piano in room C – you may be a candidate for Pro Tools. It will slot nicely into this high-end milieu, easing your work up to the top shelf. But buying Pro Tools, in itself, does not manifest this uncle, any more than red Ferrari brings forth a trophy wife. There are many tools that will do exactly same thing for much less.

True, Pro Tools is well made. Most of their stupid bullshit such as real-time mix downs and forced hardware is gone, but there are still AAX plugins –  an industry standard unused by anyone else in the industry. They cost an insulting amount, which can be paid off every month. Or you know, you could just go elsewhere.


The curious thing is that Reason’s illustrations of hardware racks appeared just when real hardware racks were going in the garbage. Such that many Reason users are convinced that actual hardware is a clever manifestation of the GUI (and if you don’t believe that you’ve never met a child amazed that ‘wow you have a collectable of the save icon!’).

I grew up with racks and damn, I like them in Reason. They are cheerful. I like scrolling up and down and hitting the tab key to plug wobbling cables in the back, and hitting the tab and scrolling up and down and actually… that cable thing gets tedious. You need a really big screen to see what you’re doing, and then a magnifying glass to read the controls on all those boxes you’re trying to navigate. Reason completely fails at scale, being too small and too large simultaneously.

Now I must admit I’ve never bothered to use Reason as a DAW. It’s my modular synthesiser which I plug into real DAWs and in that respect, it’s a damn fine thing, better than any eurorack.


Platform limited is bullshit. Same goes for Sonar.


Like if your grandad got a hold of monkey glands or something and kept living way beyond a natural span of existence. I had CARD32 on a Commodore 64 way back in dinosaur times. Then it was on the Atari and it still gets out of the coffin every night. I guess I am Grandma, and got used to Cubase and throw my hands in the air and go “Whelp! That’s Grandad For Ya!”. (Actually, at one time I tried using Logic back when it was on PC. That was foul, like ‘locked in some taxation consultancy for weeks on end’ foul. The Environment – what the fuck.)

You are not ever going to get super excited about Cubase, but like Microsoft Excel it is going to do the job well enough, and in software that’s probably all you can hope for.



They changed the name to Waveform and added a mixer and MIDI editor. In version 8. Yeah.


No, typing hexadecimal into a grid is not cool, it’s the antithesis of music.


There’s a lot to like about Reaper as a sound editor. In an age where ambisonics is taking on increasing importance, restricting waveforms to 5.1 or stereo is shooting yourself in the foot, and the only competition are the overpriced Nuendo and Pro Tools HD. It makes serious attempts at reducing bloat, embracing formats, and providing a range of useful tools in the box. And it’s CHEAP.

But you’re not out of the woods. Once past the basics it’s got a lot of idiosyncrasies, not cute ones, but mind numbingly painful ones, the sort that drives you to scream WTF and to curse the manual which is (a) a fan written wiki and (b) always out of date with the five new versions a week. Reaper is not open source, but it sure smells like open source.

And MIDI handling is not handled well at all. It’s an audio editor with some MIDI tacked on, and you’ll need to buy a real MIDI tool alongside Reaper.

FL Studio.

I used FL Studio for ages. Then I stopped for a while, to try change my working methods. When I tried to go back to it, I found myself outside a mental wall. All the things that seemed normal before seemed weird and twisted. I could still get old projects up and running, but the thought of doing anything new with it was perverse.

Then I realised I’d been in a cult. I’d since become deprogrammed.

FL is like if you put a drum machine on steroids, lots of steroids, INSANE levels. It’s a drum machine levelled up a billionity-billion times. I mean, I scored a motion picture on FL once upon a time. It can do it, hell – it can probably do anything, but it will do it in a way that makes no sense anywhere outside the cult headquarters, because it’s built on layer upon layer of feature additions. Things rarely get designed in a holistic manner in FL, they get layered on top. Like if you want to freeze the audio on a track, there was some convoluted procedure with placing an Edison plug in on a mixer track… these days I just freeze the track.

I can’t hate on it, and hell, you might even be enthralled by it. See you when you get out.


For the last week I’ve had no phone line, no internet except that which comes over the ‘smart phone’. Holy Shit how do people ‘consume’ through that tenuous porthole? Here’s me holding the phone up in the air trying to catch a reasonable WiFi signal, just so I can maybe see 5 words at a time from a ‘mobile’ news site – which is bowdlerised to the hell to show only ‘popular’ news items. No wonder so many dumb-ass millennials if that’s their online experience.

Anyway – it’s relevant to the topic at hand – what is ‘a book’ in this year 2015? What will ‘a book’ be in 2025? This really should be of interest to budding media designers, who spend too much time creating content and not enough worrying about publishing it. I’m starting a course on this topic because it makes no sense to keep teaching people how to animate for film and TV. That’s like teaching how to hoist sails on a long ship. Good luck on the high seas matey. I am no expert in electronic publishing, but then again I got the gig teaching ‘film studies’ 7 years ago from being a musician, and no complaints.


There will be paper books, they will be expensive collectables, like vinyl. Never mind that foppery. There will tablets, watches and perhaps eReaders, although the most recent Kindles seem to announce death of the purpose designed reader. You would hope that the book would not just be a flow of endless text pulled from a word processor, and would in some way respond to the potential of the device with sound and animation.

In 2011 the ePub3 format finally took on fixed text and multimedia. But in 2015 most eReaders still do not properly reproduce this format.

Obviously Apple got sick of that shit and Embraced, Expanded and Extinguished it into iBooks. You can’t blame them for getting tired of waiting, in fact you have to admire their snappy Hugo Boss uniforms. But at some point the iPad will no longer be the Fuhrer, and iBooks will be a dead end. ePub, like HTML5, is a mongrel, but it’s the mongrel we have to adopt.

A group of Nazi troops and students gather seized papers and books to burn, in the Opernplatz, Berlin.   (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Nazis and university students. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Most of Apple’s shenanigans have to do with punching Adobe in the face enough times to try kill it, but you can’t kill that which does not live. Example – having been punched for Flash, Adobe built a tool called Edge Animate that creates Javascript animations. People build these into iBooks. Apple updates iBooks with a kill switch for Edge. Adobe updates Edge with a cloaking device. I am mainly on Adobe’s side because at least they are building a tool, whereas Apple is breaking it. Flash may have been too hard on the first iPads, but that’s turned into an ancestral dispute.

My students need to publish visually dense books that represent artistic folios, and that means InDesign. It will make ePub3 as well as PDF, which is a strong format for print publication and archives, but a little too heavy for portable devices. You can also get a HTML5 website out of it, which might equally be a book in 2025.

Under the hood the ePub is an XHTML file, the format that lead to the great HTML rebellion (in which the W3c tried to move the community over to clean and tidy XHTML only to have outsiders instead propose the messy and forgiving HTML5 spec.). Sadly that means they preserve a religious schism that has since healed, and makes hand scripting difficult. An eBook also uses Scalable Vector Graphics, while HTML5 avoids this heavy computation. All up it’s the kind of file zoo that existed all over digital media back in the good old days.

Of course there are many more things that you can do on a pad that have artistic merit. If they want to dip into objective C then it’s their private hell. Some students might want to make ‘apps’, which run on watches. Bless them, I do not know how you can convey important things on a watch.

Will we make 2025 books? Will they be good books? Can we start a dialogue between engineer and artist?

Liminal Synth

As promised, a look at Studio Artist.

I think it’s part of the story that John Dalton is one of the bad old boys of DECK, the first Mac based multi-track recording system that would one day be absorbed into Studio Tools, later to be known as Pro Tools. Sounds like those days were a bit like knocking over grave stones while doing wheelies on your hot rod, so the contemplative aspect of Studio Artist could be part of a healing process. More relevant – the interface and operation feels like an elder program, & none of this Kai Krause gobbledegook. SA looks like it existed before the grand wizards of MetaCreations got their orbs together, & get off my lawn.


Studio Artist is a complicated thing, like a Tower of Babel halfway built, parts of it are lounges, parts of it are holes. It looks like the author is somewhere near to putting it together, but always has a few more more loose nuts & bolts to tighten. To try explain the complexity I’ll underestimate it, then expand the idea.

Goodbye Tonsils

At the most basic level SA is a Paint Synthesiser that takes photographs and turns them into paintings by splotching brush strokes at the edges of things. Fractal Painter does this, as does Filter Forge. Along with presets, SA provides a multitude of settings for the way the paint is applied – does it start at the top? does the brush follow the edge? does it dab or stroke or mop? So many settings that it can be discouraging to work through them like reading a phone book from cover to cover.

Goodbye Tonsils paint

But there’s sense in this. Example: the problem with painting movies is that the usual algorithm dabs at random over the source image, which makes for 25 irritating random dabblings a second. One of the controls here forces the dabs into a regular grid which reduces the noise a little. SA doesn’t presume to decide what you might need, it just gives you one of everything.

The Image Operation mode filters the entire image with blurs and blocks and colourisations. The big difference here is that there’s no brushing, the pixels are modified as a plane. This contrasts with the interactive Warp, where you brush in spheres & waves & kaleidoscopes. Similarly the Adjust brushes in colour, levels & other Photoshop style changes.

Goodbye Tonsils iopGoodbye Tonsils warp

The Texture Synthesiser modulates the entire image to produce abstractions with rhythmic distortions & colourations. It’s different to the Image Operation in that it imposes a pattern over the image, modulating it. Different again are Modularized Synthetic Graphics, which are complex chains of smaller graphical modifiers. The manual says there’s over 500 of them & then wishes them into the background, which is disappointing. It’s difficult feature & I guess most users wouldn’t want to get into detail with it, but if you primarily bought the software as a synthesiser (as I did) you’re left scratching out the details unaided.

Goodbye Tonsils texGoodbye Tonsils msg

If you’re keen to make synthesis in real time the DualMode Paint mode follows the brush about the drawing area, creating shapes & echoes that have a particular Yellow Submarine look to them.

The Paint Action Sequencer is really nice, because it thinks musically. The usual case for this kind of sequencer is ‘do this, then do that’. Here you have the capability to ‘do this every couple of bars & that four times’. The grid is like an array of notes, with each note being a painterly activity. So you can make melodies of these actions, if your mind can figure that out.

Animation is something that comes close to brilliance without kissing it. It’s dead easy to load up a movie & have SA perform all kinds of painting & twists & turns on the frames & save it back out again. But in my experience the way it works a frame at a time means there’s always a jangling movement over everything, it seems impossible to make something smooth & flowing. There’s a Temporal Image Operation module which tracks & flows & jumbles frames and so on & probably the secret is in there. But as I said the tower is unfinished, bits are over here & others over there & the end user is hard pressed to make it a coherent whole.

Kai Krause is revered because he would limit your options in such a way that you’d get to a good outcome early on. You’d then have to fight to get anywhere else, with Kai laughing at you. Dalton doesn’t play this game. He says, ‘here are a couple of thousand controls, see you on the other side’. Each tactic has worth, & in SA‘s case there’s the serendipity that’s been missing from software for a long time. This really is the spiritual successor of the Fairlight CVI, knobs and menus everywhere – and maybe you won’t know how you got there, but the result is a real trip.

Additional notes from John Dalton:

A few comments. The kinds of things going on under the hood of Studio Artist are much more technically sophisticated than some of the other programs you mention. And incorporate a lot of academic research results associated with how the human brain perceives visual imagery, and how that relates to artistic visual representation. Also, those other programs basically draw what we would call a single paint nib (single dab of paint), and while you can certainly do that in Studio Artist, you can also automatically draw complete paint strokes, so the automatic painting is emulating the way real paintings are generated, as opposed to just being an image processing filter effect.

The trick to generating fluid non flickering paint animation is to build temporal continuity into the paint animation. This involves constructing the Paint Action Sequence you will use to process the source movie in such a way that the paint build up taking place builds temporal continuity into the resulting paint animation output. Temporal continuity basically means that there needs to be continuity in the appearance of the painted output frames across several adjacent frame times in the output movie file. The simplest way to do this is to overdraw on top of the previous output frame, but you can get much more elaborate, which leads to all kinds of great paint animation effects.
We have some tutorials that go into how to do this in depth on our online Studio Artist documentation. Here’s one place to get started.
And here are 2 simple tutorials on building temporal continuity in a Paint Action Sequence.

If you look at my vimeo posts, you can see some examples of smooth non-flickering paint animation generated with Studio Artist.

You are right about the need for more documentation associated with MSG. Anyone interested does have the option of asking questions on the Studio Artist User Forum
which includes a MSG group.We’re very responsive to providing additional technical information to anyone who asks.
And if you look in the doc folder in your main Studio Artist folder, there is a lot of additional html documentation on MSG processors hidden in there.
And, here are some links to some MSG tips
You can also build a paint tool that incorporates a MSG preset in the paint tool, so that provides essentially an unlimited way to expand the functionality of the paint synthesizer.

What is great about Studio Artist (in my opinion) is that the synergy that occurs as you start to combine together different features provided in Studio Artist, which work together to create really an unlimited range of different visual effects. Here’s some more information on the philosophy behind the design of Studio Artist.

Oxygen Mask

Funny how the last post ended with the Video Cox Box. I thought that was a known reference – and was dead wrong. Obscure video equipment hasn’t the same general interest as musical equipment – everyone is well versed in Rolands and Korgs, especially in over-pricing them, but the Cox Box raises only the most feeble of online presence, and when you do find it mentioned it’ll be somebody from the old school of experimental video in Australia.

I feel like a Moonie, raised in a parallel culture. But there is such a thing:

Big Iron 12 copy

The rack thing with 9 knobs plus the bits underneath. Red, green, blue for each of 3 grey levels.

Synthetics must be only art form where the visual is completely dominated by the sonic. I don’t fully understand why this would be; I suspect it’s related to the floating problems of abstract art (that is, butt ugliness) that I’m trying to solve.

Plug In Wastelands

Using the KVR site as a source, there are now over 5500 VST plug ins, 2700 being VST instruments. If you exclude anything made with SynthEdit, the number is still 1400 – which just shows what a phenomenon SynthEdit has been.


You’d struggle to even find an equivalent to VST for video synthesis. Let’s use the open source FreeFrame as nearly all VJ software tools claim to support it. The project page mentions about 200 plug ins; there should be more as this very old page still lists software makers that died many years ago (Macromedia!) or have since become mainstream IT consultants. The same figure appears on IntrinsicFX’s home page and it seems almost every surviving FreeFrame plug-in comes from one or two vendors. If it weren’t for BigFug it’d be dead. Hero Alert.

This virtual tumble weed is much the same as the SynthEdit phenomenon. Apple Computer picked up PixelShox to dominate live visuals. Binding synthesis to QuickTime was excellent marketing – everyone started to develop in Quartz Composer killing the open source format, and once that was achieved Apple moved on to their next bit of Embrace, Expand, Extinguish. Even the people that have done well out of QC have realised that Apple has rolled on to the next bit of scorched earth and they’ll have to create something to fill the dead space. If VUO becomes a thing that’d be sweet. But you can understand why I’m not confident.


It goes so well with my coffee table!

Simon Hunt points out that the rabid interest in old audio hardware is likely a consequence of virtual instruments. That is, it was software like KORG’s Legacy collection that inspired the surge in KORG prices as people wanted the ‘real thing’. That would need a lot of research to decide – VST came in 1996, but it wasn’t wide spread for a few years after. Certainly in the late 90’s I could buy a MonoPoly for $250*, which now sells for around $1,500.

It matches my Persian rug!

It matches my Persian rug!

Had someone created a CoxBox or a Fairlight CVI in software, would these would now be equal in their mythology to the 303 Bassline? More importantly; would we now be able to enjoy the same spread of ‘looks’ as we currently enjoy ‘sounds’? How would we do this, and what format would we use? Should we make this part of the ‘Big Iron’ project?

Musty Old Castles

How many online synthesiser museums are there? More than stars in the sky or grains of sand? Then how many video synthesiser sites are there? Battered, and bruised with lava lamps half empty, AudioVisualizers is the original and the only. There’s more missing animated GIFs than you can shake a data glove at, but still nearly all the wikipedia articles use it as the definitive reference for visual synthesis. That’s pretty worrying and I see that part of the ‘Big Iron’ project needs be a web site that collects that info in case it dies.

Some old-school VJ Tools have lasted through the millennium bug. Arkaos is most venerable, Resolume still kicks along. Both now have versions that address the more lucrative media server market, the projection of video clips and DMX lighting in large events like the UK Olympics. Other tools like Salvation and Visual Jockey have become only media servers, joining ones like Ventuz that always were. New contenders like VDMX are keeping the flame lit.

Still the community is nowhere near that of sound and music. Fragmentation is part of it. Video edit guys are not live visuals lads are not interaction design gals. Maybe Isadora tries to unite the latter two users.

Max/Jitter has recently gone all-out to be less inscrutable more accessible via Vizzie, but it’s still like driving an 18 wheeler to the corner shop. Way too big and hard to steer. However the excellent adaptation of Vizzie into VizzAble by Zeal Hero Alert might bring Max4Live into focus as a living, breathing video equivalent to Reaktor. That’s currently my best hope for one day sharing the distinct ‘looks’ of these old video machines with everyone.

* No, I sold it again quickly because the MonoPoly is actually pretty boring.



Deep in the neo-hippy outbreak of the early 90s, I wrote a rude article about Mandelbrots, describing them as multicoloured bird shits. I stand by that description, with one concession over two decades: the nature of fractal art is to look like multicoloured bird shit, the art is in elevating it from that nature.

That’s something I’m desperately trying to do.

Why are cassettes like Marxism?

This is a part of redeeming video synthesis, which shares fractal art’s innate tendency to shitness. In the 1980’s it was hard/cool to make wiggles on a video screen. In the 1990’s it was hard/cool to render complex geometry on a computer screen. Once a new media difficulty curve is overcome the pioneers and tinkerers move on, and lacking any other virtue, the new wave quickly rots into excuses. As happened with punk music, abstract expressionism and telephone poetry.

In the 21st century many old things are coming back to life, but for some reason with little or no insight or refinement. The explanation is sometimes given as nostalgic purity – that only the ur-form is authentic. Cassettes and Marxism are both to be unsoiled by revision.

The way I see it, video synthesis addressed some limitations in music, but then introduced further limits which were solved by fractals, which then introduced limits which are still in need of solving. Instead of which we careened off into minimalist grey and little ticking noises. That we have arrived back at the aesthetics of 1980 something shows how little the 2000’s contributed to the dialogue.

But I’m not here to go into that – this post is about positive steps I’ve made and information about what is available to the next lot of tinkerers.

First, let’s be clear about synthetic visuals. Networks of simple calculations leading to apparently complex, and therefore ‘natural’ results. A Mandelbrot is a single shape with an infinitely complex edge (actually so is a circle, that’s just not as interesting). Most of the control is in shading the exterior of the shape according to rules; such as how far you are from the edge of the formula.

by Diane Cooper. Not sure I like it, but she’s got the right idea.

The initial excitement in fractals was that nature – weather, flowers, landscapes, could possibly have a simple mathematical basis. The 90’s neo-hippies strived to wed the apparent power of the home computer to nature and thus gain magical insight. Rendering a Mandelbrot was a contemplation of this potential (as was all things virtual). The colours were hot primaries because they had symbolic meaning a la chakras. As with Futurism, the art itself was beside the point, the manifestos were the thing.

My personal interest is in trying to take the facility of video synthesis, the organic confabulation of fractals and impose some kind of painterly discipline that will create synthetic audiovisual work that doesn’t rely on sleeve notes. I’ll then use these to demo my thesis a few years from now.

Mandelbrots are only one of many complex forms – the Julia set is less predictable and more interesting. And Perlin Noise is an example of very different recipe, of boxes within boxes each with a random shade. All are useful in breaking up synthetic images into the detailed dirt and fuzz of the real world.

Experiments in bird poo Abstract video.

Coming from 3D, I first tried tools for texturing 3D models, for example Genetica. These have a good palette of procedures for noise and organic patterns, as 3D has a tradition of naturalism. But Genetica is aimed at creating repeating square tiles and looping animation, so most of what I got was very cyclic and contained.

I thought about software that makes infinite 3D landscapes. In reading the history of Bryce I was reminded that it was created by Eric Wenger, who made Metasynth and a program I’d forgotten – Artmatic. Now if you wanted to plot the epicentre of neo-hippydom, Artmatic is it. Brightly coloured space vomit was the domain of Wenger, Kai Krause and MetaCreations up to the great wizard collapse of 1999. But a lead is a lead and so I came to the site where 1990 lives forever – U & I software. Holy Shit, that site.

It's 1999 and the future is HOT GREEN


Who would have thought that Artmatic would reach version 5? And further, that it would develop into a broad system for animating synthetic visuals? Though the interface still yearns to be run at 800×600 pixels and the iconography is inscrutable, Artmatic has taken on a potent range of outcomes beyond the original aims of the software and I can recommend it as one of the few really versatile algorithmic visual tools.


Take a space and shade it in grey scale from -x to +x and -y to +y. Distort that shading with snippets of formulas that link up in a chain of icons. Colour and light the grey scale with complex gradations. I don’t fully know how to run it. The man who wrote it doesn’t fully know how to run it. But I’ve started to get enough skill in guiding it where I want to go.

Cross platform poo Abstract art.

So this was all very good, but while the Mac was grinding away at some watery thing I had a bunch of PCs lounging around and not earning their keep. There’s no Artmatic for PC, what could I find?

Again I started at the end & wound back through a history. I found Chaotica on this site which seemed promising, but then read that “Chaotica supports all Apophysis / Flam3 features”. What are these? It turns out that there’s been a tribe of people making fractal flames since Scott Draves specified the algorithm in 1992. For example, Apophysis is an open source tool that if anything makes Artmatic seem straightforward.

(Trigger warning – the Mac tool mentioned in this video will crash your Mountain Lion based OSX machine for some reason).

Apophysis is designed to be hard to predict – that would be fine if 90% of the results weren’t fairy floss, so I went looking for more control. I discovered someone had ported the code to After Effects in 2002, which may as well have been under the rule of Richard the Third in computing terms. No it doesn’t run in AFX CS6. It does run in AFX 4.1. which I make no apologies for finding online – hell, it’s a wonder that 11 year old software runs in Windows 7 at all. But what you get is a whole heap of inscrutable sliders. Not good.

After much fussing with open source I settled on buying Ultra Fractal. This is the ultimate multicoloured bird shit creator of all time, and it took a lot of Gin to bury my misgivings and hit the PayPal. But then, it’s a challenge: try to make something that isn’t found on the side of a Kombi van. And then I came up with the answer!

Garfield without Garfield.

Seeing as the goodness is all in the way you colour the field in relationship to the edge of the fractal, the answer is obvious: just don’t include the fractal. Show only the effect of the fractal in disturbing the space. The bird shit is gone, leaving an abstract colour field.

The example here is nowhere near what I want yet, I just like how it looks like one of my migraines. I still need to add grit and dirt. But it’s getting closer to something I can work with. The way Ultra Fractal handles formulas is a bit raw and nasty, lots of folders full of crowd sourced snippets. I’ve just found the Perlin noise code and have some early results; it could be good. Meanwhile Ultra Fractal can import flames, so I can put away the 11 year old After Effects.

This post is already way long, so maybe another time I can talk about Studio Artist – quite a different kettle of synthetics.

bloody Education bloody Technology

Hey! It’s the inter-sessional break! You know, that period of about 5 weeks which looks like you are going to get so much done while you’re not teaching, only to find that administration will fill every waking moment! People outside of academia always think those big gaps in the contact weeks mean a blissful slumber for half the year – try it some time bubba, just try it.


I’ve already mentioned we’re switching to new degree – the first lot of test subjects have now been through the grinder. You ever seen one of those shows where they strap test dummies into planes and then crash them into the desert? Yeah, like that. The results are not public information, but I can tell you that blissful slumber is not part of it. I’m happy that some of my intuitions have turned out to be valid, although I’m still going to tweak damn near everything now I have seen it in action.

Anyway, as I’ve already moaned, the powers that be want us to move a lot of skills teaching off the agenda. Just make up some links to YouTube, yada yada. I keep saying that most of the teaching is really bad and we need to get some kind of structure up. You say things like that and you get the job of doing it. Because I have nothing to do all day right?

OK so where do you put all this learning? The university has a division called TELT which handles the tech stuff in teaching. Problem is that TELT spends most of its time trying to get a handle on the problem.

The TELT Evaluation Framework, developed in 2009 through to 2011, is designed to undergo iterative cyclical refinement and ongoing development, based on the results of the sub-layer evaluations themselves and an ever-changing staff, student and application landscape in which it is applied.

Therefore, readers are reminded that the nature, validity and applicability of the reviewed literature, the proposed processes, the suggested composition of the survey instruments, and the construction of the sub-layers are all likely to change in the future and undergo refinement and improvement in order to adapt to the evolving social, technological and institutional milieu.

You got that? Good. Build a house on that. I have built several, all of which have collapsed. But you gotta undergo iterative cyclical refinement and so this year I am starting up a Wiki. These have been around long enough that they probably are going be around for at least a few more years. The best thing is that if I write something in there some other staff member is bound to disagree and join up just to edit it. Which means they might write some other article that somebody else hates and they join too.

As well as articles I need to develop some kind of tablet kind of thing. Now I keep hearing that every single student in the universe has a tablet. That my own experience is the opposite is probably something about the application landscape sub-layers, so go ahead. Problem here is that lots of tools make excellent teaching modules, but in Flash. Flash is perfect for what I want to do but doesn’t work on one brand of tablet. The tools for that one brand of tablet are locked out from use on any other kind.

Then there’s HTML5. Since 2010 we’ve been waiting for some kind of standard. It doesn’t exist. Promises get made, conferences are held, people write books, no standard that runs across platforms. HTML5 has done more to sell magazines and blogs than it has created any viable media. It’s been coming so long that it’s just breathing heavy. Just something that got all the dweebs excited before they ran off and bought Googly Glasses.


…that promised so much, and in the end gave so little.

In the tools I’m testing I keep finding long lists of things not supported in HTML5 – video, sound, words longer than five letters, more than one kind of ugly button with a drop shadow. Bottom line is HTML5 remains a very unattractive format for anyone that wants to get solid work done. I would rather use Flash, which in reality works perfectly fine on the laptops my students actually carry.

Not saying I’ve closed my mind, but I’d like to get started. After all, there’s now one less week of this ‘break’ left.

Too many synthesisers

Last week I got older and to compensate I bought a red Ferrari a bunch of Arturia virtual synthesisers on the cheap. I think I now own about eleventy billion VSTs – bought, sent by nice companies, picked up for free – and truth be told I can’t remember all of them. There being so many important things I should do this weekend I avoided any of it and instead held a sonic rummage.

I’m past worrying about whether VSTs sound ‘real’. Perhaps not something cobbled together in Synthmaker, but the official versions of gear I’ve owned are impressive. For example Korg’s virtual MS-20 rewards all the tricks I’ve learned over years of owning three of the ‘real’ thing. I’d be tempted to call the MS-20 one of the best virtual synthesisers, but suspect it’s just familiarity talking. (The iPad iMS-20 seems a bit off to me but that could be headphones).

Likewise the SQ-8L. I’ve still got the hardware and have copied over all my patches. They sound as good, perhaps better, in the virtual instrument. Again, I’m an unreliable advocate as the ESQ-M was my wife for a couple of years.

In middle age you’re supposed to get all the things you ever pined for when young. Never owned a Jupiter-8, much too expensive. Owned an SH-1, SH-101, MC-202 roughly same era (the TB-303 Shitbox doesn’t count) and later a MKS-80 ‘Super Jupiter’. I’d previously avoided Arturia’s emulation of the J-8 as the demo proved insanely CPU heavy. It still is, but on an i7 you can get away with it. To check it out I make a sound I know well which mixes a sine and white noise through a very thin gate of high and low pass filter for a breathy tinkling sound. Perfect. But there’s plenty of 2OSC VSTi’s that can do that and more. I’m no longer sure why I was an advocate of Roland gear; the J-8 is not very exciting.

1993, a man surrounded by ‘real’ things. Real tape recorder. Real Super Jupiter. Real Casio CZ101 with strap. Real bright red shirt. Only the bug eyed expression is virtual.

Likewise the Yamaha CS-80, the only interesting thing about it is it’s insanely heavy and falls out of tune. As both problems are fixed in the virtual there’s not much to report apart from it having so many little knobs it tickles my failing eyesight. I’ve used a ‘real’ CS-30, it was ‘reedy’ if I can remember well. I should say in passing that people should stop making a fuss that Stevie Wonder once owned a keyboard. He owned every keyboard. He probably burned them to warm his mansion.

Of Arturia’s suite I think the only ones that will interest me are the Oberheim SEM, which has quite a unique sound and the Prophet VS which is a curiosity – it was Sequential’s last synthesiser before being absorbed by Yamaha, and ended up spawning the SY-22 and the KORG Wavestation. Never owned a Wavestation and never thought about it until I picked up the Legacy Collection – but again and again it’s been useful in creating odd overtones and inharmonics that flesh out sounds from another machine. Pity it’s an arse to program. Instead of the SY-22 I had the SY-77 and I can still feel how heavy that bastard was.

The one manufacturer that has brought me most good times in the new millennium is Native Instruments. They started with the wood grain but pretty soon moved into interfaces that work on a computer.

Simulated red LEDs on a computer screen – triumph of style over substance. To their credit NI very quickly dropped that shit for …

… muted white with larger, easier to see controls. Even if Yamaha chased them off, it inspired them to think about what people are doing.

Interface is part of the sound. If you can’t see what you’re doing then your sound design will be cautious and shallow. I love the FM-8, I had a ‘real’ DX-7 in 1985 that I agonised over, trying to get the kind of seamless waft that Eno could somehow achieve. The FM-8 is dead easy when compared and comes up all Eno in a trice. NI’s Absynth is supposed to look quirky I guess – truth in advertising. I can figure it out – hell I even taught it back at Uni of Western Sydney but imagine how much better it would be if they dropped all the aqua ducting. I also suspect that 90% of the Absynth sound is that resonant pipe effect. Turn it off and you’ll see what I mean.

Wobble bass – someone’s lack of ideas made grimly evident.

But my favourite NI keyboard is Massive. I avoided it for years, because everybody talked about it as dedicated to dubstep = damning it with very faint praise. Massive turns out to be an excellent synthesiser to make your OWN sounds. Starts as a three oscillator virtual analogue PLUS wave tables PLUS modular patching without stupid animated cables PLUS complex controllers. Start with simplicity and make good workhorse sounds, then gradually add the right amount of complexity for the weird and wonderful.

The other workhorse is Synth 1. If I have a sound in mind I can usually dial it up in a few minutes on Synth 1. Nothing unnecessary, nothing unneeded. Apparently it’s based on a Clavia NORD Lead 2, something that came out when I had $50 to my name so I’d have to take their word for it.

If I have neglected Image Line it’s not for the sound of their machines. It’s just that Harmor:

looks like a meat lover’s pizza. It does everything, but it looks like getting there is half the fun. I load it up. I stare at it. I feel the will to make music die off. Most times I use Harmless instead, which sounds absolutely thunderous and needs far less feeding. Both are additive synthesisers that have been tamed behind analogue style controls – which is the holy grail of synthesis really.

There’s not enough time to for me to go on. If you like you can go on with your own loves and hates.

The Academic Industrial Complex

Right now: Work is renovating our curriculum. Fan shen is not the stated goal but you’d be crazy to miss the chance to scorch earth and build a new church you’d be proud of in 2016, when the first graduates come plopping out the other side. Years of frustration are bubbling up along with the usual academic flights of fantasy. Kind of like pink champagne.

The stated goal (put simply) is that students choose a more flexible structure in their degree. They choose a kind of ‘spine’, for example sound production or mathematics, then they add modular tracks that create a good collaboration. So for example Built Environment and Game Design, or Video Production and Performance, or what ever becomes useful in the years ahead. Then sprinkle Electives on top. The idea is good, but mind numbingly difficult.

Figuring out what to do with Audio is a good example. You might want to make Audio a spine to which other courses are connected. But a bit of analysis (pushing pieces of paper around in circles) makes it clear that a wide range of artforms can benefit from sound design. You’d thus place it as a secondary track. But then you have people who just want to create sound work. It has to be both a primary and a secondary track… and also an elective for people who just need basic skills in sound production – hell, put it in EVERY possible configuration. Now you have to make versions of every course for the level of specificity and your attempt to simplify everything ends up making it more complicated.

Or my area – video production. Let’s say I place their first documentary production at the start of year two. That means that they haven’t had a photography course yet, so either I move it along a bit so that photography gets them first, or I bring photography into the course as ‘cinematography’, which then duplicates some of the photography course. If I move it along, then Audio has to move along, because they’ll need to be composing later and … So maybe then I could require a photography course in year one. But year one is earmarked for conceptual learning and one of the things we want to do is have the students actually build concepts before whining about how-big-is-my-camera. And my conviction is that in 2012 anyone that needs to write an essay also needs basic camera skills – so Electives.

It’s like doing multiple jigsaw puzzle at once, where the pieces move on all of them. Which leads to…

I keep reading about how the university system is doomed. Usually the author goes on to tout some kind of ‘online revolution’. That’s a nonsense. People are still squabbling about how to provide a single course online. They are nowhere near figuring out how the hell to guide people through an entire programme of courses. Not. even. started. Go and have a look at Open University or iTunesU courses – they’re all isolated bits and pieces – hobbies and enthusiasms. Popular Mechanics. The word ‘university’ encapsulates that which online libraries cannot achieve.

It’s a good thing that we’re not relying on online teaching because it’s a toxic dump. Any time a paradigm is danger of forming you can bet on some structural weakness causing an embarrassing collapse, finger pointing & excuses. Since I’ve been at Kunst Kamp we’ve had three Learning Management Systems come and go, wasting effort and breeding more Luddites. Last time the Death Star shelled out maximum dollar trying to force some stability – but overspending has not stopped the latest tower from visibly leaning. I’ve backed down from such ideas until a system lasts more than 2 years running.

BUT: I must admit that having delivered the same lectures 7 or 8 times over the last few years, I’m ready for some other way to deliver the goods. The temptation is to change things to keep yourself from being bored, but the students are still arriving at the ideas for the first time every semester, and the Lumière Brothers still created the Cinematographe whether or not I’m over it.

I need textbooks, electronic documents, with movies and quizzes and all that. Must be the hot spot because that’s where a battle is raging: on the left are Adobe with their InDesign/Folio system, to the right Apple with iBook Author, in the middle are muddles of middleware for Moodle.

That iBooks are poison for information should be clear to anyone (even that utterly predictable shill John Gruber momentarily denounced the idea before his leash was yanked). There is NO WAY I am ever going to make a document that can only be seen on a ‘book’ sold by one publisher. People that defend this because ‘Apple doesn’t owe anything to publishing in general’ should try to remember THE ENTIRE DAMN POINT OF A TEXTBOOK. Jesus, people it’s not football.

That leaves Adobe by default. There’s been an awful lot of leaving Adobe by default recently.

I’ve peeked at InDesign and the folio format. Maybe. I think Acrobat is probably a better idea, even if it’s not designed for Pads it will run on most things and even on paper. The ambition for the coming years is to start making teaching aids that will do the lectures for me – adds work at the front, takes it away at the back. Means that I can segue from running ten tutorials a week to running a script on Mondays. And if indeed universities are going to crumble, well I’ll be on the life raft won’t I?

Pip pip!

Readers Comments MacWorld August 2036

Shen is way off the mark with the iDocX review. Apple have come up with a new paradigm for medical treatment here and Big Medicine don’t get it because they are stuck in the old ways. So surgery needs precision – iDocX has it in spades! Simplifying the tool set just means rethinking the way you work. So many doctors work solo now, the group features are overrated (more)
262 people liked this

Just because you did the full medical degree doesn’t make you an expert in everything. This is great for people who just operate around the home. I do all the doctoring in my family and the simple interface is going to make appendectomy heaps easier.
31 people liked this

iQuackX more like.
117 people liked this

The so called ‘medical professionals’ are hating on this just because it look a bit like iNursing Express. So what! That works for more people and the ones that really do the healing. You can leave Comprehensive Medical Procedures 7 installed any it’s not like medicine moves that quickly! Apple have said they are going to bring oncology back on board real soon.
26 people liked this

Loving the new Psychiatric Magic Wand. Haters gonna hate!
9 people liked this

Try it on yourself first
76 people liked this

This is so disappointing. All we wanted was a 256 bit upgrade. I can’t believe I can’t use this with my existing cases.
119 people liked this

Healing Momma
It’s time that hobbyists got a fair deal!!! I am just as good at CANCER as any doctor (that is NO good)  now everybody gets to be a PRACTITIONER so I say GOOD ON APPLE for dropping the price where a MOM can set up too!
2 people liked this

This is a serious wall of shit. Can’t collaborate with another surgeon. All the operations have to go in one theatre, no specialised equipment. All the scalpels removed and some crazy gestural selection tool that I can’t use while staunching flow with a sponge. I’m seriously going to have to look elsewhere after 10 years of practice with CMP. This really sucks.
84 people liked this

R.D. Laing.
How does it feel to be a complete Adobe Fainboi?
11 people liked this

I don’t work for Adobe. And I know Practioner CS5 has big problems with leaving metal in the cavity. I just don’t have three hands to sponge and suture at the same time.
43 people liked this

Old Fart
You people just should realise that doing it analogue is the only real way.
0 people liked this

Able Baker
Christ everybody getting all worked up. It’s not like this is anything important like film production or something.
5 people liked this

Just because it’s not film production doesn’t mean medicine isn’t a real profession, I hate the way people bandy around the word ‘professional’ like its just a sales tool. I spent 6 years becoming a doctor. My parents wanted me to be an experimental musician, but my heart wasn’t in it. Medicine is professional too, it makes people better and (more)
0 people liked this

Get A Real Job
997 people liked this

Coach Handbags
The lady has the predilection for quality? Is Coach only Coach will satisfy the distinguished and illustrious ladyship! Look she is walk down the road with Coach on shoulder and all the traffic is stopped in admire for it. www.coach.sellingdirect.com.ch
1 person liked this


Rough Cut

I envy people that teach medicine. I mean, I know how hard it is and  all those sick people can’t be fun. But at least the company that ‘makes people’ doesn’t often decide to do a complete reboot. Three heads and seven legs, that sort of thing. No, my job is to teach video production and in my business I have to teach something that can at any moment be made more magical.

Just this week Final Cut Pro became ever so more magical. I mean, pink winged unicorns vomiting rainbows magical.

I’ve heard people call it a debacle. Some say catastrophe. I don’t think that’s a nice thing to say; if a company wants to have sexual congress with a dog, then as long as the dog is consenting I’d say well that’s just thinking different.

What’s the problem? Well for a start you know that some naughty software doesn’t allow you to save so that an older version can load it. That’s called ‘backwards compatibility’ and while PhotoShop is good about it, After Effects is very naughty. Apple have come up with something very magical here in that there is no ‘forwards compatibility’. Final Cut can’t load files made by Final Cut. Just stop there for a moment & be impressed.

It will load files made by iMovie and strangely it has iMovie’s interface and key commands and features and … well y’know one would be tempted to say that this just might be based on iMovie. Y’know? Just sayin’.

Something that was previously intended to handle feature films is now optimised for My Family Vacation. I start a new project and it is saved as an Event. Like My Birthday or My Divorce, rather than say Scene 17 of an existing storyboard and script. What used to be the asset browser now has that … that … well you kind of have to see it for yourself. They have a time line with word wrap. Because long horizontal data imagery works just so well in vertical containers.

Where does the footage go when you capture it? In Movies in your user folder, Silly! OK, so suppose my students are working in a group and need to organise multiple access? Or their user folders are on a server? Hello? Apple? Anyone left in the Pro Applications division? Have you really dropped Final Cut Server?

Once I have managed to edit something, and for the most part the editing is as before (although it’s a bit like an episode of Star Trek where the parallel universe is nearly the same as ours but Captain Kirk is secretly evil) then I get to the point where I want to save this thing. But you can’t save or export your project. You can only SHARE your movie on one of the usual clouds.

OK, so Apple have worked out that they can sell a lot of this to the home enthusiasts, fuck the clique that have been buying it so far. You can’t blame them, it’s in Apple’s blood to find the sweet spot where ‘it just works’, and they dropped the ‘Computer’ a while ago. But I can’t teach on this, technically or in practice and I’m now wondering who is going to take up the industry standard, how long that will take and what the hell I can do in the mean time. If it’s choice between Avid and Adobe, then the latter will do.

When combined with the forthcoming Ipad style OSX Lion the future of the media labs is looking a bit ‘finger painting’. Plenty of people like using iMovie on their iPad. It’s a great simple way to knock up a YouTube video. But we don’t all want to work that way, we are not all average and I don’t want to teach average. Not everything is a cat joke destined for YouTube.

I’ll keep the old version running as long as I can.