App: TonePad- Tenori-On for the rest of us

Allow me to share with you one of my favorite apps in all of Apple’s App Store: TonePad. You see, I’ve been intrigued by the elusive (and expensive) “visual music composition device” known as Tenori-on since I first heard about it a couple years ago. And since I don’t have the time to make the most of a thousand dollar diversionary investment like the Tenori-on, only an intrigue it has remained.

Which is why I took notice when I first read about TonePad, an app for iPhone/iPod Touch that replicates a part of the Tenori-on concept. And since downloading it, I can’t stop making minimalistic, dreamy tunes with it.

Usage is straightforward and simple. On launching the app, the user is presented with a 16 x 16 grid of dots, where the rows represent the beats and the columns represent 16 tones, with higher pitches at the top of the grid. Press a dot to activate that particular note and each time the measure loops to that beat, a tone is played. For visual feedback, each dot pulses as it is played. Combine dots into chords and melodies, and voila, you’re making music.

The tones themselves are pleasant, with a small reverb applied, making it hard to create a “bad” song. Sure, swiping a finger across the interface may not make for the most compelling of compositions, but it certainly doesn’t create the mess that mashing a keyboard or piano does.

As fun as TonePad is though, it does suffer from some limitations. For one, the composition options are fixed. The tempo, time signature and tone are set to a default, and on a default they must stay. You can’t make the loop any faster or slower, or change the number of beats in the measure or change the basic sound of the tone (or make it another sound entirely). Also, you’re limited to working within just the one loop. It would be pretty nice to be able to set up a loop and have it continue to play as you put together another loop to layer on top (and it would be especially nice to do it with different base tones). Finally, and this one can’t really be helped, but the dots are small enough that they can be troublesome to accurately press. There have been a number of times when I wanted to turn one off and ended up turning the neighbors on.

But hey, I’m not really complaining. TonePad is both fun and free and a worthy app to carry in one’s pocket.

Enjoy some TonePad improvisation from yours truly:


On the Web: tonepadapp.com

Wrongsmith collects the “best” of Songsmith

Total hat-tip to Webomatica for this.

The web is slowly filling up Songsmith “remixes” of popular songs.

It’s a program recently released by Microsoft Research that purports to make anyone and everyone a songwriter. Just select a musical style and sing into a microphone and the app will automatically generate accompanying music. Arrangements and chords can all be customized.

Of course it didn’t take long for enterprising users to figure out that Songsmith accepts pre-recorded vocals as well. Just isolate them from the original recordings, feed them into the program and customized the settings. Songsmith does the rest.

The results can be hilarious and a steady stream of new mixes are making their way to YouTube. The website Wrongsmith [which is no longer online, oct 2012] is doing a pretty good job of collecting the best of them.

Here’s a few of my favorites so far:

Michael Jackson – Beat It

Envisioned as a spastic techno carnival.

Queen – We Will Rock You

A calypso anthem.

Billy Idol – White Wedding

Bluegrass style.

To its credit, the program does a pretty decent job of staying on key and and tempo. Though it’s not perfect, it’s often “close enough for rock and roll.”

Songsmith is one of my new favorite things.

The Simpsons – Songs in the Key of Springfield

Released in the spring of 1997, Songs in the Key of Springfield is the first album to feature music that appeared on The Simpsons. The songs span from seasons 2 through 7, with the earliest song being Tony Bennett’s Capitol City from Danicin’ Homer and the latest being In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida sung by church-goers from Bart Sells His Soul.

(Though technically a version of the Itchy & Scratchy theme appeared in the first season episode Krusty Gets Busted, the recording included on the CD is from 2nd season’s Itchy & Scratchy & Marge. Similarly, the Treehouse of Horror theme used on the CD is from season 5, but a version of it was used in season 2.)

At nearly an hour long, the album distills some of the best and funniest music of the franchise’s history. Classics such as the Stonecutters’ song, the Monorail Song, the Oh, Streetcar! and Stop the Planet of the Apes musicals, and Tito Puente’s tale of uptempo retribution: SeƱor Burns never fail to get me singing along.

The highlights for me however, are the nine excellent renditions of the Simpsons’ theme sprinkled throughout the album like toppings on a donut. These versions take their inspiration from the topic of an episode and rework, sometimes radically, the show’s familiar exit music into various styles and tributes. My favorites, just for their sheer creativity, are the Big Band, Afro-Cuban and Australian versions, as well as the “Dragnet” homage. Big kudos to show composer Alf Clausen for those.

There’s not a bad song on this record (though Lisa’s ‘Round Springfield jazz eulogy to Bleeding Gums Murphy can be grating). While listen to Songs in the Key of Springfield, long-time fans will wax nostalgic for the show’s finest days, from when The Simpsons truely was the best thing on T.V. This music goes a long way to cementing that reputation.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Tunequest rating: 8.8

Surprisingly though, the album appears to be out of print and not available for digital download. Amazon offers the CD via third party sellers as well as bundled with Go Simpsonic (the sequel album). iTunes doesn’t offer it at all.

The Stonecutters’ Song, which explains all of history’s great mysteries:

Ethan Winer, one-man Cello section: 37 parts to a song played by one man

Ethan Winer plays all 37 separate parts on A Cello Rondo, including the percussion, on his cello. He also composed the song. The music is about 6 minutes long and the end of the video shows his digital music editing and some of his film setup. Not only is the production quite smooth, showcasing the power of modern technology to allow a single person to (relatively) easily create complex and intricate music, the song is a really good pop tune.

And I thought it was impressive when Dave Grohl recorded the first Foo Fighters record all by himself.

A Cello Rondo at Ethan Winer’s homepage. Multiple links to sites hosting the video as well as a free mp3 download of the song. There’s also as much background information on the project as you could want and some downloadable sheet music if you want to give it your own try.

The Simpsons Movie: Good Film, Good Music

The Simpsons Movie

This past weekend, I saw The Simpsons Movie and must declare that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I know it’s become a bit of pastime to bemoan the show’s decline, but honestly, you won’t find much cynicism coming from me with regards to the movie. The plot is straightforward, but fittingly expansive and engrossing for a motion picture. The jokes are actually rather good, largely avoiding the Homer-is-so-grossly-incompetent-that-its-not-funny-anymore humor that plagued the show for a long time. The film also resists the temptation to recycle material from the past eighteen seasons worth of shows, injecting new ideas and wit into the franchise.

All the family members receive a fair amount of screen time and character development, and that goes a long way toward helping the movie succeed. The Simpsons has always been at its best when it has shown the family being a family. With a running time that’s the equivalent of four episodes, The Simpsons Movie is afforded the opportunity to linger on that familial interaction. Heck, for the first 25% of the film, the audience is treated to extended scenes of the family members being themselves.

Bart and Homer hang out and the father-son camaraderie is endearing. Lisa campaigns to save Lake Springfield from pollution (and gets a love interest in the process). Marge is a domestic goddess who worries about everything while doing her best to keep the family together. And Grandpa is, well, Grandpa.

Everyone’s favorite secondary characters, Moe, Lenny, Carl, Burns, Smithers, Apu, et al, received their own choice moments and lines throughout. Even the show’s cavalcade of tertiary characters make appearances, but not to the point of distraction; for the most part they’re limited to simply being drawn in the background so that long-time fans can look and say “Hey, there’s that kid Gavin from the episode Marge Be Not Proud.” You’ll know this scene when you see it.

simpsons movie soundtrack

Simpsons theme at itunes simpsons movie music

And the music… I was actually surprised to hear how good it is. I was a little wary when I learned that Hans Zimmer was composing. His music is decent enough, though truthfully I’ve never found it that compelling (exceptions being Gladiator and parts of Mission Impossible 2), and in general, he’s just so… corporate. And safe. Whenever a big-budget hypefest needs some backing tracks, Zimmer seems like the man to turn to for music that’ll be inoffensive to the highest number of people.

Fortunately, my trepidation in this case was ill-founded. Zimmer does an excellent job of taking the “Simpsons sound” (developed by Danny Elfman’s theme and Alf Clausen’s eighteen years of television scoring) and expanding it to fit the big screen. The music, like everything associated with the film, remains in character, just embiggened.

The disc starts with a grand orchestral interpretation of Danny Elfman’s main theme, which at first feels a bit off-putting after nearly two decades familiarity with the original version. But that quickly fades as the new orchestra does it justice. Overall, the album tends to borrow a great deal of inspiration from Danny Elfman’s sense of playful quirkiness. The movie’s main motif is built around uptempo mischievousness, like if the Jetsons were playing a prank.

It’s not all fun and games though. Like any dramatic film, The Simpsons Movie requires its share of suspense and seriousness, which the music delivers effectively without being distracting. One of best moments on the entire album comes at the beginning of the track You Doomed Us All… Again, which features a tender, melancholy duet between piano and flute.

Through and through, this album impresses. The only sour spot of note is the album’s closer, a track called Recklessly Impulsive, which is a high-BPM techno remix of some themes from the film. After 40ish minutes of stellar music, it’s a little bit jarring and major let down.

Despite the somewhat disappointing finale, I look with just a little amazement at how well both the film and album turned out. I went in with an open mind, but I didn’t exactly have high hopes. Combined, the movie and the score might just be the best pieces of culture I’ve run across all year.

The Simpsons Theme (Orchestral Version):

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Weird Al – Trapped in the Drive Thru: Perfect Parody

What can I say? This is brilliant. It’s a bit long (11 minutes), so block out some time to watch the whole thing.

It also helps to be familiar with Trapped in the Closet, R. Kelly’s hip-hop opera in multiple parts which tells a complex story (with several interwoven plots) of increasingly bizarre cases of infidelity and sexual hang-ups. Here’s a Google Video if you need to brush up. Sometimes referred to as the “Plan 9” of music videos, the series has obtained a bit of a cult following and it has been a ripe target for parody since its 2005 release.

So it should be no surprise that Weird Al decided to tackle it. But the caliber of the results, now that is a bit surprising. Mr. Yankovic has done some amazingly clever and funny work in the past (his Star Wars Episode I song comes to mind), but the source material for this is just so ridiculously over-the-top that its quite the feat that he was able to top it. And of course, it’s all the more astonishing that he does it by transposing the excessive and strained drama of the original to a topic most mundane: the search for dinner.

Trapped in the Drive-Thru – "Weird Al" Yankovic (Doogtoons)

trapped in the drive thru at itunes

Ratatat in Atlanta: The ringing in my ears

The ringing in my ears serves as a reminder that I have permanently lost a portion of my hearing, but I’m telling you it is worth it. I just got home from Ratatat’s show in midtown Atlanta and I have something to admit to you:

Seeing Ratatat perform live is one of my favorite things in the world. This show marks the third time I’ve managed to catch a performance and each time has been simply mind-blowing.

ratatat in atlanta april 10 2007

In studio, Ratatat’s synthesized beats are phenomenally addictive and their guitar melodies rock oh so much. But live, man, there’s this power and richness of atmosphere that creates a unique kind of sonic ambrosia that’s rare in modern popular music.

If I had the means, I would totally follow them around on tour.

For a good explanation of the Ratatat sound (and better photos of the show), check ohmpark’s write-up. Though I hesitate to lump Ratatat in with the 8-bit sound crowd. In fact, I think the band could hardly be farther from it. 8-bit operators rely on the primitiveness of early game music as the source and inspiration for their sound, whereas Ratatat is clearly coming from a traditional rock background (whaling guitars!) spiced with a danceable groove and almost baroque composition style.

::

Ratatat will play a few more date in the U.S. and U.K. throughout April. Go see them if you can.

For a taste of the Ratatat live experience, check out this crappy cameraphone video clip I shot during Lex, one of the rockin’ist songs in the repertoire.

For a better experience, try this video of the band performing in Seattle in September 2006. The songs are El Pico and Wildcat:

James Brown – Santa’s Got a Brand New Bag

I had forgotten that I had this song, but I was rummaging through my archives and was delighted to find it on today of all days. So in light of today’s news as well as the date, let’s celebrate some James Brown with his Santa’s Got a Brand New Bag.

Enjoy.

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For more Brownian Christmas classics, check out James Brown’s Funky Christmas at Amazon. Strangely, Santa’s Got a Brand New Bag isn’t included on it. Don’t worry, though, it does feature Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto and Soulful Christmas.

James Brown Double-bolted

this bandstand wasn't double bolted

James Brown died of pneumonia on Christmas Day 2006 at the age of 73 in Atlanta Georgia. The obits are all over the net, but here’s one from the AJC. Besides his musical legacy, he leaves behind one of the funniest, catchiest Simpsons’ lines, for its out-of-character absurdity and earnest delivery.

From the fifth season episode Bart’s Inner Child, it’s a heck of a catch-phrase: