Thoughts on an iPod Shuffle

Orange iPod Shuffle in Dock (photo by tunequest)
Thinking of an iPod Shuffle? Find one on Amazon.

Birthday season is in effect around the tunequest compound and themodernista kicked off the festivities by presenting me with my long-desired orange iPod Shuffle (2G) (which I have dubbed “Shuffleupagus”). I had been struck by the orange model since they were announced this past January, but despite its relative inexpensiveness, I could never justify purchasing one; I’m a fairly austere guy when it comes to material goods and all my iPod needs have been handled quite nicely by my 5G. Still, the gift is not unappreciated, though I am somewhat abashed to admit that it makes the seventh iPod in six years for a family of two.

After palling around with the device for couple days, I’ve made some observations. Overall, the iPod Shuffle is pretty sweet and the vibrant orange casing is quite the eye-catcher. Straightforward and easy to use, it provides no-thinking audio entertainment. I love my 5G-pod, but its daily use often involves effort, whether its assessing new music, adding star ratings, absorbing dense material such as audiobooks and podcasts or just plain searching for something I’m in the mood to hear. The Shuffle, with a suitable playlist, provides a worry-free, effortless and enjoyable experience and the one gigabyte capacity provides ample music for daily jaunts, commutes and errands.

That experience, however, does come with some caveats.

The iPod Shuffle’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness: the lack of a screen. The same brain-dead simplicity that allows for simple recreation also can be a hindrance in some situations. On my 5G, whenever I run into a track that might be corrupted or otherwise malformed, I mark it with two stars as a way to pull it out of rotation and set it aside for reevaluation at a later date. On the Shuffle, that’s just not possible. And of course, when I can’t quite place the name/artist/album of the song I’m listening to, I’m just out of luck trying to identify it.

Also, the unit provides no visual indicator for volume. It’s hard to know exactly how loud the Shuffle is set without any visual feedback. I had it plugged into the tape adapter in my car and nearly blew out the speakers when a quiet classical piece transitioned to some bombastic Primus bass. Gave me quite the jolt too. In iTunes, however, you can set a maximum volume with a volume limiting slider.

Also, there’s no internal clock. The vast majority of my listening habits rely on the heavy use of iTunes’ Last Played Date. As a condition on my Smart Playlists, I use it to automatically refresh my listening selections, rotating recently played songs for those that haven’t been played in a while. The first-generation Shuffle was noted for its lack of a clock and, unfortunately, its successor is no different. Without a clock, the Shuffle has no way to know when you’ve finished playing a song and thus can’t update iTunes the next time you sync up. Instead, iTunes sets the Last Played Date to the time at which you perform the sync. While not quite as precise as I’d prefer, I tend to update my Pods frequently enough that it shouldn’t disrupt my schemes significantly.

Then there’s the size again. The thing is wicked small and keeping track of its whereabouts has proven bit elusive. A couple times already, I thought I had misplaced it or lost it under some paperwork when it was actually still clipped to my pocket. That’s definitely a behavioral change that I’ll have to adjust to.

Despite these minor inconveniences, and that’s really what they are, inconveniences, the iPod Shuffle is a solid product. In the few days I’ve had it, I’ve already found myself reaching for it more often than my 5G when I want to sit back and relax. In fact, once I get going, I find myself hesitant to turn it off. The only thing I need to figure out now is how to shuffle-by-album (if that’s even possible) rather than default shuffle-by-song.

Tosca – J.A.C. (2005): Warmest of the cool

Richard Dorfmeister of iconic Austrian mix-up outfit Kruder and Dorfmeister, and his partner-in-crime Rupert Huber form a duo they call Tosca, and together they work some of the meanest grooves in my collection. Their 2003 album, Delhi 9, ranks as one of my favorite releases this decade, based on its enslaving basslines and percolated rhythms. It’s some of the most forceful downtempo music I’ve run across, the type of stuff that almost makes one want to dance, but the music is so relaxing and alluring, all you can manage is a laid-back head swagger.

Tosca makes some of the warmest cool music you’ll ever hear.

With the high regard I hold toward the duo’s catalogue, I found myself surprised the other day when I discovered that since Delhi 9, Tosca had released a new album (“new” being two years ago). I’m not sure how or why, but news of the record never managed to reach me until I just happened upon his page at emusic. Of course, with plentiful credits remaining in this month’s allotment, I snapped both of them up without a moment’s hesitation.

The duo of Dorfmeister and Huber clearly know what they’re doing, and oh yes, they do it quite well. J.A.C. feels like an organic outgrowth of the slip-sliding dubby funk that got me hooked on their tunes, which is to say it’s a good album, a very good record. Ninety percent of the appeal in Tosca’s music comes from their unerring, velvety smooth basslines, layered over sophisticated, erudite beats whose catchiness belies their complexity. The other ten percent is brilliant composition.

J.A.C. has plenty of that, but it also shows some evolution of the outfit’s sound. Tosca’s tracks have never been strictly instrumental compositions, but where they have used vocals, it’s generally for their timbre or as interjections to accentuate the melody. In fact, off the top of my head, I can only think of one example that use lyrics as an integral part of the song’s construction. J.A.C. is a bit of a departure in that regard. A full six of the album’s twelve tracks feature actual sung words, and they all work.

Heidi Brühl is an enchanting jazz lounge piece sung in French that evokes a swanky underground Parisian nightclub. John Lee Huber is a soaring, energetic romp, while Superrob, a highlight of the album, is discotheque supremacy.

I can assure you, this disc will be rotation around here for a while. In fact, I think I’ve just found my next party soundtrack.

Here’s a YouTube find of Superrob, set to someone’s vacation photos. Enjoy:

Final Destination: Egypt

iTunes Store fact check: The Largest Selection?

via iLounge.

Apple today announced the expansion of its DRM-free iTunes Plus catalogue. The press release claims that the iTunes Store now offers the largest selection of non-rights-managed tracks in the world, with “more than two million” available.

I welcome news of the expansion, as well as the accompanying drop in price to $0.99 a track, but I have to question that superlative claim.

Apple doesn’t say how many more than two million the selection is. 2.1? 2.5? If it were larger than that, I’d expect Apple to claim “nearly three million songs.”

It’s worth pointing out though that emusic also claims to have offer more than two million songs, all in un-DRM-able MP3 format. Playlistmag goes so far as to say that emusic offers 2.7 million songs for download, from more than 20,000 labels.

So the question is, who really has the world’s largest non-DRM music download catalogue?

no, the answer is not bittorrent

TENORI-ON, the Visual Music Composition Instrument

So……….. anyone got ~$1200 to send my way? Why, you ask?

This thing:

Tenori-On photo from Yamaha

TENORI-ON, the new seemingly brilliant and addictively fun musical composition device from Yamaha. TENORI-ON means “sound on your palm” in Japanese. That’s a pretty fitting description of how it works.

While pressing LED buttons on the 16 x 16 grid as the loop indicator scrolls, players can create tones and rhythms, with each layer of music having its own tempo. There are a total of sixteen layers of music and they can be thought of as traditional recording tracks. Any of TENORI-ON’s six modes can be assigned to a layer and all layers can operate concurrently. Those layers are grouped into blocks (which I think is one loop across the device’s face), and blocks can be copied, sequenced and edited for variations on a theme and extended pieces. Combining all those functions, one can create some really complex music.

TENORI-ON can read samples and manipulate outside sounds via SD card, giving it nearly limitless compositional capabilities. It is also MIDI-capable, for interfacing with a second TENORI-ON or outside machine, such as a computer.

The instrument has six modes:

  • Score Mode
    Press a button to play a sound once. Press-and-hold to play that sound on every loop.
  • Random Performance Mode
    Turns the instrument into Pong. Press buttons to have a ball ping between those buttons.
  • Draw Mode
    Make music by drawing lines and curves. Reminds me of playing a harp.
  • Bounce Mode
    Press a button and a ball bounces up from the bottom to the button that was pressed. Lower buttons have more rapid beats. Higher buttons are slower in tempo. I sense some seriously interesting polyrhythmic possibilities here.
  • Push Mode
    For sustained notes.
  • Solo Mode
    Also creates sustained notes, but only when you’re actively pressing the buttons.

Clearly a fascinating device. But really, all the words in the world won’t do it justice, so watch this demonstration video featuring Yu Nishibori, a producer/developer from Yamaha:As part of the device’s launch, Yamaha commissioned three noted electronic musicians to create songs using only on the TENORI-ON–Jim O’Rourke, Atom Heart and Robert Lippock of To Rococo Rot–and is giving them away as downloadable MP3s. O’Rourke turns in an ambient soundscape while Atom Heart seems to noodle with a malfunctioning sonar on a piece that would be a home on the Forbidden Planet soundtrack. Lippock, true to form, crafts a pretty nice piece of IDM. You can listen for yourself at Yamaha’s TENORI-ON site.

Here’s Jim O’Rourke learning how to use the instrument (he’s evidently fluent in Japanese; who knew?), followed by some O’Rourke-ian improvisation:

Jim learns the TENORI-ON
Jim O’rourke Plays the TENORI-ON

Needless to say, I want one. Unfortunately, TENORI-ON is currently only being sold in the UK as a test market–at £599–and apparently, the entire nation is out of stock at the moment. But hey, if you just have to have one now, I spotted a couple on eBay. Otherwise, there’s always the hope that more become available in time for the holiday shopping season.


Radiohead – In Raindows: Ethos and ambiance

Via this 9rules note:



I haven’t placed an order for In Rainbows yet because I was waiting to find out the quality and format of the digital files. With this news I’m a little disappointed. Sure, 160kbps is quite *acceptable* but I consider 192kbps to be my minimum bitrate for MP3 (or did before I started encoding into AAC). Still, I assume the tracks are coming straight from the masters, so they’re bound to be decent. Even so, 160kbps seems like a strangely small format in this day in age.

All in all though, what this experience amounts to is a controlled (and profitable) “leak” for the band. Whether they succeed in up-selling the Discbox or traditional CD remains to be seen. Personally, I’m still debating whether there’s a Discbox with my name on it.

In any case, I’m sure the album will be fantastic. This is Radiohead we’re talking about.

Also strangely, the mp3s don’t come with any cover art included, though they otherwise have good ID3 tags (except for genre). Two images I’ve run across so far are this one, which looks like it could be from one of the vinyl sleeves:

in rainbows cover

And this one, which looks like it’s taken from the In Rainbows website:

in rainbows cover


Update 10/10: Having found out the format, I went ahead downloaded the album. I’m just glad I didn’t pre-pay a large amount for it. If I’m going to pay retail price for a record, I’m going to expect to be able to encode it at whatever quality I want. Having listened, the files sound fine in my ear buds and are certainly enjoyable enough for now, so I’m not going to make any further deal of it.

Albums by Radiohead always take a little while to grow on you. While they are never disappointing on the first listen, it takes some time before the gems are evident. I’m sure I won’t know quite what I think about In Rainbows for some time, but here are my first thoughts.

In Rainbows is perhaps the smallest departure in style in the band’s history, feeling like a continuation of the Hail to the Thief ethos, but with Amnesiac’s dour ambiance. Overall, the sense I get from the album is unambitious, but not staid. It is music of and for people who are weary. Of what, who knows? But true to the Radiohead mind-set, a detached alienation pervades the entire elaborated experience. To be sure, the music itself is as intricate as is to be expected, it just feels smaller and more straight-forward. There are no grand exclamations like Karma Police, mind-bending riffs like My Iron Lung or voyages into the unknown like Idioteque.

The other thing that strikes me right off the bat is that, for a rock band, this album doesn’t feature much in the way of rock. I don’t necessarily call that a bad thing. In fact, In Rainbows sounds so good as a whole that a massive rock song would feel totally out of place. It’s just unfortunate for me because Radiohead jams are some of my favorite things. I think they make up for it though with some down-right inspired percussion.

Initial song-by-song impressions:

15 Steps
A glitchy Bjork-like intro powers Thom Yorke’s trademark, though nearly unintelligible, falsetto in this up-tempo opener. The percussion here is the most interesting part, with the live drums providing body to the emphasized synth beats.

Dirty distorted riffs, straight-end drums and wailing electronics make me want to dance on top of a haunted house.

This slow proto-waltz is mesmerizing in its stripped down simplicity.

Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Gloriously clean arpeggios and a galloping rhythm make this one an early contender as my favorite from the album.

All I Need
A somber piano ballad builds to brilliant crescendo.

Faust Arp
A cello accentuates more arpeggios, this time played by a Spanish guitar, on this mellow tune. It’s possibly the most tender song in all of Radiohead’s repertoire.

Rounds out an elegiac trio of songs. All I Need, Faust Arp and Reckoner feel like they could easily meander by, unnoticed in a dream or on a dark foggy night, if they weren’t so captivating.

House of Cards
Thom’s vocals echo through the emptiness on what could be the B-side to Knives Out (if Knives Out didn’t already have b-sides).

Jigsaw Falling Into Place
The tempo finally picks back up on what it the most direct pop song on the record. It could be Sit Down. Stand Up’s little brother.

A boy and his piano ponder the persistence of media and the cruel march of time. A bit of a downer to end the album on.

All in all a great album to listen to, though you might want to save for a soundtrack on a rainy day or you find yourself in too good of a mood.

Here’s a fan-vid featuring Weird Fishes/Arpeggi:

Radiohead – In Rainbows – Weird Fishes_Arpeggi

Yeah What They Said 10/09: “Change is in the air” edition

Links to interesting stories and opinions. Right now, let’s take a look at the music industry double whammy of Radiohead + nine inch nails’ decisions to abandon convention:

What price did you choose?
Informal survey and comments about the prices people are willing to pay for In Rainbows.

Radiohead generation believes music is free
Premiere Radiohead site ateaseweb looks at various press reactions to the In Rainbows announcement.

Happiness In Slavery No More: Nine Inch Nails Goes Record Label Free
ParisLemon takes a look at Trent Reznor’s forward-thinking with regards to music marketing strategies and factors the death of DRM into the future of music.

Oasis And Others Jumping On Radiohead Bandwagon?
Mog speculates about other bands following the direct approach. So does nymag.

Tuesday Business Links
More Post-Radiohead Items: Terra Firma Wants Fresh Ideas, Value Of Recorded Music Debated
Business-related insight from an industry insider.

And, because I usually post a video or two with these things, here’s Radiohead playing Videotape at Bonnaroo 2006:

Radiohead – Videotape – Bonnaroo 6-17-06

plus Trent tell fans to screw his record label and steal his music:

"Steal it!" – Trent Reznor is honest and logical.

nine inch nails goes labelless

Follow close on the heels of the topic of the week, Trent Reznor announced today that after 18 years, nine inch nails is no longer beholden to any record label.

hello everyone. i’ve waited a long time to be able to make the
following announcement: as of right now nine inch nails is a totally
free agent, free of any recording contract with any label.

He goes on to say that he looks forward to having a direct relationship with his audience and fans. Further announcement are pending.

Congrats Trent.

Johnny Greenwood – Bodysong: Accessible Abstracts

Johnny Greenwood - Bodysong

get bodysong at amazon

All the recent Radiohead hoopla reminded me about the band’s other driving creative force: Johnny Greenwood. He’s the lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist responsible for a lot of those awesome riffs that Radiohead fans love oh-so-much (he tied with fellow band member Ed O’Brien as Rolling Stones’ 59th and 60th greatest guitar players of all time). Besides his work in a rock band, Greenwood also composes music of a more classical nature. In fact, he’s been the BBC’s composer in residence since 2004.

His first solo release is Bodysong, the score to the 2003 film of the same name. I remember reading a little about it when it came out, but have just now gotten around to giving it a serious listen. Overall, the album’s style is aligned with contemporary classical, but its exact nature is hard to pin down. It sweeps between orchestral strings, flighty jazz and mellow ambiance while maintaining a cohesive identity.

Unlike what is typically thought of as abstract/avant-garde music where the art derives from the sculpting of sound that isn’t necessarily pleasant to listen to, Bodysong is largely recognizable as traditional music, though not with much pop sensibility. The music here is compelling, if not particularly catchy.

In the case of many of the score’s more mellow tracks, it’s tempting to describe them as “soundscapes,” like a minimalist rising and fadings of tones. But the work here shows too much structure to be classified that way, with rhythm and percussion giving form to the formless. Greenwood’s compositions are abstract without being inaccessible.

Of the thirteen tracks on the disc, Convergence and Splitter are the two highlights. Convergence takes a page from Steve Reich’s book, feature overlapping layers of pure percussion that mesmerizingly diverge and converge with each other. It’s hard to not try a pick out the various patterns. Splitter, on the other hand, is a freeform jazz piece that could easily be using the same New Orleans jazz band from Amnesiac’s Life in a Glass House.

One of the more interesting results of Bodysong is how it reinforces the idea that Radiohead really is a functioning unit. Johnny’s influence on the band’s music is readily apparent in the soft piano of the album’s opener as well as in the various electronic interjections.

Overall however, I was quite surprised by how listenable Bodysong is, despite being what should be “difficult but rewarding.”

And a multi-track sampler from the film:

Jonny Greenwood – Bodysong

What Radiohead’s In Rainbows says about the state of the music industry

Radiohead buzz jumps 1300%

It’s been nearly forty-eight hours have passed since Radiohead’s surprise announcement set off an explosion of fandom around the web. Indeed, Blogpulse shows a more than 1300% increase in the number of posts mentioning the band from September 29 to October 1. Of course, a new Radiohead album is big news, especially after a four year wait, but the real source of conversation is the band’s decision to allow variable pricing of In Rainbows. Much of the commentary revolves around how this is a shot across the bow of the record labels.

In Rainbows is Radiohead’s first record since fulfilling their recording contract. That is to say that there was no record label involvement in the financing, production, marketing or distribution of the album. It’s yet another sign of the changing economics of the music industry in the digital era. Besides the usual “labels are dinosaurs” meme being bandied about, the aspect that strikes me the most about the In Rainbows announcement is the complete element of surprise.

It’s almost inconceivable that one of the world’s most watched band’s most anticipated albums could be sprung so suddenly on an unsuspecting populace.

Radiohead fans have known that there would be a new album “soon,” but a specific time frame was unknown. In fact, until as recently as week ago (Sept. 25) the Wikipedia page for the album maintained that it was to be released in 2008. There were no details other than suspected track titles and new songs played at live shows. We didn’t even know the album’s title until the other day. The fact that the band can say, “Hey it’s done and can be yours in a little more than a week,” that’s the real game changer here.

Consider the case with the band’s previous album, 2003’s Hail to the Thief. Whereas we’d heard nary a peep about In Rainbows, a surprisingly robust unmastered version of Hail to the Thief was leaked on the net TWO MONTHS before the official release date. Albums by other artists regularly appear on the net well ahead of their scheduled release date. Now, there’s the argument that leaked albums aren’t exactly a bad thing, but that’s not the point here.

The point is about control.

Now this is pure speculation, but it seems to me that without the involvement of record label personnel, Radiohead has been able to work in a more secured and isolated environment. Fewer spoons in the pot, so to speak, means fewer opportunities for unscrupulous individuals to make off with recorded materials. When there are so few people working closely on a project, I imagine that there’s much more loyalty and devotion as a whole and fewer people who feel that what they are doing is simply a job.

Added security and more artistic control? Chalk that up as another advantage to not working with a record label.

Of course, like Trent Reznor telling fans to steal his music, Radiohead can get away with this scheme because they’re a known quantity, having already benefitted from ten years of record label backing from a time when record labels were essential to lasting success. In 1997, there’s no way that OK Computer could have become one of the greatest albums ever released without the support of a major label. The media landscape of the late 90s was such that sufficient money to go big could only be found at a major corporation (EMI in Radiohead’s case).

Having generated all that cultural capital with the help of EMI’s resources and having a fan base that is already legion, there’s not much the band has to do at this point to stir up excitement. However, while they have generated the biggest buzz, Radiohead is not the first to distribute “donation-ware” music. Athens, Ga-based label Quote Unquote Records has been working in that fashion since 2006, billing itself at the first donation-based record label. And certainly there have been individual artists with Paypal buttons on their site, asking for contributions in exchange for free downloads. Though, it’s hard to find evidence on how financially successful that approach has been for the relatively obscure.

With a big name artist popularizing the idea, direct-to-consumer sales and personal value pricing are just more cracks in the business model of the record industry.

Historically, labels served the artists by putting money down to help promote, produce and distribute physical media. Throughout the 20th century, it was very expensive to shoot a music video and get posters printed and pay for studio time and hire recording technicians. The mass-production of thousands or millions of vinyl, cassettes or compact discs didn’t come cheap either. It’s impossible to have a record go platinum without manufacturing at least one million copies of it. The upfront money to do that was essentially on loan in the hopes that public interest in the artist would recoup costs and generate a healthy profit.

But since the boom of the MP3 and the increasing affordability and sophistication of “pro-am” music production, that system has been changing. Compared to even ten years ago, it’s exponentially cheaper to record, promote and distribute music using desktop computers and the Internet. Programs like Apple’s GarageBand make it relatively simple for actual garage bands or bedroom auteurs to create compelling, professional sounding music.

Add YouTube and music blogs (such as tunequest) to the mix and artists have a lot promotional muscle at their disposal. Top it off with low-cost DIY and pay-what-you-want digital distribution and the question becomes, “Who needs labels?”