Britain in the Snow

It’s become a popular pastime to kick sand in the faces of the Brits over our apparent inability to deal with bad weather.

Here’s my take on the matter:

Although the entire British Isles would fit into just one US state, there’s an extraordinary variety in geographic and climactic types in Britain. Parts of the country – Dartmoor and Exmoor, the Pennines and the Scottish Highlands – get winters that are bad even by North American standards and they deal with it very well but, where I live, we haven’t had any snow to speak of for a few years. This means that hard-pressed local authorities (and airports) won’t spend precious resources planning for something that might never happen. To be fair, no one would.

Added to this, whereas, in many countries, you can guarantee a certain type of weather at a given time of year, in Britain it just doesn’t work like that. There’s an old saying that, if you don’t like the weather, just wait ten minutes.

It must seem comical to see news reporters standing in an inch of snow as if predicting doomsday but the fact is that small amounts of snow really can cause chaos.

We had an inch of snow last week – which had gone by mid-afternoon – with the result that a 30 mile trip to my in-laws, which normally takes around 50 minutes, took two and a half hours! This is why the news agencies warn us in advance.

All this happens because of a combination of factors. Many roads in towns and cities in Britain were laid out when horse-drawn vehicles ruled. If a car pulls into the centre of the road to turn into a side road a long queue will soon form because following traffic can’t get by. Traffic density is also a big problem. When I see reports of congestion in Los Angeles I can’t help wondering how drivers would cope with conditions over here in the rush hour. People have been known to abandon their cars in the middle of the road in disgust.

Another factor is the lack of experience of snow and ice among young drivers. When I began driving we had bad weather every winter, guaranteed.

The main problem is that, although it has become fashionable (especially in Hollywood) to portray Britain in an unfavourable light, in their heart-of-hearts even our detractors secretly expect us to excel. It goes with the badge if you’re British. Compare our medals tally in the Olympics with our population figure, one fifth of the US population, and a picture emerges of a country that punches way, way above its weight.

Logic Pro X: one year on

With twelve months under my belt on Logic I decided to share experiences.

By way of introducing myself, I spent my working life (since 1958) as a pencil score and manuscript band parts kind of guy, switching to notation software in 1993. As we all know, youngsters come out of college nowadays with all these DAW skills at their fingertips.

It’s difficult to criticise something that offers such incredible value for money. Pro Tools costs around three times as much and the hugely capable Alchemy synth bundled with Logic is worth the money on its own. You get the ES2 synth as well, which is as good as they get.

The downside is that DAW programs aren’t merely difficult, they’re insanely, despairingly complex.  Printing out the Logic help guide (I don’t like studying at the computer) produces a pile of paper a foot high.

Here’s an extract:

“For Track Stacks, you can choose a layout for the main track of a summing stack, but not for the main track of a folder stack. Subtracks for both folder stacks and summing stacks can have their own Smart Control layout. When a subtrack of a summing stack is selected, an additional Main Track Smart Controls item appears in the Layout menu. Choosing this item shows the layout for the main track of the summing stack, rather than a separate layout for the subtrack. Adjusting any screen controls switches focus to the main track of the summing stack.”

Reading this kind of stuff through hundreds of pages does cause your brain to melt after a while. This is where you’ll turn to YouTube.

There are one or two minor bugs. Choosing ‘select all following’ in the piano roll editor sometimes needs two or three attempts and if you have a synth open when you close the program you have to manually open the main editor window next time around. Ditto an open floating edit window.

The orchestral software instruments included are kind of OK and with careful editing and mastering will produce tolerable results. As we all know, superior third party instruments are a second-mortgage job if you need the whole kaboodle.

It’s a bit early for me to start dishing out advice but be careful what you touch in Logic. You only have to glance at a track to knock it out of position and accidentally right-clicking something causes problems that can take all morning the sort out. Still, that’s just familiarity, I suppose.

My biggest gripe involves a swipe at the whole industry, not at Logic alone, and that’s with regard to the total mindset on rock music. There are tons of keyboard, guitar, bass and drums sounds in Logic and they sound great. But the way the saxophones are stored is a giveaway to the problem. The saxes form a section, right? but you’ll find the alto and tenor under Garageband > Woodwind and the soprano and baritone under Jampack 1 > Woodwind. The easiest way to ascribe them is via the EXS24 sampler/synth, where they all come up in a long alphabetic list found from the top of the window. You can add third party sound fonts in Logic, too. I’ve installed the Sf2 fonts. They’re not industry standard but some of the instruments are OK (and rare).

More evidence of this obsession with rock is found in the online tutorials. By far and away the best tutorials are produced by Joshua Carney who calls himself ‘MusicTechHelpGuy’. This is a monumental series of lectures representing a huge amount of work by Joshua. It’s clear from the screen capture that he often records them late in the evening, presumably after a hard day’s work.

His voice and presentation are also easy to cope with over long periods.

Here’s the link, if you don’t already know it (which means you’ve been marooned on Mars for a while):

Unfortunately, and this isn’t a criticism, Josh is also totally absorbed into rock. There are over 70 lectures, culminating in comprehensive coverage of the art of mastering.

When writing this stuff people often say ‘Let’s add an instrument’. I’m hoping they’ll add a sax or trombone but, no. It’ll be a guitar, drums, bass or keyboard, again.

There are one or two tutorials on orchestral stuff but, so far, I haven’t found anything that goes into mixing and mastering for bands and orchestras with the same amount of detailed attention that the rockers enjoy. There are important differences. With software instruments you’re not concerned with mike spill or the acoustical oddities of recording studios, for example and the combination of like-instruments into orchestral sections has no comparable process in rock.

Incidentally, Mike Senior’s excellent work  ‘Mixing Secrets For The Small Studio’ published by Focal Press, is a must-read book. Unfortunately, here again, it’s rock all the way.

Creating new Logic files

My working method is to produce a score in my favourite notation program ‘MuseScore’, which is also a freebie. This is saved as a Midi file which I right-click on to open with Logic. Most of the instruments go straight in but two of the trombones and the guitar will regularly appear as saxes. This is easily fixed and it’s unfair to blame Apple because notation programs can inflict their own take on the matter. It’s always necessary to go into the list editor and manually delete all imported references to volume and pan (etc.) otherwise you’ll find the faders have a mind of their own. Keyswitch instruments will have more than one instance of each because there are mute, staccato, pizza, tremolo etc. versions of the file.

In this respect, you can help yourself by leaving out all dynamics and other markings in the notation program score. It’s a whole new ball game. Staccato is OK and will save loads of time in the piano roll.

If I double-click on a MuseScore midi file Finale appoints itself as the default program, even though I never use it. It also prevents the Aria instruments from sounding in Logic, even though they’re bundled with Finale! I might remove Finale from my computer. It isn’t really worth the space it’s taking up.

So that’s all folks. I haven’t spent a huge amount of time sourcing advice on orchestral mixing so any advice will be welcome.

Please think again, Mr President

President Obama’s comments regarding Britain’s decision to hold a referendum on its continued membership of the European Union have caused annoyance over here, particularly his stated opinion that, because of American sacrifices, he has a stake in the issue.

Of course, America’s military involvement, together with the unstoppable might of the American mass production machine, certainly had a powerful effect but Britain had already been fighting two of its ‘partners’ in Europe, Germany and Italy, for two years before the strong isolationist voice in the USA was silenced. The change of heart was occasioned, not by events in Europe, but in the Pacific. Then, as now, America’s intervention was driven primarily by self-interest.

The Battle of Britain had come and gone by this time. The Royal Air Force, although outnumbered three to one, had secured control of the skies above southern England, thereby frustrating Hitler’s plans to invade Britain. In any case, can anyone seriously believe that the Wehrmacht would have been allowed to march triumphantly into London, as it did in Paris? No ruddy chance. I lived through World War 2 and used to shelter under the stairs with my mother as the Luftwaffe bombed an armaments factory half a mile from where I lived. I’m just old enough to remember the mood of the nation quite well.

And where does Mr Obama’s idea that Europe is united come from? Even Britain itself is not united. We have strong Welsh and Scottish claims to independence. The British and the French really do dislike each other. Striking French lorry drivers think nothing of blocking channel ports and, as I predicted at the time of the last referendum, regarding what was then the ‘Common Market’, when the chips are down countries will scurry into their own back yard to look after their own interests.

The biggest cause of annoyance here is the sheer hypocrisy of Mr Obama’s statement. Would the USA sacrifice an ounce of sovereignty to Mexico or Canada? Not an exact comparison, I admit, but its essence remains.

In case anyone is interested, these were the reasons I voted against membership of the Common Market in 1975:

Each interested country had its problems. Join them together and you just get a bigger problem. 

Britain had failed to invest in research and development.

Britain had overmanned and inefficient companies.

Britain had over-powerful unions (Jim Callaghan’s government governed by consent of the unions).

Britain had a closed-door, elitist management style that alienated the workforce.

Britain was resting on its laurels in the belief that ‘British is best’ (which it had been, at one time).

Britain suffered from class-distinction, as it still does. There is a stratum at the top of society that believes it has a divine right to live in clover and that the rest of us must ensure we’re sober and alert enough each morning to keep it there.

All these problems began in Britain and have to be tackled in Britain. None of them can be solved by joining with others in an artificial attempt to create a super state. Such integration has to occur organically.

The strangest aspect of Mr Obama’s comments involve his advice that Britain should not ‘withdraw from the world’. Britain founded a vast Empire that, despite its occasional excesses, was the greatest force for good the world has ever seen. Judging Britain’s continued influence purely on its economic and military power misses the point.

We must get out of Europe and the sooner the better. Then all those Euro-MP’s will be forced to do something useful to us all, not merely themselves.

 

Garritan instruments, again

Just to bring all this up to date (see three previous) – and in case there is anyone else out there who suffered in a similar way – I have discovered that, if I import the MIDI file (which is how you’re supposed to do it!) instead of dragging the file into the tracks area of Logic Pro, as you do with loops, all the instruments sound, both the native Logic and the imported Garritan ones.

But I’m still open to advice concerning why Finale appointed itself to be the default program when dealing with MIDI files generated in MuseScore.

Garritan: the saga continues

Two blogs ago I claimed that MuseScore, my scorewriter of choice, produced ‘clean’ midi files, that I’ve been dragging into the Logic Pro tracks window. This is a fair claim, supported by experiment. Today I had problems with MuseScore midi files and discovered that, when I opened the midi, stored temporarily on the desktop, it opened in Finale! Somehow Finale has appointed itself to be the ‘default’ program. This explained the problem. I had to select ‘open in MuseScore’ and export it again as a midi file. (I chose a different name to be quite sure.) It worked, on three occasions. The score in question was also taken into Finale some time ago and the file still exists, which could explain the mystery.

Each time I closed the unwanted instance of Finale an on-screen message informed me that Finale had quit unexpectedly and a report would be sent to Apple. I hope someone reads them.

Having believed, at one point, that a move to Finale was required I produced scores in the program. Because of this and the fact that, for example, I haven’t yet found a flugelhorn or bass trombone in Logic’s suites, I can’t dump Finale.

No one expects life to be easy – mine never was – but life really shouldn’t be like this. Suddenly, I’m getting a message to sign into iCloud when I start the computer. Now where did THAT come from? I’ve never used iCloud.

It’s easy to feel there’s something sinister going on here.

Garritan Instruments: an afterthought

I’d hoped that when I opened the Garritan instruments in my newly-acquired Logic Pro X they’d be the answer to my poor playback facilities. As always with virtual instruments, some sounds – tuned percussion, horns, drum kit etc. – are OK but the trumpets, especially, are poor and the muted sounds even worse.

To be fair, Finale isn’t a sequencing program and its playback is OK for a composer’s own needs or when sending demos to established customers who know your worth. My epic struggle to get them to work (see previous) was  not entirely a waste of time because, at least, I learned how to clear unwanted clutter from MIDI tracks. (It was my own ears that alerted me to that problem.)

Then I discovered something that so many young composers will already know. The ‘Legacy’ heading in the downloadable files list in Logic Pro isn’t a set of legal terms and conditions, it opens around 15GB worth of instruments! Some of this is in the form of additional loops but there are so many sets of instruments I’ll have to write a family-tree kind of diagram and set up some small music files as a handy way of making a choice.

Many loops are MIDI files which can be dragged into the tracks area in Logic or Garageband and tailored at will using either the pencil tool or by option-dragging etc.

Despite all this, the only way to achieve broadcast-quality demos is to buy some of the expensive instruments that are available.  In this connection I’m indebted to fellow-blogger Jim Gramze for pointing me towards two sites that didn’t arise in my own search:
http://www.soundsonline.com
https://www.vsl.co.at/en

[Until 1994, when I acquired Encore, I had been – since 1958 – a traditional pencil scores and manuscript knib craftsman so my current quest, which will be old stuff to first-year music students, began comparatively recently. During my radio days I just handed the score over to the BBC’s copyists. My own manuscript parts frequently drew some very kind remarks. Interestingly, I spent so much time writing in this way that I lost my ability to write in longhand and now have to write everything in capital letters!]

A Garritan instrument problem solved

An old buddy of mine, a fine trombonist, once commented that young players start where we leave off and I’ve just experienced another example that proved the point.

This story begins with my decision to buy Logic Pro X three weeks ago. I already had Pro Tools. I also doubled the RAM in my 27” iMac which now stands at 16 GB, with 16 more to come.

I know the keyboard inside out but I have limited technique so the easiest way for me to assemble the midi tracks is to export my scores to the desktop as midi files, drag them into a new project in Logic and assign the virtual instruments. I generally use MuseScore for notation because, despite the fact that the program still lacks some of Finale’s features, it’s far quicker overall. (I can add the other stuff manually.)

The problem is that I needed to supplement Logic’s excellent instruments to provide all the options I required. I haven’t complemented them with third party stuff yet because I want to avoid duplicating what I already have. As I expected, with the industry’s obsession with rock and pop, there are tons of drum, guitar, keyboard and bass sounds.

I have Finale and its Garritan instruments so this seemed to offer a way out.

I bought my first Mac in 1988 and have worked with Illustrator, PhotoShop, Quark XPress, many word processors and three different notation programs. In other words, I’m no stranger to learning curves and the frustration of learning new tricks. But nothing could prepare me for the week of misery I experienced as I tried and tried (and tried) to get the Garritan instruments to sound in Logic.

I consulted every source I could find and watched the Aria Player video over and over again. The problem here is that the images bear no resemblance to what I see on my computer.

My daughter Vicky had been watching me in silence.

‘Can I use the computer?’ she asked ‘I’ve had an epiphany moment and I think I can solve this’.

“Yeah, yeah’ I thought.

Unknown to me, because she is so unassuming, Vicky had used music software while acquiring her degree in computer animation. I often proudly describe what I’m doing but I now know that she’s been pretending to be impressed for a long time.

‘The files are corrupted’ she explained. ‘If I export them to the desktop and place them back into Logic the computer will create files the program can recognise’.

To my indescribable relief it worked.

The files are still corrupt to an extent because Finale converted the score dynamics into *step-edit stuff that sits in the background. I hadn’t used step-edit. This has caused some difficulty in assigning the dynamics (with the automation feature). I can’t find any save option in Finale that will help me to avoid this. MuseScore exports clean midi files, so that will be the way to go. It’s just that, with the current project, I had used Finale to create the score because I believed that, with so many accomplished composers worldwide using the program, I obviously needed to overcome my ‘silly’ dislike of it.

Wrong.

It’s likely that, struggling with deadlines, and with the knowledge of how time-consuming it generally is to learn new stuff, composers just stick with what they know. I did, for a long time. There’s also an element of snobbery about using free programs such as MuseScore.

[An impressive feature of the piano-roll edit feature in Logic Pro was revealed when I took  the midi files featuring 4/4, 5/4 and 11/8 time signatures into a project set up simply in the default 4/4 metre and it all worked! To make matters even more diabolical, I had subjected the 3,3,3 2 structure of the 11/8 to permutations, so that the ‘2’ portion moves around cyclically.]

*I’m grateful to a contributor to the Logic Pro forum for a clever solution to this problem. My files are now clean and the improvement to the overall sound is dramatic.