Saturday, October 31, 2009

Original 8GB iPhone versus 32GB iPhone 3GS

I ordered my original 8GB iPhone the morning they became available to order at the online Apple Store, so I had it for nearly two and a half years. Yes, I paid $599.00 for it along with all of the other drooling early adopters, and was then offered a $100.00 Apple Store credit when they quickly lowered the price. I never took Apple up on the rebate because... well, have you ever tried to spend only $100.00 at the Apple Store?

Anyway, my iPhone was my trusty companion for two plus years, and it was going so strong that I skipped the iPhone 3G generation entirely: The battery life was still excellent, and I had very few freezes in that time: I'm guestimating maybe four freezes in two years. Shortly after the iPhone 3GS came out, however - after my warranty and contract expired, of course - the screen developed a dead band right across the second row down of app icons. Through some creative rearranging, I was able to put apps there that I didn't use, but it was still a PITA within apps when I couldn't activate certain functions that appeared within that dead band of pixels. Mind you, I could see everything, it's just that within that band, the iPhone did not respond to touch commands.

My goal was to see if I could hack it with my limping-along original iPhone until the rumored tablet device came out, but recently - within the past few weeks - the old iPhone developed truly bizarre battery life variations. Most of the time it charged up fine and worked for days, but every now and then a charge would only last for a few minutes before going dead on me. Yesterday, the iPhone woke up and went dead within seconds, and that was the last straw. So, I hopped in the old pickemup truck and drove out to The Apple Store at La Cantera. Since I live on the north-east side of San Antonio right by loop 1604, that's only about a fifteen/twenty minute drive for me.

The store was slow, as you'd expect for mid-day on a Friday, and after looking around and drooling over the new 27" iMac - for a couple of hundred dollars more than a 30" Cinema HD Display, you get the same horizontal resolution and a quad-core computer! - one of the service reps hooked me up with Amir. I chose the black model, and with his little hand-held device, he had it up and running within five minutes! That's a far cry for the three day debacle that I went through with the original iPhone: An AT&T rep had to call me back a couple of times before we got that sorted out. So, I now have four times the memory, GPS, and all of the wonderful apps that only work with 3G or 3GS iPhones available. Best of all? My entire iTunes library fits in it with much room to spare!

Oh, did I mention that it was only $299? Freaking amazing.

They look the same from the front, but they feel entirely different. The beveled edges curve back more smoothly now, giving the new phone a sexier feel. Plus, the new one has a bit more heft to it. Things must be tightly packed in there! Feels like a silver ingot, or something.

I restored the phone from a previous backup when I got home and synched it with my G5, and everything including my Jesus wallpaper came through the process perfectly. But now, like I said, it's synched with my entire iTunes library instead of just selected playlists.

The look is also sexier, and the totally smooth back also has a lot to do with the sexy feel. It's a major finger smudge magnet, though. One nice thing about being a guitarist is that I wash my hands several times a day before I play, so I don't smudge up stuff too bad, and I also hardly ever get colds or the flu (I think not having a wife and/or kids has a lot to do with that too).

Oh, and Happy Halloween!

Nothing scary there. Well, scary beautiful and scary sexy, maybe.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sonicbids is a Rip-Off

Don't join Sonicbids. If you are already a member, quit now.

Like many Berklee alumni, I was offered a six month free Sonicbids membership. At the time, I really didn't know Richard Johnson about it, but I decided to try it out. Big mistake. The entire paradigm is wrong: Musicians pay to bid on gigs... as if musicians and money problems aren't already the stuff of legend. I was expecting a place to post a resume and some MP3's and have the gigs come to me - that's the way it should work - but I was expected to bid on gigs in addition to paying membership fees. I try not to swear on MMM, but that's bullshit, that's what that is.

Not wanting to go full-on and declare Sonicbids a scam, I decided to do some Google searches. There were some interesting and humorous results. Well, if you call making a business out of ripping off musicians amusing. I don't.

Well, I cancelled my account... after a couple of "Why?" and "Are you sure?" warnings I got a "Bummer" message. I thought that was the end of it, but no. They offered me a six month extension... FREE! via email. Oh, brother. So, I had to "opt out" to cancel that, and to make absolutely sure I responded to the email too, and told them I thought Sonicbids was a rip-off. I wish I was confident this will finally be the end of it, but I'm not.

Here's the shyster who runs this scam: Panos Panay. Avoid him like he has H1N1.

"Bye Sonicbids!"

Saturday, October 17, 2009

ErgoPlay Solution for Blackbird Rider Nylon: "Kid Size"

Just for giggles I decided to order a "Kid Size" ErgoPlay Guitar Support to see if both of the front suction cups would adhere to my Blackbird Rider Nylon guitar without it being too small to use. I figured since they are made for 3/4 size guitars, it might just work.

Not only does it work, but it works perfectly!

As you can see, both of the front suction cups adhere with only millimeters to spare. Though the Kid Size ErgoPlay is only about an inch shorter than the standard sized one, the suction cups are smaller and closer together. That's the standard size model on the floor there - only one of the front suction cups would stick with that one. Oh, and the white dust on the ax is from my acrylic nails. LOL!

Here's the front view.

With the standard unit in the foreground, you can see that, other than the cup size and spacing, there is very little difference in size. The only bummer is that the Kid Size unit is dark blue and not black, so it doesn't go with the ax quite as well. No biggie, I guess. The original unit is now my spare.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Concert Review: Kazuhito Yamashita at Northwest Hills UMC

UPDATED: Scroll down for updated information.

The Austin Classical Guitar Society scored a major coup by having Kazuhito Yamashita open their 2009-2010 concert season. I have no earthly idea what Mr. Yamashita asks for in terms of compensation for such an appearance, but it must be quite a tidy sum, as the diminutive Japanese guitarist only performs a few concerts each year, and he almost never plays in the USA anymore. This was his first appearance ever in Austin, and his first concert in Texas in exactly twenty years; since the 1989 GFA in Lubbock. I also attended that concert, and my retrospective about the experience is the single most hit post in all of MMM history (And, that's over four years now).

Of course, I was very excited about the prospect of seeing Mr. Yamashita play again, but I must also admit to a bit of trepidation: How would he have changed in twenty years - two decades! - and, would I still be so impossibly wiped out by the man? Certainly, the way I listen to guitarists today is nothing like how I listened to them twenty years back. I was a thirty-one-year-old MM student back then, and I'm a jaded fifty-one-year-old performer/composer today. Seriously, I'm bored into somnolence by even great classical guitarists anymore, so would Kazuhito Yamashita still be the near singular exception?

In a word, yes.

I went for the $60.00 "preferred" ticket and arrived early enough to get a second row seat behind another Yamashita fan who I previously knew only from internet correspondence. I love it when that happens!

The first part of the program was Jr. High and High School ensembles, both of which were better than I expected, but I must admit that I just wanted to see Mr. Yamashita take the stage. When he did, he played Sonata No. 1 for solo guitar "The Blue Flower" by Keiko Fujiie, a female composer. The slightly overwrought program notes said that it was inspired by German Romanticism and dedicated to Mr. Yamashita. That's really all that needed to be said, so that's all I'll pass along.


UPDATE: My friend Stephen Swender, who was the guy sitting in front of me at the concert, has reminded me that Keiko Fujiie is Kazuhito Yamashita's wife. He told me that at the concert, but I had forgotten. In this light, I'm fairly certain that the sonata amounted to at least a partial collaboration between them, which probably accounts for how well it worked. She is a keyboard player, and the guitar, as an idiom, is so restrictive that nobody who doesn't actually play the guitar can write for it to save their lives. At least, that has been my experience 100% of the time so far. Regardless, it is a wonderful piece of music and a worthy addition to the guitar's repertoire. And hey, nothing wrong with a little musical nepotism: I would if I could. LOL!


Since I was completely unfamiliar with this work and the composer - and, okay, I'll admit to a little bias against female composers - I had no idea what to expect, and what expectations I did have were quite low. Well, in one respect, it was exactly what I expected: The old familiar harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic language of German Romanticism, but it wasn't overly heavy or overburdened with Sturm und Drang. It had just enough of each - weight and drama - to be effective, and man, was it a MF of technical demands. I really like this guitar sonata better than the Jose one, which has become a competition favorite. I'm sure it will be dismissed by the avant-garde crowd though, because of their prejudice against anything remotely musical or communicative, but I also expect audiences to adore it. Call me old fashioned, but I play to and for audiences... and am an audience member from time to time myself. So, my verdict on the sonata itself is, I'd give it an 8.5 out of ten (That's ridiculously generous for me).

As for Mr. Yamashita's performance, well, I need to set this up properly. The twenty-eight-year-old transcendental super-virtuoso I heard play Dvorak's 9th twenty years back is no more. Back in '89 I was so on the edge of my seat because of Mr. Yamashita's wildly abandoned - but perfectly controlled - bravura that I thought my eyeballs would melt, my eardrums cave in, and I feared for my life that the guitar would shatter into itty-bitty bits, with shards of wood and lengths of string flying off into the audience (No, that's not over the top). Last night was nothing like that... well, almost nothing like that.

Also, back in '89, Mr. Yamashita's tone was hyper-aggressive and "naily." That's changed too, and for the better. Not only that, but the young Yamashita had a dynamic range that had him over-playing the instrument to the point of string-rattle-induced distortion regularly: Really and truly, it was the loudest I had ever heard an acoustic guitar sound. Well, that has moderated too.

Now, when you combine these evolutions that Mr. Yamashita has gone through with the evolutions I've undergone, well... it was abso-fu¬Ęk!ng-lutely pluperfectly amazing. His tone is much warmer today, and his tonal range is better than ever: He plays from a few millimeters from the bridge all the way to the middle of the fingerboard, effortlessly and with sublime interpretive appropriateness. I heard pianos, I heard harps, and I heard every kind of guitar, from steely to subdued.

He also takes chances. Lots of them. No net for this tightrope act... and it's obviously no mere act; the guy is really inside of the music and speaking out through it. Yeah, there was a consummate master of showmanship on the stage in front of me, but it was a very mature master who utilized the elements of showmanship he has so finely honed - I was reminded more than once of other Japanese art forms like Kabuki, Sumo, and the martial arts (Remember, I lived in Japan and know, love, and have experienced the culture first hand) - to bring the most out of the music and have it hit the audience with maximal impact.

With all of the chances he took with the performance, you might expect at least a few crushed notes, and I did notice a few, but I'm thinking that twenty years back my ears were not so hyper-trained and so that may be nothing new. In any event, Kazuhito Yamashita is the only completely acoustic classical guitarist I've cared about enough to actually, you know, give up a perfectly good evening of practicing, composing and/or synth programming to go out and experience for the past twenty years. That is the one thing that hasn't changed a jot or tittle.

Oh yeah, the second half of the program was Mr. Yamashita performing his transcriptions of the Bach First Cello Suite and Third Violin Sonata. As I said to my bud sitting in front of me, "I thought I was familiar with that music." Er, no. It's like he re-composed the music for ultra-virtuoso guitar. Magnificent.

Now, if I could only get him to play just the finale of my first guitar sonata. I still think he's the only guitarist alive who could pull it off.

Gotta sign off with the same anime babe too. LOL!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Yamaha FS1R: Finally, a Synth Worth Learning (Updated)

UPDATE: Vintage Synth Explorer is back up today, so here are some links to the synthesizers mentioned below:

1] NED Synclavier
2] Yamaha TX816
3] Yamaha TX802
4] Yamaha TX81Z
5] Yamaha DX1
6] Yamaha FS1R

These are better than the Wikipedia articles, for the most part, though there are no external links.

As I've mentioned here previously, I was a pioneer in guitar synths and MIDI guitar back in the 80's and 90's - I was into guitar synths before MIDI was invented, actually - and the Synclavier II was the first guitar synth that interested me, because it was, IMO, a real musical instrument as opposed to a gimmick or toy. What I mean by that is, the Synclavier had enough depth that I could explore it for years and constantly have it follow me as I evolved, versus the Roland GR series synths and the like (Notably, the Arp Avatar, which ended up bankrupting the company).*

Though it cost me a fortune to get a toe in the game, $14,500.00 for an 8-voice mono guitar system, if memory serves, this turned out to be a very wise decision, as not only was I right about the Synclavier being a real musical instrument, but the combination of additive and FM synthesis in the Synclavier's voicing architecture allowed me to figure out why music works (Yes, I'm still working on the book that is outlined in the sidebar series). Not only that, but being part of an exclusive club, I got to meet a lot of interesting musicians: Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, Laurie Anderson, and many more.

I got so good at programming timbres on the Synclavier, that a lot of my "imaginary instrument" and sound effects patches were actually distributed by New England Digital with the Synclavier. For an idea of where this lead me over the course of ten years, here's a 1994 Synclavier electronic music composition I did that has bunches of my sound effects in a no-holds-barred- tour de force.

Electronic Nightmare

This was my "digital calling card" whenever anyone asked what I could do with a Synclavier: It's just a 32-voice stereo FM/Additive system recorded directly into a DAT deck - no external effects at all/nothing but the Synclavier's balanced outputs into a Sony DAT recorder (Hey, that was high tech in 1994). I still hear some of these sounds and their derivatives (A timbre programmer can always tell) in sci-fi soundtracks to this day.

*Sorry for the lame Wikipedia links, but Vintage Synth Explorer was offline as of the writing of this post. For better info, look there.


I have provided this background so you'll understand where I'm coming from as I get back into MIDI guitar: I have impossibly high standards, and am a ruthless perfectionist (For some reason, my perfectionism ticks off a lot of manufacturers when I point out deficiencies in their products, which is exactly the wrong response: They should hire me as a consultant! LOL!).

Back in the Synclavier era, I paired it up with a Yamaha TX-816 via MIDI when MIDI became available, because I also thought the TX-816 was a real musical instrument. It amounted to eight DX-7's in a 4U rackmount chassis, and I programmed it with a program I can't remember the name of that ran on a Commodore 64 (That program was the first primitive GUI I ever worked with, btw, because the then-new Macs were not really interesting to me... yet). So, when I began to look for a synth to get back into the game with, the TX-816 was the first thing to cross my mind. I soon ruled that out because of the size and weight of the thing, and the old memory backup batteries are no longer made, so I'd have to modify one for newer batteries or get one already modded. Nope.

Well, the later DX-7 II based TX-802 was only two spaces, had eight-part multi-timbral capabilities, and so that was a better possibility, but I really wanted a 1U devide. That left only the 4-operator TX-81Z. Not bad, but, meh. Know what I mean? It just didn't float my boat.

Well, it turns out that just after I got entirely out of the synth thing in 1997, Yamaha introduced a super-synth in a 1U chassis called the FS1R: 8 operators, like the original DX-1, real actual onboard digital effects processing, and formant sequences which are a lot like the Synclavier's timbre frames. Perfect!

Well, just try to find one. After looking at several beaters and 220v foreign units on eBay, I caught a brand new one that had never even been in a rack! Bought it immediately, so here's the newly completed guitar synth/MIDI rack:

Top to bottom: Bryston 2B-LP, Behringer BTR-2000 RackTuner, Lexicon MPX-G2, Axon AX 100 Mk II, Steinberg MIDEX 8, the Yamaha FS1R, a Behringer EuroRack RX 1602 mixer, and a Furman PS-PRO Series II power monitor. Yeah, yeah: 8U! Because re-tuning the electronic devices to the A=432Hz tuning standard I like is such a monumental PITA (Easy for the Axon, actually, but not for the Yamaha), I'm thinking about going back to A=440Hz. If I do that and put the Steinberg USB MIDI interface into another rack, I could get it down to 6U. I'll have to wait and see, but right now I need the Steinberg by the FS1R to program it, because operating from the faceplate is an exercise in self-flagellation.


As with all of these Yamaha rackmount FM synths, the only practical way to program them is from a computer. Well, this being a pre-OS X device, the old Yamaha program is for OS 9. Though Unisyn will work for most features, it won't allow for editing the formant sequences, which is the most powerful feature the FS1R offers. Fortunately, a Japanese programmer and code jockey has a freeware solution for OS X that allows full control over all of the FS1R's features.

This is going to be a long term project - just like learning to play a new instrument - so I'm going to dive in and spend most of my late night and post-practice time on this. So, don't expect any test recordings anytime soon: When I get to the critical mass point, I'll record something, but not until then. First thing I need to do is, you know, figure out how to scroll through all of the unit's presets. Seriously, it is not at all obvious how you do that from the faceplate controls! LOL!