Monday, February 18, 2013

Spies And Songs And Technology Without Books

All last week I was trying to think of an idea for a little stop-motion video with Little Plastic Doll and Rubber Lizard that would involve espionage. I was happy with the posts I came up with for last week, but I didn’t feel like I was making much progress toward thinking of anything for a stop-motion video involving espionage.

Then on Saturday afternoon—when I was doing something altogether unrelated to espionage or ideas for stop-motion films—a pretty cool idea just popped into my head. So on Saturday I was able to write a little script.

On Sunday the same kind of thing happened. I was doing stuff completely unrelated to espionage or stop-motion films and out-of-the-blue an idea for a song just popped into my head. I was able to quickly record a little melody and write down some lyrics.

So some day this week—maybe even tomorrow—I’ll have a new stop-motion film.

Everyone here is very excited.

In this new film Rubber Lizard will sing the song, and Little Plastic Doll will play an evil woman spy.


When I made up the song on Sunday afternoon the melody seemed simple enough, but then I needed to work out some kind of arrangement. I didn’t make much progress.

I’m hoping to make up an arrangement using just piano. On Sunday I spent much of the afternoon trying to practice various progressions and trying to get my hands to work together on the keyboard.

And I had some technical issues and that’s what I want to talk about briefly today.

Normally when I record sound-on-sound—that is, record one part and then record more parts along with the already recorded part without disturbing the earlier recording—I use my Tascam GT-R1. Of course my arranger workstation can do that stuff easily, too, but for the simple things I do, and since I transfer everything over to my computer anyway, I usually just choose to use the dedicated recorder.

On Sunday to help me practice I wanted to record one or two backing tracks to play along with on my workstation itself as I tried to work out an arrangement. I had to stop and fiddle with the interface for a few minutes to remember how it worked. It wasn’t too bad, but it was frustrating that some keys mean one thing doing one procedure, but then have entirely different uses—and uses that have no visual indications—when you want to do something else.

When I tried to do similar things with my portable keyboard I had to open up the manual (a thin and difficult manual, but better than nothing) and read the directions. The buttons and sequences of operations are completely “hidden” and essentially arbitrary without the written procedures.

This is an awful state of affairs for technology.

Processors and hardware/software combinations are very powerful, but designers, these days, make almost no effort at all to create products that simply work, or that teach you as you use them.

Everything has to be struggled with and figured out and then used every day so that the memory of its idiosyncrasies is always fresh.

My best calculator—the beautiful impossible math thing—is still almost unfathomable to me, even though I used it a little for The Angle Of Repose Of Department Store.

And as if products weren’t designed shabbily enough, most companies nowadays do not print up instruction manuals, they simply include a link to a PDF file somewhere that describes how something works. And usually that file is just basics.

Things used to be very different.

Technology companies used to have “interface designers” who would craft metaphors for interaction between users and machinery. And technical writers would work together with creative writers to craft manuals that were both reference manuals and instruction manuals. And many manuals even attempted to be partly inspirational, with examples and suggestions for use.

Take a look at this:

That’s the first really good calculator I ever owned, a Texas Instruments TI-92. It is the direct ancestor of the beautiful impossible math thing. In fact, programs and functions written for the TI-92 still run [!] on the beautiful impossible math thing, although vastly faster on the new hardware.

Look at that book. When anyone bought a TI-92 that book came with it. It’s an instruction manual and reference manual and an “exploration” of the power of the TI-92. It’s very good, and it’s the kind of thing many manufacturers used to include with complicated/expensive products.

That book is 518 pages long!

I bought that calculator around 1996. I still use that instruction book to help figure out things about the current generation of calculators Texas Instruments puts out.

Now when you buy the newest generation of that same device—the new version is called the TI-Nspire calculator, and I call it the beautiful impossible math thing—the device comes with NOTHING. No instruction manual of any kind. There is a little pamphlet called “Getting Started” but that just describes how to put in batteries and turn on the device and such.

Imagine that: A device so complicated it comes with a large-format paperback book 518 pages long. Then a new model of the device comes out, more complicated, more powerful, and that new model comes with no instructions of any kind!

What the hell are corporations thinking?

A couple of days ago I saw a pretty funny (or very sad, depending on how you look at things) example of this.

I mentioned a long time ago in Exciting Waveforms that a music studio owner offered to sell me a used Yamaha Motif music workstation because in his studio none of his clients ever used it. I didn’t buy it, but the Motif is a great workstation, very powerful and very expensive. But Yamaha—just like with my less expensive arranger workstation—prints up only a very thin manual which refers constantly to an online PDF reference manual for more details. And even that reference manual just covers the basic facts, not anything about usage examples.

So over on Amazon where they sell the latest model of the Motif (for more than three thousand dollars!) some guy wrote a review explaining how powerful the machine is and how beautiful it sounds. But the thread winding through the whole review was how hard the Motif is to use. The poor guy ends the review like this:

... The internal sequencer is MIDI only, very useful, but an audio recorder would be welcome. Trying to record the MIDI from the internal sequencer to a DAW (something that many would want to do) is more complicated than building a spy satellite. I still haven't figured it out and can't find much assistance. This is the inherent problem with the Motif. It does so many things and most of them quite well, but because only the most basic functions are explained, it is easy to spend hours and hours trying to figure out how to record something, for example.

So, in the end, I just end up playing the keyboard as a piano, and that is always enjoyable.

review of: Yamaha Motif XF8 Synthesizer

Imagine spending almost four thousand dollars [!] and discovering the workstation is so complicated often you just use it only as a digital piano!

No wonder the studio owner was trying to sell me his Motif. No wonder his clients don’t want to struggle with it.

These days are wonderful because technology is so powerful. But at the same time these days are insane because I’m betting hardly anybody in the general population has the kind of technology background you need to get anything to function in the really wild and almost magical ways technology is capable of functioning.

I thank my lucky stars I spent a lot of time when I was younger studying embedded systems and software and hardware design. And building Heathkit products!

I still sometimes have troubles, but I can usually work them out. I can’t imagine what must go through the mind and emotions of someone like that poor guy who bought a Yamaha Motif and then struggles with it.

If the technology around here cooperates, later this week I’ll have a new stop-motion video. Maybe tomorrow. Rubber Lizard singing, and Little Plastic Doll as an evil woman spy!

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Two Things And A Pretty Blue Flower

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