Breakthrough Songwriting with Orb Producer Suite

 

Orb melody
I've been using Logic Pro for a few years now (and GarageBand before that) and have always marveled at how good the Drummer function is. You can choose one of several styles (Rock, R&B, Songwriter...) then pick a drummer (Duncan, Logan, Kyle...) and you get a great drum track that sounds like a human. You can have the drummer track follow another track (typically the bass track) and there are controls to adjust the volume / complexity, fills, etc. I used the Drummer feature extensively on my rock opera and it sounds like a real drummer, even to my drummer friends. (Added bonus: at least one person is playing in time!)

I've wondered why there aren't additional features like this for automatic accompaniment, like Band-in-a-Box but with a user interface from the 21st century. (Yes, Band-in-a-Box pioneered this approach, but they seem to delight in cramming more and more features and musical styles over several decades making the product somewhat byzantine.)

To my delight, I recently discovered Hexachords Orb Producer Suite 2.0. It's a series of four inter-connected plug-ins: Orb Chords, Orb Bass, Orb Arpeggio and Orb Melody all for 99 EUR. The suite operates as VST plug-ins and work with any major DAW. I took it out for a spin this weekend and found it to be a great experience. 

Orb chordsWhat the Orb Producer Suite does is automatically generate musical patterns. You can pick from categories of Chord Progressions (minor, major, epic, dark, uplifting...), set the key, tempo, how many bars and then Orb does the rest. If you don't like what it comes up with, you can adjust several parameters (density, complexity, polyphony, spread...) or just re-generate again until you get something you like. I went for a pretty straightforward I-V-IV-II main chord sequence in the key of D, that is D A G E. Once you've set the chord sequence, whenever you generate a bass, arpeggios or melody it will lock-in with the chords and scale you've set.

Orb synth presetsThe Orb Producer Suite includes a pretty decent wavetable synth with dozens of worthwhile presets. I opted not to use the synth except to evaluate the parts, and once I got something I liked, I dragged and dropped it into Logic Pro and used its built-in synths and MIDI instruments. 

Of course, some of what Orb Producer Suite generates sounds awful, but with a bit of adjustment you can get something that sounds quite good. In fact, about 95% of this song was generated by Orb Producer Suite. I made a few adjustments to the MIDI tracks to vary the solo with a few staccato notes and to make the horn stabs sound more, ah, horn-like. But the bass track, the arpeggios are all 100% as generated. 

The end result may or may not be your cup of meat, but I can honestly say, it's unlikely I could have come up with the melody on my own. My contribution (other than the slight changes to the MIDI) was in deciding which of the dozens of generated parts sounded good and then picking the appropriate arrangement in Logic Pro including the instruments, effects, mix, adding a bridge, adding horns and strings (also generated by Orb Producer Suite), adding a Drummer track, and so on.

Orb parametersOrb Producer Suite claims to be AI-powered, which might be true, or it might be marketing speak for some basic if-then-else logic about what chords or notes go well together.

Some of the melodies or bass parts generated by Orb Producer seemed more random than musical to me, but clicking again or adjusting the parameters helped me narrow in to the kind of pattern that I wanted. I look forward to working more with Orb Producer to help me break out the usual I-IV-V  / pentatonic rut that I often find myself in.  

While Orb Producer Suite works great, Hexachords has a bit of a mixed reputation. They had previously shipped a comprehensive AI-powered DAW called Orb Composer which, while very powerful, also was apparently rather buggy. I think they are turning around their reputation with the Orb Producer Suite. I found no major problems while using it in Logic Pro. (It stuttered a few times on playback, repeating the first bar, and I had to restart Logic pro once.)  

Sadly, it looks like Orb Composer is currently no longer supported by the company. I'm hoping they create a new more full-featured version of Orb Composer that builds on what they've shipped with Orb Producer Suite 2.0.

What do you think? Can AI help humans compose music? Have you tried any other generative music programs? Let me know in the comments below.

(Update: I added a few more tracks on Soundcloud in different styles.)


Jean-Michell Jarre's EON app

Jarre eon

I must admit, I've fallen down the rabbit hole into synth nerdvana lately. I'm not sure, maybe it was with Daft Punk's demise, and a Sound Opinions podcast that mentioned French synth pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre. I was vaguely familiar with Jarre's breakthrough 1976 instrumental album Oxygène. I was mostly listening to classic rock back then, before the 1977 new wave / punk tidal wave from the UK. Somehow, Jarre's work never really surfaced again for me, despite my recent interest in the Krautrock Motorik synth sound of Krafwerk, Neu! and similar proggy instrumental artists like Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream.  

A bit of research revealed that Jean-Michel Jarre (or JMJ as he's known), despite turning 72, has remained prolific for 50 years with Guinness record-breaking concerts in Paris, Houston, China and Moscow. More interesting, he'd continued to delve into new technologies including including Virtual Reality and releasing a generative music application called EōN.

EōN is basically an infinite album. It's based on seven hours of Jarre's work, presumably thousands of samples, that get combined into unique, unrepeated songs.  The app is $9 on iOS and twice that (!) on Mac OS. An Android version is in the works. The app runs offline without internet connection and requires little battery power to run in the background. 

I cannot recommend this app enough. For anyone interested in generative music, or synth music in general, this is an amazing application. It generates unique and interesting instrumental music. Of course, whether you like the app will depend on whether you like Jean-Michel Jarre. Personally, I find it fascinating and I've been listening to it non-stop. The music ranges from ambient background synth pads to light industrial / techno EDM.

I have listened to EōN for more than 100 hours at this point and I can't say I've heard anything repeat. I will occasionally recognize an ambient sound (variations of water flowing) or a particular clacking drum sound, but that's it. The app also generates some interesting trippy graphic patterns, though mostly I'm using this with the display off.

I find EōN is great for background music while working, writing, reading, running, driving, you name it. Tracks mostly blend together seamlessly, but once in a while (maybe 2-3 times so far) I've found a song doesn't work for me, in which case you just hit the "next" button and move on to something else.

You can find some samples on Youtube and there's also a limited edition Snapshots of EON album. (Though it costs way more than the application, so I'm not sure why you would want that.)

I find EŌN to be much more interesting and compelling music than other generative music applications I've seen. It's got a mix of styles, textures, beats, instruments and effects that keeps me engaged. Brian Eno has certainly done some pioneering work in this area and his apps are more interactive, but the music is, frankly, boring. (Of course, that's a matter of taste. Some people like Music for Airports.)

The EŌN app was developed in conjunction with iOS synth developers BLEASS systems who built the audio engine and audio algorithms. The graphics were developed with Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Tokyo. 

My only wish is that the application had just a hint of interactivity. For example, I would find it interesting to know how many hours or songs I've played. Presumably songs could be recreated with a unique seed and it would be cool if you could share your favorites with other users of the app or recall them later, perhaps generating interesting random names. As it stands you can record 30 second fragments in realtime, but once a song has played, it's gone. And if you were connected, it would be fantastic to see a map of other EON listeners and somehow share your favorites or vote on tracks.

What's clear is that despite the lack of interactivity (or perhaps because of it) you are listening to music that has been designed by JMJ himself. I'm fascinated to understand what kind of rules are behind the generation. Does he build songs up from the bass line and/or rhythm? Are sound samples modified at runtime? How is the instrumentation determined? How does one song evolve into another?

I would love there to be a more general-purpose generative application from BLEASS that exposed more of the rules, perhaps with other artists samples. One can easily imagine a Kraftwerk or Neu! flavored application that generated Motorik music. Or heck, why not an app where you could load your own samples into a massive library, control the instruments and create your own rules. Zappa created a technique called Xenochrony where he re-purposed guitar solos into different songs to interesting effect. Why not do that for any instrument or sample? Just imagine what you could generate with samples from Erik Norlander on the Uno Synth Pro.

EŌN opens up a fascinating new era of generative music and is a new milestone in the creative arts.


Crack The Sky - The Greatest Band You've Never Heard Of

 

Crack the sky band
Every couple of years I run into some breathtakingly fantastic band that no one has ever heard of. Often, by the time I find them, they have delved so deep into obscurity that they soon break up. (I'm looking at you BrainPool. And Thunder. And The Hellacopters.) I hope this doesn't happen to my latest discovery, Crack The Sky. This is a band that has been ahead of its time for so long that you sort of give up and think they'll never be famous. But in fact, they are big stars. Well, at least in Baltimore. 

Crack The Sky was formed in the early 1970s. They managed to put together some demos and then got picked up by the third-tier label Lifesong. Their self-titled album received rave reviews. Rolling Stone called it the debut album of the year for 1975:

"Like the first albums of Steely Dan, 10cc, and the Tubes, Crack the Sky's debut introduces a group whose vision of mid-'70s ennui is original, humorous and polished..."

The band toured with Supertramp, Foreigner, Yes, Boston, Kansas, Styx, Rush and even Frank Zappa, but never broke into the mainstream. Their songs were too complex for radio and they never had a hit single. Sometimes they got thrown off tours for blowing the headliner off the stage. The band's manager Derek Sutton was the inspiration for the character Ian Faith in the film Spinal Tap. And yes, they really did get lost trying to find their way onto the stage. 

So despite a comedy of errors, they managed to build a following and get on the radio in Baltimore. CTS, as they are known among fans, has had its ups and downs over the years, but they've mostly continued recording and touring in the Northeast. 

CTS is not to everyone's taste. It's proggy and sometimes overly-complicated. But if you look at the breadth and depth of their music, it is astonishing. Add to that they have been regularly touring and recording new material during most of this time, they are a criminally underrated band. If you like hook-laden classic rock, you owe it to yourself to check out their first album, the self-titled "Crack The Sky," "White Music" or their 2010 concept album "Machine." There are also several very good live albums and DVDs

I'd argue that all of their albums are good and many are superb. I’ve become obsessed with CTS in recent months. They have the harmonies and hooks of the Beatles, the explosive guitar of Cheap Trick, the heaviness of Pink Floyd, the musical sophistication of Steely Dan, the prog cred of King Crimson with none of the associated prog pretension.

Despite their thematic songwriting, Crack the Sky has never written a rock opera. They had an early attempt to write one to honor the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (I am not making this up), but it didn't get beyond the first song. They've come pretty close with concept albums "Machine"  and "The Sale." So I'm hoping they'll give it another shot. (JP, Rick, I can show you how it's done. I'm Canadian and I'm ready to help.) I'd never heard of the band when I wrote my rock opera Underground Radio, but in some strange time-warp fashion they were a huge inspiration. 

I'm not holding out for a live gig in Michigan or California. But if there's one band I would considering getting on a plane to see, it's Crack The Sky. Check out the videos below for great live performances of From The Greenhouse and Hold On / Surf City. There's also a jazzy acoustic version of Surf City filled with Beatle breaks. Unbelievable! 

 


More Rock Opera Reviews

Rock operas
Over the last couple of months, I've posted several new rock opera reviews over at www.rock-opera.com. These include:

  • Crack The Sky - Machine (2010)
    The best rock band you've never heard of with one of their best albums ever. CTS combines the best elements of the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Cheap Trick. And they're still recording and touring after 40 years.
  • Green Day - American Idiot (2004)
    One of the rare rock operas that actually accelerated a band's career. It's a great album from one of the best three-chord rock bands to come out of the Bay Area's punk scene.
  • Styx - Kilroy Was Here (1983)
    Coming in after 4 platinum selling albums in the late '70s / early '80s, lead singer and songwriter Dennis DeYoung had multimedia ambitions that resulted in a lumbering story about a surveillance government where rock music is illegal and two guys try to.... Well whatever. There are a couple of great songs, but if you want to why the band split up, this is the answer. 
  • KISS - Music From the Elder (1981)
    Possibly the worst rock opera ever and certainly a finalist for worst album ever, this was Gene and Paul's attempt to win critics over. Unfortunately, the album is turgid, overloaded with Bob Ezrin's coke-fueled production, strings, and a storyline that makes Styx look like Shakespeare. A few fans really like this album, but even Gene and Paul consider it a stinker. 
  • Lou Reed - Berlin (1973)
    Possibly the most alienating but moving rock opera out there. It was a commercial disaster for Reed, who had his biggest hit ever with "Walk on the Wild Side." Lou Reed and Bob Ezrin produced a masterpiece that you might not be able to listen to more than once. 
  • David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
    It's an album so good, you might not even realize it's a rock opera! It's short, just 38 minutes, but all eleven songs are good and half of them are among Bowie's best.

Check out www.rock-opera.com for the full reviews, remastering news and more.


Let It Be Revisited

Let it be
It's hard to believe that the Beatles final album, Let It Be, was released 50 years ago. The album came out on May 8 and the documentary of the same name was released a week later in theaters in the US and two weeks later in the UK. 

Get backThe story of the album is well known: Paul McCartney, at this point the de facto band leader, wanted to create a "back to basics" album, originally known as Get Back. Instead of the psychedelic studio production wizardry of Sergeant Pepper's, or the tension-filled solo recordings of The White Album, this was to be the four of them, playing new songs in a live television concert special.  

In early 1969, the band started rehearsing at Twickenham studios. Film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was invited as a fly-on-the-wall, to film all of it. He shot over fifty hours of footage, which resulted in the cinéma vérité documentary.

The film tells no story, has no plot and other than when the Beatles are playing live, is not very good. It shows the lads rehearsing, playing cover songs, arguing, goofing around, etc. There's a strange scene where McCartney talks non-stop for several minutes to Lennon who doesn't say a word. It's hard to determine who is more bored: Lennon or the audience.

The film has an undeserved reputation as capturing the band's break up. There are a couple of moments where you see the tension, but there are far more scenes, especially when they're playing, where you get to witness the magic of four people connecting, playing live with some of their most famous songs. 

The original film has been out of circulation for decades. I managed to see it in college in about 1980 and then more recently downloaded an, ah, archival copy. For Beatles fans it is still remarkable to see them play songs such as "Two Of Us," "Let It Be," "Dig a Pony" and others. You also get to witness the famous rooftop concert featuring "I've Got A Feeling," "Get Back," and "One After 909" I had forgotten a very funny scene where Lennon flubs the lyrics in the otherwise heartfelt "Don't Let Me Down" in a most creative fashion

The album is good, if a bit of mixed bag. Following the rooftop concert, several mixes were made by Glyn Johns and rejected by the Beatles. The band lost interest and then proceeded to begin work on the much stronger album Abbey Road. The Get Back project sat on the shelves for months. Phil Spector was called in to rescue the album and added orchestral strings and choir overdubs to four songs. The album came out more than a year after it was recorded under the new name Let It Be.

Although McCartney disliked Spector's final mix, Lennon defended Spector's work a 1971 interview saying:

"...he was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit, with a lousy feeling toward it, ever. And he made something out of it. He did a great job."

Not one to leave well enough alone, in 2003 McCartney remixed the album as Let It Be... Naked, excising Spector's embellishments and substituting two tracks. It's different, but you'd be hard pressed to say it's better.

As of yet, there has been no 50th anniversary remixing of Let It Be, as we have had for Sergeant Pepper's, The White Album and Abbey Road. There is a new documentary film The Beatles: Get Back, being created by director Peter Jackson, Although originally expected in September 2020, the film has now been delayed by almost a year. The film uses Lindsay Hogg's original footage as well as over 140 hours of audio to create a new documentary. My hope is that there will be a new Deluxe album to go with it.

I just wish it wasn't going to take so long.


Underground Radio Remastered

Underground Radio - Vinyl 3

Given the shelter-at-home quarantine we've all been faced with, I finally got around to remastering my rock opera Underground Radio. Mastering is distinct from mixing and is a separate phase of production during which a talented audio engineer listens to your album and makes adjustments to the overall sound, as opposed to the individual instruments or vocal tracks.

It turns out that at least some of the mastering process can be automated through the use of artificial intelligence. So I used a nifty automatic service called LANDR. I think the songs came out punchier and louder. I also fixed two niggling things that bothered me in the title track and adjusted the album artwork to better show the "ring wear" of an old vinyl album. You can listen to the remastered songs at rock-opera.com, SoundCloud or download them free from Box.

Here's a comparison of the original version:

And the remastered version:

Now you can definitely hear all three chords!

All of this was done in preparation for the music to be distributed digitally on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, DeezerTidal, etc. I've used CD Baby and BandCamp for distribution. The Bandcamp album features embedded mp3 lyrics, a 45 page Digital Libretto and 5 bonus instrumentals all for $5.

Here's the Spotify version but choose whatever service you prefer.


Wishbone Ash - 50 Years & Still Rocking

Wishbone Ash is one of those epic '70s bands that burned brightly for a few years, releasing top 10 albums, playing stadiums worldwide and then seemingly vanished. If you weren't listening to prog rock in '72 or maybe '74 you might never have heard of them. They never had a charting single in the US, no "Behind the Music" VH1 special, nothing. That makes it all the more surprising that 50 years later they are still recording and touring in the US and Europe.

Although Argus, their most famous and best-selling album, is not a rock opera, it comes pretty close. It's a concept album with a solid unifying theme (something to do with England and uh, fighting for king and country). It's an amazing album that ranges from prog rock to folk-rock harmonies, classic English blues and straight ahead rock and roll. It still sounds fresh and inspired almost 50 years later. To my mind Argus is one of the most important rock albums ever made. Argus is up there with the pantheons of British rock: The Shadows, Abbey Road, Exile on Main Street, Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin I, Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars and Never Mind the Bollocks. I don't think you can really understand the evolution and scope of rock and roll until you've heard this album. It's the Rosetta Stone that ties together everything from CSNY to Iron Maiden. 

Wishbone Ash pretty much invented the twin lead guitar sound which went on to influence bands like Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, Steely Dan and even the Eagles. As mentioned, the band still records and tours, led by original lead guitar player Andy Powell. While they never surpassed the impact of Argus, they've had a productive career with 20 studio albums, a dozen live albums and many compilations. If you want to get a taste of the band, I recommend Argus, the compilation Time Was, and the live album Live Dates. There are some solid later albums including New England, Bona Fide, Elegant Stealth, No Smoke Without Fire. Blue Horizon, their most recent album, comes closest to capturing the magic of Argus. And next year should see the release of a new album Coat of Arms and another worldwide tour.

I've seen them live on several occasions at Callahan's, a now defunct club in Michigan, and they did not disappoint. These were among the best live shows I've seen. Check out some live clips on YouTube with vintage '70s pointy guitars, hairstyles and wardrobe. 


So Then I Wrote a Rock Opera

Ur banner

This article was originally published at Linkedin

In early 2014, I moved to Michigan where my wife's family is from. I started working for an Ann Arbor based software company, Duo Security, which has been a lot of fun. But I really missed playing music with my tech buddy Rob, who remained in California.

So the original idea was for us to each write ten songs, then pick the best and record them. But somehow it spun out of control. Why not a concept album? Why not... A ROCK OPERA?

The oddest part about all of this is that neither Rob nor I have ever written songs or recorded before. Our only qualification is a combined 50 years of listening to classic rock. And if we might not hit the heights of The Who's "Tommy" or Greenday's "American Idiot" perhaps we could do better than KISS’s "Music from the Elder."

I mean, how hard could it be? It was, of course, an absurd idea. How could two rookies possibly scale the heights of rockdom? I don’t even think Rob had ever listened to a rock opera before. (I mean who has in recent years, amiright?) But much like a software startup that aims to make the world a better place, the audacity of our goal inspired us.

Next thing you know I’m recording some creepy bass riffs in GarageBand and overlaying drums and guitars. Our first song, “The Creeper,” was the embodiment of an evil surveillance government. And it sparked the whole story: 50 years of winter, a dystopian future, rock music is illegal, yada yada yada. This is pretty much the plot of every rock opera. But it's a darn good one.

Since Rob and I were in different cities, we did most of the collaboration over the interweb using Skype, iMessage, and Box for sharing files. (Box is the official cloud content management system of leading rock operas everywhere, don’t ya know?) Every few months I'd get back to California, goad Rob into singing or recording some guitar parts, and then continue editing in GarageBand.

As positive as I’d try to be during these recording sessions (“That was great, Rob. But let’s do one more take…”) the next day I’d listen to what we’d recorded and I’d be overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness. I had this vision in my head of an epic rock opera but all I had was a handful of recordings of two guys failing. This feeling of hopelessness occurred at least as often as the feeling of elation throughout the entire course of the project.

They say every startup is a rollercoaster ride of extreme highs and lows. That matches my feeling on writing a rock opera. Whether it was writing melodies, drafting lyrics, recording solos, mixing, or working on videos, there were countless times where I thought the most expedient solution was to delete all the files and give up. There’s no blueprint (or at least none I could find) on “The 7 Steps to Writing a Rock Opera.”

Every time I faced this situation, I simply moved on to another part of the project. If one song proved to be a dead-end, there’s no reason I couldn’t make progress elsewhere. When I put something aside for a few days or weeks and came back to it, I had a kind of unwarranted optimism: maybe I can improve this. A leap of faith was required at every milestone. I wasn’t aiming for perfection, but a more basic "Can I make this suck less?"

I won’t say that the work was easy. It takes many more hours to edit a song than it takes to record it. But I found that by gradually chipping away at something I could improve it. Often the results were surprising: a song I’d given up on now sounded pretty cool. Better than I hoped for. In my book, brute force perseverance is an under-rated skill.

Ur selfmade lyricsRob and I brought a startup attitude to the project: just keep working at it and let's see how far we can get. Lyrics got written, story lines developed, solos recorded and re-recorded. Occasionally we’d share songs with our beta testers. Their feedback was often the only motivation we needed to keep on going. And we did all this while holding down full-time jobs and managing family obligations.

Other songs were written weekends, evenings, on airplanes. If Rob had recorded his solos in a more timely fashion I might have stopped writing new songs. But eventually we got to 20 songs and I wondered: what the hell happened here? We’ve actually written a rock opera!

But there was one thing missing. All the songs were pretty basic: me and Rob with bass, guitar, drums and a few keyboard parts and a couple of friends adding vocals. It wasn’t quite grand enough. Then I came across an interesting item on Kickstarter: the $99 orchestra. Wait —what? Yep, for $99 per minute, we could get a 30 piece symphony orchestra to record one of our songs. For another $100 they’d create the score. I sure as hell didn’t have a score for them. I’m just a 3 chord rock guy.

We had one song where I’d weaved together multiple guitar parts that Rob and I had recorded separately. It epitomized our collaboration on the project. It was just some overdriven guitar parts, but in my mind it always sounded like a symphony: I heard strings, horns, piccolos. I don’t know what instruments are in an actual 30 piece orchestra, but it must be something like that, right?

Ur orchestraLong story short, we got the Western European Symphony Orchestra to record it. And we got to watch a live video stream of the recording. It felt pretty amazing to hear someone else’s interpretation of our music.

So we finally put the album up on Kickstarter after Thanksgiving, partly to defray the final mixing costs and partly to develop an audience. It was fully funded fairly quickly (never underestimate the power of email to VCs, especially if you helped them make a lot of money.) Kickstarter prohibits raising money for charity, so since we’ve hit our goal we’ll either mix some bonus instrumental tracks or get some videos made. Either that or we’ll spend the money on hookers and blow.

I hope you'll go to the skills section of my Linkedin profile and click on Rock Opera to show your endorsement. 

Update: The project overachieved on its funding target by 150% and was completed on time. All of the music, the bonus tracks and the Libretto are available for free download at www.rock-opera.com. You can also listen for free at SoundCloud. The music is published under an open source Creative Commons attribution license and can be used, copied, shared and re-mixed freely.

Zack Urlocker is a software executive living his rock and roll fantasy in Traverse City, Michigan.


Guy Pratt - My Bass & Other Animals

Pratt book

Although I was not familiar with Guy Pratt, I certainly knew many of the bands he played with: Roxy Music, Robert Palmer, David Bowie, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Robbie Robertson and Pink Floyd to name a few. His book "My Bass and Other Animals" though poorly titled, is a terrific account of what it's like to play sideman to the legends of the music industry. It's like sitting down at a pub with an old friend from high school thirty years later  and discovering he toured with one of the biggest bands in history and he lets you in on all the crazy shenanigans.

This book’s genesis is from a series of life/stand up performances that Pratt did telling his stories of life as a rock and roll Road dog. That said, as a conventional autobiography it starts a bit slow as you learn about Pratt’s upbringing, first bass, first band etc. As Pratt's career takes off, the store is become quite funny. There were times when I was in stitches due to the materials as well as Pratt’s wonderfully dry English delivery. The stories about Pink Floyd are hilarious. If you listen to the audio version you also get Pratt's very entertaining American regional English accents. Here's a video of Guy Pratt talking about smashing his bass on stage at the end of  his tour with Pink Floyd. 

For bass heads or other musicians, the last chapter includes a full rundown of just about every bass, guitar, amp, and effects pedal that Pratt has owned. This is a great book and an awful lot of fun. But if you are bothered by stories of drug taking or drink, probably best to skip it.

And just for posterity's sake, here's a twenty-six year-old fresh-faced Guy Pratt playing bass on "Money" from the 1988 Delicate Sound of Thunder tour, live album and DVD. However, brace yourself for those dreaded late-eighties fashions.


Television - Live from El Club, Detroit

Television el club

I managed to see one of my all-time favorite bands last night, Television, live at El Club in Detroit. It's not a venue I've been to before and despite a few ominous comments on Yelp, it's a fine club in a fine neighborhood. I had no problem finding street parking, partly because I was ridiculously early. At any rate, the staff are nice and there's an outdoor patio as well as the bar indoors. El Club doesn't have much in the way of seating, just two booths way at the back, but since I didn't want to be standing on my feet wedged up at the front of the stage for three hours, that's what I opted for. 

You can get a beer at El Club for $5, a very thin slice of pizza for $3 and shots for not a lot more. Although the beer selection isn't massive, it's better than a lot of clubs, and they had a fair number of Michigan craft beers. The opening act was some guy with shades, a beard, a Strat and some weird-ass sound effects. I don't know if he was putting it through a synth or running a synth on the side but it was less than exciting. I don't mind experimental electronic music, but I had to leave the room after a while. It was just painful. Television didn't come on until 9:30, after an hour of melodic bells. Detroit audiences being what they are started shouting "No more bells!" 

I've seen Television twice before in 2014 and 2016 and they don't vary the setlist too much. The band opened with a somewhat spacey intro and then dove into "1880 Or So." When I saw Television in 2014, I was right up at the front of the stage and I was blown away, noting especially how strong Tom Verlaine's vocals were. Alas, in the five years since, they're not quite as smooth. The vocals are way down in the mix which may or may not be a good thing. 

They played quite a few songs from their landmark 1977 album "Marquee Moon" ("Venus," "Friction," "Elevation...") , as well as the somewhat obscure and in my mind overrated single "Little Johnny Jewel."  I would have rather heard "Call Mr. Lee" which someone had shouted. But Television concerts are so rare, I'm not gonna complain. I'd listen to them play the phonebook. The largely instrumental jam song Persia was a highlight as was the title track "Marquee Moon."

Television is one of those bands that still gives me goosebumps 40 years later. If you ever get the chance, go see them. There are a few more gigs next week in Toronto, Cleveland and Chicago. 


Thomas Dolby - Speed of Sound

Speed of sound

I've read a lot of biographies about musicians and my fair share of business bios, but Thomas Dolby's improbable "The Speed of Sound" is one of the best. Dolby creates a compelling narrative that puts you in the scene, without the usual aggrandizing. He gives you a feel for what it was like to be carving out a living as a geeky synth player in the late 70s and early 80s. Then as his music career starts to fade, Dolby gets involved in film soundtracks and eventually moves the San Francisco Bay Area to become a tech entrepreneur, creating a technology to put sound on the web and in mobile phones.  He sheds light on the questionable ways of the music industry (and Silicon Valley) that makes the story especially powerful. 

DolbyWhile I was familiar with Dolby's early musical work with such songs as "One of Our Submarines" and "She Blinded Me With Science," I wouldn't say I was a huge fan. But if were around in the '70s and '80s you'll appreciate his stories of blagging his way into an Elvis Costello gig, going to see Television and the Talking Heads, doing sound for bands like The Members and Gang of Four. Dolby had pretty wide-ranging musical credits playing synth with acts as divergent as Foreigner(!), David Bowie at Live Aid and Rogers Waters in his record-breaking performance of The Wall in Berlin.

Similarly, his description of the dot-com frenzy in the bay area, is spot on. He describes decisions, good and bad, that led to the rise and near IPO of his company, as well as the miss-steps that led to its downfall. (Interesting coincidence: Dolby's software company Beatnik Audio started at a small office on Third Street in San Mateo, where many years later, I also worked at a startup company.) 

Most of all, what emerges is the portrait of a man who found his calling as a music boffin who always remained curious.


Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace

Amazing grace title

You'll be forgiven for not having heard of the film "Amazing Grace." After all, it was shot 47 years ago and until recently never available due to a combination of technical difficulties and legal issues. However, it is now available and showing in theaters and definitely worth seeing. 

Aretha choir  The film was originally shot in 16mm by Sydney Pollack at the behest of Warner Brothers. The occasion was to be a live recording of the Queen of Soul's return to her gospel roots at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts over two evenings.  It would be a live album as well as a Hollywood theatrical release, following on the success of Woodstock. Unfortunately, Pollack had never shot live music before and failed to sync the film to the audio recording. Luckily Alan Elliott, with Pollack's blessing, took over the project in 2008 and, with the use of modern computers, was able to digitally sync everything.

My wife and I managed to see the film over Easter weekend and it was terrific. Even if you're not a huge fan of gospel, you cannot help but be moved by the spirituality of the music. Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir show the power of music in their emotional renditions of these songs. The audience swaying and clapping along and if you look closely you'll see long-haired and pale-faced Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger are there on the second night at the back.

It's no surprise that the album went on to become the best-selling gospel record of all time. But it's a shame that neither Franklin nor Pollack were able to live to see the release of this film.