Nov 272013

It’s been no secret lately that I’m working on a Secret Project. The irony has not escaped me.

Usually when I start a project like this, I want to tell everyone all about it. This is partly sensible – discussion is a good way to get everything straight in my head – but of course the real motivator is that I like talking about me. It’s very satisfying to tell your friends about what interesting things you have come up with. It’s a bit like getting to show off, but at a modest enough level that nobody will call you on it.

I’ve done this all my life. It’s satisfying, but it’s a bit thin. The conversation is usually about unqualified plans for the future, and I rarely have anything substantial done by this point. Of course since I am such a hardworking, proactive person I will certainly put in the time and sweat to realize it into something tangible but. you know, later. Sometime after this conversation.

Any good feedback I get is really just on the idea.

And yet, I think good ideas are cheap: it’s making them happen that has real value. You’ve read this a hundred times before on as many blogs. Knowing this, why am I so keen on using idea-feedback as some sort of short-term validator? It’s hard to say precisely but I’m leaning towards “because I’m stupid.”

I’m curious if I can trick myself out of that. Some time ago I read an article claiming that people who share their ideas are less likely to execute them, because they’ve already got what they really wanted – some kind of identity as a Clever Person. Keeping my new project under warps, then, is an exercise to see how much of my BS gets in my own way. If nobody knows what I’m doing, I wonder if I can see it through. At worst, it’s just another abandoned personal project, at best it’s completed and that’s great.

But there’s a twist: I’m not saying what the project is, but I am telling everyone that I’m up to something. I’m curious how much of the effect is based on just looking productive and how much is tied to the details of the project.

Here’s what I’ve let on:

  • There is a “heavy musical component” to it in a style that’s new to me
  • I have to learn a considerable number of new skills
  • It’s not nearly as exciting as I probably make it sound
  • It needs to succeed or fail on its own merits and might go either way

Interestingly, it’s been more than a year of off-and-on work and I’m still going. A handful of people have discovered the nature of it, but that hasn’t killed my motivation. This is unusual for me after so long, so I’m tentatively thinking that details are important to the share-don’t-execute pattern.

We’ll see. I’m far from done. But I’m still very excited about it.

  •  November 27, 2013
Apr 192013

As usual I try to keep learning and executing on several fronts, whether or not that’s a good idea, and despite a ton going on I haven’t had anything finished to report in an embarassingly long time. That’s been my M.O. since high school though, so go with what you know I guess.

While I haven’t ‘released’ anything in more than a year, I continue to explore and experiment with my own music. My Ableton Live folder has probably double the number of start-only hobby projects that it did this time last year, and while approximately three of them have any real chance of seeing completion, they are getting steadily more complex, interesting, streamlined, and subtle. I’ve taken a swing towards slightly heavier triphop and techno lately, which will be very rewarding if I can ever figure out how to mix it.

Speaking of mixing, I’ve gotten confident enough learning to DJ to decide that I’m terrible at it but want to keep trying anyway, thus continuing my relentless march along the Dunning-Kruger curve. I’ve moved from CDJ200+Live to a Mixxx-based DVS setup on a pair of Technics 1200s, which has the advantage of huge platters and vinyl control but the disadvantage of minimal effects, not to mention taking up the entire desk. I can, however, finally have a go at turntablism, which will take some doing but which has so far been pleasingly uncringeworthy. On the left side, anyway. On the right, I am a complete disaster. I will subject you to none of this until I am good and ready.

With that mindset firmly in hand, Katharine and I have taken a good long break from actually finishing anything for Fever Pitch, and have instead been building up our skills in an MMO-style grindfest so that we have half an idea what to do should inspiration strike. We haven’t had that particular breakthrough yet, but we have started gruntwork on two pieces, which will see the light of day only if they are suitably fulfilling to us. We didn’t write Hurry Home to impress everyone else; we wanted it to exist, and we want the same for any new work. I’m actually really excited about one of them. If we can produce it up to our expectations I think it will have an audience as well as make us happy, but only if we can get it done in time. No pressure. At least we’re not as slow as Portishead. Oh wait, we’re slower. Well.

Finally, I’ve been working on at least two projects about which I’m remaining vague. One because I’d rather not make too much noise about it until it’s done, and the other because the entire point of it is to keep it a secret from every living person so that I’ll actually see it through both the good and bad times, instead of just moving on when the next shiny thing comes along. I really hope it works out. I’m learning a ton from it, and not just about music.

So yeah, busy busy. But if I can pull this all off…

  •  April 19, 2013
Jul 182012

Katharine had a fantastic idea a few weeks ago.

For a while now, she and I have wanted to set up some kind of organization to help make our music better. After a lot of philosophical deliberation, we settled on the name “Compass Rose Records.” The name reflected both our beloved sense of exploration and the fact that we felt the music industry was pants-on-head stupid and we thought we could do better.

We weren’t actually trying to enter into business per se – Fever Pitch is a tiny band with two songs and we don’t plan to ever make any money from it. What we did want to do was try to get some kind of community together. We’re based out of a very small town with almost no electronic music scene, and certainly not any other triphop or downtempo music we are aware of. Come to think of it, the Katja Gee / Michael Messina gallery show may have been the only time a local downtempo band has ever been played in public. We were hoping that if we could get some traction ourselves, we could find a way to extend that success to other musicians in the area and in turn play off of that energy to improve our own work. We wanted, in short, to get a bit of a collective going.

So we took on the name, registered the URL, sharpie’d it onto some CDRs that we’d burned our own music to, and gave them out at the gallery show. They were actually kind of a hit. There were four tracks:

1. Hurry Home by Fever Pitch

2. Thin Air – A synthy orchestral thing I wrote that fell out of a Fever Pitch song that never happened

3. Carousel Horses arranged for piano by Katharine

4. An SATB version of “Down by the River to Pray” that we arranged for our voices and two vocoders

The disc was branded “Compass Rose Records 2011 Sampler.” We put them on a table next to some business cards.

Now we had a bit of name recognition, but all we had really accomplished was making ourselves look silly for having this big fancy title and not a lot of music to back it up. It’s not like we were a label – although playing at it seemed fun – but we certainly were something creative. We liked that.

One of the many patterns that we’ve noticed in our work is that we like to do it in groups. We enjoy it more, we stick with it longer, and we tend towards better results when in the same room with other people who are themselves working, even if on different projects. There is some kind of creative momentum that gets in our heads and keeps our noses in our materials. We don’t pretend to understand it, but it seems to happen pretty consistently, and not just for music.

Katharine’s idea was to get this out of our living rooms and into the community. So, we did.

One month ago, a local community room found itself filled with sketchpads, laptops, instruments, leather working gear, and coffee, not to mention a group of excited creatives making things out of them for Compass Rose Records Creative Night #1. Anyone was welcome, but you had to have a project. It was, by all accounts, a success. I wrote some music, Katharine wrote all kinds of things, and while we didn’t track progress, everyone else seemed to be similarly effective.

Tonight is #2; we are very excited. I think we’re going to bring a bigger coffee pot.

  •  July 18, 2012
Aug 142011

I don’t finish music very often. This is probably because of the way I approach it: while I seem to be obsessed with music and the creation of it, I tend to come at it from a technical angle rather than an artistic one. I won’t call myself a “technologist” per se – I’ll leave that label for those who are more interested in labels – but the term isn’t entirely inappropriate. It certainly fits better than “artist.”

The first time I can really remember wanting to write music was when my dad’s friend gave me a 3.5″ floppy disc which contained, to my young ears, pure magic. I’ve never done drugs so this was the closest thing I’d ever heard. It was “Second Reality” by demoscene stars Future Crew, along with a copy of Scream Tracker 3 and a bunch of really neat s3m modules that I could listen to and take apart using the software. They were amazing – I had never heard this kind of electronic music before outside of computer games, and I found out that they were all made by individuals or small teams of people on their computers. Not signed artists or bands, but scrappy teenagers with a technology bend. Normal people.

Growing up in the 80s I tended to think that anything “produced” required faceless companies and huge budgets and couldn’t be made by ordinary citizens like me. That disk represented the first time I had found great music that wasn’t made in a huge studio somewhere. And if it had been, it wouldn’t have been the same.

And if these guys could do it, why couldn’t I?

Short answer: Because I Had No Idea What I Was Doing.

Music composition tools were starting to become more prevalent on personal computers at around that time, and there was enough of it available to me for me to have a go at it on my own. The great part about computer technology is that, with enough determination, you can really learn most of the technical concepts at home, no formal education necessary. Most software is at least somewhat self-explanatory, and if not, a bit of research and cleverness is usually enough to figure out what you’re trying to do, even if you aren’t doing it in the “best” way yet. Musical concepts are similar: they’re somewhat self evident if you stumble across them, and there’s no hole a bit of dedicated learning can’t patch. The important thing to remember is that I didn’t know this about music, and so after making a few recordings that sounded like a beginner violinist and a synthesizer being thrown down some stairs I decided it wasn’t something I could really do, much as I wanted to, and I didn’t sit down to learn any theory until almost ten years later when I’d graduated college.


My interest in music began with electronic tracks written by hackers that I listened to on a computer and then I went and studied for ten years, mostly math, and now I write and fix software for a living. My technological, analytical side has a far better idea what to do with anything than my artistic side does. I think this is why I’m so often trying to do something musical, yet so rarely finish any music. I know what I like, but I don’t know how to get there.

I’ve never put much faith into “tricking yourself into doing something” but we’ve already established that my evaluation of learning ability is suspect. A couple of months ago, I started doing technical studies by watching Youtube videos and trying to figure out how certain sounds and music worked, on the logic that if I wasn’t going to make music, I could at least build up my technique in case inspiration struck. I learned a bit about varying lowpass filters rhythmically, and pairing this up with other effects like distortion to make those “wobble bass” sounds that are pretty popular right now. I took a fairly standard sample set from a 606 drum machine and tried to make it sound like outer space. I tried taking samples and changing their timings to make new rhythms. I learned that a Korg Monotron can make one of the most annoying sounds in the world if you listen to it for half an hour don’t put some effects on it. Pretty soon, I had made myself a collection of related sounds that I kind of liked, so I started experimenting with putting them together.

And it worked! The track that came out of all of this is called Flight from Dubai. I won’t claim it’s “good” (that’s up to anybody who’s still reading this wall of text to decide) but I like it, and it’s gone over well with the people I’ve shown it to.

In fact last night it was used last night by the bellydancer Firefly as the opener to her set. Firefly is one of my favorite dancers so you can imagine how excited I was. She was amazing as usual, and now I can say that I’ve written something worth dancing to.

Time to study some more, and get ready for writing something else. But first, I think I might have a drink and celebrate my small success.

  •  August 14, 2011
Aug 112010

I recently replaced my workhorse Toshiba laptop with a shiny new MacBook Pro, for the sole purpose of using it as a platform to run Ableton Live. It wasn’t so much that my old machine couldn’t handle Ableton, so much as it just wasn’t stable enough to use in a performance environment. It wasn’t, as the saying goes, the right tool for the job. This isn’t to say it was bad equipment; It was certainly passable for studio work. I mean, Katharine and I wrote Hurry Home on that laptop, which is probably the best recording I’ve ever had a hand in, but I had to admit that sometimes we spent more than our fair share of time fighting the hardware when it would crash or indulge itself in glitchery. ASIO, for all it’s wonders, feels like kind of a hack, and I wonder why Microsoft doesn’t just design a low latency audio system that runs out of the box. Their OS is cool and all but it doesn’t feel like it’s meant for audio work.

So I decided to save up my pennies and get this new laptop. And of course I love it. But unlike every computer I’ve come into ownership of before, this one didn’t come with the whizbang sense of multifaceted potential that computers often represent to people like me (“nerds”). This felt more like getting a new instrument. And really, that makes sense: the major thing that this laptop does that my last one didn’t is hold up in certain musical situations.

So okay, Core Audio is great, the hardware is more stable, and the whole package is much prettier. None of this is really surprising. What hasn’t been as obvious has been the little features and details that come from the platform, particularly with Ableton. I haven’t confirmed this, but I’m pretty sure that Ableton was originally designed and developed for Mac OS, and the Windows version was a port designed to interest people like me who were more casual and weren’t investing in the more expensive Macs. And of course this means that certain things have to be somewhat shoehorned onto the different environment.

For example, with ASIO on Windows, as far as I know, the ASIO application takes exclusive control over the hardware. It is possible to have Ableton or Reaper fail to load the ASIO device on startup because I left a YouTube tutorial on in the background and forgot about it. Because it couldn’t load the device, I have to either close the DAW, close YouTube, and restart the DAW, or switch to DirectSound or WDM and deal with the latency. This has not been an issue on the Mac, since direct hardware access isn’t necessary – Core Audio apparently can reconcile multiple applications and low latency. I don’t know how it works, but it does. And it saves me time and frustration.

There’s a similar feature for MIDI devices. Just plug them in whenever, and go to town. On Windows, for whatever reason, MIDI devices are only checked on startup, so I have to restart Ableton if I want to plug in something new, or if I lose USB for whatever reason. I don’t know if this is an app problem or a Windows limitation, but either way it works better on my new computer than on my old one. This feature alone has been worth a ton, and has enabled some “oh shit I need this controller for this trick” improvisation that I would have never tried on the old system due to all the restarting.

Of course, nothing is ever easy. The biggest problem I’ve run into was’t so much a problem with the new environment, but just that I’m doing a platform shift at all! There’s no Synth1 in the Mac. There are other synthesizers that do similar things, but my old projects don’t reference them. At best, I can set up a small Windows box to host that program and act as an external synth. This doesn’t hamper new creations, but it’s a problem in the meantime. Perhaps it is a necessary headache.

The crux of it is that I’m very happy with the new setup and it’s nice to be using the software in the way it was, I think, originally intended.

  •  August 11, 2010
Aug 032010

Looks like I can update WordPress from my iPod. That was a pleasant surprise. I must admit that this device has been full of surprises since I got it and started trying to do things on it.

Probably the biggest surprise has been how much the “sleek and nifty” features actually have gotten in the way of using it as a music player. The touchscreen is pretty, but now I can’t really use it while walking around without taking it out of my pocket and looking at it. Usually, I just reach my hand in if I want to skip a song or pause it, neither of which are uncommon. Now, I have to click the button, slide on the screen to open it, and then control the player application from the screen. Not hard, just harder than it used to be.

But here are the cool parts: I seem to be able to run most of the iPhone apps, and have basic internet access through wifi. This reminds me of the Palm OS days, when it was fun to just see what I could do from the device. It’s often practical, sometimes not, but definitely fun, since you can pick it up and take it with you. Which for some reason is like crack where consumer electronics are concerned. Throughout the years I’ve used PDAs, music players, Nintrndo DS’s, and a TI-89 for much the same reason.

So finally I see what all those iPhone people were talking about. I’m just glad I don’t have to pay for a data plan.

  •  August 3, 2010
Aug 032010

I have acquired myself an iPod touch. Within days of acquisition, the 303 app on the app store goes free for this week. I consider this to be a matter of divine providence. And to think all I had planned to use was TouchOSC :)

  •  August 3, 2010
Feb 202010

For those of you interested in the Indie Music Cancer Drive CD I talked about before, apparently if you order them before March 1st you can get free shipping on the physical CDs, or a couple of bucks off the digital ones. Yay!

  •  February 20, 2010
Feb 172010

It’s been a hell of a lot of work, but I can finally say that I’ve finished this year’s submission to the Indie Music Cancer Drive.  This is the second year that I’ve submitted to IMCD, but this year is much more interesting for me, since this submission is also the first song by my new downtempto band, Fever Pitch, which my good friend Katharine and I started some months ago.

Pre-orders are open for this year’s Songs for the Cure CD at  You can view the list of contributing artists at that site.  There are some pretty well-known names in there, in certain circles.  I’m very much looking forward to hearing what they’ve come up with this year, as there seems to be a push to step it up from last year’s disc, which had some excellent tracks on it.  we’ve been asked not to distribute our work for now, so as not to compete with our own project, so you won’t see my song on this site in the near future, and IMCD will be the exclusive distributor for the time being.  Apologies for the inconvenience, but we feel it’s the best way to help their efforts.

Pricing is variable – we aren’t selling CDs, we’re asking for donations to cancer research.  For donations over $25, we’re sending out physical copies of the album, which I believe is going to span two discs, considering there’re something like 30 groups contributing.  For smaller donations (I forget the cutoff) there will also be a digital copy available later.  The physical CDs will be a one-time pressing, so get yours in now if you want one.  All proceeds go to the American Cancer Society.

  •  February 17, 2010
Dec 092009

It’s been a few years coming, but I’m happy to present to you this, my first finished song.  It is an electronic rock song entitled “No Reason Not to Fly” and is available here as an MP3.  Other formats are available upon request.

Warrior Bob – No Reason Not to Fly

I originally wrote this for Josh Whelchel’s excellent Indie Music Cancer Drive album last year.  The version on that CD was written by me and mixed/mastered by Josh, but I’ve learned a bit more about how sound works since then and have, with his permission, decided to release my own mix of it for free on this site.  I hope you enjoy listening to it.  I certainly enjoyed making it.  It is the limit of my current ability.

  •  December 9, 2009