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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Is there a Garage Band for PC?

If I had a penny for every time a student or parent had asked me that...

Apple made a great choice with including Garage Band in iLife. It's a very fun program and there's a lot to it beyond just the loop browser. Above all, Garage Band is making music creativity available big time and that has to be applauded.

Whenever students or parents see how much fun can be had making music on Garage Band in school, they always want to ask if they can do this at home on their PC. I usually steer them towards buying Sony's Acid, or one of its light versions (Acid Express, Super Dooper Music Looper, Jam Trax, American Idol Extreme Music Creator, etc.) After all, Sony's program is the pioneer - Acid was originally made by the clever guys at Sonic Foundry who pretty much created the beat-matching algorithm that makes Garage Band possible. Acoustica's Mixcraft software is also one to watch as a potentially awesome PC DAW.

Now I have found a great free alternative to Acid or to Garage Band. TrakAx is absolutely worth a look-at. It's a fun program, it's a visual delight, it's intuitive and easy to use, the website is outstanding, and the tutorial videos are terrific. Best of all, it's free. You can use it to create great music for music's sake, or you can use it to add music to a slide show or video. You can get packs of loops for next to nothing at the site ($2 for 10 professionally-produced loops is a great price - better than buying a pack of gum). You can also use loops (in wav, mp3, ogg, or wma) that you already have on your computer - access them through the loop browser. If you're totally strapped for cash you could always Google "free loops" and see if you could get some for nothing, but you usually have to subscribe to something to get them, and you have no guarantee that they're virus-free nor professionally-produced - better to save on your next pack of gum and buy some really good loops from TrakAx.

To download, go to and cancel all appointments for the rest of the day so you can play - this is one of the best music education downloads out there.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

To compress or not to compress

There's been quite a lot of talk this week about data compression of digital files. Good old Neil Young has weighed in pretty heavily on how compression spoils the fidelity of music...and Yahoo has pulled the plug on its digital music market, leaving everybody who downloaded music from them high and dry if they didn't back up copies of the songs they "bought".

I was never a big fan of digital downloading to begin with. The convenience factor has spawned a market where quality is sacrificed. I am glad that people are listening to music on their portable music devices, but I cringe at the thought of how much quality has been sacrificed to make that happen. If you compress the music using a codec such as mp3, you lose the upper harmonics which are so important to the sound - you destroy the deep complexity of what the audio engineers and producers have crafted through their art. The more you compress, the more you lose.

Compression was initially a convenient way to reduce file size when this was necessary - to store or to email large amounts of data. Now we have the storage capacity to take larger files, but people still compress to squeeze more into their available space. I would guess many people do not have a clue about what data compression does to the sound, and they are listening to something that has had much of the life sucked out of it. Do you know how much music you can get on a 160GB iPod in uncompressed format? The answer is way more than you're ever going to need to go on your jog round the park, anyway. Squeezing to save space is ludicrous - the next generation of portable music devices will have 10 or 100 times that storage capacity, and people will rush out to buy them on the day they're released, just like they did with the original iPod and now the iPhone. Apple's desire to sell, sell, sell, has left us with an uneducated consumer market, and a greed to pack in as much as we can without regard to quality.

When you download music from the internet you don't "own" it. You have purchased the rights to listen to it at your own convenience. You haven't got the right to duplicate it for your friends or to publish it on your web page. You can't kick up a fuss if the company who made it available to you pulls the plug. In this digital age, you should have learned to back up your files. The architecture of data storage is still more brittle than the demands we put on it - it is an inevitability that your hard drive will crash.

Go buy music on CD or even Blu-Ray- it's way better quality than a download. Don't compress your files unless it's necessary, and only if you have an uncompressed copy to go back to. Always record to CD quality (16 bit, 44.1 kHz) or higher if you can. And go check out Neil Young's "Living With War" website -