Sunday, December 30, 2007

GIMP: Help Files And Defeating Font Errors

Here's something I hope will be of interest to those installing the portable version of GIMP, the open source image editor that "competes" with Photoshop. It might also help those that have GIMP crash with an error reading fonts on start-up.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Art For Christmas

Scott

In the spirit of Christmas I'll share some artwork by Róisín Kelly-Byrne, the twelve year-old I share my life with. I wish I'd have been as active and creative at that age as she is... who knows where I'd be now!
Thursday, December 13, 2007

My Favourite Albums

In my youth I used to keep endless lists of this sort; now I realise it's been many years since I've attempted the nearly impossible exercise of listing my favourite albums. I think it's only inevitable that the resulting music is heavily skewed to what I heard in my formative years. This period lasted a longer time than for most, largely due to the fact I was active as a DJ and radio producer, and was continuously exposed to lots of new sounds.
Saturday, December 08, 2007

Peace Now


I don't know what I am doing today. Because "today" has not yet come... I am writing this entry some time in your past, since I would not dare to grapple with this simple issue of mortality on the day it has such resonance.

You see, I do not know what I am doing today. But I know what I was doing 27 years ago. That would be 8 December 1980, the day John Lennon was killed.
Wednesday, December 05, 2007

More On Blade Runner "Final Cut"

Blade Runner shot
This is a follow-up on the Blade Runner DVD set, which I ran out and bought the day of release -- a singular event for me.

So far I have watched the "Final Cut", which is similar enough to the "Director's Cut" that casual viewers will not notice the difference. Sure enough some continuity fixes are in place, as itemised at Wikipedia. There's additional and modified dialogue which fans will notice right away. But non-obsessives will not see what the fuss is about.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Blade Runner Fans In Heaven

Blade Runner screen shot
It's finally here. After six years in limbo the definitive version of Blade Runner, one of the most formative films of all time, is to be released in five days, in a mind-boggling array of formats. This was the first adaptation of the unparalleled Philip K. Dick to make it to the screen, starting a trickle, then a stampede that has seen ten stories in all adapted so far. (And there's more on the way... news soon!)
Monday, November 19, 2007

Marmaros CD Available

CD cover
I am proud to announce the release of the newest escalation 819 CD, Marmaros, an hour-long exercise in ambient tension derived from the manipulation of a film theme. Listen to a free excerpt and buy the disc from the escalation 746 website.
Monday, November 19, 2007

A Revolution In Auto Tech?

I just came across an article about an insane dude who can soup up a car to do zero to sixty mph (this being Amerika and all) in five seconds while getting sixty miles to the gallon. With massively reduced emissions. Fueled with used deep-frier grease. Really.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Secret Space


The first musical fruits of a new project are up for grabs on MySpace. Secret Space is a collaboration between Susannah Clare and myself, working in a sort of broken dance-beat retro soundtrack futurist ambient mode.
Monday, November 12, 2007

New Poem Published

I've got a new poem in TEXT, the Journal of the Australian Association of Writing Programs. Find "Countdown" in Vol. 11 No. 2 (October 2007). I've been tracking this publication since time immemorial and never really thought to submit until recently.
Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Deal Of The Year: Samplitude For A Tenner

Computer Music magazine is available for about 10 euros in this country. Generally it's hardly worth that, since it's not exactly brimming with investigative articles. For a beginner, however, the introductory reviews and tutorials are ok.

But every now and then, CM justifies its price on the basis of the software they stick on the "free" DVD that comes with the magazine. And in issue 119 they are offering the baby of the best multi-track recorder money can buy, Samplitude 9 SE. Even at the list price of 50 euros this is a great deal -- at a tenner it's a no-brainer.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Comparing National Arts Budgets

An article on Turbulence compared arts funding in the USA and UK in order to point out how pathetic the situation is in the land of the free. This got me thinking... what if you include two countries I have personal experience with: Canada and Ireland?

So I quickly looked up these annual budgets, converted all four to euros, and divided by the population. The results are quite an eye-opener.
Sunday, October 28, 2007

Best Ever USB Audio Interface

I was recently looking for a decent USB 2 audio interface that my partner could use with her laptop for recording vocals and piano. She needed it to be bus-powered for portability, but to offer proper phantom power for a condenser microphone. MIDI I/O to interface with our digital piano was a must, and a second input to record an instrument was also required. On top of this, I was thinking that if it had two independent stereo outputs I could use it for DJ gigs as well, instead of hauling around my FireFace 400 with power supply.

Extensive research led me back to this very website. Yes, it turns out that I had already found the perfect device back in August of last year. There's nothing quite like Googling for your own web page to get your head spinning!
Thursday, October 25, 2007

Framemakers Tonight


I've been too busy working on Framemakers activities with Steve Valk of RICE to actually tell you that the next presentation is tonight, 8pm in Daghdha Space, John's Square, Limerick. Entitled Quantum Physics And New Theories Of Social Relations, this lecture-performance incorporates a seminar by Alexis Clancy, dance by Angie Smalis and Knot, a multimedia meditation on Clancy's radical new ideas.

Since graduating from the National University of Galway with a BA in Mathematics and Mathematical Physics, Alexis Clancy has been exploring correlations between Fermat's Last Theorem and Möbius topologies. His insights dig deep into human creativity and other profound areas.

As Michael Klien's major choreographic work of 2007 "Field Studies: Excavations of Mind and Nature" takes the form of twenty-two interrelated choreographic studies dispersed throughout the year. As an exercise in "intimate world building" Field Studies is a subtle and creative enquiry into the field of mental patterns and their lived and interconnected relationship with the fabric of irreducible, unfathomable complexity in nature.

Knot is a self-initiated project that explores the potential of collaboration and experimentation in a creative context. The project is made up of four individuals, Alexis Clancy (theory), Mark Carberry (dance), Natalie Coleman (costume) and Tom Foley (animation), who have come together through concept, theory and dialogue to investigate the nature of experience within the Möbius structure of time and space.

Framemakers –- Choreography as an Aesthetics of Change is an ongoing series of projects inquiring into a world understood in terms of relations, order and ecologies. Framemakers poses the question of how we can move things in an ever-changing and deeply interconnected world, how we can imaginatively order and re-order aspects of our personal, social, cultural and political lives.
Sunday, October 21, 2007

Musings On "The Happening"

In a few weeks I'll be taking part in a lecture-performance organised by dramaturge Steve Valk. This is part of his RICE initiative, which sometimes stands for Radical Institute of Cybernetic Epistemology and sometimes maybe Reality-Informed Catalytic Events. One of the starting points for this particular event is the idea of "the happening". Here I'd like to explore that concept in a personal way that also touches on important historical facts and winds through various areas of passionate interest.

For many years in Canada I contributed to a loose collective known as the Bum Band. The reference was to a hobo and not a part of the anatomy, though the confusion was deliberate. And "band" meant not just a musical grouping but also a "band of brothers" -- sisters too! The Bum Band engaged in music, comedy, theatre, performance art, radio... whatever. I think only once were we hassled by the police, but that too came with the territory.

(I am in part reminded of this because one of the "leading lights" of the bum band, Jeff Culbert, is visiting in Ireland. He is a director, actor, and musician, besides being a sometime politician, teacher, writer, radio producer and playwrite. He hopes to perform at least some of these roles while in this country. I hope he won't mind me mentioning this in public.)

At the time I was "inspired" by the Fluxus movement, a word we must remember means "to flow". The most famous proponent of this in the popular imagination would be Yoko Ono. An antecedent would be Marcel Duchamp (a touchstone for me). I participated in a major exhibition honouring Duchamp, the only time in London, Ontario that the university gallery, city art gallery and parallel (eg: independent) gallery worked together. Integration!

Fluxus (born 1962, named by architect and designer George Maciunas) was all about making art with whatever was at hand, that is, Do It Yourself. It incorporated humour, simplicity and new combinations of media ("intermedia"). Joseph Beuys was one member of this loose group, but it was notable for having a high number of female participants. However, the origins of Fluxus lie with John Cage's experimentations with simple recipes as scores, which began in the 1950s. This is particularly relevant to my own practice as a sound artist.

The DIY attitude was taken up by the punk and post-punk musicians of England, Germany and elsewhere following on 1976. Though punk was a standard reversioning of rock, what it allowed to break free created the most fertile period popular music has yet seen. Post-punk music eschewed musicianship, broke genre conventions, challenged patriarchal assumptions, and so on. But most importantly, post-punk shattered the commercial structures which bound pop to society. Independent production and distribution of records began, a praxis that has culminated in the free distribution of music via the internet. Capitalism shudders.

The Sex Pistols and those that followed were extremely disruptive to English society, in a way that is perhaps difficult to comprehend today (30 years on). Major outcries in the media and public called for their death, figuratively and literally. On television a London councilor said "The Sex Pistols would be vastly improved by sudden death. I would like to see someone dig a huge hole and bury the lot of them in it".

Greil Marcus has written on this movement with poetry and astute vision. His book Lipstick Traces locates punk on a direct historic line from the situationists, who explicitly influenced Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and record sleeve designer Jamie Reid, an anarchist who ran a radical political magazine.

The Situationist International (SI), started in 1957, was a grouping of several different, small, extreme arts groups throughout Europe, but has been most closely associated with the writings of Guy Debord. It was the spiritual successor to Dada and some of the surrealist ideals.

The original definitions that underpinned the movement are important for their emphasis on action and disregard for schools of thought. Thankfully the active web presence of the SI makes referencing these easy. The following are from "Internationale Situationniste" #1 (June 1958).

"Situationist: Relating to the theory or practical activity of constructing situations. One who engages in the construction of situations."

"Situationism: A meaningless term improperly derived from the above. There is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine for interpreting existing conditions."

"Constructed situation: A moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events."

"Psychogeography: The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organized or not) on the emotions and behavior of individuals."

It should be emphasised that the SI was revolutionary, and in that respect perhaps too encumbered with the trappings of politics.

The pivotal moment at which the SI broke out into the "real world" was the series of events now grouped under the rubric "May '68". Starting as a student protest some time before that famous month, it is dated from the time the university of Nanterre was shut down by authorities, triggering further reaction and the occupation of the Sorbonne. This remarkable social catalyst ended with the general strike of 10 million workers (the majority of the French workforce at the time).

Some of the famous May '68 graffiti:

"Live without dead time."

"Be young and shut up!"

"Be realistic - demand the impossible!"

"Beneath the paving stones - the beach!"

"Read less, live more."

"Poetry is in the street."

The term "happening" was coined by Allan Kaprow, a painter by trade, in 1957. He created over 200 of these events before moving towards "Activities", more intimate pieces nearly indistinguishable from ordinary life. These illustrated his philosophy: "The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible."

But once again we find Kaprow's teacher, John Cage, at the genesis of this movement. His "Theater Piece No. 1" (1952) involved simultaneous activities of the participants throughout the audience: Charles Olsen and M. C. Richards reading poetry, Robert Rauschenberg hanging white paintings and playing old wax cylinders, David Tudor on prepared piano, Merce Cunningham dancing (followed by a dog) and Cage lecturing on Zen.

I'll end this contemplation with a quote from Yoko Ono, whom I wrote about recently in my appreciation of the album Life with the Lions.

"All of my work in fields other than music have an Event bent... event, to me, is not an assimilation of all the other arts as Happening seems to be, but an extrication from various sensory perceptions. It is not a get togetherness as most Happenings are, but a dealing with oneself. Also it has no script as Happenings do, though it has something that starts it moving -- the closest word for it may be a wish or hope. After unblocking one's mind, by dispensing with visual, auditory and kinetic perception, what will come out of us? Would there be anything? I wonder. And my events are mostly spent in wonderment."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Cuisle Poetry Slam

Today The Cuisle International Poetry Festival began its final day with a lovely presentation of awards to young people who had taken the time and found the heart to write some amazing verse. Then followed throughout the day readings by fine poets, a spirited debate and the launch of Knute Skinner's Fifty Years: Poems 1957-2007.

After all this was the annual poetry slam. I came well prepared with pen and a blank sheet of paper, and two minutes before I was to read set one to the other and wrote my entry. Yes, there is something of the firebrand in me yet!

Here it is with only slight changes.

Poetry Reading
I know why you are here.

I know you have a rat in your head,
a rodent with teeth sharpened on bone
that eats out the marrow of your skull.

This rat's naked tail
tickles at the root of sensation,
creating that itch you cannot scratch
unless you were to escavate your own nerves
from pink flesh,
white spaghettis of feeling
lying limp in fluorescent light.

I know why you are here.

I know the rat will not sleep.

This rat named silence.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cuisle Poetry Festival Continues

The Cuisle International Poetry Festival is well under way in Limerick, with the usual (or should I say "unusual") combination of local-grown talent and phenomenal wordsmiths from around the world. Last night Roman Simic and Ivica Prtenjaca, both award-winning young Croatian poets, discussed the state of the art in their country. Prtenjaca read five poems in his own language, with translation read by local heavy-weight Ciaran O'Driscoll.

This was fascinating stuff, full of surprise allusive twists. I definitely want to be hearing / reading more, and hope we can get some English translations of Prtenjaca's four books.

Tonight the Belltable will see the launch of the Stony Thursday annual anthology, founded back in 1975 and edited by John Liddy. Yours truly has a poem in the volume and will read from the book if so called. See you there at seven!
Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day: The Environment

This will be a personal ramble for Blog Action Day.

Writing about environment on the web... there is something deeply contradictory about that. Silicon made from melted sand and circuit boards etched with noxious chemicals -- computers have a long way to go before they are "friendly" in that sense. Large-scale manufacturing. Displaced labour. Global capitol. None of these exactly screams "sustainability".

Maybe that's why I worked with the Green Party for a few years, back when I lived in Canada. I gave politics a shot but found I wasn't suited to the rigours of dealing head-on with systems of oppression. So I decided to work a different way and, yes, this blog has an important part to play in that praxis.

Of course there is an up-side to this internet thing. I've been around long enough to see it grow from the idealism of Ted Nelson into a reality for grass-roots organisations, governments, and even mega-corporations. Along the way an awful lot of good has been preserved and even extended. Open Source software, vast communities of citizens working, playing and politicking. There's massive media consumption (games industry outgrew the movie industry some years ago) but also the opportunity to create and be part of something -- options like never before.

It's fifteen years since I helped write The Electronic Labyrinth, one of the first places on the web that you could read about Nelson and other pioneers (Douglas Engelbart, Vannevar Bush). Though dated, I'm proud of the work the three of us did on this document, originally available on disk because the web didn't exist yet!

But now there are people alive who have never known a world without its wide web. I live with one. Their environment is very different from mine growing up, and there is no way we can foresee what their future will be.

That's boring anyway. I stopped being interested in futurism (in that sense) a long time ago. I think J.G. Ballard put the nail in that coffin with his stories of the skeletons of astronauts circling the earth until their orbits decay, plummeting them back to a Cape Canaveral overgrown with vines and swept with sand. Stamped on the side of the disused gantry: "Abandon In Place".

Some still think we'll get to other planets; Star Trek embodied Utopian dreams for so many. Alan N. Shapiro has written on this with perceptive intelligence, as I have mentioned elsewhere. But my take is that we don't deserve to spoil another planet. I am aware of the traps of teleology but am also interested in preserving myself, my family, my community. I think that comes from being moral.

From the perspective of my own practice as a sound artist, environment means something quite different: a physical space, a sculptural volume, an architectonic constraint. This is the environment we can deal with corporally. When I create sound it goes in your ear, rattles your bones, vibrates your skin. Sound is immediate; it's strangely unmediated for a media.

Last Friday Jürgen Simpson and myself curated another Soundings event... a live sound art night for Limerick. Even with little promotion we had sixty people show up. That was about as many as we could easily accommodate, so -- success! It's great to be in the twenty-first century, a time when people actually care about things like sound art, especially when all around is a super-abundance of visual media fighting for attention.

We listened to "La Légende d'Eer" by Iannis Xenakis, which is decades old but sounds like it comes from the future of another planet. Actually, in a sense it does, since it comes from the imagined future of this planet, circa 1977.

I think that's what sound can do... bring those Utopian futures home and ground them in a present-day reality, provide an alternative to daydreams, let people play with ideas, and help free them from the constraints of corporate media culture (which is predominantly visual).

Ironic then, that the last thing I want to mention is a little slideshow I put together from some realtime audio programming code and a photo of a rock formation on the Irish coast an hour south of here. I am not sure why I did this or what it has to do with anything.

Maybe you should download some of the free tracks I have available at the escalation746 site. Listen to them as you watch.
Friday, October 12, 2007

The Most Important Record You've Never Heard: Life with the Lions

In the year between November 1968 and October 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released three albums of avant-garde sound art onto an unsuspecting world. It is not difficult to imagine the shocked reactions of Beatles fans looking for something along the lines of "Glass Onion"; all one has to do is go to Amazon and see the same open-mouthed dismay forty years on. But in all this reactionary fervor few have decided to actually listen to the albums, an oversight I will partially remedy in this article.

On 11 November 1968 Ono and Lennon released Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, famous for its full-frontal nude photo of the couple. On 20 October 1969 they book-ended the trilogy with Wedding Album, which came with a slice of wedding cake (or at least a photo facsimile) and a copy of their marriage certificate.

It is for these artifacts rather than the content that the records are best known. Certainly it's easier to argue about a cover photo than it is to apprehend the experiments in musique concrète, recitation and atonal music that fill these vinyl sides.

But it is the centrepiece of this trilogy, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions, released 9 May 1969, that I wish to examine. Because it's a fantastic overlooked treasure that transcends its kin.

Side two starts with "No Bed For Beatle John" in which Yoko sings "EMI, the world's biggest recording company..." to hilarious effect. This Gregorian chanting of news items about the couple is funny, but also chilling (when one considers the panopticon in which they lived) and touching. John's voice is quiet throughout, but becomes foregrounded at the end of the piece, as he recites a clip regarding his divorce proceedings with Cynthia Lennon. The musical reference to liturgical procedures is thus doubly appropriate.

I do not know if Yoko and John planned on releasing these recordings before she miscarried. But a five-minute section of "Baby's Heartbeat" is not morbid, but rather a warm and fuzzy reminder of life, as is the "Two Minutes Silence" which follows. I think it a misinterpretation to see this as simply a memorial. Cage's famous piece on which it is partially based is a celebration of the life that exists without a score to keep it going. Though this counterpart loses substantial meaning played from CD, on vinyl the clicks and scratches it accumulates from repeat listens brings it to life. Much like the bumps and bruises a child gains as it grows up shapes who it will be.

"Radio Play" is a radiophonic play on words, for it is both a rhythmic playing with the radio and a snapshot of their domestic drama: discussions in the background, John making prosaic phone calls. And though they think they are in a play, they are anyway, as the constant press attention referenced in "No Bed For Beatle John" attests.

For an ex-Beatle the importance of the radio cannot be over-estimated, and the fact that snippets of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" make their way into the proceedings is not a self-referential twinge of the artists, but a solipsistic gesture on the part of the world itself. No wonder John wanted to turn the radio off. And then on again. And then off. It was one way of controlling the super-saturated media world in which he lived. Now that we have all become the centre of our own media spectacle (I am publishing this on a blog, right?) his gesture has become ever-more relevant, one possible way to contend with the third order of simulacra.

It should not pass unmentioned that these tracks were recorded, not in a studio, but on cassette tape over a three-week period at Queen Charlotte Hospital, London. The cover pictures John on the floor beside Yoko in bed. The presentation and content are entirely consistent: this is a documentary.

I have purposefully addressed the flip-side first. Given that the first side is more overtly "musical" (there are instruments) some might see the experiments relegated to the b-side as filler. Listening to them first makes clear that they are rather the foundation for "Cambridge 1969". (Besides, they came first chronologically.)

This live performance at Lady Mitchell Hall, Cambridge is astounding. Yoko starts first with an undulating microtonal meander, very intense and thin in the recording (as a sound engineer I feel sympathy for the microphone!). Lennon's guitar feedback manages to create it's own pulse out of disparate drone notes, and also plays in and out of the tones Yoko is singing. Before the twenty-six minutes is over they are joined by saxophonist John Tchicai (who played on John Coltrane's Ascension) and percussionist John Stevens (who recently had played with Evan Parker).

This is riveting stuff, the template for any number of sonic experimenters since. In fact this piece exists on an axis from free jazz through the krautrock brigade to Can, post-punk, Sonic Youth and right back to Japanese noise artists. The following year the Plastic Ono Band would distill this into a more palatable rhythm-driven template. That's alright too, but this is the raw uncontained essence.

For a record that has been slagged thoughtlessly for four decades, I find "Life with the Lions" to be a complete success, save perhaps a few minutes of the over-long "Radio Play". Partly this is because it lacks the naive calls for "peace", the baggage of "bagism", that the other records get stuck to. This album avoids an overtly political reading by focusing mercilessly on the personal, and the relationships of body to media.

The overt exhibitionism and documentary nature of the trilogy make it obvious that Ono and Lennon's agenda was not at all musical. By exposing their private lives for all to see, the couple replaced musical expectations -- "the next Beatles record" -- with unexpected gifts of love (much of Ono's art follows this trajectory). But, as we know from Marcel Mauss, it is free gifts that have the potential to cause the most upset. A gift establishes a debt and hence a power relationship with the recipient.

It for this reason, and not simply because listeners were expecting "music" and got "sound", that "Life with the Lions" upsets so many. This is the "record" of loss through miscarriage and alienation through media, driven by pure emotion (Ono's voice) and suffused in the power of "being-in-the-moment". The home recordings, lack of editing and near absence of conventional musicianship signals an ethnographic, even psychogeographic approach, not a phonographic one as it has been understood since the time of... well, since The Beatles invented modern pop recording.

This intimate sharing calls for a re-evaluation of one's relationship with the record album and hence with consumer society at large. That's a sentiment that attracts many adherents today, but almost forty years ago it was new and challenging.

Actually, it's still challenging. Give a listen to this Life with the Lions and see if you agree.
Friday, September 28, 2007

Blog Action Day and Some Random Links

October 15th is Blog Action Day, an arbitrary date on the calendar when over five thousand blogs will post on one topic: the environment. I've signed up for this initiative.

Now someone please remind me so I do not forget!

Meanwhile, you may want to read about Teochew Preserved Crab, a dish made by drowning live female crabs in soya sauce, letting them sit for several days and then bathing them in liquefied red roe.

Sounds like the sort of thing a touring rock band might be interested in. If so, you might find it mentioned in their "rider", a contract that stipulates all the stuff they want to be provided with. Chances are you have never read anything as funny as the one provided by Iggy Pop. Spinal Tap's got nothing on this!

If you need to mic yourself up, on stage or off, this guy has a purportedly great-sounding mic preamp that costs only 100 bucks. Catch? You have to build it yourself.

If your audio tendencies run in the direction of scaring customs officials or gallery patrons, you may favour the Suspicious Looking Device, a reactive instrument designed to "appear as suspicious as possible".

If reading is more your thing, you might love curling up in a nice library or searching out a bargain in a back-street book shop. One of the sensory joys of this experience is the distinctive aroma of aging paper. Well, now electronic books can have that musty smell too!

It's a swirl of fantasies and fears, of silly haircuts and ill-chosen snare sounds, of razor guitar and delicious sing-a-long melodies, yes, its Scars first and only album, Author! Author! And it's available to you finally on CD, with a whole slew of bonus tracks previously only available to those, like me, who searched out their each and every single. Actually their very first effort, the delightful "adult/ery" / "Horror Show", is missing, but you can find that elsewhere.

Fans of Gang of Four, Skids, Fire Engines or any of these new young bands that think they know what they're doing (Franz Ferdinand I'm looking at you!) had better run, not walk, to their local retailer to grab this.

Or, if you have no such joyous option, help me out by clicking on the following to patronise Amazon. (Personal takings to date: zero. I guess I'm just not appreciated. Boo hoo.)

buy from Amazon 
Thursday, September 27, 2007

Typefaces On The Web

I am sure we all have our favourite typefaces and others that make us cringe in horror. Me, I like Futura; it's useful in (nearly) all its variants and stays out of the way when you want it to. I'm also rather mad for Fette Engschrift (aka DIN 1451).

In fact I'm the type of idiot who buys typefaces, though I don't think I have bought more than one set in the last few years. Problem is, eventually I have to design a web page, and then all my love for typefaces goes to waste.

That's because only fonts installed on the client computer will be viewable in their browser. Some time ago I decided to look into this sad state of affairs. Just now I tidied up the document and posted it for your edification. Browser Font Samples is over on one of my other websites since I didn't want to adapt the formatting for this blog.

What we need is a technology like that provided by PDF documents, namely, embedded fonts. I remember the days before PDFs, when fonts had to be specified by number and sending a document from one platform to another was a nightmare. If you don't know what I'm talking about you missed a great deal of hell. If you do know what I mean I need only mention one sordid word to make you shiver with horror: Palatino.

But anyway, wouldn't it be nice to embed fonts on web pages? Well, you can, in a manner of speaking.

The simplest way is simply to render the letter shapes you want as images and insert those on the web page. Though a time-tested technique, this has the disadvantage of requiring extra work, plus it constrains the design process -- what to do if the letters are being generated from a dynamic publishing system? If you're not careful with alt attributes you might also reduce the accessibility of the page or its friendliness to search engines. Over-use of images will also decrease the page load time, again, unless you are careful with image optimisation techniques.

And of course every time you decide to change the point size, colour or other attribute it's back to your graphics app.

Sometime in late 2003 a bunch of clever folk came up with sIFR, which just happens to stand for the Scalable Inman Flash Replacement (clever they were but not very good with branding). The technology is based on the fact that most modern browsers are compatible with Javascript and Flash. Simply, a script scans your page for text you've asked it to render. For each area of text it creates a Flash movie of the same size, containing the self-same text but in the font you've asked for.

This can look very nice, as the demo illustrates. The rendering is fast, overhead is small and it degrades properly. Clients without Javascript turned on or without Flash installed will see the original text.

But it does require that you use Flash and post SWF files to your website. Over-used it can appreciably slow down the browsing experience. And it does sacrifice some usability... don't put links in sIFR block please! If all this still sounds good to you and you don't need backwards compatibility with older browsers you can always try the version 3 beta. Just be sure you have $700 on hand for a copy of Flash CS3 Professional.

Prefer a cheaper solution? If you have server-side access you can use Python etc. to render text using whatever imaging library you can get your hands on. That's the sort of solution I'll be looking at for my own requirements.

Anything to save me from a life of Georgia and Tahoma.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Deprived Of Images? Thought Not.

Blogger has a new toy that looks at first to appeal to the "sit back and watch TV 'cause you've got nothing better to do" mentality. But then I started thinking that the odd juxtapositions might create a kind of unexpected visual poetry, while revealing insights into how we frame images for consumption.

What am I talking about? Blogger Play, a page that displays a slideshow of images as they are uploaded to people's blogs. You get to see anything that is being added to a public blog from anywhere around the world, unless the owner explicitly opts out.

That's the line anyway, but of course this is not entirely true. Images come with descriptions and links to the blog entries, so they can only be displayed if they are in finished posts. This is no work in progress; we are not getting a glimpse into the act of assembly. That would at least have the frisson of generative art. The truth is that these images are already fixed in context, already finished, already archived.

In fact what Blogger Play does is age the images before their time. After a fraction of a second a picture is old, replaced with another. I find it significant that the default speed of the slideshow is so fast. Nothing here is worth lingering over. It's all dead and gone.

I was thinking of adding an image to this post, but decided against.
Monday, September 17, 2007

Twelve Best Rheostatics Moments

The world's most iconoclastic rock band has called it a day after thirteen albums. Here's what you missed. Bear in mind that most days I don't even like rock music. But every now and then (say every two decades) a band comes along to reaffirm my faith. Did I just say "faith"? Must be the banana beer (not recommended).

"Late nights make me really tired / all this jamming gives me a headache."
"The Ballad of Wendel Clark Parts I and II" brilliantly encapsulates the band's obsession with Canada's national game, lacrosse hockey. It's boppy, it's happy, it's got great guitar bits and silly vocals from all the boys, while quoting from the real national anthem (the "Hockey Night In Canada" theme) and the Sex Pistols. It's the only song they bothered keeping in their set from their debut album Greatest Hits -- a wise decision. The best recorded version is on Double Live, which throws in further references (eg: beer jingles). Even this pales compared to what it could be live. Was I the only one waiting for Parts III and IV?

"There's a Lenny in my Kravitz that must be removed"
Night of the Shooting Stars is the album that most illustrates the band's rockist tendencies -- not something I think needs to be encouraged. "These Days Are Good For the Canadian Conservative Youth Party Alliance" is no different, but lyrics like "when the sun goes down on the flat Edmonton streets / you will seek normal pleasure / there are sports teams with cheerleaders who double as hookers / you will seek normal pleasure" more than redress the balance.

"I tried to sing a simple song / but the metaphor was ten feet long"
"The Latest Attempt On Your Life" is the hilariously self-conscious ditty in which the female BV sings "everyone hates you, you sing like a woman". How brilliant is that? 2067 is the band's most "together" album, one of their finest productions, and the one that makes me sure the world would have been better had Michael Phillip Wojewoda produced all their stuff. He is immaculate and emphasises detail; the Rheostatics' complexity needs that. Unfortunately for us, it was also the final album.

"The sky dreamed a cloud's death / when you spoke I saw your breath"
The Story of Harmelodia is a children's story and album, the kind of thing I would certainly be feeding children if anyone entrusted them to me (which is likely why they don't, now that I think about it). I chose a lyric from "The Sky Dreamed" but this entire album is my pick since everything works, from Janet Morassutti's narration to Sarah Harmer's lead vocals (female lead on a Rheos album -- wow!) to the lovely book with some of Martin Tielli's incredible illustrations.

"I would have used it to paint the picture I'm seeing now."
"Queer" is one of Bidini's finest moment. Actually, he could have died happy after writing this symphony of teen rebellion and family turmoil. I love how he manages to rhythm "arm" and "warm", the cute vocal refrain on "pitch" and the way the drums and piano merge into a single instrument in the middle break. Still, it's hard to pick just one song from the brilliant Whale Music, so I won't.

"Mum and dad are selfless / and they don't do nothing worthless / they just work all day and worry about their son / 'What went wrong with Martin / Is he dumb?'"
"Self-Serve Gas Station" starts with country-tinged pianissimo, capturing the anguish of a dead-end job. Before it finishes it expands it into something far more universal, tightly-controlled melodic guitar squealing out into the night. "No-one said this would be easy / but no-one said this would be hell." Been there, Martin.

"Though I haven't got that drunk yet"
"Dead Is The Drunkest That You Can Get" is a bittersweet satire from Double Live, the album in which The Rheostatics put across some of the very best versions of their songs, many of them much better interpretations than the studio versions. Those who never saw this group live may be amazed that the complex arrangements, violent mood swings and impeccable playing could happen anywhere but in the most sophisticated studio environment. But, yes folks, this really happened. Regularly.

"What is a monster to do, when your teeth are so young and your tongue is for licking?"
"Shaved Head" is chilling, compelling and utterly mystifying in that particular Tielli way. I think it might be about a cancer victim. Don't know. The guitars weave a web of sound, delicate cushions for the naked subject. And like him, this song demands attention. Like pretty well the entirety of "Whale Music".

"Now it's time to close my eyes / to sail away and photosynthesise"
"Earth / Monstrous Hummingbirds" is some sort of apocalyptic ecological nightmare, or maybe a gorgeous evolutionary fable. It is perhaps the fishiest track on Introducing Happiness, swaying between whispered niceties and pounding guitars. How anyone arranges a song (two songs? three songs?) like this is beyond me.

"If someone had won we'd have heard long ago / No-one wins."
"Row" is a simple melodic ditty, including a bit of pseudo-yodeling from Tim Vesely and falsetto Martinisms. It has a beauty that tugs at the heartstrings and, when it loosens them, uses them to construct a kite that is then flown into the silvered night.

"Someone in class called me a loser / decided to skip the day"
"Record Body Count" takes under two minutes of Melville to unfold, but in that time manages to illuminate the issue of teen suicide without explicating anything at all. They revisited this theme more directly on "Beerbash", but "Record Body Count" is so elliptical it comes right back around the curve into realism. After all, who talks about suicide in high school? The song often gets laughs live, but these are the laughs of embedded insecurities. The last song the band ever played -- a noble choice.

"If I be the crane / If you be the site inspector."
With Rheostatics you always get a good epic to close an album. "A Midwinter Night's Dream" is the best of the lot, a dreamy conclusion to The Blue Hysteria, which opens up into some sort of a conspiracy theory about drowning under ice, building sites and sabotage. It chills me to the bone and gets me very happy at the same time. Excuse me, did someone just say genius?

Visit Martin Tielli, Dave Bidini, the official Rheostatics site, the live recordings base or the USA page, which has the lyrics.

You can support this great band and me at the same time by buying from Amazon. Whale Music tops surveys of Canadian Music time after time. Buy it here:
 buy from Amazon buy from Amazon

The Story of Harmelodia is the best children's album/book ever:
 buy from Amazon buy from Amazon

And finally, something available to those in the UK, where the band is completely unknown and mostly unavailable. The final Rheostatics album is the most consistent and palatable, but still taps into their quirky world view and humour. Do yourself a favour -- get 2067:
buy from Amazon buy from Amazon buy from Amazon

"Sweet sweet silence / I'm already gone."
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

escalation 746 Live At Mamuska Dublin

I have been regularly providing the sound environment for Mamuska Limerick, a multi-disciplinary open art evening with a fun and experimental flair. I curated the music for the first ever Mamuska Dublin last Saturday and this weekend join the 2007 Fringe Festival for a live appearance.

As well as DJing an eclectic blend of progressive and atmospheric sounds, I will be playing original electronic music as escalation 746. This will be a premiere performance for Ireland's first city.

Join me for an evening of dance, theatre, music and who-knows-what at the Back Loft, 7-11 St. Augustine Street from 8pm until about 11pm. Best of all, it's free!
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sensor Board Update: Eowave and Doepfer

segnoI have advance information on the Eobody 2 that is contrary to my earlier expectations. The device has been made into a standard box form factor with no MIDI controls. It accepts 8 inputs on 1/4" TRS and outputs MIDI on USB. It is USB powered but has a power adaptor jack for when you might need more current.

If you require more inputs you simply connect more Eobody units to your computer... there is no practical limit. The literature states 12-bit resolution which must be for the inputs and internal processing, since MIDI is a 7-bit format. Mac and win32 software allows you to edit the control parameters depending on the sensors you connect.

Eowave have decided to forsake the earlier unit's individuality for a simple plug'n'play solution. But the price is a lot lower than expected: €200 plus VAT. This unit is no longer in the "expensive but worth it" category but should rather be compared to the Doepfer Pocket Electronic.

The PE is €150 cheaper and has 16 inputs. It has MIDI in and out which is handy for controlling non-computer audio gear. The Eobody 2 has a case, standard TRS inputs (less wiring) and a USB out -- meaning you don't need a MIDI interface on your computer.

And speaking of Doepfer, they have a new board imminently available, the USB64 which, true to its name, has a massive 64 inputs and adds a USB port to the I/O. It'll be about 60 x 55 x 30mm in size and will sell for a very reasonable €125.

Which you choose depends on your application.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

escalation 819 on "Endless Endless" compilation

I am pleased to announce that escalation 819 is included on version 5 of "Endless Endless", an online compilation of ambient music. You can access this by going to the home of Audiobulb Records and choosing Projects. An in-page player will stream the content.

"Endless Endless provides an ever expanding organic arrangement space. Artists are invited to send 120 second tracks of ambient audio to Audiobulb. Tracks are mixed alternatively into the start or the end of the piece in a manner that expands Endless Endless."

The escalation 819 contribution is named "Pack Ice". This may find its way onto a CD eventually.

The participants in order of mix are:
the oo-ray
adcbicycle
ochre
billygomberg
effacer
autistici
ocp
c.cruz
tmns
gintas k
andrew halliday
craque
tom lynn
andrew halliday
john kannenberg
generic
arctic sunrise
minim.all
five step path
escalation 819
jeff sampson
william tomlinson (x2)
btb
mark.nine
francesco rosati

The fact that the pieces are merged and that each version of the compilation has only a short half-life of existence as a streaming medium tickles my radiophonic heart.
Monday, September 10, 2007

Scribus: Open Source Page Layout

I was doing some layout for a client today and needed a quick and easy way of comping together photos with some text. Because the photos needed cropping, exposure compensation and other editing, I ended up using Photoshop. This made me feel so bad. Where was my open source soul now?

The truth is that I've invested thousands of hours into Photoshop. Any graphics programme takes an enormous amount of time to learn to use properly. So I have never got around to learning the best win32 open source alternative, Gimp. When my partner and daughter wanted an image editor I swiftly slapped Gimp on their laptop. I do not want to perpetuate the insanity! But I am still stuck in closed source land.

Another issue is that I don't have anything like a recent version of these programmes. Some time ago I got a student model of PageMaker, an app I've used for just about forever (starting on Mac). I snagged a license for ImageReady when it was going almost free. But there's no way I could afford to get the recent versions of these apps, nor would I want to.

Using a bitmap editor to do layout is obviously wrong. For one thing, everything takes so long to render. There's no way to lay out everything at thumbnail resolution first, before switching to a higher resolution proof. (I do remember some esoteric image editor that would do this automatically using fractal image algorithms. Whatever happened to those? For a few minutes in the late eighties they seemed to be pretty hot.)

So I looked around and found Scribus, which only recently has been ported to win32. It uses Ghostscript for PDF generation, so I know it will produce excellent output. And there's a Portable App version, which is nifty.

I took a look and am impressed! But before I go into details I should state that I am not a designer by training. Nonetheless I've done layout for posters, CD covers and manuals and even a couple of books. By no means would I be a print expert. A decade ago I used FrameMaker. I despise Microsoft Publisher. PageMaker I find wimpy. I've never got my hands on InDesign.

OK, now that you have a little perspective...

The Scribus interface has little in the way of workflow support, betraying its desktop origins. There almost no document or project management. The basic working paradigm is:
1. choose document format (number of pages and size)
2. insert frames into a page
3. populate frames
4. apply styles and properties

It would be better if styles were absolutely mandated, but they are not. One can still create a mess of different characteristics ungoverned by any overall structure.

When importing large text files they automatically flow into linked frames on subsequent pages. Frames can be linked in any order and this may be done before or after they have content. If you give the content a paragraph style you can align columns to a fixed baseline. (This might have better been the default.)

You cannot set margins for a frame itself, which seems like such an oversight I must have missed it somewhere.

There's lots you can do in this app: insert special characters and ligatures; use multiple master pages; produce a table of contents automatically from tagged objects; precisely measure arbitrary distances; angles and point sizes; generate barcodes; and script with Python. It also supports colour management and preflight checking -- necessary professional printing features. Text can be reflected about either axis, arbitrarily rotated, or put on a curve.

There's some useful documentation, like hints for setting up Gimp for proper use with Scribe. You'll also want to peruse the wiki.

I have not done enough testing to determine the quality of the text positioning, hyphenation etc. This is what really distinguishes a first-class layout programme from a run-of-the-mill word processors. The latter have no idea how to properly position one letter after another (or one word after another) so that they look aesthetically pleasing for the given typeface. Version 1.4 of Scribus (we're on 1.3.3.9 now) promises improvements in that area.

That version will also improve bleed and separation support and add the ability to do overprinting and knockouts.

In most similar apps you can add overlapping elements and change their stack order. Scribus goes one further and allows you to create layers as well. Within each layer there can still be stacks of items. Layers provide an easy ways of grouping frames across the document. For example, annotations could all be on one layer, so you can turn them on or off. Along the same lines, frames may be individually print disabled. I am sure there is a way to automate this, so that frames with a certain attribute could be disabled together.

There are some tricks I wouldn't expect to be here, made possible by the fact that Scribus incorporates vector functionality. You can draw shapes, lines and curves directly, altering these at will with styles, colours, gradients and fills. Cooler yet, you can convert text to curves and then use this to cut out images. Or, convert text to a frame and insert an image or other text inside its outline! Scribus imports SVG so it works well with apps like Inkscape. Importing a drawing will add its spot colours to the current document palette -- nice. A collection of Scribus Tips shows how to do some of this magic.

Some things I've noticed are not included: a spell checker, vertically centered text in a frame, indexing and footnote support. This would not be the programme to use for complex text documents. I've also found an annoyance: guidelines are not visible if an image covers the entire page. Also, the properties dialogue does not draw properly. Panels will be too large for the containing window, forcing scrolling within a panel... a pain.

When it comes to output, Scribus supports the prepress standard PDF/X-3 which contains ICC color profiles. PDF transparencies, thumbnails and bookmarks are all available. But the amazing thing is that you can create PDF forms in Scribus, including buttons and other elements with Javascript actions. This might save you the price of Adobe Acrobat.

I should also note that I found the app responsive and clean to use. Supposedly it is very picky about typeface files, but in my minimal usage I have not run into this yet.

My only problem is that I cannot use it for my current project, or indeed any that requires handing off the results to another designer. Until everyone discovers Scribus and makes it a standard, I'll be forced to use a commercial application for compatibility's sake. This is an annoying fact of life.

As a postscript (ahem) I might bring your attention to PoDoFo, an open source PDF editor that lets you see the structure of your document, make changes, and create an updated file. Years ago when I had to write code to hack Postscript files I would have killed for this.
Friday, September 07, 2007

Sensor Computing Summary and Recommendations

segno
We have come to the end of my series of articles on sensors for music production. In the introductory article, Instrument / Device / Sensor: A Continuum I discussed how experimental musicians have taken to using an ever-increasing variety of transducers to shape their sound production. I then took a look at the common types of sensors you might choose to employ. These require controlling with some sort of micro-processor board. The third article looked at the characteristics of these, following which I listed 22 different available boards, ranging from home-built kits for the price of parts to professionally finished gear costing a couple of grand.

Meanwhile, over on my programming blog, diagrammes modernes, I have been looking at the software side of the equation. My study of music control languages began by listing some criteria for choosing between them. I took a look at both specialised tools and those based on the Python language. Then I focused on the intriguing language ChucK, with an introduction and a look at the language features.

Through all of this I have tried to keep a pragmatic tone and make my decisions as explicit and general as possible. Aesthetics has not really entered the discussion; these articles are more technical than artistic.

Put another way, this series is designed to help you quickly answer the technical questions so you can dedicate more time to the artistic particulars of your project. I have also tried to pitch the material to those of you just getting started in this field.

In the future I hope to write about what I have personally done with the knowledge gained through this research. Until then I have a more immediate task: I'd like to narrow down the exhaustive list of controllers, so as to make your decision-making even easier.

Making The Cut

The first part of this process is quite easy. Several of the kits we looked at were, for the most part, quite similar. Some can be eliminated from consideration since they are older technology (The BASIC Stamp, BasicX), others because they are incomplete, under-documented or require extensive assembly (Gainer, MAnMIDI, USB MultI/O-Box, MIDIsense). Those with an educational orientation are either larger than necessary or also require much soldering (The Bare-Bones Board, CUI, BlueSense). Three devices on the high end are distinctly over-priced considering the competition (I-CubeX, MIDIcreator, gluion). And one unit, the "thing", is not available in Europe.

I am fascinated by the SquidBee which intelligently networks to collect environmental data. But given that it is built from Arduino boards, it is possible to recreate the same functionality for less money. The price premium is for the integration.

This leaves nine products for consideration. For ease of comparison I will price these in euro with shipping inclusive to a typical European location.


Expensive But Worth It

On the expensive side of the spectrum I favour two units for those who want fully finished plug'n'play solutions with minimum hassle. The Eobody 2, so far unreleased, can be recommended on the basis of its predecessor. It is unique in providing a small performance interface for real-time tweaking of the received signals. Of course it is easy enough to add some input pots or switches to any of the boards I looked at, but Eowave has done this for you in a rather cool housing. And since it outputs MIDI it can be connected to a plethora of standard gear without hassle. For about €500 it is a handy performance tool.

For those who need ultra-low latency and high bandwidth the Teabox is the ticket. Built like a tank from the best possible components it will cost a lot more in terms of connectors (eg: sensors should be fitted with XLR sockets) and requires specially conditioned sensors for best performance. Consider the €315 spent on the (reasonably priced) base unit as a small part of the investment needed to build up a system around this interface.

Most of us, however, neither need that sort of performance, nor can afford it for one off or experimental projects. At a lower price point, there are two distinct classes of boards, based on their output protocol: MIDI or serial.

MIDI Solutions

MIDI has the advantage of being an accepted standard within the music industry, with thousands of products that can simply plug'n'play. No computer is necessary and no engineer or musician will look at you twice -- it's business as usual. Yet it's also easy to connect to a computer when you need to; computers may not come with MIDI I/O but add-on cards or USB adaptors are commonplace.

We have two MIDI solutions to consider. The Doepfer Pocket Electronic comes ready-made with firmware programmed for most sensors. But if you need to programme the board you must be running Windows as the software supports only that OS. The PE is limited in having no output pins. The website has lots of pictures of cool projects done with this device, but little support and no dedicated community. Still, for about €90 it is a great deal.

The physically larger (183 cm3 compared with 112 cm3) MidiTron is also more expensive at about €132. However it has two advantages. First, it has output pins in case you want to rig up LEDs, displays, or the like. Second, the configuration is done with SYSEX messages, which opens up device programming to any OS (or even non-computer MIDI devices). Of course this doesn't mean that it's easy to write the System Exclusive codes, only that it is possible.

Serial Boards

Serial output on USB ports is completely compatible with any computer system, but not with audio devices. But it has the advantage of 10-bit resolution, equal to what you are likely getting on the analog inputs to the boards. Compare that to the 7-bit of MIDI and you'll see that the serial boards are a lot more sensitive, which is handy if you're rigging up sensors that need smooth responses.

I prefer products that are open source, have a USB port (as opposed to RS-232), support cross-platform development and have an active community of helpful developers. This rules out Ezio, which in any case is expensive for what it does at €175. The PhidgetInterfaceKit is a more reasonable €80 and has an active forum. Though they sell their own line of plug'n'play sensors, one is not necessarily limited to these.

Still, it doesn't make the grade. Based on cost alone I'd prefer the Arduino Diecimila, obtainable for about €32. The development languages are open, cross-platform and purpose-built, unlike the scattershot approach of Phidget. It is proudly open source and international, with one of the best support networks I have seen.

Furthermore, the family of boards supports many different applications. The Arduino Mini is perfect where space is at a premium (its the smallest of all the products under consideration). The Arduino BT has built-in Bluetooth communications. Furthermore the full-sized Arduino can be fitted with one of a number of "shields" to enhance functionality. One of these provides RF communication (so you can build a SquidBee!), another enables motor control (for robotics), and so on.

If you need more I/O pins or on-board memory, consider Wiring, since it too is open source, cross-platform, and well supported. Better yet, the programming languages are similar, so you can easily move from one board to the other with a small learning curve. However, it's about twice the price at €66, so if you don't need the extra features, don't buy them.

Wiring is topped in capabilities and price by the Make Controller Kit, which is notable for its up-to-date technology. It has USB 2 and Ethernet ports and communicates using OSC -- the perfect solution (protocol here). They have a forum and helpful tutorials, though there's less info than for the other two products since this one is newer. But it's physically larger and twice as expensive again at €132. Unless you really must have OSC Arduino and Wiring are more cost effective.

Grand Finale

If you need 12-bit resolution and lightning fast responses get The Teabox.

If you require a MIDI device, don't need more than 7-bit resolution, would like to avoid any sort of assembly, and don't need to control output devices directly, the Doepfer Pocket Electronic will suit you fine.

If you don't mind doing a bit of building and want the most flexible cheapest solution, you won't go wrong with Arduino (adding in the Wiring board as a "big brother" if needs be).

OK, that's all. Now get out there and build something!

I thank the Arts Council for their support in this research.
Thursday, September 06, 2007

Micro-Processor Board Roundup

segno
In the previous article I presented an introduction to micro-processor boards and discussed their characteristics. In this article I present 22 different solutions for building your own sensor device. For each I give a capsule description with only the most pertinent information. I believe that this is the most extensive list on the web, given that I am focusing on hardware suitable for audio applications, and am not about to list every micro-processor in existence.

The list is roughly ordered by price. In order to assist my European friends, I have tried to determine the total cost including shipping to Europe for those units that seem the most interesting. Shipping costs can dramatically change the affordability of the given solution.

Let's get started!

The Arduino is a family of open-source boards. The latest and most capable is the Diecimila (69 x 53 mm), which has 14 digital pins (6 of which allow output) and 6 analog inputs. Output is serial over USB. Power is via USB or an external supply. The firmware language is based on Wiring; the development environment is based on Processing. These run on Mac, win32 and LINUX. The unit can be used standalone (eg: without a computer) and has 8KB of memory. The price for an assembled board is €22 plus VAT from PCB Europe or €27.50 from Libelium. (Unfortunately shipping cannot be determined without logging in. However, shipping from the US is only about $8.) Options include the Zigbee Shield, an RF module with on-board antenna for communication up to 100m. This is €39. Motor kits and Bluetooth add-ons are also available. The community is strong.

A "bread-board friendly" version of the Arduino is available under the name The Bare-Bones Board. It is one-third the size in each dimension, loses the USB interface and is designed for easy assembly by beginners. Fully assembled it's $22, but that likely misses the point.

Gainer is an open source kit based on a simple I/O module. The parts must be obtained separately so the unit can be built (approximate cost $30). It can be configured for a total of 8 analog and digital I/O. It is USB bus-powered. The software is supported for win32 and Mac and is available for Flash, Max/MSP and Processing. The device communicates using a simple ASCII serial protocol over USB. The firmware cannot be modified unless the commercial Cypress C compiler is purchased ($140). The device does not work as a standalone unit. Some of the key documents are in Japanese only.

The BASIC Stamp is a line of controllers popular in robotics. The boards have varying pin numbers, speed, and memory, the popular BASIC Stamp 2 having 16 digital pins and serial I/O on two more. It is programmed in PBASIC (a variation of BASIC) on win32. There is no analog I/O. The Stamp requires fitting with a USB or serial port plus a power regulator circuit. It has a very small amount of internal memory (2KB). Dimensions are 30 x 15 x 10mm and the price is $49.

The BasicX is a similar line, the most recent being the BasicX-24p. This has 32KB memory and 8 additional pins that can be analog I/O or digital. The price is $50.

MIDIsense is a $50 kit that comes complete with all the parts to self-assemble. It provides win32 or Mac software to control a boards that handles resistive sensors only (force, bend, photosensors, etc.). Future board variants will handle different types of sensors. Because it handles a good number of MIDI messages natively, it does not need to be used with a computer. Has 6 inputs but no outputs. The chip is the ATmega8, the same as that used by Arduino; it hence has 8KB of memory. Size is not known.

MAnMIDI provides 10 (or 11) analog inputs to MIDI output. It is a compact 59 x 31 mm and costs $50 assembled (though it is no longer available this way). There is little available information and it does not have a visible user community.

The USB MultI/O-Box is an open source kit providing 88 analogue inputs and 64 outputs, 64 digital I/O, 2 MIDI outputs, a 40 character LCD display, a rotary encoder and a serial output on RS232. It is still in alpha and is not a trivial build project. The author can provide some units built for €40 + €15 shipping + the cost of the parts. The unit is two boards stacked on top of one another and is hence larger than most of the other kit-based options listed here.

The PhidgetInterfaceKit 8/8/8 has, as the name suggests, 8 analog inputs and 8 digital I/O, interfacing with USB. Designed for use on LINUX, win32 or Mac, it has programme interfaces for Visual Basic, VB.NET, C, C++, C#, Flash 9, Flex, Java, LabVIEW, and Matlab. The inputs use 3-pin locking connectors and so are designed to be used with the 20-odd sensors sold by the same company as "phidgets". The unit itself is CND$ 80 but kits with various phidgets (including motors and other output devices) are available as well. Dimensions unknown.

The Create USB Interface (CUI) was developed at U.C. Santa Barbara and includes a breadboard area as an easy project surface. It has 13 A/D inputs, 17 usable general I/O ports and USB out. The firmware development software requires that you write in C on win32 only. However an assembled and loaded board can be obtained for $50 US that is ready to interface to any software that understands Human Interface Device interface (eg: Max/MSP, PD, SuperCollider).

Doepfer is one of the biggest names in modular synth components and custom MIDI controllers. Their Pocket Electronic includes sensor inputs on two 10-pin ribbon cables, and MIDI I/O. A number of presets for different devices are in the firmware, which can be controlled either physically with the provided momentary switch (and LED for feedback) or with incoming MIDI messages. The editor software (win32 only) can be used to reprogramme the presets. Any other data at the MIDI in is merged to the MIDI out, allowing chaining of multiple devices. The PE works on an external power supply, which is provided for European sales. Dimensions are 80 x 56 x 25 mm and price €77 from Thomann, who have reasonable shipping.

Wiring is an open source project consisting of schematics for a board and a control language. The board has 5 ports of 8 digital I/O pins each, 8 analog ins and 6 outs. There are further configuration possibilities, since the analog ins can be used as an extra digital port, some pins are used as interrupts, etc. There are two serial ports, one over USB, the other through pins. The board is USB powered and has an external power adapter connector for when more current is needed. Drivers and the development environment are available for Mac, win32 and LINUX. It has a generous 128KB of memory. The unit can operate standalone; multiple units can be ganged. The best way of obtaining one in Europe is from SparkFun for $83 with shipping starting at $7.40 (depending on method).

The TNG-3B (pronounced "thing") from MindTel has 8 analog and 8 digital inputs but no control outputs. It communicates and draws power over a serial stream on RS-232. It is provided with NeatTools, a visual development app for win32, similar in use and scope to the industry standard LabView, except that it is free, open and has been optimised for use in computer interface design. The unit is finished in a case and sensors connect using standard plugs, 3.5 mm stereo for analog inputs, 2.5 mm mono for analog inputs. This is convenient for those who don't want to do any assembly, though sensors bought from places other than Sensyr will obviously require wiring to the correct plugs. The unit is 72 x 119 x 23 mm and weighs 130g. The Thing costs $88 but is not approved for European sales due to regulatory issues.

MidiTron provides a combination of up to 20 digital or analog I/O pins, with MIDI input and output, powered from a 9V battery (or transformer). SYSEX messages are used for configuring the flash memory; the included software for doing so runs on win32 or Mac. MidiTron can run in stand-alone mode. The connectors are of a screw type so no soldering to the board is required. The size is 63.5 x 76 x 38 mm and cost is $149 + $30 shipping outside the USA.

The Make Controller Kit has 8 analog inputs, 8 digital outputs and 4 servo controllers. It has Ethernet as well as full-speed USB 2, plus a special interface for networking multiple boards. It uses OSC for communication, and thus can be used with any language or tool that uses that protocol. Sensors attach with screw connectors. The board runs off USB power (for testing) or external power (for actually powering connected electronics). A Dip switch and trim pot for manual configuration, jumpers for different voltage settings and four status LEDs complete the package. It can be run standalone. Dimensions unknown. Software and schematics are open source. For users in Europe it is best obtained through Make Magazine for $149 plus $32 shipping.

Ezio is a board developed at the U. of Michigan which has 10 digital I/O and 8 analogue ins powered from a 9V battery or adaptor. Output is to RS-232. The programmer interfaces for win32 and Mac include Director, Max/MXP and Processing. The I/O connectors are screw type, dimensions are unknown. The designer's page has some additional info. The unit is $179 plus $60 international shipping though a $50 educational discount is available.

BlueSense have nine different modular boards ranging in price from €49 to €79 that are tuned to a single function each (analog input, analog output, power supply, etc.) and thus have to be used in combination with each other and further boards for wireless, USB or Ethernet communication. The company also provides sensors, LEDs, motors and so on. In order to provide the functionality of other single-board systems at least four different BlueSense units would need to be bought at a total cost of €199 and size 109 x 154 mm (depth unknown). These units are obviously targeted at the education market, not embedded development, since this form factor is prohibitively unwieldy. Assembly required, as this is the whole point of these boards!

SquidBee is an open source environmental sensor device based on Arduino (11 digital I/O, 6 analog I/O) that can run for months on 2 AA batteries, signaling changes in data via RF. Multiple devices configured as "Sensor Motes" form autonomous networks, sending data and receiving commands from a "Gateway Mote" connected to a computer. Price is €130 and €105 respectively and you need at least one of each.

The Eobody was designed by the clever people at IRCAM. It is a fully finished MIDI I/O device that includes 4 switches and 3 pots on the face of the unit, so that the values from one of the 16 inputs can be tweaked. These connect with 1/4" adaptors; the device is rigged to work with sensors bought from the same company. The included Mac and win32 software stores the configuration in flash memory; the Eobody can be used standalone. The price including the required breakout box for the second half of the inputs, plus VAT, is €540. Or would be, except they have been out of stock for some time, awaiting the successor. Scotto is another possible source.

The Eobody 2 will have a total of 32 inputs that connect through breakout units on RJ45 (telephone) plugs, and will communicate using high-speed USB 2. Power is over USB or through an adapter. Dimensions are approximately 130mm square. A wireless module will be available as an option. This unit has been shown at trade fairs like Musikmesse but is not yet released, although it was scheduled for summer 2007. The price is to be similar to the original unit.

The I-CubeX converts an unspecified number of inputs to MIDI, configured by dedicated Mac or win32 software (or any other that writes to their system exclusive spec). A number of example Max patches are provided. The basic kit has been "reduced to" $600, but this appears to be a permanent state of affairs. A line of over-priced sensors with their own pseudo-standard 3-pin connectors is available.

The gluion is a high-speed unit that communicates via OSC over Ethernet. The 16 analog and 68 digital pins can be programmed with advanced functions. It is available in a number of form factors. The bare board is 75 x 75 x 19mm and weighs only 42g. The price is €466 or €557 (depending on whether you want 12 or 16 bit resolution). The "slipper" (€535 or €626) is the smallest enclosure at 130 x 81 x 31 and 234g, but this comes at the cost of losing half the digital pins. The "sneaker" (€558 or €649) is a 130 x 81 x 48 enclosure weighing 280g and preserving full functionality. Configuring the unit requires the user to send the developer a spec which he turns into a usable configuration file!

The Teabox is a robust device designed for systems where low latency and high bandwidth are particularly important -- video tracking dance for example. Essentially it is 10 times as fast as MIDI and provides 12-bit instead of 7-bit resolution. The half-rack case provides Neutrik connectors that will accept 1/4" or XLR connectors. All other connector types are catered to, the Teabox preferring to group the 16 inputs by 4 on standard telephone jacks, which has the benefit of cheap cabling and very long runs (up to 100 feet). The output is also industrial-strength, using S/PDIF over RCA or optical. One limitation when used with an audio interface is that same must be slaved to the TeaBox. The basic unit is $400.

Finally, the MIDIcreator is a sound module and MIDI interface that takes inputs from 8 different sensors and creates music. For £998 I suppose it had better.

In my next (and final) article in this series, I will cull this list based on my opinions and priorities.

I thank the Arts Council for their support in this research.
Thursday, September 06, 2007

Micro-processor Boards for Sensor Control: An Introduction

segnoFollowing on my look at the types of sensors that are available to convert physical properties to electrical information, I will next present a survey of micro-processor boards. These are specifically designed to facilitate the capture of sensor data, and the massaging of this into a format usable by a computer (or even another device).

Before I do so, however, I need to discuss my methodology and some of the characteristics of these boards, factors you might use to determine which you need for your particular application. The following article will give you the lowdown on the particular boards themselves.

All the information here was first gathered between 12 and 6 months ago, but verified just before publication. Intriguingly, not much had changed over the intervening time. This data is summarised from manufacturers' websites, and so cannot be confirmed by myself to be absolutely true. Nonetheless, I think it provides a good baseline for evaluation. Though there are some other comparisons available on the web, I did not consult them before writing this document, in order to prevent bias. (You may wish to peruse the out-dated info at IRCAM or the more useful table at the sensor wiki.)

I have omitted defunct devices, since I am not interested in a historical perspective, but rather what can practically be achieved today. Nonetheless I have included some units that may be going the way of the dinosaur soon, and note any availability problems.

This is to be a long list of boards. Many individual research programmes into physical computing at universities around the world had the same need for a more-or-less easy interface kit at around the same time. The availability of chips with embedded controllers that were easy to programme encouraged a flood of solutions. The result is that there are perhaps too many possibilities.

There are several characteristics that can help us differentiate these boards; deciding first on your criteria can facilitate the evaluation process. You may wish to consider the following:

* The price of the unit. Not all artists are rich.

* Whether the project is open source or closed. This can be a philosophical issue but has practical importance to the life and vitality of the unit.

* The number of inputs and outputs, plus how many are digital or analog. This determines how extensive the connected sensor network can be. (And not just sensors -- do you wish to drive any actuators from the board? You will need outputs for those.)

* The output communication protocol and connector. The protocol may be OSC, MIDI or serial. Serial data can be carried on USB or RS-232 (colloquially called "serial") cables.

* The size of the device -- important for embedded applications.

* The type of connectors. Some manufacturers enjoy using proprietary plugs. These will require more work to wire, or greater expense as you find yourself locked into one vendor's solution.

* How much electronics is involved. Some kits require you to obtain parts and build from scratch, others give you the parts but require soldering, still other devices work out of the box with simple screw connectors. And some are completely turn-key, but likely require you to buy sensors with the correct connectors directly from the same vendor, limiting your choice and increasing costs.

* What control software is available and on which platforms it runs. Do you have to tweak the firmware? Is this easy to do? How much coding is required?

* The data rate or resolution of the device may be important in particular applications. I haven't explicitly listed these, but the Sensor Wiki table referenced above does.

* The quality of documentation and helpfulness of the developer community. This can be difficult to evaluate, but is especially important for kit projects.

In the next article you get to apply your criteria to 18 22 possible solutions. Ready... Get Set... Go!

I thank the Arts Council for their support in this research.
Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Types of Sensors

segnoThis is a second article in a series, following my introduction to the continuum of instruments, devices and sensors. Here I'll outline the scope and properties of readily obtainable sensors. I hope that the simplicity of this summary will serve to demystify what can be a very jargon-filled field. I also hope that you'll start thinking of innovative ways to use some of this environmental data for music.

To start with, sensors are available in two operational classes, analog or digital, depending on their output. When choosing a sensor one must consider:
* the physical property measured
* the response time (how long it takes from physical change to electrical signal)
* the response range (low to high values) for analog units
* the sensitivity, measured on a response curve (linear, logarithmic)
* whether it is continuous (provides data in a constant stream) or triggered (provides data only on an action)

I will now describe briefly some common types of sensor by physical property. All of these may be obtained in standard kit parts. There are hundreds of other more specialised sensors, as some of the references in the previous article illustrated.

Movement is easily sensed with a switch, such as your bog standard light switch. That's so commonplace as to seem most useless! When switches require minimal force to operate they may be called contacts. Simple switches have half of a circuit on either side; when the switch is thrown the circuit completes. Magnetic switches have the circuit on one side only, connected to an electromagnet. A simple magnet can then complete the circuit.

Photoelectric switches are momentarily detect when a beam of light is broken. Motion detectors are react to changes in infrared light and generally give continuous varying output. Piezoelectric switches are small contact disks that are handy for placing under carpets, etc.

Magnetic motion trackers are used in VR research to track all six degrees of freedom of movement about a person's body.

Position can be determined using infrared sensors. These send out an IR beam and measure how much comes back, and are good for up to 2 meters or so. Ultrasonic sensors do the same with a sound pulse, but can reach ranges of 10 meters.

Stretch sensors, which come in lengths up to about 40cm, change their resistance when longitudinally stretched. Flex or bend sensors do likewise when they deviate from a straight line. Together these are useful when making VR gloves and other responsive clothing.

Rotation or tilt is digitally measured with a mercury switch; these trigger at a certain orientation. An array of them can be used for a more accurate value determination. Continuous rotation potentiometers provide analog readings in cases where it is reasonable to fit a sensor to the axis of rotation. Tilt sensors that use more sophisticated methods are also known as inclinometers.

Electronic compasses determine orientation relative to magnetic North. Accelerometers measure acceleration and also provide knowledge of tilt relative to gravity. Gyroscopes may also be used to measure orientation.

Vibration can also be detected by piezoelectrics, since these are basically audio sensors with high sensitivity at low frequencies.

Light can be sensed using a photoresistor (AKA photocell, photodiode, or LDR). Similarly, one can use a phototransistor, which has greater sensitivity but has a slower response time. Different materials in a phototransistor will make it sensitive to different wavelengths of light. Solar cells come in two basic types: one has current output rated in microamps (indoor use), the other milliamps (outdoor use). Neither are responsive in the least, but can be used to measure cumulative light radiation.

Temperature is measured by a thermistor. These are responsive to different temperatures (commonly available at 25 and 100 degrees C) and have quite different response curves depending on the particular model.

Force sensors can be used to measure either static or dynamic forces, like human touch or the wind.

Humidity can be measured in air or soil by a hygrometer. One type works by comparing the temperature of a dry thermometer to one that is wet. Another (intriguingly) works by stretching a hair (sometimes human), and measuring its length at different humidities.

Radiation can be measured with so-called Geiger counters, which detect alpha, beta, and gamma radiation.

Toxic gas sensors are available in dozens of types, many very expensive.

And finally, let us not forget that sound can be measured by a little device we call a microphone. It too is an environmental sensor!

So where to buy these?

Electronics wholesalers are listed by Ezio. Others that specialise in sensors are SparkFun and Images Scientific Instruments.

Laetitia Sonami has a list of sensor suppliers. So too does the ITP course at NYU.

The commercial amalgamator sensorland gathers data from numerous suppliers with explanatory articles and tutorials. Cooler yet is the dedicated parts search engine, Octopart.

Since most of these references are for the USA, what do you do if you're in Europe? Well, the larger distributors are all used to shipping around the world. Some even have dedicated telephone numbers for contact from overseas. Still, if you prefer a store closer to home, here are some I've found, most of which should offer sensors: Conrad in Germany, Lawicel, Lextronic and Jelu in Sweden, Farnell and Radiospares in France.

In my next article I'll look at inexpensive micro-processor boards which collect the data from your sensors and forward the results to a computer or other device.

I thank the Arts Council for their support in this research.