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I think it’s better to look odd than to look normal

Filed under: Life,Music,New York,Places — Thomas @ 3:54 am

2014-10-3
3:54 am

In the fall of ’98 I had a thing for a girl I didn’t want to have a thing for. I had also just seen one of my favorite movies, Much Ado About Nothing (the original Brannagh movie, not the Josh Whedon one that I didn’t know about until recently and have yet to see).

I decided to exorcise my feelings into a good old-fashioned mix cd (well, I guess that wasn’t old fashioned back in ’98). I cut up the movie dialogue into pieces, and interspersed them inbetween a song selection aiming to match the flow of the movie lyric-wise and, in places, matching them sound-wise too to the movie snippets. It ended up being two cd’s, and a bunch of my friends liked it as well so I think I ended up making about 30 copies of the thing.

Today I needed to recreate those two CD’s plus its original packaging. That means I had to actually buy CD-R’s (didn’t have any anymore after the move to the US), buy jewelcases (can you believe that I actually have actual boxes with actual empty jewelcases that I *kept* in storage in Belgium? These days if you want to buy them they’re a little harder to find than they used to be, even though I’m sure there must be landfills full of them all over the world), and go to a print shop to print the front and back covers.

Being the obsessive backupper that I am, it was easy to find the sound files back (actually, I took a morituri rip that I made at my best friend’s house, who has the CD’s, last time I was there – so that I would have a perfect .cue sheet that would stitch the tracks together). I knew I had the files for the fronts and backs somewhere as well, but they were a little harder to find because I couldn’t remember their names. But I trusted my OCD self that I had backups from fifteen years ago somewhere here with me in NY, and I started looking for files from the same timeframe, until I came across the files I was looking for hidden in a subdirectory.

But then when you find them, what do you do with .cdr CorelDraw files from 1998? I tried inkscape, which uses uniconvertor, which on my F-19 machine failed with a constructor with wrong arguments in Python, which seems like a silly bug. I rebuilt the F-21 version, which gets past that bug, but then doesn’t actually convert anything. I tried an online converter, and it only picked up on the images and none of the text.

So I went the illegal route – I downloaded CorelDraw 11 from the internet, installed it in wine (which was surprisingly easy, it just worked), and I could open the files. Except that it was missing fonts and so the layout was all wrong. Sigh. Hunt random font sites for the missing fonts, install them for wine, open again, rinse, repeat. Eventually the files opened with the right fonts, except that one of the titles was too big to fit on the CD inlay. Oh well, adjust them all manually, make it a little smaller, export to eps, load in gimp, adjust the page as it was perfectly measured for A4 printing but I’m in the US now and the US uses letter which is slightly different, export to pdf so I could go to any random print shop in New York and get it printed.

CD burnt, on to the print shop, fiddle with the printer as nobody in the store can figure out which tray number the tray is where they loaded the card stock paper, and it’s not like the driver on the windows machine knows either – I had to do 5 failed prints to different printers before we even knew which printer was the right one. Cut up the paper by hand with scissors (which I suck at), put it all together, and be on my way.

All this just to say that, while I can be as good about backups as I want to be to bring back to life something I did fifteen years ago, there is still a whole lot of real-world technology fails getting in the way, like outdated proprietary file formats, not having good interchange formats, missing fonts, paper sizes and general Imperial/metric nonsense, ages-old printer crap and just simple manual tasks, which we as humans will probably inflict upon ourselves for forever. I mean, I’d sure like to believe that in the future it will be as simple as pressing a button and getting this 15 year old CD project 3D-printed all at once, but experience has taught me that most likely I will be fiddling just as much with getting 2040’s 3D printer to work with 2025’s data files.

And so it is that I arrive just after 6 at Barnes and Noble in Tribeca, queue up in front of eight registers with only one open, buy a book, get a wristband, go to the back where Emma Thompson is reading from her Peter Rabbit book, in her perfectly English and genuinely funny way, queue after the reading, and hear her say “I think it’s better to look odd than to look normal” to the seven year old twin girls in front of me. I wholeheartedly agree with her. I hand her my copy to sign, give her my two cd’s and tell her what they are and say that I thought this was a good opportunity to give them to her, and she smiles and seems genuinely surprised and pleased.

I think my dad would be genuinely jealous at this point – he always seemed to appreciate seeing her on the screen, and after today I can’t say I blame him. I hope she enjoys the CD’s, and if someone can recommend a good website where I can put these online for others to listen to, that would be great!

morituri and Hidden Track One Audio

Filed under: morituri,Music,Python — Thomas @ 9:08 pm

2013-5-10
9:08 pm

I have tomorrow (saturday) blocked out for a whole day of morituri hacking as I will be home alone.

One of the things a lot of morituri users are puzzled by is its relentless drive to extract every single sample of audio from the CD. Currently, even if it’s a really short pre-gap, and most likely just an inaccurate master or burn, with no useful audio in it.

For me, that was a design goal of morituri – I want to be able to exactly reproduce a CD as is. That is to say, ripping a CD should extract *all* audio from the CD, and it should be possible to make a copy of that CD and then rip that copy, and end up with exactly the same result as from the original CD. (I’m sure there’s a fancy scientific term for that that I can’t remember right now)

To a lot of other people, it seems to be annoying and they don’t like having those small almost empty files lying around.

So I thought I’d do something about that, and that it might be useful as well to analyze my current collection of tracks and figure out what’s in there. Maybe I can find some hidden gems that I hadn’t noticed before?

So I added a quick task to morituri that calculates the maximum sample value (I didn’t want to use my own level element in GStreamer for this as I wanted to make sure it was actual digital zero; this should be done in an element instead though, but I preferred the five minute hack for this one).

And then I ran:

rip debug maxsample /mnt/nas/media/audio/rip/morituri/own/album/*/00*flac

Sadly, that turned up 0 as the biggest sample for all these tracks!

Wait, what? I spent all that time on getting those secret tracks ripped just to get none? That’s not possible! I know some of those tracks!

Maybe the algorithm is wrong. Nope, it works fine on all the regular tracks.

Oh, crap. Maybe morituri has been ripping silence all this time because my CD drive can’t get that data off. Yikes, that would be a bit of egg on my face.

No, it works if I check that Bloc Party track I know about.

Ten minutes of staring at the screen to realize that, while I was outputting names from a variable from the for loop over my arguments, the track I was actually passing to the task was always the first one. Duh. Problem solved.

As for what I found in my collection:

  • a cute radio jingle that brought back memories from a live bootleg I had made myself of Bloem. That’s from over ten years ago, but that must have been around the time I learned about the existence of HTOA and wanted to get one in
  • found unknown HTOA tracks on Art Brut’s Bang Bang Rock & Roll, Mew’s Half the world is watching me; not their best stuff
  • soundscapey or stagesetting tracks on QOTSA’s Songs for the Deaf, Motorpsycho’s Angels and Daemons at play And Blissard; not that worth it (the Blissard track was ok, but really quiet)
  • Pulp hid a single piano chord in a 2 second pre-gap on This is Hardcore; very curious. It’s not an intro to the first track, because it doesn’t fit with the sound at all.
  • Damien Rice hid a demo version of 9 Crimes (the first track) in the pregap; instead of piano and female vocals, he plays guitar and sings all the parts.
  • Got reacquainted with my favourite HTOA tracks: the orchestral quasi-wordless medley on the Luke Haines/Das Capital disc; the first Bloc Party album with a beautiful instrumental (up there with the hidden track at the end of Placebo’s first album; both bands delivering an atypical but stunning moodscape; the beautiful cover of Ben Kenobi’s Theme by Arab Strap on the Cherubs EP (no idea why that landed in my album dir, that needs to be fixed); the silly Soulwax skit for their second album.

Of course, Wikipedia has the last word on everything

I note that they think Pulp recorded a cymbal, not a piano. And now that I see the title of the QOTSA hidden track, I get the joke I think.

In total, on my album collection of 1564 full CD’s, I have 171 HTOA’s ripped, 138 tracks of pure digital silence, and only about 11 are actually useful tracks.

I expected to find more gems in my collection. I’ll go through ep’s, singles and compilations next just to be sure.

But with this code in hand, maybe it’s time to add something to morituri to save the silent HTOA tracks as pure .cue information.

dEUS week

Filed under: Music — Thomas @ 4:08 pm

2012-12-6
4:08 pm

For some reason this week turned out dEUS week at home in Barcelona. Ripping the deluxe edition of Worst Case Scenario that came with the DVD, I finally watched the ‘Time is the state of my jeans’ documentary about the album.

So I thought, why not go the whole hog, and use some dangerous pirate site to download the Belpop special about dEUS, and get through all of it.

The contrast between these two documentaries was very revealing.

The first one focuses only on the album, with interviews of the band members together, and they turn out very different than in the second where people were interviewed separately. In the joint interviews, you can see how Tom’s controlling side comes out and talks over the other people; maybe I’m reading too much into it, but you even see some of the band members bite their tongue and being reminded of why they left the band in the first place. It doesn’t paint as nice a picture of Tom.

The second documentary makes him look a lot nicer. They seem to actually show bits of the other interviews to each member, so they can still react, and usually it ends up with loud laughter. The stories are better too, the second documentary goes more in-depth. The international stars make a comeback experience, which I guess is unavoidable.

It’s fun to see the history from before the first album, and it reminded me of the first time I saw them – a little festival 20 km from my house in the sports room of a school, where they were the last band before headliner Nemo (who had just released their debut). dEUS in its early days was sloppy but dangerous – when you see the live recordings of that period of Suds & Soda for example, they mess up one of the two notes in the riff, mess up the rhythm and the phrasing, and so on.

The second documentary is full of funny moments. My favorite is when Rudy Trouvé talks about the EP after the debut:
“Tommy thinks that my sister = my clock really (long pause) made sure that a part of the audience tuned out. I think so too (starts giggling evily)”.

The Belpop documentary is definitely the better one of the two.

The bonus disc for the WCS deluxe edition is a nice collection of stuff I painstakingly collected at the time, just in time for our current music consumption culture. Kinderballade, their only dutch-spoken song (and one of my favourite tracks they ever did) was on a hard-to-find tribute album, probably made around my sister = my clock because the sounds are so similar, but beautifully done. Their b-sides from that album are plentiful and excellent.

The one answer neither documentary answers is the question I’ve always had about the debut album – why did the English version have a different tracklist ? For me, Via will always be followed by Let Go. Yeah, maybe Right as Rain is a better song, but it’s not right in the flow of the album. Same for Great American Nude – an amazing song, but after the 50 second splinter bomb of shake your hip (the real ending of the album to me), the only thing that fits is the completely atypical dive bomb djingle. Great American Nude brings the energy back up instead of doing something out of character to go back to the opening track. I just have no idea what was wrong with the original release.

I hope to get off planet dEUS by next week, but an album like this that hit when I turned 18 is going to be in my head forever. They were, and still are, an excellent band.

Here’s hoping that two years from now the WCS gang gets together again to play the album together. Come on Rudy and Klaas, give it a think.

After so many years, I also finally appreciate a track like WCS (First Draft). I used to hate that song, but today it’s one of my favorites. Time is the state of my jeans is as good a definition of time as time is what turns kitten into cats.

Work weekend

Filed under: couchdb,DAD,GStreamer,Hacking,Music — Thomas @ 10:18 am

2011-1-31
10:18 am

Since we are doing our yearly business planning weekend later this week, I had reserved the weekend to do work – mainly, put together eight (strike that, nine, our CEO added one at the 11th hour Sunday evening) presentations. But I wasn’t getting into the groove of things, and procrastination hit.

So I wondered, what’s the single most important thing that’s been on my mind and that I’d do right now if I didn’t have anybody else to answer to ?

And the answer was simple – I started another rewrite of DAD (Digital Audio Database) last year, this time based on CouchDB. I was in the middle of splitting up into a core (defining all base classes and simple implementations without any dependencies; for example, a pickle-based storage of the mixing data), a dadgst module (for a GStreamer-based player, since I will also have a pure web-based player), and a dadcouch module (for a CouchDB storage backend).

Before the split-up it was mostly a hardcoded GStreamer player playing from the pickle file, and a bunch of scripts to analyze files and put them into the pickle. I had not properly finished the CouchDB conversion – mostly, a bunch of methods that previously were synchronous now had to be made asynchronous with deferreds, and that was causing some conceptual issues (like, how to a lot of deferreds together – when chaining doesn’t work, and parallellizing brings down your computer).

So, that’s what I wanted to do this weekend first – get the couchdb backend to a state where it can select tracks slicing the audiofiles and providing the mixing information, and use the data from the old DAD database of now seven years ago. I want to hear those old songs again, according to my preference, and properly mixed. And with that in place, after a few hours of hacking, I could focus myself completely on the presentation preparing.

Well, completely except for the baby visits, the family lunching, and the pregnant friend visiting.

If you like looking at not-completely-finished-code that probably only I can get running usefully anyway, start here.

The National cleans up

Filed under: Music — Thomas @ 8:16 pm

2010-11-22
8:16 pm

I am in Belgium this weekend for mostly one reason: The National were playing the AB, and it’s probably the last time I will see them in a smaller-than-2000-people venue. I actually had tickets to see Arcade Fire in Barcelona this same evening – but since they were going to play a 10.000 people venue, I preferred to go see the National instead.

For some reason this year the band really broke through. The concert was sold out in a day, and I’ve been getting asked by a lot of friends if I had any spare tickets. “But you’re always buying extra tickets for shows and you didn’t for this one ?” Yes, well, how could I know that out of all the bands I like you’d pick this one to like too ?

The boards were filled with requests for tickets, outside of the venue the streets were full of people asking if anyone had any left. It was one of those concerts booked right before a band jumps to the next level, and played when they’ve made the jump.

But I digress. High Violet didn’t grab me as much as Boxer did – although I don’t know if it’s because of the anticipation or because Boxer is actually better. I got lost in Boxer for two months straight.

When I saw them in London at the beginning of their tour they were just as good as any other time, but it was obvious the new songs weren’t road-tested yet and didn’t fit into the set that well yet. It wasn’t for lack of trying – I remember Matt climbing off stage, into the audience, and then up the rafters of the Royal Albert Hall. They just didn’t have the sound of the new songs down yet live.

This summer at Pukkelpop was good too, but a band like the National really needs a dark closed room.

I missed the Club 69 National concert of a few weeks ago – I have to admit I would have killed to have been there, but my life has changed now…

And then yesterday hit. Their sound was spot-on right from the beginning. This was the first show I’ve seen without Padma. His duties were mostly taken over either by the horn section (which was beautiful) or by Aaron or Bryce taking over keys. Matt was in great form, Aaron spoke French a lot and Matt interrupted him continuously. At one point Matt asked Aaron ‘say something in French again, it sounds so cool’ so Aaron thanked us in French, the audience cheered, and Matt said something like ‘I don’t know what you said, but you really brought it home.’

Really good set list too – finally got to hear Daughters of the SoHo Riots, which was beatiful live. They surprised me by throwing out Available/Cardinal Song from Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. I would have gone with Slipping Husband (which I only recently learnt has a small snippet of ‘Don’t forget the alcohol, ooh baby’ as a nod to Afghan Whigs’ ‘Milez iz Ded’) myself, but hey, Sad Songs has a few gems on it and this was one of them.

Glad to hear About Today again, that song just hurts in all the right places. Right before K broke up with me I made a mix CD, and a live version of this song is on there, for the fantastic line of ‘How close am I/to losing you?’ Very, it turned out a few weeks later. A gentle wind of a song that picks up steam in the end and explodes into a gutwrenching whirlwind.

This must be the first National show I saw where they didn’t play Abel. I’d gladly trade the excellent Mr November for Abel any day.

All the High Violet songs have evolved live, all for the better. Some new guitar lines in some of the songs, a better drum pattern, whatever they did, it worked. My personal favorite, Conversation 16, sounded excellent. Matt’s intro was hilarious – he said something like ‘This song is about cannibalism. Most of the lyrics were written by my wife. When she was in college she ate people. I’m cool with it. It’s good she’s not here today.’

Fake Empire was beautiful with the horns. Aaron played both the waltz and 4/4 bits with both hands, I have no idea how a human being can keep up two different rhythms like that, and it looked awesome.

They ended with an acoustic version (no mikes!) of Vanderlylle Cry Baby, probably my least favourite song on the album, but it worked very well like this, and the audience sang along the whole song.

Last week in Barcelona I went to see Greg Dulli in a 250 people club and got to talking to their webdesigner, who asked me what else I was going to see soon. When I mentioned the National, he said ‘Oh, they’re great, they played here, once for 25 people and once for 60 people’. Jesus Christ – I wish I’d been there.

I’ll probably next see them in May 2011 when they play Primavera festival in Barcelona.

If you get a chance to go see the National live, make sure you do – they are at the top of their game right now. I’d love to hear more Alligator or even some more stray first two album tracks, but my mistake for missing out for so long.

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