September 10, 2007

If Music Be the Food of Procrastination…

In which I use the Internet and GarageBand as half-hearted excuses on my slow progress in learning Adobe products

I bought a new toy yesterday - an M-Audio KeyStation 49e, a USB MIDI keyboard (the kind you play music on, not the kind you type with). I already have a more fully featured 76 key Casio WK-3000 keyboard which I love, but I never got around to getting the MIDI interface to hook it up to a computer. While I’ve been considering getting such an interface for a while, I decided it was probably better to get a smaller keyboard that can fit on a desk and can easily be carted around, hence the KeyStation 49e. It doesn’t have much range and the keys aren’t weighted, but I was after a small size and am used to synth style keyboards anyway.

My recent desire to play around with music stemmed from procrastination in learning Illustrator and Flash - what I was meant to be doing in my spare time last week. While I have been slowly teaching myself the basic tools, distractions were legion and my resolve was weak.

The first and foremost temptation to lure me away from self-directed Adobe learning was the siren song of the Internet. My post-grad residency college that I’m living in at the moment finally hooked itself up to the university wireless Internet service, which means my MacBook Pro is now on-line for basic Internet services. It isn’t fast, but it is as cheap as free, which is a heck of a lot better than the seven cents per megabyte malarkey that our landline service provides. However I’ve been mindlessly surfing a bit more than is healthy, and unlike with the landline connection I don’t have a dwindling cash reserve or the capability to hide the CAT cable to stop me. My resolution is to watch myself this week to stop idling my time away.

The second challenge was the Visual Quickstart books I’m currently using to learn Adobe’s products while my Amazon order comes in aren’t exactly the most stimulating reading. The Flash book isn’t too bad, but the Illustrator one that I was primarily attempting to use just isn’t engaging at all. My plan was to work through all the features to get a basic understanding what Illustrator can do, but the Illustrator book drags out the capabilities every feature in mind-numbing detail - there’s only so much you can learn about the selection tool in one go.

Worse though is that while the book covers the interaction steps for each feature in painstaking detail, it rarely mentions why you would use such a feature. There’s no real hook for your mind to catch on to why you should be learning such a feature. There’s only so much of that you can take before you start surfing the internet again, or playing Nintendo classics on the Wii (I’ve been doing a bit too much of that too; Kirby’s Adventure and Zelda: Link to the Past are darn excellent titles).

So I’ve been spending a fair bit too much time looking too far ahead in what I can do with Flash with my internet surfing. One of those things is looking into Flash’s audio capabilities. I was wondering as to what kind of music capabilities that Flash has in-built, with an emphasis on keeping download sizes small for web development. I’m a big fan of tracker style music in part because it can be streamlined down into very small file sizes.

Disappointingly, Flash doesn’t seem to support any tracker style format at all. I wasn’t holding my breath from something mildly exotic like Impulse Tracker format, but I was hoping for something like General MIDI support. Unfortunately, it seems only the Flash Lite mobile system supports MIDI. The only semi-decent format that Flash offers is MP3 (all the others appear to be uncompressed formats). MP3 is common enough and great for full music scores, but it’s a bit large for the sorts of synthy simple game tunes I like to use and extensive use of music would add a lot to a web games file-size, although for downloadable off-line Flash games it’s a decent choice.

I suppose I can move beyond tracker formats and see what other options are open to me (I never could find a Mac compatible tracker that I liked anyway). Since I’ll be using MP3s I decided to have a look at GarageBand, given there’s already a copy on my MacBook Pro. I’ve spent a little bit of time playing around with loops, and overall I’m rather impressed. For an effectively free program GarageBand offers a lot of punch. It’s pretty easy to whip up something that sounds half-way decent, and the default synth voices aren’t too shabby, at least to my amateur ears. And the interface is easy to learn, especially compared to the insane amount of dials and options that most music composition software throws at you.

The biggest problem with GarageBand is that the music export capabilities are ludicrously crippled; as far as I can tell the only option is to export your track out to an AIFF file linked in to iTunes. It doesn’t even give you the ability to directly export to MP3; you’ve got to go via iTunes for that. And there’s no ability to save the software instruments you work with to a general MIDI file to import to other composition software; if you work with GarageBand, you’re pretty much stuck in GarageBand.

The only exception to this is if you upgrade to Logic Express or Logic Pro. These packages have the capability to work with GarageBand files and don’t have the same limitations on exporting, but Logic Express will put you back about four hundred Aussie bucks (US$300). I’m not sure whether to consider Apple as devious or brilliant for their GarageBand to Logic upgradable path, but I’m actually reasonably pleased to know that if I were to invest a lot of time into GarageBand I can always upgrade to a “proper” music composition software pack and not lose my work (and frankly, A$400 is pretty cheap compared to what some of those audio packages cost). Given I’ve already plonked out a lot of change for my Adobe software and associated books I’m happy to use what I’ve currently got for free for now.

The upshot of all this is that I’m going to add some playing around with GarageBand to the list of things I’m going to do this month, alongside learning Illustrator and Flash. This week I’ll start focusing on more targeted activities; drawing cutesy cartoon character in Illustrator, writing my first proper music track with GarageBand, and some basic animation exercises in Flash. Sometime soon the first batch of my Amazon books should arrive, so I’ll have more material to work with.

Additional: I typed this up off-line over lunch, and I got a package from Amazon in the afternoon. Included in this one were two new guide books (one for Flash, one for Illustrator) and a copy of Foundation ActionScript 3.0 Animation - Making Things Move! by Keith Peter, which I’ve been looking forward to. Guess I’ve got some more reading to do.

More Additional: I got another Amazon package in the evening just before I headed home; this one contains How to Cheat in Adobe Flash CS3 - The art of design and animation by Chris Georgenes. With the ActionScript book I’ve now got coverage of both code and art in Flash, so it’ll be a lot more fun to learn now.

Plus I also pulled something in my knee playing soccer - nothing serious I’m sure but it really stings. I need to find out the right contact number for the celestial human services department to complain about how crappy our joints are.

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3 Comments on If Music Be the Food of Procrastination…

September 10, 2007

Emmanuel Deloget @ 7:24 pm:

Not to mention that you can’t distribute MP3s easily - it is a patented format, and you’re supposed to pay for a license if you are distributing a product that contains any MP3 file. See for further information.

Is that still true? I did know about the patent - I think I was at a talk by the guy who invented part of MP3 (he was describing what he was working on in MP4) - but in the back of my mind I thought it only applied to the encoder/decoder, not the files themselves. I’ll have to look into that.

It’s a real interesting question re: MP3 licenses. I haven’t found anything concrete on exactly what the legal issue is. Although this is extremely unlikely to affect me personally (as I’m unlikely to start a company that earns enough money through MP3s to warrant a license before the patent expires), I could see this being a potental legal issue for all those graphic design companies. Plus there’s no sensible way a Flash game portal would spend US$2000 per title for each of their small games.

Part of the problem I can see is that Flash itself internally uses MP3 as its audio compression technology (although it might be possible to save them uncompressed; I’ll have to look into that). Adobe pays a license fee which appears from their license wording to cover usage except for real time or live broadcasts. However I’ve seen some confusion from people over at Thomson, the owners of the patent, suggesting that everyone has to pay a license, but it’s possible there was confusion over the issue and they were defaulting to a “pay” approach.

The bit that’s confusing me is I can’t see how a patent can cover the distribution of an MP3 file - it’s just a collection of bits. Surely the patent itself must cover the encoding and decoding stages? But then again, mathematical algorithms aren’t meant to be enforcable by patent. Gah - the whole software patent issue is just so confusing to anyone without a law degree.

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