Well, THAT was fun…

I’ve just spent the last couple of days trying to fix this blog. Comments were repaired by Yahoo tech support, but then I could no longer access the control panel or any of the other functions. The blog itself seemed to be fine, which lessened the worry somewhat, but damn do I need to do regular backups. (I thought Yahoo’s “snapshot” thing did that, but I guess I was mistaken.)

Anyway, more soon. Providing everything works….

UPDATE: Aaaaaaand, comments are broken again. It’s time to commence some serious drinking.

Video Software: A Rant

I’ve tried several consumer-grade video editing software packages, and I’ve discovered something they have in common: they all suck.

Just to define, I mean software allowing you to assemble video clips into something you might want to upload to YouTube. And by consumer-grade, I mean something you might pick up in the local Best Buy for (generally) less than $100. What I would like to do is place a few short clips next to each other, perhaps with a cross-fade between some of them, apply some simple special effects here and there, and add a soundtrack. I tried three major packages and all three had problems doing some of these basic processes. Why they should all fall so short of what seems to me a minimum acceptable level is beyond me; perhaps my own impatience and/or incompetence might be factors, but I’m not that incompetent.

So, let’s meet our contestants.

First up was Pinnacle Studio HD Ultimate Collection 14 and before you ask, they all have names like that. (And it’s important to give them their full names–you’ll see why when we get to the next package.) This is a pretty powerful software package, and it’s backed up by a massive number of plug-ins you can buy. It does video overlays really well. The layout is pretty basic and logical, with everything laid out pretty much where you would want it. So what killed it? Well, it’s very fussy about video drivers, and apparently my Intel something-or-other is not well liked. Some of the effects you could add you could not preview; you had to render it and hope everything worked out the way you wanted it to. That’s not a big deal, you could always go back and adjust, but it was something of a hiccup. However, that wasn’t its worst lack. That would be the inability to cross-fade between clips.

Yes, fading is something that the package knows about, but doesn’t do. A web search reveals that there are work-arounds, but really, work-arounds for something elementary like this? Argh.

So, with Pinnacle shot down in the night, we next turn to Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD 9. This is pretty nice software, very flexible with a layout a little more extensive than Pinnacle. And yes, it will do fades. So, problem solved, right? Alas not. I put together a somewhat longer series of clips and rendered it and…there were problems. When one clip would switch to the next, whether through a fade or just a cut, the video would pause

noticeably. (You see what I did there?) Again I went to the web. I found no information about what might be causing this; I did find a post from someone who had a similar problem. His solution? He upgraded to the next higher package. That sounds a bit extreme, doesn’t it? Damn it, Sony.

Back to the drawing board, I searched for “video software cross-fade” or some damn thing, and found a package called VideoPad. This is a pretty bare-bones freeware package, and you know what? It does fades beautifully. You can adjust the duration of the fade across one or both clips. Very nice. So I rendered a short little sequence, and yeah it had great fades. So what was the problem? Well, each time a transition began, there was a brief pattern of diagonal lines that was superimposed over the image. Just there for a fraction of a second, but noticeable. Sigh. A search of the package’s forums found no solution, and I tried to join said forum so I could post the question, but I never got a confirmation. That’s not a good sign.

Whilst trying to keep my sanity through all this testing and re-testing, I took a break and drove to Best Buy. Just for fun, I looked in their video software section. Same stuff I already had as well as a package by Magix. Do I want to buy more software? No. I’ve used some Magix stuff and it was decent software, but not the sort of thing that made me think they’d licked the problems I was seeing. But as I turned away–

Adobe Premiere Elements, hm? A bit pricey, but I thought I’d research it anyway. I mean, if Adobe can’t do it, we’re all in trouble, right? After reading some reviews I bought it directly from Adobe as a download. (They were offering a rebate which made them cheapest.) Installed and fired it up and…argh. Problems. I could not see a single clip, either on the dashboard or in preview. I suppose it, too, hated my video card (though I met the requirements). My frustration level was fairly high at this point, and after a fairly brief attempt to solve this issue, I initiated a return/refund with Adobe. To their credit, they processed it without any fuss.

So where did that leave me? I didn’t want to try another package to be honest–I knew I was only going to discover more unexpected holes in utility. And three of the folks I tried have very expensive professional versions used by Hollywood–Adobe Premiere Pro, Sony Vegas Pro, and Avid Systems (who bought Pinnacle). So clearly these people must know what they’re doing? Yes?

I was pretty close to abandoning the whole process as a bad learning experience. I had one option left before I did that, and that was to upgrade the Sony to version 10.

Follow me here for a moment. I’d owned the Sony software for perhaps two weeks. Now, generally upgrading from a 9 to a 10 would be free in that time-frame, wouldn’t it? You might think that’s reasonable, but you’re wrong. You see, version 10 was actually Sony Movie Studio HD Platinum 10. Apparently that word “Platinum” meant that it was an entirely different product, so it wasn’t so much as an “upgrade” as a “cross-grade” or something. Too tired to argue, I noted that the price wasn’t too horrible, so I ponied up. Total cost for both, around $120.

And mirabile visu, the video no longer paused between clips! Hoo-hah, I was on my way at last. I assembled a somewhat larger array of clips and rendered them, and found…the next problem. Which is that some of the clips just did not render. At all. I would have a stretch of black that lasted however many seconds the clip ran, then the next clip would pop in as if all were well. Well, all sure wasn’t well.

I couldn’t figure out what might be causing this. I thought it might be the clips with special effects, but a few more runs showed that the unrendered clips were a random mixture of effects shots and straight footage. (Each run would have a different clip that failed, though they were usually in the latter half.)

After trying to think, I went with my first thought: I’m straining the software. I’m asking it to do too much at one time. Now, it might seem funny that software designed to do these things was having trouble doing these things, but I’d pretty much abandoned logic (as well as sanity) by this point.

So I carefully constructed my final project by making smaller projects. If I applied an effect to, say, clip06, I would render it as clip06effect. Then I would start a new project and use the rendered effect clip rather than make the software do too much. Believe it or not, that worked. Finally, I had a complete 3 minute movie. I figured adding the soundtrack would be the start of another nightmare, but it was surprisingly trouble-free. I guess maybe Sony figured I’d suffered enough, or perhaps it hadn’t had time to think up some new problems to throw at me.

So in sum, I don’t know how many of you might take up video editing (you fools) but I hope my journey might help you through some of the pitfalls. I would like to close by thanking you for your patronage, and to tell Pinnacle, Sony and Adobe to shape up.

PS: All of the above packages had rather difficult trimmers, which one would need to cut out unwanted frames. I ended up with yet another package for that, SolveigMM AVI Trimmer. This little freeware editor is excellent, and highly recommended.

The Bigger They Are…

So, I’m writing this entry on my Fujitsu Lifebook while waiting for my car’s oil to be changed.  I’ve always been fascinated by miniature PCs; the idea of using something both powerful and portable has been a goal of mine for a while now.  And by portable, I’m not talking about laptops.  Laptops are great, but how long can you walk around while carrying one?  There’s a reason a lot of early models were called “luggables.”  My laptop stays in its bag until there’s a table (or lap) I can put it on.  I can’t imagine walking around while using it, though that’s not outside the realm of possibility.  It just isn’t that portable.

The problem with portability is, what do you sacrifice to achieve it?  Keep in mind that a device has to be useful, not just portable.  At what point does portability interfere with usefulness?  The more you expect a device to do, the less portability is possible.

My needs are relatively simple; I want something that will allow word processing, some graphics work, and wireless internet access.

Writing requires a good keyboard.  You can’t skimp on that.  The best portable writing machine that I’ve owned–and still own–is the Psion Series 5mx.  It has well-spaced, almost full-size keys–quite a trick, considering that in its folded state, it’s only a little larger than a standard iPod.  You held it like a kalimba and typed with your thumbs.  When I was doing a lot of writing, I carried it around easily in my front pants pocket.  If I wasn’t in the middle of a huge Writer’s Block, I’d be carrying it now.  As for graphics, not really; it had a nice, crisp grey-scale touch-screen, but the size available for working was awkward.  Like Cinerama, it was good for snakes and funerals.  Internet access?  Heh, when the Psion was made, internet access was still a novelty.  You could buy a little modem (and I did) but your options were limited and I could never get it to work.

Sadly, Psion was never very successful in the consumer world and after introducing the Series 7 (somewhat larger but with color), they dropped out of the market and turned their attention to industrial devices.  They were the odd man out; while all the other handhelds were running PalmOS or WinCE, they were using EPOC (you can get conversion software for Windows, though).  You can still find the Series 5 on eBay, and if you do a lot of writing I recommend it

Well, my oil has been changed, and now I’m at the Craggy Gardens picnic grounds on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  So where was I?

As far as wireless internet access goes, that’s really a non-issue nowadays.  I bet you couldn’t buy something (new) that doesn’t include it.  After all, the hardware requirements are minimal and, best of all, don’t require any sacrifices from either screen or keyboard.  It does pull a lot from battery life, but you’re not going to get away from that anyway.  The first interfering issue would be page size–while desktop monitors have been getting larger and larger, screens on portable devices have a limited amount of real estate to work with.  WinCE devices solve this by reformatting the screen into a single column, which can be awkward to navigate.  You can always change the screen to mimic a desktop, though you have legibility issues then.  Since my internet needs are pretty modest (check email, browse forums, read news, visit blogs), none of this is much of an issue for me.  I don’t go YouTubin’ while on the road.

What has been an issue with the WinCE devices I’ve owned are certain web services (Java, I suspect) that just don’t function.  For example, if I’m in a fast food place and want to use their free wireless, when I try to click to accept the user agreement, nothing happens.  Ordinary surfing is fine, though.

I currently own an iPaq Travel Companion, which is nice for internet and storing contacts, and has a neat GPS built in as well.  But typing?  Urgh.  There’s no keyboard except an onscreen one, which you type on with a stylus a letter at a time.  It’s hard enough to enter in a name and phone number this way–you can forget writing your novel on an iPaq.  It’s true that the iPaq and other screen-typers have some kind of “guess ahead” system, wherein if you type “tho” it’ll suggest “thoroughly” or the like, but given my writing tendencies it’s seldom all that helpful.

Some of you might be thinking of BlackBerries or other multi-function phones.   It’s true that some of the screens are getting bigger and sharper; they also include a keyboard, with the same “guess ahead” system.  I’ve never found them easy to use, though.  I have fairly large hands and those little key buttons are very hard to hit with any accuracy.  As for the twelve key models, with several letters on each key, trying to type anything with those is torturous. 

Next, graphics.  Here, screen real estate is your biggest pal.  If you’re going to do CGI, you need to see what you’re doing, and unless you’re just sketching out some ideas, you’ll need color.  I’ve mentioned the Psion, how does the iPaq stack up?  Well, somewhat better, though far from ideal.  Again, as in web surfing, the size of the screen is the biggest limiting factor.  You can’t easily do graphics if you’re bouncing all over the screen, trying to try one corner in with the others; you really need to see the whole canvas to work effectively.  Software publishers seem to be aware of the limitations of WinCE for graphics, because I’m unaware of any paint programs for the platform other than what comes with the unit.

So, an iPaq is okay for surfing, and a Psion is great for writing.  Neither is very good for drawing, though the iPaq has a slight edge. Why not carry both, then?  Well, that’s a possibility, of course, but to my mind it makes more sense to just carry one.  Why does that seem like such a difficult goal? We’ve seen that a very usable keyboard is possible, and that wireless internet is possible, and with a bit of a size adjustment, graphics might be possible, too.  We’ve got devices for an astounding array of uses; am I the only one who would find the device I want useful?

Maybe, maybe not.  As I noted at the start of this, I’m using a Fujitsu Lifebook to write this entry.  How does it compare with what I want?

Well, it’s very, very close.  It’s got wireless internet (duh), a good sized touchscreen (with a stylus) for graphics, and it has actual keys–keys you’d find on a laptop, not push-button things.  Sounds perfect.  So what’s wrong with it?

Let’s play the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Good: the screen is excellent, bright and clear.  I’ve created some good graphics on this, and since it runs full-blown Vista (could be worse), I can use whatever program I want.  Because it’s running standard Windows resolution on a screen that’s about 3″ x 6″, I have to hold it pretty close to my face, but that’s not an issue.  Internet access is great, without Java or Flash issues.

Bad: it’s not the most portable thing.  Unless I start wearing pants with huge pockets, this isn’t going to fit in one.  It’s not heavy or wearying to carry it, but it’s not set-and-forget.  It “only” has one gig of RAM, non-upgradable, which means Vista takes forever to finish loading.   It may just be lack of familiarity with Vista, but I’m not liking it as an operating system. It seems designed to be impressive-looking, rather than impressive–but that’s not Fujitsu’s fault.

Finally, we got the ugly, which in terms of the movie I’m going to interpret as “good but flawed.”  First and foremost here is…the keyboard.  Yeah, the keys are good, themselves, but the use of doubled-keys–necessitated by the small area available for these large keys–is amazingly bad.  Such commonly used (by me) keys as Tab and the cursor-movement keys can only be accessed through a function key–meaning two key strokes to do one thing.  I’m sure Page Up and Down keys are around somewhere, but they’re not labeled.  (Yeah, yeah, I should RTFM.  What fun is that?  Besides, if I can get the rest through playing around…)   I use the Down Arrow key way more than I use the Square Bracket key, and wouldn’t mind accessing the latter through a Function key.  Accessing the former this way is a pain.  (When I write, I tend to keep my hands on the keyboard, using the mouse only when unavoidable.)

The second ugly bit is the overall “handedness” of the unit.  I mentioned above that the Psion was a two-hand unit; you held it in both palms and typed with your thumbs.  The iPaq is a one-hand unit–one hand holds, the other operates.

The Fuji seems to want it both ways.  The built-in mouse is a rubbery thing on the upper right; while you can thump it for clicking, the actual buttons are on the upper left.  This would seem to indicate two-hand use.  Typing can be done two-handed, though one-hand feels more natural and leads to more accuracy.  Also, there’s only one Shift key (and one Function key) on the extreme left; this would necessitate one-hand operation if you want a capital “a” or “s.”   Conversely, getting a Question Mark or Double Quote makes the fingers stretch quite a bit with one-hand operation.  A second Shift (and Function) key over on the right would solve this.  Yes, one could just type everything up raw and let auto-correct or spell-check clean up after, but that seems lazy and isn’t the way I work (though I am lazy).  Or you could switch between one- and two-handedness as the need arose; since this requires stopping and reorienting, it’s something of an inconvenience.

Of course, I wrote, formatted and posted this entire entry using the Lifebook, so typing isn’t so difficult that it’s painful.  It may just be a matter of practice. And I like the unit well enough that I’m willing to give it the practice it deserves.

What I’d really like is for Psion to come back with a Series 9.  Think they will if I ask nicely?  Here’s hoping they’re in a good mood.  And thank you for visiting!

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An Apology to Blu-Ray

For some time now I’ve been dreading the fact that Blue-Ray, or BluRay, or Blu-Ray, is the high definition format that seems to be heading into the winner’s circle.  The reason I’ve not been too happy about that is, in all honesty, I thought the competing HD-DVD format looked much, much better.  A Blu-Ray DVD, to my admittedly aging eyes, didn’t look any better than a standard DVD.

Well, that’s changed.  It turns out it wasn’t Blu-Ray.  It was the player–in this case, a Sony PS3 or, as I like to call it, The Retard Machine.  As it happens, you don’t have to tell the PS3 what kind of television you have.

You have to tell it what kind of television you don’t have.  I have a 720p set; the PS3 assumed I have a 1080 model, and consequently tried to send a 1080 signal to my non-1080 television.  My non-1080 television reacted by saying, I suppose, “I don’t know what this is, so here’s what I can do with it.”  And I got standard DVD, I guess.

Squirreled away in one of the PS3 submenus is a list of all the television signals that the PS3 is going to send out.  By default, they’re all turned on.  You have to uncheck the ones you don’t actually have, then somehow figure out how to save that setting while resisting the urge to throw heavy objects–like, say, a PS3–out the nearest window. 

(I feel compelled to point out that the XBox 360 asked me nicely what my equipment was when I first set it up.  Nyah.) 

Once I got all that straightened out, Blu-Ray looks terrific, easily as good as HD-DVD.  So if (or when) Blu-Ray wins, I won’t be disappointed.

Sorry about that, Blu-Ray.

Fudd’s 2nd Law of Opposition

If you plug in everything at once, none of it will work.

I have a lot of computers at the apt, most of which do different things.  One of them, for eg, runs my Vonage phone so it’s not really a computer, but you take my meaning I’ll assume.  Since I’m always thinking of adding more, I decided to buy a 16 port switch that Office Depot had on their “please adopt me” table.  It looked so forlorn and lonely, and it was really cheap, so I said “Why not” and gave the nice man my nice money. 

I brought it home and showed it where the litter box was and made sure my cats smelled it, so they wouldn’t consider it The Enemy and kill it when I wasn’t looking.  I also set it in a remote corner so they wouldn’t be tempted to sleep on it.

Then I unplugged all the cables from my eight-port hub and, naturally, most of them fell behind the printer where I had to scrabble to gather them all back.  And I plugged them into the new switch.  I actually had more things to plug in but this didn’t bother me since (I reasoned) the iMac had been unplugged for a while.  I then reset the cable modem, the wireless router, the Vonage box and so forth…

…and nothing worked.  Nothing!  “Nothing” in this case also included my Vonage phone, so I couldn’t even call tech support!  (Puns about “Bon Vonage” are acceptable here, but only just so don’t push them.)

I tried putting the old stuff back in place, just to eliminate the idea that the new equipment had disturbed the sandbox, but still, nothing worked. 

I tried a different router, one which I had issues with in the past…it actually sat up and gave its best, though.  But still nothing worked.  I could get IP addresses, but no outside access.

That seemed to point to the cable modem–the one thing of which I had no duplicate at hand–as the problem.  What to do?  On July 4th, around 6PM?  There was only one thing I could do on this day, at this hour. 

Super Wal-Mart.   So I drove to the closest one and, yes, they had one left. 

Didn’t help. 

What the hell?  Did I not pay my bill?  Did I not do the proper sacrifices before the Web Gods?  They’re…not into goats anymore?   How could I have missed that?  (Of course, I had no web access.  No way to determine reality!)

Well, the rest of the evening was spent swapping cables and doing Start Run “cmd” and trying to regenerate IP addresses from good old DOS.   Pulling out the old “Start Here!” CDs and seeing if that would make things Start Here.

Finally, I removed all the new technology.  I unplugged and replugged.  And I noticed that the “wireless” LED on the router went into what looked like “madness” mode, flickering and blinking like it had downed about five or six Dr. Peppers.  (It would have been ahead of me at this point.)

So I unplugged, one at a time, until the “wireless” LED began behaving normally (steady-state light).  Plugged the rest back in (to the new adopted switch).  And suddenly, everything worked.  Even the phone.  I was starting to think that goats really were okay.  There was only one cable, to some aberrant device, that caused all the problems.  When I unplugged its cable, all worked.  Plugged back in, none worked.   Naturally, I unplugged it for good.

And started tracing it back.  Was it the new PC, the new XP box?  Was it the Vonage phone?  Was it some stupid net-storage thingy I had entrusted with access?  What was it?

I pulled the cable through the other various cables with which it was entangled and found…that the other end was still plugged into the switch. 

Yes:  I’d plugged the two ends of one cable into two ports on the same switch.  As Robert Frost once said, two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one that meant a lot of trouble-shooting and extra work, and that has made all the difference.

Know your cables, and where they go.   Sorry this story was kind of boring and all, but it was that kind of an evening.

Maybe next time I say interesting things!  Well, it could happen.  Thanks for popping by.

Update and Ephemera

My regular readers (Hi, Mom!) will note the addition to my link list over on the right, “Killing in the Name of…” You’ll also note I wussed out and added “(Fiction)” to the title, as I didn’t want to give the wrong impression. There’s been rather too much killing in the name of [insert word here] in the real world for me to be comfortable with that, but that’s just me. (I will probably change that to reflect the title of the author’s principle blog, when I get a chance to visit the nearly half-dozen blogs listed under her name.)

Anyway, the entries at “Killing” are fictional extracts from what seems to be a larger framework, a story about demons or vampires or some rather nastily efficient killers. I’m not sure if she’s writing these as they come to her, or if there’s a greater plan at work, but the writing so far is excellent. It’s very vivid, evocative and descriptive and moves quickly. While the language contains nothing objectionable, it’s definitely not for the squeamish. While I’d love to read the finished work, this isn’t a genre I tend to seek out myself. Still, it’s good work so far.

I found this site the way I’ve found most of the blogs I enjoy reading, by clicking the “Next Blog” up at the top of the page. It’s always fun to see what other people have to say, usually. Blogs I tend to not bother with are:

  1. those not written in English. I’m not prejudiced, but as you can see my command of English is bad enough. I have no facility at all with foreign languages. This, by the way, includes blogs where the language is ostensibly English, but the sentences tend to be “Wld u b mine? OMG, 4ever 2 th max!” and the like. My decoder ring ran out of battery power years ago and they’re impossible to get nowadays.
  2. Blogs which have removed the “Next Blog” button. This is flat-out irritating. Why would someone do that? Am I supposed to be so enchanted by what I’m about to find that I will never visit another site, ever? Don’t do this.
  3. Blogs which play music. Is so newbie. I tend to have things plugged into my headphone jack anyway, but really, you know, I might already be listening to music and this interferes in a non-good way.
  4. Blogs which don’t allow comments. I like leaving comments on sites I find interesting or well-done; it seems to me that comments are part of the overall blog experience. But that’s just me.

Actually, I can understand not wanting to bother with comments. In the last couple of days, I’ve gotten eight [sorry–ELEVEN], all in a row, and all spam. This is pretty disenheartening, except when it’s not. A number of these “comments” came about on a post I’d done detailing my deteriorating mental state, and they were all cancer-related. Oh great, another thing to brood upon! Thanks in advance!

If this continues, I may have to implement that “Word Validation” feature I’ve seen here and there. I’m not crazy about this, as it adds a layer of difficulty for anyone who wants to say anything (any real people, I mean). I tend to find it an irritant myself, since I generally just want to say things like, “Very well written” or “That’s interesting” or something else not utterly vital, but still communicative.

We’ll have to see how that works.

In the meantime, I think I’ve finished the painting that has been consuming a great deal of my…well, whatever it is I’ve got left to consume. I want to let it gel for a day or so, but I’ll be sure to post when I’m certain about this.

PS: You know what’s funny? I’ve been using the Blogger for Word plug-in, and you’d think they’d update the dictionary so “blog” wouldn’t be flagged as a misspelled word. You’d be wrong, though.

All that Noise, All that Sound

Well, I finally bought the Coldplay CD, the one with “Speed of Sound” on it. I just couldn’t get that song out of my head. So I went out and got it, thus succumbing to, I guess, peer pressure. I did, however, wait for a couple of months, so Coldplay’s fifteen minutes are pretty much over, so it wasn’t like I was succumbing to good peer pressure. I also bought a Doctor Who DVD at the same time, so it wasn’t like Coldplay was my only goal. Defensive, aren’t I?

The reason I hesitated so long was that I was pretty sure “Speed of Sound” would be the only really good song on it. And I was mostly right. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of it is at least agreeable, and there’s a clever re-working of the riff from Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” that’s, er, clever. But it’s basically U2 sonic mush, shaped into some riffs and keening vocals.

Notice I don’t say it’s “U2-like” or “U2-esque.” This is basically a U2 record that they didn’t make themselves. Chris Martin and Bono have very similar voices (Martin’s voice is sweeter, but Bono’s is more powerful), but the guitarists for the bands could be evil twins to each other. The only thing I can figure is that Coldplay must have been really scared by U2 some time in their (collective) past, and they’ve been trying to work out some kind of therapy this way.

That’s not really what I want to write about, though. It struck me that a CD, as a container of music, is a fixed product. One generally has the idea that it should hold a certain amount of music, anywhere from 35 minutes (at the extreme acceptable low end) to over an hour. Anything less than 35 minutes seems like unused potential (at best) or a cynical rip-off (at worst). So I imagine that any conscientious band, not wanting to appear parsimonious to their fans, probably puts some less-than-stellar material out, just so the CD format seems to be a reasonable value to the potential consumer.

But doesn’t this mean that the overall quality of the CD is diluted? Sure, we’re consumers, but we’re also listeners. Back when vinyl was the standard, this good stuff on this Coldplay CD would have made an outstanding EP. As in, play it til the grooves wear out. As a CD, the sheer length means the excellent track (“Speed of Sound”) and the couple of very good tracks are drowned in a sea of okay-not bad noise. (Granted, the band members probably think all the songs are great, but they’re not writing this, are they.)

It seems to me that as our entertainment technology continues to advance, performers are being asked to adapt not only to the technology, but to the changing needs of the consumer. So whereas once a recording was the means by which music could be preserved and distributed, now a band is the means by which a recording can be produced and sold. (That’s not supposed to be as cynical as it sounds.) Also, whereas in the past consumers would seek out bands, now the band has to court the consumer.

This isn’t going to be a rant about how music nowadays sucks (though it does), as I suspect that as every generation passes, that’s the common complaint from the old to the young. The music that we choose is better than what came before, and better than what will come after. Twas ever thus.

No, what I want to talk about is the impact of recording technology, not just on how music is experienced, or how it is created, but why it is (possibly) created the way it is, and the ways in which it is thought about by the listener.

I suspect that before the invention of recorded sound, music was less tied to any kind of restriction. If you wanted to write an opera cycle that lasted several days, you could do so without let or hindrance. Likewise, if your song was only a few seconds in length, there were no rules to say that couldn’t be done. (Having your music performed for an audience was a different matter, but I digress.)

Most composers and performers didn’t do these extreme things, because popular music is, for the most part, a functional art form. People want to dance, or feel beloved, or feel blue, feel smarter than everyone else, or otherwise be entertained. The music had to fit a certain need in order to become popular in the first place. While Wagner’s marathon works are respected, they’re not as widespread as many other, simpler forms of music.

When recorded sound became popular, the limits of music (at least commercial music) changed. A song couldn’t be longer than what a wax cylinder, or a 78 RPM disk could hold–there was no medium capable of greater length. And I think over the course of the decades, the recorded sound object (the record) began to shape music to reflect its own image.

Originally, a dance band, for example, would simply shape its performance to the length of the party where it was playing. If the party ended early, they’d stop and go home. If the party went longer than expected, they could play more songs, or play longer versions of the songs they knew.

I think the first audio recordings were, basically, promotion for a band. The band could have a record played on the radio and people would know what the band sounded like, and if they liked what they heard, they’d go to the live show. The record was an advertisement for the concert.

My own opinion is that this was the norm for a long time. People bought records not for the records themselves, but because they liked the concert. For one reason, for a long time records didn’t have the same audio quality as live performance. Concerts were also right there and then, probably more fun than a tinny recording that had to rely on memory for most of its effect.

But when records became audibly equivalent to live performance, and began to surpass that (via overdubbing, compression, effects, etc) I believe the balance shifted.

Suddenly, records were no longer the enticement to a live performance; the live performance was now the enticement to go out and buy the record. That must have seemed odd to those bands that realised what was going on–they just wanted to (at this point in the century) rock and roll, but their wings were being fitted to a different flight path. Playing music? Sure, sure, as long as the LP sells!

As the recording process, and the resulting LPs continued to be refined, I imagine that bands began to tailor their aims more and more toward the physical record, and less toward what the record was supposed to document: the band’s own performance. After all, most bands at first aspired to a song on the radio, ie, one side of a 45 RMP record (the other side could be, and usually was, anything). Two to three minutes at most, just enough for radio play. The rest was the party.

When the LP became the standard, suddenly more was required of bands. They had more minutes to fill. Pete Townsend tells how he wrote “A Quick One” (a ten minute song cycle) because his producer told him he had ten minutes to fill to complete the album. Townsend was a consumate professional though, and very talented, so that ten minutes wasn’t just band noodling.

That wasn’t always the case, of course. Insert your favorite meaningless jam band here, but respect me and my kind if we say But wait! about our favorite prog rock outfit. To say nothing of Tangerine Dream!

Since this is getting too long, let me wrap up here. The era of the LP gave way to the era of the CD, and bands were under even more pressure to fill those minutes. Which leads us to Coldplay, and an excellent EP turned into an okay CD.

There may be hope on the horizon. The advent of the iPod and downloadable MP3s have made a conceptual leap in what is expected of music these days. It’s still tied to recordings rather than live performance, but it seems to know that there’s a need out there that bands can only sporadically fulfill.

Suppose Coldplay decided that what they wanted to go back to was the era of the 45 RMP record? The song on the radio…or in this case, the song on the iPod. They could put all their resources into making that one song really, really great, and not bother with the attendant CD.

It’s still a matter of terminal nostalgia, which our species seem can’t seem to shake since the advent of the recorder, but at least it’s a step forward for the consumer. At least he or she doesn’t have to listen to hours of drivel to get to the good stuff. Which of course, varies from consumer to consumer. One man’s drivel, etc.

This might mean a whole new era of composer-consumer relations, one actually based on music and not product.

Or it might not. Never underestimate the ability of marketing to undercut everything.

Still. I should do something with that iPod, shouldn’t I.

Before it does something with me.