« December 2003 | Main | February 2004 »

January 30, 2004

Caution: Garageband may be Gateway Drug

I haven't spent any money yet, but it's only a matter of time. GarageBand is a cheap program (part of the 39 iLife) that makes you yearn for expensive things. I've delayed the process with some free workarounds. The rest of this post is Alison's brief guide to the things you can do with GarageBand and the stuff it makes you want.

The first thing you can do is build songs out of Apple's own loops. These come in two varieties; recordings of musicians (which you can transpose, retime and chop up), and software sequences (which you can transpose, retime, edit individual notes or groups of notes completely, and change the software instrument used). This is Lego music, but, hey, you can make cool things with Lego.

You'll want more loops. Make sure you've dragged the divider at the top of the loops section, because there are lots more loops hidden offscreen without a scrollbar. Turn off loop filtering, too; GarageBand can transpose all your loops so they don't need to be in key. But you may still want to Buy More Loops.

But pre-recorded loops won't really do. You can also record yourself singing or playing an acoustic instrument. Only one track at once, so you can't mic vocals and guitar and record both at the same time. You can use the inbuilt microphone for this, with surprisingly good results considering. But I guess a proper mic (and maybe also a pre-amp) are in my future. If you're like me, you'll also be struck by an urge to buy sheet music; I'm inclined to get the complete set of Purcell's catches, but you may want something quite different.

You can export projects to iTunes as an .aif, and convert them to loops using the Apple SDK. I haven't yet managed to find a loop I've made show up in the lists, but it's easy enough to drag them in from the Finder.

You can drag any AIFF file (which you can make from any of your music in iTunes by changing the encoding preferences) to your project and then sample to your heart's content. These samples are less versatile than any of the Apple Loops; you'll want to make sure that key and tempo match first.

You can also plug in an electric instrument. This is the one thing that I don't think you can do at all without at least an adapter, and people talk about pre-amps a lot. I don't own any electric instruments, though I faunch after a Bridge electric violin. GarageBand ships with a whole set of guitar amps, and there are more in the Jam Pack. I guess they'd work with fiddle, right? All academic for me at the moment.

Finally, you can use the software instruments. So you'll need a MIDI controller; and to prevent you from buying it straight away you can use MidiKeys, a beta that lets you use your Mac keyboard as a MIDI keyboard. This isn't remotely as good as having a proper MIDI keyboard, but it's a whole lot better than clicking on a tiny onscreen keyboard with a mouse. There's a slider for velocity, but you'll need to edit it afterwards.

Using MidiKeys and the amazing power of the Internet, I learnt a ton about drumming that had previously passed me by completely. I found Bill Powelson's site was a mine of information, in the sense that you really have to get in there, hunt through the dross and dig out the useful stuff with a pick. But there was plenty of useful stuff there, especially if you have no great desire to be a drummer but just want some tips for quickly producing four bars of plausible sounding rhythm.

Here you come up against one of the real limitations of GarageBand; it's hard to use it to tweak drum lines to sound only-just-not-quite-perfect, which unless you want only to produce techno, is what you need. Other, more expensive programs do this.

Guitar will be harder; the software instruments sound great, but my playing of them on MIDIkeys doesn't sound remotely like guitar. That was the point at which I diverted to drums, and I will return to guitar when I have a real keyboard to use.

The basic GarageBand doesn't include anything that sounds remotely like a fiddle; there is a violin in the Jam Pack, but I'm suspicious. Woodwinds are also pretty limited. If, on the other hand, you want really dodgy brain-frying synth noises, there are plenty. Martian Lounge, for example, which is a cantina.

GB only allows you to have one project open at a time, and there's no way to save snatches of MIDI for later use. (This contrasts with music, which you can save out as AIFF). The solution is to set up GB projects with names like '6/8 drum rhythms', containing lots of suitable bits of MIDI, and then cut and paste from one project to another, in the order 'copy', Open, 'new track', paste. That works, but is butt-ugly in a very 1.0 sort of way.

GB itself doesn't import or export MIDI, but Dent du Midi is a beta designed to address the lack of MIDI i/o support in GarageBand. It provides a perfectly serviceable workaround for the lack of MIDI import, so you can import MIDI files as a set of sequenced tracks. You then have to assign them each a software instrument in GB, but you've got the midi notes to play with. Export, however, is an unsolved problem at present; it doesn't export either to MIDI instruments or to .mid files. I don't believe you can cut-and-paste MIDI sequences to other MIDI software either (but I don't have any, so I can't check.)

If you use a lot of software instruments in the same piece of music, you may also need more RAM or a faster computer. I have 768Mb of RAM on the iMac, which seemed pointlessly much when I bought it. I'm sure GarageBand could soak up much more.

It may have more functionality that I haven't spotted yet; in which case, well, I'm sure I'll want to spend more money.

Posted by Alison at 04:29 PM | Comments (0)

Diana Cult Over?

Following Diana's death, many UK pubs called the Prince of Wales suddenly renamed themselves the Princess of Wales; complete with signs with ugly portraits of Diana, or white roses, or whatever. One of these is in Villiers Street near where I work. But when I went past the other day the pub had had a makeover, and is sporting a new sign, which clearly depicts some other Princess of Wales.

Dowdy Victorian Princess on pub sign

I'm taking this as a sign that the population is a little embarrassed about the whole mass hysteria thing.

Posted by Alison at 01:48 PM | Comments (0)

January 28, 2004

Low Humour

Today's had little to redeem it on the whole, but it was bracketed by two good laughs. I arrived at the station to see in the papers that on this huge news day, with Hutton leaking and the Government narrowly escaping the vote on top-up fees, a headline writer at the Daily Star had produced a little gem.

Today's Daily Star cover -- 'Jordan Silences Her Knockers'

And then Thette pointed me to http://www.cummingfirst.com, the website of the First United Methodist Church of Cumming, Georgia. They're dedicating their new organ at the weekend. As they suggest, "Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord".

Posted by Alison at 11:10 PM | Comments (1)

January 26, 2004

Not Safe For Work

And, indeed, Not Safe For Anywhere Else Either. Having discovered that goatse.cx has lost its website following a complaint, I'm almost overwhelmed with the urge to link to the Prime Number Shitting Goatse.cx Man. You'll notice I haven't done so. That's because if you understand the antecedent references, you will immediately guess exactly what this site is like. And if by some strange chance you don't, You Really Do Not Want To Know. Honestly. Trust me on this.

So. Go look it up in Google if you like. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Posted by Alison at 02:26 AM | Comments (1)

Buzz Buzz Buzz

We finally collapsed the dither function on a new coffee machine, though not without some added extra dither. The Bodum shop was selling the small version of the electric Santos, reasonably cheap. They also had a good price on the large one, but didn't have it in stock. So we bought the small one, and then spotted that the Starbucks right next door was selling the Barista Utopia for less than Bodum's reduced price on the identical large Santos. Some time later, we'd returned the small one, and bought the big one (and two grande skinny lattes with extra shots and two lollipops, which between them added 10% to the price of the machine).

This is an electric vacuum brewing machine. I've owned a Cona in the past; they make lovely coffee, but are far too troublesome first thing in the morning. Remember, we're the people who enumerate 'coffee disasters' for filter machines:

  1. forget to put water in
  2. forget to put coffee in
  3. forget to put filter in
  4. forget to put jug in
  5. forget to plug in
  6. forget to switch on
  7. put water in the place where the coffee goes
  8. put coffee in the place where the water goes
  9. put beans in the filter instead of ground
  10. leave the hopper out of the grinder so the coffee goes everywhere
  11. grind the coffee twice so the hopper overflows
  12. add the water twice so the machine overflows
  13. making coffee with half the water you intended to so it comes out too thick
  14. forgetting to empty old coffee out of the jug before you start
  15. leave machine turned on overnight

[EDIT: I forgot a whole pile the first time. And we've done each of these at least once, most several times.]

We have friends who use a Cona all the time, and who have an exciting history of coffee disasters far more spectacular than ours. After all, filter machines rarely implode, or fall off the stove spewing near-boiling coffee all over the kitchen.

The promise of the electric Santos is to deliver vacuum-brewed coffee with no more hassle than a filter coffee machine. The web offers mixed reviews, partly because of the original high price, and partly because this machine does not allow you to tinker the way that stovetop vacuum brewers do. But the biggest gripe is inconsistency of timing; and that's because this gadget is, at heart, an electric kettle -- and individual electric kettles vary considerably in the point at which they turn off. So you have to fiddle with your specific machine until you have the right combination of coffee quantity, grind, strength of vacuum seal and slope of kitchen counter. After which it's highly consistent.

Anyway, we've brewed two pots so far, and jolly nice they were too. It's superficially harder to clean than a filter machine -- but actually easier, because of all the bits in a filter machine that you can't get to and which eventually clog up your coffee. It does have that classic Cona taste, where you get all the flavour and no grit. And it is, unsurprisingly, great fun to watch.

Incidentally, the Rhyl SeaQuarium may be the single worst value tourist attraction we've ever visited. I'm not exaggerating in the slightest here; it has remarkably few fish, it majors in UK coastal fish, which tend towards the grey and dull, there's very little educational material on the walls, the roof leaks in wet weather, and it charges £5.50 for an adult and £4.50 for a child or pensioner (though Jonathan was free). Several of the exhibits were closed for winter, though there was no reduction in charges. It kept us entertained for 37 minutes, of which at least half I spent trying to take pictures of the dozen or so tropical saltwater fish while the kids moaned at me to hurry up. Don't go there. Next time we're in the area, we will try the Blue Planet Aquarium, one of the UK's largest, which is slightly more expensive but holds much more promise.

Posted by Alison at 12:57 AM | Comments (1)

January 23, 2004


In the last week, GarageBand has become the Kittywompus equivalent of the Victorian piano. Each evening after dinner, the family gathers round the iMac to make very bad music.

I've always known that it would be quite handy to have some sequencing software. But it's all been either expensive, or hard to use, or both. Plus there's a problem that different programs do specific things well, but it's hard to find something that will cover all aspects of producing music for fun, and it's hard to tell what you need.

GarageBand is trivial by comparison. The interface is very easy to use; you drag loops into it and add MIDI tracks and recorded real instrument tracks to build up a song. When you're done, you can export it to iTunes (as an AIFF), where it appears in the library under your name.

The first night we had GarageBand, I recorded myself singing Cakes and Ale, which is a splendid three-part catch (round); I just recorded myself singing it once and offset it to produce the harmony. The following day, I moved onto a version of Summer Is Icumen In, with several layers of vocals and half a dozen recorders. Austin heard this; having just seen A Mighty Wind he thought that my recording felt authentically dreadful. I cearly have some work to do.

But still; GarageBand will allow enthusiastic amateurs to produce songs reminiscent of parodies of bad sixties folk music in only a few hours. Which is, well, quite something.

The third night, I went to the theatre, and arrived home to discover that while I was out, Steven & the kids had produced a weird ambient version of Hickory Dickory Dock, in the style of Wendy Cope in the style of TS Eliot, with vocals from all three of them and supporting weird ethnic percussion sounds as well as some of the Apple Loops. None of them can sing, play an instrument, or read music. But it didn't stop them having a whale of a time with GarageBand.

Even with no previous experience, I quickly discovered some of the program's limitations. For example, it allows you to work in any of a dozen different time signatures (including fives!). But remember those 1000 loops? 6 are 3/4 time (of which only two are actually 3-beat loops). A couple are 2/4 or 2/2. The rest are 4/4. So, if I'd like, say, to sing along to a drum in 6/8 time, I'd better find some other loops, or record my own. Luckily we have a house full of likely percussive items.

Apple reckoned that their target audience wouldn't want to produce their own loops, using Apple's inbuilt loops instead. But of course I'm keen to produce loops from Jonathan's enthusiastic playing of the seed rattle and other instruments we picked up at Strawberry Fair; there's an SDK to do this.

On the whole, GarageBand is just about the most fun ever. If you've ever played an instrument, or wanted to fiddle about with loops, or even like singing in the bath, you'll have a whale of a time.

Posted by Alison at 02:37 PM | Comments (0)

January 13, 2004

Media Special

Martin Freeman (Tim in The Office) has been cast as Arthur Dent in the forthcoming Hitchhiker's movie. This may just be the most perfect piece of casting of all time. (via)

Those sensawunda moments are becoming commoner. Not in fiction, which rarely inspires like it used to, but in the world around me. Only a little while ago, we would have had to look to SF to discover a reality television programme in which twelve unemployed people compete to win the chance of a job interview. I was practically foaming at the mouth before I sat down to watch Career Boot Camp, so perhaps it was for the best that it's been pulled from the schedules for the while.

In a sort of all welfare to work, all the time evening, that (non-existent) programme is followed later this evening by the first part of Shameless, a comedy drama about an alcoholic single dad & multiple kids, that has garnered rave previews.

Two TV programmes I want to watch in one evening. Gosh. And this all in a day when the BBC is reeling from the news that only one of their digital channels regularly gets a large enough audience to count, and it's CBeebies. Eh-oh! I could have told them that. Apparently one BBC3 programme cost £136 per viewer per hour to make. Woo. See, your license fee is good value. For somebody else.

Posted by Alison at 09:46 PM | Comments (2)

January 11, 2004

Everybody's called Dave

In the background, Windows Networking has pretty much remained the bane of my life. After getting it working in Jaguar using SMB Browse, it stopped again in Panther. It's completely random whether Panther sees the Windows machine or not, and when it does show the machine, odds are it won't mount the relevant shares. A range of different error messages ensue. Because I only use the Windows box to play Zuma, there's 93Gb free on its hard drive and I like to keep files there. Whereas the iMac is bursting at the seams.

So eventually I downloaded the trial of Dave, the software that's designed to do this stuff, and it appears to work perfectly and without fuss. The paid version is $119, but unless someone comes up with evidence that I'm wrong and the Panther Windows sharing is flaky as all hell, it's a done deal.

Posted by Alison at 08:09 PM | Comments (9)

January 08, 2004

A Missing Part of the Jigsaw

I've seen people say that with the addition of GarageBand, iLife does '99% of what people do on their computers at home'. Well, it might be 99% of what some people do, but it's not 99% of what I do.

I think we need an iApp for desktop publishing. Most people don't need Quark or Indesign. But lots of people want to make CD covers for their CDs, DVD covers for their DVDs, party invitations and Christmas cards. They want to easily grab photos from iPhoto, playlistings from iTunes, and screenshots from iMovie and iDVD for this. Word is not well-optimised for this sort of thing. What they (and I) need would be an iApp that's a bit like Microsoft Publisher only much better. How do I let Apple know this?

Posted by Alison at 08:38 PM | Comments (0)

Get Yourself an Asset Register

I've already written about this (in a friends post) on LiveJournal; but we were burgled yesterday and many of my favourite possessions were taken. Not much of the stuff that people tend to think has 'sentimental value', but you know, I was very fond of my PowerBook. I've had lots of tea and sympathy on LJ, for which much thanks; readers here shouldn't feel they need to post to commiserate.

But this post isn't about that. This is an exhortation. Do you have backups? I did, and I've lost very little data, but if they'd taken the iMac as well they'd have failed hugely; who would have thought they'd take a firewire hard drive? It had my most recent photo and document backups.

It also had my music collection, which I carefully backed up to DVD only a few weeks ago. We're listening to music from the iPod at the moment. iTunes shows 11,000 tunes in the library, and lists them all. I feel like the old soldier who has twinges of pain in the leg that's been cut off.

So, go and make sure that your backups will cope with fire and theft as well as hardware failure; make sure that they're regular, and make sure that some of them are off site.

OK, once your backups are sorted, make a list of everything valuable that you own that's remotely portable. We've put a cut-off at £100; yours might be different. Because it turns out that we don't have serial numbers for some specific items that we were certain that we had serial numbers for, not least the PowerBook. Now, that is certainly Very Very Stupid. But we've spent hours today working out what's missing, and gathering evidence that we owned it, and if we'd had a simple asset register, a list of each item, where it's kept, its serial number and a photo, we've have saved a huge amount of heartache. We'd have quickly worked out what was missing, rather than saying every so often 'gosh, they've taken ________', and we'd have had clear evidence for all the stolen items.

You might do this already, in which case you can give yourself a shiny. Otherwise go, do it now, act without thinking.

Posted by Alison at 05:56 PM | Comments (1)

January 06, 2004

A Visitation from Apple Santa

Most of Steve Jobs' announcements occurred while I was away from my desk doing yoga. I arrived back bendy and mellow, and found that iPhoto can now handle 25,000 photos, includes picture rating and smart playlists ("I'd like a slideshow of every photo I took between June and September that I gave 4 or more stars to"), and allows you to rotate and rate photos as they're coming in from USB. As I'd got sufficiently irritated with iPhoto that I spent part of my holidays searching for an alternative photo managing program, I'm really pleased with this.

GarageBand sounds good for me, too; though it sounds really, really good for a whole host of people who are just a bit better than me at this sort of stuff -- but still not good enough to warrant spending money on a real studio. If I bought the electric violin I faunch after, I could plug it straight into the iMac!

Update: I thought the iPod mini looked cute but not quite the right product for me. But then the dimensions sunk in. My mobile phone is the Nokia 8310, a small cute phone that is near-ubiquitous in the UK. The iPod mini is the same length, slightly wider, slightly thinner, slightly smaller overall volume, slightly heavier. And my phone is tiny. I mean, the iPod's not huge, but I don't ever lose it in my bag, or forget I'm carrying it. That's the difference. And the difference might not be much, but if you carry a phone, and a PDA, and an iPod, and a (wipes away tear) digital camera, you sure notice if they each weighs 100g or 200g. And while 4Gb is not enough to rid yourself of having to pay attention to what music you've got with you, it's enough to ensure you have music to suit a variety of moods. So I guess, once they're cheaper, and we're back on an even keel, it might suit me better for commuting than my current iPod.

Posted by Alison at 11:24 PM | Comments (0)

January 05, 2004


Spotted on Slashdot's coverage of Sir Tim Berners-Lee (via);

And why stop at a knighthood? They should make him an Url.

Posted by Alison at 09:41 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 04, 2004


Marianne fished out the cheap recorder that Father Christmas brought her last year, demanding to know whether she could learn to play it. I explained that it was relatively straightforward to play, but that it would require persistence; not one of her stronger qualities. She wanted to know a tune she could play, so I gave her the first two bars of Jingle Bells, and we're taking it from there.

Dolmetsch has a a solid set of lessons online for those of us who aren't six, and (essential for teaching six-year-olds) lots of blank manuscript paper.

The cheap recorder won't even be adequate to learn on beyond the first five or six notes; it makes no pretence to play the lower notes in tune, and I can't make anything with a pinched thumb sound other than disgusting. And I discovered, or remembered, that Steven cannot read music or play any instrument, so I'm inclined to get them both recorders and teach them together. It occurred to me that I could start Steven on tenor and still teach them both in C, and, while buying them recorders, also buy myself a slightly better alto to replace my aged starter one.

But even the cheap recorder allowed me to remember the pleasure of tootling along to the music, in this case Oysterband tracks. Which in turn made me wonder; does anyone know how to divide up an .mp3 that consists of the last song on the album, several minutes of silence, and a 'hidden track'?

Posted by Alison at 05:12 PM | Comments (7)