Sunday, June 30, 2013

Keyboards, keyboards

As a wee lad I had little interest in music.  I attribute this to the cognitive dissonance between what was defined to be music in my parents' home and my internal experience seeking expression.  I just didn't feel inside the way classical music, least of all opera, sounded.

My interest in music was born the day I heard Blues for the first time.  Prickles on the back of my neck.  Now that's what I'm TALKIN about!  That's MUSIC!  That's MY music.

At around 22 years of age the need to actually make Blues music was growing impatiently.  So I bought my first keyboard.  It looked exactly like this:

Mom's piano, a Baldwin
Acrosonic, still in the family
and still being played.
Really.  No joke. Obviously, there was already a piano in my parents home and always had been: a very competent Acrosonic console from the early 1950's, my mother's personal piano that she owned since she was about 11.  (I later learned that she was an accomplished classical pianist, but I did not know this at the time.)  So why did I need this tiny Radio Shack novelty?  Well, I couldn't be seen and especially heard to be laboriously practicing the piano, so a tiny, plastic, portable, electronic gadget that I could play through Walkman-style headphones was just the thing.

And play it I did.  Unbelievably, on that ridiculous toy I learned all the major and minor scales, practicing them endlessly.  I learned jazz scales, and most importantly, the blues scales.  I learned a few songs, too. I also learned that the piano wasn't beyond me, and this tentative step, this dipping of the toe so to speak, was rapidly superseded.

My next keyboard, purchased second-hand a short time later, was the legendary Casio CZ-1000 phase-distortion synthesizer.  Yep, it even has its own Wikipedia page!

I had a lot of fun with this and a 4-track cassette recorder.  The sounds were primitive by today's standards, but it sounded great at the time.  It was also fun to fiddle around with the oscillators and create new sounds.  Years later I gave this keyboard to a family I thought could really use it.

In the mean time, I was hungry for more, and the big thing in the 1980's was Polyphony.  How many notes could an electronic instrument produce at the same time?   My first tiny toy keyboard had a polyphony of one (is that monophony?) The CZ-1000 had a polyphony of 4 or 8, depending on how many oscillators were needed to produce the tone.  So I could actually learn chords now.

But I wanted to use the new MIDI standard and play ALL the music!  So I needed this:

The Roland D-10 multi-timbral workstation.  It was 32-note polyphonic, and 16 of those could even be completely different sounds!  This was the first Orchestra in a Box.  I had some great times with this, including the following completely digitally-sequenced track I produced using this machine in 1989:

(Bach's Prelude and Fugue in Am BWV 543)

and this performed by me, aptly titled, "Don't Laugh,"

My first real piano, bought very second-hand in about 1998 for $200, was not so much a piano as it was a sort of piano-shaped box of assorted piano parts.  It was really more of a piano kit.  I spent two years building a piano out of it.  It was an English birdcage action upright, and had one hell of a big sound when I got done with it.

When I moved to Australia in about 2000, I was keyboardless.  I had a harmonica, that was all.  It took about 8 months before conditions were ripe for me to have a piano.  This is what I bought, for about $2500:

When things went non-linear a few years later, I would again be without an instrument (not to mention a home, a family, friends, a job, a sense of identity . . . .)  But the keyboard situation was ONE problem I could do something about.  I went to the music shop, said, "I'd like a portable digital piano, please.  That one, there."  The sales clerk blinked twice, collected what wits were at his disposal, and said, "um, OK!"  It was a Casio Privia Px-300.  All in all, a good machine.

But playing at home and getting up on stage to perform are two very different things.  I realized after the Bridgetown Blues Festival last year that I was at a serious disadvantage, but one that could be addressed.  Specifically, I needed the Nord Electro 3/73 professional instrument.

And, lo, I beheld that it was good.

Update:  August 2013.  I have acquired possibly the most advanced digital piano in the world, and possibly the first one in Western Australia.  It's the Roland FP-80, featuring an advanced piano engine that models the hammers, dampers, strings and even the cabinet of a concert grand.  Its simulated ivory key tops look, feel adsorb and respond like real ivory, and the internal hammer action gives keys the right amount of inertia for a genuine playing experience.  Do I sound a bit like an advertisement?  That's because I'm in love with this instrument!

Except for one small thing:  There seems to be a housing/case resonance right on A3.  It disappears when I use the headphones or play through external speakers.  I'll be asking Roland for a tech note on that problem.  Meanwhile, let's enjoy it:

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Tesla Effect

Portrait of a Moron
When you meet someone for the first time, how do you know if they actually possess a rigorous grounding in the "hard" sciences and engineering disciplines, or if they are only pretending to have one?

They may wear glasses and know words like "entanglement" and "wave function collapse" and "nonlinear phonon scattering," but do they actually know what the flip they are talking about?

Here is a simple test that works 99% of the time.  Ask them what they think of Nikola Tesla.  If they say something like, "He was a misunderstood genius that science is still struggling to catch up with," then that person is a moron.

The Tesla Effect

Chances are that such a person will also think that perpetual motion is possible and is being actively suppressed by the government, that aliens are currently snooping around our planet and the government is suppressing this information, and that oil is generated through geological processes unconnected to paleo-biology and the government is, well, you get the idea.  They march in step in the ranks of the Cult of the Willfully Ignorant. They are often also much enamored with Creationist beliefs of the most absurd and demonstrably false sort.

Therefore you would be pretty safe, once someone expresses any kind of admiration for Tesla, in ignoring anything else they may happen to say.

The truth is that Tesla's understanding of physics in general and electromagnetism in particular was a hundred years behind the science of his day.  He had no real idea why some of his "inventions" accidentally worked and why most of the rest of them did not.  Most of his so-called "accomplishments" are merely urban myth, hyperbole, and straight-up fantasy.

The more a person's understanding of things comes from empirical science and mathematics, the less interest one has in lame things that are well behind the curve and superseded by fact.

Tesla was an accidental inventor at best, a self-deluded kook at worst.  Get used to it.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Another Perfect Day For The Blues

I get these a lot for some reason.  The sort of day no goddamned good for anything except playing the blues.

I call this the Sunnyland Blues because it takes certain liberties with the 12-bar Blues Form.  But it does so with authority, specifically that of Sunnyland Slim who used it to great effect.

In a 12-bar in A, one normally hears only A, D and E.  Listen carefully for the odd F and B that sneaks in there.