Saturday, July 14, 2012

I wish I had taken music instruction a bit differently

This dawned on me today as I was thinking about how I want to organize some of my new guitar practice, and what I'm trying to get as practical takeaway from reading up on some theory.

I had instruction on several instruments for many years - particularly saxophone, and then trumpet. During that time I was learning to be a musician in the sense of being an expert in using an instrument as a tool for delivering music, rather than learning how to create and deliver music while learning an instrument. There's a big distinction in my mind. Not a knock on my instructors by any means - they were very good and I often wound up being principal chair (at school anyway).

What was my end goal while practicing as a trumpet player? To play a piece flawlessly I suppose. Hit all the notes with the right timing, the right attack, the right intensity and duration... and to perfectly express someone else's phrasing and ideas. Like if I were to get up on a podium and deliver the Gettysburg Address with the same gravity and inflection as Lincoln. 

What I'm really after now is to be able to come up with and express my own ideas. Until now I've been speaking words and phrases without grasping their meaning or gravity or resolution. I'll have some work to do to get to that level!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Speaking of concepts - how about The Concept?

Today I started reading a bit about "The Concept" - The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Ironically enough it felt like the first time I picked up Race Car Vehicle Dynamics in the sense of theory overload, and gave me a bit of perspective on my day job doing vehicle dynamics work! 

For me anyway, it's one of those reads that hits you as, "I'm definitely not as sharp as I thought I was," but it definitely seems fairly brilliant and is something I'd like to learn. This all stems out of my previous post regarding modal jazz - for which The Concept is reported to form the conceptual base. In some ultimate irony it shares similar terminology to passing concepts in (American) football - which all tend to boil down to vertical, horizontal, and oblique stretched to use Norm Chan's terminology... whereas TLCCOTO uses vertical, horizontal, and supra-vertical. More on that at a later date - American football is very much a thinking man's sport at a high level.

In any event, when I was in my more serious musician days (sic) in high school, any improvisational or soloing work I did was just fumbling for sounds... stringing some notes together to make a lick and quickly pass over or audible out of anything blatantly dissonant! Since getting my engineering degree I honestly feel much more comfortable with music theory in general - to the point I'm actually interested in learning and making sense of it. Not dissimilar to practical engineering work, things in music work for a reason, and I feel that the better grounding and understanding I have there the easier it is to be creative. To me, improvisation or composing are no different than speaking a language. In high school I took the cave man approach of grunting sounds, syllables, or words to get some basic concept across. Theory gives you the syntax of how nouns and verbs come together to make a sentence, sentences to form a paragraph, and paragraphs to form a complete line of reasoning. The difference between composition and improvisation then is the difference between writing out a speech in advance, or having a few ideas in your head and being able to speak to them comfortably on the fly.

How does this relate to the day job? It gave me interesting perspective on theory versus application and what it really takes to make one relevant to the other. At work, part of my responsibility is to come up with theory which then gets handed over for use at the race track. To me it all makes perfect sense, but if you can't convey that sensibly to those who have to use it.. it's all for naught. Mostly challenging given how tight and limited timing is as far as getting everyone on the same page conceptually. When I have time to sit down and work through things I think I can convey concepts reasonably well in translatable terms. For now though I feel like I'm on the application end of modal theory with little understanding of why things work the way they do. Sure, I can dig that an Eb Lydian scale works well with a C minor 7 chord (and why the Dorian mode matches well for the given root) but it sure would be nice to grasp where that all stems from. 

It will take some further study. 

The other way this is analogous to the day job is that this is how I had to learn vehicle dynamics.  There was really no one around sufficiently experienced to teach it to me, which left self-guided learning through books and experimentation as the only option. So for those struggling with it and stuck in the same situation - I feel your struggle!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Getting Back to an Old Hobby - Part 2 (Concepts)

The last time I really did any recording was in high school or part of college. I came up with some riffs, recorded bits and pieces of ideas that I wanted to put together, that sort of thing. Mostly it just emulated whatever I was listening to at the time without any growth. I was making things without really creating anything. Nothing new or unique. As Miles Davis would say, it was "like warmed-over turkey."

Since getting the playback aspect of the audio lab set up (namely Alesis 100W power amp with  Monitor One Mk2 studio monitor speakers) I've been going through and listening to a lot of tunes. I've been thinking a lot about what I personally like to hear, and stylistic concepts from a variety of places which I can pull together to make something a bit more my own. I'd say I'm reaching a point where I'm a little more comfortable in knowing what I want.

We'll start off with the 10,000 foot view. Broadly speaking, jazz and hip hop have been two main genres I can really get into. I still enjoy putting on some Nirvana or Deftones from time to time, but it doesn't get into my creative vein as much. There is also some good ambient and downtempo electronica that really catches me, but that's more an accessory to the two aforementioned genres. Jazz and hip hop have a one-way link for the most part. Obviously one preceded the other, and there are certainly a number of hip hop tracks which sample old jazz tracks (though admittedly it's more funk, soul, R&B...). But while hip hop samples some jazz, I don't see much of the other way around. I'd like to explore that.

In any event, from the former category I love modal jazz. Late 50's, early 60's, with perhaps the most canonical work being Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. The aspect of that I like are the extended, almost vamp-style chord changes which really open things up for soloing on top. You open with a phrase, have several instruments tell a story soloing one after the other, then come back to your main phrase to cap it off. Exemplified by one of the coolest songs of all time:

To a degree you could argue there's that aspect in some hip hop of a repeated sample or beat with expression on top of it - say with multiple lyricists all in a common theme (in the following example) or just one performer telling a story (a la Slick Rick). And for those who say all hip hop is garbage, you can't understand what they're saying, blah blah blah... fuck off with that nonsense. Some is shit, sure, I'll give you that. Some of it isn't. And with regard to "understanding" people... can you "understand" what John Coltrane is communicating when he goes off on a tear of a wild solo? No, you can't? Didn't think so. Just put a tune on and enjoy it for what it is and don't go off on some elitist rant of why your favorite music is so much better than something else.

Regardless, from the hip hop category I love the "boom bap" style of things from the mid-90's, particularly out of New York. Pete Rock exemplifies it with punchy drums at the front of the mix. Check it:

Keeping on the drum theme, while I love the punchy and catchy drums of the boom bap, I still want to be able to have an organic and diverse sound while keeping time. For that, I bring you Steve Gadd. I don't get into drummers much but this guy is the man. Check the following with him playing "in the pocket" - not going into some free time or busting out a solo, but just... well, listen for yourself. I could put listening to this sorta thing for ten minutes straight:

So I really dig the things he does with a groove. Drilling down a bit more to the specific level, Gadd is great with "linear" drumming, in which you don't have as much (or any) of the overlap you'd find in pop or rock drumming with multiple limbs hitting at once. Gives it a really cool sound. I could definitely imagine taking the idea behind the sticking for Lenore (Chick Corea), slowing it way down, and growing some accent and expressive bits on that to make it really fat punchy beat.

We'll end it there with the drums and percussion for tonight!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

I'm approaching a technological platform dilemma

Microsoft, Google, and Apple are the new "Big Three" and each offers their own flavor of the consumer multimedia experience. Personally I use Windows at work and for heavy-duty computing at home (graphic design, audio production). I also have an Android tablet and phone. 

The trouble is that I like a unified experience. I don't like having Widget X to do Task A, and Widget Y to do Task B. Seamless availability of content across hardware form factors is a big selling point for me - and clearly for consumers. Apple did very well on this level for many years with very good integration of home computer, mp3 player, phone, tablet, etc. They were the only show in town that really nailed those. 

Moving forward, Android and Windows are at a point to meet or beat that. Windows has been well-entrenched as a home and business computing power for decades. Now they're breaking in with Windows Phone 8 and the Surface tablet. Android has had the smartphone and tablet (the latter becoming increasingly impressive with the Nexus 7), and has dabbled in home computing with netbooks - though those clearly aren't in the same league as a workstation.

For me, buying anything Apple is clearly out of the question. I already have two different platforms I use, I don't need a third - and they will never be compatible with stuff for my job. Then it comes down to Android and Windows. Do I keep things disjoint, or do I try to go all in? This wouldn't even have been a question if not for the Surface tablet to be honest, which I think gives Microsoft an edge in cross-platform architecture. For that matter, I'm fairly certain my next tablet will be the Surface. It seems like the only option out there that isn't just made for viewing content but creating it. I like that - I'm a creative guy.

So then if I have Windows at work, Windows home workstation, Windows tablet... do I stick with an Android phone? I love a lot of the services Google offers (Gmail, Maps, Music) and I like Android as a mobile platform... but what I need to determine is if there's an advantage in unifying the whole experience.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

If I had to design a(nother) road racing car from scratch (Part 1 of ?)

It's fucking late. Napping earlier was a poor choice.

This tune however is never a bad choice!

A thread on F1 Technical got me thinking about this. When I was doing the FSAE thing I'm not even sure what approach we used for coming up with the force element rates every year. Whatever it was certainly wasn't too clever as we arrived at a point through tuning where disconnecting a front bar did absolutely nothing for handling (probably should have taken the damn thing off completely for that matter - weight savings!).

In any event for most racing series this is all probably a moot point since you're entirely likely to have a known baseline and be tuning around it rather than wholesale fundamental setup swaps. But if I were doing it from scratch, I think you need a methodical constraint based approach... otherwise it is too open ended. Intimidating even. If you sit down and think about it logically though and make some design decisions, the spring rates and such solve themselves for you. Same goes for kinematics. Anyway:

Step 1 - Come up with a baseline lateral load transfer distribution as my first constraint.
If I have the same tires front and rear I'd probably put my front percentage a few points higher than my rear weight distribution (since taking nose weight out is going to be in the direction of oversteer.. with few exceptions). If I'm 52% rear biased on static weight, maybe my front load transfer distribution starts at 55%. If I have larger rear tires than fronts I can start to take that back down as otherwise I'm promoting some understeer. If I have a RWD car with a bunch of power I'd go in the direction of higher front LT percentage to keep the inside rear wheel loaded on initial throttle and be able to put some power down at the expense of a little mid corner understeer.

In any event, this will tell me what ratio of roll stiffness (spring plus bar) I have to keep. I won't know the final answer until I get to the track, but this is a starting point.

Step 2 - Ratio of front and rear axle ride rates as my second constraint.
Fundamentally I'd say it's more than likely I don't want to couple pitch with ride so this will likely be fairly proportional to mass distribution. Maybe a little stiffer rear if you subscribe to the flat ride philosophy, and even then that would be dependent on track speed. Having some aero knowledge helps here too. E.g. if the car is massively sensitive to front ride height more so than rear, then perhaps I go with stiff front soft rear if pitch variation is no big deal.

Between these two steps things are starting to get pretty well tacked down. On a 50/50 weight distribution car with same tires all around this would lead you to slightly stiffer rear springs than front, with a small front bar. I think that's reasonable.

Step 3 - Overall ride rate
We need something at this point to lock in some absolutes, and a ride rate would do it. Can approach this a few ways. Unless you have previous working knowledge of where you need to be this is a bit arbitrary - but that's OK when you get to setup packages and being able to sweep this at the track. Let's say we pick 1 Hz as a ride frequency. With that and the total car mass and a guess at tire rate, your wheel and spring rates are immediately defined. Boom! No debate or guess work, the design choices you made set them already. Bar rate(s) are also immediately defined, pending Step 4.

Incidentally at this stage some baseline stabs at damping rates fall into place. Can even just assume they're linear.

Step 4 - Do we need more roll stiffness?
This is where it gets a little fuzzy to me. With the springs you have in the car, does that give you a good enough roll stiffness rate? Who is to say what's "good enough" ? Probably dependent on your kinematics, how much dynamic camber you want to target, and how much static camber you want to get away with. That should pretty much be sufficient to lock this one down in a logical rather than total guesswork manner. CG height should drive this as well - higher it is the more bar you will need to control it.

What sucks is if you decide you do need more roll stiffness, it implies needing to add a rear bar - otherwise front bar only would change your LLTD found in Step 1. On an independent rear suspension, adding a rear bar adds an element of direct and immediate load transfer in single wheel bump. Not directionally good for getting power down off corners with a RWD car. Fundamentally I think if I can get the roll stiffness I want with my springs, so much the better. Plus, no rear bar (or hell front bar) = less pieces to fail and less weight.

Step 5 - Game plan some packages
Crucial step. You are probably not going to nail it out of the box with this baseline setup, so you need to know how to adjust. The most obvious items would be +/- "a bit" on lateral load transfer distribution and overall ride and/or roll rate. Figure out what size springs, bars, and dampers you will need to have the adjustment range you want. Buy them and bring them to the track. 

From there you can do some of the detail work and track tuning. Looming questions are still out there, like how much rebound vs compression damping you want or how much high speed versus low speed. Rig testing, to me, would come in at this point. Map out which are the big hitters for ride / mechanical grip metrics, which aren't. How do those damper changes move the needle in comparison to +/- 0.5 Hz of ride rate?

If I ever want to do a F1000 again, or turn my 350z into a track car, this will likely be the approach taken.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Getting Back to an Old Hobby - Part 1 (Background)

Music has been a part of my life for a long time. For those just tuning in, let's recap what all I've been listening to. Early on my exposure was whatever my dad would put on after dinner with which to relax, probably with a beer or glass of wine. Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis all stand out in my recollection. 

Through school I played a variety of instruments. First I started off with some Alto and Tenor Sax (which my dad had played - the latter being a mint condition Selmer Mark VI from the mid 50's or 60's if I recall correctly. Legit.) Later on I focused on Bb Trumpet in some concert and jazz bands. Did pretty damn well too if I say so myself. Toward the end of middle school and beginning of high school I had on a pretty typical array of stuff - The Deftones, Sevendust, Korn, Static X, Staind, Powerman 5000, Black Sabbath, Godsmack, that kinda thing. Pretty fucking narrow in scope. Thankfully as I got into guitar, my teacher in Red Bank picked up on what little Sabbath, Hendrix, and Clapton I mentioned and opened my tastes up a bit. I got into some Pat Martino, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Wes Montgomery and such. Also had the opportunity to see Les Paul play in NYC before he passed away. 

That's when I got into music writing and recording, and that's the shit I really want to get back into. At the time I was using some version of Cool Edit (now bought out and has become Adobe Audition) and Hammerhead (now available as a touch app I see) and a pretty hack mic setup in my room with a single guitar and Marshall 2x12 solid state combo amp. I'll have to see if I can dig up some recorded bits of stuff from then. Admittedly, it was mostly pretty weak. 

With my new house, I'm dedicating a room to all things audio related:

It's a work in progress. There's a power amp on the way for that rack space to power the reference speakers, and I need to get my mom to ship out the rest of my old guitars and effects out here and get them set up. I also sprung for a legit copy of Pro Tools, which was actually relatively affordable when included with the I/O box there. For sampling and sequencing I stepped up to an Akai MPC1000. I'll have a guitar amp set up, but for most recording I might just go direct through the Line 6 POD there on the far left. Now that I think about it, maybe it would be worth getting the POD plug-in for Pro Tools. I think that would allow me to record a guitar track "dry" and dick around with settings, effects, etc downstream. 

As an aside, it was only when I was at the end of high school and got into college that I started listening to a lot more of my current music selection. That includes a selection of electronica - Hybrid, BT, Moby, Deadmau5, Zero 7, Daft Punk, Exodus Quartet - mostly on account of Greg introducing me to all of it. Moreover though, tons of hip hop. I love the sound of a lot of the music and production out of the NY area in the early 90's - A Tribe Called Quest, the Beastie Boys, Camp Lo, and anything produced by Pete Rock or DJ Premier. Most recently I'm really enjoying the sounds coming out of the Raleigh area with 9th Wonder, Little Brother and others on Jamla Records... and some west coast sounds as well. People Under the Stairs comes to mind.

Still haven't gotten into the whole country scene.

"Racing" - Purist vs Spectacle

Head's a bit foggy this morning but hopefully some jet black coffee and jams will clear that up. On the latter, not sure what I'm in the mood for. We'll stick with a good go to for easing into the day. Later on this Memorial Day will feature a healthy dose of the Beastie Boys.

But I digress...

Most of this will be in the context of F1, though it is equally applicable to NASCAR or Indy Car. After spending yesterday watching the biggest day of the year for racing (GP Monaco, Indy 500, Charlotte Coke 600) ... I was most disappointed with the F1 race. It was quite boring, aside from some interesting action with rain drops toward the end. In general I haven't followed much F1 in recent years because it just hasn't been entertaining.

Before we get into why, let's get some ideas of what makes for a good race or season...

  • Competitive - have a field where there are more than a few potential winners every weekend. I.e. not a year of complete and utter Ferrari or Red Bull domination (as we've seen in F1 in various years)
  • Accessible - sponsors and teams come and go, so to continue and grow the sport it has to be at least somewhat attractive to a new team or supplier - i.e. not prohibitively expensive
  • Earnest - a victory should come down to which driver or team has won the race, rather than who hasn't lost it. An old football quote goes something to the effect of, "more games are lost than won." More on that in a bit.
On the note of competition and parity, this is something that has been sorely missing in F1 for years. At best, a couple teams would have a shot at the title and leave everyone else without a chance in hell. At worst, one team would run away with it from the first race and the season would become entirely predictable. To a point this goes hand in hand with accessibility, or lack thereof. If you had hundreds of millions of dollars to burn every year, you would probably have a chance of winning races (Toyota a notable exception!). Otherwise, the smaller teams - forget it? 

While we want some parity we also do not want a spec series. That is very much against the "identity" of F1. Personally I would be very much for a tight, regulated budget cap and a much more open rule book. Low budget cap makes things more accessible to smaller or newer entries. Open rule book emphasizes creativity and diversity. If you want to encourage innovation - allow people to innovate!! Hell, give the teams a fixed amount of fuel for practice, qualifying, and the race (not unlike tire allocation in NASCAR) and then let them go nuts. Unlimited displacement as far as I'm concerned, as well as cylinder configuration. However you want to burn the fuel is up to you. Make KERS unlimited too. Seems silly to put in a regenerative system under the guise of road relevance and then severely limit it.

As for earnest wins - enough of these tires that go to shit after the first lap. At Monaco by lap 7 there were radio transmissions telling tires to conserve tires. That's shit - it isn't racing at all. I think we see similar things in F1 and NASCAR here. In the latter, once tires go off badly everyone settles in for similar lap times. Very hard to make a pass if you have no confidence of tires or stability under you. In the extreme case of Atlanta a few years back, even fresh tires were terrible and it was a defensive battle of trying not to wreck rather than actually being able to get after people.  If I'm a driver or engineer I want my tires to be consistent and predictable so I can tune the car and get after the competition. If the tires are so delicate that one failed pass means they're garbage and you can do no more passing... what good is that? Right now the tires make it a crap shoot. Tires with massive fall off are in my opinion no better than deciding races by mechanical failures or whose engine blows up. 

Of course there's also the issue of being able to close on someone. To some degree I think parity helps that. Each major series (Cup, Indy, F1) at least have something good to this effect. In Cup, using full course cautions rather than local gets the field closed up and makes for additional opportunities. At the Indy 500 there was a big slip stream effect and lead to a number of position changes. In F1, while at first I wasn't a fan of DRS as I saw it as a crutch for lack of good racing - it does get the job done and gives you some "push button slip streaming."

But that's my opinion. When I watch a race I want to see - you guessed it - drivers racing each other. Not an effectively random outcome.