Archive for October, 2014

The music of Silas Warner, part deux

October 27th, 2014 1:57 PM
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Three years ago, I published music by the late Silas Warner, creator of MUSE Software's Castle Wolfenstein. By taking obscure NoteWorthy files and converting them to the more accessible MP3 format, I hoped to not only preserve Warner's legacy, but expose a side of him that hadn't gained him fame, but of which he was doubtless proud.

Since then, blog reader Andrew Monti generously volunteered to contribute to that effort. He emailed me to say:

Wonderful site! I didn't realize that [Silas Warner] was a musician as well. I knew you did what you could to extract the audio from NoteWorthy, but the built-in sound on the NoteWorthy player is painful! I managed to convert the original NoteWorthy file to Logic, where I used the Steinway Grand Hall piano sample kit. I also cleaned-up the tempo and applied a few other changes, and voila – a new, better-sounding stereo mix of this lovely piece.

Monti's modifications raise some philosophical issues: how did Warner intend for his music to be heard? If NoteWorthy's inbuilt sound is awful, is that how he heard it when he wrote it? If so, does adapting it to other formats or sample kits distort the artist's intention? This is the same question at the root of how emulators play sound. Few emulators manifest the original software's audio as it was intended to be heard, instead settling for a best approximation. Do Monti's improvements similarly reinterpret the past — or is using today's tools to enable Warner to overcome the limitations of his era? Are these edits any different from my previous release of the songs in MP3, a format that didn't exist in Warner's time?

Such questions are not for me to answer, and in this case where the original files are still available, any answer isn't likely to be particularly weighty. Monti's MP3s do not replace the ones I previously published, so I offer the updated ones at the bottom of this post, which Monti produced via these steps:

  1. Find someone with a 'real' copy of NoteWorthy. In this case, my PC-based producer friend Keith fit the bill.
  2. From within NoteWorthy, export the file as MIDI.
  3. In Logic, import the MIDI file.
  4. Unfortunately, not all MIDI parameters made the trip; I had to manually set the tempo and time signatures at the appropriate parts in the score based on the original NoteWorthy file. There were also a few obvious 'spurious' notes that had to be reigned in after the conversion. These were mostly between the tempo transitions.
  5. I applied a stereo mix to the track based on Logic's Steinway Grand software keyboard based on what the performer would hear (high frequencies in the right ear, etc.).
  6. Lastly, I exported the track as a WAV file and compressed it though a high-quality Steinberg MP3 encoder.

The result is a new rendition of "Variations on Sonata in A by Mozart (K.331)", by Silas Warner:

and "The Heavens are Telling, from The Creation":

For that latter piece, Monti acknowledges that "string sections are tough without either special software or inordinate amounts of time in Logic to map the instruments to legato, pizzicato, bowing direction and speed, etc. when required… Personally, I don't think it's much better than the built-in MIDI sounds in NoteWorthy, but I may just be picky."

I'll let listeners decide how these songs should be heard.

Appearing on RCR

October 20th, 2014 12:20 PM
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This past winter, I waxed nostalgically about the Open Apple podcast's third birthday, tracing the six-month gestation period of the Apple II community's first and only monthly and co-hosted podcast. Absent from that timeline was a significant milestone: the debut of the Retro Computing Roundtable, launched just months before Open Apple. For another retrocomputing show to scoop Open Apple was discouraging, but I'm glad we persevered, as the two shows have evolved very different formats and content. Whereas Open Apple features a new guest every month in a polished, edited show that takes hours to produce, RCR rotates among a stable of familiar voices, producing a raw, more organic episode every two weeks.

With RCR turning four years old this month, I was honored to join the show's cast and crew for a guest appearance in episode #85. Although good friends and Juiced.GS contributors Carrington Vanston and Steve Weyhrich were absent from this episode, it was a pleasure to chat with fellow Boston resident Paul Hagstrom, Retrobits host Earl Evans, and fellow fundraising cyclist Michael Mulhern, with whom I'd previously communicated via email only.
Retro Computing Roundtable logoIt was also a bit intimidating! The first half-hour of the show was spent discussing the Atari 520ST, Commodore 128, and other computers of 1985. While I do not denigrate non-Apple II machines, neither do I have any interest in them, mostly due to lack of exposure at a time when I was still too young to appreciate them. Rather than open my mouth and prove myself a fool, I wisely kept quiet; if you were to tune in at any point in that discussion, you wouldn't even know I was there.

But perhaps I need to work on my conversational skills, as I've found, both in RCR and during my recent appearance on the Pixel Pizza podcast , that I tend to wait for a topic I'm passionate about to arise, then engage in a lengthy monologue on the subject. Perhaps the lack of a co-host on my three other podcasts — Polygamer, IndieSider, and The Pubcast — has trained me to fill the silence with my own voice, as I did on RCR in extended discourses about GEnie, feminism, and RadioShack. Maybe my ego needs to be reminded that other people have something to say, too.

Nonetheless, I had a good time on RCR, and I much appreciated their invitation and patience. I hope I added to their listeners' experience more than I detracted from it. Lest I wear out my welcome, I don't expect to be a frequent guest of this show, but it is comforting to know that my retrocomputer podcasting days aren't behind me.

Internationalizing Juiced.GS

October 13th, 2014 10:09 AM
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This past weekend, a handful of Juiced.GS subscribers received a surprise in the mail: a French language edition of the September 2014 issue. The content was translated from the original English not by Google Translate, but by Antoine Vignau of Brutal Deluxe, a polyglot contributor to the magazine.

This collaboration was inspired by Andrés Lozano, who travelled from France to attend KansasFest 2014. While there, he hosted a live Google Hangout so that his fellow patriots could attend KansasFest virtually.

It was during that video chat that I spoke with Antoine Vignau, who I'd previously interviewed for an audio podcast but had never spoken to in video before. Seeing him, Andrés, and many other attendees in the chat reminded me what a presence the Apple II has in France. A few hours later, I emailed Antoine with this unsolicited proposal: "If you're willing to translate the entire September 2014 issue of Juiced.GS, I'll see about publishing it in French. Just as a one-time special — not every issue!"

The result is Juiced.FR, which shipped a week after Juiced.GS. The timing was tricky, as I had to wait until the English edition was done in its entirety before handing it to Antoine to translate. While an issue may be assembled piecemeal, it isn't until every article is laid out that the staff really pulls apart the draft, looking for typos or clarifications. I wanted to have that level of quality in place before Antoine began translating. Even then, Antoine had his work cut out for him; given the technical nature of some of the pieces, it seemed some of the content might be "untranslatable"! But Antoine persevered, producing an issue that I can't read but which I assume is excellent.

While Juiced.GS again met its deadline of shipping in the month listed on the cover, French subscribers' issues were not mailed until a week later, in October. I felt bad about delaying the receipt of their product, but the feedback I've gotten so far is that it was worth the wait.

I don't expect to repeat this promotion in French or other languages — it was a fun but unique experiment, akin to the 5.25" demo disk of Drift that we shipped two years back. It might be fun to translate each issue of a volume into a different language and then package it as the "Babel Bundle", but the audience for such a product would be small.

If you are a French speaker who isn't a subscriber to Juiced.GS, or you're someone who just wants to practice a foreign tongue, you can buy this individual issue of Juiced.FR. We've never sold single issues before, and I expect this one will never be back in print after the original run is sold out, making it a truly limited edition. Show Antoine your appreciation by making sure we sell out!

RadioShack's inevitable demise

October 6th, 2014 1:41 PM
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I became an Apple II user in 1983, but it wasn't until 1990 or so that I started becoming a power user. The APPUSER Forum on CompuServe had so many great games that I couldn't play due to my IIGS not having enough RAM or a hard drive. SysOp Loren Damewood and game developer Scott Everts encouraged me to call Quality Computers to make one upgrade, then another. Before I knew it, I had a juiced GS.

But sometimes, things didn't work quite as expected, and I'd need a trivial adapter for which I didn't want to wait a week for mail order to deliver. Or I needed speakers or some other generic part that wasn't specific to the Apple II. For those times, my father would drive me to local strip mall known as the John Fitch Highway, home of the nearest RadioShack. I became such a regular there that one of the clerks even invited me to his weekly D&D game.

Now, for better or worse, RadioShack's days are numbered. The anachronistically named retail stores may soon follow former parent company Tandy Corporation's TRS-80 into the realm of defunct technology.

Long-time hobbyists and hackers may not mourn RadioShack's passing, as the store has long since transitioned from catering to our needs to competing with big box stores like Best Buy. Walk into any RadioShack today to buy electronic parts and components, and you'll never get the attention of a sales clerk eager to make a commission on a more expensive iPhone or HDTV. Some may say that RadioShack's inventory has simply mirrored a larger shift to a disposable society, where computers are locked down and unable to be tinkered with. But the emergence of the popular Raspberry Pi suggests otherwise. Did you know you can buy the Pi at RadioShack? Maybe if, like the Apple Store, RadioShack held various classes and workshops for working with their products, this might've been a larger market for them.

Yet even that shift alone might not have saved RadioShack. "Call it death by a thousand cuts," said one marketing professor, citing many other changes that have made RadioShack obsolete. For example, as much as RadioShack hawks its cell phones, those very products may also be killing the store. Almost everything RadioShack sold in 1991 can now be done with cell phone apps. Why buy a dozen bulky gadgets when several 99-cent digital widgets can perform the same functions?

Regardless of the chain's current worth, it's always sad to see an old friend go — especially one that, for Apple II users, is still a useful source for batteries and cassette players. It seems unlikely RadioShack can reverse their downward spiral. But we'll always have memories of their years of value to the community.

(Hat tip to Bryan Villados)