Curve matching: Waves Renaissance EQ, emo-Q4 and the TB Equalizer

TLDR: the Waves EMO-Q4 has the same resonant shelves and bell boosts as Renaissance EQ, but not the same cutting behaviour. The filters aren’t adjustable and EMO-Q4 still uses more CPU. It has a better GUI but everything else is worse. Toneboosters equalizer has very similar curves to RenEQ and may be a better option for those looking for a bigger GUI.

In the last year I’ve moved my music-making to a Windows 10 dual-boot setup (I’m still using Linux for most other things.) This was mostly motivated by a sense that I wasn’t getting the low-latency performance that my i7 CPU should be capable of when running nice audio effects. Much as I’d prefer not to support the Windows monopoly, I’m really excited about some of the music production tools that have been released in the past few years by developers like Klanghelm and Tokyo Dawn. Apple consumer hardware remaining impractical (more USB ports and HDD bays please!), it seems like Win 10 is the least terrible option for this task at the current time. (It’s pretty awful though. Your computer/OS is a professional appliance and you should not have to dedicate time to turning off advertising.)

Deep breath

So, this article. One “benefit” of using a proprietary operating system is the chance to take a few more risks with DRM-encumbered software. Some of the older “industry-standard” stuff is now available at fairly reasonable prices, so I took a punt on a few things including Waves Gold.

Waves digital EQs

Waves Gold includes quite a few equalizer (EQ) plug-ins. These are used to re-balance the frequency content of audio. EQ is probably the single most important tool in the mixing process after basic level control, so producers tend to a) have lots of equalizers and b) have strong opinions about them. “Clean” digital EQ is actually quite well-defined mathematically so in principle there shouldn’t be much of a “quality” difference between digital EQs. What distinguishes them is the curves, generally controlled with frequency, gain and “Q” (the narrowness of the filter). How easy is it to make the frequency response graph that you want?

Waves have been making digital equalizers for a long time. Did you know they made Q10, the first digital EQ plugin, in 1993? You do if you’ve read the Renaissance EQ manual, which is a recommended read for computer music nerds. The manual makes it clear that a lot of thought went into the design of its slopes. There are two key features that remain somewhat distinctive; the “resonant shelf filters” which add a small cut near a boost or vice-versa, and the “asymmetric bells” which have narrower cuts than boosts.

Here’s the thing about Renaissance EQ (RenEQ); people really like it. It’s pretty old, but if you poke around online there’s not a lot of criticism, and plenty of people seem to be using it over newer and shinier alternatives. The main downside is the tiny, dated GUI. Waves Gold also comes with a much newer EQ called “emo Q4”, developed for live sound applications. It has a big pretty GUI, and there’s barely any info about it online; not many technical details, not much discussion. Given that “RenEQ with a better GUI” should be an absolute hit, it seems worth investigating those curves…


The screenshot above shows four plug-ins. On the left is the emo-Q4 and above is the RenEq. On the right is a noise generator, and at the bottom is a spectrum analyser (SPAN). Each EQ is working on the left or right channel only (REAPER makes this kind of thing really easy!) and SPAN is set up to show two spectra, one for each side. You can only see one here, because the curves match exactly! I’m using two resonant shelves, a bell boost and the high-pass filter. But there’s a trick – the emo-Q4 filter is not adjustable, so I had to adjust the RenEQ filter to match. The emo-Q4 does have a wider parameter range on the shelf filters though, so it can make some curves that RenEQ can’t.

Let’s look at an 8dB bell cut:


Now we see two curves in the analyzer! The RenEQ is narrower on cut. I can actually adjust the emo-Q4 Q to match it, from 0.80 to about 1.96. This Q is no longer correct if we change the gain, so the RenEQ cut width is gain-dependent. This makes a big difference to the workflow and so won’t help win over RenEQ users.

Finally, some quick and unscientific testing with REAPER’s performance meter suggests that the emo-Q4 has a slightly higher CPU usage, although both are pretty low at less than 0.1 CPU%. Final verdict; I like the layout of the emo-Q4 and the shelves are great, but some different design decisions were made from the popular RenEQ.

Toneboosters EQ

As an afterthought, I pulled up the demo version of the very affordable Toneboosters EQ. This has quite a few different bell types. The “digital bell 2” and low/high “shelf 2” options seem to follow some of the philosophy from the RenEQ manual so I thought they might be worth a look!


With a slight reduction in the Q value, I was able to get a great match from this low shelf and high-mids cut using identical frequency and gain values. The narrow default cut value was promising so I tried boosting…


Boom! The gain/Q relationship seems to be very close.

Closing remarks

There are other factors in EQ choice than the curves and gain/Q behaviour. The Toneboosters EQ has a bigger graph than RenEQ and the text is more readable; however personally I prefer being able to see all the parameters at once rather than the one-band-at-a-time approach of TB-EQ, ReaEQ or TDR Nova. I also find the overlapping coloured bands display of TB-EQ a bit distracting even if it is pretty. There are other features to consider; TB-EQ’s “gain effect %” parameter makes it very appealing for automating mid-mix. My current workhorse for mixing is the SlickEQ GE, which demands more CPU but has a great interface and some pleasant saturation options.

I mostly wrote this up because I was frustrated by the lack of online discussion of emo-Q4. If you’ve got something useful to say about any of these EQs, do use the comments section below!

Gig review: TesseracT, Contortionist, Nordic Giants

 O2 Academy Oxford – 10/02/2016

This post was written on the train the day after the gig, and believed to be lost due to iPad/Dropbox/Editorial nonsense. However, I have since found the file, so here it is…

It’s hard to explain what makes the Oxford O2 Academy such a dissatisfying venue. From a practical point of view it’s fine, with enough room to move, decent access to toilets and bar, a cloakroom, good view of the stage, reasonable acoustics… The bar is expensive at a touch under £5 a pint, but there is a good ale (St Austell Tribute) available at the same price so you don’t have to feel a complete chump. The best explanation I can give is that the stage is too high to feel “intimate”, while the capacity is too low to feel “epic”. Both of those things have their downsides, but would compensate for the utter lack of romance.

Double-act Nordic Giants are a band who take their live visuals seriously, and the music itself can be seen as a simple accompaniment to their video show, which cleverly places a portrait screen in the centre of the stage so those closest can see the main action, as well as adding some layered effects á la Nine Inch Nails. Most of the songs were set to short films and animations by filmmakers, but the highlight of this effect was the addition of a virtual singer, in appropriate costume, for one song. Their arrangements are excellent, sounding well-mixed in this case but also easy-to-mix in general, using the main instruments (piano and drums) well and layering synths, bowed guitar and other surprises over reasonably restrained backing tracks. The fatal flaw in their schtick is the approach to composition, with most songs having a single theme built in a predictable quiet-LOUD-quiet-LOUD-(awkward stop) structure. Their closing song “pencilled” was by far the best, having a reasonable payoff in the form of a section of new material at the end. Even then, there was little sense that they are truly in control of their chord progressions. Why are post-rock bands so bad at using cadences?

The Contortionist followed, with their brand of somewhat-accessible-but-still-occasionally-shouty progressive metal. The simplest description I have is “like Between the Buried and Me but slower”, which is really no bad thing. The main themes of their songs felt very musical although not especially technical, and occasionally gave way to chugging breakdowns with more screaming. These breakdowns will always be a matter of taste: for the record, I think the Contortionist use them well to create meaningful passages. Vocalist Mike Lessard also knew when to step back, with some percussion on stage to play with while the audience could enjoy a more extended instrumental passage. A good band.

TesseracT are a major band in the onomatopoeic “Djent” genre. One might point to their extensive use of clean vocals and ethereal chiming guitars as a signature sound, but this is also a feature of peers such as Periphery. (I am reliably informed that this guitar tone is known as “Milton Cleans”.) There is something more unique in the way they use these to frame their tracks and give them identities. Really, though, it is clear what Tesseract have that their rivals don’t. Dan Tompkins. Making his return to the band after a succession of (very talented and capable) replacements, Dan is far and away the best singer I have ever heard accompanied by a guitar with more than six strings on it. His clean tenor vocals are superb (and well-balanced against the backing track or harmoniser where appropriate), his screaming is musical and there was some credible falsetto, particularly in the songs from their new album Polaris. More importantly, he was able to leap between these without obvious deterioration over the night. As for the rest of the band… there isn’t a lot that needs to be said. They are seasoned, they are tight, attention to detail seemed good especially in the drums. Perhaps a little more running around on stage and audience interaction from guitarists would be nice, but… It doesn’t quite seem necessary or appropriate most of the time. They have “it”. A+.

Festival write-up: Arctangent 2015

Arctangent is a music festival for post-rock, math-rock and noisy stuff. I had a great time at the 2014 festival, attending for two days, so this year went for the whole shebang. It would neither be feasible nor interesting to review every band I saw, so I offer here some highlights and overall thoughts. It’s a bit long so I tried to make the section headers helpful.


There is little to say about the festival organisation because it was done so well. Information was available, there were sufficient food and drink stalls at a fair price point, the toilets remained usable thoughout the festival. Silent disco lets people rock out until late while others retire to tents. My only criticism is that there was very little signage when driving to the festival site, and it could prove difficult to find in the absence of satellite navigation or a detailed map. Both the festival staff and the general atmosphere were relaxed and friendly.

The headliners

Day 1 was dedicated to previously-appearing bands, giving us LITE followed by 65daysofstatic on the main stage. Lite played loud, but often pretty, guitar-led music; they position themselves as a math rock band yet could easily be branded as post rock. Strong, but probably the least interesting headliner. 65daysofstatic were a little late due to technical problems (seemingly with their own equipment) but delivered a set of epic noisy post-rock. They’re capable of more high-tech and varied sets than the one they delivered, but it was well-judged for the festival audience and supported a good degree of mayhem at the front.

Naturally The Dillinger Escape Plan were not going to beaten when it came to energising the crowd; their set contained relatively few breaks from high-energy insanity. The festival’s organisers have commented that they hadn’t deliberately planned the headline acts to be so heavy, and were somewhat at the mercy of bands’ availability. In the end, however, the headliners all contrasted with each other, and closing each day with the most moshable band is no bad thing. While definitely “a heavy band”, sub-headliner The Fall of Troy‘s music was somewhat more intellectual than Dillinger’s while technically stunning. Frontman Thomas Erak’s guitar playing is incredible; an endless cascade of notes that form themselves into demanding yet satifying riffs.

Cult of Luna unfortunately had travel difficulties and had to play at the same time as headliner and tour-mates Deafheaven; this was probably for the benefit of the festival however as it bumped Deerhoof up to a sub-headliner slot that they clearly deserved. Deerhoof had it all; a whimsical positive energy that is somewhat lacking from the post/math/noise rock scene in general, while still able to swap instruments and bust out the most terrifying psychedelic jam of the festival. A number of people in the crowd were not familiar with Deerhoof, having come in from an interest in heavier music or at least less avante garde acts; the band’s charm and ability won them over quickly. Deafheaven‘s “blackgaze” experience was effective, and likely to win them some new fans. To paraphrase the friend I dragged to see them:

I hated the first twenty minutes or so, and then it clicked. I had earplugs in because they were loud, and listened to each of the instruments. I couldn’t follow the vocals because they were just screams, the guitars didn’t seem to be doing anything interesting,the bass didn’t seem to be doing anything interesting, and the drums weren’t providing much clue to what was going on either. Then I took the earplugs out, the high-end sizzle of the guitars built up, and after a few minutes I went “oh! It’s the way they sound together!”

Smaller acts

Iran Iran were given a criminally short set. One of the more technical and avante garde acts, they do seem to struggle to attract a crowd, which probably makes promoters wary, but I am convinced they were musically one of the most interesting and capable bands at the festival. Given a captive audience and shot of confidence they might
be able to achieve a lot more. Have a listen.

That Fucking Tank were disappointing; their lack of engagement with the audience while playing and usage of a backing track are forgiveable individually, but in combination led to a sense of self-indulgence. At another festival, the quality of their music would have been more of a redeeming factor, but there was no shortage of enjoyable math rock.

Maybeshewill pulled out all the stops for their epic post-rock set, bringing backing horns and strings to double the size of the band. Possibly angling for a headline slot? They threw themselves into their set and were embraced by the crowd, but there was little to find musically that was particularly dazzling. To some extent they brought the “old-school” post-rock vibe and “Not For Want of Trying” was a festival highlight. I would recommend seeing them if they’re nearby, but it’s hard to rate them as an essential listen over conspicuously absent giants like Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky.

On loopers, sequences and backing tracks

Loopers are getting tired. A lot of bands were using loop pedals, and the restrictions they place on composition should really be quite well-known by now: they tend to lead to songs with short, repeating chord progressions; build-ups are always long, regardless of whether that is musically desired; the volume and energy level is very difficult to decrease smoothly. There are solutions to these problems, but popular loop-based acts like Mylets are not making very much effort to avoid them, leading to very predictable sets. Mylets’ Henry Kohen showed himself to be a very capable and creative guitarist, and his set was marked by suspicion that he could be doing something a lot better by playing with other musicians. Then again, his ability to structure interesting compositions was left unproven… The best attempt at working around these issues probably came from AK DK, with a two-man-two-drumkit format offering more flexibility and a very enjoyable show. Nonetheless, their outros and build-downs lacked variety compared to guitar-based bands like Toundra.

We’re still figuring out the rules for when a backing track is acceptable and when it isn’t. That Fucking Tank’s backing track was a big turn-off, partly because it contained bass and guitar parts. Some people did walk out of The Algorithm looking grumpy, but the sizeable and enthusiastic remaining crowd clearly appreciated that having people play the rapid and chaotic synth arpeggios by hand was not a necessary requirement for the act to work. Nobody could object to Deafheaven’s moody guitar tracks playing in-between their songs while they re-tuned, but the volume level clearly signalled that these were recorded and separate from the performance.

On post-rock culture; a hypothesis

While outsiders might perceive math/post/noise rock as a pretentious scene related to progressive rock, there is actually a general sense that things have to be very “genuine”. There are few costumes; most bands dress in jeans and T-shirts. Bands brought no scenery beyond their instruments, rack gear and amplification; even then, the majority of bands made use of the (presumably sponsor-provided) Orange amp stacks available. Guitars and basses were almost exclusively from the top two brands, reminding me of a comment by Mogwai’s John Cummings: > “I suppose it’s not so much that Fender guitars look great as that everything else just looks terrible.” Is this the post-rock philosophy? Telecasters and precision basses are fairly priced, versatile, robust and proven. There’s nothing wrong with playing another guitar, but you are making a statement by doing so. Post-rock bands don’t like making statements where they aren’t needed, which is why vocals are used so sparingly. By avoiding making any statements about fashion, futurism or their ex-girlfriends, they avoid distracting their audience from the actual music. There is no such aversion to using the latest and greatest effects pedals, because they add a novel dimension to the music.

Top moments

  • Finding Iran Iran on the “clashfinder”, having assumed they would not be appearing.
  • The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato diving onto the crowd from the central scaffolding; exhilarating and not too contrived. Arguably this still wasn’t as cool as the kneeling crowdsurfing guitar breakdown.
  • Any time Deerhoof spoke to the crowd.

Best band

Deerhoof. Few acts contested them when it came to musicianship, and their showmanship was also world-class.

Some other bands I liked

  • Rolo Tomassi are great performers with an effective “one-and-a-half frontman” setup.
  • Tangled Hair are one to watch, making interesting music from an accessible basement rock pallette.
  • Valerian Swing were infectiously happy to be there, fun to dance to and active in the Dillinger mosh pit. Please invite them back!
  • Downard are the ones for those of use who like the idea of the “fuzzy riffs and drums” formula but find Royal Blood to be horribly overrated.
  • USA Nails – this high-energy post-punk band were not the most obvious choice for the festival but they definitely hit the quality barrier and provided a bit of variety while providing some clues as to where the noise rock scene has its origins.

Ranty post-script: “BBC Introducing”

The small PX3 tent was hosted by “BBC Introducing” for the first day of the festival. Their attempt to record some enthusiastic crowds for a radio show did not go very well. Some pointers for next time:

  1. Don’t insult your audience. “We’re not going to broadcast any of this excellent music, we’d rather broadcast some people chanting” is not a good message. If people are at ATG, they probably think the music there is better than the vast majority of what you broadcast. Don’t rub it in.
  2. Capture an audience. An audience who can hear another band starting up in the next tent is not a captive audience; it’s an audience who actively want to leave. This could have been avoided by discussing your plans further in advance with the bands, and having them work your segment into the set.
  3. Show your understanding of the music and don’t claim credit for other people’s jokes. We are not impressed that your favourite thing about Iran Iran is their track names; the track names are hilarious but the music is pretty good too. Math rock is riff-based, but the riffs are generally mangled, drifting in and out of phase, or rapidly developed and abandoned. Singing back catchy riffs is not a natural way to respond to this music.

One-liner: Instant German techno from the command line

I’ve been doing a nostalgic re-run of the phenomenal Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas recently, which includes a fun house music radio station, “SF-UR”, hosted by the lonely German ex-pat “Hans Oberlander”. Finding myself wanting to listen to something like SF-UR while working from home I realised that in 2015 it is not exactly difficult to listen to an actual German techno radio station. fits the bill nicely, with extended mixes and relatively little speech. MPlayer is pretty easy to install on Mac OSX with Homebrew and on GNU/Linux with standard package management tools; it does have a habit of spraying messages to standard output and error but this is easily solved by redirecting the output so the required command for instant techno is:

mplayer < /dev/null >&0 2>&0 &

To stop play, just killall mplayer or bring it to the foreground with fg and kill with Ctrl-c.
Setting an alias in bashrc is easy:

alias minimalradio='mplayer < /dev/null >&0 2>&0 &'

UPDATE: Last time I tried this, the Minimalradio stream wasn’t working. makes an acceptable substitute.

More fun with applescript; a play/pause button for Mixcloud

I’ve been using Mixcloud in the office lately. Progressive house mixes are quite nice for work as they are long and not very distracting. However, when something does catch my attention it’s a pain to find the tab and click on the big “pause” button. The solution only took a minute or two:

#! /usr/bin/osascript
tell application "Mixcloud"
end tell

tell application "System Events"
tell process "Mixcloud"
keystroke space
end tell
end tell

This requires the Mixcloud website to be wrapped into an individual application, which is easily accomplished via Fluid. Doing this also has the advantage protecting the music from stuttering when single-threaded Safari is suffering under load.

Finally, the script is bound to shift+F4 using Quicksilver. (It needs to be saved with the “.applescript” extension for quicksilver to recognise it as an executable script.) A few other fun keybindings I use are F4 for iTunes play/pause, F3 to open a periodic table and F6 to open a de-stressing Google Image Search for fluffy kittens.

It would be an improvement if F4 could detect whether iTunes or Mixcloud is playing and start/stop them intelligently. Suggestions are welcome!

Fun with Applescript; automating obstinate programs

Applescript is a rather under-appreciated thing.

I must admit I’m not fond of it’s syntax, which manages to achieve Uncanny Valley-style “natural language” while still being wholly unintuitive. Also, as someone constantly bouncing between OSX and GNU/Linux machines, it makes much more sense to learn a scripting language that I can use on any machine. Still, I have found a couple of difficult tasks recently which are elegantly solved by Applescript.

1. Home working: remote saving of applications

Like many people I use Dropbox to keep files in sync that I need to access at short notice from anywhere.

One of these files is a big LibreOffice spreadsheet, listing details of all the density functional theory calculations in my project. As this includes planned, queuing and currently-running calculations, I frequently need to access this to keep my notation and folder structure straight. One of the benefits of being a PhD student with a computational project is that it offers great flexibility in managing my schedule and working remotely. My workstation (an iMac) is on constantly, and I can log in remotely through an ssh terminal to access my files and tunnel to HPC facilities. However, there is a snag; files are only updated when I save them… There is no great incentive to save frequently when editing a simple spreadsheet on a very stable computer. It is only when I get home that realise that I now cannot edit my catalogue of calculations without running into all kinds of Dropbox conflicts and messy file merges.

Or I could just run this:

#! /usr/bin/osascript                                                                       
tell application &amp;quot;LibreOffice&amp;quot;                                                              
end tell                                                                                    
tell application &amp;quot;System Events&amp;quot;                                                            
tell process &amp;quot;LibreOffice&amp;quot;                                                                  
click menu item &amp;quot;Save&amp;quot; of menu &amp;quot;File&amp;quot; of menu bar 1                                         
end tell                                                                                    
end tell                                                                                    

Yes, that is just as filthy as it looks: remotely click “save”. Wait for Dropbox to sync. Open on local machine, get back to work.

2. Generating a lot of pretty pictures

VESTA is one of the best-looking packages out there for visualising molecule and crystal structures.
In particular it uses hardware acceleration well, draws beautiful isosurfaces and has a range of lighting options. Tragically it lacks any kind of scripting interface (as far as I am aware). For the target audience of solid-state and org chemists, this is perhaps not a huge problem. Computational guys like to think big…

Recently I’ve been looking at allotropes of sulfur. Whether and how different allotropes are bonded is quite interesting, as is the significance of spin polarisation. Having carried out hybrid-level DFT calculations, it occurred to me I had a pretty good map of the molecular orbital structure. But I was damned if I was going to open the File dialogue once for every orbital, let alone do that every time I tried a minor variation of the structure or DFT parameters. About an hour of Stack Exchange and experimentation later:

#! /usr/bin/osascript                                                                       
tell application &amp;quot;VESTA&amp;quot;                                                                    
end tell                                                                                    
tell application &amp;quot;System Events&amp;quot;                                                            
tell process &amp;quot;VESTA&amp;quot;                                                                        
click menu item &amp;quot;Export Raster Image...&amp;quot; of menu &amp;quot;File&amp;quot; of menu bar 1                       
delay 1                                                                                     
keystroke return -- Agree to default filename                                               
delay 1                                                                                     
key code 53 -- &amp;quot;Escape&amp;quot; the scaling dialogue                                                
delay 1                                                                                     
keystroke return -- Get rid of congratulatory &amp;quot;you made a file!&amp;quot; dialogue                   
delay 1                                                                                     
keystroke &amp;quot;w&amp;quot; using command down -- Close file, ready for next one                          
end tell                                                                                    
end tell

Again, absolute filth. A few tips and tricks had to be employed here: key code 53 seems to be the preferred way of sending an “escape” key message.
The 1 second delays are probably longer than necessary but leave time for the dialogue boxes to open.

Simple globbing and for loops with bash allowed me to open a stack of .cube files and paste the output images together with Imagemagick tools. The result is, I think, rather fetching (apologies for length). If you studied molecular orbital theory at school, then you should have a fair stab at interpreting this in terms of combinations of conventional sigma- and pi-bonds. Note that of the 16 combinations of valence orbitals, we have four fully-bonding, four fully-antibonding and eight mixed bonding and antibonding molecular orbitals. They aren’t necessarily in the order you might expect, however!

Valence Kohn-Sham eigenstates of rectangular S4
Kohn-Sham valence eigenstates of rectangular S4. Data from all-electron density functional theory calculation with PBE0 hybrid functional as implemented by the FHI-aims quantum chemistry code. Blue borders indicate occupation by a single electron.

Gigs: April 2013

Swans / Xiu Xiu

O2 Academy, Bristol – 6/4/13

As I understand it, Xiu Xiu has gone out with a different line-up and sound for every tour. Listening to his recent release I was expecting an elaborate electronic set-up, maybe a female vocalist and some disturbing neo-darkwave sounds. Instead, we got a man with a guitar, a few pedals (apparently all reverb) and some kind of smartphone or tablet from which he ran a few ambient loops of birdsong, wind etc. These varied over the set, building slightly in tension and running over the whole thing. The songs appeared to share a gospel music influence (the snarling “halleluiah”s a not-so-subtle pointer), presented by a conflicted, insecure character. Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible” is an obvious peer in theme and approach, but they have rather more manpower and less fragility as a result. His voice is astonishing, very weak and warbling yet pitched exactly. Bright Eyes haters beware… If he spoke to the crowd, I don’t recall it; the set ended with the quiet genius standing up, raising a hand to the crowd, and strolling off. And then a few minutes of rapturous applause. The set was stunning; short, well-themed, structured and captivating.

Swans were really loud. That is definitely something they wanted to impress upon us. Their leader carried a level of anger and tension that wasn’t quite shared by the rest of the band, who seemed to be enjoying themselves. It felt a little artificial; if you’re making this much noise you should either be pouring energy into your guitar a la Pete Townsend or worshipping the results like Steve Vai or Gary Moore. Don’t just stand there like you’re covering rhythm guitar in a Herbie Hancock tribute band. I don’t want to beat on Swans too hard because I did enjoy their set, I did enjoy the noise and I recognise that they have been around for a while and their early influence and legacy is important.

Part of the problem with drone music is that by far the hardest part is getting somebody to let you play it at the appropriate volume levels. I quickly identified a gentleman in a Sunn O))) shirt, which led me to wonder: if I had seen Swans before Sunn O))), would I have been more impressed by them and less impressed by Sunn O)))? I think Sunn O))) have a purity to their approach that is lacking in Swans; they reject rhythm rather than overwhelm it.

Swans filled the stage with some of my favourite guitars and amplifiers, extra percussion including tubular bells, trombone, clarinet… If I wrote a wish-list of instruments to form a show, this would be it. But on this night I was far more impressed and affected by one man with a guitar, a smartphone, a pile of reverb pedals, and a slightly fragile, slightly constructed and really enthralling emotional state.

And So I Watch You From Afar / Antlered Man

Thekla, Bristol – 17/4/13

Thekla is a pretty fun venue: the moored boat has an adequate performance area, decent-sized bar, upstairs balcony and, best of all, an outside deck where you can take your drink and chill out before the show starts. Arriving fairly eary, I spotted Big Jeff hanging outside the door — a good omen. I’m *fairly* convinced that some of the people at the door thought my friends were the band (leather jackets, one Irish accent), which was a touch awkward.

Although my third time of seeing ASIWYFA, I had not seen or heard of the support band Gallops, who were in turn substituted for Antlered Man. This did a great job of guaranteeing that Antlered Man would be a surprise; and what a surprise they were! Exhilarating and moody, noisy and well-constructed, they brought a kind of progressive grunge with a “Moroccan roll” flourish. Political lyrics and massive attention to detail (the bassist stepping on and and off his distortion about 50 times in the set to stop the thing humming during rests) made for a really compelling performance. The vocal melodies were both original and natural. The music was different enough from ASIWYFA to avoid any overshadowing, while close enough to engage their audience. Basically, I don’t have a bad word to say about them. The next day, I bought their record (digital download + physical in post = YES) and have been blown away by it ever since. A strong contender for my 2012 album round-up!

In a sense there is little to say about ASIWYFA’s performance; precise, powerful and sufficiently varied. If you’re not familiar with them, the music combines alternative rock sounds with the spirit of traditional (“folk”, if you must use the word) dance music. The band give a huge amount of energy on stage, likely at some cost to their health. Their new material was well-received, bringing in more electronic and synth elements, while the 1-album audience lag showed itself in the thermonuclear response to “Gangs” and “Search:Party:Animal”. It was very much a rugby scrum in that while appearing violent, the crowd was fairly considerate and friendly and I didn’t feel in any danger bending down to tie a shoelace. The greatest nuisance was one discourteous gentleman who relied on this rather too heavily, essentially trying to fall onto the floor through other people. After dispatching this twit to the edge we were treated to a close encounter with both guitarists playing in the middle of the audience. The last time I saw them do this, guitarist Rory Friers actually fainted and as such, in my position directly behind him, my thoughts were alternating between “CATCH HIM IF HE FALLS”, “DON’T MOVE OR DO ANYTHING THAT MIGHT INTERFERE WITH HIS PLAYING” and “THIS IS AWESOME”.

If I have to criticise ASIWYFA it is on a much more abstract level; while their songs are meticulously paced, the musical support for the structures is weaker. It can feel a little directionless and improvised, rather than composed; some tracks could have more “purpose”. These are fairly widespread, even intentional, aspects of the post-rock genre, and it is one of the telling things that puts ASIWYFA with the rest. But live, at 115dB or so, in front of an adoring crowd, does it matter? No. These gigs are special.

Physics House Band / Casimir / Shallows / Fixtures

The Louisiana, Bristol – 23/4/13

This was my first time in the Louisiana, a pleasant pub with an upstairs venue. The card minimum is £10 and there are no cash machines nearby, so make sure to bring plenty…

Fixtures are based in Bath and I’ve seen them a few times before; they are really the city’s pre-eminent progressive/post-rock band (by which I mean they are the only one I know of that I’m not playing in) and I do genuinely think they are pretty good. There’s enough jangly pop sensibility to rope in the punters and they made a fair effort in terms of giving an energetic performance given that there were all of, oh, about fifteen people there for their set. They played some new material (again!) and seemed fairly secure; I’ve seen them play better, but they deserved more support on this occasion.

Shallows are a fairly recently-formed noisy Bristolian three-piece. Their songs were interesting and individually their playing was impressive, but on this occasion they didn’t quite gel enough to live up to their obvious potential. Plenty of practice done, but more *rehearsal* needed I think. Would happily watch them again in a month or two.

Casimir were a pleasant surprise; in many ways musically similar to Fixtures, they are a young, explosive and somewhat progressive band, with a little less pop appeal and a slightly more post-punk/noise aesthetic. Unfortunately I was not able to pick up their EP on the night owing to the aforementioned cash shortage at the venue; getting in touch and tracking this down is on my to-do list.

Physics House Band are difficult to pin down. Their music is complex, their playing technique both original and effective, their performance very precise. The drumming especially is remarkable; intricate, accurate and not too showy. Both bassist and guitarist hop on and off keyboards as appropriate, and play them with abstract tremolo or gentle stabs; they have really embraced the fact that synthesisers are not traditional keyboard instruments and each style of program demands a different playing technique. The genre would normally be identified as “math rock”, but math rock is generally much more avant-garde and noisy (see Deerhoof, for example). This is sweet, clean, grooving. Much has been made of their education and classical background but they don’t really satisfy my desire for sophisticated compositions and classical counterpoint. If you really break down the structures and chords, I think they’re playing jazz without the cliches. Nice.

Cocktail thermodynamics

I enjoy the occasional cocktail. My colleague Chris enjoys, makes and criticises cocktails. Door 34 in Bath makes really excellent cocktails. I have been known to indulge in a little thermodynamics; it was inevitable that one day these positions would collide in “the Boston Shaker Problem”. Chris swore on his reputation as a mixologist that:

  1. When cocktail ingredients are shaken with ice in a Boston shaker, the temperature drops to well below 0°C
  2. Using more ice results in less dilution
  3. Ice used in cocktail bars has been draining on the side, and is not below 0°C

This flies in the face of what we think we know about ice and water at atmospheric pressure, namely that:

  • If you attempt to raise the temperature of ice above 0°C, it will melt.
  • If you attempt to lower the temperature of water to below 0°C, it will freeze.
  • If you have a system of ice in contact with water, it will tend to equilibrate at 0°C, and resist changes to the temperature by melting and freezing as necessary.

If the ice starts at zero, and the other ingredients start above zero, where is the mechanism to lower the overall temperature? Seemingly the only available way is to take heat energy into the solid ice phase and melt. This isn’t going to work with non-melting ice cubes. It also doesn’t explain why we don’t hit our usual equilibrium temperature of 0°C.

The second part is just as confusing: there is a fixed amount of energy required to convert water between solid and liquid phases at a given temperature and pressure. This is known as the latent heat of fusion, \Delta H. This is an amount of energy per mass of water. As the total energy needed to cool your drink is fixed, the amount of ice that needs to be melted should also be fixed. (It’s not quite proportional, as you will need a little bit of extra melting to cool the extra water – and so on.) How does a greater bulk of ice help?
At this point we had a few ideas,  but turned to the internet for help – surely this is a well-known system? We did find an article at Cooking Matters, who not only hit on a good theory, but actually tested the effect with a thermocouple on their cocktail shaker. (It’s a pretty entertaining blog, if you’re interested in kitchen centrifuges and lobster-killing technique.) The key point is this: the system in a Boston shaker is not an ice-water equilibrium. The alcohol shifts the equilibrium to a lower temperature. Why? Entropy.

Door 34 asked for a mathematical description of the effect, and we gave them this:

\displaystyle 0 \geq \sum\limits_\textrm{mixer}^\textrm{ice} \left[\Delta U + \int mC_p \textrm{d}T \right] - \int S_\textrm{mixing} \textrm{d}T

It is worth giving a brief breakdown. The right-hand side of the equation is equal to a change in the Gibb’s free energy of the system. For a spontaneous process, this must be negative; at equilibrium it will equal zero (hence the ≥  sign.)  I’ve neglected the pressure-volume work as it is not expected to significantly contribute; strictly speaking there will be a little work associated with volume change as ice has higher specific volume than water, and water/ethanol mixtures have a lower specific volume than the sum of components.  I’ve also been a bit cheeky here in separating the vibrational contribution from the internal energy (strictly U should be U_{\textrm{pot}} or something.) This is to draw attention to Kirchoff-equation related goodness; the difference in heat capacities determines how much ice must melt. As the ice melts, \Delta U increases as water is a higher energy state than ice. Assuming no heat input, the enthalpy (in square brackets) must be conserved, and so the heat capacity C_p is integrated over a negative temperature difference to compensate; the temperature drops. This is driven by the entropy term on the far-right; as long as more entropy can be gained by melting ice to mix water and alcohol, the ice will continue to melt, dropping the temperature further, and well below 0°C. (Note that T in the equation is relative to absolute zero, and will never be negative.)

A problem remains– why does more ice mean less dilution? According to this, the equilibrium amount of melting is pretty much fixed. If anything, adding more ice should drive entropy in the direction of more melting. My best guess is that this is to do with the speed of the operation; a Boston shaker isn’t quite an isolated system. The longer it takes to reach equilibrium, the more heat will have entered the system and the “wetter” that equilibrium will be. This seems to agree with the account of mixologists, that shaking with more ice is a quicker experience that “feels” different. Still, I’m left feeling that this system isn’t quite solved yet…

Not included in Best Records of 2012

Alt-J — An Awesome Wave

It’s rare for me to give up on an album half way. If something truly remarkable happens in the second half, I am very sorry. What was wrong with this record? Well, I was put onto it by the rave reviews and awards it received from numerous journalists and industry groups, praising it as some remarkable breakthrough in artistic pop music. One particularly hyperbolic reviewer described it as:

… a stunning and encompassing affair of both innovative and electrifying musicianship and exemplary song writing. Comparing Alt-J to contemporary artists or listing their influences is almost pointless. Each song blurs, stutters, and explodes across a tide of instruments and ideas, fresh and addictive.

To suggest that this is true of An Awesome Wave is frankly offensive to countless other musicians. To draw a few obvious examples, Everything Everything are touring right now. This record won the Mercury Prize over Plan B (see my earlier review) and Field Music. Kid A was released over ten years ago. It’s not that An Awesome Wave is a terrible record, but there is nothing about it to suggest that it deserves a place alongside music which is better crafted, less contrived and more moving. If you are a music reviewer and you gave this record 8/10 or more, please go to Camden Lock with a placard and find someone who will trade you their spare copy of Amnesiac for your job. It would be better for everyone.


The absolute best records of 2012 (based on a very limited sample (Part II))

Katatonia — Dead End Kings (Deluxe Edition)

Dead End Kings (artwork)

Melodic doom metal. Maybe there’s something intimidating about the name? I really don’t understand why this band and genre don’t enjoy a much wider popularity. You get the power and darkness of metal in something much more accessible and more overtly ‘human’. Instead, people looking for this crossover seem to fall into Post-Hardcore and Emotional Hardcore, the brash punky cousins. I suspect a lot of people don’t know that they like Katatonia. In a word, Dead End Kings is “mature”; the lyrics still touch on cliches but are generally more sophisticated than their earlier work, and there is an air of subtlety and delicacy running over the whole record. It’s not very exciting, but it is quite nourishing; the folkish melodies and vocal ornaments really come through and supported by well-written vocal harmonies and strings. Dead End Kings is not too repetitive, not too exhausting; there is no attention-seeking virtuosity yet it never feels lazy. While not especially pioneering, this is a well-crafted piece of rich, accessible music. Recommended, with one caveat: you will need the deluxe edition. It includes a final acoustic track, The Act of Darkening, which winds down the album and sets a suitable mood for leaving the music behind. This track is essential — if you didn’t get it, you were ripped off. We are used to “bonus tracks” which ruin the structure of a record by running the ending into some lame demos and remixes. This is the opposite; it appears that the official main release was deliberately crippled. Not cool.

Behold The Arctopus — Horrorscension


There are really two reviews here: one for those who don’t know about Behold The Arctopus and one for those who do.

Behold The Arctopus play instrumental avant-garde metal, chanelling the best of 20th-century art music into distorted guitars and furious drumming. If you hate any of those things, this is probably not a band you will get along with. My recommendation is that you get into 20th-century art music because it is awesome. They have a wonderful balance between taking themselves very lightly (preposterous track names, playing games with the listeners expectations, playing music that has absolutely no chance of mainstream success) and taking their music very seriously (making the vast majority of “progressive” musicians look like clueless amateurs). There’s a lot of nonsense said about this band: to clear up any misconceptions, they are not jazz, their music is not “random” and they do know what they are doing. Frankly, if you think it sounds like pointless rubbish, you are the one at fault. Now, that is not to say that we can’t attempt a little criticism!

Compared to Skullgrid, their previous record, the production style has shifted slightly in favour of guitars; I’m not entirely happy about this as the bass end of the Warr Guitar (look it up) has a satisfying meaty quality that has largely been dropped and the drums also feel a little less full. Still, the mixing is excellent in that all the parts are crisply separated and exposed, making it fairly easy to track what is going on in these absurdly complex arrangements. We can also be grateful that they have not gone to the “bees in a tin can” aesthetic preferred by many of their influences.

A number of minor innovations and tweaks to the band’s sound and writing are on this record — I could spell them out but honestly it’s more fun to discover them for yourself. In general, the songwriting is more repetitive — this is not really a weakness when found in such erratic music, but it is noticeable especially in the drumming. The snare in particular is used repetitively for extended periods, which combined with a relatively low tom mix makes the drums feel less varied and, well, fun. One could link this to new drummer Weasel Walter but blaming personal drumming style doesn’t really fit the data — this is a band that composes on paper, and Walter has said in interviews that he has found the music challenging and had to adapt his technique. At the same time, he’s made a major contribution to the songwriting and seems to largely run the band’s online presence. An easy criticism to level would be that the album is very short at 28 mins, but actually I think this is a great strength; such exhausting music is best enjoyed in moderation. I suppose one might claim that the record represents poor value because of this, but I don’t think $10 is very much for a top-tier record in a niche genre. I actually pre-ordered the $25 cd + t-shirt bundle (and paid as much again in shipping and tax from the USA; a UK distributer would be nice!) The T-shirt is great, featuring a huge and vivid rendition of the album’s fearsome artwork, and as a reward for pre-ordering I received an audio download well before the release rate. In general, mail-ordering a CD and receiving a download ASAP is my favourite distribution method, truly the best of both worlds, and I’ve happily paid over the odds for it on multiple occasions…

To sum up; perhaps this was a little underwhelming, but only because my expectations were so high. Better than Skullgrid? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, this is easily some of the best composition going on in “popular music”, and the band really have a way of making everyone else look like ignorant slackers.

Between The Buried And Me — The Parallax II: Future Sequence

The Parallax II: Future Sequence (Artwork)

Some facts about this record:

  • The majority of the lyrics are unintelligible
  • The remaining lyrics are vague
  • There is little by way of obvious structure
  • The record is 72 mins long
  • The instruments are well-arranged and the melodies and rhythms are inspired
  • The level of technical playing and musicianship is outstanding

There is actually a very equivalent musical genre out there: Italian opera

It’s difficult to process the contrasting sections, cheeky interludes and furious chugging. WHY ARE YOU SO ANGRY. I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY YOU ARE ANGRY. STOP SHOUTING. I really don’t have a problem with aggressive music and metal; the transitions are exhilarating and the resulting work feels more sincere and less contrived than, for example, Dream Theater’s work (which manages to be both more emotionally shallow and technically excessive). In principle, the scope is very similar: from the album name, artwork and rambling clean vocals about astral projection, they are clearly trying to communicate something deep. But they take 72 minutes of somewhat challenging music to explore… what? It’s difficult to enjoy the tracks simply as technical compositions – given the length, there are few rewards in the form of references and reprises. If you turn to the lyric booklet, things work a lot better as the music really does follow the story and there is some thought-provoking stuff there. But if you HAVE to use the booklet to enjoy this record then the booklet should have been printed on A4 with a clear font, durable binding and the words READ ME on the front. If you go to the opera these days you are provided with a plot summary, surtitles and live acting. I appreciate that an hour-long music video may be a bit over-budget, but this is essentially good music with incoherent presentation.