Monthly Archives: February 2009

Innovation and commercial design

If you make a living from design, then you need to be closer to the edge than if you make your living from selling widgets. So when your widgets are design objects then your risk profile is higher than other widget companies. Apple is a poster-child for a product company trading on its innovative and elegant design, but so is Alessi, maker of famous kitchen accessories and other items. The McKinsey interview with Alberto Alessi, current CEO of Alessi, shows the sort of focus and approach that a design company has, when compared to the others. The commercial aspect is there, of course, but it’s almost secondary to the idea of expression, and the necessary level of risk that is required.

As Alessi says:

Well-organized, mass production companies try to work as far as possible from the borderline. They cannot afford to take too many risks. But by all producing the same car, the same television set, and the same fridge year after year, those companies are making products more and more boring and anonymous.

The destiny of a company like Alessi is to live as close as possible to the borderline, where you are able to really explore a completely unknown area of products. The problem is that the borderline is not clearly drawn. You cannot see with your eyes where it is. You can only sense these qualities.

His metaphor for his role in the business is as a gardener, and, as with gardens, you need to cope with wet seasons and dry seasons.  From the article:

We consider our core activity to be mediating between, on one side, the best possible expressions of product design from all over the world and, on the other side, the final customer’s dreams. I prefer discussing “customer dreams” instead of “the market,” because market is so rough.

Deep down, I feel that my activity as an artistic mediator in product design is not very different from the role of a museum director or even a filmmaker—putting together and organizing talents in different fields to get to a result, which is not a mass-produced product in the traditional sense, but a product that’s trying to speak to the masses in a new sense, like a well-made film.

To do this, we make use of some qualities that are more and more rare in industrial culture today, such as sensibility, intuition, and the desire to accept a bit more risk.

It’s a refreshing message.

Tips for making electronic music

I’ve been writing music since I started learning piano as a kid, although I only started capturing the output when I got my first synthesizer at age 20 and could plug it into a cassette recorder.  Some years later, I give you accumulated tips and suggestions, both mine and from others, on how to improve your musical output, whatever kind of electronic music you make, and particularly if you do it as a hobby, like me.

Jupiter 6

Preparation

  1. Work when you’re most productive or creative.  Alternatively, just work when you have the time.  Either way, make the time.  Every now and then, set aside a couple of hours to get into the zone and stay there without interruptions.
  2. Set aside time to play with and explore your tools. Get to know the ins and outs. Turn that knob up to 11 and see what happens.
  3. While you’re playing around, if you hear something you like, capture it. Store the patch, record the sequence, make a note, whatever, but don’t waste it.  Then, when you come back to it you can extend it, take it further.
  4. Always have at least one track on the go, so that you can dive in and play with it when you get an opportunity, even 20 minutes. Even if it’s just a bass line or a sample.
  5. Make it easy to get going. If you need to turn on twenty-seven instruments, wait for a computer to boot, re-patch the hifi, and re-read the manuals before you can start engaging, you’ll find excuses not to.  As a corollary, it means that even if you have 15 minutes before you have to go to sleep, or go out, you can do even something small to take your track forward in the time you have.
  6. Listen to a variety of music, and find something to appreciate in everything. Within limits of course. Don’t punish yourself either.

Equipment

  1. Whatever tool you have, whatever crappy or minimal setup you can afford or have room for, use it anyway.  The Beatles had less than you do, and look at what they did. I started with a single synthesizer and had to do multiple overdubs between a 2-track tape recorder and a VCR.  Sure, it sounded pretty crappy, but I could write tracks and learn from it.
  2. Don’t necessarily follow the crowd and use what they use. You’ll probably end up sounding like them. Find a collection of gear that works for you.
  3. With modern music software and soft synths you have more than you need.  Keep a small collection of synths, drums, effects with enough variety that you can work with them.  Don’t keep chasing new soft synths.  The truth is they don’t actually make a big difference.  They don’t write music, you do.
  4. Get decent headphones.  If your music sounds ok through them, you’ll have a much better chance of it sounding good on a variety of other people’s sound systems.

Creativity

  1. You don’t get on skis for the first time and do perfect parallel turns down a hill.  You need to practice and make the mistakes. Similarly, a producer needs to create an amount of music before it’s any good.  The sooner you start, the sooner you get to something you like.
  2. To have good ideas, you need to have lots of ideas. To have great tracks, you need to have a number of tracks.  They don’t all have to be brilliant, but use them as practice.
  3. If you’re awake early or can’t sleep, go and spend half an hour working on a track. It can be a very creative time.
  4. Good production can take an average track and make it great. Work out how to bring out the best in what you’re hearing.
  5. If you don’t like a track, strip it back: delete the bits you don’t like and start again. Backtracking is fine.
  6. If you don’t like your bass line or a drum sound, replace the sound with random patches or samples.  Use rhythmic sounds in a melody; use orchestral sounds in a drum loop. Eventually you’ll find something interesting that will take your track in a new direction.
  7. Find a loop in a track you like or would like to emulate to some degree, and use that as the basis for your track. Build a song around it, then take away the original loop. [Thanks to Tom Ellard]
  8. Don’t try and sound too much like someone else. Even while you’re working in a genre, create something that sounds unique, and learn to embrace that difference.
  9. Accept that a track may end up somewhere different from where you started or intended. Let the music be “uncovered” as you work on it.
  10. Finish the current track before starting a new one. This doesn’t always happen, but keep the number of working tracks to a minimum. Learn to get it out the door, to a sufficient level of quality.

Production

  1. The valuable effect in your arsenal is EQ.  With modern tools, EQ can be applied to every instrument. Give everything some space in the spectrum.
  2. A bit of reverb goes a long way, but a little adds a nice sheen.
  3. Don’t over-quantise or over-correct. Employ some randomness, add some human error.
  4. When you think have it sounding great, take a long break and come back to it later.
  5. Compare your music with tracks you want to sound like. Try and analyse what the gaps are.
  6. Browse the production tips in the various forums online that pertain to your musical interest and your equipment of choice.

Distribution

  1. Release your tracks under a Creative Commons licence, with attribution. Let people take them and extend them. It’s both a compliment and a networking opportunity.

That’s all for now, but I reserve the right to add more.

Web app continuity

With the financial crisis and all, now’s a good time to look at the web apps you use and rely on, and put a continuity plan in place. We’re not at the bottom of the market yet, so many of those start-ups without a solid revenue model, and offering compelling reasons to continue using their services, just may not be around in six or twelve months time. And you may not get much warning. bubble burst

So, where possible, export your data and back it up, ideally in a standard text, CSV, or XML format that you can wrangle — with various degrees of difficulty — into a usable format elsewhere.  At a time like this, open data is more than a privacy issue, it’s may be a survival issue if that data is critical to your personal or business life.  Failing that, getting hold of the source code may be a fallback if there is someone who can get it up and going long enough to get the data out. Think about any hosting you use as well. Make sure you have your digital assets backed up, including config files, images, htaccess files and so on.

I’m thinking about the things I use regularly, and which of them have the best margin to business failure, and which I care about.

  • Google
  • Flickr (Yahoo!)
  • Delicious
  • SimpleGTD
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Bloglines
  • Posterous
  • Evernote
  • NuevaSync
  • etc.