James Revels III: The (Renaissance) Man with the Plan!

To put it simply, James Revels III is a renaissance man. Across multiple blogs – including The Evolution of EloquencePyromaniac ProductionsAudioSeXXX, and James Revels Composer – the Dayton, Ohio, native’s mission is to showcase a wide range of creative materials from such diverse fields as science, art, math, music, and writing from young creators. He’s also an accomplished musician and poet whose work (as noted elsewhere) is inventive, cinematic, glitchy, poppy, and dreamy all at once. Curious as to what drives a creative individual like James to champion not only his own work but also the work of others, I dropped him a line with a few questions, and he was kind enough to respond…

You have a lot of irons in the fire, so to speak. What motivates you to keep at it—not just with the blogs, but with your regular YouTube posts and prolific musical output as well?

I’d have to say the pleasure of creation is what motivates me. Those “Eureka” moments that come from finding new ways to utilize the information learned, those journeys of going from novice to proficient in a skill and those connections created by exchanging the creative experience with others is invaluable. Not sure what job or dollar amount compares.

As I noted in my introduction, your interests are wide ranging, encompassing not just right-brain “creative” endeavors like music, art, and writing, but also left-brain pursuits like math and science. How do you see all of these disciplines as complementing each other? What’s the connection?

The way I see is that left brains and right brains are both modes of creation. Left-Brainers discover and design the rules of the world. The Right-Brainers “play” in those worlds and find new ways to use the left brain designs. For example, in music, the mathematicians, scientists and coders engineer the music programs, music equipment, and organize theories, while the recording artists, composers and sound designers “play” with the engineers’ creations to create new music experiences. Without the engineers no one could record but, without the artist there’s nothing to record.

All of your blogs strike a supportive and generous tone, and the business plan for Pyromaniac Productions stresses the idea that you’re trying to differentiate yourself from the “divide and conquer” ideology of many businesses. Why do you think it’s so important to take this approach to the music business—and to life in general? Along similar lines, what’s wrong with the more “traditional” way of doing business?

This is a perfect question because this is what I believe to be the Holy Grail to success in the digital age. It’s important to take a cooperative approach from not only an ethical standpoint, but even a mathematical one. In network theory, as you add nodes (people) to your network, the connections increase exponentially. This is why “6 degrees of separation” is possible. Not to mention, many social media algorithms, especially Facebook and Twitter, are based around Sharing/Engagement. I applied strategies of cross promotion and collaboration to all my social media, by connecting with people of similar interests and goals, such as yourself, and finding ways we can help spread each other’s message. In my opinion, this connection and collaboration process is what builds great communities from the musical to the general.

As for what’s wrong with the “traditional” way of business, it’s too egotistical. This meme “Ego vs Eco” sums it up perfectly. Company’s forget they are part of an ECOnomy, not an EGOnomy.Screen Shot 2017-05-29 at 5.42.25 PM

What kinds of services does Pyromaniac Productions offer, and who is your ideal client? Is there anyone in particular that you’d like to work with?

Right now we offer audio production services. This includes recording and editing. We also offer affiliate marketing services, in which we promote artists via social media. We have a Fiverr campaign detailing such a service. (Also shout out to Devaughn, Mariah, and Deja for help with blogs/Fiverr video!)

My ideal client is the up and coming artist. I’d love to work with ylxr. He’s a producer from Buffalo, NY. I heard some of his songs on YouTube and I think he’s awesome. I’ve connected with him a bit on Twitter, but I’m honestly too scared to ask for the collab yet. It’s almost as bad as asking a hot girl on a date, lol!

Turning to your own creative endeavors, how would you describe your music and poetry?

My music is poetry because I try to take a main theme and flesh it out without belaboring the point.

My poetry is music because the longer poem usually has a sense of rhythm and structure akin to hip hop while the shorter pieces are ephemeral like sound.

Is there a common theme that unites them?

I noticed time is a common theme in all my works. My book of poetry is titled Yesterday’s Tomorrow, the durations of songs determine how I tackle compositions (short and layered vs long and varied), and I think a lot about the infinity of time yet the finiteness of the moment. It gets deep sometimes, lol.

In terms of music production, I know we’re both fans of Reason—and that you’re as excited as I am about the imminent release of the latest update. What do you like about that particular platform, and how does it contribute to your creative workflow?

I loved the streamlined look of Reason since I pirated it back in the Reason 4 days. (Sorry, Propellerhead, but I’m a loyal customer now so you still got my money, lol!) I liked how intuitive it is to use. I remember hopping right in and having no problem with the interface and making short melodies quickly. I also like the how it emulates an analog rack which makes it easier to map the signal flow with all those cords from the back side of the rack. I also love the sound bank because the presets sound so rich, and the combinator which gives the ability to group instruments together to make a super instrument of various synths. Finally, when Reason gained the ability to record on version 6 or 7, it became the only DAW I used. FL who? lol

Any tips you can share with fellow Reason geeks like me? For example, I’ve noticed that some of your tracks do interesting things with shifting tempos. How do you get that effect? Are there any other tricks you like to use to add texture or ambience to your music?

Definitely! The tempo shifts are a result of automation. Automation is a method by which you can change a knob’s value mid-song. Hold “Alt” and click on most buttons in the rack and it will create an automation track and outline that knob in green. Hold “Alt” and click on the tempo and it will create an automation track and you can shift the tempo mid-song. A chief way I like to create texture is with Control Voltage or CV. It’s like automation, but it’s generated by the synth itself. It’s a little dense to describe in text. Good thing I created a YouTube tutorial describing it. #ShamelessPlug

Looking ahead, how do you want to grow Pyromaniac Productions?

In general, I want to expand into video production and online streaming. I already edit all my videos, but I’m not confident enough to go professional yet. I’ve been dabbling in twitch streaming my playlist of music compositions so I feel these too are around the corner once I have the resources to build a team.

On the Science and Math side I eventually want to work with other organizations and host programs and create content to help adults and children apply these field in everyday life.

On the Art and Music side I want to eventually gather a team of animators and make animated music videos similar to the one I created below, as well as have an in-house roster of musical talent. I have my eyes on a couple local artists, but right now I’m setting up ground work so it’s a profitable venture for the artists in question.

And what’s your own personal goal as an artist?

My personal goal as an artist is politics. My ultimate goal is mastering the art of repairing, developing and maintaining a healthy community. I hope to eventually be chosen to become Mayor of Dayton, in order to help solve the problems of its citizens while developing a culture around science, art and math. This way the city can hire the brilliant minds from within, creating city pride, as well as reducing the cost of outsourcing to outside private institutions. I’m graduating from the “Neighborhood Leadership Institute,” a leadership program sponsored by the City of Dayton, next week. I hope that with that knowledge and the wisdom from building Pyromaniac Productions I can gain the trust of the community. Win or lose, I plan on helping the city for the long haul.

Anything else you’d like to share with your fans, potential fans, or potential clients?

Yes, I’d like to let everyone know they can contact me up anytime with their work or possible collaboration ideas. If you tweet me @jlronthebeat or email me at jamesrevelsiii@gmail.com I’ll respond ASAP. I love meeting other creatives. I hope to hear from you!

Is Music Getting Louder?

Shopping at Kohl’s is always a dodgy proposition for many reasons, not the least of which is that I feel like the music playing overhead is assaulting me whenever I’m there. Though saying so may put me in the category of “cranky old man,” I can’t help feeling that the music in that store is just too loud — so loud, in fact, that I can rarely remember what I stopped in to buy in the first place. (Socks? Underpants? A new bow tie?)

The problem, of course, isn’t just isolated to the shopping experience at Kohl’s. Everywhere I go, I feel like music is louder than it used to be. And it turns out that I might be right — not just because someone in some back office is cranking up the volume on the in-store sound system, but because the nature of recorded music has changed.

I was working on some music of my own the other day when I decided to check the sound quality of my own work against the sound of another artist. So I picked a track called “Watching the Detectives” from Elvis Costello‘s My Aim Is True CD and loaded it into the program I use to record my own music (Adobe Audition). When Audition rendered the song visually, it looked like this:

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“Watching the Detectives” by Elvis Costello. 1993 Rykodisc reissue.

What you’re seeing in this image is essentially how loud the song sounds as it’s playing. The X-axis represents time, and the Y-axis represents amplitude or loudness. As you can see, the amplitude goes up and down a lot over the course of the song, and just past the 2:40 mark, you can see that the song gets quiet before getting loud again.

Musicians refer to this up and down movement as a reflection of musical dynamics, and the difference between the lowest low-point and the highest high-point can be described as a song’s “dynamic range.”

Dynamics lend drama to music. That’s why classical music scores include symbols that tell musicians to play quietly in some places and loudly in others.

The same goes for movie scores. Sometimes the sudden juxtaposition of loud and quiet music can add immensely to the atmosphere of a movie. Think, for example, of any scene in a horror movie just before a monster jumps out of the shadows… Quiet, foreboding music leading up to… LOUD SCARY MUSIC AT JUST THE RIGHT MOMENT!

All of this is to say that the Elvis Costello track illustrated above has a nice dynamic range that complements the mood of the song. It’s also worth noting that the song was originally recorded in 1976 in a fairly basic recording studio, and that the version above was digitized in 1993 for release as a CD from Rykodisc.

By way of contrast, let’s take a look at another track I used as a reference the last time I was working on some music. This one is a more-recently recorded song (2016) called “Gone Insane” by Lucius (another favorite of mine). One thing to keep in mind is that though the title might imply that it’s a crazy rocker a la Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” it’s actually a fairly poppy take on love gone wrong. Here’s what it looks like:

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“Gone Insane” by Lucius (2016)

One thing you’ll notice if you compare this image to the first one is that (in line with my initial theory), it’s louder. The amplitude of the Elvis Costello track generally peaked at around -3 db (with a few peaks a little higher than that), and this one appears to be consistently peaking at or near 0 db.

Additionally, this track isn’t just louder. Its dynamics are different. Where the amplitude of the Elvis Costello track shifted considerably from one second to the next, the amplitude of this track stays consistently high. Granted, there are a few instances in the song where the dynamics shift dramatically and to good effect. The first is around the 1:10 mark, the second around 1:55, and the third for the stretch between 2:50 and 3:50. In fact, that dynamic shift in the middle gives the song a nice bit of dramatic tension before it shifts back to a higher amplitude in its final thirty seconds. Overall, though, the song’s amplitude stays consistently high.

When I saw the difference between these two tracks, I checked out another track, “Default” by Django Django, which was released in 2012. Here’s what it looked like:

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“Default” by Django Django (2012)

Again, the amplitude and dynamics of this one are considerably different from those of the Elvis Costello track. Once again, we’re seeing consistently higher amplitude and shallower dynamics.

One thing that accounts for these differences is compression, a process that sound engineers use to eliminate peaks and raise valleys in amplitude. Essentially, by applying compression, sound engineers can increase amplitude or loudness, but that increase comes at the expense of dynamic range.

It’s probably safe to say that the music I’m hearing when I go to Kohl’s has been compressed — and probably compressed even more than the tracks by Lucius and Django Django that are illustrated above. In other words, music is actually getting louder.

But why?

One reason may be that the way we listen to music is changing. Back in 1993, when Rykodisc reissued Elvis Costello’s catalog, people mainly listened to CDs on home stereos, in their cars, or through headphones. These sound systems could handle music with a wide dynamic range fairly well.

Today, by way of contrast, people listen to music on a wider range of devices. While the iPod delivers music in much the same way as the Sony Walkman of old (i.e., through headphones), many people today listen to music on the tiny, tinny speakers built into their laptops, and others listen through the speakers built into their iPhones. My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that speakers like these aren’t great at handling highly dynamic music. As a result, the music needs to be compressed in order for it to sound as “present” as possible on today’s speakers.

I also wonder if advances in recording technology have allowed sound engineers to apply compression more liberally than they used to. My thinking is that older recordings (like “Watching the Detectives”) were made on analog tape machines, and that a certain degree of residual “tape hiss” made its way into those recordings. If a sound engineer applied too much compression, that hiss would be audible, but left at low levels, nobody would notice.

By way of contrast, today’s recordings are made digitally, so there’s no tape hiss. What’s more, sound editing programs make it fairly easy to eliminate unwanted noises, which means that sound engineers can compress the heck out of recordings without worrying that those unwanted noises will end up on the songs they’re producing. So if the goal is to make louder music that will sound good on a wider range of devices, there’s no reason not to use compression — other than the fact that too much of it can crush the dynamics of a song.

Again, these are only theories, so if anyone can shed light on any of this, please let me know! Based on what I’m seeing in these images, though, I can say with relative certainty that I’m not being paranoid…

The music in Kohl’s really is assaulting me!

Rudy Van Gelder: One of My Musical Heroes

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Rudy Van Gelder is one of my musical heroes — and not just because he wore a bow tie and glasses. He was an optometrist by trade, but he also built a recording studio in his parents’ living room. The jazz recordings he made there in the 1940s were so good that eventually he started getting a lot of work the legendary Blue Note label. And not long after that, other labels started seeking him out as well. What set him apart from many other producers at the time — aside from the fact that he worked by day as an optometrist — was the care he took with microphone selection and placement. To get the best tone, he’d take a musician’s playing style into account and figure out exactly where to put the mic and how to angle it. He was also extremely fastidious. Perhaps because of his medical training, he never allowed smoking in his studio — a then unheard of restriction in the world of jazz. By the end of 1950s, he was so busy with recording that he retired from optometry and opened a studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, not far from the original studio he built in his parents’ living room.

I think the main reason I’m attracted to Van Gelder’s story is that even though he never set out to be a record producer, he was open-minded enough that when that path appeared before him, he took it. But he was also cautious enough to stick with his day job until he knew he could pay the bills with his musical career. And, of course, I find his attention to detail admirable as well.