Friday, May 29, 2009

Those Nordic Heroes

Now this is an taxonomy of the greatest Scandinavian metal bands. You might have been wondering why so many music acts come from this region (even mainstream like Abba, Ace of Base, Army of Lovers, Roxette, Europe, A-Ha, Bomfunk MC, Roysopp, HIM, Mando Diao, etc. etc.). Once a Swedish guy told me: “you know the Winter in Sweden is so f*cking cold and dark and depressing that one can either only get drunk constantly, or make music. Well, normally we do both…”.

So really, what is the sound of nordic metal like? Melancholic. Honest. Mystical. Epic. Beautiful. Put your prejudice to one side and enter the hall of fame!

Anathema (UK)

Ok, one exception, they are from the UK, thus not directly Scandinavian… but sound like if they were! Coming from the doom metal corner recently they have been playing beautiful athmospheric rock music, sort of easy listening with soul.

Recommended album: A Natural Disaster (2003)

Amorphis (FIN)

The supreme masters from Finland, been there for 20 years. Molten melodic death metal, progressive rock and folk together they have developed their unique style. One of the most melodic metal bands ever, a must hear!

Recommended album: Am Universum (2001)

Apocalyptica (FIN)

What happens, if you connect a cello to a guitar amplifier? A disaster. What happens if you connect three cellos to amplifiers and add a drummer? We get Apocalyptica. What started as a Metallica cover act ended as a brilliant thrash/symphonic metal band!

Recommended album: Amplified // A Decade of Reinventing the Cello (2006)

Charon (FIN)

Finland again, great gothic metal bad with a truly extraordinary vocalist!

Recommended album: The Dying Daylights

Clawfinger (SWE)

The well known Swedish rap-metal band with a friendly lead. Meaningful lyrics and ear-blasting riffs!

Recommended album: Clawfinger (1997)

Deathstars (SWE)

Funny band playing a very easily digestible industrial metal with ear-worm melodies! Rammstein meet The Sisters of Mercy, kind of mainstream, I’m afraid…

Recommended album: Termination Bliss (2006)

Ensiferum (FIN)

Now this is called “heroic metal”, a mix of medeival folk with epic storytelling and ultra fast “galloping” metal. You can’t help but imagine a medeival knight in shining full armor riding right into the battle when listening to this. Brilliant!

Recommended album: Iron (2004)

Finntroll (FIN)

Finnish guys singing Swedish just “because it sounds f*cking Trollish”! The music style is truly remarkable: it’s (yeah) polka-metal! A mix of folk and ultra high speed finnish polka (a.k.a. humppa). You can’t miss the song “Trollhammaren”, the greatest fun music ever heard!

Recommended album: Nattfödd (2004)

HIM (FIN)

Everyone knows HIM. They are one of those who made gothic metal fit for mainstream. But before doing so (and starting to repeat themselves) they released a quite excellent CD:

Recommended album: Greatest Love Songs Vol. 666 (1997)

Insomnium (FIN)

Finland once again! Insomnium is one of the coolest melodic death metal bands out there. Period.

Recommended album: Across the Dark (2009)

Katatonia (SWE)

Swedish guys playing a kind of unique sounding alternative doom metal (which can be slightly depressing on a dark winter afternoon) with excellent song stuctures and tranquil melodies. Must hear the song “My twin”!

Recommended album: The Great Cold Distance (2006)

Lake of Tears (SWE)

An excellent Swedish band involved with gothic and doom metal with psychedelic and progressive elements!

Recommended album: A Crimson Cosmos (1997)

Lordi (FIN)

A kind of cuckoo’s egg in this list, yes, they won the Eurovision Song Contest a few years ago… still a fine band playing ordinary, but very enjoyable hard rock. They look worse than they sound!

Recommended album: The Monster Show (2005)

Nightwish (FIN)

The flagship of symphonic metal (or power metal? or opera metal?), featuring masterful string arrangements with heavy guitar riffs and a female opera voice. Top notch, no doubt! (desperately copied by Within Temptation…)

Recommended album: Once (2004)

Opeth (SWE)

These Swedish masters are known for their extraordinarily complex overlength songs, mainly progressive rock with a blend of death metal, but also some blues, folk and jazz… Playful and athospheric, a class of its own!

Recommended albums: Damnation (2003), Watershed (2008)

Scar Symmetry (SWE)

One of the neatest melodic death metal bands out there! Perfect singing voice, cool growls and a very fresh sound. Ear-worm alert!

Recommended album: Holographic Universe (2008)

Sentenced (FIN)

They were a perfect melodic death metal band with a great lead voice that delivered several several highlights throughout their existence. Smooth as silk!

Recommended album: Cold White Light (2002)

The Gathering (HOL)

Dutch band playing something between death metal, progressive rock and easy-listening trip rock… A fine combination, featuring some quite hard-to-follow female vocal melodies as a trade mark.

Recommended album: Nighttime Birds (2000)

Theatre of Tragedy (NOR)

This excellent Norwegian band featuring both male (grunt) and female (soprano) voices has played a number of styles from melodic death metal over gothic to industrial pop-metal and back again. Real multitalents!

Recommended albums: Aégis (1998), Assembly (2002)

Therion (SWE)

A one of a kind Swedish symphonic metal band, most memorable for orchestral elements and using a complete choir in their songs!

Recommended album: Crowning of Atlantis (1999)

Tiamat (SWE)

A true highlight from Sweden, embracing elements from black metal, gothic, progressive rock with athmospheric and psychedelic patterns, an absolute must hear!

Recommended albums: Skeleton Skeletron (1999), Prey (2003)

Tristania (NOR)

Tristania used to be an excellent Norwegian gothic metal band. Their music merged gothic with melodic death metal, symphonic and electronic elements, creating an ocean of musical variety which is a real pleasure to listen to. It’s a pity that they ran out of inspiration at the dawn of the new century.

Recommended album: Beyond the Veil (1999)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Guitar amplifier VST selection

I own a Behringer iAXE 629 MetAlien electric guitar with an USB interface. This should save some space in the room since I don’t need a guitar combo, amplifier, effects and all the cables: it’s all software on my PC. By the way, USB adapters are also available even if you have an “ordinary” e-guitar.

Sadly enough the iAXE is shipped with a rather poor selection of software, so sooner or later one will look for better alternatives. I was focused on VST plugins because they come most handy for mixing / recording in a virtual studio environment.

The list of features I expected:

  • VST compatible
  • support for several amp models
  • includes most common guitar effects such as reverb, wah, phaser, flanger, etc…
  • built in guitar tuner
  • reasonable CPU consume
  • should be able to product a phat metal sound…

This is a list of software I tried and compared:

  • Native Instruments Guitar Combo I/II/III this is shipped with the guitar, some nice presets, but no VST or any other integration, a rather entry level product
  • Native Instruments Guitar Rig Series: the professional guitar product line, millions of settings, very cool sound
  • IK Multimedia Amplitube: maybe THE big competitor to Guitar Rig, a very mature product
  • Cockos / Reaper amp modeling effects: these are part of Reaper, a powerful VST sequencer platform, and they produce an acceptable sound if one takes enough time to set up the correct filter chains (not really straightforward).
  • The SimulAnalog Research Project: provides a couple of free VST plugins which - if chained in a right way - sound quite fair
  • FreeAMP SE: a very professional VST plugin with lots of effects and a very convincing set of presets (eats up some CPU, though).

The bottom line: sure enough, there are still loads of other guitar amp VST’s around, just do a short google research to see. But one thing is quite clear: you don’t have to spend several hundred euros/dollars if you can get free amps that sound almost as good as their heavyweight brothers. And before you ask: my personal favourite is FreeAMP.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Backup utility comparison

I always expect the unexpected when it’s about unsecured personal data (photos, paintings, music projects, etc…) on my PC. I’ve been looking for a really good backup software for some time, with the following features:

  • stored backup profile
  • simple copy as backup method
  • incremental backup
  • delete orphan files in backup store
  • multipe source directories
  • multiple destinations for the same source (to be sure I use two independent external hard drives for backup)
  • freeware

I didn’t care about network or CD/DVD backup features, neither was I interested in compression and encryption modes. Until I found the real thing, I evaluated quite a lot of programs, just to mention a few of them:

  • Cobian Backup 9 (the winner!)
  • Tray Backup (very feature rich, but the GUI is a time journey to 1990)
  • Comodo Backup 1.0.4 (no multiple target support)
  • Backup Mill Vista (it simply didn’t work)
  • Backup Mill Open Source (way too simple…)
  • Ace Backup 3 (the multipe target mode did not really work)
  • SyncBack (no multiple target support)
  • Areca (sorry, I don’t remember…)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

DJ software comparison

Recently I’ve evaluated a number of DJ / music mixing programs for a forthcoming party. I chose the following selection criteria:

  • searchable music library and multiple playlists
  • automatic BPM detection
  • tempo and pitch modification
  • SYNC feature to automatically align tempo and phase (beats) of two tracks
  • automatic DJ mode (automix, cruise, …), so the program can be left alone with a playlist
  • auto gain (automatically set playing volume for tracks with different gain levels)
  • some effects, nice to have

Please note that MIDI controller support, scratching, looping, CUE points management, etc. were not relevant in my case. Programs I tested:

  • e-mix pro edition v5.4
  • Native Instruments Traktor Duo 3
  • Atomix Virtual DJ v5.2 (=Numark CUE)
  • Ultramixer v2.3.7.1
  • BPM studio v12.0.0 (no auto BPM detection, no auto DJ mode, no auto SYNC)
  • Native Instruments Beatport Sync (no auto gain, SYNC has to pressed manually after each track)
  • Native Instruments Tracktor DJ player (abandoned product)
  • DJ mix pro 300 (some auto DJ mode almost no other functions)
  • Rockit Pro DJ 4.2 (no auto BPM, no SYNC)

Programs in bold fully satisfied all the selection criteria, but there were still some differences between them. I’ve carefully tested the programs and finally came to the following result:

The winner is: Atomix Virtual DJ v5.2

Pro:

  • the best auto DJ mode of all time, seamlessly mixes tracks with even with significally different BPM. It automatically defines the optimal CUE points and the transitions sound really professional.
  • the most accurate automatic BPM counter tested
  • very fast track analysis
  • determines key (e.g. C major, D# minor) of a track and stores it in the music library. This way it’s easy to find a similar sounding track to mix within seconds! No other product had this feature.
  • downloadable plugins incl. skins, effects etc.

Contra:

  • The handling of the music library and working with playlists is not very straightforward
  • A relatively poor selection of effects

Second prize: Native Instruments Traktor Duo 3

Pro:

  • very professional look and feel
  • a wide selection of effects with chain support
  • Traktor supports up to 4 decks (only 2 in the Duo edition though)

Contra:

  • the auto DJ function does not really manage seamless transitions, it does not SYNC automatically
  • “kill” band filters (eliminating hi, mid or low frequencies) worked better in Virtual DJ…
  • at 44kHz it produced a strange noise using the directsound driver (ac97 on-board chip), I had to install ASIO4ALL to make it sound smoothly

Still OK: e-mix pro edition v5.4

Pro:

  • feature rich GUI

Contra:

  • BPM detection and SYNC somewhat fuzzy

Not bad either: Ultramixer v2.3.7.1

Pro:

  • multi platform (written in Java)
  • nice GUI

Contra:

  • BPM detection not relyable
  • no auto SYNC!
  • Having to maintain two different playlists to feed both decks is a bit of a mess

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