Apple/Beats vs Spotify

by Nikolozi Meladze

It seems music streaming services are popping up left and right. There has been a lot of news about them recently. For instance, Beatport, that specialises in electronic music, now offers a free streaming service along with digital downloads. I never thought I’d see the day, but I can’t see that taking off now. Also, Jay-Z relaunched Tidal. This post by CDM sums up my feelings about it rather well.

Personally, I love Spotify, but I’m hoping that Apple/Beats will offer a superior streaming service. This NYT article caught my attention:

In a sign of how important Beats is in reshaping Apple’s digital music, the company has made a musician a point man for overhauling the iPhone’s music app to include the streaming music service, as opposed to an engineer. Trent Reznor, the Nine Inch Nails frontman who was the chief creative officer for Beats, is playing a major role in redesigning the music app, according to two Apple employees familiar with the product, who spoke on the condition they not be named because the plans are private.

I’m curious to see how Reznor will transform the music app. I’m a big fan of his music as well as his forward thinking attitude towards music. The current iOS music app could use an overhaul. I can’t critique it too much though, as I haven’t used it recent years. I’ve been using Spotify since its launch in Australia.

According to several music executives, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks are private, Apple recently tried but failed to persuade record labels to agree to lower licensing costs that would have let Apple sell subscriptions to its streaming service for $8 a month — a discount from the $10 that has become standard for services like Spotify, Rhapsody and Rdio. That $2 markdown may be small, but Apple’s failure to secure it reflects a shift in the company’s relationship with the music industry. While Apple once enjoyed enormous negotiating power as the dominant force in digital music — an area it helped pioneer more than a decade ago with music downloads — it now faces an array of new competitors and finds itself in the position of needing to modernize its offerings to catch up to the streaming revolution.

Surprisingly, Apple is late to the streaming game. Considering iTunes did a lot of pioneering work in this area and completely ended up dominating the digital music sales, it’s disappointing that they haven’t disrupted themselves yet. In a recent interview, Tim Cook reminded us that Apple is always willing to make bold moves:

Apple has always had the discipline to make the bold decision to walk away. We walked away from the floppy disk when that was popular with many users. Instead of doing things in the more traditional way of diversifying and minimizing risk, we took out the optical drive, which some people loved. We changed our connector, even though many people loved the 30-pin connector. Some of these things were not popular for quite a while. But you have to be willing to lose sight of the shore and go. We still do that.

Apple must have forgotten about the music services. Back to the NYT article:

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, downloads generated $2.6 billion in revenue in 2014, down 8.5 percent from the year before. Streaming made $1.87 billion last year, and overtook CD sales for the first time.

You can no longer deny that the music streaming is the way forward. We have to thank Spotify for paving the way. They are the biggest player at the moment. Indeed, it is the best thing around and I can’t imagine using anything else right now. I hardly come across a music release that is not available on Spotify. It has many great features too. The artist discography pages have a great layout. They showcase the releases quite well. This includes Top 10 most popular tracks by the artist. In addition, there’s a list of related artists the user might find interesting. You can choose to follow the artist by simply pressing the “Follow” button and be notified about new releases. These are all great features for discovering new music. The iTunes store doesn’t even come close.

The Spotify developers have been adding new features consistently to the service and are not afraid to experiment. Continuity is a great example of this. If you are listening to music on one device you can switch to another and continue listening to the song on it. Alternatively, the second device can become a controller for the device that’s already playing music. Giving you ability to pause, rewind or change songs remotely. This works well across all my devices: iPhone, iPad and Mac.

But what can Apple do to compete with all that?

Mr. Iovine has set the tone of the transformation of Apple’s music plans, according to music executives. Mr. Iovine, who reports to Eddy Cue, Apple’s head of software and Internet services, has been leading aggressive talks to secure prominent album releases that will be exclusive to Apple, akin to what Beyoncé did when she released her self-titled album on iTunes in December 2013. One music executive involved in the negotiations described this part of the new iTunes as “Spotify with Jimmy juice.”

I doubt that the curated playlists and exclusive albums alone will be enough to bring the users, who have already switched, back from Spotify. But, I believe, Apple still has time to recover and convert those who haven’t yet experienced streaming services. A lot of people still download files the old fashioned way.

As much as I love Spotify it has a few annoying shortcomings. For instance, the user’s music library management could use a lot of improvements on both OS X and iOS. It would be nice to have iTunes like album management. Another issue, and this is a big one, is the responsiveness. This can be felt across many areas. Often, the music streaming doesn’t start instantly. The lag can be more than 10 seconds long sometimes. Music release and friends message notifications aren’t always delivered on time. Friends activity feed may not load or update at all. I’m not sure if their servers can’t handle the demand or their apps aren’t very reliable, but it needs to be addressed. I tend to restart the Spotify app to get around these issues. It has gotten to a point where I created a “Relaunch Spotify” script which I call from OS X Spotlight.

Another annoyance has to do with making playlists on my iPhone available for offline streaming. If the phone goes to sleep the content download is interrupted. In order to finished downloading you have to unlock your phone and bring the Spotify app foreground. You may have to do this several times if you are downloading a few albums simultaneously. Obviously, this is not Spotify’s fault as Apple doesn’t let third party apps continue downloading content while in the background. But Apple can easily get around this. I never had this problem when I used to use iTunes Match.

Moreover, it's very likely that the iPhone app will have Siri integration. This is very useful, especially when driving. At the moment, if I want to change a track on Spotify I have to hope for a red light at the next intersection.

The way I see it, if Apple was to offer a superior overall user experience, and I believe they can, then their streaming service could become as important as iTunes was for the past decade. I hope, the service is launched in Australia the same day as US.

Update: Apple released iOS 8.4 beta today with the updated music app. This could be the redesign led by Trent Reznor.

Taking Logic Pro X 10.1 for a Ride

by Nikolozi Meladze

Yesterday Apple released Logic Pro X 10.1, just in time for this year’s NAMM show. The last update (10.0.7) was over 8 months ago. The developers must have been working on new features during this time. This release doesn’t disappoint. Well, sort of.

I can safely say that my automation feature wish list for Logic Pro X is now complete. The Automation by Region has to be the new feature I'm most excited about. Automation can now be attached to a region. So, when you move a region all associated automaton will move with it. If you repeat a region the automation will do the same. The way I like to work is that all timeline events should belong to regions, whether it's automation, MIDI or audio. So, when you move a region all events in the region’s timeline range should move with it.

In addition to this, we now have Trim and Relative Automation modes. Trim mode lets you reshape previously recorded or drawn automation curves. But, personally, I find the Relative mode more useful for my needs. For instance, in this mode, you can have mixer faders automated and still be able to change the overall volume by moving the fader. There’s no need to adjust its automation curves, because they are relative to the fader's set position. I no longer need to insert the Gain plug-in to work around the problem. Note that Trim and Relative modes only work on Volume, Pan and Send levels and not on plug-in parameters. But that’s OK, as these modes are most useful for the mixer parameters.

The next new cool feature is the Drum Machine. I tested some of the presets and I have to admit, whoever did the sound design for it did a fantastic job. They sound amazing and ready to be used in your tracks. Though, I was hoping for an Ultrabeat facelift.

Speaking of facelifts, Compressor got a brand new retina ready interface. It’s beautifully skeuomorphic. It is an FX plug-in I use the most along with the Channel EQ. So, this is a very welcome update. The gain reduction history display looks great and is very useful. Unfortunately, this is the only Logic plug-in that got a retina display update. There are many more that require similar UI overhaul. But the Compressor update gives hope that they will all get their turn eventually.

If you love wavetable synthesis Retro Synth just became more attractive. It can now create wavetables from imported audio. Designed a great tone that you want to convert into an instrument and mangle with it more? You can simply render it in place and then drag and drop the rendered file from the file browser onto the synth. The Retro synth is not packed with features like the other complex plug-ins, but its simplicity is what makes it inviting.

Finally, you can now organise plug-ins in folders. Not a huge feature, but it will speed up your workflow. You don’t want your favourite plug-ins to be listed along the other 10 you don’t use. That’s just too much scrolling.

There are a lot more new features, including the Logic Remote update. You can learn more about them on Logic’s What’s New page. There you will also find feature demo videos. CDM has a nice overview. And if you have 2 hours to kill why not read the full release notes?

One last thing, the reason I said ‘sort of’ at the beginning of the post is because the bug I wanted to be fixed the most is still not squashed. The arrange view zooming is still terrible on retina display Macs. All you have to do is launch Logic in Low Resolution mode to see how fast and smooth zooming should be.

‘Apple is Still Going Pro, from Hardware to Pro App Updates’

by Nikolozi Meladze

Another great post by Peter Kirn, but what got my attention was the following paragraph:

I think it’s time to spend this energy elsewhere. The computer as we know it is for the most part better than ever. If anything, we need to stop worrying about backwards motion and start thinking forward. Desktop creative software is still stuck in 90s-era metaphors. Most of it doesn’t deal with touch input or gestures – even trackpad gestures in many cases. It doesn’t deal with Internet connectivity in any meaningful way. It doesn’t scale properly to higher-resolution displays. It doesn’t deal with the widespread use of mobile devices in most cases – most desktop software lacks dedicated mobile control or round-trip mobile workflow options.

We are indeed stuck in 90s-era metaphors.

Apple and Beats Audio

by Nikolozi Meladze

There's been a lot of noise this week regarding rumoured Apple’s acquisition of Beats Audio. I’m not sure what this means exactly, but everyone has their take on it. I just know one thing, I’ve completely stopped using iTunes for music listening. I didn’t even renew my subscription for iTunes Match this year. Spotify has everything I need. Apple should start supporting music streaming soon (iTunes Radio is not enough). They were pioneers in digital music distribution. It’s a shame that they are taking so long to evolve their music services to properly compete with Spotify.

Report: On-demand Music Streaming Service from Apple

by Nikolozi Meladze

Billboard:

Apple has opened exploratory talks with senior label executives about the possibility of launching an on-demand streaming service that would rival Spotify and Beats Music, according to three people familiar with the talks. Apple is also thinking about adding an iTunes App for Android phones, the Google rival that has been growing faster than the iPhone, these sources said. The surprising discussions are part of a multi-pronged strategy to deal with the double-digit decline in U.S. download sales at Apple’s iTunes Music Store, the largest music retailer.

I’d be very happy if Apple actually launches on-demand streaming service. I personally don’t care whether Apple makes iTunes for Android or not. But I think it would make a lot of sense, just as iTunes for Windows makes sense.

Streaming Services

by Nikolozi Meladze

A few things happened past 2 weeks revolving around streaming services.

Spotify acquires The Echo Nest:

Spotify today announced that it will acquire the industry’s leading music intelligence company, The Echo Nest.  The acquisition supports Spotify’s strategy to grow global music consumption and overall revenue back to the music industry by building the best user experience and music discovery engine for millions of global fans.

This deal will allow Spotify to leverage The Echo Nest’s in depth musical understanding and tools for curation to drive music discovery for millions of users around the globe.  The addition of The Echo Nest to Spotify will also strengthen Spotify’s ability to help brands and partners build amazing music experiences for their audiences. 

Spotify’s music discovery engine is quite good, but any improvements are very welcome.

In the meantime, Pandora is not doing too bad:

Pandora also announced that it has crossed the milestone of 250 million registered users in the U.S. Listeners have now created over six billion stations, enabling Pandora to connect emerging artists as well as established acts to an ever-growing fan bans.

Amazon is getting serious about streaming too:

People have been predicting that Amazon would offer a Spotify-like music subscription service, most likely bundled with its Prime delivery option, for some time. But industry sources say Amazon is now engaged in more serious talks with big music labels about making that happen.

While Apple wants more exclusivity:

In the meetings during Grammy Week, Apple’s iTunes contingent, led by Kondrk, even suggested the albums don't even have to be exclusive to iTunes, and that labels could give albums to other stores as well – but not streaming services.

Lastly, check out Kirk McElhearn’s analysis of Zoë Keating’s income as a successful indie artist. She sells her music directly to fans:

It’s clear in Ms. Keating’s case that, with sales generating more than 10 times streaming income, increased streaming – with the resulting drop in sales – paid at such low rates, would lower her overall income. […]

This is yet another example of how difficult it is to make a living as a musician these days. […]

So, go out and buy an album by an indie artist today; don’t let the music die. You could buy one by Zoë Keating, or by plenty of other artists, such as The Durutti Column. […]

Beats Music Streaming Service on iPhone

by Nikolozi Meladze

Another day, another music streaming service. I'm still waiting for Apple to start offering iTunes music streaming service. Not just a streaming radio feature, but something that could fully compete with Spotify. Digital sales seem to be down, so it only makes sense.

Interestingly, even though digital sales are down, the concert industry has hit new highs.

Mac is not Going Anywhere

by Nikolozi Meladze

On music production blogs I always see people complaining how Apple is abandoning Mac and its pro software. If you are one of those people you should read the Macworld's interview with Apple execs on the Mac at 30.

Bud Tribble (Apple’s vice president of software technology):

That cross-pollination of ideas, the fact that the [Mac and iOS] teams are the same team, has propelled the Mac further than I had hoped for.

Craig Federighi:

You don’t want to say the Mac became less good at being a Mac because someone tried to turn it into iOS.

Philip Schiller:

There’s a role for the Mac as far as our eye can see. A role in conjunction with smartphones and tablets, that allows you to make the choice of what you want to use. Our view is, the Mac keeps going forever, because the differences it brings are really valuable.

So, there you have it, Mac is not going anywhere.

Logic Pro X 10.0.5

by Nikolozi Meladze

This week Apple released all new Mac Pro, followed by updates Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X updates.

Apple added a few nice enhancements in v10.0.5 update. Channel EQ & Linear Phase EQ got a facelift and they are retina ready. The EQ looks exactly like the one in GarageBand X and it now lets you select whether you want to just process stereo, left, right, middle or side signals. Unfortunately, you can't set the processing mode for each band individually. I hope Apple changes this in the feature. And while they are at it, it would be much nicer to unify Channel EQ and Linear Phase EQ into one plug-in, with a switcher button on its GUI. I know you can replace the one EQ by inserting the other and Logic automatically copies the band settings, but I'd still prefer a unified interface. Another nice tweak that Apple added is that the inserted EQ now appears in the Smart Controls area. Would have loved to see a retina ready Compressor, but I guess will have to wait till the next update.

Logic Pro X now has 3 new Drummers and 11 new Drum Kit Designer patches. Yes please! I love the Drummer. I would like to see some UI improvements for Ultrabeat though.

The most important fix for me has to be Option & Mouse Scroll vertical and horizontal zooming. It was unbearable sluggish in the previous version. Zooming is one of the most important features in any DAW. It has to be fast, or else it can slow you down. It still is not super responsive, but at least it's usable now. Apple also resolved issues relating to automation and undo manager. Both of those areas tend to be quite buggy.

I have to admit, it's a lot of changes for a point release. We'll probably see more of these kinds of updates through out the year as Logic still needs updated UIs for most of its built-in plug-ins. It feels like Apple is adding and fixing things it wanted to have ready for Logic Pro X release but due to time constraints it had to ship it sooner. Imagine if we had to wait for Logic Pro X for another year. Logic 9 would have looked and felt even more dated on retina MacBook Pros.

For more detailed information regarding this update check out the Logic Pro X 10.0.5 release notes. You can learn a lot from reading Logic's release notes. For instance, I just learnt that Control-Shift and Pointer tool lets you adjust region fades. This means I will never have to use tools menu again. The only reason I used it was to get to the fade tool and for all the other tools I already knew the shorcuts.

AudioCR Midi FX Freeze Audio Unit Plug-in for Logic Pro X

by Nikolozi Meladze

AudioCR releases a really cool Audio Unit MIDI utility. It lets you render out your MIDI FX chains right inside Logic Pro X. Interestingly, I had a very similar idea when Logic Pro X came out. I wanted to build a Audio Unit plug-in that would let me do exactly what Midi FX Freeze does. I like to know what sort of magic MIDI arpeggiator might be doing and maybe tweak the resulting MIDI clip some more. But I just didn’t have time to start yet another software project. So, instead I settled for using OS X’s built-in IAC Driver and Logic’s External Instrument Audio Unit to render out MIDI FX chains. In Ableton Live, you simply right click on a MIDI clip (that’s not running through an instrument), select menu item “Freeze” and your MIDI chain is instantly flattened. Hopefully, Apple will add this sort of functionality to Logic. In the meantime, AudioCR offers a neat solution.

My Thoughts on Apple's Latest Keynote from a Musician's Perspective

by Nikolozi Meladze

Apple announced a whole lot of great products and services today. Jim Dalrymple sums it up well:

If there was any event in recent memory that demonstrated the depth and scope of Apple’s products, it had to be this one. Every new product tied into the last and the next announcement in one way or another. Whether iOS or Mac, software or hardware, the connection was there.

I'm going to concentrate what the event means to me and other musicians. I'm glad Apple emphasised their commitment to creative professionals during the keynote. They even demoed the Drummer feature from the new version of GarageBand.

GarageBand for OS X

GarageBand for OS X looks exactly like Logic Pro X. You have to inspect the UI closely before you can figure out which of the two apps you are looking at. It's good to see Logic Pro’s awesome features, like Drummer, Bass Amps and Smart Controls, have been ported to GarageBand. In addition to this, Apple added a beautiful parametric EQ with a built-in analyser on every channel. And, it is finally retina ready. GarageBand has to be the last OS X app from Apple to get retina display support.

GarageBand for iOS

After Apple unveiled iOS 7 at this year's WWDC, I was quite curious as to how Apple developers were going to modify the user interface of the GarageBand. The app used to be quite skeumorphic and employed a lot of metaphors from the real world. In version 2.0, Apple kept some skeumorphic elements while making the other parts of the UI flatter. The arrange view, MIDI clip editor and all standard UI elements were made flatter to adopt iOS 7 look and feel. However, the skeumorphic feel for the virtual instruments and guitar amps were maintained.

The most notable new feature is Inter-App Audio support. I played with it briefly and it works quite well. Hopefully, many more instrument and FX apps start supporting it. Audiobus is great, but having an OS level audio routing capabilities is much better. The other welcome additions include 64-bit CPU support and ability to create songs with up to 32 tracks.

iCloud & GarageBand

We've had iCloud support in GarageBand for iOS a while now. The OS X version of the app just gained the feature. Sadly, while the new versions of iWork apps now have unified file formats across iOS and OS X, GarageBand apps aren't so lucky. However, you can still start working on your songs on iPhone or iPad and then complete them on your mac by importing the project files into GarageBand or Logic Pro X. I'm sure at some point in the future Apple will create a unified project format for these apps.

Aspiring Musicians

Apple made both versions of GarageBand completely free. Now anyone wanting to learn more about music production can easily start using these apps and they don't have to spend a single cent. They are very powerful tools and can be used to make professional sounding records. Throw Logic Remote iPad app into the mix, which can also control GarageBand (also free!), and you've got a fully functioning studio setup. You just may need a decent pair of speakers and a mic. Other than that, you've got everything you need to make great music.

iPads

I've been using iPad mini for the past year and I preferred it over the full size iPad, due to how much lighter it was. Now that a new lighter and thinner full size iPad is announced I'm going give it a go. Reason I'm choosing iPad Air over mini is mainly because I use Logic Remote and GarageBand apps a lot and prefer to have a bigger screen to easily hit virtual music keyboard when I'm composing.

Macs

Earlier this year I gave up my retina MacBook Pro to try much thinner and lighter MacBook Air. I thought trying to make music at random places, like coffee shops and parks, would be inspiring and might make me somewhat more productive. I've learned two things. Firstly, I'm not productive at all at those places. It's very easy to be distracted and completely lose focus. Even if it's simply someone bringing coffee over to your table. At least this is true for me. Second, I really miss the beautiful retina display. And now that Logic Pro supports retina, I really want to go back and enjoy these beautiful screens again. I was hoping Apple would release either a retina iMac or Mac Pro with a retina Cinema Display this year. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. So I'm going back to 15" retina MacBook Pro. Which I'll mostly use as a desktop computer and won't carry it around.

A couple quick thoughts on Mac Pro. I think the new model is absolutely beautiful and it's a beast. It's funny to see a lot of negative responses across the internet, described as not suitable for professional musicians because it doesn't have PCIe slots or is not expandable or some other random weak argument. Thunderbolt people, Thunderbolt! This is what Apple said:

In creating a pro computer for the future, we wanted to provide an enormous amount of expansion — without being limited to the space inside the enclosure. Designed with built-in Thunderbolt 2, USB 3, Gigabit Ethernet, and HDMI 1.4 ports, Mac Pro sets a new standard in flexible, high-performance expansion. It’s our most expandable Mac yet. And it has everything you need to build a workstation completely customized to what you need and how you work.

Overall, I am very happy with today's product announcements and updates. And, I can't wait to play with the new MacBook Pro and iPad Air.

‘The Loudness War Has Been Won’

by Nikolozi Meladze

According to Digital Domain’s Press Release, Bob Katz confirmed that the latest version of iTunes (v11.1.1) makes iTunes Radio play all songs with the same perceived loudness and the listener has no control over. This has great implications.

Bob Katz:

The way to turn the loudness race around right now, is for every producer and mastering engineer to ask their clients if they have heard iTunes Radio. When they respond in the affirmative, the engineer/producer tells them they need to turn down the level of their song(s) to the standard level or iTunes Radio will do it for them—and not always in a pleasing way. iTunes radio will not just ‘turn down the volume,’ but may peak-limit the important transient peaks of the material and make the song sound ‘smaller’ and less clear than its competition.

In other words, more you compress your final master worse it will sound on iTunes Radio. This is a great news. Make sure you read the whole press release. It’s quite detailed. And if you want to learn more about the topic check out the Bob Katz’s book iTunes Music. I highly recommend it.

After 4 Long Years of Wait Apple Releases a New Major Version of Logic Pro

by Nikolozi Meladze

Today Apple released Logic Pro X. It's big news for audio & music lovers. All major audio blogs are discussing it. Check out great reviews by Jim Dalrymple and Peter Kirn. Kirn dives deeper and his review is more detailed. I highly recommend checking it out. Also, Sonic Academy uploaded a few demo videos of Logic Pro X on YouTube. Here’s one showcasing Logic’s new instrument Retro Synth.

The first thing that struck me when I saw Logic Pro X screenshots and its remote controller iPad app was heavy use of skeumorphism. Don’t get me wrong, they look beautiful. I just find it odd after seeing big changes in iOS 7 UI, and even in Mavericks Apple is moving towards flatter designs. That’s probably a hint that GarageBand for iOS will stay loyal to skeumorphism.

The features I’m most excited about:

  • SmartControls, with customisable layouts (no other DAW lets you customise layouts for macro controls).
  • Track Stacks. This is going to make sound layering and track management easier.
  • MIDI effects (including Arpeggiator). I was never a fan of Logic’s Environment. This is great!
  • Flex Pitch. Too bad it’s not polyphonic like Melodyne, but it’s a good start.
  • Drummer. This is also a welcome addition, as I’ve been to using more and more live sounding drums in my tracks. I’ve really had enough of the standard EDM drum sounds and patterns.

I might do my own mini review once I've had enough time playing with Logic Pro X.

Maybe, we’ll also see an update for GarageBand for Mac. It’s long overdue. If nothing else it still needs to be updated for retina displays.

iOS 7

by Nikolozi Meladze

Matt Gemmell:

The thing is, we’ve grown up. We don’t require hand-holding to tell us what to click or tap. Interactivity is a matter of invitation, and physical cues are only one specific type. iOS 7 is an iOS for a more mature consumer, who understands that digital surfaces are interactive, and who doesn’t want anything getting in the way of their content.

This sums up iOS evolution quite well. I've been using iOS 7 on my new iPod Touch (which I bought especially to test the new iOS) for the past 2 days and I'm in love with the new user interface. Finally, UIPickerView won't look out of place if I use it in my apps along with the other custom UI elements.

Apple introduced a lot of great features and APIs in iOS 7, but I'm especially excited about the Inter-app Audio technology.

WWDC 2013 Registration

by Nikolozi Meladze
Moscone West - WWDC 2013 Registration    

Moscone West - WWDC 2013 Registration 

 

Registration Done. I was there at around 4:30pm and keynote line was already forming. The guy behind the counter told me I should queue up as early as possible if I want to make to the keynote hall. Even 6am is not early enough apparently. OK, I'll bite the bullet and line up at 5am. Luckily, I got enough music loaded on Spotify.

Oh yeah, I witnessed the street shooting when I was leaving Moscone West.