Author Archives: mjp

Seeded Tunes – Scene and Labels

A ‘scene’ is a nebulous concept, but it’s pretty well understood.

David Byrne in How Music Works talks about the necessary ingredients for a music scene, including location and venue(s), with a description of the old and new CBGB’s in NYC.

Julian Cope in Head On describes the nepotistic maelstrom of Eric’s in Liverpool in 1978-9. Location, people, financial circumstances, common beliefs.

In the case of Seeded Tunes, the scene is the root of the whole output, and it basically consists of a pool of fictional people, and a random number of record labels. The ideas there is that these people got together somehow, and from that outpouring of creativity came artists of course, but also labels, which I don’t understand, but they seem important, especially in our digital future as a form of curated marker of “you might like this”.

When the scene is created, a number of fictional people are generated – the “scene pool”. From there, labels are created, each with a number of people drawn from the pool. It’s possible that the same person might be involved in more than one label.

Each label therefore has a “label pool” of people, and from each label a number of “artists” is created. I settled on the word “artist” rather than “band” because the latter seems limiting, somehow.

I’ll describe the artist process in another post.

Seeded Tunes – Random?

The lynchpin/keystone/root idea of Seeded Tunes is to use a random number generator (RNG) to drive the creation of text, images and music.

Regular RNGs are not truly random. They use stuff like the current date, combined with internal values such as drive space and other numbers to come up with something that resembles a series of random numbers. But the creators of these RNGs go to pains to make it clear that these are not truly random – someone with enough access, time, and skill could predict the numbers based on the provided seed. As a result, regular RNGs are not recommended for security-related applications, such as cryptography or finance. There are other more robust and rigorous options for those uses.

Leaving that aside, how much of the output of this project is truly random? How random do I want the music to be? Could I not say that truly random music would be a random string of bits encoded into an WAV file? That would probably be unlistenable – not in the aesthetic sense (I don’t care about that) but in the sense that it would not be a valid sound file.

If I channeled the randomness into making a valid sound file that could be listened to, would it be long? Short? A frequency outside human hearing? It became clear that true randomness would be no good for creating what I wanted.

But what did I want to create? If I broke down the actual components of the output, they fell into the following groups:

  • Names of people
  • Names of artists
  • Names of albums
  • Names of tracks
  • Artwork of albums
  • The music itself

I decided I wanted to create recognizable music, with realistic (if unusual) names, made by fictional people with regular (if unusual) names, and with artwork that falls into a particular graphical style I am a fan of.

That meant I had to reduce the amount of randomness in varying degrees for each component. Initially I felt that this was too much of a compromise, but in the end I think I’ll be happy with a realistic output, realistic names, attractive artwork, and music that was structured enough, but without following the conventions of music theory, or any of the methods that generative music uses.

It will probably be unlistenable – but who is to judge that? Bandcamp, Brainwashed, and power electronics showed me the way there.

Pixel Art Alphabet Chart

I wanted to have an alphabet chart on A&E’s wall, but I couldn’t find one I liked, and then I thought why not make my own, and then I thought why not make it in a distinct art style, and so I came up with…

The Pixel Art Alphabet Chart

First I thought of interesting things that each letter begins with. I looked at other chart online, and tried to choose unusual things, but I also had to choose things I could create in pixel art, which I’ve not done much of, unless you count using The Artist II on the ZX Spectrum, using a joystick instead of a mouse, if you can believe it. I still have a cassette of saved artwork that I created back then, if I could only retrieve it somehow – any hints, let me know.

Once I had all my subjects, I fired up GIMP and got to work. In some cases I looked online for “source material” to give me a head start. For example, the image for the letter F might look familiar to retro arcade fans, as might the C, and R is for more early 90’s game fans…

The finished article

Once it was done, I got it printed on foamcore, and now it’s on their wardrobe door. Maybe I’ll get a nicer print and frame it.

On the whole I’m quite proud how it came out. If I were to pick some nits, here are the nits I would pick:

  • Quartz is not a great choice. Queen maybe?
  • Wheel didn’t come out very well – could have been more 3D
  • Ring doesn’t have good 3D either.

But hey, I’m nitpicking (as I clearly stated above in case you missed it) . I did it, it’s on the wall, and they like to go through it with me, even if I have to tell them what Q is supposed to be.

Seeded Tunes – Why

I’m a frustrated musician, in that I would like to be a musician but I have been cruelly prevented in chasing this dream by A) a lack of innate talent and B) a lack of will or discipline to learn.

Sure, I’ve dabbled. There have been attempts to get some kind of music project going with friends, but despite their input and enthusiasm, the issues described above have always got in the way. As time has rolled on, and responsibilities have become greater, I’ve come to accept my limitations.

But as time rolled on, I also read about the clever ways people were using computers to generate art. I’ve always been a computer person, but I’d let my coding skills lapse. As I aged, I became more interested in minimal music, drone, electronic noise and the like. Being invited to write for Both Bars On exposed me to more varied stuff as well, as did listening to the Brainwashed Radio Podcast. Seeing and hearing the vast array of stuff on Bandcamp crystallized the idea in my brain.

If I can’t make music myself, I could write a program to do it. It wouldn’t need to be smart, or use any of the tools or techniques used by generative artists to make human sounding music. It would be truly random (for certain values of “truly” – see a future post about that).

If I could generate a track, why not a whole album? If I could generate an album, why not many?

Who is making these albums? What are their names? What label are they on? What year was this made?

Were there multiple artists making music? Did they know each other? Were they part of a scene? Did groups share members with each other? What would the family tree of this scene look like? Would Pete Frame draw the diagram, and would there be a TV docu based on it?

I was reminded of Bill Drummond writing in 45 about the fictional Icelandic underground he created. I thought of the blog For Those Who Tried to Rock, which chronicled the bands, gigs, dreams, and attempts at rock glory by small-town musos.

That’s how the project found its current form. A way to make up for time lost to inability, and share with the world multiverses of (admittedly similar) fictional artists, and their art.

I’m just the curator.

Seeded Tunes – An Introduction

For quite a while now I’ve been chipping away at a project that combines music, art, my fascination with music family trees, generative processes, and laziness.

The idea – Seeded Tunes – is to use a random number generator to create music. But it’s a lot more complex, and in some ways a lot simpler, than that.

There are many tools and projects where people are using computers to create art, music, literature, you name it, with random elements. There might be a Markov Chain driving the creation of a written article, or a semi-AI using a corpus of existing creations to generate something similar but completely original. My project is not like that, but has parallels.

In a nutshell, you give my program a number (the “seed”), and it will generate an entire “scene” of music, with multiple labels, each with multiple named artists, each with multiple named albums, each with album artwork and multiple named tracks, each with generated tunes and drum patterns. It will also create a “Rock Family Tree” broadly in the style of Pete Frame’s fascinating work, which I’ve talked about before.

There are many aspects to this, and I’ll describe them in detail over the next few posts. It’s all been rattling around in my head for too long, and people have taken an interest, so here’s where to get in the know.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the WHY…

Rock Family Tree Auto-generation

I’ve been fascinated by Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees for a long time. I created a tree in that style for my friends and associates over on the Coiled Spring site, seen below.
Flange Circus Family Tree
I describe the process for manually creating the diagram over on that site, so check it out if you’re curious. I had other ideas after that, so read on.

I’ve been playing around with the tools I used to create this diagram. Graphviz especially. It’s a very powerful tool for automatically laying out diagrams. You provide it with a text input file defining the nodes (boxes) and how they are connected with edges (lines or arrows). The file doesn’t include any positioning information; Graphviz arranges the diagram itself, aligning nodes, routing edges, and making a nice neat diagram. There are various options for influencing how the diagram is arranged, but overall it is automatic, and very smart.

You can write the input file by hand, but for complex diagrams with many nodes and edges, it makes more sense to generate it using another tool. There are many examples with tens or even hundreds of nodes, generated by software analysing computer networks, chemical reactions, mathematics, and so on. You can see some crazy examples in the gallery here.

This lead me to think about the possibility of writing a program to generate a Rock Family Tree from data held in files or a database – and that coincided with an idea that had been rattling around in my head for a while. Why stop at the family tree? Why not generate the actual music and artists as well?

And thus Seeded Tunes was born.

Fridge Hinge Typical Chaos

We bought a little fridge to put extra stuff in like cold drinks and whatnot (I’ve been saying “whatnot” a lot lately). It arrived on Xmas Eve like a miracle from Santa. The door opened the wrong way, so I went to swap the side it opens, which is a common thing you can do with most fridges. It looked like this was going to be easy.

In the photo below, I’ve removed the top metal bracket from the fridge, revealing the holes in the body, and the hole in the top of the door for the bracket. The same holes are in the other side of the fridge, telling me that swapping the direction of the door is a normal decent reasonable thing to do.

In the following picture, you can see that when I moved the metal bracket to the other side, the existing holes in the body of the fridge don’t line up with the holes in the bracket. The bracket does not have the right holes in it. You can see the top of the door has the right handhold, and the metal pin on the bracket goes into the hole provided on the door, but the key part included prevents you from making a simple change that you would expect to be able to make.

This was going to be a giant PITA, involving repacking the fridge, waiting for delivery people to collect it, waiting in line, getting effed about and stonewalled in Carrefour, and regretting not living somewhere with statutory consumer rights.

Luckily, I recently, and on a complete whim, bought a cheapo and quite wobbly drill stand. This meant I was able to drill my own holes in the metal bracket with relative ease (although the children didn’t like the noise). i even wore goggles and everything.

Once that was done, I could put the bracket on the left side, and fit the door as intended. Only one hole was done here, but you can see where I was marking the second one. All fixed.

What a pain. Anyway, to make up for it, the fridge is made by Thomson, which reminded me of this scene from ‘Das Boot’:

Pencil Search – Success Of A Kind

Over the past few years, I would often be inspired to post this on various office supply and stationery sites:

Hi, I have a request, and I hope someone can help. In my late father’s stuff I found a canister of mechanical pencil leads, with a cork stopper. From the markings I think they are from his job in the 1960s at the UK GPO (General Post Office, which later split to make the Post Office and British Telecom). I’d love to be able to use them, but they are 1.5mm size. It’s been some years now, and I just cannot find a mechanical pencil or lead holder that will hold them. 1.3mm is too small, and they fall out of my Staedtler 2.0mm.
Can anyone tell me if there is such a thing as a 1.5mm lead holder? I’ve searched around on eBay, without much luck.
Any ideas for what I could do? Can you put the word out?

I even bought a cheaper 1.3mm holder and some thin diamond files to see if I could increase the size. That didn’t work.

It seemed nobody could help. Disappointing.

In the end, and it is a real anticlimax to be honest, I tried wrapping a piece of thin card around one of the 1.5mm leads and then trying it in the Staedtler again. It worked fine, and it even let the lead slide out when I pressed the release button.

Moral of the story? If you believe in yourself, and reach for the stars, you may only hit the moon, but at least you have a pencil.

Inkscape Tutorial – Uneven Letraset Effect

I was browsing Pinterest, the way you do, looking at old ads and the raw graphical style they often used:

You get the idea. (Actually, looking at it now, it’s pretty straight, oh well)

As often happens, I was suddenly inspired to pointlessly recreate the style in Inkscape. So here’s how.

  1. Start Inkscape and create a new document.
  2. Using the Text tool type your desired slogan:

  3. Change the font and weight as you wish. I used the default “sans-serif” and set it to bold.
  4. Select the text and stretch out the letter spacing a little:

  5. With the text object selected, Path > Object to Path. This will turn the text object into a group of paths, one for each letter in your text.

  6. With the group selected, Object > Ungroup, to break the group into paths.
  7. You now have a bunch of individual paths. Make sure they are all selected, and select the Tweak tool:

  8. In the toolbar, select the following settings:

    Width sets the size of the circle within which the tool will act. Force sets how much of an effect it has – we set it low because we want a subtle effect. The Mode setting allows us to choose what kind of effect we want – we want random movement.

  9. Click and drag the tool over your selected objects. You will see the letters move a little. Keep “painting” over the objects with multiple strokes until you are “happy”.

  10. For extra fuzzy-photostat-ness, use the Filters > Morphology > Cross-smooth filter with these or similar settings:

  11. Then stick it on an old paper textured background (there are lots of tutorials for that out there), and save it as a JPG, with a high compression setting to get that “bad scan” look:

  12. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? !

Top Trump Horror Cards – Update And Concession

Back in August 2017, I started to try and find the original images used by the artist or artists who created the Top Trump Horror Cards as “inspiration”. I asked people on Twitter about it, and got a few good tips. The results can be seen here.

Included in the tips people sent was a link to the excellent blog Hypnogoria, where I found that someone else had the same idea as me, and made a much better job of it, in their series Tomb of the Trumps. I hereby tip my hat, congratulate, and concede to Mr Jim Moon of Darlington!

Let’s compare notes. Jim got the Man-Eating Plant and The Ghoul. He also spotted that The Freak was a combination of The Reptile (which I spotted) and a magazine cover with Christopher Lee for the hands. These artists are sneaky!

I like to think the still I chose of Christopher Lee as Dracula is closer than the one Jim found, and the still of Lon Chaney Jr from ‘London After Midnight’ is also closer. We have to find our victories where we can! I’m also glad he couldn’t find a match for The Risen Dead. I wish someone could though…

I must congratulate Jim on spotting that Maggot was a still from 60’s show ‘Lost In Space’. How could I have missed Jonathan Harris’s terrified eyes?

Actually, calling Hypnogoria a “blog” is understating things. More accurate would be MEDIA EMPIRE, with podcasts, books, and spoken-word collections. Support the creator, Jim Moon, on Patreon!