My new EP, Normal Doubt, is now available to buy on Bandcamp

New EP out. I’m very proud of this one.

mistercharlie · Normal Doubt

Learning piano is easier than learning guitar

I’ve started to learn to play piano. I’ve been playing the guitar for years, and I’m pretty good at it, but the keyboard is way better for electronic music than trying to send MIDI from a guitar. Plus, there’s all that sweet stuff that you can’t do on a guitar, like playing basslines and melodies together, and the huge octave range.

One thing that struck me is how much easier it is to get started on the piano. With the guitar, it’s a struggle to get anything to sound good. Chords are hard, and chord changes that are clean and in time are almost impossible.

But with the piano, it’s pretty quick to get going and play stuff that sounds good. After a week or so, I could already play Dave Brubeck’s Take Five (thanks to Francesca Williams' tutorial on YouTube).

And speaking of Take Five, it’s way, way easier to play in Eb minor on the piano than the guitar.

Test Post for Mastodon comments

You can reply to this and it should theoretically show up in my blog thread.

Why are no samplers or digital recorders as easy as the OP-1 Field?

There are a zillion samplers and recorders out there, so why do almost none of them work like we want them to?

Recently, I’ve been checking out the OP-1 Field, the new update to Teenage Engineering’s stone-cold classic OP-1, a sampler, synthesizer, sequencer, and digital tape recorder, all packed into one little battery-powered box. The Field is pretty much the same device, but with way better sound quality, stereo, Bluetooth MIDI, plus a few tweaks that make it easier and nicer to use.

The Field is essentially the same as the original, and yet still, eleven years after launch, there’s no other device that’s as immediate, or as easy and fun to use.

Feature Creep

I’ve used plenty of samplers, including software plugins, or things like Ableton’s excellent Simpler device. And they’re all far too complicated. And I don’t mean that they have too many features—although they do, and it makes them even harder to use. What I mean is that the actual act of capturing a sample, then playing it back, takes far too long.

Let’s take Elektron’s Digitakt, which is regarded as one of the most accessible samplers. To record a sample, you have to enter sample mode, hit a key combo to record it, then trim it, save it, and assign it to a track on the sequencer. It’s pretty quick, but enough to take you out of the musical zone.

Compare this to the OP-1 (Field or OG). To sample on the OP-1, you toggle the audio input on (if it’s not on already), then press and hold a key on its keyboard. When you release the key, you can immediately play that sample back, spread across the keyboard. That’s it.

I searched, seemingly endlessly, for other samplers that were as simple as this, but that also had better sound quality than the original OP-1, and that recorded in stereo. Many came close, but none was ever as immediate. None that I found, anyway — please reply to this post on Twitter or if you have suggestions.

OP-1 Fun

Then Teenage Engineering released the OP-1 Field, which I’ll write a full review of soon. It’s just as amazingly fast and easy to use, only now it sounds like a pro-level device.

Let’s take an example of what makes it special. Say I’m playing a mono synth like Moog’s Grandmother. The Grandmother has no way to save your patches, and it can only play one note at a time. If you have an OP-1 Field handy, you can hit a key on the Grandmother and the OP-1 simultaneously, hold the OP-1’s key down to capture the fading tail of the sound, and let go. Now, with no further actions you can play the Grandmother’s sound as a chord, and you can save it as a preset. Also, you tell the OP-1 which note you’re playing in (A, C#, etc.) just by using the corresponding key to record the sample.

You can even set the OP-1’s sampler to wait until it hears a sound before it starts recording, so you can play the other instruments with both hands (shift+any key).

Tape Recorder

Then there’s the OP-1’s tape recorder, which is a digital 4-track recorder designed to work like a tape machine. Crucially it is synchronized to MIDI, and it can record internal synths and samples as you play them, or any external sounds (through mic, USB, or line inputs). It can even record itself, to bounce multiple tracks and combine them onto one track.

And again, it’s way easier than anything else. Many people, me included, would otherwise fire up Ableton or similar, and use that. But the OP-1 is still faster, easier, and more portable.

No Alternative

I’ve gone off into review territory a bit here, but my point remains that there are no samplers or digital recorders that are as fast, easy, or as accessible as the OP-1. And if you’re looking for portable devices that have all this built in, the OP-1 is on its own. It’s unique.

Why is this? Who knows? The OP-1 is simple, yes, but it is also incredibly well-designed to reach that level of simplicity. And yet while it has a simple user interface, it still manages to be a smaller, sequencer, synth, drum machine, sampler, field recorder, etc. etc. Maybe the truth is that nobody else has managed to come up with something as good.

For me, the OP-1 Field is ideal. Many folks will say that other devices or apps can do way more, but that’s missing the point. The OP-1 is fast, fun, and its deliberately scaled-down feature-set means that it does what it does way better than anything else. Yes, it’s flawed, but what isn’t? The result is an incredible combination of focus, and fun.

Writers, musicians, artists — stop calling your work ‘content,’ FFS

“Content” is what marketing folks, or platform builders, call video, music, text, and so on. For them, songs, movies, and stories are equal, interchangeable units, the purpose of which is to fill up their online stores.

When an artist describes their work as “content,” they belittle the work itself. By referring to their creations in the terms of marketers and salespersons, they reduce it to a widget on a production line. Meanwhile, they reduce their own role to that of a factory worker, a cog that keeps the vending machine full.

Musicians call their work songs. Writers write poems or stories or articles, and so on. A painter paints a picture, and a filmmaker shoots a movie. They don’t “produce content”.

Harmful and confusing

Another downside of using the term content to replace so many other nouns is that you don’t know what a person is talking about. Take this headline, for example, found this week on the excellent CDM music blog:

Resolume 7.2.0: Your VJ tool is also the easiest way to make content and music videos [emphasis added]

What does that mean exactly, “to make content”? Does it mean music? Mixes? Kinds of video other than music videos? It is not clear. Here’s another once, a quote from this week’s episode of the Upgrade podcast, at around 5 minutes in:

After watching the truly excellent Netflix series Drive to Survive […] we’re like we must start watching Formula One, and there’s been two races, and it’s been absolutely fantastic, and it’s just nice to have something like that; like there is actual content being produced now. It’s happening live, and there are people doing it. [emphasis added]

Yes, that’s Myke Hurley referring to a Formula One race as “content being produced.”

Selling out

Content isn’t the only marketing word that creators have adopted, to the detriment of their own value. We’ve already mentioned one: Produce. In this context, produce is as unspecific as content. At best, it is lazy writing. At worst, it assumes, again, that the means of creation is as interchangeable as the product. Also, production assumes the creation of a product to be sold

But we adopt marketing terms in other place too. Color becomes colorway when blogging about pretty much anything that can be purchased in different colors. Price becomes price point. Again, price point has a specific meaning in marketing terms. It refers to a particular product’s place in a range. It is not a synonym for price. Taken alone, these habits are no worse than any other misuse of language on the internet. But together they reveal a trend towards viewing the creations of individuals as manufactured units.

Language shapes thought

All these terms are valid in their own context, of course. But if we, as writers, or photographers, or animators, refer to ourselves using the terms of the market, we commoditize ourselves, and — worse — we begin to think of our work as a product to fill the machine, rather than as an individual expression. And as “content producers,” our identity is as important to the end product as that of Foxconn factory worker is to the iPhone in your pocket. Unless, that is, we get well-enough known to become a brand, in which case we are become the product.

Language shapes thought, of course1, and if we continue to refer to ourselves as mere suppliers of interchangeable digital goods, we will become exactly that. The position of the artist-creator is already precarious, and we’re making it worse for ourselves.

Meanwhile, the beneficiary of your reduced status is the middle-person, the Medium, the Spotify, the YouTube. For them, your stories, songs, movies and photographs are just interchangeable blocks of content, none of them different or more valuable than the next.

If you think of yourself as a factory worker, then you become one — and that suits the market just fine.

  1. Otherwise swearwords and slurs would have no power, for example. ↩︎


Tri-X and Hyperspektiv

If I disconnect my own domain name from my microblog, what will break? Apart from my site?

iOS 14 is surprisingly stable on my iPad Pro. The best thing might be the new Scribble feature.

It’s pretty good being able to write pretty much anywhere with the Apple Pencil, and it takes the notes app to a whole other level.

Song of the week 3: Penguin Telephone

I started this song during the lockdown. No surprise that it’s even darker than usual.

Is it possible to link to a category page from the top navigation on my microblog? In the screenshot, I’d like the Podcast link to point to /categories/podcast, for instance.

Uncanny Alley Episode 6: The Mall Cops' Dorkmobile

Possibly never previously published

This bonus episiode was possibly never published. It doesn’t show up in the archived feeds of any of the usual podcast directories, and I can’t find my original episode captions. So, you can go in cold, and enjoy a discussion from the world as it was around one year ago i.e. better than it is now.

Uncanny Alley Episode 5: A Merry Band of Digital Criminals

First published 13-03-19

Andrea and Charlie talk about the utter lack of ethics at Facebook and their deceiving tactics, while managing to deliver what’s intimately known as “the most delayed episode ever”.

It might be worth mentioning here that I have a couple of posts about how I record and edit these podcasts. Yes, this one was originally weeks late, mostly down to me not getting around to editing it, but the editing process is really quick:

How I edit podcasts with Apple Pencil on iPad Pro

How I record podcasts on iPad only

How to record podcasts on iPad part II: The apps

Uncanny Alley Episode 4: Podcast Vérité

First published 27-01-2019

Charlie and Andrea talk about the content they consume, one infamous video that Charlie has no intention of ever consuming, and conspiracy theories worth appreciating at least for their narrative.

This episode has a previously-unknown alternative title: A Thelma and Louise Death

Uncanny Alley Episode 3: Holding Gelato

First published 23-12-2018

Like every single person who gets paid for writing, Andrea and Charlie like to talk about keyboards. Quiet, or clicky? Long travel distance or short jumpy keys? Why would Italian put a vowel at the end of many Spanish words? And, most importantly: Chinese Democracy.

Uncanny Alley Episode 2: A Hipster Nordic Ø

First published 04-12-2018

Andrea and Charlie discuss talk about why phone cameras will always be different from regular cameras. Computational photography started out trying to fix the problems with tiny sensors, and now they let cameras like the iPhone do tricks that are …

Uncanny Alley Episode 1: A Doll’s Deadly Whisper

Back at the turn of 2018/2019, I recorded and published five episodes of The Uncanny Alley podcast with my friend and technology journalist Andrea Nepori. The domain has since lapsed, so I’m publishing all five episodes here. Here’s the first.

First published 23-11.2018

Andrea and Charlie discuss the new 2018 iPad Pro, Andrea’s disco music iPad, and argue about folders.

New Song: Elk Mountain

My second song-a-week release. This one was started on a trip to the Bavarian Alps late last year, but most of the work was done in Berlin.

The photo shows the Königssee lake. All the drums are done on the OP-Z, guitar is a guitar, and the trumpet is a fake trumpet. Any more questions, ask!

New Song: Hipster or Homeless

I’m kicking off a song-a-week project with a song that has sat almost-finished for a few months now.

Just sent a Brydge keyboard for iPad Pro back after a day. It puts enough pressure on the screen to distort the glass, and that’s when you’re not actually using the screen as a lever to move the hinges. Also, for a portable device, it’s really big and heavy. The keyboard itself is nice though.


Harmony Grinder

Music demo made with the OP-1

Just one tap

Uncanny Alley episode 4, Podcast Vérité

A new episode of my podcast Uncanny Alley is up!