Monthly Archives: May 2010

My Evolution of Music

Music can soothe the soul, amplify emotions, and change the way we experience many situations.  Some music helps me concentrate and focus while I’m working.  Some music brings me back to certain memories and times/places in my life.  Some music embraces the various traits of my personality.   But overall, I love music and have spent the last couple weeks searching for a better, smarter way to utilize music in my life.  I’ll call it my next “stage” of music evolution (More on this to follow).

I’m looking for an on-demand, streaming, intelligent way to get to this next level.   I think about how Netflix changed the way I watch movies forever (I haven’t bought a movie on DVD/BluRay/etc since 2007 when I joined Netflix) – and more or less I’d like to find  a service that can do the same thing for my music…, Slacker Radio, Pandora, GrooveShark, Lala, etc.  The list goes on and on for web-based services allowing you to stream, organize, and overall just get more connected with your music.  These are exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for, and I see them as being heavily inolved in my future of music.   So, I’ve been trying to figure out which service(s) work best for me.  My main criteria are as follows:

  • An easy way to stream music
  • A blackberry/iPod capable mobile app
  • Help find new music that I enjoy
  • Rely less (much less) on my iPod

With those criteria in mind, I narrowed my field and focused on two services: Pandora and Grooveshark.  They are each somewhat similar, and they each have their pros and cons.

Pandora is a fantastic service.  Simple, clean, and easy to use – It capitalizes on the music genome project to take your listening habits, ratings, and stations that you’ve created and use intelligent algorithms to play music that you like.  Most services will provide recommendations based on similar genres and/or meta tagging – but Pandora actually uses deep elements of music theory and composition to provide recommendations to you as a listener.  For example, Pandora just played “The Hollow” by A Perfect Circle on my station, with the following explanation: “based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features hard rock roots, a subtle use of vocal harmony, groove based composition, a twelve-eight time signature, and repetitive melodic phrasing“.  I don’t know what most of that even starts to mean in layman’s terms…  But Pandora has been remarkably accurate thus far in determining music that I like.  It’s been a very enjoyable service to use, tweak, and make my own.   I’ve created 6 or so stations ranging from vintage rock roots, through instrumental movie scores and techno, and reaching my pillars of Hard Rock and Metal.  I really like how Pandora does this, all while making it simple and fun to use.

Pandora also has robust mobile applications for both iPod and Blackberries.  So I can listen to Pandora in my car connecting it through the blue-tooth of my radio.  That’s nearly a priceless selling point.  I liken it to a satellite radio subscription service.

Pandora does have its weaknesses.  Most notably is the lack of a selective listening.  If I want to hear “Crawl Through Knives” by In Flames, I would try to make a new station and type in that song title.  But that song will not play…  The station will continue to be created, and play songs SIMILAR TO Crawl through Knives musically; but there is no way to listen to a specific song at a specific time and I frankly don’t understand why that is.  It definitely doesn’t ruin Pandora in my perspective, as I have enjoyed the variety and anticipation for hearing new music.  But, I wouldn’t mind if the option existed.

Moving on to Grooveshark.  Grooveshark is another very slick web service.  It’s a little more expansive and functional than Pandora is, but it may be just a little bit “too much”.  Pandora’s biggest weakness is also Grooveshark’s biggest strength – I could literally search for a band or song name and be met with immediate and accurate search results.  Functionality ranges from adding tracks to playlists, organizing your library, or listening to Grooveshark radio for random selections.  Clicking through Grooveshark is quite rewarding; it is very speedy, fast, responsive, and overall just fun.  I found myself forgetting that it was even a web application.

With much more depth than Pandora, Groooveshark is a very interesting option.  Aside from syncing to a mobile device for you, Grooveshark is almost a drop in web-based replacement for iTunes.  You can even upload your own music in a youtube style fashion.  It’s a very innovative service… and one that I’m certainly keeping my eye on moving forward.

Overall, I was actually quite torn here.  Pandora is such a fitting option, awesome in its simplicity.  Grooveshark is in its earlier stages, but making an impression fast and furious.  Pandora has mobile apps.  Grooveshark has mobile app in beta/development (although not for my Blackberry Storm).  Grooveshark has listening on-demand for specific songs.  Pandora has detailed musical analysis resulting in hours of specifically tailored music without me having to worry about organizing any playlists.  I think in the end, I find the music genome project fascinating.  It takes such a unique approach to music, and that alone has nudged me ever-so-slightly towards Pandora.  The mobile app allowing for bluetooth integration has seemingly sealed the deal for me – as I’ve recently found myself  nearly fully gravitated towards Pandora.  I’ve been streaming it at work, tailoring my stations at home and from my Blackberry when I feel the need or have an inkling, and have been looking to find ways to fully utilize Pandora’s offerings.  (note PandoraFM, which scrobbles your Pandora tracks into  Pandora and Grooveshark each have free and premium versions that you can subscribe to.  They are nearly the same cost – and as of now I haven’t purchased either.  But, unless something changes drastically (and soon) I foresee a Pandora subscription in the very near future for my person.

But I’ll always take recommendations or opinions of the limited readership that graces this site with their visits… Here are my Pandora stations as a reference:

Now, with the possible future of music as I know it laid out… it didn’t feel fitting without giving a brief history of what led me here. Expand to read a bit more about how music came to be as I know it today.

Continue reading

Halo: A Tribute

The Halo series is, in my opinion, the best video game series ever.

It’s an epic journey through a brutal war fought to literally save humanity.  Throughout the main storyline, you play as “Master Chief” – an ironically quiet, humble, subdued character that shoulders the heaviest of burdens.  He is one of few remaining super-soldiers called “Spartans” and is genetically enhanced for combat.  I guess I really don’t want to go too far into the storyline or details of the Halo series – but feel free to read a brief summary on wikipedia if interested.

So what makes the Halo series so great?  Well, There are different aspects in different games – and they culminate together to form something that I find to be profound.  I’ll break down some of my opinions before breaking down what I like most in each of the three main games.

The Master Chief
The hero you play is the single most powerful part in the series.  He hardly ever speaks, but his actions speak volumes.  Fighting until any bitter end, this faceless and nearly voiceless character is a perfect personification of a video game hero…  I think the Bungie designers deserve a fair amount of credit here because the player subconsciously projects themselves fully into this character.  It’s impossible to play through the Halo games and not picture yourself behind the helmet.  I think the fact that you never see the face of Master Chief makes it easier for the player to put themselves in his place.  Even his mirrored visor plays a role, it reflects what he sees allowing the player to unknowingly be put just that little bit more into the character.

A fearless guardian that does whatever it takes, Master Chief’s quiet confidence sets the tone for the entire story…

The Music
Maybe a slighter role in the quality of the series to most people is actually quite strong for me.  The majority of the music the Halo games is original composition via Martin O’donnell and Michael Salvatori.  Their unique style fits perfectly alongside the in-game action, and adds an impossibly perfect touch to the cut-scenes and pre-realease teasers and trailers.  Some of my favorite examples are the Halo 3 E3 Trailer, and the Return to Sender cut-scene.  But, even aside from the impressive original works; there are artists contributions that have had perfect fits within the series.  Specifically here I’m referring to this part in Halo 2 where an instrumental version of “Blow me Away” by Breaking Benjamin plays…

The music is just awesome, plain and simple.  It adds a whole dimension on the game, making it feel as though you’re playing through an amazing action movie.  It couldn’t have possibly been done any better.

The Plot/Story
As I said, I don’t want to simply re-tell the entire story of the Halo series…  But it’s important to address what it adds to the mix.  For me, I relate hugely to this type of storyline.  It’s similar in a way to the Matrix trilogy, or the Harry Potter series.  In the Matrix movies, Neo comes to know that his destiny is literally fight for the survival of the human race.  It is only he that can do it, and it is something he faces without fear no matter the outcome.  The subsequent final battle depicts Neo sprinting full speed toward his fate

Many people may laugh at the mention of Harry Potter here, but it’s honestly a genuine comparison.  Harry has to face the same sort of fight, and once again it’s only him that can do it.  “Neither can live while the other survives” – I still remember that quote from the book, and it is just profound.  My point being – a single person fighting against almost unbeatable odds.

The Halo series has a similar element, where the Master Chief willingly faces fate no matter what the outcome.  Not only to face it, but to run full speed directly at it. I’m not exactly sure why, but that sort of notion really appeals to me.  The fight or flight, the will to act, the choice to keep fighting.  These few examples I believe accurately illustrate what I’m trying to get across.

Finally, the Gameplay
The first Halo game was ground-breaking.  The main launch title that defined the Xbox as a console.  There really isn’t anything much more to say about this first game in the series, other than that it set the bar.  And, also, this warthog jumping that the Vanbergs, Vanlandw and I tried to re-create back when I lived in Ramblewood will always be a part of me.

Halo 2 increased the intensity, pushed the bar further, and all the while brought on a ton of criticism for its introduction of the Arbiter.

Halo 2’s battle against the scarab is possibly my favorite part in any video game.  The music fits it perfectly (once again, a perfect example of the music making the experience).  The first time you leap onto the massive scarab  from a bridge above is really without rival as a standalone moment of gaming excellence.

Halo 2 also honed in the multiplayer capabilities to new levels, and really this was the first case I could recall where the multiplayer was almost more sought-after than the single player campaign.  I personally didn’t get into the multiplayer until later, and I wasn’t all that great at it anyway so my loyalties continued to be with the single player storyline mode.

Most people’s primary complaint as mentioned earlier was the fact that Halo 2 had you play as the Arbiter for several levels.  You get to try out cloaking, the plasma sword, etc.  But, many people didn’t approve of surrendering control of Master Chief.  I didn’t mind playing as Arbiter, but definitely I did not love how Halo 2 ended…

Halo 3 brought the same level of multiplayer gameplay, but made use of the better graphics hardware of the Xbox 360 console.  The campaign was maybe a tad short by some accounts – but the plot and storyline out was enough to get me over Halo 2.  Again, some people did not enjoy the plot of the game – but really the expectations had been set so high that it is almost impossible to meet them.  I liked the storyline, and I thought the ending was fitting for the conclusion of this particular trilogy.

ODST and Reach, while still being Halo games, don’t really count in my opinion.  They are parallel storylines that center around characters other than the Master Chief.  I think that’s fine, and I have and will play these games – but for me the meat of the series are the three primary games where you play as Master Chief.

In summary…
Obviously I’ve got Halo on the mind because of the Halo Reach beta.  I’ve been able to balance a solid 3-4 hours of this beta into my life so far, and the multiplayer is amazingly fun.  FINALLY I can run in a Halo game using the scout class.  I could use a little more practice though, as my .70 ish kill/death ratio will attest.

I hope the fun continues as Halo Reach is released, and I’ll be sad to see Bungie’s final Halo game come to fruition.  It’s pretty amazing to look back on these games that I played in different phases of my life – hopefully another video game series comes along that can come close to meeting this level for me.  But if you ask me – I don’t think it’s going to happen.