Archive for October, 2006

Portland Architecture

The most recent edition of the Portland Tribune features a front page article on Portland’s best and worst buildings. The piece touches on something that has always bothered me about PDX, which is our tendency to play it safe when it comes to architecture. Portland had its chance at scoring Frank Gehry designed low income housing, but we totally blew it. Now, that’s not saying I’m a huge fan of Gehry’s work, but it would have been cool to have one of his buildings here since they are such icons. Portland can feel so second tier when places like Seattle managed to get Rem Koolhaas to do their central library. And while it’s not directly related to architecture, don’t get me started on the whole Maya Lin disaster in the Pearl. Yes, we do have that Michael Graves designed building from the ‘80s, but have you been inside? What a dump. You know, it’s really frustrating to see such uninteresting buildings going up along the South Waterfront when we have great firms like Skylab and Allied Works doing their best stuff in cities that appreciate their fresh approach. Anyway, below is the Portland Tribune’s lists.

The lookers and the losers (Portland Tribune)
http://www.portlandtribune.com

Portland’s most beautiful buildings

1) Robert and Ann Sacks home, 2281 N.W. Glisan St.

Ned’s comments: Yeah, it’s a nice place, but I like the model home Skylab did in the West Hills better

2) Portland Art Museum, Hoffman Wing

Ned’s comments: Totally dig this Pietro Belluschi masterpiece.

3) U.S. Bancorp Tower

Ned’s comments: This building would look better in Miami. Circa 1985.

4) Belmont Lofts, 3442 S.E. Belmont St.

Ned’s comments: Great pick. Randy Rappaport is a total PIMP.

5) Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse

Ned’s comments: I don’t like the scale of this building. But it’s pretty cool I guess.

Portland’s ugliest buildings

1) Wells Fargo Center

Ned’s comments: I disagree. This is a cool building — even though it dominants the cityscape

2) Portland Building

Ned’s comments: Michael Graves is a hack.

3) 1000 Broadway

Ned’s comments: Affectionately known as the Ban Roll-On building. Stinky architecture.

4) Portland Marriott-Downtown Waterfront

Ned’s comments: Damn, this building hit every branch when it fell from the ugly tree. Even the architect said it blows.

5) Rose Garden Arena

Ned’s comments: Yes, this building does suck, but it’s not truly hideous. It sucks in a very underachiever kind of way…kind of like the Trail Blazers.

My best list (including PAM and The Belmont Lofts)

1) The Equitable Building (The Commonwealth Building)
Architect: Pietro Belluschi, 1948
A fine example of modernism, this building still looks fresh even today.

2) The Dekum Building
Architect: Henry Hobson Richardson, 1892
A great example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. This building use to be home to Weiden & Kennedy.

3) Wieden & Kennedy Building
Architect: Allied Works Architecture, 2000
A killer renovation by Brad Cloepfil has saved this great building.

4) US Custom House
Architect: James Knox Taylor/Edgar M. Lazarus, 1901
I always admired this building during daily commutes to work down Broadway in the past.

5) US National Bank Building
Architect: A.E. Doyle, 1916
Modeled after the classic Roman temple, this place is amazing both inside and out. Those carved bronze doors in front are the Shiite Moslem.

My worst list (in addition to those mentioned by the Tribune)

1) Slammer Tavern
Hey, this is a great bar, but horrible building. And why is it still standing? Seems like a strong wind would knock it down.

2) Lloyd Center Mall
God, what a depressing building. A potential stand-in for that mall in “Dawn of the Dead”.

3) Bank of America Financial Center
Hey morons, your neon lights on the roof looks like ass!

4) ODS Tower
WTF is that “sculpture” in front about?

5) The Pearl
Snore.

2 comments October 25th, 2006

Music Has the Right to Children: An Appreciation

I wasn’t down with Boards of Canada’s album “Music Has the Right to Children” the first time I gave it a spin in 2000. I thought the beats were lazy and the production sloppy. But over the years, I’ve come to admire the quirkiness of the album. Part of the admiration probably stems from the manufactured mystic surrounding brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, often featured in out of focus pictures wearing heavy winter jackets. It’s also rumored they live communally in an abandon bunker somewhere along Pentland Hills outside of Edinburgh, Scotland. And BOC loves super 8, which of course makes them ace in my book, and the BOC name was inspired by The National Film Board of Canada (educational films are another obsession of mine). One of the things that I’ve come to really enjoy about BOC is their experimental ethic. I think my expectation that BOC would somehow slip under the generic IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) umbrella is what initially turned me off to MHTRTC on first listen. My guess is BOC will go down in history as electronic music innovators – right up there with Kraftwerk and Brian Eno.

2 comments October 24th, 2006

Cheyenne Mountain: RIP

I read recently that Cheyenne Mountain, the underground home of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and star of the ’80s movie “War Games”, has been mothballed. This Cold War facility was built deep inside a mountain near Colorado Springs during the 1960s to keep an eye on those sneaky Soviets. I guess closing this facility makes sense: we’re not facing a massive nuclear first strike like we were during the height of the Cold War. But what about some kind of unforeseen zombie outbreak? Shouldn’t we keep Cheyenne Mountain around for something like that? I mean, this place is really cool and we blow billions of dollars every month on uncool Iraq, can’t we spend a few million to keep Cheyenne Mountain operating just in case something really crazy happens?

Cheyenne Mountain Fast Facts

- The Army Corps of Engineers used 1.5 million pounds of dynamite to excavate about 700,000 tons of granite.

- Cheyenne Mountain has 15 buildings, 12 of which are three stories.

- Cheyenne Mountain rests on 1,319, 1,000-pound springs that allow the complex to sway up to a foot horizontally in any direction.

- The two blast doors are 25 tons, 3 1/2-feet-thick baffled steel.

Going Ballistic! (Wired)
http://www.fas.org/nuke

Cheyenne Mountain Home Page
https://www.cheyennemountain.af.mil

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October 23rd, 2006

Low End Theory: Digital Synths

I’m a super fan of all things analog. So it may surprise some to hear I recently purchased a digital synthesizer off eBay. I’m going to try and explain this odd purchase (partly to rationalize it for myself). You see, I’ve been looking into buying a decent analog synthesizer for some time, but the search has thus far been fruitless. Really, there are no good deals out there on analog synthesizer, except those PAiA kits requiring soldering and assembly. During my search though, I began to run across all these ‘80s era digital synthesizer selling for peanuts. For example: Kawai K1s fetching $35.00 on eBay. Christ, you can’t buy one of those crappy digital keyboards at Radio Shack for $35.00 these days. And when it comes to the K1 and its ilk, we’re talking fully programmable synthesizers with thousands of user made and commercial sounds online. So against my better judgment, I recently bought the K1’s big brother, the Kawai K5. This monster is the antithesis of analog since the sounds are created completely digitally on a little chip. To understand these instruments, you have to step back in time to the wonderful ‘80s when digital was king. In those days, the compact disc ruled the audio world. People dumped old LPs by the millions. The digital fad bled over into the electronic music world as well, where the all digital Yamaha DX-7 rode the ones and zeros fade and made Yamaha a fortune.

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But the Kawai K5 had the unfortunate luck of coming late to the digital craze. By the end of the decade, electronic musicians had grown indifferent to the bonanza of digital products flooding the market. Synthesizer designers had basically created machines that were impossible to program due to the bewildering number of parameters required to make even the simplest of sounds. Most digital instruments simply became factory preset machines and few electronic musicians dared to poke around under the hood. And Kawai really shot itself in the foot by designed the K5 around a new form of synthesis (additive, rather than the traditional subtractive championed by Bob Moog). In the K5, you can choose one of 126 harmonic levels as the building block of your sound. WTF are harmonic levels? Kawai doesn’t make it any easier by throwing around other bits of arcane terminology like “envelope-to-harmonic routing” – what, did they intended to market this thing to MIT graduate students? But the K5 wasn’t Kawai swan song. In the late ‘90s, Kawai took one more stab at additive synthesis with the K5000, which tanked almost as bad as the K5. After that, Kawai went back and focused on mining the real money vein: pianos.

I’ll probably keep my K5 despite its many shortcomings. I haven’t managed to program anything useful out of it yet, but I now recognize its potentional. There is a PC program out there allowing samples to be resythesised and loaded into the K5 which looks really cool. Luckily, there is still a very active K5 community on the internet and they seem more than happy to share tips and tricks to get the most out of this strange synthesizer. Recently I downloaded some raw waveforms that had been resysthesised from other keyboards, like the Korg DW-800 and the Kawai K3 (I’m really waiting for some Waldorf Microwave waveforms though). These are actually pretty cool and could serve as building blocks for sounds of my own. But honestly, I doubt programming is really a short term options unless I end up w/ a ton of time on my hands…like if I was laid up with lupus or avian flu and needed something to pass the time.

Mucking around with the K5 has got me thinking about all the synths I’ve owned in the past. A lot of them sucked, but there are a few I regret getting rid of. And there are some I still have, sitting in the basement waiting to be powered up and explored. Below is a chronological list:

Korg 707
My first synthesizer purchased new around 1987 w/ paper route money. The 707 used licensed FM technology from Yamaha for synthesis, but it didn’t really sound like the DX-7. Not a bad little keyboard despite its limited features and poor present sounds. It had only 49 keys, but it looked really cute and it had pegs for a guitar strap if you wanted to use it as a keytar (the horror!). Couldn’t program this thing to save my life though, but I did find a ROM card with a ton of great sounds. I eventually sold the 707 to a sketchy storefront church in McMinnville sometime in the early ‘90s.

Kawai K1rII (rack mount)
This was a little rack mounted synthesizer I purchased new in 1989 for around $225.00. Damn, what a deal! Wish I still had it. The K1 had great strings sounds and all manner of weird noises lurking around inside this simple 8 bit sample playback synthesizer. But with the low price point, many corners were cut giving the K1 an undeserved bad rap.

Yamaha Portasound VSS-30
This was given to me by Matt Barker back in high school and I still have it. The VSS-30 is shit-hot; much better feature-wise than the more popular Casio SK-1. You can do these crazy Philip Glass like arpeggiated riffs. You can also sample sounds with the built in mic or with the line in RCA inputs. You can even apply evenvelopes to samples. These would be great thrift store finds.

Korg M1
Purchased new in 1992 from the same place I got the K1rII. As it turns out, the M1 wasn’t my cup of tea…too polished and slick sounding. There was this preset sound called “Pole” and you would hear it on every other popular Top 40 songs during the early ‘90s. Plus, I couldn’t program this thing either due to it’s minimalist interface. Sold the M1 in 1996 to a McMinnville based Ranchero band to pay for graduate school.

Yamaha TG33 (table top)
Purchased used in 1998 while I was living in Virginia. Still have it and use it from time to time. Similar to the Wavestation (see below), this synth features vector synthesis developed by Sequential Circuits, but uses 8 bit waveforms instead of 16 bit like the Wavestation. I used one as an undergrad in college in the University of Portland’s wonderful electronic music lab, so when I finally had some money, I decided to pick one up. Like the K1, this little bastard lacks filters (D’oh!).

Ensoniq Mirage (rack mount)
Purchased used in 1998 for about $50.00. Technically not a synthesizer, the Mirage can do additative synthesis with special third party software I have on floppy discs. I still have the Mirage, but don’t use it much, even though it has sweet sounding analog filters. All the sample discs I have are hopelessly cheesy: lots of orchestra hits that were so vogue in the ‘80s when the Mirage came out. But hey, if the orchestra hit ever comes back, I’m set.

Roland JX-8P
Purchased used in 1999 from some guy who was paranoid about Y2K and need money to buy emergency supplies. Overall, it was a nice synthesizer, but mine had issues, like bad keys and dodgy buttons. On the upside, it was pretty easy to program and there are some good computer editors floating around on the internet (would have been even easier with the hard-to-find PG-800 controller though). And it had some analog goodness lurking inside, like the filters. Sold it 2004 to some weirdo on Craigslist.

Roland U-220 (rack mount)
Purchased used in 1999 for no good reason other than it was really cheap. This thing sucked big time. I totally hated it in so many ways. Hopelessly impossible to program and Roland’s supplied manual read like it was translated by a Japanese high school student. Sold in 2002 to Trade-Up Music in SE Portland just to get it out of my sight.

Roland D-110 (rack mount)
Purchased used in 1999 around the same time as the U-220 for peanuts. This thing sucked worse than the U-220 and wasn’t event worth the little I spent on it. Like the U-220, Roland made these things impossible to program — it’s a wonder these products didn’t sink the company. Sold the D-110 in 2002.

Elektron SidStation (table top)
Purchased new in 2000 directly from the manufacturer in Sweden. A love/hate relationship quickly developed. This thing was designed around the sound chip from the old Commodore 64 computer and paired with analog filters and wavetables (like the old Waldorf PPG). But the SidStation turned out to be really flakey. Often times it would just freak-out and reset itself, erasing all my carefully programmed sounds. And it sure was noisy – even when notes weren’t being played, the SidStation would buzz like an angry bee. Subsequent operating systems and a new chip minimized these problems, but by then, I was done with it. Sold in 2004 on eBay for more than I bought new. Apparently, the SidStation is now considered a “classic” synthesizer and commands a premium price. Frankly, I’d rather have my K1rII back than another SidStation.

Korg Wavestation
Purchased used in 2003 with the proceeds from winning fantasy football that year. The Wavestation was developed in the late ’80s by the folks from Sequential Circuits and is a direct descendent of the fabled Prophet VS. Still have it and use it quite a bit, even though it’s very difficult to program. The Wavestation has a really nice feel to its keys, so I use it as a controller for the most part.

Wish List

Oberheim Matrix 1000
This is the rack mounted version of the Oberheim Matrix 6. Like the JX-8P, it has analog components mixed in with digital ones. Since there are no knobs for programming and it’s not fully analog, it tends to be overlooked on the used market. I’ve seen them going for around $150.00, so I’ll probably pick one up sometime in the near future.

PAiA Fat Man
These are cheap, around $150.00, but you have to solder them together. I’m still pretty shaky with the old iron, so this project will have to wait.

Pie in the Sky

Waldorf Microwave
These were made in West Germany during the late ’80s early ’90s and are the offspring of the wonderful PPGs. I almost bought one in the late ’90s for $350.00, but backed-out at the last minute because it seemed like an insane amount of money. They probably still cost about that much (if not more), but are definitely worth it. It would be great if Waldorf started making them again, but I’m not holding my breath since Waldorf hasn’t fully recovered from its bankruptcy. There is also the Microwave II from the late ‘90s, but it has digital, rather than analog, filters.

Alesis ION
This is a synth often categorized as a virtual analog. All the sounds are created by a computer processor instead of by circuits. But it’s supposed to sound pretty good even though it’s really just a computer with a keyboard attached. Not really analog, but pleasant none the less. And it has lots of knobs making it easy to program. The Alesis Fusion looks pretty cool as well, but doesn’t have the kind of hands on control like the ION. Like the ION, it has virtual analog capability but it also does sampling and FM synthesis. And it has an internal hard drive. Just wish it would playback soundfonts.

Dave Smith Mono Evolver
I think these sell for around a grand. A nice combination of analog and digital with lots of knobs. I think I would pick this over the Moog Little Phatty because of all its features, but I’d have to take a closer look at both.

MOTM modular synthesizer
When I get student loan paid off, I might seriously consider doing the whole MOTM (Module of the Month) thing. You send them, like $150.00 every month, and they send you a module. At the end of the year, you have a modular synth. And the MOTM stuff sounds and looks great — very Moog like. Actually, after looking at the website, I don’t see any references to the whole module a month thing, so maybe I’m confusing MOTM with synthesizers.com.

2 comments October 16th, 2006

Great Inventions

Last week I was asked by my neighbor Drew to contribute to his blog, Millions of Hundred-Dollar Ideas, while he was in NYC. I totally dropped the ball and didn’t post anything (sorry Drew!). You see, this is a blog about clever little inventions and I just couldn’t come up with anything worthy of his fine site. There was a time when ideas were flowing out of my head like water. This was especially true when I was in elementary school. Here are few examples:

The Remote Talker
This was a simple device created by Steve Vossler and myself. Tape a walkie-talkie to a remote control car and find the right moment to unleash. In our case, it was when Steve’s teenage sister Patty had brought a young suitor home to meet the family. We hid in the kitchen and drove the car into the living room and parked it under the coffee table. Steve then yelled into his walkie-talkie “Patty loves Randy, Patty loves Randy” and embarrassment ensued. Actually, I don’t remember what the guy’s name was, but Randy seems likely. I don’t think we got in trouble on this one – Al and Mary probably thought it was funny.

The War Wagon
During the summer months in the ’70s around our neighborhood, children were often left to run wild. Running street battles between kids with dirt clods, dirt bombs, water balloons, and fireworks were not uncommon. During a brief arms race one summer, Steve and I created a sort of tank like device to counter an increasingly violent insurgency. We had found an old appliance of some sort that had been gutted. We mounted it on a large wagon Al had constructed and created this turret featuring an elevating pipe. This pipe served as a cannon of sorts and we would load it with bottle rockets. The whole thing had one serious design flaw: someone had to pull it around, exposing themselves to enemy fire. And when the war wagon was stationary, it was often subjected to a barrage of hostile rocks, which made a deafening racket for the person inside to endure. After limited use, it was scrapped and we took up a cavary mode of battle using bikes.

The Apple Whipper
This was a simple invention consisting of a willow branch and a supply of semi-rotted apples. Cut the right length, a carefully chosen branch would display amazing whip-like properties. Just add a small apple to the end, and then whip toward target. A really nice branch could send an apple the distance of a city block (or more). Steve and I use to bombard kids one street over without them ever knowing how these apples were raining down.

Well, that’s all for now. There were tons of other crazy inventions, but I’m pressed for time, so I won’t be able to list more till later.

1 comment October 4th, 2006


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