MIDI Project: First Success! Throwing an Electrical Switch

Last night I spent my evening hacking at Pumping Station: One, Chicago's premiere hacker/makerspace. It was my first time really getting down to work there after joining a few weeks ago. What I love about working there vs. at home is the community. A couple members, Steve and Patrick, who much more experienced in electronics than me were incredibly helpful, teaching along the way. I wouldn't have had this first success without their help.

So what am I making at PS:One? Well, in short it is a MIDI-controlled channel selector for my guitar amp. Anyone who's ever seen my guitar rig will usually comment on my pedal board first. For all the complexities you see at first glance, it's actually rather simple and elegant. A few years back, I bought a box that plugs into the amp that selects between its clean and distortion channels. Then I started it on fire. I've since replaced the fried diode inside it and it works again (also thanks to the guys at PS:One), but in the process realized just how simple it would be to build one of these boxes myself. My guitar amp has three quarter-inch mono phone plugs, one for each channel. When the tip of a cable is connected to its ground (i.e., shorting the cable with a SPST switch), the amp switches to the corresponding channel.

Thus, the goal for my project is simple: Build a box that will receive MIDI program change (PC) messages and select the desired channel on my guitar amp (clean, rhythm, or lead). For example, MIDI PC 11 would be the clean channel, 12 would be rhythm and 13 would be lead.

Spotify for iPhone's Missing Key Feature: Library View

Update 2016: I wrote this piece when Spotify had just launched in the US. They've since added a My Library view. Looking back on it, it's such an obvious feature. I wonder how many people it was immediately clear to that they'd have to get around to it eventually.

I've been using Spotify for a whole two days now since it launched in the US. I'll probably write more later, but for now I'm compelled to point out a glaringly obvious missing feature in its iPhone app. I recently posed this idea on Spotify's official forum on the customer service portal, Get Satisfaction:

Add "Library" view to iPhone app for iPod-style Artist > Album browsing 

I'd like to add to the chorus of folks who seem to think Spotify for iOS is a great start, but is missing some key features. The gaping hole in the mobile experience is that browsing for a specific album or song is incredibly cumbersome: you have to search by typing the name of the artist, album or song. (Sure, you could make a playlist for every album in your collection, but with a large library that would become unwieldy.) A scrollable list like the iPhone (and iPod Touch) has for Artist > Albums > Songs is absolutely essential.

Adding a "Library" icon on the tab bar at the bottom of the app is the first implementation that comes to mind which fits with Spotify's current design. This view would have the same contents as the Library in the Spotify desktop app, except in an iPod-style scrollable list with a drill-down structure of Artist > Albums > Songs. In "Offline Mode", the view would work the same except only containing content previously enabled for offline listening.

As a customer new to Spotify since its launch in the US, I see this as the key missing feature Spotify needs in order to create an experience that rivals and could potentially supplant iTunes.

Thoughts on Maintaining Balance

This piece has been something I've been meaning to jot down for a while. For me, writing is a great way to shape and critique my own thoughts. The push to write this came when I received an e-mail from an artist I follow and friend, musician Quiet Entertainer, aka Greg Freeman. I interviewed Greg when I was focusing my blog on music and he and I have since continued to write back and forth. Greg's e-mail to his fans was a good push to finally put these thoughts in my head into words.

It's always striking to me to think back about how I spend my time, doing the things I do. To me, life is a puzzle with different pieces to it: all the friends we make, all the places we go, all the media we consume, balancing work and play, and the lack of separation between the two.

Hacking My Mac's Keyboard to Control Pandora

In this how-to, I’ll explain how I hacked my MacBook Pro’s built-in media keys to control the Pandora One desktop app. We’ll use AppleScript, Keyboard Maestro, Growl and, of course, an obscure utility posted to a French language forum. It took me a bit of hunting to piece together the essential bits, so I think you’ll find this how-to useful. 

Important Note: This hack is designed for how Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6) handles the interaction between the media keys and iTunes. It goes without saying that I take no responsibility for however you may break your computer :)

Windows Phone 7: Fun With Interaction Design

If you haven't heard, Microsoft recently released their latest smartphone OS, Windows Phone 7. The blogs are already saying it's a great OS but is obviously late to the party. Google has a big head start, but Android mostly copies the iPhone as far as interaction design is concerned.

The biggest departure from the iPhone is what Microsoft is calling panoramic navigation. The idea is expanded from the UI of their Zune media players. The affordance, which I thought was ugly at first, is to display cropped text on the page that appears to spill over off the screen. Seeing it in action though, I'm pretty impressed with what some app developers have come up with already.

(Edited 2016: Unfortunately, the screenshots of these apps have been lost to time. Here's a list of the apps I referenced.)

  • Netflix
  • AP News
  • CTA Bus Tracker
  • Zune Music Player

I have to say that after seeing these demos, I'm kind of excited to see what design patterns we interaction designers can come up with for this new platform. Essentially, the UI is designed to get out of the way so you can use it quickly and get on with your life. And Microsoft's ad for this illustrates that point quite aptly (pun totally intentional):


Detroit's Underground Resistance on Cars and Music

Detroit is known for two things, one more so than the other depending on who you talk to and when: cars and electronic music. Here, they converge.

From the NYTimes Wheels blog:

Mr. Banks (of Underground Resistance) works out of a recording studio that originally housed a labor union on East Grand Boulevard, several blocks from Motown’s origins. He counts car designers from Ford, General Motors and Chrysler among the fans who come to the building to buy vinyl.
“There have been times at our small store here in the basement of the building that some rather odd customers will come through,” said Mr. Banks, an avid Chrysler muscle-car enthusiast. In 1991, his label released “G-Force” as an homage to Detroit drag racing. “These people aren’t your average dance floor D.J.’s that usually buy our products. They are young automotive designers. They listen to our music so as to inspire progressive thoughts of what automotive transportation will be in the future.”
Read the article…

Trent Reznor Scores The Social Network

Says Reznor on NIN.com:

I was planning on taking some time off after the continual waves of touring that ended last fall and spend this year experimenting around with what would become How To Destroy Angels and some new NIN. Well, that plan didn’t work out so well. David Fincher started inquiring about my interest in scoring his upcoming film, The Social Network. Yeah, the movie about the founding of Facebook. I’ve always loved David’s work but quite honestly I wondered what would draw him to tell that story. When I actually read the script and realized what he was up to, I said goodbye to that free time I had planned. Atticus Ross and I have been on a creative roll so I asked him if he wanted to work on this with me and we signed on.
Read the post…

Talk about a trifecta: Reznor, Fincher and Sorkin, on a movie that’s a thriller about a technology startup. I have to agree, I was a bit skeptical when I heard Hollywood was involved with adapting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg’s story into a feature film. But first we learned that the screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men) and later that it would be directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Finchers (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, ZodiacFight Club). Now with Reznor and Ross collaborating on a soundtrack, I’m putting this film in my must-see-in-theaters column.

I mean really, just watch the trailer. The Social Network will premier at the New York Film Festival on Friday, September 24.

Updated 7/16/2010: The full-length trailer is out now and (fittingly) features a piano and choir version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Check it out:

In Conversation with I Fight Dragons

Ask I Fight Dragons lead vocalist/guitarist Brian Mazzaferri to describe his band’s sound and you’ll likely hear an explanation of an underground internet meme scene known as Chiptune. More on just what that is later.

You can start to get an idea of the how eclectic this band is by taking a solid chunk of pop-punk, mixing it with some old-school NES, Commodore 64 and Atari tones, and then throwing in lyrical references to everything from sci-fi pop culture to youthful idealism. If you’re skeptical, know that in just over a year this Chicago-based band has amassed a legion of fans, headlined legendary rock venue The Metro, and recently signed to Atlantic Records. 

Mazzaferri took some time out from touring and working on I Fight Dragons’ debut full-length album to take some questions. In our discussion, we cover the band’s unexpected beginnings, connecting with fans over the internet, and of course, the geeky gadgetry behind their music.