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Nine Essential Online Resources

June 1, 2005
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The Internet has done more to advance the spread of information than any technological advance since the invention of the printing press. Electronic musicians and anyone else concerned with changing technologies have been the prime beneficiaries of online connectivity. Because our tools are always evolving and our work is so dependent on innovation, it pays to keep track of daily changes. Thanks to Web sites and discussion forums, the Internet enables us to learn about what's happening almost as soon as it happens.

I want to share with you nine of my favorite sources for obtaining music information online. Some of them I visit several times a day, and others I visit whenever I need answers or I want to catch up on the latest news about a particular product or musician. In selecting resources for this article, I chose sites and newsgroups that aren't product specific or, at the very least, ones that concentrate on a type of product rather than on a single product from one manufacturer. Many sources allow access to information about a range of products or techniques, and it's up to you to narrow your focus to the resources that interest you.

Usenet

Usenet is a phenomenon that's been around longer than the worldwide Web. It grew out of the bulletin board systems (BBSs) that were once popular for exchanging messages among computer users who owned modems and were willing to pay outrageous fees for the privilege of being pioneers. I began using BBSs and Usenet in the 1980s, years before the Web made online communication virtually universal. Although the Internet has made many BBSs obsolete, Usenet lives on.

Usenet is a massive collection of messages posted to literally thousands of discussion forums called newsgroups (see the Web Clip “Netiquette 101”). Messages are sent from one news server to another in service of the people who use those newsgroups. Nobody owns Usenet, just as nobody owns the Internet, but newsgroups owe their existence to the system administrators who preside over and operate the servers that host them. You can access Usenet using your Web browser, or you can use a software application called a newsreader (see the sidebar, “Nuts and Bolts: Newsreaders”). There are many Web-based pathways leading to Usenet, including Google (http://groups-beta.google.com).

Dozens of Usenet newsgroups are devoted to various aspects of music and audio. Many concern musical equipment and software, and many of those begin with the prefix rec.music. Rec.music.makers is a collection of discussion forums, with newsgroups about hand drums, songwriting, chamber music, guitar tablature, and 20 other topics. One forum is rec.music.makers.synth, in which participants discuss synthesizers, music software, and related topics, as well as offer synthesizers for sale and advertise in search of rare vintage instruments. Another place to buy and sell music gear is rec.music.makers.marketplace, in which you can find anything from Neve consoles and Soviet guitar amplifiers to parts for your antique Teac tape recorder. It might take some time to find the newsgroup that suits your interests, but when you find the right one, you'll know it.

Yahoo Groups

Another means to connect with newsgroups is by logging on to Yahoo Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com). Like Usenet, Yahoo has thousands of discussion forums. To find one that's right for you, go to the Yahoo Groups home page, click on Entertainment & Arts, and browse the selections under the heading Music or Audio and Visual Equipment. There you'll find lively discussions about virtually every piece of music hardware and software ever made. You might be surprised by how many others use the same gear as you do and want to talk about it. Most groups require that you register to read or post messages, but some let you browse without becoming a member. You can subscribe to XML feeds so that you receive updates in your newsreader. In addition, you can set up your subscription so that messages are sent to your email in box.

The number of Yahoo Groups might amaze you. When I followed Music > Instruments > Electronic > Synthesizers and Samplers, I found 584 related groups. I regularly visit more than a dozen Yahoo Groups, ranging from Korg Legacy Users and Moog Modular V to K5000 and OASYS PCI. The Logic Users Group (logic-users) currently has nearly 20,000 members and occasionally more than 4,000 messages a month. Yahoo Group users discuss technical problems and solutions, share rumors about new products, read about the latest updates, gripe about bugs, and suggest new features for the next update. Some groups are run entirely by independent users, and others are sanctioned by the product's manufacturer, who might have representatives available to answer your questions and take note of your concerns.

Finding your way around Yahoo Groups is easy. On any forum's home page, you'll see the group's description, links to the five most recent messages, and a grid that shows you how many messages were posted each month every year since the group began (see Fig. 1). Simply click on the grid to read any month's messages, or click on View All to read the most recent messages. On every page, you'll also see a menu that lets you post messages, enter real-time chat mode, look for files that other users have posted, see photos and Web links, participate in polls, and view a list of members. Because Yahoo Groups are supported by advertising, sometimes you'll need to get past a full-page ad before you can read a message. Sure, it's a minor inconvenience, but it's well worth your while to join the online community at Yahoo Groups.

Harmony Central

Every morning when I turn on my computer, one of the first Web sites I go to is Harmony Central (www.harmony-central.com). Harmony Central is an excellent source of news, discussions, reviews, and other useful and timely information about the world of audio and music technology. According to site administrators, I'm not alone: Harmony Central claims 70,000 unique visitors every day and more than a million every month.

Foremost on the home page is HC News, a collection of headlines from individual press releases about new or updated products (see Fig. 2). Typically, there are links to more than a dozen of the most recent releases, most accompanied by photos or screen shots. Additional links lead to a couple months' worth of news about music software, soundware, instruments, and similar products. The information that you'll find there is nearly identical to the news releases that EM editors receive directly from product manufacturers and their press agents, often on the same day that we receive them.

HC News is available in the form of RSS feeds that you can access with your newsreader program. You can specify whether you want to see all of today's news or limit it to only news about bass, computers, drums, effects, guitars, recording, or synths.

Harmony Central also offers extensive coverage of product-related trade shows. In the past year, Harmony Central has covered AES, Musikmesse, and both NAMM shows. You'll find all show-related news releases and links to streaming video demos and interviews all in one place.

In addition, the home page offers quick access to exclusive online columns and links to gear reviews, artist features, and instructional articles posted by Electronic Musician, Mix, and numerous other magazines and audio Web sites. Harmony Central's thousands of user reviews can be especially enlightening. It's not unusual to find more than a dozen reviews of a particular instrument or device, each rating it for factors such as features, sounds, reliability, and customer support. Additionally, you'll find links to online contests such as performance competitions and product giveaways.

The Services page is especially handy if you want to buy or sell used gear or if you're trying to hook up with other musicians. It offers free classified ads in 11 product categories. A typical week might feature 75 ads offering to buy and sell synthesizers, for example, and well over 200 ads for effects processors. I've seen some amazing deals and hard-to-find gear there.

Not surprisingly, some of the busiest portions of Harmony Central are the user forums. Forums are available for more than 20 topics ranging from the music business and guitar lessons to live sound and configuring your Windows PC. Several forums have more than 100,000 posts. All in all, Harmony Central is a versatile Web site with something to offer musicians of every persuasion.

KVR Audio

Another Web site that I frequent is KVR Audio (www.kvraudio.com), formerly known as KVR-VST. In its mission statement, KVR defines itself as “a community and news site for open-standard audio plug-ins” for Linux, Windows, and the Mac OS. It further defines “open standard” by stating that “the software development kit (SDK) required to create them must be freely obtainable and available to all.” That includes VST, DirectX, Audio Units, and LADSPA, and it excludes MAS, RTAS, HTDM, and a few other formats.

KVR is an invaluable source of news about audio software plug-ins and hosts — even freeware and shareware from companies you've never heard of. Like Harmony Central, KVR updates its news releases several times daily. The home page displays the ten most recent news items in their entirety, along with icons that indicate each product's computer platform and plug-in format (see Fig. 3). Each item also supplies four links: one to the developer's Web site, one to a KVR page devoted to that product, one to spread the news by email, and one to display the news item in a format that is suitable for printing. Below the news items on the home page are links to 20 less recent news items. As soon as KVR tells me that an update is available for software I use, I click on the developer's link, which usually takes me directly to the product's download page.

You can select the specific type of news that you want to view in your Web browser, either by doing a search or by simply clicking on the appropriate heading. You can view products by manufacturer, by type (instrument, effects, hosts, hardware, or development tool), platform, and so on. News headlines are available in RSS format as well, so that your newsreader can receive all news items or news only about instruments, effects, hosts, sounds, SynthEdit, or special offers. You can also subscribe to KVR's newsletter, which delivers the previous week's headlines to your email every Monday.

One page on KVR is dedicated exclusively to each product or family of products. The page on Steinberg Cubase, for example, covers all versions and offers specifications, user reviews, and related news items, as well as links to its support forum and KVR pages about related software such as Steinberg plug-ins. Another page lets you download banks, patches, and drum kits for a long list of instrument plug-ins.

KVR has a lively bunch of online forums. An extended FAQ and a list of rules is posted on the site, and membership is required if you want to post messages. In addition to topics such as instruments, effects, and hosts, you'll find the support forums for a number of developers, such as Wizoo and FXpansion.

KVR's user reviews are generally interesting and informative. Each product is rated for traits such as its sound, features, support, and stability. Each review has an icon that makes it easy to report to the sysop if you read something inappropriate. In general, KVR does an excellent job of deleting messages that are insulting, obscene, or far off-topic.

KVR is so extensive that it is almost hard to believe that it is operated by a single individual named Ben Turl. It was recently purchased by Muse Research, makers of the Receptor VST plug-in player. KVR is an essential resource for electronic musicians, and one that you'd do well to visit often.

Recording Org

With more than 23,000 registered users and nearly 150,000 articles posted, Recording Org (www.recording.org) is one of the busiest discussion sites for musicians and audio enthusiasts and professionals. At RO's core are more than 20 forums devoted to subjects such as pro audio gear, recording studio techniques, the music business, home and project studios, and live sound. Each is independently moderated by individuals who take care of day-to-day maintenance. RO currently has 15 moderators, all music and audio professionals with a wide range of experience. Although RO generally allows anyone to read the forum, you need to register and log in if you want to post messages. If you'd prefer to use a newsreader, you can also subscribe to RO's forums.

It's revealing to see which forums are the most popular, as determined by the number of posts and topics for each. Pro Audio Gear rates highest, probably because the topic is a catchall that covers almost any audio hardware-related subject (see Fig. 4). Other forums may cover some of the same products, but they're not limited to discussions of hardware. In the Audio Video Film forum, for example, you'll find posts about video cameras and recorders, video-editing software, dialog recording techniques, sound effects collections, DVD mastering, and so on.

Other RO sections include free classified ads and product-specific forums. Classified ads are divided into job postings and used-equipment sales. I was surprised to see how many ads were from users wanting to buy gear. Predictably enough, the job posting section is primarily filled with ads written by members offering their services, but it also has ads from sound-design companies and major manufacturers looking for employees.

RO is one of the few musician-oriented sites that charge a membership fee for its premium services. For $20 a year, the RO Club offers benefits such as real-time chat, detailed statistics, and the ability to submit news and post announcements. But it doesn't cost a cent to participate in RO's online community. For timely information and lively discussions, Recording Org's forums offer something new every day.

Vintage Synth Explorer

For anyone interested in synthesizers, one of the very best resources is Vintage Synth Explorer (www.vintagesynth.com). VSE is basically an online storehouse of information on more than 500 synthesizers and samplers of every type: hardware and software, analog and digital, vintage and new. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to think of a model that VSE doesn't feature in some detail.

A list of nearly 80 synth manufacturers appears on VSE's home page. Clicking on a manufacturer name reveals a list of every instrument (and sometimes a few other products) made by that company, arranged in alphabetical order. Clicking on Oberheim, for example, displays a list that has 15 synthesizers (from the SEM to the OB-12), the DX and DMX drum machines, the DPX1 sample player, the OB-Xk MIDI keyboard, the Prommer (a device for burning EPROM chips for drum machines), the DSX digital sequencer, the analog Mini Sequencer, and the Echoplex Digital Pro.

Clicking on any instrument name opens a page that contains one or more photos or screen shots, a description, and detailed specifications that include the dates that the instrument was produced and the current estimated street value (see Fig. 5). You'll also find data on related and alternative gear and on the artists who used that product in their music. For software, there might even be a link to download a demo from its developer. Each page also lets you rate the product from 1 to 5 and displays the average rating given by other visitors.

One unique feature of VSE is the Synth Finder. It allows you to specify five parameters and then makes recommendations based on your selections. You begin by indicating the musical genre (electronic, pop/hip-hop, or other), synth format (analog, digital, or sampler), price range (over or under $500), features (modern or old school), and sound types (synth/pads/bass, acoustic reproduction, or drums/percussion). When you click on Find Synths, the online application will generate a list of instruments that fit your specifications.

VSE is more than a compendium of product information. It also has discussion forums on synth-related topics. In addition to discussions of samplers, soft synths, and synthesizers in general, you'll find an area in which you can solicit help with a technical problem. In another section, a timeline traces the development of synthesizers from 1970 to 2004. An archive section profiles a dozen recording artists, provides a MIDI setup guide, offers user-submitted technical tips, presents a synth FAQ, and gives you a glossary of electronic music terms. If synthesizers are your thing — especially learning about the history of electronic instruments since 1970 — you'll find plenty of rich knowledge to explore at Vintage Synthesizer Explorer.

All Music Guide

For information on recording artists and their recordings, nothing beats All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com). AMG attempts to catalog nearly every CD and LP ever released, and although it inevitably falls short of that lofty goal, it comes impressively close. There you'll find descriptions and reviews of hundreds of thousands of recordings, along with facts and opinions about the musicians who recorded them, written by full-time editors and knowledgeable contributors. AMG can teach you a tremendous amount about all sorts of musical genres and tell you about music and musicians you never knew existed. It can also give you the skinny on artists that you listen to every day.

Anyone can search and browse AMG, which allows you to view the biographical details of more than 75,000 recording artists as well as track lists, cover images, and reviews of most if not all of their recordings. Pick a musician or band and type that name into AMG's search field, or enter the name of an album or a song title. Every artist and band has a dedicated page telling you who they are, where they came from, and when they were active (see Fig. 6). You can even view a collection of each artist's photographs, see whose songs they've recorded, and read about similar artists.

If you want to access AMG's premium content, registration is free; all you need to do is provide minimal demographic information such as your zip code, but not your mailing address. Registration authorizes you to listen to music clips, view album credits, and explore by musical style or mood. Advanced search capabilities let you find information by specifying details such as birthplace or see how well a song might have done on the Billboard charts. For anyone interested in modern music and musicians, All Music Guide is without peer.

Sweetwater

Quite a few music stores have an online presence, but none of them can match Sweetwater (www.sweetwater.com). Sweetwater's Web site is more than just a wealth of product information. In addition to the company's detailed online catalog, you'll find lots of good advice on using modern studio tools and techniques. inSync Daily News, for example, offers technical tips and terms of the day. The Sweetcare 24/7 Support page features a searchable knowledge base, an online technical reference library, and links to inSync Summits, in which audio professionals discuss subjects such as vocal recording techniques and the practical differences between -10 dBV and +4 dBu levels.

Like several other resources I've mentioned, Sweetwater has a good selection of discussion forums. Anyone can view messages, but you'll need to register if you want to post. Sweetwater forums are neatly divided by topics under headings such as pro audio, computers, and instruments (see Fig. 7). In the Manufacturer and Gear forum, a handful of groups discuss particular products such as the Korg OASYS and Tascam GigaStudio. In some groups, posts run into the thousands.

The Sweetwater site also gives you access to online publications such as The Complete K2000 (a useful resource for Kurzweil users) and Jim Miller's Tech Notes. You can download catalogs and newsletters and read reports from NAMM and AES shows going back to 1996. Another Sweetwater resource of which I'm particularly fond is the Trading Post. On several occasions, I have bought and sold mixers, synths, and other hardware on Sweetwater's Trading Post, and using it is absolutely free. You can view ads sequentially or search for a product by name, manufacturer, or category. The people at Sweetwater have done an admirable job of creating a Web site that contributes to the online community of musicians, regardless of whether you're one of their customers.

Native Instruments

Although many manufacturers have very fine sites, Native Instruments' Web site (www.nativeinstruments.de) is exceptional. There, you can quickly find product updates, software demos, audio examples, video clips, news releases, artist interviews, and more. NI's user forums offer more than 100,000 posts about virtual synths, samplers, and effects. Patch libraries let registered users download presets created by other users — perhaps even the original software programmer. You can personalize NI's home page and see a quick overview of anything on the site that has changed in the past two weeks.

In addition to helpful beginner's guides, online tutorials guide you in exploring the depths of Reaktor, Kontakt, and other products (see Fig. 8). Granted, much of the site tries to persuade you to buy NI software, but the magnitude of product support and education you find there, combined with a thriving user community, make it well worth a visit for NI users and nonusers alike.

Online All the Time

Cyberspace is filled with resources that cover any aspect of producing music using modern technology. I've covered only a few of the many useful sources of knowledge and communication that you'll find online. Because I chose resources that were general in nature, I had to omit many Web sites and discussion groups that focus on individual products. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention one more Web resource you shouldn't miss. If you enjoy the print version of EM, you'll certainly find plenty of fascinating news, knowledge, and advice on EM's Web site (www.emusician.com).

Although the term information highway has fallen into disfavor from overuse, it is bigger, better, and faster than ever. There's no doubt that the Internet offers quick access to the knowledge you need to make better music and better recordings. Visit some of the sites and newsgroups I've suggested and get involved in the virtual community of electronic musicians.


Geary Yelton lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his lovely wife, Pam, and their amazing cat, Sadie.

NUTS AND BOLTS: NEWSREADERS

The most popular means of accessing online forums is by using a Web browser such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Apple Safari. Web browsers have many advantages, including easy maneuverability and the ability to display full graphics. Another means to receive the latest news is by using a newsreader, an application in which you subscribe to an RSS (which stands for rich site summary or really simple syndication, depending on who you ask) feed. When you run or refresh your newsreader, it will download the most recent messages so that you're always up-to-date about the topic at hand.

Most of the online discussion groups discussed in this article make news available in a format understood by newsreaders. Popular newsreaders include NetNewsWire for the Mac, SharpReader for Windows, Straw for Linux, and AmphetaDesk for all three computer platforms. Whether you'd rather access newsgroups using a newsreader or a Web browser is a matter of personal preference.

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