Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lost to the Sandboxes of Time

Shortly after starting in Second Lifevery shortly, if I recall—my friend Geoff Novi showed me a sandbox in a sim called Hyperborea. For folks who aren't familiar, sandboxes are essentially empty spaces in Second Life where most (or, preferably, all) of SL's building capabilities are enabled. Although a lot of people use sandboxes as a quick place to unpack and sort through items they might have accumulated in stores or giveaways, most sandboxes are intended as a place where people can experiment with building and scripting and creating their own things, even if they don't own or rent any land of their own. Although nothing is permanent in a sandbox—they return any objects left in them to their owners after a fixed period, usually 2 to 12 hours, so you can't set up a house and "live" there—but sandboxes are extremely useful for learning how SL works, creating and editing objects, using textures, working on scripts, and much more.

Now, because sandboxes let people create anything they want—and have most of SL's capabilities enabled—they tend to be a little out of control. One minute you might be working on an exquisite little wire brooch you want to wear to an event next week, the next minute some overgrown Conan-type is driving tank over you while shooting you with a teddy bear-flinging bazooka and looping "I'm Too Sexy for My Shirt" in an endless loop. Stuff like that is usually reportable as abuse, but it's not an environment conducive to working or learning how SL works.

When I was first introduced to Hyperborea, I was kind of non-plussed about how quiet it was: there didn't seem to be much happening in the sandbox or in the surrounding sim. Nothing exciting. But, over time, I came to realize that tranquility was a tremendous virtue. Hyperborea was a quiet sandbox where people could actually work and get stuff done! Sure, the occasional miscreant would wander through and wreak a little havoc, but for the most part Hyperborea offered a quiet, reliable environment where I could puzzle through the odds and ends of creating and programming in Second Life. Hyperborea was also blessed with a small but savvy community of regular users, plus admins who actually cared what was happening in the sandbox and ran a surprisingly tidy and responsive operation. Hyperborea was a kind-of-old sim—going back to at least 2006—and several of the regulars had been there since its early days.

Now, Hyperborea is no more: the sim has been sold and is now an adjunct to an unrelated operation called Bliss Gardens. The sandbox, all the builds, even the office of the Alphaville née Second Life Herald are gone. Rumors of Hyperborea's imminent demise had been circulating since at least October—when Geoff and I were visited by one of the Woodbury University folks, who seemed to be scouting the sim whilst angling for a new home.

But now there's no longer a Hyperborea on the grid, and with it goes the closest thing I had to a "home" in Second Life. I don't know how many hours I spent on my little sky platform in Hyperborea, wrangling prims, fighting LSL scripts, and trying to get the things to work together in ways I actually intended. And that time would have been after I built my sky platform tools: those were all conceived, built, and tested in Hyperborea. So were all the scripts and props I use to host my Lou's Clues trivia game, all the commission jewelry work I've done, all the little scripting odds and ends and projects, all my experimenting, and all my little pranks and gewgaws like the immortal teacups and my silly little titler. They're all products of Hyperborea.

But probably more importantly, I learned an incredible amount from Hyperborea's regular users, especially the admins Tali Rosca (who made the fabulous mad scientist Victorian death ray I show off sometimes!) and Harpo Jedburgh, who were all very generous with their time and helping me wrap my head around how Second Life works. It's fair to say that without them I never would have stuck with building and trying to create my own stuff in Second Life…and if I couldn't do that, I probably wouldn't stick with Second Life itself.

Sadly, I seem to have no screenshots of Hyperborea. Many of the screenshots that have appeared in this blog (particularly jewelry stuff or things that use my avatar as an example) were taken there, but I don't seem to have any images of the basic ground level of the sim, or of many of the sandbox's regular users. I don't know why I didn't think to take any.

I have no idea where the Hyperborea diaspora will end up: I imagine most of us will wander off to other sandboxes in hopes of finding a comparable environment. Others will probably rent or buy land of their own so they can build in peace.

As for me…I'm kind of kicking the tires on a few other sandboxes, seeing if I can find somewhere quiet to work on my own without being bothered and without bothering anyone else. But in the back of my head, I know nothing's going to stack up to the sandbox where I grew up.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Little Virtual Music

I've been promising I would get around to writing about Second Life's music scene—and it's been hard to do. When forced to choose between writing about good music or listening to good music, I tend to pick the latter. The quality and variety of acts in Second Life makes things even more difficult: in-world venues are indeed peppered with some not-so-stellar performers and earnest amateurs just barely dipping their feet into the world of live music, but there are a number of seriously talented people playing music in-world. Although I have seen many solid musicians, I'm quite sure I've only scratched the surface, and I can't really put myself forward as any kind of authority on the in-world music scene.

Nonetheless, I'm still hoping this will be the first in an ongoing set of posts spotlighting some in-world music acts. I'm not going to feature artists in any particular order or with much rime or reason: for instance, the performers highlighted in this post were selected on the basic of my having usable screen shots! These aren't the only in-world artists I enjoy and whose work I've supported—there are many more, and I hope to mention them all. But I need to take small steps or I won't get started at all.

A quick primer on SL music

Performing live music in Second Life might seem simple…but the reality can be a little more complicated. Live musicians typically perform at their real-world location with a computer—which is often the same computer logged in to Second Life—using a digital audio interface to capture their voices and/or instruments, process the audio a bit, convert it to an MP3 stream, and send it out to the Internet. Although it's technically possible for Second Life users to tap into that stream directly, more often performers send that stream to a third party service outside Second Life (usually running ShoutCast or Icecast) that can handle a large number of users. These servers essentially rent out streaming services: sometimes performers rent their own, and sometimes in-world music venues have streaming servers performers can use. Either way, when you teleport your avatar to a music venue, you turn on that parcel's media stream to hear the live performance.

The types of performances vary a bit. In-world DJs essentially queue up playlists of pre-recorded songs in iTunes or WinAmp or similar programs, push them out to a streaming server so everyone can listen. Some in-world DJs have a live mic so they can speak in real time on the stream to introduce songs and talk to the crowd. Some live music performers use a very similar setup: they get pre-recorded backing tracks together (sometimes they're canned, sometimes the musicians create the tracks themselves) and sing or play along to the recordings karaoke-style. Some musicians are all-live, all-the-time, with every sound you hear being produced by the performer in real time.

The complicated mechanics of streaming live music to the Internet means the in-world music scene in Second Life is dominated by solo performers. Part of the reason is logistics: if you wanted to stream a band performance into Second Life, you've basically got to have the entire band in the same room. If you want the band to sound good, you've also got to have some decent audio gear and (hopefully) someone to keep an eye on things during the set. All that gets complicated and expensive. While a solo performer can essentially plug into their computer and get up and running for under a few hundred dollars, audio setups that handle 8 or 16 or 24 live channels at the same time are (considerably) more expensive: you can get a traditional mixer and push everything down to a stereo mix and push that into a computer, or use a studio-quality digital audio interface and take everyone digital. By the time you've done either—and set up everyone's mics, baffles, effects, feeds, mixes, and worked out all the buzzes and kinks—you've essentially set up your own recording space.

Since Second Life is a virtual world, some people wonder if virtual bands are possible: you know, a drummer in Brazil, a fiddler in Scotland, a guitarist in Australia, a singer in Tokyo, all collaborating in real time and streaming into Second Life. Second Life does feature a few virtual bands, but the answer is "kind of but not really." The most common way of doing this sort of things is "streamcatching:" one person (usually the drummer or rhythm section) starts playing, sending their MP3 stream to (say) a guitarist. The guitarist receives the stream then plays along with it, sending the combined stream to (say) a singer. The singer receives the stream, sings along to it, then sends the combined stream to a Shoutcast or Icecast server, which then sends it to Second Life audience members. That works, right? Well, not really. The downside of all this is that the drummer or rhythm section can't hear what anyone else is doing: they're just playing to themselves; similarly, in this scenario the guitarist can't hear the singer. You might think each of them could tap back into the final stream to hear what was going on, but it's just not practical: after all those hops and transitions, the "live" music stream is running many (many!) seconds behind what the performers are actually playing, so musicians can't hear what's happening in real time. The result with streamcatching is that most of the interaction between live performers is eliminated, and unless a show is tightly rehearsed, it mostly sounds like a bunch of half-deaf zombies. (Which, funny enough, is how many tightly rehearsed shows sound anyway!)

So, the best way to bring live group performance into Second Life is to have all the musicians in one place with a bunch of gear. Although that's feasible for some group performers, it does mean that most live music performers in Second Life are just one person.

That doesn't mean they sound like just one person, however. Most (perhaps all) in-world singers are essentially performing karaoke: they have pre-recorded backing tracks (usually without vocals, but sometimes with harmony backing vocals) to which they sing along, often applying a modicum of digital reverb and/or echo to their voices. So they sound a bit like they have a full band. Some of these folks are legitimately talented singers who know how to use a microphone, understand their material, and do a good job entertaining an in-world audience. Others…not so much. And it's not that someone needs a degree in vocal performance to be a good online entertainer this way: one of the funnest half hours I spent in SL was listening to an amateur singer do absolutely hysterical impressions of famous singers; another time a friend did what amounted to a house concert for a few friends and acquaintences, and while she won't be winning a Grammy anytime soon the entire event had a sweetness even some of the most polished SL performers can lack.

Other performers—and some of the most successful ones—approach Second Life shows as if they were real life performances: it's just their voice, their instrument, and sound they can make in real time. The most common example in this group is what I call a "singer-songwriter" show, usually just one person singing with a guitar or piano; a handful of real-life duos and trios also perform in Second Life this way. Again, the talent level varies widely, but there are folks in performing in Second Life who could easily hold their own at a music festival.

Still other performers use hybrids of these approaches: some play along with real instruments to pre-recorded backing tracks (sometimes ones they made themselves), while other perform "live" using samplers, loopers, and "live" automated tools and software to fill out their sound. Some of these folks are software and synthesizer people, using software instruments, drum machines, sequencers, and tools like Reason and Ableton to produce everything from ambient electronica to hip-hop and house; some are guitar shredmeisters playing their latest Yngvie-inspired magnum opus over their own backing tracks; some play jazz, some play blues, some play Latin…the variety can be tremendous.

So, the bottom line: if there's a way to make digitized sound, whether by playing an MP3, using a microphone, firing up some software, or turning on a whole heap of cranky, buzzy, cantankerous gear, someone in Second Life is doing it. And if you look around, odds are someone (or several someones) is doing it well.

Komuso Tokugawa

Second Life electric blues cyborg Komuso Tokugawa

First up, Komuso Tokugawa. I'm not quite sure how to describe Komuso: electric blues, for sure, but somewhat re-interpreted for the digital age. Appearing as a tall cyborg-ish bluesman with varying skins (some rusted, some hygenic, none particularly human) Komuso takes a bunch of well-worn blues tunes and couples them with sometimes-snarling vocals and often-growling slide guitar. One of the most interesting things about Komuso's shows is how much he varies his guitar tone: sometimes silky smooth, sometimes biting and jarring, sometimes rocking, sometimes so far behind the beat you wonder if he's still awake. And Komuso usually sounds like a full band thanks to Beato-san and Basso-san, his virtual rhythm section—instantiated in-world as animated devil-and-angel attachments that float around Komuso's head. Beato-san handles drums and Basso-san handles bass: I gather they're a software based rhythm section that Komuso cues and triggers while he's playing: the rhyhm section isn't a simple loop that backs him up, but shifts and changes as he's playing—and Komuso varies the rhythm instrumentation a bunch between songs.

But all that is technical stuff: Komuso brings straight-up electric blues to Second Life with considerable authority, taking on both classics and some unusual song choices with unique style. Most of the time the results are stunning, and while sometimes Komuso crawls out onto a branch that can't quite hold him, his playing is free and almost fearless—not being afraid to take chances is one of the only ways to make magic happen. Some of his renditions would be at home in a whiskey-and-beer-soaked dive bar; others venture into Middle Eastern and Asian tonal territory, while others can be almost be described as pop. And most of the time they're surprising.

The downside of a Komuso show is that he does draw a crowd—and with it, he draws lag. I've seen Komuso pack more than 80 people into a sim, and the load has brought down venues more than once. But don't use that as an excuse: if you like blues and can make it to a show, just find a seat, endure the lag, and enjoy it.

Von Johin

Von Johin brings home the acoustic blues

Speaking of blues, one of the champions of Second Life blues is Von Johin, who's reasonably "out" as Nashville musician and music industry writer Mike Lawson in real life, although Von Johin has a strong identity of his own—Von is generally credited as being the first Second Life avatar to land a record deal, although I have no idea what's up with that. Von is just his guitar and his voice, mainly doing acoustic and country blues along the lines of Willie Dixon, Sun House, and Sonny Boy Williamson…but also sometimes segue off into show tunes or even material that would fit right in at a Grateful Dead show—unsurprising since there are a few real life connections there. Von typically performs with just his acoustic guitar and voice, although he stomps some percussion and isn't above firing up a wah-wah pedal on that acoustic. Lately Von's discovered the dubious magic of vocal harmonizers–electronic gizmos that take a copy of a live vocal line and create electronically-generated harmony lines around it—so it sometimes sounds like three or four people are singing. In live music harmonizers are best used sparingly for effect rather than as a crutch, and after briefly over-using the gizmo to get a feel for it Von seems to have settled into a nice technique with it, using it to accent moments in a tune and showcase his voice, rather than using it as a cheap trick to great a bigger sound.

Von's shows are relaxed and pretty open-ended: songs flow into each other without any premeditated plan—sometimes taking amusing and amazing tangents—and if no one is going on after Von his sets often wander past their scheduled conclusions: I've popped into a venue nearly an hour after Von was supposed to wrap up and still found him going strong. As a musician, the vocabulary Von displays at most shows isn't terribly wide, but he plays it with the kind of conviction and confidence that only comes with years of performing experience, and he truly understands how to leverage his technique and sonic palette to serve his material. And as a player, Von is no slouch: when you perform solo you don't really get to take big extended guitar solos, but Von can manage to keep a tune rolicking all by himself while still throwing in a ton of hopping fretwork. The man has studied his Doc Watson and Chet Atkins.

Like Komuso, Von Johin can also be a sim-packer, but because his shows typically go on for a while, it's usually possible to catch part of almost any show he plays. Highly recommended.

Joaquin Gustav

Joaquin Gustav brings a touch of tango to Second Life

Another musician with a strong presence in the Second Life music scene is Joaquin Gustav, an Argentinian guitarist who eschews the tick-tackery of electric guitars for the elegance and romance of the nylon-string…and a hint of tango. Joaquin's setup is pretty simple: it's just a mic and his guitar, and he often plays to simple, single-take accompaniment tracks that afford him the opportunity to play heads and take a solo or two if he likes. Most of Joaquin's repertoire is jazz and pop standards—you'll hear Jobim, Gershwin, and Bill Evans alongside and The Beatles and maybe even a Cyndi Lauper tune. Joaquin plays many of his tunes instrumentally, hinting at a bit of tango in the arrangements, usually stating the head pretty clearly then rolling through a few verses of solo. The show is aimed at couples and dancing: it's about setting a mood rather than showing off. His guitar technique is oddly both flashy and understated: he's not afraid to simply outline bits of a melody and let the music speak for itself, but he also indulges in some flourishes that mainly serve to highlight the material. Since his backing tracks are pre-recorded, a few tunes sometimes feel a little canned, and I tend to prefer songs that are just Joaquin on his own—he'll take requests, sometimes with amusing results. Joaquin will occasionally sing a tune or two, but half the charm of Joaquin's performances can be his interaction with the crowd and his regular audience members…and, personally, his speaking accent is just delightful.

Joaquin is one of the hardest-working performers in Second Life: seems like he plays a dozen or more shows a week, often at consistent times in regular venues, so catching Joa is usually pretty easy. He also played my friend Lebn & Preston's third anniversary celebration, so you know he's a great guy!

The Odd Ball

Shava Suntzu and Tuna Oddfellow boogie down at The Odd Ball

So this isn't really a live music act so much as an experience: if you haven't done it, you've got to get yourself to an Odd Ball. They happen almost every week on Mondays at 7 PM SLT and Sundays at 11 AM SLT, with occasional irregular events happening at, well, odd times.

What is the Odd Ball? I really have no idea. It's a dance party, it's a rave, it's a psychedelic extravaganza, it's a visual feast, it's people-watching, it's the ultimate in lag. The Odd Ball seems to have been going on in Second Life for quite some time: the average age of avatars attending the events verges on the ancient and you'll even see some of Second Life's bigname glitterati in attendance. The Odd Balls aren't a concert: they're a virtual experience that I can only compare to standing inside a kaleidoscope. The shows take place in a custom build—give it several minutes to rez—that feature ever-shifting textures, particles, and images splattered on whirling and spinning megaprims and all controlled in real time by Tuna Oddfellow…who apparently won a million-Linden prize from NBC for being Second Life's "most talented avatar" at some point. In real life Tuna Oddfellow is a real-life magician named Matthew Fishman.

The Odd Balls are a visual spectacle: the only thing constant about the Odd Balls is a giant inverted top hat: most attendees stand or dance on apparent thin air (some of us park our virtual asses on a dance ring beneath the hat): from there, you turn up the music—usually some intelligent instrumental electronica—and just watch what Tuna rolls out, reveals, conceals, and explodes. It's like a 3D music visualizer…except it's not lame, and in my experience it is never, ever the same twice. Tuna runs the show while his partner Shava Suntzu handles the meet-and-greet and explanations and detailing what the Odd Ball is up to next in real life and Second Life—apparently they've put on live Odd Balls at SLCC (Second Life Community Convention) events in real life.

An overhead view of a moment of the Odd Ball—
the ever-shifting venue is immense; avatars are barely pixels in this image

Odd Balls typically run two hours—you don't have to attend the entire thing, but set aside at least half an hour for everything to rez and to get into the vibe of the event. The Odd Balls aren't for everyone—they don't demand a tremendous amount of interactivity, but they aren't the kind of thing that lets you multitask. You don't want to be trying to manage email, tap into Plurk, or write a blog entry at an Odd Ball. You might IM a bit with in-world friends, perhaps chat with other attendees. But mostly you'll want to soak in it. The Odd Balls have been one of the most relaxing things I've found in Second Life…and the only place in-world I've experienced anything akin to vertigo.

A word about tipping

I've written a bit about how I handle tipping at trivia events I attend—basically, I tip back a lot of what I win to trivia hosts and venues. Live music is diferent: I'm not earning anything from attending a live music event, so there's no way to realistically tip back a percentage of what I earn. Moreover, performing live music in Second Life has real costs. First, there's the cost of running the venue itself, in terms of paying rent to landlords or tier to Linden Labs for the land. Then there's the Shoutcast or Icecast server: depending on the number of people those need to support simultaneously, costs seem to run about $10–20 CAD per month. Finally, musicians have real costs too: getting music into SL isn't as simple as plugging into a computer's mic jack: musicians typically need a digital audio interface (which can run from a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars), plus any amount of other gear in order to make the music itself: that includes microphones, pre-amps, amplifiers, headphones, stands, strings, cables, direct boxes, effects, and more—plus, in all probability, software for managing your sound and outputting an MP3 stream in real time.

Point being: none of this is free. Musicians probably are leveraging gear they use to play or perform in real life, but very few are going to be able to step into Second Life performing at no cost…and then there's the time they have to put into creating and producing, well, a show.

So: if you enjoy an inworld performer, please tip both the performer and (if appropriate) the venue supporting them as generously as you can. Very few people are earning any sort of money performing music in Second Life: supportive audiences are the only things that will keep live music happening in the virtual world.