Articles Books and Publishing Film and TV Reviews

REVIEW: Buffy the Vampire Slayer ‘Season 8 Motion Comic’

As a long time Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, I tried reading the original “Buffy” comic book when it hit the stands a few years back, but couldn’t get past the “lifeless” version of Buffy sans the original actors, fun music, and dramatic moments.

Buffy series 8 motion comic
Even though I read a lot of comic books in my youth, the last graphic novel I read was the Frank Miller “Batman/The Dark Knight,” and the only anime I’ve been able to stomach in the past decade would be “Death Note.” When surfing the iTunes store on my iPad couple of months back, I saw the season was available as a “motion comic,” and decided to buy the “season.” I’ve been watching them as released in my “subscription,” and just finished the final episodes this past weekend while on the treadmill (iPad is great for this).

Buffy Season 8Well, it’s not as good as the show, by any stretch of the imagination, and die-hard fans might be insulted by calling this the never to be seen 8th “real” season of the TV series about a teen girl inducted by the Watchers to save humanity from all sorts of evil, but first and foremost those pesky kung-fu capable vampires.

Hard to believe Buffy is thirty (if you count back to the original movie, prior to the series) this month. Wow. I was in my late teens way back when. I won’t bore you with a history of the show, or the actors, or how great the show truly was. Both Buffy and Angel were a bright (or dark) spot on TV when everything else was sitcoms or stale dramas.

For the motion comics, overall my feelings are a bit mixed. I was kind of happy to see Buffy in action, but lamenting the lack of carryover from the show beyond the use of familiar characters, both good and bad. Many of the choices for stories don’t seem to be plausible in the context of the brilliant way the TV show was plotted for the whole season with little nuggets dropped in the first episodes that would blossom into major plot points as the season progressed. This was the right way to do TV, not the “make it up as we go” process used on LOST.

I liked the “episodes” written or storied by Josh Whedon, the actual creator of Buffy, but a few of the motion comic episodes (issues) had some pretty whacky stuff and I’ll try not to throw in many spoilers here, but Dawn being stuck as a giant and fighting a mecha-Godzilla-inspired robot clone, is perhaps a bit beyond anything we’d see on the TV series.

The voice acting is pretty good, and the music is a superb mix of the original series music and other elements. I was actually impressed by the way the motion comic stories were brought to life with clever use of animating the panels, animating pieces of the comic book artwork, and 3-D “particle effects” for things like fire. Sound effects (foley) work helps to make it seem like a radio broadcast with video, and since this was my first foray into any “motion comics,” I actually found it entertaining.

I thought Zander was pretty well done, but his character was often the comic relief in the original series. The villains chew scenery in typical comic book form, but some of the glue of dramatic scenes is lost in favor of the comic book genre’s panel format. Still, the digital artists have done an amazing job of bringing flat art to life, and this works very well for the most part, except in some instances where a small panel was missing detail in the faces.

It works well on the iPad, but not sure I’d find this as watchable on a big-screen TV, although I might try that. If you tend to work and watch TV as a background entertainment versus sitting in rapt attention over each moment in time (as I did rewatching the entire Buffy and Angel series last year again), it would be perfect for the audio performances.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Okay, a couple of spoilers. Buffy has a lesbian relationship, Amy comes back to wreak havoc, and Faith gets her bad girl groove on. Dracula makes an appearance, ninjas make an appearance, and one long-time nemesis of Buffy and Giles bites the big one.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 Motion Comic” is available on iTunes, Amazon on demand, Blu-ray/DVD combo. Run Time: 275 minutes.

Overall, it’s a charming alternate universe kind of re-visit to the Buffyverse, but falls way short of truly being a new season of the show I loved so much. Still, if you’ve been craving something to sink your teeth into and couldn’t quite wrap your claws around the static comics, the “motion comic” is worth a look. ‘Nuff said.


Article is Copr. © 2011 by Christopher Simmons. All rights reserved. No fee or compensation was paid to the author for composition of this article. Article originally appeared on and a version appeared on Ga-Ga .com / Musewire .com before permanent placement on

Articles Music and Recording Reviews

REVIEW: Music Computing StudioBLADE Keyboard Production Station

REVIEW: While the concept of a music keyboard with a computer inside isn’t entirely new, the folks at Austin, Texas start-up Music Computing think they might have invented the new sweet spot in bridging the gap between the notebook and controller crowd and the people who won’t use anything other than a Yamaha Motif or Roland Fantom-style workstation keyboard.

Company founder and CEO Victor Wong is no stranger to computers and music having been the former CEO of Open Labs, as well as having had numerous stints at tech companies including an authorized Macintosh clone company, and value added resellers (VARs). For the new company, his team has addressed a number of shortcomings with other PC-based music products out there, a couple of which include price and portability.

Having owned quite a few PC powered systems myself, including a Muse Receptor, two Open Labs NeKo models (TSE and XXL), a Korg Oasys, and even a Hartman Neuron, I seem to fit into the target audience for this kind of thing, and sure enough, I was one of the first folks to order one of Music Computing’s new keyboards (customer #8).

So what is it?
The new StudioBLADE line of “keyboard production stations” follows somewhat in the footsteps of what competitor Open Labs has been doing for a while now with their NeKo and MiKo systems, but ironically tries to be more “open” in their approach to design and physical construction. They are smaller, more compact, and weigh less than either a NeKo, or even a Yamaha Motif XF6, thanks to lightweight aluminum, and not over-complicating the internals.

Powered by Microsoft Windows 7 64-bit, the StudioBLADE comes pre-installed with the Presonus Studio One DAW application (full version, with mastering support), as well as a couple of proprietary VST instruments. First, SonicSource emulates the sound library you might find in a modern ROMpler, but with 8GB of sounds (more than 8x the sample data what comes with a Motif, by the way) as well as TriggerGrid, which is a drag-and-drop drum and sampler sound environment that works with the built-in grid control surface.

Out of the box, the StudioBLADE 61 is a shiny and surprisingly compact keyboard roughly 36-inches long, 18-inches deep and about 4-inches thick when the 10-inch USB-powered touch panel is not deployed. The unit is compact enough to fit on a classic Ultimate Support Apex stand (using the longer support bars for depth).

In addition to the 61-key synth action keyboard (made by M-Audio), the top area contains one of the most diverse control surface set-ups this side of a couple of Novation controllers having intimate relations. Specifically, there are nine vertical rows, each with a long-throw fader, two light-up push buttons, and four rotary knobs (see photos). An 88-key version is also available with the same action (not a graded, hammer-action full piano keybed).

The rotary knobs light up as you turn them, and work almost identically to the Livid Instruments OHM and CODE controllers. I would go so far as to speculate (due to the shared locale of Austin, and identical feel) that Livid might be providing parts to Music Computing for their controllers, but the company would not confirm this. In any case the controllers all feel solid and well built, and feel the same as my buddy’s OHM64, which is to say they feel really good.

To the right of this is an 8×8 grid of lighted pads, which can either be used for triggering samples like an MPC or loops in Ableton Live fashion. There is also a set of bank buttons (more on that in a minute), transport buttons, and a rotary push selector knob. All this is well organized to be easily at hand for live control, and breaks with the “screen in middle” ergonomics of most other workstations. Having the control sections side by side, versus on either end, does seem to make sense when you actually use them.

I particularly like the bank buttons, which will be familiar with anyone who ever used an Akai MPC with banks for sounds (A, B, C, D). Same idea. Except what’s wicked cool here is that you could have bank A be your DAW control to setup a mix in a live setup, such as levels for mics or a guitar direct input, then while performing jump between bank B for your Ableton control, while perhaps jump to Bank C where the faders become drawbars for your virtual Hammond B3, and maybe jump to bank D for controlling external lighting. Lots of possibilities there and first time I’ve seen that on any controller keyboard.

In my case I put a 23-inch Acer touch panel display behind the StudioBLADE and this proves an ideal setup with Windows 7 where I don’t need to use the mouse for many things. The built-in touch panel setup in Windows 7 took literally one minute and didn’t interfere with the 10-inch display (see photos).

In Studio One, the on-screen faders snap to the location of the non-motorized faders on the control surface, and while motorized faders might be nice, keep in mind the Euphonix control surface I have for my Mac cost $2500, or about the same price as the base model StudioBLADE.

Additionally there is a quite snazzy machined aluminum master volume control knob along with keyboard octave up/down buttons and the typical pitch bend and modulation wheels. These wheels snap back a little slower than the Fatar-type wheels, but still work well. A wireless RF keyboard and mouse is also included.

Pricing starts at $2599 “well equipped” for a Core2 Duo base configuration and $2799 for a Core i5 base configuration with 4GB of RAM and one hard drive. Upgrades include more audio ins/outs (not needed for many folks working inside the box only), and a larger or second hard drive. You can upgrade the HD yourself later if you wish by simply unscrewing some machine screws for an access panel on the bottom which is a mounting plate for up to two hard drives.

Sound sculpting with the ‘blade
One mis-informed forum troll posted something the other day about how the Music Computing units only had open source sound tools and you’d need to buy stuff to actually use it. Well, I’m here to say that is nonsense from somebody who cannot read or research what he was talking about before opening his big yap. In fact, the version of the Presonus Studio One which is pre-installed and configured is not a cheap open source or “bundled” app found everywhere, but a $400 commercial “pro” level application. It even supports the latest VST 3.1 format, can take ReWire connections, and comes with a host of proprietary virtual instruments, FX plug-ins, and pro level mastering tools. It supports delay compensation, time stretching, and all the things that the “big boys” promote as must-have features.

Studio One includes: Impact, a sample trigger/drum instrument; Mojito, an analog-modeling subtractive synth; Presence, a sample player; and SampleOne, a full-featured sampler to create your own instruments with. A really gigantic overview of Studio One can be found on the Presonus website, here: .

Worth noting is the fact that you can launch the DAW as either a 32-bit or 64-bit host, for compatibility with older plug-ins that won’t load in a fully 64-bit DAW host. One touch buttons on the touch screen lead to either version, depending on your needs.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that Music Computing’s in-house sound instrument, SonicSource, is apparently based on the mature and highly regarded Wusik platform, and specifically the EVE variant. The EVE (ne SonicSource) plug-in is a true VST so will work with any DAW or plug-in host you choose to use on the StudioBLADE. Wusikstation and its engine is a great choice as it is well supported, and many sound companies use the platform to develop their own commercial instruments by custom “skinning” the core product, and adding their own sample libraries. Basically, this means you’re not getting a “beta” product from Music Computing, cooked up in a month or two, but something which has many years of popular support and proven usability.

SonicSource is nice because it immediately through the GUI supports layering up to three sounds from the fairly large initial library (8GB), and according to the company, they also include the raw samples (sample waveforms) to create your own patches. This is not very common, with the possible exception of my Korg Triton Extreme, which also offers this capability. Most instrument makers create patches from the raw sounds, which you can manipulate using the sculpting tools (ADSR, filter cutoff, etc.), and then you can create layers/splits as multis or combis. Few give you access to the raw samples to go back and create your own base “patches” from (this may be an inherent capability of all Wusik based instruments that don’t copy-protect the waves, but I didn’t look into that for this review). Put another way, this means you could create a much larger personal sound library if you wanted to spend the time to build the patches from scratch yourself, resulting in an almost unlimited number of sound variations.

Bundled apps with my unit include NI Guitar Rig LE, and Toontrack EZDrummer Lite, for some additional noise making capabilities. As always, check the Music Computing site prior to purchase for what is included with the system today.

In the box
I was quite happy to see a full printed manual in the box which has setup information, the full manual for the Presonus hardware and Studio One software, as well as the first how-to guides for the Music Computing applications like TriggerGrid, SonicSource and GeoMIDI.

A restore DVD is provided and the Windows license sticker is on the bottom of the case. Also in the shipping box are the external power supply, order receipt, a quick start sheet, license and serial number info for the installed software, box with wireless keyboard and mouse, and mine had a QC checklist for the system assembly.

Under the Hood
As far as audio I/O and CPU power, I opted for the Intel Core i5 650 processor with 8GB of DDR3 RAM, and two 1TB Western Digital hard drives, plus the Presonus Firestudio Mobile interface with 24/96 support. This provides 2 XLR (or 1/4-inch) TRS combo inputs with switchable phantom power and gain control, plus 6 balanced 1/4-inch outputs, S/PDIF I/O, MIDI I/O, plus one direct keyboard MIDI out. On the right side is an internal DVD/CD burner.

Inside the case, the layout of the CPU module, audio modules, I/O, hard drives and cabling is very clean and neat, and the efficient design shows clever use of the off the shelf hardware with some custom I/O. Contrast this with the inside of a NeKo or MiKo which have numerous proprietary circuit boards which would become problematic if Open Labs disappeared one day. The nice thing about looking at the inside of the StudioBLADE is that it’s much like an older car, you can actually figure out what’s going on, and if for some reason Music Computing went into the great long night, it’s actually plausible this gear would live on including replacing the entire CPU module with later and greater computer power. That’s all aces in my book.

I’ve been using Windows 7 64-bit for a while now for my personal workstation in my office, and can honestly say it’s the best operating system Microsoft has ever made. If you ever lamented why your PC couldn’t work as well as your Mac, Windows 7 really is that good. With a modern multi-core processor, and the fast operating system and modern RAM, these things really scream.

I haven’t used the DAW software (Studio One) included with the StudioBLADE much, but so far it seems robust and I quite like the selection of plug-ins. It’s really a surprising system, and feels very much like a good alternative to Logic or Pro Tools, and there are some quite good tutorial and demo videos on YouTube to show off what it can do. This is a pro application, which becomes apparent when you see all it can do. The Music Computing site doesn’t really do Studio One justice in showcasing the software beyond the bullet points, but the Presonus website has more in-depth feature information to review in advance of making a purchase.

The control surfaces are already pre-set to work with Studio One, but the built-in GeoMIDI controller mapping software would allow you to fairly easily map faders and controllers to any other DAW.

I loaded Cakewalk Sonar on the StudioBLADE, and it worked very well which would be expected since Sonar Producer Edition has been 64-bit capable for quite some time. Presumably the new version of Pro Tools 9 should work just as well, since Avid branded hardware is no longer a requirement (an iLok dongle still is, however).

I tested a few of my favorite Windows apps including Brainspawn Forte, EMU’s Emulator X3, and Sonic Projects’ superb Oberheim virtual instrument clone, OP-X. A couple of hiccups with Forte wanting to run as administrator, and X3 trying to find its own sample library, but these are typical of any virtual instrument. In fact, you will always have a few things in Windows 7 to address with some apps that may require changing the way they launch, or how they write to hard drives other than the boot drive, but it’s a do it once, never again type of thing.

Music Computing’s SonicSource VST loaded right into Forte and once I selected the correct audio routing (outs 3 and 4 go to headphones, and 1 and 2 to the speakers), was playing in moments with no hiccups. SonicSource has a fairly respectable selection of bass, keyboard, and real instruments (horns, etc.), and does provide a great starting point to make music without buying anything else.

If you have a lot of older Windows XP era 32-bit VSTs you want to keep using, you should look into possibly using Cakewalk Sonar, as they have one of the most robust “bit bridge” systems to run 32-bit plug-ins inside a 64-bit DAW.

I had no trouble running a number of Windows 7 updates, although it did choke on a .NET update, which I had the same issue with on another machine (it won’t update the NET 3.5 framework, and actually it’s up to version 4 now). Check with support, but often one needs to fully uninstall the NET elements, then simply install version 4. And then let Windows install any of the older versions if actually needed. (Again: check with MC tech support if this happens to you for proper fix.)

There will always be those who say it’s cheaper to buy a MIDI controller keyboard, and a notebook, and hook those together, but that has a lot of trade-offs in data storage, video connectivity, and audio quality. The StudioBLADE is a compelling argument for having it all in one box that you can actually pick up and carry (less than 25 lbs.). Even with a good Gator ATA case, you’d still be under 30 lbs.

This can also become a dream system for somebody who has in the back of their mind “I wish I had a keyboard to control just Omnisphere.”

Around the back
I’ve always liked the Presonus FireWire modules, and they have the best headphone monitoring I’ve ever had on an audio interface. The only downside here is that the headphone volume control is on the back panel, and the top master volume doesn’t manage that, only the speaker outs; but this can be good in situations where you want or need different control of those elements. You can get the full specs on the Presonus site, and naturally this works very well with the Studio One DAW software.

I like the one master MIDI out which is useful if you need to control something like a Dave Smith Tetra or send data to a MPC without attaching the little I/O dongle for the additional MIDI I/O.

There are plenty of USB ports (7 USB 2.0), and my unit adds the two FireWire ports. Both a DVI and HDMI output provide a lot of flexibility for connecting up to two additional displays. One network Ethernet connection is included. I was very happy to see that an eSATA port is included as this is the simple way to connect a mirrored RAID array, or even a removable drive system for saving projects on external drives versus the internal disks. eSATA lets you use external drives which are just as fast as if they were internal units, since it’s the same connection speed (much faster than USB or FireWire).

As noted previously, an access panel on bottom allows you to update your hard drive, pull for back-up, etc. New units now shipping also include a second access panel to swap out the entire CPU “module” if needed.

Also worth noting is the stylish back-lit Music Computing cut-out logo that glows with the same bluish light as the control surface.

Impressions and use
After playing with the StudioBLADE a couple of weeks, I have to say I’m fairly impressed. It’s quiet when running aside from occasional hard drive clicks/clacks (normal). The touch panel seemed too small when I got it, but found that it’s the right size to get started, and with the larger 23-inch touch panel (see photos) in use at same time, the small display is ideal for a virtual instrument, or even quick launch buttons for your most used apps.

It looks very much at home next to my aluminum Macs in the studio, and somehow seems “right sized” for what it is designed to do. Initially I wasn’t sure of the keyboard action, as the majority of my keyboards have a Fatar action and this uses the latest semi-weighted synth-action waterfall keys from M-Audio. It gives the unit a more premium look with the full-front keys and it’s very playable.

I think this type of keyboard “production station” is clearly the wave of the future, as it no longer makes sense to have fixed-in-place ROM based systems that can’t grow as you do. The ability to use the DAW that fits your needs, and not a limited built-in sequencer/recorder, not being limited by storage or memory, or the sounds that fit in the user patch space, is transformational.

With some virtual analogs, using SHARC processors, and software like Access Music does with the Virus Ti, allows the product to evolve and add features, but that is a more focused product. With a workstation, you need to be able to make it work with your, well, work. If you’re doing scoring for film or games, you might need to use Adobe Premiere or Sony Vegas, and try loading those into your Roland Fantom (hint: you can’t!).

I’ve had a few minor quibbles like the external power supply brick “hanging” in space when plugged into the keyboard on a stand, and my personal sense that the power jack could too easily be knocked out which could be bad during a Windows update. I added a little self-adhesive hook to help hold one end of the cable before it gets to the power input jack, that way if tripped over that hook would catch the stress, and then added a shelf below the keyboard on the Apex stand to put both the power brick and QWERTY keyboard on. I’d also likely consider spraying the anodized aluminum back with a clear coat if I were touring, otherwise scratches will likely ensue.

The keyboard action is a matter of taste, as with all keyboards, but I did find the keys on the StudioBLADE (apparently from the M-Audio Keystation “es” series) not as well “sculpted” as those on some of my other synths. Particularly the edges of the key-ends are not as well “rounded” as on, oh, say my Kurzweil, or my Waldorf Q. I “pinched” myself a couple of times playing chords, and while it’s something I could get used to, I prefer the Fatar keybed used on many of the top synth brands and also Novation controllers to the M-Audio “es” series. If you tend to be more of a “poker” than a “player” you will not notice this. It’s a very minor and perceptual thing, so you likely won’t notice it. On the other hand, the benefit of using this key setup is that OS drivers are maintained by Avid and are not dependent on custom code or a circuit board, and easy to fix/replace.

On my Apex stand, the audio out jacks are right in the middle where the stand is, so I had to get two “L” adapters for balanced cables to route the cables sideways ($10 total cost). I’m also using an Azio USB Wi-Fi adapter to access my secure wireless network ($15). The only glitch of any kind I had with an interface was the USB port connected to the flip-up touch panel. I have a super high speed OCZ 16GB USB media key, and that caused a power error when I left it attached for an hour. Plugging into any of the back panel ports had no such issue. This is actually a common issue (I have same issue with my Mac wired keyboard I use with my Windows workstation … the hub on the keyboard doesn’t provide enough power). Upshot is that a small 1GB USB memory stick shouldn’t be an issue, the big ones with built-in LEDs and super high speed like my OCZ Rally unit should plug into the back.

Being in the first group of customers there were some minor production issues like a screw too long, or the FireWire cable rubbing against back of pitch wheel (easily fixed), and my unit doesn’t have the snazzy second access port on the bottom panel to easily swap memory or replace the entire CPU “module” on the road, but these are works in progress and all the units shipping today incorporate a number of production and finishing touches that the first dozen didn’t have. There was a driver issue with the pitch wheel sometimes sending a CC volume value, and the day after I reported it as a “possible” issue, they sent me a new driver file to install and that fixed it.

Tech support has been great in very fast follow up. I’ve gotten follow up phone calls, and e-mails to ensure everything was working well, and the issue was resolved. This is phenomenal support, and bodes well for the company’s rapport with future customers. I’ve also been given the option to send the unit back if I want to get the back panel retrofitted, and they provided some bonus stuff for me due to the initial glitches that more than made up for any headaches.

And finally
So far, I’m really happy with the StudioBLADE, as it provides me with an easy to use, yet powerful solution for keeping my Windows-based instruments (OP-X doesn’t run on Mac, so can’t use it in Logic Pro, for example, nor does Emulator X3), and is something I would feel comfortable taking to a friend’s house to jam, without having to deal with tangle of wires, interfaces, notebook, and the like (which I also have, and did that once, then never again!). I’ve barely scratched the surface (no pun intended) of what I can do with this, but I look forward to making my ultimate Omnisphere workstation, among other things.

To learn more about the Music Computing StudioBLADE and related products, visit: .

Article is Copr. © 2011 by Christopher Laird Simmons – all rights reserved. Article originally appeared on

Film and TV Reviews

DiscWatcher Blu-ray movie review: Prince of Persia – The Sands of Time

REVIEW: It’s always fun when all the summer movies start to hit Blu-ray, DVD, and pay-per-view earlier and earlier each year. Used to be, I would have to wait practically until Christmas to see the movies I skipped going to the big-screen theaters to see during “blockbuster” season. Last month the first crop hit the home market, and the rest rolled out right before or right after the calendar says we’ve moved into fall.

REVIEW: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Generally, one cannot expect too much from a film based on a computer video game, but to get to the heart of it: Prince of Persia isn’t too bad. It’s a rip-roaring adventure in a make believe place, with great special effects, great set pieces, locales, and a good looking cast. Once you get past the conceit of western movie makers using pasty white British actors for many of the leads, along with their “exotic” U.K. accents, it’s a fairly enjoyable film.

When I’d heard that Jake Gyllenhaal would play the male lead, I was skeptical as he will always be Donnie Darko to me, somehow. But, he buffed up nicely, and his diverse catalog of work the past decade allows him to believably play this kind of action character, even if almost everything in the film is unbelievable. He is likable, and carries the story in places where it verges into a bit more comic book than Arabian Nights territory. Since it was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, one can generally presume high entertainment value, and this film doesn’t disappoint. If you want to compare it to any of Bruckheimer’s other recent projects, I have to say the script and story are better than the second Transformers movie, but take that statement however you wish.

The story: Gyllenhaal’s character is an orphan boy (Dastan) who is adopted by King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), and becomes part of the family along with two other sons and heirs, and the king is tricked into invading a neighbor for the purpose of acquiring an ancient dagger that can release the sands of time, a gift from the gods that can allow the possessor to reverse time. Dastan falls for the dagger’s guardian, Tamina, played by always lovely Gemma Arterton. Together they banter and flirt across the desert, avoiding the bad guys, ruffians, and the local equivalent to ninjas, while trying to reach the source of the sand in the dagger and stop the big baddie from hatching his evil plot of revenge and world domination. Sounds silly, but it actually works pretty well.

The $200 million budget really raises this above the typical “B” movie that this genre would have fallen into a few years ago and there is a lot of that money on-screen, and not just in CGI. It reminded me a little of the Jolie Lara Croft movies in tone. However, while it wants to be the next Pirates of the Caribbean, Gyllenhaal is not Johnny Depp although director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) does keep the story going and focused on the characters and not an overload of special effects creatures that made the last Mummy film a disappointment due to the disconnect with the live actors.

For the supporting cast, Ben Kingsley is good, but he is so typecast now as the bad guy, that you immediately suspect him of being part of the conspiracy that causes Dastan to be accused of killing his adoptive father and then having to make a run for it along with Tamina. Alfred Molina is playing true to his past work, even if his character is an amalgam of similar characters we’ve seen many times before.

I was surprised to see Richard Coyle as one of the king’s sons, Tus, who takes over the throne upon the king’s murder. Coyle is a great actor, and he definitely brings some depth to his part.

The film does try to keep some of the elements of the computer games (I recall playing one version of the game on my Mac SE30 circa 1994) such as Dastan’s wall hopping and climbing, almost to the point of parkour. There were a few moments in the opening scenes where the juvenile version of Dastan steals some food and is running from the authorities over the roof-tops that I couldn’t help remembering the very similar opening from Disney’s Aladdin – but thankfully there was no singing or overly aware monkeys.

The story develops nicely, shifting from big screen action, to small scenes, then political machinations, then back to “on the road” with the main characters. There are some slow parts here and there, but relationships do develop, and evolve. So, if you like fantasy-adventure films, and can completely suspend your disbelief, it’s entertaining enough. Special effects are really nice, and – again – the story is much better than I was expecting, with a happy ending that utilizes the power of the dagger to resolve more than one story line. If you go in expecting nothing, you may be pleasantly surprised, especially if you enjoy genre films.

My only quibbles really stem from Arterton’s spray tan changing a bit from scene to scene, as she is really pale in most of her real life appearances, and the overall dearth of Middle Eastern actors in a film which resides in a part of the world which generally is not particularly happy with the western world at this time (Iran is the current incarnation of Persia, in case you are clueless about world history). It seems like an odd time to be making a film based in a place that really existed, but which has been fictionalized by western writers into something else. But, that would be Disney for you. To get my meaning, imagine if an Iranian filmmaker did a movie about Native Americans loosely based on a couple of mythic oral history stories.

I do feel this contributed to the lower box office than might be expected for this “big budget” film ($90 million domestic, as of Sept. 2010). Compare that to Clash of the Titans, which cost $125 million, but grossed $163 million in the US. But, regardless, I liked it.

On disc, the picture looks amazing, and the DTS sound is also good.

“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” is rated PG-13; 116 minutes. Director Mike Newell. Writing credit: Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard, screenwriters; Jordan Mechner, screen story.

Article is copr. © 2010 by Christopher Laird Simmons – all rights reserved. No fee or compenstaion was provided for composition of this information. Article originally appeared on

Articles Reviews Technology

Stargazing on the iPad – a Window to Augmented Reality

ARTICLE: I’ve been a big fan of star gazing since I was very young. Living in places like Santa Barbara in the 1960s, and the “just built” Davis, California college town circa 1970, it was an amazing sight to sit outside at night and see the world spin against the sky of light. Anybody who still lives outside a major city, away from “light pollution,” can still marvel in this view that awed the ancients and gave rise to many of humanity’s myths, legends, and even elements of language still in popular use thousands of years later. When we moved into the city, my mom continued to get Astronomy magazine for most of my childhood, filled with amazing images of the galaxies and constellations. I got my first telescope as a tween, and sadly, it wasn’t as exciting as the NASA pictures you see in the magazines (or now on the Internet), since it wasn’t a top of the line Celestron, just a basic thin-tube model. The moon was big and bright, but anything else was a lumpy blob or threads in the wind.

About a month into owning my new Apple iPad 3G+WiFi model, I discovered a number of “apps” for stargazing (looking at the stars in the universe, not the latest celebrity fashion statement), and one of which just blew my mind, as it were. Seeing that Apple included one of these in their latest TV commercial, I thought I’d do a round-up of what apps are available, and what makes a couple of them so freakin’ amazing. In fact, my favorite, Vito Technology’s Star Walk, is one of the most dramatic examples of the future of augmented reality – which, for the layman, means adding to, or enhancing what you see in the real world. Heads-up displays in cars and aircraft are only an itsy bitsy example of this concept. Holding Star Walk on an iPad – with the use of GPS location technology, and gyroscope sensor data – is truly remarkable.

Star Walk with Me
So, let me just jump to my favorite, the aforementioned Star Walk. This 89MB, $4.99 app ($2.99 for iPhone) from Vito Technology (also: won an Apple Design Award for 2010. What it does: okay, here’s where it gets wild – take the iPad outside at night, hold it up in landscape mode (long way, side to side), and move it around to see the jaw-dropping “Star Spotter Function,” as they call it. The iPad screen becomes a “window” that shows the sky you’re actually looking at, and curves with the shape of the earth as you move the iPad; and when you point the iPad at a section of the sky with a particular constellation (group of stars), information about the constellation appears.

How cool is this? It’s like having a transparent sheet of glass that you point at the universe, and information about what you’re looking at is provided while enhancing your view. Try this in cloudy weather, where you can’t see the whole sky and it’s wicked cool. Move the iPad side to side, up and down, and the view changes to match where you’re pointing.

You can see just the basic info, such as lines connecting constellations (e.g., Ursa Major, etc.), or you can “drill down” (or “up”) for background information, scientific information, and much more. Portrait mode (long way, top-to-bottom) works also, but the sensor can flip/rotate the screen image if you start to go too far overhead.

If you ever wanted something that just made you suddenly realize you’re living in the future, this is one of those things. I can throw out adjectives here like amazing, stunning, or even “glorious,” and they would all be 100% true. This is simply a “must have” for anybody who loves astronomy, and this is one of those apps that can help you justify buying an iPad if you needed a reason beyond the hype and hoopla of the Mac faithful and gadget geeks. It’s also a compelling point to ensure you buy a version of any new Apple device (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch) that includes the Digital Compass and GPS capability. There is a 3-D Earth View for selecting your location if you don’t have the GPS capability.

What’s more, the app offers a time machine mode to show what your sky view would look like at different points in time, moon phases, deep sky objects (Messier), and even meteor showers. The obligatory links to Wikipedia are also provided. It also has multi-tasking support for the updated iOS versions supporting things like listening to music while you stargaze.

Vito also makes a similar product for solar system gazing, called Solar Walk ($2.99), offering orbital views of the sun and planets, and information on each world in our system.

For Windows Mobile users, Vito also makes a bit different product called AstroNavigator ($19.95). It provides similar information 9,000 sky objects, but without the dramatic augmented reality features of the iPad app.

Pocket Sky Gazing
Some other notable apps worth trying out, include: “Pocket Universe: Virtual Sky Astronomy” ($2.99, 9MB; iPhone/iPad) from Craic Design. This is a similar product to Star Walk, but is a bit more informational than immersive (1/10th the file size of Star Walk). I found the design to be good for quick information about what I was looking at in the sky (see photo, this page).

Versions prior to 3.6 had some minor glitches, now fixed. I liked the “tonight’s sky” and “objects and events” information (these elements required 3G or WiFi). For kids there are Star Quiz games. Also plots the position of sun, moon and planets (including Pluto). This app is particularly nice on the iPhone, and the iPad version has a different interface, not simply “blown up.”

If you’re familiar with using an astrolabe in school, then you might like GoSoftWorks’ “GoSkyWatch Planetarium – the astronomy star guide” ($5.99 iPhone/iPad; 15MB). The “polar” view of the sky around the Earth is particularly nice (see photo, this page). It contains over 200 images of planets and deep sky objects. Neat features include time lapse animation by day, time, and sidereal day; finder to locate planet, star, DSOs. One neat feature, is constellation links to Ian Ridpath’s StarTales (Ridpath has numerous great books on the sky, stars, planets, and the universe).

This app also takes advantage of accelerometer and compass navigation capabilities of Apple devices. I actually got this for my iPod Touch after seeing it in Wired magazine last year. The new version is even better. There is also a free version as of this writing which lets you try this great app out.

There are now quite a few apps to choose from – this article covers just a few, obviously – and it’s worth exploring them all since your particular mindset may prefer one type of interface or “style” of information presentation.

Augmented Reality – Baby Steps
What makes the Vito app, in particular so amazing, is that it is a true forerunner of the kinds of information technology we will all have access to over the next couple of decades as we get more integrated personal data devices and better “cloud” data sources. Imagine going to an historical site like the Aztec ruins, and being able to hold up your iPad (or other tablet) and point it at the ruins and see a virtual window into what the locale looked like, generated from 3-D/CGI data. As you move your “window” around you, the view changes to show the civilization that used to be there. Perhaps it might happen with 3-D glasses with little built-in screens that opaque when activated, but that seems further off than what could be done “now” with something like this iPad app.

I have a wonderful book I bought back in 1991, called “Then and Now,” by Stefania Perring and Dominic Perring (Macmillan Publishing), that did something similar. The full color photo book would show a modern photograph of the Step Pyramid and then printed on clear plastic overlay, color artwork showing what it originally looked like. This was very cool as it showed sites like Nimrud, or the Temple of Karnak, “then and now” (hence the book’s title).

Being able to do something similar in real-time, on-site would be simply breathtaking – point your tablet at the world and travel back in time, while you’re actually there. And for those who didn’t want to travel, this would obviously be used for virtual immersive “distance based travel” to virtually visit a real world site, but also see the historical version in 360-degree surround view.

Welcome to the Future
If you love stargazing, or want to teach your kids more about the universe, or just want to show off what your Apple device can do, then get to the App Store and check out these great apps. Personally, I would not use software like this on a regular Mac or Windows PC, as it’s not “right there” as with the iPad versions. Simply put, welcome to the future people – my love of stargazing has been rekindled, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Article is Copr. © 2010 Christopher Laird Simmons – all rights reserved. Story originally appeared on

Articles Film and TV Reviews

DiscWatcher – Watching Films at Home: New Movies on Disc August 2010

REVIEW: If you’re like me, you might be one of the growing ranks of folks who have given up going to the “big screen” movie theatres in favor of stay-at-home movie watching, replete with a Blu-ray player, full surround sound and a large 1080p DLP or other TV. These days I tend to watch some films “on-demand” now that many discs are time-delayed before hitting Netflix. With my home theatre PC (HTPC), a Sony PS3, and Time Warner cable, I have a lot of choices for how to stream films.

Each month I usually get to watch the films which came out at the traditional movie houses 3-6 months earlier. So, holidays films get seen in summer and “blockbusters” from the summer often get seen in fall or winter of the same year.

With this time-delay, it’s often an interesting experience to see something that others have already seen, commented on, reviewed, criticized, and/or loved. Watching the trailers (coming attractions) and talk shows really give little up as to whether the film is any good or not. I used to rely heavily on Ebert and Roeper (and prior to that Siskel and Ebert), and have only recently discovered Ebert’s “voice” again on the SunTimes website (

I make no claim to be a professional movie critic, but I have been writing about entertainment since the mid ’80s, and I’ve been going to the movies since a child of the ’60s. Nothing quite like seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barbarella, and The Fearless Vampire Killers at the age of 6, or The Wild Bunch, at age 8. I’m happy to say it didn’t warp my fragile widdle mind.

But back to “disc watching.” It turns out most of my friends and family members have also adopted this staycation school of film appreciation, and it’s become a weekly ritual to critique the films we’ve all seen, recommend things, and warn about others. It didn’t take long for someone to suggest I start a column on this topic, but over the past year I’ve had other responsibilities and “time suck” matters to deal with, and this is really the first stab at getting out of the garage and onto the race track. Hopefully you may find this of some little interest, particularly if you don’t like the highly inconsistent comments about films based on Netflix reviews, or the self-promotional rantings of many bloggers who have not disclosed their free tickets and goodie bag for coming to an early screening of said movie “they loved, a must see.” Um, yeah.

So, without further back story, here are my short takes on a number of films and discs I’ve watched in August, 2010 (warning: some spoilers ahead):

The title does it justice, and kicks-ass!

One film I was not expecting to like very much, based on the TV commercials, is the movie Kick-Ass, directed by Matthew Vaughn, who also directed another film I really enjoyed, Stardust (2007, with Claire Danes, Robert De Niro, and Charlie Cox). If I had known it was the same director up front, I might not have been surprised by how good Kick-Ass turned out to be. Vaughn also directed Layer Cake (2004, with Daniel Craig) which I also liked.

Based on the previews it looked to be some hideous mixture of Superbad and Watchman, without the originality of either. And in many ways, it started off as your typical teenage comic book geeks in school, into girls and not being very popular, and all of that we’ve seen a million times. It becomes more interesting when the central character (played by Aaron Johnson) decides to don a costume and fight crime after he’s bullied one too many times by the neighborhood creeps. The first time he goes to fight them, he gets beaten to a pulp and put in the hospital. But he doesn’t feel much pain anymore and his bones are now stronger, in an odd way, he’s had his own version of a very minor super hero upgrade, although in no way similar to the Stan Lee cannon of radioactive elements or cosmic rays.

In his next real outing he fights off a bunch of goons chasing a man, and the four goons keep knocking him down and he keeps getting back up, to their surprise. Not through any super power, but sheer force of will. As is likely in today’s high-tech world, a bunch of people in the nearby laundromat happen to video him, and he ends up on the news.

But this is just the intro, a very minor origin story, from a young masked hero, who can’t possibly take on a real force of nature if he came up against it. So, where this tale suddenly gets really interesting, is that the local crime boss and drug lord (played by the always good Mark Strong, even in bad films) is told that a masked crime fighter had taken out some of his gang. Naturally this leads to the mistaken assumption that it might be the new hero “Kick Ass” interfering with their business.

Cut to a father, and his young daughter, and he’s talking to her about how to stand up to a bullet in the chest. Nicholas Cage shoots his daughter (wearing a bullet proof vest), and this is the first time we meet Chloe Moretz’s character, who acts too old for her age (she looks someplace between 8 and 11). Moretz ends up stealing this movie, later on, totally and completely.

It turns out that Cage’s character is a masked vigilante, who looks a bit like Batman, and does a hilarious job of channeling Adam West’s style of stilted speaking. His daughter is his apprentice and side-kick (or side-kick-ass, if you will). Cage is the hero who has been chopping off the crime boss’ gang at the knees, and whose wife was killed by the drug lord. Cage turns in a great performance, with moments that reminded me that he can actually act, and also reminding me a little of the classic Raising Arizona (the old young Nick Cage).

But it’s really Moretz as “Hit Girl” that steals the show. From this point on the film turns into a real super hero movie, where the two “real” super heroes take things to the next level in wiping out numerous bad guys, and this eventually leads to interaction with the Kick Ass character. What is so surprising about this film is the action scenes end up looking like a cross between a Tarantino film and John Woo, both for the dialog, and the literal “kick ass” fighting. Any movie that makes me laugh one minute then go “holy shit” the next gets five stars in my book.

Without giving away any more than I have, suffice it to say this is a really good comic-book “inspired” movie, without seeming to slavishly follow any one style. The scenes with Cage and Moretz balance out the naivete of the Johnson character and his nerdy pals, and the girl he’s trying to impress. It provides an interesting A to B from reading about costumed heroes and wanting to be one, to the harsh reality of what it takes to be one, and what you might have to do to fight, and actually kill, the bad bad men. There’s a surprising amount of killing, which was not anything like the TV commercials, hence the “R” rating. But if you like your films a little more Sam Pekinpah and a little less Lonesome Dove, you’ll really dig this film!

2010; 117 minutes; R rating; Blu-ray, DVD, on-demand; Director Matthew Vaughn. Blu-ray: Widescreen 1:85:1, DTS 7.1 HD. Cast: Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong, Lyndsy Fonseca, Clark Duke, Evan Peters, Michael Rispoli, Omari Hardwick, Xander Berkeley. Writer: Jane Goldsmith and Matthew Vaugn. Comic book: Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.

Date Night makes it to first base

Although I’m a fairly big fan of both Tina Fey (not so much Baby Mama) and Steve Carell, I thought Date Night was a bit of a mixed bag. This may be due to seeing the “extended” version, which sometimes works with more material and sometimes does not. In this case, I think I might have liked the theatrical version better as some scenes like their unfunny pole dancing scene in the strip club was a bit pointless.

The film doesn’t make my eyes bleed, but it also didn’t make me laugh out loud very much. It’s amusing, and entertaining, but not something I’d likely want to re-watch any time soon. In a nutshell it’s another version of the fish out of water tale, with a stuck-in-a-rut married couple finding time for a night out, trying to get into a snooty downtown restaurant and taking the reservation of a no-show couple, who turn out to be in trouble with the baddies.

A case of mistaken identity ensues, and the frivolity goes on from there. Many of the elements are quite lazy, like the bad guy (Ray Liotta) eating pasta, and the lack of intelligent dialogue for the under-used William Fichter. Two of my favorite “babes” are in this, Leighton Meester and Olivia Munn, but don’t get to do much.

Mark Wahlberg gets to take his shirt off, and turns out to be some type of super spy. The police are in cahoots with the corrupt DA and the mob boss. Blah blah.

It all feels a little flat, which if you’ve seen some of director Shawn Levy’s other recent films like Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, or What Happens in Vegas, it’s about as tepid in the range of performances pulled out of the cast. I quite liked his work on the first Night at the Museum, but that film had a varied cast, and some tender moments that seemed to help it really work.

While it’s not awful, it’s not great either. For a date night in (no irony intended), or a time waster, it’s not painful to watch, and I had some moderate fun. If you have a choice, I’d recommend the shorter version.

2010; PG-13; 102 minutes (extended), or 88 minutes (theatrical); Widescreen 2:35:1. Blu-ray DTS HD Master Audio. Cast: Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg, James Franco, Leighton Meester, Taraji P. Henson, Jimmi Simpson, Common, William Fichtner, Kristen Wiig, Mark Ruffalo, Mila Kunis, Ray Liotta. Writer: Josh Klausner. Director: Shawn Levy.

Clash of the Titans now 99% mechanical owl free!

First, let me say that growing up I was a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen, the master animator and special effects wizard who created the stop-motion effects for the original version of Clash of the Titans, as well as earlier films like Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C., and Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. I got to meet Harryhausen at a film festival in the ’70s, and still have an autographed photo of him on my wall, showing him standing in front of a display case of all his classic monsters.

However, I was less fond of some of his later works, which included Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), and Clash of the Titans (1981), which was notable at the time for having Laurence Olivier as Zeus, with Harry Hamlin (best known for L.A. Law, 1986-1991) as Perseus. While it was true to its genre, for mixing old-world quest legends with mythological monsters, it unfortunately also included a horrible mechanical owl, which apparently was intended for the kiddies (it seemed too much like Star Wars’ R2-D2 with its bleeps and bloops). Generally it was a passable ’70s era fantasy yarn, which was already seeming dated as the 1980s unfolded.

Fast forward to now, with the ability to create stunning CGI monsters, and giant sets existing in no real world of set construction. I wasn’t expecting a lot. Once again, Sam Worthington seems to have made a pact with the devil to get cast in every major sci-fi and fantasy film this past year (Avatar, Terminator: Salvation, Clash of the Titans), and he’s again likable although a bit too much like the soul-less machine in Terminator to really shine here. In Terminator, he was actually the most interesting (and least silly) male character in the film, and here he’s playing to type as the strong, bent on revenge against the gods, half-human son of Zeus.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed this re-make, and was happy to find it more than a re-imagining, of the prior film – in other words, it kept the good, left out the bad. It was true to its old-school fantasy genre, but the production values looked more like Lord of the Rings, with some pretty amazing giant scorpions and a breathtaking Kraken. The lovely cast has fairly light dialogue, true to most of the Harryhausen films, and doesn’t seek to provide long-winded moments of introspection or exposition. It’s a quest movie. Still, there are some sweet moments between Sam Worthington and the lovely Gemma Atherton, and Liam Neeson is almost always good no matter the material.

It’s interesting too, having also seen the lackluster Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Lightning Thief prior to the Clash remake, which is a very similar story, but somehow less believable even with modern real-world characters.

This new version of Clash, does a lot of things right, and in a funny (I thought) homage to the original movie, when Perseus finds the mechanical owl in a trunk, one of the others simply tells him to leave that behind.

Director Louis Leterrier does as well with this film as with some of his previous work, which for me has been a bit uneven. I liked his film Unleashed: Danny the Dog (2005 with Jet Li), which was quirky and odd. I was mightily disappointed with his version of The Incredible Hulk (2008), which suffered from quite boring and unconvincing special effects or action fight scenes. Transporter 2 (2005) was not as good as the original, but light years ahead of the disappointing Transporter 3. I would put Clash on the good side of his work, versus the bad.

Despite numerous writers involved, I thought the movie was a hoot, even if they left out the mechanical owl (thank you!). Two of the screenplay writers, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, actually did a film I quite liked in the sci-fi genre, the 2005 live action version of Aeon Flux.

If you like old-school fantasy films, with lots of monsters, ancient Greek legends, and good actors playing serious with some potentially childish material from the original film, you will probably also enjoy this version of Clash of the Titans.

2010; PG-13; 106 minutes. Blu-ray: widescreen 2:40:1 and DTS-HD Master Audio. Director: Louis Leterrier. Writers (screenplay): Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi. Cast: Cast: Sam Worthington, Alexa Davalos, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Huston, Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng, Tine Stapelfeldt, Mads Mikkelsen, Luke Evans, Izabella Miko.

Okay folks, that’s all for this installment. See you next time.

Article is Copr. 2010 by Christopher Simmons. Story originally appeared on

Film and TV Reviews

Summer TV: Getting Swamped by The Glades

REVIEW: I’m usually not too excited by the Summer crop of new cable TV programs but since this past season of network TV was perhaps one of the worst ever (thank god for “Chuck” and the limping along – pun intended – “House”), I’ve been more than mildly surprised by the new shows for Summer 2010, and in particular a cool new show on A&E called “The Glades.”

From the description is sounded like yet another chick show, mildly re-purposed to appeal to men who need to be able to sit on the couch while their significant other works on her notebook and half-listens to the “drama light” cable TV style of programming.

Imagine my surprise to find that “The Glades” has a little more of a Magnum P.I. vibe, sharing more in common with “Justified” than with the disappointing “Memphis Beat.”

The lead actor Matt Passmore is not somebody I’ve seen before, but he strolls through the stories with a bit of a smirk, playing detective Jim Longworth. This homicide detective has a fun back-story, having been accused of sleeping with his former boss’ wife in Chicago, but uses the payout from winning the case to live off of and moves to the small town of Palm Glade, Florida. Yep, thar’s gators in them there waters. Hurricanes, too.

Passmore is tall and has that leading man quality, and apparently was in a popular series my elderly mom watched called “McLeod’s Daughters,” but you can get his full bio all over the Web now that this show is taking off.

A good backing cast banters off the main character, and the first episode was pretty unusual (spoilers ahead) as his partner turned out to be the bad guy. The final scene between the two of them at the BBQ was very interesting, as Passmore’s body language is subtle, but not wooden, and again reminds me of Tom Selleck back in the Magnum days.

Kiele Sanchez plays the potential love interest as Callie Cargill, who happens to be a nurse, with a son, and husband in prison. Certainly a little bit of a plot device as a homicide detective will run into somebody at the hospital more often than the dry cleaner, but this gives you the smart and sexy character in one, and gives the main character a relationship to pursue, while also having a go-to gal for medical info, and he can play big brother to the son. I actually prefer this to the over-used device of the female interest being a reporter, or TV anchor (think “Moonlight” or a million other shows).

Certainly we’ll see that develop into something. The direction has been above average for this type of program, letting the characters play off each other and it feels surprisingly natural and not so contrived and staged as with “Memphis Beat.” Director Peter O’Fallon has worked on a number of shows I like from “House,” to the original “Eureka” pilot and more mainstream things in between. O’Fallon is also a writer, which shows his deft hand in pacing and Q&A between the actors.

The other cast includes the boss (played by Michelle Hurd) who’s tough but not seeking to belittle Longworth, the medical examiner (Carlos Gomez) who’s also smart and isn’t impressed by Longworth, the geeky intern (Jordan Wall) who is the glue to many situations as well as the minor comic relief (a bit like the “probies” on NCIS were originally); and of course, Cargill’s son (Uriah Shelton) who plays like a real kid, and not a fictional placeholder. Nicely chosen cast by Susan Edelman.

The first couple of episodes have been enjoyable, and not easily “guessed” at every turn as with many homicide procedural shows. I like “Bones,” but sometimes on that program a room full of smarty pants can be unbelievably dense about the obvious, which is pretty much bad writing no matter how you slice it.

While the show looks to be more than your typical cable TV “room full of dummies pitching story elements” brain-fart, it seems to be credited to writer and executive producer Clifton Campbell as the “creator” (apologies to all involved if I got that wrong). Campbell has also been a part of “White Collar” which I didn’t get into, as well as “Profiler.”

If you’ve been bored by network TV, the sad plethora of “reality” programming, the tabloid fawning and 24-hour news channel idiocy, then you might also find “The Glades” as charming, and engaging as I did.

Copyright © 2010 Christopher Simmons. This article originally appeared on

Articles Reviews Technology

Waking up to the iPad Wi-Fi+3G – Part Two

ARTICLE: It’s now day two as an iPad cult member and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. Today I managed to try out a lot of things, without delving too deeply in the nitty gritty of each. More of a whirlwind tour versus a museum excursion overseen by a docent. First off, as an ebook device I really really like it (saying things twice doesn’t make it more so, but it’s fun to say — much like 110%, when you can’t have anything be more than 100% unless you have one foot into the metaverse). Ahem, okay, the iBooks reader is nice and I truly love the interface where the pages fold over as you move your finger. The Kindle app for iPad works very similarly without the paper animation, and offers some very nice controls for font size, sepia paper (simulates “pulp” paper of a worn paperback), and has built-in help.

Winnie the Pooh iBooksBefore I get into the experience of buying some e-books, it’s worth noting that my initial complaint of “where’s the help button,” was answered this morning by a very nice “thanks for purchasing your iPad” e-mail from Apple, which included links to the “hey, that’s what I was looking for” video tutorials. For newbies, these should be essential viewing, and for casual lookie-loos pondering an iPad purchase without going to the store, these videos are wonderful and should be viewed before using the iPad (link: ). In looking through the iBooks store I didn’t see anything that made me want to plop down some cash, but I was being the impatient male zooming through the store and waiting for something to hit me over the head.

I decided to try looking for some classic hard-SF (science fiction), and was unable to locate the things I had in mind, such as Greg Bear’s epic “EON.” So, I read a bunch of the Winnie the Pooh book and just kept smiling as I viewed the illustrations in glowing full color. Certainly, the “video” screen makes anything in color really “pop” as it would if printed on glossy paper, and so the Pooh artwork looks really gorgeous on the iPad.

In using the Kindle app, I was impressed by how nice it looks, and how easy it was to go to the Amazon store and shop for books. I couldn’t find the aforementioned Greg Bear book in the Kindle store either (of course, they had Bear’s book in the Star Trek universe, but not my cup of tea). So, I bought the Orson Scott Card book “Ender’s Game.” This looks really nice in the Kindle app for iPad and, as noted earlier, the Kindle app lets you change the font (lettering) size, for larger text, and also to change the page/paper color to sepia, which is a nice touch.

Ender's Game on Kindle for iPadOddly, in starting to read the Kindle book version of “Ender’s Game,” I noticed a glaring typo in the first sentence of the introduction, where the name of the book is mis-spelled. This leads one to believe this was scanned via OCR, and not converted from a digital file. Not sure if that is Amazon’s fault or the publisher (or author?), but bizarre that a spell-check wasn’t even done on that. Considering I can find “free” copies of many SF books online, scanned in by a volunteer army of archivists, it’s unfortunate that a paid version has such mistakes. But, I’ll comment on the rest of the book once I read more. The Kindle version does have jump links for the TOC, and overall I am much happier with the Kindle book on the iPad than on the actual Kindle Rev1.

Very nice e-reader for books. I was curious about opening a PDF of a reference book I have, and found the quite usable GoodReader app, which has built-in help and has clear instructions on how to open PDF, TXT, pictures, etc., and how to transfer files via USB or Wi-Fi.

Also, one of the tips found in the welcome e-mail from Apple this morning was a tip on how to highlight and bookmark passages in the iBooks reader, which goes like this: Keep track of your favorite book passages. To create a bookmark in iBooks, double-tap and drag to highlight a passage, then tap Bookmark. At the top of the Table of Contents, Bookmarks lists all saved passages.

Of the other more mainstream apps, I am really fond of all of those I played with, including the Netflix app, which let me load and play a movie from my queue, but very unlike the PS3 player — which only lets you play from your queue, not actually choose films — the iPad app lets you do both. In fact, I can search for films, add to my playlist, and then on my PS3 they are there to watch. Nice.

The Weather Channel app worked very well for me, although earlier versions seem to have had problems according to feedback in the iTunes app store. Worked brilliantly for me. If you wanted “real weather” information versus the little thing on your iTouch, this is the real deal.

I had never used Pandora before, since I have over 1,200 legal albums in my iTunes library and have been using the Napster to go service the last couple of years since my brother turned my on to that. Still, it only took a second to create an account, type in Thomas Dolby, and I was instantly listening to Dolby followed by Talk Talk. I miss the ’80s.

So far, the iPad is everything I had hoped for. I have not yet delved too much into the productivity apps like Apple Pages, or played the pinball game I purchased, but even now I can see this is going to be a great relationship. Another home run for Apple, all the way around the field.

Article is Copr. © 2010 by Christopher Simmons – all rights reserved. Article originally appeared on

Articles Reviews Technology

Waking up to the iPad Wi-Fi+3G – Part One

ARTICLE: I pre-ordered my new Apple iPad 64GB Wi-Fi + 3G, and so it arrived yesterday afternoon (Friday). But, being busy this morning was my first opportunity to connect and sync to my iTunes PC, explore some Apps, and setup the general capabilities of this nifty new gizmo. Wow, very cool. I have zero buyer’s remorse. My hope is this will be the perfect ebook reader, portable video device, “new toy,” and also useful in case my Verizon FIOS connections die (it happens), and for things like controlling my Playstation 3 (“there’s an app for that”). The additional 3G connection is something I decided to wait for, over the standard Wi-Fi model.

First off, let me back up and admit I have been a Mac (Apple) fan since the days of the Apple II as a kid (I could only afford an Atari 800, then later a Commodore 64), when the first Macs came out I was doing graphic design and photography and lusted after the pricey Macintosh. When the Atari 1040ST came out, it was the best I could afford since a color capable Mac was very expensive. When I started working for a Apple retailer (Creative Computers) in California, I was first on the block to have a Powerbook 100, later moving to a Mac SE30, and then discovered the “factory refurb” models which made last year’s Macs super affordable. Soon that led to a Quadra 840AV, then a 9500, then a Blue/White PowerPC, then a G4. When I moved to Windows XP, I still always had a Mac, first the “Wallstreet” Mac notebook (the same one you see in Sex in the City and Independence Day, and the first Mission Impossible movie); then when the first 17-inch aluminum Intel Core2 OSX notebook came out, I got that and still use it today.

Christopher Simmons iPad 3G 64GB

I was using iTunes before it was called iTunes back when I had it running on a spare Mac 7200 which wasn’t good for much else, and had a paltry 500MB (not GB) hard drive. When the iPod came out, I was one of the first to own the 15GB white model, and when the iPod touch came out, I got it the day after Apple shipped the pre-orders. So, as you see I’m a bit of a computer guy, and Macs have helped me earn a living, compose music, publish a book, build hundreds of Web sites, and until about 2005 when I moved primarily to Windows for my daily work (typing on one now), Mac was my computing platform of choice. Apple has always provided a superb “out of box” experience, although it’s clear the company continues to evolve into a price conscious consumer products company and lifestyle brand, and less and less “the Mac company.”

This is even clear when opening up the box for the iPad. Gone are all the wonderful accouterments from the early days like the iPod 15GB, which had a dock, plastic rain case, instruction booklet, belt holster, earphones, and more. As the years have gone by when you now buy an iPod you pretty much get the device and the warranty card, a power connector, and not much else (I currently have four, including the white 15GB which needed a new battery a couple of years back, the little metallic square nano model, and the black 60GB color screen model — and the iTouch first generation). Similarly, the iPad is just the iPad in the box (still nicely wrapped in plastic as all Apple products have come for years now), a quickstart sheet, the warranty info, a power adapter and the now standard Apple USB cable. And, true to “classic Apple,” you still get the Apple stickers.

I had to buy a case, the normal dock, the keyboard dock, and pre-ordered the new Griffin horizontal dock (more on that next time). I had a cleaning shammy for the screen I had already bought for the iPod touch that has microfibers so as to not scratch screen (this should have been included with the iPad, frankly).

While this is all fairly normal for an Apple devotee, a new user might be confused as to what to do in setting up with iTunes (as is now typical no CD is included with software, so you have to understand how to go to Apple’s Web site, and download the software and install it, and then connect the iPad via USB cable to your PC, then iTunes will “see” the iPad and sync it).

Similarly there are no printed instructions describing how to enable your AT&T connection or Wi-Fi, although tech savvy folks will be able to simply go to “settings” on the main iPad screen, go to connections, and enter the security key for your local Wi-Fi router. If you don’t have a local Wi-Fi connection, the iPad is smart enough to popup a note about setting up your account with AT&T for the 3G connection. Since I had a strong Wi-Fi local network, mine didn’t even make me that offer. Smart.

To Apple’s credit, if you go down to your local Apple store, they will help walk you through anything you need to do to get started, and this is also why so many people were waiting in line at the nearby store this morning to buy theirs. So, I’m not the only one this morning syncing my iPad to my iTunes account, checking out the “apps” and seeing how it works.

First thoughts: Wow. Very cool. For those of us who have been wanting a “bigger iTouch,” this is it. On the nose. Built in speaker means you don’t have to use earbuds (unlike my iPod touch) and it fits comfortably in the hand like a magazine. The black rim around the edges of the screen gives you a perfect place for putting your thumbs when using it (lots of fingerprints already, wipe it again with my cleaning cloth). Video looks amazing, supporting 720p HD video. And normal video looks good, too. I had a purchased copy of the South Park Movie, and I had a couple of 720p movie trailers and they look gorgeous.

Since I had an old MobileMe account I hadn’t used lately, I went ahead and set that up, and it only took a moment. Cool, instant email without conflicting with my Gmail, and I don’t need to worry with connecting to my company mail server (I’m self-employed, own my own Web servers, so have lots of email options to choose from). I kind of miss the old “” email accounts, but the “” is fine, too. Apple is not just Mac anymore, welcome to the second decade of the 21st Century.

The one thing I found missing from the iPad, and perhaps the most definitive indication that “it’s not a Mac, dummy,” is that the number of included applications is very small. Perhaps less than a normal iPhone or touch. For those of us who have grown used to the wealth of applications for imaging, music, writing, and video included with any Mac (it’s one of the things that helps justify the higher cost of a new Mac vs. the usual cheapo Windows-based PC — real software not bloatware), it seems somehow a cheat to not see a whole slew of “ready to go” applications.

Even the book reader requires you first sync to your iTunes account, then download the iBooks reader from the app store. Certainly this forces you to learn how to drink the Apple kool-aid, but if you are used to an Amazon Kindle, it’s a few extra steps before you can get to scouting the book shelf. It is worth mentioning that the impending OS 4 update for the touch-capable Apple devices will likely include the basic applications at the get-go.

On the plus side it does force you to first have an account in the iTunes store, and perhaps it’s better to manage your credit card data there from your Mac/PC than entering that data on your iPad over a phone network. Anyway… once you launch the iBooks app, you have access to Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne, complete with illustrations, to test out the reading capability. Nice.

So, how does it play as an e-book reader? Simple answer: I love it. I’ve been writing about the future of e-books for many years now, and I bought the Amazon Kindle when it first arrived, and I sent it back as the latency when going from page to page was awful for me since I have a pseudo-eidetic memory, which basically means every latent image gets burned into my brain and sticks there and I see it in my mind and that conflicts with visualizing a faraway place in the story I’m reading. Couldn’t deal with it. The e-ink page was lovely, but the latent negative image for each page turn was something I couldn’t get past. I looked at a newer model, and it was better but not perfect. A friend tells me his “Nook” from Barnes&Noble doesn’t have that issue, but I haven’t seen it. I haven’t looked at the Sony readers the past couple of years either. I’ve been waiting on the iPad. And it’s here. I’m holding it. Yeehah!

As I was saying, or typing, I’m looking at the Pooh book while I’m typing this. I love the page turning interface, simply being able to drag my finger across is just right. I also like the fact that after you sit with it a little bit, the screen dims just slightly so that the brightness level isn’t on full as with the menu screens. Nice.

In checking out the iBooks store, there are many new books and the NY Times list, but we’re still a long way off from being able to find and buy the books we want, much like the early days of the iTunes store (which should be due for a renaming next year since movies, rentals, audiobooks, and books are not exactly “tunes”). The iBooks store is separate from the main iTunes store right now which can be either annoying or a good idea for now, depending on your point of view. Frankly, the iTunes store used to be easier to shop when it was just music and the front page was all about the new music, but now it’s getting to be a bit like the old AOL (America Online) launch screens, with so many choices, and not the easiest to engage with just one genre. The movie/TV area is actually simpler to use than the music area. And, the “App store” area is a bit cumbersome. Searching for things takes into account the entire space and not just the section you’re in, which can be a bit annoying.

Tonight and tomorrow I’ll spend more time playing with the apps. To start with, I got the following from the app store (all are free, except a couple):
1) iBooks – free
2) ABC Player (to play ABC TV content) – free
3) Amazon Kindle app – free
4) Netflix app – free (requires Netflix account, obviously)
5) Pandora music player – free
6) pocket BLU (for my PS3, haven’t tried it yet) – free
7) Pinball HD (pinball game) $cost
8) IMDb app – free
9) iELECTRIBE – virtual drum machine $cost
10) Weather Channel weather app – free.

I also changed my background to one of the built-in leafy backdrops. My one gripe is not having a “horizontal dock” included with the iPad, as that would be nifty for watching a movie on your desk. You notice this immediately when you start a movie, while it sits upright on the basic Apple dock (which I happen to like, since it will also be nice for my iPod touch). Griffin has announced a nifty horizontal dock, and I pre-ordered one.

So far, so good. I’ll post an update tomorrow once I’ve watched some video, bought and read a book a little bit, watched something from Netflix, and played some Pinball. What a cool little device.

Update: in my email box this morning (Sunday) I got a nice email from Apple thanking me for my purchase with links to guided tours on how to use the iPad. This is the “how to” that I was expecting to find on the front page of the iPad itself, but these are all great tutorials. See: .

Article is Copr. © 2010 by Christopher Simmons – all rights reserved. Story originally appeared on

Articles Film and TV Reviews

Why ABC’s remake of V ‘The Visitors’ lost me at hello

REVIEW: Well. I’m pretty much the target audience for any science fiction show, having been born and raised on SF films (my parents took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Cinerama dome at age 6), and TV. I enjoyed the original “V” series with the mall hair, member’s only jackets, and moral heavy handed overtones of Visitors = nazis.

So, I was curious to see what a “re-imagining” of V might be like, since other such ventures have been hit or miss. Movie remakes of series have generally sucked (think Wild Wild West, which I loved as a kid), and it’s been rare that a remake exceeds the original work, as has been the case with Battlestar Galactica.

v the visitorsAs to the premiere of the new “V” last night? Frankly my dear, I was bored out of my mind. So many contrived elements which might have been acceptable in the “old days” of television (remember when they couldn’t show a bare bottom, or say “shit” on TV?), now seem not so quaint but just laughable. We know much more about biology, science, and the universe than we did when the original show was on.

Beyond the contrivance of the smart FBI chick’s kid just happening to become a convert of the V-meme, or the fact that it seems unlikely that lizard-people wearing bio suits would be able to live comfortably on Earth and maintain long-term relationships. Certainly, the idea of the “chameleon” comes into play, and that would have been far more interesting if the Visitors could change and shed their skin rather than wear the 1/2-inch thick rubber suits.

Is it really likely that a “visitor” (ne “invader”) would be able to pass all the x-ray, bio sniffer, and similar biometric systems in place after 9/11 in many public and other locales? Are they cold blooded? Would they show up as an empty spot on a heat sensitive security camera?

I find it unlikely that a race of horny (pun intended) lizard folk would be attracted naturally to us smooth-skinned types which goes against their general biology. I’ve never had a lizard come up and try to hump my leg, or sit on a rock in the desert and give me the googly eyes like these visitors do. And sexually compatible? Really?

I think we’ve seen so many end of the world, day the earth stood still, when worlds collide kind of films over the past sixty years that the general rule of anybody raised on pop culture would be suspect of ANYBODY showing up in a space ship. We can barely trust our neighbors, our spouses, our children, or even folks in different states of the USA. We make fun of the French for not joining in a massacre of innocents in other countries (“freedom fries”) but we’d accept a bunch of “too good to be true” aliens showing up in a bunch of space ships and not wanting anything.

And apparently TV anchors can now do their own stories without a news director overseeing the program. That didn’t work for Dan Rather, so why would this be allowed by the guy interviewing the Visitors on international TV now? Don’t buy it, sorry.

If we don’t trust our own government to run a health care plan (where’s Sarah Palin in this? if she thinks Obama is running death panels, what would she say about the visitors?), would we trust aliens who have been around for about a minute to offer a health care plan. Um, yeah, scan my DNA, you won’t sell it on the alien internet will you?

At least they got the obvious out of the way at the outset – best friend an alien, check. Tagging now means positive “V” viral marketing, check. Contrived family relationship to put mother and child at odds when the world is at stake. Aliens with misgivings about “what’s really going on” (but never bothered to tell anybody before the visitors came down in full force). Really?

Although “V” did well in the ratings, I ended up tuning out, and letting the DVR record it, and switched over to NCIS, which won the ratings that night. I watched the rest afterwards, but was still bored.

So what comes next? A whole season of watching clueless people discover everything the audience already knows? They want our resources, they like having sex with humans (might be more interesting on Showtime, but definitely not on ABC), the like to eat their mates. What is there to learn we don’t already know.

I’m not sure who the target audience is now, since it’s far less interesting than ABC’s FlashForward, not remotely as good as Battlestar Galactica, and not even as flippant and junk-food-enjoyable as Psych. Perhaps the Gen-Y who never saw the original, or perhaps people who will watch anything. Maybe it’s just me, but I expect more from my B-grade sci-fi than I used to.

They lost me at hello.

Article is Copr. © 2009 Christopher Simmons. Article originally appeared on

Music and Recording Reviews

Review: Open Labs NeKo XXL Gen5 DAW Keyboard Workstation

REVIEW: I’m a big fan of Open Labs’ music workstation instruments, so I was pretty excited when they announced the rebirth of their XXL model this spring, which was not available last October 2008 when I bought the NeKo TSE (previously reviewed for Music Industry Newswire). The XXL is not technically their flagship, if you ask anybody at Open Labs (OL) about that; it’s a special-purpose version of their NeKo designed for those with more professional needs. This means, specifically, it has all their control surface options (except the DJ panel), and most importantly it has faster multi-core Intel processors, more audio I/O, and hardware word clock I/O. Since the audio hardware is based on the M-Audio Delta 1010 series, it is “ready to rock” with Pro Tools 8 MA Edition, out of the box. It also comes outfitted with four 1TB hard drives (think system drive, audio drive, sample drive, back-up drive), and all the rest of their fifth generation software package.

Open Labs XXLThe first thing I found when taking it out of the box is that they still pack the unit very well with the spongy type of foam, not the brittle stuff that breaks into dust when you try to take the item out of the box; this means it absorbs shock better, and can be re-used in the future. So, it’s very well packed to arrive safe and sound, and to protect the LCD touch panel.

OL is still a bit stingy on the documentation, but I will address that in my minor quibbles a bit later on.

Ins and Outs
The short run-down of the hardware specs of the XXL are:

AUDIO: (1) High performance audio I/O card with low latency including 24-bit/96kHz professional 10-in/10-out: (2) mic/instrument preamp inputs (with phantom power 48V), (8) analog line inputs, (10) analog line outputs, S/PDIF digital I/O (coaxial), (1) Word Clock I/O, (1) headphone jack with volume control. MIDI in and out. Sustain and expression pedal inputs.

SYSTEM: Windows XP SP3. 2.8 GHz Core2 Quad Intel processor. 4GB RAM. One dual-layer DVD-RW (SATA) drive. Four 1TB Western Digital SE16 SATA (3GB/sec) drives. DVI video port. 15-inch touch screen. Four USB 2.0 ports (2 internal, 2 external). One FireWire 400 port. One Gigabit Ethernet port.

NeKo XXL Back Panel

Control This
What sets the XXL apart from the other Gen5 (fifth generation) OL keyboards, is the extra panels, which means it has the new Bump MP drum panel, the mixer panel with display, a QWERTY keyboard (useful for shortcuts in most recording applications), and the new Alpha II Panel which has a wide LCD display (scribble strip, if you prefer) with assignable buttons and encoders. Missing from the XXL, but found on other Gen5 models is the DJ panel, which appears to be missing here due to lack of internal space because of extra cards and cooling.

(Note: on their Web site, they refer to the Bump MP as “Bump MP,” then “BumpMP,” then “Bump-MP,” so I’m not entirely sure which is definitive.)

It’s all a bit to take in and get a grasp on (pun intended). The one thing which threw me at first, is that the dedicated keyboard transpose buttons found on the Gen4 NeKo instruments is no longer found on the XXL (thanks to different, better panels). On the non-XXL models, the DJ panel (fader, knobs, and buttons, below the touch panel) can take over this chore. With the XXL I discovered the only way to do this is to use the Alpha II Panel (top-right panel), and use the menu key to switch to the Reaper DAW preset, and then the up/down and reset transpose buttons work from that pre-set.

Apha II Panel and Bump-MPHowever, there is no standard pre-set on the Alpha II Panel for virtual instruments, which there should be. Of course, there are presets for bundled Reaper DAW, the bundled Ableton Live 7 DAW, and Riff. (To clarify: the default transpose buttons on the Alpha II Panel work while in Riff, which is the default environment for the XXL. It’s only when you leave the Riff environment, go to Windows, and launch a stand-alone application outside of Riff, where they do not.)

Since Ableton Live is a whole subject in itself, I’m not going to cover that product at all here, but suffice it to say that the XXL’s many controls are very well mapped to the Live environment so you can do some pretty amazing things with it.

Similarly Reaper is a wonderful DAW, which has some notable features for working with everything from one screen. It’s got a little bit of a different mindset than Cakewalk or Pro Tools, but if you want to do a lot of audio recording, it’s dead easy to learn, and OL have many great tutorials and – again – all of the Gen4 and Gen5 keyboards are pre-set to control Reaper elements.

The mixer panel (top-left of XXL), has 9 faders, with four banks; and 16 knobs, as well as an LCD display where 8 of the knobs have scribble strips that change based on the presets (meaning, you can create a pre-set for Sonar, or Pro Tools, if you wish). The system is pre-set to work with both Live and Repear, and Riff. The sliders have LEDs at top and bottom which get brighter depending on the position of the fader. The faders were designed to work with the MiKo layout, apparently, as the blue LEDs are to the left of the faders, so while seated at the XXL, they are not clearly visible when the faders are either close to bottom or top.

The Big Wow
Probably the most exciting thing to me about the XXL, personally, is that it is the first true (no B.S.) “all in one” recording product ever built, by anybody, period. Full stop. Right now, I can boot up the unit in under 100 seconds, and be running either Pro Tools LE (M-Audio edition), Cakewalk Sonar Producer Edition, any virtual instrument in stand-alone mode and – finally – Gigastudio. One of my (perhaps silly) dreams for many years was “Oh, I wish Tascam would build a keyboard instrument to run Gigastudio in standalone mode… just like my Triton Pro Extreme or Kurzweil. Sigh.” Well, folks, now I can. And, may I say, big freakin’ wow, baby. The OL XXL has GSIF2 drivers, so I can load up a whole passel of Giga sounds, and the updated GS4 interface actually works on the 15-inch touch panel.

(Ahem: of course, Gigastudio is now a defunct product, but those of us long-time users still like it. And, although I have also become a convert to Native Instruments’ Kontakt 3.5, it would take a year or more of my little free time to convert my vast legal sound libraries, and I’d lose many of my key-switching capabilities.)

With the touch panel, I really love virtual instruments with stand-alone modes, like the Arturia CS-80, where the on-screen ribbon controller responds to the touch panel! Some virtual keyboards, like Native Instruments’ Akoustic Piano, is made for a touch panel, since you can just tap the piano you want to load, and then the environment to play in. Very cool. Manipulating samples and elements in NI’s KORE 2 system is equally elegant by touch.

Rock and Riff
When launched, the XXL opens into the Riff environment, which is OL’s own custom live workspace environment. This is very cool, and shows that OL has really matured from repurposing other folks’ applications (like Karsyn, based on Forte) to building their own solutions. At first glance, it seems to be a fairly simple grid setup to create custom song-sets, each of which can contain instruments, FX, and routings. At second glance, it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into Riff in making it a very deep system for playing live, and for creating your own custom “instrument” for when you boot up the XXL.

For example, you can create custom buttons, dials, sliders and other controls to manage individual instruments, or groups, which can vary per song. Riff is perhaps the most powerful thing about all of the fifth generation OL instruments (Gen4 gear can be upgraded to the Gen5 software), and might be easily dismissed when jumping right to an installed DAW. It’s a little confusing in some ways relative to the prior starting point of Karsyn, as found on Gen4 OL products, but once you play with it a bit (or use the live training support option included), it really starts to get under your skin of how cool it really is.

Open Labs Riff 1.2

As one example, you could create a song grid, with all your songs by name and color code on the touch panel, and you could group different buttons around a core song. So, in the context of a single performance you could easily jump between groups of instruments, splits, effects chains, patches, mixes and so forth with one button. Further, you can create custom controls for each set-up, like on screen toggles, sliders, dials and whatnot, so if you want to just control the filter on your bass line, you can do it by adding just the single element you want to see/control on your screen. I didn’t see a couple of things on first or second glance, but I’m hoping they add a joystick type x-y controller and side-to-side virtual ribbon controller type element, as these are superb control surface options for virtual instruments.

Initially I found the default set-ups a little disappointing relative to Karsyn on the TSE, because very few of the bundled instruments showed up in the drop-down menus for Riff; for example, Truepianos is included, but didn’t show up in the menu for “keyboards.” So, there are no default Riff set-ups with Truepianos. After I had installed Native Instruments Komplete 5, I went into the “add” menu, and found I could drag any of the installed instruments into the categories, or make new categories. Now my “keyboards” drop-down menu has Truepianos, and the Native Instrument keyboards and B4. Now if I want to make a new song setup, they are right there.

Because this is still fairly new (version 1.2 of Riff literally came out days before my unit shipped, and the tutorial videos on YouTube still show the earlier version), OL hasn’t yet had time to build out the amazing instrument set-ups that came with the TSE workstations. So, most of the set-ups are built around just a very few of the bundled on-board instruments and sounds, and you can no longer launch them from the OL GUI, where previously the GUI would launch special set-ups of Karsyn and E-MU’s Proteus X2.

Luckily Karsyn is still included (for now), which is still kind of easier to use for just launching a newly installed VST, since it has a nice menu of “newly installed instruments.” So, you don’t need to make a song, or edit one, you just click load, and it’s playable. OL will be discontinuing Karsyn at some point in favor of Riff, but for the transition, it’s nice to have. In speaking to one of the OL support folk, it sounds like there are some really wicked things planned for Riff, and for a nascent application it has some truly inventive ideas.

Open Labs NeKo Front

Sounds on Board
On the subject of sounds on board, I was more than a little surprised to no longer find any version of E-MU Proteus X2, even the free Proteus VX. I’m not sure if OL had a falling out with E-MU, or perhaps E-MU chose to discontinue licensing the X2 software now that X3 has come out. Luckily, I already owned a legal copy of Emulator X2, and upgraded to X3 which doesn’t require a dongle anymore, so with X3 loaded and all the libraries I had purchased for X2 (classic keyboards), I now have the same sound sets from the TSE, minus the Ensoniq ASR-10 sets. For anybody migrating as I am from the TSE to the XXL, you will want to go buy the Proteus or Emulator X3 from EMU, or at least download the free Proteus VX, so you won’t be going “hey, what happened to….”

OL does include several E-MU sound sets from Digital Sound Factory that work with the included Cakewalk Dimension LE, which are sounds from the venerable E-MU Proteus 2000, MoPhat and Virtuoso modules. However, these are fairly old school in quality (small number of samples per patch) versus today’s modern ROMplers or the some of E-MU’s extensively sampled vintage keyboard libraries.

Basically, Cakewalk’s Dimension LE is the new “standard” library playback engine on the OL Gen5 instruments, replacing E-MU’s Proteus X2. This, actually, is not a bad choice, since Dimension uses the same sfz format as Wusikstation (also included with OL products, as before), and the OL MimiK key cloning application. However, you will want to upgrade to the “Pro” version ($99-$149, depending on Cakewalk’s variable pricing on their instruments) for any key cloning efforts (cloning hardware or virtual synths), since Dimension LE doesn’t have all of the ADSR and editing tools needed to properly replicate many of the instruments you may wish to clone. Of course, if you are using Cakewalk Sonar, you may already have the Pro version.

Other bundled sounds/instruments include Lennar Digital Sylenth, which is one of the better analog sounding virtual instruments, and is ideal for those who want a wide range of arpeggiated patches (hint: try stopping the arpeggiator on the more interesting patches to just play them normally). Purity and Autogun are included along with the aforementioned 4Front Truepianos.

Boom Shaka Boom Boom
One of the very cool things in the sound department is the custom collaboration between OL and FXpansion, for a customized version of Guru, the drum machine slash drum sequencer. With the combination of the new OL “Bump MP” control surface and Guru, you have a very usable setup for those who may have grown up with a venerable Akai MPC. But, wait, there’s more!

One of the truly cool things about the Bump MP set-up, is that OL have added one unique thing to the otherwise standard 4×4 (16) drum pad layout, which is a “last played” button (a 17th pad). This lets you instantly play something like a hi-hat using two buttons, as the extra pad does whatever your last pad did. As someone who was first on the block with a Linn9000 back in the day (my band-mate at the time, wrote the manual for the Linn9000), and have owned several MPCs (I have a MPC3000 and MPC4000 now), this is really useful and works.

Guru is a great choice as it works either in a MPC style of recording, or closer to an Ableton Live (more about that in a minute) mode. If you haven’t used Guru before, it’s a bit like how you have multiple pad banks on the MPC, but think multiple virtual MPCs which in turn have their own multiple banks. It’s a little confusing at first, but like most things, once you get it, you go “ooooh!”

To quote OL’s promotional materials: key features of the Bump MP include: (16 plus 1) fully assignable pads, note repeat, fixed level fader, transport controls, chromatic mode, hold, pad tune, multiple groove preset and eight engines with 24 patterns per engine. This also allows up to 512 step sequences per pattern.

Minor Quibbles
Open Labs are still a little stingy on printed documentation supplied with their products, which amounts to an 11×17 getting started color sheet, a support sheet, a contact sheet, and an upgrade card for the bundled Live software. A couple of the numbers and arrows for the back panel are wrong on the getting started sheet, for the MIDI jacks and the expression pedal, but those are self evident when looking at the back of the unit. If we’re going to be forced to print out our own manual, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to perhaps include a 3-ring binder with the Open Labs logo printed on it, and then put the videos onto a proper DVD disc, and quick start sheets for ALL the bundled Open Labs applications like Riff and MimiK. I’m sure I’m not the only one that thinks it’s ridiculous to assume we’re going to keep flipping between a PDF and the Riff environment on a 15-inch LCD to learn to use the thing.

Of course, to mitigate this (in my opinion) lacking, the NeKo XXL comes with Open Labs’ “Platinum” support, which includes hands-on training of Riff and MimiK, in lieu of the documentation, so this really can be considered a premium replacement for old-fashioned how-to printed materials. I do like to point out that even Roland has returned to providing printed docs, which they tried to get away from, as with the launch of the V-Synth GT, which had limited printed docs, and a getting started sheet that looked like something from a 1980s VCR set-up guide. With the Fantom G series they brought back a proper manual, quick start guide, and jump start sheet, to which I said hip-hip hooray when I took the Fantom G6 out of its box. I’ll keep mentioning this in every review I do for products with no manuals, as it doesn’t save trees for me to have to print out the sheets from the manual, when they should come with any music gear that costs over $2,000.

But again, OL do provide arguably the best live support option in the industry where they will schedule a time to walk you through the set-up, customization, and use of the apps that come on the XXL; for their core customer base, this is a better option than printed materials, except for us dinosaur music types who still like to read docs for stuff while watching TV to separate the brain activities. But I digress. The live support is exceptional, and is worth about $600 if taken alone. And in the first couple of months, you can upgrade to extend that support.

I found once I put the XXL on the Standastic stand, where my NeKo TSE had been (see photos), was that the piano black finish actually works pretty well with the black rubber surrounds with the different panels, making them look more integrated than the white finish of the TSE models. On the other hand, I was a bit surprised to see what looked like minor resin snail trails below the clear coat finish, in the area right below the pitch/mod wheels. You can’t see this unless it’s hit with a ray of sunlight, or with a flashlight, but it does, unfortunately, still reveal the fact this is a bespoke product and not a mass produced workstation from the “big boys” in Japan or Europe. So, a little surprised that a $6,800 instrument has a paint finish a little closer to Earl Scheib than Chip Foose; but only a detail nut like me will likely even notice it. Not a deal breaker, and the free 28-inch LCD display they included as part of their summer promotion, sure didn’t hurt.

While OL does not provide install disks or recovery disks for any of the bundled system OS or applications, a very usable copy of Acronis OEM edition is included, which lets you create full working back-ups of your set-up, and put those back-ups on your hard drive (or external media). It’s a good idea to do this before you start to install anything. Then when you have the first batch of things installed do separate back-up of that. And then, when you have everything installed, do a separate back-up there. Do, a second back-up of everything, and then you can do “incremental” back-ups to that “working” back up image. Thankfully, that fourth 1TB drive is ideal for this practice.

Finally, the smallest of quibbles: I’ve noticed a bit of lack of attention to detail in various Open Labs materials this year, which was not the case last year, such as the mis-labeled items on the welcome sheet with the XXL. Throughout the OL Web site, they refer to the Acronis back-up software as Acronus, sequencer is mis-spelled often, the Bump MP panel can be called Bump MP, Bump-MP, and BumpMP (um, which is it?); MIDI is often called Midi, etc. When I went to register the DBeat hardware product, there was no option for that product on their registration page. Finally, when I got the XXL, the included upgrade postcard had a link to the Ableton site which did not exist; I had to point this out to support, and then the Ableton site was updated a couple of days later (didn’t anybody check that – the card had to be printed before being sent to customers?).

So, somebody in marketing or management hasn’t been keeping track of the team as best they could, which has not (thankfully) affected the products, but it does show some cracks in the plaster from their growing pains, which I hope will be better addressed moving forward.

Real People Real Support
One of the best aspects of any OL instrument purchase, perhaps, is the support. You can actually work with a live person to show you what to do, explain how to solve a problem specific to your work-flow, and train you on the features built-in to the OL products. Saturday appointments are available, too. In some parts of the country, you can even have a guru come to you on-site. This is rare in the music industry outside of the professional studio services trade (e.g., the folks who install your $100,000 mixing console).

All OL products are pre-set with optional dial-in support, meaning if you have an Internet connection, you can have a tech access your machine remotely to tweak something.

Wrap Up
Overall, this is one of the coolest pieces of electronic music gear I have purchased brand new since that day I walked out of Guitar Center with my Sequential Circuits Pro One oh so many years ago. The more I use it, the more I discover I can do, and beyond the geek-factor, I do find myself being inspired again to actually make music rather than admire the technical facility or possibilities of “what it’s possible to do,” which is the bane of many virtual instrument collectors.

With the mix panel, you can tab between banks of faders, with the Bump MP panel you can play drums more elegantly than keyboard, and I don’t have to stand-up to wham on my MPC. The built-in DAWs give you choices “out of the box” as to how to record music, and since it’s a Windows XP computer under the hood, you can literally run any application that runs on a standard PC.

FIVE STARSCertainly, it’s not inexpensive, but it’s far more than a keyboard, a PC, some drivers, and a touch panel bolted into a custom case, which is the mis-conception of the “laptops or die” crowd. If you look inside there are numerous custom circuit boards, intelligent engineering in the layout for cooling, it’s quieter than you expect, even with the fans at full speed (I chose to use the NeKo on a 100-degree day in mid August, with 70 percent humidity, and only one fan on in the corner in my home studio, and the XXL got warm, but I was fading from the heat before it was).

If you want to replace a wall of hardware with something more elegant, and if you want to retire all the wires between your notebook, audio interface, keyboard controller, etc. with one “all in one box,” look no further than an Open Labs MiKo or NeKo. With the XXL, you have one system that can run all the best Windows-based DAWS with no additional hardware, and the Riff and Bump MP solutions are true value-adds that are remarkable on their own.

To loosely quote Ferris Bueller, “If you have the means, I highly recommend it.”

Music Industry Newswire rating: FIVE STARS.

Open Labs NeKo XXL: SRP(US) $6,899. Dimensions: 46″ (W) X 20″ (D) X 7″ (H), Weight (base configuration) 46 lbs.

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PROS: Exceptional do-it-all platform with flexible audio I/O based on mature M-Audio Delta hardware. Compatible with all Windows-based applications, including Pro Tools LE (M-Audio Edition) without any other hardware. Great bundle of applications and sound tools to get started. Superb tech support (Platinum level) included which comprises training on the hardware and software. Forever upgradeable as new hardware and software is released (as long as company is in business, of course). Many Gen3 product owners upgraded to Gen4 software. Even my Gen4 TSE can be upgraded to add the Bump MP module for about $700, with all the software (check the sales dept. for “today’s price”).

CONS: Missing some of the wonderful sound sets of prior editions, including the extra Wusikstation expansion packs and E-MU premium sample libraries of the TSE series. No printed manual or user guide other than quick start sheet. (PDF manuals and tutorials are on hard drive, Web site, YouTube, etc.)

Article and images Copr. © 2009 by Christopher Simmons, all rights reserved. Article originally appeared on