How are Beatles albums like mobile-first web design?

When I’m meeting with clients and collaborators to discuss building websites, I like to make analogies. As the representative “tech geek” in most of these meetings, I find them the best way to convey the meaning of esoteric technical concepts, even if they’re sometimes rather strained. (I make car analogies a lot, for some reason.)

The other day I was explaining my two favorite (and overlapping) current trends in web design: Responsive Web Design and Mobile First. (How convenient that A Book Apart has books on both topics. I mention A Book Apart a lot in meetings, too.)

Suddenly in the meeting it occurred to me that mobile-first web design has an analogy with the production of most of the Beatles’ albums. In the early and mid-1960s, popular music was released primarily in mono format. Most of the market for these albums was listening to them on small mono turntables, not expensive stereo equipment. (And apparently at the time mono equipment could not properly play back stereo records.)

When the time would come for the Beatles to prepare the final mixes of their albums, the band members would join George Martin in the studio and carefully perfect the mono mixes. Then the boys would all head to the pub and leave George Martin alone to hastily assemble the stereo mixes as an afterthought. (And, frankly, it shows.) But somewhere along the way (in 1968, specifically) stereo had caught on enough that the last few albums (Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be) were mixed in stereo first.

The web is kind of like those Beatles albums. Up until now, websites were designed for “mono”: a computer screen. Eventually enough people started using the web “in stereo” (on mobile devices) that mobile versions of websites became necessary, but they were a hasty afterthought. But we are presently arriving at a time when a lot of people are doing a lot, if not most, of their web browsing on mobile devices, of a variety of shapes and sizes and capabilities. It’s starting to make sense not just to consider mobile versions, but to start with the mobile design.

Fortunately, we’re also at the point (to, as usual, strain the analogy) where the mono equipment can play back stereo records. There’s no need to design two separate websites, one for mobile and one for desktop. Responsive web design (via the magic of CSS3 media queries) lets us build one site that works on any screen.

But why mobile first? I see two main benefits, stemming from one main factor: the small screen size. By targeting the smallest screens first, you 1) focus on what’s most important, and 2) can more easily see what’s not important… or, at least, less important.

Mobile first fits well with the model of best-practices web design I like to promote. The decisions you make to create the best mobile experience will generally create the best experience, period. Granted, the needs of a visitor on their way to your office and checking your site on their smartphone may well differ from those of the visitor casually browsing your site on their iPad in bed, or from the customer placing an order from their office PC, but it’s easy enough to enhance the experience for users of those larger displays after the core needs of the mobile user have been addressed.

It’s an exciting time to be a web designer. Things are really starting to… come together.

(Come on, you knew I had to end with a Beatles reference.)

Couch to 5K week 4 playlist

If you follow me on Twitter (and if not, well…) you know that for the past few weeks I’ve been trying to conquer decades of sedentary lifestyle by way of the Couch to 5K iPhone app. It’s been working out very well so far!

One thing I have yet to do is consciously plan out a playlist to correspond to the cycles of walking and running that are a key to the Couch to 5K program. Well, on Thursday I will be running the final day of week 4, nearing the halfway point (what??!!) in the program, so it’s time to remedy that situation.

Here then is my Couch to 5K week 4 playlist, for your consideration:

Action Song Artist Time
Warm up One More Robot / Sympathy 3000-21 The Flaming Lips 5:00
Run The Distance Cake 3:01
Walk Little Fishes Brian Eno 1:30
Run Smells Like Teen Spirit Nirvana 5:01
Walk And I Love Her The Beatles
Run Highly Suspicious My Morning Jacket 3:05
Walk Pigs on the Wing (Part One) Pink Floyd 1:25
Run Uprising Muse 5:05
Cool down Computerworld Kraftwerk 5:08

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Clearly I focused primarily on the timing and general mood of the songs when programming this playlist, giving… well… absolutely no consideration whatsoever to the transitions between the songs. But I think it will still be successful. It helps me a lot when running to focus on the music and to think, “OK… I run until the end of this song.”

And yes, when I get to running for the entire time, I will have a song for that. I have 14 songs in the library on my iPhone that are over 20 minutes long.

You can’t hear my latest song

But that’s just because I’ve submitted it for consideration for inclusion in Ramen Music, a new subscription music service — a “zine” I suppose, in late-’90s Internet parlance — that brings independent musicians and artists together in what looks to be a very cool web interface. I’m excited to get the first issue, and even more excited about possibly being a part of it.

Ramen Music is the brainchild of my fellow indie musician and web guy, Sudara Williams, who also created alonetone. It’s a great idea and it looks like it’s got the right kind of support behind it to make it a success artistically, and hopefully as a business venture as well.

As for my song, well, it’s 5 1/2 minutes of upbeat electronica, probably the best track I’ve recorded to date in that style (at least, I think so). It’s called “Sembei,” the Japanese word for a quintessentially Japanese snack food: rice crackers. I’ve gotten addicted to the things — there are some excellent options imported straight from Japan at United Noodles here in Minneapolis — and it just seemed like a good name for a track I’d submit to a project called Ramen Music.

Here’s where I’d say, “Enjoy!” and link to the MP3. But in this case I’ll say… Subscribe! There’s no guarantee at this point that “Sembei” will be included on the first (or any) issue of Ramen Music, but it’s still worth it to support great independent music.

Group improvisation for one

In the mid-’90s, I was a member of a musical group called Bassius-O-Phelius. Working under a name based on an obscure Captain Beefheart reference, my friend Mark Bergen and I, occasionally supplemented by other musician friends, recorded a number of albums of free-form improvisation. Mark played organ, electric piano, and viola, and I played electric bass, woodwinds and percussion. It was all about experimentation and the power of music to convey mood and mystery. It was also kind of ridiculous, but we did everything with a sense of humor.

The Bassius-O-Phelius method was to use a 4-track cassette recorder, lay down an initial pair of tracks — typically on keyboard and bass — and then play the tape back and improvise another pair of tracks on viola, clarinet, and assorted other instruments. This led to some interesting results, as our improvisations were based not only on the live interplay of two musicians standing in a room together, but of those two musicians interacting with themselves via the prerecorded tracks.

For this year’s RPM Challenge, I decided to channel that spirit into a solo album, which I have entitled 222: Improvisations for 6 Instruments. Obviously the dynamic here is different: there’s only one of me, so I can’t interact with another player live. This difference was most apparent while laying down the first instrumental track: it was just me on the keyboard, with no frame of reference. My experience with Bassius-O-Phelius, however, taught me that it was important, among other things, to establish a steady, repetitious groove from time to time, anticipating opportunities for solos in subsequent tracks.

Another difference was the recording tools at my disposal: in the ’90s we recorded on a 4-track cassette recorder, but I recorded this album in GarageBand on my MacBook. The number of possible tracks is (in principle) unlimited, so I could easily lay down six individual instrument tracks without needing to worry about “bouncing down.” But there was another significant effect of using GarageBand: I could watch the waveforms of the other instruments as I played. Obviously this couldn’t totally allow me to “read the mind” of… well, myself… from the prior tracks, but it did allow me to anticipate major events. This might seem like “cheating,” but it actually felt more akin to the “two people in the same room” experience: while musicians are collectively improvising, it is common for them to make eye contact and give each other visual cues to facilitate group events in the performance.

Once the six instrument parts were recorded, I created 8 distinct “pieces” based on this single 8:38 track, by splitting up the instruments into different arrangements. For instance, the first track is just keyboard and guitar; the second is just Bebot and bass clarinet. Only on the final track do all six instruments finally come together and reveal the ultimate end product of my endeavors.

New room34/music site launched

My brief foray with Bandcamp is over, and a brand new room34/music site has officially launched!

This new version, I am proud to say, runs on cms34, a Content Management System I developed based on the CakePHP framework. I’ve been running numerous client sites on it for the past couple of years, along with my own Room 34 Creative Services site, but this is the first time I’ve really pushed its capabilities on a site of my own. The site has a few tricks up its sleeve (although most are in the admin interface right now), and more is on the way, including automatic transcoding of MP3s into Ogg Vorbis format for playback in the Firefox and Chrome web browsers.

Yadda yadda yadda. It’s not about the web geekitude (well, maybe for me it is)… it’s about the music. I’ve posted streaming and downloadable MP3s, cover art, background information, and CD purchase links for about a half dozen of my most recent projects, and over the coming weeks I’ll be filling in the rest of my “back catalog” going back to at least 2001, and perhaps even to my debut “album” from 1992, if I can round up the old cassette currently decaying in a box in the basement somewhere.