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My So-Called Second Life - Part VII

I had a question in the Gibson forums about the interaction with the audience that you get when you perform in Second Life. It's probably easy to assume this is a one-dimensional experience in a 3D world. But I'm here to tell you, its not. On the performer's end, they sit in front of their computers, with their microphones routed into their audio interfaces, streaming sound into the "venue" they are playing in on Second Life. What you see in the real world when you're playing is your computer and gear, but you also see the Second Life software and the audience that's gathered to hear you.

This means you're looking at real people, represented by their avatars. They are able to show their appreciation in a number of ways. Any seasoned resident of Second Life has some kind of "audience" script they can easily access, which produces cheers, applause, whistling, shouts of bravo and more, while animating the avatar to appear to be enthusiastic about what they've been hearing. They might be animated to jump up and down, throw up the universal sign for "rock on" with the index and pinky fingers extended while their heads bob, or any other number of animations. 

The audience is also able to interact with each other and with the performers by typing their thoughts into their keyboard, which appears onscreen for a few seconds (or longer in a sub-window you can open). There you might see things like "awesome" or "dude you rip!" come up on the screen in real time as you perform. This gives you an uncanny sense of connection to the people listening. I know, it sounds weird, but it does.

Because of the time it takes to stream your audio to the venue and the time they hear it, there is a delay of around 15 seconds or so. Interestingly enough, that works out about right. If I play a song and end it on a chord and let it ring, as the notes naturally fade I tend to hear the audience applause and cheers timed pretty well. That lets me know they love what I'm doing and eggs me on to play more.

And of course, another thing that creates a nice bond with the audience is when you're playing a song and hear the tell-tale sound of "cah-ching" that means you've been giving a tip by an appreciative audience member. Nothing like money to make a nice connection. Then after the show, the audience is also able to instant message chat with you, either one on one, or in the open so everyone can see what they've said and your response. 

When I did my first show in Second Life, after it was done, I was amazed at the real-life feeling of having just played a gig to a packed club. It was in fact the same buzz, the same high that you get when you've held an audience in person. The feeling was no different. I recall walking into the bedroom and telling my wife how bizarre it was to have this sensation of having just played at a club to a packed house juxtaposed to being in my home while feeling it. I'd never experienced that before. Anyone who has played a packed club and brought the house down knows the buzz I'm referring to here. It was a strange feeling to have that going on while I was in my own house.

I'm off the track a bit from the technical tips for getting into SL as a musician, and I'll get back there this week, but I wanted to address this topic since its come up in the forums. Yes, you get a unique interaction with your audience, its not a stale clinical feeling of playing into a microphone in your home studio, but the feeling of a real, live concert. And as well it should be, because that is exactly what you've just done.

Posted: 12/8/2008 6:16:58 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

My So-Called Second Life - Part VI

Yesterday I covered the most complicated part about playing virtual concerts over the Internet, or in essence, webcasting. I talked about the free software known as SHOUTcast, which allows hundreds of thousands of people around the world to setup their own Internet radio stations and stream their music in real time from their choice of sound sources to the world waiting to listen. 

That's the toughest part, really. And that said, its not really so hard. If you get the streaming information from either renting it from a SHOUTcast service provider, or the host of your concert event. Put the info into your streaming software (either WinAmp for Windows users, or Nicecast for Mac users), choosing what you want the sound source to be (you audio card/device), then hit Start and you're sending audio. The person hosting your concert will take care of putting the stream info into the Media tab of the land settings for Second Life. With that, you're show has started. Everything you say, every note you sing or play, is getting sent out to the SHOUTcast server and fed into the Second Life land where you're performing. 

But it doesn't stop there. You need to make sure you're producing a great sound to begin with or people are not going to enjoy the show no matter how talented you may be. For this, you need the right gear, even the right inexpensive minimal gear, and you need a basic understanding of how to use it.

First of all, let's talk microphones. Doing a live concert over Second Life is akin to webcasting a recording session. Nobody with any experience recording would make the suggestion that a singer use a live microphone, that is, a dynamic microphone like the trusty Shure SM-58, for cutting vocal tracks. There are rare exceptions where famous singers use an SM-58 in the studio, like Bono, but you are not Bono and you don't have Joe Chiccarelli engineering your vocal session. 

This means one thing. Condenser microphones. The kind that need 48v phantom power to make them work. You will want a large diaphragm condenser microphone for your vocals, and for my tastes, your acoustic guitar as well. These microphones produce clarity and provide detail in your vocals. They are designed for recording, and they are the kind of microphones you'd find in a radio station control room as well. You can choose from all kinds of wonderful large diaphragm mikes these days, priced even under $100, made in China, that do a remarkable job for their costs. Some good choices are MXL, ADK, CAD, etc. I suggest you visit a music retailer that has a variety to choose from, ask them to plug them into a recording device that's similar to your own recording device, grab a set of headphones, and test them all out until you find the one that makes your voice sound great without any processes or EQ'ing. Don't have them plug it into some expensive microphone pre-amp or tube pre-amp or other device that you don't own. You want to find out what the microphone is going to sound like in your own setting. 

I use a Violet large diaphragm condenser microphone, a model called "The Globe." Its pretty pricey compared to what most might spend, but its not as expensive as high-end Neumann U87 or other top-shelf mikes. It sounds amazing with my voice. I think it street prices out around $1500.00. If I were buying a microphone just for performing in Second Life, it wouldn't be my first choice simply because of the costs. I have them for my recording studio, and have the luxury of using it in Second Life because I already own it.

Let's talk mike placement and pop filters. I strongly suggest you buy a pop-filter to help guard against plosives from the letters P and B when you're singing and talking. It attaches to the mike stand and should be positioned about two inches out from the grill of the mike. You should position the microphone so that you are about six inches or so away from the pop filter. Adjust the input gain on your audio device so that you stay safely in the "green" on your VU meter or LED meter, at your highest signing volume. There is nothing sexy about a digitally distorted signal. If you go into the yellow, its a warning that you're getting close to the red. When you hit the red, it gets ugly. Real ugly. Keep it green, keep it clean, that's my motto. 

Now, for miking the acoustic guitar, you can choose between a small or large diaphragm condenser microphone. I personally prefer large diaphragm mikes on acoustic guitars, depending on the mike setup. I play either my trusty Gibson SJ-200 or my Epiphone Masterbilt EF500RA model in my Von Johin concerts on Second Life. I mike each one in an identical manner.

I place a large diaphragm condenser mike about 5" or so away from the fretboard, and I point the mike at the 5th to 7th fret. I find that, especially with the SJ-200, if I get too close to the sound hole, I will get a boomy, unpleasant sound. So while obvious thinking might be to mike the sound hole, its not the right choice if you want a clean, crisp acoustic sound. Start up on the fret board around the 5th to 7th fret with your large or small diaphragm mike, about 5" or so away from the fret board. Put on your headphones and listen to the sound as you play. Move the mike up and down the fret board until you find its sweet spot, because your guitar might produce a different one than mine. 

For a nice stereo microphone placement on my acoustic, I prefer to use a small diaphragm condenser microphone pointed at the top of the sound board of the guitar, near the butt-end of it, and about 12"-15" or so away from it. I think pan the two mikes apart to create a nice stereo separation of the two microphones, adjusting the panning while I listen in the headphones until I get just the right sound. And as with the advice on the input level for vocals, same rules apply, keep it in the top of the green at the highest volume you will be playing.

The sum of the two or more devices input into your device should come out through the stereo main outputs you send to the stream. However, some audio devices treat their outputs as a hard left and right pan. The Digidesign 002 and others do that. This means that I can't actually control the panning, etc. for the stereo outputs, and when I first started playing in Second Life, my vocal mike was showing up in the left side, my guitar mike in the right. That might work for old Beatles records, but its not a good choice for live shows. Because the Pro Tools hardware doesn't let you control it outside of Pro Tools with a software mixer interface like you might enjoy with other audio interface brands, like Presonus, or MOTU. To get around this, I bought a small eight channel table-top mixer from Yamaha, and I run my mikes into it, pre-mix my sound, then send the stereo outs of it into the channels one and two of my 002, which gives me the ability to control the mix completely before it gets to the audio device I'll be streaming, and also lets me easily introduce other things into the signal path, such as a stereo compressor which has a limiter activated and keeps me from accidently clipping during my performances.

So that's about it, really. You need a recording audio device, which can be PCI, PCIe, USB, Firewire, whatever you have, that can send two channels of sound to the SHOUTcast server, with software to connect the audio device to the SHOUTcast server (WinAmp or Nicecast), 

Posted: 12/4/2008 1:18:13 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

My So-Called Second Life - Part V

SHOUTcast. What is it? From Wiki-pedia: "SHOUTcast is a server for streaming media developed by Nullsoft. It allows digital audio content, primarily inMP3 or HE-AAC format, to be broadcast to and from media player software, enabling hobbyists and professionals to create Internet radio networks. At least one GPL'd compatible streaming system also exists, Icecast.

SHOUTcast is 
cross-platform, and freeware.

OK, in layman's terms, its the software you need to get your audio from your computer to the rest of the Internet. It runs on a website server. It runs on either Linux systems or Windows systems. Its the thing you need to create an Internet radio station, or in this case, the thing you need to create your live concert performance. Let's say you have a webserver like I do for my avatar performer, a dedicated server that can handle the bandwidth, etc. for streaming live audio. I run a Linux box (told you I was a little geeky underneath). In my root folder, I simply dropped the SHOUTcast software folder in there, and followed the instructions to configure it (which were really simple), and told it to stream audio on port 8888. You can choose just about any port number, the software tells you how to do that in the setup information file or config file. Because I put that in my root server, it means that http://www.vonjohin.com:8888 is now a streaming audio URL that I can use to connect my client side (that's the computer in my home I use for the concert) to the server side (the SHOUTcast server). Sounds complicated, but it really isn't. I use that scary program on the Mac called Terminal, which lets me connect to the web server where SHOUTcast lives, and issue a little text command to start the server. The configuration file also lets me dictate at what sample rate I want to webcast, and how many listeners are allowed to be connected at one time, along with a password to secure access to the streaming server. From then on I am ready to connect to it whenever I want from my home computer and start the show. 

Now, you can get around all of that uber-geek stuff completely one of two ways: either you use the streaming SHOUTcast server information that belongs to the virtual world venue you'll be playing in, OR, you can rent access to a SHOUTcast server by the day or month from any number of people in Second Life who have set themselves up as service providers. A monthly SHOUTcast server rented from somebody in SL, that is able to be heard by 100 simultaneous listeners at 128k MP3 quality runs about $14.00 or so a month to rent. Since I play so many concerts in SL and because I have my own dedicated web-server and the geekitude required to manage it, I set up my own. I strongly suggest you don't set up your own SHOUTcast server when you're first getting started with this. Rent one, or use the one the club provides. 

I am on a Mac so my examples are going to be from my platform, but conceptually it works the same way in Windows, only using a different software application. As I mentioned in my other blog posting, Windows users would use WinAmp to stream their live shows over the Internet by adding the SHOUTcast plugin to it and configuring it the same way that I configure the Mac application (which is not free, but a paid product) called Nicecast. 

Nicecast allows me to choose an audio device, or application, and stream the sound from it up to the SHOUTcast server, which then acts as a relay server that allows lots of other people to listen at the same time. You couldn't possibly get more than one other person listening to your webcast from the bandwidth you have from your cable or DSL connection, but a webserver at a hosting company can handle it. So in essence, the Nicecast (or WinAmp with the SHOUTcast plugin) sends the sound up to the SHOUTcast server, which then re-distributes the load and lets lots of people hear at once. In Nicecast, you enter in the address of the "stream" as its called by SL users, which in my personal case is vonjohin.com (without the http:// part), but many SHOUTcast servers are just setup for IP addresses, so you'd stick in the IP address. Then you'd enter the Port Number, which I mentioned earlier for my personal SHOUTcast server, is 8888. Then the password for the server is entered, you save it, and that's it for setting up the server.

Next you tell either Nicecast or WinAmp what sound source to send up to the SHOUTcast server. In my case I tell it to send the sound from my Digidesign 002R, then everything I plug into the 002R that comes out of the main outputs is now being sent via the Internet to the SHOUTcast server. Anyone who puts the SHOUTcast server URL (for instance, http://www.vonjohin.com:8888) into iTunes, or WinAmp, or on Second Life, in the Media Settings tab for the land area you are performing in, will be able to hear the sound coming from my 002R. 

Nicecast and WinAmp both make it easy to automatically capture an "archive" of your live performance. Its literally as easy as finding the menu commands in the software, telling it to archive your webcast, and just like that you've made a nice bootleg of your live show. Of course, the sound quality that it archives will be the same settings you stream at, i.e. 128k MP3, so if you're serious about recording the shows vs wanting a simple archive, you're better off splitting out the signal path to a recording setup.

OK, that's enough geek for today. If you have any questions, feel free to fire away.

Posted: 12/3/2008 10:41:28 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

My So-Called Second Life - Part IV

If you’ve been reading this blog this week you’ll know why I’m about to dive into how Second Life virtual concert performances work from a technical aspect today. If you’re just now joining me, take a minute and read back a couple of postings to get the context.

Like many musicians around the world I’ve fallen prey to the marketing spells of software and hardware manufacturers and equipped myself with a home recording studio that is more sophisticated in ability and quality than anything the Beatles could have imagined, but of course without the benefit of their talent.

I am loaded for bear here in my home studio. We do live drums here, vocals, guitar amp miking, the lot. I own pretty much every DAW application known to the Mac world of recording, in part thanks to the kindness of the software publishers who send their news to my AppleProAudio.com news website, an RSS site I put together to keep up with the hardware and software for Mac users who record, work and play on the OS X platform.

I'm geeked out hard with a 30" Apple Cinema Display LCD, a trusty 24-fader control surface (the out-of-production Tascam US2400), some aging outboard gear rarely used in this plugin world, and two different sets of monitors, the newer Mackie HR824s and the KRK Rocket 6s in limited-edition, bright canary yellow. Nothing says LOUD like canary yellow monitor cabinets. 

If you haven't guessed by now, I have a Mac-based setup, a Quad 2.66GHz Mac Pro running OS X Leopard, with a Digidesign Pro Tools 002R system with all 18 inputs available to me using an Octopre LE to open the eight ADAT inputs and a stereo mic pre with a S/PDIF input the lets me open the other two channels. With this rig I routinely produce my recordings, work on and/or review audio/video components for books I’ve published, plus produce other media projects. Jumping into the word of online concert performing was pretty easy, I already had everything I needed, that is, except the software to webcast the audio stream.

Obviously, the required elements for a concert are your sound source input devices, ie microphones and instruments plugged into an audio device of some type that is connected to your computer. People use Windows, Mac or Linux for this process, though I suspect most are using either Mac or Windows. I don't know many audio guys in the Linux scene, but there are bleeding edge lovers who do use it.

The audio device converts your analog sound signal into digital sound signal and if you want saves it into files. In my case, I am running into channels one and two of the Digidesign 002, which I have put a small 8-channel Yamaha mixer in front of to make it easy to sum more than two microphones into the stereo signal I’ll be web-casting live during the concert. 

You can use the direct inputs of any audio device, but I strongly recommend that you don’t try to plug directly into a consumer audio device or built-in sound card, unless you’re just testing the whole concept out. Part of what will make or break you really quickly in the world of online concert performances is the sound quality.  Use a good audio device so you'll have good analog to digital converters. There are worlds of affordable ones available these days without dropping $1500 on a 003 or something. In fact, if you were going to be getting an audio device for this project, I’d recommend something with a stand-alone software mixer, something the Pro Tools system doesn’t have, which is why I use a hardware mixer on the front end of my setup.

Condenser microphones are strongly recommended, rather than dynamic microphones like the trusty Shure SM-58 used for live concerts in person. You are going to get you a lot better sound for live concerts online if you use a condenser microphone. What you’re really doing here is streaming out live a recording set-up, just like a live radio station does in broadcast. The performance part is what's the same as an in-person concert, but the equipment is what you'd use in a recording studio setup or radio station setup. So while you can use a dynamic microphone if that is what you own, you’ll get better results with a large diaphragm condenser microphone on your vocals and even acoustic guitar.

I absolutely would advise against using the pickup in your acoustic guitar, unless you are using it as an additional signal combined with a microphone, blending them together. Using it directly is not likely going to produce excellent sounding results, and you definitely want professional sounding excellence when doing these kind of shows. You can tell who is plugging in direct or using dynamic microphones compared to who has the right kind of microphones when you go hear another performer in Second Life. The difference is night and day. Use what you have, but if you don't have condenser microphones, plan to get some.

I use a pair of mid-high-end Violet Microphones, one being a Violet Globe and the other a Violet Amethyst Vintage, which are just astoundingly good microphones hand-made in Latvia. I love these things! These street price in the $1,000-1500.00 range and they sound like it, too. In this modern age of amazing import microphones in the sub-$200 range, some even sub$100, there is no excuse not to use a large diaphragm condenser microphone, and with a few tweaks, most any of them will sound really good for what you paid for it.

The Yamaha mixer provides the 48v phantom power needed for operation of the Violet microphones I am using. I do use one dynamic microphone though, a Shure SM57, on an Epiphone Valve Jr. I plug my acoustic guitars into through a pedal board from my electric rig, letting me tap some tonal variety for my miked channel, which then mixes with the miked acoustic sound. The three microphones run into the Yamaha mixer, which then goes to a Focusrite Platinum Penta compressor, which emulates a tube sound and keeps me from possibly clipping, or overloading the signal during my show. I use the Globe mike on my vocals, the Amethyst Vintage mike about five or six inches from the neck at the 8th fret of my acoustic guitar (which is either my Epiphone EF500RA or my Gibson SJ200). I blend the three sounds and that's what I send to the stereo signal I'm going to webcast.

So stop, let's revisit this for a second. What do you need to get started? You need:

  • A Second Life account
  • A PayPal account
  • A computer fast enough to handle Second Life
  • A high-speed Internet connection (DSL or Cable)
  • A firewire or USB audio recording device with at least two inputs, and possibly a small hardware mixer to run into it if you want to run more than two things simultaneously into the audio signal
  • At least one, but preferably two large diaphragm condenser microphones, or one large diaphragm and one small diaphragm condenser mike, with the large used on vocals, and the small used on your guitar/banjo/mandolin, etc.
  • If you're a keyboard player, etc., you might want make sure you have either enough inputs on your audio device (and the ability to sum their output to a stereo signal for the webcast), or have the small mixer mentioned above so you can pre-mix your sound and send the stereo output to the audio device you'll use to record/stream your show.

If you own all of those things, you're fully equipped to get started in live concert performances in Second Life and soon on your way to making a nice side career as a musician in the virtual world. All that's left is the software you'll need to take that audio signal and redistribute it to the listening world.

On the Mac, the software of choice for streaming audio either from a device or an application, is called Nicecast, by Rogue Amoeba. It cost $39.95 for the license, and it has paid for itself hundreds of times over now after a year of concerts. The software allows you to configure it with the URL and Port Number of the streaming server you’ll be accessing through it to allow for the webcast to happen.

On a Windows machine, ShoutCast is the plug-in of choice for webcasting, and it is a free add-on to the media player called Win-Amp. Both applications configure in a similar fashion, requiring the user to input the IP address or URL of the ShoutCast Audio Server that the performance will be webcast over, along with the Port ID number for that URL, and the password required to use it to webcast.

Each application will also ask you to tell it the source to be webcast, which could be an audio application like iTunes if you wanted to play DJ online and create an Internet radio station, or the name of your audio device if you’re planning on webcasting the live sounds input through your mikes and instruments plugged into the device.

If you’ve read this far, you’re interested enough to come back tomorrow, where I’ll explain a little bit more about ShoutCast, webcasting, recording your live performance, and the process of online concert performances.

Posted: 11/28/2008 6:47:37 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

My So-Called Second Life - Part III

I left off yesterday recalling how I saw my first concert in Second Life, performed by an old friend of mine from the real world, who had become a celebrity in the virtual world. I saw him earn a couple of hundred bucks in one night while sitting in his own house in a suburb in Nashville, and I wanted in on the action. Cypress Rosewood was an evangelist for Second Life and musicians. I was fortunate enough to have somebody I knew show me the ropes, which helped me quickly gear up as a potential new performer in Second Life. 

I’ve played in front of tens of thousands of people at a time in the real world, played at festivals and fairs, in concert halls and clubs, frat houses, bars, pubs, you name it. I’ve traveled on and slept in tour buses, flown to gigs, been in limos and also driven my car to gigs, crammed myself into a van with six other people pulling a trailer to a gig, the whole enchilada. At 40 years old now, I was a little burnt out on the idea of doing that again, and I’d detoured in my music career from performer to publisher, which found me more accustomed to cushy business travel rather than road trips with a PA crammed in a hatchback.

I figured I knew how to perform as a musician already, and was comfortable with my chops to pull of a good show, and having performed over the years live on the radio, so I kind of understood what was really going on with this whole Second Life live concert thing. It’s basically a 3D streaming live radio performance gig. Before Second Life, this concept was possible, but it was much harder to pull it off.

Years ago before the publicly-accessible Internet came about, I was involved in setting up the first-ever live interviews for online services using text “chat rooms” to host events with famous musicians like Lou Reed, Thomas Dolby and others. People were told about the scheduled interviews and then logged themselves into the online service to take part. They could type questions on their screen, which we would read, and then reply in text also. Second Life has that component as part of their virtual world experience, and it’s a critical one at that. It allows the performers, fans, concert “staff” and others to communicate with each other before the streaming audio portion begins, and it’s the vehicle by which the “community” forms around the enjoyment of listening to live music in a virtual concert setting. So, conceptually, the planning of a virtual concert is the same thing, and one element from the old days remained, the ability to chat via text with other attendees and the star of the evening. 

We didn’t have streaming audio back then, everything was in text. Heck, we couldn't even dream of streaming audio back then. Now with the advent of streaming audio, its surely possible to tell people that you’re going to be web-casting you live performance on your website and invite fans to listen in while chatting with each other in a chat room during the show. You won't have the ability to capture the attention of large groups of people online at the time very easily, but you can announce the planned event on your website, your MySpace page, etc. This concept happens every day with radio stations around the world. The live chat rooms are an important part of programs like Opie and Anthony where people are sharing the listening but communicating with each other and the radio personalities at the same time using chat programs.

If you want to boil down a Second Life concert to easy-to-digest terms, it is a 3D world where people show up at a 3D website which puts them in that chat room where they can turn on the audio stream, listen to the performance together like they would in a real life club, or like they would sitting in a chat room in a 2D website environment, and interact with other listeners. The difference in the experience being in a 3D vs 2D environment is huge, though. Psychologically the feeling of being represented by an avatar with human qualities that you can customize to full represent you as a person in this 3D world, and having that avatar animate into a dance to music being performed, while typing conversation with others taking part in the same experience is very much like doing it in real life. Well, it is in your mind, anyway.

Its quite easy to get caught up into the experience. And its different than the experience you would have listening to a radio program and chatting in a chat room in a 2D environment. Emotionally, there is a difference. People feel it, they connect on a real world level; and these connections build mighty bonds. Tomorrow I will explain how this feels from the performance end, and begin explaining how to start checking out Second Life concerts for yourself so you can decide if you’re ready to try to be the next big virtual world star. 

This is important. Mentally, the attendees get some of the same sensation of attending an event in person. What's more, the buzz you get from playing a gig in the virtual world to a real world audience that is instantly responding, cheering you on and throwing money, its just like the buzz you get from an in-person gig. I swear its true. Even the need to wind-down from your show-high afterward, its the same sensation for the performer. I was really blown away the first time I did a show, got done and felt that old familiar buzz I got from standing on a stage in front of the same kind of crowd. Maybe its all in the mind, but its real. No denying that. 

Check back tomorrow, I'll give you some insight into the gear you need to pull this off, from the hardware to the software, to the kind of Internet connection you'll need. If you're reading this far, chances are you're intrigued enough to consider a virtual concert as well. Hopefully this series of posts will help you the same way Cypress Rosewood helped me. If you do create an account and log into Second Life, feel free to "add friend" Von Johin and I'll give you some pointers when I'm on, or you can visit my forum SLProMusician.com where you can meet other musicians from around the world who are doing this stuff. Ok, seeya tomorrow!

Posted: 11/26/2008 10:00:00 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

My So-Called Second Life - Part I

I am not much of a video game guy. I haven’t really been one since I was a kid pumping quarters into the arcade machines in the early 80’s, an era when video games were measured in single-digit bits and accompanying music was robotic at best. Video games were a diversion in-between sets at a gig, where I tended to play boring games like golf, or even volleyball. My exposure to video games as I grew older diminished as the term “gamer” became a proper noun as a title worn by kids seemingly attached at the wrists to the latest game system controller. I bought the first NES system for myself, and once I rescued the princess I was pretty much over it.

I'm a musician first and foremost, and a publisher of books and videos on audio and sound technology, music business and related subjects. I'd rather spend my time noodling on my favorite Les Paul than conquering gnomes and dwarfs or space aliens. That's just me. That said, I've been a computer geek as long as there have been personal computers, and I've been involved in online publishing and content management since the stone-ages of CompuServe, where I established an outpost for Gibson in 1993 before leading them to the Internet a year later.  

Sure, along the way I’ve dabbled in grown-up games on my Mac, but they were card games like solitaire or even casino simulator games, but the whole “MMRPG” (that’s Massive Multiplayer Role Playing Game for the unschooled) concept was completely lost on me. My kids play World of Warcraft, and similar MMRPGs, but I didn't have the time or interest. A trip to the supermarket was soon to change all of that, but I'm getting ahead of myself there.

I was occasionally messing around with Sim City in one of its various forms. For some reason I liked that one. Other than that, my interest was limited to amazingly good father-son time playing Lego Star Wars or Lego Batman with my ten-year-old son, my youngest child. You haven’t really lived until you’ve connected a video game console to a projector and kicked back with your progeny to conquer the galaxy on a 9’ movie screen.

But in spite of my lack of direct interest in games, I finally became curious about the whole “virtual world” thing only because news about the Mac version of the software for the virtual world of Second Life kept popping up in the new media blogs and news sites that I frequent.

Unless you've been hiding under a rock the past couple of years, the hype around Second Life has been in every media out there, even finding its way into police dramas on TV. Still, I wasn't getting it. There's a reason for that, as it turns out, there is a lot to get. One day in the summer of 2007, the update for the “Second Life Viewer” caught my eye on Version Tracker, and having watched, heard and read the hype, I decided I’d create a free account, log in and see what this was all about before issuing my standard “bah humbug” response to spending my time on an MMRPG. 

Second Life is different than most MMRPGs out there. Its not a game, there is no strategy, nothing to win, no quests to go on. It just is. Its a blank canvas where your "avatar" self can run around and see what people have made, buy every imaginable item for your enjoyment and "buy" virtual land using the micro-payment currency system, learn to build things and sell them yourself, and much more. Its pretty fascinating stuff, really. Second Life is a virtual world where nearly all of the content, nearly everything you see, is created by the people who are members of this online community, using the tools provided to them in the “viewer” software that they use to connect to the 3D world of Second Life. Sounded interesting enough, it was free to setup an account. I dove in, headfirst. 

I downloaded the software, created and account and signed into Second Life choosing the avatar name Von Johin (pronounced Yo-Hen) and poked around a couple of hours. You have to select from the list of surnames that Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life, have active at the time, but you can choose your first name. A word to the wise, choose that name carefully. Its going to stick with you unless you create another account. Why Von Johin? Uh, I think I was thinking "Van Halen" or "Bon Jovi" or something similar, and I was kind of in a hurry. I now find myself having to often explain how to pronounce it to people who routinely have taken to calling me "Von John" but that's a whole other story.

So, I logged in, took the basic training tour and learned to walk, to fly, to change my look. The learning curve was a little high for me, especially in the first sitting. I didn’t have somebody showing me around, so I shut it down and walked away. I could see this becoming a huge time-sucking thing that one could easily lose dozens of hours on a week. Besides, I'm a musician, what's this got to do with me? 

I logged off, not sure what to make of the experience, but not even close to really understanding everything that was possible. I need a tour guide to show me the ropes, but in spite of their being an average of 55,000 people logged into the system at any given time 24/7, I didn't know any of them, and was having enough trouble figuring out how to walk around, let alone sorting out how to strike up an intelligent conversation with another resident using the text chat feature most use to communicate. I was a shiny new kid, frankly an intimidated one.

The next day I went to the grocery store and happened to run into an old friend I had not seen in years, a fellow musician, and I asked him the normal catching up questions, including the obligatory “are you playing out much?” His answer, “Yes, but in the virtual world, not the real world. I am doing shows primarily in Second Life and making great money doing it.”

Huh? What did I miss when I signed up? What on earth was he talking about? Was this some kind of serendipity, my signing up coincidentally the day before I ran into my long lost friend? Was this my fate?

I didn’t see anything on Second Life that would have led me to think I was looking at an innovation new platform for live concert performance. I had no idea you could perform in Second Life, or even what the heck that meant. I felt kind of dumb for not instantly getting what he was saying. Maybe it was fate that the day before I ran into him was when I just happened to have installed the Second Life software and setup my account. I didn’t even know how to make my new avatar self look good, let alone understand how I was supposed to have gotten the concept that I could become a virtual world musician. My friend told me he had a show that evening, and told me to log on an hour before it and he’d “teleport me” to where he was and explain it in person. Teleport? Uh, like Star Trek? Yes. Exactly.

Little did I know where all this was heading, and never in my wildest dreams did I think it would lead me to getting signed to the same label as Marcy Playground, KC & the Sunshine Band and Krokus some nine months later.

Tune in tomorrow, there is just too much to this to write in one sitting.

Posted: 11/24/2008 4:04:06 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

My So-Called Second Life - Part II

I logged into Second Life at 7PM and within a few minutes my real-life friend Tony Gerber, who I know now as as Cypress Rosewood in Second Life, had sent me an invitation to become my Second Life friend. This would allow him to see when I was online, and make it easier to find me, offer me “items” ranging from clothing for my avatar to wear, neat stuff I'd want for my avatar Von Johin, plus handy things like landmarks (think browser bookmarks) which would let me instantly transport to another virtual location, note cards written in plain text, and more. It really helps to have a friend walk you around in Second Life, either with you in person, or on the phone while you’re doing all this for the first time. Believe me, it helps. A lot.

I accepted a teleport invitation from Cypress to the virtual stage he was performing on that evening. The screen went black as a progress bar showed me that I was “traveling” to my destination, much like I imagine it being traveling on a teleporter in Star Trek. When I arrived, in front of me I saw realistic, scale-sized three-dimensional renderings of guitar amplifiers, cool old vintage synthesizers, a keyboard, even a 3D microphone. It was on a stage. Much of what I was looking at I later found out that Cypress made himself from “primitive objects” aka prims, which are the building blocks for every object you see in Second Life. I spent a good deal of time grinning, laughing, kind of taking this all in and processing what I was seeing. Its a lot to comprehend the first time you get into the scene. 

One thing for sure, I had a lot to learn, including the language of the gamespeak, like "prims." So here we are, me in my new cartoon-self-form standing in front of my old friend’s cartoon-self-form (a giant elf, no less), moving my mouse around the screen allowing me to see the view from the stage, looking out at rows of seating for a soon-to-arrive audience. It was surreal. Very surreal. The fact that it was all created by the people who use the "game" was amazing enough, but the stuff they create is really just jaw-dropping.

Sound silly? Yeah, well, it kind of seems that way at first. That is, until 70 other avatars suddenly started appearing in front of you, finding their way to a seat next to you, and you begin to realize that all of these odd-looking cartoon avatars you’re in this “venue” with on a computer in a 3D world are each being operated by a unique individual from around the world, all of whom came together at one set time specifically to hear Cypress Rosewood perform his music. You read right. People know Cypress Rosewood is going to perform at a certain time in a certain place, and make plans in their real life day to log into Second Life as their avatar self to come plop their avatar down on a virtual chair, or have them animate into a dance, as they listen to him perform live music for them. This was their planned entertainment for the evening, as sure as they could have planned to watch a TV show or go to a movie, they planned to log into Second Life and listen to a live concert. These were real fans.

From that moment on, it wasn’t silly; it was one epiphany after another.

The hard facts here are: A guy in Nashville, TN logs into Second Life as a giant elf character, sets up virtual instruments and other items on his virtual stage, and dozens of people showed up at the same spot at the same time just to hear him play his music, and paid him money while listening.


Real money.

Well, sort of. In Second Life, they figured out the concept of micro-payments a long time ago, creating their own virtual currency called “Lindens” with $1000 Linden dollars roughly equaling $4.00US, all tied to a money system that fluctuates exactly like the US currency’s value varies daily against other currency. You can buy Lindens from the company that owns Second Life, Linden Labs, at whatever the exchange rate is that day against the US dollar (or your local currency), and you can also sell the Linden dollars back to them at the exchange rate, minus a modest transaction fee, then transfer the proceeds from the sale into your Pay Pal account, or have them send you a check or bank wire for the funds, again, all for a small transaction fee. That's how Linden Labs makes money from this virtual currency.

I settled into my seat, a penniless, well, Lindenless pauper newbie, and watched the hour-long performance, listening to it through the speakers my computer is attached to from Bose. The sound was excellent 128k stereo streaming audio quality. I began to take my first steps at “getting it.”

Cypress Rosewood is a star in Second Life. He is a bona fide virtual world star.  He has fans around the real world that faithfully log into Second Life for the express purpose of spending their disposable real world income begin entertained by his performances, buying his recordings and more. The virtual world allows them a direct contact with the object of their fandom, in an intimacy experienced only by playing in pubs or house concerts in the real world. Only these fans were from all over the real world, literally. Some had stayed up until the wee hours of the morning in Europe just to hear the concert, and actually plan their week so they can do it. They love him. They love his music. They love the experience. 

Cypress Rosewood was paid a fee for that particular show I saw by the “owner” of the “virtual concert venue” in Second Life that hired him that evening. He earned the L$10,000 fee for the concert, plus the people who came to see him gave him generous tips, around another L$10,000. Get this, he also pre-sold an MP3 of the live concert to a dozen attendees for L$5000 each. After the show, he gave a download link to those who had pre-paid for a copy of the night’s performance where they could retrieve an MP3 of the concert set. That's L$80,000.00. Eighty-Thousand Linden Dollars. Holy moly!

What did I just see happen? Was this real? Here I am in Nashville, TN, Music City USA, where musicians play on lower Broadway in Honky-Tonk juke joints for tips, lucky if they make enough money to cover parking and a beer, but there’s my old friend sitting in his home in a Nashville suburb, earning a lot more money for playing for an hour without even leaving the house.

Do the math. He made about L$80,000 “Linden dollars” from that show. Selling $80,000 Linden dollars on the “Lindex Exchange” nets him about $283.46 US. That’s right. You saw it, $283.46 (net after about $10 in fees for selling the currency) for sitting in his house, in front of a computer, logged into a “video game” of sorts, performing music. Cypress is a star in Second Life. Not everyone playing in Second Life is making that kind of money, but lots of people are making a lot of money playing their music from their bedrooms, living rooms, home studios, and kitchens to a waiting audience hungry for the original music live concert experience they get in Second Life. There are potentially over 14,000,000 fans in Second Life to promote one's music to, with 55,000 on average connected to the service at any given time every hour of the day.

I had to get in on this action. I wondered if the residents of Second Life would dig my music. Who would I be? What would I play? Wow. Lots to think about. How do I get started? What do I need to do this? How do I promote myself? How do I get a following, and get to a point where people would pay me to perform, tip me, buy my music?

All of a sudden, this was really intriguing to me, not only for the financial possibilities, but the whole concept of being able to do what I love, which is performing, in front of an audience from all over the real and virtual world, without having to lug my gear from the house to the car to the club to the car to the house every day, without having to setup for a show, and without having to dodge drunks on the road on the way home. 

Sound crazy? I guess it is. But its crazy-to-the-bank. No lie, I was as intrigued about Second Life now in a way I had not been since I first logged onto CompuServe in 1991 and decided I should pitch them on the idea of letting their members download sound files, chat with celebrities, and more. In fact, I was more excited about what Second Life's potential for the future of musicians than I was about the emerging online world seventeen years ago. I never dreamed of a day musicians could sit in their homes and perform to a global audience and drop a hundred or more bucks into their bank accounts the same time. 

Tune in tomorrow, and I'll tell you how I made my way in the virtual world, going from spectator to performer, making some pretty good money myself and landing a new real life record deal along the way. 

Posted: 11/23/2008 10:00:00 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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