Featured Music Friday: Meeting of the Waters, EP

Featured Music Friday: Meeting of the Waters, EP

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Animal Collective, the experimental pop group who’ve become mainstays in summer music festival lineups over the years, has released a new 4-track EP, “Meeting of the Waters.” Recorded on the banks of the Amazon River as part of “Earth Works,” a Viceland documentary series exploring the impacts of deforestation, the EP is immersed in the natural melody of the Amazon Rainforest. Not to overwhelm the background, Avey Tare and Geologist take a step back – strumming soft and singing as if not to disturb any sleeping creatures concealed, just out-of-sight, by the dense rainforest. The 13-minute opener, “Blue Noses,” is the best example of the artists working with the noises of the Rainforest as found material, while the most upbeat track on the EP, “Man Of Oil,” features in the background excerpts of a woman speaking in a soft, indistinguishable language. The melding of the environment and raw instrumentation gives the EP an overall improvisational feel, as if you and your fellow weary travelers have set up camp for the night, and sing around the fire until daybreak. Featured Music Friday is brought to you by Blackfire Research.

On this Day in Music History: June 29, 1969

On this Day in Music History: June 29, 1969

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Brought to you by Blackfire Research….On this day in 1969, The Jimi Hendrix Experience played their final public performance at the Denver Pop Festival in Colorado. The rock band, which formed in London in 1966, consisted of Jimi Hendrix as lead vocals, songwriter, and guitarist; Noel Redding as backing vocals and bassist; and Mitch Mitchell on drums. From 1966 through 1969, The Jimi Hendrix Experience released three successful studio albums, several hit singles (“Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” and their cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”) and popularized psychedelic rock, channeling the style and energy of the 1960’s counterculture. They became notorious in the US after their performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967, where Hendrix ended the set by lighting his Fender Stratocaster on fire. However, relations between Hendrix and bassist Redding soon began to deteriorate, and after their appearance at the Denver Pop Festival in June of 1969, Redding left the trio. After Redding’s departure, Hendrix and Mitchell expanded the band, sometimes still referred to as The Jimi Hendrix Experience (and sometimes as Gypsy Sun and Rainbows), performing at Woodstock in August of that same year. However, more arguments and bandmate shuffling plagued the group, until Hendrix himself died of a drug overdose in September of 1970. In 1992 the Jimi Hendrix Experience was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

A Clear Path for Voice Control

A Clear Path for Voice Control

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you know that voice controlled Smart Home technology is taking over the tech industry and consumer electronics scene. This past January, the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was chock-full of stainless steel refrigerators and high tech washing machines, all with Amazon’s voice-activated AI software, Alexa, built in. CES 2017 was dubbed by some as “The Year of the Amazon Takeover,” however, Amazon isn’t the only tech giant to venture into the realm of voice-activation: Google launched the Google Home smart speaker in late 2016, exactly two years after the Amazon Echo speaker (featuring Alexa) made its debut. Even later to the party, Microsoft just announced partnerships with HP and Harman Kardon to support Cortana (Microsoft’s version of Siri) in their speakers. Speaking of Siri, Apple just announced a Siri-enabled smart speaker, called HomePod, which will be available this December.

These “smart” speakers have proven themselves to be cool technology, but, for the most part, were  trading more on novelty value than utility. Until recently, Amazon’s Alexa enabled Dot and Echo speakers excelled at only three things: purchasing items off Amazon; playing music from a long list of streaming services or Internet radio stations; and pranking your roommate by setting it’s alarm for 3:00 am, 3:10 am, 3:20 am, and 3:30 am. A pretty solid list of features, sure, but it’s by no means the “Smart Home of the Future” we were promised.

That’s why CES 2017’s “Amazon Takeover” was actually a pretty significant breakthrough for Smart Home enthusiasts. Until recently, Smart Home gadgets such as smart thermostats and security systems were seen as standalone items. What Amazon is attempting to do this year (and succeeding at it, thus far) is to position its Alexa voice-activated speakers as the Smart Home’s “Central Hub,” from which, all of the individual smart devices in your home can connect, and be controlled. (Hence, the influx of gadgets and appliances with Alexa capabilities.)

And this isn’t an unwelcomed shift: according to new market data from Parks Associates, 55% of U.S. broadband households want to use their voice to control their Smart Home and entertainment devices. Moreover, they expect products to work together through “their entertainment systems, including automated voice assistant products like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.”

Additionally, at their annual “CONNECTIONS: The Premier Connected Home Conference,” Parks Associates announced a comprehensive IoT forecast that predicts 442 million connected consumer devices (entertainment, mobile, health, and smart home) will be sold in the U.S. in 2020. The fastest growing category in IoT, and the top trend of 2017, is, unsurprisingly, speakers with voice control (like the Amazon Alexa and Google Home), with a CAGR of 78.3% in 2015-2020. According to Elizabeth Parks, SVP, Parks Associates: “Parks Associates research shows U.S. consumers will buy more than 2.3 billion connected devices between 2015 and 2020, and they are showing strong preferences for voice as the interface for their devices. Companies in the smart home, entertainment, and connected car ecosystems are pursuing partnerships that can add voice control to a variety of solutions in the connected home.”

But developing Alexa or Google Home enabled smart products is only the first step. In order to achieve true, whole home connectivity, these products need to be able to work wirelessly through a reliable platform to communicate with each other. The truth is, Smart Home technology in its current form doesn’t lend itself to whole home, or even multi-room systems. Conventional WiFi uses TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) which was designed in the 1960’s for transferring files down wired Ethernet lines, not connecting Smart Home products or streaming real-time wireless audio (or video) throughout the home. (For more on why your WiFi sucks, read my last blog, titled “Why your WiFi sucks and what you can do about it”).

Here’s an interesting tidbit from Rob Conant, CEO, Cirrent: “Wi-Fi is by far the dominant technology for connected products – the vast majority of broadband homes have Wi-Fi. However, historically it has been too complex to get headless products connected to Wi-Fi. Nearly 40% of the negative reviews of smart home products are the result of connectivity and setup issues. Making it easy for end users to connect products is critical to the success of the industry.”

But the dream of a whole-home, voice-controlled, Smart Home isn’t impossible: using low-latency and high-accuracy sync, Blackfire has developed a software solution that successfully integrates voice AI into a multi-room system. We call it Blackfire Real-time Entertainment Distribution (RED), the industry’s only wireless streaming software framework built from the ground up to overcome the limitations commonly associated with conventional wireless products, truly enabling a whole-home voice-control system. Blackfire RED delivers high-performance multichannel, multipoint and multi-room 5.1 audio wireless streaming across multiple devices over standard Wi-Fi, so you can tell Alexa or your Google Home in your living room to read out a recipe to you when you are in the kitchen, or to play music from Spotify Connect in the bedroom.

As demand for voice-activated smart devices continues to grow and home audio manufacturers develop products to meet the demand, Blackfire will be the key to enhanced performance for today’s consumers and Smart Home dwellers of the future.

Featured Music Friday: Strength of a Woman

Featured Music Friday: Strength of a Woman

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The Queen of Hip Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige, is back with her 13th studio album: a tour-de-force, power-ballad brimmed, luscious autobiography that journeys through heartbreak, self-love, and redemption. Blige has never shied away from using her personal life as source material for her music. On “Strength of a Woman,” she pulls inspiration from her recent separation from longtime manager and husband, Kendu Issacs. Each track is better than the last: opener “Love Yourself,” featuring Kanye West, is not only an instant classic, but will be a staple of Spotify Breakup Playlists for years to come. Other standout guest artists include Quavo, DJ Khaled and Missy Elliott on “Glow Up,” a slow jam, hip hop track with biting lyrics. On “Strength of a Woman,” Blige may be down, but she sure as hell ain’t out. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Featured Music Friday is brought to you by Blackfire Research.