Shop Local, Burn Global

How to become your own big-ass music label

Isn't it convenient the way things work out? There's damn little interesting music going on this week—I will admit that Billy Idol is a guilty pleasure, but not guilty enough to make me go see him at the House of Blues on Wednesday and Thursday—and you're probably too busy shopping and caroling to go to a show anyway.

While you're out there shopping, there's a bitchen bit of locally made music software you might want to consider for your loved ones: Click'N Burn Pro 2.0 from Costa Mesa's Stomp Inc. They're the folks who developed the somewhat ubiquitous CD Stomper labeling system a few years back, and this CD-burning program is a lotta fun for not many bucks.

I have to admit I'm such a technophobe that I'd still only be using CD-Rs as shaving mirrors had not my more proficient friends shown me how to burn CDs. And I'm still a neophyte at the MP3-ripping craft that Cub Scouts are probably getting merit badges for now.

Click'N Burn is gentle enough for an idiot like me to navigate and do my simple bits of data backup and music piracy (Click'N Burn does have onscreen reminders to respect copyrights), but it's strong enough for my hardcore music-filching pals to manipulate a variety of audio files to their heart's content.

You can convert MP3s and other files to Redbook CD audio or go the opposite way. Using the Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, you can burn up to 11 hours of listenable music on a single CD (playable on one of those MP3-CD players that are available for around $100). You can mix and match tracks from several audio formats on a single CD. You can even convert footage from your camcorder to make MPEG-1 videos that will play back on a DVD player with better quality than you get from VHS. You can become a virtual manufacturer, recording multiple copies to several CD burners at once, which can be a real boon if you're making band demos and such. The sole downside my pals encountered is that Stomp's phone tech support is lacking.

Click'N Burn comes with a suite of other programs: to edit your recordings, to create CD labels and jewel case inserts, and even to back up your computer's system files.

I'm slowly edging into all this, much as a dog learns algebra. My friend Jon, however, has been making CDs since before most people were even playing them. I asked him to check Click'N Burn out, and he loves the thing better than Toast, practically better than life itself. He cites its intuitive ease of use, its ridiculous versatility, its reliability and the quality of the results. Meanwhile, I've been enjoying the Web-derived CDs he has burned for me, such as one of a perhaps liquored-up Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg doing a song called "I Am Your Teenage Prayer." It's a long way from the days when we had to get our obscure-music fixes by smuggling a lasagna-sized recorder into concerts.

Click'N Burn (which has earned glowing reviews in PC World and elsewhere) takes up less disc space than many competing programs, and it's also cheaper, listing at $49.99, with a $20 instant rebate making it $29.99. The other thing I really like is that like other Stomp Inc. products (including very durable proprietary jewel cases that list at $14.99 for 50), this one is not just made in the U.S., but mainly right here in OC.

"We could definitely source the product cheaper elsewhere, but we get a sense of pride out of building the products here, and we know the quality and control is there," said Stomp head Mike Hummell.

He and some 60 employees work out of an unassuming Costa Mesa warehouse/office. The 37-year-old Hummell is an alumnus of Orange's El Modena High, Cal State Fullerton and the Green Berets. This is his second start-up, and he says Stomp Inc. grew from a $200,000 capital investment in 1996 to a company that did $20 million in sales last year before selling off the CD Stomper side of the company to labeling giant Avery Dennison Corp. last winter.

They have since been going hammer and tongs at CD-related software and already have a product out that they anticipate will obsolete Click'N Burn, dubbed Record Now Max. He says it does everything Click'N Burn does and more (you can burn to 64 drives at once!) and is the first retail product to support the DVD-R format and other stuff aimed at our DVD-reliant future. And here I'm still getting over Betamax.

With such technologies and the quality of inexpensive computer-based recording studio setups these days, there is no reason that aspiring local artists can't start their own record companies. It's convenient to think it's useless to attempt to compete with big corporations. Hummell, who in a few years went from living in a cheap motel room to a big-ass house on the Back Bay, disagrees.

"I will tell you that it's a myth that big business has it all tied up," Hummell says. "They don't come up with the fresh ideas. Small businesses do. You have to be committed, put it all on the line and give it everything you have."

Ongie-san Sings!
Hey, have you seen Jon Brion at his Friday-night residency at LA's Café Largo? Me neither, but I saw him in Seattle a couple of months ago, and what a boundless talent he is. He makes up better songs on the spot than many people can write in their lives. No kidding: he'll have someone in the audience suggest a title or topic, and using a digital looping device, he overdubs the drums, rhythm guitar, bass (tuning down the guitar's low e-string) and guitar riffs, and then he sings and plays lead on top of that—all before your very eyes. He'll take a metal ballad and perform it in the jazzy, echoed manner of Les Paul. He sings like an angel, plays piano fabulously, and, if joined by a guest performer like Fiona Apple, moves over to play some of the most soulful Hammond organ you've heard. The guy is almost too good and certainly worth a trip to LA.
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