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December 13, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Preset Button

Plugin effect and synth presets get a bad name among digital musicians, for two reasons:

  • Using the presets isn't very creative. You can't be a real musician, apparently, unless you've agonized over the knobs of a synthesizer for hours creating your own unique sounds.
  • Preset patches are generally considered unsubtle, and are often designed to sound good solo instead of fitting into a mix, much as store-display TVs often have the brightness and contrast cranked up.
I see both of these points, the latter more than the former. Certainly I've spent probably days tweaking my bass sound, and I wish I had enough time and energy to learn my synths and effects with the same level of detail.

But I love presets, because they make me far more productive. For the same reason, I'm a huge fan of general MIDI samplers--Cakewalk's TTS-1 general synth has been an unexpected perk of Sonar so far, and on Pro Tools (for lack of better options) I often found myself working with their X-Pand! offering. In fact, general MIDI synths combine the best of both worlds--they present a wide range of sounds, and limit the amount that you can typically spend tweaking them at all.

As a result, I'm able to cut through the urge to find that perfect tone, and instead I get on with the process of making music, which is where I think the creativity should actually be. Working with budget sample libraries does carry risks, but in general it simply means that I learn which sounds are limited and should only be used in certain circumstances, and which ones are simply bad and should be avoided, instead of trying to fix them up.

In fact, the more options I'm given, the fewer I tend to use. I've been looking at sample libraries lately, because I do love having orchestral sounds available, and those tend to be the most useful for work compositions. And invariably, what I'm looking for is something that will work right out of the box. Life's too short to spend all my time twiddling knobs instead of tracking music.

October 24, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Voltage Reference

Having set out to write a third AudioFile guide on A/D converters, I began doing research on the subject and rapidly realized that I might have bit off more than I could chew. Most of the texts on the topic are written for engineers, and include a great deal of math as "proof." Of course, a proof is only useful if you understand it, and I usually don't, since I was never trained as an electrical engineer, and because I never really enjoyed math past trig.

At times like this, the deficiencies of chain bookstores become increasingly irritating. They all carry the same selection of titles, and none of them were what I was trying to find. Amazon doesn't necessarily make it easy to locate something in a niche like this, but I eventually did locate a couple of helpful textbooks that aren't too expensive, and I'd like to recommend them now. My piece distills out a lot of information from these and other sources, but anyone with an interest in audio would do well to have one of these as a general reference, in my opinion.

Nika Aldrich's Digital Audio Explained: For the Audio Engineer is a truly great resource that's clearly aimed at people who work with audio and are familiar with the concepts but not the technical details. In other words, it was perfect for me. There's even a section in the back for "myths of digital audio." A short set of chapters on human hearing and the physics of sound means that complete newcomers might even be able to use this as a primer. If I have any criticisms, it's that the graphic design and layout of illustrations are often unhelpful, but the text itself is clear enough that readers can figure it out without them.

Principles of Digital Audio, by Ken Pohlmann, is twice the size of Aldrich's book, and it's a little less user-friendly. On the other hand, it may be the only digital audio text you would ever need, so a little more complexity is a small price to pay. Newcomer to the field will have a hard time with this, but Pohlmann stays as close to a layman level as he probably can. Inside the 800-odd pages, he covers A/D/A conversion of all kinds, CDs, magnetic storage, digital interconnection, DSP, DVD, MP3, and an ungodly amount of other material. I haven't had time to read the whole thing, obviously, but everything I've looked up has been--if not perfectly accessible--at least better than the Wikipedia page for the same topic, and certainly I'm far more confident in its accuracy.

October 1, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital»daw

The Whole Package

With relatively little fanfare, Cakewalk released Sonar 7 this month. It looks like it has some really nice features. I've got the Studio edition, and I'm going to review it for Ars. There's just one problem:

Where to start?

It's possible, with Pro Tools, to feel like it's a very simple program. That's mostly due to the window layout, which is incredibly friendly and simple. Pro Tools rarely (if ever) has more than 3 windows onscreen at any time--Edit, Mix, and Plugin. There are menus and subsections for those windows, but when they added right-click support in 7.3 it meant that you could basically ignore 90% of those. So even though the software is actually fantastically powerful, you don't really notice most of it.

Sonar follows a different kind of metaphor. It's more like Cubase. There are lots and lots of windows and palettes and menus. It doesn't make it hard to use, necessarily. In fact, because almost everything in Sonar can be customized, including the menus, you could probably make it look a lot like Pro Tools. But out of the box, Sonar looks like something complicated, and a little overwhelming. It doesn't let you forget just how much there is.

Because let's face it, these packages--any of them, from Live to Logic--are really unbelievably full-featured. Any tool at this level is. That's one reason why people complain about Word: it is stuffed full of functionality for working with text--so much so that you sometimes can't find the feature you need. Final Cut Pro has the same kind of in-your-face complexity. Don't ever press a button on the keyboard unless you absolutely know what it does in Final Cut. They're all mapped to something. I accidentally hit the keys with my elbow the last time I did an editing project, and it took me five minutes to put everything back.

So how do you review something that big? Where do you start? Surely, I can't review everything in the package. It would take me months. And that's assuming I even know what to do with those features--like Word, each of them is probably used, but perhaps only for certain kinds of projects.

My plan is to use Sonar like I would do my work projects--meaning that I'll do a little radio recording, a little instrument recording, and some midi composition. I'm also going to download some of the NIN multitrack files and load them in as a way to test the mix engine in 32- and 64-bit modes--I doubt any of the material I have lying around is high-fidelity enough to make a difference.

There's also some standard bullet-points that are different from the other DAWs, and I think it's important to test those. So I'll be putting AudioSnap, ACT mapping, sidechaining, and the various VST instruments under as much scrutiny as I can apply. I'm open to other suggestions, but I think those are the main points.

The bad news is that no matter what I do, I'll feel like I haven't done it justice. But the good news is that DAWs have reached the point where the basic functionality is the same from system to system, so I hope most users will be able to fill in the gaps.

September 14, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Just Add Host

For my own future reference (although, the fates willing, I shouldn't need it again soon): Create Digital Music made the world a better place when they posted The Best, 100% Free Windows Music Plugins. Every time I start installing a DAW, or whenever I feel the need to find some new sounds, I load that post. It is a fantastic resource of good-sounding plugins. My personal favorites are the Kjaerhaus Classic series (covering the entire range of studio rack units), E-Phonic's fantastic Lo-Fi distortion/bitcrusher/pitchshifter, and the Fish Fillets mastering plugins.

August 22, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital»daw

In the Garageband

How many "pro" musicians are using Garageband as a serious music production tool? Peter at CDM sorts them into a few basic categories in a post on improvements in Garageband '08, which finally includes some features that I would say a real DAW needs to have: plugin automation, multiple time signatures, and multi-take recording. It's still a toy, but it's becoming a decent entry-level recording tool, instead of just another ACID clone.

It's been said that Microsoft should think about offering a comparable production program for Windows, so PC users can also have a (sort-of) free music creation tool. But I'm not so sure that we need it. I'm not terribly conversant with the state of OS X freeware, but there's lots of free software on the PC that offers the same functionality (or more) as Garageband, and after three years of experimentation on the cheap, I think I've probably used most of it. Here's a few good options for newcomers to audio production on Windows:

  • Cubase LE - No, it's not technically free, since it only comes with OEM hardware. But look at it this way: on any computer platform, if you're doing more than just dragging loops onto a timeline (and please: we have too much of that already), you're going to need to buy an external interface anyway, because built-in sound cards are really bad input devices. There's a lot of great hardware that comes with Cubase LE, including stuff from Tascam, Lexicon, and Presonus. And this is, in my opinion, as close as you can get to pro software at this price level. It's got full automation, lots of tracks, records up to 8 inputs at a time, uses regular VST plugins, and includes a decent set of built-in effects. Honestly, there's not much missing here.
  • Krystal - Krystal is free from Kreatives, and has a lot to recommend it. It's a multitrack recording program with an attractive and straightforward interface and VST support (with four plugins included). It's roughly comparable to Garageband 2, but doesn't have the looping support. It also lacks MIDI functionality, plugin automation, and more complicated routing options, and the input routing is a little weird. But for all that, again, you can do pretty well with Krystal if your goal is simply to record and mix audio. I wouldn't hesitate to use it if I needed to track a band at the last minute, especially coupled with a few tools (freeware drum machines, for example) to supplement its functionality. There's supposed to be an updated version (K2) coming soon, but they've been saying that for a couple of years now.
  • Reaper - Like Cubase LE, Reaper isn't technically free. It's supposed to be $40 for personal use, and $200 for commercial purposes. But you can download the shareware version, which has full functionality and never expires--Justin Frankel, the head programmer, is the guy behind WinAmp and Gnutella, and he's not a real stickler about licensing. The good news is that Reaper does everything that Sonar, Cubase, and Pro Tools do, and some things that they don't. Reaper has unbelievably flexible routing options and prides itself on its ability to change almost anything while recording. It shows up as an ASIO sound card for recording from other applications, or it supports ReWire if you want. It's gotten rave reviews from music mags. The installer is only two megs. The only bad news, as far as I'm concerned, is that some parts of Reaper still look and feel a little clumsy. It's skinnable, but that doesn't necessarily make it easier to use. Still, usability has improved immeasurably since I first used it (version .62, I think), so it'll probably only get better. This is an insanely powerful tool, and there's nothing on Mac or PC that competes with it in terms of value.
  • Audacity - I include Audacity as a word of warning only. I actually don't recommend using it for recording projects, for a variety of reasons. It doesn't have much in the way of plugin support, it only records in stereo, there's no support for low-latency recording like ASIO, and it distorts at the drop of a hat (I'm guessing it actually mixes at the same bit depth as the project). Audacity is one of those things that people recommend all the time, but really shouldn't. It teaches a lot of bad habits, and there are much better options out there for free.
  • Ableton Live Lite - Ableton Live (the full version) is a real paradigm shifter for audio software. Live Lite, the OEM version that comes with just about everything M-Audio makes, lets you see all the great stuff from the full version, but locks a lot of it away from actual use. This is frustrating. The good news is that it's practically free, much like Cubase LE. Buy a MIDI keyboard, and you'll probably get Live Lite. Buy any of Line 6's computer products, and you'll get Live Lite. I've owned four or five of these CDs, at least, and had to give them away to other people--you could probably ask around and get a copy, if you have musician friends. For free, Live Lite's not a bad deal--it's basically a 23rd century four-track tape machine. Ableton just released Live LE to try to cater to the beginner/low-cost market, but it's crippled down to practically the same level. If you're curious about Live, start with Lite and upgrade, instead of LE.

There's also a whole world of standalone, budget (~$100) software "for beginners" out there, but I tend to think that it's kind of a waste, depending on the package. Midrange copies of Sonar or Pro Tools are just not that much more money than something like Sequel or Project 5, and the capabilities they offer go much farther. Even the low-end versions, like Sonar Home Studio, can be pretty good, and the upgrade path is easier on the wallet.

July 17, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Variax 700 Bass: Final Thoughts

This is a hard instrument to describe. "Conservative" may be the most accurate word--not in the political sense, but in the way that it really takes no chances with either its styling or the modeling technology. I tend to think that's a disappointment, but the Variax does make it a phenomenal recording instrument. After five months with it, I'm not sure I'd take it live, but it's a real asset to the home studio, especially at the current, reduced price.

Physically, the Variax is kind of a Super Stingray. The body style, neck width, and the sheer heft of the thing are all very similar to the revered Music Man basses. It's a heavy, chunky bass with a solid feel. Clearly, the Stingray has been a broad success, and Line 6 probably made a wise choice to ape its look and feel. But the imitation is also a little stifling. For one thing, what I tend to notice first is the wide string spacing. Ever since replacing the bridge on the All-Star with an adjustable Gotoh model, I've stuck with a very narrow distance from string to string, which feels faster to me. The Variax's wide neck and bridge put a lot more space between each string, and aren't adjustable. That's understandable, since I'm sure creating a fully-adjustable piezo bridge is very difficult, and it's great for slap-happy Stingray fans, but it's frustrating that a modeling bass (with several small-scale or narrow-necked instruments on tap) locks players into a single bridge configuration.

Of course I'm going to complain about the fret access on the Variax as well. But it's not so much that the frets are limited--21 still seems a little cramped after learning on 24, but it's honestly only 3 fewer semitones, and that's why I own a Whammy. I'm more frustrated by how hard the body style makes it to reach those last few notes. Like many Fender-style instruments, the Variax has a lower cutaway but it's not contoured into the body to accommodate the fretted hand. It's painful trying to reach up past the 19th fret or so. Players who tend to stick to the bottom octave of each string aren't going to find this objectionable--but again, why make a modeling bass so stingy and unforgiving, especially since several of the models (particularly the Thumb and the Alembic) prominently featured the high frets?

Let's talk about the models, while we're on the topic. With more experience using each of them, I've definitely found some favorites. The usual suspects (Fenders, Stingrays, and Rickenbackers) are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from their inspirations in the mix. The Hofner Beatle Bass and Gibson EB-2D models offer a very cool glimpse into instruments where their flaws have become strengths--the Hofner's lack of sustain and the Gibson's woofy, indistinct bassiness are both modeled well. The acoustics are wonderful, especially since real acoustic basses (either acoustic-electric or upright) can be so finicky. With that said, the flatwound models are still not terribly convincing, and the eight-string bass is still awful, with pitch-shifting artifacts all over the place. I'm not sure why the twelve is better-behaved, but it's much more convincing, as long as you don't let notes sustain too long. There's one caveat on that, however: I've noticed that sometimes the EQ for the 12-string goes out of whack, and notes become unbearably tinny. It's not something I can reproduce reliably, but it does seem to happen more often when playing chords. I'd hate to imagine it going haywire live.

Even setting aside the useless flatwound settings, there are still several models on here that just seem to have been included for trivia purposes and not for any distinct sonic character. It seems silly, for example, to imitate a Steinberger on a bass that's so physically its opposite. I also can't imagine that anyone actually needed four jazz basses just for the fretless and active preamp options, especially since the Variax effectively adds active EQ to all its passive models. I'd have easily traded several of these models for the ability to create custom presets like on some of the guitar Variaxes--considering that I'll never use the eight-string bass, it's kind of a pain that I always have to hit an additional selector knob to skip it and go to the 12-string. The fusion with the PodXT Live (which also powers the bass, eliminating the intrusive power adapter) no doubt addresses these picked nits, but it's another $400.

All of these little frustrations make the "user interface" for the Variax a slightly mixed experience, one that doesn't make for a lot of customization in either software or hardware. And the sounds themselves, while excellent in quality, are also fairly conservative. There's nothing really off-the-wall here. The bass even feels a little stiff and unresponsive--although it has no problems with dynamics and it never feels "computerized," what it doesn't do is respond to playing on different parts of the string. I suspect this has to do with the piezo inputs, which only see the string at its very end, compared to the wider central viewpoint of a traditional pickup. It's disconcerting, after learning to manipulate tone manually on a passive bass, to move from plucking at the bridge up to the neck and not hear much of a difference.

Yet that same control is part of what makes the Variax a great recording tool. You can be pretty sure that you can get any classic tone you want out of it, without too many variables to mess it up (the noiseless piezo is very nice in an unshielded electrical environment, I must admit). And although the generic feel of the instrument is inferior to your favorite, customized bass, that's not the point. Once you get used to it, the Variax provides basically the same thing for instruments as the Pod did for amps: it's a good sound in a very small space, accessed in a way that isn't going to thrill anyone, but also isn't likely to send them screaming for the hills either. You need some small amount of engineering skill to get the best out of the Variax. You shouldn't expect it to replace a primary axe, especially for live use. You absolutely should not learn to play on a Variax. But I'm rather fond of it as a utilitarian tool for doing fast, effective recording. If you go in with that as a goal, I think you won't be disappointed.

June 28, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Fired Wire

Two days ago Ars Technica noted a new published report on why FireWire is doomed. And all I can say is, good riddance.

Look, I know the technical arguments. I know that FireWire uses less CPU time because it enables direct memory access. I know that it has faster sustained throughput than USB2, and that it carries more power to its devices. I know that it allows smarter daisy-chaining, since each connection can negotiate its own bandwidth needs and transfer details. Thanks to this fascinating page, I know that FireWire has a better connector design (at least in its original 6-pin plug) than USB does.

I know all of this, and I don't care. FireWire is an unholy pain.

If you hotplug a Firewire device, it can destroy either the computer or the device ("rendered permanently inoperable" is a nice turn of phrase). FireWire's power requirements are high enough that most laptops (even those that include the full-sized 6-pin port) will not provide bus-power while running on batteries, or even at all, requiring users to carry an extra power brick for each device. FireWire devices here at work sometimes conflict with each other--one editing rig in our studios will only recognize the second external hard drive if we first unplug the DV-CAM deck. Firewire is prohibitively expensive, in part because Steve Jobs got greedy about licensing fees. The cards that aren't expensive tend to be flaky when used for pro applications. The FW800 and FW400 standards use completely different connectors, meaning that we have to buy adapters and new cables to use them. And while the USB connector is not a great design, both its host and device sides are still better designed than the flimsy and shallow 4-pin FireWire plug (the little one that most PC laptops accept).

I suspect that it may survive in the audio and video markets for a while--it's still the best way that I know of to get media in and out of a computer without using PCI cards. I'm stuck with it for a while. But I can't wait for someone to come up with a better solution.

Fun fact from Wikipedia: The standard FireWire connector is based on the Gameboy Multilink cable, since it had proven reliable, solid, easy to use, and childproof.

March 29, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Really Explore the Space

Have you got a fever? And the only prescription... more cowbell?

Rad Monkey Cowbells has the cure for what ails you. Not only do they offer the first ever electric cowbell, but they've got a preview up for the VLC800, which uses digital modeling to emulate 12 classic cowbell sounds. If only Gene Frenkle had lived to see this day.

(Yes, it is a joke. The same people created the Sonicfinger plugins, including "Virtual Studio Visitor" and the "Dead Quietenator.")

March 25, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Variax Practice Impressions

The problem with judging the Variax bass is that it really needs to be put into a live or recording context for a real evaluation. For one thing, the differences between the modeled instruments are often not entirely apparent at low volumes, so you need to be able to turn up the volume. Also, like all instruments, it sounds different in a band context, and that's really where the models come into their own. When solo'd, they tend to sound very similar, because at heart all basses are still just vibrating metal strings bolted to wood. But with other instruments, the individual attributes of the modeled basses start to come through--the bounce and snap of the Stingray's preamp, for example, or the thick boom of the T-Bird's humbuckers. At the very least, you need to hear these basses with drums. So to get a bit more of that perspective, I took the Variax to one of my band auditions this weekend. I don't think the band is likely to work out, but I'm happy with how the bass sounded.

The space itself was a small practice room, which tended to accentuate the treble a bit. On most active basses, you'd want to turn down the highs, and you can do that with the Variax on both passive and active models. Unfortunately, when you change models, the knobs reset to their saved positions. So the first performance lesson is that room-tuning has to be done from the amplifier--probably the best place to do it anyway.

The band concept this audition was a kind of funk/hip-hop/rock fusion, and the tracks I played with had lots of synth pads and samples already worked into them. The bandleader said he was interested in the kinds of extended-range bass that I do, but that kind of music (Tupac meets Prince, in his words) really calls for an old-school thump from the bass. I used the Thunderbird and the P-bass models for the most part, and was pleasantly surprised by them. I'm not entirely sure if they're accurate models, but they're both good bass sounds. They've got plenty of impact, and they cut through the mix to support it without really stepping out in front.

In fact, that tends to be what I find most interesting about the Variax so far, and also what I find disturbing. When my main axe was the All Star, which is a J-bass clone, I learned a set of techniques for getting different sounds on it: variations on where to pluck the strings, the interactions between the pickups, and the tone knob. I had to learn those, because a passive instrument doesn't really have much in the way of tone-shaping. On an active instrument, you have an EQ built in, which adds a new layer of versatility. The Variax actually models both the passive and active tone circuits of its basses, but I found myself using the models themselves as tone presets instead of spending much time with the treble and bass controls. Until I get to know them all better, that's probably how it's going to go: I've basically got about 10 new basses to learn, after it took me three years to really feel like I was wringing good stuff out of a single instrument.

We also played some of my own stuff, which is... interesting... when adding a drummer and guitarist. The Rickenbacker has rapidly become one of my favorite sounds on the Variax, and it sounded the way I thought it should. There's definitely some of that piano-ringing clarity to the sound that I would expect from a Rick. I also flipped back to my J preset, which solos the neck pickup, and got pretty much exactly what I'm used to, although it seems a little stiffer than the All-Star. It's so hard to do precise comparisons of these things, especially since they're not modeling my instruments (although that would be a nice touch), but a set of vintage basses that I've never touched.

Overall, it was a pleasant experience. The Variax never felt digital or artificial, although I didn't expect it to. I did find that the synth sounds, using my presets, came across as thin and weak, although with a little tweaking they started to stand out a bit more. But the bass sounds are solid, and they really do start to distinguish themselves a bit more in context. I don't think it's a good first instrument, because I think musicians need to learn (as I did) on something that makes them work a little harder and develop their technique to compensate for any limitations of the hardware. The Variax doesn't replace a great instrument, either--now that I've heard the model, I'm even more interested in a real Rickenbacker. But it does replace the instruments that players can't afford, or wouldn't play enough to justify buying. And it's definitely got value as a workhorse for people who only want to carry one bass, or who want to experiment with different tones.

March 5, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

One bit at a time

As a follow-up to my earlier post on how music companies should be selling (and we should be listening to) higher resolution, uncompressed recordings, CDM recently mentioned Korg's brand-new one-bit recorders. It sounds silly, but basically instead of running a set of filters to get a full multi-byte description of the waveform's state, these sample the waveform millions of times a second, checking only to see if it has gone up or down. The advantage is that they don't require filtering for noise that results from the Nyquist theory, which states that sampling may produce sine-wave artifacts at frequencies higher than 1/2 the sampling rate (thus the reason that CDs are set at 44.1KHz rates, which is slightly more than twice the 22KHz boundary of most human hearing). Instead, a one-bit digital-analog conversion is turned straight into voltage changes, for a theoretically cleaner sound--although they are vulnerable to extremely high frequency noise, well past the limits of perception but enough to mess with some older equipment.

Korg has a nice intro paper online to explain this in a little more detail, and to give context: they're basically selling these recorders as ways to hold onto mastered content in a completely lossless format. Sound on Sound reviewed the units in this month's issue, and they were impressed with them, although the mic preamps are apparently weak. I'm also unclear on why they're selling one of these in an iPod-style form factor, but I'm strangely tempted by them. Apparently you can get a whole 22 minutes of incredibly faithful audio per gigabyte of storage with one of these. I feel more exclusive just thinking about it.

Future - Present - Past