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March 5, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»bass

The Watchers

There are fourteen people "watching" my Cort bass on eBay. They've been there pretty much the whole week. No-one has bid on it yet. No-one has asked any questions. Maybe they just like to watch.

It makes me kind of nervous.

February 28, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Variax First Impressions

I like it. But then, I like just about anything for three days or so. I've made an .mp3 of a few of the better models, complete with rambling narration. The executive summary is that the jazz bass sounds are pretty good, the Stingray's not bad, the 12-string is better than the 8-string, the acoustics are believable, and I really love the synthesizers. There are a few that I can see being useful--the Alembic is a good sound, but I've never even been near an Alembic, so I couldn't say if it's accurate. I think the weakest models are the flatwounds, the Hofner, and the Gibson EB-3, but the worst of all is the Jaco fretless imitation.

So far I don't feel ripped off. Let's see what I think next week.

February 27, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»internet

Myspace is Terrible: Got My Own Thing Now Edition

I just got a friend request from someone who makes vegan guitar straps. Well, technically I was befriended by the vegan guitar strap itself. "I am a very vegan guitar strap," says the description, concluding with "I am cruelty free, I am sweathsop [sic] free, but, most importantly, I rock harder than the strap your brother got you at Guitar Center."

I am not sure I am ready to be friends with inanimate objects, much less ones that are proud of their cruelty-free status. Most of my human friends are not cruelty-free, even just in the interpersonal sense of the word. But I approved the request anyway, because you never know when that kind of thing might come in handy.

February 15, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»internet

Pandora Podcast on Guitar Effects

This is cool: the Pandora radio guys are doing podcasts, and this time they've taken on a basic guide to guitar effects. You can listen to the podcast, as well as hear samples of songs that use them, here. It's not incredibly in-depth for the mechanics of what each effect is doing, but I like that they're placing the effects into a musical and historical context.

Filed under: music»tools»internet

Pandora

Since (as my ranting on the Who may have revealed) my musical tastes can be this weird mix of hipness and stodgy rock cheesiness, I'm giving Pandora a chance today. It's an Internet radio station recommended by a friend of mine, which will build a playlist composed of similar songs to artists that you pick. So far, so good. At the very least, I can't imagine otherwise finding a station that would play the Darkness, the Talking Heads, and Rilo Kiley within 15 minutes of each other. So it's got that going for it.

The hardest part is forcing myself to listen to some of the sketchier songs it kicks out, just in case they turn into something really good halfway through. But if it works right, I should probably be discouraging it from giving me songs that only rock after 3 minutes of wandering.

I love that it's telling me I want songs based on "extensive vamping."

February 5, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Better Late Than Ever

Sound is one of the late senses. Only smell is slower, but its reactions often have a primal immediacy that belies its leisurely spread. Touch and taste are obviously close at hand (or tongue), and vision arrives with the speed of light. But sound takes its sweet time sauntering along, maybe stopping to radiate and reflect before it finally shows up, unashamed, and monopolizes the bean dip.

I remember that the first time I'd really seen with my own eyes how slowly sound travels (relatively speaking, of course) was during a summer camp in Indiana, watching kids in the batting cages from a half-mile off. It was close enough to see a batter hit the ball, but the crack of the bat wouldn't arrive for another half-second. Most of the time, we don't really pay attention to the lag involved in travelling sound waves, because the distances for our interactions are so short. But sometimes--say at that park, or when the drone of an airplane lags behind it in the sky--we can't help but notice.

Of course, no matter how tardy everyday sound can be, it only gets worse when you run it through a computer. The lag between input and output on a computer audio interface is called latency, and it's measured in milliseconds. Digital audio enthusiasts trade latency numbers the way car enthusiasts swap gear ratios. The lower latency, the more responsive the interface can be, and the less it will throw off a musician's timing. The closest analogy I can think of, for non-musicians, is actually playing a video game online, where the inputs are delayed slightly (I think they compensate for this on the client-side now, but I remember it from Quake). With small amounts of lag, the player might not even notice. As the lag increases, the game starts to feel a little "floaty" and players have to mentally compensate. When the lag becomes too high, keypresses become disconnected from the action onscreen, and it's impossible to play effectively. The amount of latency that can be tolerated in a game or a DAW varies from person to person, and musically it also depends on the instrument: some instruments have almost no natural latency (drums), while others involve physical mechanisms or note "bloom" (piano, bass guitar) and their players tend toward greater tolerance.

My Tascam US-122, one of the first USB audio interfaces, has pretty terrible latency. That's not why I'm selling it, but it's been noticeable and much more than newer interfaces. I get just under 30ms, compared to reports of less than 8ms with the Line 6 Toneports. 30ms is still not very much--.03 seconds---and it's enough to throw me off when I'm singing, although I don't notice it at all when playing bass. Like all modern computer soundcards, you can route the signal directly through to the outputs for almost-zero latency, but then you don't get the effects processing, and that's one of the main reasons I work with computer audio in the first place.

With all that said, I want to address a misconception that I hear from a lot of musicians with regard to computer-based effects. Many people say that even the slightest latencies throw them off. I've heard people say that even a 6ms delay is enough to disrupt the groove's timing. And frankly, it's all in their head. It's a form of snobbery to be able to say that you can hear such a short delay, one aimed at people like me who can comfortably play at much higher latencies (must be something wrong with us!). Here's why:

Remember the batting cages? As that example shows, sound moves through the air relatively slowly compared to the speed of light. In fact, when you work out the math, it travels about a foot for each millisecond. This is the physical latency of sound--for each foot from your amplifier or sound source, add a millisecond of latency. In other words, someone who complains about six milliseconds of latency is basically claiming that if they moved six feet further away from their amplifier, they'd be unable to play. Given the number of wireless systems and long cables typically used by rock musicians, I doubt that they could actually tell the difference in a blind test. It just sounds cool to say that your rhythm is so tight that even a .006 second difference throws it off.

Latency--physical or digital--is simply a natural part of musical performance. In an orchestra, performers need the conductor because they might be 40ms of distance apart. From the audience's perspective, they are all in time, but adjustments must be made from instrument to instrument in order to preserve that perspective. But musicians are nothing if not distrustful of technology, a perspective that Autotune and Pro Tools have done nothing to change. Digital latency is just an easy boogeyman. The next time someone makes a claim about their delicate timing, you might ask them to literally take a step back from that opinion.

January 31, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Sometimes the Pro Isn't

In general, I think I've been more than fair to Digidesign, the people behind Pro Tools. I like their software, and I put up with its little oddities. But the upgrade process--that's got to improve, guys.

We ordered an upgrade to Pro Tools 7.3 a while back, since the Bank's 002 Factory rig came in just slightly before the upgrade grace period. After it managed to make its way from the distributor, through the security screening, and up to our office, I went to install it on the rig but found that they had sent us disks for 7.1.1 instead. A little piqued, I called them up to figure out the problem.

There are no disks for 7.3, said the distributor. You have to register the old upgrade, and then they'll send you an e-mail qualifying you for the new version, including the download link and registration key. They can't even send us a physical copy for our backups--I had to burn it from the web installer onto a CD-R myself. Classy.

I don't know who is more annoying here: Digi for putting a major distributor in this situation, or the distributor for failing to let us know about any of this when we placed the order.

January 17, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Small Studio Find: Presonus Digitube

A lot of midrange audio interfaces will boast lots of inputs, but then a closer examination shows that those are S/PDIF, a digital audio protocol that uses an RCA jack, but has to be connected to another digital source. For example, my M-Audio Firewire Solo is technically 4 ins and 4 outs, but 2 channels each way are run over the S/PDIF jacks. I just ignored those for a long time, since I don't record from anything with a digital output and I figured I never would. Standalone analog-to-digital converters can be extremely expensive, and I thought I was more likely to upgrade the interface than to buy a $1,500 preamp just for an extra input or two.

With that said, BSW is selling the now-discontinued Presonus Digitube, which can transmit 24-bit S/PDIF signals and includes a semi-parametric EQ, for $89, which strikes me as a pretty good deal. If you've got a small project studio and you'd like to add another input without having to replace your interface, this looks like a decent way to do it. I'm holding off until I have more to record than just myself, but it's tempting.

January 14, 2007

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Controlling Costs

One of my coworkers was heading back to the Dominican Republic, and he saw the USB/MIDI keyboard I had on my desk. Apparently, good hardware is hard to come by down there, and he asked to buy it. It was near the holidays, so I sold it to him for the price plus about ten dollars. I'm not a good keyboardist, but I like to monkey around with samplers and synths, and I've gotten used to running Pro Tools with physical controls. So today I finally got around to getting a replacement.

The Axiom 25's a nice keyboard. I liked the little drum pads in the top-right corner, especially. But ah! No sooner do I get everything unpacked, but the drivers refuse to install. It seems that M-Audio has decided not to support anything less than Windows XP, even though the driver model for Windows 2000 should be entirely identical. Back to the store it went.

This isn't the first time that audio hardware's refused to work with the older operating systems that I keep around the house. Presonus's Inspire 1394, my first choice for a Firewire interface, is likewise incompatible--clearly it's not a problem with IEEE 1394 audio, since the M-Audio Firewire Solo works just fine. Why couldn't they write a Win2K driver, since it's practically the same kernel? Who knows?

I'll tell you what I do know: it gets really old listening to Guitar Center employees repeatedly comment "Maybe it's time for an upgrade" when I try to find a working exchange. Yeah, I really want to spend a lot of extra money on a completely new operating system with increased system requirements just to fumble around with MIDI--a technology that has existed since 1983, and has been run over USB practically from the protocol's creation. There's really no excuse for it not to work on almost everything.

There's every reason that musicians should be able to make digital music on the cheap. I used to record on the laptop where I'm typing this now--a 366 Celeron--because just streaming audio with a few plugins doesn't cause a lot of stress. Theoretically, USB takes more overhead than Firewire, but I could never tell a difference. And as I've pointed out, most entry- to mid-level hardware comes bundled with a decent sequencer. It's depressing to hear that relatively simple controllers and interfaces are becoming harder to use without upgrades.

December 31, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»update

The Studio Project

I've bought a new bass. It's not in my hands yet, so I'll wait to talk about it. But actually I've picked up several new bits and pieces of musical equipment lately. After getting free of a fairly heavy tax burden last quarter, I rewarded myself with a set of new microphones--Audio Technica 2020 and 2021 condensers, decent low-end mikes with a lot more sensitivity and a more neutral sound compared to my Sennheiser dynamic.

I got the microphones home, plugged them in, and listened to every creak in the floor, every reverberation around the walls, and the charming hum of my laptop's fan kicking in.

I am, in other words, reaching the limits of what I can do with an ad-hoc project studio. And although it doesn't sound like it, that's a good thing. It will keep me frugal.

Follow the reasoning: there's not much point in spending a lot of money on better microphones right now, since it'll always be located in an untreated apartment with intrusive room sound. Ditto for the preamp--I'm using an old mixer now. Since I only record one instrument at a time, I don't have a very compelling reason to upgrade my audio interface. And while I would love to have a nice Firewire laptop with a better processor and a quality power supply, I already own three computers. I feel wasteful buying one when the actual quality of the recording won't improve in proportion to the cost and the guilt.

I've always been an advocate of making do on the cheap. If the motto of Mile Zero weren't those immortal words of Buckaroo Bonzai, it'd have to be something like Noel Coward's "Extraordinary how powerful cheap music is." I had a short e-mail conversation with Wheat a while back about buying basses. We talked about how you can generally pick up a pretty workable bass as long as you start above a certain price level, where the manufacturers actually start asserting some quality control, somewhere around $500. Beyond that, more money certainly does mean better instruments, but the instrument has stopped getting in the way of the player. Likewise, at this point the problems with my recordings can't really be blamed on the equipment anymore.

At least, not without new real estate to contain that equipment. Which is a bit more of an investment than just a box to sit on my desk.

Future - Present - Past