8/22/2014

Course of Empire


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZVPYSSLJhY

Back in the early '90s, I remember going to a club during SXSW to see a band that had been getting a lot of local buzz. During SXSW, a lot of clubs that aren't normally live music venues become them. I can't recall the name of the place, but it was normally a dance club with canned music and somewhat chic modern decor. A Night at the Roxbury kind of place. As such, it didn't really have a stage per se. They just put the band on one end of the dance floor. Also, the club was small but two-story with a mezzanine level that overlooked the dance floor on all sides and gave a vertical element to the venue. In this case, it really worked out well.

The band was Course of Empire. At the time, part of their schtick was to set up drums in the audience so that people could participate in the music in order to, according to Wikipedia, "eliminate the separation between performer and audience." CoE had two drummers/percussionists and many of the songs were built on repeating, tribal beats to facilitate this. At this particular venue, with no stage, the audience was almost intermingled with the band and since everybody was banging these tribal beats on the drums, the lines between performer and audience were even more blurred. And with a packed audience bearing down from the mezzanine above, it was like a mosh pitty version of a cage match.

That was unique. One could argue a little gimmicky, but definitely a neat experience. What left a bigger impact on me though was not the drumming. It was the overall vibe of the music. It was a mix of industrial, punk, and metal influences with a decidedly twisted, dissonant harmonic sensibility. The singer could evoke shades of Jim Morrison and Ian McCulloch, while the music itself reminds now, in various songs, of  Bauhaus, Echo & the Bunnymen, Tool, and Ministry. Yes, a strange mix, but it all worked and had a cohesive, identifiable sound in my opinion.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eBBn1knHVk

In my estimation, the singer and the guitarist were really the lynch pins of the band. The singer had a brooding voice and stage presence that worked really well with the exotic and dissonant sound of the music. He was also a great front man and a thoughtful, albeit grim, lyricist. The guitarist meanwhile totally owned the musical mood. In retrospect, he was really an amazing player with a very unique voice. He could be textural like a heavier version of The Edge, but also quite capable of laying down straightforward crunchy guitar riff-rock. He didn't play many solos, but really didn't need to since his guitar already played such a key role in all the songs. His chord progressions and voicings were filled with surprises and the songs didn't have predictable pop song structures. They were logical and cohesive in the context of the vibe of the song, but always slightly skewed and exotic sounding. The guitarist's tones weren't conventionally wonderful, but he liked to explore different sounds and put them to work adding unusual textures and parts. As a live performer I remember he looked like a total punk rocker, shirtless and sweaty with a cool retro hollowbody guitar, and he played with the sort of reckless abandon that we all aspire to.

Lyrically, the songs were very cerebral covering a lot of heady topics - politics, spirituality, alienation, sci-fi, the environment, etc.. All in all, CoE was a highly conceptualized band that played like a band that didn't over-think it. A remarkable and compelling combination. For me, anyway.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sfn1wRYhWWs

I was thinking about them recently and decided to rip my CoE CDs to MP3 to enjoy them on the way to work this week. Glad I did. The music has aged quite well in my opinion. Perhaps a couple of bits here and there that sound a little dated, but on the whole the music holds up well.

Check 'em out.

8/18/2014

Bose QuietComfort 20i Headphones

Anything that increases signal-to-noise ratio is good in my book. That applies to life generally, as well as to audio specifically. But this post is going to concentrate on audio.

I've lusted after Bose noise canceling headphones since they first came out in 2000. One of my bleeding edge friends bought a pair and I thought they were amazing. But I could never bring myself to drop 3 Benjamins on them.

However, life has been slowly pushing me towards them for years. First, I've become a total podcast junkie. Podcasts make my 26 mile commute bearable. However, my Honda CR-V is just terrible for road noise. I'd been using noise isolating in-ear buds, which work pretty well. But I've also been traveling a lot for work lately and getting crappy airline seats near the engines. For this, in-ear buds push the discomfort threshold for me. An hour commute is just doable; three hours on a plane is too much.  Finally and most convincingly, one of my work buddies recently left his headphones at the hotel we were staying at and sent me an e-mail asking me to pick them up at the front desk when I checked out and bring them back to Houston for him. It was a set of Bose QuietComfort 15's. Of course I had to try them out again on the flight back and was reminded of just how nice that noise cancellation is.

I probably could have resisted the temptation but that very weekend I was in the mall and passed by the Bose store. I saw that they had ear bud versions (Bose 20i), which are a lot smaller and more convenient. So I tried them. They outperform the QC15's in every way.They cancel more noise. They have better fidelity. They fit into a small pouch. They're even more comfortable, which is surprising for ear buds. And they had a special on factory refurbs for 20% off. (By the way, the refurbs have the full manufacturers warranty and they replace all the ear tips so the ick factor of reconditioned ear buds is greatly reduced for me.) So I broke down and bought a pair.

The noise canceling technology is, plain and simple, astonishing. Turning it on is an almost eerie experience. You don't realize how much background noise there is until it's suddenly removed (or more accurately, seriously attenuated). It makes my noisy CR-V sound like a Prius. Seriously. And one of the best upsides of dropping the noise floor so dramatically is that you can keep your program material at a modest volume and still hear extraordinary detail in highly dynamic recordings. It is amazing.

But it's not magic. It's far more effective on steady, low frequency droning sounds - like road noise, engine hum, air conditioner drone, and the like. It's less effective on higher frequency, dynamic sounds like voices and more percussive sounds. It still attenuates these sounds a lot, but not as dramatically. So human voices are kind of strange - sort of like a tinny whisper. In any case, once you have your program material playing, anything but the loudest and most percussive sounds are pushed so far into the background that your mind takes care of the rest and tunes them completely out. It's a wonderful experience.

I mentioned that these things are comfortable. That's the other amazing aspect to them. I'd learned to accept the discomfort of shoving in-ear buds into my ear canals. The 20i's don't insert into the canal; they sort of lay over it. It's not nearly as tight a seal, but with the active noise cancellation it doesn't need to be. The buds have a little hook that tucks into one of the main creases of your outer ear and that holds them in place very well. Also, the insert pieces that touch your ear are made out of a very soft, pliable, and silky smooth silicone. The fit and materials make these headphones the most comfortable 'phones I've ever had, including over-ear, on-ear, and in-ear varieties.

I should mention that there are some practical disadvantages with the noise canceling circuitry. First it requires power which means you have to charge an internal lithium ion battery roughly every 16 hours of use. Fortunately the headphones still work when the battery's dead, it just doesn't do the noise canceling trick. Charging is done via a mini-USB plug. Oddly, Bose includes the mini USB cable but not the AC adapter! You can charge off the USB port of your computer or, if you're like me and have several adapters lying around from cell phones and other devices, you can use one of them. But really, for $300 Bose damn well ought to include one! The biggest drawback however, is that the circuitry is housed in a thin box, like an over-sized stick of chewing gum, that is inline with the cabling. The box is on the plug end of the headphone cable and it imparts a general awkwardness to your music setup. I use a hair tie to secure the box to my mobile phone when I don't want it dangling around.

Okay, let me detour a bit before I talk about the sound. I've been a musician for over 40 years. I've been doing my own music recordings for almost 30. I have a recording studio and I've tracked, mixed, and mastered my own CDs. So I've learned quite a few things about audio; I understand the technical specs; and my ears are pretty well-trained. But I'm not an audiophile. There's so much snake oil, corksniffing, and emperor's new clothes pretension with audiophilia that I just can't identify with it. It's very fashionable in audiophile circles to rip on Bose. Some of it is deserved; some of it is not.

Here's my honest take: The 20i's sound very good. Not perfect, but very good. They have a full and solid-sounding low-end, but it's not that over-hyped, sub-woofer boom that all the cool kids like. It's more adult sounding. There's an upper-mid presence to the sound that adds clarity, but not an over abundance of sizzling highs. So for example, when listening to a ride cymbal, you hear a nice ping of the stick hitting the cymbal but with a more gentle wash of the high-end harmonics than you get with a lot of 'phones. With the noise canceling circuitry engaged, there seems to be some kind of EQ curve applied that is pleasant and widens the stereo image a bit. (I think this is the "Active EQ" feature that Bose advertises for these 'phones.) It's not a sound I'd call "flat and accurate", but for music enjoyment it's very agreeable and it does enhance the immersive experience by making you feel more enveloped by the sound in a surround sound kind of way (but way more subtle than that). If you require accuracy for critical listening these are not your headphones, but for those who just want an enjoyable sound, I think most people would be very, very pleased with them. Bottom line for me, I wouldn't mix a song with these, but they're terrific for enjoying the finished product. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rate them about an 8.

And finally, let's talk price. The retail on these is $300. Ouch. That's a buttload lot of dough! I paid $240 for refurbished ones, which is still very pricey. Clearly I think it's worth it. But I've been wanting a pair for a long time and I will genuinely get daily use out of them. I probably wouldn't bother if my commute were shorter and/or I didn't travel much. For more occasional use, I think a person could save a lot of money and get headphones that sound just as good or better. But for heavy commuters and travelers, they're totally the shiznit.

8/15/2014

Marking Time


I took this one on the ferry that crosses the Puget Sound from Bainbridge Island to Seattle. It was a foggy, drizzly morning. What one would consider stereotypical Seattle, except most of my visits to that city have featured really great weather.

8/01/2014

Big Hat, No Cattle


Wow. I hadn't realized it's been a whole month since I lasted posted! That's way too long. Sorry for being so negligent, but I've had good reason.

First, we went on vacation in July. We went to Universal Studios in Orlando. We promised our kids that if they read the entire Harry Potter series we'd taken them to the Harry Potter park. Well, they kept their end of the bargain so we had to keep ours. We were some of the crazy fools to visit the brand new Diagon Alley area. You know, the one with the 7 hour lines. Fortunately, we had "early access" and "express" passes which shortened the lines considerable, although we did spend a godawful anount of time standing in lines in the Florida heat.

While I was out on vacation, all manner of hell broke loose at work so I've been really busy with that the last few weeks.

And finally, we have a really big life change event coming up that I'll talk about in a future post.

The photo above is a lightning storm that rolled over our neighborhood last night. It produced a hell of a light show and it made a lot of racket. But no rain to speak of. Big hat, no cattle, as they say in Texas.

7/01/2014

Big Light


Awhile back I bought a 48" octabox off e-bay and I finally got a chance to experiment with it. Here are my initial impressions.

I know these things come in 7 foot versions, but 48" is big. Big enough to do a full length portrait or shoot 3-4 people.  It looks petty imposing on a stand. For the self-portrait above, I had it set up at a 45 degree elevation and 45 degrees to camera-left. It's pulled in really close, not far outside of the frame. I also placed a silver reflector on the other side to lighten the shadows a little. As you can see, the quality of light is lovely. As you'd expect, it casts very soft shadows and it does an admirable job of deemphasizing my crummy complexion. As a result of the size, it's almost laughably easy to get great lighting.

The design of the octabox is basically a silver bounce umbrella with a diffuser. It's pretty efficient due to the silver reflective surface and the fact that the light only goes through one diffusion panel, unlike my EzyBox which shoots the light straight out the front but through two layers of diffusion. The fit, finish, and materials are all of very reasonable quality. It looks professional and I don't have any worries that it's going to fall apart prematurely. In terms of usability, the umbrella design makes it really fast and easy to set up, which is a hard requirement fo me. The octabox included a grid that velcros onto the front rim of the softbox to contain light spill. My initial impression is that the grid is pretty much a necessity for a bigass box in my tinyass studio. The grid works exactly as advertised and the spill that did occur onto my backdrop had a really nice gradient that added to the mood of the photo. One thing that I didn't get a chance to experiment with yet is feathering, but I expect that the possibilities will be terrific on that front with the octabox design and the grid.

As expected a 48" box is more of a workout for a single speedlight than my smaller softboxes, but I still had several stops of power to spare as I was shooting at ISO 100 and f/8 aperture. But I think I will pick up a double or triple coldshoe bracket so I can load it up with additional speedlights when necessary.

One downside of the design is that the flash unit (it accepts speedlights or studio strobes) is placed inside the octabox. This makes wireless triggers mandatory and it means that if your triggers don't support TTL or remote power control, you have to open up the diffusion panel and grid to adjust the flash power, which is a hassle. To minimize this, I left one corner of the panel partial unsealed until I got my flash dialed in, then I sealed it up and installed the grid as one of the last steps before I starting shooting for real. Another drawback of the design is that the lightstand passes through a zippered slit in the bottom of the octabox. The slit provides only a small amount of tilt adjustment range. So a boom is highly recommended if you want more range, which you will.

On balance I'm really happy with this softbox, especially in terms of its performance as a lighting modifier. It's a no-brainer for the $65 I paid for it.

6/21/2014

Bacon, The Easy Way



If you prefer to eat bacon, rather than spoon with it, here's a great tip I learned from my step-mother-in-the-law (no kidding!): How to cook flawless bacon without making a mess.

Just lay the strips out in a casserole pan and bake it at about 380-400 (don't bother pre-heating it)! It will cook more evenly than pan frying because the heat is applied from all around, instead of just the bottom. So you don't end up with under-cooked, curled up ends. Like it crispy? Trust me, it will crisp up just fine. I keep an eye on it and flip the bacon over using tongs about halfway through the cooking cycle. It takes about 20-30 minutes depending on how well-done you like your bacon. So it takes a little longer than frying. But the big payoff is that there's no mess on your stove from grease splatter. Having all the grease in the pan makes it easy to dispose of (or freeze and save for cooking as we like to do).

6/17/2014

Finally!

After lo these many years, I've finally found the perfect jeans. Levi's 513. A slim, clean fit without being skinny jeans. An adult look without being Mom jeans. I would consider them a reasonable, mid-priced jean - less expensive than a designer brand, more expensive than a store brand. They come in a lot of different colors - with corresponding differences in the fabric - but they aren't festooned with overdone stitching. None of the colors have the sort of heavy denim you'd find in 501's, but then again, that makes them cooler and more comfortable. Which is a particular virtue in Houston. I wish I'd discovered them a long time ago.

6/05/2014

Facts Are Not Facts!

A long time ago, I was debating with my girlfriend at the time. I should say that this woman was straight-up brilliant. A wickedly smart person with a great command of facts and information, coupled with formidable debating skills. I was in over my head to begin with but to make matters worse, our relationship was already well on its way to an acrimonious end, and so we were prone to being argumentative, unreasonable, and mean-spirited with each other. I can't remember what the debate was about, but I do remember that she had laid out an impressive array of supporting arguments, and then finished with a triumphant and smug, "Facts are facts."

In my stupid exasperation, my retort (yelled of course) was, "Facts are not facts!"

Yes, in my early twenties, I often distinguished myself in the annals of debate. Occasionally I still come up with gems like that.

That little episode lodged itself into my memory with more permanence than anything else from our relationship. My epic logic fail made me look pretty damn stupid and I certainly lost the debate (if you consider coming out on top of a debate with your lover, "winning").

But I've always disliked that phrase, "Facts are facts." It seems simple and true enough on the surface. However, it's typically used to mean that the facts presented lead inescapably to one conclusion. But the world is just swimming in facts, data, statistics, anecdotes, specifications, principles, and platitudes. And by cherry-picking the right ones, you can put together a fact-based support structure for just about any loony position on any topic. That's how people can come to such radically different interpretations of the same situation, using exactly the same data.  In fact, people generally don't collect facts to figure out their position on a topic. They collect facts to support a position they already held. Worse, many "facts" are half-truths, embellishments, long-debunked theories, rumors, or outright lies. But people still trot them out and point to them as unassailable evidence of their rightness about something.  And for the record, I've done this too. But in my moments of honest reflection, I know I've done it, and I'm not proud of it. I consider it an intellectual dishonesty, perhaps helping me win a battle but ultimately lose a war.

If those many years ago, my mind hadn't been so clouded with frustration and the raw emotion of an extended breakup, my response would have been, "Facts are facts. But facts aren't necessarily truth."

6/03/2014

Decisions

Well, the 2488 bit the dust last weekend. It powers up just fine, but it comes up in a weird state and the buttons and controls seem to be mapped to the wrong functions! I have a theory that perhaps some ribbon cable to a controls PCB isn't properly seated, or has some connectivity problem. So this weekend I'm going to open it up to clean and reseat all the connectors I can get to in the hope that that fixes the problem. But I'm not very optimistic about it. So now my studio is basically neutered - it's not much of a studio if you can't record. I shouldn't be too disappointed - I got 10 years out of service out of the 2488. That's not too shabby for digital technology. Not at all.

In the event that my repairs are unsuccessful, I've been pondering my options. I'm not sure it's worth the money to send the 2488 back to Tascam for repair, assuming they're even willing to repair it.

First thing to settle was whether to go the standalone recorder route again like I did when I bought the 2488, or join the 21st century and commit to a software-based DAW. I've used software DAWs in the past, but I'm one of the handful of people who actually preferred a standalone recorder. We all know that software offers levels of control, flexibility, automation, and expansion that simply blow any standalone recorder out of the water. There's no comparison on those fronts. But a standalone has a few advantages that I really appreciate. First, a standalone is simply easier to use. Fewer options means less time and thought spent weighing them and fiddling with them. Second, a standalone works seamlessly, with less effort, right out of the box. Since everything is pre-integrated, you don't have to spend time optimizing performance and troubleshooting problems with latency, compatibility, configuration, etc. Finally, and most importantly to me, a standalone unit is all but immune to The Upgrade Cascade.  All of this boils down to spending more time recording and less time futzing with the technology, which is a huge advantage in my book.

But despite all that, the standalone recorder is a dying breed and at this point almost anachronistic in a recording studio. So I'm interpreting my 2488's demise as a sign from the audio gods that I should finally commit to a software DAW.

Which one then? I haven't settled that. Ten years ago, I would have chosen Pro Tools without hesitation. It was the standard. But today the choice isn't as clear-cut. Avid has fallen on hard times. Pro Tools is a sizable investment, even for the low-end systems, and I'd hate to spend my money only to have them go under (although the audio division of Avid has such a strong brand and customer base that I can't imagine it wouldn't be acquired by another entity). If I expected to be importing/exporting my work to and from commercial studios on a regular basis, Pro Tools would still the best bet. But I work almost exclusively independently, and that affords me the opportunity to work with other software systems. Some of them, like Ableton Live, are frankly more innovative than Pro Tools, especially for electronic music. But Live is expensive too and budget is always a concern. So I'm leaning towards Reaper, Reason, or Tracktion, at least short-term until a day comes that I can afford Live.

I like Reaper because it's full-featured, very well supported, and has a sensible upgrade policy. I like Reason because it has tons of great plug-ins, the audio recording is very straightforward, and there's a strong community of users out there. But you better like Reason's plug-ins because VST plug-ins are not supported. I like Tracktion because I find its user interface to be clean and very facile once you learn it. Plus, now that Tracktion is back in the hands of its original developer, it is once again well-supported. On the other hand, it's not as deep feature-wise as other software on the market and it doesn't come with very many plug-ins. All three are very reasonably priced.

As for audio interface, I'm leaning towards either the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 or the 18i8, depending on how much money I'm willing to spend. I like the Focusrite mic pres, the ability to add more inputs using a Lightpipe octal preamp, the built-in MIDI interface, the apparent stability of the drivers, and the price.

I'll post a follow-up when it's all sorted out.

Update 6/8/2014 – I've made a few decisions over the past couple of days. One, I'll be going with the Focusrite 18i8 as my audio interface. I realized that I had enough outboard gear to augment the 18i8 with as many mic preamps as the 18i20. One thing I will be giving up with the 18i8 is some line outputs, which might be handy to have for external signal processing. But I'm willing to forego that to save a little money since I think I'll be plenty happy to do all my processing in the box. The second decision was to go with Reaper as my software DAW. First, after looking into it a bit more, there does seem to be a number of bugs to be sorted out with Tracktion. Secondly, a lot of Mackie customers with "lifetime" Tracktion licenses got left stranded when Mackie sold Tracktion back to its original developer. Considering that that customer base was probably one of Tracktion's largest user constituencies, it doesn't give me much confidence about their long-term customer support. Yes, the upgrade fee was not very much money, but on principle, when you sell somebody a "lifetime license", you ought go the extra mile to see that its honored, even through the sale of a business unit.  Anyway, Reaper also has the advantage that I've multiple friends using it, so that should encourage collaboration.