Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Still pondering the upgrade

I wrote some thoughts about building a new PC six months ago. I still haven't pulled the trigger, although I did get an SSD for the current PC. I need to re-install that to make it operational again.

I've just been putting together a shopping list of components. This ought to give me a big performance boost, mainly due to the CPU.

  • AMD APU A10 6700 4.3GHz: Nearly double the clock speed of the current unit and double the cores. I don't really want to have to get a separate graphics card. This should be enough for the few simple games I might play. It's a 65W TDP model, which I assume means it will need less cooling than the 100W models. From what I've read Linux has support for the graphics, but there's not a huge amount of information on this
  • Biostar Hi-Fi A85W Socket FM2: Just a generic ATX motherboard with the PCI slots I need for my audio interface. I don't need much from the motherboard. I've used smaller boards before, but they can be fiddly to work on
  • Corsair 8GB DDR3 1866Mhz: 8GB is probably enough for now. Not going for anything too fancy as I don't plan to overclock
  • be quiet! PURE POWER L8 400W: 400W is probably more than enough. I mainly need quietness
  • Fractal Design Define R4: A friend has this case. It has some sound-deadening material in it. It will be under my desk, so size is not a major issue
  • SANDISK ULTRA PLUS SSD 128GB: This will be the boot drive
  • Seagate 2TB BARRACUDA 3.5" SATA-III: The data drive. That's far more than I have now
  • I've not settled on a CPU cooler. Not seeing too many that say they work on the FM2 socket. Looking for something up to £25. Any suggestions?
  • Audio interface and DVD will be moved from the old PC
That lot comes in at around £500. Making it totally silent could add around £100 for a better power supply and cooler. Some of these parts have got cheaper since I looked a few months back. I probably won't be buying anything until the new year, but they may get even cheaper.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Do not underestimate the power!

One of the weaknesses of my recording set-up has been the speakers. I've been using the Yamaha YSTM20DSP speakers that came with the PC I bought many years ago. They are not as bad as some computer speakers, but you can't expect much bass from such small units.

I've been eyeing up various monitors for some time. There's a vast price range, but I was aiming at the lower end. I know people who have the KRK Rokit and like them. I eventually managed to get some money put aside, but had to set my sights slightly lower. The M-Audio BX5 D2 looked good. One problem is the lack of places where you can actually go and try out the various options, especially if you are looking at the lower end models. I've been mostly going my reviews and forum postings. Gearslutz has plenty of opinions, but may just leave you overwhelmed.

Then I saw the Studiospares Seiwin monitors. These were a similar price to the BX5, but with bigger speakers and more power. The reviews I found were positive, so I decided to take a chance on them. +Studiospares Ltd is near where I work and I've driven past them hundreds of times without going in. I popped in last week to buy these. They had a deal that included some isolation pads and I found some cheap (balanced) cables. They were friendly in there. I will probably be back some time.

So I got them home and set up. First impressions are good. I can just hear so much more. Not just the bass, but the drums are also much clearer. Vocals seem to come from a point just in front of me. Listening to some Björk was a wonderful experience.

I'm using the swiveling shelves on the sides of my Ikea Jerker desk. I've seen comments that this desk is not ideal as the speakers really need to go where the uprights for the upper shelves are. So mine are further apart than most sources recommend. The ideal is supposed to be where the speakers and your head are in an equilateral triangle. That may not always be the case. I need to experiment a lot more. In any case they should give me a more accurate picture of what my mixes sound like than the Yamahas.

The other aspect you will see mentioned a lot is acoustic treatment of the room. I may look into getting some for the corners behind the desk and the walls on each side. The wall behind me is covered in shelves of books etc that may absorb some sound. Again, I'm not looking to spend a fortune. An 'ideal' room needs to be specially built. Maybe I should have taken that into consideration when we built the house. Oh, and eggboxes do not do much to help acoustics, even if they look a bit like some of the materials used in studios.

You may also notice in the picture my new Sennheiser HD201 headphones. I needed something new as some of my old headphones are falling apart. I needed something better for monitoring that didn't leak much sound, or creak like my old Sonys. These seem popular as a budget option.

Now I just need to do some more recording...

By the way, I've only recently discovered that my M-Audio Omni i/o box is more useful than I realised. It can take extra inputs that just get mixed with the usual output without being available to the computer. So I now have my record player and my Zoom G3X guitar rig plugged in so that everything can go through the new speakers. You can't easily tweak the individual levels, but this is very convenient.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Lessons to be learned

As I've previously said, I've been thinking about getting more guitar lessons. I found +Stuart Bahn on Google+ where he was posting some interesting articles and eventually realised that he's based not far from where I work in London. My first lesson was last night.

I told him that I want to improve my ability to solo in blues and rock. Whenever I try this I seem to just play cliches or get stuck in very linear patterns. I have tried learning more licks from various tutorials, but haven't done so well at applying them.

Stuart is taking me back to basics on really learning the minor/blues pentatonic scales in all positions and exploiting the extra notes and bends you can use. He did a good job of explaining the basic theory behind why certain notes sound good. I knew some of this, but he's filling some gaps. We went through some example licks to apply this, but he emphasised using variations of those for variety.

He also picked on up various issues with my technique. I expected this as I knew I had some bad habits. I need to work on all areas of picking, bending and muting. I generally just play my electric without plugging in, but he said I should use an amplifier or other effects so that I can more clearly hear where the issues are, e.g. other strings sounding when they shouldn't.

I've got a load of stuff to work on before my next lesson in a couple of weeks. I have been playing a fair bit anyway, but it was not generally focused on anything specific. I have been trying to use some books, but not sticking to a schedule. I will review those in the context of what I'm doing in the lessons.

Of course I need somewhere to apply all this learning. I'll look again at trying to get involved in some sort of jam at least.

Thursday, 11 July 2013


Although I've been playing guitar for about 35 years I don't consider myself to be that good a player in various areas. I've mostly been a bedroom player and just learnt songs, or parts of songs that took my fancy. I've also done lots of tutorials, initially from magazines, and later on-line. I've not done much actual performance where I need to bring it all together. I have played in a couple of band line-ups, mostly playing rhythm. I have improved at that, but could do with expanding my chord vocabulary.

I've recorded a few songs where I played several parts, but those are invariably built up from lots of small sections and I've not done much soloing.

Soloing is probably my weakest area. I know lots of licks, but when I try to string them together it all sounds terribly clichéd. My recent jazz improvisation course showed up some of my limitations, but may have been too advanced or the wrong approach for me. Perhaps my mindset of being analytical rather than spontaneous is part of the issue.

I'm thinking of ways to move forward. One is to find a good teacher who can guide me to a new approach. I have some leads on that to follow up. My other thought is to try learning more full songs, complete with the original solo. I have quite a few of those in magazines, with backing tracks. I'd aim to play the song 'live' as if performing it. I really want to do some gigs at some point, but just don't feel quite ready yet.

This post is an incentive to actually get on with achieving my goals, so that I need to update you later. Stay tuned.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Attack of the Clones

I built my current PC six years ago. That's not bad going and shows how the technology had matured by then. I do not play high end games and so it has generally been quite adequate for my needs. Back then I could get a dual-core CPU (AMD 4600+), 2GB of memory, motherboard and case for just over £200. I recycled the drives and other hardware. It has since been upgraded a little with more memory and a better CPU cooler.

Since then I have not really been keeping up with developments in hardware. Intel and AMD have all sorts of newer processors, but the actual clock speeds have not increased very much. You just seem to get more cores for your money, and other technology to optimise processing. I would hope that the processing per Watt has improved significantly, but the power ratings do not seem to have come down much.

My requirements from a new PC are:
  • More processing power. The heaviest things I do are real-time audio effects and video rendering. I'd like to be able to use more effects and not have to wait so long for my videos
  • Faster boot. I want to minimise the time from inspiration to recording
  • Quietness. Silence would be ideal for the recording environment. The existing PC is not as noisy as some I've used, but I'm conscious of the fans. I've not noticed it intruding into my recordings, but it is in the mix somewhere
  • Compatibility with existing hardware. The main thing I would re-use is my M-Audio Delta 66 audio interface, which uses a PCI slot. Replacing that with a USB interface could cost almost as much as the PC
  • More memory to keep things running smoothly, i.e. not using swap
  • Not too energy hungry to keep the bills down, but also to making cooling easier.
  • Cheap. Computers are generally cheap these days. It used to be that a decent system would cost at least £1000, but that has come down
I realise I could use a laptop for most of what I do, but I like having a big screen, proper keyboard and some facility to upgrade. I do not really need mobility for the main PC and I have plenty of space.

I've tended to buy AMD processors in the past. I'd be looking for at least quad-core. The choice seems to be between the FX range and the A series that incorporate a GPU. The FX seem to consume more power. I shall compare with the Intel offerings around the £80 mark.

I'd go for a basic motherboard with on-board graphics. Needs at least two monitor outputs, a PCI slot and plenty of USB. 8GB of memory would be double what I have and is relatively cheap. I wouldn't go for the exotic ones as I don't plan to overclock. I have heard of some issues with Intel boards and PCI.

I quite like small cases. They are trickier to work on, but I don't expect to be in there too often. I used to use a nice little Antec. A modern equivalent is the Cooler Master Elite 120. It takes a standard PSU and has a few drive bays. Pretty cheap too, but the fans may be noisy.

I'll go for a silent PSU if the price is right. 300W should be adequate. The case may limit what CPU coolers I can use, but something passive would be optimal. Water cooling may be an option that I haven't tried before. There seem to be some more compact systems these days.

I know optical media is dying, but I still like to have a DVD drive for ripping CDs and playing movies. I'll probably re-use the one I have.

I'm hoping that a major increase in performance will come from using an SSD. These have come down a lot in price. I would aim for a 128GB for the OS (Linux of course) and some other files. There is some variation in speed, but I would pay extra for a faster one. For the rest of the files a 1TB hard drive should be enough. I have yet to fill my old 500GB.

All this should cost under £400. Unfortunately I do not have that budget ready just yet. I have contemplated just getting the SSD for now to improve the old PC. That is probably more likely to happen in the short term, so I will report back when it happens.

Feel free to chip in with anything else I should consider.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Jazz for dummies

The title refers to what I think I need, rather than what I'm getting. I'm a couple of weeks into this course and struggling already. The first week had Gary talking a lot about what the course is about and not much on the theory. For the first assignment we had to analyse one of his solos and do our own over the same backing. I made a few notes about his solo, mostly based on a transcription where I could actually see what notes he was using and relate them to the chords. I understand the basics of how chords are built, but not necessarily how to use them or even play some of them on guitar. My own solo was based partly on what I worked out and partly on what sounded right.

The marks are in and I managed 5/8 on the analysis. The solos were not graded, but I got a few interesting comments. They could tell I was bluffing, but I had confessed that anyway. They suggest what scales I could have used, but the course had not covered that. I know I'm not great at soloing. I usually just play around with the blues scale, but have been trying to move beyond that. That's part of why I'm taking this course.

Week two introduced a whole load of scales. I was aware of the various 'modes', but not how to use them. There were also some other 'altered' scales. Gary zooms through these, but it's still not giving me enough context. I don't even know what a dominant 7th really is. Wikipedia didn't enlighten me. The assignment is to play around with several of these scales. I can at least do random selections based on fingerings I've worked out and maybe come up with some tunes. I need to do that in the next couple of days. I've listened to what some others have done and their efforts are more elaborate than I could manage.

I was already aware that jazz is based on a lot of theory, but still find it amazing that people can apply all this in real-time whilst playing. I guess it comes from lots of playing. We covered some of the basics on the evening course I did years ago where we would work on a tune each week, but I've forgotten most of it as I didn't get to apply it outside the lessons.

I listen to some jazz for fun, but can't really tell if it's using the theory. Of course some rock and blues players do great solos without knowing any of this, but might be more limited in what they play. I am generally more analytical than spontaneous, but this theory is hard. I shall persist as long as I can with the course. It doesn't really matter if I don't pass in the end.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Making it up

After my technical course on music production I'm now onto another from +Coursera on improvisation. This is being taught by jazz great Gary Burton. I see he just blogged that 39,000 people are signed up! As with the other course a lot of people will sign up just because it's free and not stay with it.

I'm no expert on jazz. I've listened to a fair bit and been to some very cool gigs, but don't totally get it. I even did an evening class on jazz improvisation years ago. That was fun. I mostly got by on the few scales I know and some hints from the teacher. Watching another guy there playing a million chords on his big Gibson made me appreciate how little I know.

So far my improvising has been fairly aimless. I know lots of neat riffs, but can't always use them in the right context or come up with my own. I hope this course will help me move forward. The first week's lessons have just covered what the course is about and some explanation of what improvisation is. No details of chords and scales yet. The first assignment involves analysing one of his solos and then improvising over the same backing. This has some extended chords that I wouldn't know how to play. My friend +AshBrooke Music, who is also on the course, suggested starting with a C Major scale. I tried that and I can hear some places where a flattened 7th or 3rd will sound better. I need to work out which chords that applies to. I thought I'd record something straight away. This will at least give me something to compare to later and I ought to be recording myself more anyway.

I know it's not great, but I think I have some feel for the rhythm and for ending up on the 'right' notes. You will hear me searching for the note in places. This ties in with the Chord Tone Soloing book I'm reading, but haven't fully grasped yet.

I plan to look at Gary's solo and work out what is happening with the chords.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Jedi in training

Yay, another Star Wars title!

As previously mentioned I am doing a course in music production. I'm now four weeks in with two to go. We've covered a lot of ground and I'm learning a lot. So far I have got by in recording mostly by instinct and from reading a few things or watching videos. There are lots of subtleties I've missed.

Week one was about how sound works and how signals flow through the studio. I did an assignment about recording spoken audio using my trusty Zoom H4 and my webcam.

I posted this on one of the G+ communities where it was seen by our 'professor' who said nice things about it. He did a hangout where I was able to say hi and he remembered me.

However, there were a few issues with this video and I had problems trying to edit in Kdenlive. So I re-did it as an audio only lesson and was able to easily do lots of editing in Audacity.

We all have to assess others, which has been interesting. Most people have put in a lot of effort, but a few have just written a few lines or even copied from elsewhere in some cases. I've not noticed any plagiarism in those I've seen. I was pleasantly surprised to get full marks for my effort.

Week two was an introduction to the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). He has tried to keep things general as people are using lots of different applications. Ardour seems fairly popular, but I've seen a lot of Reaper and Cubase. It's interesting to see what you can do with those. I can certainly see why people use Reaper.

I did an assignment on setting up a project in Ardour. I tried some methods of recording a screencast, but they were not working for me, so I used a digital camera to film the screen. The result was not ideal. Hard to read the screen and the audio was very low. I used an effect in Kdenlive to bring the level up a bit, but, of course, that added noise, as we have been taught. I seemed to lose a few marks because of the video quality.

Week three was on how the mixing part of the DAW functions. I learnt about what inserts can do and how parallel effects work. As this was new to me I used it as the subject for my assignment. I'd now found some scripts that could record the screen, including the Jack audio using a combination of ffmpeg and jack_capture. I just captured part of the screen to try and preserve the full resolution in Youtube, but that meant that some menus went off the screen. I've been using the older version of Ardour (2.8) as I don't have version 3 on my main system yet. For my audio example I had a go at a short section of an 'a capella' song I've been thinking of doing. I sang it as part of a huge choir at Towersey last year.

Week four was on dynamic effects such as compressors, gates an limiters. I have tried using compressors in my recordings, but without really knowing what I was doing. I find it helps to use a plug-in with a graphical display so I can see what is happening. The Calf compressor has this facility, but only if you start it separately and use it as an insert. I need to get to grips with the different types of plug-ins available. I did a quick video on compression. This time I recorded the whole screen and the result doesn't look too bad. I did some fairly bad beat-boxing as my audio.

Week five was on filters and delays. Some interesting stuff on how a delay can act as a filter. I understand better the phase effects you can get with microphones. There was some discussion of mixing, but not in huge depth. I was going to do a video on setting up an EQ plug-in based on a hardware mixer, but my screen capture script was having issues getting the video. So I did a document instead. I've reviewed a lot of documents by others and tried to make mine look reasonable by including lots of screen shots. I used the EQ10Q plug-in. That has ten parametric filters that can be of various sorts and gives a nice graph. I've seen plug-ins that show the spectrum of the audio overlaid on the filter, but I don't know if you can do that on Linux.

Setting up EQ plug-in

The course syllabus seems to have changed from what was originally planned. There was supposed to be some discussion of MIDI, but the final week ended up being about synthesis. This is interesting and explains more about audio theory, but may not be what some people wanted to learn about. I haven't experimented with creating my own synth patches, but I may try it in future. I based my assignment around amsynth. I just need to get my Casio keyboard and MIDI interface working again so I can control it.

Synth modules

I did have a quick play with an on-screen keyboard that let you use the PC keyboard to play tunes and knocked this out in a few minutes for a laugh

The final exam was just a selection of questions from the quizzes. I didn't do extra revision, but still got most of them right. As I mostly got full marks on the assignments and the quizzes I should be guaranteed a pass. I think we get our 'certificates' next week. It's been a cool experience, helped by encouragement from my on-line buddies. We formed a G+ group to discuss it. I'm starting another course on improvisation soon. That will be a different sort of challenge, but I really need to get to grips with this aspect of music. When I do attempt improvisation it all sounds like a string of clichés. I'll report on my progress in due course.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Infinite sustain

Back in mid-2011 I donated to a Kickstarter campaign to make a film about the issues with some of the woods used in making acoustic guitars. The Sitka spruce used for guitars comes from an area of Alaska that is being 'harvested' by a corporation run by the native Americans. Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars put well when he described what they are doing as mining because they are not growing a crop, they are destroying an environment with no hope of it recovering.

I finally got my download of the film this month and it's moving stuff.

The guitar companies, which also included +Gibson Guitar and +Martin Guitar, were brought together by Greenpeace to see what was happening and they formed the Musicwood Coalition. To build their guitars they need wood from old trees (as in hundreds of years old) and those are running out. Most of the timber is exported for pulp and construction with a tiny fraction being used for guitars.

As of now things are not looking great with the native Americans fighting to get more land allocated to them and not moving forward on getting FSC certification.

There is also mention of the issues of woods from Madagascar. Gibson were raided over potentially illegal imported woods. Not sure what's happening about those woods.

As with many areas we are consuming these resources at an unsustainable rate in the name of profit. The guitar builders will have to adapt and do without some of the woods they are used to. I've read something from Bob Taylor about using ebony that isn't purely black as many trees are discarded because their wood is not what people expect. We can't afford to waste.

Coincidentally I saw this story this week about wood from Swiss forests for violins. I hope they are managing that better.

Some companies are looking into non-wood alternatives, such as carbon fibre, but a lot of people still want those precious woods. We can expect the prices for those to increase steeply.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Back to school

Since I finished my degree back in nineteen eighty something I've had a few bursts of further education. I did a few community college evening courses in French, piano, guitar and jazz improvisation. Some of these were great fun and very good value compared with private one to one coaching. Unfortunately they don't seem to offer so many music courses since then. When I decided I wanted to do more singing I had a few private lessons that helped me discover what I'm capable of. I've considered more guitar lessons, but it's tricky when I don't have a specific aim. I had a trial lesson with a teacher a few years back, but he didn't seem to know what to do with me as I already had a lot of technical skills. I've also done a few courses for work on things like Oracle database programming.

My latest course is something a little different. I heard that Berklee College of Music was offering some free courses via Coursera. I initially decided I'd like to try the one on improvisation with Gary Burton. That looked like a challenge as it's something I would like to improve in my playing. That starts in April.

There is also a course in music production. A few of my on-line buddies were taking it, so I decided to join in as I could do with learning more about how to record and produce music. I have all the tools, but am only scratching the surface of what they can do.

The course consists of lots of short video lessons and quizzes on what was presented. Those are fairly simple if you take notes on the lessons. It's largely a matter of understanding the terminology used. The trickier parts are weekly assignments where you have to teach one of a selection of topics. That can be in written form or a video or audio presentation. I tried doing a video. I used GTK+ UVC Viewer to record from my webcam whilst I sat there using my Zoom H4 as a microphone and interface. I was talking about recording spoken word, so it was also a demonstration. I then tried to do a little editing using Kdenlive, but I couldn't seem to get it to trim the segments as I wanted. I have used this a long time back to edit some DV footage and it worked well then. Perhaps it didn't like the video format.

I tried doing the video in a single take, but found that hard. I was going to re-do it, but then had issues getting a decent recording without weird sync issues. I decided that audio would be easier. I recorded in Audacity and did lots of editing to clean it up. That was very quick and easy. The result was not too bad, but I did rush my delivery a bit.

Anyway, that has been submitted now and should be being assessed by other students. There are over 50,000! I've assessed my share and they were generally well done.

The lecturer, Loudon Stearns, has been encouraging people to discuss the course on the Coursera forums and various social sites. I was on a G+ Hangout with him and others at the weekend. It's almost like being on campus.

I'm finding the course fun and am learning lots. The first week was mostly audio theory, but this week is about DAW editing features. I need to explore these more in Ardour. V3.0 was just released, but I've been using some of the release candidates. It should do all I need. A screencast would seem a natural for the next assignment, but I need to figure out how to do that.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Driving around

The time has come around again for the release of another Six String Bliss album called Driven To Bliss. This is the tenth collaborative album produced by this community and the fifth on which I have participated. There should be a download of the actual album soon.

My contribution was a version of Open Car by Porcupine Tree, one of my favourite bands. I wanted to try something a bit heavier than usual, but this also has some acoustic segments. There's a mix of time signatures in there. I based my recording around a MIDI file I found so that could cover the drums and keyboards that I would not have time to sequence. I wanted to concentrate on the guitars and vocals.

Recording was in my usual set-up based around KXStudio on Ubuntu Studio. The DAW was Ardour 3. This is still awaiting final release, but proved to be pretty stable. The main advantage for me over V2 is the inclusion of MIDI so that I didn't need to run a separate application for that. I ran the output to QSynth/Fluidsynth using a free soundfont from the Ubuntu repositories (more on that later). Having everything in one application makes life easier when you want to mute specific tracks and I was doing that a lot with the MIDI tracks I was using to guide what I played.

Guitars were my Gordon Smith GS2 via my Roland Cube 80x (R-Fier model), Dean Performer E electro-acoustic (recorded acoustically) and Peavey bass (direct). Vocals and acoustic guitar were via my Zoom H4 recorder with line out to my M-Audio Delta interface.

I did consider using software amp models in Guitarix, but didn't have time to experiment enough with that. The Cube did a fairly good job, but I could possibly have got a bit closer to the original tone. It took me a while to get the main riff down, but then I had to play the same on bass! This was a challenge.

I like doing double-tracked vocals. I tried singing some in a different register, but not totally happy with the results. Need to work more on my harmonies.

I also intended to do more playing around with things like EQ and compression to improve the general mix, but that didn't happen due to the deadline and some other things going on. I may still try those on the track to see if I can improve it and learn more about these tools.

The album was produced and mastered by long-term Blissner JMan. He noticed something strange about the waveform of my track that caused some issues with the mastering.

I had noticed it looked odd, but had been preoccupied with just getting it sent off. I noticed that the acoustic sections were offset from the zero line. This was narrowed down to one of the keyboard sounds. To fix it I quickly found another soundfont. I could possibly have used a different patch on the existing one, but I've not quite figured out how to do this.

So, here it is. This is the pre-mastering version. All comments and (constructive) criticism welcome. I'm still in the early days of learning about this recording thing and anything that adds to my knowledge is welcome.