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 clich├ęs. 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.