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I did an interview for The Setup, where creative folk go into nerdy detail about the gear they use to get stuff done.
Hey all, how have you been? Post-album it’s been upgrade season around here. New gear, better health, hopefully more positive attitude. I’m getting ready to start finishing up some new music. Still not sure what to do with it yet but I’m excited (& nervous) to get back at it after such a long break. Some of these upgrades:
New monitors (Event 20/20bas -> Focal CMS 65’s), new bass guitar (Yamaha RBX260 -> Fender American Standard Precision), new amp (Tech 21 Power Engine -> Surf Green Fender Blues Jr), better audio interface (MOTU Ultralite mk3 -> Focusrite Scarlett 2i4), new self help strategy (CBT -> ACT), new drum skills (couldn’t play drums -> can sort of play drums now), better guitar skills (could not play 7ths all over the neck -> can now play 7ths all over the neck).
I drink these smoothies now. They have bee pollen in them. And the color green.
It’s been 2013 for like two days! Happy New Year, everybody. 2012 was a tough one but overall good. With the album out the door I’m excited about working on new stuff and getting better at writing and recording music. It’s been really nice, I forgot how much I missed it while I was in album finishing hell.
My first step was to upgrade my monitors. After a lot of research I bought a set of Focal CMS 65‘s and oh my god I’m happy with them. I feel like I can hear everything in the mix now. It’s actually a little horrifying because there are all these recording choices I didn’t realize I was making but it’s exciting, it feels like I can control sound better now.
Meanwhile, I’m getting ready for our Toronto show on the 26th.
Getting the laptop into the live show has been a long dumb technical process. It’s been working solid now for a long time so the last step was to get it all into a nice portable form factor that was quick and easy to set up and tear down. I think I’m just about there:
I bought this Gator Studio-2-Go case – which is a 2U rack case (front and back) as well as a laptop compartment on top (and most importantly a hole between the rack and laptop compartments for cable runs). Getting it was a stupid ordeal. I actually couldn’t find it anywhere in Canada (everyone said it was discontinued) so I had to order it from Sweetwater, get it delivered in the US and drive across the border to get it. Sine then it’s been a gradual process figuring out everything I need in it.
In the front (sorry for the crappy photos) I’ve got a Furman M-8X (rack-mounted power strip), a MOTU Ultralite mk3 (sound card) and a Shure PSM200 wireless transmitter (for feeding the click to the drummer). The power strip means I only have one power cord for the whole box, which is great.
In the back:
The sound card’s outputs go into a Behringer ULTRA-DI PRO DI800, giving the sound dude three channels of DI’d output. I had to learn how to build some short angle patch cables since non-angled ones wouldn’t fit with the back cover on.
- I need an 8-channel XLR s-s-snake for the DI outputs (this has been ordered.)
- The power supply for the PSM200 is one of those dudes with the AC adapter block separated from the plug. Meaning the block is floating around in the case, threatening to knock all my other connections out. I’m not sure how to secure it down or if I should try and replace it with a different adapter.
- The Firewire adapter in the laptop sticks out of the side of the laptop a great deal and makes the side-foam the case comes with not fit properly. I guess I’ll cut a hole in it.
- I wish it was easier to get the DI in and out in case I need to adjust something. Right now I can squeeze my arms in but I’m only getting fatter so that’s not a permanent option. I don’t know much about racks – is there a. thing for that? A rack drawer maybe?
So instead of bringing in a pile of devices and having to set up all my cables each time, I’m down to one AC adapter and a handful of XLR outs and I don’t need any DIs from the house.
That was a lot of work.
The original Rebirth RB-338 was great. Released in 1996, I remember it being one of the first software synthesizers on the PC that seemed serious and sounded cool. An iPhone version has been around for a while but the iPad version was just released for $14.99 and I couldn’t resist trying it out.
The multi-touch is what makes the difference of course. While the screen is a tiny bit smaller than would be optimal – it’s hard to select drums without accidentally engaging a button or knob – being able to manipulate multiple controls at once without using a mouse is undeniably fun. You can actually feel like you’re jamming to a certain extent.
Ultimately though I feel disappointed and am not sure it was worth the $15. We’ll see if I go back to it. Without any sort of MIDI support (sending or sync or export) this is just another bleep-toy that won’t really integrate with my existing audio tools.
The 303 sounds are also pretty dated sounding to me (or at least not as fat as modern soft-synths), but the drums are still thick and fun. There’s also some ugly digital clipping if you start driving it too hard which is less present in modern plugins.
So, much like the original Rebirth, I’m still waiting for an iPad music app that seems serious and sounds cool.
This video got me all nostalgic and thinking about the audio devices I’ve had over the years:
It’s hard to remember the order of all these but here’s what I can piece together:
- PC Speaker on my 4/8mhz (turbo) LANPAR IBM PC – It was nearly intolerable to listen to but I still enjoyed it, I thought it was amazing and I found music like the Monkey Island theme (in the video above) and Leisure Suit Larry’s theme very catchy.
- Covox Sound Master – This was only supported by a few games and was probably the first time I was burned by buying new hardware that wound up gaining no popular support.
- CMS Game Blaster – I had this instead of an Adlib card. The Game Blaster had less support than the Adlib but technically sounded better. I wouldn’t say I got ‘burned’ but I definitely should have gotten an Adlib instead.
- Sound Blaster – The Sound Blaster was supported by nearly all games, which was great. This was the my first “painless” experience with PC audio. (Not sure if this came before or after the Gravis Ultrasound.)
- Gravis Ultrasound – I was into game development at the time and got a free one of these from Gravis’s developer program which was awesome. I seem to remember upgrading the onboard RAM but I have no idea why I would do that. The Gravis had OK support but wasn’t as universal as the Sound Blaster I believe. It could play MODs and S3Ms (could the Sound Blaster? I can’t remember), which was fantastic.
- Sound Blaster AWE64 – I was trying to “get serious” about music production. I got a RAM upgrade for the AWE64 so it could load larger Soundfonts. I never really used Soundfonts much.
- Various onboard sound devices – Computers became powerful enough I didn’t need specialized hardware for games and MOD/S3M trackers.
- Echo Darla (20 bit) – this was my first “pro” sound card, with low latency drivers and so on. It was expensive and it was such a bastard. It conflicted with nearly everything in every system I ever put it into. When it worked it was great, when it didn’t I was in a world of IRQ conflicts and buffer sizes and beta ASIO drivers and random crashes and bullshit. I still have it in a box and when I look at it my eye twitches.
- M-Audio Delta 66 – This is what I’m using now on my desktop/recording machine. I should have bought the Delta 44 instead since it was $50 cheaper and I never use the Digital I/O. But it’s been rock solid and I’ve had no problems. I think about upgrading sometimes but I can’t think of any reason to.
Also additional mobile devices:
- Edirol UA-1EX – This is a little USB gizmo that works pretty good, low-latency ASIO performance to any device I’ve tried. I bought it thinking maybe I’d use it for live performance but it seemed a bit un-pro. Now I use it on my live synth computer plugged into a DI and it’s been working well.
- M-Audio FireWire 410 – I bought this for live performance and it was way too erratic. It would click, crash and sometimes just not be recognized by the computer. I went through several different FireWire cards and eventually gave up.
- MOTU Ultralite mk3 – More FireWire awfulness initially – had to buy a FireWire card for my laptop with a Texas Instruments chipset. Then a weird German adapter to keep the card from wiggling around in the slot. Now it’s been rock solid stable – as long as you keep the wifi on the laptop disabled or else it emits an intermittent high pitched sound.
Man, that list makes me frustrated just looking at it.
Despite some shows coming up in the next few weeks we decided to try and add some lead synth to the set at the last minute. I had been playing solos on guitar but it doesn’t have the same feel.
So the past week and a half has involved me trying to put together a stable PC running Windows XP, Reaper and various VSTis that can reliably run headless (no monitor, no keyboard, no mouse). ASIO drivers are provided by an Edirol UA-1EX as the ASIO4ALL drivers were too clicky and laggy.
The plan is then to cram all that into a 2U rackmount server case and then stuff that into a gig case for an instant on, portable, minimal worries synth machine. It would be great to get a solid state hard drive to minimize the moving parts, but my budget for this is low as balls.
As you can see from the photo on the right and my torn-up bloody hands (not pictured) it’s been a struggle to find a combination of working spare parts. I thought I had solved it all a week ago but the motherboard I was using was only USB 1.0 and would intermittently flake out with the M-Audio Axiom 25 I’ve drafted into service.
Of course I’m currently running the show off a laptop but I felt having it do synth duties as well was too risky. At least this way if the laptop fails we can still put on an OK show. And if the synth machine fails I can still shred out some crappy guitar solos. If both fail, I will just run away from the venue as fast as I can.
I bought a Zoom H4N field recorder a few months ago. I wanted to broaden the sounds I use in my recordings and do some experimental stuff. I don’t have a huge field recording passion – I’m not very interested in recording a storm or a train. But I do like recordings of people behaving naturally. It’s been fun, the quality is great and listening back to most recordings I feel like I’m in the room again. Which for a lot of situations is more interesting to me than taking a photograph as far as capturing a memory.
So here’s a montage of some of the recordings I’ve done with it since I got it:
Field Recording I [5.4 MB]
- [0:00] Justin (my drummer) has a giant, giant empty room in his basement. This is me trying out the reverb in it.
- [0:05] At a Barn practice I made some jokes about Bryan Adams and then wound up singing Summer of ’69.
- [0:25] And then “Run To You” but I couldn’t remember any of the lyrics really.
- [0:39] Then, after being exposed to a bunch of ska recently, I suggested the worst combination in the world might be a ska version of Bryan Adams’ Everything I Do, I Do It For You. [1:03] And then we improv it.
- [1:28] Total Breakdown in Brad Sucks practice. Next time I’m gonna feed the computer output (vocals and synth) into the H4N. I think that’ll sound better.
- [1:55] Rehearsal of I Think You’re Alright for a performance a few weeks ago.
- [2:31] As a favor I did sound for a bluegrass show by Yonder Hill. They needed eight microphones but they were very good. This is them doing “Beefsteaks When I’m Hungry, Whiskey When I’m Dry”. There is a banjo solo.
- [2:54] My guitarist Ben and his wife performed an intimate Valentine’s dinner-music show. This is them covering Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles. On this one I fed the monitor output into one of the H4N inputs so the vocals sound a lot clearer.
- [3:28] At Brad Sucks practice: Ben randomly plays an Irish jig riff, Justin says “dance, leprechaun, dance”, and I yell “WHERE’S ME GOLD” in my evil leprechaun voice and then the delay from the microphone makes us all giggle.
It’s a sweet little device. Main complaint is I wish it powered up quicker.
I’m not much of a keyboard player. I started writing music on the computer tapping notes into trackers with the computer keyboard. I also have a shitty right arm that wigs out when I play keyboards. So I’ve wound up trying a variety of different MIDI keyboards and for the most part they sit beside me and I put papers and junk on top of them and then avoid using them because I’m too lazy to clean them off. So I wind up playing basic sequences in with the computer keyboard.
Enter the inexpensive, tiny Korg Nano Series.
I snapped these up when I read about them, thinking they’d come in handy for live performances (I’m not optimistic enough to think I’ll write music away from my office) but when I got them home I realized they solve at least part of my MIDI keyboard problem. Now I keep them on a shelf under my desk and pull them out whenever I need them.
The Kontrol and Pad are great – simple and effective and relatively sturdy. I’ve tried many different drum pads over the years and the nanoPad is actually my favorite, which is surprising for such an inexpensive device. The nanoKey is the most dodgy, but also the one I’ve used the most, so it can’t be that bad. The keys feel exactly like (kind of cheap) laptop keys. It has the same weak/wobbly spring feeling. I’m not looking for sweet action, but it would be awesome if they felt slightly more crisp – something comparable to a child’s plastic keyboard would be fine.
My only other complaint isn’t Korg’s fault (I think) – the nature of these devices is that I want to plug them in as I need them, swapping them out at will. But all the audio software I’ve tried with needs to restart (or at least reset the audio device) each time I plug in or unplug a device. Minor thing I know.
All in all, they’re very useful tools and I’m happy to have ’em.
Update (3/4/11): My Nanopad randomly died and in researching fixes that seems to be an epidemic. So I wouldn’t bother. The Akai LP line seems to be more durable and that’s likely what I’ll switch to.
I’ve been busy lately re-doing my â€œstudioâ€ (aka office). First thing was to get a new desk (out with the Jerker, in with the Galant). After that it was an Eina night stand and a Galant drawer unit. The most recent thing has been building my own acoustic panels to deaden the sound in here a bit for better mixing and recording:
I had researched acoustic panels a bunch and there was a ton of conflicting information out there. It wasn’t until I found this great how-to that it seemed approachable. The big issue for me was that the rigid fiberglass Americans use is Owens Corning 703 or 705 and figuring out what the equivalent was up here in Canada was difficult. (Turns out it’s OFI 48).
After locating the right rigid fiberglass, I found some black muslin fabric and cut up some plywood I had laying around. I’ve made two panels so far â€“ the second one is far uglier than the first because I am not skilled, but both of them provide a startling amount of sound dampening. I’ve been making non-sound nerds speak against my regular wall and then into the panels and they’ve been shocked at the difference even if they don’t care about acoustics.
I’m going to build a few bass traps for behind my monitors and then a few free-standing panels I can move around and use for whatever and then I should be good for a while.