Jul 25

Why do something unprofessionally?

As I’ve been amping up my study of rock drumming, as well as working harder on my knowledge of recording and other music-and-audio-related stuff, I’ve been thinking a lot about *why*.

Why *study* something that you don’t plan to do professionally? I intentionally wrote “unprofessionally” in the title of this post, because it has interesting double meanings. Unprofessional doesn’t just mean amateur – it fact it has such a negative connotation that most people say ‘hobbist’ or ‘amateur’ instead of unprofessional. Unprofessional has the connotation of bad behavior *by* a professional.

If your hobby is scrapbooking, or gardening, or knitting, or lots of other ‘traditional’ hobbies, then you probably don’t practice. Sports and Music seem to be the main hobbies where practice is expected, *even if you are unprofessional*.

So the question always becomes what are you practicing music *for*? To be a rock star? Unlikely. Just like being a professional athlete, only the tiniest percentage of people who play music will ever become even locally known for doing so. But how many professional scrapbookers do you know? (I know a couple, but they are really professional salespeople).

Are you practicing to play a concert? For an open mic night? Or, as the trend is now, to impress people on YouTube? A lot of folks I know that practice quite a bit practice so that they can perform…at their church services. In fact, I know several people of dubious ‘faith’ that have found church services to be the only real musical outlet the can find.

Why has there been an explosion of Ukelele players of late? Why does Guitar Center stay in business?

If you want to play softball, or soccer, or golf, you can find a league near you.

But if you want to play music; it seems like the diversity of musical styles and the ‘independent’ nature of musicians makes leagues so hard to build as to be impossible.

Is that it, or is there more to it? One can’t ignore that watching little kids play soccer poorly is funny. Watching anyone play music poorly is not. So the specator aspect is very different. Why doesn’t my city have a giant park with band practice spaces in it, just like they have soccer and baseball fields? Is the the noise? The spectator aspect? The popularity? Or just the lack of ‘rules’ such that you can achieve a critical mass of people to all do something in an organized way?

It’s pretty weird.

So the question is, why do people still play music? I think one has to develop an appreciation of practice *as* the hobby, which is a bit odd compared to other hobbies. I mean, I may go to the driving range to play golf, but after that, *I go play golf*. But I can enjoy playing drums and guitar just fine without ever playing a concert or in front of other people at all. I record myself mostly as an exercise in learning how recording works, and as a way to analyze my playing.

But there is an element of music…playing with other musicians…that is where the magic really happens, and just ‘practicing’ all the time doesn’t really give you that. I think the Rock Band video game actually gives you a taste of that…better than just playing alone in your basement. It’s not the same as jamming, but at least you can feel how your part contributes to the whole, and what the song lacks if you screw up.

I hate to say it, but I think the key problem with playing musical instruments is that the barrier of ‘good enough’ is way too high. I can play baseball and enjoy myself even the first day I learn how…but perfecting my throwing, catching, and hitting can bring greater enjoyment.

Instruments like the guitar take a long time to even play comfortably, much less play well.

And there is the issue of what you are comparing it to. When you play baseball with your peers, they likely play fairly close to the same level as you do, so you can enjoy the game at the same level…but with music, every song is like learning a brand new game. (Once you have a lot of experience, each song becomes a little easier). If you are a slow runner, chances are the guy on first base is poor at catching the ball. So everyone being bad at the game works in favor of the experience. But for music, it’s the opposite. If anyone is bad, it makes it harder for everyone else.

So what to do? People love music, and games like Rock Band have proven it.

Here’s my blasphemy: I think we need easier instruments. There is no way to ease into most instruments. There’s been a lot of progress with keyboards that light up under your finger and such, but those don’t really help you in a jam situation on a song you are creating.

I think the Fretlight Guitar is one step forward, but you still have to physically master the guitar, which isn’t easy.

I’m sure many of you who have lept the hurdle of playing a ‘real’ instrument are pshawing me. But look at what kids attention is competing with – games that teach them how to do things step by step. Instruments need to evolve. They can, and have (iPad instruments are amazing), but what is missing is that leaping point from being able to play along to your favorite song, to jamming…and somehow moving toward achieving ever-increasing proficiency.

I hope the future gives us more fun ways to be able to bring music back up to something that everyone can enjoy, and not just something that people tackle as a challenge, or practice ‘as it’s own reward’…

May 03

MOTU 896mk3 Audio Interface / Digital Mixer Review and Tips

I’ve been working with computer audio since the 80’s, and I’ve used a number of different little boxes to get audio from a microphone and instruments and into the computer – mostly on the Macintosh.

Mark of the Unicorn (aka MOTU) is a company that’s been around since those early days of Macintosh audio.  Their “Digital Performer” Mac-only DAW is still one of the most respected platforms in an increasingly crowded field.

I recently had the opportunity to upgrade from my M-Audio Profire 610 Firewire Audio Interface to a MOTU 896mk3 Audio Interface & Digital Mixer.

MOTU 896Mk3

The MOTU 896Mk3 - image ©MOTU

My frustration with the ProFire had a lot to do with interference – as I’ve posted before, it was very prone to picking up DVI interference from flat-panel monitors.

While I had been able to get by with the ProFire by using better cables and routing things carefully, I recently upgraded to a new flat-panel monitor which ran at a higher refresh rate.  Once again, the ProFire started picking up the whine, and nothing I could do would get rid of it.  The 896 has been absolutely silent on FireWire. No whine from the monitor, and no noise from guitar pickups or the USB connection for my Fretlight.

In addition, I was looking at being able to record acoustic drums, and the two microphone preamps on the ProFire just weren’t enough to be able to do that.  I did a great deal of research, and in the end chose the MOTU.

Here’s why:

  • 8 microphone preamps with built-in soft and hard limiting
  • 8 analog outputs, each with their own mix of all other inputs
  • 4 ADAT Digital I/O ports, for a total of 16 inputs and 16 outputs (more useful than you’d think…)
  • Extensive front-panel meters and controls
  • Full-19″ rack width, but only ~10″ deep, and only weighing ~ 4 lbs.
  • ADAT Ports can be used to connect another 8 mic preamps and MIDI I/O via a MOTO “8-Pre” box
  • Extremely well-reviewed and tested software and drivers, including many audio analysis tools
  • Firewire 800 I/O to the computer, so works on Mac and PC
  • Recommendation from my friend Brant (based on his pro-recording friend’s recommendation)

What’s missing compared to the ProFire (and other competitors):

  • MIDI I/O (I already have a separate M-Audio USB MIDI box, so this was easy)
  • “Octane” Mic-Preamps (896 mic pre’s are very flat, not as “nice out of the box” as the ProFire)
  • Lots of Software Returns

Dealing with “Flat” Microphone Preamps

The Octane Preamps on the ProFire sound very good for vocals out of the box. Their “natural” EQ is just very flattering.  The 896’s PreAmps are “flat”: they have no particular EQ response.  This is good, in that they are more flexible, but bad in that I’m still working on finding EQ settings in my DAW that recapture the “natural” magic of the Octane pre’s.  I’m still working on this…hopefully a full report later.  I will say that a bit of a boost in the midrange seems to help.  The preamps in the 896 don’t sound bad, they are just very transparent.  The Octane pre’s were part of my sound, the 896 pre’s don’t contribute one way or the other, they stay out of the way.

The gain knob for each preamp on the ProFire is notoriously frustrating though, since it’s a “tapered” potentiometer – the useful range is all within a couple degrees of the knob’s travel.  The 896’s knob seems to have a greater useful range, although it too tends to be smaller than I’d like.

Software Returns

Software returns are the ability to route audio from software on the computer into *inputs* on the device, so they can be mixed into the *outputs* of the device, just like the physical inputs to the device.  You can think of them as “virtual” inputs.  The are critical if you are crafting multiple monitor mixes that include software playback  or software instruments.

The 896 has one stereo return.  You can assign the audio from any output to the return.  However, in order to craft custom monitor mixes for multi-musician jamming and overdubbing, you typically need at least 8 returns.

Here’s my trick to add a bunch of software returns: I used a TOSLink Optical cable to connect the ADAT A Output jack into the ADAT A Input jack.  This automatically connects all 8 ADAT Digital Outputs on the to all 8 ADAT Digital Inputs – all with one cable.  Full digital, no generation loss.

I use the 896’s ADAT Outputs (which are easy to select in any DAW, in my case REAPER) as the outputs for my playback and digital instruments. The audio goes out through the ADAT A output jack, in through the ADAT A input jack, and appears on the ADAT A Inputs in the 896’s CueMix FX mixer software.  I can now mix these into the analog outputs of the 896 to create monitor mixes for each performer.

Example DAW Output Settings:

  • DAW Drum Mix Buss Track: ADAT Output 1
  • DAW Bass Mix Track: ADAT Output 2
  • DAW Rhythm Guitar Track: ADAT Output 3
  • DAW Lead Guitar Mix Track: ADAT Output 4
  • DAW Vocal Mix Track: ADAT Output 5
  • DAW Synth Track (Live and Playback): ADAT Output 6

Example Monitor Mixes In CueMix:

  • Vocalist Overdub/Jam Headphone Monitor Mix:
    • 60% Analog Input 1 (their mic input)
    • 10% ADAT Input 1 (Drum Mix Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 2 (Bass Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 3 (Rhythm Guitar Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 4 (Lead Guitar Track Playback)
  • Bassist Overdub/Jam Headphone Monitor Mix:
    • 60% Analog Input 2 (Bass Amp mic/DI)
    • 10% ADAT Input 1 (Drum Mix Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 5 (Vocal Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 3 (Rhythm Guitar Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 4 (Lead Guitar Track Playback)

If you are tracking new parts from scratch, you might not need playback, but you might have a click coming from the DAW for the drummer, or scratch drum tracks, or live synth from a virtual instrument.

Either way, this trick lets you route lots of channels of audio from software into the 896 and treat it just like any other input.

I also run a TOSLink cable (with a mini-TOSLink adapter) from the headphone jack of my Macbook Pro (which is secretly an optical port as well as an analog headphone port) into the ADAT B Input of the 896, so I can mix 2-channel audio from programs like Skype and iTunes that won’t let me select specific device output pairs.  Note that to use one of the ADAT inputs as a TOSLink input, you need to set it to “TOSLINK” mode (as opposed to “lightpipe” mode) using the “MOTU Audio Setup” application.

Going from XLR Outputs to Headphone Monitors

The 896’s analog audio outs, which we want to use as headphone monitor mixes, are XLR connectors.  These balanced connectors won’t go directly into headphones and you usually want to combine two of them to make a stereo headphone mix.  To do this, you need another box, and I chose the Behringer AMP800 mini headphone amp.  With some XLR to TRS cables, you can go from the analog outs on the 896 into the mix inputs on the AMP800, and create volume-controllable headphone jacks for your jammers and trackers to listen to.  Add a few long headphone extension cables like the ones from the JamHub, your favorite headphones, and you are in business!

The 896 does have two headphone outputs that you can mix to separately, so if you only ever have two people tracking or jamming, you don’t need this setup.

Other Changes

The ProFire had all TRS Analog I/O Jacks, while the 896 has all XLR Outputs (and dual TRS/XLR Analog Inputs), so I had to buy a couple of new cables, especially to connect to my Yamaha HS-50M / HS-10W studio monitor speakers.

I was also able to finally get rid of my ancient Behringer mixer, which had seen better days. There is a nice knob on the front of the 896 I can use to control the overall level of things, as well as input levels. I have everything running into the 896, so I can truly use it both as an audio interface as well as a digital mixer.

I have my POD X3 Live connected to Analog Inputs 7/8 from the ‘live’ outputs, and I have a S/PIDF cable running from the S/PDIF output of the X3 into the S/PDIF input of the 896. I did have to adjust the sample rate of the output of the X3 to match the 896 to avoid hearing anything but digital noise there.

To be honest, I don’t really like the sound of the S/PDIF output, and I typically run the “live” analog sound, and I use the CueMix software that comes with the 896 to mute/unmute the X3.  I could use the knobs on the front to turn it down when I’m not using it (it tends to have “guitar cable noise” if I don’t), but I like where I have them set for recording levels.  But it’s there, so if I ever need to use Analog 7/8 for something else (e.g. drum mics), I can still get the X3 audio into the mix.

Summary

I really like the 896mk3. It’s super-light, so even though it’s bigger than the ProFire, it uses a standard power cord (rather than ProFire’s giant wall-wart), so it’s similarly portable.

Its noise-free, and software-crash free (even under 64-bit Mac OS X).  More than any others, those are the two I have to have.

I was also able to get rid of the mixer from my setup.  I had to add the MIDI interface back in, but I only use it very rarely, so I’m not terribly concerned.

I was pretty frustrated with the lack of software returns until I figured out that ADAT loopback trick, but since I got that working it’s been just a dream.  The super-smarties at headphone.com helped get me on the right path of choosing a headphone amp, which was invaluable.

I do wish MOTU would add more software returns to this device, or even just let me virtually patch outs to ins in the mixer, rather than having to use a patch cable.  MIDI I/O would also be a great help for this device, as well as allowing the front-panel “main-out” headphone output to be routed separately from the monitor speakers.

I suspect I’ll eventually end up buying a MOTU 8-Pre to get the 8 extra microphone preamps (acoustic drums use a ton of mics), but that uses the same port that I’m using for my ADAT loopback.  However, I can chain it on the Firewire bus instead of running into the 896.  Since the Mac makes it easy to create virtual devices as aggregates of physical devices (using the Audio/MIDI Setup Control Panel), this is probably a viable option.

The front-panel knobs are very small, and can be a bit frustrating to grab in a hurry, although almost all of them can be tweaked virtually via Cuemix FX, so it’s not too big of a deal.  All the I/O except for the headphones is on the back, which it a bit annoying when regularly connecting and disconnecting mics for podcasting.  I typically just leave the mic cables connected to Analog 1 & 2, and have the cables neatly hanging from my desk nearby.

There are a number of features I’ll likely never use, such as AES/EBU I/O, and Word Clock I/O.  For the average home studio, it seems like MIDI I/O would be a better choice.

I’d also like to be able to use the modeled EQ, compression, reverb, and other onboard F/X from my DAW as plugins, rather than having to track with them in the signal path.

I’d buy it again based on the noiselessness and stability alone, and I hope that the tricks I’ve outlined here help you enjoy yours as much as I enjoy mine!

Oct 27

Return to Northmoor Late This Week – Line 6 POD X3 Problems

So, it’s no secret that Line 6’s POD X3 has had a number of serious problems with it’s USB interface.  There is even a sticky thread in the support forums that basically says “yep, it’s broke, we’re working on how to fix it”…that’s been up for months.

That said, I’ve always been able to record just fine with my X3, even though playback would only work for about 10 minutes before dropping out and requiring a reboot of the device.
So, I went ahead and recorded the last episode of Return to Northmoor with the X3, since it has drivers for Vista 64, and my M-Audio MobilePre USB does not.  (The MobilePre works in ‘class compliant’ mode, which means that it has one mic input instead of two, which doesn’t cut it for a two-person show).
Everything *looked* fine while recording, in terms of the waveforms that I could see in REAPER.  Of course, halfway through recording the playback cut out, so I couldn’t go back and listen.
When I later went back to edit the show, I found that the X3 had dropped out every 5th word or so of the 2nd half of the show.  To say I was ready to throw the X3 in the toilet would’ve been an understatement.
I had a POD 2.0 and a PODxt Live that never gave me a lick of trouble.  They were some of the best audio product’s I’ve every owned. But he X3Live is just evil.  It works just well enough to make you want to use it, and then…wham!
So anyway, I’m now using an M-Audio ProFire 610 that seems to be working well…so far.
But we’re going to have to re-record part 2, so it could be a while before the next episode is out…
Tim

UPDATE:  Looks like Line6 has finally found the source of this problem to be a hardware issue, and has set up their warranty repair centers to perform the fix.  I was able to get mine in and get it fixed, but it took 8 weeks (!) and it still drops out from time to time. 🙁

Here’s Line 6’s info on the fix:

It has come to our attention that some POD X3 Live units exhibit audio drop outs when streaming audio while connected via USB. Line 6 has investigated the issue, discovered the root cause and released a verified hardware fix.

The USB audio drop out issue has a very specific symptom: audio output
while recording or streaming abruptly stops and will not return while
your X3 Live is connected to your computer via USB.

IMPORTANT: This issue has been seen in some POD X3 Live units only.

It does not affect all POD X3 Live units or any POD X3 or POD X3 Pro units.

If you are experiencing the USB audio drop out issue and live in the U.S., we can help you in one of two ways:

· You can call us at 818-575-3600 M-F 8a-5p west coast time and arrange to send the unit to Line 6 for warranty repair

· You can visit http://line6.com/support/serviceCenters/
to locate your nearest service center and arrange a warranty repair.
You will need to furnish the service center with a copy of your proof
of purchase for this repair to be made under warranty.

Please keep in mind that sending your unit into Line 6 or bringing it to a
local service center for this fix will mean you will be without your
POD X3 Live for at least two weeks, depending upon the turn-around time of the shop – so plan accordingly.

If you live outside of the U.S. please contact your local distributor,
also found on our service centers page, for warranty repair information

Oct 27

DVI Audio Noise – High Pitched Whine

So, while working on Return to Northmoor (northmoor.spookyouthouse.com) this week, I’ve been troubleshooting a very annoying high-pitched whine that has found it’s way into my audio stream.

It sounds a lot like high-speed Morse code.
I was able to determine that it was only present in the output from my computer and not while recording, which was good, but it was still driving me mad.
Eventually, by plugging and unplugging every component of my PC, I was able to determine that the noise was coming from my video card.  When I unplugged the cable to my LCD monitor, the noise about doubled.  I swapped out my high-end eVGA video card for a cheap one, and voila, no noise.  Still, I didn’t want to give up my good card, so I did some more research.  I’m not sure if what was going on was a ground loop, or DVI noise being directly conducted into my USB/FireWire stream by the video card (which sits right above one of the USB sockets on the motherboard), but switching to balanced audio cables killed off the noise.
The noise was getting in between the audio interface (an M-Audio Profire 610), and my powered monitor mixer.  I had been using nice (Monster Cable) unbalanced cables to connect them, but for whatever reason (conduction or ground loop), they were susceptible to the noise from the video card.
Even though the ProFire only has 1/4″ outputs, they can accept a balanced Tip-Ring-Sleeve (TRS) plug.
A balanced cable uses two wires + ground to carry the audio signal instead of one + ground.  Equipment that can work with balanced cables can detect if there is identical eletromagnetic interference on the two wires, and reject it.
Here’s a picture of one of the cables I am using now:
You can tell that it’s a balanced cable because the 1/4″ plug has two bands on it, hence tip, ring (between the white bands) and sleeve (the rest of the plug and the connector housing).
You may have seen connectors like this for stereo audio cables.  If you use them for two channels of audio (stereo), then it’s two unbalanced channels in one cable.  Whereas I’m using two cables like this, one for the Left channel, and one for the Right.  So I have to use two cables, but each one is balanced, and this less-susceptible to interference and noise.
The other end is an XLR connector that plugs into my mixer.  XLR connectors are a hallmark of balanced cables, they are almost always present in a situation where you are going from a mic to a mixer or pre-amp, because mics have very low signal levels, and thus noise and interference can entirely swamp a signal.  Not to mention that by the time you amplify the signal a great deal, the noise gets amplified as well.
So lesson learned, used balanced cables where ever you can around computer equipment!
Tim