Dec 31

Solving Sneaky Audio Issues

Over the holidays, I’ve spent quite a bit of time tackling some very tricky audio issues in the rock lab. Issues that have been plaguing me for quite a while, but I didn’t have enough dedicated time to solve.

I have intentionally created an all-digital studio, and although I also have a turntable and LP’s because I love the sound of warm dynamics of analog, for the jams and recording that I do, the digital realm is infinitely more convenient…but it has it’s own set of challenges. ūüôā

Challenge 1: Quiet Strat
Strat sounds awful via POD HD 500. My Red Strat (a Squier Stagemaster from the 90’s) is a Humbucker / Single / Single guitar, and has always sounded lovely and hollow like a typical Strat. But connected to the POD HD, it sounded weak and sad. I tried everything I could think of in the patch settings on the POD to get it to sound halfway decent, and it just never did. So I put it aside, and pulled out the Fretlight – it has fancy Shelby Designs pickups, so I figured it should sound fine. Nope. Same issue. I spent hours searching for pickups and such to find something decent…but just didn’t have the $$ to try it on a whim. So, I pulled out the blue Stagemaster (an Ibanez RG clone, Humbucker/Humbucker), on which I’d installed a Alumitone Deathbucker pickup. Sounded OK, but there were still issues. I put the whole thing aside for a couple days, and then came back and pulled the POD out and set it up out from under the desk. And lo and behold – the “Input Pad” switch was on. There was a similar switch on my old POD X3…and I had it on most of the time, but I hadn’t seen it on the HD500. They’d moved it to the top of the unit, I didn’t notice it since it was under the desk. I flipped it off of Pad and lo and behold everything sounded wonderful. Must be a stronger DB reduction than the X3 version was. Great! Except for this strange high-pitched ringing after every note.

Challenge 2: High-Pitched Ringing from POD HD 500
I have the POD connected to my MOTU 896mk3 via a S/PDIF digital cable. It saves me running more audio around, and bottom line the POD and the MOTU are both all-digital inside, so if I ran analog from the POD to the MOTU, it would be going Guitar (analog) -> POD (digital) -> Audio Cable (analog) -> MOTU Input (analog) -> MOTU mixer (digital). Saving a few A/D->D/A steps makes sense. Plus I get stereo with only one cable, and can record at very high sample rates if need be. However, there are some tricks to making S/PDIF sound right. Trick #1 is to make sure that the POD Output and the MOTU input are set to the same settings. Which I had done when originally setting it up. And if you don’t have it right, typically you hear nothing but horrible digital noise – so pretty obvious. In this case however, the settings on the MOTU side had changed (probably when I did a full reset on it a while back), and it was just slightly off – the MOTU side was at 44.1khz sample rate, and the POD at 48k. I flipped the MOTU to 48k, and voila – high-pitched ringing was gone. Looks like it was a subtle form of digital distortion. To figure this out, I listened to the guitar direct into the MOTU – no noise…I listened to the headphone output from the POD – no noise. So pretty much had to be the digital cable – checked both ends, and voila. Also, when the POD is not on (power unplugged), but the mixer is, I get whooshy digital noise coming into the cable. So I have to mute that input if the POD is unplugged.

One thing that kept eluding me here – since I run the Mac’s digital audio out into one of the ADAT ports on the MOTU via a TOSLINK cable, you have to use the Audio/MIDI Setup application on the Mac to make sure your sample rate from the Mac matches the MOTU as well, otherwise IT will have the strange distortion on it as well. Everything has to match! In my case, I set everything to 48k.

Challenge 3: DVI Audio Whine From Yamaha THR-10
I love the tones and feel of the Yamaha THR-10 – and it does have a USB output – but that output doesn’t play well with the MOTU mixer…unless I run some routing on the Mac side to take the USB audio and route it back into the mixer. Which I’ve done…and it just doesn’t sound right. So I’ve been running the headphone output of the THR into an analog input on the MOTU. When I run it with the power supply plugged into the THR, I hear the DVI Audio Whine from the various computer equipment through the headphone output. If I wasn’t having to amplify the output of the THR a bit (with the gain knob on the MOTU input channel) to get the levels to match, you’d probably never hear it, but with things turned up, it’s super-annoying. Bottom line, I need to run a balanced cable from the output of the THR into the MOTU to shield it from the RFI. However, the stereo headphone on the THR won’t support that. So I’ve ordered a unbalanced->balanced converter to try as a last resort. It will also be useful for connecting my turntable to the MOTU at some point, so it’s not a one-trick pony. ūüôā

So there you go, three ‘simple’ problems that took me a dozen hours of hair pulling to sort through…I hope if you had any of these issues that this helped you!

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!

Mar 06

Guitar Playing and Learning Tools

I really enjoy playing guitar, and while there was a time when I was in college that I played primary in bands or nascent bands, the majority of my guitar playing is by and for myself.

To make that fun in a rock music context, you need a combination of being able to get better, so you feel like you are getting somewhere, and some way of playing along with other instruments.

So over the last 20 years of enjoying the guitar, I’ve collected a set of tools that really work for me, and I thought I’d share!

The first is Line6’s GuitarPort Online. They came up with the genius idea of combining a killer headphone amp, downloadable lessons, and downloadable guitar-less tracks of popular songs.

GuitarPort Online Logo

Their other killer feature is that the software works with both their simple GuitarPort interface (less than $100), all the way up to their flagship DT-50 modeling amplifiers (>$1400). So you can grow from bedroom noodler to stage performer, and keep your practice and learning tools consistent. The GearBox software also functions as a deep editor for your guitar tones, so you can twist all sorts of virtual amplifier and stompbox knobs onscreen, rather than struggling with tiny little menus on the device.

The main downside is that it requires a monthly subscription (~$10/mo depending on how far in advance that you pay). It’s comprable to what people pay for online games like World of Warcraft, but you get to learn and play along to your favorite songs instead. ūüôā The bummer is that if you cancel you subscription, you can’t even play the songs you already downloaded.

The “play along” aspect is what keeps it fresh – you get a settings file that sets up the sound of your guitar to sound like the guitar from the track (whether lead or rhythm), as well as guitar tablature (sheet music), and backing tracks both with and without the guitar included.

When I first started using GuitarPort Online with my POD, I found that they had Van Halen’s “Panama” as one of the available tracks. I’d had my favorite guitar teacher show me how to play it back in the 90’s, but I could never quite get all the rhythms right, and although I knew the basics of how to play it, I never felt like I was getting better at it.

As my friends and family can attest, I played the holy snot out of the GuitarPort version of that track for years. Every time getting a little better – tighter rhythm, better articulation on the solos and riffs. It was a relaxing to be EVH in my basement for 20 minutes (OK, an hour) at the end of a hard day. ūüôā

And then they took it away. ¬†I upgraded to a POD X3 Live, and when I did so, I lost access to that track – apparently GuitarPort had lost the license, and it was encrypted to my old device which I had sold on Craiglist. The track was no longer available for download. I was so angry I dropped the service for about 6 months, and went back to traditional book-and-mp3 methods of learning…but I missed that joy you feel playing along to a great track…so I eventually went crawling back.

In the end, my family is probably very glad I’ve had to branch out and am now playing songs by Living Colour, Pat Benatar, Boston, Heart, Scorpions and the Offspring, rather than that same VH song over and over, but I miss it. ¬†Come on Line6, I’m sure you can work something out with Warner!

Overall I love GuitarPort, and use it regularly, I just wish they’d expand their library more often – it seems like not a lot of new stuff is coming in.

The difference between how quickly I learned the parts of Panama that I hadn’t learned from my teacher (like the solos), and how long it took me to learn the easy parts from my teacher was night and day. I easily learned 10x faster, and didn’t plateau like I did with just hand-written tab and the record. GuitarPort really helped me learn the track, by helping me both learn and practice it.

As the years went by though, I found a hole in my practice/play regime, and that was being able to play improvised solos really well. ¬†Other than a few songs, I preferred to do my own solos rather than imperfectly mocking the great players, but I got stuck in pentatonic ruts that I couldn’t get out of.

That’s where our next tool, the Fretlight, comes in:

Fretlight Black Guitar
Fretlight Guitar

The Fretlight is a guitar that has a little LED (light) under each intersection between string and fret. So everywhere you could put your left hand on the guitar, there is a light. In every other way, it’s just like any other nice electric guitar.

It connects via USB to your computer, and software there enables you to set the lights up to display just about anything you could imagine. Scales, modes, chords, in any key, and any place on the guitar.

If you aren’t near a computer, it’s no big deal, the USB is only needed to run the fretboard lights. You can play it at a gig without a computer, and no one would ever know it was a Fretlight – the lights are invisible unless they are on.

The Fretlight Song and Lesson player will even light up songs in real time (or slowed down time) for you to follow along with, although in practice I found this to be a little tricky to do long-term. ¬†It’s great for getting a feel for where the song is played, but since the lights are under your fingers, it’s hard to follow along perfectly.

But the Fretlight Improviser is genius. It plays semi-cheesy MIDI backing tracks for you endlessly. Unlike practicing with a song, it’s like having a band that never gets tired of playing the same chord progression over and over while you work out your perfect solo.

But more importantly, it shows you a scale or mode to go along with that progression, lit up all over the fretboard. Every wanted to play a solo in the Mixolydian mode just like the shredders from the 80’s? You can dig out your Guitar Grimoire and start memorizing dots, or you can light it up and start playing.

As I get older, I’m spreading my mind across more and more things to memorize. So, rather than remembering the details of esoteric computer languages, I remember general patterns, and then use books and the internet to look up the details when I need them. The Fretlight is like that. You still have to know how to play the guitar, but you can use Fretlight to show you the details of chords, scales and modes.

When I was first looking at the Fretlight in the 80’s, it was self-contained – there was a switch on the front to let you pick what scale to light up. As such, it was limited to how many patterns they could put into the guitar. By being able to connect it to software in a computer, the range of things you can show on the Fretboard is limitless – with the AxMaster software, you can pick individual lights to show in any pattern you want – make up your own stuff!

Between the two tools it’s funny how many pieces of software I end up running at the same time on my computer while I play guitar – GearBox to control my POD, Fretlight Improviser to control the Fretlight, REAPER to record it all.

If this all sounds computer-heavy it is – but when I was in college, I’d get a book or magazine of guitar tab, put it out in front of me, and memorize away. Then I’d either play along with the record (quietly, so I could hear myself over the track), or beg my friends to learn the other instruments. Then the inevitable “I’m not playing that” would begin.

The computer combined with these two tools is helping me enjoy my guitar time, since I don’t have hours to sit in front of tab books memorizing any more, and convincing my friends to even pick up their instruments is harder than ever

Mar 01

Studio Acoustic Treatment

When I first started podcasting, we were recoding up in our kitchen, which is a pretty large, open space.

However, since we use condenser-type microphones (which are very sensitive) we were picking up the neighbors’ dogs barking, lawns being mowed, kids jumping on trampolines, and so on.

Even once I learned to turn the gain way way down, and then normalize the audio later in REAPER, we would still get comments from listeners wondering why their neighbors were mowing their lawns at 2AM while they were listening to our show.

So we moved recording down to the basement, and froze with the furnace turned off so we didn’t have to hear the thunder of it running on all our recordings.

In the summer of 2009, I spent the summer finishing half of our basement into two bedrooms, one of which was to be the new recording studio.

It was quite a project, and I just kept thinking “It will be so nice to record in here once it’s well-lit and quiet and warm!”

So I cried a little when the first time we recorded in the new space it sounded like I was recording inside a submarine, and not in a cool Beatles way.  Worse than the lawnmower!

No matter how low I turned down the gain, it was still super-reverby.

For vocals in a song, that can be a good thing (Weird Al famously recorded “Another One Rides the Bus” in a college bathroom), but for spoken word where clarity is king, it was disaster.

So we recorded out in the unfinished part of the basement while I tried to figure out what to do.

First, I tried building panels using the Auralex foam that you can buy at most music shops.  Zzounds.com actually sells it by the square, so I bought about 15 of them and tried to use them in various ways to reduce the echo.

They didn’t help.  Made it worse in many ways.  I think that foam may be good for soundproofing, but it was utterly ineffective for me in reducing reflections (echo) in a 10’x12′ room.  I’ve seen people cover every surface in a room with the stuff, and they seem to be happy, but that wasn’t an option, as I didn’t want to record in a closet and couldn’t afford $3k worth of squares and nothing else in the room.

I noticed that many products marketed at reducing reflections for vocals were made of something else, which looked more like burlap membrane rather than foam.  Products like the Reflexion filter, which aren’t cheap, but actually (based on reviews) work.

However, that would mean talking into a black wall (assuming both hosts had one), and for podcasts, it works a lot better if there is eye contact for people in the room.

Not to mention that you’d have to buy more of them if you ever wanted to record more than two people, and you get “best results” if you put one both in front of, and behind the speaker.

I was starting to despair that I’d spend a good amount of time and money to build a warm cozy space to record in, only to never be able to use it. Perhaps that’s why musicians tend to do their best work when living in vans down by the river?

Anyway, I researched and researched, and eventually found RealTraps.

Same sort of membrane material as the Reflexion filter, but in steel-framed panels that you can place about a larger room, and then move about as you need.

But they are expensive. Even with the newly-available “BareTraps“, which are $125 each, enough to completely cover my room would be well over $2k.  But they seemed like the best option, so I went for it, and ordered a pair of the bass-frequency absorbing ones for the corners, and the “High Frequency” ones for the rest of the walls.

They work. I won’t lie, there is still echo in that room. I’ve just ordered four more to cover the other two corners and the backs of the doors, but even with the ones I have in there, which do NOT cover every surface, the reflections are so reduced that it actually feels a little weird to be in the room some times because it’s so quiet.

I have standard acoustic tiles in the ceiling right now, and a hardwood floor, neither of which is really helping the situation. So a large rug is next.

RealTraps makes ceiling tiles that I may eventually use to swap out the standard ones that I have, although I also might try just hanging more Baretraps from the ceiling…

Anyway, things are sounding better every day in the Rock Lab (as I’ve christened it), and I encourage you to try real membrane-based traps rather than just MORE FOAM!

Sep 08

Choosing a Guitar Pick

Guitar picks (or “plectra” to be precise) are one of the most personal things that your average guitarist gets to choose – it’s half of your connection to your instrument.

There are hundreds of different kinds of picks available, and taking the time to try out a number of different styles can make a huge difference in your playing comfort, and your enjoyment and precision with the instrument.

Yet many electric guitarists still use the same “Fender-style” thick picks that came with their “Starter Kit”:

Fender Pick

These picks are made of celluloid, the same plastic that was used for early motion picture film.  They are about the only things around still made of it, because celluloid is very flammable, and large pieces can break very easily.

Celluloid also stinks – literally. ¬†Especially in the sweaty hand of a guitarist, scraping along metal strings, it has a distinctive acrid smell that says ‘guitar’ to a lot of people.

Personally, I think it’s nasty.

Especially the way it lingers on the fingers after you play.

So, I asked my favorite guitar teacher (back in my college days) Dave Parsons (who now works over at http://kidscreatethemusic.org/ ), what my options were, and he handed me a tiny little “Jazz” pick that was made of a specialized nylon, not celluloid.

I went to get a couple of these from my friendly local music shop, and they offered three different thicknesses. ¬†I ended up getting some of each, but I quickly became addicted to the “L3 – thin” version of this pick a mere .5mm in thickness.

Dunlop Tortex Jazz Thin L3 PickI love these Dunlop Tortex Jazz picks, and have since ordered mass quantities that I have stashed in the rock lab.

I carry one in my wallet, in case I end up guitar shopping, or there is an impomptu jam, because using the big celluloid picks just doesn’t work for me anymore.

There are four things going on here:

Thickness – I like to strum barre chords very quickly, and the thin pick lets me whip my right hand up and down without having to change the pick angle as drastically as you do with a thicker pick – less wrist strain, faster strumming. ¬†However, you do have to grip the pick fairly firmly to get the same sharp sound that a ‘regular pick’ gives. ¬†However, that’s one of the advantages, is that you can change the tone of your picking based on the tightness of your grip.

Size – The smaller pick fits my smaller hands better, and lets me keep a more consistent grip – there aren’t as many ways to hold these little guys, so you end up holding it the same way more often, leading to more consistent tone. ¬†It’s part of the Tim White sound. ūüôā You do have a bit less flexibility in terms of tone, but switching picks for certain songs is pretty easy to do, especially when recording. ¬†If you have really large hands, the big “triangle” picks, or the standard-style picks might feel better to you.

Point – the point on these picks is relatively sharp, compared to the ‘standard’ pick shape. ¬†Interestingly, there are there different sharpnesses – L1 is close to the standard, whereas L3 is the sharp Jazz tip that I prefer. ¬†Sometimes it’s hard to get the right version when you order online, which can be frustrating. ¬†Plus, the tips do wear down fairly quickly with heavy use.

Material РI like the way that the Tortex feels in my hand, and how it slides across the wound strings.  It also has no smell.  They do come coated with a fine powder, which I recommend you wash off before use, as it tastes pretty nasty when you eventually jam one in your mouth during that fingerpicking section of your favorite tune.  The material affects the feel and tone, so try a number of different types to see how they work for you.

Guitar picks are like mousetraps – music companies are constantly coming up with new designs and styles and plastics. ¬†Since picks are indeed so personal, and so inexpensive, it’s pretty easy to try a bunch of different ones to try and find something that works perfectly for you.

And doesn’t make your hand stink!

Here’s a few innovative picks:

Zero Gravity Orbit Guitar Pick Wirething Guitar Pick

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. ūüôĀ

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