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.


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 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. 🙂 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. 🙂

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

Sep 30

A Six Pack of Old Friends

As a follow on to my general Recommended Book List, I wanted to dive in on why the first six books are favorites.

To recap, here’s the first six books on my all-time “recommend to others” list.

  1. Myth Adventures by Robert Asprin
  2. The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison
  3. Callahan’s Lady, by Spider Robinson
  4. Retief, by Keith Laumer
  5. Phule’s Company by Robert Asprin

These books are also what my mom would call “old friends”.  They are some of the few media items that I could pick up at any time and just read.  Many of them I could flip to any page in any of them, and just start reading from there.

Why are these books so re-readable?

A Good Laugh

All of these books are funny.  They are all in what some have called the “humorous sci-fi/fantasy” genre.

Given even a year away from the book, the jokes and humor in these stories wraps you up and cuddles you, and it’s humor that doesn’t need to put someone else down, or gross you out, or make you cringe.  It just makes you smirk, grin, and feel good about the world.

The Difference is Readability

Unlike the “poster children” for this genre, like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, or Discworld by Terry Pratchett, the books on my list are also highly readable….and not English.  I enjoyed Adams and Pratchett, but I’ve not real desire go back and read them over and over.

Every one of the books on my list is written with (for the time they were published, at least), smooth, flowing prose, with just enough humor to keep a near-perpetual smile on your face, but without so much political commentary, farce or forced jocularity that it distracts from the narrative or the characters.

Characters You Want to Spend Time With

And it’s the characters that really make the stories work, and make these books “friends” rather than just “fun reads”.

Every book is filled with people that you want to spend time with.  Characters with problems that seem funny on the surface, but end up reminding you not to take your own problems so seriously.

Human Tales

These stories may be set in alternate or fantastic or future realities, but they all use that setting to make their tales of human interactions more timeless.  They distill human interactions to their core, and set them against a tale of adventure to give those interactions motion.

Robert Asprin makes the list twice with two different books, both of which spawned series.  Let’s start with him.

Farcical Reality with Robert Asprin

While the humor is never far away with Robert Asprin, neither are a plethora of other emotions. He regularly sets up characters to be one thing (a funny stereotype, typically), and then carefully deconstructs that funny assumption for the rest of the story.

Aahz is the big scary demon, who turns out to be a lot more supportive and nurturing than evil and devouring. Asprin carefully nuances Aahz’s personality throughout the series, and eventually, despite a narriative landscape of the absurd, you feel like he could be any of the tough-on-the outside, squishy on the inside guys you know.

The Myth series’s main protagonist Skeeveo starts out young and naieve, and although he’s not clearly a Mary Sue character at the outset, he becomes one more and more as the series progresses, holding up a harsh light to Asprin’s own struggle with alcoholism.

The parade of supporting characters, Tanada, Chumley, Gleep, Massha, Ajax, Markie – they all follow the pattern of setting up a funny stereotype (Tanada is a Trollop), and then deconstucting that stereotype by making that character a ‘real’ person.

In his Phule’s Company world, the characters are as about as farcical on the surface as can be.  You have the rich Captain Jester, who’s attempts to try and save the world are confounded by the fact that he just tries too hard. Mother, the communications expert who can’t talk in the physical presence of anyone else. Chocolate Harry, the tough rocket-biker who constantly cuts black market deals to get supplies.

Like Myth Adventures, the characters in Phule’s Company are not only carefully fleshed out into real people beneath their stereotypes, but the way that Phule works with each of them to take advantage of their talents, and to make them work as a team to overcome their “disabilities” is both funny and deeply heartwarming.

Especially for those of us who manage people or are put into leader roles, it’s like a romantic comedy of leadership.  A little silly, not real in the way an instruction book would be, but real in that you can feel how the relationship Jester has with his people connects with the relationships of people you work with.

Plus the plot has good old fashioned mystery, capers, and that delight when a dozen loose ends all tie up together in the end in a hilarious way.

Linguistic Capers with Harry Harrison

Next on the list is Harry Harrison, an author who has a pretty diverse set of works – his West of Eden series makes my “Recommended with Reservations” list.  His short story Make Room! Make Room! was the basis for the Charlton Heston classic Solyent Green. However, he is primarily known for the Stainless Steel Rat series, which is considerably lighter and funnier than his other works.

Like the other authors on this list, Harrison manages to expertly balance humor and darkness.  For example, “Slippery Jim” diGriz, the eponymous Rat, falls in love with a psychopath, and only after capturing her is she reformed with sci-fi technology so that they can be together.

While later works in the series feel a lot like a sci-fi combination of LeverageOcean’s 11 and The A-Team, the early stories paint a vivid picture of what it takes to be a criminal in the future, where technology has rendered crime obsolete.  Like anime hero “Lupin III”, Slippery Jim is a lovable thief, who uses his talents, willingly or not, for the betterment of the galaxy.

His family, including wife Angelina, and sons James and Bolivar, are solid characters, and although they never get expanded into really deep characters, they are fond friends to readers especially upon repeated readings.

The relationships, capers, and the humor stand up well to repeated readings, and that’s is quite a feat.

Finally, Harrison inspired me in my college years to learn Esperanto, which is used heavily throughout the SSR books.  Learning Esperanto, like all the linguistic things I did in college, expanded my appreciation of language and communication, and set me up to be able to learn both real and computer languages in a way that learning “traditional” languages would not have.

Spider Robinson’s Utopian Drunks and Whores

If you are sensing a theme here, it’s that these are all sci-fantasy books that concentrate more on what people are like in the future or an alternate reality than what technology or the world is like.  Spider Robinson is no exception.

Following in the footsteps of Heinlein, Robinson wonders what kind of world it would take to really let people get along.  His answer is twofold – a bar, and a brothel.  His main Callahan’s series focuses on the bar, while his side works, Callahan’s Lady and Lady Slings the Booze focus on the brothel.

The conceit of the stories is that Mike Callahan and his wife Lady Sally are aliens, who chose to spend their time on earth running a bar and brothel, respectively.  It sounds a bit cheesy, and it is, but in the end, it just feels sweet.

It’s hard to argue with the idea that those two places might be the settings for a pair of fantastic urban utopia – they are certainly the places that many people go to seek out happiness.  While the bar stories are good, and a little closer perhaps to “hard” sci-fi, it’s the brothel stories that really captured my imagination, and keep me reading them over and over.

They are sweetly sexy, sure, but they also create a world where needs get met, and not just sexual ones.  And the characters are delightful.  The working girls, the boy-maid, and Lady Sally herself are people you know in prostitute form.  You want to hang out in Lady Sally’s parlor, even just to swap puns with the priest.  Ah, that’s a good point – Robinson is a master punster, so if such things offend, best read elsewhere. 🙂

The books are both collections of short tales; but they read more like a season of a TV show rather than a short story collection.  The stories build and influence each other, and allow a greater variety of interactions than a time-boxed narrative would.

I think Lady Slings the Booze is the better book, but you really need to read Callahan’s Lady to get the background (and it’s also very good).

Laumer’s Satirical Knight

Keith Laumer was a U.S. Ambassador before he was a sci-fi novelist, and he doesn’t shy away from telling his “horror” stories of the diplomatic corps thinly disguised as fantastic tales.

While all the Retief novels and stories are good, his “origin story” Diplomat-At-Arms, which was published in Issac Asimov’s Cosmic Knights collection is one of those stories that just makes you giggle and dance and read it over and over.

Jaime Retief is a superhero; a diplomat who has no problem scrapping with the bad guys all over the galaxy. And while his larger-than-lifeness could get silly after a while, the fact that he has to deal with his meddling and incompetent boss constantly balances him nicely.

He feels like the Indiana Jones of diplomacy; equally at home at the negotiation table as well as leading revolutionaries to conduct a coup – especially while his boss is trying to negotiate a peace between the government and revolutionaries.

Laumer is a master, like all the authors on this list, of telling a simple human story, set in a fantastic world with heroes that struggle to do the simplest things; but manage the impossible with ease.  As some of the older works on this list, the Retief novels age a bit roughly from their early 70’s-80’s perspective, but any student of history finds this more spice than anything else.

So there you go!  Six books (actually a lot more than that, since all of these are series as well) that you should get to know!  May they become your friends too!

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 ), 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. 🙂 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 – I 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

Sep 08

A few of my favorite things…Books!

I love recommending books to people.  Unlike films, unless there is a HUGE buzz around a book, it can be hard to really get a feel for what’s out there.

Many of my favorite books were recommended to me by friends and loved ones, so it’s only fair to share the love!

I’ve broken the lists out into “recommended”, and “recommended with reservations”, in the style of the fabulous Cook’s Illustrated (another favorite thing).

Usually, the “Reservations” are because the book is incredible, but has some component that might offend a big enough chunk of people out there that it’s worth giving you a head’s up before you grab it.  Sometimes, the “Reservations” are because there is something incredible in the book, even though it might have other serious drawbacks.

Without further ado:


1. Myth Adventures by Robert Asprin

2. The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison

4. Lady Slings the Booze, by Spider Robinson

5. Diplomat-At-Arms, by Keith Laumer

6. Phule’s Company by Robert Asprin

7. Hellspark by Janet Kagan

8. The Eight by Katherine Neville

9. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

10. Quarter Share, by Nathan Lowell

11. Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

12. Soulless, by Gail Carriger

Recommended with Reservations

1. Inherit the Stars, by James P. Hogan

2. Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey

3. The True Game, by Sherri S. Tepper

4. West of Eden, by Harry Harrison

5. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

6. Time Enough for Love, Robert A. Heinlein

7. Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher

8. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffery

Bonus! Guilty Pleasures

1. Sahara, by Clive Cussler

2. Killing Floor, by Lee Child

3. Created, the Destroyer, by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir

4. The Man Who Never Missed, by Steve Perry

5. Pawn of Prophecy, by David Eddings

6. Darkwalker on Moonshae, by Douglas Niles

7. Suite Scarlett, by Maureen Johnson

8. Castle Roogna, by Piers Anthony

9. Key of Light, by Nora Roberts

Bonus Bonus!  Technical Books

1. The Complete HyperCard Handbook, by Danny Goodman

2. Oracle: The Complete Reference, by George Koch and Kevin Loney

3. The Pragmatic Programmer, by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas

4. Coders at Work, by Peter Seibel

5. Thinking in Java, by Bruce Eckel

Short Stories

1. Diplomat-At-Arms, by Keith Laumer

2. Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry

3. Prostho Plus, by Piers Anthony

Scarred for Life Books

1. Anthonology, by Piers Anthony

2. Wizard’s First Rule, by Terry Goodkind

3. Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror, edited by Paul F. Sammon

Jul 21

Pacesetter Games – Chill, TimeMaster, Star Ace, Still Available

FYI, all the Pacesetter games, including the
original Chill, and Star Ace (which was mentioned in a recent Fear the Boot episode) are
available for inexpensive PDF purchase via these days. You
can purchase the box sets from .

They had another product called Time Master, which, like Chill, did a
really good job of capturing the particular genre it was aiming for.
(Time travel agency fighting bad guys who were trying to corrupt

No one will disagree that Star Ace was by far their worst product…

Jul 20

Favorite “B” Movies

1) “Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter”. Starring Horst Janson and the
delicious Caroline Munro. An enjoyable “medieval” “B” vampire

2) “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad”. Starring Tom Baker and the delicious Carline Munro. Yes, Doctor Who as an evil Arab Prince.

3) “The Gamers”, by “The Dead Gentlemen” – if nothing else, for the “I steal his pants!” scene.

4) “Kull the Conqueror” with Kevin Sorbo. Not a good film if you
treat it as mainstream cinema, but lots of fun as a “B” movie, for
Harvey Firestein if nothing else.

5) Flash Gordon (1980).  I’m a sucker for a Queen soundtrack.

6) The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001). It’s a homage to the B movie genre, and deliciously done. Extremely entertaining, as are the rest of the films from Larry Blamire.

What else do people like?


P.S. Captain Kronos quotes:

Carla: “I’m staying… if you’ll have me.”

Kronos: “Oh, I’ll have you.”

Dr. Marcus: “I know you’ve got guts, Kronos. I’ve seen them.”

Jul 20

Shadowmagic Review

I originally posted this review in 2007 elsewhere, but I need to get the word out here as well!

Just back from a week’s vacation . During the drive from here to
Santa Fe and back, we listened to a podcast novel by John Lenahan,
called “Shadowmagic”, which is available for free via iTunes, and

Originally written to read to his son, Shadowmagic is a light,
funny, and touching story of Irish mythology, prophecy, and teenage

To say that the story is addictive would be an serious
understatement. Each chapter is a separate audio file, and Lenahan is a
master of the cliffhanger. Not since early Doctor Who have I been so
interested to see what happens in the next chapter of a serial.

I would compare it quite favorably with Princess Bride, although it is less a love story and more a coming-of-age story.

This is not a dark, evil, story of torture, horror, or blood and
guts. No one gets lead poured down their throat (I’m looking at you
Terry Goodkind). This is a tale of melodrama, fun, and just plain good

Lenahan is a stage magician and comedian, and his stunning ability
read his story (which is in the first person) is one of the main
reasons I recommend this audiobook so highly.

Much of the mythological elements of this tale are taken directly
from Irish mythology, so little of what you hear in that vein will be
shockingly new, but it’s told in a passionate, rollicking way that puts
a new shine on old favorite themes.

Anyway, I just enjoyed it so much I had to share!

Jul 20

Double Share!

If you like audio books, then I can’t help but recommend Nathan Lowell’s fantabuolous free series over on (also available for free via iTunes).

The “Golden Age of the Solar Clipper” stories, Quarter Share, Half Share, Full Share, and the just-released Double Share, chronicle the story of young Ishmael Wang, who chooses a life of sailing the stars by necessity and finds he has quite a knack for it.

He ends up joining the equivalent of the spacefaring merchant
marine, and his adventures trading and learning about life outside of
the sheltered university enclave in which he grew up are a delightful
exploration of economics, personal relationships, learning, and what
being competent really means.

The stories are interesting, poignant, and sweet.  There is very little “action”, no fights, battles, laser swords, or aliens.

The stories are about people, and how they adapt to new situations and how certain, special people can impact the lives of a lot of others.

Much like the Heinlein and Spider Robinson stories that use Science Fiction as a tool to highlight the foibles of humanity, Lowell’s stories are set in the far future, but could really take place just about anywhere.

Lowell’s exploration of co-ed spacefarers to be in the legacy of
authors who explore not only the future of technology, but the future
of human relationships.

That said, Lowell’s sci-fi setting is far from a blase backdrop.  Lowell smartly focuses on the microcosm of a single ship for the first three stories, letting us understand the world piece by piece and the ship travels from world to world.  It’s fascinating to learn about the economics of trade and stocks through the eyes of a spacefarer.  I suspect we’ll learn more about the world in the novels to come.

There is a spin off story as well, called South Coast.  This is a different story – and not really part of the “Share” series, although it is set in the same general mileu, and expands on one of the events from the “main” series.  It’s a good story as well, although I found that it took several episodes for me to really get in to it.  It is worth it in the end, though.

I will say that the stories are not for children…I think that the subject matter would both not catch their interest, and is a little racy in parts for most children.  I think a teen might enjoy them, however.

So if you have a long drive coming up (or even just a week of commuting), I highly recommend Nathan Lowell’s work, and I hope to see him at the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention being held here in Denver!

Jun 30

Wood Project Finishing Steps

Someone recently asked me how I finish my woodworking projects.  I wrote down the steps to share with all!  This isn’t the best process for every piece, but it works for an awful lot of them.

1) Sand your piece.  A lot.  No, more than that.  Sand it
again.  Down to at least 220 by hand, or even finer with a random orbit sander
(I have a DeWalt one that was like $80 at Home Depot).
2) Dust off your piece with the compressor’s air gun – blow
open all the pores.
3) Move your piece to a dust-free area. (This is key – my friend tried to finish her piece while her husband was using the router 10′ away).
4) Go over the surface with a tack cloth to remove any
remaining dust.
5) Apply a coat of Seal-A-Cell to seal the grain, or a
stain if you are staining.  If it’s pourous wood like pine or poplar, then apply
a pre-stain-conditioner first.  Apply with an old white t-shirt or sock.  The
chemicals can leach the colors out of colored rags.
6) Let dry fully (read product directions for
7) Sand surface lightly with synthetic steel wool pads to
knock the shine off and add some tooth to the finish, so the next layer will
8) Apply 2-3 coats of Arm-R-Seal Topcoat, letting dry
completely and sanding lightly with the artificial wool pads between each coat.
What I do is put the rag into a zip-lock between coats so I don’t have to use a
new rag every time.  Obviously, don’t mix rags between
9) If you want a gloss finish in the end, do the first 2-3
coats with satin (since it sands easier) and only the final coat with
Good luck!