Category Archives: Gear

Open Source MIDI Controller Under CC

A new open source USB-MIDI controller called the aurora mixer looks really nice. The creators are trying to figure out how many to make and how much to sell the assembled version of it so if you think you might be interested definitely give them a ping.

If you think you might have it in you to build your own then you’re in luck because according to CDM the whole project is licensed under Creative Commons — although that isn’t mentioned anywhere on the aurora site and, well, there’s no mention anywhere as to which license we are talking about it. The other weird note is CDM’s comment that GPL is more “liberal” than CC and therefore we are seeing more CC licenses come up in the music industry. My guess is that it will take somewhere between 10 years and never for the public to figure out that CC is a hardly a single license but a family of licenses with a very, very wide range of (un)reserved rights.

iPod? Zune? Bah! Cell Phone!

I don’t see myself as a gadget guy. People confuse me for one because I work on software but that’s like saying people who grow tomatoes automatically make great chefs. I’m also far beyond needing to be up on the latest thingamabob in order to attract partners for mating or other evolutionary needs. Just because everyone else on the BART car looks like they have dental floss sticking out of each ear does not automatically mean I have to run out and get the latest Apple branded device.

But I am, to my own shock and amazement, totally in love with my new cell phone because for an extra $20 (roughly) it came equipped with about 1G of hard disk space for playing music. The image on the right is actual size of the adapter which is postage stamp size and fits into a slot on my desktop and looks like just like any other disk drive. The small nub at the bottom is where the storage actually is and goes into the phone and is literally smaller than my finger nail. With the adapter loaded into my PC, all I have to do is drop music (er, .wma format only as far as I can tell — I don’t even want to know why) into the MY_MUSIC folder and my phone is a perfectly good music player.

The biggest drag so far is that because it is a cell phone I can’t use during flights — at least I think so. On a flight two days ago the flight attendant said something about putting your phone into ‘flight safe’ mode. Don’t have a clue what that is but I’ll investigate before I fly again just to make sure.

Still the phone seems to work fantastic. I downloaded the entire CDK catalog the other day and listened gleefully during the several hours of delays at airports. Worked flawlessly. (I’m not going to mention the brand name of the phone because I do not want the Google traffic. Follow the link above for the brand.)

I used to be very curmudgeonly when they put cameras into cell phones. But all of a sudden, with a digital camera, video camera, music player, gps (well, sort of), messaging and email (well, kinda) it’s obvious the camera bit was just a first step into a progression to make these “phones” into truly useful all-in-one consumer devices. (Salesman demonstrated how you could display the photos in my phone simply by walking next to a digital picture frame.) I suspect that just like we still use the verb “dial” to punch in phone numbers we will continue to use the noun “cell phone” long after a huge range of features will become ubiquitous in these thingamabobs.

My Guitar Rig

In case you care and haven’t been following closely, in response to the latest request here is my current guitar rig:

  • Custom Shop Strat
  • I use a Digitech 2112 basically as a tube preamp and some of the analog (but rarely digital) effects.
  • Fender Blues Jr. Amp that I don’t crank nearly as loud as I really should because I’m a chicken about drowning out the lovely Hare Krishna temple guys next door. (This is Berkeley.)

The part about the hippie girl quilt was meant to be, you know, JK.

Personally I don’t think I’m getting a good sound, that is, the sound that it’s my head which primarily a cross between Steve Cropper, Leo Nocentelli and Jeff Beck’s quieter moment (few as they are).

Dual Core 2 Duo DAW

I don’t like computers. I like the idea of them well enough, just not the actual boxes. Meanwhile I don’t even like the idea of shopping, even for things I like. Not online, not in stores, not in a box, not with a fox, not here or there, not anywhere. However, when I screwed the pooch on my last working machine I was forced to get out there and get something.

Now some other background fun facts based on buying/building DAWs for nearly 20 years:

As an over arching philosophy of hardware and software: forget about what should work. Just give it up. I am completely burned out on technicians, engineers, support staff and sales people telling me what combination of the hardware and software should work. Either sound comes out of the speakers or it doesn’t. Either I can use my hosts and plugins or it blue screens my system. No other industry I know of promises so much and gets away with so little so my work around has been to accept that I will get overcharged for basic, if uneven, performance. To adopt a common axiom in every other walk of life:

If it sounds like it “should just work”, it’s probably too good to be true.

Or put another way: Buying cheap gets you cheap. In the old days I used to go (or dispatch others) to swap meets to pick up parts and build PCs. In those days an off-the-shelf PC was completely out of the question for a DAW, even a MIDI-only box (recording audio was pretty much out of the question, even after you souped up a PC). Opening up a box to replace the hard drive, put in a sound card, adjust jumpers on the MIDI card, etc. were going to happen anyway so you might as well build the whole box.

Then the Internet happened and, even though it was slightly more expensive, the advent of bare-bones systems that would be built for you and shipped to your house.

Here’s why I stopped all that that about 10 years ago:

– Even though I was building my own boxes and trying to move components like hard disks and sound cards forward to save money, I almost always had to replace those components anyway with the new box because of compatibility issues (e.g. bus size).

– These machines were louder than a drier full of sneakers.

– They only worked about 50% of time. Sometimes they never booted up from the box, sometimes they lasted a few months before I had to reformat every week or so to recover from crazy errors.

– About 10 years ago off-the-shelf brand computers started showing almost enough muscle to be DAWs.

Here’s what’s left of all the arguments NOT to buy an off the shelf brand name computer for a DAW:

– You will probably spend $300-$400 more, probably for features you will never use
– You have to spend a day uninstalling all their “partner” software,

Now that I have external USB hard drives and USB sound devices I haven’t opened up a PC in almost 10 years.

I just bought what amounts to one of these at Fry’s mainly because it was the baddest machine they had. The version I have is a Dual Core 2 Duo with something called an Intel “Viv” chip. Don’t have a clue what that is. This was not the best informed decision I’ve ever made, I have a nagging feeling that if I had more time to research it and wasn’t desperate to get back up and running I might have ended up with a similar dual-boot Intel based Mac, maybe for about the same money. Or maybe not. I wanted to experiment for once: I wanted to see if part of the problem I’ve had is being too cheap for my music’s own good.

Here’s what I do know: Ableton Live 6 was designed to work with dual core in mind and for the first time in my life every I have zero latency on MIDI or live guitar recordings. I pummel the thing with high powered, CPU hungry plugins, then I run Reason in ReWire mode with it’s own full rack of instruments and FX and I can’t the CPU meter above 7%.

I load FL Studio with a project that I had to split up because my old machine was freezing when I hit ‘play’. On my new DAW I add half a dozen of the heaviest FX I have and the CPU tops out at 22%.

There are several variables including an empty hard disk and twice as much RAM as my last machine that could easily account for this. Still, the fact that there are 2 CPU cores, both running dual mode have to be making a difference.

I’ve heard people give mixed reviews of Dual Core systems so I’m sure having 2gig of RAM has to be a huge factor. Either way, I’m impressed with the performance and have run out of excuses for using brand name computers for DAWs.

How Not to Travel with Gear

Having been sufficiently freaked by the prospect of making travelling through airports even harder than it has been I figured I would mitigate the latest security line woes by simply not carrying anything on to airplanes. This would take the pressure off at the security check and make it completely arbitrary when I got on the plane — in other words, I wouldn’t have to stand in line at the gate. I could wait until everyone got on, then mosey on and take my seat. Extra time waiting for checked bags? Whatever.

This was especially important because I had to fly off in a hurry to a funeral then home, then quickly turn around and fly off to the yearly Thanksgiving family dinner.

I wrapped my cell phone in fluffy tube socks and my laptop in cushy sweats and off we go.

The only scary thing on the first trip was that my bag and I got separated during a connection. The woman behind the terminal counter: “you can either wait 3-4 hours to make the connection or you can get on a flight leaving now but without your bags, they will arrive a half hour after you.” I rolled the dice but everything turned out OK.

It was the Thanksgiving trip where things went completely kablooey. This time my bag simply never got on the plane from the start. After a 45 min wait watching the carousel go around and my flight number fall off the display it turns out about a dozen of us had our bags just left behind. The suitcase was delivered to my house the next morning but the cell phone’s screen was cracked and my laptop completely refused to recognize the AC connection. I’d been thinking about an upgrade on the six year old computer but I hadn’t counted on having the decision made for me in such a way.

Who do I blame? Me. 100%. I was trying to “out-clever” the system in a half-assed way by not having proper travelling cases for the electronic gear. The good news is that I have 1GB of ram for pics, movies, mp3’s and that’s just the new phone (how long do we call those things ‘phones’?). I’ll be reporting later on the new PC I got but only after I can get the ‘sucker’ imprint off my forehead that I discovered in the rear view mirror after I left the store.

My New Therapy: A New Shiny Martin

A few years ago I quit my day job with hopes of realizing my life long dream of becoming proficient at improvisational be-bop jazz guitar. I consider this form of music to be the highest achieved by mankind and I looked at myself (romantically) as not being a complete musician until I could converse at a competent level in that art form.

About four months into heavy practicing and lessons (the first I had taken in nearly 20 years) I was loose and limber. My ears were in the best shape they had ever been and my fingers were reacting with a nimble touch I had only dreamed about. In a word, I was swinging.

Then it happened: my hands blew out.

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“my ableton live method for improv jungle”

Buried in my logs I found a referral from a very good example of using Ableton for exactly what it was intended for over at

If you’re wondering what a uc-33 is, it’s the thing in my lame picture.

In fact, if you’re wondering what any specific reference is just ask, this is the setup most of us arrive at eventually but with this kind of expose you can get there a whole lot faster.

New Love: Event Precision 6 Monitors

I finally upgraded my monitors from a consumer stereo system to a real pro system: Event’s Percision 6 monitors. They are pretty expensive (here for $1,000) but Guitar Center is running a 2-year zero interest payment plan and I got over $100 off because I took the floor models. $37.50 a month means I grind a lot more of my own coffee.

I listened to 3 other sets of speakers in the store and they were OK… then we turned on the Events. Fuggetaboutit. You could pitch a tent on my reaction.

They definitely overwhelm my domestic recording space but it’s pretty amazing to actually hear everything. (Here are some reviews of the P8′s, basically the same thing but even louder.)

One completely weird thing: I got them plugged into the monitor outputs of my M-Audio OmniStudio and when I shut them off (they are self-powered) Windows thinks I’ve switched audio devices. I’ll repeat that because it’s that weird: When my speakers, which are attached to the back of my sound unit, get turned off, the OS gets confused about the sound unit. I’ve crashed several remixing hosts and media players simply because I wanted to switch to headphones. Luckily the OmniStudio is USB so I just have to remember to physically disconnect that from the PC, wait a few second then reconnect it.

Pro Tools for M-Audio

With the recent purchase of M-Audio, AVID, a well known presence in the TV production and best known in the audio world for the Digidesign line of Pro Tools turnkey systems, has released a line of ProTools software called M-Powered aimed directly as some of the most popular M-Audio interfaces. A master compatibility chart is here and the M-Powered specific compatibility chart for OSX/XP is here. The street price for the software seems to be hovering around $300.

Why do we care?

I don’t have the facts and figures but it is safe to assume that not a lot of professional recording studios have Fruity Loops. Almost every one has a ProTools system.
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Every Connection Conversion Ever

I decided to take a shot and see if I could find a S/PDIF to USB converter to run my crusty DG Stomp box directly into my audio interface. I really didn’t hold out much hope until I tripped over this link. Damn. I’m kind of out of excuses. (Lame registration required if you want to see the results — I entered all phony stuff and it worked.)