Archive for September, 2012

an audience video from toronto!

I’m in Vancouver, at VCON! Or will be by the time this schedule post goes live. XD Here, have some toys while I’m gone:

ONE: The Mighty If! shot this and was kind enough to let me repost it. If you’ve ever had terrible, terrible, terrible housemates – as so many of you have, and I have too? Well, then, this song is dedicated to you:

TWO: This is a working radio built in the form of a map of the London Underground. There’s a video at the article; play it, it’s worthwhile.

THREE: One million-millionth of a second exposures. That is, yes, 1,000,000,000,000 frames per second. Watch light pulse through a bottle, and observe the shockwaves. It is utterly astounding:

Have a great weekend, everybody!

studio buildout part 6: your computer and digital audio workstation

We’re heading up to Vancouver tomorrow for VCON! We’ll be there for the weekend, hitting Chapters and Siegel’s Bagels and picking up some desperately-overdue cider rations and kicking around town. Mmm, Growers, how I miss thee. If you’re around, yell!

Also, there’s an exciting special event coming up here next week; you’ll want to read about it. More on that below the fold.

Right now, let’s talk Digital Audio Workstations.

First, what are they? Simply put, Digital Audio Workstations are software implementations of the physical hardware you’d use in a large recording studio to record your music. They include virtual mixing board, virtual patchboard, virtual tape recorder, virtual cables, virtual effects plug-ins, virtual equalisation – and depending on the package, even more.

The goal is simple. If you can do it on one of these:

I’ll be in my bunk

…then you should be able to do it in your digital audio workstation (or DAW) software.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as basic recording. Were it, you could get a little digital recorder and be done. What that giant hunk of hardware – or your software DAW – gives you is the ability to record several tracks of sound, separately or all at once.

A DAW lets you play those tracks mixed together in a synchronised fashion, move and edit your recorded sounds, adjust their levels (both relative to each other and in absolute terms), adjust equalisation, add effects such as reverb or distortion or overdrive or whatever you have plugins for, and so on.

Some DAWs include integrated MIDI support; some include sequencers as a core component. Some even support remote boards that give you all those sliders and knobs, so you don’t have to use the mouse or keyboard so much. Those are cool, and easier to use in some important ways, if less portable.

But at the most basic level, you have recording, editing, mixing, and playback. At the most basic level, you have GarageBand.

I will not be in my bunk.

Now, I’m not mocking GarageBand. GarageBand is a great introduction to concept, and surprisingly capable. It makes a whole bunch of tasks really easy, has integrated MIDI support, and includes a bunch of virtual MIDI instruments.

While from a features standpoint it’s pretty limited, and while it handles tracks in a way that implies they’re less generic than they are by naming them after instruments and making them sticky in weird ways which might confuse you later, it’s still a great first experience.

If you just want to get the idea with GarageBand before tackling something more complex? Go right ahead. Because I am not going to lie to you: the learning curve on the more advanced DAWs can be brutal. Particularly on the free/open source ones.

So, what’s out there? Well, if you have the money, and a Mac, I hear great things about Logic Pro. For both Mac and PC you have Pro Tools, which is called an industry standard because it is one. Pro Tools Express is free with some hardware purchases – but it’s also limited enough that I wouldn’t use it myself. Reaper, for Mac and Windows, has fans in the professional community. (And as Tom Smith noted last week, IK Software is having a big sale right now. This is relevant to your interests.)

But we’re about dirtball DIY. Let’s talk building your own kit, and doing it the cheapest way.

There are really two topics here: hardware and software. We’re already talking software, so let’s carry on.

The cheapest route, in dollar terms, is always open source. Linux is free software. You may have to be able to do a lot of internals work – no, that’s not fair; you’d better be ready to rip its guts out – but you can do it.

Afraid? You will be. You will. be.

Audacity is a relatively-simple open-source DAW. It runs on Windows, OS X, Linux, and some Unix OSes, not that you’re likely to run into those. It’s easier to set up and it works. I ran into its limitations in the first hour, but that’s because I already had aggressive goals; it’s the GarageBand of the open source world.

Ardour is my workhorse, and it is a monster. It runs atop specialised sound server software called JACK, and runs on OS X and Linux. If you run it on Linux, you’ll have to grab PulseAudio by the throat, slice off its head, and salt the ground on which it dies. This will not be easy in some Linux variants (Ubuntu, I’m glaring hatefully in your direction) but it must be done. Ardour is monstrously frustrating (at times), is possibly the most difficult to learn software I’ve ever used outside of 3D modelling…

…and it can do anything. But it will make you cry getting there.

MusE has a fair bit of traction in electronica, because it’s really a sequencer. But it also has DAW capabilities, and the stated intent is to expand into the DAW arena. It’s Linux-only. If you anticipate a lot of sequencer use, and have relatively light physical instrument requirements, give it a look.

Rosegarden started out as MIDI and composition software, and that’s still where its heart is. But, as with MusE, it’s headed into DAW territory and added at least some of the basics of the functionality. If you like sheet music composition and MIDI, you may want Rosegarden.

So, what about the hardware? I’ll approach this from the idea that you’re building a new box for this, or upgrading an old one substantially. If you’re not, well, skim this anyway.

Screw you, Best Buy

Here are things not to care about: what the case looks like. How cool anything on the motherboard sounds. (We already talked about external sound interfaces; if you skipped it, go read up.) The graphics card. You’re not doing video: you do not care.

What you do care about: fan noise. Bus throughput, on the hard drive side and on the USB chain side. (I’m assuming you’re on USB and not FireWire or Thunderbolt, mostly because that’s where we are in the technology curve right now.) Raw CPU power. Lots and lots of RAM. If you want to spend some money, throwing some dosh at an SSD drive is not misallocated funds.

Basically, you want to build a lean box dedicated to math – because math drives your virtual effects – and moving audio data around, and nothing else. Every other toy, every other frob, adds interrupts and takes CPU and bus time away from what you’re doing with audio. Rip that shit out.

One particular task you’ll want to figure out is probing your USB bus for onboard devices. A lot of motherboards will share device assignments between on-motherboard equipment and external USB ports. This is technically correct – the best kind of correct – but in high-demand applications results in more interrupts on the bus and slower throughput. This can and in my case did result in higher latency and buffer overruns. Find and use ports which are unshared for your external audio card.

Also, for Linux in particular, you may find that wireless internet will be a problem. It’ll work, but will interoperate badly with your realtime kernel, hammering you with interrupts and popping you out of realtime mode.

Some people ditch networking entirely. If that’s not okay, go wired. If you must go wireless, get an external wireless bridge and connect it via ethernet cable to your wired (and realtime-kernel-compliant) ethernet card. This will solve many weird network problems.

But I said we’d talk about hardware, dammit! So okay! Where do you get performance hardware for cheap?

Well, you shop around, of course. Check your local parts stores, but the cheapest route I’ve found is to get a copy of CPU magazine’s motherboard roundup issue – preferably the last couple of years’ worth – and to go the gaming kit-out sites.

Yes, I know, I just talked about case mods and all that: don’t care. You don’t go for the frills: you go there for the motherboard clearance sales, because last year’s gaming l33tness is this year’s dogshit, as far as they’re concerned, and they just want it gone.

As a result – the fire-breathing motherboard inside my DAW? 75% off retail. The CPU, 60% off. The RAM, sadly, not as much, but still: bargains are to be had, and I had them.

When browsing, though, choose wisely! Look over the supported hardware list for your operating system and DAW and follow them. The last thing you want to be doing is tracking down some obscure kernel bug and finding that it’s only fixed in a downstream revision your distribution doesn’t even support yet, so you end up installing a custom kernel configuration and doing haxx0r insanity, not that I know anything about that.

Fuck yeah, meme baby. Fuck yeah.

And that’s an overview! Believe it or not, that is an overview; there are an endless series of twisty passages you can run down on this topic, all alike. I’d browse a little, pick one, and dive in.

If you’ve already built a DAW, what do you use, and why? What problems did you hit that I haven’t covered? Is anybody out there using Thunderbolt yet? Share your experiences!

Finally, I teased an announcement up top. It’s super awesome. Get this:

NEXT WEEK, we have a special event! We’ll be kicking off a series of monthly guest DIY posts with one from JEFF BOHNHOFF.

You may know Jeff and Maya Bohnhoff from their YouTube hit, Midichlorian Rhapsody, or some of their many albums and awards. Jeff and Maya also built Mystic Fig Studios, and Jeff has engineered and recorded literally dozens of albums in his 30-year musical career.

And next week, Jeff will be stopping by here, to talk about DIY sound control in your home studio. We’re thrilled to have him, and YOU WILL WANT TO READ THIS, if you have any DIY recording interest at all.

Until then – see you in Vancouver!


This post is part of The DIY Studio Buildout Series, on building out a home recording studio.

facebook destroys everything

I want to talk a little bit about Facebook. Facebook, the all-encompassing. Facebook, the omnipotent, the omnipresent, the ever-more-integrated. Facebook, the would-be identity validator for the Internet.

Facebook, the Destroyer of Worlds.

I have problems with Facebook. Not just its censorious ways (which aren’t new), tho’ I’m obviously more than unfond. What I have issues with is how it more and more completely replicates the old Real World from which the net used to be an escape.

No, I don’t mean seeing all those lame old “office humour” graphics start to float down my news stream, tho’ gods know that by itself is enough to burn down the server farm and start over.

I’ll be right back! With a rifle!

I also don’t mean the echo chamber aspects, or the preference for soundbite and short form over longer posts, and I don’t even mean the way that they seem to want to replicate CompuServe of the early 1980s – a closed box that you never leave but that you visit first.1

No. I mean the way Facebook strives diligently to replicate the old corporate-dominant communications structure.

Think about it a bit. Whether you think of it this way or not, Facebook is a fakenet. It claims to be about people being able to communicate with other people in ways they never could before. That’s even in its letter to investors and prospectus; they don’t care about the business model, they claim, they care about the technology and the project.

And yet, it has invented nothing in this regard.

No; that’s unfair. They have. There’s something about it that older, pre-net people understand. They can and do use it, when Livejournal and Tumblr and even Twitter are beyond them. I don’t know how or why, but this is an achievement.

Okay, that part’s pretty cool. HI MOM!2

That’s been a big deal for Facebook, because it lets them reach that older, pre-net market that has a pretty good amount of dosh3. And, more importantly, that pre-net market which is still invested in the old, pre-net world.

And most importantly of all, it brings in those who respond when Facebook actively suppresses content users want in favour of paid content from corporate/moneyed backers.

Why does Facebook have pages? So you can subscribe to them and see what their owners post? No. So you can subscribe to them, they can know what you like for better advertising, and so they can force page owners to pay up in order to let more than 30% or so of those subscribers actually see those page posts.

If you have the dosh, you can do that – and also place ads. Lots of companies do, after all. If you don’t? If you’re small, if you’re indie, if you’re new? Well, screw you, moocher.

Also your eyes

It’s the same old corporatist communications paradigm, now brought online more successfully than anywhere else on the net. Moneyed speech counts more than any other speech, even if you look for one and not the other.

The indie, the new, the not-moneyed, that’s what you want to see? Well, we’ll let you see about 30% of it. That’s the loss-leader. The rest, we’ll substitute in what we want you to see – which is to say, what we’re paid to make sure you see.

Facebook favours the established over the new, the large over the small, the moneyed over the startup, through suppression and replacement. It is, in short, the direct opposite of the free-and-open peer-to-peer ethos of the Internet. It is everything wrong with the old world, wodged into your web browser. It is the old paradigm, reborn.

And the importance of being able to sell you with confidence? Well, that’s why they’re starting to do things like this:

Don’t suspect your neighbour; report them!

So, yeah. Facebook. I have issues with it. Go fig.

1: I know, I know, not all of you do that. But I have stats. A good post will draw 450ish readers. If even one of those reads comes in from Facebook, it’ll be unusual. My blog post read rate is literally <0.1% from there.

2: Actual mom not included.

3: By which I of course mean, sigh, Baby Boomers. And also the lagging edge of Generation X, or some of it.

i really am sorry guys

This week is just not working out for a DIY post. Instead of tossing out a sloppy, short post about digital audio workstations, I’m going to punt it back for a week in order to do it right. We’ll talk about digital audio workstation software next Wednesday, when I’ll hopefully be back on schedule.

But if you’re really jonsing for something fun to build, below is a great video series on building a really attractive crystal radio. It’s AM only, of course, as they all are, but there’s no power required and you really are building your own equipment from the ground up. You’re even building your own variable capacitor, the prettiest one I’ve seen in a crystal radio build:

It’s broken up into 12 short video chunks for some reason. Part 1 is all background, you can skip that if you want and just start here on Part 2, about two minutes in. But if you start that late you’ll miss them showing off a different classic crystal radio design.

uh… yeah, it’s all in Japanese. Is that a problem? That might be a problem. If it is, here’s a slightly different design that’s entirely in English. It’s not as pretty, but there’s a parts list, and! you still get to build a capacitor! By hand! Which is awesome.

This one’s not as attractive looking as the kit above, though, so maybe you should steal the physical design from the Japanese video. You could totally make the radio below look a lot like the radio above without much or any Japanese; once you know the circuit it’s all pretty simple and just a matter of arrangement, crafting, and specific materials. (Copper vs. aluminium, things like that.)

Anyway, once more, with English:

Have fun!

special for talk like a pirate day

I forgot all about Talk Like a Pirate Day! What a fool I am.

So for the next 24 hours, Cracksman Betty is a name-your-price download, including zero if that’s how you roll. That’s not 128k mp3 bullshit, that’s whatever format you like. Click here to listen and download!

The album has privateer songs, pirate songs, software pirate songs – we have songs of the run-running pirates of the land, we got pirates on leave rippin’ up shit in port.

24 hours only. Thursday noon it goes back up, so move quick!

and in the end

The last day in St. John’s didn’t involve any playing at all, in the end – tho’ I did have a couple of people come up to me saying they loved that pirate song I did on Friday. 😀 This last day was nothing but soaking in the sun and hanging out at festival. PREPARE FOR PICSPAM!

Yet another sunny day on the tropical island of Newfoundland

Morning! We went to the Francophone tent. It was fun! Note the bouzouki. I always have to explain what the instrument I play is, in Cascadia, and even moreso in the States. Here? Yeah, they play that. <3

Even the Francophone tent!

Then we went to lunch, and caught some of the buskers at the Busker Festival also going on that weekend. Did I mention these people like their performing arts? This guy was hilarious:

On spikes. Not quite on fire. But on spikes.

We made it back up to the festival, and basically just kept it relaxed and groovy, because it was the end of the tour, and because the festival was just awesome, and we knew we were going to be there until close.

The Raw Bar Collective

I resisted the urge to add, “and Spinal Tap.” Barely.

When we went off site for dinner, we walked down to George Street, like y’do, and picked a place that looked good, like y’do, and one of the Irish Descendants popped in to do a set.

Yeah, like they do. Just like that, why not? It’s George Street.

Then into the our last evening before flying back! I gotta tell you, not without reservations, because I really didn’t want it to be over. At least I’d already bought THE BEST T-SHIRT EVER:

Disagree? You’re wrong. Sorry.

We saw The Once, who are an up-and-coming deal, and who – in rehearsal… played the zouk just a little like I do. Which is a first, frankly. Not identically, but I was very much in a “…I have to hear this” mood after that. Sadly, the song they were doing in rehearsal and sound check they did not do in their evening set. Dammit!

Still good tho’

And as the last official act of the night, Darrell Power’s band The Seven Deadly Sons! Featuring Young Bill Gates on drums.

Am I wrong? No. I am not wrong.

We were really interested in seeing them, since part of the point of Darrell leaving Great Big Sea was that he simply didn’t want to tour anymore. So his new band doesn’t! Not as a group, not outside the Atlantics, anyway.

Fifty Shades of Green

And everything was awesome and fun and stuff, and we were in that sleepy kind of good mood where you’re totally wiped out but in a good way, and then I heard Darrell start to say something about how he’d done something the night before he hadn’t done in ten years, and something about the way he said it made me go, “…no fucking way.”

And I wormed my way as close to stage as I could just in time for the other three founding members of Great Big Sea to walk on stage and do a number with as the old band again, just for the locals.

And us.

Because we were there. And I had a camera.


God dammit, I wish my still camera did better video. I tried to pull the white back in, but there’s just no data there to retrieve. I looked. At least the sound is good.

And that was the last of it, the impossibly good end of the festival.. or almost the end. The festival organisers brought all of the scheduled performers who were still around back on stage to say goodbye, and this is how they did it, with the entire crowd singing along:

We Love Thee Newfoundland

Yeah. We really do.

And that’s the last of the tour posts. Next Monday? Honestly, I’m not sure yet. The last few weeks have mostly been either about nwcMUSIC – this is a crunch time for us – or getting the house ready for winter. Most of the music I’ve been doing myself has been working on my bass skills and trying some new vocal technique lessons, the kind of thing you do when your day jobs have your life. Thursday, though – DIY day! Yay! ^_^

wrath side story

So, I’m crazy with paperwork and stuff today, so I don’t have time for the last Newfoundland post. It’ll be up tomorrow morning, promise.

But! I did upload something over the weekend to my non-band YouTube channel. Back in Ye Daye, there was a fan stage musical parody of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan mashed up with West Side Story. Turns out this wasn’t on the internet, so I’ve taken my dying Nth-generation VHS copy, massaged the living hell out of it (and its sadly degraded soundtrack) and thus…

The Improvisational Insanity Theatre Corps, the Fish and Ships Players, and Clam TV, in extra-cooperation with CRIME and the Forces of Evil, proudly? present a battle for galactic turf: Wrath Side Story.

It was a stage musical, done with no budget at all, performed apparently at a few conventions. The video here doesn’t look great, but the sight gags are broad enough to come across anyway, and I think I’ve done some real good on pulling the audio soundtrack back in. Since I’m treating this as a restoration project, I’ve left in every frame I could, which includes some momentary audio drops on the original.

I’ve also managed to hide a lot of decay damage off the tape, partly through extending sections of good footage over bad, and partly through creative use of transitions. (A hint: the more complex the transition, the worse the damage I’m hiding.) There’s still one scene at the beginning where you lose picture, but it’s brief. There were… several. There are also some strange moments of sound sync I couldn’t fix without doing work which went beyond restoration.

If anyone with better equipment and more time wants to give it a go, I will happily lend you my VHS tape. But only if you’re serious about it. If you just want the raw rips, no problem; let me know.

One cultural note: the part of Dr. David Marcus in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was played by an actor who had previously played a character in the sitcom Square Pegs. The troupe decided it would be funny to play David Marcus as that character.

This goes entirely over my head, but it was apparently very funny at the time. So, it’s a little dated here and there – in particular, in that one decision – but I still think it’s pretty hilarious. Enjoy.


Hey, it’s Friday! This weekend is the first Norwescon concom meeting, and there’s lots of nwcMUSIC work to be doing. We’ve actually been going already all summer, but there’s a bunch of crunch work to be gone after now.

Have some interesting links:

World’s first colour film footage viewed for literally the first time. An Edwardian inventor in the UK had a system, and a patent, but didn’t get the projector finished before he died. This is full- and natural-colour motion picture footage from 1902.

How YouTube’s content-management system lets other people claim your work. This happened to NASA, to the Democratic National Convention, and to the Hugo awards just this summer. Personally, I’ve had four claims against my own work for videos I’ve uploaded. It’s bullshit.

TYPEFACE SELECTION MATTERS. Apparently, in ways I didn’t even realise; worth reading.

And I’ll let Grandpa Skrillex play you out. Have a good weekend, everybody!

studio buildout, part 5: sound interfaces

Hello, Thursday! Yes, I know, DIY day is Wednesday, I was busy, with Stuff. I DIDN’T FORGET YOU GUYS! <3

Last week, we talked about microphones! As part of setup for that, we talked about XLR interfaces and balanced signals. If you missed it, go read up on that.

Now, let’s talk about why you really, really want an external sound device, rather than using your super-l33t gaming sound card. I mean, you paid good money for that thing, right?

Well, aside from the connectors and signal types, there’s noise. The inside of a computer cabinet is really, really noisy, from an electrical standpoint. And microphone signals are really, really small. The balanced signal noise cancellation falls over as soon as you hit the connector, so you don’t have that protecting you. And if you’re recording, the last thing you want is unintentional electrical noise on every track.

Having the sound card be outside the box, and converting everything to digital before it gets to your computer solves all those problems. It also lets you have the computer in a closet, where its fan noise and hard drive noise are nice and safely locked away from your microphones, and where it is safely out of the way your crazy bassist who likes to kick things.

Also, from this guy.

But aside from that, let’s talk goals again. We discussed goals quite a bit in monitors and monitor amps: sound equipment is built to particular goals. Onboard soundcards are built to make cheap computer speakers sound better; gamer kit cards are built to make games sound awesome. And those are both really good goals!

But they are not your goals in the studio. You need sound equipment that is precise, and which treats different sounds similarly, across the frequency spectrum. You need AtoD and DtoA converters which are “musical,” which is to say, are accurate and even-tempered. You don’t want help, because you can’t be assured of getting it out in the wild when people are playing your music back.

I mean, if it’s all you have and you really, really can’t afford anything else? Fine. Of course you should use what you have. Chiptunes people can do this pretty effectively, as can anybody not using microphones or live instruments. Use what control you have over whatever sound card you have to minimise or disable all “sound enhancement,” “bass boost,” “loudness,” “surround effect,” anything like that you can find. Turn all that shit off, dig until you’re sure there’s nothing left to turn off, and you can do okay.

Honestly, people, it’s not that hard

But let’s say you’re not doing that. What do you need in one of these?

First: at least two inputs. If you’re willing to stick to recording one person at a time and not recording a drum kit, you can get away with only two. The inputs need to support XLR connectors. Almost all these days will also support TRS (a.k.a. 1/4″ plug, a.k.a. “patch cord”) connections on the same inputs; it’s a combined socket and really clever.

“But Solarbird!” I hear you cry. “You just told us last week, never use TRS connectors!” Wrong, minion! I said, no microphone worth the time will have those, and that’s still true. But a lot of other devices will have them – synth, electronic keyboards of other types, drum machines which aren’t purely software, Weird Shit You Build Yourself – it’s a big list.

Optical theremins do need apply

You can even connect an electric guitar straight to one of these, and people will do that. If you’re a classic rock guitarist and want to sound like Tom Scholz? Now you know. (Okay, it’s a little more complicated than that. BUT NOT MUCH.)

Second: Those input connectors need to support phantom power. Phantom power needs to be switchable (on and off) separately to the device as a whole. And it should be 48v. There are specs now for lower-voltage phantom power, but a lot of equipment won’t work on it.

I see what you did there

Phantom power is a way of throwing DC power on the line in such a way that it’s invisible to the audio signal, but can still be used by the condenser microphone connected to it to power the condenser pickup. We talked a little about this last time.

Third: A headphone jack which includes passive or live or real-time monitoring in the unit itself. This requires some explanation.

When you’re doing multitrack recording – which is to say, recording one instrument, then another instrument, then vocals, all separately – you need to be able to hear what you’ve recorded so far, on headphones. These headphones need to be pretty sound-tight so that what you’re listening to doesn’t get picked up by the microphone again and re-recorded.

But you also want to be able to hear yourself, and good headphones will block a lot of the sound you’re trying to record as well. Trust me, this is important. You further need to hear the sounds you’re playing as you’re making them – like in real life – without any processing lag.

If your sound interface sends the microphone input to the computer and has the computer send it back for monitoring purposes, that will take enough time and introduce enough lag that it will really screw you up. Seriously, it’s like a tenth of a second or more.

So a decent external sound interface will provide the ability to throw both playback and what’s coming in the microphones back into the headset at the same time. Playback and microphone monitor levels should be separately controllable, too.

You’d think somebody would have a picture of a monitor lizard wearing headphones, would you. WELL, WOULDN’T YOU?! All I could find was this rather nicely-rendered Gecko.

Fourth: Studio monitor outputs. These will usually be RCA connectors, but might be TRS connectors. They’re for playing back things you’ve recorded on an amplifier – your studio monitor amp and the speakers connected to it.

Finally: Good quality analogue-to-digital converters and digital cable connection to your computer. You can get away with USB 1.1 equipment if you’re down at two channels or fewer; more than that, USB 2.0 is a bare minimum. Firewire and Thunderbolt are of course both better, but unless you’re working on a larger scale than anybody I imagine reading this will be doing, unnecessary.

Those are the required features. There are other options nice to have; inserts (to add effects boxes live on your inputs, if you feel the need to do that for some reason after input), pad controls for particularly “hot” input, things like that. They’re nice, but less important.

Plus, of course, more input connectors! Why that’s better should be obvious. But I need to point out here that more is not intrinsically better. Every additional input requires duplication of an entire channel of circuitry. Remember back on monitor amps, where I showed how the left and right amplification channels had mirrored circuits? Each additional input has another set of input channels, just like that.

More != Better

Those cost money. At any given price point, there’s only so much money to spend on hardware. So if you have two inputs on a $250 device, you have a lot more hardware money to spend on the quality and feature set of each channel than you do if you have, say, eight channels on a $250 device.

Particularly at our budget, small differences in money make big differences in quality. Let’s take a couple of examples; I have a TASCAM US-800 (eight channel, six with microphone preamps) and an M-Audio USB Fast Track Pro (two channel, effectively).

The US-800 listed new for $370, was discontinued about a year ago, but is still floating around on clearance new for around $200. The Fast Track Pro retailed – I believe – for $280 originally; it’s floating around for $150-$200-ish. Both have all the basic features listed above. The US-800 is USB 2.0; the Fast Track Pro is USB 1.1.

If you do the math against retail – which is our best ratio, for getting at manufacturing cost – you’re spending $46.25/channel on the US-800, and $140/channel on the Fast Track Pro. And that shows up. Some of it is in features per channel; the Fast Track Pro is quite feature-rich for its price and size.

But it’s also audible. You hear it in the quality of the microphone preamps inside.

Don’t get me wrong; the US-800 is good. At lower gain, it’s very good. I use it heavily. It’s fast, it was hell and a half to get working on Linux (hi, I have a custom kernel configuration now!) but it works. But despite being more expensive overall… it’s just plain noisier, at high gain. You simply can’t boost the microphones as much you can as on the Fast Track Pro.

So if I need extra mic gain, and I don’t need more than two inputs, I’ll hop over to the Fast Track. It has fewer inputs and is stuck at USB 1.1, but also preamps that don’t add noise at high gain. As always, it’s a matter of making the right tradeoffs, and picking the right tool for the right job.

To wit

So that’s a basic overview of audio interfaces! We had some great commentary last week on microphones, mostly on the Livejournal echo, but also on Dreamwidth, including ideas for making your own pressure-zone microphone out of piezoelectrics and glass, a lot of commentary on micing bodhran, some thoughts on pickups, and the sudden and strange return to popularity of the ribbon microphone. If you wanted more on microphones, go check out those discussions!

Next week, we’ll talk a little about cheap/open source digital audio workstation software. And, of course, if you have any thoughts or questions on sound interfaces, let’s hear ’em! Some of you guys are recording, what do you use?

Added May 2013: The original version of this article mentioned crosstalk in the US-800. This turned out to be an unrelated wiring problem, and not intrinsic to the TASCAM unit itself.
Added January 2014: The noise issue at high gain got substantially quieter with the addition of ferrite chokes on all power cords. Turns out the building’s wiring is genuinely rotten with RF! A better board wouldn’t’ve cared, but this one does. Still, it’s a cheap fix – $10 for 10 chokes at Amazon.


This post is part of The DIY Studio Buildout Series, on building out a home recording studio.

newfoundland and labrador and torbay

Right, back to Newfoundland and Labrador! Well, okay, St. John’s and Torbay.

We woke the morning of our third to the only rainy day we ever saw in St. John’s, and frankly, it wasn’t very rainy. But we decided to go visit The Rooms, a large museum of Newfoundland and Labrador history and culture.

It’s modelled from the outside as a collection of outsized fishing and fish-prepping buildings that every fishing family would have in the old days of Newfoundland, and there are a huge supply of exhibits – and also a large artspace showing work from Newfoundland artists. There’s also a small bookstore, where I bought a couple of histories; if you go, it’s entirely worth your time.

I took a bunch of photos of exhibits, but I’m only showing one here. Remember Red Dwarf?

Sound as a dollar-pound!

Ah, the shit you could get away with on the gold standard with fixed-exchange rates. 😀 Of course, you really couldn’t, there were all sorts of arbitrage tricks anyway, but, well, that didn’t stop people from trying. XD

Then we stopped for lunch, where there were bee-shaped light fixtures I posted on Twitter because it was CONTINENTAL DAY OF BEES! apparently, with everyone talking about bees.

Anna is not concerned about your bees.

…before it was time for the folkfest!

The Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival really got this whole trip started. Anna found out about it, and had long wanted to hear Newfoundland music on Newfoundland soil, and also, the third book in the Faerie Blood/Free Court of Seattle series is set partly in St. John’s, which means it’s RESEARCH!

Genuinely was, too. We walked that downtown like warders.

The first thing to understand is that like the Maritimes in general, and to some degree Quebec, this is a musical culture. That means music is something people do, rather than just watch or hear. It has cultural importance in a way that it doesn’t, say, here where I live; recorded music might be omnipresent, but if you do it, you aren’t generally thought of as a contributor – with the occasional and possible exception of classical. It’s frivolous, or worse. (I’ve been called a parasite at farmer’s markets for showing up to play for free.)

Basically, you have to have a special kind of magic to be accepted as that, which is something I’ve been working on.

So when you see festivals like this, don’t think Folklife. It’s not like Folklife. There’s one of these pretty much every week in the summer, when the weather permits, and people play all winter, too, and this event isn’t “for the tourists.” Tourists are welcomed, and they get them – from as far away as, you know, New Brunswick. Toronto? Well, sure, a few, once in a while.

Cascadia? Not so expected. Or that’s certainly the impression I got from the degree of shock we got at being from so very far away.

I promised a lot of video this post, and you’re getting it. This is a minute I shot to try to capture atmosphere.

Note most of all that this is not an old-people audience. Old people were there, absolutely, do not get me wrong; but this isn’t A Generation’s Thing, this is something people just do. I didn’t get a good shot of the headbanger pit at The Once’s show, but the fact that it was unironically and unapologetically there, I think, communicates the difference.

The next day was another glorious sunny day on the tropical island of Newfoundland:

And we always thought Alan was joking

Mornings at the Festival have a lot more participatory/educational programming, scattered over many tent platforms; we learned about Acadian chair-dancing podorythmie, sat in on a session, and! I even got a surprise chance to perform:

photo by Rick West, courtesy of the Folk Arts Society of Newfoundland and Labrador

…doing my story-and-song bit about how not to become a pirate, wrapped around Paul and Storm’s song “Ten Finger Johnny.” (I of course credited Paul and Storm.)

People were coming up to me two days later saying they loved my pirate song. That was awesome. 😀

But the biggest part of that day, of course, was not in St. John’s, but heading up to Torbay to see the first Great Big Sea show of the 20th anniversary tour. It was also Torbey 250, their 250th year celebration. We met up with Krista and Sile, local fans Anna knew through GBS fandom…

Actually from dinner the night before…

and got there super-early…

Queue position… 12 through 15?

Which meant we got set up here

Front and God Damned Centre

…for the show. Now, non-GBS people won’t know that Murray Foster wasn’t their original bassist; that was Darrell Power, and he left about 10 years ago because he just couldn’t deal with the touring anymore. And Murray’s great; the boy had a lot to contribute. But we were thinking, just maybe, for the 20th, right here where he lives, maybe, just maybe, we might see Murray show up. For the 20th.

Then a gust of wind blew this literally to our feet:

I am not even lying

…the Great Big Sea setlist for that evening. Now, if you’re not a GBS fangirl, you won’t know that EXCURSION means “Excursion Around the Bay,” and that it’s in the encore, and that it was Darrell’s signature song. They’ve still been doing it since he left, but, well, in the encore? That was kind of a big fucking hint right there.

But first! Other bands! Repartee opened; they’re good, and a rising thing in Newfoundland right now. Lots more experimental and synth-rockish; I liked a lot of what they were doing, and went to their tent later; when she found out I was a musician too, we traded CDs, or, as she put it, “really expensive business cards.” It’s true. 😀

They were followed by The Trews and Jimmy Rankin. Both acts were quite good but not my thing, so we’ll skip past those. Cute roadie, tho’:

…but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what that labrys he’s wearing means…

And then, at last, Great Big Sea! The boys put on a show heavily on the trad and heavy on the goddamn well rocking – it was very much a show straight out of 1999, in a lot of ways, which, as far as I’m concerned, is perfect. To be honest a moment – their last couple of albums, while wildly successful, have really been moving towards country/folk. And, while I wish them the best of continued success – that’s not what I care about.

I care a lot about a lot of original music. I like their older originals, which were more in the Newfoundland style, and less in the western/country style. But not where they’ve been headed. So for them to do it up old-school for the home crowd? That made me extremely happy. And if I had to go to Newfoundland to see that kind of show again?

Worth. Every. Goddamn. Penny.

Here’s what the audience is like before they’re really worked up:

Hear us? We just took over on some songs. Alan would lean the mic out, like y’do, and let us go for a bit. Straight out of the Great Big DVD, honestly. It was fantastic.

And then, well, it’s encore time, and…

…guess who steps out of the fuckin’ shadows…


And he does exactly what we expected:

Aw, Yeaaaaaaaah.

And we were right there.

I’d really intended to wrap up the tour with this post, but it’s so long already, I just can’t. So next week: one more day in St. John’s, some more performance video of awesome, and some closing thoughts.

PS: have 37 more seconds of Darrell and Great Big Sea being awesome. You’re welcome. ^_^

Return top

The Music