Forward Motion

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Assignments from the last two weeks of SONAR class have yielded positives, I think.

Last week we began to lay out the tracks for our final project, just to get a feel for some of the MIDI elements. I tend to start things at the beginning and work through sequentially, so I put together a very rough pass at the Intro section for Volo Flamenco. This snippet adds just the bare beginnings of percussion and strings – all synthesized via plug-ins, specifically, the TTS-1 and Session Drummer synths that comes with SONAR 8.

Volo Flamenco Intro – MP3 – 256kBps – 2.5MB – 1:21 min.

This week was an overview of sound synthesis, which technically isn’t a huge part of the SONAR course (synthesizers are a course of study in their own right). The idea was simply to understand the various types – additive, subtractive, modeling, sampling, etc. The task I chose here was to manipulate a few existing sounds’ elements – attack, decay, release, modulation (vibrato) – to create new ones. This short bit has tweaked piano, bass and percussion, tied together with a melancholy little melody inspired by the piano tone.

Masque – MP3 – 256kBps – 2.7MB – 1:30 min.


Synthesizing the Tabernacle

Audio Recording, Education, Software, Synthesizers 3 Comments

This week’s assignment for the SONAR course was kind of interesting.

Last week we recorded a MIDI performance into a track – anything we wanted – just to get the hang of it. I chose something I picked out on the (mostly) white keys back when I was about 14. See ‘Organ Part’, below.

This week we had to take that single track and expand it without adding any new recorded material. Just copy-and-paste, edit the notes with SONAR’s tools, add whatever synthesizers and effects we wanted, etc. So I turned the organ part into Ron’s Tabernacle Choir (with orchestra).

Note: everything you hear is being created in the computer using the “software synthesizers” that come with SONAR 8.

Organ Part – MP3 – 192kBps – 2.1MB – 1:27 min.

Organ, Choir and Strings – MP3 – 192kBps – 2.2MB – 1:27 min.

Red Sky at Night, Coders’ Delight?

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Sorry, that was a really strained metaphor inspired by Oracle and Sun’s announcement this morning that the Java Programming Language will soon be under the direct control of one of the most money-grubbing companies on the planet (at least in my limited experience with them – that would be Oracle).

Sun is going bye-bye. That would be the “Sky at Night” part.

Looks like it may finally be time to go full-on Ruby. That’s the “Red” part.

Like I said. Strained.

Music and Moodle and Mayer (oh, my!)

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Too much time between the last post and this. Lots of other stuff has provided ample avenue for distraction.

Happily, though, recent developments include pursuing something I should have done decades ago: formalized musical education. As a Christmas present to me I enrolled in Berklee School of Music’s online program:

Berkleemusic’s programs include numerous certificates and a lot of standalone courses. See the link above for a sample course (I think it’s an excerpt from the Electric Bass course). I decided on the Preparing for Berklee ‘Specialist’ certificate, since it includes topics I’ve wanted to explore and starts where I really needed to start: Basic Music Theory (BME-101). Just finishing that course this week (actually, I’ve completed everything – just waiting for a grade on my last assignment) and I’m happy to say I learned a good deal that would have meant a lot over the years in all manner of situations. Not the least of which, in that regard, would have been an overall reduction of the frustration that has often led to discouragement and lack of, shall we say, “follow-through” with respect to a number of musical endeavors.

Next on the agenda is Basic Ear Training (BME-115), which starts next Monday. I’m kind of excited about this one, as virtually everything I’ve done by way of musical performance and composition has been “by ear”. I’m anxious to learn how to translate that ability into something more structured and (*shudder*) formalized.

I also decided to ‘jump ahead’ a bit and enrolled in a course that also starts next Monday, but which is not part of this particular certificate curriculum: Producing Music with SONAR (BMPR-177). This is actually the course responsible for my learning about Berkleemusic in the first place. Through the magic of Google Ads, one day last November I was corresponding with someone (using GMail) about some aspect of SONAR and over on the right column, in the list of related ads was an entry listing Berkleemusic’s on-line SONAR course. I hadn’t known Berklee even had an online program, much less that anyone was teaching courses on SONAR (which I’ve used since about Cakewalk Pro Audio Ver. 2 or something). Looking into that, I discovered all the other areas where Berklee provides on-line music instruction, and I decided it was something I wanted to try.

Some folks will undoubtedly note, correctly, that there are all manner of books and instructional material available to learn pretty much everything in Berklee’s on-line catalog. What I’ve found over the years – and something likely at the heart of the delay in my formalized musical education – is that when I pursue learning along those lines I invariably “lose interest” and move on to something else. Sometimes I’ll pick whatever-it-was back up again later, but that’s rare. I just don’t have the self-discipline to study in a vacuum. I’d be surprised if many people do. So the rationale here was that if I paid for the course – which has a very specific calendar schedule for completion – I’d be inclined to follow through. And so far that’s pretty much how it’s worked out. We’ll see how that translates to these next two courses, but I’m optimistic since they’re both in areas of “musical recidivism” that I’ve gone back to several times.

One interesting aspect of Berkleemusic is that the system they use for their online instruction is a highly customized instance of Moodle – an Open Source distance learning software package. Although we didn’t make use of a lot of its capability, or spend much time customizing it anywhere near as well as Berkleemusic has, we used the Moodle package at my last job to manage training for various technical courses on BPEL (Business Process Execution Language) and other related technologies. It was also the system used for administering our Certified BPEL Engineer exam. Kinda cool to use it as a student and see how flexible it is. Patty’s talked about putting the course of study she’s developing (as a doctoral student) on-line at some point, and I may go back to considering that as a system to support it in my next career as “Obi-Ron: Househusband and Tech Guru”… now potentially scant months away.

One final thing to mention, because I personally got a lot of inspiration out of this as well, is the access to stuff like John Mayer’s workshop (students-only, sorry – but there’s a preview there). I’ve always liked his music, but didn’t know he was such a philospher as well – at least with respect to his art – and on top of that he’s able to communicate that philosphy and make it accessible to others. Musical composition and performance is, at it’s core, an emotional activity. Mayer’s managed to rein in that emotion with a kind of enlightened pragmatism that has worked (exceptionally well) for him. If nothing else, it’s enjoyable to watch that expressed in a forum like this workshop, where I think a lot of Berklee students learned quite a bit that they weren’t expecting to. John has a blog – Battle Studies – where he’s intermittently chronicling the development of his next album. Interesting stuff there. He describes it thus:

It’s a house,
in a clandestine location,
that’s being converted into a music studio.
No, not a music studio.
An entire music experience.
A living, breathing, ever-evolving organic space that contains every part of the record making process.
Everybody involved has left their comfort zone. Including myself.
I need to be disoriented again.

I can relate to the need to be disoriented, again. Looking back (as I’m guessing John has), moments of best inspiration and motivation have come from disorientation. The need to make some internal sense of the externally unfamiliar is, I think, a kind of rocket fuel for musicians. I don’t know if The Music Room we keep talking about adding on over our garage would qualify as a disorienting environment. Likely not. But since all my Grammy nominations are in the future, and I can’t afford to remodel an entire house yet, that’ll have to do.

Home Studio

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Okay, so I was kind of catching up in that first post. This is something that’s been brewing for a couple of weeks. I don’t think it’s going to ‘phase out’ at this point. Things have a tendency to do that these days… as soon as the time spent pursuing them starts to feel too much like work it’s on to the next distraction. If this music bug sticks, well then it may turn out that the endless sequence of distractions was just something to do while I worked my way back to the right headspace to do it. We’ll see.

Deja sez: “Do NOT go to your grave without doing music again!!! Life is meant to be lived and you should use all your talents!!!

Yes, she really does use a hot pink italic font. The grave thing is a little disconcerting, but the rest makes sense. Patty seems to be 1000% behind this too. There’s a difference from past arrangements, I must say. Not that I didn’t already ‘know’ this. It was a self-permission thing (see previous post).

So, getting down to brass tacks, I’ve taken stock of what’s on hand here and did about two weeks of (spare time) reading over at TweakHeadz Lab, which is an absolutely awesome resource that I can’t possibly recommend highly enough, by the way. And not just because all the information there is made available 100% free of charge, either.

A couple weeks ago I went down to JC’s and bought a run-o-the-mill microphone, just to see what sort of damage I could do recording cello and 12-string guitar. Hey… it’s what he had on the shelf. We’ll call this microphone Mic 1. It kind of sat until I ordered a mic stand, more recently, at which point I spent a few hours experimenting. I discovered pretty good placement for mic’ing both the cello and guitar and getting a passable sound into SONAR via my Audigy 2 soundcard. It’ll work, but it turns I could’ve done a lot better.

Here’s a good example of why it’s good to do your research first – and why I’m grateful I took the time to do that before I spent any really significant ca$h on anything else. For like $40 more, I could have purchased a Shure SM57 dynamic microphone, which turns out to be an excellent all-purpose mic. I’m pretty sure we used these as far back as the band days (late 70s). Also, balanced signal paths are where it’s at, and I made the ‘error’ of getting a non-balanced cable so I could plug it easily into the computer sound card. Lesson learned. An XLR cable is on the way.

To be plugged into what, you ask? Well, I remember the kid at JC’s asking what I was going to plug the mic into. He gave me a funny/knowing look when I said I was planning to punch it straight into the soundcard… “to start.” I actually said “to start” because his question implied there was more to it and I didn’t want to seem like the totally clueless newb I really was. Turns out there’s a LOT more to it, and I’ve learned a good deal about all that at TweakHeadz’. Not only are most computer soundcards like about the worst thing in the world you can use as a front end for a microphone, but their analog-to-digital (A-to-D) capabilities leave a lot to be desired as well. Mics need a good preamp and a good converter to do anything halfway decent – and of course it doesn’t hurt to actually start out with a good mic to begin with.

Anyway, I’ll be using the XLR cable to plug Mic 1 (and later an SM57 and a condenser, when I can justify them) into a Firewire Audio Interface – specifically a Tascam FW1804. What’s the deal there? Basically, to do any serious, or even halfway serious recording using a computer, you need to find a way to take the soundcard out of the equation. One way to do this is with something called an Audio Interface. Bascially, this is a unit that preamplifies incoming sound from microphones, guitars and such, and then does the A-to-D conversion – all with hopefully far better quality components than you’ll find in your average computer soundcard. Why Firewire? Well because basically USB is still a little slow and there’ll be enough inherent latency in this system as it is.

This was a tough unit to decide on, weighing practicality, price, etc. What finally helped me decide on this unit over the Presonus Firebox was partly the increased number of inputs but moreso the availability of ‘inserts’. These are output/input jacks that allow you to insert an effect – like a guitar distortion box – between the preamp and the output to the computer. Essentially, it allows you to add effects to an instrument (or microphone) without preamplifying the noise that’s inevitably generated by the effect box. If you’ve ever run a guitar through a standard amp with the volume turned up, you hear the effect of this if you punch a distortion box (like a Boss DS-1) ‘on’ switch. The added hum you’ll hear is the noise from the box being preamplified by the amp’s circuitry. I’m guessing there are a number of amp models that have insert jacks, to avoid this very thing. Just haven’t had the need to research it.

Anyway, with the Tascam, I’ll be pretty much ready to record everything I can play – electric bass, cello, electric and acoustic guitar, MIDI synth, etc. – and some vocals as well. Next steps up for the studio will be better microphones, active studio monitors and perhaps a standalone mic preamp, but that’s all a ways off. For now I think we’re good to go. A little dated perhaps – the computer’s now almost 3 years old and my synth is probably considered ‘vintage – but I think I can produce some fairly decent tracks with this stuff nonetheless:

  • ABS PC Ultimate M5^64 w/1GB RAM, dual MAXTOR 6Y080M0 SATA 7,200 RPM HDDs
  • AUDIGY 2 ZS Soundcard and a very old Gateway 2.1 Sound System (hey, it works!)
  • Audio2000’s APM1066 Dynamic Microphone
  • Tascam FW1804 Firewire Audio Interface
  • Roland Super JV-1080 MIDI Synthesizer
  • Roland SR-JV80 Orchestral II Expansion Board
  • Roland SR-JV80 Vocal Expansion Board
  • Roland PC-200 MK II MIDI Keyboard Controller
  • SONAR 2.2 (don’t fret – it’s on it’s way to a SONAR 6 Producer Upgrade)
  • Fender BXR200 Extended Range Bass Amp (also great for beefy guitar sound)

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