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5 Tips for Audio Recording Hard Drives

Hard drives are hard.

hard disk drive with Pro Tools logo as the platter

You want to record audio in the modern age? You don’t have a Zildjillion dollars to be able to record to tape? Even so, it all ends up digital. You need some hard drives.

Five Audio Recording Hard Disk Drive Tips

Hard disk drives aren’t all the same. Picking out the right one can be tough. Here are some things I’ve learned — sometimes the hard way.

1. Heed the DAW makers’ suggestions.

If AVID says that Pro Tools doesn’t support it, don’t expect it to work. Legit DAW makers will post the system requirements for their software/hardware. Look them up. Follow their recommendations and instructions. Spoiler: You’re probably going to have to spend more than you had planned for.

2. Faster is better.

A faster drive means it read/writes faster. And faster read/writes means more tracks and/or higher quality.

Traditional hard disk drives have platters that spin. A hard disk drive that spins at 5200 rpm really isn’t fast enough — it’s like red-lining a Geo Metro. 7200 rpm is better. 10,000 rpm better still.

And then there’s flash drives, which are way faster than hard disk drives.

There are also seek times to consider, for which lower numbers are better. Seek time is the baseline amount of time in milliseconds that it takes for a drive to fetch data.

I have found that drive manufacturers don’t always make these stats readily available. When in doubt, assume the drive doesn’t meet spec (because it likely doesn’t).

3. Data interfaces matter.

Hard drives have come with lots of data interface flavors: PATA, SATA, USB (1, 2, 3), FireWire (400, 800), Thunderbolt, Ethernet, and some are even wireless. The data interface dictates bandwidth, which roughly translates to how many tracks you can record at once and how much latency your playback will suffer. More bandwidth is better, which translates into better recording and mixing experiences. Again, check your DAW maker’s system requirements and choose the drive with the fastest and most forward-compatible data interface.

Also make sure your computer can handle the data interface type you’re choosing. And find out if the data port you intend to use on your computer is sharing a bus with any other peripherals in your computer. That can adversely affect your bandwidth, causing a data bottleneck.

4. Bigger isn’t better.

For tracking and mixing, you don’t necessarily need a 3 TB drive. (Unless, of course, you’re recording a 10-piece prog-rock group with 40 minute “works” at 32-bit 192kHz.) Save the big, slow drives for backups and archiving. Use smaller, faster drives for works in progress. If you have more than one project going at a time, consider using a small drive for each project, so the different project files are not interleaved with each other on the drive. This will speed up read/write times, as the drive will not be jumping around on the platters trying to find the files for the current session. This also saves money, since really fast and really big drives are expensive.

5. Always have a backup.

Have a backup plan, because hard drives fail. All the time. More so than any other part of a computer. Make sure to always backup your work after every session, whether recording, editing, or mixing. And make sure you have an extra drive ready in case one goes down during a session. I can’t stress this enough. Millions of ones and zeros (i.e. your priceless recordings) can go poof at any time — and there’s never a right time for that. Buy more hard drives. Make backups like a chronic. Sleep well.

Coda

So there you have it: my top five hard drive tips. Comment below to let me know what you would add to the list.

And enjoy some “Tainted Love” made with old hard disk and floppy disk drives…

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FIX: Waves Preferences “Don’t ask me again”

Make that Waves Preferences pop up dialog window go away forever WITHOUT having to uninstall and reinstall your plugins.

The Problem

After doing a fresh install of Pro Tools and my Waves plugins, this Waves 9.2.100 Preferences dialog window (pictured below) kept popping up every time I fired up Pro Tools.

screen grab of Waves 9.2.100 Preferences dialog window

Checking the “Don’t ask me again” checkbox didn’t seem to be working.

I searched for some solutions on the Google machine and found some forums were recommending a complete uninstall and reinstall of all Waves plugins. This didn’t seem necessary. Here’s the fix I used:

The Fix

  1. Quit Pro Tools.
  2. Trash the entire Waves Preferences folder. The folder is located in the Preferences folder in your user Library folder, not your system Library folder. A quick way to locate the folder is to switch to the Finder and hit Shift+Command+G. A Go to Folder dialog window will pop up. Copy and paste the following line in that field and hit enter.
    ~/Library/Preferences/Waves Preferences

    Put that folder in the trash and empty the trash.

  3. Start Pro Tools.
  4. A window should pop up asking you to select the Waves 9.2 Plug-Ins folder. By default, it should be located in the Waves folder in your Applications folder.
    /Applications/Waves/Waves Plug-Ins

    Once you’ve located the folder, click Open.

  5. The Waves 9.2.100 Preferences dialog window should pop up again. The “Don’t ask me again” box should be checked. If not, check it and hit OK.
  6. To test if everything worked, quit Pro Tools and start it again. The Waves dialog window shouldn’t reappear.

About the Fix

I adapted this solution from a somewhat unrelated problem I found on Sweetwater Sound’s SweetCare Knowledge Base. The fix definitely works for the following system set up. YMMV

  • OS X Mavericks 10.9.3
  • Pro Tools 9.0.6
  • Waves 9.2.100 plugins

Please leave a comment below if this helped you or not.

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Export MIDI from GarageBand

GarageBand likes to keep MIDI data hidden and inaccessible. Here’s how to extract it anyway.

GarageBand icon with MIDI cable superimposed

Apple’s GarageBand makes it relatively easy to sketch out an audio demo, but it does have some severe, intentionally-crippled limitations.

One of the biggest drawbacks is the lack of built-in support for exporting MIDI data.

Performances are stored inside the session file in some sort of MIDI fashion, but Apple doesn’t give users an easy way to get that information out. Major bummer. *looks west towards Cupertino, squints eyes, shakes fist in air, mutters under breath*

However, a nice guy named Lars Kobbe has put together a workaround/hack that extracts MIDI data from the reluctant clutches of GarageBand. You can download his GB2MIDI Apple droplet script from his site: MIDI-Export in Apples Garageband. Here’s the direct download: GB2MIDI.ZIP

The article is in German, but instructions in English are found near the bottom of the article (just before the comments section). Getting the MIDI data out involves several steps. Here’s my summary of the process.

How to Extract MIDI Data from GarageBand

  1. Join (Command-J) regions of a track you want to export
  2. Convert that region to a loop via Edit > Add to Loop Library (NOTE: In GarageBand 10.1.0 this menu item is now located under File > Add Region to Loop Library )
  3. Find the newly created loop file (an .AIF with MIDI data hidden inside it) in the folder: Macintosh HD (or whatever your system drive is named)/Users/(your home folder)/Library/Audio/Apple Loops/User Loops/SingleFiles/
    or the abbreviated: ~/Library/Audio/Apple Loops/User Loops/SingleFiles/
  4. Drop that .AIF file on Lars’ GB2MIDI droplet
  5. Grab the freshly extracted .MID file, which should appear in the same folder where the .AIF loop was. If not, see the comment section below.
  6. Import the .MID file into a respectable DAW (basically almost anything other than GarageBand).
  7. Make next hit record.

That last step is optional, but I say go for it. 😉 Let me know if this helped you.

Locating The Files

UPDATE 2014-08-10

If you’re having trouble locating the loop file, it may be because your Library and/or Users folders are hidden, as later OS X versions have been wont to do.

To unhide the Library folder, open the Terminal application, which is found in the /Applications/Utilities/ folder. At the prompt type the following:
chflags nohidden ~/Library/

To unhide the Users folder, type this into Terminal:
sudo chflags nohidden /Users
Then enter your administrator password.

Look for the newly unhidden Users folder in your hard drive’s root folder. It should look something like this:

screenshot highlighting location of User folder

After running “sudo chflags no hidden /Users” you should see the Users folder (highlighted in red in the image above) appear under the root folder of your hard drive (often named “Macintosh HD” by default).

For more on the hidden Users folder issue check this article from The Mac Observer. It seems the problem was introduced with iTunes 11.2 when Find My Mac is enabled. Another blog suggests that updating to iTunes 11.2.1 fixes the issue.

GarageBand Alternatives

UPDATE 2016-02-04

This GarageBand MIDI article has regularly been one of the most popular posts on my site. That means there are a lot of people using GarageBand and discovering its unfortunate MIDI limitations. The best bit of advice I can give to any musician or audio engineer still using GarageBand is STOP. I know that may sound harsh, but GarageBand is intentionally made to be consumer-grade software. If you’re serious about recording, take the time to investigate other DAWs. Find an alternative solution. There are many to choose from and nearly every one of them is less limited than GarageBand. They range from super affordable to “professionally priced.” Here’s a list to get you started. (Some links are affiliated.)

Pick any of the DAWs above (or find another — this list is by no means exhaustive) and you’ll find it much easier to work with MIDI. Let me know what software you chose.

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BATTLEGROUNDS: After the Battle

Autumn Ashley’s new EP BATTLEGROUNDS is out now!

Sometime last year, my friend Autumn Ashley asked if I’d help her complete her next EP. She ran a Kickstarter to raise funds and anyone who contributed got the album early. On Friday, Autumn Ashley’s BATTLEGROUNDS album was finally made available for everyone.

cover art of BATTLEGROUNDS by Autumn Ashley

BATTLEGROUNDS by Autumn Ashley

When Autumn first contacted me about BATTLEGROUNDS, she had all the songs written, rough demos recorded, and a handful of local arrangers putting together the individual song scores. She asked if I’d help engineer the recording sessions. As we got into it she asked if I’d also play some instruments and design the artwork.

A few months later, I headed out to Autumn’s place in Connecticut for a week of turning demos and scores into album-ready recorded audio. We tracked friends new and old playing a variety of orchestral instruments in a few different locations.

recording the string section

Our string quartet (L to R): Jessica Buchanan — Violin, Nicole Stacy — Violin, Caty Dalton — Viola, Jeff Chen — Cello

It was fun.

Scott Troyer conducting and engineering

Me, “Conducting”

It was hectic.

recording piano

Pianist Tim Lillis performing nocturnally, on a piano I tuned with a drum key

It was a great learning experience.

recording the string section

Autumn and Scott at the helm while Nate Brown, arranger for the title track “Battlegrounds,” confirms proper execution of his score

I’d do it again in a heartbeat. And that’s why I really appreciate the people that pre-ordered the album and the people that are about to buy the album on iTunes. For a few bucks, you’ll get 5 bloodsweatandtears songs plus you’ll be supporting indie music and local (if you live in Connecticut) artists!

Autumn Ashley and Scott Troyer in the studio

Setting up microphones for recording Autumn Ashley playing acoustic guitar

Some relevant links:

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Dummy Head

How to Make a DIY Binaural Baffle

I made a dummy head baffle to test out binaural recording techniques on an upcoming session. The baffle was super simple to make, looks sleek, and works quite well, so I thought I’d share how I made it.

animated GIF of the binaural baffle mounted on a stand with microphones

Note: The microphones shown here are not the same brand or model. I recommend using a matched pair of omni mics for the best stereo imaging results.

Before we get into the nitty gritty details, let’s get some questions out of the way first.

What’s a dummy head?
Dummy head is either an insult you used in third grade while playing kickball at recess or the term you use for the baffle placed between two microphones while making a binaural recording.
What’s binaural recording?
Binaural recording is a technique that attempts to record audio in a way that replicates the way our human ears encode three-dimensional audio information. This is done by simulating a human head by arranging two microphones (the ears) in relationship to an acoustic baffle (the head). The result is recorded audio with a stereo image that when played back through good headphones is supposed to sound exactly like “being there.” The dummy head acts like a proxy for your own head in whatever environment it is placed in. You get to hear whatever the dummy head heard.

One of the best known binaural recordings is the inconspicuously named album Binaural by Pearl Jam. Note: If you click that link and buy the album, Amazon will give me a little kickback, which I would totally appreciate. I’m sure Amazon and Pearl Jam’s label would appreciate it too.

What’s a baffle?
In audio jargon, a baffle is an object made of sound absorbing and/or acoustic dampening materials used to block or reduce transmission, reflection, or propagation of sound waves. Baffles are like shields that can prevent or impede sounds. They can be used to isolate a particular sound source from other sound sources in the same room. Baffles are often placed around loud things like drums or guitar amps. Sometimes engineers will place small baffles on the back side of microphones to reduce early reflections and room sounds or give more directionality to an omni microphone.
Shouldn’t a dummy head look like a head?
Binaural purists say that a binaural dummy head baffle must closely resemble a human head to capture all the nuances of how sound reflects off our faces, is absorbed by the mass of our heads, tickles our nose hairs, and gets caught by those biologically amazing curvatures of our outer ears.

The purists might be right, but if we’re going to replicate a human head down to the smallest details, whose head should we use as the model specimen? When I last checked, human heads still come in all kinds of neat shapes and sizes. Sure, we could build something will all sorts of exacting specifications, but I say a board roughly 20 cm by 25 cm that’s covered in felt is Good Enough™.

If you build one and test it out, I think you’ll agree. All we really need to get a decent binaural recording is something roughly head-sized that blocks reflections between two quality microphones.

How to Make a DIY Dummy Head Binaural Baffle

Materials Needed for This Project

  1. Wood Board – Solid or plywood, roughly 20 cm x 25 cm, whatever thickness you want. I happened to have a piece of solid oak lying around. Good enough!
  2. Thick Felt – Enough to cover the board on both sides. You can use multiple layers to get the thickness you want. I had enough thick black felt left over from another project to do three layers on each side. I suppose you can buy this stuff at a fabric store or directly from your local feltsmith.
  3. Microphone Mounting Bar – I used this On-Stage stereo bar from Sweetwater Sound. You could probably make something instead of buying something, but you will need a way to mount the baffle and two microphones on a microphone stand.
  4. Short Screws – Pan head wood screws, quantity 8, long enough to secure the felt to the wood without poking out the other side.
  5. Longer Screws – Pan head wood screws, quantity 3-4, for securing the mounting bar to the bottom of the wood.

Before Getting Started

You’ll need a few other things to build this baffle. I used a circular saw to cut the wood, razor blade to cut the felt, power drill/driver with drill bits to pre-drill and drive screws, clamps to hold things together, and a bandage to put on my finger.

This is probably a good time to give the obligatory reminder to be careful when you use power tools. Really that applies to any time you do anything in life. I find it silly that from a legal stand point it’s necessary to post a disclaimer about the dangers of power tools when writing about them. Cars kill people all the time, but to my knowledge articles about using cars don’t require disclaimers. Anyway…you should probably wear gloves, eye protection, ear plugs, and a respiratory mask. Maybe put on some pants too.

Putting it Together

  1. Measure and cut the board. It should measure about 20 cm x 25 cm. That’s the approximate size of a human head when looking at one from the side. Yes, I used the metric system, because it’s way better than imperial. And no, that does not make me an anti-American, unpatriotic traitor. If you want to use imperial dimensions for human head size, may I suggest starting here?
  2. Cut the felt. The felt should be the exact same dimensions as the board. A razor blade works well for making nice clean cuts. A sharp knife or strong scissors could probably work too.
  3. Make a sandwich. Stack up the layers of felt with the wood sandwiched in the middle. I clamped this together to keep everything in place for the next step.
  4. Attach the felt. Pre-drill through the felt into the wood approximately 2-3 cm in from each of the four corners. Try not to let the wood dust get embedded into the felt, which would look bad. Do this on both sides, but offset the location slightly on each side so the screws from the back side don’t end up hitting the screws from the front side. Drive the short wood screws in deep enough to hold the felt taut, but not too tight. Puckered felt looks unprofessional.
  5. Drill holes in the Microphone Bar. Figure out where you want the long screws to be. Mark those spots on metal bar and drill holes just slightly larger in diameter than the long wood screws. When drilling metal, a little oil helps to cool the drill bit, making the drilling process easier. You can use cooking oil from the kitchen; it works just as well as anything else. Also, be careful with the metal shavings this produces, which can cause trouble if they get into electronics and/or your body.
  6. Attach the Microphone Bar. Once the holes are drilled in the microphone bar, align the bar to the bottom of the baffle. Mark where the holes are and pre-drill the wood deep enough for the long wood screws. Again, avoid getting the wood dust on the felt. Screw the microphone bar to the baffle.
  7. Ready to Use. Mount the baffle on a microphone stand using the center mounting hole. Use the shorter adjustable arms to place the microphone shockmounts or clips so the microphones’ capsules are approximately in the center of the baffle vertically and horizontally. The microphones should be about 20 cm apart from each other, which is about an average distance between most human ear pairs.

Final Notes

So does it work? In testing the dummy head I made, I was really surprised at how accurately the stereo field mapped sounds to the real world. I was kind of expecting it not to work very well. I had two different brands and models of microphones for my test. For the record the microphones you use to make binaural recording should be a matched pair with an omni pattern. Other patterns can sort of work too, just not as well.

I’m not posting audio samples here just yet, as I didn’t have the rights microphones on hand. But I did build this for an upcoming session, so once that session is done, I’ll post some clips for you to hear just how well a DIY dummy head can work.

Update (2013-08-18)

I somewhat coincidentally stumbled across an article about a thing called a Jecklin Disk, which is a lot like this dummy head baffle only larger. Check out this Wikipedia article for more about it.

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Haas Effect Panning

A little history plus a free download of plug-in settings for Haas Effect panning.

History

A smart guy named Helmut Haas discovered a bunch of cool things about the way our human brains decode the sounds we hear to determine the direction of where those sounds originate.

Back in 1949, Mr. Haas found that early reflections of sounds help our brains decipher where the sounds came from. We can tell a noise came from the left not simply because we hear it in our left ear, but also because the sound bounces off a wall to our right and hits our right ear a very short time after it hit our left ear. Almost instantaneously, the brain detects the short time between the two signals and tells us, “Hey, that sound you just heard came from your left. Better turn your head to see what it was!” This happens so quickly that we don’t really even think about it. We just “know” it came from the left.

Haas also recognized that early reflections are basically copies of the initial sound that are delayed slightly. He started messing with people’s heads. He pointed speakers at them and firing sounds with very short delay differences. Then he asked the test subjects which direction the sound seemed to come from.

His conclusion: Not only is it fun to play with sounds, but also 40 ms (milliseconds) is some kind of magic point for our brains. If an echo is more than 40 ms after the initial sound, then we hear the sounds as separate instances. But if the delays happen within 40 ms or less of each other, then we perceive them together as merely directionality cues of a single sound.

For example, if a sound hits our right ear and the same sound hits our left ear 0.3 ms later, we don’t hear two sounds, we only hear one sound coming from approximately our 1 o’clock position.

And so the Haas effect was named after him.

Panning

Engineers have implemented the Haas effect as an alternative to panning. Most of the time panning works just fine, but it does have limits.

Sometimes panning leaves the location of the audio feeling indeterminate, smeared, mono, or one dimensional. This is why a lot of engineers skip the pan knob altogether and mix LCR.

To effectively localize a track in a stereo field using the Haas effect, engineers have to do a couple things. They duplicate the track, pan the two tracks hard left and right, and then apply a delay to only one of the sides. The delay is applied to the side opposite of the side from which the sound is intended to perceived as originating.

Typical delay times for this technique are increments of 0.1 ms from 0.1 to 0.7 ms. This yields linear movement across the stereo field. You can think of it like this chart shows.

diagram of pan knob and delay times in ms

Example: Want the sound to come from 9 o’clock on the left? Delay the right side by about 0.4 or 0.5 ms.

Download

After researching the Haas Effect, I decided I wanted to try it out in a mix. Since the settings must be very exact, setting it up correctly can be a bit confusing. Presets to the rescue!

I made these presets for the stock Digidesign Mod Delay II plug-in. These presets only work for this specific plug-in and Pro Tools. If there’s interest, maybe I’ll make more presets for other DAWs in the future.

Installation

Download this ZIP file, unzip it, and drop the folder and included presets in the Mod Delay II folder in the Plug-in Settings folder. On a Mac it’s probably located at Library / Application Support / Digidesign / Plug-In Settings / Mod Delay II, but may be in a different location on your system.

Setting up the tracks

Insert an instance of the Mod Delay II (mono/stereo) plug-in on the mono track you want to Haas-ify. Select the preset you want. No need to duplicate tracks. Bingo.

Haas Effect Panning

screenshot of Pro Tools session

Digging Deeper

Understanding how to use the Haas effect properly means you need to understand and pay attention to things like stereo-to-mono compatibility and comb filtering, as well as other stereo field mixing techniques. As with all effects, have fun but be careful not to over do it. Experiment and do your homework. Then let me know if you find learn or discover anything cool. Here’s a cool video that got me thinking about the Haas effect. This video no longer available.

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The Secret to Mixing

Maybe there are no secrets.

Mixing audio is not easy. I’m no expert, but something just struck me…

Maybe making a great mix simply comes down to listening to a song a thousand times and removing all the little things that annoy you until there’s nothing left to dislike. Hopefully the subtraction leaves you with enough material to reveal the goodness of the song. I bet great mixing engineers can get there in fewer than a 1000 listens. Maybe there’s more to it. Just a thought.

Got any mixing secrets?

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The Inception of Keyboard Instruments

Is every new technological development just a deeper dream state?

Sound is basically waves of pressure changes. The exact definition is more complicated, but essentially we perceive sound because our ears decode the frequencies of oscillating movement of particles in gases, liquids, and solids. There are many ways to generate sound waves, such as plucking guitar strings so they vibrate, or hitting a membrane like a drum head.

Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church pipe organ. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Pipe Organs

A long time ago, people discovered that sound could also be made by blowing air through a pipe with a opening on the side, thus inventing the whistle. They also found that a range of tones could be produced by assembling a group of whistles with varying lengths and diameters. Then they attached a controller (called a keyboard or manual) so that one person could “play” this collection of pipes. Their invention is what we now know as the pipe organ.

At the start, pipe organs had only one timbre – a basic whistle sound, but over the next several hundred years, smart inventors and musicians made improvements in the technology. They found ways to emulate lots of other instruments, like brass, woodwinds, percussion, and even human voices. Their hope was to fully replicate those real life instruments.

a pipe organ console

Organ console at the United States Naval Academy chapel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As features were added, pipe organs evolved into enormous, elaborate, and expensive installations, increasingly more complicated to play and maintain. While these pipe organs were truly amazing inventions, capable of creating complex and beautiful music, they were actually quite poor emulations of the real life instruments they were intended to replace.

Still, we humans are adaptable and we fell in love with the sound of pipe organs, learning to appreciate the instrument for what it was, not what it wasn’t.

Electric Organs

a Wurlitzer organ

Wurlitzer 4100 BW Electronic Spinet Organ (1959-1963). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Eventually, we discovered electricity and began to harness its power to create electromechanical instruments. Creative minds developed things like vacuum tubes, tone wheels, and transistors. Companies like Hammond and Wurlitzer implemented tone wheels to generate sounds approximating a pipe organ.

However, similar to the pipe organ, this new technology was a brilliant invention that poorly emulated its predecessor. These new organs were affordable alternatives to pipe organs, so in spite of being a bad imitation they became popular with smaller houses of worship. Traveling musicians took advantage of the portability of these smaller organs too, making their sound common in popular jazz, blues, and rock music.

Once again, our ears grew accustomed to the sound of the imitation, developing an affinity for the quirks of its particular aesthetic.

Keyboards

keyboard on table

Yamaha DX7. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As the march of progress continued, electronics became smaller and more powerful. Engineers found ways to replace the delicate mechanical parts in electric organs, which were subject to wear and tear, with completely electronic sound generators. Lightweight, all electronic keyboard synthesizers used a variety of methods in attempts to replicate the sounds of their heavier electromechanical ancestors.

But just like before, history would repeat itself. The new emulators were incredible technological achievements that fell short of their goal of replacing the old technology. Though they lacked the ability to fully replicate the previous generation, they possessed attributes that eventually found an audience of connoisseurs that valued them not just in spite of their glitches, but because of their unique properties.

Software

Today, we synthesize the sounds of the old technologies with computers and keyboard MIDI controllers. While initially computers could only crudely imitate the old masters, DSP technology is progressing rapidly. CPU speed and available RAM are no longer the main limitation factors. As the computational power ceiling continues to rise higher and higher, software programmers are able to provide increasingly nuanced emulators that can easily fool the listener into believing that the software is actually the real thing.

The Inception

official Inception film poster

Inception poster from IMDB.com

At this point, if you’re still reading, then you probably can see how this history correlates to the plot of the film Inception. Each new technological breakthrough has been like a deeper dream state, where the simulation moves further and further away from reality.

Real instruments
→ Pipe organs
→ → Electric organs
→ → → Keyboards
→ → → → Software

However, just like in the film, while each level becomes more strange and abstract, the deepest level — Limbo — actually approaches something most like the real thing or maybe even better. Today’s emulators delve into such detail and are able to control even the most minute aspects of the sound, that it won’t be long before they easily eclipse the believability of the old technology. In fact, we may already be there.

A few years ago (when the emulators weren’t half as good as they are now), a friend of mine (who has very good ears) dropped by the studio to hear a song I was working on. When the B3 organ kicked in during the chorus, he declared, “That organ sounds great. There’s nothing like the real thing!” Muwhahaha! The smoke and mirrors of software emulation had worked.

Inspiration for This Article

This idea of how keyboard technology relates to Inception came about through a discussion with my friend Hoss. Over the weekend we were working on the keyboard parts for our band Rudisill’s next album Take To Flight. In between takes of an organ part we marveled at the realization that the software he was using was an emulation of an emulation of an emulation — a truly strange scenario.

Follow Rudisill to hear about the new album when it is released later.

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Overcoming Musical Gear Ignorance – Part 2: Excuses

Are we making excuses for why we aren’t better musicians?

Overcoming Musical Gear Ignorance” is an article I wrote that was published as a guest blog on my friend David Santistevan’s site. If you haven’t read it yet, go read it now.

In that article, I gave 50 technical questions as “homework” for the musician that wants to get better at being a musician. The broad list covers a lot of little things that musicians really ought to know, but think they don’t need to know.

While we could easily get sidetracked judging ourselves based on whether we can answer those specific questions or not, the real issue I’m hoping to address is our attitudes about learning.

Learning is tough. Really tough. It takes dedication, willingness, and humility to learn new things. It’s not surprising that we make a lot of excuses to avoid it.

Excuses, excuses, excuses

Over the years, I have cited lots of reasons for why I wasn’t progressing as a musician, but they were simply excuses. Here are a few of my mental blocks.

1. My fingers are too fat.

Back in high school I picked up the guitar because I wanted to write songs. After a year or two of trying to learn how to play, I told Nathan Hamlin, my trusted friend and songwriting partner, that my fingers were too fat to play guitar well. His response?

bratwurstsScott, my dad Vance has huge sausage fingers and he can play guitar better than I can. You have no excuse.

Nathan was right. I stopped making excuses and learned how to play guitar. Now people ask me to play guitar for them.

Still want to make excuses? Phil Keaggy has only 9 digits, Chad James has only one hand, and Mark Goffeney has no hands, but it hasn’t stopped any of them from playing guitar.

2. I need a better guitar.

For years I was convinced that if I just had a more expensive guitar, I too could play like a pro. Wrong.

In college I met Ben Albright, a guy who was known for his guitar prowess. Time and time again, I watched as he would pick up the same crappy instrument I had just laid down and play something inspiring. Clearly the guitar was not the problem.

The roadblock was in my mind. There was a reason I couldn’t make a guitar sing like Ben could. Besides not putting in the many hours of practice that he had, I had already decided that I couldn’t make great music without great instruments.

screen capture from It Might Get LoudIn a previous post called “How to Get Perfect Guitar Tone,” I included a video clip from It Might Get Loud of Jack White building and then playing a makeshift guitar on his front porch. The improvised “guitar” he makes proves his point that great music is possible even if the instrument is not very good.

I can’t blame my guitar.

3. I need better recording equipment.

We live in such a wonderful time. Recording has never been more accessible, affordable, or high quality.

My soon-to-be released album All Is Sideways was recorded in locations all over the U.S. over the past 3 years. Some of the songs have more than 50 layered tracks. I was privileged to be able to record with talented players on great instruments with really nice microphones and preamps into a sweet computer.

cover of Sgt. PeppersThe funny thing I have to remind myself is that some of the greatest albums of all time have been made with much less. The Beatles recorded their highly complex Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with a pair of 4-track tape machines.

Compared to the tools we have available to us today, musicians and engineers of the past worked with sticks and stones. Men have flown to outer space and back in rocket ships with computers on board that pale in comparison to the iPods in our pockets. Yet somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that to make an album like Led Zeppelin’s IV today, we need million dollar systems with all the latest technology.

Sorry, kids. Your gear can’t be the scapegoat here. Garageband is more than adequate.

Who’s left to blame?

Excuses don’t make me a better player. Better gear doesn’t make me a better player. Only my determination to learn, practice, and actively become a better player makes me a better player.

In my signal chain, sadly, I am the weakest link.

I want to fix that and it’s going to take a lot of hard work to get there.

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Future Music Debate: Beyond Analog vs. Digital

A response to the question “After Analog vs. Digital, what will we fight about in the future?”

As part of their “#DJChat,” German audio equipment manufacturer Behringer asked this question on Twitter:

…Analog vs. Digital is a debate that will always continue. But in the future, what technology will we move on to AFTER digital? 😀 #DJChat

It’s an interesting concept. The wars between analog and digital rage on because they are systems separated by technologies that both have pros and cons. As technology progresses, what new pros and cons will we have to debate against older systems? Initially I answered with the following:

@BEHRINGER future: Cerebral vs. Digital. Was it made entirely “in the box (aka your head)” or did you collab with other humans and devices?

Realizing there’s much more to this debate than just a tweet, I thought I’d talk more about it here.

We Need Better Words to Describe How We’ll Make Music in the Future

In my original tweet, I used the phrase “Cerebral vs. Digital” to describe the future debate I imagine will happen. Maybe my choice of opposites wasn’t perfect. Better words can probably be found. This concept of diametrics I have in mind could be expressed in a variety of ways.

  1. Cerebral vs. Physical
  2. Solitary vs. Collaborative
  3. Internal vs. External

Each of those word combinations is describing the same contrast of ideas. But how to best describe it?

Composite image of music flowing from a girls mind.

The New System of Mind Music

In the (maybe not so distant) future, musicians will have the ability to directly output music from their heads. Technology will be developed that will allow artists to simply think/imagine/hear the music in his/her head and output this as audio and/or notation. This cerebrally generated “audio feed” could be routed (maybe even wirelessly) to a recording device to be documented, distributed, and sold. Theoretically, this process could happen as a live performance. The signal could be routed to a sound system for a concert, to an internet connection for worldwide streaming, or even directly injected (almost telepathically) into the head of a “listener” outfitted with the proper “receiver” device.

The possibilities are fantastic. Composers could direct an entire imaginary orchestra as they hear it in their minds. Dancers could dance to their own music in real time. Musicians could play exactly what they intend to play. Singers could sing in whatever voices they can imagine. Handicapped artists suddenly would be unrestricted by their handicaps.

This is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. If we already can control toy helicopters with our thoughts, then it’s only a matter of time before we can output music directly from our minds. UPDATE (2011-09-23): This just in… UC Berkeley neuroscientist Professor Jack Gallant announced today that it’s possible to recreate the video from brain activity.

This technological breakthrough in music will follow a path familiar to video games. With the Wii, Nintendo brought wireless motion-sensing accelerometer action to everyday people. The developers of Guitar Hero and Rock Band banked a lot of cash by making it really easy to “play” popular music without having to learn an instrument. Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox removed the need for a controller, allowing the person to become the controller. I don’t know who will create the first mind-controlled music technology, but somebody’s going to do it.

Brace Yourselves

Cool meant something totally different back then. Don’t judge.

As with any change, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Unfortunately, music will experience yet another Regrettable Period in which we have to learn how to use this new technology properly. I predict some gross and unsavory abuse of the technology, much like the ubiquity of terrible synthesizers in the 1980s or prevalence of auto-tuned vocals since Cher started believing in life after love. But some lucky artist is going to enjoy the honor of being known as the one that mastered this wonderful new system, thus becoming the “Grand Master Flash of whatever-this-thing-may-become-known-as.” Someone will figure out how to use it right, but it might take some time. In the meantime, wear earplugs.

Why We’ll Argue About This

At first, this newfangled gadgetry will be heralded as the end of “real” music and musicianship. The critics will say it’s too easy and not authentic music. Traditional composers and invested players will complain that no one has to learn how to write or play anymore. And much in the same way that digital was derided as a poor substitute for analog, purists will say that this cerebral form loses something in the process. Those arguments all might be right, but there may be a bigger issue lurking.

Trapped “In The Box”

When the process of making music becomes entirely internalized it will be really great because of it’s purity and singularity of thought, but will it simultaneously suffer from lack of external influences? When digital recording became popular, the question was often asked by one artist or engineer to another: “Was this all done ‘in the box?’” – meaning: was the audio signal created, mixed, and mastered on the same computer? Early on, music created entirely in this fashion lacked the beneficial effects that analog systems inherently imparted upon the audio signal. Today, the line has been blurred by better technology, so it’s harder to tell if something was recorded analog or digital. Only engineers with “golden ears” can hear the difference (even then I suspect shenanigans). At any rate, the question still remains: What benefits will be lost due to the signal remaining “in the box” of your head?

Potential Musical Influences

  1. People – The comradery, inspiration, ideas, criticism, differing views, and friction found when people work together often makes for better music. Being alone can lead to dead ends and boring or bad music. Collaboration can make beautiful things.
  2. Hardware – Though they are inanimate objects, the instruments and devices used to make music come with their own inspirations, challenges, rewards, frustrations to overcome, and occasional good glitches. Sometimes a piece of gear has to be conquered and relinquishes its magic upon defeat.
  3. Criticism – The critic is the archenemy of the artist, but every good story needs a villain. Without judgement, no work is ever as best as it can be. Words are often revealed for their folly only after they’ve left the head.
  4. Movement – Music and movement are very strongly related. When making music, movement is both part of the instigation of sound, but also a reaction to the sound being created. Performance and dance are like cousins. So if movement is not necessary for the creation of music, what effect will that have on the final product?

Good Things Will Happen

A lot of things can go wrong in this new system, but a lot of things can go right too. Eventually we’ll work out the kinks. We’ll figure out the typical pitfalls. We’ll master this medium like we have with all the others. One day amazing music will be generated using nothing but musicians’ brains. I’m hedging a bet it will be the direct output of some ridiculously young Mozart’s mind that will blow us all away. Perhaps this new interface will teach us something about how our brains work. Maybe it will allow us to communicate more precisely on ever deeper levels. What if it develops into a new universal language? Hmm.

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FIX: Pro Tools Audio Device Buffer Underflowed

How to get a Pro Tools rig up and running when the error message “The audio device buffer underflowed…” won’t go away.

The Error Message

Screen captured image of Pro Tools error

The audio device buffer underflowed. If this occurs frequently, try decreasing the “H/W Buffer Size” in the Playback Engine panel or remove other devices from the audio firewire bus. (-6085)

Occasionally this error pops up in Pro Tools, usually after I return from a meal in the middle of a long recording or mixing session. The session file will only playback audio for 1 second or less and then the error message pops up. Apparently, Pro Tools 9 is a workaholic and doesn’t like taking lunch breaks, at least when running on the particular combination of MacBook Pro, Mbox 2 Pro, and Western Digital hard drive that I’m using.

Following the directions to decrease the “H/W Buffer Size” in the Playback Engine panel doesn’t seem to help. In fact, not only does decreasing the buffer size seems contrary to the suggested way to solve a buffer underrun, but it then sometimes throws this error message:

Screen captured image of Pro Tools error

A CPU overload occured. If this happens often, try increasing the “H/W Buffer Size” in the Playback Engine Dialog, or removing some plug-ins. (-6101)

The Fix

I’ve tried a lot of things and the problem seems to be related to the hard drive and firewire ports. Here’s how I fix it.

  1. Save and Close the session.
  2. Quit Pro Tools.
  3. Eject the hard drive used for recording audio.
  4. Unplug the audio hard drive and Mbox 2 Pro (or the audio interface you’re using).
  5. Wait 10 seconds.
  6. Reconnect the audio hard drive and audio interface.
  7. Restart Pro Tools.
  8. Reopen the session and press Play.

If the session plays back without stopping, then it worked. If not, then I don’t know what to tell you, which reminds me of a “Deep Thought” by Jack Handey.

If you ever crawl inside an old hollow log and go to sleep, and while you’re in there some guys come and seal up both ends and then put it on a truck and take it to another city, boy, I don’t know what to tell you.

Hopefully this solution worked for you. Let me know if you’ve had the same problem, what hardware you are running and if this solved the problem.

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FIX: Pro Tools hardware is either not installed or used by another program.

Pro Tools hardware is either not installed or used by another program. If you thought that having Pro Tools 9 installed meant no more “Hey, Mr. Engineer Genius, where’s your fancy hardware?” errors, then this nagging error probably came as a surprise. It did for me. Since installing Pro Tools 9, my workflow has allowed […]

Pro Tools hardware is either not installed or used by another program.

If you thought that having Pro Tools 9 installed meant no more “Hey, Mr. Engineer Genius, where’s your fancy hardware?” errors, then this nagging error probably came as a surprise. It did for me. Since installing Pro Tools 9, my workflow has allowed me to jump around from my Mbox 2 Pro, Mbox 2 Micro, and MacBook Pro’s built-in sound card. This has been really handy while trying to finish up my album on the road. But, apparently, all that hardware hopping can cause the playback engine to get stuck in some funky states that don’t so work –if at all. See my previous post “FIX: Pro Tools could not set sample rate to specified value” for a similar issue.

Obviously, the problem has something to do with the playback engine. Since the error dialog only offers an ‘OK’ button, which closes Pro Tools, there doesn’t seem to be a way to work around the problem. There is not even a way to know what hardware Pro Tools is expecting.

Until now.

The Fix

I found a simple solution via this Sweetwater forum. The answer given there details how to get Pro Tools running on a PC, but I found that it worked for Macs too and without having to install any drivers. The fix is kind of like booting Pro Tools in safe mode. Simply hold the ‘N’ key while starting up Pro Tools. This will bypass the normal start up sequence and open up the Playback Engine window. Now you can select the correct playback engine and continue using Pro Tools.

In my situation, Pro Tools was looking for the last connected device (my Mbox 2 Pro), but since it wasn’t available it opted for the next available option: my MacBook Pro’s line input, which doesn’t make a very good playback engine.

Let me know if this fix worked for you.

Note

This problem may have been fixed in the Pro Tools 9.0.2 update that came out yesterday, though I’ve not been able look through the 9.0.2 Readme file in detail or to test this out on the updated software. I’ll update this page when I find out more. Since I still receive regular hits on this post, I’m assuming this problem is not solved yet. Maybe in a future update…

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The Western Digital (WD) SmartWare Problem

Modern recording takes lots of hard drive space. It’s easy to eat up several GB on a song of average length and track depth. I’ve filled a drive or two already with various recording sessions, Photoshop files, and media. Over the weekend I had to pick up another drive just so I can finish my […]

Image of the WD 2 TB My Book Studio LXModern recording takes lots of hard drive space. It’s easy to eat up several GB on a song of average length and track depth. I’ve filled a drive or two already with various recording sessions, Photoshop files, and media. Over the weekend I had to pick up another drive just so I can finish my upcoming album. I went to the nearest big box electronics shop and picked up the the biggest drive with the best price. What I found was the Western Digital 2 TB My Book Studio LX. The size should be enough for the next year or so (let’s hope!) and the simple grey metal design suits my preference for the minimalist Mac aesthetic. Surprisingly, this is the first drive I’ve purchased that came preformatted for Mac OS. I know that some drives come advertised as such, but this was just a standard off-the-shelf one-kind-fits-all drive. Maybe this indicates a shift in the Apple/PC market share?

Western Digital enjoys the largest market share of consumer hard drive sales and is probably the most visible hard drive manufacturer in retail stores. They make affordable drives that work well. I’ve not had any issues with the WD drives I’ve owned (five and counting), so I feel good about purchasing from them.

The only thing that bothers me about WD is their pre-installed SmartWare software. It’s a huge can of donkey sauce. This multi-function bloatware takes up over half a GB of space, is loaded into the drive firmware (so it cannot just be formatted away), appears as a separate VCD that pops up everytime you connect to the drive, and cannot be completely removed without voiding the warranty. The only option WD gives the user is to download two more software packages, one that updates the firmware so you can run the second package that allows you to hide the VCD. Blehhhh…

The whole point I want to make is this:

Dear Western Digital,

I like you and your drives. I like the design, reliability, and affordability of your drives. I can’t stand your SmartWare. Please stop making it. If you can’t do that, then please make it an opt-in thing. If you feel you really, truly, just absolutely must preinstall it (instead of offering it available as a free download), then at least make it easy to permanently remove with just one or two clicks. I do not want to download more software to remove software I already don’t want. Thank you.

A regular and loyal customer,

Scott

Removing SmartWare

While removing the the VCD completely is possible and would be my preferred solution, doing so voids the warranty, which is extremely valuable should the drive ever fail. So in my opinion, doing something to void the warranty on the device that stores my invaluable data is a bad idea. Until WD decides that such action no longer voids the warranty, I cannot recommend this.

How to Hide SmartWare

WD doesn’t make it easy to hide the VCD. There are two major steps. You’ll need to download the firmware update for your particular drive and the VCD Manager. Visit the WD Product Updates page to find out how to hide the VCD for your specific device and OS.

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