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Nov. 16th, 2015


Sigh. Here we go again...

I was wondering whether to actually post about this or not, but like it or not, I think I pretty much have to do so.

I’m not exactly sure what caused this most recent transphobic crapstorm, but I suspect it was most likely the ugly defeat of the City of Houston’s HERO ballot measure. This was a right-wing photo opportunity for hate groups to openly walk around wearing T-shirts emblazoned with their transphobic crapulence. Not entirely surprisingly, the ballot measure was defeated. Let’s keep this in perspective: this was one city, admittedly a relatively progressive one, within a sea of good old boys, guns, oversized trucks and Confederate flags. This should really be an object lesson in exactly why it is that civil rights should not be decided by the popular vote, because as with so many similar cases in the past, all this proves is that the majority of people who can be whipped up sufficiently to rise from their pools of acquiescence to actually vote are mostly bigots.

Following shortly thereafter, a disgusting poll on change.org (no, I’m not linking it here because it doesn’t need my contribution to its Google page rank) went up that was exhorting major LGBT organizations to drop the T, becoming specifically LGB groups and explicitly excluding transgender people. I strongly suspect that its proposer is a right-wing sock puppet, but there are plenty of queer bigots out there so this may not necessarily be the case. This is really beyond belief. Trans people have had a long history of being in the front line of the fight for queer rights — we don’t get to hide or slink back into the woodwork like so many cisnormative LGBs, so for us all-too-often we have to fight or die, in many cases literally. The T has always been the poor cousin of the LGBT world — personally I don’t have much to do with lesbian and gay events because frankly so many people can be total bastards to trans people within those communities, so it just isn’t worth the risk in return for any meager benefit. I’m seeing lots of TERF language showing up — members of the T community have ‘different concerns’ than those of the LGB community, so we’re better off separate. BULL FUCKING SHIT. So what if we have different concerns? Lesbians and gay men have different concerns, so why wouldn’t they prefer to part ways? The hidden agenda here isn’t so much that they want to kick out the T. They want to disenfranchise the people who check more than one box — people who are both transgender and lesbian, gay or bisexual are really the people they want rid of. Why? Quite simply because they are transphobic bigots who don’t want nasty icky trans people anywhere near them, or (particularly) calling them out on their bigotry.

I am over, seriously over, commentary from people who want the T people out saying that, ‘we stand for trans people, but we want our own separate space from them.’ Yeah, right. As I said previously, BULL FUCKING SHIT. What you really don’t want is to confront your own bigotry, it’s really that simple. ‘Oh, I’m not a bigot, I find it really upsetting to be called a bigot, all I want is .’ BULLSHIT. If you hate trans people, at least have the fucking decency to admit to it. Maybe there should be a symbol, or a particular way of dressing you might want to adopt so we can easily spot you and avoid the hell out of you — you don’t want us anywhere near you, so why not?

In the pagan community, a number of elders recently publicly supported the kick-out-the-T measure. Aline O’Brien (aka Macha Nightmare), Ruth Barrett and Luisah Teish all signed the kick-out-the-T petition. Macha Nightmare has subsequently backpedaled and is now claiming that she disavows the petition, though I’m given to wonder why the hell she even thought for one second that signing it in the first place was any way appropriate. Luisah Teish is also backpedaling in her own not-actually-apologizing kind of way. Ruth Barrett is doubling down and crying victim, just like she always has. There has been quite a bit of discussion about whether or not these people deserve to be regarded as Pagan elders as a consequence. I find this a little ridiculous, because realistically eldership really just means that you happen to have a number of students and/or friends and followers who regard you as an elder, which is clearly the case for all of these people. None of them are my elders, and they will have my respect when hell freezes over.

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2015/11/16/sigh-here-we-go-again/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#QueerofSwords, #TransgenderActivism

12 steps to successful eBay bottom-feeding

Over the last couple of years or so I’ve equipped a pretty decent electronics lab for cents on the dollar relative to how much ‘real people’ would spend — I’m now having a go at doing the same thing for building a hopefully pretty decent home studio setup for music production purposes.

More than one person has asked me how I manage to do this — I’ve picked up some truly ridiculous bargains — so I must be doing something right.

  1. Stop being nice. The first word of advice I’ll give is forget about notions of fairness or niceness. You don’t need to rip anyone off or steal anything from anyone. A trade on eBay is entirely fair because both sides have to agree. If you’re selling, a higher price is good, if you’re buying, a lower price is what you’re looking for, so don’t feel ashamed about that. It’s a game, it’s how the game is played, like it or not. Get over yourself. Look at it like this — you want to create a capability for yourself. It might be you want to build out your wood shop or machine shop, or build yourself a kickass gaming PC, or extend your Star Wars action figure collection. You have $X to spend. If you spend that like a real person and buy new, you might get 3 things for $X. If you buy used, you might get 10. But if you’re a true bottom-feeder, you might get 30 to 100. That’s getting on for two orders of magnitude leverage on $X — it’s not so much that you’ll save money, you probably won’t because if you’re like me you’re going to spend $X anyway — but what you get for your money will be drastically different.

  2. Do your homework. Make sure you know a fair bit about the thing you’re trying to buy. There are several reasons for this, but the biggest reason why people spend way more than they need to is just not having spent enough time figuring out what constitutes a reasonable price to pay for a particular item.

  3. Don’t be in a hurry. You might have decided that you want to buy a new keyboard. You’ve always had a hankering for a Yamaha DX7 Mk II, and nothing else will do. If that’s what you want, go for it, but use the techniques below to help you figure out how to get one (much) cheaper than you otherwise might. If you must must must have one right now, know that you’re probably going to spend 50% – 100% more than you probably need to. If you have the attitude that you want one some time in the next 2 to 3 months instead, you can wait for a better price to come up.

  4. Be flexible. Say, for example, that you want to buy a particular machine tool. You kind of want a particular De Walt, or some such, but something roughly equivalent from another brand is also acceptable. This greatly increases the pool of potential deals, which purely by statistics pushes down the price you’re likely to need to pay. If you want to be a super-duper bottom feeder, you might once every day or two look at every listing in a broad category, giving you the chance to snap up something you might not otherwise have thought of picking up right now for an insanely low price. It’s also usually worth the risk buying extremely cheap stuff from China — I’ve hardly ever had problems and saved a ton on money this way. Beware of fakes, however, and don’t buy anything that would be a serious problem or even a hazard to you if it either failed to materialize or turned out to be defective.

  5. Getting the best out of auctions. Not all eBay items are actually auctions — those that are accept bids up until a deadline, whereupon the highest bidder (assuming you’ve exceeded the reserve price) will get the deal. This kind of transaction is often the best way to get a really good deal, but it’s also an easy way to spend a buttload of money you don’t really need to if you don’t do your homework or (more typically) you get caught up in having to beat another bidder and let the price go too high. The trick here is always snipe. My advice is work out exactly what the most you’d pay for a thing would be, then bid that amount with about 5 seconds to go before the end of the auction. This has several advantages — most usefully, it avoids bidding wars, so you’re never tempted to bid higher because someone beat you, and it also avoids encouraging other people to start outbidding each other. You want to avoid pushing the price up, obviously, so this is the best way to do that. Also, only bidding your maximum has the advantage that you will lose the deal if the price goes up beyond an amount that would constitute a good deal for you.

  6. Look for auctions that end at stupid times. Trust me, you stand a way higher chance of winning a last second snipe bid if your potential competitors are in bed asleep. I bought a digital mixing console (Yamaha 02r) for $56 this way. Yes, fifty six dollars, an order of magnitude under the going rate.

  7. Add 1. This sounds stupid, but always add $1 to your bid price. This is basic psychology — people tend to bid in multiples of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, etc. If you add $1, that means that the three people who bid $100 will be beaten by your $101 last-second snipe and you’ll win the deal.

  8. Look for Buy-it-now or Best Offer. I have a personal liking for buy-it-now trades because they are quick and don’t require sniping, so the trick here is to search for the thing you want, sorted by price + shipping lowest first. Try to find a lower priced item with Best Offer enabled and just basically shamelessly lowball them. It’s amazingly common to find someone just say yes if they are desperate to make the deal. You have the opportunity to add a comment — now’s the time to exploit some mentioned failing (e.g., a big scratch, missing power supply, whatever) to push the price down.

  9. Look for recently listed Buy it Now at below-market prices. Very occasionally someone will list a buy-it-now item stupidly cheap. You can pretty much guarantee that some other bottom feeder will want it, so the trick is to get in early and act fast. You can do this by spamming a search looking for items as they are added — this works well if you are looking at items across a broad category. If you want something very specific, learn to create a query that will automatically email you when something is listed below the price you want to pay — when that email arrives, jump on eBay immediately and hit Buy it Now. I picked up a current model LeCroy differential amplifier in mint condition, new price nearly $6000 for $300 this way. I have no idea why it was listed at that price, and frankly didn’t care. It’s in my lab now.

  10. Learn the query language. The eBay search box has quite a bit of hidden functionality. You can, for example, use a query like, ‘(hp, tektronix, lecroy, fluke) (oscilloscope, spectrum analyzer, dynamic signal analyzer, DSA) -manual -spare -calibration’ to show you all the oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers and DSAs listed that are made by HP, Tektronix, LeCroy or Fluke, whilst filtereing out spammy listings for manuals, spare parts and calibration services. In conjunction with stored queries that email you when they get a hit, this is true magic.

  11. Search for lots/multiple packs, etc. Many people skip over listings for multiples of something if they only want to buy one. This can be the very best stunt ever, because sometimes you can end up with 6 of something for less than you’d normally pay for 1. You can then sell off 5 of them, so you end up with the thing you wanted and a profit.

  12. Buy broken things. This option is best if you have a capability of fixing things either yourself or at low cost. Often, items will sell at a fraction of their usual eBay trade price if there is something wrong with them. This is the other really huge route to cost saving. Read the listing very carefully. Often, you find things listed as ‘can’t test’ because the person selling it knows little or nothing about it and is listing it as parts-or-not-working because they don’t want problems. ‘Powers up but now way to test’ or ‘Missing power supply, can’t test’ is music to my ears. Also, if you do your homework and know the usual failure modes of a particular item, having one up for sale presenting those symptoms is a sure bet because you can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be able to fix it at a known cost. I’ll often Google for the service manual for a device before I bid on it so that I know I’ll be able to fix it. Some manufacturers are really good with that — Yamaha are awesome, as were HP and Tektronix in the older days. Others, e.g. TC Electronic, suck hugely and don’t even release schematics, so I’m much more careful. If you’re going to buy something broken, it’s wise to bear in mind that, if you can’t fix it, you might be wanting to resell it, so try to pay below-market (even for a broken item) if you possibly can so you end up not losing (much) money. I’ve been pretty lucky with this — of everything I’ve bought (easily over 100 items of lab gear, shop equipment and music gear), I’ve only ever had a couple of lemons, but it’s always worth being realistic that if you’re going to adopt the Way of the Cheapass, sometimes your eBay-fu will fail you.

I hope this helps, and good luck cheapassing your way to success! 😉

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2015/11/15/12-steps-to-successful-ebay-bottom-feeding/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#Electronics, #MoMBlog, #Recording, #TestGear

Welcoming back an old friend: Yamaha REV-5

Yamaha REV-5Thanks to the wonders of eBay bottom-feeding, I’ve welcomed home an old friend this weekend. It’s a slightly beaten up but fully working Yamaha REV-5 digital reverb of late 1980s vintage. It’s not one of the better known or most sought after reverbs from that period — for that you’re looking at a Lexicon, probably a PCM70 or PCM80, but the REV-5 is an overlooked gem in my not so humble opinion. It’s a truism that everyone hates everything on the internet, so you can find plenty of people dissing this particular device, but I think this is inappropriate.

Back when I had my for-real studio in the late ’80s, a REV-5 was my main reverb, with a couple of SPX-90s and an Alesis as backup. For the uninitiated, the REV-5 is a bit like an SPX-90 on steroids — much, much cleaner sounding and capable of being dialed up to super-dense or down to being very thin. It does all the things you’d want of a high-end reverb, realistically. You can dial in early reflections separately from the reverb tail, with direct control over the first three initial reflections. You can edit the amount of diffusion, and dial between a very even sounding (Yamaha-ish) tail and a more coloured Lexicon-ish tail. It can also do most of the SPX-90 tricks like chorus, flanging, symphonic, delays, gated and reverse reverbs, pitch shifting, etc., but at far higher audio quality. The front panel has a 3-band parametric (peaking, fixed Q, variable frequency) EQ that makes it trivial to fiddle with the frequency response. The user interface adds a lot more buttons relative to the SPX series, making it possible to directly enter parameters. You can also get one-button access to the 7 most commonly used factory or user patches.

I got change out of $100 for this thing. Just as the turn of the ’90s was the right time to buy analog synths, right now is the right time to build up a collection of rack gear as all of the larger old-skool studios are closing and/or shifting over to in-the-box or hybrid ProTools setups. I doubt the recording world will flip back to the old days of large consoles, but I have a gut feeling that as more and more people (like me, as it happens) have tried a heavily in-the-box approach for a while, they will want to go back to using more hardware.

I have to admit that part of this is because of bit rot. If you have an in-the-box recording setup, you’re stuck with the computer industry’s obsolescence cycle, so you can expect your investment to be largely obsolete within 5 years and probably completely unusable in 10. However, here I am fiddling around with a nearly 30 year old rack mount reverb unit that not only works perfectly but sounds better than just about any plugin-based reverb I’ve used.

I’m not really entirely buying the whole analog summing thing — though it may make a (very) small difference in some cases, I don’t really subscribe to the idea that it’s a good idea to drop a ton of money on something you can barely hear. Far better to spend that on something you really can hear, which is why ancient outboard gear is such a steal right now, particularly if you’re looking to avoid sounding exactly like everyone else with a copy of Ableton Live and NI Massive.

PS: I still want a Lexicon PCM70 or PCM 80. The eBay bottom feeding continues…

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2015/11/15/welcoming-back-an-old-friend-yamaha-rev-5/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.


Sep. 19th, 2015


Vinyl vs. CD -- The Ultimate Smackdown!

vinyl-vs-cdYeah, yeah, I know. It’s PC vs Mac all over again. This has been a bugbear of mine for years. I’ll come on to that, but for now, here’s a link to an LA Times article by Chris Kornelis that I think does a really good job at talking about this issue, including some lesser-known history:

Why CDs may actually sound better than vinyl

Go and read the article. It’s actually pretty good.

I’ve talked about this previously elsewhere, most recently on Quora. For the can’t-bother-to-click-challenged, here’s a cut & paste of the text of my reply:

You are actually asking the wrong question. You should really be asking which of vinyl or digital formats have the best mastering engineers. From experience, that would be the vinyl. They have to be, mostly because vinyl is actually pretty awful by default. It has relatively poor dynamic range, poor stereo separation, difficulties representing low frequencies accurately, the list goes on. If the engineer gets it wrong when cutting the master, the stylus on a record player can distort or even completely jump out of a groove. They have to match the track spacing to the amount of bass signal, or adjacent tracks bleed into each other. Signal to noise ratio isn’t particularly good either — it’s a little better than consumer/prosumer tape, but nowhere near as good as half inch 30ips, and nowhere even vaguely close to 24 bit digital. Contrary to what another poster said, phase response is weird going on awful because of the precompensation filtering that is necessary to get any bass response at all. On the other hand, most digital formats have pretty good phase response, an essentially completely flat frequency response and if you are using decent equipment, very little coloration of any kind. Technically, any way you compare the formats, digital wins by a huge margin. So why does vinyl often sound better, with better stereo imaging, warmer livelier sound? Quite simply because mastering for digital does not require anything like the skill of mastering for vinyl. A really good mastering engineer can turn a good mix into something that sounds truly amazing — there are mastering engineers who can do digital really well, but they are rare. Vinyl mastering engineers, in many cases, are true masters of their art, no pun intended.

It was interesting seeing the reference to Bob Clearmountain complaining of the awfulness of vinyl, back in the day. My own experience was pretty similar to his — I remember having to tweak and tweak and tweak on mixes to keep bass under control. I’d start with something earthshaking in the studio’s control room, but end up sending out a master that was at best describable as polite. It’s fascinating, now, seeing that CD is essentially in its death throes as a format with vinyl doing better and better numbers year on year. I wouldn’t rule out doing vinyl again, but, do I have to? Really? Such a pain in the ass!

One modifier on this: I’m really talking about uncompressed digital formats here. Though higher bit rate MP3 and MP3-like formats sound fine to me, lower bit rate MP3 encodings can sound really, really bad on some material. The acid test is something with sharp clicks — low bit rate MP3 renders them as really brief farts. Pff! Pff! Or sometimes ffP! ffP! ffP!, which can be a little more distracting.

In other news, I just picked up (very cheaply via eBay) an Akai MPC 1000 drum machine. I knew it had some issues, but it looks like I’ll need to do a pretty extensive refurb on it to get it going. It’s missing a fader knob, has a damaged switch (which still works, but is wonky), another that is sticky like someone spilled something into it, and seemingly most of the pads are either dead or so worn that I just about have to karate-punch them to get them to respond. Thanks to mpcstuff.com, I have a replacement pad sensor board, a set of replacement pads (modified to be more sensitive than standard), a replacement switch assembly for the broken one, and a couple of replacement fader knobs on the way. I also have (from elsewhere) a RAM upgrade on the way, and will probably put JJOS on it. The other thing that just showed up is a JL Cooper SMPTE linear timecode sync box, so I’ll most likely be trying that out over the weekend. My quest for timing that doesn’t suck continues!

PS: Yes, it’s my birthday today. And International Talk Like a Pirate day. Y’arr, maties!

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2015/09/19/vinyl-vs-cd-the-ultimate-smackdown/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#Electronics, #Mastering, #MoMBlog, #Recording

Sep. 17th, 2015


Two eBay acqusitions getting nicely acquainted

I’ve written about the Keithley before, but the HP 6612B power supply has been sitting in a box for a few days waiting on me getting time to unpack it and check it out. I’m very pleased. Can we say dead nuts? It’s just as accurate in voltage mode. This will be a very useful addition to the lab because it’ll avoid my usual spaghetti wiring monitoring voltage and current with two separate bench multimeters. I also rather like the fact that it has GPIB, which given its built-in measurement capabilities has Possibilities. It’s not a SMU, but it’s a credible quarter-of-a-SMU, and seemingly accurate enough to do duty as a voltage/current standard if I only need 0.1%-ish precision.

Keithley 2015 THD & HP 6612B

If anyone gets the SMU joke, I’ll be impressed! 😉

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#Electronics, #MoMBlog, #TestGear

Sep. 14th, 2015


Absolute proof that the music equipment business has jumped the biggest shark ever...

Not. Actually. Satire.

Help us, Eb Metasonix! You’re our only hope!

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2015/09/14/absolute-proof-that-the-music-equipment-business-has-jumped-the-biggest-shark-ever/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#Electronics, #MoMBlog, #Recording

Things that keep me awake at night #356: Audio/MIDI timing jitter and latency

No, I’m not talking about snake oil audio jitter that can be improved by buying $1500 cables hand-plated with gold between the thighs of virgins. I’m talking about the real thing — the kind that has been pissing me off since roughly 1991 and the demise of computers that were capable of decent timing accuracy.

Way back in the late ’80s, I had a commercial studio. We had a lot of synths and various outboard, most of which being set up so that it could be sequenced via honest-to-goodness 5-pin DIN MIDI. Our master sequencer was none other than an Atart ST. Spectacularly basic by modern standards, but, funny story: this thing was bang-on, dead nuts accurate with regard to timing, both running of its internal clock and synchronized with our 2″ 24-track tape recorder via an SMPTE timecode box.

Back then, if you hit record on the sequencer and played something, when you played it back it came back as pretty much identical to what you played in the first place. A common technique (that I still use to this day) when writing was doing everything real-time with MIDI, then when the time came to track things ‘for-real’, running the sequence one track at a time to get the best possible results. Timing was accurate enough that if I accidentally ended up playing back from tape at the same time as having the ST locked to SMPTE, you’d hear the audio flanging.

Fast forward to the mid ’90s, when I started trying to put a home studio together following the demise of my original studio, a master’s degree and an aborted attempt at a PhD. This time around, I had much better computer hardware, running Windows. Everything you’d read, all the glossy mags, all thought that this was the bee’s knees, but when I tried to record anything I started wondering if I’d lost my ability to play anything in time. I’d complain about it, and people would tell me I was stupid, being too picky or that I just had bad hardware. Trust me, I spent a LOT on getting my hardware right, but my timing still sucked donkey’s balls. Though I really wanted to be able to use sequencers for composition, I think everything I recorded was played real time pretty much up to about 3 or 4 years ago. Same problem — I’d play something and it would come back wrong. Sure, I could quantize it, which would reduce (but not eliminate) the suck, but I couldn’t really understand why nobody else was bothered by this. Many years ago I had an email conversation with the head of the MIDI standards committee (or whatever it called itself at the time). His response was basically, yes, we know, but we’re not going to do anything about it because nobody cares, and our members are all from hardware companies who don’t give a rat’s ass about professional musicians and only want to sell cheap sound cards. At the time I was trying to persuade him to lobby for the introduction of timestamped record and playback of MIDI preserved through record and playback driver chains on Windows and Macs, but it fell on deaf ears. From reading I’ve done more recently, this has indeed been introduced, but many drivers and hardware devices just ignore the timestamps, as does some sequencing software.

Fast forward a bit more, up to about 3 years ago when I started recording the couple of albums I have out right now. They were both recorded mostly using Ableton and softsynths. Yes, timing still sucked on the record side, horribly so in terms of latency and pretty badly in terms of jitter, but since I was sequencing within Ableton and the softsynths’ timing was essentially sample-accurate, I could quantize things back into some resemblance of not sucking so badly that I wanted to chainsaw my investment in equipment, but it still wasn’t right. I still couldn’t do things that I took for granted in 1988. Sound quality was greatly superior, but what use is that when I can’t play in time any more? Seriously?

Not too long ago I pulled one of my old hardware synths, an Ensoniq SQ-80, out of storage with a view to getting it working. I hooked it up via MIDI to my M-Audio (now Avid) Fasttrack Pro interface, using Ableton as a sequencer. I looped the MIDI back into the SQ-80, which has a neat feature that lets you internally disconnect the keyboard from its sound generation for exactly this purpose. I set up Ableton to loop what I was playing back into the SQ-80. I will not be polite here: the results were beyond awful. We’re not talking about me being an oldtimer primadonna with golden ears whining about minutiae — the latency was so bad that it was unplayable, but worse (even) than that, I couldn’t play more than a few notes without notes getting stuck on. Playing slowly, this would happen every minute or two, but play a fast run and you could pretty much guarantee an immediate failure. It wasn’t even close to working, let alone usable.

Before anyone has a go at me for having a broken SQ-80, no, it’s not. I hooked a MIDI cable from the Out back to the In, and it played fine, no noticeable latency, just as if I was running it conventionally. Hooking up the MIDI out from Ableton to a Vermona MIDI-to-CV interface in my modular synth also gave the same stuck notes from hell and horrific latency and jitter. I tried sending MIDI clock — it was all over the place, terrible, unusable.

OK, so what is jitter and latency and why does it suck so much?

Latency is easy to explain — it’s just delay. Notes go in, they get delayed, and the come out again. You hit a note and it sounds slightly late. This is unpleasant for musicians to deal with because it makes the instrument feel dead. English doesn’t have good ways of describing it, but ‘spongy’ or even ‘rubbery’ come to mind. I end up hitting the notes harder subconsciously to compensate. If you practice long enough, your brain starts to compensate for the delay, but it’s not an ideal situation.

Jitter is much, much worse. It’s like latency in principle, except that the timing of the delay varies randomly. This can’t be compensated for or learned around because it’s not predictable. If there’s a lot of it, it can make a seasoned pro sound like a 3-year old’s first glockenspiel session.

Most people probably can’t consciously hear the difference. I have to assume this because the purveyors of modern music gear would have torch-wielding-peasants camped outside their design centres as we speak. However, if you learn pretty much any musical instrument of the old-fashioned kind, you have to train your ears to be sensitive to timing in order to learn how to actually play in time accurately. Some instruments favour this more than others — bass guitar, drums and percussion being probably the most prominent. I’m unfortunate enough to play two of the three, so my ears scream, “NOOOOOOOOO!” at things that most people might just find a little sloppy or just unimpressive.

Innerclock Systems have recently published the results of a very detailed study into the timing behaviour of music gear, both vintage and new. These numbers make fascinating reading if you’re just the right kind of obsessively nerdy.

So these fancy computer based sequencers have been around for a long time now, but it’s interesting that the most significant beat-driven music genres of the last couple of decades haven’t really been based on them. Rather, house music was TR808 and TB303, techno was more 909, electro and hip-hop were heavily driven by the Akai MPC series. What do all of these systems have?

Better than 1ms latency and jitter, often <i>much</i> better.

What does Ableton have? Maybe 30 milliseconds of latency on a relatively fast, well set up system. The best I’ve been able to manage with solid reliability is 57.2ms, though I’ve been able to unreliably manage about 15ms of output latency. This is just the audio drivers — the VST and AU instruments add their own latency and jitter, as does USB if that is the route by which note information is finding its way inside. I’ve not tested it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I often see worse than 100ms of latency when I’m playing a relatively complicated setup. At 120 beats per minute, this is 20% of the length of a quarter note, or nearly a whole 16th!

The reason why this happens is because of the nature of Windows and MacOS. They are multitasking, multithreaded operating systems that are tweaked to give a good user experience first, but aren’t really tweaked for accurate timing at the sub-millisecond level. Since lots of tasks are always competing for processor time, there is no guarantee that the code necessary to deal with incoming or outgoing audio data or MIDI information will actually get executed when it really needs to be. Consequently, it’s necessary to use buffering in both directions to take up the slack — you basically need enough buffering to cope with the uncertainty in the response time. Buffering adds a delay, queuing up data so that when the interrupt routine actually executes that it won’t run out of information causing a dropout in the audio. This is where the latency comes from. Some software, like Ableton, lets you tweak the buffer size so that it is just big enough to prevent dropout. Faster computers with more CPUs can often manage with smaller buffers, but this isn’t guaranteed. Audio is relatively easy to buffer because it’s a simple stream of numbers at a continuous rate. MIDI data is basically just note on and note off switching information, much much lower data rate, but no less timing sensitive than audio. Ideally, incoming and outgoing notes should be timestamped, so you get consistent delays rather than jitter, but it seems that this is even now still usually not bothered with. I actually suspect that Ableton, as used in my test case mentioned above, wasn’t even sending out MIDI data in the order that it arrived, so note offs were going out before their corresponding note ons, resulting in stuck notes.

The use case that I really would love Ableton for would be playing it via an external MIDI controller, maybe a keyboard, maybe an Eigenharp, then have it do clever things with that MIDI data and send it out to other instruments, including my modular synth. Nope. It kinda sorta works a bit, but it’s not really acceptable for serious use.

I think that the music equipment business has been doing the, “Nothing to see here, move along now!” trick for a long time. There are workarounds for some of this. If you’re recording external audio, so long as you’re not trying to  monitor what you’re playing through the system, you can get away with a lot of latency because you can simply delay the audio after the fact so that everything lines up. Ableton does this, as does Logic, ProTools, etc. If you’re playing a softsynth, you only get the outgoing half of the latency, which tends to be relatively consistent rather than jittery, so it’s not too horrible unless you’re playing something very fast or percussive. I once tried playing percussion real-time via USB MIDI and a softsynth (Battery). Um… no. It was not a pleasant experience. I suppose that some people manage to practice enough that they adjust. Try this: look at some videos of people playing softsynths or triggering samples via something like an Ableton Push or one of the many USB MIDI based MPC clones  — look really closely, and you’ll always see them hitting the pads noticeably before you hear the sound. Then look at videos of people playing actual drums. Yep, it’s enough to be visible if you know what you’re looking for.

I think the industry’s main Hail Mary these days is the fact that relatively few people actually learn keyboards traditionally, so they depend on step sequencing and quantization. That’s how I got through my last two albums, at least for the parts I didn’t just play real-time. If you’re inside the sequencer’s world and have advance knowledge of when to trigger a note, you can send it out via a softsynth essentially dead-on accurately.

So how do you fix this?

There are a couple of companies out there who are making a business out of this. There’s Innerclock Systems, mentioned previously, and Expert Sleepers, both of whom essentially send out sync data over audio and convert this to MIDI in hardware. Expert Sleepers additionally can also output CV/Gate or MIDI note information as well as just clocks. This helps and might even be a complete solution if I wasn’t really a keyboard player, since they solve the accurate MIDI timing problem for Ableton on the outgoing side, but they can’t help with latency so they are not a complete solution.

The Akai MPC Renaissance is an interesting beast. It looks like an older MPC, but it actually uses software running on a Mac or PC. It does have its own audio and MIDI I/O and seemingly supports MIDI time code and MIDI clocks. I’d like to believe that it might solve the problem, but I have my doubts.

Other than building a studio from all-pre-1990 gear, not something that’s really all that feasible due to the demise of tape, here’s what I’m probably attempting:

  1. Using Ableton and a Mac as a last resort. It still wins for mixing and mastering, that’s unlikely to change, but I’m unlikely to use it for tracking or live use any more.

  2. Moving to for-real, 5-pin DIN MIDI and not using USB MIDI at all. Old fashioned MIDI might be crusty and slow, but it has essentially zero latency or jitter unless it’s overloaded.

    1. Which has the corollary: don’t overload MIDI interfaces, so I need a bunch of them.

  3. Find a way to do sequencing that isn’t Ableton and is probably hardware based. Favourite is probably an older Akai MPC from the hip hop era, or maybe something like a Cirklon, though they are relatively spendy (this is a Sarahism for not available cheap on eBay), though the Cirklon doesn’t have the kind of interface I really want. I like modular-style sequencers (I have 3 of them in Euro format!), but they are a ‘thing’ in their own right and not something I’d want to use to put together a whole track.

  4. Find a way to synchronize that sequencer to a digital recorder (which probably won’t be Ableton either — I’m experimenting with using a Tascam DP32SD instead).

This would potentially make for a very fun and fast workflow — mess around with the MPC and the modular to make something interesting and then basically just hit record on the Tascam. Rinse, repeat. Then, later, dump the audio from the Tascam into Ableton for editing and mixing, which is something that Ableton does supremely well.

By way of an experiment, I was playing around with my Korg Electribe yesterday. I was clocking it directly from the clock output on my Eurorack Trigger Riot module, with some hard snappy bass sequenced with an 8 step analog sequencer, audio coming from a couple of analog sawtooth oscillators into a clone Moog System 55 low pass filter. All I can say is, I think I’d forgotten what that kind of really tightly synchronized thwack-you-in-the-bum beat was all about.

I’m not in love with the Electribe. I don’t hate it, but it has a soggy feel, which I’m putting down to latency between hitting the pads and the audio. It’s not terrible, I can play it. Sequenced it’s fine, but I like to finger drum, so timing is important to me. I’m starting to think that my best bet might be to find an old Akai MPC, a couple of which had built-in SMPTE timecode reader-generators. The way this would work is you ‘stripe’ a spare track on the multitrack (the DP32 has thirty two of them, so that’s no big deal), then hook it up to a spare output (probably an FX send) so that when you hit play this streams back into the MPC causing it to jump to the right part of the song and start playing. I could then sync up my modular and/or other hardware synths and have the timing dead nuts. Finding a good condition MPC 2000XL or an MPC 4000 looks like it might do the trick, these being the only MPCs that (to my knowledge) included built-in SMPTE LTC. They actually do a decent job of sequencing MIDI from external keyboards, though they are better known for drums and sampling, obviously. I’ll miss the softsynths, but they could still be used to add some overdubs once the mix ends up back in Ableton, so that’s not so much of a big deal. That said, the possibilities of the Eurorack modular are nothing short of astonishing, so it wouldn’t hurt to be able to concentrate on that.

I have some eBay cheapassing in my future, I think…

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2015/09/13/things-that-keep-me-awake-at-night-356-audiomidi-timing-jitter-and-latency/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#MoMBlog, #Musings, #Recording

Sep. 8th, 2015


Keithley 2015 THD eBay find

Keithley 2015 THD

Keithley 2015 THD

I just picked up a very cheap Keithley 2015 THD multimeter from South Korea via eBay. It showed up today in very good condition — it could do with calibration, but everything seems to work fine on it. The display is quite dim, as is common with older vacuum electroluminescent displays. The good news, though, is this display module is still carried in stock and can be ordered (new!) from the Tektronix spares department for the princely sum of $66. Score! With the not-cheap shipping, new display and even with cal, this comes out as still a pretty good buy.

On the calibration side, I suspect it would cost about $120 to send it out to Simco or some such, which is probably well worth the money. Alternatively, I might actually send out my big HP, get that cal’d, then use that to calibrate the Keithley using a transfer standard. I need to get at least one of these meters done soon anyway.

Anyway, about the Keithley. It’s a full-featured 6.5 digit digital multimeter with the usual compliment of DC and AC voltage and current measurement, 2- and 4-wire resistance measurement as well as a few extra niceties like support for thermocouples, frequency and period measurement, diode checking, continuity, etc. DC/AC volts has a resolution of 0.1 microvolts, current 0.01 microamps. The continuity beep has user selectable sensitivity and is extremely fast responding.  Of particular interest is a BNC on the back which outputs a reference audio signal that when analyzed by the main inputs can be used to measure total harmonic distortion in an audio circuit. It’s possible to do THD measurement with a spectrum analyzer or a scope with FFT capabilities, but this thing is essentially a 1-button test.  Other than this, it’s built as a system DMM, so it has an extra set of probe connections on the back along with pretty extensive GPIB and front-panel programmability. It’s not quite as cool as the current model Keysight and Keithley meters with graphical displays and built-in data logging, but for the price I’ll certainly not be complaining.

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2015/09/08/keithley-2015-thd-ebay-find/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#Electronics, #MoMBlog, #TestGear

NASA Edge has released a photo of Resource Prospector!

Hi folks,

NASA Edge (part of NASA Public Affairs, I think, I’m not certain) has released a rather cool photo of the Resource Prospector rover busy doing its stuff at Johnson Space Center as part of the RP15 rover tests. As some of you already know, I designed a camera that looks out of the bottom at the soil below, right at the point where a drill impacts the surface and pulls up material from below.

It’s often frustrating not being able to freely share details of what I do, but for once this picture is fair game, so have at!

Resource Prospector (RP15)

Resource Prospector (RP15) — NASA Edge

This is high resolution image, so if you want the full res version, click and it shall be yours.

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2015/09/08/nasa-edge-has-released-a-photo-of-resource-prospector/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#MoMBlog, #Space

Sep. 6th, 2015



I’d like to join a gym again. I like working out. I get very little exercise right now, and weight machines and treadmills are a couple of the things that do work for me without causing damage (iffy tendons due to some unspecified variant of arthritis). I’d like to be able to go swimming again, something I’ve not really done more than a couple of times in 20 years.

So why don’t I just go and do that?

Well, the reason is pretty simple: fear.

I’m a member of the T in LGBT. This means that I’m essentially at risk anywhere that might be transphobic by policy. If a gym or pool manager decided to call the cops because, oh, you know, I’d taken a pee in the bathroom, I stand a pretty decent chance of ending up dead, incarcerated, deported or even ‘just’ traumatized to the point where I won’t want to leave the house for a couple of years. I would also be at risk if some random asshole-of-the-public decided to call 911, too, but I have less control over that.

Today Gina and I were talking about the possibility of joining a gym, ideally one with a pool, that would let me work out while Gina swims. 24 Hour Fitness seemed like a good option, being that they have a location fairly close to us. I decided to check them out. I’d been a member a few years ago for a while, but let it lapse. I’d never had problems whilst there, but I avoided the locker room and was close enough to home that I could get away with not changing in the gym.

This time around, I wanted to really know what their policies were. From their web site (24 Hour Fitness Membership Policies):


24 Hour seeks, enrolls and maintains memberships without regard to race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, marital status, sex, sexual orientation or age. It is further club policy that no circumstance or conduct undertaken by club personnel shall have the effect of discrimination on the basis of any of the aforementioned classifications. All club members shall have full and equal access to the club facility. All members with disabilities shall be entitled to reasonable accommodations for their physical and mental impairments. Any member who believes that he/she is/has been treated unfairly on any of the aforementioned matters should first report to club management or to 24 Hour at 1 (800) 432-6348.

At first sight, this looks like a really good statement. However, there is one thing missing. Exactly one thing missing. I’m not going to belabor the point by spelling it out, but whenever I see this, I can’t help translating this as:


24 Hour welcomes absolutely everyone. NO WAIT, NOT YOU, YOU CAN FUCK OFF. It is further club policy that no circumstance or conduct undertaken by club personnel shall have the effect of discrimination on the basis of any of the aforementioned classifications, BUT PEOPLE LIKE YOU ARE FAIR GAME. All club members shall have full and equal access to the club facility (REMEMBER, NOT YOU). All members with disabilities shall be entitled to reasonable accommodations for their physical and mental impairments (BUT NOT YOU). &c, blah blah blah.

Yeah, that’s nice. Makes you feel all fuzzy and welcome, yes?

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2015/09/06/transgymophobia/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.


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