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Jan. 25th, 2016


Just a quick teaser for the forthcoming Mage of Machines gig at Pantheacon...

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2016/01/24/just-a-quick-teaser-for-the-forthcoming-mage-of-machines-gig-at-pantheacon/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#MoMBlog, #Recording

Jan. 14th, 2016


Cancelling the Analog Ladies gig on Saturday

Hi all,

Many apologies if you wanted to come and see me perform on Saturday at the Analog Ladies event in SF. As most of you probably know already if you read my previous post, I’m about hald way through my notice period as I leave NASA and go to work at Google. One of my projects, a space camera for the SOAREX-9 spacecraft, is running late so I need to work through the weekend so I can deliver it in time for launch. It’s not my fault it’s late, but launch deadlines are what they are, so needs must.

I can say with absolute truthfulness that I will not miss this kind of last minute crazy, but a part of me will miss it forever.

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2016/01/14/cancelling-the-analog-ladies-gig-on-saturday/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.


Jan. 6th, 2016


End of an era... Goodbye, NASA, hello Google

Hi all,

I’m sending this out via my blog because it’s probably the quickest way to reach everyone. Today I just accepted a job at the Google Mountain View campus working in the Security and Privacy Group.

This is… kind of huge. The money and benefits are way better, but the reason I’m really making the move is that I’ve found it harder and harder to deliver on projects in recent times due to ever-tightening budget restrictions and negligible support in terms of access to resources. I’m looking forward to working on new interesting problems that have more of a direct impact on people’s lives — the group I’ll be joining, amongst other things, has the job of keeping our email out the of the hands of people we’d rather not have reading it, as well as doing a lot of other stuff to protect privacy. Kind of the sharp end of the not-being-evil bit, I think.

My last day at Ames will be January 21st. I’ll be starting at Google on the 25th — first week will be all the usual Noogler orientation stuff. And yes, apparently, I really do get a hat with a propeller on it.

This is all pretty difficult to wrap my head around. It’s been 10 years, more than twice longer than any other job I’ve ever had (not counting the various inter-contractor transfers).

Boggle. I can’t really believe I just pressed send on the bunch of emails telling people I’m leaving.

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2016/01/06/end-of-an-era-goodbye-nasa-hello-google/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.


Jan. 4th, 2016


Digital archaeology recovers old Mage of Machines album from the late '90s!

Hi folks,

Many thanks are due to Maria Vorontsova, who kindly gave me a copy of my old album, Element 115, which dates to the late 1980s. I’m intending releasing it via the usual iTunes/Spotify/Google Play/whatever route, but I want to do some mastering on it first. In the mean time, here are some (unmastered) mixes from the depths of digital time to keep you going.

There’s also a previously unreleased remix I did (with permission) for the folk god, Martin Carthy. Well… if you ask me to remix a folk track, you should expect the results to be a bit off-kilter. Anyway, here it is:

For the nerdy out there, the synth you hear on the album is mostly a Korg Z1, with a few things from my old Ensoniq SQ-80. The Martin Carthy remix was done entirely using Symbolic Sound’s Kyma.

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Dec. 27th, 2015


Lexicon Vortex non-repair

Lexicon Vortex

This here thingummy is a Lexicon Vortex. It’s a rather rare effects processor dating to the late ’80s/early ’90s. The chips in this seem to indicate that mine is roughly 93 vintage. I bought it as not working, sans power supply. The eBay listing said that it wasn’t working and that one of the knobs made the numbers change wildly on the display, and the level knob was scratchy.

The power supply issue was annoying — it requires a 9V AC supply, something rather rare. I was fishing around online looking for one, then noticed I actually had one. Sitting on my lab bench. D’oh. Anyway, I plugged it in and everything lit up. The level knob was indeed scratchy, but about 5 minutes of turning it back and forth fixed that. As for the other fault, it was a simple case of the person who had it previously not actually reading the manual. It had me confused briefly, long enough to actually take the thing apart and put it back together again (I wanted to check the caps anyway, so that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).

So it seems I have a fully working thing, at maybe a 5th of the going rate. It’s in pretty good condition for its age — near mint.

As for what it sounds like… It’s basically a bit like a delay/chorus/early reflections/random delay kind of thing, but with some rather odd weirdness thrown in. I can’t say it sounds exactly like anything else. A bit dark and dirty, maybe. Right up my street, actually! It occurs to me that it would be interesting to patch this inline with a more conventional reverb or delay to dirty up the tail and add a bit of interest.

Next repair is going to be a DBX 160A compressor that needs a couple of replacement switches, once they arrive from Harman.

In other news, the studio build is going, albeit slowly. I have nearly everything I need now, barring some cables that I have on order that should be here next week. I have a large box sitting there containing half a dozen 16 way TRS snakes and a vast quantity of TRS patch cables and another box containing 16 TRS to XLR female and another 16 TRS to XLR male, various MIDI cables, etc. One disappointment was I was hoping to use a couple of Behringer Ultrapatch Pro patchbays, which are really well made actually, but on testing them they turned out to not be TRS, i.e., they are unbalanced only, so I had to order a couple more Nady PB48 patchbays instead. I think I should have a total of 6, which is probably enough for all the gear. I think, if I’ve counted properly.

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2015/12/26/lexicon-vortex-non-repair/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#Electronics, #MoMBlog, #MusicGear, #Recording

Dec. 4th, 2015


Fixit Thursday -- Ensoniq DP Pro and Yamaha SPX-900

Hi folks.

Tonight I had a bit of determination come upon me, so I decided to have a go at a couple of fixes on two newly acquired pieces of studio gear: an Ensoniq DP Pro and a Yamaha SPX 900. Both are digital reverb/multi-effects processors at the middle-end of the market for their time. Both are long obsolete, but they (now) work great and I’m happy to have them.

OK, so first up was the SPX 900. This was an easy one — just a dead battery. Like most pieces of studio gear from that era, this device uses battery backed static RAM to store user configuration information and patches, so when that battery dies, usually after about 15-20 years, it’s time for a new one.

Yamaha SPX 900

Popping the lid off shows some admittedly fairly old technology, but this thing is built like a tank. Surprisingly, the power supply on the left appears to be linear — no switching regulators in sight! Badass. Anyway, it just took a couple of minutes to desolder the battery (you can see it as an orange ring with a silver center on the bottom right) and solder in a replacement.

SPX 900 Display

On power-up, the first time I got a message saying that memory corruption had been detected (well, duh), then on a second power cycle it just came up fine straight to patch 1, like it’s supposed to. Before the battery swap, it was giving a battery low warning on power up. It didn’t have any user patches in it that I cared about, so I didn’t bother saving them (e.g. via MIDI sysex) or doing something heroic with a lab power supply.

Next up was an Ensoniq DP Pro. I just got it a couple of days ago — it was seemingly working, but the LEDs on the left of the front panel didn’t seem to be doing anything, nor did the 4 digit 7 segment display. I did a minor gulp when the person who sold it to me mentioned that he’d had his tech replace the battery  — this always makes me worry, because I’ve had way more beyond-economic-repair situations caused by hamfisted repair attempts than actual failures. True to form, on investigation, someone had made like a gorilla with a couple of ribbon cables that normally go between the main board and a 2 board stack that includes all the displays that weren’t working (bottom left on the disassembled view). Not only had they ripped them out, they just tucked the damned things in so it looked like they were connected. ‘Ere, it just came off in me ‘and, Guv. Anyway, after a bit of faffy taking the front panel assembly apart so I could get at the connectors, it seemed that the fine pitch ribbon connectors did look slightly damaged, but they did still work. Similarly, the cables had seen better days, but did work fine once I reassembled everything.

Ensoniq DP Pro internals

Yaay, lighty up blinkenlightythings!

DPPro display fix

Anyway, a quick word about these two processors. I must say, they both punch above their weight. The SPX-900 really does feel like the classic SPX-90 on steroids — a much cleaner sound, though not quite as buttery smooth as a REV-5. Many more algorithms, though, including a couple that are heading toward Eventide’s Black Hole algorithm. The reverbs are typically Yamaha, not as colored as those from something like a Lexicon or quite as weird as an Eventide, but very usable indeed. The DP Pro was a bit of a surprise — it really is excellent. I’d put its sound as being somewhere between a Lexicon and an Eventide, in the sense that it sounds good and dense, but it’s capable of plenty of batshit. It has a dual algorithm structure, where the algorithms can be set up to work in series or in parallel, rather like an Eventide Eclipse. I think this thing is an unheard-of classic waiting to happen, so I’m glad I got my hands on one before someone famous decides they are cool.

Fixing things always cheers me up — I’ve no idea why. :-)

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Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2015/12/03/fixit-thursday-ensoniq-dp-pro-and-yamaha-spx-900/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#MoMBlog, #MusicGear, #Recording

Nov. 30th, 2015


First new track in a long while: Titan Lakes

Rather than waiting for the next album to come along, here’s the first track I’ve completed in a long while, here goes nothing:

Much more chilled out and even (gasp, dare I say it) New Agey than my previous work. I hope you like it. If you do, please share!

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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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#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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