Personal Log (3): Year of fulfilled dreams

So the year 2009 is over and – all crisis considering – it was a good year for me and my family. Our son was born shortly before the year started which means that most of his first year happened in 2009 – and interesting year for him it was! He now walks, touches my guitars, opens cupboards and freezer – you can imagine.

Our domestic rhythm section

I mentioned crisis… I guess everybody noticed. Somewhere major banks went down, a lot of people lost their jobs, but again – with a bit of luck – nothing of this affected our family seriously although payment didn’t come up either as it would have otherwise. What troubles me seriously though – it’s the politics here in Slovakia I’m kinda hopeless thinking about normal Slovak people when I see what they want to rule and lead us. Socialists or not, there are two parties from Slovak pre-1998 “dark ages” (HZDS, SNS) and one newer, bigger with a leader that reassembles infamous Vladimír Mečiar from HZDS – our modern populist, Robert Fico and his party Smer. Thanks to this trinity our country is loosing money way too often – bribery, frauds, over-priced tenders (often won by the highest bid as anything “inappropriate” is disqualified for absurd reasons), etc. You may think it’s the way it is in every country – more or less. The problem here is – it’s way too common here. Media often discovers new cases, but the real tragedy here is – electorate as a whole obviously doesn’t care about it and believes in lies they are told. Morale suffers, justice is crooked, economy could go better too. It will take many years to fix all the damage in the society. If it ever goes there…

Funny enough – if we haven’t bought our flat here in Bratislava maybe we would leave the country. Now we’re more or less stuck here but I can’t really complain about our living standards. Regions where HZDS, SNS and now mostly Smer has biggest support are not getting that better thanks to these politicians, but they rather blame media, foreign capitalists, or whoever the current designated enemy is. This all in Slovakia – otherwise normal, modern, educated country. To add more – we chose (again) Ivan Gašparovič for the president – the man who was just the second one in rule after Mečiar , the man who evidently broke even constitutional laws as a leader of parliament, the same Constitution he helped to create. The man who called previous president “the old dick” in the parliament – unaware that his microphone is still on. And I know people who voted him because he was just recommended by Smer/Fico – of course, because it’s just their type. So we have liars and cheaters on all important positions now, just great. You may say – “it’s the same here”. Well, unless you’re more to the east I just doubt it. Even if there are cheaters and liars in politics everywhere, the magnitude, the scale is still important.

Whatever… after I paid my taxes on these parasites, I could spend some on my dreams. Politics really affects us all, but I can’t say I’m doing bad – far from it. Of course I can’t buy anything I want, but when you want to buy something related to home music production, you can do it very easily and cheaply nowadays! So it just happened that having microphone and Midi keyboard for a few years already, I decided to take it all from the closet and actually use it! I bought a mixing console, stands for keyboard and guitars and so I got to my first kind of home recording studio. I added DAW of my choice in – REAPER – and the day before Christmas Eve I brought also M-Audio studio monitors (speakers). I blogged a few times about various topics related to home recording.

My new speakers – not the best position, I know 😉

I also bought better electric guitar. The first one I had – again for a few years already – was Behringer’s V-tone with amplifier. While I don’t use the guitar, I still use the amp. My current guitar is nice black Lag AM-100 and while I don’t expect to be great guitarist, I practice here and there and just have fun with it. Too bad I could fulfill these dreams after 30! Too good I could do it at all on the other side. 😉

I should not have too much free time besides my work and family, but our son is really great and my wife is even greater. 🙂 That leaves me some time to practice the guitar (with son messing with my cables) or keyboard. And not only that. I have a feeling I now play more computer games than ever before. I bought a lot of Steam games (mostly on sales) and that also keeps me from buying more as I can’t play all of those I have already. I’d love to post something about the best I played this year. I really enjoyed Mass Effect, Mirror’s Edge, Left 4 Dead and now I’m stuck with Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. But not only that. I started to play Perfect World International on September 2008, but I quit the game during this summer. I play it only here and there with my wife. I was just pissed of how imbalanced the game is on many places, how high levels do often too much for low levels which ultimately means there are a lot of mid-level players who just can’t play properly, etc.

For that I decided to go for a paid MMORPG after all – and I went for EVE Online as it was the game I was thinking about for some time. The game mechanics are just way more complex than Perfect World, market really works, graphics is not that crazy when it comes to some aspects (PWI really overdid it with most boutique mounts and especially their particle effects), the whole sci-fi feel is just great and believable, and also the netcode is far more fair than in PWI.

So that was my year! Job is OK, baby is great, family even better and then there are my musical hobbies and a lot of fun with games. Maybe the whole wrap-up could be much more negative if I had different attitude – because, yes, attitude is important as well. So if you’re in doubt about something, try to see it from the positive side.

I wish you Happy New Year – and good the whole year of course – and wish you a bit of luck too, as it always helps. After that it’s all about your attitude. 🙂

Native Instruments and more free stuff

I mentioned free Kore Player by Native Instruments previously in my personal log. The registration process is a bit annoying – but nothing that doesn’t work and it really is worth it. Since then NI came with free Kontakt Player (now upgraded to version 4), Factory Selection for Kontakt – but those instruments work in Kore Player too – and recently they delivered just another free Compilation vol. 2 (or Holiday Selection, whatever you like :-)). This all means that NI offers two lightweighted versions of their products (Kore Player/Kontakt Player) and four sound libraries (counting the one delivered with Kore Player too).

With previous Kontakt Player 3 I had a few issues. There were a few sounds coming with it – but this part of the library worked in demo mode and was disabled after a little while. Not too many sounds, but their “sudden malfunction” rather confused poor nonpaying user. 🙂 Now it seems that Kore Player 4 shows only Factory Selection and I can’t see any additional demo sounds. While Kore Player doesn’t need to be activated, it was displayed in red in NI’s Service Center (don’t forget to install this with either Kore or Kontakt Player!). Version 4 seems to be OK – nice and green. Factory Selection must be activated and the code comes in the mail. Don’t mix both mails with download links as I did – one of them really has activation key. 🙂 I even asked their support about the missing code, only to find out later that they don’t support nonpaying users – but they answered me anyway and the information was helpful. Very nice.

You can find a lot of sounds, effects and (most importantly) instruments there – TONS of various drums, basses, abstract sounds, woods… you just have to go through it by yourself! Check the sounds in Kore Player, try to mess with Sound Variations (those boxes A-H), I’m pretty sure there will be something you’ll like. Of course, the whole SW package eats a lot of megabytes (more than a giga, for sure – maybe two, I don’t care actually), but I recommend you: Give it a shot!

For some strange reason I can’t find Compilation vol. 1 on NI page via search feature – also their page is now often down (probably thanks to users hungry for all of this :-)). But you can always google download of the pack easily. One thing is sure. If I start making some money from music (which I don’t expect though) I’d seriously consider NI software. It is nice and easy to use, there are tons of sounds and VST integration works perfectly – at least in REAPER. Happy holidays!

Behringer UCA202 tricky crosstalk

Behringer UCA202 (see product page or little video introduction) is a neat little box that’s plugged into your mixer (or whatever else in the analog signal realm) via two pairs of RCA cables and than it has another USB cable to your computer. With ASIO drivers you can see it in your favourite DAW and record sounds going into the UCA202 or send master via the same box out (to monitor via your mixer for instance). Simply put – it’s USB Audio Interface. It has absolutely awesome price – you can probably buy it under $30, I bought it for 34€. Obviously in this price tag you can expect some cons. First are pretty obvious – it’s only USB 1.1 which probably determines the sampling frequency (max 48kHz) and bit resolution (16 bit for every channel). And it’s stereo, no multi-input. But hey, that’s CD quality (48kHz is actually a bit better), it’s low latency device, so what do you want for that price?

Well, there is one twist I’ve discovered after some time. I wanted to practice an electric guitar, so I started REAPER, loaded some jam track in it started a playback. Immediately I noticed some signal on a guitar track (that was armed for recording) – signal that wasn’t there before. Now I thought that my out and in ways are well separated, I suspected that maybe it’s a problem in mixing console (also Behringer and also budget solution). But after some time of connecting and disconnecting various cables I found out the sinner. Even when UCA202 is plugged only to the computer (no RCA cables in or out) it sends part of the output back to the input. I’ve found some measurements for this box here and we discussed the issue with author of the blog where this comparison is linked – see the post and the discussion. Funny thing is that stereo crosstalk on the output is lower than this leakage into input. That probably means that there is some design flaw on the board – or maybe in some chip, I really don’t know.

Does it mean that UCA202 is unusable? Well – no. But you should know how much of the monitored music will go into your recorded track. In my case it’s quite alarming -48dB at 100Hz (which is normal frequency for bass, kicks, etc.). Other man mentioned -50dB and Behringer’s support confirmed -58dB. You can actually fight it pretty easily – just lower your master when you record. The unit has quite strong headphones output, so you can monitor there or further amplify your headphones on a mixing console. In that case you can get another 10-20dB which should be OK. But this fact is clearly the biggest flaw of the unit in my eyes. I can live with the CD quality, but this really affects my recorded track. It’s good to know.

Today I was also informed that UMA25S has the same problem like UCA202. I didn’t know what UMA is 😉 so I went to check it out and it’s basically like their former UMX25 (25 midi keyboard with some freely assignable knobs, when your SW can support it) but with USB audio interface actually built-in (UMX has UCA202 in the package). It’s a great idea – probably not their, but I just never thought of that before. So you have one unit with only one USB to your computer and then those RCA connectors on the Midi keyboard plus there is a headset and cool bag. Now I sound like an agent… but hey! Obviously the USB audio unit in the UMA25 has the same problem, which is kinda sad. And it’s still only USB 1.1. Man – imagine M-Audio AXIOM 25 with USB audio device built-in. But then… you still can buy two units – each making what you really want. But UMA25 is a great combo in one piece in case you’re starting with home recording. There is a good video review on this unit.

And the point? I would never expect this kind of problem – however cheap the unit is. It’s probably some design flaw that wasn’t thought of, because it’s crazy if you hear more from let’s say left output on any input than on the right output (that would be stereo crosstalk, right?). It’s unlucky that these Behringer’s units suffer from this (the real values vary piece to piece probably) but you can still use that “lower-your-master” workaround and the price is very interesting. But if you’re willing to pay more, go for something better – and maybe find out information about this kind of crosstalk too. 🙂 Good luck with your home recording.

REAPER Introduction

This time I wanna reference my double-episode about Reaper. It’s really just a quick introduction because it’s not possible to cover any DAW in under 16 minutes, but I wanted to show how to approach some basic tasks in REAPER. Both videos were made with version 2.5x and it was just a few days before Reaper 3 was released. However all covered topics are still valid. In the first video I talk about multi-track recording, how to arm the track, select input… and similar things that are a bit different from Audacity that was covered in first two episodes. I demonstrate how you can record multiple audio tracks and midi tracks at once – something you can’t do with Audacity. Then I quickly go through MIDI editor (which is overhauled in version 3) and I show how to quantize recorded MIDI events:

Episode 3 – REAPER introduction, device setup, recording multiple tracks

Second video (sounds more sleepy as the night was closing in :-)) continues with applying VST effects on a track, than I show how to use VSTi (instrument) to synthesize MIDI tracks and then I move on to envelopes. First I edit volume envelope to achieve fade-out on the track and I explain how to edit envelope with mouse during the process. There are other ways how to edit envelope, you can even record the envelope using MIDI CC (continuous controller). Last example shows how to change a tempo of the song. This is very useful if you want for instance slow song with faster intro or the other way around. When you do things like this, you should plan your song before you record audio tracks, because while MIDI tracks respect the tempo, audio tracks are based on real time. This means that when you change the tempo of the song audio tracks go out of sync.

Episode 4 – REAPER and VST, VSTi and some playing with envelopes

I mentioned (in the video) that I use free VST(i)s. That’s obviously because I’m tight on budget – I can buy things, but music is only my hobby, results are still not convincing 🙂 and there is no point in spending hundreds of bucks on great VSTs. Would they pay off in my case? Certainly not! I mentioned Kore Player in the previous blog post about this topic. This time I’ll mention few of my other favourite VSTs. If you have a hint, or a link to something better – don’t hesitate and post a comment! Blue Cat’s Freeware plugin pack is a nice pack of effects like chorus, flanger or phaser, but there is also spectrum analyzer added in. Another pack of VST effects is provided by mda here – and mda also offers VST instruments – synths and pianos. Not that bad for no money! Finally there are ndc plugs – site with some interesting multi-purpose VST plugins. From them I want to recommend ndcMIDI that can be used to split midi keyboards for instance. With MIDI filter you can allow only some parts of the keyboard to be passed to VSTi synthesizer and when you do so with multiple MIDI tracks you can split your keyboard between various instruments ad lib!

I’ll talk more about interesting free VST(i) plugins also in the following parts, it’s impossible to cover it all – today I named only a few packs with wide range of usage.

Multi-track home recording for free

I’d like to interconnect my YouTube creations with this blog – so this time we’ll be talking about home recording with Audacity. It’s by no means Audacity tutorial – I just want to introduce Audacity and also demonstrate its limitations when you wanna enter the realm where acronyms like VST, MIDI and ASIO rule it all. I have also found out that it’s easier to talk English above beer than to produce the video in English language (don’t forget – I’m a Slovak :-)). I grew fond of short cuts (or cross-fading cuts of my longer speech that wasn’t that good) and it is generally a lot of trying for me. And I expect the viewer to be a bit tolerant to my faults. I came to the conclusion that I should rather write a script before but I’m just way too lazy to do so. However… back to the Audacity.

WTF is multi-track recording? How to plug the microphone into the computer? Newbie warning! (If you know it all watch it only at your own risk or for fun. :-))

First video is just the introduction to a very, very raw way how to get your sound into the computer via soundcard with 1/8″ jack (I meant 3.5 mm, but you know… imperial units are still often used in this world) – that is via typical microphone input available virtually on every computer. When you have a better microphone with XLR connector, you might end up with XLR on the other side of the cable or with 6.3 mm jack (1/4″). In any case you need a converter, jack-jack (in both size directions) are pretty common, XLR-jack is also possible but it’s another complication. Now imagine we have a (semi) serious microphone plugged into the computer (without preamp! It’s a Sin!) just to use my few bucks “Skype” microphone for the rest of the show and to introduce the Audacity.

With this setup I made my first songs – and of course the quality was poor. I’m still not too close to optimal home recording quality, but Audacity with microphone via soundcard is really rather just an emergency solution. However – it works, you can experiment and it does not cost you anything. Except the microphone and the computer of course. And whatever instrument you want to play. Later you find out that it’s not easy to record multiple tracks in sync (unless you’re really very lucky). That’s caused by so called latency. And latency is the core of the second video with Audacity as our main hero:

Audacity, latencies and ASIO. And when we’re talking about Steinberg also some VST is mentioned. In theory.

This time I added intro – it was made in REAPER. “Lead guitar” is actually played on MIDI keyboard and heavily edited later (read: corrected :-)) and I also played a bit with the pan envelope (don’t worry, we might talk about it next time). The rest is mostly about latencies with some conclusion about Audacity in context of ASIO and VST usage. I don’t like the heavy sound of my computer you can hear all the time in the background, but you have to live with that until I buy some other microphone (probably some Koss headphones with microphone on it). I don’t wanna use dynamic microphone shown in the first episode because it’s not that handy. Maybe next time I’ll come up with better setup. Currently I’m not able to get playback from software into the captured video but maybe I’ll overcome it somehow later.

I have also next two videos uploaded already – they are just a short introduction into REAPER and I’ll cover them in some future post. I don’t want to continue in Reaper tutorial, but I wanted to introduce the DAW before I move on to hardware I use. The goal is to cover home recording on extremely tight budget (understand 500-1500 EUR or USD, choice is yours) so don’t expect miracles. But the time is right and it’s really easy now to have a reasonable home recording solution for the price of your choice. To add one more link, there is really awesome and extensive Guide to the Home and Project Studio by Tweak. Funny that I found it after I knew some of those answers (but far from even half of them). Sometimes it’s hard to find a guide when you actually don’t know what to search for. Isn’t it Ironic?

My new home recording… studio?

Whatever… it’s cheap, but it’s my studio anyway! It’s been some time since I’ve composed my latest song. I’m a man of more hobbies than I can handle, I know. Gamer, programmer and wannabe musician too. (Not to mention I’m a father and husband too. :-)) I can’t play well any instrument, but I compose my songs with acoustic guitar, ideas, chords and my weak voice. The desire to have my own recording studio – even the modest one – is pretty old. Nowadays you can acquire the needed stuff for literally a few bucks. My whole recording chain with both guitars with notebook included (but not bought for that reason) is around 1300€ – I’m sure you can do the same or better under 1000€ (or maybe even under $1000, as prices here in Slovakia are rather higher). I’ve got two guitars, I’ve got Midi keyboard, some microphone too… the last piece of the puzzle I really wanted was a mixing console.

My extremely modest home recording studio… no special room obviously

Of course, you can probably live without it with overdubbing yourself in the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation software) – but there are few good reasons to have a real mixer. I have one microphone input on my old Audigy sound card. I’ve bought converter from big jack (6.3mm) to small one, mono (not common in every shop, I assure you :-)). First, the jack connector on my sound card was stressed more and I had to crawl under my desk every time I wanted to change microphone for guitar. Should I go for extension cable? Hell no! Buy a mixer and manage all your inputs there. Now I can also record voice from dynamic microphone and guitar from condenser microphone at once too! (No, stop telling me I could hack stereo line-in for that! :-)) Real mixer has also better pre-amps for sure. I went for really affordable Behringer XENYX 1202FX and I’m more than happy, believe me.

Mixing console Behringer XENYX 1202FX

While mixer (and a bunch of cables) was the last piece of the hardware puzzle, there was one more thing to decide. The software. So called “Digital Audio Workstation”. While I used Audacity before, it has few disadvantages (and even more pops out when you learn what the real DAW is). I’ll name two for all – it can’t mix audio and MIDI tracks and it doesn’t come with ASIO support – although it is ASIO-capable and you can build it with it. Even as skilled Linux user I refused to do that when there is one better alternative – REAPER! I tried Reason first, I liked the sound (don’t beat me, it was the first proper synth I used after Audigy built-in wavetable :-))… but I wanted to try more, not to mention I wasn’t sure I can afford it. So I tried FL Studio demo version too. I nearly even bought it – and if you like it don’t hesitate because it has great live-time upgrade policy (LOVE that!). But I’ve found it difficult to use with MIDI – pitch or modulation wheel did not work right out of the box for instance. I also didn’t like the overall interface to be honest, but that’s probably rather personal. Reason – on the other hand – reportedly isn’t good if you want to record voices too. I could import WAV, but I didn’t find the way how to record it directly into the Reason.

Boring Reaper screen-shot with lame project

I wanted ONE software solution to manage my project and then Reaper got onto my radar. Software that reminded me Audacity in terms of multi-track recording, with ASIO support for low latencies, awesome with treating audio and MIDI tracks the same way when possible – but with built-in MIDI editor (piano roll), good built-in plugins, VST support, you name it! With installer not bigger than 4 MB. Yes, mega, not giga. I really was skeptical at the start, but Reaper simply convinced me. And if you want to record normal true audio/vocal/acoustic (metal/rock/whatever) music, you should give Reaper a try. Yeah, and it’s cheap – only $50 for personal use, $225 for commercial use, but you can try it for 30 days officially and even more unofficially if you’re not convinced. I’m not sure I’ll pay right away after 30 days, but… I guess so. Somehow I like it and I can’t see any reason why not to support it.

Try this for 10 random Reaper screen-shots

Now you know why (aside from other reasons) I’ve been a bit inactive recently on my blog. Real life stuff, that’s it. I’ll definitely get back to this topic in future posts. Do I do anything else as well? Yes, I even played PWI on Saturday. 🙂 However, I have a lot of stuff to learn now because once you record yourself, you’ll probably find out a lot of things to improve. Even if you don’t take yourself seriously.