Happy New Year 2013!

Happy New year, of course! My last year was a bit poorer blog-wise. For some reasons I was more lazy to write about things. Heck, sometimes I think that I was less lucky with new technology in overall. I achieved some nice results with testing in our company during the previous year. This year I wanted to push Continuous Integration, testing a bit further, maybe Gradle – but results in CI area are mixed and the rest brought no real results at all.

On the brighter side, I managed to finish my quest for system time shifter on JVM that would be usable for testing purposes – all documented in my post. Blogging is not all of course and I am quite happy how topics around Clean Code got some attention around me. We pushed Java Simon project a bit further too, I learned a few interesting things around Spring, MVC and jQuery… Add this beautiful Scala class on Coursera and this year was more than fun after all.

Still I’d like to make some resolutions. I discovered QueryDSL (thanks to a colleague of mine) and this seems to be answer to readable and compile time safe Criteria – because those shipped with JPA2 are simply horrible to read. It works well with IDEA’s annotation processor, Maven and it should be no problem with Gradle either. Ah, Gradle! For around two years I’m watching this guy but for whatever reason I was not able to use it for anything more than a few tests – but that is not Gradle’s fault. I like it, I like the idea, I like the language – and I think this year is time to switch Java Simon from Maven to Gradle. And after that I’ll go on with projects in our company, although the battle there will be more difficult I guess.

Out of technology, I managed to put together a few songs with my colleagues and it was fun – the first time I played in something close to a band. We played only on our company party but it doesn’t change anything… it was a real fun. We didn’t have a drummer so I used my Native Instruments Maschine Mikro and pre-programmed our songs – and I was really happy with the results. I’ll probably dedicate a post to Maschine Mikro, because it is one really interesting controller (and software too!).

Maschine Mikro controller

Talking about music, I managed to upload two full-blown tracks to my Soundcloud and later added two simple guitar+voice tracks. While mixing/mastering is still my weakness, I’m happy that I was able to pull through this recording-wise. And just how I imagined – my songs composed with paper, pen and acoustic guitar many years ago can really work as rock recording too.

So what about this year and those resolutions? Gradle – sure. More testing methodology on our projects – maybe I’ll even manage to document it here on the blog. Pushing Continuous delivery just a bit further again. Scala or other JVM language? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe for tests. And a bit of my music – I need to practice more with keyboard, guitar and bass guitar (yeah, I bought lovely Yamaha bass too).

Bass guitar Yamaha RBX375

Last resolution is no resolution at all – we have to survive somehow “socialistic” experiments of our government here in Slovakia (although there is nothing social about them). Europe has its own deal of problems – and USA? Well they saved themselves from falling down that fiscal cliff or what – just a few hours ago. And it probably means to make the cliff a bit higher for the next time. So we might have escaped one Doom’s day lately at the end of 2012, but who knows how our civilization will fare in the future.

Then I remember those really poor and I know we have nothing really horrible to complain about. So once again – Happy New year – and whole year of 2013!


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.

Musician’s signatures

Musicians have a hard job. Sometimes they steal – I bet it’s mostly without realising so. Imagine you have a music in your head for some time and you don’t know if it’s yours but it suits your purpose so well. There is no Google for music where you can hum a melody and it gives you “yeah, that’s this song!” (Gosh, I miss this when I want to know name of the song and its interpreter before I torr… oh, I didn’t wanna tell that!)

However – sometimes composers reuses their own materials. God knows when Mike Oldfield (or he calls himself Michael now, right?) comes with Tubular Bells 4 – for example. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad. All Tubular Bells-es 🙂 were full of new melodies although their structure is similar. Of course we can now argue about Oldfield’s stronger and weaker moments, but that’s off topic now. There is other way how to reuse something yours. Sometimes it’s in terms of “yeah, that guy has his own style!” And sometimes it’s “oh, again the same melody?” And sometimes it’s in between. There are things I call “signatures”. Sometimes they are hard to describe, you just know what it is – mostly it’s based on some typical sound (like guitar of aforementioned Mike Oldfield, or Brian May‘s sound of his “Red Special“).

Sometimes it’s based on style of playing – this is probably even harder do describe. I’ve realized that I can recognize Santana‘s way while I was familiar with only two or three albums by him – and I realized that when Smooth came into radios along with his major comeback album Supernatural. And I realized it because the song doesn’t feature typical singer’s voice from  Santana-band I’ve known from before. That was the moment I found out I can recognize his guitar style – his way of changing rapid and slow passages of guitar solo.

Finally – there are signatures that are right to your face. Even when Alan Parsons Project features more singers his music technique and procedures are so typical. But to name absolutely obvious reuse – start to listen The Raven from Tales of Mystery and Imagination – and than start with Breakdown from I Robot. I bet the bass link is obviously very similar to everybody who will try that – which doesn’t mean those songs are the same! Probably my favorite example of musician’s signature is Chris Rea‘s riff where he switches guitar solo between two notes in a specific tempo – not always the same two, but I guess there are only two versions. You can hear it in different variations in Road To Hell II, Auberge, Winter Song, Red Shoes, Let’s Dance, Looking For a Rainbow, Daytona, I Just Wanna Be With You (7 songs are on two albums!) – either as a main solo riff or rhythm guitar riff. Chris Rea sometimes reuses his melody too much (compare You Can Go Your Own Way and You’re Not a Number – the latter I like more ;-)) but his signature is something I have no problem with. It’s subtle touch so even when it’s present in more songs I don’t care.

After all – if you have a nice way how to sign something that’s your why not to do it, right? Painters do it – why musicians can’t? (Of course I would recognize Chris Rea by his voice too I guess. ;-))