E-MU No More

April 8, 2008

Well, if you happened to read my blog entry about building a DAW, you know that I have an E-MU sound card, the 1616m, in my audio machine.

Unfortunately, a driver updated in windows update (I think for my Bluetooth kb/mouse) kind of killed my E-MU drivers yesterday. So I went to the E-MU website for tech support only to find no phone number. I eventually got in touch with somebody else at Creative who told me that E-MU has, effectively, been shut down.

This is a real drag since the E-MU products are really nice. Until this other driver nixed my E-MU yesterday, I’d had no trouble with it at all…easy to install, easy to set up and configure, and it works. And sounds good, too.

If you go to their website, you can still download the latest drivers for things, and I was told that they’ll keep working on drivers for a while still, but the division is in fact going away, and no new products will be forthcoming.

You can find them at http://www.emu.com

Are You Now or Then?

March 28, 2008

Did you ever wake up feeling strange and wonder if, while you were sleeping, some malicious entity had surrepticiously transported you into some point in the future? If you’re worried that you may be the victim of involuntary time travel, here are some ways you can tell:

1. Rummage through the cupboards looking for drinking glasses. In the future, all glasses are square. This is a dead giveaway.

2. Go up to a cop in an alleyway and strain your voice to ask “What day is it? The date?!” When the cop tells you it’s the 12th of May, a Thursday, grab him and ask “What YEAR?!” (optionally: if you find a hobo in the alley on your way to the cop, you may steal his pants)

3. Look at what people are wearing – if their clothes are shiny and vaguely metallic, look like they’re devoid of seams, and are tight around the neck and throat, you’re either in the future or in the secret underground lair of a megalomaniac.

4. Ask somebody if you can borrow “five spacebucks”. In the future, all things on earth will have outer space counterparts because of humanity’s extensive extra-solar travels. Even if the items are exactly the same, they must be prepended with the word “space”. Spacebucks is just one example. You may instead want to ask somebody who serves the best spaceburgers – this serves the dual purpose of verifying that you’ve traveled through time and also pointing you in the right direction for a tasty meal. If they look at you like you’re crazy and tell you there are no more burgers and point you in the direction of Taco Bell, you are in the future for sure.

5. Go to any major city and see if 1/2 of all the people walking around are robots. If so, you are in the future. If the number of robots seems to be less than 50%, you may be in the future, but you may also be in the present day in Japan. They have the best robots there and they are everywhere, including robot dogs.

6. Find a complete stranger and ask if you can borrow his or her starship. In the future, everybody will have a starship, and they will let you borrow them even if they don’t know you because there will be no more money. Everybody will share everything and nobody will want for anything, even if it’s really expensive, like a starship. If you’re picky, remember that younger people will have cooler-looking starships that go really fast while older people will have bigger, slower, roomier starships that can accomodate a table for playing cards and be tall enough so that you can comfortably wear a hat while piloting.

7. Find a TV and see if there are game shows where the losers are killed on live television. In the future all humans will be barbaric, even though they have everything they want since there’s no more money. The only way to entertain such a society is to kill people for fun. Duh.

8. If you are not on Earth but you’re sure you’re not dead, you are in the future.

9. See if you can create fire from your fingertips or read peoples’ minds or shapeshift. If so, you are likely in the future when everybody has begun to mutate into the next phase of human evolution. If you can steal other peoples’ powers, you are much closer to the next phase of human evolution. but probably people will hate your guts. Being able to put a cherry stem in your mouth and tie it in a knot with your tongue does not count (at least not in reference to the next phase of human evolution).

10. Go to a bookstore. If there isn’t one, you’re in the future. If there is one, see if you can find an atlas. See if there is a city called New New York City. If so, you are in the future, because major cities have to be rebuilt from time to time and the word New is always put upfront, even if it was already there in the first place.

And remember, in the future, time travel will be commonplace, so if you happen to be in the future, chances are you can just go to the nearest time station and get home before dinner. Or breakfast even.

The Evolution of Storage

March 18, 2008

Voiceover people love storage. And lots of it. While audio still takes up nowhere near as much disk space as video, it’s still relatively a storage hog in the world of traditional computer data. So at a time when hard drive storage and lots of it is so cheap, and it’s not uncommon to see PCs ship with 1TB (terabyte, or 1,000 GB) of disk space, I figured now would be a good time to take a quick look at the evolution of storage and where it’s going.

The hard drive was invented over 50 years ago, at IBM, in 1956, but they didn’t gain momentum in use with microcomputers until sometime in the ’80s, when the IBM PC/XT began shipping with internal hard drives. You could buy external drives for Apple II computers…they only stored 5MB (yes, megabytes) of data and cost around $2000. Today, you can walk into a Best Buy and get 160GB of storage for under $100. That’s 32,000 times the storage for 1/20 the price.

Most drives today in desktop computers spin at 7,200RPM with capacities up to 1TB. Notebook and laptop drives, which are physically smaller (2.5″ compared with 3.5″ for desktop drives) usually spin at 5,400RPM with capacities up to 250GB. Meanwhile, in servers that use higher-performance SCSI drives, the disks spin at 10,000 or 15,000RPM and generally have capacities up to around 300GB.

But in the last couple of years a new type of storage option has been gaining popularity. This is the SSD or Solid State Drive. These are already available and are devices that act like an ordinary hard drive, only they have no moving parts (hence the name) and can be very fast.

In theory, an SSD isn’t much different than your typical USB memory stick, except that it can have a higher capacity and can be much faster. The highest capacity USB memory sticks go up to about 32GB, which is nothing to sneeze at, but they’re much slower than a hard drive. Meanwhile, some companies have 128GB and even 256GB SSDs – enough to use in a laptop or even a desktop computer – with speeds that can be almost twice as fast as a conventional laptop or desktop hard drive.

But not all SSDs are created equal. I’m sure you’ve seen the barrage of MacBook Air TV commercials. The MacBook Air can be purchased either with a conventional hard drive or with an SSD. But many users are complaining that the SSD version offers no speed improvement or power savings (something an SSD should be able to do since it’s got no moving parts).

What it does have is a much higher price. $1,300 higher than a comparable MacBook Air with a normal hard drive.

And this is the big thing with SSDs. They’re very expensive. Again, while some SSDs use slower memory or architecture, others focus on performance. A company called Memoright has a 128GB SSD that has been tested at being twice the speed of a normal hard drive (see here for a review). But the price is incredibly high: $3,400 for the 128GB SSD.

It’s like the ’80s all over again.

Another company, STEC Inc., has even announced a 512GB SSD with real-world speeds that exceed those of the fastest SCSI drives and use only half the power. Now, if you’re wondering why these companies all sound unfamiliar, don’t worry. There are SSDs by major manufacturers such as Samsung, SanDisk and Lexar, and even Intel, but the bigger companies tend to take a little bit more time to get to market.

As with all new, expensive technology that has mass-market appeal, as time goes on, the prices will continue to drop more and more. Estimates are that within 4 years or so, SSD pricing will be at about $2 / GB, so figure $1,000 for a 512GB drive by that time.

Obviously, SSDs have a tremendous amount of potential in all areas of computer storage, not just DAWs and video production. And it does seem like SSDs are probably going to take over for traditional hard drives at some point: In addition to being able to match hard drives in terms of speed, the capacities will keep growing, and again, prices will keep dropping. And less power usage is always a good thing. But one of the biggest advantages is that SSDs have no moving parts, so their potential for longevity and reliability is much greater than that of the typical hard drive.

I’m really looking forward to using this technology myself. You know, as soon as the pricing gets out of the early ’80s.

My Blog Featured at Voices.com

March 17, 2008

Voices.com’s Vox Daily has included my blog in their article “100+ Industry Resources for Voice Over Talent”, along with a bunch of other cool and useful sites and resources. Check out the article at this link:

Vox Daily: 100+ Industry Resources for Voice Over Talent

Useless Voiceover Trivia #1

March 10, 2008

Why not, right? And, it’s not really useless, because you never know when you might be walking down the street and a stranger comes up to you and asks you a seemingly random question to which you just happen to know the answer, prompting the stranger to hand you a check for a million dollars.

Hey, we all have our daydreams.

Anyway…

So, did you ever wonder where 48-V Phantom Power came from? Me either, until tonight when I was trying to think of some useless voiceover trivia to post. Although other forms of Phantom Power had been used before, the first use of the 48-V Phantom Power found in so many pro mics today was on a Neumann microphone called the KM 84, manufactured for Norwegian Radio in 1966.

Interested in owning a KM 84? You can find them (along with just about everything else) on eBay. I’ve refrained from including a direct link to a current auction since it’ll be useless in a month or so, but the cheapest one on there right now is about $1k.

Building a DAW

March 9, 2008

So let’s say you’re a voiceover artist like yours truly and you decide that rather than just buy a computer to use as your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), you’d rather build one yourself so that you have greater control over the components that go into it and, hopefully, will end up with a purpose-built system that does the job well and costs less than one you’d buy from a manufacturer who specializes in pre-fab DAW machines.

If you have some experience inside the case of a computer, this is entirely do-able. As to whether or not it’s the best solution is totally up to you and your situation. It could in fact save you money, or it could end up costing you more. It will almost certainly take much more time and effort than buying one pre-fab, but sometimes just the process itself is worth a little effort if you have fun with this sort of thing or want to learn about building PCs. Plus, then you end up with something that is, hopefully, exactly what you want without being less or more.

First let’s just go through a run-down of the components you’ll need:

  • Case
  • Motherboard
  • Power Supply
  • Processor
  • Memory
  • Hard Drive(s)
  • Sound Card or Audio Interface
  • Monitor / Display
  • Speakers
  • Keyboard / Mouse
  • Printer

Whew…that’s a fair amount of stuff, huh?

Now, before you even start to think about that there list, you need to ask yourself what OS you’re going to run. Vista is spiffy and looks great and has some really cool features. I’ve also found it to be quite stable. However, many audio hardware manufacturers have been extremely slow to release stable, efficient Vista drivers for their hardware. Please note this is no fault of Vista but of the manufacturers themselves. So if you already have a favorite bit of hardware that doesn’t run under Vista yet, contact the manufacturer and ask them what’s taking them so darn long!

Note that on 2/12/08, Microsoft released a number of Windows updates for Vista and to be honest, it’s the first time I’ve encountered ANY stability issues with the OS. I’m not sure what part of those updates, specifically, has caused this flakiness, and it seems to have mostly corrected itself (perhaps with another couple of updates on 2/13), but I’m hopeful that the remaining issues are resolved asap since, again, up til now, I’ve had extremely stable performance from Vista on every machine I’ve run it on.

Ok, since everybody’s going to have different preferences and needs from their system, I’m not saying that my choices for components are the “right” way to do it, but one example. In fact there are a couple of things I would (and might) change, but I’ll talk about those in a few minutes. My main goal here is to shed some light on the process and things you need to consider when building your own DAW.

Quick Definitions

Before I get into how I made my selections, let’s just spend a few minutes going over what each of the above components is and how it relates to the others.

  • Case – This is the shell that the majority of the computer’s bits fit inside of. Sometimes people call this the “tower”. I’ve heard many people mistakenly call this the “hard drive” but a hard drive is a component that goes inside the case.
  • Motherboard – The primary electronic component of the computer, the motherboard or mainboard as it’s sometimes called, is a large circuitboard that everything gets connected to either directly or indirectly.
  • Power Supply – Fits inside the case and supplies power to the system.
  • Processor – The processor, or CPU, is the primary computing component of the whole system. Some people like to call this the “computer’s brain”. Those people usually have trouble answering their cell phones (just kidding!)
  • Memory – Memory, or RAM, is where programs and files are loaded while they’re being used. The more memory your system has (up to a point) the faster it’ll run, because the computer can load more programs and files into memory, which is accessed very quickly. RAM only operates while the computer is turned on.
  • Hard Drives – These, also known as disk drives, are the “permanent” storage for your computer, meaning data stored on the hard drive isn’t lost when the computer is turned off, as it is with RAM.
  • Sound Card or Audio Interface – This is what takes your voice, by way of a microphone and any other components you add to your audio chain, such as a pre-amplifier or mixer, and turns it from an analog audio signal to a digital one that can be stored as data on your computer.
  • Monitor / Display – This is the part that looks kind of like a TV and it’s what you’re looking at right now. And now. And again now.
  • Speakers, Keyboard / Mouse, Printer - If I have to explain these, I’m afraid this article isn’t going to do you much good. Sorry  :)

Case, Motherboard, Processor & Power Supply

Why are these four things all lumped together? Well, in many ways, the choice of one directly affects the choice of the others, or at least limits the choices you’ll make. In the case of building a DAW, and in fact in building any computer, what you’re going for are tailoring the equipment to your specific needs. In my case, I’d determined that I wanted a machine with very good performance and longevity, but without paying a premium for everything when all was said and done.

With that in mind, I started by thinking about what kind of processor, or CPU, I’d want to use.  I knew that I wanted an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, and the one I chose was fast without being the fastest thing on the market at the time, which will save you a lot of money in most cases. Generally one or two steps down from the absolute state of the art in processors is where you’ll find the best value - the best performance for the money. Sometimes, the 2nd fastest processor available at a given time is half the cost of the fastest one, but only 5% to 10% slower, so it’s a pretty good deal.

Now that I had decided on a processor, it was time to pick a motherboard for the system. Different motherboards only accept certain CPUs, so again, some forethought has to go into what you’re planning for the whole system so that the various components match up.

So once I’d selected my processor, I did some research and found a motherboard that seemed to suit all of my needs. Obviously, the motherboard had to support the processor that I’d chosen, so that was step one. I also wanted one that had eSATA controllers for the hard drives. An eSATA connection is a very fast hard drive controller technology. Fast drives are important in a DAW because you want to make sure that your hard drives, where your audio will be recorded to and saved, are fast enough to keep up with the bit-rate (how fast the data is processed) of your audio and the software that you use to record it. Just FYI the motherboard I chose is the Asus P5B Deluxe.

Not only did this motherboard have eSATA controllers, but it also included a SATA RAID controller. RAID, which stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, is a way of using multiple hard drives together either to improve the performance of them, add redundancy to safeguard your data, or both. RAID use is a bit technical…there are various “levels” of RAID, meaning various ways to use the technology depending on your needs. I chose RAID-5, which means that with at least three disks in the array working together, your data is safe even if one disk fails. Pretty cool stuff…there’s a bit of a performance hit with RAID-5, especially when compared to RAID-0, which is very fast, but RAID-0 is vulnerable because if a disk goes bad, your data is lost.

RAID-5 can survive a disk failure without losing data. If this happens, you simply replace the drive that failed with new one (of the same type) and the data is “rebuilt” onto the new drive. This process is generally done by the RAID controller itself and invisible to the user, which is pretty handy.

I figured that with the speed of the eSATA controller and the speed of drives available these days, the slight performance hit by using RAID-5 would be overcome enough to not have any issues with recording audio at sustained bitrates (and true enough, this has never been an issue…the system performs great).

The motherboard I chose also has an IEEE 1394, or FireWire, controller built in, and it’s controlled by a Texas Instruments chipset. Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t need to know (or care) who makes the FireWire controller, but in researching DAWs online as well as audio interfaces (we’ll get to those later), I noticed that a number of manufacturers claimed that their hardware only worked with Texas Instruments FireWire chipsets. I have no idea if this is true, and at the time I didn’t even know what type of audio interface I would be using, but I figured since this motherboard used the TI chipset anyway, it was a good bet because it would offer another level of flexibility in terms of choosing the audio interface when I got to that point.

So now that I’d decided on a processor and motherboard, it was time to pick a case. Cases are generally standardized in certain respects, such as layout of the attachment points for the motherboard, the I/O panel cutout (the area where the various ports will be available on the back of the machine), where the power supply goes, etc. Of course their are always exceptions, but for today’s PCs, generally what you’ll be looking at are some variant of what’s called an ATX case. This isn’t a brand, but a sort of “standard” for cases. There are also a number of BTX cases available as well. ATX and BTX cases are not compatible with each other, as they have their I/O panels and expansion slots in different places. This comes into play when selecting a motherboard (motherboards are also identified by their layout standard), so you’ll need to pair an ATX motherboard with an ATX case, etc.

Call me silly, but one of the things I was looking for in a case was something that was a little bit different looking and that had a certain “cool factor” to it. For this reason, I chose the red Vento case by Asus. It didn’t look like much else on the market, the color was vibrant and it definitely looked high tech and cool. I also read a little about it and found that people thought it had very good airflow characteristics, which is good, because I was going to try to use a minimal number of fans within my DAW, so a case with better airflow is going to make better use of the fans that are there.

Ok, so the last component in this group is the power supply. There are a couple of hard and fast requirements here. First, the power supply has to have the right connectors for your motherboard and second, it has to supply enough power for the other components that you’ll build into your DAW. The one component in a system that will often require a beefy power supply is the video card, since many current video cards, especially those designed for gaming and advanced 3D graphics, use a LOT of power. Fortunately, for my needs, cutting edge graphics aren’t a requirement, so I figured that based on what components I’d be using, a 500W power supply should do the trick. I did some research and found that the Thermaltake W0093RU power supply had gotten good reviews both for reliablity and noise, meaning that it wasn’t too loud.

This should serve as a mildly annoying reminder that you simply can’t trust the opinions of people you don’t know. While I’m sure the power supply is much quieter than many, it certainly isn’t “quiet” empirically. In fact, I’ll probably swap out this power supply at some point because it simply is too loud.

Now, with regard to the power supply, you need to make sure that the power supply you choose has the proper connectors for your motherboard and video card, especially if you’re building a system with a high-end card, because they often require their own power connector. As an example, your motherboard may require a 20+4 pin connector, a 12v 4-pin connector or both. This one has both as well as plenty of peripheral connectors. But again, it’s not as quiet as I would have liked. Moving on then.

Memory

When you look at motherboards, you’ll see that they’re rated for memory up to a certain speed, and this can be determined by the rating of the Front Side Bus or FSB. So if your motherboard has an 800MHz FSB, then you can use memory rated up to that speed. Many motherboards support different speeds of memory so that if you want to use slower / cheaper memory for now, then upgrade later, you have the ability to do that. However, I would recommend buying the fastest memory you can afford to buy for the FSB of your motherboard, and to get at least 2GB of memory.

Since memory is where your applications and data are loaded into while you’re using them, fast memory means faster performance in your computer. And having 2GB of memory means that your software will run fast even when you have multiple programs open. This is good, because it means your system won’t “page” software to disk…if it did this, there’s a good chance your audio would be glitchy since the computer would be trying to stream audio to disk at the same time it’s trying to swap program data to and from disk.

While disk access is very fast, it’s not nearly as fast as RAM access, so again, my recommendation is to have at least 2GB of the fastest memory your system supports.

Note that under Windows XP, only 2GB of memory is supported. Under Vista (the 32-bit version), you can have up to 4GB of memory in the system, not all of which will be usable by the system. This is due to some technical limitations with 32-bit computing and system architecture that I won’t go into, but for most people, 32-bit is still a good idea, especially if you’re more interested in software compatibility than you are the “ultimate” processing performance. Again, given that the audio manufacturers and developers aren’t known for having bleeding-edge, stable hardware and software, I would recommend, at least for the time being, sticking with a 32-bit OS (Win XP, Vista 32-bit) for now.

Hard Drives

Ok, again, this is an area that people always disagree on. And there’s no right or wrong here, so just give this a little thought and make the best decision for you.

As I mentioned when talking about my motherboard above, I wanted to implement RAID-5 so that I’d have data redundancy. But it’s also a good idea to have your data on a different drive than your operating system and software. Fortunately, I was able to do this with my system, because the motherboard has the SATA RAID controller AND a secondary SATA controller. So I used the secondary SATA controller for the system’s primary (boot) disk, and set up the SATA RAID to use 3 hard drives for the RAID array, where all my data would be stored.

So far, this has worked out extremely well and as I mentioned, I haven’t had any performance issues at all. Part of this, though, is selecting fast hard drives. SATA and eSATA are already fast technologies, with very good data throughput. And you’ll see, for instance, that if you look at a SATA 3.0 drives, that they all are rated at 7200RPM, so there’s not a ton of variation in performance between drives. You’ll see things like seek times and write times expressed in milliseconds, and you’ll notice that they’re all very close.

I chose some Seagate drives, because I’ve had very good luck with Seagate products in the past and these drives, which use “perpendicular recording” are supposed to have some of the best performance times and quietest operation among SATA 3.0 drives.

Now, with RAID-5, again, you need at least three drives, and the capacity of your RAID array is the total of all your drives minus one. In my case, I got three 250GB drives, so my RAID array is 500GB (250 * 3 = 750, minus one drive at 250 = 500 total). RAID-5 supports more than three drives…just use the same formula to calculate your total…and of course you can also get higher capacity drives which, at the time, were too expensive for the budget I’d set for myself.  Also, the SATA RAID controller only would allow for 3 drives (there are dedicated RAID controllers that allow for more) so this is where I ended up.

Actually I got four drives, because as I mentioned, there are three in the RAID array and one used for the system’s boot and program disk.

Sound Card or Audio Interface

Let’s not forget we’re not just building an “ordinary” PC here, we’re building a Digital Audio Workstation. So the Sound Card or Audio Interface is one of the most directly important parts of the system. There are many, many options to choose from and, again, what you choose is going to be dictated by a lot of factors.

First let’s discuss the difference between a Sound Card and an Audio Interface. Both serve the same purpose…to bring in an analog audio signal and convert it to a digital signal that can be manipulated on the computer and stored as digital audio. A sound card goes inside your computer and gets plugged into one of the slots on the motherboard. If you’ve ever owned a desktop PC with a variation of a Sound Blaster, then you’re already familiar with sound cards, as that’s what the Sound Blaster is. In a higher-end or pro-audio sound card, there’s usually an additional component in the form of either a bundle of cables coming out of the back of the card (such as XLR connectors to plug in pro microphones) or what’s called a breakout box, which is another device connected to the back of the soundcard. Usually the breakout box includes the various I/O (input / output) connectors.

An audio interface, on the other hand, is an external device that usually attaches to the computer through either a USB or FireWire port. Instead of the computer’s sound card doing the analog-to-digital (and reverse) work, this is done inside the audio interface and then sent to the computer through the USB or FireWire connection.

In each case, the hardware you choose will have drivers that allow your chosen audio software to use your hardware to send sound to the computer and, subsequently, your software.

When I built my DAW, because of some of the things I’d read about various audio interfaces, such as trouble with certain USB or FireWire connections causing dropouts in the audio, or flaky drivers, I decided instead to go with a pro sound card and chose the E-MU 1616m PCI. E-MU, by the way, is the pro audio division of Creative Labs, the company that makes the Sound Blaster products. This was one of the reasons I chose this product. For one thing, Creative Labs has a long-standing reputation for pretty good and stable drivers. I assumed this would carry over into the E-MU line of products. For another thing, they’ve also had a pretty good track record for developing drivers for new operating systems quicker than most audio hardware manufacturers.

This was another bonus, because I figured that although I was going to use Windows XP for now (more on that later), that if / when I decided to upgrade to Vista, E-MU would likely have stable Vista drivers ready long before many other manufacturers.

Either way you go, there are a few things you want to make sure of. First, your chosen hardware should supply 48V Phantom Power to your mic input(s), as almost all non-tube microphones require this. Many tube mics have their own pre-amp / power supply, but non-powered microphones generally require Phantom Power making this a necessity (and in fact it’s available on just about all pro-grade sound cards and audio interfaces, but just make sure!).

XLR connectors for your mic(s) are another requirement. Unlike the “normal” PC sound card, which takes an 1/8th inch headphone-style jack as its input source, pro audio equipment generally uses 3-pin XLR connectors, so in order to keep your audio chain (the series of devices you have connected together) as “clean” as possible, you want to not use any more cables or adapters than are necessary. The best way to do this is to choose hardware that accepts the type of connectors you’ll likely be using.

There are plenty of features that sound cards and audio interfaces have and will try to sell you on. Other than what I mentioned above, make sure that if you plan to (or think you might) record with more than one mic at some point, or with instruments, etc., that the hardware you choose has multiple inputs. Also, good DACs (digital-to-analog convertors) are important since they’re what does the conversion of the audio to a digital form. Your hardware’s sampling rate should be at least 44kHz (the sampling frequency used on CDs, for example) for good audio fidelity.

One final note here. Many motherboards include audio hardware. If yours does, you may need to disable it so that it doesn’t interfere with your sound card or audio interface that you’ve decided on. At the very least, having more than one sound card or audio hardware option on a PC can be confusing and can lead to a lot of frustration if you’re recording into one and wondering why the speakers hooked up to the other aren’t playing any sound! Much of this comes down to the configuration of your hardware and software settings as relates to audio hardware, so just keep this in mind if you find yourself frustrated with such things.

Monitor / Display

These days, it’s almost impossible to find a CRT monitor for a computer. CRTs are the “old style” tube-based monitors that essentially look like a traditional analog TV set. They’re deep and heavy, thanks to the cathode ray tube (CRT) assembly and front glass required to create the on-screen image. But just like with newer hi-def and digital TVs, computer monitors these days are primarily flat-panels and, more recently, widescreen. Not only are flat-panel displays lighter and take up less room, they can be easily wall mounted and have exceptional image quality. Plus, their ubiquity in recent years has made them quite affordable for their size, as well.

Having a widescreen display is great, because obviously you can see more at once. This is especially useful when using an audio program where you’re going to be looking at your audio tracks…widescreen displays allow you to see more of your tracks at once, or to see the same amount (as you would on a traditional 4:3, or “TV-shape” monitor) at a bigger size, making it easier to see and work with.

Just like with most other electronics, many people have their favorite brands. Personally, I really like Samsung flat-panel displays and usually purchase them when I’m building or upgrading a system.

Now, in addition to the display itself, there’s also the video card or display adapter. I mentioned this briefly when I said that I’d chosen one without a fan, to make for a quieter system. Note that many motherboards include video hardware on the motherboard itself, but that the included circuitry may not offer you all the features you want. For instance, widescreen displays run at different resolutions (the number of dots horizontally by the number of dots vertically) than traditional 4:3 displays, since they’re a different shape. Integrated video hardware on a particular motherboard may not offer widescreen resolutions, or ones that are as high-resolution as the monitor you choose, so it’s important to make sure that your display adapter runs at your monitor’s “native” (default) resolution at a minimum.

There’s also a good reason to consider a video card as opposed to relying on video hardware that’s integrated into the motherboard, and that’s that many video cards offer dual outputs. Why would you want this? Well, you may want to use two monitors side-by-side to get an extended desktop and see more at once. Or, as in my situation, you may want to have one monitor on your desk and one inside your booth or recording space, so that you can control the computer from either location.

Some motherboards do have dual display outputs but they’re less common than are dual displays on video cards, so again, just make sure your hardware will be able to do what you want it to do.

For my system, I chose the Asus EAX 1600 Pro Silent video card with dual outputs and fan-less operation. For my monitors, I have a 20″ Samsung widescreen display on my desk and a 17″ Samsung widescreen display for in the booth. Note, though, that I haven’t yet mounted the 17″ display inside the booth and may in fact swap it out for another 20″ display since the 20″ and 17″ displays have different native resolutions…this was a mistake on my part. Oops!

Speakers

Like microphones, people have very passionate opinions on speakers and speaker technology. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this, because as I was putting together my DAW, and knowing that I would likely be the only person ever to listen to them, I opted for about the least expensive “studio monitors” I could find that would connect to my E-MU’s breakout box. At the time, these turned out to be the M-Audio StudioPro DX4 powered monitors. Actually there were cheaper speakers available, but they were, inconveniently for me, out of stock at the time and I needed something, so these had to do. They sound great as far as I’m concerned. I likely could have found cheaper “computer speakers” and just used an adaptor to connect them to the E-MU, but even “computer speakers” that sound decent are getting kind of expensive these days, so I figured that I’d spend a couple extra $$ and get something designed for this particular application (and with the right connectors already).

Keyboard / Mouse

Now, you can go to Target and get a cheapo keyboard for about $10 and a mouse for probably $5, but I prefer to spend a bit more on my kb / mouse because I’m kind of particular about both typing and mousing. When I built this sytem, I just set it up with an old IBM keyboard I had lying around along with a nice, ergonomic Logitech mouse that I like.

This past week, however, I purchased a Bluetooth wireless keyboard / mouse combo by Rocketfish from Best Buy. The reason for this is that I’m finally getting around to getting my phone patch (not ordered yet, though) and I want to be able to control my DAW not only from the desk outside the booth but from inside as well. So I have a flat-panel mount and a keyboard / mouse arm that I have to put into the inside of the booth, but the Bluetooth kb/mouse will allow me to simply carry the mouse & keyboard to the inside of the booth when I’m recording and then just bring them out again when I’m going to be working at the desk.

It’s a pretty convenient solution and Rocketfish claims a 60′ range which is way more than I need, but means that at about 6′ away, the signal should be plenty strong. I’ve yet to hook it up, so I’m hoping that the Bluetooth doesn’t cause any residual interference with my audio chain.

Printer

I won’t spend too much time on this either, but just don’t forget that you’ll likely want to have a printer so that you can print out scripts, script revisions, script notes, etc. :) And a place to put it. Most printers are either USB or ethernet (network) connected these days so, again, just make sure what you buy fits in with your whole setup.

Putting It All Together

Hmm, I thought about a step by step here, but I think that’s beyond the scope of this post as well as being too specific to the particulars of anybody’s setup. So instead, I’ll just quickly go over the general order of getting things put together.

I started by putting the motherboard into the case and connecting all of its various fan and system wires such as the wire for the power button, the wires that go to the front panel USB and FireWire ports, etc. Depending on your case layout, you may want to put the power supply in first, but if not, you’ll likely put it in after you get the motherboard in.

After the motherboard and power supply, next I would put in the processor and its heatsink / fan and get those connected. Then I’d put in the RAM. After that, any expansion cards (such as my E-MU 1616 and Asus video card).

Next I’d attach all the hard drives. Note that in my particular case, I had to do a fair amount of finagling with the hard drives, because I connected the drives for the RAID array first, but doing this, there was no way to then later connect the fourth drive (to the secondary SATA controller) and have that be the system’s boot disk. So I then had to disconnect the RAID drives, connect the boot disk, re-install Windows XP (ugh) and supply the Asus motherboard driver for the secondary SATA controller during Windows installation. Once this was done and Windows was installed on the boot drive, I reconnected the RAID drives and they became my D:\ drive. To be perfectly honest, this whole thing was the most difficult and annoying part of building my DAW, especially since the Asus tech support guy I talked to said it wasn’t possible to do what I was trying to do (have a drive on the secondary SATA controller be the system disk). But in fact, it was possible and has worked flawlessly.

After that, the system is pretty much built…you just need to close up the case, attach your monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers and you should be good to go.

Finally, once your OS is installed and you’ve gotten your various hardware drivers installed, you can install your other software, such as audio recording software, e-mail and word processing programs if you use them, etc.

I personally wouldn’t recommend isntalling anti-virus software on a DAW, only because all anti-virus software slows down system performance while it’s running. This could cause audio dropouts and other problems (such as issues with file permissions) that can lead to major headaches.

Instead, I would recommend keeping your system free of anti-virus software and connecting it to your internet connection through a broadband firewall / router such as any number of those manufactured by Linksys, for example. The reason for this is the firewall / router will NAT your computer, meaning it’ll connect to your ISP and pass that connection to your computer through a technology called NAT (Network Address Translation). When your computer’s connected through NAT, Windows File and Printer Sharing cannot work on the other side of the firewall / router…they can only work on computers on the inside of your network. This, combined with common sense when surfing the web and opening e-mail, should keep you pretty safe.

I hate to suggest it, but if you feel like you don’t HAVE any common sense when it comes to surfing the web or opening e-mail, then just don’t do any of those things as aren’t specifically related to your audio work. Only go to sites that you already know are safe and don’t open any attachments you weren’t expecting to receive, unless you’re sure they’re audio files or image files, etc.

Summary

Wow, this was a long post. But hopefully somebody will find it useful. Again, the idea here wasn’t to say what’s right / wrong as much as to describe a bit of the thought process that went into building my system so that in the event you’re thinking about building one, too, you can perhaps learn from some of the successes and failures of my own experience.

This is by no means the only way to go. As I mentioned briefly, there are companies who specialize in building and selling DAWs, and I have a friend who just “went out and bought a laptop” with Windows Vista, hooked up an Audio Interface and microphone and installed some audio software and she’s happy as a clam. But I like building PCs and this was a fun project. Whatever you decide to do, make sure it’s the right choice for you, taking into considering how you like to work, your particular hardware or software preferences, your space and your budget.

Close Encounters of the Audio Kind

March 8, 2008

Voiceover artists, radio people and gearheads in general can get really passionate about their likes and dislikes when it comes to audio tech. Especially microphones. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in this arena…I’ve recorded on lots of different mics and thought I sounded better on some than others, but a lot of it has to do with what I was reading and how I was reading it.

Yesterday, I posted about a job where I had to voice match myself, replacing audio I recorded two years ago. One of the interesting things about this job was the microphone I used.

The studio where I recorded has no traditional sound booth. In fact, my recording was done sitting at a desk with a bunch of computer and audio equipment on it. About 4 feet behind me was a big window, looking out to a Chicago street, just a few blocks away from one of the biggest train stations in the city.

At one point, I was recording and I stopped as a train was passing nearby. The clack-clack-clack of the train wheels over track seams and the engine roar were pretty loud, so I stopped reading.

A few seconds later, the producer, who was listening from another room where he was actually laying the audio down to a computer, asked “Is something wrong?”

“I just figured I’d wait for the train to pass,” I said.

“Oh, I didn’t hear it. I’m still rolling…just go on when you’re ready.”

So how is this possible? How could I record “clean” audio in a non-sound treated room with a diesel locomotive passing by just a few blocks away?

The answer is in the microphone we were using. A handheld job from a company called Coles – the 4104 Commentator’s Noise Cancelling Ribbon Microphone.

Designed in the 1950s by Dudley Harwood and D.E.L. Shorter of the BBC, the 4104 is a pressure gradient ribbon microphone with a lot of acousting damping. What this means is that it’s very good at picking up the speaker but little else.

While the technical aspects of how this is achieved are beyond my knowledge (and, perhaps, understanding), it becomes a little easier to understand once you see the microphone and how it’s used.

Coles 4104 Microphone

The XLR connection for the mic is at the base of the handle, so the mic needs to be hand-held. Notice, though, that the business end of the mic is covered by two screen filters: There’s an oval filter across the front of the mic and a second filter, this one rectangular, that covers the top of the mic and protrudes from the front of the mic by about 1/2″ with a rounded, concave leading edge.

The purpose of this leading edge is that the speaker is supposed to rest this up against his or her upper lip. Yes, the mic is actually designed to touch your face while you’re speaking, which seems odd compared to the use of most mics, but doesn’t really create as much of an issue as it might seem like it would just by reading about it. This funky usage style has led to the 4104 being called “The Lip Mic” by some.

And I have to say, the mic works really well. It seems to have a pretty flat sound, which to me means that it doesn’t add much in the way of presence or brightness…it just reproduces what the speaker sounds like. And it picks up very little, if anything else. The Coles product literature for the 4104 claims that it can be used outdoors in winds up to 20mph with no noticeable decrease in the vocal quality of the user. That is pretty darn cool.

Do a little research on the mic and you’ll see it’s been used to record at sporting events, in big crowds, during hurricanes, in taxi cabs and in plenty of other environments where an ordinary mic would require the voice talent to shout just to be heard.

The 4104 sells for about $650 – $700 and would seem to be a good mic to investigate if you frequently find the need to record in loud places or spaces that haven’t been acoustically treated.

The official product page for the 4104 can be found here.

Voice Matching…Yourself

March 7, 2008

Sometimes it’s referred to as “doing an impersonation”, but others refer to it as “voice matching”. It’s the practice of voiceover work where you need to have your voice match the voice of somebody else so that the two can be used interchangeably. Often this occurs when the original performer isn’t available, or is too expensive, to do pickup work for things like advertisements, trailers, video games or even for a movie itself.

There are definitely voice actors and comedians out there who can do a number of really impressive impersonations. Make no mistake that this is a talent that not as many people have as you might think. Voice matching can be pretty difficult. Like most things, if you have a knack for it, you can probably improve with practice, but it does take skill.

Surprisingly, it also takes some skill to voice match yourself. Today I was hired to record some voiceover for an industrial film for a company for whom I’d done work about two years ago. The catch was that I was updating my previous work for them with new facts and figures. The original script was about an hour’s worth of material. Now, there were4 7 paragraphs of material where information had changed, such as how much the company does in sales each year, the number of employees, etc.

I was recording at the same studio, which made it a bit easier, but it’s still a bit of a challenge. You have to match not only your pacing (which , of course, can be tweaked somewhat in post), but also the tone, pitch, inflection, etc.

Fortunately, the session went really well…after recording a few test paragraphs, the producer swapped alternating sentences of the old audio with the new, and even without doing any editing, a 3rd party wasn’t able to tell the difference between them. As a result, we were able to just re-record those 7 paragraphs instead of the entire script.

I really enjoyed this project, even though it ended up being pretty short. It’s fun to be able to either perform or create a new character, but I learned after this project it can be equally fun trying to voice match my own previous work!

Fire in the Sky

March 4, 2008

Although I do love talking about UFOs, no, this post isn’t about the movie of the same name. This about something even more heavenly and, perhaps, uniquely terrestrial in nature. And by nature, for that matter.

Today on our way home from running a couple of errands, we arrived back home to see the following beautiful sun pillar. Sometimes they’re called light pillars, and are visible when ice crystals in the sky reflect light from the sun, usually just after it’s set.


 

If you like pictures like this, I took 6 total (although all quite similar) and cropped them to 1680 x 1050 so that they could be used for desktop wallpapers. You can download them from the following links:

Sun pillar 1
Sun pillar 2
Sun pillar 3
Sun pillar 4
Sun pillar 5
Sun pillar 6

Enjoy!

Why You Should Dump Your Yahoo! Mail

February 27, 2008

I know, I know. You’ve been with Yahoo! for 10 years. You love your Yahoo! Your Yahoo! is free. Well guess what? Your Yahoo! is also keeping you from getting a LOT of your mail.

In fact, except for the biggest ISPs (like Comcast, etc.) and mail services that Yahoo! themselves run, such as SBC- and AT&T-related domains, there’s a good chance that you’re missing more than 50% of the mail that’s sent to you.

Right now, many of you are probably thinking I’m crazy. But it’s true. Over the last 18 months or so, Yahoo! has begun non-standard e-mail practices that result in most inbound messages being considered to be spam.

Do a search on Google for the words yahoo temporarily deferred and you’ll get back no fewer than 180,000 results. This is a huge problem.

It all started when Yahoo! decided to implement a proprietary anti-spam system called DomainKeys. DomainKeys is a way for a mail server to “sign” messages sent out, combined with a matching “signature” in the DNS for the sending domain, so that Yahoo! can validate that the message in question really came from the server it says it came from. DNS, by the way, is what matches your domain’s IP address with its name.

So Yahoo! checks the signatures of both, and if they match, then the message isn’t considered spam.

The first problem is that, again, this system is proprietary. There was already a similar system in place called SPF, which is an accepted standard and one that’s been in place since late 2004. It doesn’t use the signatures, but it does use DNS, which is just as good: A spammer can’t fake the SPF records for a particular domain, because there’s no way for a spammer to get access to DNS for a domain they don’t own.

So Yahoo! started checking inbound mail for DomainKeys, yet there weren’t really any mail servers set up to sign mail with DomainKeys signatures because, again, it was a proprietary system. The result of this is that messages not signed with DomainKeys sent to Yahoo! users are “temporarily deferred” with an error code of 421, sometimes for up to six hours. This means Yahoo! received the message, but refuses to deliver it to the recipient because, since you don’t use their proprietary system, obviously your message to Aunt Lucy with pictures from your birthday party is spam.

The second problem is that DomainKeys DOES NOT WORK.

A client of mine, an amusement park, is in full hiring swing for the upcoming season. They were seeing all of their messages to Yahoo! deferred, with many never getting to the recipient. Ever. So we investigated installing DomainKeys just for them so that they wouldn’t have as much trouble, even though in general I’m opposed to proprietary stuff running on our servers.

So we installed DomainKeys and guess what? A lot of messages signed with DomainKeys are STILL being deferred by Yahoo! mail servers and are never getting delivered. Even after 4-6 hours.

The best part, though, is that the messages that ARE signed with DomainKeys that do get through to the intended recipient at Yahoo!, sometimes in less than a minute…are STILL automatically put into the user’s Spam folder!

Let’s review the situation:

  • Our mail server conforms to all standard e-mail protocols
  • We’ve installed Yahoo!’s stupid DomainKeys system and it’s properly signing messages sent from our server
  • Yahoo! still doesn’t deliver a large percentage of signed messages. Ever.
  • The mail that Yahoo! does accept is still considered spam and put into the recipient’s spam folder

Ok, so let’s say that Aunt Lucy doesn’t really care about you or your stupid birthday party, so no great loss that she never got the message you sent. But LOTS of you out there who use Yahoo! have mail from other domains forwarded to you at your Yahoo! address. And lots of you use it for business.

Uh oh.

Let’s see…2+2…carry the 4…silent ‘e’…hmm, is the light bulb on yet? Yup. This means that you’re potentially missing the MAJORITY of business-related e-mails that people are trying to send to you. And I’m pretty sure that missing e-mail from prospective customers is not on your business plan for success.

“I don’t miss any e-mails!” you proclaim.

Yeah. Um. How would you know? Unless the person contacts you. And I’d be willing to bet that some people in fact HAVE contacted you. And you can’t figure out why they can’t send mail to you. Now you know.

So what do you do?

Well, for starters, you need to leave Yahoo! It’s fine as a secondary e-mail service I suppose, for personal stuff that doesn’t matter, but for a primary place where you receive anything important, Yahoo! cannot be trusted to deliver your mail to you. And Yahoo!’s “Postmaster” department, the part of the company responsible for mail, is notorious for not being cooperative with other companies to try to resolve this issue.

In fact Yahoo! has a form that companies can fill out to try to fix this whole mess (as a funny aside, this is the link that Yahoo! has on their own website to fill out the form…notice that it does not, in fact, link to a form, but to a menu of vaguely-related topics…very helpful, thanks Yahoo!). Most companies who go through the process either never hear back from Yahoo!, or Yahoo! responds by saying that the company in question can’t be “whitelisted” on Yahoo!’s mail system because Yahoo! users have deemed the company’s mail as spam.

My company has never sent out a bulk mailing in 10 years. Not a single unsolicited e-mail. The only time we ever send mail to Yahoo! is to reply to a message we receive. And yet somehow Yahoo! has come up with the answer that Yahoo! users have determined that the replies that I’m sending to their e-mails are spam.

Uh huh.

Back to the amusement park client…even after installing DomainKeys, my client is entirely unable to send mail to certain addresses at Yahoo! Including his own. So before you think that the companies who are trying to get whitelisted are lying about whether or not they send out bulk mail, ask yourself what are the odds that my client has “determined” that his own mail is spam. Not very good, probably.

If you can’t stand the thought of paying for mail service, then at least pick a service that doesn’t have these issues, such as GMail. The time to dump Yahoo! is now. Well, really, it’s 18 months ago. But now will do just fine.


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