Thursday, June 29, 2006

Using DSP Quattro

My audio production application is DSP Quattro. I chose this over Sound Studio, which is pretty nice, because it seemed just a little bit more capable and flexible, and seemed like it would help me edit a bit better. I have to admit I was also taken in by the "scrubber" that lets me play audio backwards and forwards or fast and slow; it is a little bit like using a jog/shuttle wheel on a traditional video editing deck.

DSP Quattro is giving me a few pains, though. I need to get in touch with the makers and try to determine which of these are bugs and which are features I don't understand.

- Buffer sizes for my audio devices are not saved and loaded with the project. That means I have to set them up again every time I run the application and open up my project. Yeech.

- Sometimes effects won't respond to the "edit" button by opening their windows. Sometimes effects editing windows get dimmed and clicking on them won't fix this. There seems to be some problem with the state handling for these windows. Re-selecting the effect and then re-loading the preset you want to apply seems to fix the problem.

- The "Save Project" command seems to lose track of the fact that you are already working with a saved project, and wants to treat it like saving a new file. But only sometimes.

- This is a feature request: a list of recently active project and audio files would be very helpful. Often you're closing a file to overwrite it, then re-loading it; this would save some tedium.

- After you apply the master effects to a file, and save the results in a new file (or the already-open file), DSP Quattro turns on the master effects, which means that if you try to listen to the results of your processing, without turning that bypass back on for the whole Master effects strip, you will hear the effected file run through your live effect chain _again_. The result is often frighteningly loud and full of clipping, so this is not something you want to hear unexpectedly in your headphones!

- While you're applying master effects to a file (not in real time), the meter levels that you see flickering by occasionally are way too high and appear to indicate that you're seeing the effects applied twice. If they can't display something meaningful they should be turned off when running the effect chain at faster-than-real-time.

- Some plug-ins don't seem to allow me to properly control their values (for example, the Peak Limiter). I'm not sure if this is a problem with the host application or the plug-in.

- This last one may be something I don't fully understand. I've defined my master effects, and I've tweaked and tweaked them, by playing a source file and listening to the results. Then I go ahead and use the menu command to apply the master effects to the file, and save the results in a new file. (In other words, I don't run the effects in real-time, but as fast as the computer can run them). When I listen to the resulting, it sounds _different_ than it did running on the original file in real-time. I can get the result I want by using a master recorder and saving the results to the file, but this runs in real time, so it is a bit awkward. The difference is fairly dramatic -- the file that was processed faster is 5 dB higher in RMS, and the expander sounds all wrong (the beginnings of words are lost). What is wrong? Is the compressor not capable of adjusting its time-based values to correspond the actual number of samples it is processing when running faster than real time? I hope this is not the case -- I will be generating hours and hours of audio, and I don't want my post-processing to take as long as recording the audio did!

If you're an expert on DSP Quattro, I'd love to hear from you. Otherwise I'll be hunting for some other forum where I can get some assistance with these issues.

Compressing the Logitech USB Headset

Now that I've got a means of recording that does not constantly "glitch," I can turn my attention a little more to processing the raw voice. It would be nice to think that with the right input I could just perhaps normalize it a little bit and not worry about compression, but it appears that is just a fantasy. Both the Snowball and the Logitech headset seem to give me a dry RMS level of about -35 dB, which is quite low. Just normalizing that introduces a lot of noise, and even though the starting level is quite low, without compressing the peaks at least a bit, you can't get the RMS level under 20 dB. The Snowball is off-line for the moment, so I'm talking about the Logitech USB headset.

I spent several hours last night working on an effects chain that would produce a result that I was happy with. Here is the chain that I came up with, in order:

1. AUDynamicsProcessor

I have a moderate setting on the compressor, with downward expansion engaged, again to a modest degree; I'm not quite treating it as a gate. I previously spent quite a bit of time messing around with the Floorfish to try to remove background noise, but it wasn't coming together for me. In particular, the Floorfish seemed to have trouble with threshold around the low incoming level of the dry signal. With no numeric display on the threshold control, I was operating entirely by ear, and I didn't like what I heard. It seemed like the processor just needed a lot more signal to work with, but I wasn't sure how to get a reasonable pre-gain.

There is probably a way, but I found that the Apple dynamics processor has a combined compressor and downward expander which acts as a decent noise remover, and I was able to get a better-sounding signal right away, and then spend some time tweaking it.

I still have a few issues with it, though: the meter only goes one way, showing the downward expansion but not what it is doing when the compression kicks in. Also, it does not have a "ratio" control, but instead a "head room" control, measured in dB. I feel that I understand "ratio" and "threshold" in compression, but I can't quite figure out or hear what the different settings of the headroom control really did. Is this the additional dB of dynamic range your signal is allowed to fill up once passing the threshold? Or the number of dB you want to remain unused after your signal has reached its maximum volume? I'm not really sure.

It also has only a single master gain control, rather than an input gain and make-up gain. This resulted in a lot of time spent tweaking, because when you're working with compressors, the results can be counter-intuitive (for example, increasing the gain can result in the compressor getting hit harder, which will actually give you a lower RMS level, as more of your signal passes the compression threshold).

2. Spitfish

I'm using a slight variation on the "male voice" preset, which takes some of the hissiness out of the Logitech mic. This plugin is fairly subtle, and if you set it to take too much out, my voice sounds like I have a lisp. At a relatively low setting it definitely helps. I find it difficult to figure out the most effective frequency (since, again, the "fish fillets" don't display their settings numerically). And, I still get a few pops; I can't really put a pop filter on the headset mic, and I don't want to change the boom position because it seems to be in the "sweet spot" for tone, so I'll live with it for now. (It seems to be difficult, if not impossible, to take out plosives using EQ -- they cover a very broad band.)

3. Graphic EQ

Apple's EQ set to 31-bands. I have rolled off the very high and very low ends, and set a slight boost in some of the more flattering bass frequencies. In addition, I've taken out a little notch around the more "nasal" sounds my voice produces, and another notch to tame the sibilance frequencies just a little bit more (some of this is, I think, resonance in the headset mic's little plastic boom). The rule here is generally to prefer cutting to boosting, which I've done, and to be subtle. I did a lot of A/B comparison until I was satisified, but I reserve the right to tweak it more later!

4. Peak Limiter

I'm using Apple's plug-in. I can't really figure out what this thing is doing. It is very hard to read the controls and the "limiting amount" slider doesn't seem to change anything -- I think that is a bug. But if it is in the chain, it does indeed seem to clean up the very highest peaks and reduce the number of clips.

I'm enclosing a screen shot of the plugin configuration:

And here are some large (about 45 MiB) dry and wet AIFF files (note: these are un-edited, raw readings!)


I'm pretty happy with the result -- I think this cleans up the output of the inexpensive Logitech USB headset just about as much as it can be cleaned up -- but I would welcome any suggestions -- particularly in how to deal with the AUDynamicsProcessor "head room" setting and the peak limiter.

A Small Plug for a Plug-In

I made a small donation for Magnus Jonsson's "Ambience" reverb plugin. It is donation ware (free to download, the download version is not limited, but brings up a donation request every time you run it). I like the reverb -- there are a large number of presets for just about every conceivable occasion, and it sounds pretty good -- although recently I have been listening more to natural reverb in different environments, and realizing sadly just how badly artificial reverbs fail to live up to them.

I have not quite figured out what to do with it. For some of my readings, I'd like to put the narrator (Carnacki) in a room, and possibly for others I'd like to apply it just to effects, like whistling (for "The Whistling Room.") We'll see.

Anyway, just a quick plug for a plug-in; try it out and see if you like it!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

It's Not My Mac

Last night I picked up a Logitech USB headset on the grounds that even if the audio quality isn't very good, I could use it to (1) test my computer and verify whether this device also produces glitches during recording, (2) use it as a reference to determine whether the low-level issue is specific to my Snowball, and maybe (3) use it to record, at least temporarily, while the Snowball is getting fixed.

What I determined is that recording works fine using the USB headset: it does not drop buffers and "glitch" the way that the Snowball does. If I record with a number of plugins going, I can wind up hearing glitched audio if I monitor on the headphones, but it doesn't appear to affect the recording. Not really a problem since I actually intend to record fully dry, using minimal CPU, and master later.

So, this means I have a pretty strong case to claim that the Snowball has a problem with the buffer loss, not my computer. I'm going to send it to BLUE and let them try to figure out what is wrong.

The audio level of a dry recording is actually comparable to what I'm getting from the Snowball, at an RMS level of about -35 dB, even with the gain on the Logitech headset turned all the way up. This suggests to me that I just have to live with it and try to compensate in post, since I can't add more gain on either device prior to the A/D conversion.

I also spent a little time experimenting with the "Fish Fillets" trio of Floorfish (downward expander/gate), Blockfish (compressor), and Spitfish (de-esser). The results with the audio from the Logitech headset have been mixed. Despite the "deluxe" label, the Logitech headset is just not really a high-quality audio device. The cord from the headset is strangely thin, and it seems to pick up quite a bit of electrical noise from other items in the room, including perhaps my Netgear wireless network hub, depending on how I turn my head (maybe I need to turn it off when I record).

The mic, although mounted away from direct breath blasts, still manages to be sensitive to pops and has some strange resonances, which manifest as certain consonants suddenly "essing" or "clicking" a lot. If I move my head, I get cable-handling noise. It does do a reasonably good job of rejecting background noise, though, which is good. I think I'm just going to go ahead and use it, and do what I can with the plug-ins.

One problem seems to be that the levels I get using the plug-ins as _insert_ effects while recording, monitoring the results, does _not_ match the levels I get when I use them as _master_ effects and post-process the dry file. Not at all. I have no idea why this should be the case -- the insert effects are set to fully "wet" -- but it means that I can't effectively _preview_ just how the inserts are going to change the dry recording; I have to apply it to at least a section of the recorded file, listen to the result, tweak the settings, apply again, etc. I don't know whether this problem is specific to DSP Quattro, or not. I should give it a shot in another plug-in host, like maybe Audio Hijack Pro.

Next time I hope to have some examples illustrating the results I'm getting when applying the plug-ins, and maybe I can recruit some feedback about how to improve the settings as much as possible.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

I'm Perfectly Satisfied with the Size of my Penis

So all you kind vendors of elixirs and remedies can stop e-mailing me now. Thanks!


Friday, June 23, 2006

The Next Microphone to Try

I am still hoping I can get my Snowball working the way I want, but let's consider for a moment the worst-case scenario: assume I'll never be able to get good audio out of my BLUE Snowball, so I shouldn't put another dime or another minute into struggling with it, and instead I should try to figure out something else to use.

I've got some A/D converters and channel strips on my wish list, but how about the microphone?

There are certainly a lot of more expensive microphones, but I am interested in trying out this one:

Kel HM-1 microphone

That's "Kel," not "Heil."

It is billed as having a smooth sound which helps with thin sound sources, and the audio clips on the Kel audio site bear out that claim. It also has a noticeable proximity effect, which I actually might want for vocals. My voice is a little nasal (at least, that's the way it sounds to me on playback) and it seems like giving it a little bit of bass emphasis, without having to apply EQ, would be a good thing, and a mic which doesn't over-emphasize "spit sounds" or sililants and comes with a foam pop filter would also be a good thing.

And it is only 99 bucks (or lower), which would leave me as much money as possible for preamp, A/D, and/or processing.

As all the experts advise, finding a good mic means finding a mic that sounds good with _your_ voice, and that is very often not the one that is most expensive.

And if it doesn't work out, they have a return policy...

Other mics in the "I'd love to try them out" category include the Rode Broadcaster ($400), The Sennheiser MD-441 U ($750), the Neumann BCM 705 ($630), the Heil PR-40 ($270) or the really cool-looking Heil Heritage ($135), and the EV RE-20 ($400).

It would be interesting to do a shoot-out. Of course, at the moment I have nothing to plug a standard XLR microphone cable _into_...

Broke Down and Wrote To Tech Support

I wrote to the support address at BLUE yesterday asking specifically about two issues with my Snowball: the data transfer problem, happening on buffer sizes ranging from 512 to 4096 samples, and the low volume problem, which is linked to problems getting a good dynamic range with low noise floor.

Judging by the number of people saying "it works fine for me" I think the USB data transfer problem represents flakey hardware on this particular mic, but I suspect the volume problem is inherent to the 16-bit design.

We'll see if they respond!

The Aristocrats, My Version 1

[We rented _The Aristocrats_ from Netflix, but Grace and I only got to watch half of it, because of Isaac unexpectly got a ride back from his play-date. The following joke is quite disgusting, and will make sense to you only if you know of the premise behind _The Aristocrats_...]

So, a man walks into a theater booking agency and says "have I got an act for you!"

"All right... tell me about it," the agent says, with a sigh.

"OK, it's a two-person act. The girl comes out on the stage. First off, she runs around in circles, yelling, and then she stops and removes her undergarment. The guy runs afer her, telling her to put her underwear back on, but she runs around some more, he's chasing after her, and before he can get to her, she stops, and then squats slightly and pees all over the floor."

"Hmmm... all right, go on" says the agent, furrowing his brow.

"All right. The guy throws the girl onto the stage, wipes her up with a damp cloth, and puts her underwear back on. Then he puts her in a chair and straps her in. He gets out a shop-vac and a bucket and is busily trying to clean up the mess. He's not paying attention. Meanwhile the girl starts to crap. It shoots out of the sides of her underwear all over the seat."


"You betcha. So the guy stops what he's doing, runs over, pulls her out of the seat, cleans up the seat, cleans up the girl, puts new underwear on her, and lets her walk around, and goes back to cleaning the floor."


"Damn right. Meanwhile, the girl wanders around behind him -- he doesn't see this, but the audience does -- and squats and takes _another_ big liquid crap in her drawers. She wanders off stage temporarily... as she goes, crap is running down her legs, and she starts tracking it across the stage. She notices, and starts stepping on it, and slips and falls in it, so it's all over her clothes, gets up, and then walks off the stage, leaving these disgusting footprints as she goes."

"So now it's just the guy on the stage?"

"Yeah. He finishes cleaning up the pee and starts to put away the shop-vac, but then notices what looks like muddy footprints on the floor. He grabs a mop and starts to clean up the footprints, then realizes that they aren't mud. He chases after the girl, and runs off stage. He drags the girl back on stage, throws her down on the floor, and takes her clothes and underwear off again -- the bottom part is full of wet crap, dripping all over -- and wipes her up. While he's doing this, she's vigorously grabbing for her privates and slapping him with her crap-covered hands."

"My god!"

"It gets better. This whole time he's yelling and telling her to stop, hold still, etc., which she's ignoring. She just giggles. He's got crap on his feet, crap on his clothes, crap on his hands. He finally lets her go and drags a bathtub on stage -- one of those old-fashioned galvanized tin bathtubs would be good. While he's doing this she's gibbering and running in circles letting out screams of joy. He chases her down and picks her up bodily -- she's slippery with crap -- gets her in the tub, and starts washing her up. Then he throws off his clothes, also covered in crap, and gets in and starts washing himself up too."

"Thank god."

"It doesn't stop there. You would think after that big crap she'd be all done, but while he's washing her up she suddenly starts to produce another huge crap _in the tub_. It's shooting out all over the place. The guy starts trying to catch it coming right out of her rear end -- it's shooting through his fingers, he's trying to throw pieces of it out of the tub into the mop bucket..."


"Tell me about it. It's not over. She notices this stuff floating in the water and..."

"Don't tell me."

"Yep, she starts grabbing for it, and playing with it. It's all the guy can do to keep her from putting her hands in her mouth, or trying to put her hands in _his_ mouth... she's splashing around, laughing..."

"How much more of there is this?"

"Not much more... he _finally_ gets dumps the tub out, fills it with clean hot water, gets her cleaned up, gets himself cleaned up, gets clean clothes on her, gets a bathrobe on himself, everyone is dressed, they take a bow, and exit the stage, leaving behind a huge pile of crap-covered clothes, rags, mop, water and crap all over the floor, and the house lights come up."

"I think this may be the most disgusting act I've ever heard of. What's it called?"

"Me and my 19-month-old baby girl."

[Thanks... I'll be here all week... remember to tip your server]

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Even in the Quietest Moments

With a 4096-sample buffer size, the audio content is still getting screwed up, with dropouts and repeated buffers. And because the buffer is so large, it does not sound like a quick glitch, but like an echo:


I've got to get this damnable Snowball out of here, get it fixed, or something! Grrr! Anger!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

More KVM

The KVM is actually working reasonably well. The following strategy seems to work on the PC: Boot it with the switch set on the Mac, and then only after Windows has gotten to its login screen, switch to the PC. This seems to result in the PC most often finding the USB devices (keyboard and trackball) and both the Mac and PC regaining the use of them when I switch between the two.

I'd still like to try replacing the video cables at some point in the future to see if I can get a better image, but I'm a perfectionist... I should probably let it go! Or, if I really want a better image, put that money towards a big LCD monitor.

Audio Levels

OK, I've gotten some audio clips to illustrate the what I'm trying to do with my audio. Last night I was in my office at home, very late at night. Everyone was asleep; the environment was just about as quiet as it gets. So I recorded the first chapter of Hodgson's "The House on the Borderland."

By cranking the audio buffer size up to 4096, a ridiculously high number, I seem to be able to get a recording that is free of audio "glitches." Actually, I am not _completely_ positive that this is the case -- the glitches were always sporadic, and I have not listened to the whole session yet; there may still be some. Using a 4096-sample buffer means I can't monitor on my headphones -- a delay that long confuses speaking too much. So I have to take off the headhones and turn off monitoring, and hope for the best.

I've had a ongoing problem with audio levels from the Snowball mic. In order to get the highest level possible, I positioned my Snowball mic (using a boom mic stand) right in my face, perhaps two inches or less from my mouth, so that I can look _past_ it to read. That's quite close. I don't have a pop filter, so I'm getting some noticeable plosive "thuds" as the air blast from a "b" or "p" sound hits the diaghragm. I probably should have one, especially if I'm going to mic that closely -- but there isn't much space to mount one, in this configuration, I'm on a spending hiatus, and it isn't the worst of the issues with my audio, so I'll do without it for now.

For this experiment, I decided that perhaps setting the Snowball's gain too high in the Audio MIDI control panel might be contributing to the background noise problem without giving me much more clean signal, so I left it where it seems to default, which is at 0.79 (out of 1.0). Later I can do an A/B comparison and see if this is true, but for now all these clips are recorded at the default setting.

I recorded for about thirty minutes, using no plug-ins, and did no editing. All my on-the-fly retakes are there. For example, for some reason (it was late, I was tired) I was unable to say the word "promontory" correctly. It isn't a word I use every day; I know the pronounciation is supposed to be "PROM-uhn-tor-ee" but I kept saying "pro-MONT-or-ee." Anyway, there's some editing to do, but my raw file is a 16-bit, 44.1 KHz AIFF file of about 150 megabytes in size.

So, after all that, how quiet is it? According to DSP Quattro, the RMS level is -35.34 dB, and the hottest peak is at -12 dB. This is definitely too low. By comparison, AudioLeak says the A-weighted RMS level of a BBC interview with Douglas Adams measures around -21.2, and Escape Pod, a science fiction podcast I like, measures around -18.2. I've seen some general recommendations that material ought to have an RMS level of about -17.5 dB, which seems reasonable; I think anywhere from -14 dB to -21 dB would be fine.

-35 dB to -14 dB is a big difference, especially when you consider that dB is a logarithmic scale. So, obviously I've got to do something about that; if I made that audio file available, it would sound extremely quiet next to other podcasts. It would be better to have a more dynamic signal to begin with, but I've got to work with what I have.

Here is an AIFF file of a small section of the raw recording:


If I do a straightforward Normalize with DSP Quattro, the results are very unflattering. Let's say I normalize such that the one detected peak is at -0.3 dB. This gives me an RMS level of -23.18 dB. That's still lower than I want. If I ask DSP Quattro to just do its default normalization, it puts that peak at 0 dB and the result is a file with an RMS level of -22.79 dB.

Understand that, on the logarithmic dB scale, even after normalization, that signal is using only a small fraction of the available headroom -- less than 10%. Compressing the signal, even lightly, and then raising it would reduce that peak and allow me to boost the RMS a little higher. But even taking it to -22.79 dB gives me a level of background noise that is quite audible -- an inevitable part of raising the gain, but not what I had hoped for.

Here's the same short clip after normalization to -22.79 dB:


What is the cause of this background noise? I can't quite tell. The room is as close to quiet as I can get it without turning it into a full-blown vocal booth. This is noise that has an RMS of about -79 dB, and sounds like tape hiss. To me, it doesn't sound like the remaining ambient noise that I hear in the room, which is the Mac Mini, which is not very loud at all, and some very faint noise from an air conditioner some ways away, through the window, perhaps across the parking lot, and maybe a bit of distant traffic sound.

I've made a recording of the backgound noise; this was recorded while I was out of the room. Here it is:


Anyway, a gate or expander is supposed to help with this kind of thing. Here is the raw file with the Floorfish plug-in applied, using a preset called "exp: vox backgnd bleed":


As you can hear, it is gating; it seems to be doing basically the right thing, but the settings are clearly wrong for the audio levels represented in the file. It sounds to me like the settings would be right for a much louder source. So, let's try it again after the normalization:


That's with a little tweaking and creation of my own preset: lowering the expansion ratio, changing the sense frequency, and tweaking the sensitivity. It sounds reasonable, and preserves my breaths, but the background noise is still higher than I'd like, even under the voice.

Can I do better? My experiments so far with the Blockfish compressor and with various attempts to filter the unwanted background noise have produced results that worked, but which did not sound very good.

It is too loud in here for me to record tonight (a tremendous series of thunderstorms is still coming through the area), but I will try again with a new dry recording at an increased gain, and also continue to see what I can do with this signal. Ideally once I got a set of processing steps that produced good results, I could just apply them to pretty much any clip I record in the identical setup.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Compressing Snowballs and Other Dark Arts

So, I spent a little time this weekend trying again to get a decent vocal recording with the Snowball. There are a couple of problems remaining that I have little confidence that I can resolve.

Even with a different computer, a different USB cable (yet again), and a completely new installation of MacOS X 10.4 (Tiger), I am still getting occasional, random dropouts in the recording. This results in chopped-up waveforms, which means nasty glitches on playback when the chopped ends don't meet smoothly. The glitches do not seem to be strictly periodic, and they do not seem to be always 512 samples in length. This happened before under some conditions using my PowerBook G4. In some very brief testing recording to my PC, it did not happen. I can't record to the PC, though, because it is much too loud. So even if I could get a good voice level, and do a perfect reading, it's got random noise in it. I'm tolerating that for now, while I have queries into BLUE's support forum.

The levels of the resulting recording are, in general, too low, even after setting the only parameter I have control over, the microphone level, to its maximum. I'm sitting very close to the microphone, and I'm speaking in my best radio voice. (I've been a college radio deejay, and never had any trouble getting a decent vocal level when on the air). The gain structure of this thing may work better for recording a singer, or a live band when the cut is engaged, but it is just not right for spoken word. In other words, definitely not ideal for podcasting.

I just read a review of the Samson USB microphone in Sound on Sound magazine -- apparently, Samson provides a little control panel that lets you alter the gain structure directly. The reviewer found this very helpful for working around the limited dynamic range available with a 16-bit A/D.

The Snowball doesn't provide this control. It makes me think I should have purchased the Samson mic -- although the reviewer also mentioned problems with bleed-through of digital noise, when connected to a G5, and was less than enthusiastic about the 16-bit range, or the level of self-noise. So I probably should have have never gone down the path of attempting to use a USB microphone at all. That money is spent, though, so for now I am still trying my best to make do with what I have.

Since I don't have control over the microphone's built-in preamplification at the analog stage, I have to normalize the levels in the audio-editing program afterwards. This results in an an unacceptably high level of background noise.

Where is that noise coming from? Well, it is a very sensitive mic, and I'm using it in a real room, not a vocal booth. (I don't seem to have a spare vocal booth handy.) Recently, I've been recording in a bedroom of my apartment very late at night. I can tell you what it _isn't_, because the mic will detect all these things: it isn't air-moving equipment. It isn't fluorescent lighting. It isn't fan noise from the computer. It isn't the apartment's air conditioner. It isn't traffic noise. It isn't birds outside. The only sound I can hear in the room is faint noise from the hard drive of the computer I'm using for recording, and an air conditioning unit somewhere else in the building, or possibly from a building across the parking lot. It's quite a quiet room, and I ought to be able to get a decent, if not quite broadcast-quality, voice recording, but I can't, and I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it is the weird, compromised gain structure of this mic, and the glitchy USB data transfers, rather than something I'm doing wrong.

I've done some experimentation with using a compressor and noise gate. The plug-ins I'm using are a set called the "fish fillets" -- the Blockfish compressor, Floorfish expander/gate, and Spitfish de-esser. The results aren't promising. I like the plugins -- they seem very flexible, but to get anything resembling a loud output I've got to crank the output level of the compressor, which results in the plug-in applying a lot of gain, which brings up the background noise to really nasty levels.

The gate/expander can help with that -- it can effectively cut the background noise (when I'm not talking) to zero. but then you wind up with the background noise swelling up and down along with my voice. But it's clear that the presets are expecting a much hotter signal, because it isn't kicking in at a low enough level. This means it is muffling the beginnings of words. I have to crank the sensitivity way up to get it into the right range, and tweak the frequency range it is working with as well, and it still doesn't sound very good. I don't think the problem is the plugin -- that seems to sound quite good, but I'm just not giving it a decent signal to work with.

I've done a little playing around with EQ or notch filtering on the fly to reduce the noise, but the noise does not seem to be in a narrow frequency range, so this doesn't help much. There's another approach I could try -- there are noise-removal plugins, such as the one that comes with Audacity. These work, but at least on a mono voice, seem to leave a weirdly phased signal behind, which is hardly a better solution.

Maybe I'll put up some sound files and screen grabs so I can at least document the problem. I also want to try recording again on the PC. If I can get the audio glitching problem to appear, even once, I have a pretty strong case that this thing is completely unusable.

Reply from Caribou

I got a note back from Caribou Coffee:
Dear Mr. Potts,

Thank you for your comments regarding our bakery. At Caribou we strive to offer
products and service of excellence and appreciate our guests' feedback. In regard to
our current listings on the website, because of the proprietary nature of several of
Caribou's offerings, we do not post ingredient lists in full detail. If you ever
have any question as to particular ingredients an item might contain, due to
allergies for example, we will be happy to tell you if the item contains that
ingredient. Also, I have passed your suggestions regarding the trans-fat content in
our offerings to the Food Team for further consideration in light of their future
offerings. Again, thank you for your message and suggestions on how we can improve
our bakery case for your enjoyment.


(name removed)
Customer Relations Specialist
Caribou Coffee Company

OK, at first glance this looks fairly typical, but at least they wrote back. But look a little closer at what they are actually saying:

"because of the proprietary nature of several of Caribou's offerings, we do not post ingredient lists in full detail."

Think about that for a moment. Every product you buy at the supermarket is required by law to disclose what it is made of, even if sometimes the ingredients are a bit obfuscated (like "natural flavorings.") But Caribou is telling me that the recipes for its baked goods are _proprietary_ -- a trade secret!

I guess they don't want Starbucks copying their recipes. But it seems like any remotely competent pastry chef could come up with an iced scone with cranberries and organge zest. Just start with the _Joy of Cooking_ and modify a little bit. In fact, I could do it, and I don't even bake. And my recipe wouldn't contain trans fats. It would taste _better_.

But I'm free to _ask_ about any ingredients I'm concerned about:

"If you ever have any question as to particular ingredients an item might contain, due to allergies for example, we will be happy to tell you if the item contains that

Hmmm. This seems like the setup for a comedy piece.

Me: "How about ground oak tree bark? It gives me a terrible rash."

Customer Service Representative: "Ummm... nope, no ground oak tree bark."

Me: "Is there by chance any Cadmium-117? It gives me wind."

Customer Service Representative: "Hang on... well, a trace amount, less than 1 part per billion... you'll hardly taste it."

Me: "What about powdered dung beetle pincers? They make my eardrums swell."

Customer Service Representative: "Hmmm... no, not powdered _dung_ beetle pincers..."

Me: "Stag beetles?"

Customer Service Representative: "Warmer..."

Sigh. _Proprietary recipes?_ I think I'll skip breakfast.

Friday, June 16, 2006

I Can't Believe It

A different computer, a different cable, different software; everything different except the USB microphone. I can't get a break. The audio still randomly glitches. Is it the USB microphone itself?

Here's an image showing a duplicated buffer; the highlighted area is duplicated, resulting in a glitch at the start and again at the end, the two places where the duplicate data causes a big spike between adjacent samples. This produces an audible glitch, and there are clusters of them. The highlighted area is almost exactly 512 samples wide -- In other words, a buffer full was lost, so the old data was repeated.

Is it just impossible to get reliable audio in through USB, or is it just impossible using this Snowball microphone?

My experiments in changing buffer sizes have so far resulted in worse results, and of course larger sizes mean more latency.

This means that the PowerBook G4/400 was _better_ at recording USB audio to the internal hard drive than my new Mac Mini...


I got a "Cables to Go" 4-port USB KVM switch. It's a nice-looking unit with rubber "ears" and a hefty feel, but the result is mixed. I read a lot of negative reviews of cheap KVM switches and figured out how much it would cost to buy cables separately, for units that didn't come with cables, and so decided to pay extra to get a a somewhat higher-end unit that came with decent cables.

Video switching seems to work great, and the video quality (contrast and detail) seems only slightly degraded. But far more irritating is the USB support. I'm using a Kensington Expert Mouse (my favorite trackball) and keyboard. The keyboard is sometimes not recognized at boot time on the PC, and the mouse works quite intermittently.

The other computer is a PC with Linux and Windows 2000 dual-boot. If I boot that machine with the keyboard plugged into the PC directly, and the mouse plugged into that, or the keyboard and mouse plugged in to separate USB ports, then I can always control GRUB to select whether to boot Linux or Windows.

In four out of five tries, though, if the keyboard is plugged into the KVM and the KVM, acting as a hub, is plugged into the PC, and I boot it, the keyboard is not recognized, and I can't control GRUB. So right away I have to start re-plugging things to even boot Linux.

And under both Windows and Linux, the mouse is recognized only intermittently. Sometimes after logging in Windows will _then_ decide it recognizes the mouse, and immediately ask you to reboot to use the new driver (except it isn't a new driver, it's been there for a long time, and worked flawlessly up until now -- except with the KVM box). And then you can't use the mouse to say "OK," and the dialog box that would let you do so comes up permanently stuck with no focus, so I can't use the keyboard to alt-tab to it, even though the keyboard works, and so I have to get creative just to get Windows to reboot the machine. Ugh.

When I'm controlling the Mac, the keyboard is properly recognized by the hub under every circumstance I could test; however, the mouse is also only occasionally recognized. For example, if I unplug it and replug it into a different USB port on the front of the KVM, sometimes it will magically start working... but only sometimes. As in "I tried it three times and it suddenly worked, then the next time I switched back it wouldn't work even though I moved the plug around seven or eight times."

Now I just happened to get Linux started up successfully on the PC, and this time I was able to use the keyboard to control GRUB, and Linux came up with the mouse working. I switched to the Mac; the mouse is working. I'm typing on the Mac. I decide I want to switch to Linux, so I do, and then the mouse won't work on Linux. It looks like the idea of switching off as the mood strkes me is just not going to work reliably.

Maybe this won't actually be a problem, because I can't record when the PC is running anyway; it makes too much noise. So, in typical use I might only want one of the two to actually be on at a given time. But when I have them on, I want them to work reliably! If I can't boot Linux without moving plugs around, what is the point? And If the KVM won't work reliably let me start up and use my Mac Mini and reliably act as a hub for the keyboard and mouse, I can't really use it -- the Mac Mini only has two USB ports, and I need one of them for the Snowball microphone.

And, finally, sometimes it won't even _switch_ reliably. I switch to Linux, and a couple of seconds later it switches back to the Mac, on its own. Or it won't let me switch away from the Mac.

So I have to decide if I"m going to struggle with it, or try to get tech support, or try to return it. USB ought to be well-understood by now; why don't these things just work?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Studio Unfolds, Part 2

The Mac Mini arrived, and it is cute as a button! It is so small that it stacks on top of my PC with and external hard drive. It is slightly challenging to have only two USB ports and one FireWire port, and the ports in the back are crammed just about as tightly as can be, but it worked flawlessly, even importing everything from my PowerBook G4 using a FireWire cable, and talks on the Potts House wireless network with no configuration whatsoever.

DSP Quattro installed and ran, although since the hardware changed, I needed to generate another key. Fortunately this was pretty easy and I did not have to produce any elaborate justifications or beg a human to give me another key. I managed to import and update my iPhoto and iTunes libraries, and deauthorize iTunes for protected content on my old computer. (N.B.: please note that my acquiescence to use of these DRM/copy protection measures does not constitute my endorsement of same!)

It's amazing how well the import "just worked," the only complication being that I had later versions of iTunes trying to run on a slightly earlier kernel, so there was some oddness (errors in the log, strange-looking windows) until the OS was fully updated via software update. But that all went smoothly, and nothing crashed. The update to the SuperDrive firmware was a bit odd, because the computer did not tell me it was happening: this meant for a minute or so I was trying to insert a CD, and I thought the drive had broken, because it did not respond. But then it finished, and all was well. And now I've got something like 65G of disk space free to work with!

For now I am still working with the Snowball microphone. I am experimenting with trial versions of some compressor, limiter, EQ, and reverb plugins to see if I can get my voice to sound a little better, average out a little louder, and avoid digital clipping (with a 16-bit device, there isn't a lot of headroom for peaks). I doubt I will buy any of the plugins I'm trying, but if they help perhaps I can find something else useful; in fact, as I've found, there are a _lot_ of free-as-in-beer plugins to try out; I ought to be able to make some improvements without spending anything. If I determine that I need something a little bit different that I can't find for free, maybe then I will consider laying out more money.

It was getting too late last night for me to conduct a good trial, but I'll do that as soon as I can, and I am looking forward to glitch-free recording!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

XML Snark

Erik Naggum has a wornderfully snarky but very true rant about XML here:

It really gets at all the things that I'm feeling when forced to use XML! I highly recommend reading it!

Note to Caribou

I just wrote to Caribou Coffee:

Please come up with a scone recipe that does not contain trans fats.

See this article from New Scientist:

My favorite scone is the lowfat cranberry. I don't actually care if it is low fat or not, but I don't want to eat trans fats. According to your site it has 1g of trans fat. The cinammon chip scone has 2.5g.

I checked this out on your web site, but I didn't really need to see this in print -- I already knew the scones had hydrogenated oil in them. If you go without eating trans fats for a few years, when you have them again you will notice they produce an unpleasant "mouth feel," like a coating in your mouth. The scones would taste much better without that "mouth feel."

Also, it would be helpful if your site actually listed the _ingredients_, not just marketing-speak like "Cape Cod cranberries nestled in buttermilk scone dough."

Thanks for considering this request,


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Ikea Canton and the Great Apartment Reorg

This past weekend the family and I went to the new Ikea in Canton. It was quite amazing -- even with a big opening-weekend crowd, the traffic control measures (extra staff in the parking lot, shuttles, extra parking lots) were very effective. The showroom was crowded and hectic but it was actually kind of fun. We didn't have enough time, though, so the next day we went back again! I will probably go again some evening next week. We want to call and find out when their quieter hours are, I'm not sure Ikea stores really have quieter hours, at least not when they are brand new. The buildings must be enormously expensive to staff and operate, so they'd better be stuffed with customers all the time!

I've previously been to Ikea stores in Pittsburgh, Schaumberg (south of Chicago), and Coshocton (south of Philadelphia). They're amazing places. My usual way of dealing with Ikea has been a _long_ road trip followed by a shopping blitz followed by loading things into the car and another _long_ road trip back. Now that Ikea is a 30-minute drive away, we can actually go back a few times without necessarily buying anything -- think it over, look carefully, measure.

We have a grand unified plan for getting our apartment reorganized. It will oerate a bit like a sliding puzzle Isaac's room is to be completed first. Then, we will set up the living room -- this includes getting a new bed for Grace and myself. We're going to relocate our sleeping area down there. Then our vacated bedroom will become the new, larger office, this time with enough storage space so nothing has to be piled on the floor. The previous office will become a bedroom for Veronica -- she's not really ready to sleep in her own bedroom, but we'll gradually migrate her, and meanwhile she will get some furniture and space for her own play. Then, we're going to do something strange with the kitchen -- it will become part mud room, part pantry, part closet. We'll set up a dining area also in the living room, and a small zone will be left for watching videos. This better matches how we actually use our space. At some point the new larger office may acquire some foam insulation for recording, at least a little bit.

It won't be all Ikea, but some new furniture will come from Ikea, and much of our existing furniture will be sold or given away. Isaac's room is going to get a new single bunkbed, with a work area stashed underneath. One wall will be given over to exposed shelving and storage, and books will go in his closet. He has a decorating scheme in mind. I'm partial to some narrow, deep bookshelves made of wood (no particle board). Narrow shelves won't sag under the weight of big, heavy textbooks. We're going to do it all gradually over the next couple of months. We've been in this apartment for about six years, and it has never really felt like the space suited us. The change will be fun!

The Studio Unfolds, Part 1

I've bought a G4 Mac Mini on eBay. Low mileage, a 2005 model, still under AppleCare, just the specs I wanted - 1G of Apple-installed RAM, an 80G hard drive. I priced out all the options including doing my own RAM upgrade from a unit with 512 MB, and got the deal I wanted. Excellent!

Yes, it's a G4 -- not blindingly fast, and with a relatively slow hard drive. But it should still easily be fast enough to record a few tracks of audio -- and I won't have to throw out or upgrade my PowerPC applications. Sweetwater claims that using Digital Performer and a MOTU interface:

"With the compact and quiet Mac mini, I was able to record up to eighty 48kHz/24-bit inputs/tracks to the internal hard drive using four 828mkII or Traveler interfaces! It's no problem to hang Traveler, 828mkII, or 896HD interfaces off any of the Macs, in pretty much any combination...

...I could play 33 simultaneous tracks off the little iBook and a FireWire hard drive at 96kHz/24-bit resolution..."

80 tracks! That's why I feel that something is seriously wrong when my PowerBook couldn't reliably record even _one_ track from a USB microphone at 16-bit, 44.1 KHz to an external FireWire drive! Even a G3 or older machine should be able to do that. This failure indicates a serious driver problem, or a hardware limitation such as a shared interrupt.

It should feel considerably faster than my 400 MHz PowerBook G4, and the hard drive is eight times larger -- small by today's standards, but luxurious by comparison, and sufficient to record and edit many hours of audio.

I ordered a KVM switch -- a Tripp-Lite unit with built-in cables and USB support. I've never used any of these KVM solutions, and my fear is that they won't work, or will barely work, or will give me significantly degraded video. The reviews I'm seeing for various IOGear or Belkin or other units are not overwhelmingly positive.

If I can't get this one to work, I'd consider using a separate keyboard and mouse for the Mac Mini, and using a simple hardware switch for the VGA. These hardware switches are surprisingly hard to find, though! And they would need cables. I've had really bad luck with even expensive "gold" VGA cables -- fuzziness, ghost images. I chose the Tripp-Lite because it came with cables -- some of them don't, and then you're looking at purchasing several additional cables to get your setup working. I suspect this is going to be an ongoing pain.

I also think someone out there ought to be making a nice 2U rack tray for the Mac Mini. It would be very cool if I could rack it. A plain tray does not really seem adequate -- I'd like a tray that had some sturdy velcro tie-downs, a place to mount the power supply, holes for cables, with a design that lets me tuck them away neatly when the rack is closed up, and perhaps a quiet switched venting fan. I have seen some pages where people gutted a Mac Mini and mounted the innards on a rackable board, but i would prefer to leave it in its case. Do I have to build such a thing myself? I don't have much of a workshop, but perhaps I could come up with something.

Anyway, I should have the Mini later this week, and I look forward to finding that it works with my Snowball microphone and DSP Quattro recording software. I won't need it to record directly to an external drive, but just to backup to one. I want to install Tiger, put my old PowerBook into FireWire disk mode, migrate over a few applications and my relatively small home directory, and then give the PowerBook a well-deserved retirement.

The rest of my studio plans -- a MOTU or RME or other FireWire audio interface, a voice channel strip, a good broadcast-style microphone -- will have to be addressed bit-by-bit in the coming months, as finances allow. But maybe now I can continue my project with the reasonable expectation of getting a decent recording to disk!

I've been examining the capabilities of the Presonus FireBox interface. It might be adequate. I want to make sure that whatever interface I get supports MIDI well and also allows me to record a very clean signal from a consumer-grade casette deck. So far I haven't been able to determine whether the Presonus unit would let me explicitly switch an input pair to support consumer-level audio. However, maybe I'll forgo it; the reviews I've seen indicate pretty good sound quality, but poor manufacturing and a weird headphone output. I'll be (at least at first) doing most of my listening using headphones, so that's not a good sign. So far my dream interface is a FireFace 800, or maybe the new FireFace 400 (not out yet), or maybe a more obscure piece of Metric Halo gear. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Basic Studio

OK, here's what I want to wind up with for my podcast production:

ElectroVoice RE20 dynamic microphone: about $400

FocusRite VoiceMaster Pro: about $600

Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) 828 Mark II FireWire audio interface: about $700

Music Accessories MA-UQSF4 Switchable Rack Fan $120 (the VoiceMaster runs hot)

Monster Power PowerCenter Pro 2500 $200 (rackable power filter with 8 outlets)

SKB SKB19-1006 10U rack about $250

I'm not sure about the configuration of sound-insulating foam I want, but a good place to start might be with some 2' x 4' foam wedges, mounted on the walls, perhaps 4 of them to start, at about $25 each, perhaps $100 for acoustic insulation.

Other interface choices are possible; I'd seriously consider a FireFace 800 (more expensive, but it gets raves for audio quality) or new 400 (not available yet). I want a rack A/D with MIDI included, so that I can use a keyboard controller or guitar synth at some point, but I don't really care about the included mic preams; my ideal unit would not have them. The MOTU gets a lot of recommendations for audio quality and reliability; MOTU has been around forever.

I'd also happily try out an Aphex 230 voice channel strip as well, about $700, but I have a specific recommendation for the VoiceMaster Pro, and the EQ section sounds promising in making my voice sound a little bit better.

I would, for the time being, do without additional software, preferring to master DSP Quattro. That application has nice editing capabilities and can certainly handle the relatively simple voice over mixed with sound effects or background music that I envision.

The whole bundle above stands at about $2,500, which seems pretty reasonable. I might be able to pick up the individual pieces on eBay for 50% to 75% of their new prices; probably not a lot less than that. The microphone might go for $200, but MOTU 828 Mark II and TrackMaster Pro units seem to be holding their resale value quite well. I could pick up a MOTU 828 Mark I for much cheaper, as I don't necessarily need or want to record at 96 KHz, but the buzz on those units' audio qualiy is not very positive by comparison to the Mark II. Best case, maybe with aggressive use of eBay and some shopping around I could get the above used for $1500.

This bundle is lacking the most important part, though: the computer. My PowerBook is not reliable for recording anymore, and give sme audio glitches when trying to use an external USB or FireWire drive. I could try to put in a larger internal hard drive and use that, but I'm just not sure that machine is ever going to be reliable with a new FireWire recording interface. So, I need to pick a new computer. My inclination is to find a new or new-ish "SUVBook," the 17" PowerBook G4, with a 120G internal drive, and make sure it has at least 1G of internal RAM. Another option would be to find a new or new-ish 17" or 20" G5 iMac.

The lowest-cost option might be a Mac Mini, if I could find a new-ish G4 unit with 1G of RAM. I'd use this with a VGA switch box and my existing CRT monitor. That actually might be the most flexible option. I'm not interested at the present time in an Intel-based Mac, although maybe in another year. The other big advantage of the Mac Mini G4 is that it is cheap, maybe under $500. That's considerably cheaper than the 17" PowerBook G4, which would go from a dubious refurb at about $1,000 to up to $2500, or the iMac, which would go for somewhere between $1000 and $1750.

For the Mac Mini: I'd want the 1.42 GHz revision B units, part M9687LL/B. The CPU speed differential is not that important to me, but the 80G internal hard drive is. These units shipped by default with 512 MB of RAM; if possible I'd like to find a unit that was built-to-order by Apple with 1GHz, but I would also consider a machine with stock 512 MB RAM and get my own putty knife and put in some Crucial RAM.

I don't want or need an AirPort card or SuperDrive; I can pick up my own keyboard and mouse. Tiger (10.4) would be nice, but I'd be willing to purchase a copy myself if necessary. I have queried a couple of eBay sellers, asking them to confirm whether they have rev. B units and the amount of RAM as shipped from Apple. I'm watching five different auctions for Mac Mini units that meet my requirements, but I have not placed any bids as of yet.

So let's say I could only do part of this at a time; in what order would I do it? A couple of schools of thought are possible. If I got the mic first, which is one of the lower-cost items, I'd have nothing to plug it into, and that would be a reminder to me to get on with the next items. But if I got the computer first, maye I could at least do some further recording with my existing Snowball mic without the strange audio glitches, and then set aside money for the audio upgrade. Although the Snowball, being a slightly down-scale 16-bit device, just doesn't give me that much to work with in terms of clean signal. In particular, if I get loud during a recording, it peaks out, and there is only so much I can do to compress or clean up a digitally-clipped signal after the fact. Hmmm...

A Scanner Darkly

I'm going to record this review of Philip K. Dick's novel _A Scanner Darkly_ to Steve Ely of Escape Pod and see if he can use it.

Hi Steve,

You've probably heard of the forthcoming Richard Linklater movie, _A Scanner Darkly_, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick. A lot of Phil's works have been adapted into movies, including Screamers, Total Recall, and Minority Report. Over the years I've read every one of Dick's novels, and recently I re-read _A Scanner Darkly_. So I'm going to talk a little bit about the book, not the movie.

First off, this is not Dick's best novel, even though it is one of the most interesting. If you are new to his work I would recommend that you start with a book like _Ubik_, or Lies, Inc. You could also try reading _Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?_ which was adapted into "Blade Runner."

Nothing Dick wrote really can be slotted neatly into a single category, but _A Scanner Darkly_ is particularly hard to classify. It is in part a very realistic novel, set in Southern California in the late 1970s, with convenience stores, big cars, and drive-in movies. But there are also strange hi-tech devices which have evolved around a society of surveillance. One of these is the "scramble suit," which disguises the wearer's voice, and projects an ever-changing series of random identities, so that the wearer is completely anonymous.

The book was inspired by Dick's own experience with drug abuse, and is dedicated to a number of his friends who died or were damaged doing the same thing. It is full of great dialogue and ranting, kind of like drug-addled stand-up comedy, which reminds me a bit of the "routines" from William S. Burroughs' book Naked Lunch. The various characters in the books are at times threatening, or paranoid, or just oblivious to the ways in which they are destroying themselves.

The protagonist of the book is a man named Bob Arctor. His name sounds a bit like "actor," and that's not a coincidence. Bob has a marginal existence in a suburban house with some other drug-abusing friends. But Bob is really a narc, who goes by the nickname "Fred." As Fred, Bob puts on a scamble suit and meets with his colleagues to report on the drug users living in the house, one of whom is -- Bob Arctor. In other words, Bob has himself under surveillance. But all the drugs he is taking seem to be impairing his mind to the point where he doesn't seem to realize he is spying on himself. Meanwhile, his co-workers are becoming suspicious that Bob's heavy drug use is starting to cause permanent brain damage. There's black humor here, but it isn't a happy story.

The title, _A Scanner Darkly_, is inspired by a phrase from Corinthians chapter 13. The King James version reads "for now we see through a glass, darkly." Dick was getting at the idea that we have great difficulty truly knowing ourselves, and he wondered in this novel whether a scanner -- in this case, a three-dimensional holographic recorder -- would give us any more insight into ourselves.

Like I said, this isn't Dick's best work. It is a little bit incoherent -- he throws in untranslated German poetry, there are some strange events which are never explained, and a number of loose ends aren't tied up. But that's true of most of Dick's writing. It is still a very powerful and mournful work, and it will stick with you. Like most of his novels it is quite short, so you should have time to read it before you go see the movie.

If you've ever known someone whose mind was falling apart, due to drugs, or mental illness, and most of us have, you will find a lot that is familiar in this story. You might find yourself agreeing with Dick that drug abuse is not a disease but a decision, but that it's a decision that results in people being punished entirely too much for their mistake.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Introductions All Around

I received a kind note from the proprietor of the Night Land site.

If you are finding this via the Night Land site, here are some links for you.

What's here? A podcast of fiction by William Hope Hodgson.

I used to have some miscellaneous stories including some Carnacki the Ghost Finder stories, a Captain Gault story, and some chapters from The Night Land. However, the audio quality was not very good, so I have taken them down for the time being. At the moment I have re-started the podcast and I am working on a serialization of The Boats of the Glen Carrig.

I will probably wind up releasing most, if not all, of the older recordings after re-mastering them to improve the audio quality. I am still contemplating how to tackle The Night Land. Although I completed a couple of chapters, a complete reading probably isn't feasible, so I might try excerpts, or perhaps (when time and budget allow) some kind of dramatization.

To access the podcast page via the iTunes music store, which will give you a "subscribe" button (you must have iTunes on your computer):

click here

To subscribe to the podcast RSS feed directly (you can give this link to iTunes via the "Subscribe to Podcast" command under the Advanced menu), or use some other program to listen:

use this link

To view the blog for the podcast, which has links to the individual files and lots more information, as well as its own RSS feed:

click here

I wrote a number of weblog entries while I was working on the Hodgson material. Here are permalinks for the Hodgson-related blog postings, arranged chronologically:

The House on the Borderland

Carnacki the Ghost Finder

More Podcasts

The House Among the Laurels

A Different Side of Hodgson

Hodgson for Podcasting

More Hodgson

The Night Land Chapter 5

Carnacki 1

Postings directly related to the contents of the podcast will now appear on the separate Hodgecast weblog.

Thanks for visiting!

Looking for a Smalltalk Book

I've been looking for the following Smalltalk book:

Smalltalk 80: Creating a User Interface and Graphical Applications
Adele Goldberg and D. Robinson
ISBN: 0201113708
Hardcover, 1996

I've had outstanding orders for this on Amazon and ABE and have not been able to find a copy in over a year. It looks to me like this book may have been listed but never actually published. Does anyone know?

FOLLOWUP: I'm letting my pre-orders and requests expire, since as far as I can tell this book was not published.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Podcast and Hardware

Making podcasts of the William Hope Hodgson stories has somehow failed to set the world on fire. So far, I haven't gotten a single unsolicited comment about them, and the friends I've invited to listen to the podcasts have, rather than give me any feedback about the recordings themselves, just told me they don't want to listen to them. Sigh.

Anyway, my podcasting dreams have not died completely, although the project is a bit stalled. I did get some recommendations for hardware: a Focusrite Voicemaster Pro channel strip, and an ElectroVoice RE-20 microphone. The channel strip has an expander, to reduce background noise, an optical compressor, and some very nice EQ options that would let me emphasize the parts of my voice's spectrum that sound best. It also has some tools for adding harmonics, simulating tape saturation and tube drive. If I can't get a good vocal sound out of this thing then the problem is my voice, not the hardware! I have not tested that particular microphone, but it would probably do a good job.

I'd add a MOTU 828 Mark II audio interface. That puts it around $1700. For now I'd continue to use DSP Quattro for editing. A decent pair of powered monitors would cost around another thousand. I'd want some miscellaneous hardware: a rack, a power conditioner, a desktop microphone stand. Maybe some acoustic foam. Say, around $3,000 for all that.

Then, I'd need Mac of some type; for now it would have to be a PowerPC machine, unless I also want to buy all new software. There aren't many PowerPC models left; I might have to buy new/old stock or a used machine. Which model is quietest? Maybe an iMac G5, preferably a 20" model. I'd want a good pair of headphones. It looks like I could have a pretty decent complete recording workstation for recording for under $5,000. If I could guarantee that the recording would actually come out OK, it seems like it would make a pretty good hobby -- something I could do in small pieces, maybe 30-minute chunks, at night after the kids are asleep.

Well, it's just an idea for now. I don't think my voice is that bad. It was good enough for radio, at one time at least. I still think there must be someone besides my immediate family members who would enjoy listening to these classic stories!

The Night Land Binding

I purchased a second copy of _The Night Land and Other Perilous Romances_ (the Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson Volume 4). The second copy also has an improperly glued binding. I wrote to Night Shade Books, and got a message back -- they can't send me a copy that is properly made, because the whole print run came out that way. Hmmm. I hope they can get some kind of compensation from the printing company that screwed up this job! Support a small press doing great work, and buy the series anyway! My glue job seems to be holding up, so I will probably glue this one too and hope that it holds up at least as well as the other volumes.

We're Back

We took a brief trip last week -- to the Philadelphia area, actually to Bryn Mawr, where Grace attended a Future Search conference at the American College's Gregg Conference Center. We had three nights at the Radnor Hotel there, which was quite a decent place, even without a free breakfast. They had decent coffee -- the blessed bean, juice of life, which was enough to get me out of the building in the mornings.

It was not quite the vacation I dream about, for me at least -- staying in a hotel in a strange suburb looking after the kids -- but we managed to have a reasonably good time.

The trip ate some money. Staying in a hotel is always a teeth-gritting affair, financially. They pre-authorized $400 when we checked in, then another $150 on Saturday when we checked out. Then today they charged us for the "settlement," the actual total, which was $527.56. Usually by the time you get your monthly bank statements the pre-auths and credits have been collapsed down to just the final charge, but it means that the hotel actually charged us, if only briefly, over twice the actual cost of our stay.

It isn't just the Radnor; most hotels work this way. A decade ago on a business trip I had $1200 "pre-authed" for a $400 bill, which resulted in $1600 in total charges when I checked out, and the $1200 was not reimbursed for another week. That big pre-auth charge, meant that the night after I checked in, when I tried to pay for dinner, my credit card was rejected. That's when I learned about this particular practice.

I was royally screwed for the remainder of that trip, which was a business trip where I expected to submit receipts and get reimbursed in order to pay the credit card bill. Instead I had to take the money out of my checking account to pay for food in a strange city, which afterwards resulted in the dreaded bounce-a-check, pay-a-big-overdraft-fee, then bounce another check because the fee ate the money that would have covered that check... repeat, racking up several hundred dollars in bank fees... the eventual reimbursements from my employer didn't help with those fees or the stress caused by having your credit card declined at a restaurant.

Fortunately the Radnor didn't pre-authorize $1200, but since our credit card is not really a credit card, but our checking account, this can still pose a problem. Sometimes that "pre-auth" charge isn't released for a few days. The Radnor's posted policy says that it could take 72 hours. Fortunately they (or their bank) immediately released the $400 right after completing the settlement for $527.56, so we were only down $1077.56 for a brief time, but the $150 has not been refunded yet.

I deposited a paycheck on Sunday, which was processed this morning, and it is in there as a deposit, but not part of the "available balance" -- another complication and another way that you can get screwed. We know that our bank processes pending deposits at the end of the day before determining that the account is overdrawn. Not all banks do this. In fact it seems that by law while banks can now clear checks you write in a day or less, electronically, they can hold up your deposits (which, like everything else, is also done electronically, and so should not require any longer) by three days, seven days, or even longer. Yes, the law is written in favor of banks and their huge bounce fees and their ability to arbitrarily delay your deposits; are you surprised?

They were a good hotel -- they cleaned up the spot where Veronica peed on the floor very nicely; they replaced our phone, which Vera broke. (The switch-hook stopped working after she played with it for a while, but she was not violent with it, she was just trying to talk on it. That seems like a pretty flimsy phone. Remember when you could kill someone with a phone without damaging the phone?)

But even if we get out financially un-screwed this time, I really don't like the pre-auth, settlement, and credit system at all. Transactions should be atomic. Let them charge me once, on check-in, or at the close of business each day I stay there. None of this holding my checking account hostage in case I steal towels.

Anyway, while we were hanging out in Bryn Mawr, I helped Isaac build a tensegrity structure, as described in issue 6 of Make magazine. I didn't know where anything was, so it took us a long time to find the hardware we wanted. The first try involved cutting some dowels with a circular saw in the musty basement of a hardware store under a flickering light bulb while the proprietor held them for me; that didn't work out very well. We drove quite some way to find an A. C. Moore craft store, which had pre-cut dowels and the right kind of stretchy plastic cord. We were supposed to use eye hooks that could be opened slightly, to allow us to hook the loops onto them after the loops were tied, but we could not find enough of them, so we made do.

I didn't want to buy Isaac a drill, and the drilling was very light. What I wanted was an electric screwdriver and drill bits that would fit it. What I bought (accidentally) at a Home Depot was a cheap 75-piece set supposedly for electric screwdrivers which has a lot of driver bits and a bunch of regular drill bits, with some kind of adapter which turned out to be a magnetic guide, not a drill bit holder -- yes, the accessory kit for electric screwdrivers came with a whole bunch of drill bits that won't work in an electric screwdriver. Brilliant.

We wound up drilling some holes by hand with the bit wrapped in tape, which was pretty stupid but worked, until the next day when after three more hardware stores and a couple hours more of driving, I found a place called Dave's Hardware, where Dave himself sold me a little adapter chuck that would let us use our drill bits. That was a great store, crowded with stuff, and Dave knew exactly where everything was. The other local stores were mostly appalling, and the staff downright surly.

The driving was a bit of a waste, although it wasn't like we had much else to do but explore the area. I only got badly lost once, which I thought was pretty good given how far we drove. I can also recommend Title Page Books in Bryn Mawr -- we found some neat things there, and the people working there were very friendly. I bought more books than I should have and we spent more on the craft project than we should have -- certainly more than we would have needed to spend if we had done it at home. None of the food we ate in the area was particularly memorable, although the Radnor does pretty good room service. We did get to attend the Future Search party, which was great fun. (They had live jazz and great food).

On the last day after Grace's conference ended, we drove to visit an intentional community, Tanguy Homesteads, and met a friendly resident there. On the way out of town we made a brief stop at Ikea in Coshocton -- well, actually it is almost impossible to stay only briefly in an Ikea -- to examine some things we might buy for our apartment when the Ikea in Canton opens. (Grace wonders: is Ikea really just the Wal-Mart of people who think they are morally superior to Wal-Mart shoppers?)

We didn't get on the road until 5:30 p.m., and decided to drive all the way to Ann Arbor, which put us home at about 4:30 a.m. My back is still cramped up. I need to get back to the gym tonight.

Vera was a real trooper -- she was quite a contented baby for most of the trip, and she had to put up with a _lot_ of time in her car seat. Isaac was not quite so patient and helpful, and tended to drift into outer space, but he survived all right. I did most of the driving. I'm glad we had most of Sunday to recover and unpack. And now we're back!