Personal blog and comfy corner of Lyra Rhodes: musician, cake aficionado, whinger...maybe just a place where I can stuff things (words!), rather than them falling down the back of the sofa

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Lonely Road

This post is about my (albeit crappy) songwriting. Beware!

Son no.1 said to me "that's like nothing I've ever heard, and not in a good way".
But I wrote this anyway, and for the home recording hobbyists, here's a kind of amateurish "studio log" and some notes.

Normally, I write a song on the guitar. It lives with me for months, even years. My friends then protest that what I record "sounds nothing like that acoustic song!". And I agree. But do it anyway.
Really, it's not the recording or playing I enjoy, but the overall composition, the bringing in of other background instruments and mixing something new that comes out of it.
And these previous "songs" that I do, can take months to record and finish.
This time it was different. My achilles heel has always been the bass sound, whether recorded, existing loops, or synth bass.
And that's because I start with the song.

This time, I started with a bass line that I liked, added in drums, mapped out a verse chorus, verse chorus, Bridge structure, and played some guitar on it (which I then looped).
I mean, for a singer/songwriter kind of person, this is a different approach for me, but probably better given the home recording / DAW kind of setup I have.
After all, when you are musician, lyricist, engineer, producer, mastering engineer....all of these things yourself, there are no other musicians to "spar" with, and bounce ideas off. I think it's easier sometimes to be inspired by the rhythm section, and getting that right first, or at least adding it to a known guitar song, then rewriting the guitar song to fit (if you know what I mean) in an iterative kind of way.

Moving on, it then became a rush. Are there lots of things I'd like to go back and edit and change and fix and tweak?
But I then began to rush even more, to try and turn the months (inbetween working for a living) of writing and recording and mixing, into a matter of weeks. 2 1/2 weeks in this case...

So I probably didn't do as much mixing or mastering as I would normally do.
Perhaps the key recording/mixiing/mastering differences here for me were:
(1) high level of limiting at the recording stage for the guitar loop, and then very few effects afterwards
(2) real double-tracking on the guitar (as opposed to software double tracking)
(3) nectar essentials (who produce "ozone" and such like) on my (crappy) vocals, but at least they sound a little better & tuned - the idea is very much that they're not full and forward
(4) a stronger bass sound
(5) less synths than I would normally use
(6) I normally AVOID huge compression and limiting, but this is often at the expense of loudness and a sound that "gels". Mastering compression is a tricky art, after all. This time I mixed straight into a limiter, driving it harder.

Things were a lot more complicated than I would normally do, and this is probably where more effort went.

The song was mixed into a "tape" saturation compressor to warm things and rolloff bass rumble, then a Compressor in mid/side mode, and a mid/side clipper, and a multiband limiter. Finally some very light/long release "tube" compression and EQ to balance the mids.
The aim of this was to gain loudness, smooth things together, whilst avoiding the strong centred bass "pumping" the song, and keeping the L/R double tracked guitars in focus. So I think the mid/side stuff was key here. True, looking at the waveform it looks a bit nasty, but at least transients are a bit controlled.

If I was to go back and improve anything it would be:
(1) some tighter editing of the vocals, riding faders too, avoiding some "ch" and mic chatter/essing a bit more
(2) ducking levels of guitar a bit more here and there
(3) some volume changes to avoid repitition and listening fatigue (the waveform is tiringly loud)
(4) roll off a tiny bit of mid and treble on the acoustic guitars
(5) EQ the bass a bit more (still a bit boomy)
(6) up the level of the electric guitar in the fadeout section
(7) lengthen the bridge - work a bit more to ease the transition into it! I spent a fair bit of time on that, and still never got it fully to my satisfaction, but despite listeners protesting, I liked it overall and kept it.... :-)

But overall, I think the sound quality is a wee bit better than what I normally produce.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Tasty PI.. tasty HiFi


Rather than eating cake, or playing my guitar, I've been listening to much much music recently (retaining sanity 'n' all that).

Remember the days of CD players? Remember them? Like my 1980s Marantz CD-40. Even that was easier sometimes, easier than all this streaming nonsense - playing music files from a NAS drive, via flaky DLNA, involving BluRay players and variable volume levels...
And, regular readers will be aware that I'm just not-that-type-of-girl to put an iPod into an iPod dock-thingy, and be done with it. That seems to be what folks call HiFi these days. OH NO.

You don't always get what you want

So, being of an IT-geek persuasion, I put together a MoSCoW list of requirements, boring myself in the process.

(M)UST have:
1 - ReplayGain (this is like that "iTunes sound check" thing, stops a quiet then loud song blasting your head off
2 - Playlists
3 - Gapless playback (not that I possess Dark Side Of The Moon but just in case)
4 - full playback in the digital domain ("bitperfect"), no altering of the source file straight through to the DAC in my Onkyo amp (as you do)

(S)HOULD have:
1 - a nicer way of controlling the music than BubbleUpnp (it's not too bad)
2 - better library management than pesky DLNA and its media scanners, and SMB (or even NFS) file access would be nice
3 - reasonable hardware, ie don't particularly trust some random chinese Android box, for instance, I could stream direct from my phone, but the sound quality isn't quite there with that (yes, I've tried Neutron) & it locks the phone to that usage
also, SP/DIF or preferably digital coax is a must, don't trust (resampled) sound via HDMI for instance

(C)OULD have:
1 - ease of setup, but I don't mind faffing with it to set it up really
2 - ease of use by my better-half, perhaps even on smartphone

The problem

Holding all your music collection digitally then creates its own set of issues.
Much like the first digital camera you buy.
What to do with the files? How to make it easy to listen to them?

Sonos do this, as do many other companies now like Denon and Bluesound.
But they charge several arms and legs for it.

We've all been using iTunes, Winamp, JRiver etc etc from our PC's for many years, playing our music collections. Thus, we have to keep a desktop or laptop turned on, and connected. And they are often noisy things too.
Smartphone bluetooth to bluetooth adapter or speakers? That's not HiFi. Not even with aptX. Ironically, the iPod classic with its digital dock connection ain't that bad an option. But, it's limited by the Apple ecosystem and dedicated storage. And don't even get me started on "Apple Music"....

So, a mini PC, server, some kind of device, switched on all of the time, or fast turn-on, is the answer.
Cambridge Audio, Naim, Linn, NAD, Denon, Yamaha, they all produce "HiFi streamers", starting at about £350.
These devices often come with their own branded app, or else utilise DLNA. That makes me suspicious.
And the cost of suchlike is high....

A Raspberry Pi as a HiFi

The Raspberry Pi is pretty darn good at being left switched on all of the time, running well below 40 degrees and can hold a bespoke Linux build dedicated to HiFi type stuff.
I suppose when you think about it, that's all a dedicated HiFi streamer is. Anecdotally, such boxes run with customised versions of MPD (Music Player Daemon) that I've intended to use on the Pi.

So.... I think this is a good propostion, for me it ticks all of the boxes. After all, I'd kept my PC switched on in the past to play music. We all do it.
This option is way cheaper than a Cubox, or a NUC intel box.

Show me what it looks like then

This Pi 2nd generation has a "HAT" (Hardware Attached on Top) Digi+ sound output board on top made by a company called HiFiBerry which provides digital Coax and Optical outputs.
In my case that then feeds direct to my Onkyo amp, which has digital inputs.

Standard Pi recommended power supply, but many folks go the extra mile with a Linear power supply (like in a Desktop PC). At the top is my digital Coax connection, and ethernet on the left side of the pic.

How does all the software work?

I'm using Volumio.

From what I can see, it's basically Raspbian linux with MPD (Music Player Daemon) and Samba stuff thrown in.
Very clever.
Optimised, stripped down, and very very fast.

Then, MPDroid software on my Android smartphone is very good, or Cantata on my Windows PC to control it all, simply acting as a device to manage playlists, view album art, and next track/pause/play etc.

I tried all kinds of other software, like the Squeezebox architecture stuff, ie PiCorePlayer with a LMS server on my Synology NAS, and there's also MoOde, Archphile and many many more.

How do I set one of these up then?

Build the Pi, plug the Digi+ board on top and put it in the case.
Build your MicroSD card as per Volumio instructions, insert into Pi and power up.
Configure your NAS connection and other parameters within the web-based Volumio menu.

The forums are full of folks building these, putting them in custom cases, bolting on their own DAC, power supply, LCD screens, volume knobs, you name it.

But I kept it simple.

So what does it sound like? Is it usable?

Pretty good. I mean, it's not top-flight hardware, but I think there's a certain simplicity to picking up a FLAC file from a NAS, and then sending it digitally unaltered out of the digital Coax output.
For me, my money is better spent in the Analogue domain, rather than getting obsessed over the latest and greatest DAC (the one in my Onkyo amp is fine), or obsessed alongside every other audiophile with Jitter...

The overall system is VERY usable, and works very fast, instantaneous seek, play/pause/stop. It's one less thing to switch on I think, like a CD player, streamer, BluRay player (what I was using previously for DLNA).
All I have to do to get music is to turn on the Amp.

Can you give me some more detailed instructions?

Yes, I can. Because I had to pull this together from a few websites and forums (fora?). Particularly getting album art etc right is a slight challenge, and the whole process can be time consuming. However, if you library is well setup (tagged, organised) in the first place, that will help too.

I've put my very detailed instructions elsewhere on this blog so just click here.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Cakes, Guitars, Handbags or Gadgets?

Sounds like a Rod Stewart song.

This weekend I've sampled most of these, in an attempt to make sense of the stress of things, and regain a bit of normality to the merry-go-round of work, kids, lack of sleep, family issues, and general stress. Sadly, recently, cake hasn't been able to solve most of these. Not even a Manuka-honey-propolis-seagrass cake could fix things recently. Nevertheless, I played my guitar for the first time in about 3 months yesterday, remembering that the songs I wrote a few years ago actually weren't TOO bad, and remembering how to play with any kind of speed. Even a passing neighbour who popped in to say hi grunted "quite nice" lol

On gadgets. I bought my 2nd Chromebook, the latest full HD Toshiba Chromebook 2.
Most folks LAUGH at these things.
Well, I bought one a few years ago, but Son no.1 kind of grabbed that, and I haven't really seen it much. The simplicity is outstanding.
We're all sick of how long it takes to setup and keep running a Windows laptop, from antivirus, spyware, controlling wanton windows updates, cleaning up.
Plus the Chromebook auto updates, and starts in about 3 seconds, works immensely fast for Google drive/docs, Facebook, Hangouts, Gmail, Spotify and ZX Spectrum Games... ;-)
I also prefer it to a tablet, especially a clunky bluetooth keyboard option.

Plenty of things still need Windows of course, like Calibre, using a separate browser like Firefox, FLAC ripping, phone backups, loading up & setting up my NAS, VLC etc etc
But this list is getting less and less I think.
Chromebooks are still much more than simple consumption devices, I've got my Galaxy Note3 phone or Android tablet for that.

Here's a picture of a Toasted Teacake I also had today in a cafe with my Dad, as I've been forgetting what cake and life is like.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Why iPod docks have SUCH a lot to answer for

Here's the thing.

When we had HiFi at home...

Do you remember when most folks had a 'HiFi' in their lounge? Perhaps a 'music centre' or even a separate amplifier, cd player, turntable - that kind of thing. Do you remember that? It's not so long ago really, I don't think I'm referring to the dark ages as such.......
Along came these things called 'mp3 players', from manufacturers like Archos, Zune, Sony, all kinds of little things. But we all waited for the iPod...didn't we? A cute little thing that could store your whole record collection, and using this piece of software on your home computer (iTunes) to create playlists....
And we could then put SO SO much of this music onto these devices, and carry them around with us. Like being 80s kids (that was me) with our Walkman devices again....
For me, that never worked.
The sound quality has always been poor on these devices.

I might well be an Audiophile...

You might paint me as an "audiophile", eh? That the sound is "good enough", and I must be some kind of purist, and why would I need amazing sound when on a bus, or in a crowded shopping centre? Hmmmm. Let me think about that. You see, mp3 (and the Apple - albeit much better .m4a replacement) was never designed to sound GOOD. It was designed to compress the filesize, based on what it considered the human ear could not register. I'm not going to bore you (hell, I bore my loved ones and myself enough) with the science behind that....but suffice to say, there is way too much of "just good enough and if you want more, you must be an AUDIOPHILE grrr" going around in audio right now, yet curiously.... curiously this doesn't seem to apply to Video movies, where everyone fully embraces BluRay..... yet mp3 is the equivalent of a VHS tape.....
But back to the subject.

Should we really care about sound quality?

So, we ended up with an iPod, holding vast quantities of our music collection. And how can we tell the difference, how do we know whether it's a "quality" sound or not? Do we care? Well, your average minidisc (remember those?) or CD walkman CARED. But now we don't. Tape walkmans with Dolby-S cared. And now.....now.... disk storage is cheap. Broadband speeds have increased HUGELY. So why do we still need mp3? The premise, the demand, the need - is broken.
Except, it isn't.
Because along came the iPod dock.
And we propogated this problem into our home, our listening environment, our ageing stereo systems which ended up in the loft, bought perhaps by the man of the household for his Pink Floyd collection, got covered in dust.
A lovely single box, popular in the home perhaps? Takes up much less space than a big ugly hifi (all those cables!) and the iPod that makes the bus or Tube journey simply slots in.
I *hate* the sound of these things.
The effort taken by a musician (I pretend to be one sometimes) to create an album on Vinyl or CD, is compressed to 1/20 of the size, and that piece of CD plastic... where is it? In your loft? Sold to music-magpie, or eBay? Or did you buy the music from iTunes or Amazon as an mp3 in the first place? That plastic then goes unused...

It's all down to personal choice...

Would Ridley Scott want you to view his latest masterpiece on VHS? Filmed in the latest HD technology, but you choose *all of the time* to watch it on a black and white portable telly? Of course.... this comes down to CHOICE, and that may be your choice, your economy, your lifestyle to do so, it's not for the director or the music produce to mandate the hardware upon you. But in the case of iPods, that have propogated, that choice has been dictated somewhat. I think that's my point.....
Plus movies are heading for 4K!!
But hey, you just like it for the convenience, and that Album Art, eh? ;-)

Is there an alternative?

So why hasn't someone come up with an alternative?
Well.... they have tried.
Heard of "Sonos"? Huge expensive home audio systems, very lifestyle, very designer, but still compressed audio, not even the level of a CD.
What about Bluetooth? I can do that to my stereo, even my car stereo, right?
You can.
But even aptX is compressed audio.
You fool!!! ;-) Fool!!!

I've heard of HDTracks, what about that?

These guys seem to have the answer, but isn't that just for 'Audiophiles"?
Well, hdtracks.com has been around for a while, and recently launched in the UK too. And it's true, that downloading audio at greater than CD quality, ie from the studio masters - high res - is desirable. But only if the production standard, mixing and mastering lives up to that. Case in point - much gritty 70s/80s recorded material was produced on 8bit hardware, or even designed to be "dirty" in the first place, without high-end recording techniques - purposely, or just a sign of the times...not much point in listening to that at 96kHz 24bit....
However, get that amp and those speakers out of the loft, THAT technology - particularly speakers - hasn't changed much in 30years, why does it need to? It's analogue.
As for HDTracks itself... in the right setting, with the right album, it can be good. I've used it. But you'd better have researched how that album was recorded - and you won't be doing that, will you?

This is besides the point, but what is?

Let's not get distracted talking about Hi-end audio. All we're asking for, well "I" am asking for - actually, I'm not asking for anything really.... is to just unlock those CDs again, I'm not even an exponent of Vinyl.... hell, I accepted the compromise of CD years ago, and digital done right (no excessive compression/loudness/remastering debacle aside) can sound smashing.... and I'm not just talking about the absence of crackles/pops/rumble that we were all originally sold on.

But here's why even Neil Young is too late

Well, yes, he might be.

It looks nice. But, too late. Everyone - as I've said above - believes that ANY level of quality music is ok for on the bus, in the car.
I've always wondered why we settle for this. I can tell the difference. However, we've heard mp3's for so long, that kids these days PREFER it, the increased treble ("tsssh" sound) is more enticing... the human ear hears these sounds, and in short comparison tests it sounds *clearer*. Yes?
This article also agrees that it's too late, and kids prefer mp3.

Should I just plugin my CD player? (if I've still got one)

Well, yes.
It would help.
By all means listen to your low quality mp3's on the bus, but not in the house.

Or, check your BluRay or DVD player. How do you have the audio connected up? You've got a shiny new LED/LCD telly, yes? Soundbar? Stupid surround sound cables and speakers everywhere? If the latter, is the BluRay player connected to an AV amp by optical cable? Well hey, maybe just pop that CD into the player then, and see what it sounds like. Your ears are the judge. Find an album you used to listen to, and the *sound* of it always captivated you. Not Rihanna's finest please, hey, I'll even allow you to find that Enya or Clannad CD you once had.

But this is the better answer - check your iTunes settings

I don't use iTunes. But if I did, I'd go into Edit -> Preferences menu, and click on "Import Settings". And then I'd change it to "Import using AAC Encoder". That way, you don't stupidly squash your music to a small file size (eg. for mp3 or m4a). You've got a big hard disk computer now, haven't you!
Then carry on using your iPod.
Change the firmware on your iPod (a bit like "jailbreaking" it) to use Rockbox.
But only if you're a geek.
A music geek.
Or just someone who doesn't see why music should DELIBERATELY SOUND BAD.

Like me.

PS. The first, YES, the first person to tell me that 320k mp3 sounds just as good as anything else, and is fine, and is good enough, and not even EXPERTS can tell the difference between it and a CD original.... that person will.... get ignored.