Archive for the 'recording' Category


recordings, and Flatland

Lately, I’ve been recording an album for a friend.  This has me thinking about the recording process, and how it’s similar to photography… namely, that both are very limited representations of the event they are trying to capture.  Obsessing over “accuracy” when making recordings of any sort is somewhat irrational, because recording itself is so relativistic.  What, exactly, constitutes “accurate”?  Put two different microphones in front of a guitar, get two different sounds… and neither sounds the same as listening to the guitar in the room.  Likewise, what the guitarist hears is different than what a listener hears!

In photography, the distortions and misrepresentation are more obvious, so I think they’re a little more tolerated.  But audio recording?  Why does anyone think this sounds “real”?

The residents of Flatland had no idea that they lived on a two-dimensional plane in three-dimensional space.  But we do, sort of.



I’ve been experimenting this week with VST guitar amp simulators running within Tracktion 2, now that I have my soundcard latency down to a tolerable 5ms.  Amplitube came with the software, but I’m really digging the freeware Simulanalog, which comes with emulations of a Fender Twin and a Marshall JCM900, plus some stomp boxes. Signal goes from the guitar into a DI (M-Audio DMP3 preamp), and then gets recorded direct in Tracktion.  I can then change the amp settings or effects after the guitar part is recorded!  And I can use the amp simulator while recording, to give myself a reasonable sound and feel. 

Further experiments will involve copying a recorded track and then re-amping it with a different amp setting, perhaps mostly clean in parallel with mostly dirty.  And the idea can be taken further, using the recorded guitar part to drive a regular guitar amp/pedals that gets mic’d and re-recorded.  It’ll be interesting to see where I can go with this.  For now, I want to learn how to make nicer guitar parts for mixes.  But I can see this technique being applied in more experimental, exotic ways as well. 

At any rate, it’s a fun toy.


idle hands

I haven’t touched my camera in days.  I’m not even sure the whether the battery is in the camera, or the charger at the moment.  This, after the Fringe Festival/wedding binge where I shot nearly 10,000 photos in a month. 

It feels weird, when I think about it.  On the other hand, I’ve spent a couple of evenings up to my elbows in my music recording stuff, which was being ignored while I was shooting so many photos.  So I guess it’s not that my hands are idle, so much as I only have two of them.



My arts require tools.  And fussing over tools makes their users neurotic.  It’s almost amazing to me how photographers will nerd on about tiny differences in lenses, or guitarists will argue endlessly over which boutique copy of a Tube Screamer is best.  And to some extent, these tiny, almost unquantifiable details are important – I firmly believe that humans can often sense things they can’t measure (actually, the delusion that “If I can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” is one of my biggest pet peeves when dealing with the junction of technology and aesthetics).

But that’s not what I set out to talk about.  I wanted to talk about capability.  If our tools cannot do the minimum required for a given task, then we can’t do the task, period.  For example, I do a lot of low-light photography.  If I don’t have a lens of sufficiently large aperture and a camera/film of sufficiently high sensitivity, I simply cannot take the photos I want to take. 

For some time now, I’ve stuggled with a limitation in my recording studio.  I could only record two tracks at a time.  Now, through clever reuse of stuff I had combined with spending a bit of money I couldn’t really afford, I can record four tracks at a time.  That’s a new capability.  It means I can do more “live” recording of small groups with close miking, and balance instruments afterward in the mix.  It’s a nice improvement, and I hope to take advantage of it this week.

Changing our capabilities, as opposed to refining our existing tools, is something artists should consider more.



I just remixed the Late November song “Blue Frogs from Mars”, applying some much-needed reverb. The reverb came from the excellent freeware SIR Reverb, an impulse reverb system. Rather than synthesizing a space as digital reverbs usually do, it works from a recorded sound impulse of a real space (or a digital reverb, or anything else). I also applied some eq to the vocals, and a bit of other processing. Certainly, there’s still improvement to be had, but the results so far are interesting.

Here’s the remixed version

And here’s the old, dry version



Earlier this year, I built a new computer for music recording and photo editing.  For audio, I installed my cheap-but-good old M-Audio 410 PCI card, not the greatest, but it’s kept me from needing to invest in another interface.  But audio performance was dreadful.  If I didn’t run it with a 2048 sample buffer (over 40ms of delay), dropouts were unacceptable and the driver often crashed. The computer itself is modern and very fast, so there was obviously some other sort of problem.  I went through all the usual suspects – driver updates, IRQ conflicts, etc – but couldn’t find it.  Ultimately, some surfing led me to doubts about the interaction of the modern PCI Express video interface with the PCI bus, and a belief that the video subsystem was stealing cycles and interrupts from PCI, and hence killing audio performance.  I decided I would invest in a PCI Express Firewire card and a new Firewire audio interface whenever I had the money – and that’s a fair bit of money.

So last night, I decided to take another look at it.  Turned out that the soundcard was on IRQ 16… a virtual IRQ assigned by ACPI in Windows.  That meant it could be conflicting with a sub-15 IRQ.  I disabled the serial and parallel ports to free up their IRQs, rebooted, and viola!  I was able to crank the card down to 256 samples, or about 5ms of delay, where it ought to be.  So it was an IRQ conflict after all… I just wasn’t enough of a studly nerd to spot the Windows ACPI hazard. Now I can put off getting a new audio interface until I really need more inputs/have money to buy something extra nice.

The lesson to be learned, though, isn’t technical.  Rather, the lesson is that when I see a problem, I should keep trying to resolve it, rather than making excuses and looking for something/someone to blame.  And this applies to non-technical problems as well.


Not the marrying kind

Here’s a track by Navigation Without Numbers, a sadly short-lived music project with my friend Jamie Jean Maertens. Jamie is a songwriter of marvelous clarity and directness. The chorus is simply, “I guess your mama was right about me all along”, repeated twice… a really profound statement of hindsight and regret.

I played the steel guitar part on a $50 Artisan lap steel, just weeks after getting the instrument and starting to learn it.  The engineers did a marvelous job capturing the sound.  In hindsight, I could now play something technically more complex, but I don’t know if I could play anything more musical or appropriate for the song.

Likewise, Jamie’s acoustic guitar part is a lovely example of unintentional simplicity.  She’s a very functional guitarist – she plays because she needs to play in order to write and play songs, not for the sake of the guitar itself.  Technically, I’m a “better” guitarist, but I can’t play this song the way she does to save my life.  The whole guitar part is the result of her limitations as a player, from the simple fingerpicking to the “cowboy F chord”. But as a whole, it doesn’t sound unskilled – just clean and simple.