Sunday, February 26, 2012

The End of the world

So this is what I've been working on for the last week or so, sequencing and mixing a backing track for the monthly saxophone ballad thing. I think the VRM box is doing a good job here, my go-to testing speaker setup is the Computer Speakers in the bedroom environment. The very lofi sound brings up issues with levels and tone very quickly. I look forward to learning more about mixing with this vrm box thing, but for now I will probably need to check my mix on other outputs.

Inside Logic, I took the arrangement and split it into multiple tracks, bass harmony, treble harmony and rhythm.

Originally, I'd taken the string sections in GPO4 for either harmony, but they felt somewhat sterile on their own. Instead of relying directly on the sections for direct harmony, I decreased them to provide the meat of the harmony, but relied on individual instruments. Hence, my treble harmonies include:

- Cello Section
- Violin 1, 2

For the bass harmonies, I had
- Bass section
- Bass 1, 2
- A very deep bass played one octave lower via a synth.

Rhythm wise, I had the ride cymbal played and panned hard left, with tambourines on the right.

Haven't used this bad boy in a while, and decided to get 'em used in the mix. I actually haven't done an A/B test with this reflexion filter, definitely something I need to do down the line.

All in all, I've learnt alot from this exercise, and am looking forward to next month!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Piano: The real thing vs midi keyboards

So it's my 2nd piano lesson today, in general it all went well except one thing that will be neigh impossible for me to work on - dynamics.

The synth actioni midi keyboard i use is very difficult to trigger soft notes, though the louder dynamics seem to be easier to approach

On the grand piano, it is far easier to get from p to mf to f - on the synth keyboard, it is very difficult to get the same kind of range.

So what's next? Do I get a proper digital piano, or maybe a semi weighted high end midi controller? >.>

VRM Box: Virtual Reference Monitoring

At the moment, I don't have a proper set of monitor speakers, mainly as I dread their cost, bulk and general loudness. A set of Yamaha HS50Ms will cost at least £130+ per speaker, and I would still have to sort out stuff like proper stands, wiring - and my room is not treated at all.

What I do have though, is a nice pair of AKG K240 MK2s. Personally, I have no idea how good they are, but some professionals I do admire use them for mixing, hence my decision to purchase that pair. In use, I found them very detailed, and not fatiguing like my Grado SR80s. Very comfy as well!

Headphones differ from speakers in that your left ear only hears what's coming from the left speaker, and vice-versa with the right ear. Speakers on the other hand, are heard by both ears, abeit with a small delay. This causes a lot of issues with mixing as they just don't sound the same.

Various pieces of hardware and software have been developed to feed a varying amount of each stereo channel to both ears, in order to mimic the effect of speakers. In my quest to locate one for use, I came across many such as the Redline Monitor from 112db, Hear by Ircam:Flux, Isone by Toneboosters. (Isone sadly I could not test as it was only available as a VST on OSX, and Logic does not use VSTs out of the box). The choice which I picked though, is the VRM Box. Not too difficult a choice as

- TB Isone I could not test, as mentioned above.
- Redline Monitor was quite pricey (and now with the vrm box, it does sound quite similar)
- Ircam's Hear - did not want a mixing plugin that required iLok >.> Else it also sounded very similar to Redline, and has support for 5.1 which I have no idea about.
- VRM box was priced the highest, but it came with a piece of hardware which doubles as a headphone amp, and a multitude of speaker emulations.

Installing the software was a snap, as was the hardware - just a USB cable. Sound quality wise, I could not tell much of a difference between the macbook's output vs the vrm box or my Mackie Blackjack. (My dell M6400's headphone out sounds really lo-fi.) The AKGs were easily driven by the VRM Box, so hopefully if I upgrade to higher impedance headphones down the line, it'd still be able to drive 'em.

Hearing all the "mixes" I did from before with the VRM engaged, it was very obvious how badly mixed they were. While I thought the mixes sounded alright on the AKGs, I never could get them to sound good on either of my laptop's speakers.

At the time of this post, I was orchestrating* a backing track, and choose to mix at the same time. With the VRM box active, I get a very different soundstage, one that feels like it's actually surrounding me, not something that's inside me, or to one side. Switching between the headphones and the mac's laptop speakers were a good test, and I was quite surprised to hear how similar the balance of the mix was, between the VRM'd headphones and the mac's speakers.

Further testing needs to be done on proper speakers. In addition, I have doubts about the low frequency response of the headphones... perhaps I would be well served with just one mono speaker with a good woofer - not only can I check for phase issues in mono, but the extended low range could help as well.

Hopefully, I will be able to record and mix a track this Sunday, and I'll report back in with the results.

*I use the term very loosely ;-)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Arrangement for the monthly sax ballad

More harmony practice, took about 6 hours for this >.> Every month Cafe Saxophone has a monthly ballad, the past few months I've made it a point to sequence the backing track on my own.

This month, the song chosen is "The End Of The World" by Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee. I decided to use strings for my mids and bass to test out how they would work with the sax, as I really enjoyed the string/sax pieces from Art Pepper's Winter Moon.

On the other hand, this song did not feel right without the 12 beat rhythm, so instead of using a harmonic part for that, I put the rhythm section up to it. Planning to get a pair of latin shakers to record for the percussion.

Hopefully I will get my macbook back in time then I can put all of this into Logic.

One thing I really like about Musescore is that it highlights instrument ranges that are not available on actual instruments in RED, a feature that, from what I understand is not available on Finale Printmusic 2011 (which is what I have. And can't use with the macbook dead. hah.). 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Harmony practice

Working on some harmony practice today, but no audio sadly as I can't seem to get a good clean export from Musescore no matter how I tweak the playback and synth settings. It seems to use the original soundfont, not the open source GM soundfont (which I think the piano is pretty good for notation).

Ah well.


Rant mode on. It's been about 2 weeks since I sent in my laptop for servicing (display no backlight) and it is still not back. I've had laptops in for servicing before, the worst (or is it best?) experience I've had was with Acer - I had to send in my laptop about 5 times over the course of its life, but the repairs were done within several hours, or once, when something major happened to the logic board, next day! (and they actually swapped my mobo to a high spec one since they were out of stock of the one used in my laptop)

This is my 2nd apple laptop (first one was splendid and had zero issues. Sold it as I wanted something smaller/faster), and I can't say I'm pleased with the service so far. I actually got an email a week ago saying it was ready for pickup, but when I was there, it displayed exactly the same issues >.> I must give credit to the store personnel, they were very friendly and attentive.

Two weeks is somewhat long, and I'm seriously considering just getting a windows machine and Cubase just so I can use a DAW! Was quite annoying this week the day before my composing class (we use skype) and I realized - I did NOT have a machine capable of skype video! Thankfully the class was done perfectly fine with just skype screen sharing*. But still. Gah!

In any case, I still have to do my composing homework even without my mac, and used two approaches, musescore and noteflight. The former is an open source notation program, and in certain areas I think it is actually nicer to use than Finale. Mouse input for one makes so much more sense vs Finale. Noteflight provides online notation input with your web browser. The free version I use has its limits, but it's perfectly great for when I have a half hour during lunch time to input notes in the browser, then continue to refine them at home on a full fledged notation package.

*skype actually works pretty darn well on linux, the screen sharing was not as good as on osx (tearing, much less resolution), but for "free" software, it is difficult to complain, and I think it is frankly quite amazing.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Piano to get better at sax

It's only a few weeks since I started putting time into the piano, and I think I am starting to see results: some really difficult pieces I can actually play them (woo!) and learning about chords on a harmonic instrument gave me several oh wow! moments, especially about scales.

Googling for the hell of it led me to this post on SOTW that seems to correspond with my experiences.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Thinking of giving up the flute. Can't hear much improvement, and I'm putting in a significant amount of practice time. Bwa. Will see. On the other hand, the piano is going swimmingly well. Bwa, I say. Bwa.

Playwise aside, I don't get the same kind of feel I do with the sax and piano. Perhaps it's time to take a break for awhile.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Bwa, notebook died.

The laptop that I dedicated to my music pursuits, a macbook pro, seems to have taken an arrow in the knee. The backlight tends not to switch on, and it's definitely booted up, as I can hear the volume control still working.

Annoying. Apart from a major annoyance of having to do homework on linux - which I have very little patience for its foibles - I also use that machine for my digital painting pursuits. Which again, the damned wacom tablet does not work on linux even after my ministrations.

Bwa, I say. Bwa.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Piano Lessons

Had my first piano lesson this fine evening and it was a throughly illuminating experience. My tutor moved at a very fast pace (and omg, I played on a Yamaha C2 grand - frakkin' awesome), and covered alot of ground that I found extremely useful for future use with midi sequencing.

For example, legato playing on the piano requires the previous key to be held down even when the next note is being depressed. That directly translates to what I what I sequence in my daw, and which obviously I've been doing incorrectly for legato passages (i.e. no overlap between notes).

Other interesting stuff like the Una Corda and sostenuto pedal were covered, apart from actual playing. Which I sucked at sooo bad ;-)

Next up I need to get a proper keyboard to learn - on 49 keys, quite a few passages have hit the upper and lower limits, bloody annoying. 76 keys was recommended as a minimum, and I'd agree to that for safety's sake. I'd love 88 keys, and an easy choice is M-audio's Prokeys 88, if not for two reasons, physical size and cost.

The hunt begins.

5 Mins to a Better Mix