Fancy New Machine Blues

I was planning on writing about my fancy new machine and how much I love my life. Instead I have an appointment with an Apple Genius to look at a dead hard drive. Boo. But let's start at the beginning.

Six days ago, I received a big, shiny, new Macbook Pro. Giant, bright 17" screen, smokin' i7 processor, etc. Awesome right? Would have been more awesome if I had received one of the improved models that quietly came out the Monday after receiving mine but I digress.

Awesome until you get to the migration assistant part. It demands that you leave your two machines alone to do their thing. Completely alone. Like, kill all your apps, disable the menubar. The only sign of life as it's doing it's thing is a changing estimate that occasionally veers into terrifying territory (I saw numbers as high as 20 hours). Nothing to do but cuddle up with a book.
It's worth pointing out that the old machine ran Snow Leopard and the new machine came with Lion. While I was in no hurry to enter the lion's den with the old machine, I figured it worth a try on the new one. So after dorking around for a while figuring out how to live with the new state of affairs (I'm still not sure about Mission Control) I figured I'd try some music apps.

For reasons I did not understand, I decided that MainStage was the first thing I'd fire up. This led to the gates of hell. Almost immediately, it asked me for my serial number/license key what-not. So I dig out my Logic 9 box and rummage around, find the paper and hand transcribe a very annoying string of characters (it's times like these you wonder how high the tech actually is at Apple). Then I'm told that this key was for an upgrade, please enter the original key. Seriously? Dig out the much larger Logic 8 box, and hand transcribe another string of characters. Annoyed but still calm, I watch as MainStage starts to check my plugins. Now this is the thing I was dreading and my dread was not ill founded. Soon I found myself re-authorizing and in some cases (AudioDamage) I had to re-download and re-install (as a way to do the re-auth)... For Native Instruments, I fired up Service Center only to find out that not only did I need to re-auth but that I needed to download a pile of upgrades (presumably fixes for Lion).

I don't remember how I noticed but I found out that many of the instruments that come as part of the Jam Packs were not present. Looking closer (using my killer UNIX skillz) I found that the new machine had 12,000 files in /Library/Application Support/Garageband and the old machine has 41,000. Clearly something didn't get moved. Ask the Googles and get told that I should reinstall Logic. I outsmart the Googles and install only the "content" but not the programs (since they'd been upgraded bunches of times by Software Update I didn't see any value in installing the .0 versions of everything). After that, I'm still a few thousand files short. On my list of crap to figure out.
A metric tonne of work for a program I have not used all that much... and short of loading every track I ever made with it and fixing the problems I don't know of a better way to ensure that old tracks continue to be loadable than brute force making sure I never lose any of the 1000s of files that are part of these packages.

So on to the program I do use, Ableton Live. It comes up, makes me reauth, tells me that I've just used up my last one and then starts checking VSTs (Logic only supports AUs we haven't had VST fun yet). For some odd reason, only 6 of the 12 AudioDamage plugins I own are visible in the library. Rescan doesn't. I send of the "WTF" email but it's Friday night and I'm not seriously expecting a response.  In the end, I solved this by blowing away the Live preferences file which triggered a "real" rescan.

Somewhere along the way, I saw a complaint about my Focusrite plugins. When I tried to reauthorize them, it would fail. Eventually I got to a webpage that told me that Focusrite would no longer hand out authorizations for those plugins. WTF?!? It did have a form to fill out which I did with minimum venom. I saved that for Twitter. This subplot does have a happy ending though. The following Monday, Focusrite hooked me up with their new plugins which are way way better. Good save.

So now I'm getting settled in, things are mainly working; I still have to figure out which 5,000 files I still need to migrate over from the old laptop's backup disk. Then I can reuse that disk to back up the new laptop. My stress level is receding.

That was until today. When I came back from lunch, unlocked my screen and was met with a grey screen of death. After letting that go nowhere for about 10 minutes, I power cycled. Only to be met with grinding noises from the hard drive...

My point in sharing this tale of woe was not really to make myself feel better (didn't work). Rather, it is to highlight some vulnerabilities that we have and think about ways to mitigate them.
  • if you buy software and you should, it is probably locked to your machine in some way.  When you get a new machine you may find yourself wrestling with licensing, begging for help. As much of a hassle as this is, it goes easier during the week. As a side benefit, you'll have your weekend free for making music instead of fuming about software licensing
  • software ages; that's not to say it gets old but rather that the people or companies supporting it decide for various reasons to stop or upgrade or go out of business
  • must of the music you produce in a DAW is not music at all but rather a pile of data. Some of that data is in the form of references to external sources like plugins, sample files, etc. Some of it is parametric data like automation, MIDI notes, signal routing. If any of these piece change or stop working, you will not be able to recreate your music. It seems that the only way to completely future proof tracks is to not simply save your rendered masters but also each track as an audio file (at least that way you'll be able to load those files into an entirely new DAW)
  • disks fail; back up all the fucking time. The odds of having a catastrophic disk failure in 5 years are pretty high. I naively thought that I was safe (6 days, come on!)  As it turns out, I get to repeat my tale woe because I did not have a backup of that 6 days of effort.
This just sucks.  Don't do as I did. Be smarter.
Photo by flickr user doegox


MBOX Pro Audio Challenge

Early this morning, while scraping the sleep out of my face and squinting at my twitter feed, I saw reference to this:

Think you know Mbox?  Take the challenge.

Being a sucker, I had to try it. I grabbed some caffeine and my best cans and sat down for a listen.

I'll spare you the suspense, I couldn't tell the difference, so I just clicked semi randomly on the test.  Got a B on the input test and an F on the output test.

After I got over the initial, "I must completely suck as a listener" and "this test is stupid, how they possibly expect to demonstrate anything", I began to realize that was the whole point. They wanted do demonstrate that they all sound pretty much identical while subtly reminding us that the Mbox is way cheaper than that other stuff.

But there's another conclusion I jump to. And that is that buying an audio interface using sound quality as your main criteria is wrong. And of course, if you've been playing around in this space, chances are that you have already intuited this idea.

So what is the criteria for audio interface shopping. Here's my list (in no particular order):

Basic features:
  • # of ins/out - I want at least 2 ins and 4 outs
  • the ins should be switchable between instrument/line
  • easily grabbed volume knob on the front (to save me from blowing my head off)
  • MIDI (to provide midi clock to my GT-10)
  • more front panel knobs the better, driving a separate mixer app with a mouse is a pain
  • two headphone jacks with separate volumes is a nice to have
  • special drivers? as a software guy (by day) that has done lots of device driver work, I am very suspicious about this one
  • latency? could you play live through this thing
  • are there timely updates to match your specific OS version
What's your criteria?  And does sound quality factor in or is it simply assumed?


Drum Programming Pro Tip

Ok, who am I kidding. Amateur tip. But here it is...

So you've got built an awesome groove, you've layered all kinds of superb music overtop, you've done your arranging, you take a break and you come back and you feel the whole thing is kind of muddy. Your super cool electro kick or snare are fighting with the synth pads. And you feel that familiar self-doubt creeping into your session.

Most mix tutorials concern themselves with making space in a mix in the frequency domain by subtractive EQing your tracks. This is still very important but...

A simple way to make a little more space is to shorten the drum samples. Think about it. If your big kick drum rings through for a 200ms, chances are it's eating a big chunk of your spectrum right up to time the next percussion hit is played. If you twiddle knobs on your drum software to make the decay faster then you'll can retain the sonic/musical characteristics of the drum hits while making space in your mix in the time domain. Now you have space between the hits for your musical genius to come through.


RIP Steve

I got the news this evening that Steve Jobs had passed. Hardly surprising, I coldly replied. I never had any dealings with him personally and the press was full of info/speculation about his health or lack of...  just another of the rich and powerful.

But that's grossly unfair...

As I sit and reflect on his legacy, I realize that his company's products have quite literally changed my life. That's not hyperbole.

Before my first Mac, I was a Linux guy. There were two Windows machines in the house (my wife's and my daughter's). One day, I received an email from my ISP saying that my machine was spreading viruses. That's impossible, I thought. I run Linux, dammit! So I setup a network trace and left it to run for a day.  Once every now and then my daughter's PC would email some virus to what read like a veritable who's who of open source (one of whom was the sender of the original complaint). I was mortified. And my response was harsh. From that day, the Windows PCs started running Debian. Oh the whining. Boo hoo, I want my Windows back. I can't play Windows Media. I can't this; I can't that. But I rulez with a ir0n f1st!

I am not a patient man. Supporting my family running Linux sucked giant donkey balls (thanks to my friend SM for that metaphor). But I soldiered on. Until one day...

I got a Mac. It gave me what I needed. A combination of a usable machine and terminal windows with a UNIX shell when things got weird (complete with useful developer tools).  Suddenly, I hacked on what I wanted instead of what was broken by a random upgrade.

It didn't take long to figure out that this was a supportable environment for the family. So as finances allowed, we became a Mac house. And I became a more relaxed patriarch; one with more free time.

Which leads to my profound finding of GarageBand on my first Mac... With that I again found a voice that I had thought was long lost. I am again making music. Started learning to play guitar. Pushed and enjoy my kids' playing (to the extent they allow [insert teen eye-roll])

And for that, I am forever changed.

To Steve and the incredible team that carries on, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I don't believe in heaven but if it's there, here's hoping that guys like Steve are shakin' shit up rather than resting in peace.