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Archive for the Hardware Category

10/GUI

Posted by Scott

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These days there seems to be a never-ending stream of “next-generation” graphical user interfaces being by trotted out by experts. Unfortunately for us, most seem to be fundamentally flawed in some way or another. They’re usually too expensive, ergonomically unsound, or otherwise impractical for whatever reason. I’ve worked with multi-touch systems before and while novel, they never seem to live up to the promise of “mouse-killer”. Sure, Microsoft’s multi-touch tables might make ordering drinks all super futuristic at some point, but no one wants to use Photoshop for 8 hours on a Ms. Pacman table. It seems the humble mouse — that tired paradigm of human-machine interaction we’ve been shackled to for decades — isn’t going down so easily.

There is hope though. Today I saw a video outlining 10/GUI, a new kind of graphical user interface that “aims to bridge this gap by rethinking the desktop to leverage technology in an intuitive and powerful way.” Whether or not it can attain that lofty goal is anyone’s guess. What really struck me about this particular system was the pragmatism exhibited by it’s developers. They’ve mixed in a healthy dose of innovation with tried-and-true familiarity to come up with a very compelling compromise that has me wanting to see more. As a musician and graphic designer I wonder if a system like this could ever address all of my needs, but I suppose I’d have to get my hands on it to really know. The main problem with envisioning the potential success of a new interface like this is that the current software we all use was created for the mouse. It’s easy to dismiss 10/GUI when comparing it to how I am accustomed to interacting with my computer, but if the applications I use were rewritten with an interface like this in mind, who knows how powerful it might be.

At any rate, the video is worth a watch, it’s an exciting proposition and perhaps a glimpse of what’s in store down the road. The actual demo beings around the half-way point. Video

What do you think? When, if ever, will we see any of these next-gen interfaces in our workflow? Finally, if something like this was available now, would you use it? Sound off in the comments

Via Ignore The Code | Official 10/GUI site

New Oberheim SEM

Posted by Scott

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This one is for all you analog synth geeks out there (but mostly just Beamer): Tom Oberheim is producing a new line of SEM modules. This is big news for any synth enthusiast as the Oberheim SEM (introduced in 1974) is widely regarded as the best sounding synthesizer ever made. Unfortunately they are very rare, complex, and expensive machines so until now it’s been pretty difficult acquire and maintain a working example.

I have an Oberheim Four Voice (pictured below) and while it’s not the synth I use the most, it’s certainly the prize of my collection. I really do love working with older machines, but for the sake of reliability I prefer using newly manufactured versions of the originals (e.g. the Moog Voyager). That is, of course, as long as they sound like the original and according to Mr. Oberheim — see video above — these new SEM’s are very faithful to their predecessors. Here’s hoping someone will make a faithful recreation of the Korg Mono/Poly because it’s pretty scary knowing my favorite synth is about to turn 30 years old.

Oberheim Four Voice sitting atop a Fender Rhodes

Oberheim Four Voice sitting atop a Fender Rhodes

Joe Zawinul (Weather Report) at the Oberheim Four Voice

Joe Zawinul (Weather Report) at the Oberheim Four Voice

And just for good measure, here’s Jan Hammer (who also used an Oberheim Four Voice) freaking out on a Minimoog:

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Studio Update: October 2009

Posted by Scott

Akai MPD18

Akai MPD18


I usually hesitate to do music production related posts as the focus of this blog is more centered in the visual world (On a side note, I always wonder how many of you produce music as well as design? | Comment). But I’ve really been shifting gears lately into album mode, getting the studio all dialed in so the final stretch is as trouble free as possible. To tell the truth, this past year has been one giant computer headache. Photoshop has been running like a champ on Windows 7 64-bit, but Sonar — the audio software platform I use to record / produce with — has been nothing but trouble. Over the years, I’ve slowly moved to where I do all of my sound generation and most of my processing outside the computer with analog gear but I still use the computer to record and arrange. Sonar is still the central element to the most complex stage of the production process. If it’s not behaving, the whole chain breaks down very quickly. To be fair though, it’s actually the supporting cast of digital hardware that’s been causing all the problems, not Sonar itself. My analog-to-digital digital conversion system was built around a MOTU 828MKII audio interface and a MOTU MIDI timepiece. They worked great in Windows XP but just weren’t making the cut in Windows 7 and Vista. MOTU’s driver support for Windows is pretty bad, they’re more of a Mac-centric company. So I finally ditched them and went with German manufacturer RME’s Fireface 800 as the core of the system. RME were originally a Windows only hardware maker and are very dedicated to stable performance across both platforms. They also make some of the best analog to digital converters in the business so it was nice to get that upgrade included in the deal. I also finally took the time to really tweak the computer and chase down all the little bugs and conflicts so everything is running smoother than ever now. Unfortunately I had to leave the ridiculously fast Windows 7 and go back to Vista Pro x64, but it’s only a minor step down in performance so it’s well worth the added stability. I am betting I’ll be able to move back up to Win7 within the next 6 months. And before anyone says “you should switch to Mac” I must add that most of my go-to plugins and music software are PC-only, I couldn’t really switch to Mac if I wanted to. And believe me, over this past year I have wanted to on several occasions. But I think all that is behind me, the new rig is rock solid and I’ve cloned the drive with Acronis True Image so it will always be fast and clean (I can just flash the drive back to the initial state any time things start to bog down).

So now with everything working properly, all at once, for what seems like the first time in ages, it’s time to get down to the business of producing this album. I have all the material in place, it’s just a matter of arrangement and production at this point. I do enjoy this phase, when I’m in the middle of it, but truthfully I don’t always look forward to it. I just remember all the late nights up at 7am driving back and forth from LA and Sacramento getting stuff mixed and mastered, then mixed and mastered again, and again…. and so on. Sometimes it seems like it never ends. The last song I finished — the forthcoming Coastal Brake 12″ — was one of those very trying experiences. It was just such a dense and complex mix, I hit the wall a few times and really had to reconsider things. Luckily I was able to keep my head and after about two months of pushing and pulling I finally got a version I was happy with.

So here I am coming off that experience with a whole album’s worth of tracks all lined up for the same treatment. I figured it was time to evaluate my work flow and determine what I could do to optimize things and make the process more fun than work. I started by rewiring and reconfiguring the entire studio, from top to bottom, three times. With each pass I took a week to work with things and noted all the little issues and roadblocks that I encountered with the setup. I then incorporated those into the next redesign. I spent years trying to just get things setup quickly so I could get to work, not realizing that if I really took the time to get it all set up and configured properly the first time, in the end I would save a ton of time and energy.

So now I’m sitting in the newly optimized studio and it really feels good. My head is clear and I feel like I have instant access to all the tools I need to get work done. I’ve already written a chunk of new material in the past few days and am starting the process of working back through the existing songs and getting them into their finished forms. One very cool perk of this whole experience was rediscovering something that I had all but forgotten about from my earlier days as a musician. When I first started out in music, my first real piece of gear was an Ensoniq ASR-X, a combination drum machine / synth which used drum pads instead of keys. I sold it years ago and always regretted it (Actually, I sold one, got a new one, then sold that, then got another, then finally sold that again…but that’s a very long story). Anyways, I’ve always missed the physical drum pads and ever since I moved to San Francisco I can’t play my real drum kit very late at night anymore. Over the weekend I was at Guitar Center picking up some cables and noticed Akai’s new little drum trigger pad, the MPD18 (pictured at the top). Only $99 for 18 genuine MPC pads, that’s an insane deal. My ASR-X was always like the poor man’s MPC so I always lusted after them whenever I saw one at a show or something. I was a bit skeptical about whether the $99 MPD18 could live up to the venerable MPC, but once I got it home I was amazed at how sensitive and tactile the pads are. Needless to say, I’ve been loading my drum machine up and triggering it with the MPD for the past two days straight. It’s not even work anymore, I forgot how fun these things are, and I honestly think the results are more fluid and realistic than programming drum patterns by mouse.

I will be posting some pics of the new studio just as soon as I borrow my brother’s wide angle lens. For now, here is some gratuitous gear smut, the original MPC60 (Akai + Roger Linn) in all it’s glory:

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Ripoff Failure: HP Envy 13

Posted by Scott

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I talked about the HP Envy a while back as a potential alternative to the Macbook and now it’s finally out. I’ve always been a fan of HP laptops, they’re fast and cheap and I’ve had three which have all served me well. But they were all ugly as hell and covered with useless add-ons and blue LEDs; not exactly objects of desire, just practical alternatives to the pricey Macs. So when I heard about the upcoming Envy line I was pretty excited at the prospect of a PC laptop alternative that didn’t suck. Unfortunately, as hard as HP tried to clone the Macbook experience, the Envy seems to have fallen short of the in almost every way. I guess it comes as no surprise, nobody does it like Mac. Gizmodo has all the details on the Envy, including more pics and a review. I think I’

Logitech Performance MX

Posted by Scott

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Logitech Performance Mouse MX


The new Performance Mouse MX from Logitech didn’t make it in time for the Design Mouse Roundup post from last year but I sure wish it had. I have the MX Revolution (the original version of this new Performance MX) and I really love it, save for one fatal flaw: a defective battery. This was apparently a common issue with the old MX mice and they lose their ability to charge properly. So now it’s pulling light duty upstairs as an entertainment center controller, a purpose for which it’s surprisingly well suited.

I’ve been using the Razer Death Adder recently, and aside from it’s tacky design and even tackier name, it performs very well. I’ve been steering clear of wireless mice — I just don’t trust the accuracy and the last thing I need down in the studio are more wireless signals — but this new one is pretty intriguing. I’d really like to have hyperscroll back, I miss it on the Death Adder.

Anybody using the new Performance MX yet? How it is? Let us know in the comments

Backing It Up

Posted by Scott

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Regular backups should be an integral part of any creative’s computer workflow, unfortunately it seems to be neglected by a lot of people. It seems like an easy thing to do given that the alternative means betting your life’s work on the health of your hard drive but I guess it’s sort of like flossing or taking vitamins. As I’ve recently come to realize, fear of hardware failure isn’t the only reason to backup; fire, flood, theft, and user error all threaten to rob you of your hard earned intellectual property. I’ve always taken backups pretty seriously, but I have had some close calls and a very recent one has compelled me to adopt a more robust backup solution.

Some years ago — shortly before I finished my first album — my main data drive experienced a mechanical failure. Luckily I had a backup drive sitting right above it. So I bought a replacement for the original drive and went about installing it. As I was putting it in the case I accidentally dragged a screwdriver past the IDE pins on the backup drive (which was at that moment the only intact copy of all my work) in just the right way to arc the power connector and fry the controller board. At that moment I thought I had lost everything I ever did, the new album, and my sanity. Luckily the damage was isolated to the control board and I was able to pick up a similar drive and transplant it’s controller and recover my data. I learned a hard lesson that day and every since I’ve been more careful about backing up.

Fast forward to last week when it had recently occurred to me that I should have off-site backups. In a city like San Francisco, fire is a big concern and all the backups in the world can’t help you if they’re sitting in the same place as your data when it all burns to the ground. So I started leaving my backup drive at a friend’s house and bringing it home during the day to backup work from the previous night. The problem is that two weeks had passed since the last time I brought that drive home and backed up. So last week I was partitioning a disk during a Windows install and accidentally deleted the primary partition of my main data drive and that past two weeks of work. Fortunately, Partitions are relatively easy to restore (Active@ makes a very powerful data recovery suite) so this wasn’t a huge deal, but it definitely gave me flashbacks of the near catastrophe I had experienced years earlier and got me thinking I needed to start using a new system.

James E. Gaskin defines a good backup system as “Automatic, redundant, and restoreable” and I would like to add off-site to that list. The system I was using until today only covered only two of those bases. Now, I would love to use an online backup service — it would solve all of these problems — but I have about 1.5TB of files that need to be mirrored and a typical night of work will generate around 2GB of new files and/or file changes which need to be backed up. Every online solution I’ve seen would end up being ridiculously expensive at these sizes and given that my Comcast internet upstream is less than 1Mb/s, it’s really not practical if I need to move a lot of data, which is more often than not. Given all of that I’ve ruled out online backups until they bring fiber into my neighborhood or the cost of the services come way down. So I’m left with simply scaling up the backup scheme and using multiple traditional drives. The system I ended up going with is laid out like this:

1. Main data drive: A RAID5 array with three 1TB drives. This is the main drive that I work from and where I store all of the work. RAID5 uses rotating parity so that even if one of the drives experiences a failure a copy of all your data can be rebuilt from the two remaining drives. Reading and writing data from/to a RAID5 array is also much faster than a single drive (sort of like a redundant version of RAID0 – more info here) so it’s a nice bonus to have this as the working drive.

2. Local backup drive: One 2TB drive which is mirrored from the main drive every night. I use Backup Magic to do the mirroring. It’s light weight, powerful, and best of all: it only runs when I tell it to. I don’t like automatic backup apps that run in the background, they always tend to overstep their bounds and eat up system resources.

3. Off-site backup drive: One 2TB drive in a hotswap SATA bay (similar to this). The plan is to pop this in every week or so, mirror from the main data drive and then take it back off-site for safe keeping. Even if both local drives fail or my house explodes or something, at least I don’t lose my entire life’s work.

Just a note: This backup scheme is for my PC, on my Macbook Pro I use time machine to backup to a single external drive but the problem is that there’s no redundancy. If both drives fail, you’re screwed.

It’s easy to forget that as computer based creatives, everything we’ve ever done, all of our intellectual property, is sitting in a little metal box and there are a lot of things that can go wrong with that box. Regular backups are a must and off-site backups are highly recommended. I know the system I’m using isn’t foolproof — I guess nothing really is — but I feel a lot more secure knowing the data exists on three drives in two separate locations. How about you, what system do you use to backup? For all you Mac users, is Time Machine enough for you or do you have a secondary system in place? Anybody using an online backup solution? (and if so, what size is your data?) Let us know the comments

SSD Upgrade Phase 2

Posted by Scott

Three 120GB OCZ Vertex SSD's bundled up

Three 120GB OCZ Vertex SSD's bundled up


After last month’s foray into the wonderful world of SSD’s via my newly super-powered Macbook Pro, I decided it was time to take my main tower PC to the next level. It wasn’t an easy decision at first, but it soon became a lot easier when two of the four drives in my RAID0 Photoshop swap array went down (for more on RAID, see my earlier post on the subject). I also had a very large format project beginning the next day and was dreading slogging through it with plain old HDDs. So I had two choices:

1. Go the (much) cheaper route — around $300 — and replace the drives in the array with two new ones of the same, ye olden tymes HDD variety.

2. Take the plunge and buy SSD’s at around $400 a pop.

I’ve made the mistake in the past of skimping and then regretting it later and I am finally starting to learn my lesson on that one. After all, computers are the central element in my professional life and how I make my living. With that in mind it’s easier to justify the large expenditure, as long as the performance gain is substantial enough. And was it ever. I’ve fallen for performance gimmicks and hype here and there in the past and have been disappointed time and again. This wasn’t one of those times.

When I built this particular machine I decided to go big with the processor and got what was at the time a the state-of-the-art Intel Q9650 Core 2 Duo Extreme. I didn’t really skimp on the rest of the components either, it’s definitely a solid rig. Still, I always felt it wasn’t living up to it’s full potential, especially considering the coin I dropped on it originally. Lately, when things are moving slow or just not acting right, I’ve caught myself considering building a new machine. Considering how recently I built the thing and how much it cost, this is just ridiculous. This was supposed to last me a while and be — to a certain degree — future-proof (which, in the computer world, means about 3-4 years). So it sort of came down to spending the $2500 to build a new tower or spending $1200 to make the existing one faster. In light of my experiences with the SSD and my Macbook Pro, I came to the conclusion that the best course of action was to replace the old HDD’s with SSD’s.

I ended up settling on a three drive configuration: One dedicated drive for the OS (Windows 7 RTM 7600 — which has been working out amazingly well) and two drives for the RAID0 array. The Windows drive is clocking in at around 245MB/s (over six times as fast as the average I/O on my old HDD) with a .1ms seek time (which is off the charts fast). The RAID array with just two drives is running around 480MB/s which is significantly faster than the four HDDs I had in there before.

All the numbers are great but there’s a lot more to the story than just raw I/O performance. The drives have removed the one big bottleneck that was left in my system, allowing all of the other components to reach their full potential. The performance increases I’ve seen go far beyond what you might expect from just a faster disk drive. It’s like a whole new computing experience, I feel more able to experiment and a lot more confident about overall stability. I almost feel like the computer used to choke on big data read/writes and would just finally crash. With the new drives it just rips through anything and never really hits that tipping point where things lock up. This new found stability could also be due to the fact that I installed the final RTM version of Windows 7 when I put in the new drives. I had been using the beta, which although very stable in it’s own right, didn’t quite compare to what I am experiencing now.

The bottom line is that SSDs are the real deal. Yes, they’re still expensive, but if you work with computers and very large files, you owe it to yourself and your workflow to look into what they have to offer. If your rig is feeling sluggish, getting a SSD to perk it up might actually turn out be a bargain when compared to the price of a new machine. Of course, a more pragmatic person might wait another year or so until the numbers come down, but I didn’t really have that luxury this time around. I’ll be posting the detailed data next week once I get a chance to do some more tests. The next step is to split that Windows drive and install OS X. If only they made Sonar for Mac I’d make the switch.

Braun Catalogues

Posted by Scott

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Some very nice vintage Braun Catalogues from Thimet. Looks like Braun’s influence on Apple extends beyond just hardware; I’m pretty sure that last one came with my Macbook. The site also has some great shots of classic Braun calculators (bottom of page) –one of which you will recognize if you’ve ever used the iPhone calculator. My favorite will always be the ET11 though, which clearly influenced the Omron 86R’s design.