Digital Doo-Dads

June 23, 2009

Every time I listen to a digital gadget at the local music store, I am overwhelmed by the mushiness of the patches. Or, maybe a better way to put it is that I am underwhelmed with the usefulness of the gadget. If you assume that the factory patches are the best that it can sound, you probably won’t buy it. Be assured that these factory patches aren’t representative, and are probably almost the worst that it can sound.

Plug a guitar into the latest whiz-bang modeler, select any of the factory patches, and you will assaulted by the combination of every effect known to mankind. All at once. With NO dynamics. How can the people who make these things go to all the trouble to “model” all of those vintage effects pedals and amps, and then have NO CLUE as to what they should sound like when you use them?

This holds true on the guitar modelers as well as digital synthesizers. I’m not saying that they CAN’T sound good. Some of them are capable of sounding very good indeed. It’s just that, if you expect to unpack the thing, select a factory preset, and have it sound good in your band’s mix, you are in for a big disappointment.

There are examples of this in all of them, but one standard factory preset on guitar modelers that seems to transcend brand name is the heavily distorted AND highly compressed patch, with a ton of fizzy distortion, always a lot of chorus, some reverb, and a really scooped EQ. It might sound fun in a music store through some little transistor amp played at 60dB, but it’s not going to work through a 4×12 cabinet, crunched tube amp, played at 110dB, and it’s CERTAINLY not going to fit in the mix. Because of all of the extra compression and time-based effects such as chorus and flanging they always add, there will be NO articulation and dynamics.

But, if you build your own patches from scratch, you can come up with some good sounds. Don’t expect them to sound exactly like your guitar through a cranked Marshall with a pair of 4×12 cabinets, for example, but you can create some patches that sound good in their own right, are quite useful, and will sit well in a mix.

The same holds true for digital synthesizers. You sit down in the local music store to try one out, and every factory patch sounds lush, rich, and full. And almost totally useless in a band setting.

However, if you take the time to learn how to build your own patches, you will probably find that the raw samples and waveforms are pretty usable, and some very good sounding patches can be built from scratch, which are extremely good, are more realistic, and will work well in a mix.

There is something else to consider in the synthesizer patches that claim to be realistic samples of real instruments – and that is that they almost always far less high end and upper midrange than in the real instrument. This adds to the difficulty of getting your instrument to fit in the mix. There are other limitations which, in my mind, are design flaws. One of these is the stubborn refusal by synthesizer makers to put effects in a logical place in the signal chain. A great example of this, and the one that is a huge limitation on Roland synthesizers such as the JV-1080 and XP-50, is Roland’s insistence that a Leslie is an “effect” rather than a “speaker.” As anyone who has ever played a Hammond Organ knows, a Leslie is a SPEAKER, and is therefore the last thing in the audio chain – AFTER the amplifier. The Roland Leslie simulator is not too bad, but by putting it so early in the chain, they’ve made it almost useless. It is such things that make building good patches a real challenge sometimes.

While you can get some patches that will, in a mix, sound “kind of like” another instrument, such as, say, a trumpet; there are some instruments which you will never get close to, no matter how much time you spend creating a patch. A great example of this would be, of course, guitar.

So, know the limitations of the technology and your equipment, take the time to build your own patches, and you will get some very usable patches. Don’t expect to fool anyone into thinking that they are listening to a real vintage synth, a real orchestra, or a real guitar. Just get sounds that will accomplish the same purpose, and that sound good in the mix.

After all, the mix is what’s important. Nobody cares what an instrument sounds like soloed, because nobody but you can solo it. Everyone else in the world will only hear it in the mix.

Free time, Linux Audio, and Songwriting?

February 4, 2009

It’s been a while since I wrote much of anything. I still keep an eye on the server, but it just seems like I haven’t been able to find the free time to sit down and write much of anything. Two things have appeared that have eaten ALL my spare time lately: A PS2, and a new version of Rosegarden.

Someone gave us a PS2 for Christmas. I played a couple of the games popular today and was pretty underwhelmed. We got a couple of educational games for Paul and he likes them a lot, but as far as I was concerned, I couldn’t see all the interest. I’d see people talking about various games but just figured they weren’t for me. And then, I found a game called ‘Call of Duty.’ The first time I tried it out, before I knew it, 2 hours had gone by. No matter what, every time I sit down with it thinking that I’d play it for 20 minutes or so, before I know it, hours melt away.

As for Rosegarden, it’s at least a much more productive endeavor. For those of you who don’t know, Rosegarden is a multitrack MIDI and audio recording program for Linux, much like Sonar is for Windows. I have Sonar, and it served me well until a couple of things came along. Firstly, I started the web page and blog, which meant that if I wanted to use Sonar, I’d have to take down the server, reboot into Windows, and then when I was done, boot back into Linux, and make sure the server came back up just fine. In the meantime, the web pages and blog would be unavailable, which is something I wanted to avoid if I could, out of my (probably unnecessary) determination to keep them running 24 hrs/day. It was a nuisance, to say the least, and one which conspired to prevent me from using Sonar very often. And if I didn’t use Sonar, that meant that I wasn’t writing songs, or working on recording demo tracks of ones I’d already written. It took so long to get everything set up to do anything that I just tended not to do that very often. And then I started having even more problems than usual with Windows. I had learned my lesson early on about allowing automatic updates, and had turned those off, but one day, my stupid Windows decided to install some “updates” anyway, and those resulted in me no longer having administrator privileges on my own computer. That was a real pain to fix, and really irritated me. A couple of months later, the same thing happened, and Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, forced another update on me, which totally screwed up audio on my machine. So, no longer was it merely inconvenient to do anything with music on it, it was no longer very productive. I had pops and crackles, and my 2GB machine now claimed that it didn’t have enough memory to load the very same soundfonts I had been using for years. Since I once again didn’t have “Administrator” privileges on my own computer, thanks to Microsoft, fixing it was a real burden. With my bizarre work schedule, where my “spare time” might only be between 2 and 3am, it was just too much of a pain trying to do anything, and trying to keep up with Windows’ repeated insistence on breaking itself was just too much. I started looking for programs for Linux that would do everything I needed. I found quite a few that were available, and started trying them.

I found a couple of command-line multi-track recorders. Now, I’m not a HUGE fan of GUIs, but trying to control a multi-track recording program from the command-line is not something I really want to experience.

I found Ardour, which is a multitrack DAW (audio only). It was REALLY nice, and worked well, but I needed MIDI for composition (yes MIDI had spoiled me, and I found that trying to write with audio-only tools wasn’t working for me anymore). While it’s possible to sync it with various Linux MIDI sequencers, it was cumbersome, to say the least.

I found QTractor, which is audio and MIDI, and it worked really well, but it was lacking some features I really needed. It is written by one person, and he just can’t add features fast enough to make it a viable equivalent to Sonar.

I found Rosegarden, which did everything I needed, but had some bugs. A week or so ago, a new version came out so I decided to give it a try. I got it compiled and started testing it, and found out that the really irritating bugs had been squashed. I tried various things with it, and found out that I can have it running, plus a couple of software synths, in addition to the web server, blog program, the email server, and all the other things I run regularly (Firefox, Thunderbird, etc), and never use any virtual memory (swap file). Heck, on Windows, running Sonar with virtually nothing else running, and all other services turned off, my 2.6GHz machine was almost maxed out and using a LOT of virtual memory! I’m still fine-tuning the various parameters in the program, but so far, it looks very promising. I’m actually writing music again, which is what I’ve been wanting to do for months.

All of this means that time I was spending listening to what the thieves, crooks, and tyrants in government are doing is taken up by, in one case, something MUCH more productive, and in the other case, by something that is a total waste of time (but addictive). It’s something that I don’t think anyone needs me to point out, and most of the time it’s something that it seems like nobody really even cares about.

My blog is something that I use to simply get things off my chest. If I hear one of our so-called “representatives” say something totally inane, or just simply wrong, which covers 99.9% of everything they say, I would write in my blog to get it off my chest.

Other times, I would just write about things I had learned in my over 30 years of doing pro-audio and recording.

So, in a nutshell, I’ll keep writing in the blog, but I’m spending more time actually writing MUSIC than I have for almost a year, and playing with Rosegarden.

(For those of you unfamiliar with Linux audio applications, there are MANY – probably more than are available for WinXP. Some are excellent. Some are odd. Some are buggy. But, all are free. Linux itself is free, of course. You can put together a system consisting of the O/S itself, an Audio/MIDI recording program such as Rosegarden, a softsynth (QSynth/Fluidsynth), some VST/DSSI synths and effects plugins, a sampler (Linuxsampler), and whatever else you need, for a grand total of $0. And the hardware requirements are FAR less than what you would need for Windows.)