VIVALDI is the new ROSSINI (Part 2)

In which we upgrade our DAW and experiment with PCIe-PCI adapter cards.

ROSSINI has four internal hard drives:

  • C: (SSD 256G) OS and applications
  • D: (SSD 256G) audio projects
  • E: (HD 1TB) backups, rips, temp
  • H: (HD 600G), mp3 library; leftover stuff from the last DAW migration 8 years ago

Every time I upgrade my DAW I end up with a new primary OS drive and then I move over the drives from the older machine. ROSSINI was the third generation, and only some of the drives are transitioning to VIVALDI. E: and H: still have gobs of free space.

VIVALDI has a 512 GB SSD as the primary drive (it's a tiny thing mounted directly on the motherboard!) and room for three additional full-size drives.

First up, some file management to back up the contents of D: to H: and also put everything I'll need (installers, product keys, license files, sound libraries) on E:.

Then, D: and E: transferred cleanly into the new chassis:

image

I also upgrade the power supply, replacing the no-brand Dell 450W unit with a brand new SMART 600W from Thermaltake. I purchased this from PC Plus in town. Support your local retailers, guys.

(I always upgrade the PSU in my DAW computers, but this time I had an additional reason that I'll get to later.)

There's a free bay on the bottom left, but I'll keep C: and H: in ROSSINI for now to serve as a backup machine for now, and eventually as a perfectly serviceable general-purpose PC. (The 4-core i7-920 is no slouch, really, and it has 16 GB RAM.)

Next Step: Powering up; cleaning up the Windows 10 Pro default installation (I can't believe the number of options you have to disable to make it bearable); and installing my suite of audio applications, VSTs, and libraries.

That took about a full day.

Now it's time to see how the Focusrite 6i6 USB 2.0 audio interface performs (see previous post for details of testing in ROSSINI):

Computer: VIVALDI
Interface: Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 USB2.0
 

Buffer Size ASIO Reported RTL Measured RTL
----------- --------------------- ------------
256 25.5 ms 1102 samples 0.037 sec
128 13.1 ms 578 samples 0.020 sec
64 8.2 ms 362 samples 0.013 sec

The RTL latency tested out exactly the same as ROSSINI! I was expecting better performance but it seems that RTL is not affected by processor speed or core count.

However, if you recall, playback of a large project on ROSSINI at 256 did result in clicks and pops. On VIVALDI, the same project played back smoothly at 128 but started clicking at 64.

Bottom line: It appears I could use the external USB 2.0 Focusrite 6i6 on VIVALDI and get almost the same RTL performance as the ECHO Layla 3G internal PCI card on ROSSINI. I'd call it acceptable.

But we're not done yet. A few days earlier, a timely post from John Kenn on the Cakewalk SONAR Hardware forum suggested an interesting alternative: using a PCIe -> PCI adapter card. Perhaps we could use the ECHO Layla in VIVALDI after all?

Checking the specs on the Layla PCI card: it's a half-height/low profile universal voltage PCI card (3.3V/5V).

Worth experimenting with, I think. Ahead of time, I ordered this PCI Express to PCI Adapter Card from StarTech.com for $60, and it arrived just before VIVALDI was shipped:

image

One catch: I needed a spare molex power connector to supply additional voltage to the adapter card. The generic PSU in the new XPS 8930 did not have any molex leads!

No problem. I was going to upgrade the PSU anyway, I'd just make sure I got one with standard molex as well as the usual MB, FAN, and SATA connectors. The SMART 600W from Thermaltake fit the requirements.

The adaptor card fit snugly into a spare PCIe x4 slot on the motherboard:

image

It's sufficiently distant from the GPU fan that I don't think there'll be an issue there. (I don't plan to drive the GPU too hard anyway).

The ECHO PCI card piggy-backs on to the adapter card without trouble:

image

In the picture above it looks as though the PCI card is having trouble sitting firmly in the PCI socket, but that's on me - when I took the photo I hadn't firmly located the two cards together. It's tight, but they mate well together without using excessive force.

In fact, I recommend connecting the two cards together outside the chassis and then inserting them as one unit into the PCIe slot.  Just for kicks, I'll show you the result:

image

Yeah, that's not going to work as-is. The full-size back plate on the ECHO PCI card is going to have to be modified, or...

The solution is to remove the back-plate from the PCI card, and swap the back-plate on the adapter card with an alternative one that ships with it:

image

Without a back-plate of its own, the PCI card has more movement than I'm comfortable with, but luckily there's a lip on the alternative back-plate that the card can rest against, and a convenient hole in the card that I could use to hold the PCI card in place using a little bolt with washers on either side.

Nice, just like a bought one.

Final assembly:

image

Not bad.

Power up; install ECHO drivers (they still work well in Windows 10 despite only being certified for Windows 7).

Works perfectly. Measurements are IDENTICAL to ROSSINI:

Computer: VIVALDI
Interface: ECHO Layla 3G PCI via PCIe adapter

Buffer Size ASIO Reported RTL Measured RTL
----------- --------------------- ------------
256 13.7 ms 602 samples 0.015 sec
128 7.8 ms 346 samples 0.010 sec
64 4.9 ms 218 samples 0.007 sec

That's fantastic. Thanks John Kenn for the suggestion to investigate PCIe-PCI adapters. Apparently they work.

VIVALDI is the new ROSSINI

This little piggy, thinks he deserves an(other) upgrade. - The Prodigal Sounds, "The God Program"

"VIVALDI" is the name I have given to my new Dell XPS 8930 tower. It's a i7-8700 6-core processor with 32 GB RAM because, why not.

It replaces - or will replace - "ROSSINI" which is a Dell Studio XPS 9000, with an i7-920 4-core 8 GB RAM (recently upgraded to 16 GB).

Long-time readers will be experiencing deja vu at this point.

image3

PCI or USB? Or Firewire?

ROSSINI has been super-stable for me over the last 8 years with a PCI-buss audio interface from ECHO, the Layla 3G. 8 inputs, 8 outputs, SPDIF I/O and MIDI... it's the perfect interface for me.  Ideally, I'd just move the audio card over to the new computer, along with the hard drives.

However, the new boy does not have a PCI card slot. (Good luck finding a modern motherboard that has one!) It only has PCIe, which are smaller and not plug-compatible with the older standard.

I could go on a rant here about how it's been a long, long time since computer hardware companies gave a damn about backward-compatibility... but nobody's got time for that.

I was prepared to say goodbye to my beloved Layla, if only I could find an alternative that worked. Not being able to afford a PCIe based interface from RME, I decided to experiment. USB 2.0-based audio interfaces are super-popular right now, because they are relatively cheap, and computers have become fast enough to handle the overhead of pushing the bits around.

I found a good price on a mid-range USB 2.0 device, the Focusrite Scarlett 6i6, 2nd Gen. They've had pretty good reviews, but I still didn't really have an understanding of the relative real-world performance between modern USB-based and PCI/PCIe interfaces.

"Performance" can mean several things in the context of digital audio interfaces:

  • digital-to-analog conversation accuracy
  • signal-to-noise ratios (noise or hiss generated in the analog circuitry)
  • data transfer latency (how fast can you get audio in and out of the computer?)

DAC quality is probably the least of our problems, it's kind of a solved problem at any reasonable level of affordability.

S/N ratios are interesting because you definitely get what you pay for, especially when amplifying low input levels (such as required of microphone pre-amplifiers). That's why you'll see advertising blurbs talk about how "best in class" the mic-pres are on interfaces that offer such features, but no-one really cares about the DACs.

For my purposes, the ECHO Layla's two microphone inputs have done me just fine, and this is from an interface that was introduced back in a time when having any mic pres  at all was a big deal, let alone who designed them or what the specs were.

I'm really only interested in measuring and comparing the total "round-trip" latency (RTL) of the interface: How much of a delay is introduced by the analog input and output circuits; the Digital to Analog conversion stage, and how the bits are pushed through the buss, in and out of the CPU and hard disks?

There's more than one way to skin this particular cat (ASIO? WASAPI? WDM?) , so to keep things manageable, I'm comparing two ASIO interfaces, and just varying the buffer size to see what we get. (smaller buffer size = shorter delay; larger buffer size = longer delay but more stability)

Before I took ROSSINI apart, I took some measurements. The ASIO driver can report the latency to the audio software but you can also measure it by feeding an output of the interface back into an input; recording a transient (i.e. a snare hit) and then measuring the delay between the original audio clip and the resulting recording. By swiping in the time-line in SONAR/Cakewalk,  I can read off a measurement in seconds:

image8

Results:

Computer: ROSSINI
Interface: ECHO Layla 3G PCI

Buffer Size ASIO Reported RTL Measured RTL
----------- --------------------- ------------
256 13.7 ms 602 samples 0.015 sec
128 7.8 ms 346 samples 0.010 sec
64 4.9 ms 218 samples 0.007 sec



Interface: Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 USB2.0

Buffer Size ASIO Reported RTL Measured RTL
----------- --------------------- ------------
256 25.5 ms 1102 samples 0.037 sec
128 13.1 ms 578 samples 0.020 sec
64 8.2 ms 362 samples 0.013 sec


Some observations:

  • The measured RTL delay is slightly more than what the ASIO driver is reporting;
  • It takes the USB-based 6i6 roughly twice as long to push audio data around the loop than the PCI-based Layla3G.

Conclusions:

  • Perhaps there's another layer of processing outside of what the driver can measure. Disk read/write?
  • 11 ms is right around the point at which the delay is imperceptible to humans, and in order to get that on the Focusrite 6i6 I would have to reduce the buffer size down to an unstable level.

A less scientific test was next: I tried loading up one of my projects and playing back through the Focusrite 6i6. Even at a buffer size of 256 , I was getting a regular click or stutter every 8 seconds or so. However I have to acknowledge the caveat that this was not a normal configuration - i was reading the project data from a different location than normal:  H: drive is spinning-metal hard drive and not my usual D: SSD audio drive. So I am not drawing any conclusions from that test. It would have been nice if it had played back flawlessly under those conditions, though, wouldn't it?

Next step is to see how the USB-based interface performs in the new DAW, with substantially more CPU power available to it. My understanding is that a higher-powered CPU will affect the performance of a USB-based interface more than a PCI- or PCIe-based one, due to the different amount of work performed in software for USB vs. the PCI architecture.

June/July - Kill Your Darlings; Check your Sources

It’s definitely time I posted something here. Many things have been happening.

“You will be… upgraded”

Windows 1803 forced its way on to my audio workstation, like a door-to-door Cyberman, despite my best efforts to avoid it. The only side-effect I’ve noticed has been that my computer can no longer come out of “sleep mode”. This is very annoying, and I’m not the only one to have the problem.

It is possible that the update is not 100% compatible with the BIOS on my now 8-year old unsupported Dell Studio XPS 9000 tower. That seems to be the consensus.

I can live with a computer with insomnia. It boots in 30 seconds, and I usually ensured that all apps are closed before putting it to sleep anyway, so it’s hard to get too annoyed about this.

Speaking of upgrades

I’ve been working on the next album. In this age of Pandora and Spotify, the idea of releasing an “album of songs” might be considered passé , with the caveat that, if it is released on vinyl, then you get a pass for being a neo-hipster, or something.

I’m not sure if I’m working towards a physical CD or not, but as a firm believer in pretentious  “concept albums”, I am planning a collection of songs, some of which have a common theme.

That theme is “upgrades will fuck you up”. My experience described above is just another data point in a very busy scatter plot.

For several years the working title for this new album has been “Other Points of View” but I think that will change. I have something in mind but I will let it percolate before committing.

This month (actually last month but I’m running late) I came up with an idea for a short song to open the album. It’s a five-voice chorale that, I admit, is somewhat inspired by the opening track on Rick Wakeman’s No Earthly Connection but I think it is its own thing. Call it an homage at most.

I had a couple of weeks away from work this month, and furiously worked out the harmonies and sang the parts and I’m currently finalizing the production.

The idea is for the 30 second track to start out like an old-timey wax recording and gradually progress to pristine digital stereo, thus manifesting the “upgrade” concept. However If I don’t like the results, I’ll just go for a clean 44.1/24 production straight through.

Tik Tok, Tik Tok… The cycle renews

“Kill your darlings”. Who said this? It’s not just good advice for aspiring writers, whomever said it first.

The other track I’ve been working on this month has had a more tortuous history than most. I’ve tried to produce it “for reals” at least four times prior to this, but for whatever reason, I’ve never succeeded in completing it. I’m not sure why. It dates back to 2002 which actually makes it one of my recent projects. Yeah, laugh.

When I took stock of where this project was at, I found numerous project folders, in numerous locations, all in various degrees of completeness. Each of them substantially different in content and each contained some really nice ideas and arrangements. Some had vocals; others did not, but had good instrumentation or solos or other things.

In 2012 my brother visited from New Zealand and I had optimistic thoughts of having him laying down some keyboard tracks – it’d be just like old times!

Alas, that’s a Big Ask, and although we had some fun for an afternoon, it ended up stalling that version of the project because I wanted to keep as much of Walter’s contributions as possible, and it didn’t really work out.

I collated the various project files under a common parent and took stock:

image

Then I worked through each project, taking notes on what was working in each one. There is no way everything could be included in a final project. I began to appreciate again why it has been so hard to work on this project and how I got to this point.

Too many good ideas. Some of them have to be jettisoned. I have to “kill my darlings”, even though they are special.

And perhaps this can only be done after we’ve gained some perspective. At this point I have confidence that pruning down a composition can actually produce a better final result; and also I’m confident that deleting a “really cool section with great instrumentation and performances” doesn’t mean that I won’t come up with something just as good or better in the future.

So I took the version of the project from 2015 and viciously pruned it back, keeping the drums and some guitar. Then, after listening to the very earliest versions from 2003, I identified what made them sound good  - it was a really crunchy bass sound.

So I re-recorded the bass, this time foregoing pride of finger picking, and used a pick and the neck pickup to get a kind of John Wetton-y thing. (Rabbit hole alert. This is good too. Arghh.)

Then I went back to 2012 and salvaged the “hammond” and rhodes… figured out what they were playing and re-recorded them.

OK now we’re cooking. The awesome synth solo on the 2010 project is worth keeping but let’s see if we can use the Novation PEAK for it instead because the Roland Fantom is packed away in the garage and, oh, using a different instrument means that we need to perform it differently… it’s still good. Better.

Seeing as I had the microphone out I’ve been working out harmony vocals and re-recording them as well.

At this point, I have to transfer the new vocal tracks from my temporary tracking project into the 2018 version, then finish up lead guitar… and we may have a winner.

After years of threatening to invade, and then backing off…. the Toks may have actually Invaded.

The invention of a new piece, enabled their construction
A genetic constitution was figured out
Tools could be mounted: diversity of function
Advantage evolution: opposable snout

- The Toks Invade Bogland

Group Effort

After videoing the process of recording a bass track using the Chapman Stick,  as an experiment I did the same for the next couple of tasks: Replacing the previous organ track with a one-take performance on the Roland VK-8; and replacing the lead synth track with a performance using the Novation PEAK synthesizer.

In both cases I'm replacing a virtual instrument (VST Plugin) with a real, live, instrument performance, although I admit the distinction is a bit fuzzy and arbitrary. Whatever.

Why stop there? Indeed. So I re-recorded some guitar tracks just for fun. Now we have enough material to make an interesting (?) video. Also, an opportunity to get more into the KdenLive video editing application.

Problem #1 is getting everything in sync.

Problem #2 is deciding how to put the thing together. There are a lot of possible solutions, with varying degrees of "feels right". I ended up with this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggS9ilYbPuo

Spring Creators Update

This post has nothing to do with new versions of Windows 10, except perhaps for the delay in getting it published. I don't know what the story is with 1803 or 1804 or whatever it turns out to be, but I'm sure Microsoft are working hard to prepare it for release.

I'm also sure it will be packed with features that I, as a "Creator", don't give a sh*t about. Just like the last "Creator" release.

So, what's new this month? Quite a bit, actually:

  • I installed Reaper 5.77 and watched most of Kenny Gioia's video tutorials;
  • I migrated one of my "works in progress" from SONAR into a Reaper project.

This was actually pretty straight-forward, considering. Creating the empty project in Reaper was trivial - all the VST instruments and effects are available, and I haven't used very many plugins that are locked to SONAR-only.

The MIDI data can be exported as a MIDI Type 1 file, which keeps the tracks distinct and retains the time offset of each clip. Be warned, however, that muted clips will be exported as unmuted. So there is some preparation required of separating the tracks so that muted and un-muted are on different tracks.

Then, you can open a .mid file in Reaper in a separate project tab, and select all clips in a track and paste them into the new project, positioning the paste point at the start of the timeline.

.WAV data is migrated differently, using SONAR's export as Broadcast Wave feature. Again, muted clips need some special handling if you want to retain them, because they will be exported as silent (empty) clips.

I plan to continue working on this project in Reaper and see how it goes.

What else happened?

Uh, okay. I'll be honest and say, up until this moment, I'd never heard of BandLab. They seem to be some kind of cloud-based music collaboration outfit. But apparently their pockets are big enough to allow them to expand their market and include a "real" digital audio workstation in their product range.

Releasing it as a free download for registered users? That's... quite cool.

So:

  • I created a BandLab account;
  • Installed the BandLab Assistant;
  • Downloaded and installed the new "Cakewalk By BandLab" DAW.

It just worked. After tweaking some of the VST search paths, that is. Any project I chose to load up, opened without errors and played back correctly. However, it was about this time I realized it was 64-bit only.

Up until now I've been using the 32-bit version of SONAR, exclusively. All my VST plugins were 32-bit and things just worked, so I left it that way. If I was going to go ahead with Cakewalk By BandLab (from now on I'll just call it Cakewalk), I would have to do a little work. 32-bit plugins are loaded and used, but there's a translation layer involved that, ideally, I didn't want to use.

  • I installed SONAR Platinum x64, including the bundled VST plugins, ensuring to check the [x] 64 bit box instead of the [ ] 32-bit one.
  • I opened the Plugin Browser in Cakewalk and made a note of all the 32-bit plugins, categorizing them as "installed but never use" and "installed and definitely used"
  • I re-installed all the "definitely used" plugins and selected the 64-bit version where possible
  • I removed all obsolete 32-bit VST files into a "retired" directory so that they would no longer be detected by the DAW

This left me with a pretty small list of 32-bit VST plugins that I've used historically and wish to keep on hand :

Instruments:

  • Taurus (these days I have a patch on the Novation PEAK...)
  • 4Front Rhodes (still has a nice compressed tone, I could replace but it sounds good as-is)
  • esLine String (I will replace this with the Arturia Solina V probably)
  • MinimogueVA (these days I have a patch on the Novation PEAK...)

Effects:

  • VC-64 Vintage Channel Compressor (I can replace this eventually)
  • LFX-1310 (Used for "vintage radio voice" and I could replace it eventually)
  • Amplitude 3 (just in case I've used it on a Bass track)
  • Glimmerverb (a really really nice shimmer reverb, could replace but hard to duplicate)

With the 64-bit upgrade process completed, it's back to business as usual. I'll stick with Cakewalk for most projects, for now, but I'll continue using Reaper for that one project, just to see how it goes.

I have a back-log of tasks to work through, and first up is re-recording some solo synth lines in "Listen", using the Novation PEAK hardware synthesizer, which is awesome.

A Reaper video for everything - mapping Sonar features

Kenny Gioia may be one of the primary reasons the Reaper Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is so popular. For any specific feature you can name, there is apparently a YouTube video by Kenny that demonstrates and explains it. He has. An odd way. Of speaking. That is disconcerting at first. But after a while, you get used to it, and I find it very easy to absorb the information Kenny is relating.

For my own benefit, I'm going to keep an index of videos I've found useful when researching how to map a specific SONAR feature to Reaper's functionality. At least, that was my intention when I started.

Master Bus, and Track vs. Buss in general:

Track Folders:

Routing:

Working with external MIDI sound modules:

  • External Keyboard or Synth in Reaper (except this isn't working for me yet!)
  • Update: It *does* work but I have no idea what I did. Maybe the input monitor button was involved? Must research further.

Arrangement, Markers, and Time-base Rulers

Automation:

Time signature changes:

Take management, and comping:

Customizing the editing experience:

Vocals:

Driving a multi-timbral VSTi with multiple tracks (e.g. Split tracks for drums)

"Fit to improvisation":

Drum Maps:

Groove clips and time-stretching:

Export to WAV (rendering a mix):

MIDI Editing

Noise reduction:

 

I should probably stop adding things to this list, because after a while it's just going to look like the complete index of Kenny's videos on his site, here.

Practice ‘til your hands hurt

I’m having some difficulty making progress compositionally on a couple of new pieces, so I decided it was time to go back to some mostly-recorded works and see what needed to be done to get them ship-shape for album #2.

I should probably document my manifesto for album #2, but one of the tenets is to go back to the first demos for each piece, and respect the original instrumentation, if it makes sense to do so.

For the piece currently known as “Listen”, the bass riffs were developed shortly after I acquired my Chapman Stick, and certainly the early demos all featured it. So why, I have to ask, does my current work-in-progress project use a regular bass instead?

So I take out the Stick case from the back of the closet, and give it a good cleaning and a new set of strings (standard 10-string tuning). Usually I spend a long time trying to find the perfect recorded tone, but this time it came together pretty quickly (see below).

Another tenet in my manifesto is to avoid building up tracks by stitching together multiple takes. I’m not normally a “one-take” kind of guy, so this means, practice. And in the case of the Chapman Stick, which I hadn’t seriously played for a couple of years at least, lots of practice.

Finally, I think I got it down. In one take.

Here’s a little video I made while (re)recording the bass:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9mB38yCU6D0

The backing track is not final; it’s a special mix that keeps things simple and un-distracting.

Now, with respect to that tone, here’s how it is achieved in the DAW:

image

I’m recording a mono track (#6 in the picture) direct into computer’s audio interface via a Dual Channel PRO ST Preamp, to buffer and merge the two channels from the Stick into a single mono signal.

This mono signal is then routed in-the-box to an Aux Track “Stick FX” that contains an instance of Guitar Rig 4 virtual amplifier. A pre-FX Send duplicates the signal to a second Aux Track that allows me to mix in some of the clean, un-effected sound of the Stick.

Cakewalk is dead; Long Live SONAR

My Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) of choice is Cakewalk’s SONAR. In 2017, Cakewalk (formerly Twelve Tone Systems) were celebrating their 30th year in business. Over the years, the “Cakewalk” MIDI sequencer evolved to support digital audio and matured to became a very capable music production environment. Eventually the company took the name of its flagship sequencer, and the DAW continued under the “SONAR” name.

image

I first encountered Cakewalk Pro Audio in 1994 when my wife-to-be (long story) sent me a copy. I think it was version 5. It very quickly replaced Passport’s Master Tracks Pro * as my studio workhorse, especially after digital audio recording features were added. I’ve been a loyal, paid-up user ever since.

In 2008 the company was effectively acquired by Roland, which in 2013 subsequently sold their shares to Gibson.

In November 2017, Gibson effectively killed the company by stopping ongoing development and reducing the staff to the minimum required to keep the servers running.

We can guess that Gibson may have tried to find another owner for the company, and failed; or perhaps just decided that it was better to write it off as a loss for this financial year.

Either way, we’re not going to see any updates to the SONAR product in the foreseeable future, despite the fantasies being spun out by some on the user forum.

The company website still exists, and you can find links to “Buy SONAR” but they all eventually lead to the cease-of-business announcement and the statement that new purchases are no longer possible. Documentation and downloads of historical updates and resources are, for the moment, still available. You’d have to be an idiot to think that this will always be so, however.

So where does that leave folks like me?

  • Switch to another brand of DAW, immediately
  • Stay with SONAR for the time being

I think I’m totally in the second group. If I were to switch, it would be to PreSonus Studio One, because I already own it (I use it for the excellent Project page for mastering).

Negatives:

  • If you’re not happy with 2017.10, well, you’re out of luck waiting for changes.
  • A re-install will require access to online authentication servers (at least until a promised work-around is made available).
  • If you find an existing bug that doesn’t have a work-around, you’re out of luck getting it addressed.

Positives:

  • It’s not like SONAR is going to suddenly stop working;
  • No new features means no new bugs;
  • As far as we know, there aren’t any existing show-stopper bugs without workarounds;
  • Total mastery of the software is possible; current techniques won’t become obsolete;
  • We can finally create an up-to-date knowledge base of tips, tricks, and workarounds.

I don’t regret the time or money I’ve invested in Cakewalk SONAR up until this point. To throw up my hands and abandon it? That would be throwing away that investment. So for now, call me a happy SONAR user.

Onward, and create!

* Oh my goodness, they are still a Thing.

The VAXMIDI by Infinite Response

In 2015 a Kickstarter was created for a project called “VaxMIDI” – a MIDI keyboard controller with attractive features, including polyphonic note pressure detection or “aftertouch”, a feature that traditionally has been difficult and expensive to produce, and/or protected by patents.

The second really interesting thing about this project is that it would be shipped in kitset form, to keep costs to a minimum.

The folks behind this project were reputable (read more about Infinite Response and the VAX77 keyboard). Strictly speaking, I did not need another keyboard controller in my studio, but as an engineer/musician, the project intrigued me.

I backed the project at the top tier, in for a 8-octave unit.

After the project reached its funding goal, we had to wait for the kit to be developed and manufactured before eventually receiving our kits. I was in the second wave of beta testers, and early 2017 I came home to a large box on the front doorstep.

I took over the dining room table for several months, assembling and testing each of the four 2-octave units.

image  image

Each base is an extruded aluminum section with a complicated cross section, supplying rails for the keys to swivel and rest on, and a clever mechanism of hammers that are flipped up by each key, and pass a slotted blade through an optical detector.

The aftertouch sensor is a long slot that widens as the blade is pulled through the sensor as the key is depressed more firmly.

There is quite a few places where this can go wrong: The sensor strip (of 22 detectors) can be misaligned; the distance between the hammer rail and the sensor base can be too high or too low; the felt on which the key steel rests can be too high… all these things have to be just right in order to position the slots correctly for the note and pressure detection to work correctly.

Additionally, there are challenges in assembling each base into the chassis and connecting the system circuit boards so that it stays together in a robust and stable configuration. Also, there are bugs in the firmware such that spurious patch changes were being emitted during testing.

Bottom line: My assembled unit is back in its big brown box, in my garage, until such time as we get some updates on how to address these issues. It’s looking more and more as though they will not be forthcoming. I think the company has long burnt through their Kickstarter funding, and combined with family health issues, I don’t foresee this project coming to a good conclusion.

That’s sad, because it shows a lot of promise. Technically, I think it can work, but it is really sensitive to manufacturing tolerances, and the skill and ability of the assembly technician (i.e. me) to overcome them only goes so far.

Re-releases and Resets

You may notice that things have changed color since your last visit. I got tired of the blue and decided a change would be a good idea for the next phase of existence.

Steel Tree 2.0

Okay, the biggest news is that I have created a 2.0 version of the Fruit of the Steel Tree album, as a digital release on BandCamp. The songs are also available to stream on this site - I’ve updated the Production Notes and you can read about the changes there.

Album #2

Album #2 is taking longer than expected, due to reasons that aren’t worth discussing. I have one track 100% completed, and I’m working on a couple of others that have been around for years but have never been finished. I have another long piece in demo form, 70% of it anyway. And finally, another large piece that is in the process of being written and I’m feeling very challenged by it both compositionally and thematically and it’s been hard to make progress on it.

Bottom line: I’m not giving up. There’s too much here that I value to throw in the bin. In order to get Steel Tree finished, I had to get serious and “reset” my activity and treated it like a project, requiring management and discipline.

I need another reset, to not despair of how long things are taking and instead satisfy myself with continual, gradual progress. And also, I’ll blog about it. The studio diary lives again (hopefully).