Sunday, May 21, 2017

Maker Faire 2017: Begin the Begin

And now the Maker Faire rant.

Bay Area Maker Faire (this weekend in San Mateo) was hot and crowded. Neither are the fault of Make or anyone else. To a certain extent "crowded" is a feature; it means tickets were sold, and Make is having trouble financing the Faire already. The heat is by itself not a problem, but combined with crowds you get a lack of access to shade and water that makes the Faire more difficult to endure (especially for those of us who are getting a little older -- or for the many who are bringing little children.)

And it is a given that economics drives the event. Sales (and booth rentals) are what covers the costs. But sales pushes the Faire to be about presentation. And, as with so many things, offering distraction for kids to bring in those parental dollars gradually takes over from any other goal. Maker Faire always had an element of spectacle and an element of hucksterism, but the desire to attract crowds and to have something to offer that will cause parents to bring children means these are eclipsing other aspects.

Aspects like sharing, education, information, trading, and networking.


The rest of the rant/Open Letter below the fold:

iMovie Sucks

I'm in a rant mood today.

Some of that is germane to Maker Faire, some of that is me struggling with a several pieces of software that seemed designed primarily by marketing.

Here's a nice example; there were dozens of the usual PLA printers at Maker Faire advertising as a big selling point that you could print from your phone. Well whoop-de-doo. I design on my laptop, edit and slice on my laptop, catalog and share and store on my laptop, and have printed from my laptop. What would be the advantage of having to send it to my phone? So I could save myself reaching thirty inches to the printer which needs me to hand-tend it anyhow?

And don't sell me the the cloud-based, phone-centric, all-sharing paradigm. I'm not printing the work that someone else did. I'm designing tough, precision CAD stuff that needs a full desktop to play with. You think I want to do this:


on a phone?

Rant continues below the fold.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Kanan in D

The Kanan Jarrus (otherwise known as the Caleb Dume) prototype is built. So far everything works -- in fact, the parts line up better than I had any expectation they would.



Well, actually...since the outer edge is opaque, I could maybe work out a way to open the center to where it really should be (essentially this style of holocron looks like six corner pieces just touching. Which is hard to do and have any structure, and harder yet when I'm trying to hide the overlap of the inner acrylic pieces.) But I've committed to working with the material this way, the designs are already tested and approved and the first six shipped out to customers.


I also had time to re-do the "temple" shell design for the new USB and other tweaks I've made over the development of the "stolen" shells. Cut one out already and will glue it up and see how it works.


(I need to run off a set of "Guardian" diffusion, and maybe a new set of "Gallifrey" cutout pieces as well, to properly make a new "Temple" prototype. I'm also temped to paint it silver and use green for the internal layers).




So I'm one step closer to finishing off the Holocron project and moving on to the next. And apropos of next projects, I made a discovery that might get my keyboard back up and running faster than expected:

SamplerBox

It's a software sampler wrapped in a custom-patched Raspberry Pi install. It's designed as exactly what I need from it; a no-frills Pi that simply boots up into a stand-alone sampler. Although...most people add an external DAC as the built-in one on the Pi is a bit noisy, and one enterprising programmer managed to get Freeverb running as well.

But the really unexpected and lovely thing was: I downloaded the disk image, threw it onto a microSD with the freeware utility program Etcher, and.....it ran. Right out of the box, first time, no tinkering.

For an acid test, I threw my Behringer controller and a pair of USB headphones at it, and it adapted without hesitation. Playing with low noise and latency and plenty of polyphony, too.

Monday, May 15, 2017

TRL OST: the project

The idea is to write music from a game that never existed.


First, background. The concept, gameplay, and central character of the Tomb Raider series began in 1996 with the company Core Design. The original British-made series ran for six titles, rather spectacularly falling apart on the ambitious but poorly executed Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness.

The property was moved to the company Crystal Dynamics for what is sometimes known as the Tomb Raider Trilogy. These games made full use of 2006-era graphics advances and could be called more action-flavored.

The artistic direction for the trilogy could also be called "floundering." The first, Legend, has an action-movie flavor to it's telling of the search for an Arthurian artifact; Excalibur, which turns out to be exceedingly ancient and supernaturally powerful.

The second, Anniversary, is a remake of the first (Core Design) Tomb Raider game, and sends Lara after fragments of an artifact from lost Atlantis and puts her in deadly conflict against a reborn Atlantean Queen.

The third, Underworld, is described in some circles as a rush job, and also as too short and not very involving. It is quite slick and cinematic, however, and brings Lara to a darker place than usual as she visits the hells of several world religions in a search for her missing mother. It also brings back characters from both other games, with the final confrontation against the now-insane Atlantean Queen's attempts to destroy the world with an ancient device that is the literal Ragnarok.

Each has a very different flavor, with different elements of play emphasized, a different look to the main character, etc.



Musically, the three games of the Core Design trilogy are also an eclectic selection. For the first, Danish composer Troels Folmann made strong use of ethnic/regional instruments, and gave the game a modern sound with strong rhythms. For the second, he stated publicly he wanted to be honest to the work of the original game's composer, Nathan McCree.

For the third game Troels moved on to a supervisory position, writing only the main theme himself and leaving the rest to Colin O'Malley. This score was somewhat subdued in flavor and was almost completely orchestral.



So much for reality.

My imaginary game is Tomb Raider: Legacy. It continues the continuity belatedly established in the previous trilogy, beginning with Lara returning home to the ruins of her mansion (torched by Amanda in the previous game) and having reached at least some sort of closure over the deaths of her parents.

So in these parts at least a slower, more contemplative, certainly more atmospheric game than the others. Also one with much more interpersonal interaction; this would be an odd echo of the Angel of Darkness experiment, which saw a more urban Lara interacting -- with actual dialog trees -- with others.

Like Angel of Darkness, and like the real-world Tomb Raider 2013 (which rebooted the series completely and took Lara in a much different direction than before) this game would be an ambitious but likely both rushed and flawed attempt to go in new directions.

It would also continue the Tomb Raider Trilogy tradition of flirting with previous canon by bringing back Werner Von Croy from the Core Design era. And continuing the popular trend (Tomb Raider: Legacy had one) of "Young Lara" sections. Which double as "the level where you don't get any weapons."

What the game does, what the goal is, even all the settings are something I'll be discovering as I discover interesting directions to go musically.



Music-wise, it might be assumed to be the work of Colin O'Malley, or it might be a new composer, but it would certainly have Troels Folmann in overall control. Thus, it would keep with certain trends, like making use of motives and other material from previous games, including the Core Design games. Few Tomb Raider properties have neglected at least a quote of the emblematic Nathan McCree introductory oboe solo.

Given the musical variety within the Tomb Raider Trilogy, I am on solid ground in allowing this score to take another fresh approach. Given the more grounded approach to some of the settings, with more intimate interaction with the peoples there, the use of local material would go past the samples of Legend and move into full pastiche mode -- particularly for the English countryside, as Lara tries to understand the history of Croft Manor and her responsibilities to it, and as well uncovers secrets of her family there.

Given the tight thematic connection between the Tomb Raider Trilogy games, I would assume quotes as well from important elements there, particularly those concerning the destruction of the manor and the final confrontation of the last game. I'm also tempted to briefly mention a motif from the 2013 game.

And there is an external element here as well; regardless of what other games may have done, if I am to show this as a Tomb Raider piece, it has to reference known and familiar Tomb Raider musical material.



There is an interesting conservatism in the melodic material of the real Tomb Raider trilogy. As illustrated by Pieter Smal in Unifying elements in the Tomb Raider Trilogy game soundtracks, a thesis paper presented at University of Pretoria in 2013, there is a surprisingly small pool of musical material.

How small, rather depends on how tight you set your filters. The core themes of each game -- which are thematically related to the original Nathan McCree motif -- are manipulated rhythmically and given melodic variation with sometimes only the intervalic relationships maintained. In any case certain motifs, and certain rhythms, occur over and over in the course of the three games.

Which at the very least underlines that the new game should have a main theme that can be related back to the Nathan McCree. Of the three games, Legend's theme is the most straight-forward manipulation of the original; the rhythm is almost the same, the notes are similar, only the sequence is altered. They are close enough that the casual listener will feel a sense of familiarity. The same can be said for the variations used in Dagger of Xian and Revelations -- and Angel of Darkness, likely in honor of returning character Werner von Croy, develops almost directly out of Last Revelation.

But that brings me to the first of two problems regarding the first part of the composition I intend. The first is how to make it clearly Tomb Raider music whilst being unique. The second is plausibly a problem for the hypothetical game composer as well; that problem being, the early part of the game is slow, elegiac, and full of references to rural England. However, the first sounds coming over the titles of a game someone just forked out forty bucks for should bring to the player a sense of excitement and grandeur. They should be given a sense that they are sitting down to an epic game. Starting with Elgar in his slower moments is not the best choice!

On the gripping hand, there seems to be a trend in amateur orchestral compositions towards going into the brass and bombast early on (and often as not never letting up thereafter.) I'd like to avoid that trend by staying in a softer mode for longer.




So thematic material should be related to extant scores. It should directly quote the Nathan McCree, of course. It should quote something that is recognizably linked to Werner and/or Egypt -- possibly the descending sequence used in Last Revelation and in almost unaltered form in Angel of Darkness.

Another open question is whether to quote the Ailein duinn. Troels used it in Legends, and it seems appropriate for the Surrey scenes as Lara deals with her various losses. And it has great potential, even as a cantus firmus to develop a Main Theme off. But it was also over-used in the 2000's, appearing in not less than eight different video games.




And that's really all I have for the moment. The next step for me basically comes after I've got my keyboard hooked up again and can start really studying the scores and trying out thematic ideas.




Sunday, May 14, 2017

TRL, the OST: introduction

I've got random thoughts to sort out on what will probably be my next big music project.

First some notes about me. I'm strictly an amateur. I taught myself how to get sound out of a couple of easy instruments (recorder and ukulele) and I'm currently in my first year of teaching myself violin. I also messed around with piano/keyboard for decades. Took a few basic classes in music theory and read a half-dozen books on orchestration even though I can't even sight-read.

I mean, I've always enjoyed messing around (mostly on the piano) but I got into trying to arrange more-or-less as an outgrowth of trying to learn how to mix on a sound board. I'm not even near the skill level for public performance or to jam with others.

Be that as it may, I have in the past tinkered up a few fairly complicated little pieces. Some have featured in previous blog posts:

Bow in Hand

Doomed Drums

Move Over, PDQ

History in Gear

These run from pieces I composed for use in a play I was designing at the time, to personal pieces, and the latter ranged from expansions from something I found noodling around on the keyboard to pieces developed to intentionally fit certain artistic goals; often, mock soundtrack excerpts for imaginary movies.

In a few rare cases I had real musicians to work with and record. In most cases these were done with sampling and synthesis; from a grab-bag of old hardware synthesizers, to the loops and drum machine riffs of Reason to a couple of modern orchestral libraries to another grab-bag of freeware samples and oddities and found sounds.

I flirted with both pseudo-orchestral, working that "Viennese Grammar." and with unabashed synth sounds -- culminating in my noise-and-found-sound sketches for a staged reading of Agamemnon. And I often found excuse for pianistic (or at least keyboard) parts.

I toyed a lot with leit-motivic writing, finding ways in which themes could be developed, showcased in different rhythmic and melodic transmutations, interweaving them. My second-to-last major theatrical work, Moon over Buffalo, played three major themes against each other, echoing the conflict of the main characters that drove the show as well as being so connected to the action as to be actually diagetic in places.

Mostly, however, I started and abandoned sketches. Often there's only enough of a sketch to show how the musical idea is connected to a potential arrangement of it, but only the bare bones are there, in the roughest of performances.



Here's a sample of some of that non-theatrical work (I'd need at least a full post to describe some of my theatrical work at the same depth):





In any case.

For this new project, I hope to include more "real" clips; live recordings (whatever that means) for as many parts as I can sensibly manage. To that end I've been learning both violin and penny whistle. Fortunately, the former is not intended to be used in a front-and-center mode, but instead filling in string section backgrounds.

It may easily fall by the wayside, but the journey is at least half the fun.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Goodbye Inkscape?

Sometimes in the last month or two Inkscape developed a crippling lag. "Lag" is not even the right word. All the windows lose focus in the middle of doing something. Merely dragging a selection rectangle is an exercise in frustration, and it is actually impossible to rename a layer (because the typing box is dropped before you can get more than two characters in).

I'm frustrated enough to give up on it now, despite it having been a mainstay of my graphic/2D CAD work for years now. I just wasted an entire potentially productive day trying to get it to work again, and that is on top of several days and multiple hours of previous attempts.

Here's what I've tried:

Hunting through Preferences and turning down all the various aliasing and so forth (things that are described as causing "slow" behavior)

Trying on clean and new files.

Playing with the X11 settings.

Reverting to an older version of Inkscape.

Deleting the preferences and the Apple applications state files.

Reverting to an older version of Xquartz.

Checking endless forums for help.

Trying (and failing) to register at the official forums to get help.

Trying (and failing) to get into the bug reporter.



Nothing has had a measurable effect on the problem. I can't even draw a rectangle without the selection dropping in the middle.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Loquacious Jedi

Finally got a few minutes to finish the new Holocron program. Current reading from the Arduino IDE is 7,964 bytes (of a 8,192 byte maximum). It's the neoPixel code that does it -- a couple extra blinks would finish my available PRAM.

Human Interface Design is always fun (and seemingly a dying art -- maybe Apple hired them all away?) So the way it works now, hit the SEL button to enter the first programming mode. It causes one of the LEDs to blink pink at intervals. Each touch of the SEL button increases the number of LEDs lit until it cycles back to zero.

Meanwhile the INC and DEC buttons, when hit, flash all the LEDs either red or green. This corresponds to adding or subtracting from the variable being programmed (and that variable is indicated by the number of LEDs that are flashing pink). Hold down the SEL button and there is a long double pulse of all green; this indicates the current value of all accessible variables has been stored into EEPROM.

The variables I chose were jedisearch, rate, depth, and bright. The last three are relatively self-explanatory; the rate of the pulse animation, the difference between the peak and trough of the pulse, and an overall brightness value added or subtracted from the total. The first is the value the capacitive sensor is compared against, and thus sets the sensitivity.

And when I was working on it something was going wrong with the sense. It was triggering, thus playing the speech animation, pretty much back-to-back. Turns out the pin was floating a little; when I soldered the wire that connects up to the sensor plate it stabilized.

Unfortunately my fancy scheme doesn't allow changing the color center, but the color shift is a bit of a hack anyhow. One day I'll come up with software that allows setting a bunch of different "looks" via the user buttons, but this software isn't it. This software does holocrons only.

So....where do Jedi learn to code in C?