Saturday, December 28, 2013

Counting Computers

I'm writing this on a MacBook Pro, which is set up in front of (and partially blocking) the "Gigabit Ethernet" (aka old G4) tower I'm trying to phase out. Unfortunately the latter machine still has most of my password chains and bookmarks on it, as well as some applications that won't run on the newer machines. To my right is a white iBook set up as a CD player, playing out of some cheap Radio Shack speakers I picked up for spot sound effects playback on "Drowsy Chaperone." Playing Yuko Hara now, but on the stack of CDs (MAN IN CHAIR: "Yes, CDs!") are several that I transferred from cassette tape. And at least one of those was in turn taped off a record! (Yes -- I hold on to music a long time).

I was doing this transfer process on the Al Powerbook, which is the one I usually leave at the theater for QLab playback (I'll likely be loaning it out next week for just that). Unfortunately it has a bad optical drive and the Al is even worse to take apart than the Ti. And I have to save the optical drive on the Ti, because that George Washington's Hatchet of a machine (every part on it has been replaced at least once: other than that, it is the same Powerbook I've had for ten years) contains my only full working directory of sound effects and spot music.

At least I've finally retired the Wallstreet (G3 Powerbook), which I was keeping around as the only machine that could talk to my old 11x15" scanner. And the Kaypro IIx is only staying around as a conversation piece, it being the first computer I ever owned (back in 1985).

Now, if you started counting AVRs, I have a dozen micros wandering around that I've written software for and that do various small useful things...

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Will it Blend?

Downtime between shows. Which means spending as much of it as possible with paying work. I've got some installation work at one theater, maintenance stuff for another. With a little props work for a friend on the side.

And I'd like to put some more Poser content in my online store. I need to model more efficiently. Knowing how to make a contiguous welded mesh was good training for the kind of models that are required for 3d printing, and they do render more nicely, but I need to use prims and detached planes more. If nothing else, those are easier to UV map.

I'm also thinking using less geometry, more texture mapping. Doing it all in the geometry is show-off stuff but there isn't that much need in the Poserverse for "Hero" props (borrowing a term from the film business, aka, the highly-detailed and fully-functional prop used for close-up shots).

And more than anything else, dump Carrara. So I'm pushing to get over the hump of the learning curve now and start working in Blender instead. It has a tool set I'd gladly pay for: but price is not the primary reason to go with shareware. The reason is that shareware is based on being open. Full communication, sharing. Commercial software is in the business of hide the flaws (in fact, actively stifle criticism), sell the flash (saddling otherwise plausible software with flashy tricks designed only to pull in new customers), and hooking the fish; keep selling upgrades, keep promising bug fixes, and of course keep the file formats proprietary so the customer faces losing all their own work if they try to switch.

Here's the dialog for bug fixes on Carrara:

"I've got a bug to report."
"Which version?"
"We aren't supporting 6.0 anymore. Buy the upgrade to 7.0 -- 20% off of what you'd pay for the full version -- and we'll talk."
"Okay. I just upgraded. Bug is still there."
"Well, don't expect us to fix it in 7.0; that's already released. Look for it in the 7.5 release."
"Is that a free patch?"
"Of course not! We're selling it as if it was a full version number.  $500 if you own 7.0, $500 if you own 6.0, $500 if you own 5.0, and $550 if you never owned the software before."
"Okay...I waited for the 7.5 and installed it.  My bug is still there."
"What bug?"
"The bug I filed back in 6.0!"
"We don't keep records of old bugs. We've made a whole bunch of changes to parts of the software that probably have nothing to do with that bug, but who knows? So we're starting from scratch with bugs filed on the 7.0"
"Which will be addressed in...?
"8.0, of course!  What would you expect?  So can we expect a check from you?  Pre-order is only $800, or $780 if you never owned any software from us before, because we're always trying to attract new suckers."

Unfortunately, 3d software is the home dimension of alien GUI; each application is written as if by someone who never saw a computer program before, and each is utterly different. So the learning curve is huge. And us Mac users are on the bad part of the curve these days, since the gamer force behind modern PCs has made triple-button scroll mice the default there (and a grudging add-on to Macs). And you need all those buttons to navigate smoothly whilst manipulating objects in 3d space.

My own set of compromises is a two-button track-ball and various levels of keyboard re-mapping (sometimes through third-party aps). I'm tempted to add one of the USB-native family of AVRs to the mix and create my own third and fourth and fifth button. Fortunately, Blender is one of the more accommodating 3d aps out there to what they consider non-standard pointing devices (aka, anything other than a Windows mouse).

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Organic Limiter

I was just listening and comparing some of the pit mixes I've done and I realized a couple of things.

First was that the "Princess" sound was terribly muddy. Of course, what is available for later listening, and what the audience heard, are different animals, but there's a blurring and a heaviness that I don't think is just an artifact of that particular set of recordings.

In a way it was a given. I had several musicians who were all over the map dynamically. Neither the violin nor the trumpet could make up their minds how far they would be from the mic, either. The only option I had to control all this wildness was excess compression, which takes the bite out of the tone and smothers the articulation and brings up all the unwanted noise higher in the mix -- exacerbated by the loud playing, meaning there was tremendous leakage from one instrument to the microphones on another.

That introduces comb filtering and time smear, again destroying both the tone and the articulation. Once again, a loud pit ends up sounding less good in the end.

But the other realization I had is why running hot gives the illusion of being a solution to mixing ills. The reason is that the ears function as an organic limiter. When you listen at a level above the threshold of comfort (say, if you mix on headphones and insist on having it loud), your ears are unable to follow the peaks. They don't pass the complete sound, and they even shut down slightly in response. But as long as there is sufficient recovery time, the soft parts will still be audible.

So the artifact of mixing with too-hot monitor or 'phones levels is the loud parts are too loud in the resulting mix, and the soft parts get lost. Because your ears have compensated them in. (It will also often have too little bass and top end, again because of those various non-linear responses of the human ear). Typical song structure will start soft, and build, and never quite return to the original level. Mixing at hot monitor levels, this is emphasized; your ears become rapidly fatigued as you enter the louder section, and you keep adding more and more volume through the climax, ending up with a volume curve that looks like the bell of a trumpet.

And the same effect happens with an audience when you run your system hot. The quieter bits are heard because the volume of the entire mix is loud, and the louder bits don't quite read as hyper-loud because of the non-linearities of the ear. But running the human ear with the clip light showing red means it will begin shutting down; as the show progresses, the audience perceives a mix which is increasingly muffled and, basically, softer. This can be temporarily compensated by -- of course -- pushing hotter and hotter.

And with an idiot mixer, the only thing anyone notices is that late in the act they start having "trouble with the microphones." Popping, clothing sounds, feedback. And they wonder if -- since after all they've been performing for all of an hour -- they need to put in fresh batteries.

Once again, science -- physical acoustics, physiology and psycho-acoustics -- reveals what is actually happening, as opposed to the naive perception of the untrained. And once again you as a sound engineer are up against that naive perception. The "I don't care what science says, the second act didn't sound as loud to me. Fix it!" attitude of your directors, music directors, band members, etc.

How to get the hard sell across, so this effect of organic limiting becomes one of the available tools, instead of the apparent (and in reality deadly), panacea?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Rather-Dark Mesa

Two weeks now and I still feel healthier than I have in months. I am afraid to change anything. Was it the different breakfast? The different shampoo? Half-Life 2?

So I've started playing the "Black Mesa" mod; a port of the original Half-Life story to the newer Source engine and graphics from Half-Life 2. I've also got the "Miranda" mod waiting in the wings.

And it was a nearly black mesa until I went into the Wine config options and turned on artificial gamma compensation. Spent more than a few hours staring at the computer trying to figure out what was killing me -- not helped by the fact that there is a well-known texture glitch involving the flashlight (or any other in-game rendered bright light).

The toughest part was getting the Windows version of the Steam client to run correctly on my Mac. Even if the game had been a wash, that would have been worth it for the understanding I gained in how to use Wine to run PC software. After that, the game has mostly run smoothly with only a few crashes. Frame-rate is great and the graphics are gorgeous. The Vorts look particularly cool.

I'd be happier fighting Vortigaunts and HECU full-time, though. Not fond of creepy-crawlies like the Barnacles and Headcrabs. Not fond of the kind of level design favored by Valve, either. It is very dogmatic room-at-a-time stuff; trying to control the situation to present a specific number of enemies in a specific juxtaposition, which they achieve through a combination of triggers, spawns, and of course ludicrously confined paths (the "I have weapons that can turn a tank into fragments but I can't get through a locked wooden door" problem).

My favorite levels so far have been largely within Episode Two, where the playgrounds at least give the illusion of being open to more variety of approach and tactics.

The other downside (in my opinion) to trigger-ridden level design is it can turn play into memorization; "Touch the medkit to trigger the enemy spawn, turn and run down the hall to the left, wait two seconds and throw a grenade which will get the three packed troops just entering the doorway..."

Just crossed the dam, and so far "Surface Tension" has been my favorite chapter.  All the way from the big fight in the lobby. Wide-open spaces, lots of tactical options.

For the technically inclined (or the retro-gamer), I'm running the latest patch from Steam, through the Steam client. That is inside a winewrapper built around the 1.7.8 engine, set to WindowsXP, with the -no-dwrite EXE flag. Mac Driver worked as smoothly as X11 but there were sometimes issues with black banding and oddly-positioned window so I'm back to X11. There were some crashes in "Questionable Ethics"; I dialed down my resolution slightly and that appeared to help.  I was also running in "Test Mode" most of that time which is itself rather questionable!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Two Mistakes

As much as I like talking about those improvised, minimal, experimental pit orchestras, perhaps it is time to share what the real thing sounds like in full flight.

Below the fold, for those of us with slower connections:

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Complex Cue Sequence

The "Boiler" scene from "A Little Princess" --

This was another case of spotting-by-director. Every line that referred to the boiler apparently needed to have a distinct sound attached to it.

Thus the final sequence has multiple "beats" (using acting terminology); from the brief interval where it appears to be working correctly, to the multiple stages of build until the crisis is finally averted.

Here's how they sounded played together (below the fold for those of us with slower connections):

Hanging with Alyx

It's now been ten days since I woke up without a hint of the mysterious fatigue that has been dragging me down for over a year. I can't help hoping this will last, but I have no idea why I feel so good.

I've changed my diet slightly. Less sleep, colder weather. A nightly game of Half-Life 2. Well, I started catching up on sleep and that didn't seem to hurt. And I just completed Episode 2 last that will be changing, too (unless I can get Black Mesa to run on Wine).

On the game review side: I'm not generally fond of "twitch" games, but this one is quite fun. Three elements stand out; the Gravity Gun, which allows for more variety in your tactics, the spectacularly rendered settings, and the "hero" NPC, Alyx. On the downside, the play is too linear for my tastes much of the time and I really don't care for crawling through narrow, restricted holes in the ground filled with creepy-crawlies. For a combat game, I really prefer the open spaces and open strategic options of something like Overgrowth.

Episode Two is the best of the bunch, with fewer of the claustrophobic settings and a few combat scenarios that really allow you to maneuver (the final boss fight is a ridiculous sprawling battle in which you with your stripped-down Dodge Charger, Gravity Gun and sticky bombs try to take out Striders converging on the rocket base from every direction. I suspect the Hunters may have been nerfed a little for that fight, as they seem to go down a little easier, regardless, the only way I found through that fight is to drive like a maniac under the very legs of the Striders, ramming the Hunters with your car, then when they are out of the way hopping out to throw a sticky bomb (sorry, "Magnuson Device") at the Strider.

In any case, some of my response is the same as it was to "Deepstar Six," one of some half-dozen near-identical underwater monster movies that came out in the same decade. That is to say; the early parts of the film are all about the blue-collar undersea workers, the hazards of the sea, the geological challenges and scientific questions...and I'm thinking, I want to see that movie. You can keep the monsters; I'd just as soon spend an hour hanging with Alyx and exploring that great scenery.

Design Constraints

I've mentioned before my fascination with the way the final product heard by the audience is as much a factor of external constraints as it is design choices. As an example, the majority of the spot effects in my last design were demanded by the Director. Which sometimes meant coming up with something I didn't like because that was the only way to fill the hole. Exacerbated by the extremely tight tech, meaning I often had to throw something out there without knowing if it would fit the final picture.

And of course there are numerous constraints on how you reinforce an orchestra. Stage musicals are not studio sessions. Every change of instrument, technique, style calls for a different set of microphones and other choices, but you don't have that option; you need one compromise that more-or-less works for the majority of the show.

Even more so, the demands of monitor signal from both musicians and actors, and the constant problem of backline leakage, means your control over what is heard by the audience is less than complete. What goes through your mixing board is rarely a complete and nuanced reproduction of the band, and more often fillers and band-aids; a weird, distorted picture that when combined with what is in the air already might come out to something sounding vaguely like an orchestra.

With that said, some musical selections below the fold:

Saturday, December 7, 2013


So it suddenly struck me that my apartment was like a setting from a survival horror game. This week, I'm cleaning.

There's more to that story, of course.

I've got my good days and my bad days.  This past few months, it feels like most of them have been bad days. The current show is tough, and I'm finishing each performance exhausted.  Can't seem to spare the energy for much life maintenance, much less taking on other paying work to try to get ahead of the flood of bills. This last weekend, got sick on top of it. Got so sick I couldn't sleep, and stumbled into the last performance of the weekend on about three hours of sleep.

There was no evening show, but I was too wired to sleep and too tired for anything else. And that's when the meandering thought struck that for once in my life I own a computer manufactured within the last decade, meaning I could actually run one of the games I'd been hearing so much about at the Replica Props Forum.  A game like, say, Portal.

Well, yes, I could. And ended up with a marathon gaming session between Portal and Half-Life 2 (package deal from Valve). I gamed until dawn.

You could pretty much call this point a nadir. When I staggered into the kitchen with neck sore and fingers twitching from too much game and too little sleep and too little to eat, and I realized I was looking at the same depressing textures and set dressing; the trash and rust and dirt of those all-too-familiar settings of far too many games (Half-Life 2 included).

When I crawled into bed, it was with a depressing certainty I'd spend most of the next week sore and tired and basically messed up from too much gaming on top of too little sleep and food. And blame myself. And be still looking at an ugly living space.

Except that's not what happened.

I slept a mere five hours, and woke up all vinegar. Practically jumped out of bed, and started cleaning of the once-in-a-decade extra-deep spring cleaning kind of cleaning. Didn't even stop for breakfast first!

And after spending ten hours cleaning house, I still felt great. And played a little more Half-Life 2 before bed, and woke up still feeling competent. Feeling not just strong enough to do housework, but actually thinking clearly for once. Able to see better ways to arrange things. Able to make those hard decisions about what to keep and what to throw away. And I threw away a lot.

The last time I felt this good -- healthy and productive -- was during a part of Tech (for the same show) when I was getting by on almost no sleep or food. It makes me wonder which is the proper causal relationship. I once recovered from a nasty stomach upset by going to a MacDonald's (the kind of food I rarely eat otherwise).

Maybe I've got some principle of homeopathy going on here. Maybe the way to fix a queasy stomach is by eating greasy, unhealthy food, and the way to get lots of energy is to do things (like marathon gaming sessions) that should by rights make me even more exhausted!