Saturday, July 22, 2017

Virtual Lithics

Skyrim has mods.

This has the potential to become an interesting problem for the game industry. On the one hand, Bethesda is one of the companies that strongly supports the modding community, releasing the Creation Kit for anyone to try their hand at adding new content, changes in focus, or basic bug fixes to the worlds of Skyrim and the Fallout series. This, when it works well, gives games some of the advantage of Open Source. There are some very skilled people out there who don't happen to be working for Bethesda (or who don't have any deadlines other than self-imposed ones) and are able to do things the original creators did not or could not.

On the flip side, official DLC can look bad by comparison. I have to say that Bethesda shot themselves in the foot a bit with Skyrim, at least. The two big DLC's, Dawnguard and Dragonborn, got decent reviews and are considered more-or-less worth the price. However, Hearthfire is considered by most reviewers to be a waste of money, hence a waste of employee hours by Bethesda (unless they got a lot of sucker sales).

Skyrim SE is even worse. It appears to have made back the money, and even has a trickle-down on the modding community as it brought a crop of new and returning players. But what it delivers is basically not worth it; it is nothing but a simple graphics buff that is outdone by existing free mods in both quality and functionality (as in, delivering spiffier graphics without causing the frame rate to drop through the floor.) It also offers no expansion to play and doesn't fix any of the known bugs.

Although I have to say, as an aside, dealing with bugs is part of the Skyrim experience. Some of them are left in there because they actually add to play, such as the ability to ride a horse up a vertical cliff, or the ability of a Giant to club you into low orbit. As long as they don't completely break the game, an exploit is fun; it really depends on whether you find it more fun to crawl through twenty Ancient Nord ruins in search of loot, or sit down at a pair of crafting stations swapping bottles of potion and enchanted jewelry in the circular skills buffing exploit.

My Breton Archmage with near-legendary Alchemy and Enchanting skills became equally familiar with Console commands after losing an orphan somewhere between Windhelm and her cozy little home in Whiterun. It isn't even immersion-breaking; typing a few lines and having a person magically teleport into your presence isn't any odder than the things that happen all the time in a magic-filled world like Tamriel.

But back to the point. I messed with the Creation Kit over a couple of evenings. I managed to turn one of the ubiquitous tree stumps into a specialized Crafting Station that would let you fabricate a stone axe from firewood and a lump of rock.

I had thoughts about making an entire lithotechnology mod. It would be amusing to enough people, I think, to be of benefit to the larger world. There's a mod I've seen by someone who has studied way too much Geology that rationalizes all the materials around a huge list of real-world minerals.

Mostly I'm not doing it because I do enough in life already. I have things I've already promised to people, and I'd hate to add to that list. The other reason not to do it is because it wouldn't integrate well with the world.

Sure, you can play a hunter (people do), who lives off the land. I've seen camping mods, mods that improve hunting and wildlife in general, even fishing mods (that show a similarly intense interest in fishing as the above mentioned did in Geology).

Thing is, the world of Skyrim is relatively small, and it gets a lot smaller as you go up in level. What's the sense of making flint knives and wooden bows with Clovis points on them if the next day you have to defend yourself against a roving bandit and (assuming you win) can loot good Nord steel off his body?

The technical challenges are still intriguing. I got far enough with my experiments in modding to see where some of the difficult elements would be. The nastiest is that importing new models requires a bunch of tools and processes my work in Poser content creation is insufficient preparation for. And new animations? Pretty much a closed book.

There is also the little matter of putting the materials into the game. The tree stump hack I mentioned above was done that way because by modifying the Class object, every single instance of that stump in-world became one of my custom crafting stations. You'd have to do something similar to make flint, obsidian, river stones, etc, appear in-world. Otherwise you'd have to go into the editor, go into a whole bunch of cells, and insert new scenery/objects.

Another difficulty is that I think of flint-knapping as something you can do anywhere. That it doesn't need a dedicated crafting station. This goes against the Skyrim philosophy a bit, as Crafting is partially controlled and game-balanced by making you have to go to one of a limited number of locations. But there's at least one mod out there which breaks that already.

Which is the Campfire mod -- a mod almost certainly going to be installed by anyone who wants to be living off the land and making their own arrowheads. And as a matter of fact... the creator of the Campfire mod has provided his own Creation Kit and has already been surrounded by a small modding community of his own! So there are tools, there, to expand the making of kindling and bedrolls at your temporary campsite, to the making of both lithic tools and the tools (flakers, billets, etc.) to make those tools.

Ah, well. After my recent would-be Bard adventure, I'm equally inclined towards making a mod that would let you craft -- and improve -- your own musical instruments at one of the standard in-world crafting stations. Ah, but it would only make sense if you needed a Luthier skill to make certain instruments, and improvements in that skill would allow higher quality (and more expensive) instruments, and such instruments would give bonuses to Bardic performances.......

Dawnguard: Adventure Found Me

This is not my Skyrim review. I hope when I get to that it will be a little more organized than this. This instead is an exploration of ludonarrative in the emergence of a character arc from meta-textual elements.

Or, in short, how a young Breton with dreams of becoming a bard was pulled into a conflict she didn't even know existed, became a legendary hero and saved the world.

So, Skyrim. It is a RPG -- Role-Playing-Game -- from Bethesda, brought out in 2011. It is the fifth game of the Elder Scrolls series, meaning the backstory is extensive and the world fleshed out to a nearly unheard-of degree even within RPG's. An RPG, in computer-game terms, means you explore the world in the form of one or more avatars but have a certain amount of choice in how you approach interactions; dialog choices with NPCs (non-player characters), choices in which skills to develop, choices even in your character's appearance and how you dress.

Many of these have direct impact on play. Some do not. But it is my thesis that in all games, even something as seemingly mechanistic and devoid of larger context as Monopoly, one ends up constructing a narrative. We humans are instinctive story-tellers. It's one of the ways we try to impose sense on the world.

In addition, in any game that gives you an avatar to interact with the game world, one finds oneself role-playing. For most of us, this isn't just projecting ourselves into the world. It is choosing a distinct inner life and playing (as much as possible) consistently with that specific set of beliefs and preoccupations and personality quirks. One can play the same game multiple times but experience it differently, thanks to a different (and evolving) personal narrative.

There is an ongoing element of disconnect in doing this, however, an aesthetic distance that -- when the game makes poor choices -- turns into ludonarrative disconnect.  I've spoken before, as a for-instance, on how Tomb Raider 2013 urges you to think of Lara as a scared college student and reluctant fighter, but the gameplay rewards a brutal, risky, up-close approach to problems.

(The two approaches I've tried for Tomb Raider 2013 are; to play the character as presented and ignore the gameplay opportunities for more loot and faster character progression, or; to play against the character as presented in the cutscenes and be overall angrier and more willing to engage in well-warranted savagery against her opponents.)

There's a huge meta-textual dilemma any time you replay a game (or have made use of online hints). You the player know there's a booby trap around the corner. "You" the character you are playing does not. My experience is that generally one tries to paper over the disconnect; you play the character as having an instinct, some foreboding, that causes them to round the corner in a circumspect fashion that just so happens to bypass the trap. Or you enforce the player/character barrier, play your ignorance, and walk right into it.

Skyrim of course presents many such opportunities. One specific example is that once you've played the early game more than once, you realize that if your character picks up the Dragon Stone and gives it to the Court Wizard of Whiterun dragons will start spawning across the land and attacking people (mostly, in fact, attacking you.) So if you want to do a Bard build or just peacefully pick flowers to buff up your Alchemy skill for a while, you keep the Dragon Stone in your backpack!

Alchemy, particularly, provides some potentially game-breaking exploits. The game controls creation of the most valuable potions by making recipes hard to find. Much of Alchemy involves mixing random ingredients together until you stumble on something that works. However, if you the player already know that glowing mushrooms and blisterwort makes a potion that improves Smithing...

But back to my Breton. I'd just installed a gift PC with a powerful graphics card and I stuck Skyrim Special Edition on it. Special Edition comes with the three official DLC's (Down-Loadable Content), including Dawnguard, which by itself adds a new scenario and 10-20 hours of gameplay to the already extensive options of the existing game.

I started a new character to try out a couple of random mods. Skyrim has a huge modding community; a dedicated group of outside artists and writers and programmers who have added extensive new (free) content to the existing game.

I was trying out the "Become a Bard" mod; which adds abilities to play musical instruments, the option to play for money at a tavern, and it's own internal skill system.  I also had "Camping" installed. One of the popular mods is called "Frostbite" and adds a Survival aspect to the game. With that mod you can no longer walk all night in the howling winds of the snowy peaks without getting yourself dead of exposure. The "Camping" mod makes it possible to light a fire and put up a rude tent so you don't have to get to a village to find a warm bed for the night. But it is fun enough to play on it's own, with a little internal skill system and some unique crafting options.

Of course I was also using "Skyrim Unbound," which removes the standard opening of the game. This means you can chose whether to be offered the first quests that lead to fighting to stop the return of the dragons and/or taking part in the civil war that is wracking the land.

So my backstory on this play-through was that I was a stranger to the area and was going to live off the land earning a few coins playing at taverns until I could make my way to the Bard's College and then...  But, of course, life is what happens to you while you were making other plans.

The first hiccup was that I couldn't find a lute. Turns out musical instruments are rare. Oh, yes, and even with the "Camping" mod, living off the land is hard. There's a basic problem in Skyrim for non-traditional play. And that is that essential materials for buffing your skills or improving your gear or just plain earning enough coin to buy a house are designed to be fought for.

Now, people have done it. There have been Pacifist builds who buff Sneak skills until they can creep unseen into Bandit hideouts and steal the things they need to advance. My Breton actually started this way. See, the random start mod had dumped me into a dungeon that was way above my level. I grabbed some high-value loot and snuck the heck out of there as fast as I could. (This was nicely knuckle-biting play, as all I had was a worn tunic and hide shoes -- not even a weapon.)

So these both gave my Breton a start in the wrong direction. She didn't have a lute, but she had some nice gear, a bit of gold, and had (reluctantly) gained some combat experience.

Then she met Sophia. I'd forgotten I'd also put this original Follower in my Mod stack. Followers are NPC's that, well, follow you. They are your friends and companions on your adventures. One of the first easy followers you can get is Faendal, the Bosmer archer working at the mill in Riverwood. If you help him with his girl trouble by carrying a forged letter for him, he will agree to join you on your adventures. Lydia, who becomes your housecarl in Whiterun after you've been made a Thane, will swing a sword by your side the moment you say, "Come with me."

Anyhow. Sophia is an amusing creation and snarks quite a lot at the world. She's also a wee bit overpowered at lower levels. So we were cleaning house on bad guys. My Breton was kind of floundering at that point; mostly wandering around experimenting with Alchemy recipes and learning the basics of Enchanting and Smithing. And not exactly a knight-errant, but good at heart and willing to help out when asked.

("Helping out," in the combat-centric, quest-oriented world of RPG's, usually means, "Fight your way through an underground lair full of monsters to find and return this random item to me." Which means you inevitably gain experience and loot on the way.)

Then vampires showed up in Whiterun and killed my favorite blacksmith. Actually, they killed several of the people my Breton had come to know and frequently interacted with. (I'd kinda forgotten by this point I'd installed the Dawnguard DLC as part of the original purchase, and Dawnguard starts with a rise in vampire activity.)

Anyhow, this was personal. It shook up my Breton enough to make her join the Dawnguard and work to stop the plot by Vampire Lord Harkon to put out the sun (or I think that was his plan -- the way I played through it, the evil plan never really got explained to me).

(It also caused me to install the "Immersive NPCs" mod, which besides making the NPCs a lot more interesting in their behavior and routines also gave them the smarts to run away when vampires or dragons attack their village.)

The Dawnguard sent my Breton on the usual round of Fetch Quests. Skyrim, like most RPGs, doesn't make it clear which quests are going to advance the main storyline and are mandatory, and which are side quests and optional. So I ended up running all over the place, delving into Bandit camps, ancient Nord barrows, and Dwemer (Dwarven) ruins.

And this is another place where the metatext became problematic. I was already playing on the Easy setting. I'd gotten an early boost with some fortuitous loot, and another leg up with Sophia's help to let me tackle situations otherwise too hard for my current level. By mid-game I had a nifty set of Vampire Lord armor (maybe not the best light armor in the game, but certainly the best looking, plus buffs your Magika regeneration by a whopping 125%) and a Dawnguard Crossbow -- actually, the Enhanced Dwarven Crossbow with Exploding Bolts of Fire (because I'd done what turned out to be a bunch of sidequests for the Dawnguard's resident Tech Geek).

Oh, yes, and all that time messing around with crafting skills meant I'd buffed armor and weapon to something like 300% of base value. Meaning I could walk right up to a dragon and let it take a bite at me. Or one-shot anything smaller than a Giant.

(Skyrim gives a couple of perks designed to make a Thief build plausible. Instead of spending points on getting good with a sword, it lets you do double or triple damage with a bow if you can do it from hiding. With enough points in the Sneak skills, you can snipe your way through half the dungeons in Skyrim.)

(An amusing result of this that came up more than once; one of the Falmer enemies, the Gloomlurker, specializes in Sneak skills as well. For all her graces, Serana the full-blood Vampire follower doesn't have great perception skills. So there were several times down in the Dwemer ruins she'd be oblivious to a Gloomlurker not three feet from her. Who was equally oblivious to me crouching right there three feet from him. Cue a Dwarven crossbow bolt in the face. And Serana saying, "Where'd you come from?")

Sophia is as I said is less than serious, and that somehow helped paper over the disconnect of my 5'6" Breton girl being able to punch out a Nord twice her size back in the early game. By the time I was deep into the Dawnguard plotline (and switched followers to the more serious Serana, the vampire princess with daddy issues) my character had won enough battles and was wearing enough magical gear that it didn't -- quite -- take away from the grim nature of the fight that she was so ludicrously tough she could punch a dragon in the snout.

Skyrim has a scaling system. This I find game-breaking in a couple of different ways. In the early parts of the game (when your character is at a low level) the ruffian who accosts you in a dark alley has a hide shirt and maybe a stolen sword of good steel. But if you travel that same alley at level 40, that self-same scruffy-looking mugger is lurking inconspicuous-like in full Dwarven plate with a glowing War-Axe of Ultimate Dismay over his shoulder (and toting a few thousand gold worth of gems and scrolls in his pockets.) Credulity gets a little strained.

In another way, it is almost a disincentive to level up, especially if you've chosen to specialize in non-combat skills. Another disincentive towards buffing your crafting skills; by the time you can Enchant a weapon to +20, there's +30 gear tucked into the treasure chests of the nearby Ancient Nord ruin.

So it creates a disconnect from the reality of the game world. And it creates a problem in the meta-game, where the character may be desirous of improving themselves but the player is afraid to let them do so least the enemies become too tough to tackle.

In Skyrim the latter at least is a mid-game problem only. Enemies, and regions, have a level cap. If you are traveling in a wilderness that has wolves, it will still just have wolves. They will be crunched up against the top end of the bell curve, but the toughness range of wolves just isn't that great to begin with.

By the time my Breton was finishing up the Dawnguard campaign, the game had already maxed out my chief enemies. I was meeting exclusively Vampire Lords (and Elder Dragons, and whatever the top Draugr are). And they were still easy prey. Anything lower on the bell curve I could one-shot with Soul-Sucker, my heavily improved crossbow of doom. In fact, I started depending on my Elven bow and leaving the Dragon Priest mask in my pack just to make things more fair (that, and a Diadem of Improved Archery looked nicer with my hair than the full-face Tiki-like scowl of Krosis, my best Dragon Priest mask).

The biggest difficulty I had at the climax of Dawnguard was keeping the other Dawnguard from getting themselves killed in the final assault on Lord Harkon's forces. In fact, I played through the assault twice; the second time shooting the sun with Auriel's Bow to wreak havoc among the vampire forces before my idiot allies could close to melee range. (I tried to tell the Dawnguard to stay home and let me and Serana handle it, but the fight wouldn't trigger unless they came along).

The end of my Breton's character arc was finishing off Harkon and bringing some measure of peace to the land (I'd also completed the Civil War, at one point bollixing up an infiltration mission by falling down the wrong cliff and ending up giving a one-woman demonstration of why you don't mess with the Archmage of the College of Winterhold when she has two staffs and the high ground).

Which meant I could finally complete the Bard's College quest I'd been putting off. I finished the game -- and probably that character -- with her standing among her fellow bards as a new admittance to the College, with the revelries of the solstice-like ceremonial burning of King Olaf around her. I even pulled out a flute I'd found (finally!) and gave an impromptu solo performance.

If I continue with this character, it will be to divest of most of my weapons and wander the lands on foot with camping gear in a backpack and a good bow hung on the shoulder across from the lute. But in any case, as Serana (close companion and possible future life-partner) said, as we left the ruins of Castle Volkihar, "The adventure continues."

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Thursday's practice was thirty minutes of doing scales.

The Cecelio arrived in early July of 2016. That means last week I marked the first year of learning violin. I can basically get through a tune now. Accidentals, string crossing, shifting, the start of a vibrato. I'm not doing much in special bowing and I've yet to assay a double stop.

This next year is basically about refining. About, more than anything else, getting comfortable. Right now it still takes so much concentration there are days I simply can't practice.

And, yeah, I'm expanding my practice needs as well. I've been mostly toying with the bass, and that will probably be enough until I actually have a tune I need it for. The penny whistle needs some time in the rotation; I'll probably start taking that to work to at least nail down the scales and get a few flicks into muscle memory. And I've got an upcoming composition I'm tempted strongly to add a darbuka.

(The darbuka is one of the greater group of instruments out there; the ones that you can learn the basics of and kinda-sorta play in a few hours. Unlike the violin, which is weeks of doing exercises -- often without the violin at all -- before you can play a limited tune. All instruments, of course, take vastly more time to get any good at.)

I've also been hitting the books on music theory. Again, there's a lot to be learned there. Music theory reminds me quite a bit of Renaissance astronomy. See, there are inherent mathematical relationships between tones and the harmonic structure of those tones. And there are psychoacoustic responses we humans have to combinations of those tones.

Out of these simple rules, however, comes near-incalculable complexity. What is needed is a simplified structure, an imposed grammar (like the Latinate grammar that got hammered over the Germanic-rooted and rather different linguistic processes of English.) A structure or grammar that will allow working musicians to communicate, to plan, to tune, to build, to otherwise get on with the business of making music.

The Greeks took a stab at such a system and we've been building around it since, adding to, modifying, re-interpreting and distorting until the original Greeks wouldn't recognize it. The thing you have to remember, though, is buried under all the "plagal cadence descending from a diminished major triad with flatted seventh" is actual frequencies and their harmonics.

Frequencies and harmonics that will never, ever, quite line up perfectly. No matter what tuning or which harmonic minor you reach for, no single formulae works for everything. It is positively Goedellian; there can exist no consistent single system of music.

Well, I do have one new thing I've already learned from my studies. And that's a key thing about modes (or scales). When you are composing a piece, you aren't "in" a mode. You assert a mode.

Let me make this really simple. I set out to compose a tune in A minor. I start on A, because that's the key I'm in, right? I go up to G because that sounds cool. After a little more wandering I end up on C.

And, whoops. The tune I wrote is basically in C Major. Because that's the relative Major of the key I was trying for. The notes are exactly the same. It's the same white notes. The problem is, I set up a classic IV-V-I sequence there -- a sequence rooted in those underlying harmonics I mentioned earlier -- and thus the piece "feels" like C was the tonic all along.

Sure, I could bring in some harmony parts and assert the triads of A Minor, and that would pull the perception of the key around. Thing is, if you are a beginning composer, and you start with the tune, then fumble around finding chords that go with it, probability is against you finding the ones that really go with (or allow you to modulate from then return strongly to) the key you wanted to be writing in.

I should really spend another year at this, but I'm eager to monkey up some new tunes.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Informative Tombs

I was dashing off a couple simple scenes for a Tomb Raider fanfic when I suddenly stalled. I wanted to put a little color in the bit (from Tomb Raider: Anniversary) about Natla telling Lara the location of lost Vilcabamba.

Trouble is, Vilcabamba isn't lost. Well, it was, but only a little. Hiram Bingham found the site in 1911, it was identified in 1960, and in the 70's the identification was widely published.

We can give the 2007 game a pass as it is a fairly faithful reproduction of the 1996 game. But, really -- calling it "Lost Vilcabamba" in 1996 is pretty shoddy research.

There's a more important omission in the game, however. And that is, lost or not, Vilcabamba is interesting. What it was and the part it plays in the final act of the Incan civilization is fascinating enough that at least two works of fiction were inspired by it. But all the game does is throw out the name.

(At least the player gets that much; they might be inspired to look it up. There is a major location in the first game of the Crystal Dynamics "trilogy" that doesn't even get a name. In fact, only indirect evidence even tells which country the site is located in!)

This is particularly sad because the art direction of all the games has made an effort to bring in some of the artistic motifs, architectural elements, living arrangements, natural surroundings, etc., appropriate to the various cultures brushed against.

The 2013 game does a little better. Particularly nice are the "artifacts," in-game collectibles that have a nicely textured model that can be turned and examined, along with a charming commentary by this game's college-student version of Lara on the artifact's history, use, cultural context, etc.

Pity these are outside of the main plot. In fact, few elements that are important to the plot or the gameplay are examined in any interesting detail. Heck; there are plenty of people who would enjoy a name given to the various wartime wrecks littering the island and the handy weaponry (mostly left behind by the Japanese Army) that Lara picks up. At least there's a bit on the (actual) Himiko, but what the game gives is almost entirely unique to the plot and has little to do with any actual historical myths.

I do realize games are rarely about context. Gameplay is king, and that only makes sense. But the Civilization games made a name in part by referring to real historical developments and making it possible to learn things about them that went beyond what was strictly necessary for game play. In a very different example, the game Skyrim is absolutely stuffed with context, with artifacts and cultural ways and histories and architectures and stories, stories, stories.

In and among the gold pieces and healing potions stuck into treasure chests or littering a bandit's hideout are plates and bales and pots and eating utensils and other cultural relics that can be picked up and examined, and also books, books that add no skill points, carry no hints, have in short no influence on game play, but books that contain multiple readable pages of text. Of stories and legends and songs, all there just to give more background, more detail....more texture to the world.

So, yeah. If I'm playing a first-person shooter set in W.W.I, I want to have equipment that is modeled after the real things. And I want the game to tell me the real names. And some of the context. To name the battle, to name the leaders, to explain why it matters, to tell me (or better yet, let me experience personally) how it unfolded in history.

I don't need this for every game. But any game that flirts with history would, I think, want to make that history breath. To have more than just a name here and there or an accurate in-game model, but to make it possible for you to learn from it. To inform, just enough so you get the value of that peculiar thing games can do; to allow you to walk within and interact.

To experience the thrill and the sorrow of walking the ruins of that last Incan stronghold, knowing what you are looking at...and why it matters.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Bridge Too Far

I've taken ownership of the Pfretzschner. That is to say, I've started modding it. I don't know what the history of the bridge is (it's probably not original) but it looks like it has been through a number of hands. On closer examination, the curve is all wrong.

The A string was sunk far too deep. I could work with it in 1st Position but when I really started working 3rd I couldn't sound it without hitting another string. So I cut a tiny sliver of hardwood out of the back of a file handle and glued it in with CA glue. Re-shaped, cut a new notch.

The E string is still not right. This may be the fault of the bridge having been cut for an E without the protective sleeve. In any case, the compound curve just isn't there (oddly, though, someone seems to have monkeyed with the G string -- the curve there is sharper than it should be). Enthused by my success with the A string I lightly recurved and deepened the notch for the E string by less than a string width.

And it feels good now.

And that all inspired me to another crafts project:

The metal practice mute was not working for me. I have lots of scrap materials at work, though. So I cut two pieces of thick rubber, bolted them together (no need for Barge Cement for something this simple) and cut string notches in it.

Works like a charm. The volume is significantly lower but much of the sound quality is still there. Only drawback is not being able to see the fingerboard over the mute. But then, I'm not supposed to be working by eye anyhow.

Now all I need is to find a shoulder rest I like. Perhaps I should build my own there, too....

The U-bass, meanwhile, has developed a minor electronics issue. Volume dropped a bunch. I may have to swap out the pre-amp. Going to try adding an external pre-amp first.

I'm working up a full Instructable when I finally finish the thing, but here's a preview pic of my other bass-related project:

At two violins, a ukulele, and a bass (not to mention three recorders, a crumhorn, a bombarde, and a penny whistle -- and of course two 61-key keyboards and a couple of mini keyboards) I really need to add some kind of rack to my collection as well.

The main musical adventure of the moment is theory, however. I really need to improve my music theory. I've been listening to podcasts -- maybe not the optimal format, but very efficient for studying during work hours.

I'm realizing I need more theory to do what I want to with my next big composition. I want especially to be more deliberate with harmony, especially harmonic progression. Fumbling around for chords that sound cool kinda works for solo piano stuff, but it becomes a huge pain trying to find which notes to harmonize with, which need emphasis, etc. when working up a full arrangement.

More on that later. I'm strongly contemplating an unrelated sketch just to get back into things.

But, hey, if I do it right, I can work in some violin recording. I'm just about ready to start learning parts.

Monday, June 26, 2017

copy morphs from actor to another

There were a couple hits recently with the above as a search term.

It is relatively easy -- if you read the question on way (and much harder if you read the question the other).

Morphs in the Poser universe are a set of deltas. Poser meshes are .obj files (or .obj format imbedded in a Poser native format like .pp2) that define a 3d surface via a set of vertices connected by edges and filled in with faces. Each vertice has 3 Cartesian coordinates; x, y, z.

A morph file must have an entry for every single vertice of the mesh it will be applied to, in the same order (called "winding order") that they are listed in the .obj file. Each of these entries is a move in the x, y, and z directions.

This is what give morphs their flexibility. A single morph can be applied at a fraction of the full move, a multiple of it, or even as a negative of that move. They can also be combined; the final position of the target vertice will be the result of the addition of all the vectors.

With that out of the way; to move a morph from one file to another merely involves copying the big chunk of text that lists all the deltas. Plus a control. So, basically, copy the entire channel; everything within the brackets following "targetGeom nameOfMorph".

I should note that as of...I think Poser was possible to store the actual morph data in an external file. I never worked with those in my prop creation so I can't advise there.

There were also and probably still are third-party helper applications, some of them running within Poser itself using Poser Python, to copy and paste (and also delete and rename) morphs for you.

However. The morph has to be for the same mesh. The exact same mesh. Even one missing vertice will cause it to barf. I have to make particular note of this because in the Poserverse, "Actor" is the name for an individual part. A leg or arm or individual gear in a gearbox or whatever. Poser uses the term "Figure" (or prop) to refer to a fully rigged instance within the workspace. And, no; a morph designed for a leg will not work on an arm, any more than a morph designed for V2 will work on V3.

Ah, but there is more. It may not be possible to copy a morph, but there are ways to duplicate it. Manually, by using magnets and other deformers in the Poser workspace or mesh modeling tools outside (again, be very, very careful not to change the number of vertices or their winding order). There are also automated tools. PhilC makes some amazing ones that run within Poser itself (using Poser Python, natch).

Saturday, June 17, 2017

No More One-Man Jazz Trio

I got rid of my drum kit. Gave it in a long-term no-conditions loan to a friend at work. I hadn't even realized (until I got home) that with the recent acquisition of the Kala U-Bass I actually had piano, bass, and drums in the house.

That's the old-school Jazz Trio. It is a great blend of instrumentation.

The drums weren't great, anyhow. Roland SPD-20 "brain," a Roland FD-7 hi hat pedal and one PD-8 that I usually had set up as a snare. As a kit, it needed a lot of work yet. The hi hat controller had a lousy feel, there was no kick pedal, and no-where near enough pads, even including the surface of the SPD-20 itself. But even if it was complete, that's simply not the direction I'm going now.

See, that particular arrangement of controllers is to simulate this:

The pic above is a render of a kit I created in 3d. (Complete with multiple options, textures, fully adjustable and animatable...but that's not the point). The point is that an element of the sound is placed to be triggered from each limb. The right foot tapping the kick on the 1 and 3, left hand on the snare at the 2 and 4, heel-toe on the hi hat pedal on the quarter notes, and right hand laying down eighths on hat or ride (on the kit above, that's a hybrid crash-ride).

And many, many variations thereon. It's all about the coordination, and the idioms descend from the physicality, from what is easier to reach in conjunction with what or which movements naturally coordinate. And the best way to get it is to have those controls with that response in the right positions. You pretty much need something, whether it is an actual acoustic drum kit, or a set of sensors, sprawling out and taking up space in that arrangement or close to it.

Which is partially what my friend was looking for. But also, honestly, even if you are simulating timpani or tin-pan, bongos or part of a gamelan, having big pads to swing a stick at is better than trying to do it on piano-style keys. Or even those cute little baby touch pads on some keyboard controllers.

Thing of it is: you can study and simulate the idiom, but even the way a timpanist mutes the drums with their fingertips to control the long sustain requires an extra effort to simulate. To replicate the kind of intimate complex interaction of the player with a tabla or bodhran or the jazz standard of brushed snare is much, much harder.

And the natural sounds are not there. All the ways the tones interact, all the side noises (wanted, unwanted, or merely accepted), are part of the character of the instrument and the intimacy and presence of the sound.

It might seem like the electric bass and violin, and the Behringer 61-key, are counter to that idea. Don't be deceived by the terminology. Both my first violin and my new bass are electrically amplified, but the sound of the sound is entirely physical. It is the same vibration of strings as a true violin or an upright bass.

Well, sort of. The tone on both (the U-bass is a solid-body model) is simpler, lacking the full body resonances of a primarily acoustic instrument. But they do share -- in fact, because of this same lack of natural acoustic amplification, they even have more -- of the finger noise and bow noise and fret buzzing and all of that.

In short, both have a tone that is far too expressive. Every move my fingers make, intentional or not, is broadcast by the instrument.

You might think the keyboard is the odd one out here, but not exactly. The majority of keyboard instruments share one dirty secret; they are mechanical. If I fret on the bass where I place my finger and how I place my finger matters in the resulting sound. If I play a note on the plays. So a MIDI keyboard sacrifices very little of the nuance of the performer.

(I hasten to add -- that's when it is used to mimic keyboard instruments. It captures fairly faithfully a piano or organ performance. It fails to deliver the necessary control and thus nuance of a string or wind performance when it tries to mimic one.)

So I've been seeing a lot of stuff done with novel orchestration, and with hand-made and improvised instruments. I am still intrigued by the idioms of specific folk musics, of how a bluegrass fiddle is different from a klezmer violin, of the kinds of flourishes typical of an Irish penny whistle, but I'm becoming a lot more cosmopolitan in my arranging.

I'm just as happy, now, putting together groups of instruments that sound good, with whatever interesting techniques each player can muster, as I am with trying to "play the game" and stick with the style, idioms, and expectations of a classic jazz trio.

And in any case...I won't have the piano I want until I've gotten around to hooking up that Raspberry Pi-based keyboard module.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The First Time's the Best: The "Civ Problem"

There's a problem in most computer games. It first came to my attention while playing the Civilization series. Once you've isolated it, though, you see it occurring over and over.

It has to do with the way certain things -- from building a city to opening a treasure chest -- become by the middle of the game rote, boring, and annoying, with too many button clicks and a long animation to sit through. Paradoxically, in the early game these tasks are fresh and exciting enough you as the player find yourself wanting even more. More choices. Longer animations. More detail.

In my opinion, the choice to try to strike a balance is the wrong one. I think games need to do something different. The question is how the design team can afford it.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

We'll make it your way

I work at a company that is essentially using Just-in-time manufacturing technique. Our product line is nimble and always changing, and our catalog is deep, so ww essentially build each order as it comes in. And as a necessary adjunct to this, we only keep enough stock on hand to fill known orders.

That's basically what I was doing. However, the lead time on acrylic, PCB boards, small parts, etc. is enough that I had to anticipate Holocron orders somewhat and purchase those materials ahead. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong. It looks like I'm going to be stuck with unused parts. Whilst, simultaneously, being short of what I need to finish the remaining orders.

The problem is largely one of changes.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Friendly Plug

Nathan McCree, the wonderful composer behind the first four Tomb Raider games, has launched a kickstarter to get a suite of fan-favorite selections from those games recorded by a full symphony orchestra.

At Abbey Road Studios. Well the full support of Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix.

Check him out!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

All U-Bass is Belong to Us

Once or twice in the past I've thought about getting a bass. Certainly not an upright -- those things are huge, and expensive. But even a traditional bass is rather large and cumbersome. Too much, I thought.

Well, not necessarily. And certainly not as of 2005.

Nathan East with his California 5-string, courtesy of Kala

The small-scale hybrid bass concept is not entirely new. The Ashbory came out in 1986. It uses polyethylene strings to cut the length down to about half that of a standard bass. And then there's Paul McCartney with his Höfner 500/1 (a bass neck on a violin-like body.)

One of the many experimenters over the years is Owen Holt, and he combined a baritone ukulele body with pahoehoe strings (manufactured under his own Road Toad branding -- which name is a reference to the infamous Cane Toads, by the by). He then took the new instrument to Mike Upton at Kala, who had learned ukulele building in Hawaii before returning to manufacture them in California.

The first u-bases were acoustic-electric, constructed not unlike a baritone ukulele. There was some experimentation with truss rods along the way, as bass applies new stresses to the standard uke construction. Somewhere around 2011 Kala brought out a solid-body four-string, and in 2015 had five-string options (as well as fretless and left handed options).

Bass players are converts (or, at least adding it to their collections). I saw a used one at the local music shop and was struck by how odd, cute, and friendly it was (in that, at least, it clearly shows its ukulele heritage).

So, yeah, I bought it. And it is, fortunately, one of those instruments that is easy to pick up (all instruments are a lifelong project to learn to play well.) Ukulele skills translate, as do, oddly, violin skills; the former is in the fretting and plucking, the latter is in the sensitivity. This is not a an instrument requiring you to haul down a thick steel string by sheer finger strength. It is an instrument that registers every fretting finger, every brush, every tap.

The one I got is the Kala sunburst SUB. It looks like a baby electric guitar. It has that Fender solid-body shape -- but an oversized headstock and four thick black gummi-worm strings that look like something that belongs on a toy. Internal pre-amp with volume and two tone control knobs on the front and it is just slightly larger than my e-violin.

It is tuned like a four-string bass and with the 20" short-scale has almost the same range. You can hold it like a ukulele but finger plucking is easier with a guitar strap. With those Road Frog Pahoehoes it has a jazzy upright bass quality (particularly if you thumb-pluck and use the heel of your hand to further reduce the sustain). I'm told that with the optional wire-wound strings you can get more of the aggressive bite of a bass guitar.

It is also almost completely silent when not put through an amplifier. You can't even practice it unplugged (but VOX makes a cute headphone amp for guitars and basses).

I do have what appears to be a set-up problem, possibly inherited from the previous owner; my middle strings rattle. I've emailed Kala and will probably be replacing the nut. The low tension means bending is difficult and snapping doesn't work (slap bass technique). It has frets so slides have that fretted sound and you can't really do vibrato. However, the sensitivity of the pickups makes hammer-ons and pops extremely simple. In short there are still plenty of techniques open to exploration on this instrument.

So I've rethought how I will be approaching bass in my next recording project. I've been aware for a while of the true expressive quality of the bass, a quality and a realism that synth patches are a poor substitute for. Well, my playing isn't much better. But the u-bass makes it just possible I can do those parts live now.

And a u-base doesn't take up a lot of space.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Bassic Instinct

I got a chance to play with an Bass Guitar* recently. I am starting to understand many things about bass players that puzzled me in the past.

First, though, was mild surprise at how quickly I figured out "where the notes are." The bass is tuned in fourths, and unless you have an "extended" bass, the strings are in the same order (but sound an octave lower) than the four lowest strings on the guitar.

So a consistent interval, and certainly simpler than the reentrant tuning of a soprano or concert ukulele, but still it takes only moments to adapt and figure out where the next note you want it. I still don't get, in fact, why there are fingering charts for single notes (as there are, and many indeed, for the violin). But then, I'm not usually sight-reading. So I don't know I'm on a G, and I don't have to go through figuring out that the next note will be a B, so where is that...instead I just know I need a note that's a seventh above, and I go there.

In any case certainly beats the fork fingering of a recorder (where half your notes require a combination of fingers with holes left open at various places along the body).

I did somewhat "err" in going for thumb plucking at first. This is uke instinct; you hold up the Uke with your fingers so thumb pluck or strum is easiest. But turns out some bass guitar players use this to sound more like an upright bass -- and by the time I'd read this, I'd already discovered the associated trick of using the heel of your plucking hand to dampen the strings (you rest it on the bridge, in fact).

Fingers work, too, but for that I needed to use the neck strap. In any case, finding the simpler walking bass lines and so forth were dead simple.

Which is the first thing learned; getting them to sound clean is another issue entirely. Like violin, every tiny bit of noise is amplified. Every hammer-on and lift-off is audible, as is every time you brush against another string. Plus unlike the violin, where the sympathetic vibration of the open strings is part of the desired sound, those fourths really clash if you don't make a point of muting the strings you aren't using.

The second thing is how hard it is to hear. I couldn't even get my tuners to recognize it at first. You really need an amp to hear yourself well enough to play.

And it is really all about tone. The difference between the right tone for the song and the moment and the almost right tone is like Mark Twain's "Lightning and lightning bug." And, yeah. You don't hear that tone -- the essential elements that make that tone -- without some serious horsepower in your bass amp.

A 10W practice amp is just barely enough, and that's with it cranked up to max.

So in just a little playing around I suddenly have way more sympathy for the bass players and their amps and their constant adjustments in the name of tone.

Heck; I'm not even sure that you really find your notes through what comes over headphones. The violin communicates when your intonation is right in part through vibration that you feel directly through your skin. I can believe that you know what pitches the bass is making -- at least on the lowest string -- by the low frequency vibrations you feel in your very bones.

The bass is more like a piano than it is like violin or woodwind or brass; you can pretty much produce a note-like object the first time you pick it up. But like all musical instruments, making that note sound good, and adding expression to the performance, is lifetime study.

*sorta bass guitar. Details to follow.

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:


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, 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?

Saturday, May 6, 2017


Another minimalist show with my two Elation dimmer packs and a $100 American DJ lighting board. One of the specials is the clip light from my work bench with a 75W halogen spot in it. It's like that. My main problem with the show is having to run the board myself, which adds another 10 hours to an already crowded week. Work was busy enough I came in on what was going to be a day off.

The calf muscle is healed enough to attempt the gym again. And I somehow found time for a checkout class on a more powerful laser cutter, and cut some more Holocron parts (on May the 4th, of course. How appropriate). So I'm pretty tired and needed the weekend.

I was worried about the 1.3 revision of the Holocron lighting circuit until I tracked the problem down to the USB detector loop I'd added. After omitting that one resistor from the board it passes all tests flawlessly.

Totally sensible, then, to stop everything while I work on the software. Cue wasting most of Saturday staring at pages of code trying to make sense of them, instead of putting Holocrons in boxes to ship out to my customers.

What is unexpected is I actually got it working. I have the usual scheme of a resistor ladder connected to a bunch of tiny buttons, so an analogRead() with the right constraints will detect which button is being depressed. The fun part, though, was working up a set of EEPROM.write() and .read() lines.

And it all works. Even the detect-on-startup. How it works is this; in setup() the code reads the value for one of the variables off the EEPROM. That variable is loaded once and only once by testing for a flag also written into EEPROM.

If the INC and DEC user buttons are pressed the variable is increased or decreased, and if SEL is pressed the new value is written back into EEPROM so the new value for the variable will be set each time the circuit boots.

As a last trick, if the user holds down SEL during the boot process, the software loads the "factory" value back into the variable.

This has all taken about a third of my remaining program memory, though (the Neopixel libraries are PRAM hogs), so the number of user variables I can make accessible is limited. Fortunately, the one I really need for this project is the ability to tweak the sensitivity of the capacitance sensor (a variable known as midiclorianCount).

My last laser session I spent mostly tweaking two of the parts sets, making them fit tighter and look nicer. The next big task that isn't putting finished kits in boxes, though, is to draft up a new vector engraved layer for a variation many of my customers have been calling for; what I've been calling the Kanan Jarrus holocron, as shown in Star Wars Rebels.

So the nightmare is almost over. One or two more shows, another 20 holocrons to laser out and ship, and I'll be able to concentrate on my day job, working on new creative stuff, and getting some sleep.

Oh, yes, and getting more practice time in on my 1967 Roth-adjusted E.R. Pfretzschner Model 301.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Hit the Mute

I picked up a metal practice mute for the Pfretzschner. It does cut the sound. In fact, since I have a modicum of bow control by this point, I can play almost as softly as with the electric.

Unfortunately, it also changes the tone and cuts out most of the resonances and interaction that made me turn to an acoustic. I do want to continue working with the tone, so I'm better off at the moment continuing to bring the acoustic to work where I can play loud during my break time (when I get a break, which isn't always). And continue using the electric for late night/home practice sessions. And for those exercises or experiments that no-one really wants to listen to.

(There's definitely something different about an acoustic. It may be a masking effect of the louder sound but it feels more forgiving. Even feels like it "wants" to fall into pitch or find a regular vibrato. Even the bowing is somehow easier -- although I might want to credit the Pfretzschner bow, which to my mind is worth almost as much as the violin itself.)

Lately I've been practicing Korobeiniki (the "Tetris Theme"). It is the perfect challenge at this point in my development as it has that low second finger. And I'm avoiding the open E as much as I can, thus the same string with the low second also has a fourth finger. Basically you are stretching in what looks like the Vulcan hand salute. Tough to keep it all in tune, especially with fat fingers.

After reading up at some violin forums I tried pulling my elbow further forward, with a little more rotation on my hand, and that is making it a little easier to get at the notes. It is also a better position in general; I'm getting closer to the aligned knuckles position (which not so coincidentally also moves the meat of the hand further from the neck allowing easier vibrato.)

I've also assayed Transylvanian Lullaby (the main theme/violin music from Young Frankenstein) which fortunately had sheet music at MuseScore. It is also a good challenge though perhaps not the right direction for me just yet; it is chromatic, with lots of accidentals...well, basically every time I put a finger down, it is in a different position; low second, high third, now high second, now low fourth....

That and of course it is a good piece to be expressive on; slurs, glissandos, lots of vibrato, etc.

So at this point I'm just barely capable of doing a section part. In another three to six months I will be just up to non-exposed accompaniment.  By two years, I might be able to do an exposed part, but I'll still be far from an expressive solo.

Still, means I can think again about working up something to record.

That is, once I get the other stuff off my table and have some me time again! I totaled it up; between the show I'm working and trying to get through the outstanding Holocron orders (I've shipped maybe a quarter of them so far) I'm working a 60+ hour week.

Which actually isn't that bad, but I'm still feeling some kind of long-range health issue which is really knocking my endurance for a loop. More blood tests are scheduled.

Friday, April 28, 2017


On Fiddle Talk and similar forums the phrase Violin-Shaped Object (VSO) shows up in certain discussions.

I've understood the term on an intellectual basis. This week I've started renting a Pfretzschner violin in the $400 range. Within minutes I had a new emotional appreciation of what this term means.

I've blogged about this before. In the long scale of musical instrument quality there are concert-quality instruments. There are good instruments. There are student instruments. And then there are things carved out of softwood in the general shape of an instrument and sold online, in non-speciality shops, and (more often than they should be) at Guitar Center.

If you want to be charitable, call these display instruments. Like the Ukuleles you get at a gift shop in the airport flying back from Hawaii. There are pieces of plastic or dyed kite string pretending to be strings, a painted board with some random frets on it, peg-shaped pieces of wood jammed into holes. It looks cute on a wall but there's no point in trying to play it.

I'm not in a charitable mood. When it is being sold as a "student" instrument, with copy boasting about the manufacturing quality and selected endorsements by happy customers, prettily packaged up with the basic accessories desired to play. it is an Instrument-Shaped Object.

And it is a disservice to the student, whether they are a child or an adult beginner who always wanted to try. Because in most cases, the person will struggle to get the instrument to work, at last giving it up (and their dreams of playing this particular instrument family) with the impression that it is all their fault.

At the borderline cases, you can still learn. But the learning will be slower, with more of it learning the work-arounds for that particular ISO's flaws and less of it learning the basic correct postures and gestures. And the results will not be as pretty. If you are good, or lucky, eventually you figure out you
need to transition to an actual student model.

When you graph prices against playability, there's a sharp bend on the lower end of the scale. For the Ukulele, my experience is the bend happens somewhere around $100. Below that, you can luck in to a good, useable instrument. Above that, you will almost always have a decent tone and a good setup. Below around $50 the Uke takes a swan-dive. My own Rogue -- purchased for about $35 -- has an indifferent tone and the fretboard is set just wrong enough so open strings are not in tune with fretted ones. But with a little work it was playable. More on that later!

I have (rather, had) an Aulos recorder in that range that goes from under $50 to the $5 specials made in bright colors. It does not play in tune and has an awful tone. I found a Yamaha sopranino for about $50 and it is much more pleasurable to play.

In fact, even as a self-taught amateur with the equivalent of six months of recorder practice I can still feel quite clearly the difference between a low-number Yamaha student model and a more expensive Yamaha (still-student) model. The more expensive instrument falls into the notes in a more defined way, finds the pitches more easily in half-holes and overblows, and has a nicer tone. It is easier to play, easier to play well, and sounds better across the board.

In the case of violins, I'd be tempted to place the bend at $200-300. You are unlikely to find a sub-$200 violin that doesn't need work. And by $600, you will probably get a decent student violin. And, again, the difference is remarkable.

The most unfortunate thing about picking up my $400-used instrument on a rental is it has made me realize how much is lacking on my slightly-over-$100 internet special (outside of the one being a solid-body electric and the other being a proper acoustic, that is).

Musical instruments are expensive. The precision hand work necessary to make a good violin is mind-boggling. It can't be automated, not and get quality results. And that is largely because a violin is made from organic materials. A violin is a whole series of balancing acts between friction and tensile strength that depends on specific detailed qualities of the actual materials. I mean, think about it; that essential violin sound comes from rubbing a string with hairs from the tail of a Mongolian horse, hairs stretched taut and smeared with tree sap. These are not materials that can be brewed in a vat with some exact proportion of chemicals.

(Another informative tidbit is the most important part of a violin is a tiny spruce peg that is propped up inside and is held in place only by the pressure of the pieces it is trapped between. If you take all the strings off a violin, the sound post can fall over, and it is an expensive and time-consuming task to get it righted again).

So you can't blame the student or would-be student for hoping to find an instrument that costs less than a car. Or even less than a cell phone. And you can't blame the manufacturers for rising to fill that need. Especially because it is so tempting a problem; yes, you can mass-manufacture and CNC and you will, by luck of the draw and some cleverness along the way, get something that approximates the playability of a properly built instrument.

What I find weird is that -- at least from my Yamaha experience -- this even applies to an instrument which is drilled out from a hunk of plastic. You'd think it would be as trivial to machine one right as it is to machine one that is out of tune. But this is not the case. (There is good reason why you can't just dial a CNC cutter to a mathematically derived measurement and expect to get the right results, but that's a subject for another lecture.)

So there's competition for that bottom dollar. An ongoing dialog between customer and manufacturer, but not one that applies to real playing quality. See, there are historically parts that are more expensive. Proper tuners, multiple pick-ups, nice strings, etc. The customers learn to recognize that the cheap Uke (or, let's be honest, the traditional Uke) has pegs. The expensive Uke has tuners.

So the manufacturers find a way to put tuners on. They are probably cheap knock-off tuners, worse than the pegs they replaced, but once again the customer is temporarily fooled into thinking this is a better (read, of the more expensive category) instrument than it is. Until the customers start looking for brand names...and the dialog continues.

And this isn't entirely semiotics. A few quality parts can make a big difference. Setup makes a bigger one. This in particular is one of the places where mass manufacturing can not economically go. A VSO is setup on the assembly line, or swiftly by a technician. It can be made more playable if it is hand-adjusted.

In the case of my Uke, I replaced the strings and shaved the nut. That made it instantly much easier to play, slightly more in tune with itself, and sound much prettier. For a while there, the rule was, replace the strings. No questions ask, strings are a place that is easy for manufacturers to skimp on in order to place their product at $10 less than the competitor (or, in the increasing consolidation of everything into a few monopolies, to grab one or two more of the customers who are balancing this impulse buy against the impulse for a new computer game or a couple of cocktails that weekend).

Now every Uke I see hanging up at my usual suspects have Aquilla strings (or at least a decent knock-off). So that one's gone. New manufacturers have also moved into the violin business with remarkably cheap yet decent-performing strings, so even the VSO's have started shipping with okay strings on them.

Setup on a violin, however, is not for the faint of heart. And this entire idea of set-up; of taking a cheap instrument and doing the tweaks and adjustments the manufacturer could not afford for that price point, and swapping out the hardware that similarly would have driven up the price, presumes that the person undertaking this has some basic crafts skills, musical ability, and confidence.

I mean, how are you going to make even a Uke more playable if you have no idea how to play one?

The Pfretzschner has been informative in ways that are almost too subtle for me to verbalize. Some of that, again, is acoustic. And it is extremely good I made this move when I did. There are, indeed, basic elements of performance that were getting masked by the electric violin. Fortunately, despite the dire warnings I saw around various forums and music shops, these aren't sudden insurmountable hurdles, not hills I should have been already climbing for months.

But then I have unfair advantage over the child student. I have some moderate musical knowledge and skill, and have been attempting various instruments for quite some time. I also am a craftsperson -- I've done a bit of sculpting and painting and so forth and I have the fine motor control to be able to swiftly learn the nuances of a new gesture.

I never had a real problem with bowing at right angles to the strings, for instance. A little work with a mirror to make sure, and it is within the margins of where it should be at my present level of skill.

In any case, tone is suddenly a thing. Heck, this might also be the strings and rosin I have on the electric. In any case, on the electric I really can't get a bad tone. I actually have to struggle to get a whisper-squeak or a good grank. On the acoustic, it is much different. There is indeed a Kreisler Highway of tone as well, a range of pressure and speed in which acceptable tones are produced. And a variety of tone color within that band.

See, there's a coupling of resonance between string and body. On the electric, as long as the string is actually vibrating in the correct Helmholz z-shape (look it up) then you have the note. You have to fall entirely outside, either to the non-linear regime of chaotic movement (too much pressure/speed), or fail to set the string into regular motion in the first place (the whisper of too little pressure or a lack of rosin).

On the acoustic, a narrower range within this larger range of "actually vibrating" is when it couples with the body to develop the full rich tone that, honestly, is what was driving me to move from the electric in the first place.

And fortunately for my progress as a beginner, it isn't really much effort to stay within that band. The only downside is this is also the louder side of the band -- I can't both practice softly and try to get a decent tone. It also changes subtly when vibrato is introduced. Vibrato on the electric is less obvious and you can do it with less precision. On the acoustic, again, there is a sweet spot. Conversely and usefully, it also seems to "talk back" making the gesture a little easier to get right in the first place.

So the lesson for the student? The electric is still a great idea. I don't know yet about how well a practice mute works (had to order one online, as well as some peg drops), but the electric allowed and still allows me to experiment and make all the horrible noises that no-one but me can hear. It gave me and gives me more freedom to mess up. Being afraid of what others think of your playing is the greatest block I can think of to learning.

At the same time, the acoustic has opened up my understanding of what is going on as I play. It is developing skills not just required for acoustic play, but skills that translate back to the electric. (Among other things, the intense loud sound of the acoustic has made me more comfortable with getting really loose and experimental on the electric. I'm more willing to make bad noises on the one that, honestly, even I can barely hear).

But VSO's? And ISO's in general? They still make me angry. All we can do is educate, however. There is still a place for them. The marginal ones can still be played, or tinkered with until they are playable, thus they are an affordable alternative to what otherwise can be a somewhat elitist endeavor.

But, really? Rentals make more sense. Rent a decent student instrument. Use that to find out if that instrument is for you, and to gain the basic skills in recognizing what is necessary to make a playable instrument. Then even if you want to purchase a cheap knock-off, you will have the skills, and more importantly, the confidence to work with it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

After the battle

I've been trying to learn "Far Horizons" from the game Skyrim and that's led me to muse on a contrast.

In both Skyrim and Tomb Raider 2013 there are lethal encounters with the locals. In Tomb Raider, when the fight ends there's a brief quotation of the character theme; muted and tinged with the melancholy of all you've lost, as with every other piece of music in this particular Tomb Raider, but nonetheless a horn flourish celebrating a moment of triumph.

The only time you hear the "Dragonborn" character theme in Skyrim (outside of bardic performances in taverns) is when you are being attacked by a dragon. What plays at the conclusion to most encounters is something more wistful, even elegiac. It is a piece of music that invites one to contemplate the fragility of life and the shared humanity of you and those you've just slain against this harsh, bleak, starkly lovely landscape of steep rocks and chilly snow.

(It is in fact one of the generic wilderness travel snippets -- the piece I opened this discussion with -- but it is scripted to always show here and I can't believe the emotional impact of that choice was not considered).

Im Tomb Raider  the bad guys are somewhat humanized before the fight; if you sneak well enough you can hear snippets of conversation. Unfortunately there is no conversation allowed during the fight; once guns are drawn there is no negotiation allowed. Following the fight, all that is left is to search the bodies for more ammunition.

In Skyrim, you also search the bodies. Such is the stock mechanics of AAA games. But in doing this you are also led through their campsites and rooms and shelters. Where you find bedrolls tucked into a niche of the rock out of the rain, personal possessions tucked away in drawers, a couple books beside a table, a meal on the fire, a chair set up for no other purpose but to relax and take in a vista of distant mountains. These material goods are so particular and homely they give a mute description of their owners, a more sharply drawn and more universal one than any dialog snippet.

You can not help but place yourself shivering in that bedroll, warming yourself over a rude meal on that campfire (as often enough, you do in the course of the game) and greeting the day sitting in that chair looking over the vast snowy land of Skyrim. It invites you (sometimes literally) to put yourself in the hide shoes of those you were forced to kill. (Of course, in this game there is also no great distance between you and them. Your background is similar, your adventures similar. You aren't some well-equipped American stand-in mowing down foreign hordes, not in this game).

Even the nature of the encounter is different. In Skyrim you largely chose to engage; you can leave the bandit camp alone, or even run away. In Tomb Raider you are largely scripted in. It is an extremely linear narrative and often the next door will not even open until you've performed the sacrifice the game demands. Once combat is joined, of course, most AAA games are alike. There is no parley, no quarter.

Except not even this is absolute; Skyrim has a third-party mod that can be installed that allows your enemy to surrender instead of fighting to the death. And, sure, this is not a creation of the original designers. But the original designers did permit the end users to change the story and make this possible. Tomb Raider will not even allow the player to look in a different direction than that which the script requires.

(The only AAA game I've played in which quarter is possible in the base game is Batman: Arkham City. In that game, psychological warfare is all-important. The Batman is, after all, shaped to be a figure of fear to the cowardly and superstitious. So if you do well enough in striking from the shadows and otherwise appearing as an unstoppable phantom, some of the bad guys will drop to their knees to cower in place instead of continuing the fight. It ain't much, but it beats having to flatten everyone).

Am I reading too much into this contrast? Perhaps. Skyrim is intelligently designed by a company that knows how to search out a specific and nuanced emotional tone.  Tomb Raider 2013 is a lumpen creation-by-committee where every decent emotional arc sputters out in ludonarrative disconnect against the brainless mechanics and an insulting restriction of any player choice.

(I have to go a little bit further here. This isn't just a contrast between open world and linear narrative. The Half-Life series is also a linear narrative, and restricts exploration just as much. But Half-Life is designed by people who knew what they were doing; it leads the eye and hides the choices rather than forces them on the player. It shows that a linear narrative and even tightly scripted events can take place without making the player feel like a passive observer of the game being played).