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:

SamplerBox

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

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

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

TRL OST: the project

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



So much for reality.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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




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

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




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




Sunday, May 14, 2017

TRL, the OST: introduction

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

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

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

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

Bow in Hand

Doomed Drums

Move Over, PDQ

History in Gear

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

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

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

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

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



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





In any case.

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

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


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Goodbye Inkscape?

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

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

Here's what I've tried:

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

Trying on clean and new files.

Playing with the X11 settings.

Reverting to an older version of Inkscape.

Deleting the preferences and the Apple applications state files.

Reverting to an older version of Xquartz.

Checking endless forums for help.

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

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



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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Loquacious Jedi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Brilliant

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

VSO's

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).

Monday, April 17, 2017

Uh-oh, someone's been feeding the bunny

Yesterday's plot bunny is getting fatter and more aggressive.



I diss on the Tomb Raider reboot but I do like the character and her arc. I just don't like what happened when the story was gamified. Not just the stock AAA elements and gameplay, the formulaic action, the ridiculous shoot-em-ups that help to make for a huge ludonarrative disconnect, but the way the other characters and plot threads and gimmicks are crammed in sideways, wrecking whatever narrative flow there is.

So, Endurance. There's a mystery, and it both starts on and involved the "Yamatai" expedition ship. Mystery shrouds the true purpose of the expedition, and its true backers.

And enter our young archaeology student. This is the "Nine Bells" Lara, only she didn't chose to work late nights at a pub because she refused her family's money. She doesn't have that family. There is no Lord Croft, no manor. She is on Endurance without that whole support structure, without a built-in best friend and a father-figure/mentor to sacrifice himself later and a puppy-dog geek and a Magical Polynesian waiting in the wings to join her.

Yes, not even Sam. She was roommates, but they never bonded. Captain Roth and First Mate Grim are distant authority figures, a closed masculine world that laughs off her fears when she dares try to express them. Reyes is their security, primed for violence, similarly unapproachable. And even Sam seems to be up in the First Class Cabins with the expedition heads (despite her lack of strong credentials) and thus similarly unapproachable.

The game, I remind you, got Lara out alone to struggle to survive, then suddenly paraded the rest of the cast by her before yanking them away again -- in hopes you'd care about them when they showed up a second time largely just in time to get killed off. Oh, and you might stumble across various diaries and so forth which expanded on their characters. Which sort of works for a game like Bioshock but is a pretty solid failure when, a) the people in question aren't (generally) deceased yet, and b) you are supposed to know them already and consider them friends!

In any case. In Endurance we'd discover these people tentatively, as Lara has to risk her trust on them based on far-from-satisfactory conversations. And get them to open up to her in turn. Possibly the ally she wins first is Alex, and that one is a mixed blessing.

And, no, not all of them are trustworthy. Grim, Roth and Reyes are definitely far enough outside the curve that it will take a strong shock to make them step back and rethink their life choices. And Whitman is completely across the line. If there is anything like the Himiko plot going on, he knows damned well what the Queen needs and pretty much brought Sam along for the sacrifice.



And as for the mystery? Well, it is probably Amanda's ship. Still. She's probably in uneasy partnership with Natla, with both looking for the best moment for betrayal. And only Amanda's incompetence (she's good, but she's not original-model Lara Croft) has kept Natla from gaining the full powers of the Scion.

Or perhaps another McGuffin. We're so off model already there's no use quibbling that it didn't work that way in the game. (One is reminded of L. Sprague DeCamp's comments about changing the gender, nationality, key dates, and other minor details and voila, the "real" King Arthur was obviously Cleopatra.)

(The comment was aimed at people who apply a similar surgery to Plato's Atlantis).




The bunny just fed again. Richard Croft -- as revealed in Tomb Raider: Underworld -- made a lot of progress in finding Mjolnir for Natla. So there's no problem at all with a Croft having worked for Natla and having left interesting clues around for our new protagonist to discover. Mansion included. Ah, but was there an original child of Richard and Amelia? What if she never left Nepal? What if, in fact, young Lara went to Avalon and a heartbroken Amelia had to struggle out of the mountains alone? And Richard dying in his attempts to find her instead? 

So now we have a mysterious figure who both aided and fought Natla, and a reclusive widow in a massive manor filled with dark secrets (seriously -- have you PLAYED that damned house?) 

The question is, of course.....is "our" Lara actually "that kind of a Croft?" Aka the original kid, thrust through time and space by the travel stones?



Sunday, April 16, 2017

Plot Bunny of the Day

So in the Stargate, SG1 episode "Watergate" (no relation) it is revealed that the Soviets have their own DHD, which they grabbed off the Germans in 1945.

It is a bit of a weakness of the series that the US sat on their stargate until Catherine finally got them to restart it. Especially after the episode "Tantalus" revealed that Ernest Littlefield's group had successfully opened it in 1945. (And this without the ten years and four supercomputers Samantha Carter claimed had been necessary in 1998).

So...instead of a Manhattan Project, a crash project to open the Stargate. Because the Germans got theirs opened first (maybe they got the entire Giza gate -- and never you mind that outside of Indiana Jones movies they don't get to do what they like in Cairo in the 30's). Which means the US might have had to somehow discover the Antarctica gate...

But anyhow. The fun is having that same polyglot group of crazies, Feynman and Fermi and so forth, only working on wormhole physics. And Werner von Braun's group getting to explore the universe like they wanted, but without rockets. Of course the physics of the gate means that Tantalus and Abydos are the most likely successful contacts anyhow. Which ends up with one side joining forces with Ra and then things really get crazy.

But let's shake it up a little. Instead of the usual suspects for heroes and villains, have the US play Ra like an analog of Stalin, handling him with what they think is a long enough spoon at least until the Germans are out of the picture. Except they don't know about the Goa'uld parasite. And it is left up to a third party to try to save more than one world from the madness.

Some really motivated Italians, perhaps? Why is it that the role of being the only heroes who can fight well enough always goes to the ones who, historically, had the kick-ass armies in the first place? But, alas, that's too much research. As is the obvious Bear in the room (Soviet Russia, that is.) Or even further afield, China (who had enough on their plates already, and besides, let's keep this to the Western Front). Ah, but given the fun of pitting the Manhattan Project against von Braun's rocket group, who else but to throw in the mix are those doughty and reliable underdog heroes, Bletchly Park and Alan Turing and so forth...I speak of course of the Brits.




The other bunny of the day is even odder. So when the reboot Tomb Raider 2013 was made Crystal Dynamics re-used some assets. The rusty, tramp-steamer-looking Endurance which Whitman's archaeological expedition charters re-uses the model of the two big fancy cargo ships Amanda has in the final game of the previous canon (aka Tomb Raider: Underworld).

But...what if it is the same ship? Ten years, rough seas and a few more changes of ownership (plus Lara did a number on one of the ships anyhow. Sunk it, actually, but who's counting).

And once again let's skip the stupid island so conveniently filled with soft targets and spare clips for the various machine guns lying around like a cheap first-person shooter. Instead, assume the previous canon is true. At least as far as Amanda and Natla (though, pretty obviously, Natla didn't actually destroy the world in this chronology). Lara might or might not be real; it would be interesting to have her as a reclusive countess with stories about her past that sound downright mythic.

But she's not our protagonist. Our protagonist is stumbling across, on that same ship, evidence of a story that already happened.

Which is not to say it isn't a story that's been concluded! Lara might not be holed up in Abbingdon and not talking to anyone, but Natla is still out there and dangerous as ever. One might reach at this point for "Young" Lara, the inexperienced college student of the reboot. But that ship has already been around the world a few times. Instead, try someone else for the starring role. But keep the other characters.

I think this is actually more interesting. Stephanie, say, might be discovering there's a darker side to archaeology. And she has to reach out to people who have the skills she needs now, but people who don't have that existing relationship to her. Like Conrad Roth, who in this chronology is friends only with Angus Grim and isn't already staged as a mentor and trainer and dead father figure to the protagonist de jour.

(Actually, in a way it is even more hilarious to make Roth the hero. He'd very much fit the archetype of a certain kind of masculine adventure fiction; he's practically an early Alister MacClean protagonist. So he'd be retired, going to seed, his only contact with military adventure being the stories he shares with his mate Grim. Content to captain this ship around even if the current charter are a bunch of idiots. Until they discover more than they can handle and he has to step up to the plate.)

(And there's everything such a character could want. A young man -- or young woman -- to take on as protege, at least a couple options for romance, an abrasive academic who thinks he should be in charge, a gentle giant and a tough cop as solid right hands and a geek for tech support.)




These are wild plot bunnies, of course. I'm not petting them. I'm pretty much done with those two silly universes anyhow (at least, I will be in another four to six chapters).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A conflict problem

As the current story is wrapping up I've become more and more aware of how much interesting conflict I didn't put in it.

I'm going to blame not having an overall plan. When I wrote the first scene I was aiming for 6-12,000 words. My only aim was to bring two casts together and have a little fun at the way they clashed. I had no overall story arc or goal.

Thing is, even as I came up with puzzles and opponents, the resulting story remains as exploratory as the process. Basically, my characters are searching for clues. There's none of the groundwork there even if I did come up with some great moral choice or interpersonal conflict or some nice paralleling of the internal and external. No-one is planted to be a lover or betrayer, to change loyalties at a key moment or discover hidden depths in themselves. No element is designed in to suddenly strike home at the protagonists.

And, really, I could have. If what I have now were a first draft, I'd take apart the materials I have and I'd find those conflicts. Lara has several potential arcs here. For instance, I could have planned to bring her into internal conflict by contrasting the guns-blazing cultural heritage-destroying Tomb Raider she is now versus the academically trained lover of discovery she had been. Have others bring up this conflict (perhaps with their own contrasting methods). Personalize it in the form of Amanda, who may have shared the innocent love of discovery but went even further into power-hungry looter. Bring the unnamed tomb in Bolivia where it all changed to a more central part of the narrative. Etc, Etc.

In a different direction, I could have brought the Tears of Horus even closer to the central narrative and tied it to internal themes; both to Lara's reluctant admission that she is willing to kill and destroy in order to complete her mission, and (even stronger) her entire lifestyle as a quest for freedom -- which clashes most horribly with the mind-controlling properties of the Horus Draught. This could have been a bigger moment and a much harder struggle as she pits her very vision of herself against mental bonds she can't fight.

Heck, even on a smaller scale; I sort of set up but never plotted to complete a legendary battle between her and Teal'c. And one could, with enough distance (and/or hindsight) to plan, bring this into an epic fight with the reader rooting for both sides equally.

Nor do my created characters, the Genesis group, really have a purpose in the narrative (they may have had one that I forgot in the long months that passed between each chapter). And there are so many possible conflicts and arcs and changes of heart and revelations of purpose that could have been wrought with them.

Fortunately, I am comfortable viewing the entire thing as a rambling monolog on history, archaeology, retro-technology, philosophy of science, and whatever else struck my fancy.




But when I think about it, my other two novel-length attempts (one abandoned, one completed but never published) also suffer from what I am thinking now is a conflation of the protagonist's problems with the writer's problems. In both, the protagonist is primarily investigative. Exploring, or simply reacting and trying to stay alive. In Shirato, at least, that was conscious and thematic; Mie spends most of the book trying to act according to internalized social mores and, when she finally breaks free of those social constraints she almost loses everything in a sort of madness.

This is a powerful mode for a reader, too, as it allows the reader to discover the characters, the universe, and the MacGuffin of the day in a natural manner. They share along with the protagonist an increasing understanding of what is going on, what the stakes are, and what might be done about it.

So the fault may not just be one of lack of planning. It might just be that I'm a guy who avoids interpersonal conflict (or really any situation that might give rise to strong emotion -- an unfortunate habit I got into in high school and never grew out of). So my protagonists tend to Mary Sue in at least this one way; they get a freedom to explore, to chose what to investigate and where to go next. They don't tend to find themselves in tangles (emotional or not) that have no clear way out.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Shell Game

Well, I got my day off. Didn't feel up for work today.

Holocron serials #02 and 03 are moving along. I had to paint up a new shell in order to record the steps on my revamped mini-studio (a piece of blue paper tacked to the wall and running under the subject as a no-horizon backdrop, and a high-CRI fluorescent bulb in a clip light).

So I've posted up the first sheet of assembly instructions:

And the first payment is in on a successfully shipped Holocron. No word yet on the one I sent to Japan, though.

In any case, there's an annoyingly short list of steps before the first kits can ship. Annoying because it is just so difficult to work in enough constructive hours to actually do those last couple of steps. I really feel I have to finish one more of the "complete" Holocrons both to make sure all the current parts are cut to the right length, and to record the steps properly for the remainder of the assembly instructions.

As far as I can tell there's just a few wires left to solder (USB breakout board and the tail for the sensor lead). And maybe include a few pre-cut pieces of double-sided tape. And figure out how to wrap everything so it is properly protected in shipment. And I think I have enough parts cut for four kits.

Oh, and make sure I'm uploading the latest version of the software. And doing a complete function check of the assembled electronics module.


Unfortunately I still have rent paperwork to do today. And I should really finish those taxes. And this cough is distracting me enough it is hard to concentrate on anything technical. After all, if I felt well enough to program and solder and sand and paint and record shipping data I'd be at work being paid for my time. I mean, more than $90 a kit.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

I need a day off from my weekend

I have half-soldered holocron modules spread over my desk. With more circuit boards coming from OshPark sometime next week. Another $150 of acrylic is current by the front desk at TechShop waiting for me to come out and cut it on the lasers there.

My plan today is to solder until the rain ebbs a little, then spend as many hours at the shop as I can get tool reservations for. On Sunday, back to painting and assembling, and take new pictures so I can post up assembly instructions for the kits I will be shipping out next week.



Oh, but of course I have a rehearsal to attend and a short meeting with the director for what I strongly intend to be the last play I work this year. And rent paperwork, and I need to finish the business portion of my taxes for last year. So there's a lot I'm hoping to get done over this far-too-short weekend.

So far, I haven't even put on my shoes.





Well, that went well. I soldered up all the current batch of circuit boards, but it took all Saturday. (The weather never did get better so just as well). Woke up today with a stomach bug and it was the afternoon before I could sit up without wanting to throw up. So mostly worked on the instruction sheet, did the worst of the sanding and priming on serial #04 and took lots of pictures while I did it.)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

How Strange the Change...

It is so nice not to have a show to work twice a week and two shows on weekends. I feel so relaxed -- even with putting holocrons in boxes (I spent five hours last night at the laser, getting home too late to even eat diner) I feel relaxed.  I feel like I can finally finish some of these dangling chores and clear the work table a little.

So, of course, I'm yanked off in a new direction. Started this morning. See, I've been bringing my
violin to work to practice during my break time.

Which is coming along well. Messed with the theme from the 1978 Battlestar Galactica (fingering is straight-forward enough I could almost play through on the first attempt) and the "usual snippet" from Polovtsian Dances (rather less so). By ear, that is. I've got my music stand back and I'm a member at MuseScore now but my sight-reading still needs a lot of work.

Anyhow, carrying an instrument on your back as you approach the time clock will start a conversation here and there. One of my co-workers is buying a keyboard soon, another is trying to spend more time with his (a familiar problem).

I don't spend a lot of time with my keyboard partly because it is a Behringer controller; no internal sounds, no external speakers. To run it I have to connect it to the laptop, boot up Reaper, then stretch a headphone cord across the room. Every now and then I think I should throw a speaker and some kind of synth module in a box so I just have to throw a single switch and the piano is playable. Right now the only impulse instrument I have is a ukulele I keep on a hook by my chair.

So today I opened my Maker's Notebook and scribbled ideas for a simpler keyboard setup. I still have
a couple rack-mount synths, but 19" is large for the "box with a speaker" I was envisioning.  I do have a Korg P3, but there's a lot to be said for having other than a basic piano sound. An even smaller box would fit a Kurtzweil micropiano, which has some of the best keyboard sounds in a book-sized synth (and really nice piano). But the things are still $200 American on the used market. Hrm. Keep scribbling.

Plus the Behringer keyboard requires external power when using a MIDI cable, so that's more wires to play with. A USB box would be just one cable...  Say; a Raspberry Pi can handle software synthesis and even be trained to handle MIDI-over-USB. So could throw that in a box and...

But by now I'm thinking of the sounds I spent so many years practicing keyboard with. The sounds of the Yamaha DX21 (a cut-down version of the DX7; no velocity, only four operators instead of six...and that's all Geek to you, right?)

So I hunted and yes there is a free multi-platform FM synthesizer pre-loaded with those great old
DX7 patches. Called DEXED and you can find it with a short Google. By this time, as you can gather, I'm pretty far from my original starting point. (Incidentally, the pi-in-a-box is totally doable but requires some hairy programming steps to boot into musicality without having to hassle around with passwords and so forth every time).

But by this time I was off-track. Found myself listening to samples of DEXED on YouTube, then DX7 samples, then reproductions and homages of some of the synth-heavy 80's hits. And that leads me to some clever videos explaining the chord sequences used by many Hollywood composers (as well as the familiar discussions of orchestration and so forth that somehow never seem to show up on my YouTube "you may also like" page no matter how many I watch.)

And, yeah, this seems completely out in the woods now, but one of the things I was intending with the violin was to get back into composing a little. And that instrument is now close to the point where I can actually make use of it.

And probably I'll just prop a rack module and powered monitor under the Behringer and gaff-tape a power strip to the keyboard stand. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and a fancy box with a Pi-based FM synth and a scratch-built speaker system at some point in the indeterminable future must fall to the utility of having a keyboard I can go to now when I hear a musical motif in my head and want to try it out.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Tech Levels

Four pounds of Keokuk chert arrived in the mail this week. The first two Holocrons shipped as well, and I'm making some small changes to the Eagle file so I can run off some more PCBs.

That's about ten thousand years of technology between those extremes. Plus I'm still practicing violin daily, an instrument which appeared in more-or-less modern form in the 16th century. Oh, but the circuit board is for a Holocron, which depending on how you look at it is either technology of the far future, or comes from "long, long ago" (in a galaxy far, far away). Except as a prop, it is only as advanced as laser cutters and the AVR chip introduced in 1996.

This weekend I mixed the final performances of an original musical based on a 19th-century fairy tale famously animated by Disney in 1937 and introducing the first of what would be a long line of Disney Princesses. This time I had a Yamaha LS9 to work on. Still no time for sound check, but I knew how to handle that now. (This was also a "blind" show in the sense that there was no proper FOH position. I mixed from inside the light booth and had to go by memory and judgement and indirect cues instead of being able to properly hear the show).

Of course I haven't used that board for at least three years. One gets rusty. I've just been asked by my work to do a little machining and I'm pretty conscious of being rusty there, too. It doesn't matter in the least what era a skill comes from, whether it is laying out traces in a CAD program or knocking chips off a rock with a deer antler. What matters is how much time has passed since you did it last.



Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Shipped!

The first holocron was accepted by the Post Office. Now as long as it clears customs in Italy (and isn't damaged in transit....)

I've been scribbling on graph paper for nearly two months now trying to improve on the connection to the sense plate. Well, of course: after I assembled two holocrons and made up a detailed instruction sheet, I finally got the bright idea I'd been hoping for.

I'm still not wonderfully happy with the whole thing, but I'm willing to put them in boxes now. I'd set up a nice assembly line but there's only four or so that get completed and painted by me. The rest are shipping out as kits.



(The one remaining thing I really want is to program  in a few basic functions on the User Buttons. But dunno when I'll have enough consecutive not-exhausted hours to wrangle code).

Monday, March 27, 2017

Addendum

Some more thoughts about the subject of my last post.

First -- of course, the situation was my fault. I could have made a site visit. I could have made sure I had contact numbers in case I had trouble getting in. I could have arrived earlier -- then there was at least a small chance I would have bumped into the people who went in and didn't leave an obvious way to follow.

But this is near the end of a tough run, I'm running on fumes and I wasn't mentally or physically up for thinking outside of the routine we've followed for every other performance. Or in a position financially or time-wise to make that site visit. I was barely able to drag myself out of bed and get there at all, in fact.

So to it. When you hit a situation like this; due to whatever circumstance you have to get a show up without the resources you really need (usually time, but also often enough gear), here's what you need to do:

Don't Panic. It's fine to go to flanking speed. It's fine to get tense and terse. But don't hurry to the point where you start plugging in the wrong cables or where you are giving orders so fast the crew can't understand you. And most importantly; don't let that spill on to the performers. It is fine to let them know things are a little tough and you are a little harried. But they don't need to know that the sound might not be there at all (unless you get lucky or have a sudden inspiration on how to make it work after all).

Prioritize: No, that's not even the right word. Triage. Make a (mental) list of everything you could survive without if the worst happens, and do all of those last. This isn't a simple matter of ranking a list; everything is a balance between how long it is expected to take, what kind of risk you are willing to take, and how much you really need that thing.

For this show, there were a few absolutes. I had to have the backing tracks. The musical doesn't happen without that. But outside of a complete failure of the venue's sound system, that is a matter of plugging in two cables and getting a rough level. So it doesn't need to be the first thing we do. Low down on my list was floor mics, because there's only three solo lines that use that mic, and it doesn't have the reach to save me if the body mics aren't working.



The other thing I had working for me on this one was Experience. I knew the show very well. I knew the voices. In a sense this was like mixing a trio; if you only have piano, bass and drums on stage it's pretty trivial to figure out channel is which when you have to adjust on the fly. I knew when I popped up the first four mics for the opening number I would be able to hear if C. wasn't in the mix, or if T. was the one who was overpowering everyone else.

I also knew the board family and had spent literally a decade watching wireless mics on the meter bridge. So I could actually do a rough trim by eye (it is really nice when you have warm-ups, because then the mics are all hearing a singing voice at typical volume. Well, more-or-less typical; far too many actors mark their way through warm-ups. But with a good pair of 'phones I can hear exactly how hard they are trying and adjust the trim to compensate.)

There are also standards for a well set-up sound system. These were Meyer speakers, a mid-range Yamaha board, and a clean new-looking theater. So I had good reason to believe that the overall system gain would put me at an appropriate volume level if I ran a healthy-looking signal (plenty of green, space left before it hit red). The house tech advised me on his typical starting point for wireless mics (they tend to be set for a +4 line level. relatively consistent across brands -- again, assuming healthy gain staging through their own signal chain).

And I had one starting point already; we'd fired up the backing tracks to set a rough level on the floor monitors.

So when I started the show, I used the Overture to quickly dial in the level on the backing tracks. Then rolled up the first four mics. I can mix at least four fingers at the same time, so I knew I could compensate with the faders if my rough trim was completely off. As it turns out, it was close enough that I could quickly pop through the head amps and match them. And since I'd rough-trimmed all the mics to the same average level, all I had to do as the other characters entered is bring their faders up to the same position and fine-tune the trim.

It is a little trickier than that, because I have several "yelpers" in the cast who require constant riding of their mic (or as a tech at the Paramount called it, "the five compressors I have on each hand.")




But there's another dirty trick here. No two mixes are identical. One person emphasizes bass, another emphasizes the Bass. Each new song or set or band you listen to, you as a listener spend the first minute or two adjusting your ears to it.

And that means if you have to mix a band cold, without a proper sound check (sometimes, without even a line check), you have a couple of minutes while the audience is adjusting to try to get a mix out of the mess you've got coming off the console.

I've done this, as I said, and again there's a lot of experience that goes into it. I know where to place mics that generically will get a certain sound. It might not be the perfect sound for that band but it will work. And perhaps more importantly, I know what sound that is.

Because I can go back to the console and without the instrument even being there I can set a rough trim and do some basic EQ. I know a snare is a lot hotter than a drum overhead. I know my lone Karma mic is much hotter than the little Oktava's. So I can eyeball a really rough level on them, and be prepared to deal with some known EQ issues (cheap condensers have that 6K-8K boost, for instance. Kick sounds terrible if you let too much mid and mid-low through. In fact, you can go right ahead and dial up a starter frequency for the "crack" and "whoomph" but don't put a lot of gain on it at first.)

And then you work your way from foundation, just as if you had an afternoon and a finished multitrack to mix down. Get the rhythm section in. Add the front men. Then work your way through the rest of the band.

It is hair-raising, flying-fingers work, and really requires you know your way around the board blindfolded. But I've done it enough that I don't shut down in terror if I have to face it again.

Oh, yeah, and the last thing in your tool kit; Hubris. You've got to have the willingness to subject hundreds to thousands of people, people who may have paid upwards of fifty bucks for a seat, to your gambles. You've got to be willing to let your instincts of that moment, that direct connection between your ears saying "more sax!" and your left ring finger on the fader to override the probably better judgement of the promotor, the music director, the punter yelling at you from an aisle seat, and the musician himself. You've got to gamble with all of the efforts of everyone who rehearsed so long and worked so hard (and spent so much money) and do what seems to be right at the moment -- or at least what appears to be working.

I call it hubris because I can never and will never let myself forget of what it means when I step up to that board. I will make mistakes. My judgement will always be suspect. But someone has to call it. Someone has to get a semblance of order into what otherwise would be sonic chaos, and there's no time for a second opinion.

You have to COMMIT. The lead sax is too brassy? You have a split-second to make the call; fix it fast enough that it makes just one little bubble, one small forgivable flub in the overall song. Or let it ride and find a way to defend it as musically valid. The only thing that is worse than a mix that is wrong is one that can't make up it's mind. The ears can adjust to the former. Not the latter.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Machines are Revolting

So penultimate weekend of the kid's show I'm doing. At a new theater a fair drive away. So as I set out I start to punch in the address on the smart phone and....no keypad. A restart fixed that, but fixing it distracted me enough to get me off schedule. I get to the theater at last and no open doors. Apparently one (ONE) of the people inside tried to call (instead of, say, having a door open, answering the bell, or even giving instructions on how to get in or a contact number.)

However, all the company phones have been having a huge problem with spam messages. We've stopped answering any call that comes from out of state. Guess how the anonymous, unknown number that tried to call me ID'd? Out of state.

When I'm finally let in, there only available FOH position is taken up by their own board. And it is a deep house; possibly too deep for our wireless mics in this modern age of increasing interference. So snap decision; leave the receivers backstage, plug into the stage snake and use their board to mix it.

A Yamaha M7CL. Which I knew only by theory and looking over the shoulder of another operator. And I hadn't used a Yamaha digital board since leaving the Playhouse. And the van with our gear was late, the house tech was friendly but not terribly motivated, and there appeared to be some RF issues, and the cast didn't even get into mics until well after we'd opened the house anyhow (they were too busy adjusting the choreography to a new and much larger stage).

So I mixed the show cold. Without even the benefit of monitoring over headphone to see if I had signal. I had nothing but eyes and guesswork -- years of experience in watching signal hit the bridge of a good board from wireless mics sitting on actors as they talked and slapped on makeup and quietly warmed up back stage -- to rough in the levels. And only verbal guidance as to where that would actually fall in the loudness range over the actual speakers.

And it was a lot better than I had expected. But just a wee bit tiring. Especially the opening number. I was well and truly worn out by the time the show was over. Time for a little take-out Chinese, some Anderson Valley Amber, and update my blog before much-needed bed.


Hrm. Actually, it's a Dogfish Head Indian Brown this time. Pity none of their "Ancient Ale" series of historical recreations appeared to be in stock at my local. Now that I know they are brewing them again I'll have to make some calls...

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Trust

Far too often I don't feel "up to" working with power tools and opt to work quietly on the computer or take a break entirely.

Too often. So today I pushed forward instead, and in less than five minutes -- moments after starting the first connection -- I put my soldering iron right into a finger.

Maybe it is better to trust that little voice.

(Regardless, as soon as I can take my finger out of the glass of ice water I'm going to try that joint again).

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chapter Up

Been not feeling up for anything more physical than writing. I'm overdue for a full physical, I think. But at least I got another chapter done.

I cast my net a little wide this time. I spent a while browsing maps of New Mexico, trying to plan an itinerary of properly colorful places. I knew I wanted to include the Trinity Test Site and erroneously drew up a tentative route down to the far South of White Sands. Then I did a new search for rock climbing areas and that turned up the fact that Hueco Tanks, "The Tanks" themselves, were close to my route.

A few more scribbles and searches and I had it; leave Roswell, stop at Alamogordo and admire the Great Atari Video Game Burial, continue through El Paso to Hueco Tanks and get a little climbing in, cone back North to the White Sands Missile Range Museum and gaze longingly through the parking lot fence at Victorio Peak -- while Lara grabs a dirt bike and "sneaks" up through White Sands to the Trinity Site. (Which is, of course, to the North).

That was looking about right for material. Add something about Chief Victorio and the Apache Wars and I'd have a 6,000 word chapter, right?

Didn't work out that way. I hit 10,000. First off, I'd only meant to open the chapter with Lara in the middle of climbing some rock. Because I really didn't want to open with more talking heads. But that scene got more and more elaborate as I thought of new wrinkles, until it is a good thousand words with a literal cliffhanger to boot.

And the Victorio stuff kind of got out of hand. Maybe it was because, due to more coincidence than anything else, I've been listening to a lot of programs on the Indian Wars. And, yes, it is pretty topical stuff, what with the Dakota Access Pipeline started up again and so on. Even in my own town there's a shell mound which is being contested over. So I ended up with a lot more words there than I had expected.

And I'd thought of more to do with the Trinity scene. Like throw a predator after her. I was thinking cougar but research turned up that jaguars were rare but had been seen in New Mexico. And that's when I tried to do something extra tricky; to have an injured Lara fabricating an improvised weapon whilst going over in her wandering mind the history of stone tools and human hunting from the golden age of the Plains Indians back through paleolithic mastodon hunters to the encounter at Olduvai between a troop of chimps and h. zinjanthropus and his unfair invention, the club.

Cross-cutting between that and the resolution of the cliff-hanger at Hueco Tanks. And bringing out some of the information Lara went to Trinity to find, in the form of a series of hallucinatory memories of the distant past.

And I don't think I made it work. I've got ten thousand words and most of it is talking heads. And most of what they are talking about advances the plot not one iota. And I even cut stuff!


Sunday, March 12, 2017

It's a Poser, all right.

My site stats say several people have accessed the old posts on rigging for Poser (the 3d figure-centric animation and rendering software). So here's the long-delayed third post in the series.

Since I haven't used Poser in a while this is going to have less in the way of concrete examples. Also, the last version I used was 9 and it is up to 11 now. Poser tends to maintain backwards compatibility with previous tricks, though, even as it adds new ones (each generation of figures adds some new tricky way to deal with the perennial core problems like poke-through -- and let's not even get into DAZStudio which, while maintaining a large degree of compatibility with Poser-generated content, changes many of the paradigms).

So I will try to give examples, but, really, the best way to do this is to find a Poser file and reverse-engineer it. See how the stuff is actually formatted. Or go look online for one of the various useful guides. Once you know what is possible and what people tend to call it, it is a lot easier to find help on getting it right.

So  to it. The three Poser power tools I find the most useful for the Poser content I've created over the years are, in no particular order, altGeom, ERC, and MAT poses.




altGeom: 


Overview:


Way back in the early days of Poser, either the riggers, the software, or the projected customer base couldn't handle the idea of rigging every finger. So they created a way to swap out one pre-posed hand with another. The code was still in there when the first Millenial Figures arrived (the original Victoria 1 and Michael 1), and stayed in the code as the vestigial gen/noGen switch (aka, a way to change out the lower-torso mesh to one with or without the naughty bits).

altGeom is a handy way to change the shape of an item past what morphs allow you to do. Let me review for a moment; a morph is a list of deltas -- differences in position -- for the vertices already in the mesh. Applying a morph causes each vertice in the original mesh to move to a new position. Which is why you can dial in a morph as a percentage, including applying it extra strength or negatively -- in the latter, the vertices simply move in the opposite direction.

video

It is hard to see in that tiny video but the spring on the kick pedal here is using a morph to elongate. There are also morphs on the head of the drum so it "dimples" when hit.

 For the stage microphone set I made, every stand was equipped with an altGeom dial that provisioned it with either a standard mic clip, a large shock mount, or a null object (no clip at all).

Construction:


An altGeom consists of two things; a geometry reference to the different geometry, and the code to create the dial (which is subtly different from that used in a translate or morph dial).

Again to review; in all Poser figures and most props, you will find two pointers; the figure reference file, and the actor pointer. They look like this:

figureResFile :Runtime:Geometries:Princess:Stage_Mics:shortStand.obj


and

actor clipBase:8
{
storageOffset 0 0 0
geomHandlerGeom 13 clipBase 

The name you see there, "clipBase," needs to appear as a geometry group within the geometry file "shortStand.obj" The actual actor name, however, does not need to match; the geomHandlerGeom reference is the only place in Poser where it needs to see the actual name in the geometry file.

So...unlike everywhere else in the Poser universe, in a part with an altGeom there is an additional figure reference occurring inside the body of the actor;

alternateGeom    clipBase_2
{
name clipBase2
objFile 2101 :Runtime:Geometries:Princess:Stage_Mics:clipBaseALT.obj
}
defaultGeomName  clipBase_1

This is, of course, the actor in which occurs the actual dial for the altGeom. Take note of the "2101" there; this is a unique identifier that must be different from any other geometry used in the Poser scene. Starting above 1000 is strongly recommended.

And here is what the actual dial looks like:

geomChan handGeom
{
uniqueInterp
name change clip
initValue 0
hidden 1
forceLimits 1
min 0
max 2
trackingScale 0.045
keys
{
static  0
k  0  0
}
interpStyleLocked 1
valueOpDeltaAdd
Figure 8
clip:8
changeClip
deltaAddDelta 1.000000
valueOpDeltaAdd
Figure 8
BODY:8
changeClip
deltaAddDelta 1.000000
}

Something to note here; the limits are set to the number of actual geometries being referenced (including the original). "handGeom" must be used as the internal name for Poser to understand the unique nature of this dial, but the external, user-facing name can of course be of your choice.

Wrap-Up:

So -- a few other useful things here. The source file can contain other groups, and multiple figures can access the same alternate geometry. You can access the same group multiple times, too; I coded up but never got around to releasing a Climbing Wall where each potential hold was an actor containing the translate instructions to move the geometry into the right location on the wall. Thus, there was only one of each hold ever constructed; the cr2 did all the work of populating the wall. And, of course, the end user could set a new route merely by rotating a few dials.

Unlike morphs, the altGeom does not need to share the number or winding order of vertices. However, if the edges are nearly identical, Poser will still manage to weld the meshes together when it makes a figure. Also, of course, the morphs for one geometry won't work on the other. But, strangely, Poser will sometimes recognize this and will hide the dials belonging to one geometry and show dials you've created for the alternate geometry. This can not, however, be always trusted.

Alternatives: Instead of using an altGeom, some props are simpler to build by hiding the optional bits using the ability to hide (and not render) a specific actor. As far as I know you can't build a "show/hide" dial, but you can construct a one-click pose to do it. Similarly, translate and/or scaling could be used in an ERC dial to hide one optional bit and show a different one instead.



ERC:

Overview:


When Poser finally got around to adding fingers, they realized folding all of them individually to make a first was a pita. So they added a bit of code which is still in there; name your fingers with the same internal names as those on a standard Poser figure, and create a dial called "grasp," and they will all respond to it.


It actually worked on this cute guy, here, even though he only has two fingers on each hand! Well, this same trick was later leveraged in by the Poser designers to allow all the body shape morphs to be collected together in a single spot instead of having to go to every limb and digit turning dials individually.

In any case, it didn't take long for the community of Poser tinkerers to realize that this lowly bit of code had untapped powers. In essentials. and with some important exceptions, every dial in Poser can be slaved to another dial.

This is...absurd. Some users attempted to make sense of this cornucopia by coining the terms "JCM" for morphs that automatically dialed themselves in when a joint was moved (aka, bend the elbow on a Poser figure and the biceps muscle swells in a natural way), "JCT," "FBM" (Full Body Morphs, meaning a single dial will tweak in separate "muscular" morphs across multiple body parts), Super-Conforming, etc. But in general the blanket term "ERC" (for Extended Remote Control) is accepted.


Superconforming:


One of the uses to which ERC has been put is to allow clothing to magically take on the same morphs being applied to the figure below. The trouble with this happy picture being crosstalk. A simple search will turn up thousands of systems for fixing the crosstalk problem. They are all wrong. Simply put, Poser creates instancing on the fly as figures are added to the workspace, or as a scene file is read in. It is entirely impossible to force Poser to observe unique identifiers (outside of, perhaps, manipulating the Poser workspace in a more direct way using Poser Python tools).

So you can get superconforming or crosstalk to work for you once, say when creating a scene, but save it and restore, add something new, or even work on it too long and the references will be lost.

Poser is dumb. It looks in the first place it thinks of to find anything, from the matching master dial for an ERC slave code to the correct texture file. And it doesn't always start where you would expect or want it to start. Which means that even internal ERC channels can get "lost" and wander off when you have more than one figure in the scene.

That said, operating ERC between figures is an alarmingly powerful too with all sorts of wonderful potential.

Construction:


An ERC chain consists of three things; a slave dial, a target dial, and the code within the slave dial setting how it is to respond.

The master dial can be any kind of dial; a morph dial, a translate dial...or an empty dial. The code for creating a dial that doesn't do anything itself is as follows:

valueParm turnClip
{
name turn clip
initValue 0
hidden 0
forceLimits 1
min -360
max 360
trackingScale 0.2
keys
{
static  0
k  0  0
}
interpStyleLocked 0
}

The usual dial functions are here; internal name versus displayed name, the ability to hide the dial, and, yes, dials can be stacked (just don't point them at each other. Quickest way to crash Poser that has yet been discovered).

The code that makes the magic happen is all in the slave dial:

rotateZ zrot
{
name tilt clip
initValue 0
hidden 0
forceLimits 0
min -90
max 100
trackingScale 1
keys
{
static  0
k  0  0
}
interpStyleLocked 0
valueOpDeltaAdd
Figure 8
BODY:8
tiltClip
deltaAddDelta 1.000000
}

The key is in those last four lines. The source figure is, as I said, bollixed in by Poser when you load the figure. But you can at least try to push it in the right direction by making it match the actor numbers of the figure file. The next is the actor that contains the master dial, and the penultimate is the internal name of that dial. The last is the tracking scale.

Setting the tracking right is often key to getting ERC working right. For a full body morph, the tracking is usually 1=1; each body part morph dials up to the same amount. For trying a morph to a joint rotation, though, you need to know that Poser uses 1.0 as meaning a morph is full-on, but a rotation around a full circle appears in the Poser code as "360."

So, yes; one of the most useful functions of this is to take dials that might be spread all over the figure and mirror them in a place where they are easy to find. Incidentally, another Poser peccadillo it is doesn't always save channels in the BODY when the file is saved and retrieved. It is safer to consolidate your master dials in the top selected body part instead.

But since you can merge and stack dials, there's some fun tricks you can do:


video

Again, sorry for the poor render here. These are actually copies from stuff I uploaded to YouTube years ago. So there's some simple things here; the turning sense head on the ghost detector is linked to a morph that extends the loop of wire connected to it. The jaws of the steam powered monkey wrench automatically spin the nut as they are opened.

A little more tricky, the gear box is set to a single dial (and all the individual gears are hidden in the cr2, meaning they display in the workspace and render but don't show up as selectable body parts), and each uses a deltaAddDelta tuned to its diameter so the teeth mesh.

The trickiest is the steampunk sonic screwdriver (which is unfortunately impossible to see clearly in the render). The trick here is joint limits are set on the joints, dial limits on the dials, and in some cases a dial is set to a negative number below the joint limit. So what happens is that dial waits until the master dial has rolled it over into positive numbers again.

Under a single master dial, the spinner makes a half-turn as it starts to retract. The spring collapses with it. When it has fully retracted it stops; the leafs, which have been waiting quietly the whole time, close over it.

People have used this sort of trick...multiple stacks of dials pointing at each other, phantom dials that are hidden from the user and exist only to delay a following action... to rig tank treads.

As one extended example of ERC in action, the Easy-Pose cables or tentacles use ERC to make a long flexible object possible. The figure has an otherwise uncontrollable number of body segments, but the dials are all collected into master dials at the head so they all turn together. And you can get trickier; if each segment, for instance, takes orders from the previous segment instead of the master, and each is set to a deltaAddDelta of slightly more than 1.0, then the cable will coil into a decreasing diameter nautiloid spiral.


MAT Poses:

General:


By itself, the MAT Pose is simply a pose file that applies texture instead of joint rotations. But this is just a glimpse into what is actually possible.

The big thing to know is that there is only one syntax for Poser files. The suffix to a file; pz3, cr2, hr2, etc. tells Poser what to expect from it, but the markup language inside is the same stuff. Now, there are restrictions. Among other things, pose files expect to find a figure and will apply themselves to the last selected figure in the workspace. Bad things happen if there isn't one (this is one of the reasons why figures are a superior way to format complex props.)

In a similar way, a prop (pp2) can be told to attach itself to a figure (smart prop style) but other file types don't usually get this as an option.

The other key thing to remember about this all is that unspecified channels preserve the original data. So a pose file meant to only change expression should have all joint rotation and body morph channels edited out of it. If the channel isn't in the pose file, it won't be touched by the pose file.


Construction:

The basic MAT pose file looks like this inside:

version
{
number 4.01
}
figure 
{
material plastic
{
KdColor 1 1 1 1 
KaColor 0 0 0 1 
KsColor .2 .2 .2 1
TextureColor 1 1 1 1 
NsExponent 40.4078 
tMin 0 
tMax 0 
tExpo 0.6 
bumpStrength 1 
ksIgnoreTexture 0 
reflectThruLights 1 
reflectThruKd 0 
textureMap ":Runtime:textures:Princess:PTbeltFpatrol.jpg" -1 10105 
bumpMap NO_MAP
reflectionMap NO_MAP
transparencyMap NO_MAP
ReflectionColor 1 1 1 1 
reflectionStrength 1 
}

There are no channels specified, no actors. All it has is a material; whatever is included there will replace the material that was loaded from the cr2.

Of course it doesn't stop there. A simple pose file can also include a function that hides a body part (useful for tight-fitting shoes that would otherwise poke through):

{

version
{
number 4.01
}

actor rFoot:2
{
name    rFoot
off
}

actor rToe:2
{
name    GetStringRes(1024,53)
off
}

A pose file can also add new control channels, and even add morphs -- the latter, however, requires that empty hidden dials be already in the cr2 waiting for morph deltas to be attached to them. I monkeyed around a little with a slaving code that made the figure the pose was attached to mimic the motion of an existing figure in the scene. Tricky to actually work with, though -- as explained in crosstalk above!

Another odd function of MAT poses is that you can replace materials on an actor-by-actor basis;

actor rButtock:2
{
customMaterial 1
material SkinBody
{
KdColor 1 1 1 1 
KaColor 0 0 0 1 
KsColor 0.0554971 0.149996 0.061799 1 
TextureColor 1 1 1 1 
NsExponent 9.65048 
tMin 0
tMax 0
tExpo 0
bumpStrength 1
ksIgnoreTexture 0
reflectThruLights  1 
reflectThruKd 0
textureMap ":Runtime:textures:Princess:PThoseHarper.jpg" 0 0
bumpMap ":Runtime:textures:Princess:PThoseSherwoodBUM.bum"  0 0
reflectionMap NO_MAP
transparencyMap NO_MAP
ReflectionColor 1 1 1 1
reflectionStrength 1
}
}


This is a tricky pose here. Incidentally, the tradition was to name poses MAT if they changed materials, INJ if they injected morphs, and DIV if they used custom materials. Anyhow, for some reason Poser requires you define the material at the top of the pose file in addition to doing so within the individual actors.

So yes; this specific example put hose on the legs of the figure in question while leaving alone the skin (and eye and teeth and so forth) textures already applied. The one disadvantage is that it splits along the actor seams, although some Poser figures were specifically sliced to make those divisions fall in more useful places.



Wait There's More:


Point At:


This function can be called in the cr2:

pointAtParm Point At
{
name Point At
initValue 1
hidden 0
forceLimits 1
min 0
max 1
trackingScale 0.005
keys
{
static  0
k  0  1
}
interpStyleLocked 0
pointAtTarget bRivit:9
}

Notice that this looks just like a dial definition. In fact it is a dial. But it has to have the exact internal name Point At in order to work. The way this trick worked in the final prop; this was a stand with legs that folded up. Each leg had a brace with the center of rotation set at one end and the primary axis running the long way. When a master dial was turned that rotated each leg into the stowed position, each brace would pivot freely to keep their other end as close to the connector as they could. The result was it looked like the braces were mechanically part of the assembly.

A trick B.L. Render worked with was to Point At a "gravity ball" moved to a location far below the picture frame. That would make fringes hang down, towards "gravity." I've used a similar variation; set both eyes to Point At a hovering non-rendered ball, and you can direct the figure's gaze in a natural way.


Deleting RHA's


As B.L. says, children effect their parents. This can be a particular problem for mechanical props. Twist a knob on a control panel, and part of the panel twists up to follow. You can turn off deformation by setting "bend" to 0, but this means you can't apply morphs to that actor anymore. You can tweak the joint params to try to exclude the body part but even with zones this isn't always possible.

Or you can go into the cr2 and delete the channels that make this happen. Once deleted, Poser won't put them back (at least, not as of the last version I've used).

These channels are easy to recognize; their names have a similar format and they always include the child part:

twistY lBunear_twisty
{
name lBunear_twisty
initValue 0
hidden 1
forceLimits 0
min -100000
max 100000
trackingScale 1
keys
{
static  0
k  0  0
}
interpStyleLocked 0
otherActor lBunear:4
matrixActor NULL
center 0.0162426 0.67091 0.00326313
startPt 0.657258
endPt 0.754053
flipped
calcWeights
}

But here's another interesting thing; you can ADD these channels in order to make a control object. This is a technique called Body Handles. Adding a body handle is surprisingly easy. Add an actor in the definitions and the body of the cr2, referencing a custom geometry file for it. Add it to the hierarchy definitions neat the bottom of the cr2. Load the figure, then save again. Poser will fill in the rest of the Actor section.

Now you have a handle you can pick up and drag around that will drag part of the figure with it (depending on how you set the zone of effect). It's like a magnet that stays attached.


Translation:


Anyone who has gotten this far probably knows this one. Translation along the xyz axis of a body part is already in Poser, it is just that the dials are hidden by default. All that is necessary is to set Hidden to false for that dial. Set limits, and you have a sliding drawer or piston or whatever.


Inlychain:


I really don't remember how to work IK magic now. I do know you can get some fantastic results from it. The normal figure hierarchy works down from the BODY. If you rotate the shoulder, the forearm and hand are moved to a new position. If you rotate the forearm, the hand is moved to another new position.

Inverse Kinematics, well, inverts this. Most Poser figures have IK available for both feet; turn it on, and moving the foot drags the body parts upstream of it. So you can actually create a cable that is attached at both ends, and with the proper balancing of IK weights, it will be tugged at from both ends and attempt to shape itself to follow both.

My hi-hat stand has IK in it. Somehow I used that to allow a chain-drive going over a cam to follow everything else when you pressed the pedal down.





Conclusion:


I hope some of this helps someone.  I've largely stopped creating Poser content, and all those skills that took so long to learn are going to waste now. Unless I can use them to help someone else.