Ethereality News & Weblog

December 22, 2008

Finally getting there

Filed under: Art & CG,Audio & Music,My Life/Musings,News,Photography,Video Games — Rob Chang @ 7:01 pm

After four and a half months of interior construction and then a couple months of follow up reworking and decorating, our home (and my new studio) is finally looking like what we had envisioned in the first place. Dealing with contractors in China was one of the worst experiences we’ve ever had–you simply cannot trust them and they will screw things up no matter how much you watch them like a hawk. Even if they promise you that something can be done to a certain quality, it’s all just lies designed to get you to spend as much money on their services as possible. We ended up having to rescue ourselves out of the holes they dug us into, including doing some of the dirty work ourselves or hire another crew to fix up the disaster they left behind. Getting our money back? Ha! Not likely. More than once we wanted to maim somebody for the hell they put us through (and if this was in the States, we’d have sued them straight out of business), and only after weeks of reworking and damage control did we start to feel good about our new home.

So, without further ado, here are photos of my new studio and our new home. Let’s start at the studio and I’ll show the rest of the new home next time.

In early 2008 I started designing and planning my new studio, and it took about a year to finish–from research, design, shopping for material, construction, moving, and decorating. I set out to design a space that is very comfortable and cozy, but at the same time very inspirational and full of creative vibe. I think I managed to pull it off.

One thing that’s always been very important to me is to have posters of what you love in your immediate environment. Anyone what’s ever worked with me knows that I plaster images all over my cubicle–they inspire me and put a smile on my face. It’s also one of the best ways to add some personality to your surrounding, and since I’m not particularly fond of most of my own works, I prefer to display my favorite works from others (though Elena made me put up a few of my own pieces as well around the house). You can tell we’re about enter “my” world (as opposed to the “shared world” that the rest of the house is) because we see a poster of one of my favorite films of all time (Trois Couleurs: Rouge / Three Colors: Red) near the entrance, and a Half-Life 2 logo, warning you that like the Black Mesa Lambada deep underground lab, some pretty weird things can happen inside (and also that there’s obviously a serious gamer behind the door, who adores the Half-Life franchise):

Here’s what you’d see after opening the door:

The nervous system of the studio:


The dual 24″ LCD display setup is perfect for dual vertical rotation, and just about the right size when I need to rotate them both horizontally (when not working on music)–any bigger and they’d end up blocking the monitors’ direct path to my ears:

From a different angle:

The colorful lighting (six LED color-changing lights controlled by a DMX-192 control console) is my attempt to create a more interesting environment for inspiring creativity. Colors create mood, and mood triggers emotions and ideas. I also do have normal lights in the studio too, and I usually use those. I only turn on the U.S.S. Enterprise lights when I feel like taking a voyage to where no man has gone before.

The studio is not that big–just big enough to house all my gears in a reasonably comfortable fashion, meaning I can’t exactly swing my axes around without hitting anything, but I also don’t have boxes piled up like I used to in the old studio. I used to have my drum set facing away from the desk to save space and I like it much better now facing the desk:


And some artsy shots of gear porn:









And just how does the new studio sound? It sounds fantastic. All the acoustic treatments paid off big time–everything sounds detailed, accurate, dynamic, and natural. The biggest difference I’ve noticed is in the low frequencies. In some of my favorite jazz vocal tracks (by Lisa Ekdahl), the double bass used to sound too prominent and boomy in just about any car stereo, home stereo, or even the same set of Klein + Hummel O 300D’s in a different room, but now they sound perfectly balanced and articulate. This is kind of sad because you then realize that a vast majority of the population will never hear music on a good system in a good environment, and they will listen to music that doesn’t sound like how the original mastering engineer meant for it to sound their entire lives. Currently with two computers running the studio is at low-30’s db in ambient noise, and when the computers are off it’s about mid to high 20’s. If I put the computers in an ISO like I plan to, the studio should stay at about high 20’s.

Quickie film/TV reviews:

Sunshine – One of the best sci-fi films I’d seen in a long time (the last one was Children of Men). I loved 28 Days Later, so I really looked forward to this one, and although films like these, as realistic as they try to be, still take some liberty with how physics really work, and I’m fine with that because the allure is in the characters and the situations. It’s an intelligent and entertaining film, even though I had to look online to find out that the artificial gravity on the ship was supposed to be generated by a compressed mass in the ship (which still doesn’t quite explain how they could’ve functioned so normally during the crazy fall/spin in the last part of the film). The score had a similar vibe to 28 Days Later (same composer, except this time he collaborated with Underworld), so if you liked that score you’ll probably like this one too.

Blessed – This is one of the worst films I’d seen in a long, long time. It had a premised ripped off from Rosemary’s Baby, a talentless director whose vision is mediocre at best, an editor who relied on dated and trite clichĂ©s, and a composer who obviously had no idea how to score a horror/mystery/thriller. The only thing that was somewhat enjoyable was the lighthearted bantering between the main couple–those dialogs were kinda cute and fun.

Friday Night Lights (season One) – I’m on episode five and it’s quite a good show. I’m not really a sports fan, but good writing/directing/acting can make anyone interested in any subject–it’s all about the storytelling.

Final Destination 2 – My wife is a real sucker for horror flicks, and I’m not much better, so when we come home with a pile of DVD’s, we usually always go for the horror ones first (well, unless there’s a really good sci-fi one in the pile). The sequel to the first (which was just good fun) in our opinions was even better. The fun is to guess how the victims will get offed.

Final Destination 3 – This one wasn’t quite as good as the first two. By now the premise is getting stale and the fun of guessing how the victim will get offed is starting to wear thin.

Shopping spree!

We finished up our trip to California and are now back in China. While taking care of Elena’s citizenship application in California, we shopped until we dropped for all the cool stuff that you can’t find in China (or the quality of similar products in China is simply appalling). The shopping list is especially long since we just moved into our new home and I just finished wiring up my new recording studio (photos coming soon). Here are some mini reviews for all the stuff we got.

Lifestyle and personal care related items:

Seat Solution: Orthopedic Seat Cushion – This is one of those “As Seen On TV” products, and it does wonders for anyone whose butt starts to hurt after sitting down for a long time. It relieves pressure on your tailbone and angles your body so the spine curve has less pressure as well. After using it for a day or two, I decided I don’t ever want to be without it–especially when during long flights. It is now permanently on my studio chair–I can sit for an entire day and not feel uncomfortable in my spine or tailbone–except I’d still want to stretch my legs out after a few hours, which has nothing to do with the seat cushion.

T-Tech Small Flap Body Bag by Tumi – I used an old and beat up laptop bag from Micron for many years as my “man purse,” and it just doesn’t have enough compartments for my needs anymore. I originally only wanted some average laptop bag from Office Depot or Staples, but while walking around the Westfield Santa Anna mall, I came across the expensive Tumi bags and they are so much better designed both aesthetically and ergonomically, not to mention sturdier and with lifetime warranty (which I unfortunately found out, has now been changed to just three years). Elena has her own ideas about what bags look good on me and I had to run several by her before she picked one she liked best. The Small Flap body Bag from T-Tech is just the right size–not too big for everyday use like a laptop bag is, but big enough and with enough compartments and pockets to carry all of my crap (cellphone, hand sanitizer, address book, pen, tissue paper, keys, notepad/sketchbook, hand lotion, sunglasses case, hair brush, flashlight, knife, cough drops, hand-held recorder, mp3 player, headphones, harmonica, a magazine or a book…etc).

Panasonic ER430K Vacuum Nose/Ear Hair Trimmer – I break nose hair trimmers easily because they are made out of cheap plastic, and it’s always the tip that breaks. Hopefully this new one will last longer.

Groom Mate Platinum XL Nose & Ear Hair Trimmer – I saw this online–it requires no electrical power–just twist by hand. It’s very tiny and it really works! But it takes longer to use since it’s manual power, so it’ll just be a backup unit that stays in my T-Tech bag–you know, for those moments when you are out and one particular nose hair is just tickling the hell out of your nostril and pulling it out would be too painful. That’s when you just wish you had a nose hair trimmer with you. Problem solved.

Wahl Groomsman Beard and Mustache Trimmer – I use this stuff for sideburn trimming, and I hate the one I have since it’s a rechargeable with a charging station, and if you don’t keep it charged constantly it goes dead. Much better to get a normal battery powered one. (To my chagrin, I just found out this one is also a rechargeable only, and cannot just use any generic battery.

Crabtree & Evelyn Gardeners Hand Therapy Lotion – one of the best hand lotions we’ve ever used. I get static electrical shocks and bad hangnails so I really need to keep my hands moisturized. It also feels much better to play musical instruments with properly moisturized hands instead of a pair of dried up claws.


Left 4 Dead – I have been watching the development of this game for a while now, as I’m a huge fan of apocalyptic zombie fiction and films. I have played the first three campaigns of the single player thus far, and as fun as it is, I really wish it wasn’t so focused on being a multiplayer game at heart, because I’m the type of gamer who loves getting immersed into an alternate world with lots of little details, vivid characters, emotionally and intellectually engaging situations…etc. I understand what valve/Turtle Rock tried to do but I think they sold themselves short on what could’ve been a single player masterpiece like the Half-Life franchise. I did a bit of playing online but I have to say, other than the fact that human players would use the explosives while the AI wouldn’t, or that human players don’t just wait for you to take the point like the AI does, I really don’t see how the multiplayer is as amazing as everyone say it is.

One thing I noticed is that in L4D, the normal infected are designed very carefully to look as generic as possible, so that you won’t notice the same set of character models over and over. This is what I would’ve done too if I had art directed the game, because if you have very distinct characters models (for example, a cheerleader, or a clown, or a punk rocker with a mohawk), it’ll be a lot more obvious when you see them again an again, and if all the infected are bland and normal, no one would stick out in the crowd and you won’t notice any duplicates as easily.

I have mixed feelings about the bosses in L4D. On one hand I think they are a lot of fun to fight against, and they do create a sense of dread whenever you hear them coming, but at the same time, seeing the same set of bosses over and over makes no sense, because there are no variations in how they look. How can there be dozens of Hunters, Boomers, Smokers, Witches, Tanks…etc that all look the same, unless they were all manufactured in some lab to look the same–like clones? This IMO is one of those things about video games that can be annoying if you tried to apply normal logic to a video game universe. Personally, I have more respect for games where you can scrutinize the in-game universe with normal logic and see that the designers went out of their way to have everything make sense. I guess this is just one of my pet peeves.

Mass Effect – I’m finally getting around to playing Mass Effect and it’s pissing me off to no end. The damn game keeps crashing and I found out the PC version’s been very problematic for many people and there’s no fix available at the moment. When shit like this happens, I really want to just give up being a PC gamer and just stick to consoles from now on. Sometimes the headaches involved with PC gaming is just not worth it. I’ve been a huge supporter of PC gaming all these years and I never really warmed up to console gaming completely, but I’m afraid there comes a point when you just don’t have a choice (especially that there are now lots of good games that never get released on the PC). I also don’t seem to have the time to get into downloading custom models and skins and MODS like I used to, and that’s one of the best things about being a PC gamer–all the custom content from fans and indie developers. I still haven’t picked up a Xbox360 after my Xbox got stolen a few years ago. Could it be that my gaming days are almost over? I sure hope not. Maybe it’s just that life has been too hectic in the last year or two but will ease up eventually.

Computer related items:

HP Pavilion Ze5700 – I won this off ebay for Elena. The Toshiba Satellite she was using is now part of my mobile rig, and she needed another laptop. I got ripped off since it didn’t come with a wireless adapter like the auction described, or have the same hard drive capacity and RAM installed. Paypal isn’t very helpful either when I filed a dispute. I guess if you’ve been using ebay long enough, you’ll eventually run into something like this. The laptop itself is decent–a bit slow, but ergonomically fine. Elena doesn’t need anything fast anyway–the most she’ll ever tax a computer is doing some minor photo editing in Photoshop. I had to reinstall the OS though since Elena uses the Chinese version of WinXP.

Belkin N Wireless Notebook Card – I had to get this for the Pavilion so Elena could have wireless internet. No complaints so far, except that the only way I can make it connect to the wireless router is by using the WinXP software, not the Belkin one. Even though our wireless router (TP-Link TL-WR340G+) is only a G, Elena is still able to get three bars from downstairs in the study (the router’s in my studio upstairs).

Metro Data-vac Pro-1 vacuum/blower – I used to use compressed air cans to dust my computer and music gear, but they run out too quickly and is bad for the environment (not to mention they get freezing cold fast and the blasts become much weaker), so I decided to switch to electrical power. This baby sucks and blows–how can a man complain?

Music related items:

Creative Zen 32 GB – I’ve been wanting a more modern large capacity mp3 player for years now. My first mp3 player was the Creative Nomad 3 (bought in 2003 in Malaysia), and I chose Creative because after researching, I found out the iPod simply has inferior sound quality (it’s something official online reviews have hammered on for years but Apple refuses to improve) and the navigation GUI system is not as well designed, while the Creative players have more features and superior personalization in terms of custom EQ (which is absolutely essential IMO). The main drawbacks to the Nomad 3 were that it was very bulky–the size of old portable CD players, the LCD screen was tiny, with only text display and no graphics, and you couldn’t delete tracks from the player and must do it from the computer.

My second mp3 player came to me free–a really cool guy at had given me his Creative Zen Nano Plus in 2007 as a gift since I had mentioned in a forum post that I was looking to get a super tiny mp3 player for when I’m out and about, and he happened to have no need for his anymore. The Nano Plus is very small–roughly the size of my thumb, and its sound quality still beats the iPod, and still has more features as well, including customizable EQ, a built-in microphone and recorder, FM radio…etc. Take THAT, Apple. The only drawbacks were that it simply couldn’t hold the same number of tracks as a high-capacity player and the tiny LCD makes reading the name of the artist, album, track…etc a chore since you have to wait for the title to scroll by to read the whole string.

Now, onto my 3rd and most current mp3 player, the Creative Zen (32 GB version). I stuck with Creative again this time because after researching a while, I found out Apple still has not addressed any of the things I didn’t like about the iPod, and Creative players still kick iPod’s ass in terms of features, customization, sound quality, and GUI navigation. I looked into the Zune and other competitors as well and none of them had all that I wanted from a high capacity mp3 player. The ONLY thing the other players had going for them were much large storage space, since they were hard drive-based players, but that also means they are a lot bigger as well (the Zen is only the size of a credit card!), and also more prone to mechanical failure. 32 GB is really about all I need from a mp3 player since the last time I checked, the tracks in my mp3 collection that are rated four or five stars are actually less than 20GB (I’m one of those people who is obsessed about rating the tracks in my mp3 collection), and I tend to only listen to the tracks that are at least four stars usually. There are still a ton of tracks in my collection I haven’t had time to rate though, but I doubt future additions to the four and five star category would fill up the player, so that means I get to fill up the remaining 12 GB with videos and photos. I ended up throwing some of my favorite videos of inspirational musical performances into the player, photos of our new home (so when we go out shopping for stuff we can refer to the photos of our home and decide on color, design, and placement), and of course, photos of the Kitty Cat, as she makes gorgeous background wallpapers:

Zen Kitty Cat

Overall I’m very happy with the Creative Zen, and the only problems I’ve encountered so far are:

1) The brightness of the display would become overblown sometimes (almost every other boot up), where the black colors would actually show up as magenta, and any other values brighter than black would be overblown by something like 3 stops or more (a stop is photography term for brightness/aperture setting). I contacted Creative and they said this would require service. If I reboot the player or reset it (with a safety pin), it’ll be fine upon the next boot up, so it’s not too bad at the moment, but if it gets any worse I’ll have to send it in.

2) Many of the videos I tried to convert for the player simply can’t be converted, and even if I managed to convert them and upload into the player, they won’t play. Luckily I did not buy the player for videos–it’s more like a nice bonus, that’s all.

Denon AHC351K In-Ear Headphones – I got this for Elena since she doesn’t have in-ear headphones, and now that we found the perfect solution to our in-flight entertainment annoyance (we bought airline headphone adapters so you can use your own headphone instead of the crappy airline ones), we can both use in-ear noise-canceling headphones with a smile on our faces. No more constant roar of the jet engine competing with movie dialogues! My in-ear headphones are the Shure E4C, which of course sounds much better than the Denon AHC351k since it costs about ten times more (it used to retail for $299), but the Denon isn’t too bad (especially for $29). Other than being a bit shrill on the high-end, its quite decent, and has beefier bass than the Shure (the older models like mine were known for being light on bass, which I remedy with a simple bass boost on my mp3 player, but there’s no EQ control on airline entertainment systems…). The cord length on the Denon is also much better (the Shure’s got a ridiculously long cord), and includes an extension cord, which you must use or the cord will be too short.

Airline Headphone Multi-Adapter – Elena and I were so excited about finding this little gadget, as we hate having to use the crappy airline headphones when watching in-flight entertainment. The airline headphones are earpads and they can’t block out any of the jet engine noise, and I often wished there was a way I could use my in-ear heaphones instead so I no longer have to turn the airline headphones up so high just to hear the movie dialogs clearly (while risking damage to my hearing). Now here comes the bad news–both of the adapters did not work, and to add insult to injury, they actually fried our headphones too. That’s $330 worth of headphones (Shure E4C and Denon AHC351K) that the adapters destroyed. We were so pissed off. I emailed the company that makes the adaptors ( to compensate us for the damages, and after not getting a reply, I used 4 other email accounts and still got no reply to any of them. Finally I called them and was pleasantly surprised to find that they were very accommodating and offered to compensate us fully for our damaged headphones. They also said that the adapters sold in the States are now the old ones that they had recalled, due to past problems with them, and they had developed a new model that’s been fully tested and is available in Hong Kong currently–they’ll also send us two replacement adapters (which they did–the model with the free in-ear headphones included, although the quality of the headphones are just horrid–they are by far the worst headphones I’ve ever heard in my life). Anyway, it was very nice of them, and that is what I call good customer service!

Musician related items:

Nady DSM-1 Digital SPL Meter – my old Radioshack sound pressure meter only detects down to 50db, and while that’s fine for when I need to check my listening level (I’m very careful about my monitoring level these days since I have mild tinnitus and I can’t allow it to get any worse), it’s not low enough to test how quiet my new studio is. The Nady DSM-1 can detect down to 30db (technically 20db) and that’s much more useful.

Hearos High Fidelity Ear Filters – These are the best earplugs I’ve ever used–in fact they aren’t even earplugs–notice the product is called ear filters. What’s amazing about these is that they are designed to lower the sound pressure level flat across all frequencies, so instead of the muffled sound you get when using regular foam earplugs where all the high frequencies are killed off, you can still hear all the detail in all the frequency ranges clearly, just quieter. This is the perfect earplug for musicians or concert goers because you don’t have to deal with normal earplugs that takes away all the high frequency detail of the music and enjoy loud music the way it should be enjoyed–comfortable, and fully detailed. I wouldn’t recommend these for sleeping aid though, since they only take down about 12 db or so of the sound pressure level, and for killing noise for better sleep (especially during the day when there’s traffic, barking dogs, screaming children…etc), you want the normal foam earplugs that can kill from 20 to 30 db of noise.

Ghs fast-fret – I’ve been using this for about a year now on my guitars and basses, and it’s pretty convenient since it’s just a stick shaped applicator. So far I’ve not noticed any build-up, and it does keep the strings clean. I don’t use it before playing though–only after as clean up, so I really can’t tell if it helps your playing. I should try using it before playing one of these days and see how it feels. I bought 3 extra tubes this time so it’ll last me for the next couple of years.

Finger Ease – Got this because it’s “the other” product that guitar players rave about, and I’ve seen the guys in Dream Theater use it so if it’s good enough for those guys, it must be pretty good stuff. So far it doesn’t seem to be something I’d want to deal with all the time since it’s a compressed air spray, and I feel a little strange about spraying it onto the fretboard as well as the strings. It does lube the strings and make the playing smoother, but I wonder if it’s a good idea to let your fingers get used to that (if you do, you’d one day pick up somebody else’s guitar and it would feel clunky without your can of lube). (Man, I can make anything sound dirty, can’t I?)

Buddy Rich sticks (Nylon) – I bought a bunch of different drum sticks over the last year and the Buddy Rich sticks are my current favorite, so I went ahead and got the nylon tipped version too. These sticks are very responsive, rebounds beautifully, has enough weight and gravity without being too heavy, and is just about perfect IMO. The other sticks I have are Ahead, Dennis Chambers, Steve Gadd, and a bunch of others–none of which I like as much as the Buddy Rich sticks.

Gripmaster (light tension) – I’ve been using the red (medium tension) for years to train the strength of my fingers (for playing instruments) but my pinky never got used to how tough the red one is, while my other fingers do fine on it, so I decided to get the blue light tension one for my pinky.

Planet Waves NS Classical Capo – For my nylon string classical guitar. Works beautifully. No complaints.

Shubb Original C Capo – For my steel string acoustic guitar. A bit fiddly, but works. I should’ve gotten the Planet Waves for the steel string too, as it’s easier to use and works a bit better.

Neotech Mega Guitar and Bass straps – I love neoprene shoulder straps. I use them for my heavy camera bags and they pretty much cut the weight you feel on your shoulder in half or less–pretty amazing. My Warwick Corvette $$ Double Buck 5-String bass is a real monster in terms of weight, and the Neotech really makes it more bearable to wear. But it can’t help the neck-diving problem though. I’m pretty much sure I’ll sell the Warwick because it’s just too heavy and unbalance for my taste.

Suzuki SCX-64 – A monster of a chromatic. The mouthpiece is much better than my other chromatic (which is a crappy made-in-China el cheapo) and plays much smoother. The tone may not be as dark as the Hohner chromatics (which I prefer, but the build quality I hear is inconsistent), but for recordings I can always tweak the tone with a bit of EQ.

Bushman Delta Frost (in the key of C) – The best diatonic I’ve played on yet–extremely playable and sounds awesome.

Turboharp Turbo Twenty (in the key of Ab) – Very playable and sounds quite good. I thought the modern plastic look would be kind of cool, but I’ve changed my mind–I prefer the classic metallic look more.

Suzuki Mini Harmonica Keychain – It’s a tiny little one octave harmonica on a key chain, and it’s actually very playable and sounds decent.

Musicians’s Lip Balm – It’s supposed to be formulated especially for musicians who use their lips a lot, and so far it feels no different than other minty lip moisturizers. I’ll need to try it more and report back.

Wedgy Rubber Picks – For when you don’t want that clicking sound of the pick when you play guitar/bass. It really does work, though it shreds a bit after prolonged playing (it’s expected since you’re flicking it across steel wires over and over and over).

Alesis Trigger Pad – It’s just a simple rubber pad that triggers MIDI data, and does its job as described.


Modal and Tonal Counterpoint: From Josquin to Stravinsky, by Harold Owen – It’ll take a while to get through the book, so we’ll see how I like it.

Twentieth-Century Harmony: Creative Aspects and Practice, by Vincent Persichetti – Same with this one. These are all long-term self-study books.

Harmonica For Dummies – Although it’s easy to find lots of information online about any subject these days, it’s still nice to have a book where all the information is in one place. Besides, it’s more convenient to take a book into the bathroom than a laptop. . ..

The S.M.A.R.T. Guide to Mixers, Signal Processors, Microphones, and More – I bought this one mainly for the sound clip examples comparing different preamps, mic’s…etc.

Spectrum 15 – I’ve been buying the Spectrum annuals ever since the first volume and I’ve never skipped one over all these years. One of my paintings was accepted in Volume 13, and it felt pretty good to be a part of a publication you’ve been a long-time fan of.

While not out shopping or eating in California, we spent some time with family and friends (we stayed at my sister Grace’s new house in the Bay Area, where my dad and his current wife also lives, and then my mom’s house in Alhambra). My nephew Donovan is now running around destroying things, although he can’t quite form sentences yet. I have a feeling he’s going to be a rebellious kid and a wild teenager. The little tyke’s quite photogenic–something I’m sure little girls his age will appreciate very much in about 10 years.:
Zen Kitty Cat

Zen Kitty Cat

Trying to photograph a hyper child is just too challenging–they are unpredictable and surprisingly fast. I think in comparison professional athletes are easier to photograph since their choice of motion path actually makes sense.

While in Alhambra, we got to see my favorite aunt Cathryn and hung out with my old comic book industry friends Susie and Andy. Susie is still doing lettering/retouch work for translated mangas, and Andy is now editor of Tripwire. The last time I saw them was probably about ten years ago–how time flies! They treated us to Mimi’s Cafe for lunch and brought us Bed Bath & Beyond coupons–something we really needed since we’ve been buying so much stuff from there. It was nice seeing old friends, especially that I haven’t seen any of my old comic book industry friends since I left the industry.

I wanted to hang out with my old roomate Jason Felix and my high school buddy Emory, but our time in the Bay Area was too short. I got to talk to Jason on the phone though, and he’s currently beefing up his traditional art skills by taking courses at Massive Black.

I drove my mother’s BMW 325i (candy apple red) around during our three weeks in California, and I have to admit, as much as I never liked the idea of driving something that screams “look at me I’m doing well in life!”, I could see what the fuss is all about–Elena and I were both impressed. The car just handles so well, and with many very convenient and high-tech options that are just so well thought out and designed. For example, the ignition key/remote will never run out of battery because it is rechargeable, and every time you drive you are recharging it; the rear-view mirror has a sensor that automatically dims when there’s bright headlights behind you; the sound system is excellent and the traffic noise is low enough where you can even enjoy classical music while driving (compared to most cars where the quieter sections of a classical track will be completely drowned out by the outside noise and you’d have to stick to louder music); the trunk has touch sensors instead of a mechanical button/lever; temperature control that ensures all sections of the car are the same temperature, convenient music and cruise control on the steering wheel…etc. And it’s a 2001 model so it’s already seven years old, so I can only imagine how good the current models are. Does this mean we’re looking to get a BMW for our next car? I don’t know, but I know we’ll give it some consideration from now on instead of sticking to more modest manufacturers by default.

One of the things on our to do list was to hit our favorite restaurants, and that includes Thai Pepper in Sunnyvale (for their Mein Kum and Roasted Duck Curry), Hokkaido Buffet in San Mateo (for the awesome baked lobster and fresh raw oysters), Rainbow Pizza in San Mateo (for the Greek American pizza), Black Angus (for their brown sugar bread), and of course, some good ol’ American fast food like In & Out Burger, Jack In the Box, and longtime favorite Tacobell (this one always raise some eyebrows since people usually place Tacobell on the very low rung of fast food places. I have emotional attachments to the franchise since it helped me survive my starving artist years, and I acquired the taste for their regular hard and soft tacos with hot sauce–something that I’m so glad Elena shares, despite having only tried it for the first time a couple of years ago when she first visited the States).

While in California I spent some time at various Guitar Centers (including the Hollywood flagship store, which is very nice, but still not a real pro shop by any means) and Sam Ash, trying out various instruments. Here are some thoughts:

I got to try the Access Virus Snow and the Waldorf Blofeld side-by-side for a couple of hours. As much as they did a good job designing the interface to be easy to use with so few controls, I’d still prefer more controls. The Snow has a slight edge in real-time expressiveness in that they map 3 most useful parameters to each preset for you to tweak. Bad thing is any tweaking will leave the parameter info on screen for about a second and half–and I prefer for it to go away immediately so I can see the overview info screen again quickly. The Blofeld’s rows of control is very intuitive, and it’s faster to access parameters on the Blofeld than the Snow. The comb filter on the Waldolf is just so yummy. The Virus seems to have a specific sound to its filter–it’s very chirpy sounding. The Blofeld seems to have a wider range of preset (from wacky, dancy, ambient, to vanilla sounds), and not as focused on trance/industrial as the Snow. It wasn’t as apparent on the Snow on how to access all the presets. It seems you press the bank button and choose a bank from the two row of buttons, and then choose the preset within the bank by pressing one of the buttons in the two rows again? The the Blofeld you just press the bank button and then turn the dial. (Nevermind, I just read the quickstart guide for the Snow online, and the first row is for ROM and second row is for RAM, and then first row is first digit, and second row is second digit for each bank). So does this mean you don’t have the option of simply turning a knob or pressing a + or – button to go forward/backward in a bank? Anyway, both were quite nice and with the Blofeld costing a lot less, it”s a no brainer if you don’t care about the Total Integration aspect of the Snow, which I think is one of its strongest selling points. I personally will probably still pick a hardware synth with lots of controls on the front panel.

Nord Wave – I was surprised by the number of non-synthesized presets–many orchestral and orchestral samples that were actually quite good. I know a lot of people don’t like the placement of the modwheel and the wooden pitch stick of the Clavia design, but I personally like it a lot–I think it’s more ergonomic and expressive to use than the standard two wheels side by side (and also, controlling pitch with a wheel just seems weird to me). I also quite like the joystick styled ones from Korg, as it’s much easier to control both parameters at the same time (which is why I like the Clavia one too). I think it’s a shame that Clavia dropped the amazing endless encoder LED knobs UI of the Nord Lead 3, since it’s probably one of the best designed hardware UI in the history of synthesizers. The addition of onboard effects is a much welcomed for me, since I love having onboard effects, even if you don’t use them in the final mix and opt to use external effects or plugins. Having onboard effects means you don’t need to go switch on other effects units in order to hear how the presets will sound with intended effects.

Kurzweil K2661 – I played around with a K2000 many years ago and was blown away by the realistic acoustic samples–there really weren’t anything like it back then, and my Roland D-10 certainly couldn’t hold a candle to that level of quality. I bought a PC2X last year and although the onboard sounds were pretty good, I most got it to use as a master 88-key controller, since it has build-in breath controller and ribbon controller inputs. The K2661 kicks the PC2X’s ass in the sound department. Much better samples and far superior synth patches as well. No wonder many feel that Kurzweil’s sound design is still unrivaled even now.

Korg Radius – This is a really pretty synth to look at, and sounds really awesome as well. If I had money to burn I’d get one for the studio just to look at the pretty lights.

Korg R3 – It’s like a Radius Lite, still very powerful, but not as pretty to look at.

Korg Microkorg – As great as this little guy is, I just can’t stand the tiny keys.

Korg MicroX – It’s like a Triton in a tiny package, without the sampling option.

I also got to play around with some basses and guitars as well. I tried out a Lakland Skyline Deluxe 55-02 5-String Bass and a Modulus 5-string (can’t remember the model–it had black strings on a light colored fretboard). Both played smoothly and sounded great. I tried out fretless basses for the first time and I really like how smooth they play. I think I’m going to have to get one eventually. I even tried a 6-string bass but I can’t say that it did anything for me–I just didn’t feel the additional string added anything worth having. 5-strings is enough for me I think. I got to try out a Parker Nite Fly and I was surprised by how similar it was to the more expensive Fly models, despite having a bolt-on neck and a pound heavier. I’ve been wanting a Parker for over ten years now and I think I may save some money and go for the cheaper Nite Fly since it feels so similar to the more expensive models. I tried out a bunch of different nylon string guitars and I really need to replace the crappy one I have. I tried out a bunch of steel-strings too, and although my Line6 Variax Acoustic 700 plays very well, it doesn’t sound as good as a “real” high end acoustic guitar does–it’s not as lush or creamy sounding. There are so many excellent models available by Taylor, Martin, Breedlove…etc–it’ll be very hard to decide on one. I really wanted to try the Parker acoustics, but no one seems to carry those.

I was watching Bleak House the other day and I noticed how annoying the sound design was for that show. Whoever did the sound design for the show used a totally inappropriate style that is more suitable for some CSI type of crime thriller, with lot of synthetic/alien impact noises and ambient ominous drones (the jump cut editing style working in conjunction with the sound design was also annoying). I don’t know about you, but to me, that is not how a soap opera adapting Charles Dickens should look/sound like.

We’re now still fixing up all the problems our contractors left behind, and while some things we could fix, others we’d simply have to live with. Fortunately, with all the furniture and decorations in place, the things we can’t fix is mostly not even noticeable anymore. One really mind-blowingly stupid thing happened though–while fixing up one of the ceiling lights, we cut one of the electrical pipes in the ceiling to move some wiring, and WATER POUR OUT of the electrical pipe! We were stunned–water inside an electrical pipe?! What. The. Fuck. Thank God we caught it and fixed it, otherwise it’s a ticking time bomb that could have fatal consequences. The part the pisses us off is that the contractors have no idea how it could’ve happened.

Yesterday while riding in a cab, Elena and I were quite amused by the cab driver’s rant about how he hates the U.S. with a passion because its financial crisis is dragging the rest the world down, and how Americans are this and that, going on and on, not realizing that I’m actually an American. This happens a lot because I speak perfect Chinese so they don’t even for a second think that I might be an American. I guess this is a good thing as I get to hear how they really feel about Americans. Of course, after they finish ranting I would have to give my 2 cents worth so they understand how things are on the flip side of the coin. This driver claims that China is the proudest country and the strongest country right now (I guess all the 2008 Olympics propaganda worked), and that America is falling apart at the seams, and the Chinese will dominate. He goes on saying how Americans are racists and it is afraid of China because China is the dragon that has awakened from its slumber. I had to point out to him that our new president is black, and that I, a Chinese person, worked as senior manager in an American high tech company, managing American video game artists. Yeah, there are racists in America just like in any other country, but it is also a country that by default is the most open and fair in the world to all races. It does not suffer from some kind of homogenized ignorance and bigotry of a one-race country like many on this planet, because its citizens are from all races of planet earth. I also had to remind him that China has a horrible track record when it comes to human rights issues and the right of speech, not to mention the current spot light on the unethical production of toxic foods and other unsafe products. I told hims that in the States, I can stand in front of a police officer and starts bashing the American government without worrying I might get kidnapped in the middle of the night and disappear off the face of the planet forever, and then I asked him if he would dare to go in front of a police officer in China and starts bashing the communist government. He stopped running his mouth off after that.

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