Ethereality News & Weblog

June 27, 2009

The Zendrum has landed

Filed under: Audio & Music,Film/TV/Animation,My Life/Musings — Rob Chang @ 2:44 pm

My Zendrum dream is finally fulfilled. Here she is:
Zendrum LT

Zendrum LT

I ordered the Honey Rock Maple finish, since I liked the deep cadmium yellow and black combination, but in reality the finish looks more like sienna/golden ochre, and only looks like that deep cadmium yellow when under extremely bright direct light:
Zendrum Sunlit

I’ve wanted a Zendrum badly ever since I first learned of it many years ago, and it’s always been one of those drool-worthy gears that seem like more of a luxury than a necessity. That changed for me after years of programming drums on keyboard MIDI controllers, conventional rubber pad-based percussion controllers, or electronic drum kits. I just didn’t like doing fast rolls on the keyboard since it’s not very ergonomic or natural for that purpose (with the iMap layout it’s better, but you can only use your finger tips but not the other parts of your hands). I have a Clavia Ddrum 4 kit, but I don’t program drum tracks on it since I hate having to hit record and then run to the drum kit, sit down, and then play–it’s more like some weird physical game than making music. I could use a wireless keyboard to activate recording, but I’d still have go back to the desk to make any edits, and that’s still a lot of running back and forth. The Zendrum solves those problems by being small enough to have right on the desk, worn on your chest like a guitar, or on your lap, having extremely sensitive trigger pads that you can easily do fast finger rolls on, and laid out so you can use other parts of hands like the heel and the ball of the palms, joints of the fingers…etc. On the Zendrum, I can do double bass kicks, fast 16/32 note open and close hi-hats (including the bell), snare rolls/ghost notes (rimshot and open hits), ride, crash, splash, china…etc all at the same time, and can trade them off spontaneous without having to think too much about it because the layout I designed is so intuitive for me. Here’s what my current layout looks like for Addictive Drums:
Zendrum Addictive Drums Layout

How you’d play with that layout is to put the thumbs on the kicks, index fingers on the closed hi-hats (more like using the first joint of your finger tip instead of the tip itself), middle and ring fingers on the snares, and pinky on the open hi-hats and bells of the hi-hats. The cymbals on the bottom you can use the heel and ball of your palms. The rest on the top (rides, snare rim click, side stick, toms…etc) use your index, middle, and ring fingers.

I’ll be doing some more layouts after I get back to my studio (in a week or so), and I’ll post the layouts as I finish testing them. Off the top of my head I’ll probably be doing layouts for Ezdrummer, Artist Drums, Battery 3 (so many different kit, so I’ll only be doing some of the most used kits), and some of the drum synths I use.

While the Zendrum is a wonderful instrument–one that you can do things on that you could never do with a drum kit or keyboard or any rubber pad based devices, it does still have room for improvement. When I ran into some problems with my unit I talked to the Zendrum folks about them and it lead to them inviting me to play a part in the future development of Zendrum behind the scenes. High on my list would be a software editor, better user interface, more flexible crossfade note mapping, and more intuitive trigger calibration.

Eastwest Voices of Passion arrived, and once again I had problems with the Registration Wizard crashing immediately upon launch, and same with the iLok syncronization, so I had to use another computer to register the product again. After playing around with VoP for a couple of hours, my opinion of it hasn’t really changed–the voice of the Whales singer is what I bought it for, but to piece together a convincing performance would be quite difficult as the product has problems. There are sometimes timbre/texture jumps between some notes that makes it nearly impossible to connect those notes together in a natural sounding manner, and the PLAY engine seems to have glitches too–some notes will cut short before reaching the end, and it happens randomly. I plan on experimenting with Melodyne and see if it could make VoP more flexible than it is.

I watched the 12-minute clip of Ron Moore’s new pilot for the TV series Virtuality, and I have to say that I didn’t like it. The reality show element of the premise is completely idiotic, as it’s just ridiculous to think that such a serious and expensive deep space mission would jeopardize the psychological well-being of its crew by subjecting them to the kind of reality show mind-fuck we all know so well. It’s as if being on one of the most important missions the human race has ever embarked on wasn’t tense enough, they’d actually produce a reality show right there on the space station? What kind of an idiot would think that’s likely to ever happen? I can be skeptical and jaded when it comes to how asinine the human race can get, but even I think that’s extremely unlikely.

Or…maybe Ron Moore is just messing with us by faking that premise and something else entirely is happening? Hmm. . ..

June 18, 2009

Kitty Cat now American

Filed under: My Life/Musings — Rob Chang @ 3:20 pm

Elena had her naturalization ceremony this morning, where she and close to a thousand other people were sworn in as new American citizens. The ceremony was held at Paramount Theater in Oakland, and if you’ve been there you already know how beautiful it is. I think I saw a concert there many years ago there but I can’t remember which band it was. My own naturalization was back in 1992 (although I was eligible for citizenship as far back as the mid-80’s–my parents just never thought to actually deal with it until I turned 18, so I ended up handling it myself), and it wasn’t nearly as nice as the one she had. Mine was pretty dry–just raise your hand and repeat the oath and then get your certificate. Hers was a lot more of a show, where they showed videos welcoming the new citizens, had a live singer sing the national anthem, and the guy who hosted the ceremony was a bit of a comedian and spoke to the audience in several different languages (it was pretty impressive). The Mexicans and the Filipinos dominated this ceremony as their cheers were by far the loudest when their countries were called. I noticed quite a few people were wiping their eyes when the host talked to the new citizens about what it means to be an American, the values we hold dear to our hearts, and so on. I was moved to tears too since I believe firmly in those values, even if some of our past government leaders didn’t always seem to be on the same page as the rest of us. Anyway, here are some photos from the ceremony:
paramount theater

paramount theater

paramount theater

paramount theater

The guests of the new citizens were seated in the upper floor, so I could only get a photo of Elena from above:

Singing the national anthem:
national anthem

Obama welcoming the new citizens in a video:

Happy American Kittycat:



All in all, the entire process of her getting her citizenship went faster and smoother than we had expected–in fact we originally planned to have everything done in about six month, and it only took three and a half (everything meaning from handing in her citizenship application to getting her naturalization certificate). The entire process from getting her immigration visa to her citizenship took almost four years total. Generally this is pretty fast as she never got rejected during any step of the process over the last few years, passed every interview and exam on first try, and never had any documents get lost in the mail or under the processing pile. Supposedly Immigration/Homeland Security has been working on improving efficiency, and apparently it’s working–or at least it is in California.

It’s interesting that for a long time I didn’t feel comfortable in any kind of official ceremony, but today I felt good. In the past whenever any government official got on stage and tossed around words like freedom, justice, liberty…etc, my inner voice just sniffed and rolled its eyes, because for a very long time I disagreed with the people running the government–it seemed all they ever did was to ruin America’s reputation. But ever since Obama took office, those negative feelings have melted away, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way (except the kind of idiots who voted for Bush Jr. twice).

June 15, 2009

TC Electronic Konnekt Live, Korg Pandora PX5D, Eastwest SD2, and ranting about BSG’s final season

Filed under: Audio & Music,Film/TV/Animation,Food,My Life/Musings,Writing — Rob Chang @ 4:25 am

As our trip starts to wrap up, we have kicked into “shopping mode,” trying to see how much stuff we can cram into our luggage for the flight back. Elena’s buying plant seeds for our herb garden on our balconies, household and kitchen gadgets, and of course beauty products and clothes. As for me, it’s always the same predictable stuff I always buy–music gear for the studio, books on musicianship and art (plus a few novels here and there), and CD/DVD’s. I’ve got two boxes of books coming from–all musicianship related books (orchestration, guitar playing, drumming). I really hope our luggage won’t go over the weight limit, but ven if that happens, it will only cost us $25 extra per check-in luggage, as long as it’s under 70 lbs (50 lbs is the usual limit). $25 for 20 lbs is actually a really good deal considering how expensive international shipping to China is.

I mentioned before that I needed a new audio interface since my Line 6 Toneport UX2 is just not as stable as I’d like it to be (I get audio dropouts and unable to initiate audio driver errors sometimes). After much research online and asking around, I decided to go with a product that may not have the best reputation for driver stability, but has excellent pedigree and audio quality–the TC Electronic Konnekt Live (slightly more expensive model than the Konnekt 24D). While I should’ve learned from my past mistake of choosing an interface with unstable drivers, my reasoning is that drivers can be improved and updated, but an interface with mediocre components and sound quality could never really improve. Even though TC Electronic seems a bit behind on their driver updates, they have made progress and the recent update seems to have soothed a lot of complaining user base. I have tested the Konnekt Live on Elena’s old HP laptop (with a Belkin firewire express card–which is audio industry preferred Texas Instruments chipset), and it runs fine and sounds great (though I can’t really assess the audio quality until I get back to my studio and run critical listening test with my trusty Klein + Hummel O 300D‘s). The old laptop’s specs are barely keeping up with the minimum system requirements so I can’t set the buffer too low (about 256 to 512 minimum)–I should be able to go lower on my quadcore main DAW back in the studio. I tried running Sonar 8 on that old laptop with the Konnekt Live and while it runs, it drops out constantly because the CPU hits 100% too easily. Running low-resource intensive synths in Xulop Chainer does much better–I tried Imposcar, Synth1, Oatmeal, and they all worked just fine. Edirol HQ Orchestral was too demanding for the slow laptop though–I couldn’t even play a single note without the audio dropping out or with heavy stuttering. So far it’s looking good, since at least I know the interface works, and comparing the audio quality to the Toneport UX2, I can hear that the low frequencies from the Konnket Live is more substantial and tighter (but this is only through the Sennheiser HD555 headphones. Must test with my K+H monitors to know for sure). Here’s a photo of the Konnekt Live in my temporary mobile rig:
konnekt live

On a related note, while testing the interface, one of the 1/4″ TRS jacks broke off its tip inside one of the input sockets, and it took me forever to get the damn thing out. Here you can see the broken tip:
broken tip

I first tried to push the metal clamps inside the socket to the side and tried to dig the tip out, but there was just nothing to grip onto to pull the tip out–especially when the metal clamps are pretty tight. The tip was being held by the third clamp deep inside, the the front two clamps made it hard to extract the tip too, although they could be pushed aside. When I was almost ready to give up, I decided to post on and see if anyone’s got a good suggestions, and I was so glad I did, because someone suggested drilling a hole from the inside and then push the tip out. I was trying so hard not to destroy the interface as I just bought it, but I did not want to try any of the other suggestions like using strong bond glue since it could gunk up the inside if I wasn’t careful. So drill a hole I did. First, I had to take the interface apart, which was easy as it’s all just screws:
konnekt live opened

This is what the circuit board looks like:
konnekt live opened

Then I drilled a hole in the plastic socket where the tip was stuck. You can see the three metal clamps clearly. Since the tip was stuck in the second row, I couldn’t access the metal clamps, otherwise I only needed to pry the clamps out to get the tip out:
drilled hole

I then pushed it out with a tiny screwdriver. You can see the hole drilled in the socket where I shone a LED light through (right-hand bottom corner):
drilled hole

Luckily everything went well, and the interface was not harmed in anyway, except for that little hole which does not affect the performance at all. I probably voided my warranty though–oh well.

My last round of purchases at Guitar Center consisted of some instrument cables and various configuration adapters (no matter how many you have, you’re always missing some), Eastwest Quantum Leapo SD2+iLok (Eastwest is doing their buy-one-get-one-free deal right now for their Play libraries, so I’ll be getting Voices of Passion as my freebie), and the Korg Pandora PX5D guitar multi-effects processor.

I really thought long and hard about which of the Eastwest Play libraries to get, and originally I was going to try to also get Ministry of Rock, Gypsy, and Silk, but eventually decided to just get SD2 and VoP for now. I already have enough libraries for guitar, bass, and drums, so MoR would contain to much overlap. Gypsy’s main allure for me are the guitars and the violin, but I already have guitars and the violin is supposed to be programmed mostly for gypsy styled playing, which makes it less flexible than ideal. Silk is drool-worthy, but it’s new and more expensive, which means in a year or so the price will drop just like other Play products. I picked SD2 mostly because of the new addition of sound design patches–you can never have too many of those, especially for scoring. I debated about VoP since its legato portamento does not sound anything close to what you think it should sound like based on Eastwest’s advertising–it’s very unnatural and synthy when you hit the transition between notes, and recorded phrases are typically not flexible at all to compose with. But the Whales singer in the library is the only one I’ve come across from all the vocal libraries that sounds anything close to the kind of breathy/airy/soft female voice I like–other libraries tend to favor the more mature deeper voice or the classical soprano voice, which always feels like more technique than heart to me. I’m going to use VoP in conjunction with Melodyne, which I’m sure will vastly improve the flexibility of VoP.

I installed SD2 yesterday and it was such a pain in the ass. My Sony VAIO FW-390 comes with Vista 64–bit, and for whatever reason, both iLok and Eastwest’s registration wizard just would not run at all–they keep crashing no matter what I did (uninstall, re-install, reboot…etc). Finally I tried registering the iLok and running the SD2 registration on an older laptop that’s running WinXP 32-bit, and it worked like a charm. It’s unacceptable that I had to resort to using a different computer, because what if I only had one computer? The argument for and against piracy really just goes around in circles–if there were no piracy in the first place, developers wouldn’t need such drastic measures for security, but annoying and problematic security measures only piss customers off–many refuse to buy any product that has such security measures. No one wins in the end. I wonder just how many more copies does products using hardware security devices sell compared to products using simply serial numbers.

I was eager to test out SD2 so I installed it on the Sony laptop, even though without the benefit of a separate hard drive. I think SD2 is what Stormdrum should’ve been–all the extended and new material makes SD2 a lot more complete and usable. I thought Stormdrum was pretty good, but it did not blow me away because there weren’t enough variety and the velocity layers were too limited. SD2 is just a much more inventive product, and the sound design patches add so much to the value of the library. I suspect they added those because of recent competitor’s scoring-oriented products like A.I.R., The Elements, Synergy, Evolve…etc have been so popular with composers.

I got the Korg Pandora PX5D mostly because I wanted more variety in my guitar effects arsenal when recording without the computer (I mentioned before that I sometimes prefer to not be influenced by the visual representation of musical data that sequencing software depends on). Korg’s sound design has always been more interesting to me than those of other companies, and the Pandora has some unconventional effects that you just don’t see in other similar products, except in more specialized products that concentrate on imaginative effects. The built-in effects on my Zoom MRS-8 are certainly usable–no worse than those found in other products, but the navigation is a chore and the effects are the typical conventional variety. I almost bought a used Boss Metal Core distortion pedal while at Guitar Center, but after comparing it to the distortion on the Pandora, I don’t think it’s worth it to spend the extra money, as some EQ’ing could probably get the Pandora close enough to the ideal metal distortion sound I want. But then again, the ideal metal distortion sound is like the Holy Grail–you think it exists but you may never find it. What sold me on the Pandora was mostly because of the demo videos of Sevendust guitarists promoting it–I thought their endorsement was sincere and the examples they played in the videos sounded good enough to me. You can check out the videos below:
Sevendust Rocks the Pandora
Sonny Mayo of Sevendust rocking the Pandora (I think the product he was dissing was probably the Line 6 POD.)
John Connolly of Sevendust rocking the Pandora

We been searching for the best pizza place in the Silicon Valley, and I made a list of some of the most mentioned places in online reviews. One of them was Amici’s East Coast Pizza in San Jose, and we had dinner there a couple nights ago. We ordered a large pizza with half Calabria and half Spicy Pepper Chicken. In general it was unsatisfying since the pizzas were kind of dry, the toppings sparse, and the spices weren’t as strong as we’d have liked. I think pizzas need to be a little bit greasy to be really satisfying, and Amici’s pizzas were a bit like eating healthy pizza–not quite the point.

Quickie TV reviews:

Breaking Bad (season two) – I had high expectations for season two since I was totally blown away by season one, and I was not disappointed. Breaking Bad is by far one of the best written, directed, cast, and acted television shows in the history of television. The one episode with the “previously on Breaking Bad” segment done as a song sung by a Mexican band–I nearly died–it was fucking brilliant. All the other writers and directors out there working on other TV shows need to watch Breaking Bad and take note, because the people behind Breaking Bad are kicking their asses and taking their names. The airplane crash at the end was a bit out there, but I suspect they will do something with it in season three.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (season two) – I liked season one enough to give season two a shot, and season two started strong, especially with Cameron’s malfunction, but I was so disappointed they did not build on that, as it was the most compelling aspect of season two. The rest of season two had some great moments, such as John Henry’s education, but that whole subplot involving Jesse and Riley didn’t do much for me. I was very intrigued by the “Will you join us” plot twists towards the end, but unfortunately the show has been cancelled. There will be no season three.

Battle Star Galactica (reimagined) (season four) – I have mentioned before that BSD started to go downhill for me in season three, and season four really didn’t change that, although the ending was satisfying enough. My problem with BSG in the last two seasons is that the writers obviously were just making it up as they go, and for a premise with multi-layered complexity, that is a very ineffective way to maximize a compelling pacing and story structure that holds its shape until the very end of the series. I’m sure Ron Moore and his writers had some skeleton of a plot for the entire series, but so much of the big events that has happened in the last two seasons were obviously just pulled out of their asses as desperate attempts to keep the show interesting. When they ran out of good ideas, they repeated old tricks and that felt gimmicky and lazy because we’ve seen the same execution and treatment multiple times already. When writers do not exercise restraint, they become self-indulgent. When you give every moment the same epic and dramatic treatment, nothing stands out, and the scenes that should’ve been the most powerful becomes diluted because everything other scene were not treated with restraint. They don’t seem to understand the concept of contrast. The lack of a well structured pacing was a big problem–everything was big and in your face, like a symphony where every other note is a big fucking tutti–just random, arbitrary made-up melodrama that felt like they were only written for the sake of being dark and depressing and traumatizing, serving no other higher purpose in the overall storyline. How many times did they use the “Admiral Adama explodes with fury in private and then slides down against a wall in a mess of broken sobs” gimmick? It was powerful the first time, but when we see it again and again it felt cheap, and it did not drive home the point that Adama was deterioting–it only felt like a cheap trick. It’s as if the writers weren’t inventive enough to come up with a different way to express the same idea.

****Spoiler Ahead****

One point that really annoyed me was how they came up with the final five cylons. They literally pulled it out of their asses in production meetings in the later seasons because they did not take the precaution of working such an important plot point into the overall structure of the entire series. That is not how you approach an epic series that requires many of the plot structure to be worked out beforehand. And Ellen is the final cylon? Seriously? That is probably the single worst decision the writing team made (although I’m pretty sure it was all Ron when you get down to it). Talk about a letdown and a misstep in satisfying storytelling. There was no relevant intellectual or emotional resonance for the series in that decision–it was completely meaningless.

****Spoiler Ends****

Now, I’m not unsympathetic to the complexities of writing for a television network show where you don’t know when and if the plug will be pulled, and that makes it hard to create a set structure for the entire series, but some of the blunders the writing team made on BGS were just so uncharacteristic of what I expect from a talented team of writers. There were so many moments where the show relied on emotional trauma and random plot twists that after a while it became just a string of cheap tricks. All those moments of people staring each other down, super tight zoom shots of somebody’s tear drenched eyes–they just became routine, predictable. Every moment is monumental and epic, and everyone’s emotional turmoil was a tidal wave, but without contrast they all blur into a mess and all semblance of a carefully crafted narrative is lost. While I respect Ron Moore’s obsession with realism and darkness, I think he’s lost objectivity and could no longer construct satisfying pacing and variety as the series went on. Piling on the tragedies and gritty darkness is not a replacement for good storytelling–sometimes too much is just too much. I really enjoyed the first two seasons as the pacing was far better and the storytelling devices haven’t been abused to hell yet, but starting with season three everything just went downhill.

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