Ethereality News & Weblog

November 25, 2009

Upcoming workshop details

I have posted the current details of my upcoming art workshop here. I’m still a few weeks from finishing the video portion of the workshop, but it’s finally getting very close.

One of my Samson C-Control monitor controllers started acting strange recently. It would have this awful surge/spike and the entire unit would buzz like it’s overloading with power, and the volume meter hits full red and stays there. The damn thing blew out a subwoofer in my setup and fried the right side of my Sennheiser HD555 headphones. As much as that sucked, situations like these always have a silver lining–time to buy new toys.

I had to replace the HD555 since it’s my only really comfy open-can headphones, and I never wear closed-back headphones anymore unless I’m tracking vocals or acoustic instruments. Having gotten so used to the open-back design, it’s hard to go back to closed since I won’t be able to hear the phone ring or Elena calling me. Also, closed cans never use comfortable earcup materials like velour–only leather/pleather, which can get sweaty. So off to shopping I went.

I dug around and–places I usually go to research headphones, and after about a week of agonizing over choices, I went for the Sennheiser HD600, since I already knew its sound when I tested the HD555 against it years ago. After listening to the HD600 for a couple of days, I decided to exchange it for the HD650 instead. The HD600 sounds so similar to the HD555 that the only real discernible differences were the physical design and slightly less rolled-back treble–not really enough of an improvement to justify the price tag. I also decided that the bass didn’t extend deep enough to match my Klein + Hummel O 300D reference monitors. It’s unfair to expect a pair of headphones to match a high-end pair of reference monitors in the first place, but I wanted to be able to get close enough so that when I take off the headphones and listen to the monitors, the difference would be minor enough to be negligible.

After returning the HD600, the HD650 arrived a few days later, and it sounds very similar to the HD600, except for the slightly deeper bass extension. The physical changes are all for the better–no fake marble finish (what the hell was Sennheiser thinking? Fake marble?) much sturdier cables, and better 1/4″ to 1/8″ adapter design. Comfort level is roughly the same, although I do prefer the weaker clamp of the HD555’s earcups over the tighter clamps of the HD600/650 (although still quite comfortable). I also prefer HD555’s cable placement–just one cable on the left side, so I can pull off the whole thing with just one hand if need to). While the bass does extend deeper on the HD650, it still does not reproduce the really deep thump at the level that the K+H’s do. What’s interesting is that my Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones do go down that deep and do reproduce those chest pounding thumps with the same solidarity and authority (though in the head, not in the chest), which is amazing considering the M50 only costs around $150 retail, while the HD650 costs around $350. Of course, the HD650 does have qualities that the M50 don’t have, such as a much more dimensional soundstage, a lush and involving sound, and more comfortable to wear. While the M50’s bass is amazing–punchy and accurate, its overall sound is more clinical (though this is a good thing if you are trying to do audio work with them), with a smaller soundstage, and the pleather earcups can get sweaty after a while. If I could somehow combine the comfort and lush sound of the Sennheiser HD5XX and 6XX series with the punchy and substantial bass (though accurate and never bloated or muddy) of the M50, I’d be extremely happy.

Here’s a frequency range graph showing how those headphones compare:
frequency range graph
(If you want to learn how to interpret the graphs, you should read the explanation at HeadRoom’s website.)

As you can see, the M50’s bass response is anywhere from +5 ~10db more than the other headphones, and that explains why it reproduces those solid thumps that others can’t.

BTW, this is my current collection of headphones:
(From left to right: Pioneer SE-DJ5000, Sennheiser HD650, Audio-Technica ATH-M50, Westone 3, Equation RP-21, Sennheiser HD555, Denon AH-D950. Missing from the photo are the Shure E4C and Sennheiser HD600–I no longer have them.)

For those of you who are not headphone geeks, you probably wonder why anyone would need so many headphones. It’s actually pretty simple–allow me to break it down:

Leisure listening – This is what I wear when it’s late at night and I don’t want to bother anyone. It has to be very comfortable and sound very pleasant and involving, because this what I wear when I’m enjoying myself with music, a movie, or playing video games. It cannot be fatiguing to listen to (for example many headphones are too shrill in the treble and very fatiguing after a while). The HD555 used to be my leisure headphones, but it broke, so I replaced it the HD600, which I found to be lacking in bass and exchanged it for the HD650. The 650’s bass is still not ideal (missing the really solid oomph that the M50 reproduces beautifully), but it’s close enough and very comfortable. That beat up Denon used to be my “everything headphone” from my starving artist days, and went through a lot with me. It finally fell apart on me a few years ago, but I will always remember it fondly. It’s a closed-back design and not the most comfortable due to the drivers touching the ears and the pleather earcups. I only use open-back designs now for leisure listening as they’re usually more comfortable and I can hear thing around me still.

Tracking – For tracking (recording with microphones of vocals or instruments), headphones have to be sealed so the sound does not leak into the mic. I always wear open-back headphones for leisure so I can still hear the phone ring or someone talking to me, but they are not sealed and will leak into the mic, so my leisure headhphones cannot be used for tracking. This means I need headphones specifically for tracking–enter the M50 and the RP-21. I have two tracking headphones because sometimes I’ll jam or record with another musician, and we’d both need tracking headphones. If I’m doing any kind of critical mixing or mastering, I do it on my Klein + Hummel O 300D reference monitors, as it’s the most accurate and neutral sound reproduction device I own. I might get things in the ball park with headphones if I happen to be working late at night, but I would never finalize a mix on a pair of headphones (I used to when I was poor and couldn’t afford high-end reference monitors, and now when I listen to those old mixes, they mostly suck).

Portable – The small Westone 3 is my traveling in-ear headphones. They seal out all the noise like airplane, train, loud people…etc so I can enjoy music while on the road. The Westone 3 replaces the Shure E4C after it got fried by a malfunctioning airline adapter.

The SE-DJ5000 was a gift from Reid, a musican friend of mine back when I worked at Guitar Center in San Francisco about ten years ago. I’ve been trying to find that guy for a while now–he’s one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever met. I use the SE-DJ5000 for my Clavia Ddrum 4 drum kit.

And that’s how one person ends up with so many headphones. If I had money to burn, I’d probably get more for leisure listening–just to have different sonic flavors for fun.

There is a bass detail/articulation test that I do on all my headphones and speakers, and out of all my headphones, only the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 and the Pioneer SE-DJ5000 (which only retails for about $99) passed the test–but only barely, while all my other headphones failed (Sennheiser HD555/600/650, Denon AH-D650, Equation RP-21, Westone 3). If you want to test your headphones and speakers, you can do the test. First, grab the track here.
(This was a bad mix from years ago. and because it has problems, it’s the perfect candidate for the test. I intend to remix the track someday.)

Now, this is how you do the test:

-As the track’s intro starts to fade in, you’ll hear the two consecutive bass notes (G) that plays twice and then repeat 4 times before the notes change to a higher note (C), also repeating the same way.

-Once the drum track kicks in (0:31), you should be able to hear that the bass notes do not change–they are playing the same notes and same rhythm as in the intro, but it’ll be difficult to make out the notes because it’s simply badly mixed (I should have used a different bass sound, or EQ’d the bass so its pitch identity is more prominent).

-Now comes the test part. You should notice VERY clearly that when the C bass notes play with the drum track, you pretty much can’t tell that they are playing at all–they are almost totally masked by the kick drum. It should be VERY obvious that the G bass notes can be heard/felt, even if it’s hard to identify the pitch identity, you can obviously hear the “body” of those G bass notes very easily–like a low frequency bloom/boom that companies the kick drum, and when the C bass notes play, that bloom/boom disappears, with only the kick drum audible. The difference is quite stark when listening with the K+H, but barely distinguishable on less capable consumer speakers or headphones. On less capable devices, the bass notes and the kick drum just blends together in a muddy blob with no definition that separates the bass notes from the kick drum.

Keep in mind that the test isn’t whether you can detect the difference, but whether the difference is very dramatic. Whether a headphones has extended bass response has no bearing on the test, since the test is not about the quantity of bass, but quality and detail of the bass. When I listen with the K+H O 300D’s, the difference surprised the hell out of me–it was so starkly different that I couldn’t believe how I didn’t hear it for years with inferior equipment. The HD555/600/650, Denon AH-D650, and Equation RP-21 barely registered that difference. The M-50 and SE-DJ5000 catches the difference, but it’s not nearly as dramatic as with the K+H. The Westone 3 pretty much fails altogether at it.

Also, you do not need to have a lossless file to hear the difference. The mp3 is perfectly fine for this test, because I have done the test with both the original WAV and the mp3 and they both worked the same for the test. In fact, in a double blind ABX test using my trusty Klein + Hummel O 300D’s, I could barely tell the difference between the two files, so it really makes no difference to the test. If you really must have the lossless file, you can find it in this thread I posted about the test:
Link to thread on

Related to the recent headphone purchase is this nifty little Victor SU-DH1 Dolby Headphone device I got:
(There’s an almost identical JVC version that only takes batteries and can’t take a power adapter.)

What the device does is take surround sound signal and process them so that you can hear an emulation of surround sound even on your headphones. It’s not perfect like the real deal, but when it’s late at night and you want surround sound without bothering other people, it does the job well enough that you appreciate the difference it makes. The unit is so tiny (about the size of a slim cigarette case–smaller than the photo) because it’s made for portable listening with laptops and mp3 players. I mainly got it because I usually play games at night and our neighbors upstairs goes to sleep around then. I also got tired of getting surprised while playing Bioshock, because I couldn’t tell if an enemy was coming at me from some corner in front of me or behind me. So far I think it makes a difference but I’ll have to play with it more to really draw a conclusion on whether the device saves my ass noticeably during gaming or not.

I recently did a little research into exactly how Elena listens to music differently from the way I do, and the result is very similar to what I have observed from the past with other people who are neither musicians nor very passionate about music. I had her rate a big collection of songs over a long period of time (months), and then I would ask her questions about her ratings. Like many people who aren’t musicians or aren’t very passionate music, she enjoys music mostly in two ways:

1) The music itself is very pleasant–melodic, uplifting, relaxing, ethereal, or fun–all positive feelings evoked by the music.

2) The lyrics resonate with her emotionally, so that she identifies with the emotions depicted in the song. In some cases, if she can’t understand the language of the lyrics, she could feel the emotions projected by the singer. This emotional appeal is mostly limited to uplifting or sad/moody songs, and does not include aggression, anger, humor…etc.

If a piece of music does not fit those two profiles, then she will not enjoy the music as much–be it harder music with aggression and anger, or instrumental pieces that aren’t uplifting or beautifully melodic, or non-relaxing/uplifting jazz, or funky music that’s meant to groove but contains no emotions…etc.

Of the genres she tends to rate highly are trip-hop, dream pop, ballads, and mainstream pop, soft rock, soft jazz, middle-eastern (she likes the mysterious and exotic sound of the ethnic percussion and vocals)…etc. No harder rock, metal, industrial, prog rock, and no classical or orchestral unless it’s soft and relaxing.

Having identified her exact taste, it makes me wonder why some people naturally prefer more “difficult” music like prog rock or avant-garde, listening for impressive musicianship and compositional skills, while others couldn’t care less about those qualities. I know some people who aren’t musicians but are passionate about music, and they also care about those qualities. Is this the line that separates intellectuals from the average folk? Does this have anything to do with personality?

I’m about halfway through Bioshock now, and I’m glad I decided to give it another chance (a couple of years ago I played up to Arcadia and stopped). I’m pretty sure I’m going to finish it this time. So far I can’t say that it’ll take a spot in my favorite games of all time, because it lacks the emotional core or a plot progression that resonates with me, but it’s certainly a very good game.

Quickie movie/TV reviews:

Prison Break (Season Three) – Elena and I both really enjoyed the first two seasons of Prison Break, and we thought it ended on a perfect note. When I heard they were extending the show due to popular demand, I was sure the quality would drop significantly, and I was right. The third season was terrible, jumping the shark all over the place, and some of the problems had nothing to do with the writer’s strike at the time, because you don’t have to be a writer to catch these mistakes. For example, they played up Mahone’s drug addiction throughout the season, but when the big day nears, his withdraw symptoms just disappeared and was never brought up again–in fact we’re watching season four now and it’s never mentioned again, period. No explanation–nothing. Then in the scene when they were at the buoy waiting for the boat to pick them up and the kid slipped underwater like he’s passing out. How the hell does that happen when all he was doing was grabbing onto the side railing of the buoy? Other scenes like them rolling out from under the vehicles during the escape with all those guards around and bright spot lights, and the many scenes when someone had a weapon and every opportunity to make a move but did nothing…etc. Overall it was just like a ghost of its former self, and I wish they never extended the series. But since Sarah is back in season four, I just had to watch it (I think she’s very elegant, with those big doe eyes that could melt an icecap), so we’re now making our way through season four.

Crossing Over – While the political and moral stance of the film is convoluted, it’s nice to see a film actually try to tackle the subject of illegal immigration. I think this film resonates more deeply with those who had gone through the naturalization ceremony, or have struggled to get a green card. I wonder how many of the film critics who gave this this film a scathing review were naturalized and how many were born American?

He’s Just Not That Into You – A pretty decent romantic comedy. I’m noticing that Jennifer Connelly has been playing the “hyper critical, stuffy, and too serious” type more than once in the recent years. Is this what casting directors see in her? I kind of miss the old Jen, when she still had some fat on her and still played characters that weren’t so drab.

Hush A pretty good horror/thriller, although it still had scenes where the character acted in incomprehensibly stupid ways that are always a letdown in horror films. Why can’t we see more horror films where the protagonists are really smart and really cool under pressure? Is it because the audience won’t be able to identify with such a person and prefer to identify with the idiots who panic easily?

Franklyn – I force myself to sit through the first thirty minutes before I ejected the DVD. I knew exactly what the films was trying to do even without watching the rest of the film (and my guess was later confirmed by a quick search for the rest of the plot online), and the execution was so pretentious that I just couldn’t watch any more of it. This is a good case of someone having an interesting and original idea, but lacks the ability to execute the idea properly. The imaginary fantasy world–be it the visual design or the premise, just felt so arbitrary and meaningless. I doubt I would ever try to force myself to watch the rest of the film.

Election 2 – The sequel was about the same as the first film in terms of quality and entertainment. The scenes with rampant corruption of the government officials in China made Elena and I chuckle–they were so true that they might as well have been scenes from a documentary.

The Return – A mediocre thriller with predictable plot, tired premise. I suppose some would watch it just for Sarah Michelle Geller, but she was kind of a bore in the film as well.

Painted Veil – Another predictable film, but these period epic romances always are, aren’t they? There’s always some kind of political unrest happening in some third-world country, and the main characters are always white heroes that has traveled far to foreign lands to fix the mistakes of the uncivilized barbarians. If it’s not Africa, then it’s Asia or some other place. The film itself was decent, and Ed Norton was actually not half bad as a romantic lead (a role that I’ve never seen him in), though his character was not the traditional romantic lead that we see so much of–that handsome rogue with a heart of gold. I can see why they cased Norton, since he pulls off the serious and quiet type very well.

Ink Heart – I don’t see why lackluster fantasy works like this gets adapted for the big screen instead of far better fantasy books.

Rendition – A good political thriller with a strong moral stance, but without ever being preachy or sentimental.

November 5, 2009

New Zendrum layouts

Filed under: Audio & Music,Film/TV/Animation,My Life/Musings,Site News — Rob Chang @ 8:17 pm

I have been practicing hard on the Zendrum LT whenever I have some free time to spare, and I have created a bunch of new layouts for it. I’ve posted them, hoping that other Zendrummers will find them useful in their quest to design the most expressive, playable, and intuitive layout of their own.

My layouts are mainly based on the ambidextrous approach, because the LT model’s trigger layout just begs for it and excels best at it. It also makes the most sense because it approximates the way drummers traditionally have one stick in each hand, and could strike on any surface with both sticks and achieve the same mobility and control in each hand. My current favorite layouts are ones based on what I call the T.I.M. (Thumb-Index-Middle) system, where the thumbs strike the kicks, the index fingers strike the closed hi-hats with the first joint (from the tip of the finger), and the middle fingers strike the snare rimshot. The ring finger and pinky are then used to control the open hi-hats and open snare hits. The palm and heel of the hands control the crash and splash.

Although I created these layouts specifically for Addictive Drums (my current favorite drum library), you can translate them to whatever drum module or sample library you use. I use similar layouts for EZDrummer or any other drum module/library. In the future, I’ll be posting layouts for other various drum and percussion modules/libraries.

Here’s is my current most used layout:
Zendrum layout #11
This layout is the most reasonable compromise for me at the moment. I don’t get the ride shaft, but it sounds similar enough to darker crashes that I don’t miss it much. I don’t get the snare rim click, but if play the snare rimshot lightly, it sounds close enough that I’m okay with it. I don’t bother with the choke for the splash since it’s such a fast decaying cymbal anyway, and I like having it both sides so I can create quick accents on any beat (as opposed to the crash, which I usually use on odd beats).

You can find the other layouts I have created here.

I’ll be working on those Zendrum videos I talked about before, as soon as I finish writing the course material for my upcoming art workshop.

I’m really looking forward to finishing the course material for the workshop I’ve been working on, since it’s taking up so much time and taking so long. I could’ve made the workshop a very simple one, just like most other workshops where they teach one skill or one topic, but I really want to give the students something that will really change their lives, instead of merely teaching them a new skill or cover a narrow topic. Whenever I thought I was close to finishing it, more ideas pop into my head and I’m off adding new content again. This time, I really think I’m getting close though, and it’s about time too, because I don’t think I could add anymore content without completely overwhelming the students.

As soon as I’m done with the workshop, I’m going to first make those Zendrum videos I’ve been dying to make, and then I’m going to jump head first into my next long-term multimedia novel project.

Quickie movie reviews:

The Informers – A depressing film about a bunch of selfish, narcissistic, broken, and lost souls–all doing stupid things that any well-adjusted and mentally healthy person would shake his head at. The only character that had any meaning for me was Jack, who seemed to be the only one who understood right from wrong. The conclusion to his story was the only emotional catharsis, but the rest of the film just felt pointless. So we watched a bunch of useless people living out their useless lives for an hour and half–then what? What are we suppose to walk away with at the end of the film?

The Great Debaters – Predictable to the very last scene, but these types of inspirational films always are. You don’t watch these films for surprises, but to admire the struggles and triumphs of those who dared to try.

Election – It was a pretty good Hong Kong ganster flick, with that signature Johnnie To vibe. I’m a big fan of his 1999 film, The Mission/Cheung Fo, and I think he really peaked with that film.

Next – A pretty decent action thriller. I’m pretty tired of Nicolas Cage by now though, and I really would rather he just stop playing lead characters and actually take some supporting roles that’s nothing like what we’ve seen him do before.

Ju-on (The Grudge) 3 – Visually, these Japanese horror films will always creep me out, but in terms of story, they are often hit or miss. Most Japanese horror films have no logic to them–they are only meant to give you nightmares. The American remakes tend to try to be more logical, and thus more watchable in terms of plot, but none are ever going to go down in history as a masterpiece or anything, this one included.

State of Play – A pretty good political thriller overall. I was hoping for more insight into the friendship between Russel Crowe and Ben Affleck’s character, since I think it would’ve made the film emotionally more engaging, but it never happened.

Duplicity – Entertaining spy thriller that didn’t involve any guns or car chases, and had one of the most refreshing endings I’ve seen in these types of films in a while.

Passengers – A quiet little supernatural romantic drama. If you like Anne Hathaway, just watch it for her. The story is a bit ho hum since we’ve seen this kind of plot twist more than a few times by now.

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