Ethereality News & Weblog

November 25, 2011

Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium review

I recently added a new sound card (Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium) and graphics card (Zotac GeForce CTX 550 Ti) to my “General Purpose” desktop computer.

Originally, I did not plan to use any of my current computers for any kind of gaming at all, since I’ve migrated over to consoles (Xbox360, Playstation 3) for all my gaming needs in the last couple of years. But it always bugged me that I just can’t play fast-paced FPS on consoles, because there’s no way to play with the kind of twitch reflex such games require as I could on the PC with keyboard and mouse. To make it worse, games like Unreal Tournament 3 for the console is actually slowed down dramatically from the PC version to accommodate that drawback. So essentially, it’s like a double-dumbed-down version of what it should be.

Ever since I became a gamer, I’ve always felt the need to have at least one twitch-reflex FPS in my gaming line-up at all times; it helps me unwind after a long day of hard work. Currently, nobody makes twitch-reflex FPS games anymore because consoles have taken over gaming (today’s FPS are more about realism than speed/reflex), so I can only go back to games like the Unreal Tournament series or Quake series to get my twitch-fix, and the only proper way to play them is on computers with keyboard and mouse.

I tried running UT3 and UT2004 on my “General Purpose” rig (I always preferred the UT series to the Quake series), but I couldn’t get surround sound due to the whole OpenAL problem in Windows 7. After researching, I chose the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Platinum for the Creative Alchemy feature, which restores the surround sound for games using OpenAL. I tossed in a new graphics card too, so I don’t have to run UT3 on anything less than the max settings just to get decent framerate (using the Core-i5 2500K’s built-in GPU, I had to use lower resolution in order to get around 25~30 FPS). With the GeForce GTS 550 Ti, I’m able to max out all settings at highest resolution, and still get 60+ framerate. Although I can max out all UT3 settings on my “Music Production DAW” computer too (it’s a Core 2 Quad Q6600 with a GeForce 9800 GTX graphics card), I really don’t like gaming on my music-production computer (since I only turn it on to work on music, and to turn it on just to play a quick session of gaming becomes inconvenient), and also, the lack of surround sound via OpenAL is still a problem.

So, after abandoning the PC for consoles for a couple of years, I’m starting to game on the PC again, despite the technical troubleshooting that I hate about PC gaming. For twitch-reflex FPS, there’s just no substitute.

Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium review:
Overall, the Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium sounds fine–its specs are no worse than typical pro audio interfaces, and its ASIO driver ran solid when I tested it in Sonar X1. What’s a bit alarming is the noise floor though–it’s noticeably higher than my old Audiotrak Prodigy 7.1 sound card when the volume is turned up high, and I can hear obvious interference along with noise floor that I did not hear with the Prodigy 7.1. But since I’m not using the X-Fi Titanium for any critical audio work (I use the TC Electronic Konnket Live for that), I’m not really concerned. I won’t hear the noise floor at all when fragging enemies in a twitch-reflex FPS.

One of the main selling points of the Creative Sound Blaster products is all the fancy effects, but I never bother with the more gimmicky ones–only typical consumers who don’t know much about audio will use features such as the X-Fi Crystalizer, EAX, or SVM. They don’t know that those gimmicky features do far more harm than good to the quality of the audio, and the only purpose such features serve is to impress people who probably aren’t picky about audio fidelity in the first place.

It’s kind of funny and ironic that Creative likes to tell people their X-Fi Crystalizer makes MP3’s sound better, when in fact it only severely colors the frequency response by giving it that dreaded “Disco Smiley” EQ curve, which any entry level audiophile would have grown out of in his first month of learning about audio fidelity. Creative is banking on the fact that most people have no idea just how transparent MP3’s sound these days with superior encoders like the LAME algoithm. For 99% of the general public, they can’t tell the difference between the original CD and an MP3 encoded at even moderate constant bitrates like 160 kbps or 192 kbps, let alone variable bitrates or max bitrate of 320 kbps. So if someone can’t tell the difference between the original CD and the MP3 in double-blind listening tests, what the hell is there to “restore” with the X-Fi Crystalizer? All it ends up doing is making everything sound grating and exaggerated in the treble and bass.

The CMSS-3D is essentially like Creative’s version of Dolby Pro Logic II and Dolby Headphone, and they work pretty much the same as the Dolby counterpart. I have Dolby Headphone from the JVC/Victor SU-DH1 hardware unit I use for surround sound headphone gaming, and I also have Dolby Pro Logic II from my Logitech Z-5500 surround sound system, and I think the two competing technologies are pretty similar in terms of results.

The Creative Console is so clumsy and slow that I never use it–I just use the shortcuts in the Creative Volume Panel to turn stuff on and off, or the Creative Audio Control Panel, since it has most of the settings of the Creative Console, but without the slow reacting graphical GUI that takes forever to switch between modes. It’s a shame that often the most popular companies out there with the highest market share are the ones who are the most clueless when it comes to designing products that are easy, fast, and intuitive to use.

Although both the sound card and the graphics card are doing what I purchased them to do, the unfortunate side-effect is that UT3 is now crashing all the time. I’ll have figure that out. UT2004 runs flawlessly though, but it’s quite dated graphically, so I don’t enjoy playing it as much as I used to. I prefer to get UT3 sorted out, if I could.

I recently sold my Stax headphone rig (SR-007mk2, SRM-717). It’s a great sounding rig, and the most expensive rig I owned, but I just don’t use it enough to justify keeping it. As some of you know, I don’t trust any headphone out of the box–I always create custom EQ curves to make them more accurate/neutral, and this is true even for expensive four-figure headphones. Once I EQ my headphones, they all end up sounding much more similar than different, which makes it really hard to justify keeping the really expensive ones when the cheaper ones sound so similar. In my case, my Audez’e LCD-2 (Rev.1) sounds close enough to ideal with my custom EQ curve that I really have no need for other headphones anymore (except a pair of closed-back for tracking).

BTW, here’s the latest version of my custom EQ curve for the LCD-2:
lcd-2 custom EQ curve

You can’t just look at it without knowing the context of why it looks that way though, so here’s the measurement for my LCD-2, which provides the proper context:
LCD2 frequency response graph

The thin white slanted line is basically what’s widely considered the ideal upper-mids to treble response from 1KHz to 20KHz (headphones shouldn’t measure flat in that frequency range, since headphones are different from speakers), and I basically EQ’d the LCD-2 to that ideal (while also using test tones like sine wave at regular frequency intervals, pink noise, and comparison to other headphones and speakers). At this point, I would say my LCD-2 sounds about as good as I need a pair of headphones to sound, and beyond that, it’s just unacceptable diminishing returns.

I would sell my Sennheiser HD650 too, but I’m keeping it as a backup, in case one day the LCD-2 dies on me and it takes a while to decide on what to replace it with–I’ll at least have another trustworthy headphone to use in the meantime. The Audio-Technica ATH-M50 will always have a place in my studio since it’s great as a tracking headphone, but I’d never use it for any kind of critical audio work since I just prefer open-back headphones in general.

I finally finished playing Dead Island, and it was much longer than I thought it would be (I think around 59 hours or so for me). I had mentioned previously that the game has some glaring issues, but despite those issues, I had a ton of fun because the gameplay was so immersive–especially once you get into the city. I’m not going to repeat what I already mentioned before, so I’ll just add that the ending was decent, and that final run through the prison was really tense. It’s not the kind of game that would win any awards for storytelling though, that’s for sure.

The technical glitches were unforgivable, such as during the ending cut-scene, the characters had no irises–just the whites of their eyes showed. Throughout the game, the facial animations were some of the very worst I had ever seen in a modern video game, and the voice acting ranged from pretty good to bad. The inventory bugs were less annoying than they could have been since I was careful to work around them.

For such a flawed game, it was a lot more fun than it had the right to be.

Quickie movie/TV reviews:

Breaking Bad (season four) – Again, Breaking Bad proves it’s one of the very best shows on television. Masterful dramatic structure, complex character developments, and very effective pacing. It also has some of the best acting on television too.

True Blood (season four) – Season four was somewhat disappointing, and while the love story was cute, the way the season concluded made me a bit nauseous. What is it with these female writers having such clichéd fantasies of multiple hot males (vampires and werewolves) fighting over the main female lead? Twilight and Vampire Diaries both do this too and it’s just laughably predictable and shallow.

Why can’t we have a female lead where male characters aren’t just tripping all over themselves to fall in love with? And to make it worse, not all of these female leads deserve such adoration. Sookie is perhaps the least deserving compared to the other female leads. Anna Paquin when compared to Nina Dobrev looks absolutely unremarkable and homely, and even compared to Kirsten Stewart, looks bland and common. As a character, Sookie isn’t as sharp or elegant as Elena, or have that brooding allure like Bella. Other than the required kindness and courage that all lead protagonists are expected to have, the only thing unique about her is her stupid faery blood. If it wasn’t for that, she wouldn’t even have the adoring vampires fighting over her.

Alexander Skarsgård was a pleasure to watch though–I’ve been a fan of his ever since Generation Kill. It was especially satisfying to see him play a very different Eric in season four.

African Cats – A sort of sanitized family version of a nature documentary with Samuel L. Jackson narrating the story. I’m not really fond of this style of documentary where we anthropomorphize and idealize animals with sentimental narration. I also don’t care for Jackson as a narrator–he sounds so out of place because I keep expecting him to say something that we’re more accustomed to from a bad mofo like him.

Smart People – These types of indie flicks have such a distinctly similar flavor to them that I find writing about them almost about as predictable as writing about mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. Aren’t indies supposed to represent uniqueness? But why do so many of these indie films featuring socially awkward but smart characters all seem like they were written and directed by the same person?

Super 8 – This was an interesting blend of classic adventure movie storytelling meets modern action film sensibilities. I really enjoyed the young actors, and the scene where Elle Fanning stunned the other kids with her innate acting talent just took my breath away. The last act became a fairly standard Hollywood blockbuster affair, and lacked the kind of heart that it aspired to, such as the classic 80’s Spielberg adventures.

Bad Teacher – The best moments in the movie were already shown in the trailer, and the rest of the movie was just filler. If the entire movie was as irreverent and biting as the trailer, then it would’ve been much more entertaining.

Battle For Terra I got about half way through the movie and then my attention began to wander. I started cleaning up around the studio for the rest of the movie, and it never regained 100% of my attention. The movie was essentially like watching a sterile and boring version of Avatar with low-budget visuals.

The Expendables One more movie that couldn’t hold my attention. The last act lost me, with all the fighting scenes boring me to the point where I stopped caring who was punching who and who was shooting at who. These fights were choreographed to be as entertaining as possible, but they just felt kind of pointless. I tend to favor more realistic fighting scenes such as in the Jason Bourne series, instead of the over-the-top action hero stuff. The realistic fighting scenes feel much more immediate and dangerous to me, where every single move could potentially kill or maim someone. With these testosterone action flicks, you never really feel like the heroes are in any danger, because they take a hundred punches and kicks and just keeps on going. It’s so 1980’s and so outdated, but what do you expect from Sylvester Stallone?

Because of Winn Dixie – I watched a bunch of children’s movies lately, since I usually ignore these types of movies, and I wanted to see what I was missing (thinking of them as research as a storyteller). As it happens, AnnaSophia Rob is in most of the recent ones, so it became a kind of mini AnnaSophia Rob marathon. This Win Dixie flick wasn’t very satisfying, especially the final conflict seemed to have come out of nowhere and had no real sense of gravity in the dramatic structure. AnnaSophia is certainly very cute, and although she may not be as good as Dakota or Elle Fanning was at the same age, she’s good enough for these types of simple movies. I don’t think she’s good enough for much more serious films by auteur type directors though.

Bridge to Terabithia – The story itself only became interesting after the sad plot twist, but by then, the movie was almost over. The fantastical elements almost felt tacked on and didn’t resonate emotionally. I never read the book so I have no idea if that’s how it was in the book as well. During the scenes where the kids are playing make believe, I had to wonder if the young actors thought it was all very silly, because it sure looked that way to me, but it probably didn’t look that way to the target audience.

The Race the Witch Mountain – By this point, I was a bit tired of seeing AnnaSophia’s big, earnest eyes. I also got tired of these children’s films, because they just aren’t very compelling–they’re either too safe, too simple, or too sentimental. I think the problem is that people who make these films don’t ever try to take risks and do something truly unique and remarkable. I much rather see mature movies ABOUT children than movies made FOR children.

The Spiderwick Chronicles – I did not care for Freddie Highmore at all. I think he’s a very minor talent that gets casted because of his good looks. It also doesn’t help that I absolutely hated August Rush with a passion (for a movie about the love for music, it was the greatest unintentional insult to musicians I’ve ever seen in my life). The rest of the cast I actually liked, and they made the movie bearable for me. At this point, I’m done with these children’s movies–they just aren’t very compelling. I consider my research done and I’ll never return to this genre again unless there’s phenomenal critical acclaim enticing me.

Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon – I can’t stand these type of movies, but I force myself to watch them as research–to keep up with what’s happening in the mainstream cinematic landscape.

This latest movie in the franchise was the worst one yet, where the main character has become this immature, obnoxious, and unlikable douchebag. I mean, really? This is what passes for a leading protagonist these days in epic-budgeted mainstream movies?

I really don’t need to rip this movie apart since there are no shortage of scathing reviews out there. I’ll just say one more thing though: “The Ark” is a ridiculous name for an alien ship, because the Autobot’s alien culture has no biblical connection to our world whatsoever, so the parallels are completely wrong in context and illogical.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. It didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator, and it created emotional resonance without overbearing and simple-minded sentimentality (which is what most mindless Hollywood blockbusters do). It had the kind of sophistication fitting for mainstream movies that I wish was more common.

November 11, 2011

Deficiencies of mainstream American comic book narrative

Filed under: Comics,Film/TV/Animation,Video Games,Writing — Rob Chang @ 2:01 pm

I have tried to force myself to read The Walking Dead comic book series twice now, and I just couldn’t get into it (and I’m saying this as a huge fan of the TV series based on it).

I tried reading it once years ago before the TV series was even being planned, and it just didn’t take. As a life-long zombie fiction fan, I didn’t find the vibe all that compelling. Now that I’ve watched the TV series and tried again to read the comic book series, the original just pales when compared to the adaptation. In comparison to the TV series, the comic books lack the depth and nuances I love about the TV series.

This perhaps isn’t a criticism of The Walking Dead comic books specifically–it’s more about how American comic books in general tend to have a specific convention of narrative and visual storytelling that never really appealed to me (yes, there are exceptions, but I’m talking about the average American comic book). The 24-pages per issue paradigm is terrible for building atmosphere, mood, subtlety, emotional depth, or allow the pacing enough breathing room so the entire narrative feels more like a natural organism instead of a bullheaded charge to check off plot points and dialogues before the page count runs out.

In comparison, mangas and European comics are much better in that regard, with far more breathing room for introspective moments and to build up atmosphere and mood, as well as a more sensible distribution of amount of dialogues per panel, accompanied by matching facial expressions, body language, and a variety of camera work.

With American comics, it’s common to have a barrage of dialogues all happening in one panel. It becomes this talking heads situation, where the flow of natural perceived time stops and we’re looking at a static image with tons of dialogues pasted in every empty space the illustration allows, sometimes even overlapping important parts of the illustration just to cram more dialogues in. This keeps happening page after page, and what’s worse, characters will spout off long dialogues even while in the middle of extraneous physical activity–such as punching the crap out of each other or in life or death situations. This kind of insensitivity to nuance, pacing, and context is detrimental to the perception of timing and atmosphere, and clumsy in its lack of subtlety and finesse.

Visually, I’m generally also not a fan of most American comic book artists’ choice of stylization. Many of them have this glaring deficiency when it comes to depicting normal looking characters; they either look like grimacing bodybuilders and pouting sex kittens, or they look like freaky psychopaths and inbred mutants. There’s very little subtlety, elegance, or charm in general. I would say that American comic book artists overall have much less evolved aesthetic sensitivity.

The truth is, I never really liked mainstream American comics all that much, even during the 8 years I worked professionally in that industry. I much preferred the indie stuff like Love and Rockets (the stuff by Jaime Hernandez, not his brothers), or the sophisticated adult stuff by guys like Neil Gaiman and the art school types like Jon J. Muth. As for art, other than the previously mentioned, I also like guys like Adam Hughes, Steve Rude, and a few others who draw in more natural styles that are relatively more elegant and graceful.

The reason I chose a career in comics in the first 8 years of my professional life as an artist and writer was mainly because of influences from mangas like Appleseed, mature comics like Sandman, and indie comics like Love and Rockets. The mainstream superhero stuff and the general storytelling and art style of typical American comics were always a negative aspect for me, and its dominance of the American comic book industry was part of the reason I eventually dropped out and never returned. I was always a part of the indie scene, and after a while, it just got tiring always being on the fringe and being disinterested with the majority of the developments in the industry that I never felt completely a part of. (There were other reasons too–you can read about them in my bio in the About Me section.)

I tried playing Star Wars: Force Unleashed, and I was surprised by how bad some of the animations were. The character animation was unnatural to the point where I wish they had just mocapped it all instead of using the clumsy looking key-framed animations. I think most people tend to think a big-name franchise would have very polished production associated with it, but that’s not really the case. The game feels a bit too simple–almost like a kiddie arcade game. After a couple of hours, I just got bored of it. I’m probably not its target audience in the first place.

I have been enjoying the hell out of Dead Island. Even though it’s got some obvious issues such as weird bugs, or terrible NPC facial animation, not much of a story, and lots of side-quest fillers, it’s the gameplay itself that’s got me hooked. If you only played the resort section, you won’t understand this, but in the city section, the game becomes a lot more intense–especially later on in the city when you are constantly surrounded and overwhelmed.

I love the feeling of running scared and looking for a car to jump onto when multiple infected are shrieking and running full speed at me from all directions. Very few games can make me panic like that–where I actually fear for my life. Even the loss of money when I die is enjoyable–a form of motivation to try as hard as I can to survive.

I also really enjoy the weapons system–to be able to modify them, and maintain them with repairs, or to upgrade them. With so many weapons available, you have to constantly make decisions on which ones to sell off, drop, upgrade, or keep. Some weapons have much longer reach than others, and I always make sure I have at least one, so when I’m on top of a car, I can still hit the zombies. Shorter weapons cannot reach them at all, but they tend to be more deadly in general. Guns are surprisingly weak compared to melee weapons, but then again, the way the weapons are ranked in the game makes no logical sense whatsoever anyway.

I just made my way into the jungle (finally! Took forever, and it’s very frustrating to not be able to advance a quest due to the “triggering” event happening so much later in the game. This is a glaring design problem), and I think that’s the last third of the game. After I finish it, I’ll likely start Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Quickie TV/movie reivews:

Entourage (series finale) – This show has been a guilty pleasure, and I’m a little disappointed by the way the series wrapped up, since the plot development was a bit abrupt. For example, the entire courtship between Vince and his wife-to-be was completely skipped over, and that could have been an interesting development to see Vince finally growing up and find true love. I really liked the final scene though–where Ari is once again being tempted by ambition and power, after what seemed to be a final wake-up call and enjoying life in the sun. I think he’d go for it, because a leopard can’t change its spots.

Soul Surfer – Although this film may be more mainstream than I had expected, I thought it was well-made and entertaining, and despite not getting into the darker side of the lead character’s emotional turmoil too much, still depicted a moving story. I didn’t really recognize AnnaSophia Robb until I looked her up later and realized I’d seen her in a horror movie with Hilary Swank before when she was younger.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. – This is one of the most enjoyable romantic comedies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s got more heart, more wit, and better writing than most of the romantic comedies I’ve seen in the last few years. The cast was also very endearing–I loved everyone in it. The scene when Emma Stone was at Ryan Gosling’s house–how can anyone not love that scene? I haven’t seen chemistry between two people portrayed that well since…I can’t even remember. When I think back on how other romantic comedies try to portray chemistry between two leads, they seemed forced and lacking the natural ease and endearing quality of the Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling scene.

Bruno I just couldn’t force myself to sit through this low-brow farce. See, Borat had a certain kind of charm, and the humor had wit, and I mostly enjoyed that movie and like Borat as a character. Bruno was just a complete low-brow, crass, and revolting mess. It had no subtlety, no likable characters, and its stereotyping of gay men was just so offensively over-the-top that the only people who would find it funny are the kind of people who would probably commit hate crimes against gay men. I don’t know what the hell Sacha Baron Cohen was thinking. He should have done an Ali G movie instead (even if he keeps saying that character is too well known already).

Happy Accidents – I watched this because of Marisa Tomei, and it’s an okay romantic comedy with a sci-fi premise as a gimmick. Marisa is a cutie pie as always, and a joy to watch.

The Promotion – This comedy had an odd, subdued tone to it, especially when today’s comedies tend to be in your face. It almost feels like more of an indie flick, but the characters and writing in general aren’t quite quirky enough for an indie effort. I enjoyed seeing the two lead actors playing more normal characters instead of the typical cartoon characters they tend to play.

American Teen I couldn’t get past the first fifteen minutes because it reeked of contrivance. I hated how the editing, the music, and the overall presentation tried to make it look like some teen drama–it’s as if the people being filmed were shoehorned into the roles they’re supposed to play. Maybe I was being too critical and should have sat through it, but as I skipped forward at various intervals, I didn’t see anything worth watching. I already know the kind of drama these kids go through–we’ve seen them everywhere, and we’ve lived them ourselves, and none of these people were spectacularly different from the people I already knew in my life that I’d want to spend any more time with them.

The Simpsons movie – If you like the TV series, you’ll like this. It’s basically the same as some of the more epic episodes of the TV show, but longer and with better production quality.

The problem with movie versions of a TV series is that almost always, we’ve seen better stories from the TV series at some point. It’s as if the writers blew their wads on the TV show and the best of their work has already been done. Sure, the production quality is significantly higher due to bigger budget, but the stories themselves are never better than what we’ve already seen on the small screen–and didn’t cost us a dime.

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