Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Analog Studio Fire Sale

music_gear

When our house in San Jose didn’t immediately sell when we put in on the market, I decided to take the heartbreaking step of demolishing the 3-room recording studio I’d painstakingly built in my garage, restoring it to a plain-old two-car garage. Whether due to chance, or (I prefer to think) since it opened up my home as a potential purchase to folks who had no idea what they’d do with a recording studio, the home sold soon afterward.

Although Carolyn and I definitely worked hard to cull the herd of our possessions before making the move to our new home near Nashville, most of my former studio gear made the trip–even though I don’t have a studio in the new house. As I try to piece together my new office and work area, however, I’m starting to think that I made a mistake in hauling most of the analog studio gear across the country.

Starting tomorrow, everything from my treasured 32-channel Mackie mixing board, to my vintage Kawaii R-100 drum machine, to a rack full of effects processors is going up on eBay. And my old studio furniture–custom-designed for my control room–is heading for the dump. The mere thought of doing this is killing me, but I’m increasingly convinced it has to be done.

Music Gear vs. Technology: Fight!

Whereas classic instruments and microphones can hold or even increase in value over time, the same is almost never true of electronics. Many a musician gets a thrill playing with the controls of an original Linn drum machine, or listening to unforgettable sounds of a Roland D-50 or Korg M1 synthesizer. But now, modern musicians can simply load up the sounds and characteristics of these old pieces of gear into their DAW (digital audio workstation) instead of maintaining a private museum of vintage gear.

My rackmounted effect units weathered the test of time even less well. The effect processing powers have improved massively in the past many years, to the point where even famous effects–e.g. a Lexicon reverb–can no longer compete with the algorithms and processing that powers a modern computer-based DAW.

Perhaps more to the point, my analog effect units are starting to no longer fit into the modern recording process.

Most older rackmount effect units typically processed analog signals (such as the input from a microphone or guitar), giving out an altered signal (i.e. adding reverb) over the rack effect’s (analog) outputs. If you wanted multiple effect processing on a signal–e.g. adding a delay, some reverb, and a chorus effect to a guitar tone, mixing it in with the bass and drums, then routing the result a compressor to smooth out the dynamics of the resulting mix–you’d accomplish all this by patching the whole signal chain through numerous effect units, effects returns, and submixes, adding a little bit of distortion each time the signal had to be converted between analog and digital.

In the modern world, once a signal is digitized, it’s typically processed entirely in the digital realm, where it’s immune to the noise that comes with analog combining, as well as multiple trips between the analog and digital worlds. Instead of chaining together several rack units using patch cables, a DAW lets you create a virtual patch bay allows the musician to chain together as many digital effects as they want, while keeping the resultant output entirely digital–right up to the time it’s mixed, mastered, and pressed on CD or distributed over the internet.

In a world where you can do all this digitally, why use analog effect units at all? Possibly the best reason comes down to the ease of doing a simple effects chain by just plugging in cables and twisting knobs. But when sound quality is critical, or the effects chain gets complex, digital wins hands down. My old rackmount effects have some good tricks up their sleeve, but at some point they become John Henry working against an infinite number of steam shovels.

In a new home, without a dedicated performance room and control room, I’ve got to be able to do the entire recording and performance job in a relatively compact space. Switching entirely to a digital recording chain just seems to make the most sense at this point, even though I’ll definitely miss the immediacy and tactility of working with dedicated sound and effect units vs. the rather abstract nature of a DAW.

So, it’s with real sadness that I’m preparing to bid farewell with what are truly some of my most cherished possessions. If you’re the sort of person who loves classic gear, check out eBay in the weeks ahead for some real bargains.

 

Viva NashVegas!

nashvegas

After weeks of pulling box after box out of POD storage container after POD storage container (6 in all!), we are now officially moved to our new home just outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

I’ll likely be living in the midst of U-Haul and comic book boxes for several weeks yet, and a small army of contractors are just now wrapping up the initial work to install the myriad data cables and electric runs our masses of computer and studio gear requires. It’s been back-breaking work (including the moving and stacking of some 320 comic book boxes comprising my 50,000+ comic collection!) but I think I see some cracks of daylight at the end of the tunnel.

As far as the town goes, I am becoming mightily impressed with the Nashville area, and Tennessee in general. The music scene is beyond belief–I even managed to take in a couple of shows already (including She Wants Revenge at Exit/In–a legendary nightspot in town).

Tennessee’s a beautiful place to be sure, but probably the most striking thing is how darn friendly everyone is. I’m even on a first name basis with most of the checkout staff at the local Home Depot…although the fact that I’ve been in there 3 times a day for the past month may have something to do with that.

But despite all the chaos, I am managing to type this on an actual computer, on an actual desk (instead of the the “laptop at Starbucks with the ever-colder coffee next to me” routine I’ve spent the past month with), and with any luck, I should be able to make some forward progress on some of the bigger projects I’ve had to sideline since we started the effort to sell our house move some seven months ago. So Viva, NashVegas–I’m really looking forward to all the adventures you have in store for me!

Lighting Out for the Territories

(Both classic and modern allusions in headline)

After 26 years in California, my family decided it was time for a new adventure. So we sold our house, and last Sunday all piled in my Ford Escape and rolled out of our driveway in San Jose for the last time on a one-way trip across America–most likely ending around Nashville, TN–from where I’m writing this post in a local Starbucks.

Carolyn’s been blogging our moving adventures over at her blog (daftmusings.com) — so check it out if you’d like lots of color commentary on the Great Bickford Road Trip (including all the weird things we ate at the Texas State Fair–fried Jello, anyone?)

In the meantime, we’ve had a great time seeing old friends as we made our way across the southwest, through Texas, and now, Tennessee. We’ll be looking at houses tonight and tomorrow with the very nice realtor who introduced us to Nashville Hot Chicken, and will likely be settling down if we can make something happen here and all the other factors work out right. At least, that’s “Plan A”.

“Plan B?” Well, it’s a big, amazing country with a lot of wonderful people and places in it. And I have to admit, it’s sort of thrilling to have all the possibilities wide open. I’ll do my best to keep everyone updated as things develop…

Control Through Fear

It seems as we approach the election, that the favored strategy of the media–once again–is to try to excuse one deplorable candidate’s innumerable faults by peddling the story that at least they’re not as SCARY as the other candidate.

Is your favored candidate a lifelong Washington power-broker who’s voted or connived to start multiple wars? For the media, this presents no problem: All they have to do is simply never mention any of those annoying facts (which they once proudly touted as hallmarks of their candidate’s “smart” foreign policy), while repeatedly running red-faced pictures of the opponent accompanied by half-baked conjecture on how he might send the world straight to nuclear armageddon with his “overheated rhetoric”… about, uh, Mexicans, or fat beauty queens, or the Russians which… uh… he’s apparently too friendly with.

I mean, crazy friendly. You know, like “start-a-war” friendly.

<Shudder!>

But seriously, folks, this stuff is nuts. And I can’t believe that not only are many otherwise perfectly sensible people playing along with it, but that they also bought it every four years going back to at least Reagan, if not earlier.

Look, anyone who knows me well knows that I regard this election as absolute horror show. There is literally nobody in the race who even remotely represents my point of view*. That said, at the end of the day, most of us are going to hold our noses and vote for the person we consider the least-bad of the bunch. But that doesn’t mean we have to simultaneously parrot the media’s insane talking points about how weally, weally scawwy the other guy is.

As it turns out, no matter who wins, the shocking truth is that:

  • No one’s illegal immigrant gardener is going to be put in a cattle car and sent to the gas chambers. Even if they did overwater the roses.
  • The president stands no risk at all of accidentally punching the “nuclear button” because they forgot to say “half-caf” when ordering that double-espresso.
  • And no, women are not going to be “put in binders” or forced to use coat hangers for anything other than hanging clothes; and blacks are not going to be all “put back in chains” or hunted to extinction by legions of racist cops.

This is all, as they say, nonsense on stilts. But I can’t believe how many times I’ve heard the same conversations repeated earnestly at bars, in checkout lines, or on Facebook.

C’mon folks. Let’s change things up this (miserable) election and at least not embarrass ourselves by pretending the world works like any of that. Frankly, the folks in the press pushing these fairy stories are treating us with absolute contempt. Wouldn’t it be nice if for once we returned the favor instead of credulously playing along.

Hey, I can dream, right?


*I’m basically a John F. Kennedy Democrat–whose pro-business policies of lower taxes, free markets, and consistent support of human rights and freedom around the world, enabled by a muscular but restrained military– would mark both of us as troglodyte, fascist, Nazi mouth-breathers in today’s crazy political landscape. 

 

How to Score Free Stuff from me when Ordering on Atomic Avenue

<ProTip>

I’ve often mentioned in the ComicBase User’s Group meetings that we here at ComicBase order comics a lot like a mid-sized comic store does. Basically, we order one of every “normal” comic book (everything but extremely expensive variants, or those that require you to order X regular copies in order to buy 1 copy of the variant issue). And yes, our comic bill each month is genuinely frightening.

After we scan and index the books, they typically get added to my collection and sold at the going market price on Atomic Avenue. (My store is www.atomicavenue.com/store/pbickford)

Now, one of the weird wrinkles of ordering a jillion comics per month is that Diamond periodically damages comics (typically bent edges when the packing was a little tight), or throws in giveaways or promotional comics. We also wind up with huge numbers of Free Comic Book Day and Halloween special comics, which–since we don’t have a storefront–tend to accumulate.

Since it wouldn’t be honest to try to sell the comics we got damage credit for, or that were meant as giveaways, I typically try to load up the packages I sell on Atomic Avenue with as many of these extras as will fit–provided it doesn’t cost me in extra shipping.

In effect, that means that if I can throw in one or two with a regular order without adding to the shipping cost, I will. But the surest way to get a package stuffed with whatever I’ve got is to take advantage of the packages that I’d wind up shipping in a flat rate envelope: essentially, any regular order with 3 to 12 comics in it.

The way it breaks down is typically this: 1-2 comics fits in a flat mailer (like the kind used for photos), and is charged by the ounce as First Class postage. But as soon as you get to 3, you get over the magical “13 oz” level–typically with the third comic–it has to be shipped a Priority Mail package. And from 3 to 12 comics, I can ship them for the same flat rate price. (After 12 comics, they no longer fit in the envelope and I have to use a conventional box).

So: If you want free goodies from me with your order, just order that 3rd comic and you’re likely to receive a package packed full of surprises.

</ProTip>

Error Prevention is Way Better than a Cure when it Comes to .Net Error Handling

Here’s a fun little .Net speed optimization I found out today:

(In both of these “Reader” is a DataReader which I’m using to loop through a set of database records.)

Code #1:

dim myValue as string

While Reader.Read()
  Try
     myValue = Reader("FieldWhichMayNotExist")
  Catch
     myValue = "This is a default value"
  End Try
end While

And here’s Code #2:

dim myValue as string

dim fieldExists as Boolean = 
FigureOutIfFieldExists(Reader, "FieldWhichMayNotExist")

While Reader.Read()
  if fieldExists then
     myValue = Reader("FieldWhichMayNotExist")
  else
     myValue = "This is a default value"
  end if
End While

So, what’s the big difference? The first one traps for the field not existing and inserts a default value if so; and the second one wastes a bunch of time going through a routine to see if the field exists, then loops through and uses the result of that first scan to use either the field value or the default value accordingly.

You might think that the two would run in similar amounts of time–or maybe even Code #1 would be a little faster, since it didn’t waste a few precious milliseconds scanning to see if the field exists.

But here’s the shocker:  Code sample #2 runs about 20 times faster than code sample #1, since it doesn’t need to deal with the whole .Net exception architecture. In the case of the actual code upon which this was based, it meant the difference between being able to insert 630,000 records in around 100 seconds, vs. more than an hour.

Exception handling: it’s more expensive than you think–particularly inside loops. Prevention in this case was worth 20 times more than a cure.

Laws of Intended Consequences: Grocery Store Checkout Misery in California

Line

This was the scene tonight at my local Safeway as I attempted to grab a quick twelver of Becks to refill the office fridge.

In case it doesn’t look dire enough from here, here’s the scene behind me in line.

Line-2

At this point, gentle reader. you might be a bit curious as to why Californians seem to love waiting in grocery store lines so much that they don’t speed their way through the four (!)  readily open self-checkout lanes seen at the front of the first picture. Lanes so lonely for company that the checker overseeing them began touting them, carnival barker-style, while none of the doomed patrons in line could do more than grimace and sourly wait for the next available spot at the one open checker.

The answer is found in the sign posted at the front of the Checkout lane

Line-3

In a another world–in fact, the world we had just 18 months ago as it turns out–I’d have grabbed my brews, swooped through checkout in a minute or less, and be back at my office jangling my still-cold beers in a plastic bag (that cost less than a penny to make, and which easily holds my purchases together while contributing nothing at all to the inconvenience of the journey, and requiring a fraction of the energy and environmental waste of the “eco-friendly” reusable bag that  every shopper in California is practically required to hoard).

But thankfully, I was saved from this hell of convenience by our wise leaders in the State Legislature–who have Done Something about the Very Pressing Problem of… uhh… what, exactly?

Stopping underage drinking? After all, a minor could just grab a case of beer and… what? Get carded at checkout by the scowling clerk watching the lines like always once the big “Alcohol Purchase–Show ID to Checker”: signal goes off on the self-checkout?

Were underage buyers really standing in line to law-abidingly pay for their non-lawful booze at self-checkout (vs. the much more sensible action of simply shoplifting the brewskis using the now-mandatory “reusable bags” that everyone now carries–thanks to the same legislators?)

If one is overly cynical about the actual motives of this law (and I’ve found it’s very, very difficult to be even appropriately cynical where politicians are concerned), one might suspect that the actual reason for this new prohibition is to lessen the usefulness of self-checkout–which has been catching on hugely in the past few years since it offers customers a way to pay without waiting forever, and which offers store owners a way to control labor costs in an era of massive increases in mandatory minimum wages.

Perhaps it was a payoff to their friends in the grocery unions. Or a way to “Do Something” about the lack of employment brought on by their ever-increasing minimum wages that make it utterly uneconomical to hire low-skilled workers for starter jobs… like checkout clerk.

But once again, thanks legislators. Your willingness to step forward and Do Something–about plastic bags, minimum wages… and now the terrible perils of unregulated self-checkout… has made grocery shopping in California the delight it is.