Friday 13 August 2010

Recording, plugged in

Sorry for so many posts in so few days, but I've got all this stuff that is bursting out and just can't wait!  The problem is that when I first started this blog I knew I was writing to no-one, whereas now I know there are more than three people listening - I feel as I have to approach blogging with a bit more restraint and respect!

Recorded sound from a guitar needs to be good.  Note that I didn't say great.  Great is great, but great can begin to mess with your life - visiting a recording studio or dedicating a room in your house as a studio, filling it with sound absorbing material, buying fancy microphones...great sound starts to take over from the actual playing.

Recording via a webcam onto youtube isn't good.  So many guitarists, posting videos, wasted, because it sounds, well; crap.

So in my continuing efforts to simplify recording good sound I recently tried out USB guitar cables.  I tried two, both are cheap Chinese units, one is a direct rip-off of a Behringer product, the other was essentially a modified microphone headset product.  Both were approx $AUD20 delivered slow boat from China to my door.

The intent of both is that you have one end that plugs into your guitar, one end that plugs into a USB port on your computer.  From a very simplistic viewpoint the cable consists of the right impedence at the guitar input, an A/D (Analogue to Digital) conversion, and the USB data stream to your PC.

Now I always talk about recording direct to PC. And when I say PC I also mean Mac.  The bottom line is that PCs are everywhere, they are extremely flexible, they can be a bit of a pain, but you don't need to buy anything very special to be able to record good sound.  You probably already have a PC, you are probably looking at it right now.  So let's not talk about the other recording medium options, this blog is going to be long enough already...

In my article I wrote several years ago about recording direct to PC, I talked about using the built in soundcard.  One problem with that is the input impedence - if you are going into a "line-in" socket on the soundcard (avoiding any extra pre-amp), then you'll probably have to max out the gain on the guitar and in software, if you are going into the microphone socket you probably have to turn the gain down to one click above zero.  It's a hit and miss affair.  It's how I've recorded for years, reasonably successfully, until I changed to a laptop that caused me no end of problems using the built in soundcard.  Hence the experiment with USB guitar cables.

The immediate advantage of the USB guitar cable is it's built with the right impedence for a guitar and has the right jack.  With any luck, the A/D conversion, done by a tiny little standard chip that lives in the USB connector (basically a little soundcard) will be even better than the soundcard in your PC.

If you've looked into this sort of thing before you've probably heard "latency, latency, latency."  As in the delay between your signal being converted and recorded.  There are (for Windows, Mac is not an issue) low latency drivers - the problem is that latest versions of Windows abstract hardware (a soundcard has to meander its way through layers of internal software to do anything) - so special drivers are required to bypass this and cut out the delay.  Which means the drivers are dedicated to a specific chip, and worse, the sound editing software needs to be able to handle the driver.  The main low latency driver I have come across is the ASIO driver originally developed by Steinberg, and if anything was close to a standard that would be it.  Unfortunately, it is proprietary and something like the free sound editing program Audacity is not allowed to include it.

One of the USB cables I used was ASIO driver compliant.  I found the ASIO driver tedious, and my favourite sound editing software did not support it.  Whereas the other USB cable was not ASIO, you just plug it in and Windows automagically loads generic drivers and it just works with every piece of sound editing software I have - because really, it's just another soundcard.

The more I thought about the latency issue, the less important it seemed.  The ASIO USB cable has an extra port on it for headphones - because an electric guitar player wants not only to hear what he is playing, but wants to hear it through digital effects as well. Yeah, head bangin' out some Metallica with a Kirk Hammet software effects plugin.  Ah ha! - latency is about playing a note, gets converted to digital, goes into the PC software to get distorted, gets converted back to analogue and finally into headphones.  Yeah, you wouldn't want that trip to take more than say 50 milliseconds, it would be very disconcerting.

But for us acoustic players, unless we are playing against some effects, it's not an issue.  So what if your recording is 50ms behind realtime...doesn't make a difference, it still got recorded!

I did a test to gauge what the latency of the standard driver USB cable was - I recorded the normal driver USB cable and the laptop soundcard at the same time, then zoomed into the signal and you know what - there was less latency on the USB cable relative to the soundcard!  Since I've never had a problem listening through headphones on the soundcard, the USB cable is not going to be a problem either.

Look I'm giving USB guitar cables a big thumbs up for just recording your acoustic playing plugged in.  Going further, but being well aware your patience for this blog is at it's end, have some bullet points:

* Capturing Video and Audio - when you use your webcam, it is using the integrated microphone.  Bleugh.  What you need is some software (for example virtualdub) that allows you so say "no, don't use that crappy webcam microphone audio feed, use this nice USB guitar cable feed instead".  I was very pleasantly suprised that virtualdub easily synchronised the audio and video feed, which had plauged me with problems on soundcards - nothing worse than audio and video out of sync!

* Signal to noise ration - yes, there is noise.  I found it to be less than the soundcard, but it's not zero.  I think the specifications talked about having a -80db noise floor, I was seeing more like somewhere between -60~50db, but I didn't do a proper analysis, that's just a thumb suck.  With the guitar unplugged but the USB cable online, zero noise.  That may be as a result of a noise gate.  With the guitar plugged in, but not being played, an "insignificant" (good versus great) amount of noise, undetectable to my ear, but apparent on the recorded waveform, was present.  Is this from the guitar or from the cable?  I don't know.

* Multi-track recording - now this is where it gets interesting.  The cable is suitable for any instrument, it worked fine with the electronic drums, and I'm sure a keyboard would be the same.  Four USB ports - four cables - four multitracked inputs - instant band recording, with separate track editing and mixdown!  This is something I'm hoping for.  My concept: I'm playing through my guitar amp, my drummer mate is playing through the drum amp, we are hearing the sound and playing off each other.  A feed is taken from each amp, and fed via two USB cables into multi-tracking software.  The feed comes from headphone sockets that all amps generally have.  It works just fine...but you guessed it...when you are plugged into the headphones socket the main speaker is turned off!  Not so good for jamming.  I'm going to have to think a bit harder about that one.

There is plenty of stuff still left to talk about, let me know if there is a direction you are thinking about to discuss!


Thursday 12 August 2010

Play through your mistakes

I've talked about this before, but I was just emailing with Ryan G about it and I thought I've gotta bring it up again: play through your mistakes.

Our natural tendency as players is when we fluff it, to stop, go back and play the part again, or stop, or start again from scratch...sure, during the early days of learning a new song you need to practise little bits over and over to force it into your brain, but once it is in your brain, my rule is if you are going to play a song, play it from start to finish and play through any mistake.

Most guitarists will start as half-song playing guitarists and that's fine - but arguably we should move on from there. If you are playing just for yourself and the dog, or playing for a packed venue, I believe you need to play a song from start to finish. To do that, heh, you need to practise playing a song from start to finish :)

Once I realised that it doesn't matter how many times I practise a song I won't ever be able to play it perfectly every time, I had to focus on how to recover after making a mistake. If your first instinct when you make a mistake is to stop, then you won't ever learn how to play through your mistakes. Sounds pretty straight forward doesn't it.

Keeping on beat is everything. If you have made a mistake but haven't dropped a beat, you know, it's probably only you who is going to notice. If that's the first thing you achieve from practising playing through your mistakes, then that is half the battle won.

Linking back in - you've made a mistake somewhere, now you want to get back on track. What chord are you in? What is the next chord? If you just fall back to playing some notes or strumming in the chord, and link back in on the next chord change, you'll be fine. This requires you to actually _understand_ the music you are playing - not just a sequence of notes. I fall down a lot in this area, being a programmable guitar playing robot. But by paying a little bit more attention to the music - and practising playing through my mistakes - I've become more able to fumble my way through most of my repetoire.

I could keep going...and often do...but I'll cut this one short. As my regular readers will know (there are 14 now Roman!) I have a set of JAW's Laws that not everyone agrees with; playing through your mistakes forms part of it. Tracing the lineage of this law it goes something like this: Play the guitar for audiences - audiences want to hear full songs - practise playing full songs - you will make mistakes - practise playing through your mistakes.


Monday 9 August 2010

Drummer and Something...

Since my drummer mate Leith moved 25km's north and I moved 25km's south we haven't been together for a guitar-drum session. However, at work I found out that Rob, another electrical engineer, plays the drums. For a few months now we had tried to organise a get together, and finally it hashappened.

Playing solo instrumental fingerstyle with a drummer works quite well - the whole point of solo instrumental fingerstyle is to capture bass, melody and rhythm into one instrument. To some point you can capture percussive but generally it's not covered quite as well. Playing with a bass guitarist, lead guitarist even a singer, you might as drop back to "normal" guitar playing.

I knew Rob would be a good drummer, and I wasn't dissapointed. He's a bit like me in some of respects - he enjoys playing along with songs on his ipod - I like to work out arrangements of songs and play them to myself. Which means when you put two independent people like that together it's not so easy to mesh, both are used to "doing their own thing". Which means even more importantly those people need to be playing with other people! Music isn't a one man show (he says while still being a fierce solo instrumental fingerstyler :))

Rob sound is a bit more heavy rock/metal than mine (take note of the bass drum triples in "Sunshine of Your Love), but he slotted in with my mellow stuff just fine. Unfortunately the only recording device I could get happening for two instruments was the laptop internal mic, and I had forgotten even that was dodgy, so most songs got scrambled. A few survived, the mix is not good and the sound quality poor...and my playing was sub-par...but you've heard all that before from me so if you are game just have a listen :)

I was so annoyed about my inability to record good sound I had a fiddle with the laptop the next day, and managed to at least sort out the internal soundcard. However, on this new laptop I have not been able to get to synchronise video and audio...I've been ready to record a new video for youtube for a while, but I can't get the video and audio in sync. That's a problem with audio and video on PCs - hard to synchronise.

Well okay, easy to synchronise if you have an integrated device, for example a webcam - it clocks the video to the audio and pumps the data stream to the PC, you pretty much can't miss. But the microphone in a webcam is awful - what you want to do is use the video from the webcam, and the audio plugged in on your soundcard. However, when you can't get software to synchronise them both you will get nothing but frustration :(

I've got coming in on a slow boat from China a "USB guitar lead" - basically it plugs into your guitar, has an analogue to digital converter on the other end with a USB plug. You need fancy drivers to keep the latency (signal conversion delay) to a minimum; I'm hoping that will help with several of my issues. I'll report back on that in a later blog. If you can buy $AUD20 USB instrument leads I'll be buying several - each instrument in your band will just plug into a USB port and your multi-track software recorder can lay them all out into separate tracks, ready for post mixing and tweaking!

Meantime, While I was trying to sort out my laptop I recorded a song, link below. For a long time now I've wanted to arrange/cover "Something" by The Beatles. I took inspiration from Hiro who does a superb alternate bass version, but based it more heavily on Naudo's version. The key difference is while Hiro plays it in "proper" C, Naudo shifted it up to D which I just love. I haven't been able to put the George Harrison solo into it; not possible to play it in the right key (too much separation from the bass) and when shifted down an octave it just doesn't sound I'm just going to do a rough transcription of Naudo's improvised solo. See, that's one of the places where Naudo's brilliance lays - he improvised against a very well know solo and managed to make it sound of the same style, and made it sound great!

So for now, try out this recording sans-solo, still in the learning stages so it's rough. Yes, I will have tabs and I will record a video for youtube in due course for those who like the sound of it!