The Smith's Journal - February 2011

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Building the new computer

Tags: Studio, Computers

After lengthy delays waiting for computer parts being sent from America and Germany, everything finally arrived. (Before you diss me for the gross carbon footprint, please remember that everything nowadays is Made In China first, and then shipped to the country you order it from (*sigh*) )-:

I built the machine and was pleased to see how much easier it was than it used to be back when I did it for a living. No sharp edges waiting to cut me, and most stuff was a breeze except for the painfully difficult-to-fit PSU plugs. I was a bit disconcerted by the worryingly unsteady heatsink mounting on the processor socket, which I was horrified to discover moves about and was fiddly to fit - not what you'd want to secure 600g of metal! After searching online for some advice, I tightened it up real good but, I mean c'mon AMD...!

Just for the ladies (after all your countless requests ;-) these pictures show some obscure closeups of the sleek Ferrari-coloured interior during the build process. This thing really is a work of art at all levels from the macro to the micro.

[ Asus Crosshair IV Formula southbridge and PCI slots closeup | Asus Crosshair IV Formula southbridge and PCI slots closeup | Asus C4F southbridge and PCI slots dominated by massive Silverstone AP181 fans | Asus Crosshair IV Formula southbridge and PCI slots | Asus Crosshair IV Formula PCI slots | Asus Crosshair IV Formula PCI slots and angular heatsinks lit up | Asus Crosshair IV Formula SB, PCI slots and angular heatsinks lit up | Asus Crosshair IV Formula southbridge, PCI slots and angular heatsinks lit up | Above ThermalRight Ultra Extreme 120 Rev.C installed on Asus Crosshair IV Formula in Silverstone FT-02R | Looking into Silverstone FT-02R case at ThermalRight Ultra Extreme 120 Rev.C installed on Asus Crosshair IV Formula | Front side view of ThermalRight Ultra Extreme 120 Rev.C installed on Asus Crosshair IV Formula | Front side portrait view of ThermalRight Ultra Extreme 120 Rev.C installed on Asus Crosshair IV Formula | Side portrait view of ThermalRight Ultra Extreme 120 Rev.C installed on Asus Crosshair IV Formula | ThermalRight Ultra Extreme 120 Rev.C above sculptural MOSFET heatsinks on Asus Crosshair IV Formula | Shiny TRUE on Asus Crosshair IV Formula in FT02R with 180mm AP181 fans | Mega tower of shiny TRUE on Asus Crosshair IV Formula in FT02R | Shiny TRUE on Asus Crosshair IV Formula in FT02R | Light shining through fan behind TRUE on Asus Crosshair IV Formula in FT02R | Closer portrait view of TRUE on Asus Crosshair IV Formula in front of fan in FT02R | PowerColor Radeon HD7570 and 4*4GB RAM installed in FT02R and powered up | PowerColor Radeon HD7570 and 4*4GB RAM installed in FT02R beside Akai studio rack ]

Memtest showing 16GB RAM running at 1333MHz |Amazingly it all worked perfectly first time, which was totally unexpected for something so radical on so many fronts. Running Memtest86 showed that all 16GB of RAM works reliably at 1333MHz straight out of the box with no tweaking whatsoever :-) So I partitioned the hard disk and SSD, and then installed aptosid on the machine from a USB stick in a staggering 1'37" flat! Yes, that's one minute and 37 seconds to install the entire operating system! Gotta love SSDs! Booting it takes:

(S)He who said Debian is hard to install should eat their words... Of course, just like falling in love is often swift, tinkering with it takes a whole lifetime, albeit loving every minute... ;-)

[ Audentity and Trancefer side by side during data migration ] [ Audentity dual screen Nanopolis desktop with Ensoniq SQ80 ]On a roll, I decided to take the leap and moved the sound card from the old studio machine and migrated the data+configs across to the new PC and even that worked straight away! This picture (left) shows the completed machine up and running alongside its predecessor, copying over files and config from the old studio machine ("trancefer"). If you look closely at the two apparently identical screens, you'll notice they are slightly different and the mouse pointer is lower on the left monitor.

Then the old machine migrated into the office and I set up audentity's dual screen desktop using xrandr, seen here (right) with stunning fractal artwork by Ench Gallery ("Nanopolis"). Finally I spent considerable time designing a conky readout to display stats on memory+processor+disk usage+temperatures, which you can just about make out in the photo (I'll try and add a proper screenshot and the config file eventually).

I spent the next few days configuring KATE Named Sessions and testing backups from audentity to trancefer. I then installed the CCFLss and quietened the case fans using the comprehensive BIOS settings on this awesome motherboard.


Tags: Studio, Computers

OK, after much hard labour we are very overjoyed to report the birth of a new generation - sextuplets in fact! All boys and Phenomenally well-endowed too, Matron ;-) 2.6GB @ 2.8GHz each. The midwives are helping to nurse them and teach some good personality as they configure their software. Some initial teething and tweaking still remains to be done but on the whole all is good. There was some initial screaming obviously but the fans have now been quietened down considerably. Hopefully one day we can try for total silence once they mature a bit.

Here is the first wave of initial maternity photos. I've yet to take a good photo which accurately portrays this beautiful machine though - it's best to see it in person. These pictures really don't do it justice (bad lighting) but are the best of the hundreds I've taken, edited and sifted through! (hence the three month delay getting them up here) The last ones show it chilling in the studio (many more pics within that link).

[ Audentity rear view with case open | Looking into FT02R case from above | Audentity half-installed (yellowing caused by flash) | Audentity powered up | Audentity other side cabling and Crucial C300 SSD ]
[ Topless side window view of Audentity with huge fans visible inside | Side window view of Audentity with shining heatsinks inside | Top view of Audentity with the top cover on | Top view of Audentity with matching Falke socks and swivel chair | Top close view of Audentity with the top cover off ]

Above front side view of Audentity with top cover on | Above front side view of Audentity with top cover on beside red swivel chair | Above front side view of Audentity with top cover off, watched over by Spock portrait | Above front side view of Audentity with top cover off in sunny red corner | Red swivel chair beside computer and Nanopolis desktop | Spotlit studio panorama over Jupiter |

A silent computer

Tags: Studio, Computers

To test silent booting I booted up via USB stick with the HDD disconnected, and found that the HDD whirr is indeed the loudest thing in the box (despite being one of the quietest laptop drives available), so the drive needs suspending using elastic rather than merely mounting on the drive cage's rubber grommets. [I will report back once I've done this, and installed a DVD drive a friend gave me.]

I'm not using the first intake fan under the drive bay, since I only have one laptop drive in there. And I actually removed the (non-silent) standard 1200RPM 40CFM @ 19dBA top exhaust fan as it seems a bit superfluous, and my hot office machine needed it more urgently. I'll replace it soon with a quieter one (e.g., Akasa Apache Black 120mm was suggested for better airflow at lower noise: 57CFM @ 16dBA). But for now, there is a gaping hole! As well as BIOS tweaks, I already use some resistors to run the 180mm AP181 intake fans even slower at 7V or 5V. Amazingly the machine never really gets warm let alone hot, although I'm not gaming or folding on it. Even after a 12-hour multitrack recording+mixing session, the CPU only reached 45'C!

Bear in mind that my unlike most people's computing needs, my definition of "quiet enough" really does mean "silent", for use in the studio beside open microphones, which will pick up most computers' noise. Yes, it's all degrees of silence. Once you eliminate one noise, then you notice the noises below that threshold and they bug you even more... In most cases (apart from recording studios), some degree of background noise is actually desirable in order to mask unwanted sounds. I know enough to not care too much about such things, since the noisefloor of my remote house is largely dependent on the background hum of a factory a mile away (~15dB?) and also my tinnitus/breathing/central nervous system, not to mention the freaking mains hum in my studio that is going to be torn apart very soon, ready to start again from scratch in order to eliminate it (one step at a time though!).

It's amazing to be able to finally write that, after a decade of research, I now have a music computer that is quiet enough to use beside microphones :-) So bring on the music...


Swimming In Plasma

Tags: Music, Studio

[UPDATE 2011-07-03: This track is still a work-in-progress, but you can at least hear a preliminary unmixed excerpt :-]

Today I reconfigured the office which now has three old computers! (One will soon be retired.) This evening the studio made beautiful music once more and I spent hours programming synthesisers before recording a 66-minute space jam to celebrate the unimagined studio progress which marks the beginning of a new era of my music. It's called "Swimming In Plasma", and depicts my current feeling of being in a strange place (emotionally and metaphysically), as if trying to swim through some thick gloopy substance which is holding one back and is toxic/radioactive/harmful yet curiously inviting/seductive at the same time, like swimming within a cloud of plasma or some other cosmic substance, something lethally dangerous but too strangely pleasurable to resist...

I had begun doodling with synths, captivated by JP-6 white noise through MXR flanger and Super Prime Time. One thing led to another, and I spent many hours programming first a juicy bass sound on JX-3P then a sublime choral sound on SQ80 - dream tones: think polyphonic Minimoog crossed with a PPG's contemporary cutting edge, with hints of the mysterious tender beauty of Mellotron and Farfisa Polychrome vocal timbres. Absolute heaven :-) This sound was my attempt to recreate the PPG voice wavetables which I'd mistakenly thought were in that synth (no, they are in the Waldorf MicroWave, a project for another night). So I set up three oscillators with formant waveforms fading in and swirling around each other with subtle detuning to simulate the classic triple chorus of Elkorus until I can afford one... ;-) I also spent some time with Sony F7 and got everything nicely EQ'ed to sweeten the sound further. Best of all though I rediscovered the SuperPrimeTime and how to coax the amazing space sounds this thing excels at. Gain staging is the key - having things at the correct level certainly makes for some beautiful sounds.

After practising for a few hours, I finally hit Record but was then unable to stop until an hour later! I then overdubbed melody and chords until dawn - up all night recording! :-) I recall while recording it trying to really concentrate on pouring the best of me into what I was playing, and some sections achieved this with a heightened awareness, helped no doubt by the luxuriant sounds as they do their magic. I felt spiritually connected across time to past and future moments of similar clarity, most notably, times in my youth first discovering the joys of composing music, and looking forwards to seeing where future expeditions will lead. One great thing about when the music guides you is that you are both a medium and an observer, and when you are as open and welcoming of new ideas as I try to be, the journey can be very exciting.

We have definitely attained new levels of audio awareness tonight. I am daily edging closer to my Self and climbing new peaks with fabulous views. I'm holding my position here on this ledge for now, just to revel in the joy of it all. The planned studio redesign will have to wait until the summer, since the Taxman has unexpectedly cleared me right out and I can't afford to even make a new desk, let alone the other gear needed :-( No matter though - this place rocks too much now :-) Spending some quality time in here is going to be rather special, and I'll take the opportunity to get better acquainted with my equipment. Back to the music...


Two days later, I've been listening back to it and marking good sections so I can knit a patchwork quilt as some Ardour editing practice, to hone it down to its essence. This all takes ages - I really need to record shorter pieces, but the sounds are so addictive, it was hard to stop :-) At present it's just a sequenced bassline with some live chords and SPT alien mayhem, still just a demo, trying out ideas while revelling in glorious sound. It begins well but then fails to really develop until later on. There is obviously a lot of extraneous material in 66 minutes. [UPDATE: after many days of listening and annotating, I have created an Edit Decision List of what bits to cut out and what to keep+develop. So this carves it down to a much more respectable 44'20"(!). I've also written parts for balafon and hihats, to be recorded soon.]

I'm now listening back LOUD and the bass sound is just to die for! :-) I'm now wanting even more powerful monitors, even though these sound awesome and are certainly moving plenty of air, enough to rustle my hair. Makes me wonder if I could do away with the computer's fans altogether and just duct fresh air from the speakers... ;-)

Uh-oh, it's that 4am time of night again... The second sleepless night this week. Perhaps I'd better retire now and quit while I'm ahead. Hard to let it lie though... Ah, the joys of fatherhood, with new babies keeping one awake with the wistful wailing of their entrancing siren song :-)

Come and see! And hear :-)

- Malcolm "addicted to analogue synthesis" The Smith


Audentity talk at HertsLUG

Tags: Computers

Tonight I packed up the computer and LCDs to fly off to Stevenage with Steev and Rob, to give another talk at HertsLUG, the title of which was Mr Smith's Amazing Calculating Contraption Exhibiting Silent Sounds. [If anyone missed my brief 6000-word introduction to my new computer you can read it, now with pics.] Before the assembled throng, I discussed:

[I will write more about each of these points as time allows.]



Tags: Drumming, Pro

Today I was detained by the police! I was walking down Woburn High Street, looking for the fish'n'chip shop, famished after browsing the excellent drum shop Talkin Headz after a fun day of teaching African drumming and performing with schoolchildren. So there I was, marching along with a determined look, eager for food. Perhaps this manic look was what prompted someone to call the police, or perhaps it was because I was still dressed as a pirate and even brandishing my cutlass, inspiring some fun horn beeping from passing lorries and exchanging "ARRRRR!"s with amused children. Imagine my surprise when a police car pulled up next to me and rolled down his window to ask: "What's that sword made of?" to which I replied "Plastic! :-)", waving it floppily in the air. So he apologised and said someone had actually logged a call and he had been duty-bound to investigate! He then went on his way and I was free to go and raise more smiles. It's great watching people's reactions: if they are high-energy folk, they will smile and rise to meet your hilarity level, whereas some sad folk avert their eyes and even try to pretend you're not there. I used to be too nervous to do these kind of things in public but now I have nothing to be ashamed of, there's no stopping me. Roll on September! But this is a worrying development for civil liberties if people nowadays are so scared by the media - the terrorists have obviously won. I mean, come on - if you can't even walk down the street these days without being questioned, what hope is there? Won't somebody please think of the criminals???!?

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Licence © The right to copy is left with the user copyleft Malcolm Smith 2011-01-03 - last updated 2011-05-24