Pilgrim’s Pod Radio Hour – Episode 3


UPDATE (26/2/2014):

This is the edited version, to keep the show length under an hour, and to tidy up some slower-moving passages.

ORIGINAL POST:

Another episode was recorded on Friday 7th February.  A slightly different feel to this one – with more spoken content. Featuring Liz Jadav and Phil Gallagher.

Technical notes

This time, the live-stream was sourced from the software mix that created this edited recording.  I’ve fixed a mistake where I ran out of hands to sort the live-stream mix during the intro, and we re-recorded a song with Paul after he’d choked on some water just before his song!  Aside from those issues, the stream levels were much more easily managed this way, and mixing the recording live with the usual processing in-place also made this edit much quicker to produce!

Also new to us was a Superlux S502 ORTF mic (select “English” from the top-right of the linked page), used for room ambience and audience.  Compared with the AKG 451′s we were using, rigging was much simpler, and the resulting sound was slightly more consistent.  I’m really pleased with this mic in this and some other applications; subject for another post I’m sure!

Getting an EMU 0202USB working with a Raspberry Pi

In the last couple of weeks, out of curiosity, I’ve bought a Raspberry Pi to play with at home.  It’s really very impressive to see what can be done these days with a $35 computer – an “educational” model at that!

Our Pi is currently in place as our digital audio player, courtesy of the Volumio linux “audiophile” distribution, and an EMU 0202 USB audio interface.

Once the Pi was booting Volumio off the SD card, I found two things that needed doing:

  1. Set up the Pi to pull files off our NAS device.  In theory this can be done from the Volumio web interface, but I had to go hacking around editing config files to make this work seamlessly.
  2. Set up the EMU for optimal digital playback.  I take a somewhat different path on this to most “audiophiles”.  I’m specifically aiming to implement a software volume control, provided I can run the digital audio chain at 88.2KHz/24bit, or higher.  This means CD/MP3 content gets upsampled, while some recordings made natively at 88.2KHz/24bit get to be played that way.

The Volumio forums helped me out with point 1, but I’ve lost a lot of brainpower and free time to getting the EMU to work properly.  I could get it to play out at 44.1KHz/24-bit, but any attempt to play native files at higher rates, or to have MPD upsample, resulted in obviously robotic-sounding distorted playback.  It turns out the key was simple:

It seems the clock rate on the EMU 0202 and 0404 USB devices is assigned to a fader in ALSA, which in this case I accessed using alsamixer.  There were two faders for my 0202:  PCM and Clock rate Selector.

The latter has a range of stepped values, equating to the following sample rates:

  •   0% 44.1KHz
  •  20% 48.0KHz
  •  40% 88.2KHz
  •  60% 96.0KHz
  •  80% 176.4KHz
  • 100% 192.0KHz

What I’ve learned then is that to get the setup working, I needed to not only set Volumio (or the underlying MPD player) to resample to the target output rate of 88.2KHz/24-bit but ALSO to set the Clock rate Selector to 40% in alsamixer.

All works happily and I’m loving the more “analogue” sound of the EMU in that mode!

UPDATE, 23RD FEB 2014:

I’ve managed to get MPD to reliably resample to 176400Hz/24-bit (32-bit internal, 24-bit at the card.) by forcing the Pi’s turbo to “always on” and a slight overclock. It’s not *quite* perfect yet, so i might see if I can push it a little harder before documenting our full setup.

Rocky road ahead: Google Cloud Print (BETA)

Background

An organisation whose IT team I know well has moved a lot of their services across to various Google platforms.  The move has been considered largely positive by users and management alike, not least because it has significantly reduced the management and infrastructure burdens on their organisation, and has genuinely improved IT-related life in many key ways.

The move therefore continues apace.  One problem identified by the organisation is that there seems little sense in paying c.£500-£1000 per head for a computer setup that spends the vast majority of its time being used (legitimately) as a web-browser.  The various Chromebooks undergoing trial have been a huge success given their planned usage, but with one common problem:  Users in 2013/14 STILL need to be able to print.

[Enter Google Cloud Print (BETA), Stage Left]

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“No problem!” says Google, “Here’s Cloud Print!”.  There are two flavours of documentation presented, in “consumer” and “IT Administrator” guises, both essentially saying (and ultimately describing) the same thing.

For those who haven’t come across it yet – the idea is that you buy a “Google Cloud Print Enabled” printer, give it 24/7 power and Internet, and you can print to it from anywhere, using your Google account in various creative ways.  Specifically for my friend, it gives print access to Chromebooks and other portable devices for which no other good printing solutions already exist.  Essentially if it can run Google Chrome, it can print.  And the concept is really neat.

Forecast: Storms ahead

There’s a thunderstorm in some clouds however, and this service is no exception.  I’ve heard a few common complaints in various pub-conversations, and even investigated a few when I’ve experienced them myself within my own Google Apps domains:

  • First off, some printers, once correctly hooked-up and signed-in, simply stop receiving Cloud Print jobs.  Often, turning them off and back on, and waiting up to a day, solves it.  But sometimes the log-jam becomes permanent.  Printing via local network or direct USB connection works fine from machines that can do it, but all Cloud Print jobs get stuck, forever destined to be “In Progress”.
  • The Cloud Print Management interface looks surprisingly mature for a Beta product, except that it gives very little information about what is really happening.  Once a job inevitably gets stuck, there’s no option to do anything other than to wait, or delete it.  It can’t be diverted to another printer.
  • More worrying, the status-codes are too general.  Sure, I don’t need a verbose running commentary when things are working well, nor perhaps when a job is “in progress”.  But when things get stuck, I’d like more information about the problem than the job simply being flagged “Error”.
  • Google provides no technical support for Cloud Print – so beyond what you can find in documentation provided either by Google or your printer manufacturer, you’re on your own.  No support. No apparent feedback mechanism even.
  • If something does go wrong, often the only way to fix it is to delete the printer on Cloud Print, and re-assign it.  This might be fine for single home users, but for anyone looking to share a printer between two or more people, this gets complicated, because you then need to share the newly-set up printer again with those who need it.
  • Then there’s the pervading security concern.  Where are those jobs going when travelling between the browser and the printer, and in what format?  Are they encrypted?  Are the documents scanned for content by Google or anyone else on the way?

Google comes close to a partial-answer in the FAQ/support page, with the following statements:

Documents you send to print are your personal information and are kept strictly confidential. Google does not access the documents you print for any purpose other than to improve printing.

For home users, that might be good enough.  At least there’s *something* in writing.  But for a business I’d suggest it’s too vague.  Let’s leave that alone for a moment and look at troubleshooting; how do I get a print queue working again, if I’m using a cloud ready printer?  Again, Google has a partial answer:

If you’re using a cloud ready printer…

Okay, done that, and checked that.  Still nothing.  Now what?

Conclusions?

Some reading this might say I’m being too harsh about what is *really* only a beta product.  And they might be right, if the product was released within the context of a beta product essentially being marketed or released only to technically-interested (and competent) people for evaluation, feedback and improvement before a wider release.  What’s happened instead is that some printer manufacturers have jumped onto the product by offering support (good), but without making it clear that this is a BETA service which may change, break or be taken offline at any time, without warning (bad. Very bad).

Even the business run-down provided by Google doesn’t mention its BETA status, and gives no clue as to how support or (useful) feedback can be found, nor even submitted.

So, is this going to be like so many other recent Google BETA products to get half a momentum going and then suddenly be killed? Or will it actually become more like Gmail and mature into a properly supported service, with SLA’s available to those who need them?  Only time will tell, but meanwhile based on what I know now, I’m finding it very hard to recommend deploying Google Cloud Print in my own organisations in its present form…

Pilgrim’s Pod Radio Hour, Episode 2 – Christmas Special featuring @miriamjones


Well, here’s the second episode of the Pilgrim’s Pod Radio Hour, with our host Will Mackerras, Paul Enns leading the band, and our special guest Miriam Jones!

I’ll possibly expand on this later, but we had a lot of fun making the show, so I hope you enjoy listening to it!

Album-art oddity: Chicane vs Jarre

Just been checking out Chicane’s “Thousand Yard Stare” on Spotify as background music while I’m writing up another project, and as I glanced at the artwork, it struck a familiar chord.  Took me a while, but it just came to me while I was typing…

Here’s the Chicane artwork for the album:

Chicane’s “Thousand Yard Stare” cover – look familiar?

When it occurred to me where I’d seen it before, I kicked myself for it having taken so long.  Here’s what I thought of:

Artwork for Jean Michel Jarre’s “Magnetic Fields” / “Chants Magnetiques”. Inspiration for Chicane, perhaps?

Being a fan of both artists, I love that Chicane has apparently given such a nod to Jarre, whom in my mind seems to have laid a lot of the groundwork for Chicane’s work.  And for what it’s worth, both are excellent albums in their own right!

I’d be intrigued to see any other artists who’ve nodded to each other in this way…  Comments are open!

Review: Rega Carbon MM cartridge

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(Rega Carbon MM conical cartridge; Image from Rega website)

In recent months I’d found our vinyl playback becoming increasingly distorted, especially on sibilants.  It seemed to me that our beloved Denon DL-160 MC cartridge tip has seen better days, and likely needs repair or replacement.  The problem was, with what should we replace it, even only for a short time while it’s away?

I had already kept a backup in our Ortofon DN165 with an OM-5 “generic” stylus which never really seemed to fully “sing” up against the Denon, but a quick swap showed that it was indeed more able to track inner grooves far better and with far less sibilance than the Denon was showing, especially on the recent Pulp “Different Class” 180G reissue which seems to be very densely packed towards the end of side 1.

But – the Ortofon really is no match in terms of tonality on our Dual 505-II compared with what the Denon could do with a new tip.  So, while we started to work out what do with the Denon, I hit up some online forums to see what people think of the cheapest available cartridges.  This narrowed the choice mostly to Audio-Technicas, either the AT-91 or the AT-95E.  Then I came across the Rega Carbon, which was well regarded in these two reviews:

http://audiofi.net/2013/03/rega-carbon-cheerful-cheapie-cartridge/

http://theartofsound.net/forum/showthread.php?21594-Using-a-Rega-Carbon-cartridge

So – for about £27 including delivery, I ordered on Amazon and was surprised to have one delivered to me by Sevenoaks Audio.  I mounted it within minutes of arrival and spun a few discs before leaving for a holiday.

First impressions…

…surprisingly good.  The overall balance was very similar to how I remembered the Denon DL-160 sounded when it was new to us.  Tracking ability of the deck was much improved – and it cleaned up many of the distorted sibilants in our rather well-loved first-run copies of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, and Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat”.

Since our return, I’ve spun another varied and very enjoyable 10-15 discs with it, and am now sat enjoying a lovely rendition of an 80′s repressing of Pink Floyd’s DSOM.   So now I’m collecting some brief thoughts on how it now sounds after some 15-20 hours of playing time.

Longer term impressions…

It’s settled down – a lot.  The initial slightly brash treble presentation has become much more smooth, and surprisingly detailed considering how I’d have expected a conical stylus to sound, based on my limited understanding of the physics involved.  It rarely sounds as if it’s missing any significant high-frequency detail, though it’s fair to say its useful upper-limit in its frequency response is perhaps 1-2KHz lower than the Denon.

Surface noise is much-reduced compared to the tired Denon or mid-life Ortofon.  I’m therefore feeling much more able to just plunk a clean-looking disc down and get the needle stuck-in without spending significant cleaning time.

The overall sound is now much more balanced across the whole playing surface of any disc.  The balance change from “The Great Gig in the Sky” (end of Side 1 DSOM) to “Money” (beginning of Side 2 DSOM) is much less noticeable.  The latter sounds absolutely stunning in its detail, overall balance and sound-staging.  The tightness of the room reverb in the recording studio is now absolutely evident, with the background sounding “darker” than ever before.  The cymbals are absolutely crisp, as are the vocal sibilants.

Again sticking with DSOM as the example, while the apparent width of the soundstage feels narrower with the Carbon than with the Denon DL-160, the apparent depth of the soundstage feels much more accurate. Centre-panned voices seem to stand forward of the rest of the band. Individual instruments take on a definite space and are much more able to be followed than with the Ortofon.  Arguably in this more subjective respect, the cartridge does as good a job as the Denon ever did in our rig.  In some ways, it’s better – fine details seem much more apparent, and solid, than I’ve ever heard on this rig before.

“Us and Them” – the Rega pulls sparkle and space out of a dense mix in an increasingly tricky part of the disc.  It actually makes our rather tired copy sound brand-new. The huge chorus section has always sounded screechy with either of our previous cartridges – but with the Rega it just sounds big, and heavy and much cleaner.  Fine details of Sax placement, piano, organ and guitar riffs, complete with their acoustic space, are still audible even in the really heavy sections.  The synths, guitars and organ in the closing section perhaps have less sparkle than I remember, but their placement in the soundfield is much more assured, and much less distorted.

The overall impression is that this cartridge is a stunner – and it simply delivers *music* at whatever pace was intended. It delivers space and detail enough to communicate the message, if not always to convince you that the band is playing live right in front of you. And it does all of this without any apparent resonant tradeoff, nor any significant omission in any other area.

So – maybe I had a duff DL-160, and maybe our Ortofon had seen better days.  Maybe the DL-160 was perhaps a less-than-ideal match for our deck. But whatever the reasons for the differences I’m hearing, this cartridge absolutely *sings*, and it does so with a poise and fun-factor that I’d always heard vinyl was supposed to offer.   The Denon got us there for a good year or more, and I when I add up its total known playing-time in our care it’s really about time it was repaired or replaced.

Then I consider the price-tag, and I can only conclude that regardless of its peers, the Rega Carbon is an absolute gem and works incredibly well with our Dual 505-II, with its ultra-light original tonearm and (admittedly) customised heavy non-suspension base.

I’d tell any vinyl lover to just buy one to try for novelty-value, regardless of whatever other “prestige” cartridges you might also have. You might be surprised at how well it actually compares.  It’s always good to have a more-than-passable backup to a much better cartridge – but in our case, I’m suddenly in much less of a hurry to re-tip or replace our beloved Denon. I now have the time to get it right.

Oh, and if you need more evidence to commend this little gem – I can tell you one more thing:

Any good hifi component, or system, should make you want to listen to your music more.  Judging by the pile of played discs building up on my desk that need putting back onto the shelves, I can tell you that this has certainly got us listening to a *lot* more music, in a phase of live when I can tell you we’ve had the least actual *time* to listen to it.

Random Gmail annoyance – sorting Inbox to show oldest messages first

It is 2013.  Sure, my email practices are probably based on conventions from 1993, but this is an ongoing personal frustration. I should say up-front that it can of course be solved by using a third-party mail client, which I do (on occasion).

On a desktop or laptop device, I’ve always preferred to run with older messages showing first, since they’re the ones that are most likely to *become* important – someone who has been waiting for a week is more likely to need their answer *now* than someone who has only just got in touch a minute ago.

It also means I can think “forward” of where I currently am, no matter what point of the day or workflow I encounter it.  Having to constantly think both forwards and backwards, particularly when dealing with the user interface elements involved with navigating, dealing with and filing messages or whole conversation threads, feels completely counterproductive. Actually it’s worse – it’s nudging me towards falling in to the “tyranny of the urgent” rather than dealing with what’s actually “important” right now.

On the one hand, one could argue that not having this facility means I constantly need to re-evaluate the whole queue every time I look at it.  On the other hand, I find that this approach saps functional time and energy away from the things that really *do* need doing.  And I don’t like that.

So come on Google – how’s about enabling that option for more than just multi-page lists?

I'm just a London geek – what do I know?

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