Thursday, 30 May 2013

Attack of the Clones

I built my current PC six years ago. That's not bad going and shows how the technology had matured by then. I do not play high end games and so it has generally been quite adequate for my needs. Back then I could get a dual-core CPU (AMD 4600+), 2GB of memory, motherboard and case for just over £200. I recycled the drives and other hardware. It has since been upgraded a little with more memory and a better CPU cooler.

Since then I have not really been keeping up with developments in hardware. Intel and AMD have all sorts of newer processors, but the actual clock speeds have not increased very much. You just seem to get more cores for your money, and other technology to optimise processing. I would hope that the processing per Watt has improved significantly, but the power ratings do not seem to have come down much.

My requirements from a new PC are:
  • More processing power. The heaviest things I do are real-time audio effects and video rendering. I'd like to be able to use more effects and not have to wait so long for my videos
  • Faster boot. I want to minimise the time from inspiration to recording
  • Quietness. Silence would be ideal for the recording environment. The existing PC is not as noisy as some I've used, but I'm conscious of the fans. I've not noticed it intruding into my recordings, but it is in the mix somewhere
  • Compatibility with existing hardware. The main thing I would re-use is my M-Audio Delta 66 audio interface, which uses a PCI slot. Replacing that with a USB interface could cost almost as much as the PC
  • More memory to keep things running smoothly, i.e. not using swap
  • Not too energy hungry to keep the bills down, but also to making cooling easier.
  • Cheap. Computers are generally cheap these days. It used to be that a decent system would cost at least £1000, but that has come down
I realise I could use a laptop for most of what I do, but I like having a big screen, proper keyboard and some facility to upgrade. I do not really need mobility for the main PC and I have plenty of space.

I've tended to buy AMD processors in the past. I'd be looking for at least quad-core. The choice seems to be between the FX range and the A series that incorporate a GPU. The FX seem to consume more power. I shall compare with the Intel offerings around the £80 mark.

I'd go for a basic motherboard with on-board graphics. Needs at least two monitor outputs, a PCI slot and plenty of USB. 8GB of memory would be double what I have and is relatively cheap. I wouldn't go for the exotic ones as I don't plan to overclock. I have heard of some issues with Intel boards and PCI.

I quite like small cases. They are trickier to work on, but I don't expect to be in there too often. I used to use a nice little Antec. A modern equivalent is the Cooler Master Elite 120. It takes a standard PSU and has a few drive bays. Pretty cheap too, but the fans may be noisy.

I'll go for a silent PSU if the price is right. 300W should be adequate. The case may limit what CPU coolers I can use, but something passive would be optimal. Water cooling may be an option that I haven't tried before. There seem to be some more compact systems these days.

I know optical media is dying, but I still like to have a DVD drive for ripping CDs and playing movies. I'll probably re-use the one I have.

I'm hoping that a major increase in performance will come from using an SSD. These have come down a lot in price. I would aim for a 128GB for the OS (Linux of course) and some other files. There is some variation in speed, but I would pay extra for a faster one. For the rest of the files a 1TB hard drive should be enough. I have yet to fill my old 500GB.

All this should cost under £400. Unfortunately I do not have that budget ready just yet. I have contemplated just getting the SSD for now to improve the old PC. That is probably more likely to happen in the short term, so I will report back when it happens.

Feel free to chip in with anything else I should consider.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Jazz for dummies

The title refers to what I think I need, rather than what I'm getting. I'm a couple of weeks into this course and struggling already. The first week had Gary talking a lot about what the course is about and not much on the theory. For the first assignment we had to analyse one of his solos and do our own over the same backing. I made a few notes about his solo, mostly based on a transcription where I could actually see what notes he was using and relate them to the chords. I understand the basics of how chords are built, but not necessarily how to use them or even play some of them on guitar. My own solo was based partly on what I worked out and partly on what sounded right.

The marks are in and I managed 5/8 on the analysis. The solos were not graded, but I got a few interesting comments. They could tell I was bluffing, but I had confessed that anyway. They suggest what scales I could have used, but the course had not covered that. I know I'm not great at soloing. I usually just play around with the blues scale, but have been trying to move beyond that. That's part of why I'm taking this course.

Week two introduced a whole load of scales. I was aware of the various 'modes', but not how to use them. There were also some other 'altered' scales. Gary zooms through these, but it's still not giving me enough context. I don't even know what a dominant 7th really is. Wikipedia didn't enlighten me. The assignment is to play around with several of these scales. I can at least do random selections based on fingerings I've worked out and maybe come up with some tunes. I need to do that in the next couple of days. I've listened to what some others have done and their efforts are more elaborate than I could manage.

I was already aware that jazz is based on a lot of theory, but still find it amazing that people can apply all this in real-time whilst playing. I guess it comes from lots of playing. We covered some of the basics on the evening course I did years ago where we would work on a tune each week, but I've forgotten most of it as I didn't get to apply it outside the lessons.

I listen to some jazz for fun, but can't really tell if it's using the theory. Of course some rock and blues players do great solos without knowing any of this, but might be more limited in what they play. I am generally more analytical than spontaneous, but this theory is hard. I shall persist as long as I can with the course. It doesn't really matter if I don't pass in the end.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Making it up

After my technical course on music production I'm now onto another from +Coursera on improvisation. This is being taught by jazz great Gary Burton. I see he just blogged that 39,000 people are signed up! As with the other course a lot of people will sign up just because it's free and not stay with it.

I'm no expert on jazz. I've listened to a fair bit and been to some very cool gigs, but don't totally get it. I even did an evening class on jazz improvisation years ago. That was fun. I mostly got by on the few scales I know and some hints from the teacher. Watching another guy there playing a million chords on his big Gibson made me appreciate how little I know.

So far my improvising has been fairly aimless. I know lots of neat riffs, but can't always use them in the right context or come up with my own. I hope this course will help me move forward. The first week's lessons have just covered what the course is about and some explanation of what improvisation is. No details of chords and scales yet. The first assignment involves analysing one of his solos and then improvising over the same backing. This has some extended chords that I wouldn't know how to play. My friend +AshBrooke Music, who is also on the course, suggested starting with a C Major scale. I tried that and I can hear some places where a flattened 7th or 3rd will sound better. I need to work out which chords that applies to. I thought I'd record something straight away. This will at least give me something to compare to later and I ought to be recording myself more anyway.

I know it's not great, but I think I have some feel for the rhythm and for ending up on the 'right' notes. You will hear me searching for the note in places. This ties in with the Chord Tone Soloing book I'm reading, but haven't fully grasped yet.

I plan to look at Gary's solo and work out what is happening with the chords.