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Home Recording – Part 3
I didn’t think for a moment that home studio recordings were going to be easy. Never mind that I wasn’t going to do both video and audio recordings and any mistakes would be very hard to correct. I reckon professional musicians typically do multiple takes when doing studio recordings, then splice and re-edit them so that what you get is often a piece that comprises the best bits of multiple takes. That’s why live recordings are often regarded as the most authentic performances.
Moreover, the fairly small living room and its odd shape, coupled with the against-wall placement of our piano also meant that sound would be bouncing everywhere and creating echos and reverbs that would be very tough to correct in post-processing. What I was totally unprepared for though was the physical exertion involved. I was perspiring buckets after a two-hour recording session on a weekday morning, even though the living room was air-conditioned!
Microphone-placement was also extremely difficult to get right, compounded also by the awful reverb in the room – so it’s something I’ll have to keep trying until I find something that works. The raw video and audio files were at least manageable, though I was able to clean up only a small part of the echoing and muddy bass in Audacity. Also another part of the workflow I’ll have to read up more on.
I did a total of 23 takes of eight pieces over the two hours, of which seven takes for seven songs were the least sloppy LOL. Here’s the first one: Mika’s Song, a lovely piece written and performed originally by Korean pianist, Yiruma. The tempo I used for this song is a little more brisk than the original recording:
Home Recording – Part 2
Coming out a crash course on home recording equipment, the basic outlay seemed to be:
Microphones: two basic types are dynamic, and condenser – with the former more suitable for low-frequency audio signals (e.g. drums), and latter for higher-frequency audio (e.g. piano). Condenser microphones can be several orders more expensive and in the thousands of dollars range though, but I found Amazon selling pretty decent large diaphragm condensers for USD70 each – the Samson C01. And these weren’t run of the mill ones either, but well-regarded and fairly well-reviewed too.
Microphone cables: these can cost a bit too, but I went with the cheapest that could be delivered to Singapore through expedited and free shipping – at USD7 each. Hooray for cheap Amazon house-brand stuff! Had to make sure that the connector ends were of the correct type with the microphone and audio interface unit though.
Microphone stands: again, not willing to spend a lot on this. The cheapest decent stands – I needed two of them – was available on Amazon: the Samson MK-10 Boom Stand with a very attractive price-tag of USD20 @ Amazon, but the item would not ship with free expedited international shipping. Even Amazon’s slightly cheaper house-brand required shipping fees. Boo! Fortunately, Lazada lists local resellers who carry this item, so two were picked up at SGD40 apiece.
Audio interface: another item I had to read up about as a total noob. Basically, this is a electronic box that interfaces between the computer’s digital audio software and the recording equipment, and the best (i.e. most expensive) ones permit large numbers of audio inputs of multiple types. These can cost several hundred USDs. And as I was just trying out home recording, I got lucky again finding one – the U-Phoria UMC202HD – that was rated highly, and from Behringer, a German audio equipment manufacturer, that cost USD60. Perhaps as a testament to how popular this particular model is, I pretty much bought the last available unit on Amazon – as immediately after ordering it, the item went out of stock – with the next availability at 4-6 months as reported by Amazon.
Digital Audio Workstation: is really just a fancy name for the application software that takes care of the editing and post-processing parts of an audio recording. The professional versions can run to thousands of moola, so I went with the open-source and very free equivalent: Audacity, the widely-praised digital audio editor that I’ve been using for about ten years now after getting introduced to it as part of work.
And since I’ll still be recording video that I’ll merge the new audio layer into, I dug up my old copy of Adobe Premiere Elements and have to start learning how to use it.
All in, the expenditure was about SGD377 – quite a bit lower than what I’d earlier resigned to spending during the initial exploration phase. With two of the key items – namely the microphones and audio interface – high-quality models even!
Home Recording – Part 1
One of my life-long ambitions has always been to do a proper studio recording of pieces I play on the piano. There’s been sporadic occasions over the years where I’ve attempted to do variations of that. For example, using a Korg keyboard work station to record my piano compositions in the early to mid ’90s and then using sampled notes from a Steinway & Sons Grand Piano to render the MIDI files to CD-quality audio recordings. And more recently, HD video recordings using the E-M1 – which I’m still not yet brave enough to make public on YouTube LOL.
I’ve never been fully satisfied with either method. Recording via MIDI format results in pristine audio quality, but the approach always felt a little unauthentic. You’re essentially recording computer data that gets next mapped via instrument samples, then finally rendered to an actual audio recording. The benefit of a MIDI approach though is that you can fix note errors and dynamic issues before mapping.
Recording via camcorders and digital cameras is closer to a studio recording – but the built-in microphones in these camera devices are usually second fiddle to imaging. These devices are first and foremost imaging devices not sound-recorders! The camera microphones do not offer good dynamic range, pick up all kinds of odd noises, and most significant, do not present a proper stereophonic experience.
So, earlier this year I resolved to get round to trying the real deal: I’ll find out and learn what is necessary and how to do home studio recordings. This is of course a highly specialised and professional industry, and those beautiful and warm-sounding acoustic piano recordings we hear are the intentional results of a whole host of contributing factors: including the performance of the artiste, the ambiance in the recording venue, the equipment setup, and the sound engineering.
The initial survey was pretty intimidating and learning curve very steep: a lot of the learning material both text and videos, and even equipment documentation seem to be written for persons who’re already familiar with the domain of professional-standard recording. I wasn’t ready to throw a lot of money into this thing either – professional level condenser microphones can easily cost thousands each – but I found very well-regarded branded equipment that were at entry-level prices, and was lucky enough that Amazon was able to ship them here too using free international shipping. More on that in the next post.
There’s a last method too: using digital pianos, or acoustic pianos with silent piano modules – like the Yamaha U30BL upright we have at home. The U30BL’s module though hasn’t quite resulted in the kind of audio fidelity that I need, so in case this simple home recording studio setup still doesn’t work well, I’ll have to either revisit recording using the U30BL’s silent piano module, or think very hard about getting a digital piano – if we can find space at home for it to begin with!
Blurb Vol. 8
Every time I finish a new family photo book and have it sent for printing, I’d tell myself not to wait more than a year before I do a next one. That’s a promise I’ve never been able to keep! I keep procrastinating. The number of photos we take every year, ballpark, is roughly between 8,000 to 9,000. Which means I have, easily, more than enough photos to fill two books a year. The last photo book I put together was almost 3 years ago now while Hannah and Peter were five and one year old respectively.
I did have a few days off work over the last week, so that was about as good a time as any time to put in some serious time to select, touch-up then layout page by page the eighth volume of our series of family photo books. I reckon there are a few more photo book publishers today than there was 3 years ago, but I was glad to see that the provider who did my first seven books, is still going on strong and in business, though online reviews no longer seem to heap it with the kind of accolades I remember from years ago. I did a comparative scan of options, including Mixbook – what many online reviewers regard as the best all-round publisher at the moment – and concluded that Blurb remained my best option, on account of the sheer flexibility of their layout software. And while their best paper options do drive up prices a lot, Blurb offers substantial periodic discounts of 30% on photo book prints.
The Blurb software though is a very different matter: it’s a new program called BookWright now which I feel is a mix bag compared to the old BookSmart software I used in the earlier books. On the upside, BookWright is a lot more stable – BookSmart crashed on me several times – and it’s also now easier to fix layout issues, for example, best placements of images inside layout containers. On the other hand, the new software seems to have lost a few things compared to the old one: I couldn’t find options to sort images by date taken – a feature that really helps one organize images for chronological placement – and I was also unable to resize the software’s UI panels, which would have made collating information for the book’s metadata section a lot easier.
The old book also had 346 photos spread across 214 pages – 1.61 photos per page. This new book has 442 across 240 pages – 1.84 photos per page – and the number of pages was the absolute maximum I could go up to with the best paper option selected (ProLine Pearl Photo). This was made possible through two ways: reducing the amount of text in the new book: in the previous books, I typically set aside about 10% of the book space for our key blog entries. Secondly, using a very large number of multi-image pages. And even with these pretty extreme measures, I was unable to squeeze selections from all 3 years’ photos, and managed just up till our June trip this year to Western Australia before I hit my absolute page limit of 240.
The printing options I selected for Vol. 8 were the same as the previous books: Hardcover, Dust Jacket, Standard Landscape 10×8 inches (25×20 cm) , 240 pages Standard Mid-Grey End Sheet Standard Black Linen, and on ProLine Pearl Photo Paper. The cost of printing two books, including shipping, was about USD350. Ouch! But with the 30% discount applied, the final cost was brought down to USD249. Surprisingly slightly cheaper than the thinner Vol. 7’s cost of USD263 from three years ago.
The two books are currently in printing stage now, with a targeted delivery date of 17 Oct or earlier. So, more on this soon enough!
The Piano Project – Part 7
Hannah has been attending piano lessons using the Suzuki method for about a year now. From the looks of it, I reckon she’s at a level of technical competency higher than what I was able to reach at her age and at this point after a year. A good deal of it I think is because of her teacher’s emphasis on grounding his students on sound fundamentals. I accompanied H on one such lesson a few months ago – a very rare occasion since her lessons are typically on weekday afternoons when I’m still at work – and later quipped to Ling that I don’t recall my own piano teacher at the lower ABRSM grades ever being so exacting in how my fingers were landing on notes, or how they were to be curled in a specific fashion. According to the Suzuki method, parental involvement at home is important too, so the techniques that she is taught in her lessons get practised at home too.
However, the downside of this level of rigor is that H, of late, seems to ever be slightly reluctant to get on the piano to practise. She’d still do so dutifully of course, but the enthusiasm we saw in the early months has clearly diminished quite a bit. I wondered whether it was because the reinforcement instruction at home can sometimes be a little negative, or it’s because she’s only playing pieces in the Suzuki books. To be honest, I don’t recall my piano lessons in the early grades to be much fun either, and there were (many) points where I absolutely wanted to give up, and even one time where I had to be literally dragged to piano lessons by my mom.
I remember though that I only started to really enjoy the piano around Grade IV, when I was able to improv on a lot of music I heard by ear, e.g. from the locally produced TV drama serials. I think our neighbors around our old home at Sembawang Hills Estate were probably annoyed that I was belting day-in-day-out the main title of The Awakening, an early 1980s television drama series! And then in the mid-1980s, I started playing Richard Clayderman. Our intention for H to learn the piano has never been for her to pass exams or reach a certain level of ability – though as parents, we’d be happy if she did. But no – we want her first and foremost to enjoy herself, in good part also because my learning the piano as a young boy is one of the two most important skills (the other being in computing) I acquired in my growing years, and we wanted her to be exposed to the same opportunities.
So, I decided to give that approach a try: encouraging H to play things she likes, rather than the pieces she has to play. And we got lucky: the pieces from Frozen are a little complex for her, but she loved the songs from The Sound of Music. So after having us watch the 1965 film on Blu-Ray several times, and buying and listening intently to four different editions of the recorded music – Telarc’s 1987 studio recording of the musical’s music, the 50th Anniversary edition of the film soundtrack, a 2006 recording from the London Palladium Cast, and finally the soundtrack from NBC’s live adaption of the musical – I picked up beginner versions of several songs that she liked the most: including The Lonely Goatherd, Do-Re-Mi, and Edelweiss, and got her started several days ago.
All three pieces involve both hands, so it’s going to take weeks before she can properly play all three – but at least she’s enjoying herself again!
The Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 – Updated
A check on my ongoing log of camera equipment purchases shows that my last lens purchase was almost exactly two years ago now, and specifically the 40-150mm f2.8. There are still a few m4/3 lenses that I’m keeping an eye on – including an ultra wide-angle of roughly between 7 to 14mm coverage, and also a general all-purpose travel lens of 12-80mm or so coverage. None constitute a real pressing need though since our travel photography needs are largely met by the 12-40mm and 40-150mm f2.8s, so I’m happy to wait until good deals for these other lenses show up, either new or as pre-loved equipment.
The one lens that has turned out to be quite a surprise from projected to actual use is the Olympus 40-15mm f2.8. Specifically, at the point of purchase, I’d intended the lens to be just for occasional use. But the two years I’ve had this lens have seen it become a regular staple for me to take pictures of our kids whenever we’re out of doors both in and out of Singapore, full moons, and most recently now – of our Syrian hamster and two cavies.
The lens really lives up to its ‘Pro’ designation: it’s unfailingly sharp even wide-open at f2.8 – though subject motion, especially when coupled with lower shutter speed settings that are necessary when I’m shooting our pets at home is a perpetual challenge – and the lens, interestingly, seems to find the optimal focusing solution ever so slightly quicker on my Panasonic GX85 than the Olympus E-M1.
Pictures as always!
The Pet Project – Part 9
It’s about a month since Rudolf and Danny joined us. One fun thing about having additional inhabitants of the pet variety joining our family is that a good portion of our time gets oriented around creating things for them! We’re already into version four of their enclosure! I’ll do a separate post on that later.
In the mean time, and after getting inspired by a YouTube video, I decided to do a simple maze for our two cavies. I didn’t want the maze to be of the throwaway type though, which meant that the base materials had to stand up to cleaning and easy washing. And for that, the best all-round material that’s both affordable, reasonably sturdy and easy to work with remains coroplast boards.
Coroplast boards are pretty much widely available in book and stationery stores here, and we picked up four pieces from Evergreen Stationery @ Parkway Parade at $3.10 for a 75x52cm sheet (Popular has them at $3.20, but you get the usual 10% discount as a member). This was a daddy-daughter Art N Craft project, and we spent our Saturday night constructing it up. The maze base is 80x55cm, and constructed from two sheets, with 11cm all round walls on the side.
I reckon it’s possible to build even larger mazes. Weight is a non-issue – coroplast boards are very light – but whether the resulting maze is too wide to hand-carry is a real consideration! The thing needs to be able to be carried past our typical Singapore-wide room doors into shower stalls for cleaning.
The Pet Project – Part 8
It’s been over a week since our two cavies joined our home, and it’s been quite a fun experience learning about their habits, nuances and also how different they are from Syrian hamsters. Ling chose the names for our two cavy boars. Rudolf – the chocolate-coat Sheltie has brown eyes with a tinge of evil red – is the braver of the two, and Danny – the black Vienna Chestnut coat – seems to follow his brother’s lead, but is, at the moment, also shy.
Granted that 9 days is still a very short span, our observations:
I reckon that as both cavies were from the same litter – born 24 Jun this year – the two get along great, and took just 8 hrs after bringing them home to finally venture out of their house to explore and dine.
Danny is a lot more timid, and it shows in many ways. He’s skittish, and whenever possible, would nervously approach food in my hand, pick them qickly then retreat back to his hiding home to eat in privacy. Movement or even a shift of body weight from one of us in the room is typically sufficient to send him scurrying! Rudolf is, relatively, adjusting quicker to their new home and his human owners though he too will scurry away occasionally.
Neither cavies are yet comfortable enough to be touched, and will instinctively start to back away when we approach them in their enclosures. One trick however is to try – as much as possible – not to put our hand into the cage from the top, but to slide our hand and arms and keep a low profile as far as possible. In comparison, Stacy – our Syrian – took just days before she adjusted to us and was willing to run to our hands if there was food to be had.
The cavies are also learning to recognize the rustling of hay when we top up their hay feeder twice a day. Depending on their mood, they just might ‘popcorn’ – where the cavies will leap into the air – and squeal in excitement.
Several enthusiasts note that the heart to cavies is through their stomachs, and that’s definitely true for these two! Of the fruits and veggies we’ve tried feeding them, the two especially love wheat grass, corn and Japanese cucumber, and to lesser degrees: lettuce and papaya.
Cavies poop – a lot! We bought a corner litter pad for their enclosure, and while they do a good amount of their ‘business’ there, a lot of their excrement is still outside that. Like hamsters, cavy droppings are solid and odorless, but their urine does stench quite a bit.
Hamsters need exercise wheels to burn excess energy. Cavies do run laps too – just not on wheels, but round and round their enclosures! They make quite a din when doing so, but it’s crazy fun to watch to two scoot after each other and trample on the 3M antislip mat furiously.
While the cavies are starting to settle in, we’re starting to think also of how to improve their abodes. Short of changing their current enclosure altogether, top on my list is how to fabricate a enclosure door and still maintain cage structural integrity at the same time. It’s to help our cavies develop confidence to step out of their cage easily when we get to floor time, hopefully soon!
The Pet Project – Part 7
There are several key differences between domestic guinea pigs and hamsters as pets: one is their obvious difference in sizes – both of our two cavies are just two months old and already several times larger and heavier than Stacy, who is herself an adult hamster. Another is their social behavior: Syrian hamsters are solitary by nature, and do not need or desire enclosure partners. Thirdly: hamsters are escape artists, while cavies are not. This latter behavioral difference was instrumental in my deciding whether to build my own enclosure or buy a large one off the shelf. And I decided for the former since I didn’t have to worry about the critters gnawing, jumping, squeezing through or climbing their way to freedoms in a custom-built enclosure!
There is quite a bit of information on custom built enclosures for cavies, and one popular design type is known as C&C, which stands for Cubes & Coroplast. The basic idea is to get prefabricated wire meshes to form the basic cage frame, and coroplast boards for surfaces. The coroplast boards are easily available at stationery shops like Popular Bookstore. As for wire meshes, quite a few cavy owners have gone with professional metal workers – like this company for instance – who custom make metal shelving, and also animal cages. The other and very popular option is to get them from Daiso.
The Daiso wire meshes come in varying sizes – which is very helpful for me to not just implement the design but also expand the enclosure later. Not all Daiso stores carry the meshes though, and it took four trips to different Daiso stores before I acquired enough meshes to not only build a first cage, but also a larger playpen area that I’ll bring over to our parents’ place on weekends for the cavies to roam about in the garden.
Materials and tools for our 1.5 level 2×3 feet enclosure
10 wire meshes (of 30x60cm size) @ Daiso ($20)
Animal pee pads (two 60x90cm for the base level, and four 30x45cm for the loft level) @ Daiso ($12)
A pack of cable ties @ Daiso ($2)
A pack of velcro strips @ Daiso ($2)
3 Coroplast boards @ Art Friend/Plaza Singapura ($5.90 each)
2 3M Anti-Slip mats @ Self-Fix Store (45x60cm and 60x90cm of about $35 and $78)
Glue, tape, sharp pen knife, cutting board, etc.
And about 5 hours of labor spread across two days later: here’s the finished product.
Pet Lovers Centre @ Suntec City sells a pre-made wooden bridge specifically for enclosures, but the weight of it would had put too much stress on the loft’s wire mesh. So I made my own. Constructing this set of stairs connecting the first and loft level by far was more challenging, relatively that is since the entire enclosure really wasn’t that tough to build from scratch to begin with!
The total damage involved in building this enclosure was about $167. About what I’d paid if I’d bought a pre-made cage from the store, but my custom-made one is expandable, materials can be recycled, and way more fun to build them yourself! :)
The Pet Project – Part 6
My parents decades ago forbade the three of us at home to have our own pets. My mom would quip that there were already three monkeys at home, and she didn’t have the energy to take care of any more haha! I reckon that, in a sense, I felt that I missed a part of my childhood when growing up, that I’ve gone full-on with having different pets as our family friends now that we’re our own family unit.
The childhood reliving started off with aquariums, then Stacy our Syrian Hamster a year ago. Our care for Stacy has settled into a pretty organized routine, since she’s such an easy animal to care for – whether is it her dietary preferences, cleaning her enclosure, or playing with her. So much so that I reckoned it was time for me to add new persons to our family. And this time, it was guinea pigs, known also as cavies, next!
To be absolutely clear though, neither of our kids asked to keep guinea pigs (though now that we have them, they’re thrilled). It was all Daddy LOL who’d prepare, construct, decide and subsequently care for them. After a fortnight of reading up on the environments that would be required, and long-term challenges and care for them – one of the most useful resources I’ve found on YouTube is a wonderful channel of a lass based in Europe who video blogs of her five Cavies – I was good to go.
We’d get two cavies. Unlike hamsters, cavies are very social – and unless you’re able to spend all your breathing time with them, they need another member of their own species to play and interact with when you’re not at home.
Some cavies have beautiful long-hair coats, but I concluded that helping them keep their coats luxurious was going to be too challenging. So, I looked out specifically for short-coat cavies.
Most of the pet store cage enclosures would be too small, and the ones that are big enough – at least 2 by 3 feet – are routinely very expensive for what they offer, and also have design quirks that I hoped to avoid – e.g. bases that were far too deep. So, I’d build my own enclosure, and make sure that it’s not only easy to clean, but also easily expandable. More on that in the next post!
I was mindful of whether the two cavies would get along, so I had a strong preference for acquiring them as a pair who were already introduced and oriented to each other. SPCA had none available for adoption. I checked out also personal ads for adopters, but the owners putting up their cavies for adoption – routinely, interestingly, also asked for adoption ‘fees’ to make sure that their pets would not be re-sold again. Odd sort of practice, with some owners even asking for fees that were as much as what one would pay for in stores. As I had only a window of five days off work to build their enclosure and acquire cavies, I waited for as long as I could to adopt, before turning to pet shops for them.
Say what you will about some of the irresponsible pet breeders out there, but the Nex outlet of Pet Lovers Centre – where we also bought Stacy – seems to be a responsible establishment with an eye to really care for the pets they sell. We’ve been to numerous outlets of the store, and very often will observe their staff diligently clean and scrub down every enclosure, and replenish supplies. Contrast that to some of the pet stores we’ve seen elsewhere who cramp half a dozen cavies into a smaller enclosure than what Pet Lovers Centre would normally set aside for a single pet.
We don’t see them sell pairs of cavies at the same time normally there too, but – by sheer luck perhaps – stumbled on exactly two boars for sale three days ago. They were from the same litter, so were already introduced. Both were a little pricey though – $180 compared to the usual $125 as they were the premium breeds. We made sure that every one of us four were in favor of it, since while Daddy will be able to do all the menial cleaning and feeding work, it was going to be a total family effort to socialize with our two new members.
The purchasing process was a little, well, involved! The store staff practically interrogated me to ensure that I knew what I was getting into, that I was already familiar with their broad social habits, and had their feeds and enclosures ready. Thereafter, it was a ten minute introduction where Hannah was shown how to pick-up, carry and stroke them – under the careful supervision of the staff. We took the opportunity to personally carefully inspect both cavies a second time to ensure they were of the same gender, then bought both home.
More in the next post!