Zen Meditation 1 Revisited

Three years ago, I posted Zen Meditation 1 to my Soundcloud page. As outlined in my initial blog post about it, the piece almost didn’t exist as anything other than a stream of consciousness noodle, soon to be forgotten. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t see a lot of value in it and assumed that nobody else would either.

 

Over the last several years I’ve come to realize that the music I’ve written only for myself, the tracks that I didn’t think anyone else would connect with and that had no identifiable market or audience, is the music that people almost universally latch on to and want to listen to again. I suppose it may be the most “true” and that comes truth comes through in the music in a way I don’t necessarily understand.

When looking at my page today, I noticed that Zen Meditation 1 had a play count of 500. Five hundred! It’s not a platinum album. It’s not even a blip on a chart. But for something that I didn’t think would be listened to at all, 500 plays is nothing short of amazing. It also has the widest global distribution demographics in my listening stats.

It is the single most-listened to track I have on Soundcloud.

Clearly there’s a lesson here, not just for me, but for anyone creating something that they want to release to the world. Write things that are true. Paint things that are true. Create for yourself, because those are the things that will connect. Maybe not with the audience that you thought you were looking for, but with the audience that’s looking for you.

When I Was a Child

Once or twice a year, I get the urge to install some variant of Linux or Unix and set something up. What something? No idea. Which is why, of course, the experiment is typically abandoned within a week or two.

Well, that’s not always the case. Abandonment still occurs, but sometimes it’s because I discover that my project, let’s say “build a super secure personal firewall using OpenBSD,” wasn’t worth the effort given other tools I already had in place. Ok, maybe also a tad over-ambitious.

Other times, I have some vestigial Silicon Valley idealism resurface, making me want to move away from Mac OS or Windows, angst-ridden over all of the things going on that I don’t know about. I’ll compile my own kernel! I’ll run wireshark and review source code! I’ll shut down all of the unnecessary services! I’ll make a personal media serv… no I won’t.

It’s not that I don’t have the desire. It’s more that the *n?x communities I end up in still haven’t moved away from the Nick Burns stereotype. There’s an elitism that permeates much of the culture, despite the best efforts of some really helpful distro teams and well-meaning benefactors. It’s hard to RTFM when you don’t know where TFM is or even what it is that you don’t know. There’s more often than not a tone of “I’m not going to hold your hand” in the community forums.

It's the email that's stupid, not you, right?

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate and agree with the underlying sentiment. Point someone toward the bait store instead of handing them a plate of sushi and they’ll be better off in the long run. But many of the experts I’ve come across online are just that: experts. They’re not teachers, mentors, or guides. They have the knowledge, but they came by it via years of effort and struggle, value it highly, and often hold onto it like a dying Skeksis emperor.

I am... still... emperor...

I am… still… emperor…

Years ago, I was a decent programmer. I only knew one language, BASIC, and I only wrote for three platforms: Apple II, TRS-80, and my beloved Commodore 64. I even wrote an assembly program once to see if I could do it. I know I have the aptitude, the creativity, and access to the necessary tools. What I no longer have as much of are time and dedicated focus.

So how do I resolve those self-imposed limitations, an arcane ecosystem with a long history, and a cultural group that values DIY and distrusts tourists, with my goal to learn a new programming language? As usual, there’s a quotation that applies.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13:11)

This time, however, I am reversing the lesson. What is needed is not the abandonment of childish ways, but rather the adoption of them. I need to forget what I’ve learned over the last 25 years, to abandon what I “know.” I need to ignore the tweaking and the tribes and, above all, to seek out the education culture instead of the expert culture to help me learn.

In recent searches, I rediscovered the Raspberry Pi’s simplistic beauty. It’s powerful, but accessible and affordable, just as my Commodore 64 was. More importantly, the communities are full of projects and lessons geared toward the beginner. Toward the new mind. Of course, a new model has just hit the market, so everything is sold out, but that will pass.

This time, there won’t be a nebulous project. I know exactly what the end result should be. The project is to learn.

From the Ashes…

There must be something about the city of Phoenix that puts me in the mood to evaluate and take action. This is my second time visiting, both times to attend the Gartner CIO Leadership Forum. It’s one of the most informative and energizing things I get to do all year.

While attending the conference last year, I woke up in the middle of the night with my brain already in 6th gear. Many things were going right in my life, but so many other things were at best unsatisfying. One thing the GTD methodology has taught me is that writing things down is a great way to get your brain to relax, so I grabbed a notepad.

I’m not sure if I was being overly literal or overly dramatic in the wee hours, but I titled the page “Dark Phoenix.” I then wrote down thirteen changes that I wanted to make in my life. Some were habits to break (“more disciplined work hours”), others were aspirational (“learn any modern programming language – Max?”), and some were more targeted at things I was fundamentally unhappy about (“lose 2 pounds / month to 185″).

This list was the culmination and expansion of many things I outlined in my Let’s Try That One More Time post, written about two months earlier. Clearly, the ideas were still running around in my brain to the point where my brain said, “I’m tired of thinking about this. Wake up and do something about it.”

A year later, my estimate is that I’m running this list at about 65% efficiency. I got most of my productivity burrs ground down, put a hard stop to perpetual crisis mode at work, and focused on establishing healthy habits to take me into the second half of my life.

The most successful change was the weight loss. I started working on this in earnest last July, walking regularly and changing my diet. The changes were sensical, not radical. The exercise was moderate, but regular. I feel great and have more energy than I have in decades. And last week, I bought new dress shirts that have the words “slim fit” on the tags. I had some “Biggest Loser” emotional moments in the dressing room.

Other areas haven’t seen quite as much progress. I haven’t learned a new programming language yet, but I’m working on VBA for Excel, more for personal satisfaction than for any professional need. My artistic side also was a bit neglected, though that was due in part to moving to a new house and having to get things set up again.

There were some purges – Facebook and Google+ haven’t seen me since December unless it was for work. Most social media interactions are now on Twitter and LinkedIn, but even those are less common than they once were.

More things are now bubbling up, and the “Dark Phoenix” notebook in Evernote keeps getting new bits and pieces and clippings. I’ll be interested to see what changes the city of Phoenix inspires this time around.

Cable Hell

The physical placement of gear and furniture is complete and I’m now starting to wire everything up. This is where my studio ceases to be a lovely catalog photo and becomes the cable equivalent of the paperwork monster from Brazil that swallows Robert De Niro whole.

It would probably be easier if I didn’t have this neat-freak-anal-retentive-OCD desire to keep everything looking nice and neat. Worse, I’m not able to do everything at once this time around. The new layout is going to require additional cable purchases, different power distribution, more line level shifting from -10 to +4, a couple of long midi runs, and tying together two different sections of the room so everything lands in the computer.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with music gear, most of what’s in my studio has the following things to connect and route:

  • Audio (anywhere from two to 16+ cables)
  • MIDI (typically two cables)
  • Power (one cable)

On the surface, not so bad, but multiply that by 40 or 50, then add in wiring patch bays so that things can be routed to different places and the computer interfaces and it starts getting a little overwhelming. The cherry on top is that it’s really best to keep all of the power cables physically separated from the others. That might not be so bad if power was always in the same place on each piece of gear, but of course it is not.

It’s kind of like playing Tetris with cooked spaghetti.

Today, I’ve been learning that some of my gear that I thought had unbalanced outputs actually is balanced. Ordinarily, that would be great, but it screws up the patch plan I had already worked out in Excel. To make it worse, some of the units don’t have anything definitive in their specs, so I’m relying on Internet knowledge for some of my decisions.

I’m kind of at the point where I’m saying, “screw it,” and just hooking a couple of things up. My goal for today is to have the master keyboard and left side of the composition station hooked up, the computer running, and sound coming out the mains. I’m going to try working without a subwoofer for a few weeks and see if that helps with mix translation.

One additional thing I’ve decided to do is start creating pages on my site for key pieces of gear. This will mostly be my personal reference area where I put all of the links and documents I’ve found useful, but if it helps others, great! I’m considering using the pages as homes for my “isolated gear” music experiments, where I focus on only writing and recording with a single synth. As I’ve written before, I want to get to know my equipment much better than I do now, partly to stave off gear acquisition syndrome, and partly because I think that may help with my instrumental work.

The Studio Version 11.0

This is the eleventh major time I’ve set up my studio after a move. I’ve come a long way from Version 1.0 which consisted of an Ensoniq EPS and an HR-16 drum machine, run through a Radio Shack mixer into a cassette deck. (The alpha version was a Korg Poly-800 and a two cassette decks where I’d overdub by using one channel for the previous dub and the other for the new synth part… how different things are now…)

These days, I’m trying to wrangle multiple synths, effects units, midi, power management… I haven’t added it up yet, but I’m fairly certain I have over a kilometer of cables waiting to be connected.

MIDI Madness

 

Just laying out what gear is going to go where in the room was a headache this time. I recently moved into a much smaller house (46% smaller) and, while I like the new house very much, moving equipment that had been in a room the size of a two car garage into a typical suburban bedroom was a bit of a challenge. Additionally, over the last few years, I’ve purchased a few more pieces of gear, and decided to start using my 32 channel mixer again – there’s something inspiring to me about having faders under my fingers. And while it’s mostly a style over substance thing, but there’s nothing like a dimly lit studio with a gazillion blinky lights showing the music to your eyes.

So my secret weapon for the last four or five studio overhauls has been Excel. I have a workbook that includes a database of all my gear (including inputs, outputs, serial numbers, replacement value, etc.), all of my available rack spaces for deciding what gear sits where, and separate sheets for audio, midi, and power distribution. While it might seem like overkill, I have a worst-case possibility of over 100 channels of computer audio i/o and 64 midi cables alone. When you add in patch bays, multi-channel snakes, balancers and line level shifters, power strips, and foot pedals, it can get overwhelming quickly.

Additionally, my time in IT has taught me that spending a few days mapping out exactly what’s going to happen (like, say, 900 ethernet cables and patch bays for the 3rd floor offices and data closets) can save you massive amounts of time and money. You don’t buy things you don’t need and, if you’ve done a halfway decent job of labeling your cables, it becomes trivial to know what cable goes where. No more digging through spaghetti trying to wiggle that one midi cable to figure out which port it came out of.

Here’s part of the Version 11 audio patching plan:

Excel Madness

Even though this room is smaller, the restriction I have on where things go actually makes some of the cable runs longer. Rather than having one big blob of a studio, I now have two discrete areas. I didn’t want giant audio snakes running across the doorway, and have figured out a way to place the computer, midi, and audio interfaces so that I think I’m only going to need to run one firewire and one USB cable. The downside to this is that I knew I’d need to buy some more patch bays and level shifters. I was figuring six or seven new patch bays and at least 5 level shifters to get everything smooth and happy.

Excel to the rescue! First, it helped me figure out that I didn’t have enough rack spaces in the studio furniture to even start down that path. Then, I realized that I was making things overly complicated (surprise!). In the end, I only need three patch bays and two level shifters. There are three pieces of gear that aren’t in the wiring plan, but only because I’m not sure if they’re going physically fit anywhere. But once I figure that out, I’ll know exactly what patch points are available.

I haven’t started on the power supplies or specific midi routing, and I know I’ll need to buy some additional audio cables, but the hard part is over.