Monday, December 8, 2014

Basic audio engineering - USB-MIDI cable, y adapter, stereo/mono/TRS/TS understanding

Background

I had decided to purchase a USB-MIDI cable online, and I was delighted to find a cheap one costing < $5.00: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001LJUVO4/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1. When it came, no setup was required other than plugging it in. It seemed to work well, transmitting notes from my keyboard (a Yamaha P95-B) to GarageBand. 

But the problem came when I depressed the pedal: The software did sustain properly, but it also registered a blatant E note. The E note is unacceptable for me because I use the pedal often when I play piano, and it completely interferes with whatever I'm playing.

Consequently, I searched online for a solution. It seemed many people had had this issue: "Pedal plays an E???" (Apple discussion thread). Unfortunately, there was no clear answer. When I search for solutions online, I try to find multiple sources that describe the same answer - not only to get multiple perspectives for more information, but also for higher confidence in the solution.

Some people in stores suggest the problem is on the software's side, or the keyboard's side, or the pedal's side. This is possible, but in this specific case of the pedal playing an E note but also doing the sustain properly, I have found the issue to be in the specific cable. 

One answer in the Apple discussion at https://discussions.apple.com/thread/3122897?tstart=0 describes that the cable is the problem, too:
Well, my problem has been solved.

I coughed up AUD$49 and bought a branded USB-to-MIDI cable and the sustain problem has disappeared.
But there's no explanation for why a more expensive MIDI-USB cable might solve the issue for people in general. So I called Yamaha to ask about the keyboard, and see if it was truly the keyboard's problem or the cable or something else. This is what I learned:

Solution

Basically, there are 2 kinds of MIDI cables: "class compliant" and "proprietary." Class compliant are the cheaper ones, typically $3-15. These can work for basic use, but they lack support for the appropriate drivers, so they may behave erratically, playing arbitrary notes or not registering sounds at all. Proprietary ones are more expensive, usually >$40. These support the appropriate drivers.

To set up proprietary MIDI cables, you must ensure your computer has the proper drivers; if not, go through an install process to obtain them. For Mac, that amounts to simply downloading the right driver from this site: http://download.yamaha.com/search/detail/?site=usa.yamaha.com&language=en&category_id1=16277&category_id2=16279&category_id3=16298&product_id=107905&asset_file_language=EN&asset_id=57163. He said that the "UX16 USB MIDI driver" would work for me.

In summary, the problem was that the cheap cable that I had ordered lacked the proper driver support to interpret the pedal properly. According to the Yamaha support person, proprietary MIDI cables have proper support for these drivers, so buying a proprietary MIDI cable, which is more expensive, and then downloading the right driver on your computer is likely to solve the issue.

Why get a MIDI-USB cable to begin with?

My friend on the phone was of the talkative type, and he went into much more detail than I had anticipated. I'm grateful he did so because he actually helped me solve a bigger issue in my plan to record better music with my keyboard.

The whole reason I wanted a MIDI-USB cable was to record my keyboard playing more precisely. However, MIDI-USB cables don't transmit sound; they just play an existing sound on the computer in the GarageBand or Logic Pro library. The quality of the sound file may be better depending on the library of sounds available, so Logic Pro's library may sound better than GarageBand's library. But the point is that since no sound is transmitted through the cable, the nuances in piano playing are lost - you know, that expressive musician stuff. Granted, MIDI provides lots of benefits. The notes are editable in digital audio workstations (DAW) like Logic Pro, and you can change the instruments easily after recording. But for me, the nuances of music are more valuable, and I intend to record songs in one go and with minimal editing with a DAW anyway.


Understanding terminology

After explaining that I have a Scarlett 2i2 interface by Focusrite (http://us.focusrite.com/usb-audio-interfaces/scarlett-2i2), which accepts 2 inputs, he gave me this recommendation:

To keep nuances of the keyboard, I should get a Y-cable. Specifically: "a Y adapter/cable with a stereo miniature male on one side and a mono 1/4 inch male on the other side." I didn't know how to interpret this initially, but after asking around and reading, it's not so difficult.
  • male refers to the pointed end of a cable; female refers to the hole/receiving end of the cable.
  • 3.5mm (about 1/8 inch) is the common size for plugs into laptops and mp3 players. Think Apple earbuds or the typical headphone jack of a laptop - that's 3.5mm. 1/4 inch is the larger size for lots of audio equipment.
    • So, by "miniature" he probably meant 3.5mm (1/8 inch), since 1/4 inch is probably the standard among audio engineering.
    • I had told him I had a way to connect my regular headphones to my keyboard, so this is probably why he said "miniature". But my method requires using a converter from a 3.5mm female (F) to a 1/4 inch male (M). So, getting a 1/4 inch on both sides for the cable works better because then I don't have to use the converter.
  • There are two types of sound systems: mono and stereo. 
    • From http://www.diffen.com/difference/Mono_vs_Stereo:
      • Stereo (or Stereophonic sound) is the reproduction of sound using two or more independent audio channels in a way that creates the impression of sound heard from various directions, as in natural hearing. 
      • Mono (Monaural or monophonic sound reproduction) has audio in a single channel.
    • Since stereo reproduces sound in 2 independent channels, it makes sense that the y-adapter splits off - the end with one part is the stereo side, and the end with two parts is the mono side.
    • You can differentiate Stereo and Mono by looking at the number of stripes on the metal part. The stripes are insulation; the metal contact bands are the channels, with one extra for ground. So 2 metal bands means mono, and 3 metal bands means stereo. This explains those TS/TRS abbreviations we see on lots of cables/converters.
      • TRS = tip ring sleeve = names of 3 metal parts = stereo
      • TS = tip sleeve = names of 2 metal parts = mono
Finally, this is the cable I ended up ordering: http://www.amazon.com/Hosa-Cable-STP203-Dual-Insert/dp/B000068O1P/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top/190-6296940-4917419. You can see the metal bands right in the picture.


The 1/4 inch stereo side fits into my Yamaha P95-B's headphone jack, and the two 1/4 inch mono sides fit into my Scarlett 2i2 interface's two inputs. They work great.

Diagram of how to connect


(Scarlett 2i2 Interface here)
Mono 1/4 inch male 
Input 1 Input 2 - make sure to switch both to *Line input mode!* 
\                 / 
 \               / 
   ---------- 
          | 
Stereo miniature male 
(Keyboard here)

Then I can put headphones into the Scarlett and listen to myself play as I record.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

proximity, possibility; throwing vases at windows

the problem is the proximity and possibility.

we throw vases at windows to see which breaks first. do I create a way out, or merely shatter my inner art?

--

this angst is wreaking havoc. the walls must be talking, the ceiling wagging a finger, the floor holding me up so I don't fall any further.

the human mind is not ready for this crazy burst of technology around us. our brains do not have the capacity to handle what our hands create. we no longer use handcuffs to lock up criminals, and tying our hands up makes no difference because they have built a thousand things to set them free. 

isolation is a tower you have to climb to see the fruits at the top; but when you get to the top, do you actually want to look down? you just look into the horizon, the beauty of the skies around you.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

heartstrings and infinity

If you ever get to infinity
You will find me there
For tomorrow I will climb
The elementary stair.
I will climb to the very top
Open up the door
Look at all the ages
Lying on the floor.

-One Mind

--

Humans are naturally more responsive to physical phenomena than abstract phenomena. For example, children acquire language far better if they experience conversation from other human beings in person versus on television. Similarly, physical interaction with writing and paper tends to feel more satisfying for many, as many people report. [Reference.] Musical instruments capture a physical appreciation as well. There is something more satisfying about interacting with a mechanical device, such as a string instrument, with bare hands. Granted, some may feel that keyboards are more versatile than real pianos because of the possibility of combining a variety of sounds, such as the regular piano sound with strings or vocals. It becomes questionable what constitutes the boundary between mechanical/technological and not.

--

you tie my heartstrings around my wrists and hang me from the very stars I gaze at; then you pluck the strings with your tantalizing guitar picks, stealing melodies from my memories and casting them into the void. but I find a way to bring them back, to reel them in and retie the bow at my heart, and fire arrows of solitude stone dipped in choir music at your calloused hands

Saturday, August 30, 2014

143 feel, fall, conclude

those who have this close sensitivity to the world stand apart from the cold, unthinking, shielded ways of others; it's the difference of a recluse and a social frequenter - those who feel in quiet times, let moments seep by, and those who cling to the external world's praises and shouts. a strength and a weakness, this sensitivity. much more a weakness in these times when I deal with the odd opacity of those around me, the strange sense that there's something more there, yet teasingly let in only to be declined.

when I see something in the distance, I like to believe that I can feel that object there, feel the armies of clouds floating as I fly high above, feel the armchair rocking as I depart it at the airport, feel my momentum swaying the world behind me in my footsteps.

this here is my greatest strength and my greatest weakness. I wonder who can appreciate that.

this chapter has concluded though. I have tried to turn the page, and I think new words are about to meet my eyes. the problem is that my fingers are restless and sometimes want to turn back and glance at those twirling words of what happened and develop theories around them - but that is when your strength becomes your weakness: you overthink. not everyone has that order of thought, and when they don't and you deal with them, you end up deceiving yourself. remember, just hypotheses - nothing else. be objective.

hypotheses are not dreams.

--

mutual improvement with another would be fantastic.

--

why can't you just free me of this stockholm syndrome?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

treasure mine

every time I see paragraphs of text; cabooses of words connected to form trains and trains of meaning; musical notes spread out across pages and pages – every time I see such things, I see a treasure mine of wealth, information, exploration; a mysterious depth as deep as space itself.