Back to the Studio – Part 1

Hacking away at the computer keyboard, typing for hours a day and night and for years on end. The quiet little injury eventually got so bad that I frequently ran into issues when composing on the piano keys.

2009. Windows 7 launched and it was the OS for the laptop studio that I had purchased from a good friend. Unfortunately Windows 7 did not support the rack mounted MIDI interface. No big deal, I packed the old bigbox PC to the side and took the opportunity to get into Renoise- a powerful fully digital audio workstation suite- no need for piano keys.

A few more years and it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage the amount of work expected for my day-job career as a Unix system administrator, while also supporting and coding the to-be-new-Modarchive, composing music and chatting on IRC. My fingers were always busy and they really began to complain!

2012. After seeing some medical specialists, the ultimatum was to refrain from the activity that caused the injury. I was advised to drop everything and stop. But that’s not practically doable is it? I needed to earn a living and to continue composing, as it was key to maintaining a healthy mind given the sort of pressure I experienced at work. Worse- my entire social circle was online, I needed to keep in contact with my friends!

Oh dear.

Eventually, sitting behind a PC was no longer workable. It was easy to sit for hours on end and slip into the habit of working away into the night. During office hours, there were attempts to artificially limit my activity on the PC at work, but the software did not actually help anything other than tick the health-and-safety box for the project managers. A constant nuisance that egregiously disrupted my workflow (and performance). Experiencing increasing stress, untenable frustration and continued pressure to deliver despite the restrictions, I developed nerve damage.

That was the first breaking point. I quit everything and took a break for two years. Living off a severance to pay the bills and mortgage, but it wouldn’t last long enough for a chance to let the injuries heal.

Pushed by financial pressure, I was forced through the same situation after taking another contract on that compounded the injuries further, until one night when then final straw disintegrated. I completely broke down.

2017-2018. The first iPad Pro arrived on the scene and offered 12 hours of practical use from a single charge (initially). My physical keyboard of choice was a Logitech Create keyboard & protective case, for the full package I went all-in and got the Apple Pencil too.

Together, the physical workload dynamic changed significantly enough to be comfortable yet productive, but this change cost me yet again in the music department.

Having spent years polishing my skills using Renoise to produce musical mega-tracks such as Bells After Sundown and Tales from the Bell Tower, I was in for another swift kick in the nethers as going mobile-only was a whole other kettle of fish. With so many significant workflow limitations to contend with, it took until 2019 developing new skills before I began work on a full production release.

Origins was my first album produced entirely on a mobile device, taking 4 months to compose and produce.

Full end-to-end production of not only music but design, 3D, illustration and digital art really showed the raw power of the first generation iPad Pro. Using the pencil to do intricate editing helped tremendously reduce the wear and tear on my busted joints and nerves.

2022. I am now sat here writing this on the 4th generation iPad Pro, my first upgrade since the original- the new tools that have since become available have been complete game changers. There is now a glimmer of hope that I will be able to occasionally return to producing with the real keyboards again, in moderation.

The studio has been completely disassembled for a number of years now. The whole thing is a massive headache to set up within such a small room, with years of accumulated stuff, the house was getting a bit full and the little studio room relegated to storage and server room.

To look at the room as it was a few days ago would have probably induced panic in anyone remotely put off by a mess. With a live remote controlled amateur radio station & server running 24/7 I needed to move everything around yet keep it all working with minimal downtime.

Having had some fun with the CAD design tool Shapr3D, it wasn’t too long before I began fiddling with idea of doing a combined-rebuild of the room. I wanted to simulate the setup first to see if it would work with the existing furniture.

Using LIDAR (“light detection and ranging”) via a laser measuring instrument that came with the latest iPad Pro, I mapped my old studio room so I could sit down on the couch and do all the necessary measurements to build a model comfortably.

After taking a scan, measuring was as trivial as sticking two dots down on the screen, the 3D mapping data stored from the scan calculated approximations to make a floor plan. Although it is not super-accurate, it is close enough to get something ”on paper”.

Eventually I pulled in specs of my various bits of audio equipment and reconstructed them individually in basic forms to represent their 3D footprint.

As an aside, I spent over an hour searching through incomplete technical breakdowns, missing links and dead ends looking for specifications for one particularly old piece of kit.

The alternative solution would have been to go to the device, pull it out of the difficult to reach storage and measure it manually– but a little more persistence and with some improved google-fu (verbatim mode) I eventually found the dimensions of an E-mu E6400 Ultra digital sampler, which are: 482.6 (width) x 139.7 (height) x 368.3 (depth) in millimeters (mm). You’re welcome, fellow future searcher 🤣

The first concept involved using the original custom desk installed in the studio when we moved in to our new home back in 2003. A massive kitchen counter-top that requires the entire width of the room. Designed to carry two heavy 19” racks of equipment as well as provide a place for the massive bigbox computer underneath. The first plan was to restore the studio to how it had been in the past.

With the required movement of radio gear from one wall to the other, it soon became apparent that it would require a significant rewire and also potentially cause issues, such as losing access to the window.

Oh dear back to the drawing board.

Before properly checking the data I managed to move the radio transmitters onto the main radio unit and cleared the first desk, moving a sprawling server installation to the window sill.

When attempting to move the cleared desk 90 degrees it got stuck. Oh dear. According to the floor plan I should have had enough room but I hadn’t taken the LIDAR error margin into account, which put the measurements of the desk out by a few centimeters.

A quick think and a brisk rummage in the attic produced two identical ancient Dell “kringloop” mini-computers. Tough little buggers, perfect height, no longer of any practical computing use.

Under the legs of the radio desk they went and it was a perfect and safe fit allowing the overlap of the cleared desk to fit snuggly beneath the radio station desk.

Luckily with the advances in technology the bigbox PC is long gone. A new Raspberry Pi400 compact computer running Reaper is the current contender for the studio MIDI sequencing work. Using VNC it is possible to do everything from the iPad while the Pi400 is also smaller than a traditional PC keyboard, and that is the entire computer!

A brand new pack of mounting nuts and bolts eventually arrived in the post, putting together the rack-mounted audio gear was fairly straight forward, but a bit precarious when done vertically like this.

A couple of hours later and both the audio and MIDI cables were in and ready to be tested. Using the blinking lights of the MIDI interface it was good to see all of the gear responding well after such a long time sitting cold on ice.

The only bits that need to be done now are the SCSI cables for both of the Emu samplers.

Testing the internal hard disk of the Emu 6400 Ultra, an old two gigabyte Quantum found it failing to spin up properly on multiple occasions causing errors which was a bit disconcerting as there are a quite few banks on there with no backups available. Luckily after a few power cycles the disk managed to load one of the banks so it is still mostly operational, sort of!

The display of the Emu 4000T sampler is a little worrying though as it has lost the ability to display properly, the contrast has diminished greatly and that is on the maximum contrast setting.

Overall, with the exception of the samplers, all of the equipment worked flawlessly.

Part 2 – to be continued

Part 2 will be published after the studio has been fully completed, as this can take a while below are a couple of pics of the setup that closely followed the 3D planning.

The cabling still has to be optimized as it is running in a RF-hot environment (very close to radio transmission lines) and this can have all sorts of unexpected and unwanted results such as audio interference or worse- data corruption. So for now it is all running in experimental mode, with a bag of snap-on RFI filters on the ready. Thanks for reading along!

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