The Media Center Dream (Part 1)

Happy Fourth of July!

To honor the occasion (not really), I have a fun set of blogs coming your way about Media Centers:

Gear and Electronics don’t get as much attention as I had envisioned when I started this blog all those years ago, but hey, the blog itself hasn’t either, so I guess it’s par for the course. Still, I did undertake a small project in the realm of electronics several months back and never got around to writing it up. Today, that changes. In fact, the content of the post really encompasses both the “why/what” and the “how,” so I have decided to break it up in to two parts.  Here is part 1.

The Dream: All your media content in one place

You will find that I did a post about media centers early on the history of this blog, just a little over four years ago. It’s really amazing to see how much the landscape has changed since that post was written. But my definition of media center is still basically the same as it was four years ago: a one-stop-shop for all your video content. Four years ago, Apple TV and Roku were still two of the main contenders, but the boxes and features (or lack thereof) have completely changed. The market has become much more crowded/competitive over the last four years and all of the boxes, Apple & Roku included.

The technology has also changed. Companies have all doubled down on streaming shows and movies directly from the internet as their main way accessing content. There are some great set-top boxes out there that do this. Google has even thrown it’s hat into the ring with the Chromecast, which is not even a box, just a dongle that plugs straight into the TV. Amazon’s Fire TV & the Apple TV represent a more closed-system approach, while the Roku is a bit more open since they don’t have an ecosystem to try and lock people into. Chromecast is sort of a different beast all together, but it gets lumped in. But because of this single ecosystem/streaming approach, one thing that these devices still do not do well is play back your entire DVD/Blu Ray collection digitally. Sure these devices can stream almost anything provided it is available on some type of service, but if you have something that you own that’s not part of its various streaming apps, good luck.

Which tiny black thing do you choose?!

“But Evan, my DVD library is made up of physical discs. You can’t play back DVDs and Blu Rays on a streaming device!” Exactly. If you are like me, that DVD collection ain’t growing like it used to, but it is large. Yes, Blu Ray’s are awesome and probably still deliver the best picture (over streaming), but Blu Ray as a technology has to compete with streaming, whereas DVD was really the only kid on the block in its day. So you have a few Blu Rays, but mostly, you just don’t buy movies as much. But let’s just say there was a way to rip all your DVDs and Blu Rays to some sort of open digital format (there is). And suppose these legal digital files (you are allowed to create one back up copy of any physical disc you own) now reside somewhere on your hard drive. Just how would you get them to play on that big beautiful screen you’ve got if all you have are these streaming boxes? Answer: not easily. Not without some work.

The Reality: Piecemeal Hodgepodge Content

So because of this, many of us are still using some strange combination of physical disc players, smart TVs or streaming boxes/services and some type cable/fiber/satellite/over the air antenna for live TV. So instead of an all-in-one do-everything machine, we have a box for this, a box for that, and another box for that other thing. The only way to truly build a media center that can attempt to be all of these different boxes at once is to build an expensive computer and hook it up to your TV along with some special software and hardware. While that can integrate everything into one place, you are talking at least $500 to do it well and maybe more if you want that hardware to still perform well for more than a few years.

But really, it can be your everything box–Netflix, Amazon Video, all your streaming content, TV Tuner & DVR (cable or OTA), and a place for all your movies that you have created digital copies of. The thing is, while everything is now in one place, it’s still a computer, and it will feel like one. Most people that build these things just admit as much and buy a wireless mouse and keyboard and operate at it as such to navigate between the necessary programs that do everything. My brother Zac is one such person. He mostly uses his for gaming, but he stores his movie collection it as well. He still has Comcast Cable and XBox One, though for streaming and TV, so his far from an “everything” box.

The fabled “everything” box. All the complications in one place!

Now what? Embrace the piecemeal!

That’s where I landed. Andrea and I have been “cord cutters” for about 3 years (no cable/uverse/satellite). We have firmly subscribed to the “box for this, box for that” philosophy, and believe it or not, it has served us pretty well. We use a Tivo Premiere for DVR of OTA broadcast stations ($15 per month for guide data). This fee is a necessary evil. There are cheaper/free solutions out there, but none as slick as Tivo since Aereo is now kaput. Tivo itself halfheartedly tries to be your everything box, giving you hulu and netflix and a few other apps, but its attempt is, well, halfhearted. So, it is the “Live TV/DVR Box.”

Then there is the Blu Ray player, which doesn’t get much use except for Redbox movies (still the cheapest rental rental out there). It also has some apps. Amazon Prime is on there (nice!), as well as ANOTHER Netflix app, similar to Tivo’s but less clunky, and a host of others.

Then there is the Apple TV. Why? Airplay. Tivo can kinda do it with certain things like YouTube, but Apple TV makes throwing your computer or iPhone up on the screen amazingly simple. It’s also my preferred Netflix player and VOD rental service because the interface is very clean and, well, Apple. And it has subtitles on most content, which I also like. But that still means there is one type of box that has been left out: the movie box. The one that plays all the content that I own: my digital library of movies from my DVD & Blu Ray collection.

Enter the FINAL PIECE: The Raspberry Pi

Behold… this thing… what is it?

How I turned this thing into the final piece of the media center puzzle will have to wait for part 2 of this post. What you need to know now is that this little guy is about the size of a credit card only costs around $35. Stay tuned for part 2 to see how it was integrated into our setup.

An Acoustic Player’s Pedalboard (Part 2)

When I left you in part 1, I had given the basic elements to any good acoustic set-up: the guitar, the tuner, and the direct box. After that, most people’s opinion of what is “necessary” will vary. And it really does depend on what your preferences are and what you need your guitar to be capable of doing.

For my sound, I like to have some warmth, as most players do. My guitar is a fairly bright, happy sound, and I usually dial the bass up and leave the mid and treble flat on the EQ on my on-board preamp. Even with those settings, it still lacks a little something. That’s where my new toy comes in. I just purchased a Behringer Tube Preamp called the Tube Ultragain MIC200. This thing gives me the warmth that I am talking about through the magic of vacuum tubes. Vacuum tubes have been around forever and produce a quality tone that you just can’t find elsewhere. A lot of newer digital gear, whether it be amplifiers or pedals, will even try to emulate that “tube” sound, but there’s nothing like the real thing. Tubes just sound better. In this case, the Tube Ultragain features one 12AX7 vacuum tube, the same ones found in most classic fender amplifiers.

Warmth in a box.

Now, before I get into the specifics of this pedal, I will need to give a bit of a disclaimer on Behringer gear. Behringer is notorious for making dirt cheap, entry-level gear, and the brand has been met with a lot of criticism because many of their products are of poor quality, to put it nicely. Some of that criticism is certainly justifiable, but I am here to say that not all of their gear is bad. In fact, some of their gear is quite good, like this little guy here. I have only been using it for the last two weeks, but our sound engineer, Peach, noticed a difference right away. His ears are good like that.

Anyway, this guy is a real bargain. For about $40, you are getting a multi-purpose tube pre-amp that can be used for a variety of instruments as well as mics. It has ins and outs for both XLRs and 1/4 inch cables and can be used as Direct Box. I opted not to for two reasons. One, I didn’t want this to be the last thing in my signal chain (which I will detail in bit), and two, the transformer in this thing is probably not very good and the shielding is probably pretty weak–certainly nowhere near the quality of the Radial. So I am just letting this thing do what it does, make my guitar sound better. There are about a dozen settings on it. Some are just preamp settings with no tube, some are just the tube like the “valve” setting (which is what I use), and there are also settings that feature a limiter, if you have some gain-y things that you want to run through it or a possibly a condenser mic. It features two nobs, gain (for your tube warmth) and output (volume). It comes with a few other bells and whistles as well: it can reverse the polarity of the signal (if you use mics, this can come in handy), it has a +48v setting for phantom powered mics (like condensers), and -20 dB line pad option for signals that are already really gain-y.

For the last guitar-related pedal, I placed in another Behringer unit. This one is just a little stomp box for Reverb called the RV600 Reverb Machine. I actually just lifted this guy off of my electric pedalboard. Most of the time on both my electric board and this board, this unit stays off. Reverb is a naturally occurring acoustic phenomenon, and artificially creating it is great in a studio setting where you have almost no natural reverb. A live setting is trickier. A little goes a long way. The oaks has a little bit of natural reverb to it. And Peach has his own reverb effects he can dial in on my guitar from the board. So, if I use this guy, it is sparingly. On my amp for my electric, I already had a built-in spring reverb, so I used this guy really only it’s “space” setting for its shimmer sound. I have also used the space setting on the acoustic to give the pad-like shimmer underpinning to what I am playing on more ambient songs.

It has its uses…

Don’t misunderstand me. Reverb is mighty important, and there are far better units out there. If there is a weak link in my current set up, it is definitely this little guy. The goal for acoustic reverb would be to find some settings or even a setting that you can use and leave alone once you get it dialed in. This would eliminate the need for your engineer to have to fiddle with it. I would much rather be rocking something like a Fishman AFX Reverb, which is tailor-made for the acoustic, rather than a cheap-o electric guitar pedal that can be noisy and temperamental. The only problem is it is hard to justify spending $250 for reverb. That’s halfway to an iPad! Knock a hundred off that price and we’ll talk. Also, this guy falls toward the other side of Behringer gear. It’s not complete junk, but it is noisy, plastic, and has power problems. Just this morning, I had to take it out of my signal path right before second service because I was having noise issues with it related to power. Gotta troubleshoot that that this week. Needless to say, I don’t recommend (or intend) that this pedal be a long-term solution, but it is what I have for now.

So finally, we are to signal path. My set-up is pretty basic: Guitar > Tuner > Tube Ultragain > RV600 > DI. Placing the tuner at the front of the chain is only a good move if it is a true-bypass tuner, otherwise, as mentioned, it can kill your tone and make you lose volume. Next comes the Tube Ultragain. I want the warmth of the tubes to color the sound first before it hits the reverb pedal, which comes next. After that, it goes to the DI, which has to be last no matter what else you may want to use. And from the DI, it goes to the board for all to hear.

For the board itself, I bought the Gator Cases G Bone pedalboard with case. I chose it because it’s light weight, cheap, comes with built in power, it’s own carrying case, and velcro, and has a small footprint but has room enough for larger pedals due to its “bone” shape.

Simple. Subtle. Totally not my normal style for a pedalboard :-) But it works great!

For cables I used some pre-fab Planet waves 3-inch patch cables and a ProCo angled 10 foot cable from Sweetwater to go from the guitar to the tuner. Here is everything before assembly.

Pretty maids all in a row… what?

You will notice there is one more pedal in that shot and the pic of completed board in part 1 that I have not discussed. That’s my TC Helicon Voicetone Correct XT. What a mouthful! It is actually a vocal pedal. It is separate from all the other pedals and is not connected to their signal path in any way. It just needed a home, and there was room on the board.  It is not at all unlike a guitar pedal except it uses XLR connectors. All the same, it goes between the mic and the board, just as all my guitar pedals go between the guitar and the board. It is designed for primarily two things: shaping warmth and pitch. The warmth switch (left-hand side) is used for cleaning up the sound of your voice, using compression and noise gating to get rid of extraneous frequencies and feedback. The other switch is the pitch switch, which uses a form of live, extremely low-latency pitch correction on my voice. I keep the setting dialed down pretty low, but basically, it takes all the little imperfections in the human voice and smooths them out. If you turn it all the way up, you can almost sound like T-Pain. But I don’t recommend that setting for leading congregational singing :-)

Some people might say that’s cheating. Some people are right. And cheating never sounded so good. What you have to understand is that this pedal is not like the Auto-Tune software, which can make practically anyone sound perfect, like the people on Glee. This is just designed to enhance what is hopefully an already solid vocal mix and give it a higher level of consistency.

How to end? Just know that as much as I can go on and on about this gear, and as much as I like to geek out about it, good gear is no substitute for a solid musician, vocalist, or song leader. That is to say that I care much more about those things than I do about gear. You can have all the nicest stuff, but when the rubber meets the road, it can’t make you good. On the flip side of that coin, you can be really good and have cruddy gear, and your sound can be a detriment to your leadership. So walk the line, just like Mr. Cash taught you. Acquire what gear you can to shape your sound into what you want it to be, but at the end of the day, it takes more than that to be good.

Trust me. I wish it didn’t. If I find the magic “awesome” pedal that you can just stomp and become amazing, I’ll let you know… on second thought, no I won’t. I’ll horde it for myself and never tell anyone :-)

An Acoustic Player’s Pedalboard (Part 1)

Look at that! Another blog post. There may be hope for me yet.

About 2 years ago, I wrote a blog post about a certain wager that I made with Hans Googer concerning the acoustic guitar. At the time, I was firmly in the “lead worship from the electric” camp. In the intervening time since I lost that bet, I softened my view toward the acoustic considerably and began to incorporate it sporadically at the Campus Location.

And now, many things have changed since that gamble took place. As mentioned in a previous post, Hans and I are both now at the Oaks Location in our respective roles of Pastor and Worship Leader. And as the new kid on the block out there, I have opted to lead from the acoustic guitar ever since I came in March, with the electric making only an appearance here or there on certain songs, but mostly not at all.

The reasons are not really the point of this post, but suffice it to say that it makes more sense in my new context for me to lead the band and the congregation from the acoustic for the time being. The Oaks is a different group of believers than the Campus, with a different set of sensibilities, expectations, leadership needs, etc. And I want to do whatever I feel is necessary to connect with them as a leader so that I might best facilitate the worship of that congregation. So acoustic, for now, fits that bill.

But an acoustic guitar does not make me a non-gearhead. You can take the electric out of the guitar but not out of the man… or something. You get what I am saying. I still have my own tonal preferences and a strong desire to push buttons with my feet to help me realize my dreams, in this case of sweet acoustic-y goodness. There is a sound in my head that I know my guitar can make, but it is not accomplished with a built-in preamp alone. So hear is what my current acoustic set up looks like. For the uninitiated, I am about to start talking in “gear-speak.” Turn back now if you can’t speak “gear” or don’t care about this kind of thing.

For the sake of everyone involved, I am going to geek out a little bit on gear, so I will be dividing this post into two parts. The remainder of this post will cover the “necessary” and essential components of this little rig. For part 2, I will talk through the more subjective elements of this set-up including the board itself, as well as the set up of the board and signal path, and an additional pedal on the board not related to the acoustic.

So here is the board completed. And below, I will talk about the various components that go into my sound.

All will be explained in time…

As with any rig, you must first start with the guitar. I am using a Taylor 410 CE. I have heard “You either like the Taylor sound or you don’t.” I am pretty sure there is more to it than that. Each individual guitar should be judged on its own in my opinion, but if that is the case, then I like the “Taylor sound.” Mine is an older model that features a built-in Fishman pre-amp. These were used in all amplified Taylor guitars back in the day when they still outsourced all their electronics to Fishman. About 10 years ago, Taylor switched to the own proprietary pickup system called the “Expression System.” Most folks will tell you the expression system is better. It does often (not always) sound better, but I am actually quite fond of the Fishman sound, particularly on my guitar.

There’s the old girl. Still looks and sounds pretty after all these years.

Probably the only other completely “necessary” components are these first two. A tuner, and a direct box.

For my tuner, I am using the Korg Pitchblack True Bypass tuner. One of these will run you about $60. A great deal for a tuner of its kind. It uses true bypass when off which means it bypasses the electronics within the pedal and gives you a clean signal when not in use. Cheaper ones (and some more expensive ones like the Boss TU-2) don’t have this feature and can cause you to lose tone/volume even when the pedal is off because it is still running the guitar signal through all the electronics of the tuner. This is a no-frills pedal otherwise, but for the money, I think you would be hard pressed to find a better deal.

No frills but pays the bills… er… keeps the guitar in tune…

The DI is sort of the industry standard: the Radial ProDI. Direct boxes are needed in almost all amplified situations if the acoustic guitar is not going through an amp, which is usually the case. These simple boxes convert the TRS 1/4 inch cable signal into an XLR (mic cable) signal to get it to board. The team at Radial are sort of the gurus of Direct Boxes. Their direct boxes are all equipped with custom made audio transformers for “exceptional signal handling without saturation and with extremely low phase distortion in the critical bass and mid regions. The result is exceptional clarity and definition at an attractive price point.” That’s from the radial website. And it’s all true except the part about the price point. These guys run about $90, which is 3x as much as most other DI boxes, but in this case, it is worth it, because the transformers are much nicer than most DIs, preserving the ever-precious, much talked about “tone.” This little guy came with the Oaks. We didn’t get nice things like this when I was at the Campus :-)

It costs extra to make it float like that

Beyond these, we move into the more subjective part of the pedal board. And for that, we will have to head to part 2.

[To be continued]

Behold: The New Pedal Board

One word: ridiculous!

In my last post, I mentioned that I got a new pedalboard for all of my guitar effects. For those who might be interested, I will go ahead and give you the lowdown to what I had before, what I changed, and how I wire up my whole rig including power and signal path. For those that don’t know or care much about this kind of thing, this post isn’t for you, but I will say that even you ought to be able to appreciate the LOOK of my new board vs. my old one. While it certainly doesn’t break the record for most pedals used (unlike the picture to the left), it sure is pretty!

Anyway, I had been wanting to replace it for awhile, and this year, when I was doing my budget, I finally allotted some money to do that. My old board was getting pretty bad. It had been around the block. My old youth pastor got it for my cousin and former bandmate Hans when he was first starting accumulate a large number of effects, and when Hans peaced-out to Dallas for seminary, I inherited it. It is from some now-defunct online start-up pedalboard company (I don’t even know the name). It had some great features. It was tiered, so you got two levels for your effects, making the ones in the second row easier to trigger because they were elevated (the one thing I miss about it) and it had a hidden compartment up top to keep all sorts of stuff–power supplies, spare batteries, cables, strings, etc. That was a great feature too, but it mostly ended up being filled with junk like trashy cables and dead batteries and random scraps of paper with old set lists on them, so it wasn’t a huge loss. Anyway, here it is:

Out with the old!

I didn’t think to take a picture when it still had all the pedals on it, but you can get the idea of how it looked. The board had a lot of downsides to it. It was all wood wrapped in black felt, which made it super heavy and awkward to carry. It was difficult to run wires through it attractively, so you had to drill big holes into it to pass the cables through. Also, the felt eventually wore out, so velcro worked less and less each time you pulled off a pedal. Eventually, I was screwing in the pedals to the wood so they wouldn’t fall off when I would pack it up and transport it places. The rear latches broke almost immediately after Hans first got it. So by the time I got it, it was pretty much just bungie corded together. A couple times I installed other types of latches to try and keep it connected, but those eventually broke under the weight of it.

Worst of all, when fully loaded up, this pedal board was HEAVY. Talking around 60 lbs. I installed some casters on it and another handle to help transport it, but with the top coming off all the time, it didn’t help that much. That board probably made it eight or nine years, which is pretty good, but it became less and less reliable to where I was afraid to travel with it. Then last Sunday, it went out during the last two songs of the second service because of some bad cables. The cables were always cheap. But the pedals were constantly moving and shifting and falling all over the place, making shorts that much more likely. I was also using cheap, substandard power technique called “daisy-chaining” that was giving me a lot of noise even when the rest was working well. So, that pedalboard was put out to pasture. It was literally falling apart, so there is not much to salvage.

I had known for awhile what I wanted to replace it with: a Pedaltrain Pro Pedalboard. These boards are made of some aluminum alloy and everything is welded together. It is designed to be as strong and lightweight as possible, and there are no moving parts to loosen or wear out (pretty much the opposite of my old board). Also unique is the open-framed, angled design. There are open gaps between the aluminum bars where you mount your pedals so that your cables can be neatly routed under and through the open slots of the board to minimize the risk of accidental disconnection. This is also sweet because pedals can be added, removed, rearranged, or bypassed quickly and easily. It comes with adhesive velcro so that you can secure the pedals to the board. It is pretty strong, but the cool thing is that if you have a particularly bulky or heavy pedal that doesn’t hold too well to the velcro, you can use zip ties to secure it down by weaving them under the bars through the openings. They also include small zip ties to help gather your cables neatly under the board, but I recommend using velcro cable ties or twist ties in case you have to pull out a bad cable. You don’t want to be hunting for scissors or a knife to cut your zip ties. So here it is, the finished product. Below, I will tell you how I wired her up.

In with the new

So there she is. She’s a beauty, is she not? Here is the signal path starting from the guitar: the Boss Tuner, the Radial Big ShotABY Switch Box (from output 1 it continues on to the rest of the pedals and to the amp, from output two, it sends the signal to the little black box at the top, the Sonuus G2M Midi Converter, which goes via midi to USB cord to my MacBook where I can select pretty much any synth sound I want in Logic and make my guitar trigger that noise), then to the orange MXR DynaComp, the silver ZVex Box of Rock, the green Line 6 DL4 Delay, the green Ibanez Tube Screamer TS9DX (with the Analogman 808 mod), the Vox Wah, the blue Boss Superchorus, the Ernie Ball Volume Pedal, the silver bypass switch box which is connected to my Boss DD6 Delay and then out to my amp (which is a Fender 410 DeVille). Also pictured on my board not in my chain is green Danelectro Fish & Chips EQ and Whirlwind DI which I typically use for my Mandolin.

To get rid of the noise, I also upgraded both my power supply to my pedals and my patch cables. For the power supply, I got the awesome Voodo Lab Pedal Power 2+. That thing is great. Not only does it give you 8 connections for 9v Boss type pedals, each is output isolated to create a super-low noise power solution. Before, I daisy-chained all my pedals together from my Boss Tuner. It caused wicked hum and noisy transitions between effects. It has totally cleaned up my sound. PLUS, Pedaltrain boards come with custom mounting brackets for this particular power supply. You can actually see it mounted underneath my big green Line 6 delay. Mounting was not difficult, but it did require me to drill four small holes into the underside of the board with an 1/8 in bit. After that, it screwed right in. It also powers my line 6 pedal through the standard Line 6 adapter (which plugs into a standard wall plug). There is not a pedal on my board that needs a battery. Here is the unit:

"POWER!! UNLIMITED POWER!!

For my patch cables, I opted for the Planetwaves solder-less pedal board cable kit. They are very similar to other solder-less cables like George L’s. I got these because I could cut them to the lengths I needed and just put the ends on and tighten them with a screwdriver. They are high-quality, low noise cables with nice, well-made connectors. I used two of those kits to cover my board and had extra cable leftover, but no connectors. Out of all of the cables I made, I only had an issue with one. I just re-clipped the end, and made a more secure connection, and that fixed it with pretty much no fuss. All of the plugs are angled which is good for most pedals, but I wish one or two sets of connectors had been straight. It would have made some of my connections a little easier on the board. But I got it all working, and I couldn’t believe how noticeable the difference was in volume and tone. It was great. That will teach me to use radio-shack brand cables. I can never go back now! Here are the cables:

Soldering is overrated!

I guess the last thing to show is the flight case that stores my board. Gone are the Godbold-Lowes-Special casters and hinges. This is a hardcore, heavy duty flight case. And it is great. Pedal train makes the same board with a soft “gig bag” type case for a lot a cheaper (around half the cost of this model), but transporting my pedals was really what was causing a lot of the problems. I didn’t want them knocking around in some soft shell case. That wouldn’t have been any better than what I had before. I wanted to feel like I could just close it and not worry about. So here are a couple pictures of it:

Foamy, cushiony goodness. Plus a nifty side compartment currently holding old cables and power I am no longer using.

The pedalboard fits snuggly into the foam bottom and the road case hinges closed and latches tight, with very little clearance for any pedals to move or wiggle if tossed around. It is truly great.

Cased Closed!

When it is all packed up, you can carry it like a suitcase (if you are super buff like me… what?) or you can wheel it on its built-in casters. All in all, a great design. The only bummer thing about it is that you can’t really leave it in its flight case without the lid to play it like some other brands. It isn’t really built that way. You have to lift the board out and stow the case somewhere. That doesn’t really bug me at all though because the board is light.

To sum it all up, I am extremely happy with the new set up.  So is Henry, our engineer, who says my tone is better and that I am a lot less noisy. I’ll take it. Not having the second tier is gonna take some getting used to. I may even try to modify some important second row pedals so they are little taller than the others so they can be more easily triggered without risk of stepping on something in the first row. Also, I currently still have two of my old patch cables on the board. They work fine, and not my super cheap cables, but ideally, I would eventually like to replace them with the Planetwaves ones. I just need 4 more connectors or so. I still have plenty of leftover cable, so that will probably be done in the next week or two. In all honesty though, I could probably not do anything for awhile and be completely happy. I am a whole lot less concerned about my sound completely stopping mid-service like it did two weeks ago. The upgrade was well worth it.

Now I just need a new guitar and amp… what? It never ends I guess :-)