Home Theater Systems – Part 1 The MAC MEDIA CENTER

So, entertainment is a huge part of our society today.  TV watching, movies and stuff like that take up quite a bit of our attention.  I’ve always been interested in making technology work for you whether it was on a consumer level or a professional level.  Right now I want to focus on more of a consumer level because technically, that’s what watching TV at home comes under.

I’ve always been interested in media center options that are on the market and you’ll often see the PC side of media center computers.  You never really see any major Apple stuff on the market other then the Apple TV which is more of an iTunes extender rather then an actual media center PC.

So, I have been searching along with my friend, Sean Noble, over the past few years to find some way to make a truly Mac based media center.  Here’s what I came up with:

 

1) A simple cable/satellite set top box or DTV converter would do

2) Mac Mini base (I’m sure the base model would work great with a network hard drive or external to back up to)

3) Elgato EyeTV (if you so feel the need to DVR and your Mac Mini will certainly need the external then)

4) Your TV w/HDMI input

5) Surround sound receiver if you feel so inclined (I certainly do!!)

The set top box, you will probably need because most providers encode and encrypt their signal in such a way that you need to have their own set top box for things to work properly.  Although, you may get lucky and find a TV that has a QAM tuner that works but for this media center, you are probably going to want to have the set top box anyway.

Then, get your hands on the Mac mini.  The HDMI out helps keep cable clutter to a minimum while still yielding great video quality.  That will go straight into the back of your TV.

Now here is where the magic happens…the ElGato EyeTV is the major part that ties this thing together.  You can output your set top box directly to your TV for a “bypass” in case you don’t want to have you Mac Mini on all the time but, using the ElGato EyeTV, you can record the output of your set top box on your Mac Mini effectively making your Mac Mini both a computer and a DVR.  The EyeTV accepts composite in with the ability to record up to 1080i!  Not bad!  It can even dual encode…meaning that it can record a regular TV version as well as an iPhone version at the same time!!  Sweet!  But it gets better.  The EyeTV also comes with an IR blaster and can be synced with your set top box.  That means, you can record something on whatever channel you want, and then have the EyeTV change channels and record something else.  It encodes the video it records with it’s own software on your Mac Mini in H.264.  Even if you don’t want to record with the EyeTV, it still gives you the ability to control live TV from your Mac.  You can pause and rewind live TV, search their program guide, set up regular recordings, and then share then through iTunes.  You can even stream live or recorded TV to your iPhone or iPad.  (Except now that AT&T’s data plans are terrible, who would want to do that?  It could cost you a fortune!)

Pretty sweet set up right?  And, as an added bonus, if you want to be able to control everything and have the extra money to spend, pick up a Logitech universal remote.  The Harmony Series is a pretty sweet line of universal remote.  The basic model, the Harmony 300, would easily control all of what I have outlined above.  The only issue is that you would be maxing it out.  And if you are like me, you’ll buy something else and want to control that too!  As the price goes up, so does the number of devices the remote can control.  The price gets pretty steep pretty fast but still, they make some really cool gear!  For what I want to do, I would probably wind up with the Harmony 700 or the Harmony One.

Anyway, that’s my Mac media center!  I may add to this later but that’s what I have right now.  If you have any ideas or things you’d like me to explain or if you have ideas to make it better, feel free to comment  or send me an email at jason@jasoncastellente.com.  I’d love to hear from YOU!

2011 Graphic – I know who holds the future

Hey everyone!!  It’s a new year…well, it has been for the past 4 days and I’m sure you were already aware of that!  Something I have been pretty interested in over this past year is graphic design.  I had no prior experience in Photoshop, Illustrator and Indesign or Adobe programs of that sort.  But, last year I started getting into it as a hobby and a way of being creative while still de-stressing.  You can check out some of my graphics and things on my website at www.jasoncastellente.com.

I was thinking a few days ago that I would try to challenge myself to make backgrounds for my computer and for a few other computers once a month.  For me, I want it to be good or else, I will get annoyed and bored with looking at it and change it to something else.  I want it to be relevant and meaningful.  The meaning does not necessarily have to be super spiritual or anything, it could just be significant.  Anyway, I made one a few days ago and I figured I would post it here for everyone to use if they would like.  I made a few different resolutions so hopefully you can pick one that works for you…

 

2011, January – I know who holds the future  1024×768

2011, January Background - 1024x768

 

2011, January – I know who holds the future  1200×800

2011, January Background - 1024x768

 

2011, January – I know who holds the future  1920×1080

2011, January - I know who holds the future  1920x1080

 

Enjoy the backgrounds.  If you have any ideas of things you would like me to try to make in future months, comment on this post or send me an email at jason@jasoncastellente.com.

You mean I can read whatever I want? Mixing in Pro Tools Skill Pack

One great thing I’ve found in the last few weeks now that I’m done college, I have the freedom to read whatever I want.  Crazy right?  I’m not forced to read for a class or for an assignment or paper or whatever.  I have actually really started to enjoy reading again.  One book I am enjoying right now is (nerd alert!!)  Mixing in Pro Tools Second Edition Skill Pack by Brian Smithers.  I have been seriously using Pro Tools LE and HD for the past 3 years and I’ve seen the most recent evolutions from Pro Tools 7 to the new GUI interface and options in Pro Tools 8 and most recently, the “digi-hardware free” version of Pro Tools 9 that hit the public just a month or so back.

This book is pretty cool and helps the reader to understand more of the art and craft of mixing projects in Pro Tools.  It begins with the basics that I was pretty well acquainted with and then got progressively harder and more complex.  I have to say, I was caught a little off guard by how in-depth this book got towards the end.  In fact, I had to go back and review earlier parts of the book that I thought I had down in order to understand little nuances of more complex techniques.  I had assumed this book would be a lot of basic material and tutorials.  And while, it presents it in more of a tutorial method for beginners, the techniques and methods it teaches and the tricks it gives you are very easily applied to your own projects in your day-to-day work, mixing and hobbies.

It starts of explaining equalization and just basically describes what all the GUI knobs and meters do.  It also briefly goes into what equalization is.  Equalization is the adjustment of the timbre of a recorded signal.  It basically dictates the tonal shape of a signal.   Other then that, I thought the chapter would be basic knowledge and a review for me.  Although, when I got farther in the chapter, it gave a few tips that can give better results and can help create a bigger stereo image.  For example, it suggests that while many of your channels are mono when you record them, you can instantly make them stereo by inserting a standard Pro Tools plug-in called “Short Delay II” (mono/stereo).  Pro Tools will then display two meter bars on the processed channel showing that there is a stereo output to wherever the channel is routed.  You can then insert more plug-ins after that to continue your processing although you should use a multi-mono plug-in so that Pro Tools will process each signal individually while still changing the settings uniformly on both the Left and the Right outputs.  Equalization is probably one of the hardest parts of the post production process because you need to make everything sound great in the mix without making thing clash.  That means, you will need to find a unique place in the frequency and dynamic range of the recording.

It continues in the next chapter to talk about dynamics processing.  Obviously, dynamics vary greatly with the style of music but this book talks about the principles you need to be successful in making whatever music your a mixing sound great.  I like how they explain how a compressor works because I think this is something that gets confused very easily in studio mixing as well as live sound reinforcement.  I took the questions they used and modified them a little to better explain how a compressor works.

What gets compressed? – Threshold settings (numeric setting in dBv)

How much gets compressed? – Ratio settings (numeric setting in ratio for i.e. 4:1)

How abruptly will the compression begin? – Knee settings (numeric setting)

How fast will the compressor take before it engages? – Attack settings (us or ms)

How long will the compressor hold the same setting? – Hold settings (us or ms)

How quickly will the compressor release its limiting of signal? – Release settings (us or ms)

Oh, by the way…I used two terms above that I should explain: “us” and “ms”.  “us” means microsecond which is one thousand of a millisecond (one ten-thousandth of a second) and “ms” means millisecond which is one thousandth of a second.

I also love the way that they go into how to get a rough mix later in the book.  They walk the reader though basic organization and things that not everyone would think of a common sense.  Creating your workflow in a session, is extremely important.  Making sure that tracks are labeled from the get-go is important because Pro Tools names waveform data off of that track name to help with organization in the actual Pro Tools session data.  Then, lining up your tracks in an order where you are comfortable working with it is very important.  Coloring your tracks is an added benefit to help you visually.  The way I work is that I have my drums first colored yellow, bass and guitars next labeled green, keys and midi stuff after that labeled blue and vocals after that labeled orange or red.  I will then route them through busses to make mixing easier and I put those busses at the end of the order of channels so that I have easy access to the “master fader” of each group of instruments.  This is very helpful when I mix in the end.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you though.  There are tons of great mix techniques in this book that I will certainly be implementing in the near future.  The book goes into advanced signal flow and advanced dynamics.  It talks alot about stereo imaging and enhancement to make things sound spacious and open while still creating that tight powerful mix that we have all come to know and love in pop music today.  The really cool stuff happens when it gets into special effects for recording and for mixing.  It has a couple really creative techniques that will help you make you studio mixes pop and pound.  I really enjoyed this book and I’m glad I took the time to read through it because I know it will benefit me in my career in audio and production.  I highly recommend this book.  I’ll be using some of the things I’ve learned when I go back in to the studio to finish up mixing The Interlude tracks.

Does anyone out there have any creative or interesting audio techniques to share?  Feel free to comment or email me at jason@jasoncastellente.com

Thoughts on Communicating the Gospel using technology

As I was reflecting on some technology that was developed this past year, I am continually amazed and interested in what has been introduced to us.  I remember watching Star Trek with my dad.  He talked about how he always thought it would be so cool to have a flip communicator like they did.  It would be so cool to just flip something like that open and be able to communicate with anyone.  As a kid, I’m sure he never dreamed it would be possible to communicate with anyone like that.  Now, people have “flip communicators” and even more advanced communicators called cell phones!  I can slide my finger across the heat-sensitive touch screen of my iPhone and have virtually anyone literally at my fingertips.  I can call someone across the room, across town, or across the world.  I remember using my cell phone to call home from Liberia, Africa while I was away on a missions trip a few years ago.  I pressed a few buttons and then seconds later, I could hear the voices of my parents and hear dinner cooking in the background from almost half way around the world.  What we never dreamed possible, has become so commonplace to us that it does not even faze us.  It has changed the face of communication today.

The face of communication is constantly changing largely due to technology and its development and re-development.  We are pushed forward whether we like it or not.  Some people enjoy it and thrive on it; some people don’t like it; some people don’t really care.  But anyway you look at it, we are in the midst of a new culture that is being changed and influenced by the current technologies.

The church is being forced to take note of these changes and change how they communicate in order to reach the culture that they are a part of.  It would be easy for the body to just fall back on what they know and point out how the Bible talks about not conform to what the world is saying and doing.  But maybe the church needs not be so defensive and realize that it’s not about that.  God is alive and His word in the Bible is alive.  This means that the Bible’s principles of standards and ethics need to be applied to the life that we live and in the culture we are a part of.

Many times, people think being in the world but not of the world means that we need to avoid evil at all costs and to keep away from it.  Shining your light doesn’t go very far if all of your “lights” are staying together where they are comfortable.  They can be so much more effective by going into dark places and illuminating them.  I am not saying we should participate in what is going on in that dark place.  I am however saying we should be there to show contrast to the darkness.  We can still be in the world but not of the world.

How does all tie together?  I think the church is afraid of what they cannot see or understand.  They fear the darkness of sin and of the unknown because it is uncharted.  We know sin leads to death but we must be willing to stand in the darkness in order to stop those who are walking further into the darkness.  We also should not be fearful of the unknown.  Traditional methods are just that: tradition.  They may still work at times but there are new mediums for interpersonal communication.  These mediums need to first be understood and their power realized.  Then, they can be harnessed for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God.  The early church stopped at nothing to communicate the gospel.  That same passion should motivate us today.  We have more channels available to us.  Let’s use them as effectively as we can.

Obviously, this is simply my opinion.  Feel free to comment or email me with your thoughts and opinion.  jason@jasoncastellente.com

The Interlude tracks – Post Production

The tracks are done, I’m pretty satisfied with what I got during tracking.  Today, I spent some time editing the tracks and lining up takes and picking out the best stuff for each song.  I have a few things to line up still on a few of the tracks using elastic time to make everything super tight but I think these tracks should come out pretty well.  I seriously wish I had been able to do projects like this more often during my time at VFCC but oh well, we live and learn and move forward.  I worked on EQ and compression settings for tracks as well as reverbs and a few other ideas.  I really have enjoyed the post production process thus far and hope I will have the opportunity to do this more in the future.  Today was my last day at VFCC, but they have so graciously allowed me to come back in January to use the studio and to finish up the projects that I have not been able to finish while I was there.

I have to give a huge shout out to “The Interlude” for how much work they put in on such a tight schedule and for pounding out the tracks like pro’s.  I appreciate their musicianship and their talents that they poured out on these tracks.  I will do my very best to communicate everything the best I can in my final mix.  I’m looking forward to it.

Anyway, here’s a small sample of one of my rough cuts… enjoy and give me some feedback!!  I’d love to hear what everyone thinks.

Check it out on my website

Interlude @ VFCC Tracking finished

Well, we stayed up pretty late last night but the tracking is finished.  I’m going to spend a little bit of time in the studio today just making some small modifications before I come back in a few weeks a mix it down.  I’m pretty happy with the way it came out and I’m pumped to hear how this project is going to turn out.

Interlude Sessions Part 3

Today, I spent more time working with “The Interlude” in the Valley Forge Christian College studio.  We finished up tracking all the electric guitar parts and also finished the acoustic guitar tracks.  Ryan Seler is the lead vocalist and acoustic guitarist for the band and I tracked his Taylor 214CE.  I used the Audio-Technica AT4080 on the body of the guitar while using a Shure SM81 on the neck to pick up the string nose and definition.  It’s time for a break to relax, rest our ears and grab some food.  The bass tracks are up next tonight.  I would have rather had the bass earlier on but scheduling for students during finals week its rough so I’ll be doing the bass tracks tonight.  Maybe some vocal tracks tonight as well…we shall see.

Studio Tracking – The Interlude Sessions @ VFCC

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am working on tracking a band called “The Interlude” which a bunch of my friends are a part of.  We are tracking in the Protools HD studio that is at Valley Forge Christian College.  We are using the Avid C|24 as our control surface and we have two digi racks: the 192 and the 96.  Our drum tracks are complete.  (For more info, see previous post)  Tonight, due to scheduling conflicts, I was not able to track bass first as I had wanted.  So I did most of the electric guitar tracks with the scratch acoustic and vocals playing in the background.  It worked alot better then I had anticipated.  Also, I did some experimenting with micing as I am so fond of doing.  The electric guitarist, Aaron Ranzenbach, used his Vox Valvetronix amp for everything so far.  We may use another amp for a few things later but that will be determined then.  For micing, I used a Shure SM57 on the front of the amp aimed in between the center cone and the outer edge.  It was almost exactly half way in between the middle and the outer edge.  Secondly, I decided to try an SM57 in the back of the amp aimed towards the cone through the metal housing of the speaker.  It gave me a very mellow tone while I was able to get a more harsh, yet still very warm sound from the SM57 in front.  I was not quite satisfied with it though.  Since Aaron was playing at a relatively low volume level, I decided the sound pressure level was low enough that I could safely use a small diaphragm condenser in the back of the speaker.  I decided to try the Audio Technica AE5100 loaned to VFCC from Doug Gould of WorshipMD (www.worshipmd.com).  This sounded great!  I loved the definition and clarity I got from the AE5100.  Granted, I was comparing apples and oranges (the SM57 response to the AE5100) but at the end of the day, what sounds the best is what makes the money right?  Anyway, continuing on, I then placed an Audio Technica AT4080 active ribbon mic about 18 inches in front of the speaker.  That gave me a nice ambient effect with the figure 8 pickup pattern even in the relatively dead room that I was using to track.  I may experiment tomorrow with a Sennheiser e609 to give me a little bit of a different sound and to help me make other tracks sit differently in the mix but we shall see.  Stay tuned, I’ll be posting links for you all to listen to my work as soon as it’s available.  Hopefully, the final tracks should be done sometime in early January.  I would love to get them mastered but I simply don’t have the plug ins and I don’t have the money to pay another studio to do it…so we’ll see what happens.  Thanks for reading…I’ll keep you all posted!

Some tracking notes

It’s almost the end of the year and I am graduating from Valley Forge Christian College at the end of this week.  So I am trying to squeeze the last bit of time that I have out of the VFCC Protools HD studio we have.  This week I am tracking a band called “The Interlude”.  Last night we did drum tracks.  I wanted to share my micing technique for my sessions to see what everyone thinks.  This is still a budget studio for students so I don’t have access to a ton of great mics but the school has been steadily improving and buying better gear and that makes me happy.  But anyway, here is what I used

1-Kick Attack = Shure PG81 (inside kick by where the beater would hit)

2-Kick = Shure Beta 52a (in hole on front of kick)

3-Kick Ambient = Shure KSM27 (about a foot in front of the kick)

4-Snare Top = SM57

5-Snare Bottom = AKG C414

6-High Hats = Audio Technica AE5100

7-Tom 1 Top = SM57

8-Tom 1 Bottom = Audix i5 (that mic was hatin’ me all night for some reason)

9-Tom 2 Top = Shure SM57

10-Tom 2 Bottom = AKG D112

11-Overhead Left = Shure SM81 (XY configuration above middle of kit)

12-Overhead Right = Shure SM81 (XY configuration above middle of kit)

Anyway, that’s what I used.  I know there are some people who read this who might have some good comments and ideas or maybe even things I can do better.  So let me know…I’d love to hear from you.  Feel free to comment, facebook me or email me at jason@jasoncastellente.com

Audio Technica AT4080 Active Ribbon Mic Review

There are a multitude of microphones that are in the market today and even more applications.  Choosing a mic for whatever purpose you may have dreamed up is not rocket science, but it can be difficult to get the sound you might have in your head.

I have always been more of a Shure fan and then select mics from various other companies.  But, by far the company that I had the least experience with was Audio Technica.  Lately, I have had a lot more exposure to Audio Technica and I have been pleasantly surprised.  Valley Forge Christian College just had their yearly Christmas concert Christmas at Valley Forge this past weekend.  We were able to borrow some microphones from Worship MD CEO, Doug Gould (www.worshipmd.com) who does some promotional marketing for Audio Technica among other leading audio industry companies in the church market.  One of the mics he lent us was the Audio Technica AT4080 Active Ribbon.

First of all, I was interested that it said “active ribbon”.  In my experience, a ribbon mic is in the “dynamic” family of mics, not condenser.  Also, it is usually dangerous to send phantom power to a ribbon mic.  But this ribbon mic required phantom power.

Holding the mic in my hands, the construction is rock solid.  The mic felt very durable and the construction is aesthetically pleasing.  When I plugged it in a tried it, I was actually able to use it live and amplified.  Our application for the Christmas at Valley Forge concert was to lightly reinforce a classical vocal in a dry room as well as live tracking in Protools HD.  My initial impression was that the mic was very warm and smooth and had a clean, clear and crisp ribbon mic tone.  Even though it has a figure 8 polar pick up pattern, was able to get a serious amount of gain and volume for our live reinforcement out of the AT4080.

Like I mentioned earlier, the AT4080 has a figure 8 pick up pattern that responds to 20Hz to 18khz and can take up to 128dB.  Stop…128dB from a ribbon mic?  Yes, actually it can take it.  That really broadens the applications that this mic can handle.  I think in the next few weeks, I’m going to experiment with this mic as an ambient mic on a guitar amp because it can most certainly take the SPL.

This is a serious contender for the future of live sound as well as studio recording because it still allows you to get that classic ribbon sound while allowing the user to practically forget about the issue with lower output and the delicate nature of ribbon mics in the past.  I must admit, this mic is going to be added to the ever growing list of mics that I will be looking to purchase for my own personal mic collection and closet.

As always, I want to hear your comments and feedback.  Feel free to comment or email me at jason@jasoncastellente.com.

Check out the Audio Technica AT4080 here: http://bit.ly/idww3t

Check out Worship MD and Doug Gould here:  www.worshipmd.com

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