New Song: New & Improved

The latest track to emerge from Studio 101 is a sort of dance/pop excursion called New & Improved. It was a bugger to mix, for some reason, but I’m happy with it now. Unfortunately, however, the dreaded MySpace Player has completely obliterated my lovely production. sigh

Anyway, click here to listen to the massacred version if you’re interested. Whilst there, you can simultaneously enjoy my new – and a bit less ugly than the default – page layout, should you wish to do so.

Integrating computer-based audio with hi-fi

Back in the olden days I used to be quite a hi-fi ‘buff’, but a few years ago I started to listen to my MP3 collection more than my CD collection. I loved being able to have exactly the songs I liked in my collection without lots of ‘filler’ tracks that you often get on albums. Then iTunes came along and I made use of its Smart Playlists to create playlists based on genre that matched the kind of musical mood I was in, which I still make extensive use of. Next, the iTunes Store appeared, and I thought it was fantastic that you could buy precisely the individual songs that you wanted for a fixed price, so my collection expanded accordingly. And then there’s Last.fm with its excellent ability to recommend new music and gigs based on the music you listen to, which I would now sorely miss if I didn’t have it available.

Consequently I wouldn’t want to go back to CDs now, but at the same time I’m missing the decent sound of a good hi-fi system and therefore wondering how to integrate a computer-based music collection with a hi-fi in a way that can ensure sound quality on a par with CD. It seemed to me that connecting together the software and hardware shouldn’t be too much of a problem, so long as the music is transmitted digitally without any loss of information until it reaches the DAC (digital to analogue converter). So long as you had a decent DAC, the only other bits you’d need would be a decent amplifier and loudspeakers.

Having read through various hi-fi forums recently, it seems I am correct about this. Using computer-based audio, it’s perfectly possible to match or even exceed the sound quality of CD using a setup of this nature. In my case I’d probably have a Mac mini or Apple TV to use as a ‘multimedia hub’, and that would be connected to a good DAC (either a pro audio interface or a hi-fi DAC box), from which the signal would be fed to the amplifier. So far, so good.

The main problem arises, however, with the audio files on the computer. I originally used MP3 files in my library and then progressed onto AAC files with increasingly high bitrates, so now I have a mix of ‘lossy’ audio formats in use. The problem with these formats is that they compress data in such a way that audio information is lost and the sound quality is reduced as a result, hence the use of the term ‘lossy’.

Increasingly, however, ‘lossless’ compression formats are in use, in which the audio files are sonically as good as (or potentially even better than) CD. These files are significantly larger than their lossy equivalents, but this isn’t a huge issue for many people because disk space is pretty cheap. I would therefore be very happy to start using a lossless format, but there’s still another problem to overcome: FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) seems to be becoming the standard for lossless digital music distribution, probably because it’s a good ‘open’ format which anyone is free to use, but neither Apple nor Microsoft products support this format currently.

On the Mac, there is a format called Apple Lossless (otherwise known as ALAC) which is fairly similar to FLAC, but which is a ‘closed’ standard and is only really usable with Apple products. This format could, therefore, potentially be less flexible and less well-supported in the future due to the fact that it can’t work with non-Apple products without being reverse engineered. Whilst it’s possible to convert from one lossless format to another without any loss of audio quality, to convert a large library in such a manner might be quite a tiresome process and one I’m keen to avoid if possible.

So, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Apple will soon give up on trying to push Apple Lossless so hard and instead realise that they need to start supporting FLAC. If that happens in the near future, I’ll be re-ripping my CD collection in FLAC format and using it for everything possible from then on. If Apple don’t start supporting FLAC soon, I guess I’ll have to just grit my teeth and start using Apple Lossless in preparation for my move to proper computer-based audio/hi-fi integration, then be prepared for a mass conversion at some point further down the line.

Edit: After discovering that it was possible to easily convert ALAC files to FLAC, including all their metadata, I’ve been happily using ALAC for some time now.

Ladytron at the Astoria, attempt II

As promised, Ladytron returned to the Astoria for a second attempt at a gig after the first one prematurely ground to a halt. Unfortunately, they didn’t grab me as much this time as they did on the first attempt. Maybe it was because we were standing further back, or maybe it was because they weren’t mixed all that brilliantly (although I think they’d be very hard to mix live due to the large number of musical layers including lots of resonant and/or bassy things), or maybe it’s because they played quite a few of their darker numbers instead of their more exciting, catchier hits, or maybe it’s because Helen didn’t look as lovely as she did the first time (women in capes don’t really do it for me).

They were still really good, just not as good as the first time.

Dicepeople domain and web site

I’m pleased because I’ve got back my dicepeople.org domain which has been in someone else’s possession for the last 18 months or so since I foolishly let it go.

So, I’ve just finished putting together a little web site for my musical project at www.dicepeople.org. It’s just a glorified list of links, really, but that’s all it needs for now. It’s hosted using MobileMe – the ability to use ‘personal domains’ for web sites is another handy feature of that service.

Apple’s .Mac service becomes MobileMe

Apple’s .Mac service has now become MobileMe. Lame name change aside, this extends the synchronisation such that email, address books and calendars can now all be synchronised between your Mac, your iPhone, Outlook on Windows, and the nice shiny new MobileMe web apps. This is excellent, and for many people it’s well worth paying £59 a year for this alone. However, you also get a great web based picture gallery and 20GB of online file storage. Also, if you’re a Mac user, you can use it to do online backups and to sync things such as Dashboard widgets and System Preferences in addition to the calendars etc.

Unfortunately they’ve taken away iCards, which I sometimes found to be a useful alternative to paper based greeting cards, but it’s still a great service and good value for money in my opinion. I’m sure it will be very popular, and not just with ‘c*nts’ or however it was that Darien described people with mac.com email addresses. Anyway, MobileMe now provides me.com email addresses in addition to the mac.com ones, and since you’re permitted a number of additional email aliases, I briefly had fun coming up with an entertainingly rude alias that fitted nicely before ‘@me.com’.

Unfortunately Apple had severe scaling problems when they rolled out MobileMe, and it was all quite horribly broken for two or three days. This coincided with the iPhone 3G release which also experienced scaling issues, with people having sometimes severe difficulties activating their new phones and getting to the all-important App Store. This goes to show that even a company of Apple’s size and expertise can have problems doing the necessary estimation and load testing that is required prior to rollouts of this nature. The problems didn’t stop there, however.

When Apple advertised MobileMe, they clearly described the email, address book and calendar sync as being ‘push’ between all devices, which means that changes should occur immediately. Once it was finally up and running, it became clear that some of the synchronisation was immediate and some was not. Specifically, syncing from a Mac to ‘the cloud’ (as the core of MobileMe is apparently known) isn’t ‘push’ at all – it can take up to 15 minutes for a scheduled sync to occur, rather than happening instantaneously.

There has evidently been so much of an uproar that Apple have sent an email to subscribers apologising for the poor rollout. They also apologised for misleading customers regarding the ‘push’ terminology:

While all email, contact or calendar changes on the iPhone and the web apps are immediately synced to and from the MobileMe “cloud,” changes made on a PC or Mac take up to 15 minutes to sync with the cloud and your other devices. So even though things are indeed instantly pushed to and from your iPhone and the web apps today, we are going to stop using the word “push” until it is near-instant on PCs and Macs, too.

This suggests that full push functionality will be along at some point. Perhaps they intended to make it happen as part of this rollout but didn’t have the resource available to do so. Anyway, a free month of subscription has been provided as compensation, which is enough to make me as a customer feel better about the whole thing. Unfortunately this probably doesn’t apply to customers in their free trial period who are also apparently being defrauded by Apple to the tune of £121, although it seems this may be at least partly a result of people not reading the sign-up instructions properly and using debit cards when they were only supposed to use credit cards.

New song: Borderline

I’ve finished a new song called Borderline. It has been uploaded to my MySpace page, so you can listen to it simply by clicking here.

In contrast to Did You Ever? which took about six years to get finished, the bulk of this one was done in about six hours. And I reckon it’s approximately six times better for it.

Apple Xserve G5 frustration

The time has come to sort out our Apple Xserve G5s in an effort to make them useful. Given the experiences I’ve had with OS X Server, and given that Leopard Server doesn’t even seem to be usable in an office environment, I’m certainly not going to consider trying to use that in a hosting environment. Also, I want these machines to be set up as consistently as possible with our live servers, which are running CentOS Linux.

Unfortunately there are no recent or current versions of CentOS for PowerPC, so I’m using Yellow Dog Linux 6.0 instead. Fortuitously, Yellow Dog is also based on Red Hat, so I didn’t have to tweak my highly customised Kickstart build too much for it to work on Yellow Dog.

Unfortunately, the Yellow Dog kernel doesn’t seem to have been compiled with support for NIC bonding, so NIC redundancy isn’t possible without compiling a custom kernel, which is overkill just for two servers. Also, there’s no RAID controller in the servers, so I can’t use hardware RAID. And then I found that it doesn’t seem to be possible to set up software RAID on an Apple server in the way I’d like due to limitations in the boot loader.

Anyway, having installed Yellow Dog on one of them, I wanted to figure out how to monitor the hardware so I can get alerted in the event of fan failures etc. The only option for this seems to be the lm_sensors package, which, disappointingly, doesn’t appear to have support for the sensor hardware in the Xserve G5s. At least SMARTD works OK, so I will get notified if any of the disks start misbehaving.

So, all in all, this is a pretty frustrating situation. I have two servers that need to be used but which have poor redundancy and no way of telling me when some of their components have failed. Really not ideal.