Studio Setup

Studio

This is my current studio setup.

I have the following gear:

Eurorack 9U case
Eurorack 6U case
KORG MS20 Mini Synth
Roland TB3 Synth
AY3 Chiptune Synth
Roland A500-PRO Keyboard Controller
Nord Drum Synth
Macbook Pro with Ableton Live 9 Suite
MIDI.OCD Polyphonic MIDI->CV Converter
Samson Patchbay

I am looking to sell my Acces Virus A and concentrate on filling up the remaining Eurorack case holes.

Music Workflow 2017

In 2017 I want to build a relatively static hardware-based workflow. This is what I’ve chosen:workflow-setup

The components are:

Current Music-Making Setup

With my current setup, I’m trying to make as much music ‘out of the box’ as possible, away from the computer as I find it more fun.

Synths:

KORG Minilogue: I use this for a keyboard controller, and I use the 16 step sequencer to run simple sequences. It connects to the PC via USB and has MIDI output. I can also use this as a synthesizer its own right, it’s good for backing chords and pads.
KORG MS20 Mini: I’m borrowing this from a friend. I will use it as a bass synth mostly. I’ve got a Harvestman English Tear module which connects it to my Eurorack.

Effects:

Electro Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai: This is an effects pedal with reverb and delay, which I use to add a bit of effects to modular synthesizer before I record. I will also use effects within Ableton, but I like the sound of this pedal in general.

Drum Machine:

Nord Drum Mk1: This accepts triggers from the Eurorack I’ve recently discovered, so I have a drum machine that I can connect up to the Eurorack with 4 different drum voices.

Modular:

This is equivalent to a fairly standard three oscilator synth, with ring-mod, S&H and noise out. I have a few different filters, an XPander style filter, an ‘extreme’ filter which is loosely modelled on the MS20 filter, and a triple resonance filter which I use for noise soundscapes. It has two envelopes, and a Make Noise Maths and a Serge VCS equivalent for some modulation madness. It also has a 16 step sequencer.

My Eurorack Modular
My Eurorack Modular

Workflow:

I still use Ableton Live as a midi sequencer, creating midi clips for drums and the hardware synths. I will build up a patch on the synth, tweaking until it sounds servicable, then make a midi clip, record some loops from the synths, and cut up and move the audio around to compose a track. I might add some soft-synths and effects such as reverb and delay on the PC and mix the track. Then I will upload it to soundcloud and show it to musically minded friends. Depending on what they say, I may tweak the track and upload it again. This whole process usually is done within the space of a day or two, I sometimes spend longer for tracks that I want to be more finished and professional, but I am not really usually making music for more than a few people at the moment, so I don’t spend ages finetuning each track.

Narrative-Led PC Games

80 days poster

When I first started getting into computer roleplaying games in the 90s/00s I remember playing the Infinity Engine games by Bioware and Black Isle, such as Baldur’s Gate 2, the original Fallout games, and of course Planescape: Torment. It was the quality of writing that drew me in and took me to another world, the graphics were just a background setting to that writing.

Somewhere in the 2000s RPGs became more action orientated and prioritised mechanics and visual appeal and combat over branching stories. Nowadays a lot of popular RPGs are those such as Dark Souls, which seem more about combat and atmosphere than anything else. Blockbuster games such as Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3 still show that great writing, characterisation and real player choices can still be popular.

I still prefer the classic RPGs of yesteryear, those with mountains of dialogue and that take direct influence from fantasy novels and pen and paper, Dungeons and Dragons type games, which I grew up with. Here are some games which capture some of that great writing for me, although some are more interactive fiction than technically RPGs:

80 Days
You are the butler of Philleas Fogg, the man Jules Verne writes about in ‘Around the World in 80 Days’. Your task is to choose how to get around the world not more than 80 days, as you plan routes between cities, buy and sell items and manage the finances of the trip. It really captures a sense of adventure in the world, and builds on Jules Verne’s steampunk theme as you encounter fantastical means of transport such as mechanical ostriches, airships and others. Every route is different and you can choose how the story unfolds by selecting different actions your character will take. The writing is the best I’ve ever seen in a mainstream game.

http://store.steampowered.com/app/381780/

Sunless Sea
In this game which also takes influence from Jules Verne, the city of London has fallen through the crust of the earth into hell, where there is a giant underwater cavern called the Underzee. You sail across this underground sea, exploring islands and immersing yourself in this Vernesque/Victorian/Lovecraftian setting. The writing again is amazing; it reads like poetry.

http://store.steampowered.com/app/304650

Torment: Tides of Numenera
Another outlandish game, this time set in the world of Monte Cook’s Numenera, the writer behind the Planescape world which Planescape: Torment was set in. It hasn’t fully been realised yet but this game in early access form is already weird and wonderful, and much more interesting to me than yet another copy of on the elves and dwarves Tolkien formulaic settings.

http://store.steampowered.com/app/272270/

Eurorack 2016

eurorack

So.. the problem, as so many people have said, with getting into building a Eurorack modular synthesizer is that it becomes addictive, and you inevitably spend more than you can really afford. That said.. I now have a great fully customised synthesiser for what I want to do 🙂 The layout is:

Top shelf:

3 oscilators and noise generator in the top left, 4 VCAs and S&H and Ring Mod sections in the mid center, LFOs in the top right.

Middle shelf:

Filters! I love filters. 3 large format filter modules, and a Triple Resonance Filter which consists of an additional 3 filters packed into one unit. A quantizer is also there which I currently don’t use much.

Bottom shelf:

Envelopes in the bottom left, Voltage Controlled Slew Generator and Make Noise’s Maths in the center left, center right is my trigger sequencer setup from LADIK, bottom right is attenuators and linear and exponential mixers.

My vIM Configuration

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 04.00.46

I use a heavily customised setup for vIM, the text editor that annoys me the least in ~30 years of using a computer. You can see my exact setup in my dotfiles repo on github, https://github.com/wordswords/-.

Here are the plugins I use:

  • ConqueTerm – Opens a shell window inside vIM, allowing you to have a REPL environment within vIM.
  • NERDTree – A filetree plugin that you can see on the left of the window above. It replicates the Sublime text editor’s filetree.
  • vim-airline – This is a statusline plugin for vIM that allows for a nicer status view for windows and buffers.
  • vim-devicons – Allows for UTF-8 icons to make vIM editing slightly more graphical. Used by airline to display more info in less space, and by NERDTree to show filetype information.
  • vim-fish – Syntax highlighting for fish shell script editing.
  • vim-rails – Syntax highlighting and more for rails.
  • vim-ruby – Syntax highlighting for Ruby.

Goals of 2015 Summary

2015 goals written on a whiteboard

At the start of 2015, I wrote down some goals for 2015. Around half-way through the year, I revisited these goals with some thoughts on how well I’d done. Now 2015 is over, I want to reflect on what has been achieved and what hasn’t.

I also want to comment on the fact that I am discussing personal things here. A few years ago I was decided that I was going to keep this blog professional and pretty much dry of any thoughts or feelings on my personal life. I have moved away from that though, inspired by blogs such as Iain’s, where personal thoughts and feelings are mixed with technical observations. I would like to think that this isn’t a bad move; after all if potential employers come to look at this 5 years from now, and don’t like what I’ve done here, then I probably don’t want to work for them anyway. There is the argument that blogs should be ‘themed’ or targetted towards a particular subject to garner followers, and that too much sharing is possibly a bad thing. However, my current thoughts are that dry techncial info is boring, and I’d rather mix it with other things that are important to me.

Retrospective for 2015

With that said.. 2015 was an eventful year, some things were awesome, some not.

The “Not Awesome”

My mum started treatment for cancer, which is a non-curable kind, Myeloma. The treatment was a success and she is currently in remission for the time being, so that is a good thing, but how long she will stay in remission we do not know. Both my remaining grandparents also sadly passed away. I also split up with my girlfriend of 5 years, which was difficult and still haunts me to a certain degree.

The “Awesome”

The money that my parents were going to put towards the wedding of the ex-girlfriend, they gave to me so I could put a deposit down on a house. So in August I bought and moved into a house in Withington, which I am in the process of doing up. It is *incredibly* cheap to buy in Manchester compared to the south-east of England, where I’m originally from, where the dream of having my own 3 bed, semi-detached house would not be possible in any area with a reasonable number of IT jobs in short distance. I don’t drive, so the fact that the tram stop is 10 minutes walk away is great for getting to work.

I met my current girlfriend, Conny in May, and things seem to be going very well; she is even planning to move from Berlin to Manchester to live with me. This is obviously great, and I don’t know where I would be without her support.

Work

With all these things happening in my personal life, work took a secondary focus as I got things sorted. It also made me rethink what I wanted from my career. At the start of 2015 I had a new role, as Test Manager; the first level of technical management in my area at the BBC, and a big career move for me. Although I liked some aspects of the management role, I missed the technical challenges that had pretty much characterised the last 10 years of my career. There was not much direct coding, and I felt I was in danger of losing that aspect of my work. I took a 6 month attachment to R&D, which had me working in an extremely challenging technical role, on a HTML5 360 VR engine. In April when this attachment ends, I am looking to continue in a technical role of some description, and not return to pure management, at least for the meantime.

Goals of 2015 – How Did I Do?

Work Goals

  • Settle into my new role at the BBC as Test Manager – As I mentioned before I’ve taken a move towards another route in my career
  • Pushing for a place to be opened up in Platform Test to employ someone from the Extend Scheme – This was achieved, and Ben has joined the BBC on an Extend placement.

Creative Goals

Social Goals

Financial Goals

  • Saving more over the course of the year – Partly achieved. I have bought a house, so now I am in a quite a bit of debt, but the money I will be putting towards my mortgage will be money I am effectively ‘saving’ because it will be put into the value of the house.
  • Joining a pension scheme – Achieved.

Health Goals

  • Adopt a regular form of keeping fit – Partly achieved. I have now setup a return commute which involves walking past a gym that I’m a member of, so it is quite easy to go in there for 30 mins on the treadmill 2-3 times a week. I’ve just got to maintain the discipline.

Next Big Thing: Voice Control for Home Automation

Amazon-Echo-Main-Image

So, I have totally bought in to the home automation craze that is currently ‘the next big thing’ in the technology world in 2015. Apple has released iOS 9 with their HomeKit home automation framework, Google have the Nest series of smart devices, and there are numerous emerging competitors and hundreds of devices out there right now that will network together in your home.

For the uninitiated, a ‘virtual assistant’ is a cloud-connected voice processing system which you can ‘talk’ to. This is how a voice assistant essentially works:

1. You speak into the device. Your device will record what you’ve said, and send it to the cloud.
2. In the cloud, sophisticated and adaptive voice recognition software analyses what you’ve said and converts it into text.
3. The text command is run on a server somewhere, for example the command, ‘what is the weather today?’ will fetch the latest weather report for your area and summarise it.
4. The summarised report is converted into speech and streamed back to your device.

Apple have Siri, Microsoft have Cortana, Google has Google Now and Amazon have Alexa. These are all voice assistants which utilise the power of big data and machine learning over millions of requests to improve their own accurately.

The more people use virtual assistants, the better they get. Apple have been really pushing Siri, including it in the Apple Watch and most recently the new Apple TV. Not necessarily because it’s what people want *now*, but because they are banking on enough people using it so it snowballs into the lead, vastly improves in functionality, and becomes ubiquitous in the home, maybe 5-10 years down the line.

Apple’s Siri has reported a 40% reduction in errors recently, meaning only 5% of the words it processes, on average, are misread. This clearly can, and will, improve as more people use it.

The speech recognition capability in Siri now has a 5 percent word error rate, thanks to a 40 percent reduction on the part of Apple, Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, said today at Apple’s 2015 Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco.

Amazon, meanwhile, has the ‘Alexa’ virtual assistant, which seems to have most use in home automation. Although Siri is linked in with Apple’s ‘HomeKit’ automation standard, HomeKit-enabled devices are only just now starting to be released, and reliability is currently a problem. Meanwhile, Google have concentrated on providing a small number of reliable devices in their Wi-Fi enabled ‘Nest’ series. Google’s Nest Thermostat has recently integrated Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant to recognise speech commands such as ‘turn up the temperature to 20 degrees’.

What a lot of people are saying is the ‘killer app’ for virtual assistants is the handsfree speaker and microphone unit ‘Amazon Echo’. Amazon Echo is a small unit with a highly sensitive microphone and speaker, which sits in your living room and you can ‘talk’ to it, just like you would with Google Now or Apple’s Siri. The best thing about Amazon Echo is that it can talk to other smart home devices, such as the popular Phillips Hue lights, the Nest thermostat, various security cameras. It also integrates with the site IFTTT.com which is like a giant patchbay for smart devices, allowing you to connect them together and cause a state in one device to trigger an action.

So you can be sitting in your living room, and say ‘Dim all the lights in the house’ and Amazon Echo will do just that.

Unfortunately though, due to the fact that it uses Microsoft’s Bing search and doesn’t give you an option to choose a different search engine, it is not legal to sell the Amazon Echo in the UK due to a non-competition covering search engines in EU law. Therefore there is still an open gap in the market for this type of product, one which Apple’s HomeKit and Siri integration is racing to fill. However the closed nature of the HomeKit world means that it is likely that it won’t integrate with the non-Apple setup of Google Nest and others.

Introversion, Extroversion and the BBC Software Engineer

introvert

Whether you agree with Myers-Briggs personality profiling or not, like fellow BBC’er Ian Forrester I have found them a useful frame of reference from which to discuss my personality, because I see similarities between my perception of me, and the classification.

I took the Myers-Briggs personality profiling, and it has labelled me on several occasions an INTP:

INTPs are marked by a quiet, stoic, modest, and aloof exterior that masks strong creativity and enthusiasm for novel possibilities. Their weaknesses include poor organization, insensitivity to social niceties, and a tendency to get lost in abstractions. Keirsey referred to INTPs as Architects, one of the four types belonging to the temperament he called the Rationals

I – Introversion preferred to extraversion: INTPs tend to be quiet and reserved. They generally prefer interacting with a few close friends rather than a wide circle of acquaintances, and they expend energy in social situations (whereas extraverts gain energy).

Is this bad news for me? Introversion can be seen as a negative in today’s hyper-communicative world, especially for a team-based work environment. However I don’t think it need be a problem in an organisation that prioritises abstract thinking and creativity, because introverts are often very strong in both. The technology and R&D side of the BBC, I would argue, is such an organisation.

I know a few people from Imperial College London, one of the top universities in the world for Computer Science (and Science Technology Engineering and Medicine in general) and have found it full of technically gifted introverts. Now, I didn’t go to Imperial myself, but it does seem that there is a correlation between introversion and high amounts of technical ability. I have found this also with a lot of software engineers that I have worked with.

I am not saying necessarily that all good software engineers are extreme introverts, in fact I would say that this is untrue in a number of cases. This is because Agile software engineering often uses techniques such as pair programming from Extreme Programming, and it helps to have extroversion when dealing with hyper-social practices such as programming as a pair every day all day (which I have done, and found it very draining).

In fact, I have noticed that technical ability is less important than your ability to work in a team at the BBC. I generally have fairly good social skills and tend to like introverts so I personally have not had a problem with dealing with people who were very introverted but were technically quite brilliant. However it was clear that these types of people just didn’t seem to fit in quite as well in BBC teams with high collaboration aspects. I think this may be down to cultural fit rather than something we can extrapolate over all software engineering organisations.

512eTxcGW6L._SX379_BO1,204,203,200_

Indeed, aside from my anecdotal evidence, in the book ‘Making Software’ Jo E. Hannay analyses the academic research on what type of personality programmers have, and what effect this has on their work. She writes;

We found that programmers deviated from a reference group in that they are lower on Extraversion, lower on Emotional Stability, and higher on Openness to Experience [Hannay et al. 2010]. See also [Moore 1991], [Smith 1989], [Woodruff 1979], [Capretz 2003], and [Turley and Bieman 1995] for related results. Programmers are also more homogeneous than the population as a whole; that is, programmers vary less in personality than do people in general.

So programmers tend to be introverts. Not really hugely suprising is it? However, she also notes:

We investigated .. in the context of 198 professional programmers pair programming over one day [Hannay et al. 2010]. We found that personality was a weak predictor of pair programming performance. Even crude measures of expertise, task complexity, and even the country in which the programmers where employed had greater predictive power than personality. The study also included an analysis of personality on individual programming and whether the effect on performance of pairing up had anything to do with personality. Again, expertise and task complexity are stronger predictors than personality.

Therefore an introverted personality is a poor predictor of pair programming performance across the industry. She goes on to say:

In ethnographic studies focusing on personality issues and disruption in software engineering team collaboration, it was found that disruption is bad, but lack of debate (which is a mild form of disruption) is worse [Karn and Cowling 2006], [Karn and Cowling 2005]. It is argued that pairs or teams with personalities that are too alike will lead to lack of debate. This finds empirical confirmation in [Williams et al. 2006] and [Walle and Hannay 2009]. In particular, differences in Extraversion has the largest effect: pairs whose peers have different levels of Extraversion collaborate more intensely (that is, engage in more discussion) than those with more similar levels.

She is saying that a pair of extroverted and introverted personalities collaborate more strongly than a homogenous pair. To me, this is good evidence that introversion and extroversion have their place in modern software development teams across the industry, and both types of personality should be culturally valued for collaboration, not just extroverts, even at hyper-collaborative organisations such as the BBC.