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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Adding Volume AND Pan Control to Windows 7

How many times do you listen to sound on your PC and want to pan left or right? I do often enough to get tired of what is required to get to the "Balance" controls:

  1. Click the Speaker icon.
  2. Click Mixer (below the fader).
  3. Click the icon for the Device you're listening to.
  4. Click the Levels tab.
  5. Click the Balance button.
  6. Adjust the faders for "1" (Left) and "2" (Right).
Actually, having the individual settings can be helpful at times, but for quick pans, they're a pain.

Thanks to an Alan Henry post on Lifehacker, I learned of a small windows program, SimpleSndVol, that puts a new volume fader with a pan slider onto the task bar tray.

The download link on Alan's post has changed, and here's where to download the file as of this writing.

It's free, but donations are accepted.

After virus checking the file, install it -- and you'll end up with two volume controls -- the Windows one and the SimpleSndVol one (which may require clicking on the "Show hidden icons" up arrow to see).

To unhide SimpleSndVol and hide the Windows version:
  1. Windows Start button.
  2. Type "customize" in the search field.
  3. Click "Customize icons on the taskbar."
  4.  Set Volume to "Hide icon and notifications." It will still be available by clicking the "Show hidden icons" up arrow, and you may still want to use it.
  5. Set SimpleSndVol to Show icon and notifications. It will "stick" to the taskbar now.
  6. Click the "OK" button.
As for SimpleSndVol, here are my observations (this is for version SimpleSndVol-
  1. It works! To check it out, I opened the Windows Balance faders (you can click the "Mixer" link on SimpleSndVol and follow the steps at the top of this post to see them). Then I panned left and right, watching the Windows Balance sliders move.
  2. To jump to left, middle or right pan, the L, 0 and R below the slider will do the trick.
  3. Clicking to the left or right of the slider will result in a 10% change in the balance in that direction. [Strangely enough, if the slider is at extreme right or left, that same clicking results in a 9% change up to 27% where it then starts making 10% changes again.]
  4. The first time I right clicked the SimpleSndVol icon and selected "Settings," I received a .net error message. I chose to continue the program, clicked on "Settings" again, and it worked without an error.
  5. For me, using the center scroll of the mouse when over the SimpleSndVol icon was a very slow method of volume control. It's easier to click and open the control. I'm pretty sure this depended on my mouse settings.
  6. Middle clicking on the icon is a quick way to mute the sound.
  7. Right clicking the icon gives you the same access to sound settings that you have with the Windows Volume control.
  8. Some of the icons included with the program reflect the volume level without having to open the fader.
  9. The SimpleSndVol control minimizes milliseconds after you move the mouse off it. It would be nice if it stayed on the screen even with an errant move off the control.
I give it a thumbs up and have made a donation to the author.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Visiting the Past

I'm revisiting the game music that I wrote almost two decades ago. It's an attempt to get it to sound like I imagined it with "real" instruments -- hopefully keeping the feel/personality of the original.

Luckily, I kept the original MIDI files (and Sequencer Plus Gold .SNG files).

Unluckily, I cannot find the instrument banks I slaved over to create the earliest FM synth songs. Maybe I failed to save them. That would be the equivalent of saving a sequencer file today and twenty years later remembering that you didn't save the instrument plugins that create the actual instrument sounds. YIKES! Double YIKES if they're pure synthesized sounds that you designed yourself, tweaking forever to get them just right for your music.

These old song files are in directories based upon the name of the project producer or the project. I started with the A's, and the first was "Alan." That would be Alan Blum, and the project was "Major Stryker," a SHMUP or Shoot 'em Up -- just "shooter" back in the day.

The first of many lessons I learned when working on the first song was I saved the  .MID files "back then" as Type 0 files. The reason: software that translated the MID file to a file containing a stream of Adlib card FM synth data required a "one track" MID file. Yes, all the data was on ONE MIDI track.

Luckily, most sequencers intelligently separate the one MIDI track into individual tracks for each MIDI channel.
This is the Sequencer Plus Gold file for SUPRNOVA. FM synth cards had limited polyphony. If you used "Percussive" Mode, you were more limited in polyphony (max. notes on at one time). "Melodic" mode had more polyphony, so I created the percussion sounds I needed. Here, I'm limited to 9 note polyphony. I put each instrument sound on a different track. The hihat has two channels, one for closed and one for open. The programs ("Prg"") were patch numbers. This sound bank was created by tweaking the patch closest to the sound I was looking for. So whatever instrument was originally in patch 6 sounded somewhat like a Kick, and changing the patch parameters got it to sound "acceptable." Here the track names are visible because this file was saved as a SPGold .SNG file.

Many was the time that I had to cut out percussion notes because the resulting game music file was too big. It was good practice in deciding which notes of a song were more important to get the idea across.
Unluckily, the original track names are not saved in Type 0 files, so the tracks, even on modern sequencers, are named "1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ...."

How was I to know what instrument was where? I used Sequencer Plus Gold (thanks to DosBox) to make new Type 1 MIDI files, with data saved for each individual track, including the track names. Now I knew the instrument I was striving for on the FM synth card.

You may be thinking that all I had to do was look at the patch number and I could tell which instrument was on which track. The problem with that is I created my own instruments and put them in all sorts of different patch "slots."

This situation was much like today where you select an instrument VST and decide what channel it will respond to. Then you may tweak the instrument/effects settings. Luckily for all of us, most modern sequencers store all of that information in the song file. But, you'd better keep a copy of your plugins and the sequencer software you use -- in twenty years the standards may be completely different.

The first song (again in alphabetical order) is CRUISINA.SNG, last saved 7/10/1992. There is also CRUISING.SNG dated 10/13/1993.

The "A" at the end of CRUISINA, stood for AdLib. It was the sound card of the day (with Creative Labs strong on it's heels). The "G" at the end of CRUISING stood for General MIDI, a 1991 standard that was becoming main stream with computer cards in 1993.

In 1992, a PC file was still limited to eight alphanumeric characters, so a file name like "Cruising With Stryker.MID" wouldn't work. Thus the cryptic file names you may see for "old" files.

This song was one of the first to use my heavily "tweaked" FM instruments, especially the overdrive/distortion guitar, which went into harmonics at just the right time for the tempo of the music. Here's the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnPALu0E4YM

Here's a demo of the "real" (updated) version: https://soundcloud.com/bobbyprincemusic/cruising-with-stryker-demo

There's a certain feel to the original that the "real" one doesn't capture. Maybe it's because the music was written to the FM synthesized sounds?

Maybe it's the "warmth" of analog coming out of an early sound card?

I decided not to change the performance of the music in any way. Any "real" instrument performance is true to the original MIDI performance data. The biggest differences in the sounds are the drums and effects like reverb.

When I get more done on this project, I'll put some more "real" versions up on SoundCloud, with a post here about it.

The best music to each of you. Remember that Richard Rodgers wrote a song a day. While I'd love to hear the ones he closeted away, he'd probably turn over in his grave to know anyone ever heard any of them.

What would be your chances of having a Song of the Year if you wrote a song a day for a year and published your best seven?

Roland R-Mix Plugin

The most recent release of Cakewalk Sonar includes a plugin called "R-Mix." In short, it's a visual audio manipulation tool. It's like looking at sound as it's coming at you (as opposed to it scrolling by you from left to right).  It's great fun to roam a recording, choosing where in the stereo field to listen. It's like using a shotgun mike with an equalizer.

In the past I may have said that I learned to work with MIDI by taking songs apart and making backtracks. My brother was singing to backtracks at the time, but they were vocal removed tracks (using the LT Sound Vocal Remover that many of you may have seen heavily advertised in magazines "of the day"). Since vocal removal didn't work well on lots of records, there was still a need to record our own backtracks. The reason these records didn't "vocally remove" was the vocal remover would cut out any center track voices or instruments in the vocal range (usually the drums and bass). It had a low pass filter that would allow low frequencies on the center track to pass through, so you would get at least some bass and bass drum. And it wouldn't delete any reverb/echo outside of the center track.

It worked great on songs with only the lead singer in the center track with no effects. I remember the original "Layla" was one it worked perfectly on.

That said, R-Mix is vocal removal on steroids. You can create a rectangle or oval, size it and place it over the lead vocal, and adjust for maximum volume. Then you can reduce the volume of the selected area and bring up the volume of everything else. The result is vocal removal. You'll still have effects that may be outside your selection, but you can find a plugin for /reducing/removing reverb nowadays, too.

And speaking of backtrack recording, the hardest part of getting a backtrack right is hearing all the parts. With R-Mix it is MUCH easier. On many modern recordings, you can find a particular instrument and isolate it in the mix. I took some recordings I've done backtracks to in the past and heard things with R-Mix that I never heard listening to the whole mix. Such things as what effect is being used on an instrument, when the instrument is playing (in a muddy mix) and what the instrument is playing.

You can learnsome secrets of good mixing by slicing recordings up with R-Mix.