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Month: April 2010

My Podcasting Setup ~2010ver.~

It has been over a year since I last wrote about and shared how the magic of podcasting goes down at Casa de EX. A lot has changed since then, but I just have not gotten around to writing up a new version. Our buddies over at the Unofficial One Piece Podcast asked the other day what we were using for a mixer, and when I pointed over to that blog entry, I realized just how out-of-date it was!

So here we go. I am happy to present to you the ~2010ver.~ of “My Podcasting Setup“. As always, I do not claim to actually know what I am talking about. I am probably wrong with much of what I do, and writing about how I accomplish it is most likely only perpetuating bad habits and sharing mis-information.

Oh, well.

I have killed two computers over the course of doing the show for Daizenshuu EX. First I blew the sound card in our Shuttle, and then its power supply died. Both are easy fixes, but it just sits over there on the other desk because I have been too lazy to open it up. Once that went down, I shifted over to using Meri’s old desktop from ~2000/2001 as a secondary recording rig. I tossed Ubuntu on it, and as described in the prior article, I used it to line-out for a dedicated Skype track recording.

All that is old hat.

Over on the Mac, Jeff uses a great application called Übercaster to record us locally and any extra, isolated audio tracks (such as Skype, bumper music, etc.). I’m running a standard ol’ Windows XP install both on my desktop and my laptop, and I have gone with a little Skype plug-in called Call Graph. It just works. When running alongside Skype, it automatically records the entirety of a call once one begins, recording your own audio in the left channel, and the other side (be it a single person or a conference call) in the right channel, spitting out a stereo WAV (or MP3) the instant you conclude the call.

Near as I can tell, though, it only records at 11 kHz — even if you tell it to record a 44 kHz MP3, it still records an 11 kHz WAV which it then converts to a 44 kHz MP3. This… is mostly serviceable. When you have folks like Julian who are just running a standard Logitech headset, anyway, the frequency of the audio file is not really taking much more of a hit than it already is due to the hardware. When we are done recording, I take the WAV into Audacity, split the stereo audio track, delete the left channel (myself), tell the right channel (Julian) to act as mono, and export the new, entirely-isolated audio track. Voilà.

(If I am recording with someone who knows what they are doing, I sometimes just have them record locally on their own end and send me their final audio once we are done recording… though I always am recording a back-up just in case.)

What about my own, local track, though? That I do not allow Call Graph to handle — I still record in Audacity at my standard mono, 44 kHz dedicated audio track. The two tracks (my own local track + Skype track) are easy enough to line up in Audacity for editing later on, either through a “1, 2, 3, clap!” or just from doing this for five years and understanding how a conversation is supposed to sound.

I still use a combination of Levelator and Audacity’s built-in noise removal for my post-processing — nothing special there. I am also stuck in my own ways by using Adobe Premiere to line up the segments with their respective bumper music tracks for the final mixing and export. I just really like the block-based dragging and snapping for that final step, I guess.

With that in mind, though, let us turn back over to the hardware.

The driving force behind everything is still my Behringer Eurorack UB802 (~$50-60) mixer. It is a great, compact little guy with two XLR inputs, phantom power support, decent gain/volume control, plenty of line-in and out support, etc. The UB802 seems to go through phases of being available versus unavailable, but the standard Behringer 802 (~$60) is something I picked up for Jeff over the last holiday season, and it is essentially identical to my own.

The main difference these days is that I have indeed jumped over to using a USB device to grab out the audio, rather than running an analog RCA-to-1/8-inch line-in cable. The Behringer U-Control UCA-200 actually came with the (larger) mixer that I use at work. It is their standard pack-in version with mixers, but the stand-alone UCA-202 (~$30-35) is what you will typically see for purchase online. I had spoken before about how the device takes over as the entire sound device for the computer — for example, I was unable to listen to the audio I just recorded through my headphones while it was plugged in. Once I stopped being an idiot and looked around a bit, I found that I could tell Audacity to still use the internal sound card for playback and use the U-Control device for recording, allowing me the same convenient usage I had always experienced.

For any recording where we need more than two local microphones (such as a “Manga Review of Awesomeness” or something for vgconvos), I no longer daisy-chain the RadioShack mixer into the Behringer. Instead, I have Jeff bring over his 802 and daisy-chain that into my mixer. We use the same process of RCA cables going from “Tape Out” on his to “Tape In” on mine that would have been used from the old RadioShack mixer, but now it is done with higher-quality equipment. It still introduces extra analog noise that I would rather not have to deal with, however. I have my eyes set on the Mackie 1202-VLZ3 (~$300) mixer with its four XLR inputs and non-Behringer, genuinely-high-quality parts. Behringer stuff is “OK”, but I have had a few issues here and there with the mixers to the point where I probably will not buy their stuff again.

Over on the microphone side, things are still pretty much the same… with the exception of what holds it for me. I am personally still rocking the MXL 990 condenser microphone (~$50-70), though these days it is supported by a boom stand. I am fairly certain it is the Samson BL3 (~$30), due to it not coming with a mic clip… but I no longer have the box to double-check that. Whoops. Sorry. The MXL 990 is just a tad bit heavy for it, but adjusting the three-legged support and balance of the boom extension will grant you just the right placement for comfort and not-falling-over-ness.

The main reason that the microphone is hanging on its side is because I accidentally stripped the screw-tightening mechanism for the shockmount, and have not felt like spending the money for the replacement MXL-90 shockmount (~$35) just yet. When you can buy the microphone (which itself comes with a shockmount) for just a couple bucks more, it is difficult to build up the desire to spend money to replace one that is just hanging on its side and not entirely broken.

Meri is still rocking the Shure 8900 dynamic microphone ($50). It is quite the handy mic to have around, since its included XLR-to-1/8-inch audio cable plugs in to the video camera I use at work, giving me a choice of a either a lapel mic or a hand-held mic. I double-wind-screen for Meri since her “pphf” sounds are a little harsher than my own. She is also still rocking the RadioShack “Heavy Duty Microphone Stand with Cast-Iron Base” (~$30), though it may be time to upgrade her to the Samson boom stand — they are just so nice to have! Comfort galore!

I guess the last thing to address is live recording and broadcasting that we occasionally do. Lately we have been using Stickam for no particular reason above any other service. We tend to broadcast Lo-Fidelity live more than anything else, mainly because it is just the two of us in one local recording area, so anything that happens can be broadcast with no extra effort — everything is right there in one place. When you start tying in things like Skype streams… sure, it can be done, but it requires more effort than it is really worth for such a budget setup like our own. Live recordings typically have two computers: one is a standard podcasting station like any other show, and the second is usually my laptop running the webcam. Our mixers have the “Tape Out” / RCA output that we typically use to output to the computer, but there is also the “Main Out” — I run a variety of cables and cord adapters to get that 1/4-inch stereo output down to an 1/8-inch plug. This runs to the line-in on my laptop, mirroring the exact same sound that is otherwise heading out to another computer for the main podcast recording. Sure, there is some (negligible) extra noise being introduced/lost going through all those adapters, but since that particular stream of audio is exclusively going to the live broadcast (and not the archived version for editing/release), it is not that big of a deal.

The next upgrade is going to be the room in which we record. Since moving into the new house, all recording has been done up in our loft. This is where we keep the computers, the old TV, CDs, DVDs, etc. It is a fantastic location (minus all the cat destruction, like my poor chair), but it is in a very open area. Sound bounces all over the place. When we have any more than two people, it starts sounding very “airy” in the recording, both due to the number of people (and thus the number of mics to adjust and compensate for) and the voices bouncing along the ceiling and down to the living room.

We have a finished basement with several rooms. Right now, “the brown room” (which is the second room off the main area) is a disaster of storage space. Boxes, appliances, and assorted things of nothingness take up all the space. It is perfect for a little recording studio, though. It is just the right size, the walls are not tall, the door can be shut… lovely!

Our Wi-Fi reaches down there, and since an entire show can be done with just one computer, there is nothing stopping me now from cleaning up that space and creating a great little recording studio in my basement. I might even get some extra sound-proofing padding for the walls… can you imagine how hot looking that place is going to be?! Speaking of “hot”, that is another perk to setting up shop in the basement — heat rises, and our loft starts boiling in the summer. The basement? Cool as can be!

I think that more-or-less covers how everything is rolling right now. Does anyone have any questions about any aspect, or better yet, suggestions on ways to do things even better? Specific articles to read to bolster some mad audio skillz? I still consider myself a total audio n00b, though I think I have a couple other skills that I have picked up over the last couple years that at least helps put together some decent shows…!

“Rocket Knight Adventures”: Genius Level Design?

You are going to get a little bit of meta-material and genuine game analysis in a single post. That is awesome.

A few years back when I first pitched the idea of “vgconvos” to Andrew and Jeff, one of the first show concepts was to give the other person a somewhat-obscure game from your youth that was played extensively, allow them to play this game they otherwise had never heard of for somewhere between two weeks and a month, and then get back together to talk about it later on. This concept semi-evolved into the “Record Exchange” every nine-or-so episodes over on Lo-Fidelity, but it just never happened with video games. The main reason was that we are all simply at a point in our lives where we cannot guarantee that we will have the time to get together every month to do a podcast, never mind dedicate a couple weeks to a video game and then come back to also talk about it…!

It is still an incredibly worthwhile idea for a show, and one that has somewhat been done in a couple different ways, such as the “Backlog” or “Game Club” sessions on things like Rebel FM. I really wish it was something we could do on a regular basis, but it just cannot happen. Andrew and I even had a few games that we would have used to toss at each other (Boomer’s Adventure in ASMIK World from me, and Rocket Knight Adventures from Andrew). I just absolutely adore the idea of giving something (a video game, an album, whatever) that has such a deep meaning to you… or at least just some rose-tinted memories… over to someone else with zero familiarity and seeing how it holds up.

I have always kept the idea in the back of my head just in case something came along that would work out for the website. You know from reading our posts and listening to our shows that we are no strangers to diving back into older games, either just for the heck of it, or to legitimately see where this modern era of gaming all came from if we happened to miss a step along the way. You have seen me write about FPS games from ten years ago, and most recently, what many consider (myself among them now!) the best 16-bit Japanese RPG ever created. Sure, Andrew and Jeff may or may not have played some of those, but it was more a conversation with myself that you all happened to be able to peer in on.

This one is a little different. Not entirely, but a little bit.

I stumbled across a new store called Game Trader at the Quakerbridge Mall here in New Jersey. If you did not stop to look at some of the cases, it looked like any other generic GameStop-esque store… but then I saw the old video games! There was a splattering of the standard, big NES games and such, but one particular game caught my eye, and I walked out of the store pretty content with myself!

About $7 scored me a copy of Rocket Knight Adventures, a cartridge I have not seen sitting around on any retro-store shelves in quite some time. Remembering that it was a game Andrew would have potentially tossed my way, and also knowing it will soon be seeing another sequel/revival for modern download services, I snatched it up.

I am fairly sure I had never played the game before last weekend. Andrew and the rest of the Internet always spoke highly of it, so I settled in with the ol’ SDTV in the loft for some old-school gaming action. I would like to go on record as saying that my Genesis controller extension cable was one of the best purchases I ever made in the 1990s, and it was a nice help in getting my rear-end reaching to the couch instead of the floor.

I was expecting something like a cross between Sonic the Hedgehog with some of the other typical 1990s mascot platforming action all mixed in nicely with some Contra shootin’ and slashin’ (courtesy of Nobuya Nakazato)… and that is exactly what I got.

The enemies seemed a little sparse in some of the levels I reached, but there was a really nice balance of standard enemies, terrain obstacles, boss fights, and more. In fact, it seemed rather spastic in how often it would toss those different elements at me, and I could never really be sure how “far” I was into a level. I would be swimming and attacking enemies that shot scattering, blue lasers at me… only to find myself wading through a single screen of a terrain obstacle before I was then on another to the next area.

It felt as if the level designers all came up with interesting little ideas completely independent of one another and then hastily had to stick them all together toward the end of the design process. “Hey, you… you worked on a water level, right? Me, too. Let’s just put them next to each other! Oh, and put that mine cart level right after us.

The obligatory 1990s platformer mine cart level should have been obnoxious, but I found myself both cursing and laughing at it — much like a Mega Man game where part of the fun and challenge is remembering all of the nuances to avoid and jump over, I had a genuinely good time dying, instantly repeating the level, and getting just a tad bit further each time.

What really blew me away, and what I will talk about with anyone who will listen, was — yet again — another obligatory stage for a 1990s platformer: the lava stage. The only enemy is the lava that continuously rises and falls, giving you ample opportunity to run across to the next ledge that places you just out of reach. If you are paying attention, the game gives you an immediate hint at where this level is going… but for first-time players who are not being particularly observant (like me!), a tiny bout of confusion followed by the “Aaaaaaaaa-HAH!” light bulb moment is what follows.

You soon reach a point in the level where the overhang begins to obscure your vision of the ledges in front of you, eventually blinding you completely. How on Earth are you supposed to get across?! Impatient players may charge up Sparkster’s flying attack, used on prior levels to bounce around and over top high ledges. If you simply take a moment to analyze what the game presents to you, its genius soon makes itself apparent.

It seems so simple, but I cannot think of a way to describe it other than it “blew me away”. Much like Andrew and I have discussed about Sonic games (specifically Sonic 2), you are forced to slow your ass down and actually analyze your surroundings. Without paying attention to the reflections in the lava, which is shown as soon as you start the level (there is that genius game design at work), it would be impossible to progress through the level.

You have all the tools at your disposal, and the game hands them to you in bits and pieces as you need them — it is the platformer equivalent of something like the typical Zelda game design, where with each new weapon or tool you think back to areas that were previously inaccessible.

Kudos to Rocket Knight Adventures for impressing me seventeen years after its original release. Now if only there were more tunes in the game… goodness, does that music get repetitive and over-used…

Yes, one little aspect of one stage in an old video game prompted me to write a blog entry. That is just how I roll, folks. Fun little things that I notice and care not if anyone else gives a rat’s ass about is what drives my Internet content creation. I cannot be the only one, though, right…?

How about you all? Is Rocket Knight Adventures a game you also hold in high regard? Was this a game worthy of our original podcast idea as Andrew suggested? Am I crazy for wanting to write about it just because of a silly lava level?

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