What’s in my bag? (start of 2018)

I recently discovered WordPress main-man Matt Mullenweg’s “what’s in my bag” posts (here is Matt’s 2017 bag-roster), and the various folk online inspired by him to provide their own accounts. My wife keeps asking me why I feel the need to carry so many gadgets, leads and other “clobber” around, although she is honest enough to be grateful when she needs a phone-charge and invariably hasn’t brought her own kit 😛

Photo of my bag and its contents (start of 2018)
My bag and its contents (start of 2018)

It will become quite clear that I like my gadgets (or “toys”, as I can hear my better-half calling them), so let me waste no more time, and get you introduced…

The bag itself

Photo of Osprey bag
Osprey bag

I was carrying around one of two bags I’d had for years, that were looking increasingly dog-eared. That isn’t a big concern for me, but my wife thinks differently, and one day a year or so ago, she insisted on finding me a new bag that would look less student-y and hopefully last a long time. We visited an Osprey outlet, where I chose this one—it has multiple compartments and pockets, as well as a “divider” in the main area inside.To my wife’s puzzlement, I do tend to keep quite a few items in this bag, but it’s so well-made it can hold them whilst somehow not looking overly “stuffed” (to my eyes, at least). I wonder if there’s some kind of Mary Poppins thing going down in there.

I also picked up an inexpensive “cable organiser” from Amazon UK, which does a very serviceable job of keeping my various leads and adapters (USB, HDMI, etc.) together, as well as a few of the items below, for a silly price. (See below for the contents.) As and when it falls apart, I’d probably just buy another one to replace it.

Laptop/tablet

Photo of ASUS Chromebook Flip C100PA, closed
ASUS Chromebook Flip C100PA

My main computer out of the house is… well, both of these in one: an Asus Chromebook Flip C100PA. A hybrid of a laptop and a tablet, this machine can be used either as a “regular” laptop, or “flipped around” so that the keyboard is folded against the back of the screen, turning it into a tablet. (For that matter, there’s also a “tent” mode, halfway between the two.)

I’m quite happy with Chrome OS, as it does pretty much everything I really need from a computer in most situations (and for the rest, there’s my iPhone and Raspberry Pi Zero W—see below). Moreover, as someone who used an Asus Eee 701SD (the original “netbook”, with a 7” display) for a number of years, I find the Chromebook Flip C100PA’s extra-small size (10.1”) a benefit rather than a drawback, not least because it fits snugly into the gadget bag. For what it’s worth: I also love the Flip’s looks—stylish aluminium, like a baby MacBook. I don’t have to try hard, to imagine this machine as an Apple-made product (running iOS?).

I also picked up a Neoprene “sleeve” to give the Flip a bit of extra protection inside the bag, as I want this little fella to last.

Mobile phone

My Apple iPhone 6S, which isn’t shown in the group portrait above, largely because I was using it to take all the photos here. The 6S does all the usual smartphone-y things you might expect, and I also use it as my ultra-portable music-production/recording studio, though that’s another (and long) story…

USB mains charger

Photo of Caseflex 6-port USB charger
Caseflex 6-port USB charger

As every gadget-fan is painfully aware, you can never have enough USB charging ports (especially if you are away from home with your family, and the members all need their phones re-powering).

I was fortunate enough to pick up a Caseflex 10A/50W six-port USB mains charger whilst Amazon UK was selling them. It’s a great charger for various reasons: it feels solid and well-made, and its six “smart-sensing” ports can give out up to 10A between them, which is enough for all the USB devices I carry around (and a couple more besides).

Moreover, the charger is dual-voltage (240V/110V), and the mains power connection uses a standard two-pin socket for easy swapping of cables. This means the charger can be used in practically any country with mains electricity—it served us well on our last family trip to South Korea, where we only needed the one charger for all our USB-powered devices.

Power bank

Photo of EasyAcc 20000mAh USB power bank
EasyAcc 20000mAh USB power bank

Sometimes, though, you’ll be away from a handy mains socket, and prior to our last trip to Seoul (where I knew my family would need phone-charging on a long day out), I picked up this EasyAcc 20000mAh power bank with four USB ports. This particular behemoth weighs nearly half a kilo, but as it can charge an average iPhone around ten times over, it has proven its worth to us on plenty of occasions.

Normally, a 20000mAh battery would take an eternity to charge over USB… so the EasyAcc has a rare ace up its sleeve, or rather two: a 4A pair of micro-USB input ports. If you have a USB mains charger with multiple ports—with each capable of delivering over 2A—the EasyAcc can be charged from zero to full power using both charging inputs, in around six hours. Fortunately, the Caseflex (above) can do this without breaking a sweat.

Travel router

Photo of travel router, hard drive and Raspberry Pi Zero W
Travel router, hard drive and Raspberry Pi Zero W

As a kind of networking “Swiss army knife”, I think the HooToo TripMate Mini is ideal for me. It has a dizzying range of features, including network-connection sharing and bridging (Ethernet and wireless), a 6000mAh battery for use as a power bank, network-attached storage (NAS) functionality (via MicroSD and USB mass storage) and file and media servers. All this comes in a device barely larger than a box of matches, which fits comfortably into my cable organiser.

Unfortunately, it looks as if the TripMate Mini has been discontinued, and no other HooToo travel router offers quite as many options. The TripMate Versatile matches most of the Mini’s features, and adds a couple more (a higher-capacity internal battery; the ability to use a USB hub), but it is considerably larger in size and lacks a built-in MicroSD card slot.

Data storage

Photo of USB hub, hard drive, MicroSD card and USB flash drive
USB hub, hard drive, MicroSD card and USB flash drive

Unsurprisingly, I have a few options when it comes to ferrying files around with me…

The main storage device I use on the move, is a Toshiba Canvio Basics 500GB USB3 hard drive. I could’ve bought a higher-capacity model, but my budget at the time was pretty tight, and I wanted to format it with exFAT to facilitate using the drive with as many devices as possible. I can either plug it straight into the Chromebook if I need extra speed, or if I want to share its contents with my other devices, I connect the drive to the TripMate Mini. (Interesting technical aside: when unmounting the hard drive, the TripMate sends it a “spin down” command—which our Mac does, but which the Chromebook (like Windows PCs) doesn’t.)

For those moments when a USB flash-drive is the best option, I keep an 8GB PNY metal “stick” on my keyring (not in the bag, but go with it here). I also have a 32GB Class 10 Sandisk Ultra MicroSDXC card, which depending on circumstances I slot into either my Chromebook, the TripMate (it has a built-in MicroSD card slot for sharing the card’s contents between the router’s users), or the tasteful lime-green USB SD/MicroSD card-reader I picked up from Poundland (which works fine).

USB hub

This is particularly useful with the Chromebook Flip, which packs just two USB2 ports (and you always “need” more than you have). I bought this hub before the Chromebook—but when I was pretty sure the latter would be mine soon—as I thought the design of the hub matched the all-aluminium Flip quite nicely. (The small but bright LED activity indicator lights on the Chromebook and the hub look remarkably similar too.)

Handily, the hub also includes an Ethernet port, for those moments when a Chromebook could benefit from a wired network link (and the travel router isn’t a better option, or isn’t working, or whatever).

Raspberry Pi Zero W

Remember earlier, how I said I could do most of what I wanted on a computer with a Chromebook? Well… for the times when “most” comes into play, there’s my Raspberry Pi Zero W. I use it mainly for document-processing and conversion (usually from Markdown to LaTeX, PDF and OpenDocument) with pandoc, converting audio to FLAC or MP3, and anything else where a Linux “box” would come in handy, especially if it could fit in a (large) matchbox.

Hang on, though… that’s an odd-looking RasPi? In a 3D-printed “dongle” enclosure… with a full-size USB plug on one end? Yes: “zero” has a ZeroStem board soldered onto it, which turns the Pi into an Ethernet USB “gadget”, as well as allowing USB powering of the machine. Sadly, the Chromebook doesn’t support Ethernet USB “gadgets” (nor, apparently, Zeroconf or mDNS), so I generally power the Zero from the USB charger (or power bank), fire up the travel router and let the Zero auto-connect to WiFi. It’s a handy way to extend my computing options, especially when the Zero is so easily transportable.

Cables and adapters

Photo of assorted computing adapters
A gathering of adapters

S*d’s Law Of Connectivity states that the one cable or connector you need in a tight spot, is the one you left at home that day (or never had in the first place). I try and ensure I have at least one of every type of cable I know I’ll need, and where possible, two (or even more) of the likes of micro-USB leads. (Still wondering why I got the aforementioned cable-organiser?)

At time of writing, I keep four (!) micro-USBs of various lengths (including one retractable) in the bag, as I regularly get asked if I have a spare. I also pack a Belkin retractable Ethernet lead, USB2 and USB3 extension cables, an HDMI-to-micro-HDMI lead (for the Chromebook), an AmazonBasics “braided” Lightning-USB cable, an Apple USB-Lightning “camera connection” adapter, a USB OTG lead for the Raspberry Pi Zero, a Portapow USB “Smart Charge”/data-blocker (or “USB condom” (!)) and a brace of USB and HDMI couplers. If I suspect I may need it, I can throw in the ChampSun HDMI-to-VGA adapter I normally use for our ancient Philips TFT monitor.

I don’t usually get “caught out” with that lot in the bag, but if I’m taking a flight, you can understand why I put most of it in the hold luggage…

Headphones

Photo of MPow H8 Bluetooth headphones on top of carrying case
MPow H8 Bluetooth headphones

For Christmas 2017, a family member made it possible for me to land some “budget” active noise-cancelling Bluetooth phones from Amazon UK (MPow H8). I know it’s almost a tradition for these “bag-tours” to include a “reassuringly expensive” set of Bose or Sennheiser cans, but I have neither the funds nor the justification, and these MPow phones sound and work fine for me.

At time of writing, I still have to find a good testing-ground to try out the noise cancellation, but the “passive” (over-ear) type does a pretty good job on its own. I think I’m going to need a bigger bag to accommodate the phones, especially in their rather spacious carrying case!

Handheld monopod

Yes, I own a “selfie-stick”. So neeeeerrr 😛 Seriously: I find this another “nice to have on you” item, and it takes less space in the bag than one might expect.

Out of the three types of stick you generally find out there (no shutter-control; shutter-control that uses your phone’s headphone-jack; shutter-control via built-in Bluetooth), I wanted a Bluetooth one. The SAMAR stick I bought, offers the best balance of functionality and low-price that I have yet found. I just have to remember to charge it up every now and then, to ensure it works when I actually need it.

The “substitutes’ bench”

(or, the items I might add to my “gadget-armoury” as and when needed…)

Allocacoc PowerCube

I admit it: I partly bought a PowerCube USB because I thought it looked like a “cool” concept… but also because I’d been watching out for some time, for a reasonably “compact” multi-socket adapter with USB charging ports, for travelling with. You know the drill: you get on a train or coach with power-sockets by the seats, only to find that the fellow-traveller next to you wants to use it as well…

My PowerCube is a four-UK-socket (Type G, BS 1363) model with two USB ports (putting out a total of 2.1A between them), so providing the devices aren’t too “thirsty”, the built-in fuse shouldn’t pop. This PowerCube also comes with four swappable mains input plugs, for the four most common mains electric sockets you’ll find around the world. The ‘Cube’s internal power connection is a 3-pin IEC (“kettle-lead”) plug/socket, so I can use an IEC cable to turn the adapter into an extension lead. (This is actually a sound idea for any plug/socket less robust than the UK type—that is, most of them—as plugging this beast straight into a US wall-outlet is a likely recipe for bent/broken plug pins.)

The main reason I don’t generally carry the PowerCube around in my bag: it’s just too big! At nearly 10cm along every edge, the ‘Cube is a chunky creature, so it either needs to go in a second bag, or better still, a suitcase. Still very useful, though—for travelling, and for avoiding awkward moments on a train or coach…

Video-streamer

Although I carry an HDMI cable for my Chromebook, sometimes it’s preferable to plug in a video-streamer device to a TV in a hotel room (where they make this feasible, naturally). We use both a Chromecast (the “hockey-puck” version) and a 2014-edition Roku Streaming Stick at home, and both are set up to connect to the travel router for their networking needs.

Well, that’s the theory. In practice, I’ve had lots of trouble getting either device to co-operate with the TripMate when we’re out of the house. Either they don’t “see” the WiFi hotspot the TripMate generates, or (more with the Chromecast) they complain they can’t get on the Internet, even when other devices on the TripMate LAN can do so. Weird how everything seems to work properly when I test it all at home?

Bluetooth folding keyboard

Believe it or not, I used this eSYNiC Bluetooth keyboard a lot before I got my Chromebook—basically, turning my iPhone into a jury-rigged laptop substitute. It sees less use now, though if I have to do a lot of message-typing on the iPhone (and/or I really have to “travel light”), the keyboard is handy to have around. It is also fairly compact, although as the bag feels increasingly full these days, I don’t always pack the keyboard unless I know I really need it.

And finally…

…the odds and ends which you can see in the photo at the top, but I haven’t covered yet:

  • A debit-card reader from my bank. I try and keep one on me, in case I have to set up a transfer to someone I haven’t transferred to before. Maybe one day, their iPhone app might be able to authenticate me (via TouchID, perhaps?), but for now, I’ll need this device sometime.
  • Cheap USB optical mouse, for those (rare) occasions when the Chromebook’s touchpad “gets in the way”.
  • My work gate-pass.
  • Nail-clippers (and I keep this to myself…).
  • Two pens: a rather battered Parker which needs a new refill, and a backup which might be a bit more reliable at the moment.

And one item I purchased just after taking the “group shot” at the top of this post: an IKEA JANSJÖ USB LED lamp, for those moments when the Chromebook could do with a light on the keyboard.

Phew…

Now I come to write it all down: the poor old Osprey is a bit stuffed these days! I think I need to try and “rationalise” what I carry around with me on a regular basis, as much for the state of my back as anything else. At least I have a pretty good idea of what’s actually in the bag now.

I’m weighing up (pun semi-intended) whether to invest in a backpack at some point, as there are times when I’ll want to carry more than the poor old Osprey can squeeze in. Stay tuned…

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Testing Markdown publishing from Byword

Apologies for having been somewhat quiet here for a couple of months—I’ve had plenty to keep me occupied, but if you’re really keen to keep up with what I’m up to, my Twitter feed is probably the most active of my online presences at the moment.

Screenshot of Byword for iPhone
Editing a Markdown document in Byword (iPhone)
For that matter: this won’t perhaps be the most informative of blog posts, as its primary purpose is to test out publishing to WordPress via the Byword app for iPhone, in which I wrote this post. (The Bluetooth keyboard is officially one of my favourite gadgets.)

Yes, dear reader: I have belatedly discovered Markdown, the streamlined formatting system for writing in plain text. In combination with the “Swiss army-knife” document converter Pandoc, I think I may have discovered my ideal document-preparation system… but others have written more in-depth on that particular topic, and I won’t for now. I’m too busy learning the ropes!

So, I’m just going to try publishing this, and see how things pan out… I’ll be back shortly with something that’s a bit less of a technical test!

Post-publish note: I noticed a few “quirks” of publishing a Markdown document from Byword to WordPress, which I’ve had to tidy up before actually making this post public. I’ll go back and check that the problems were not down to my inexperience and/or errors, before I give any further details. For now, though, I’ll just say “it works”!

Post-post publish note: OK, I’ll let you in on one of the “quirks”… which as I feared, was down to my inexperience with Markdown. You can actually see the problem in the screenshot earlier: I’d hand-coded the links incorrectly. In Markdown, the syntax for a link is as follows:

[Link text](http://siteyouwanttolinkto.com/)

Whereas Muggins Here had typed:

[http://siteyouwanttolinkto.com/](Link text)

Users of Byword may be asking at this point: “why did you hand-code, instead of using Byword’s ‘shortcut’ buttons to create the link?” Good question, with a simple answer: if you’re using a Bluetooth keyboard, Byword hides the row of Markdown formatting buttons (and, for that matter, doesn’t let you get to the menu at the top of the screen either, until you turn off the BT keyboard, but that’s another story).

I’ll share a couple more tips for Byword-WordPress co-existence another time, once I’ve written them up!

Reflections on FAWM 2016

If you follow my Twitter feed (and/or my other social-media outlets), and have a slightly lengthy memory (sorry, I’ve had a lot on…) you will probably be aware that during February I participated in FAWM (February Album Writing Month).

For the uninitiated, this is an Internet “challenge” where hundreds of intrepid musicians, composers and lyricists set out to write and record, from scratch, 14 songs in 28 days. It sounds either crazy or impossible (or both!), but it can be done: as long as you accept that you’re highly unlikely to pen 14 masterpieces, FAWM can be an exhilarating and satisfying experience, and can lead participants to write material that otherwise might well not exist.

2016 was my fourth FAWM (if you count 2015, which I bailed out of after two songs due to particularly pressing family commitments), and you can hear the outputs from 2013 and 2014 as the albums “Homecooked” and “Conditions Apply”, at my Bandcamp page.

And now… I can add “Blackbirds Banquet: Songs From FAWM 2016” to that list!

To cut a long story short: 2016 was, I feel, my most “successful” FAWM yet. In composition terms, as in previous challenges, my creations run a pretty wide gamut of musical styles:

  • Power-pop/rock (“The 90s Called”, “Turnaround”);
  • 50s/60s-flavoured (“Lunchtime”, “So It’s Friday”)
  • Instrumentals (“62nd Street”, “Seventh Planet”, “Snow Moon Waltz”, “Father Time Reflects”);
  • Guitar-based singer-songwriter-type material (“Where Letters Keep”, “Odd Love Song”, “Running On The Spot”);
  • Americana (“Helmsman”);
  • Synthpop (“Outside The Space”);
  • Spoof vintage “music-hall” (“Going To The Tearooms”)!

There are a couple of differences this year, it seems to me. I think the studio-recording/engineering course I went on last autumn has really helped my recording, especially on the mixing side of things. This may be clearest with the rockier and up-tempo songs; “The 90s Called” and “Turnaround” are probably the hardest I’ve “rocked” in my recording “career”, and I feel I was able to beef up the overall sound with these songs, better than I could have done before.

Moreover, this FAWM has seen me produce no less than four instrumentals, the most I’ve contributed since starting the challenge in 2013. I always include a couple of wordless pieces in these projects, but I basically found lyric-writing pretty difficult this year (although I’m generally happy with what I did write).

In recording terms, this FAWM has been less reliant (at least in terms of sound) on electronica, with more emphasis on perhaps more “conventional” instrumentation. This is partly misleading: I actually made increased use of the GarageBand app for iPad, particularly driven by the addition of the Drummer feature (migrated from Logic Pro X), which can be heard on five of the songs. Two of these tracks began life on Apple’s new Music Memos app, which auto-creates drums and bass parts from what you play into the app. The musical styles may appear less electronic, but there is plenty of technology behind the scenes!

There’s also been an upgrade on the recording-hardware front: at the start of this FAWM, I acquired a Line6 Sonic Port VX, a combined recording-interface and condenser-microphone “package”.With the exception of the odd overdub on the Mac, the audio-recording was done on iPad and iPhone via the VX, making this my first FAWM to be recorded at least partly at 24-bit quality. (On iDevices, I’m not sure GarageBand can record 24-bit, but the songs I laid down in Multitrack DAW and Audioshare were set that way.)

So yes, overall I feel this has turned out to be my most “successful” FAWM yet, both in terms of composition and recording. Perhaps I “flagged” a bit in the last quarter or so, but even then I think the quality more or less held up.

I hope you can judge for yourselves – “Blackbirds Banquet” is now available for purchase and download from Bandcamp. This time, I can say unreservedly: I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it!

Review: Sonuus i2M Musicport

Readers of my blog may recall a recent post, where I lamented the apparent lack of options for a portable, affordable and usable MIDI-guitar solution

One surprising omission from my list, was—ironically—a product which I was already aware of. Sonuus (creators of the G2M guitar/pitch-to-MIDI converter app for iOS, which I basically wrote was the “least worst” such app I’d tried!) are perhaps better-known for their hardware guitar-to-MIDI interfaces, such as the G2M and B2M. In 2011, they launched a USB-based version, the i2M Musicport, which combined pitch-to-MIDI with an audio interface, into a single device.

I’m not quite sure why I didn’t consider the i2M in my earlier article. I think it is most likely because until recently, the device was comparatively expensive—around £110 in most UK online retailers that stocked it—and therefore outside my pretty threadbare budget. However, a couple of months ago, Sonuus’ own online store cut the price on the i2M quite dramatically, to £69, which certainly grabbed my attention. Then, last month, when I spotted a Sonuus ad on Facebook, promoting a short-time extra-special offer for an i2M for £50… 🙂

Out of the box

The i2M package is no whopper, coming in a small cardboard box containing just the i2M, a quick-start guide and a USB Type A-to-Type B cable (i.e. the type you’d usually use with a USB printer). A small nitpick at this stage: because it has to be folded into the i2M’s pretty cramped packaging, the USB cable has some rather nasty kinks in it. The lead looks quite solid, and so I am not that concerned about whether the kinks would damage the wires inside, but the cable looks a bit of a mess once unfolded. I hope it will straighten out given time, but in the meantime I bought a retractable USB A-to-B lead, which fits more easily in the guitar gig-bag. Your mileage (and concerns about quality) may vary.

The Type A end of the USB cable connects to your computer, and the Type B plugs into one end of the i2M, which looks like a cuboid black box just under an inch square (with angled-off edges) and about 3-4 inches long. The other end of the i2M sports a quarter-inch jack socket; no prizes for guessing that this is where one end of your guitar cable goes 😉

In other words, the i2M bears a physical resemblance to some other compact digital guitar interfaces on the market, such as IK Multimedia’s iRig HD and (in size and rough shape) Apogee’s JAM). Although the i2M, until recently, cost more than most of these devices, Sonuus’ own recent special offers on the i2M have brought the price down to rough parity, meaning that at time of writing at least, Sonuus’ offering is well worth a look—particularly, with the extra special trick it has up its sleeve…

The i2M is class-compliant both as a MIDI and audio interface over USB, meaning that it is “plug-and-play” on Mac (I won’t be covering Windows, as I don’t own a WinPC). If you register your i2M at the Sonuus website, you can then download a Mac or Windows app which will let you configure the settings on the i2M, and save “patches” for different instruments or playing styles. There’s also a firmware updater app for keeping your i2M abreast of Sonuus’ latest software improvements for their device, though in most cases I’ve found this redundant, as you can update the firmware directly from the aforementioned i2M editor. (If I were being really “picky”, I can think of at least one other platform that I wish these apps were available for… but fortunately we have a Mac at home, so I can live with things as they stand.)

In this review, I want to look at how the i2M works with a platform which I believe it was not specifically designed to support, but thanks to its class-compliance, it does anyway: iOS, and in particular, the iPad.

i2M and the iPad

Photo of Ministar Testar guitar, iPad and Sonuus i2M
Ministar Testar, iPad and Sonuus i2M

I’m not going to write a “primer” for music-production on Apple iOS devices here, but I’ll “frontload” the good news: the i2M works quite happily with the iPhone and iPad. Owners of these machines will need Apple’s USB-Lightning “camera adapter” on the “computer” end of the USB cable, to connect the i2M and the iDevice. However, I’d hazard a guess that musicians using an iOS machine for recording and the like, are likely to have invested in this adapter already. (If not, a nugget of advice: invest the money and get the actual Apple USB-Lightning adapter. Just trust me on this.)

“Seasoned” iOS musicians may well be asking at this point: does the i2M need a powered USB hub between it and the iDevice? (Many USB audio and MIDI devices do, as the iPhone and iPad often can’t deliver enough power to the device to make it work, so a powered USB hub has to be used.) Good news: no powered hub is required—the iDevice recognises and powers the i2M with no trouble whatsoever. This means you can be “off-grid” with your iPad, i2M and instrument, and still be able to record even if there’s no power-socket within reach.

So, connect your devices in this order:

  • Instrument
  • i2M
  • USB cable
  • USB-Lightning adapter
  • iPad

If all is well, the grey “Sonuus” logo along one “face” of the i2M glows red, then bright-green or orange (I like that, myself), and you’re ready to go. The iPad recognises the i2M as both a CoreMIDI and CoreAudio device—I checked the available interfaces in Multitrack DAW (audio) and MIDI Monitor (MIDI), and “i2M Musicport” showed up in both. You do not have to use both of these if you don’t want or need to—the i2M can act as a standalone audio or MIDI interface, or both in tandem.

A note in passing about the glowing “Sonuus” logo: this is not just for cosmetic purposes, but informational. The colour of the logo, and whether it is flashing or not, means the following:

  • Green (steady): MIDI settings patch 1
  • Green (flashing): MIDI settings patch 2
  • Orange (steady): MIDI settings patch 3
  • Orange (flashing): MIDI settings patch 4
  • Red (when playing instrument): Input level too high (clip)

I understand that “continuous red” indicates a problem with the i2M, but thankfully haven’t encountered this yet!

The i2M can store a wide range of customised settings to suit your MIDI-guitar playing—I don’t have room to explain these options in depth, but they encompass the likes of pitch-bend, transpose, MIDI channel, program-change and continuous-controller (CC) messages, and so on. These settings can be organised via the aforementioned editor application into four “patches”, or combinations of settings—these patches are grouped into two banks of two (“green”, or 1 and 2, and “orange”, or 3 and 4). I have set up my patches as follows:

  1. Un-transposed with no pitch-bend
  2. Un-transposed with pitch-bend (i.e. for soloing)
  3. Transposed down one octave, no pitch-bend (for playing synth-bass parts from guitar)
  4. Optimised for playing MIDI from bass guitar (rarely used)

You have a few options for switching patches on the i2M. One is the small button to the bottom-left of the “Sonuus” logo; this has a quirky mode of operation, but easy to get the hang of. A short press of the button will toggle between patches 1 and 2 (green), or 3 and 4 (orange), depending on which bank (green or orange) you are currently “in”. To switch banks, hold down the button for two seconds, or until the light changes colour from green to orange (or vice versa). This sounds confusing, but I find it helps if you think of the patches/banks as a 2×2 grid:

1 2
3 4

If this approach strikes you as a bit “fiddly”, you can also switch patches on the i2M via MIDI program-change messages. You can set a program-change ID number for a patch using the editor application, and send these messages to the i2M either from the editor itself (if the i2M is connected to the same computer running the editor), or from another MIDI sequencer or device connected to the same computer.

One other MIDI CC message the i2M can respond to, is “hold/sustain”, which means you could use a sustain-pedal to “hold” notes once played from the i2M. I find this option almost indispensable with my Roland MIDI-guitar setup, so it is welcome to see Sonuus implement it with the i2M. The only catch is that the sustain-pedal needs to be connected to a device which will actually send out the MIDI “hold” message. A keyboard is the obvious candidate… except I’m unlikely to have one when using the i2M, in which case a “pedal-to-MIDI” interface would be ideal. I’ve only found one such device—the MIDI Expression, which costs about £30 and can be ordered online from the US—so add that to my wishlist for the New Year 🙂

In use

I thought I would have a go at creating a “demo” track, to show what the i2M is capable of “out of the box”. At time of writing, I recently participated in NaSoAlMo 2014, and for my album for this challenge, I wanted a little instrumental interlude to go roughly at the halfway point of the track sequence.

And here it is:

“Fog On The Teign” (if I need to, I’ll explain the pun another time…) was recorded, mixed and mastered entirely on an iPad, with my Ministar Testar electric “travel guitar” and the i2M. With one exception, all the tracks in the piece are either electric guitar parts recorded via the i2M as an audio interface, or MIDI instrument apps triggered via MIDI messages from the i2M. Here’s the full run-down:

  • Lead and accompaniment electric guitars, played through BIAS and JamUp Pro XT (amp-simulator/FX apps) respectively;
  • Flute and strings Mellotrons (guitar and i2M, triggering Super Manetron – the flute ‘Tron was recorded simultaneously with the lead guitar, the i2M doing “double-duty”!);
  • Bass synth (iFretless Bass, “played” by the guitar and i2M);
  • Organ (Galileo, triggered via SoundPrism Pro (and Galileo’s own onscreen keyboard for the coda). I couldn’t use the guitar and i2M for this part, as the part involves chords and the i2M is monophonic.)

Bearing in mind that at this point, I hadn’t started adjusting any of the i2M’s settings to suit my needs, I think the device really did a pretty good job with regard to the MIDI-tracking. Admittedly, the MIDI parts are not that complex in this piece, and I was taking care to play as “cleanly” as I could, but there are only a couple of minor “glitch” notes in the MIDI tracks, and I left them in for the sake of “honesty” in this demo (not that I could’ve removed them anyway, as these are audio-recordings and not MIDI sequences). No prizes for finding them all… 🙂

Getting the best MIDI tracking

It’s quite common for guitarists to try MIDI-guitar systems, who then find the results are perhaps not what they were hoping for. I should mention at this stage, that I have owned a Roland-based MIDI guitar “rig” (a GI-10 guitar-MIDI converter, and Steinberger guitar with Roland GK2 divided pickup) since the late-1990s, so I feel I have an above-average level of experience with “guitar-synths”. This means I have learned a few “tricks” which help me avoid some of the pitfalls (one of which being, that playing a guitar synth like a regular guitar can lead to some undesired sonic-effects).

I’m not going to do a detailed side-by-side comparison of my Roland GI-10 and Sonuus i2M here, for various reasons—mostly, because of the considerable difference in price. A Roland setup, for example, requires a guitar with a dedicated Roland GK pickup system; the pickup alone costs more than the Sonuus i2M, and the current Roland guitar-synth unit, the GR-55, will not leave you with much change from £500.

With all the dedicated hardware, even my twenty-year-old GI-10 and Roland GK-equipped Steinberger provides more advanced MIDI capabilities than the Sonuus (the Roland kit is polyphonic, and in many cases tracks more accurately), but I’d say that such a comparison is unfair. The Sonuus has no dedicated pickup to assist it, but instead has to “listen” to a regular guitar signal—with all the potential interference that may carry with it—and parse relevant musical information from this signal with as little delay as possible.

With the above in mind, I must say I have been very impressed with the Sonuus i2M’s MIDI-tracking. It helps if you can give the i2M as clean a guitar-signal as possible—select the neck pickup (if the guitar has one); tone control down to zero (to reduce any harmonics which might “confuse” the i2M); mute unplayed strings where you can (or use a string-dampener such as the Buznut); and so on—and remember that the i2M is monophonic, so don’t feed it double/triple-stops, chords and the like, unless you’re seeking avant-garde effects (or just confused silence!).

Alternatives

In terms of alternatives: in the price-range of Sonuus’ products (particularly with their recent, extremely generous offers), there aren’t really any. As mentioned, a Roland GR55 and GK3 pickup would cost around ten times the amount I picked up my i2M for—on that measure, the GK3 on its own would set you back about twice as much. The Fishman TriplePlay MIDI guitar system (at around £350-400 in the UK at this time) is cheaper, but not by much—this and a Roland setup are technically superior to the i2M, but with the price differential I’d expect this.

From there, the only alternatives at anything approaching the price of the i2M, might be MIDI “guitar-type” controllers like the You Rock Guitar and JamStik, and they’re still around the £200 mark. They have their advantages, but if you want to play “regular” guitar via a hardware interface and control MIDI instruments with it, at the price of the i2M the only alternative is probably a digital guitar input (such as iRig HD; Apogee JAM; Fender SLIDE; Peavey AmpKit HD and so on), coupled with a pitch-MIDI converter app on the iDevice. There are plenty of them, but as I’ve written, many are simply awful, to the point of being unusable (Sonuus’ own G2M app, ironically, being the “least-worst” in my anecdotal experience).

In fairness, it should be mentioned that most of the other digital guitar interfaces available have iOS device cables included in the package, and many of them add further features such as 24-bit recording. Furthermore, the i2M’s audio capability is “only” 16-bit, so guitarists who know they require a 24-bit recording device, should be aware of this. (It’s not currently a concern for me personally, at least with the recording I tend to do.)

Summing up

So, after all the above: can I recommend the Sonuus i2M Musicport?

If your use-scenario is similar to mine (go-anywhere-capable guitar-recording, with monophonic MIDI-playing capability, with guitar and iPad/iPhone): most definitely. As long as you are aware of its limitations—single-note MIDI; the need to adapt your playing for best results (as with most MIDI-guitar solutions); 16-bit audio—and these are not show-stoppers for you, then the i2M is an extremely useful device to add to a mobile-recording setup, and especially if you can take advantage of a good offer, highly cost-effective as well. The i2M is compact, versatile and reliable, and I for one would want to replace it ASAP if for some reason I lost the use of it.

Compact MIDI guitar on a tight budget: too much to ask?

If you’ve been following my musical activities on here and elsewhere, you’ll probably have picked up that I’m especially keen on what one could call “mobile music-technology”—specifically: producing, performing and recording music on mobile phones and tablets (especially Apple ones).

I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and most of the music I’ve released via my Bandcamp page since 2012 was produced and/or recorded largely (or mostly) on a combination of iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. For example, with the exception of a couple of synth overdubs, my EP “The Rockpool Files” from last year was recorded entirely on an iPhone:

(I still mixed the tracks in Logic Pro on our Mac—I think I can take things further now, but that’s a topic for another time…)

It’s been a long-term goal of mine, to find out whether I can assemble a recording setup capable of producing “decent” (i.e. fully-arranged, not necessarily lo-fi-sounding) demos, but which could be easily carried by one person (say, in a rucksack). To cut a long story short: I feel I’m getting close with my current setup, based around my Ministar Testar electric travel guitar, an iDevice and a Samson G-Track combo USB condenser mike and audio interface.

Screenshot of iFretless Bass on iPhone 4S
iFretless Bass on iPhone 4S

One item missing from that list, is any kind of MIDI controller. Now, I’m not really a keyboard-player (though I can find my way around the blacks-and-whites in sort-of John Lennon-style if I have to), and there are iOS touchscreen-based MIDI controller-apps like SoundPrism Pro which are fine for triggering chords on iOS synths. (I’m also very impressed indeed with iFretless Bass, a highly-serviceable bass instrument/controller app, and it’s worth you bearing this one in mind for later.)

But… what I’d really like—and I’m painfully aware I may be on “moon-on-a-stick” territory here—is some kind of guitar-to-MIDI solution (for playing synths and other MIDI sound sources from a guitar), which is affordable, compact and (as the Americans might phrase it) doesn’t suck like a Dyson on steroids. At the very least, I’m after accurate monophonic (one note at a time) guitar pitch-conversion, so I can play mainly bass- and lead-synth parts on demos using a normal electric guitar and iOS synth instrument apps.

Some possible alternatives:

  • I have a “vintage” Roland GI-10 guitar-MIDI interface, which I use at home with my GK pickup-equipped Steinberger. Works really well, but sadly it’s not really rucksack-able.
  • There are two very portable guitar-like MIDI controllers I like the look of: the JamStik and the You Rock Guitar. No room to go into them here, but although I’d like either, they’re both some way outside the kind of cash I could spend on them, at least for the foreseeable future.
  • Some kind of modification to my Ministar guitar, to give it MIDI-controller capability. Again, probably not an option, due to both financial and practical considerations (a Ministar has very little room for “modding”). If only my Ministar could have an internal Fishman TriplePlay installed…
  • A pitch-to-MIDI app running on the iDevice. Much cheaper (usually the price of a coffee or two), and no extra hardware needed…

…well, no prizes for guessing which option I’m looking at, if only by default.

At time of writing, there are actually quite a few pitch/guitar-to-MIDI apps on the iOS platform—these include SHREDDER, MIDImorphosis, Jam Synth, Sonuus G2M and MIDI Guitar. I have tried MIDI control with all of these (with the exception of the last, which requires a £14 in-app purchase to unlock MIDI control), and except for G2M and MIDI Guitar (the latter in “tracking test” mode), they were awful. Yes, I know the guitar-setup tricks—use the neck pickup, tone control at zero, play cleanly, etc. etc.—and tried the lot. G2M and MIDI Guitar came closest to being at all usable—and the former might “get there” after some more tweaking from me and a few bug-fixes from them—but as things stand, not one of these apps meet my need for a way to play MIDI parts accurately and cleanly from a regular electric guitar.

At time of writing, I’ve been experimenting further with G2M, and it’s getting close to the point where, for certain uses, I might be able to record with it. (If that sounds like lukewarm praise, bear in mind that the apps competing with it—for me—had such poor note-tracking that they are totally unusable for my needs. At least G2M takes a good stab at the task, and isn’t that far off.)

So, if I find a pitch-to-MIDI app can’t ultimately give me accurate-enough MIDI-guitar capability: what then? Well, as the main reason I want MIDI guitar, is probably for playing bass parts on demos when I won’t have access to a bass guitar (and I would rather not use a tiny keyboard for this), I could probably get by with iFretless Bass. Its sounds are very usable—and with the right processing/mixing, could almost pass for the “real thing”—and the app makes a nicely-tactile touchscreen controller for playing other MIDI synths I like, such as iMini or Modular, with some useful synth-bass patches.

Perhaps, in the end, I’m being a bit unrealistic—how can a ~£5 iOS app hope to match a £500 Roland hardware setup?—but for all the frustrations, it’s interesting to find out what kind of guitar-MIDI kit is possible, within the limitations I’ve mentioned here. Maybe it’s time to start saving for a JamStik after all…

A good use for the iPhone’s “reversed colours” view

One of the less-known accessibility features of iOS, is the “reverse colour” view, which you can enable in Settings under General > Accessibility > Invert Colours. With this option turned on, a triple-press of the Home button reverses all the colours on the screen (basically, a negative image)—very handy in a dark room when using an app with a largely light background.

This evening, I was using Apple Maps on the iPhone as a satnav (don’t worry, it worked 😉 ), and as usual when driving after sunset, wishing that Apple Maps had a “night mode”, as Nokia Maps did on my venerable N8 in 2010. Almost as soon as the thought crossed my mind, it occurred to me: why not try Apple Maps with the “triple-tap” Invert Colours trick?

Long story short: it works really well…

applemaps_negative_image

…or it would, if the iPhone screenshot feature gave you the “reversed colours”! I’ll fix that later…

SoundFonts (slight return)

A chunk of my lifetime ago (OK: circa 2000), I was getting used to fully-digital home recording, having (a) tarted up my PC with a SoundBlaster Live soundcard and other music hardware, and (b) added a Boss BR-8 digital eight-track disk recorder for audio duties. I had no hardware synths, so sound-producing duties in that department were handled by the SB Live card, and one of its signature features: playback of SoundFont sample sound banks.

If you fancy a soundtrack to this story, incidentally, I recommend my mini-album “Rosewood” (2001), which was recorded entirely on the setup I described in that last paragraph…

For me, SoundFonts were the “virtual instruments” of their time—I was years away from a Mac with Logic Pro on it (and still hadn’t met my wife at that point, but wouldn’t have to wait much longer for that), so SFs provided the main way for me to expand my home studio’s sonic palette beyond the guitar front. I even built a few SoundFonts of my own, a rather time-consuming process which if nothing else, should tell you I was still single at the time 😉

The above setup survived well into the 2000s, and was eventually superseded when our household was joined by an iMac, which is still giving us sterling service to this day. Although my wife and I are now using Logic Pro for much of our music production, and we have many more virtual AU instruments to play with, I still occasionally make use of SoundFonts, having loaded my entire collection into Logic’s EXS24 sampler instrument (to whomever added SF support to EXS24: thank you!). In particular, the ARP String Ensemble and Mellotron SoundFonts from Sonic Implants (now SONiVOX) are still very usable, and as you’re about to read, they just received yet another lease of life…

As you may know if you’ve been reading other posts of mine, over the past year or so I have been getting into using Apple iOS devices—first a fourth-generation iPod Touch, and more recently an iPhone 4S—for serious music recording and production. It might surprise you that this is an entirely serious proposition—my most recent album “Homecooked” was recorded completely on the iPhone (two songs on the iPod), albeit mixed and mastered in Logic. I have been building up my collection of instrument, sequencing and recording apps on the iPhone (and some hardware accessories), so I can carry a pretty comprehensive recording and sequencing “rig” wherever I go.

Most of the instrument apps (software synthesisers, rhythm machines, etc.) I have bought for the iPhone, support the Audiobus app for routing virtual audio between compatible apps (so, for instance, a rhythm machine app like FunkBox can be recorded into a track in, say, Multitrack DAW). A few of “my” apps are not yet “on the bus”, including one of my favourites, the wheezily-authentic Mellotron virtual instrument Super Manetron (though at time of writing, the developer say Audiobus support is on the way).

Screenshot of Bismark bs-16i on the iPhone
Bismark bs-16i on the iPhone

However, a few weeks ago Audiobus announced that the latest iOS app (at the time) to add AB support, was one I hadn’t heard of. Bismark bs-16i. Written, like Super Manetron, by a (different) developer in Japan, bs-16i is an instrument app with similar features to other iOS software synths like Sunrizer and Magellan (CoreMIDI, Audiobus, etc.), but its sound source is different… yes, it’s an iOS SoundFont player.

At £5.99 in the UK, bs-16i s a little pricier than most of its iOS instrument app cousins, so I only got around to deciding to “cough up” for it this week. However, my early impressions of it—so far, by loading some of my treasured old SoundFont banks into it—are very positive, and I’d like to write a dedicated review of bs-16i here once I’ve had the opportunity to really put the app through its paces.

In the meantime, suffice it to say I wasn’t expecting to renew my acquaintance with my old SoundFont “friends” at this point in my musical life, and especially not on an iPhone (!). That said, I think it’s more than likely that I’ll want to record with the app before long (and not just a “technology demo” to show off what bs-16i can do), which in my book is quite a tribute.

Now, let’s go and check out those free SoundFont libraries I keep reading about… 🙂