Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Amsterdam, wow...

Morning at Hoek Van Holland

Well that was a whirlwind weekend - set off for Amsterdam Thursday evening via the Dutch Flyer, an overnight ferry service. Arriving bright an early at Hoek Van Holland, two transfers (Hoek Van Holland -> Rotterdam -> Amsterdam) saw me bright and early in Amsterdam. As per normal, I bought a map and wandered roughly in the direction of my accommodations. I had no help from google maps this time - bloody t-mobile didn't work.
"Yellow Bike"

I have been asked before, in fact the day before I left, aren't I scared to travel alone? That, or why not travel in groups as it makes economic sense (uh, no that makes NO sense to me at all as I make my own itinerary and enjoy my privacy).

Dutch Fries!

First, no I'm not afraid to travel alone, it's not like I'm going to a warzone or some far far away place where there is no help except via airlift. Second, going on a group tour is fun... for awhile. Then my introverted side kicks in and I want peace and quiet. 

Green Hill Zone

Itinerary wise, I did not visit any of the major attractions in the cities, for example the museums. I was planning to visit at least one, but the call of random city exploration calls. For example, I went to the eastern side of Amsterdam where I hardly saw people, much less tourists. Its there can one glimpse a view of cutting edge European architecture, as well as the last surviving windmill located inside Amsterdam. If I had a day or two more... maybe I'd visit. But the call of the wild (and maybe the zoo) is too strong.

Modern Architecture

I really enjoyed my time here, the level of service here is very high. One thing about Amsterdam though, it's that it is too much of a modern city at times, I had a tough time hunting down dutch restaurants, not to say authentic ones, among the sheer amount of choice from steak to sushi to chinese to greek and more. Perhaps a journey further inland would find more traditional outlooks and food choices.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

R-Strap revived!

Got updated hardware to replace the worn out connectors on the Rstrap! So glad there are UK stockist for the parts. It looks really good, and the locking carabiner makes for a much more secure lock around the ring on the camera.

Looks good, but it'll need to be field tested - and what better than a bank holiday weekend in Amsterdam :)

[ Houdini Cookoff ] 11

Aaaand here's the milk pour using geometry. Multiple set of curves were blended in order to get the motion; 3 were used to give the general motion and waviness; one curve was used to exaggerate the initial pour, and one more when the bottle is lifted up. Switching between these 3 sets of curves were manual blends, though I used chops to blend between the 3 curves that formed the bulk of the pour.

Seems to be going well, tomorrow I'll work on adapting yesterday's sim properly into the cup.

Monday, August 22, 2011

[ Houdini Cookoff ] 10

Finally got a simulation that I like going on. Initial tests with emitting smoke directly was utter fail - there was no way the smoke was going to go nicely hit the wall, sink, then rise up. A liquid sim was done first to provide a base for the smoke fluid to emit from. To get it to rise up, a simple emission of the heat into the temperature field ensured that it would hit the top.

Learnt a new setting on the Iso Offset SOP to convert a SDF volume (the density field from the liquid sim) into a smoke volume with the "Volume Sample" mode. So basically, SDF in, and nice clean smoke volume out. Win!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Thoughts on the Vandoren V16 A6S

Fluid simming and not in the mood to do anything more so I'm putting down some thoughts about the new mouthpiece and listening to music.

First, I start practice sessions with mouthpiece exercises. Some other terms include Buzzing the mouthpiece. Basically, playing the mouthpiece on its own. With the AL4, hitting the notes is relatively easier as I've been practicing these exercises for awhile. The V16, not so much. I can hit the correct pitches, but I can't hit it exactly, and needs to be corrected. Nothing a few months of practice can't sort out.

Intonation wise, this piece is totally different from my AL4. My main gripe with the AL4 is middle D, ah lovely middle d. The note well known for being stuffy, and out of intonation. On the AL4 and my Hanson SA5, I can get it down to maybe 30 cents sharp. Lipping down basically causes the note to go down an octave, even with the octave key pressed.

The V16 otoh does not share this peculiarity, and it is possible to bend the note so that it plays in tune. Note that I say possible to; getting it to stay at the "correct" pitch is nigh difficult, I was wavering all over the tuner :P

Pretty sure practice will fix this. For most of the range though, I felt it was easier to blow - perhaps this is due to the longer lay? I felt quite confident with the low notes, even down the Bb.

On the flip side, is intonation in the higher registers. Roughly above high F, I though I had difficulty getting the proper intonation. High Eb up, it required a much stronger embouchure to play the notes in tune. Hmmm. Most of the time it seems sharper than expected. Lipping down works but it seems to take a lot more air. Also, I felt that the notes did not seem full as the notes on the main stack. The AL4 seemed much more stable for intonation on the higher notes.

To combat this, I've temporarily moved up to a harder reed, a 2.75 from my regular 2.5. Experience on other pieces showed that a week or so on a harder reed strengthens my embouchure much faster, and when I come back to the softer reed I feel it is much easier to play.

Oh well back to tweaking sims...

Vibrato Sax!

Held one of these plastic saxophones when I visited the Sax shop on the way home. They are bloody light! And with old folk like me, light is good :D They're a tad expensive, but I'm hoping to get one when I'm visiting Singapore (they were invented, and made in Thailand).

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tale of Four Mouthpieces

Disclaimer: I have been learning the saxophone about November 2010, and this post is in August 2011. As such, I'm reaally new to it.
Watermarks?! Yes, these are to deter any idiot scammers trying to list bogus auctions of mouthpieces with my photographs.

This beautiful classical piece above from Vandoren is the Optimum AL4. This is the mouthpiece that came with my saxophone, and is probably the reason why I took on so well with the sax - it's very well made, and possesses a good intonation and all. As it's a classical piece, the tone is geared more towards well... classical. And it's not exactly the kind of sound I am looking for. It actually works very well for mellow ballads.

Now this mouthpiece above is the E.Rousseu JDX 6. I'd watched a youtube video - that I can't seem to locate - and thought "Hey! I want to sound like that!!". As luck would have it, I found a used mouthpiece on ebay for half price. Initially, I loved it and thought that this would be *the* piece for me (go ahead, snicker ;-)). After about two weeks on this and many A-B sessions with the AL4, I found that I actually disliked the tone.

It is bright, and to my ears, somewhat "spread". What's more, I felt somewhat "restricted" in terms of the tone produced. After much back and forth, I went back to the AL4 and that was definitely the correct choice. Whilst the AL4 was  not as bright as the JDX6, I felt the tone produced has the colors I'd expect to hear.

This really sounds somewhat abstract, but I think you'd really need hear it to appreciate it.

The above is a Lebayle Studio 7 Metal. This, I bought at a whim off ebay at the same time I got the JDX - mainly as it was a good deal, and that some of my favourite players, Candy Dulfer and Kaori Kobayashi, to name two, use this mouthpiece. It is a 7 tip opening, and just takes too much air to blow at this time of my embouchure development.
The Studio 7 has a so-callled bullet chamber, and produces a very modern contemporary sound. This brings us to the next mouthpiece...

This is the baby I got just today - a Vandoren V16 A6S. These mouthpieces come in two chambers, the Small and Medium - Vandoren's website has small diagrams indicating the difference between the two, seems like the S chamber is a squeeze throat. I'd actually spent a fair bit of time trialing the following mouthpieces today:

  • Vandoren Optimum AL4 (my own)
  • E. Rousseau JDX 6 (my own)
  • Berg Larsen 80/2
  • Beechler "Diamond Inlay" 6
  • Vandoren V16 A5S, A6S and A5M
There were many other mouthpieces I'd like to try, e.g. Ponzol Vintage HR - but the sizes available were bigger than what I'd like to attempt at this moment.

First mouthpiece was the Beechler - my favourite final fantasy saxophone player, Muta1206 on youtube uses a metal beechler to great effect. My own experience with the Beechler 6 was, wow, nice bright tone. However, it felt like it had a lot of resistance and I went on to the Berg next.

I've read alot about Berg Larsen mouthpieces, and I was really hoping to test out the smaller tip e.g. 70 or 75 sizes, but the dude at the shop said to give it a go :) The /2 indicates the kind of baffle it has, and 2 is the baffle designed to give a more rounded kind of sound. In play, I loved it. Not too mellow, not too bright, and with enough edge. I had a hard time putting it down, but I did for two reasons. First, it a baffle. Like the JDX above, I was told this kind of pieces tended to produce a certain kind of tone, versus the pieces that lacked a baffle and allowed more of one's own "sound" to come through. Secondly, I had difficulty articulating certain notes. This seal it. Maybe I'd come back a year or two down the road and look at these pieces again. Although an 80 piece, it was actually quite an enjoyable blow.

Now the Vandorens were the pieces I spent the bulk of the time on; after spending two weeks on the JDX, I knew so much better about the kind of sound concepts I'd be working towards, which is more of the older school jazz type sound. The A5S certainly was very promising, it just felt like a brighter version of my AL4. The A5M OTOH I felt not as solid as the A5S, so I decided to go for the S chamber. I then decided to try out the A6S ;-)

The A6S was just right, not as bright as the A5S, more mellow, yet could get the edge when pushed. On the plus side, high F# seemed easier to produce. The A6S has two issues on it's side: it's a size 6 piece* which mean keeping correct intonation would be more challenging. Overtones were much more difficult, if not impossible to produce - went back to the AL4 and immediately got my overtone range back.

The tough choice between the two pieces, the A5S which did well for overtones, vs the A6S that sounded the way I'd prefer, but I'd need to work on intonation and overtones. Short while later, I walked away with the A6S.

I knew, with experience from the JDX6 that intonation issues can be worked and conquered. Overtones? Again, can be worked on ;-)

Well I can't wait to get into this new mouthpiece. The AL4 will probably stay on as a classical piece if I need to blend in with a band - not sure about the other two though. I've been told that mouthpieces that don't work now, could very well work years down the road. Let's see :)

Many forum threads go on about sticking with one mouthpiece for a year and not changing - and initially that was my plan - till I encountered that youtube vid ;-) In my experience, yes, perhaps about 8-9 months in, may be a good time to experiment with mouthpieces. That to this experience, I've noticed that I am much more critical of how saxophones sound in music - and much more appreciative of the old school professionals. Spending two weeks on the JDX was also like weight training - when I switched back to the AL4, my tone sounded much bigger, and I figured out how to change my embouchure so that I could sound more mellow or more edgy. Intonation also improved massively after the two week stint with the JDX6. I attribute it getting used to intonation with a larger tip opening, and going back to a smaller one felt easier.  I used to spend about 10 hours+ a week, but I'm trying to cut down now - maybe 5-8 hours a week.

*NB: sizes between manufacturers rarely match - a size 9 with one manufacturer could be 6 on another.

Friday, August 19, 2011

[ Houdini Cookoff ] 09

Ok so I spent several hours over the last 3 days trying to get a good fluid sim to work. However the look is far different from the reference, and it's time to look for cheaper, faster solutions ;-) Taking a closer look at the milk pour (see reference in this post), it can be observed that there is actually very little reaction to the surface of the tea, whilst the fluid sims I've got have a very visible reaction.

Hence, I've decided to go with a procedurally based solution in SOPs - to actually model and procedurally animate the milk stream as geometry. Looking at the stream, it can be generated using multiple curves that are shaped and joined together. A handy way of generating a mesh from curves, is with volumes - or more accurately, signed distance fields. A good readup can be found in "Levelsets In Production: Spider Man 3".

I did a quick test to make sure the blending works in Houdini, just using a Volume Mix set to minimum.
A few nodes are added to ensure that both sdfs to be merged are of the same dimensions.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

[ Houdini Cookoff ] 08

Since I got home earlier than planned, I setup a good part of the system for simulations. I'm planning to use the rest of the week to tune the main water sim; if by Friday I cannot get a good result I'll have to stop and focus on getting the milk to work (lol). Initial tests seem to be ok, the sphere represents the area where the milk will be emitted from. However, compared to the reference I have it seems to have a much larger impact on the surface.

Tests with a localized drag force seemed to tame down the water surface, closer to the reference. Increasing the time scale seems to compensate for the "sticky", almost viscous feel caused by the drag, but only more testing will tell if this will bear fruit.

Going to stop early today before I burn out :P Time for some music theory before bed.


Down with the life drawing class for a gig, surprisingly there were 4 of my classmates performing, not just the one. Bloody inspiring, and if it weren't already 10pm, I'd be honking my horn (wish I had a sax mute.....)

This is also probably one of the few photos I actually tweaked non globally! OMG! I'm not a photographer anymore?! Basically apart from white balancing to get the skin tones "more correct" for the band, I'd allow a radial falloff for saturation, keeping the band at its original saturation.

Monday, August 15, 2011

[ Houdini Cookoff ] 07

For some inexplicable reason, I'm actually rendering stuff before simulation >.>

No, don't ask me why. I just felt like it was mantra time :D

I'm keeping things really simple - 3 passes, AO, Diffuse+Cd and Reflection. The screenshot above is just for the bottle, and similar passes will be used around the cup.

For the diffuse pass I was thinking of going down the PBR route and actually setup the lights to resemble the windows, but it was taking somewhat longer to get rid of the noise, so I reverted back to the micropolygon render and just two distant lights; one key, one fill.

Motion blur is fun with deformation geometry :3 Deformation blur, with 3 samples. Love to get the curves in :)

This brings up the thorny issue of reflection of my *hand* in the water..... will probably do some crappy "map my fist onto a sphere for reflection" thing. Let's see how it goes. I'm taking tomorrow off to attend a gig a friend is playing, so no updates, till at least Wednesday.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

[ Houdini Cookoff ] 06

And here's the animation of the bottle and a roto of the stand-in spoon. Took awhile, gods.

Test test - side mic'ing

Mic'ing about 45 degrees off axis. Still feels abit "far". Also, this post is an excuse to test embedding the soundcloud player.

Saxophone thoughts

So I've been playing the saxophone for about 9 months now, and it's been a journey of continuous learning, joy, and of course, pain. One the web, it's sometimes said that the saxophone is an instrument that is easy to play. The come back to that line is, that they missed a word - badly. Yes, the saxophone is an instrument that is easy to play badly

I submit myself to the court of public opinion, a horrible first 8 bars as I am totally out of tune. I thought the rest was not too bad, given I'm only spending maybe 6, 8 hours a week on it. Not substantial compared to full time professionals, but enough to slowly move on. As mentioned in a post below, the sax is one of the elements that helps me learn more about music, and in turn, more about myself. And from there.. to learn even more :P 

Case in point, saxophone recording. How does one record a saxophone properly? Upteen hours on gearslutz, homerecording and many other similar forums reveal a horrendous amount of techniques, equipment and variables required to get a good saxophone sound. Hence now, I've got a few new hats to learn and wear (omg I'm a red mage) - namely "composer*", audio engineer. 

Time learning about the saxophone and music related to the saxophone firmly gives me a better idea about my tastes - that I'm definitely not one to go down the "I'm a saxophonist - I play jazz" route. Rather, that is only one of the paths I want to travel. The more I listen to various kinds of music leads me down the path of game music - and with inspiration by Muta1206 that is definitely what I want to do several years down the line - arrange game music that is memorable (to me), as well as instrumental covers of old music that I love. 

With game arrangements comes the name, ocremix. Been listening to remixes since... wow a long time back. Lots of it off last.fm, only thought to join the forums months back. Much talent there, and it's bloody challenging. The way I like it :)

*arranger? Remixer?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

[ Houdini Cookoff ] 05

And here we are, the textured carton. Basically shot each end of the milk carton with my slr, and assembled all the images in gimp (needs to be photoshop for linux :-/ )

And here come a minor issue - the linear/sRGB thing. Mantra renders in linear space, but the sRGB jpegs I shot are in well... sRGB space. For those concerned about this, please please google for info - I am definitely not one to be giving out info on linear workflows. Remember, google "linear workflow".

As a quick cheat, I applied a power function with an exponent of 2.2 (i.e. 0.454 gamma - 1/2.2) to the color channels (inside the shader), transforming them to a pseudo-linear space for rendering. At the mplay viewer, a 2.2 gamma is then applied again. Hence the colors will look correct, and thanks to the linear rendering, light sources will react properly.

This will need to be baked out in the final .mov file for submissions.

Tomorrow I will be doing the animation block in as well as tracking in a cg spoon. What have I taken upon myself!?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

[ Houdini Cookoff ] 04

Modelling night! Did two poly meshes, one for the cup's matte object, and another for the bottle used for pouring.

Eh this is just a extruded tube with subdivisions thrown on. It's not a 100% match, but close enough.
The milk bottle also has its corners cut - no time to feasibly do a detailed model, so I've decided to allow for texture mapping for the most of it. I did use the Sculpt SOP to put in some indentations for an undulating surface.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

[ Houdini Cookoff ] 03

Ok so today I spent time working on the camera track as well as getting the HDR assembled image to be orientated properly.

It has been a long while since I've done a camera track - you get professional trackers for all tracking needs as a vfx td ;-) and I think it is good enough for the cookoff. The LX5 thankfully records a .jpg thumbnail of the HD video with exif data - at 10mm. Given the crop factor of the lumix is 4.6875, I put in 46.875 into Houdini's camera and put 35mm as the aperture :P Seems to match the blu tacks quite well.
Once that was done, I put in a cg sphere, and dropped a reflection shader on it. This is a hand built (yeah yeah - its just a vop network) shader env map shader; basically using the fresnel vop to give me a reflection vector, that I then translate to world space and rotate about to match the reference plate. (Thank goodness I'd shot a few stills with the mirror ball in-frame)

It's not a perfect match, but I think close enough for reflection mapping and probably ibl. I'm thinking the mismatch is due to me shooting the sphere so close - I'd bet if it was shot at least 3-4 meters away - a physical impossibility - unless I broke down a wall - the results would be better. But oh well.

There is also a green tint in the CG render - I'm not sure why, but my wolfy intuition tells me it's most likely due to the florescent lights in the passageway. A little color correction will clear that up. Hopefully ;-)

Tomorrow, I hopefully will have time to create a matte object for the cup, as well as a model for the milk bottle. And texture it.

Given that I'm working in Houdini Apprentice, I'm set to render the maximum allowed - which is pal, at 768x576. The backplate is scaled down to a width of 768, and black bars put in to fill the empty space.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Replacement Zoom H1

Previously I'd mentioned my Zoom H1 had developed an issue with battery drain. This evening, I arrived home to find a replacement by the UK Distributor. Very good job - I sent it out just last Friday, and got it on Tuesday. Props to them!!

I've got a nice new Energizer battery in it now, let's see how it runs.

London Riots 2

Can't sleep. Just saw the news that Camden's high street is affected too. That's like 15 minutes on foot away from me. I'll be sure to ready my 70-200. Can't sleep, too wired.

London Riots

At the time I'm writing this, my heart is still racing, and I'm just generally feeling uneasy all over. I'm perfectly fine, and safe at home, but I would like to put down what I experienced this night.

Life drawing class as usual, and the tension was in the air today. It felt... different from usual. No matter, just finish the class as usual and head home, no big deal.

That's when things changed.

Staring down the shuttered gates of Bethnal Green station, my heart skipped a beat. What happened? Why would a tube station be shut just minutes before 10pm?

Several other passerbys were similarly slightly distressed by the shut tube.

Thankfully, one of my class mates came by, and he was also nonplussed by the tube shutting down. He on the other hand, knew other means to get back - and guided me to the bus stops where we could both get our respective rides home.

On the bus towards Soho, it was clear many were delayed thanks to the shut tube station.

The journey to soho was uneventful, and I got off along New Oxford Street.

Heading north, I wanted to grab some groceries, only to find the Currys had a massive pole lodged in the glass, with large rocks arrayed around. Across the road, many places were shut, and the grocery store had shut, employees looking outwards with concerned gazes.

It was then I felt a great sense of unease and quickly trotted home. Along the way, usually open stores were shut, only adding to my distress.

I've got a pack of noodles for dinner, and I'm still feeling jittery. Can't focus, can't read. Hopefully I can sleep this off an be good for work tomorrow.

Stay safe, carpe diem.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

[ Houdini Cookoff ] 02

Yes, finally I got my act together to acquire the plate, as well as capture the image sequences required for creating a hdri map.

First off is the location.
A nice window sill, with a nice cloudy sky providing beautiful soft shadow. It's a little tough to see, but there are four dots of blu-tack setup in a 12x12cm grid - this will be to ensure ease of camera matching the plate, and visible by the shooting camera at all times.The cup specifically chosen to be easy to model in Houdini (i.e. straight sides), and has its bottom blu-tacked to the sill so as not to move during the stirring action.
For the actual shoot though, I'd put a white box as a makeshift reflector in order to lessen the contrast of the shadow side of the cup.
In terms of image acquisition for the hdri map, I'd found a great recommendation by a colleague - Ball Finials in a chrome finish! A whole lot of these can be found at John Lewis (in the UK). The surface is far from perfect, but it is very solid, and more than adequate for little projects like these.

From the reflection above, I am actually quite close to the sphere; barely few feet away. Usually for HDRIs, you'd want to be far away so as to present less of the photographer in the ball, and being further away will better simulate an orthographic camera. Sadly, due to physical space constraints, I brought out my 200 and 300mm full sized SLR lenses but I simply could not find the space. I just hope these env maps will work! I only need them for reflection and diffuse lighting. Obligatory link to Paul Debevec's website on light probes.

Stills were acquired in two positions, from the shooting camera's POV, and one with the lens axis parallel to the ground. For each shooting position, I'd shot at iso 100, F2.8, 1/2000 to 1/4, giving me wide range of exposures to pick from. Each of these positions were shots twice, with different white balances (Cloudy and Custom) as I know my raw converter software does not do well with the white balance of the Lumix LX5.

Above is the plate :3 Well one of them anyways. Haven't yet decided which to use. I shot it overlength, and will only use at max 15 seconds, or less - I only have 4gb of ram on my home machine, and tests so far are already hitting the ceiling. Not really wanting to buy more ram as I rarely hit the ceiling.

The first few seconds was to allow the camera to settle down after I pressed the shutter, and the next few is to allow the milk carton/bottle to fill up the tea. Next, I stick the end of a spoon into the cup, stir, and pull out the spoon.

Originally, I'd thought to leave the spoon in, but I do not think I have the time to properly integrate a live action spoon, hence the stir and remove. I will probably need to create a stand in cg spoon element, and hopefully the motion blur seen in the plate above won't cause too much issues. I'd also blu-tacked the spoon at the 5cm mark to give me a frame of reference when I'm matching the animation. *Not* looking forward to that.

Well now that I've got plates and ldr images for the hdr map, no excuses....

Friday, August 05, 2011


I've been quite inspired recently by OCRemix, and I hope to do some arrangements of my own for the good old games back in the day. As such, I've built a beginner's DAW.
The signal chain is quite straightforward; microphone -> audio interface -> laptop, and my main application (for now) would be Garageband.

For microphone, I decided (after much, much going around in circles) to go with the good old Shure SM57. The logic follows that it is a very hard wearing microphone, plus it's a dynamic and will help reject ambient noise as my room is not properly treated.

Audio interface is an Onyx Blackjack. There are several interfaces at the same price point, and this was chosen mainly as the preamps are supposedly of very high quality. There is no midi in/out, and that is alright as I do not think I will be connecting any devices that use traditional midi connections at the moment.

The mini keyboard is the Akai LPK25, a really small usb midi keyboard that I think would be fine for use with garageband. Having used larger M-Audio keyboards with weighted keys, the keys on the LPK feel like a cheap casio. In addition, the velocity feels non linear. Can't be helped as it is very affordable. Still, I had alot of fun playing tunes on it in garageband. Some songs with extended ranges annoy with the octave break though :)

Sound wise, I haven't tested my saxophone on it. Based on vocal tests, this is a very different sound from my Zoom H1. The H1 is very clear, but doesn't seem to have as much bass. The XLR signal chain at the moment sounds very smooth, with the right amount of bass. I actually thought my voice wasn't too bad through the sm57.

Can't wait for the weekend when I can go all out and check out this setup on the saxophone :) Still working on my Houdini cookoff project - was doing fluid sim tests - and was playing with the above whilst the sims were cooking away :)