The Mac Pro Is Not Dead

Mac Pro

A lot of professionals and power users that love the Mac Pro, yours truly included, have been incredibly disappointed and distressed at its lack of updates since the 2013 “trash can” redesign. Scratch that. Mac Pro users are frothing at the mouth and have been screaming for the last three and half years for substantial hardware updates. On The Impromptu podcast, which I co-host with Michael Norton, we talked about it at length, just days before John Gruber on Daring Fireball reported that Apple has big plans for the product. Apple has finally acknowledged to the public that their initial compact design was flawed and did not serve enough of its customer’s needs.

In his piece, Gruber opens with good news:

Apple is currently hard at work on a “completely rethought” Mac Pro, with a modular design that can accommodate high-end CPUs and big honking hot-running GPUs, and which should make it easier for Apple to update with new components on a regular basis. They’re also working on Apple-branded pro displays to go with them.

And we all breathe a sigh of relief. I recommend reading the entire piece.

I’ve spent some time thinking about what Phil Schiller, Craig Federighi, and John Ternus said during the mini press meeting–trying to read between the lines and decipher the meaning of what Apple means by “modular design.” Just how modular are they willing to go with the Mac Pro? The 2012 “cheese grater” Mac Pro, the last truly upgradable Mac Pro, had what you could consider a modular design. You could easily open the case and replace the GPU, RAM, hard drives, and optical drives. I’m curious if Apple plans to take this rethinking of the Mac Pro even closer to what you can do with a PC assembled from off the shelf parts. No doubt the design will have Apple’s unique flare and attention to detail, but I’m hoping we can swap the CPUs if we wanted to.

Coda

As far as form factor is concerned, I suspect we’ll get something between the compact nature of the current cylinder Mac Pro and the honking tower that proceeded it. I’m pleased that Apple has finally acknowledged the idea that professionals will just use external storage and peripherals for everything is flawed. I currently own a 2012 12-core Mac Pro and would never want to give up the ability to have multiple internal hard drive bays. The last thing I want is have my desk space littered with external storage that generates heat, noise, and space.

Where Have You Been?

George and Chris Giannakos

If you’re putting cream and sugar in your coffee, not only are you doing it wrong, but what you’re drinking is not coffee. I’ll elucidate on why this is the case in a moment.

Vancouver is known for many things–its delicious and diverse array of foods from a virtual cornucopia of cultures, gorgeous sea-side cycling and walking via the Stanley Park Seawall, a happening night life on Granville Street, and a Starbucks on what seems like every other city block. After landing at YVR, head to the hotel, drop your luggage off, and just this once, resist the urge to indulge in a high calorie coffee based beverage. That’s right, I said coffee based beverage, because as I proclaimed in my opening statement, adding sugar and cream to coffee is simply not coffee.

An overwhelming majority of people on a day-to-day basis, right now, are drinking sub-standard coffee. If it’s not Starbucks, it will be Tim Hortons, Dunkin’ Donuts, or the off the shelf store variety. To be fair to Starbucks, before they came along, we didn’t have better options available. Starbucks did a good thing by raising the quality bar for mass consumption of coffee on a global scale.

In a post-Starbucks world, you have so many more options and can do much better, so let’s get straight to it. If you’re buying beans from a grocery store, there’s a high probability that you’re buying low grade beans that have been sitting on the shelf for far too long. The issue with the beans at your local grocer is twofold: They don’t provide a roasting date and are likely have been festering on a shelf for more than three months. Why are roasting dates so important? They’re important because you want to ensure absolute freshness. The beans I purchase have typically been roasted within 2-3 days prior to landing in my hands. As most beans don’t have a roasting date, you can ballpark the freshness by checking the expiration date.

Until you experience freshly roasted coffee, you haven’t experienced what real coffee tastes like. Contrary to popular opinion, coffee doesn’t have to taste bitter with a burnt aftertaste. To get a taste of perfect, you need to make your way to Revolver Coffee, located at 325 CAMBIE ST, between Hastings and Cordova. It’s just a hop and a skip from Gas Town.

Revolver is a cafe with a rustic vibe. There are two seating areas, the secondary called “Archive” which has a large spacious communal table and features a showcase of various coffee brewing paraphernalia to satisfy any coffee nerd. All of their coffee is imported from a variety of coffee roasters–mostly from North America, but some from overseas. They’re all freshly roasted within a few days of landing on their shelves. If you don’t know much about coffee, I encourage you to ask your barista for their signature “Brew Flight,” which is one coffee brewed via three different methods (French Press, AeroPress, and Clever). Make sure to grab a pastry as well, since they’re baked fresh and brought daily from their sister bakery, Crema in North Vancouver.

Revolver1

All of their coffees are very lightly roasted, which surface the natural flavours of the coffee cherry. On first sip, flavours of stone fruit such a plum, cherry, or peach may touch your palate–others of chocolate; these are flavours that are frankly missing for low grade coffees. Revolver sets themselves apart from other cafes by opting to not serve coffee from drip coffee machines. Your choices are something from the pour over bar or something from the espresso bar. This is intentional because one of the greatest things that work against our best interest, is the drip coffee machine. Invented to solve the ever growing problem of getting coffee into our mouths in the least amount of time possible, the drip coffee maker produces one of the most bitter and flavourless cups of coffee. And therein lies the problem: drip is what we’ve acclimated to.

Revolver2

Pour over is the most popular brewing method for the main reason that it produces a very smooth cup of coffee with the least amount of acidity–both characteristics that you want in a cup. You’ll find Revolver’s staff, including co-owner George Giannakos, extremely knowledgeable and friendly. I learned almost all of what I know about coffee sourcing, roasting, and brewing from him.

Revolver3

Coda

You’re sure to leave Revolver and our lovely city armed with more knowledge than you’ve ever had about coffee, a pleasant aftertaste in your tastebuds, and a spring in your step from the incredible experience that few cafes are capable of offering, in Vancouver or otherwise. Traveling can be a lonely thing if you do it often by yourself, but at least the next time you’re in Vancouver, you’ll be surrounded by good company and will be able to warm your heart with something that’s truly delicious.

This article first appeared on sellingtravel.net.

Revolver4

Podcasting: Pitfalls And Lessons Learned

Podcast studio

One of the things I treasure about podcasts, other than listening, performing, and producing them, is the tremendous community of amazing people surrounding the medium. I’ve cultivated great friendships with individuals who were complete strangers just a few short years ago. I’ve heard from others that they too share similar experiences. It’s been highly educational and great fun to jump in with others, exchanging ideas, tips, and tricks of the trade. I’m forever grateful.

I’ve been podcasting for a few years now. Like anything new where you throw yourself into the fire and try to figure things out, you make mistakes along the way. As a result of making mistakes, you take stock of your experiences and use them as a basis to improve yourself.

When I first started podcasting, I allowed myself a modest budget. I was very interested in the medium itself, but I wasn’t clear on where things would go and if I would be willing to expand beyond just being a guest on shows that weren’t my own.

In the beginning, I made numerous appearances as a guest on other people’s podcasts. I got a taste of what it was like, and after about a year, I became a permanent co-host on a show called The Impromptu. Being a musician and having some experience in recording studios, talking in front of a microphone was not something I was unfamiliar with. There wasn’t any sort of trepidation on my part with hearing my own voice or conversing with strangers. Though let’s face it, no one is 100% satisfied with the sound of their own voice. There were quirks with my own speech patterns that frustrated me. I endeavoured to better myself.

There’s only one way that I know of that greatly helped improve my speech. I can only speak to what worked for me, but I strongly encourage that anyone wanting to get better at talking in front of a microphone should consider what I’m about to tell you. Any time I would record a show, whether I was a guest and had little to say, or when I was on one of my own shows, I always listened to my own recordings. This is going to make some of you uncomfortable, especially if you’re not confident with the timbre of your own voice. You need to power through the uncomfortable stage. Listening to myself enabled me to identify common annoying vocal habits such as excessive: ums, uhhs, lip smacks, awkward long pauses, and repetitive phrases. These are things that one can correct in post production, but why create more work for yourself in editing? Why not address the problem at the source?

Change rarely happens overnight, especially when you have spent years unknowingly formulating bad habits. After about a year of podcasting on a weekly basis and listening to my own voice, I can proudly say that I’ve made excellent progress in eliminating a large majority of my annoying speech patterns. I’m not perfect, but I don’t know anyone that is. If you have a reasonably pleasant sounding voice, you can nurture it with hard work and perseverance. You can take your voice from merely okay to good, if not great.

At the beginning of my foray into podcasting, I decided to join a company called FeedPress, which makes an analytics and podcasting service for bloggers and podcasters. Going all-in on podcasts helped me learn a lot more about the medium, from what it means to create and produce shows, to what kinds of tools and services podcasters find essential and useful.

All right, let’s move on to some nerdy things.

Gear

Perhaps you follow me on Twitter. If so, you likely know that I tend to tweet every now and again about different hardware that I’m testing. I’ve upgraded my podcasting setup numerous times over the last two years, and I haven’t been afraid to fiddle with: microphones, interfaces, mixers, pre-amps, and outboard dynamic processors. Over the last six months in particular, I’ve torn down and rebuilt everything more times than I would like to admit.

My beginner setup

Avoid blindly purchasing hardware without research. I conducted research by looking at what other podcasters were using and scoured YouTube and Amazon for additional inspiration. The first microphone I selected was a Blue Yeti condenser–an incredibly popular choice for beginners because of its decent sound and no fuss USB setup. This was a trusted microphone for some time, but I knew I could do better. The biggest drawback was that it tended to pick up too much ambient room noise–not a characteristic you want to include in an audio podcast.

My intermediate setup

There are higher end USB microphones available, but in the spirit of planning for robustness, I opted for an XLR microphone and interface. If you don’t know what an interface is, put simply, it’s a piece of hardware that converts analog audio signals into digital ones that your computer can understand. Interfaces typically come in USB 2.0/3.0, Firewire, or Thunderbolt connectivity. Cheaper consumer grade USB interfaces typically do not require external power supplies or even drivers. In my particular setup, I went with a [Shure PG42][PG42] and Focusrite 2i2. The PG42 and 2i2 ended up costing me $400, which clearly is a lot more money than if you were to buy a USB Yeti. With respect to quality, there was a huge difference. I distinctly recall my initial impressions being shocking. There was less background noise (not as much as I would have preferred) and my voice sounded noticeably more professional.

In hindsight, had I spent more time researching and considering microphones, I would not have purchased a condenser microphone. There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong with condensers, it’s just that they tend to pick up more ambient room noise. Ambient sound is sometimes a sought after characteristic, especially if you’re trying to record an instrument such as: electric, acoustic, or bass guitars. Not even six months passed when I decided to sell all of my hardware again and upgrade. That leads me to my present day setup.

My advanced setup

The next logical step was a broadcast quality recording setup (or as near as I could reasonably get). It became clear that I would have to spend a considerable amount of money to pull this off. I started looking into what the pros were using. Often times it was something like the famous Shure SM7B, Heil PR 40, or Electro-Voice RE20. All three of the aforementioned microphones are commonly used by professional podcasters and terrestrial radio broadcasters. All of them start at around $450 and go upwards in cost. One thing that didn’t quite prepare me is just how gain hungry these microphones are. I heard anecdotes from colleagues that these were low output, gain hungry devices, but that didn’t quite set in until I purchased the SM7B.

The SM7B, according to Shure’s own website, states that 60db of clean gain is the recommended minimum in order to obtain an acceptable signal level. I began looking for an appropriate interface that would provide me with enough inputs and outputs, as well as acceptable pre-amps that were clean and could supply enough gain. I tried a PreSonus FireStudio Project, Steinberg RE44, and even an expensive MOTU 828 MK3—unsurprisingly, they weren’t acceptable. I then looked at a few Focusrite pre-amps, but most of them could only reach maximum levels of 60db of gain. More headroom was necessary. I played with a few mixers from Mackie and Allen & Heath–both respected manufacturers. I was starting to feel like there was no end in sight.

The next item on my list to try was a Cloudlifter; a tiny phantom powered device that sits between your mic and pre-amp. The Cloulifter provides an extra 25db of gain, which is welcome for the SM7B. I decided to build a podcast recording studio in a spare bedroom of my apartment. To accommodate an in-studio guest, I would need a couple of microphones and a two-channel pre-amp powerful enough to handle everything. Cloudlifter makes the CL-2, which is a two-channel XLR pre-amp. Though it would do the job, at $300, it was not inexpensive. Doing the math, the financials didn’t make sense. Adding a $300 device to a $400 interface started to look like a patch job to fix a problem that could be addressed with buying the right kind of pre-amp in the first place.

I consulted the pro audio department of my local music store for advice. They suggested that I get an external pre-amp that would provide enough headroom without needing an intermediary like the Cloudlifter. I’m running SM7B microphones into a two-channel Art Pro Audio MPA II. This is a tube-based pre-amp, however, its one unique quality is that it’s relatively affordable in comparison to most; it retails for $375 CAD. The MPA II is an excellent sounding tube amp that provides upwards of 70db of gain (plenty for any low output dynamic microphone). External pre-amps are a wonderful thing if you’re able to afford them. They last a long time since they’re built like tanks. They don’t require software either, so you never have to worry about them becoming obsolete. Tube amps have several enumerable advantages over solid state: warmer tones, less distortion at high gain, and upgrading the tubes is an inexpensive way to increase the quality. The MPA II came with unbranded Chinese tubes–they’ve now been replaced with Electro-Harmonix 12AX7s.

Electro-Harmonix tubes

Professional pre-amps also provide additional flexibility in that they offer input impedance adjustments. Having an input impedance control that is sweepable from 150 ohms to 5k ohms allows you to load the microphones’ output transformer, with the result being a wide range of tonal variations. I always start by setting the impedance to match the microphone’s specifications, and gradually adjust in real-time until I hit the sweet spot.

I’m not a fan of unnecessarily complex audio interface that ship with buggy or infrequently updated drivers. What I run is a very inexpensive and driverless M-Audio M-Track II. I bypass the built-in pre-amps by running the two channels out of the MPA II into the M-Audio via an XLR to 1/4″ cable. These plug into the line-in jacks on the front. Since the audio interface sees them as line level signals, I don’t need to worry about the built-in pre-amps.

I have in-studio guests on a few shows. Guests would prefer controlling their own headphone mixes. From the 1/4″ main outs on the M-Audio, I run that into a y-cable that plugs into a four channel headphone amp. Headphone amps are essential so that each guest can set their respective comfortable levels.

Dynamic processors

What about dynamic processors? Plenty of people can and do run software plugins in their audio recording apps of choice. I’ve done this quite successfully for many years, but that only helps make sound better a signal that has already been recorded.

This week I added a dbx 266xs, an outboard two-channel compressor/gate. Compression is an excellent tool to uniformly even out excessively quiet or loud parts. The outputs of the MPA II run into the dbx so that the signals get treated in real-time, before getting to my MacBook Pro. This allows greater flexibility, especially when there are two people recording together in the same room. I can dial in just the right amount of compression and gating for the individual. This means I get an absolutely pristine level into my computer. The real-time metering on the front panel of the dbx can assist you greatly in adjusting things so that they are ideally configured for your voice.

Rack

Mix-minus

A Majority of the shows I do involve Skype and at least one or two guests. Ideally you want an isolated audio track for each guest in your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). In order to do this, you need to setup what’s called a mix/minus. This involves additional complexity, hardware, and investment.

You can hire an analog or digital mixer to do your mix-minus. There are digital mixer solutions based in software, but for the purpose of this example, I’ll elucidate on what it entails with an analog configuration. One word of caution: I highly suggest spending more on a Firewire based mixer, such as the Mackie Onyx 820i. The problem with USB mixers is that they sum all channels into just two tracks. If you purchase a four channel USB mixer, thinking you will get four dedicated channels into your DAW, this won’t happen. What your audio recording software will see are just the first two inputs.

The ideal setup to accomplish this task would be a separate dedicated computer to run Skype for each guest. If you have two remote guests, then you need two separate computers. Although you will have to spend more money, you don’t need an expensive computer. In fact, even one of those $200 mini computers that run Android would work just fine.

When shopping for a mixer, keep in mind the maximum number of remote guests you would have on at any given time. If you have podcasts where you have two guests, then you’ll need to look for a mixer that has two auxiliary sends. Aux sends are used to send all of the audio back to the guest, sans their own voice (this is where the mix/minus is derived from).

Once you have dedicated Skype machines setup and a mixer, you run analog audio out from each computer into a line-in on the mixer. To send audio back to a guest, you would use an aux send to go into the line-in of that Skype computer. Keep in mind that for a guest to hear you everyone else, you need to make sure the levels are up on all of their respective channels. As for how Skype is configured, each Skype computer should have its own dedicated account, that way you’re getting just the individuals voice.

For a good video tutorial on how to set all of this up, I recommend checking out Ray Ortega’s walk through on YouTube.

Pay it forward

If you’re a podcaster and have a lot of experience in the field, to anyone requesting help or advice, pay it forward as much as you can. Most of us remember a time when we reached out to someone more experienced. These individuals mentored us. Often the ones doing the mentoring also had similar experiences when first starting out. This can be applied to a breadth of different skills, be it podcasting or otherwise.

Podcasters ranging from intermediate to professional have been producing both free and paid content to help newcomers. By sharing what you and I have learned, through trial and error, perhaps we can aid others in not making the same mistakes. We’ll all be better off for it.

Eulogy for Isolina

My grandparents

My grandmother, Isolina, lived an amazingly fulfilling life, which was enriched by those close to her that loved her, and we by her. She overcame adversity and hardship. Tragically being separated from her siblings after losing both of her parents at a young age, she managed to persevere, finding ways to survive, and eventually married an amazing man: my grandfather, Manuel. Journeying from Spain to Saõ Paulo, Brazil, and later Montreal and Vancouver, one can only imagine how difficult it must have been to start over with a young family. I wish I had an ounce of her courage.

A life of supreme privilege is one that many millennials are born into. I’ll likely never experience the ravages of war on the home front or live through another great depression. We live in an ever increasingly sophisticated, complex, miraculous, and interconnected world. In all of our pockets resides a small rectangular slab of aluminium as powerful as desktop computers were just six years ago. Any kind of information we wish to know is near instantly available at a tap or a swipe. The biggest perceived hardship I’ve ever had to deal with, or as they’re now colourfully referred to: “first world problems,” is when Apple’s iCloud servers go down for a couple of hours and my documents no longer sync. It’s okay to laugh because it’s both true and sad.

Life is ephemeral. You know it, I know it, and the universe knows it. Everything is in a constant state of conception and decay, from microscopic organisms to higher forms of intelligent life; it’s one harmonious and cohesive experience. I don’t hold a belief in any deities or what some may consider an afterlife or higher state of consciousness. But that doesn’t matter. Perhaps you believe in the human soul and that after death you’ll be redeemed in the eyes of a higher power. Whatever it is, there’s one principle that I like to think we can all agree on: There is no better time than now to live in the moment. If this sounds familiar, it’s likely because you’ve heard this before, perhaps by a close friend or from one of those life coaches who we continue to throw money at. Either way, now is a tremendous time to take stock of our life’s priorities.

It’s a fact that there’s a large majority of people on this planet that have done very little traveling, if not haven’t left the borders of their home town. Doesn’t that sound crazy? Look, I’m not here to tell you how to run your life. The entire reason why I’m speaking today is to provide some sense of catharsis for myself as I ruminate on the death of my grandmother. Death is something that I think about on a regular basis, sometimes almost daily. The entire notion to me that all of the knowledge I’ve acquired, all of life’s experiences, simply dematerialize after I’m gone? Frankly, that frightens me. What concerns me even more, is that I’m preoccupied with the idea that I won’t make any kind of significant contribution or impact in the world, or for that matter, in anyone’s life.

My observation of most people—not excluding myself—is that we’re too caught up in the day-to-day mundane. Rarely do we stop and take a moment to tell someone close to us how much they mean to us. It’s something that I truly believe we should all be cognizant of. Over the last five years I’ve purposefully made an effort to be more introspective. I’m well aware of my many flaws and I think that keeps me awake enough to realize that sometimes it feels good to put down my phone and make real, meaningful connections with other human beings: friend, family or otherwise.

I admit I haven’t fully experienced life as I want to. Not all goals have been met, nor countries visited. Often I hear people say how small our world really is—sure that may be true to some degree if you compare this tiny spec of rock in an ever expanding universe with billions of other galaxies left to explore. And yet, through the lens of individual eyes, our world is just big enough that a sizeable portion of us will barely scratch the surface of it.

Hopefully I can impart one thing to you: We’re all somebody’s child. No matter how much time we devote to seeing an ailing parent or sibling, there will always be feelings of guilt. I didn’t quite do enough. If only I had visited them the day before. The truth is, we all die alone—the one thing we share as a species, irrespective of race or age, is this.

I think parents ultimately take solace in that they raised their offspring in the best possible way they could, always hoping they’re sons and daughters will aspire to even greater things. In some small way, parents live on by proxy through their children; their life lessons leaving an indelible mark on us all.

The Uncomfortable Silence of Space

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is widely heralded as one of the most seminal pieces of science fiction ever seen on the big screen. I feel like I’m the last person on Earth to have watched this film. I feel like I missed the world’s greatest party. All of my friends talk about it. Friends of friends talk about it. This year I put an end to this by allocating a few hours of the night to watch it.

Embarking on a journey of immense proportion, it seemed apropos to see a space movie in the blackness of night. Lights switched to the off position, I put away my iPhone and inserted the Blu-Ray disc. I waited. The eerie music commenced and my eyes were veiled in darkness. A couple of minutes elapsed and I then I began to worry that the Blu-Ray player in my PlayStation had packed it in. I removed the disc from the player and began to check for scratches or grooves that would otherwise cause a playback issue—there were none. I suspected that perhaps this awkward silence may have been intentional after all. Sure enough, after doing some searching on Amazon, I read some comments from others that confirmed my belief.

This isn’t intended as a review of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but more like passing commentary and observations. At a run time of 160 minutes, by modern day standards, it’s not an exceedingly long picture. Perhaps by 1968 standards, it was. The pacing seems slow at first, but having seen it in its entirety, it builds just the right amount of unsettling silence and tension in all the areas that count.

2001 is bereft of dialogue, but it makes up for it in ambiance. Often minutes at a time, all the viewer may hear is mechanical noise or heavy breathing. This was not easy for me to see. Why do I need to watch a mundane docking sequence that lasts for minutes at a time? Modern day cinema has spoiled me with its over abundance of explosions and lack of depth, thoughtfulness, ambiance, and contemplative elements.

I get it now. It’s all deliberate. Through uncomfortable silence, you become unnerved. Kubrick puts you right in the boots of those astronauts as best as he can, by eliminating unnecessary sound effects and superfluous music. Kubrick didn’t need to compensate for lack of atmosphere, nor build artificial tension with music; you felt it because every scene that appears mundane is equally important as the crucial plot points.

I don’t think I’ve quite parsed all of the nuances of this film on the first watch and suspect it will take many more before it does.