Why Vintage Audio?

Nearly 500 years ago, civilization was said to be in a “dark age.” We think of that era as a rather undesirable time in which to live and have appropriately named it so. The renaissance took shape soon after, and bridged the gap to modern times. Now, we enjoy daily what our ancestors would have only dreamed of. Even so, I can’t help but wonder what I have missed. If it was so undesirable to live in those times, then who would want to visit the past, if such technology were available? As much as we have gained I can’t help but wonder what we have lost.

Being an audiophile, I pose the question: Why even do vintage audio? Everything we have today is all we need. What we have now can do everything that anything we used to have could do and more. Isn’t doing vintage audio like going back to the dark ages? Why would you want to do that?

If you could hop into a time machine to last century and check out the music scene, you could look at the era more objectively and compare it with our own. What do you think you would find? If you played 5 songs from pre-2000 era mixed up with 5 current tracks, even if you had never heard them before, you would probably notice some patterns. The 5 pre-2000-mixed songs would sound different than post 2000. It would be hard to describe the individual differences, but in general you could come up with some good points about both groups, not just the current music. There would be extraordinary elements irrespective of which group the song came from.

Now, if only you could have a song with the best of both worlds in one song, what would you get? What if all the exceptional characteristics of every song in the history of music could come together? What exactly would it sound like when all these powers combine? It would sound great! That’s exactly what vintage audio is all about. Finding the extraordinary and weeding out the ordinary.

Audio gear improves year after year as makers close the gap between current offerings and the ideal. As the old is replaced with the new, the sound coming out of the studio changes. A trained ear can tell what era a song is from just by listening for the clues and even an untrained ear can sense “differences”. These differences are generally considered bad shortly after their demise, but by and by our perception changes.  After a while everyone is accustomed to the new sound. It becomes the norm, and interestingly, it starts to lose its glamour. So the search for something different begins. You may find that the “character” of an older piece of gear degrades your sound in a good way, or even a bad way that works in a good way for your particular song!

You see, somewhere along the way in the name of progress we got rid of some things by accident. New music sounds more and more perfect every year, but that doesn’t always translate into “better.” Often it does, but sometimes not. These unique corner cases or exceptions can be amazing discoveries!

The goal of the vintage musician, then, is to go back in time and find these unique treasures and return them to the present. Together with the modern, they unite, create something cool and unique, something better.

So, no. Retro audio isn’t about going back to the dark ages and staying there. It’s about going full circle and coming back to the light. If you can successfully bring a tarnished gem into the future and restore it with a new modern sheen, the reaction you get from your fans can be overwhelmingly positive.

The Ordinary

An ordinary man sits at a window-facing bar in an ordinary city in the middle of the day. Aside his laptop rests a rather ordinary coffee cup. What is the weather like? Nothing unusual. This is not an uncommon scene actually. He’s just another blogger in a coffee shop. He types away frantically in an attempt to energize and inspire his readers. Thousands of blogs are read daily by millions, who are searching, for something cool, something different, something unique. But the unique, by definition must be rare. Deep down inside we lament the sad truth. Mundane is the norm.

At first a reader may see something amazing, the excitement is really there. Links are exchanged among friends and a new passion is born, but as time moves along, slowly, the excitement erodes. An unseen force or just life perhaps, slowly eats away the passion, until the excitement fades.  What is this horrible destroyer of the extraordinary? Can it be stopped?

Life will always take a toll. The ordinary will always demand its tax from the extraordinary, but not to the degree you would think. Things are not what they seem. An ordinary man, might not be so usual. This might not be just some average city. That coffee cup may not be so ordinary either. Maybe it’s not even coffee at all.

What do you actually know about people, things, and life? If you dig deeper, you may conjecture that reality itself conceals more than you ever thought possible, and you would be right.

For every question you may have, for every longing, every yearning – no matter how difficult it may be to obtain – there is an answer. Your first step down the path of wanting to gratify your passion will more than overcome the force of erosion working against you. Life is only as usual as you make it, so what are you waiting for?  The ordinary has never been so unusual…

Crafting a Retro PC

Seer Systems Reality is an excellent sounding piece of software, but picking the right hardware to run it is tough. Getting the right operating system installed and working right is a journey in and of itself. A treacherous journey it may be, but the reward at the end is just so cool, who can resist? I wonder how many people have just given up and assumed it to be no longer possible with currently available hardware. Impossible? Well, almost. [In pirate voice] Narrow be the path and few there be that find it!

Now, I could keep this a secret mind you and make you buy my PCs. This would be great! I love building PCs, but something about that just doesn’t feel right. I want as many people as possible to enjoy this wonderful piece of software, no matter how they wish proceed with it. The do-it-yourself’er will not be left in the dark.

The Hardware

You need a motherboard that has drivers for at least one non NT-based version of windows. These are Windows Millenium, 98 and 95, nicknamed Win9x. The CPU should be an Intel for best results although AMD will work with a slight performance hit. There are also some other chips on your main board that handle memory access, I/O with hard disks, PCI bus and USB. These chips are called a chipset. If you have on board graphics, then your video is also part of your chipset. Intel chipsets seem to be the most prominent and work very well for Reality up to the Intel 865g chipset for onboard graphics. Anything above 865 up to Intel 925 should work if you have video card drivers. Beyond that you’re out of luck. An 865g chipset seems to be a good choice with its built-in video. If you find something more retro, it can be easier to configure and provide better latency. For example, the Intel 440bx chipset is one of the easiest to work with. Pentium 4 CPU’s are not supported by 440bx, but Pentium III’s can still be quite fast.

Your sound card needs to be a PCI or ISA card with working win9x drivers. PCI Express sound cards don’t have drivers. On board sound sometimes works, but drivers are often poorly done. You are a lot more likely to run into problems. Professional cards are preferable, but must support directsound. ASIO is irrelevant for running Reality. Digital out plus directsound really limits the options available. An m-audio card from the delta series is pretty much your only readily available choice for PCI. The others are quite rare. If you have an older system with ISA slots then you have a few more options, the AWE64 gold being your best one for its fully functional digital output.

If you don’t care as much about digital output, a very nice analog card for Reality is the Ensoniq AudioPCI (aka the ES1370). These cards can have issues on some chipsets though. I would recommend an intel i845 or older for this particular card. The intel 865g chipset in the Dell GX270 for example will crackle in Reality with this card. There are newer versions of this card such as the ES1371 and ES1373. One of the problems with these newer versions is the hardware change from 44.1khz sampling rate to 48khz. This may cause sample-rate conversion for you in the AudioPCI driver. If it does, the sound quality will suffer. Even though you are outputting an analogue signal, the conversion still happens. It has to do with the cost savings of only supporting one sampling rate in hardware while allowing software to “see” multiple sampling rates. This is not to say that sample-rate conversion is always bad, but in a sound card driver from the 1990s the sample rate conversion is not going to be sophisticated. The conversion happens in software (in the driver as I said) and is optimized for speed over quality. Admittedly, Reality might actually support 48khz and select it automatically and output in that format directly thus removing the need to convert, but I can’t confirm that is what happens. That is why I say just use the ES1370 and be safe. It’s usually only about $8 on ebay.

You need to have a midi interface if you’re going to have a controller keyboard or your main computer driving Reality. The m-audio Audiophile 2496 cards have built-in midi, and the AWE64 gold can accept midi input through a joystick port adapter cable. Otherwise, you’ll need an external interface. USB midi interfaces don’t seem to work in win9x. I would love to be proved wrong in this area, though. Also most USB midi interfaces are not known for having great midi timing. As such, I like to use parallel port midi interfaces for this purpose. The Midi Quest 2port SE goes for about $30 used on ebay.

Operating System

Once you have all the hardware, you’re now ready to start setting up the operating system. You’ll need an install CD of one of these versions of windows: Windows Millenium, Windows 98 second edition, Windows 98, Windows 95 (version a or b). One thing to consider is the age of your hardware. To use an older version of windows you tend to need an older version of hardware. Don’t try to install windows 95 on a Dell GX270. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but you’ll run into problems.

To complete the installation, you’ll need a license key, too. Make sure it is legal. You need to have the Certificate of Authenticity to prove that you are the legal owner. Just insert the CD into the CD-ROM drive (hopefully you have one of those) and turn on the machine. Sometimes you need to press a key to tell the computer you want to boot from something other than your hard drive. On a Dell PC you press the F2 key on startup to select a boot device.

There are many guides online that document how to install Win9x.  Basically, though, you just need to answer the questions and move on through the install. Once you have completed installation, Windows will try to detect your hardware and may ask you for driver disks. Make sure you have drivers burned onto CD for your hardware.

You will also need the latest version of DirectX installed. You can get this from Microsoft’s web site. The latest that supports Win9X is DirectX 9.0c.

After all this, you’re ready to insert the Seer Systems Reality CD and follow the instructions. I recommend installing all of the extra soundbanks. You’ll want those.

There are a few tweaks you’ll want to do to make sure that you’ll get good sound that won’t crackle:

  • Disable Power options in control panel or use always on.
  • Turn off virtual memory if you have at least 256mb installed.
  • Remove all networking services except the bare minimum that you need for TCP/IP. This means removing “Client for Microsoft Networks” and File Sharing, etc.
  • Download the program CacheMan and optimize all of your caches.
  • Make sure DMA is enabled on your hard drives.
  • Disable any hardware in Device Manager that you don’t need/use.

If you have a pro sound card, tweak the buffer settings to the lowest buffer size possible. High buffer settings can actually confuse Reality sometimes and cause cracking. Reality is smart enough to do its own buffering, so leave the buffer to Reality. Also, make sure that Reality is configured with the Directsound version of drivers for you sound card. Select the MIDI interface in the MIDI source drop down. There is a play button that plays the demo song. Push this button for a quick test. If all goes well, you should hear a really great tune.

After that, you’re ready to start enjoying Reality. Just make sure your controller keyboard is plugged in and start playing! If you’re having problems, I’d love to hear from you. I’ve got solutions. Otherwise, you will certainly be developing some great opinions about this awesome synth very soon. Let me know what you think!

The Return of a Seer’s Tool

What does a seer use to hear the unseen? Ancient seers have used many tools: horns of beasts, timbrels, bells, springs and strings – all with mystical properties. The most important tool, however, is a seer’s hands. Even the roughest of instruments can be made to sing at the hands of a mystic prophet.

If I had lived in times of old among J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel, the tools of the times would not have been limiting at all, but perhaps liberating. A shorted audio cable might have been a thick stringed instrument. Audio dropouts might have been short moments of silence in a four part chorale, not heinous cacophonies, the perpetrators of which are fortunate to have never crossed my path.

But times change, and technical difficulties afflict humankind in the quest for art. The fluid substance of artistic thought is oft interrupted with the unexpected turbulence of technical calamity. Fluidity of thought and oneness with art are rarities that must be fought for.

I will continue my fight, as my favorite software synthesizer slowly slips away on the horizon – trapped in the past – trapped there by Microsoft those many years ago. This special seer’s tool, is not forever to be left in times past, but will be brought back to ubiquity.

Reality Desktop Low Latency PC

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This Reality PC is a small form factor unit with ultra low latency. You have to hear what this synthesizer sounds like! What you get is a very retro sounding synthesizer with a warm analog vibe.

The unit includes analog outputs and integrated MIDI for connection to your controller keyboard. Here’s what Reality looks like.

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Just plug in your other gear and go. You’ll need a monitor. After that, all you have to do is flip on the power switch to start using Reality. You can use Synergy to control Reality with the mouse and keyboard of another PC.

mididin_black_smThe breakout cable also has MIDI connectors.  Both inputs and outputs are available.

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The unit has no spinning hard drive. Instead, a 16GB compact flash card is used with an adapter board. It’s like having a solid state hard drive.

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The unit has all of the features you need to get going with Reality quickly.

Click here to purchase this item!

Reality Desktop w/ Digital i/o

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This Reality PC is a small form factor unit with “no compromises” on sound. You have to hear what this synthesizer sounds like! Get yourself a really good DAC. What you get is a very retro sound without the “old skool” compromises on quality. It’s unique to say the least.

gx270_2_dark_smThe unit includes both digital and analog outputs and integrated MIDI for connection to your controller keyboard. The analog outputs can be seen on the expansion card on the back of the unit.

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Just plug in your other gear and go. You’ll need a monitor. After that, all you have to do is flip on the power switch to start using Reality. You can use Synergy to control Reality with the mouse and keyboard of another PC. A digital optical cable is recommended for inputing into your main PC or other gear.
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The digital out is available via the breakout cable provided, and there’s even a digital input, too.

mididin_black_smThe breakout cable also has MIDI connectors.  Both inputs and outputs are available.

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The unit has no spinning hard drive. Instead, a 16GB compact flash card is used with an adapter board. It’s like having a solid state hard drive.

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The unit has all of the features you need to get going with Reality quickly.

Click here to purchase this item!

Reality Panel PC w/ Digital I/O

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For the more flexible budget, we offer a Reality appliance. This unit includes hardware for mounting into a console.  For mounting in a rack, hardware can be ordered separately.  The unit has a 12″ screen and is smaller and lighter than it looks in the pictures.  Having a built-in monitor increases portability and convenience.  The construction quality is quite solid.

Below you can see Reality while it plays a demo:

axiomtek_on_smOn the back you can see that MIDI and digital audio are available via a breakout cable:

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Analog i/o is also available directly on the unit (not visible above).  PS/2 mouse and keyboard, parallel, serial, and USB ports are all available.

This item is currently out of stock!  Contact us if interested.

See completed eBay listing.

Reality Tower w/ Digital I/O

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This Reality PC was envisioned to be affordable without making compromises on sound.  It includes both digital and analog outputs and a MidiQuest 2Port/SE box for connection to your controller keyboard.

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Just plug in your other gear and go. You’ll need a monitor. After that, all you have to do is flip on the power switch to start using Reality. You can use Synergy to control Reality with the mouse and keyboard of another PC. A digital optical cable is recommended for inputing into your main PC or other gear.

Here are the analog and digital outputs on the back of the unit (just below the network card).

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The unit has all of the features you need to get going with Reality quickly.

Click here to see the completed listing