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The life and times of james Hart: his family, his music, life in Luton and his occasional escapes onto the internet.

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Monday, 28 July 2008

Haircut, breakage and general relaxation!

Another week over - a new week begins, and a few things to report.. the first is Eleanor's new look. Since it's summer, she asked if she could have shoulder-length hair. Beth (rather reluctantly) acceded to this request, and - as you can see - she looks much older, but just as cute! Here are some before/after photos!

Broken Sony headphones..It's been another busy week at work, and in a rush to get to a job, I managed to stand on one of my beloved in-ear headphones.. disaster! They are, unfortunately, not designed to be dismantled, so unless someone invents some glue that actually sticks plastic together, I'm sad to say they're now an 'in-one-ear' headphone.. fortunately I have a spare set that I'm now using. Something of a disaster!

I guess I don't update this blog so often at the moment because I link to interesting sites I encounter on my Twitter... I've been doing some work in the studio, but the list of projects I should be working on is showing no signs of dwindling!

Trev's coming down in the next couple of weeks, so I'm hoping we can capitalise on that and get all the recording done. Then I will be knuckling down and sorting out some editing and sound effects. I'm intending August to be a month of productivity and focus - I plan to give up many of the distractions, such as Facebook and many mailing lists, and cut down on Twitter and instant messaging. Oh, and no computer games! After completing the amazing Portal (at risk of repeating myself - I can't remember writing a blog post about it!) with no argument, it's my favourite computer game of all; Christopher loves it, too - after playing all of the challenge levels, we downloaded some further maps using an application called Gameshadow.. and he's spent some happy afternoons working through the cheats! The best bit is that it's non-combative, so I have no qualms about him playing it.. unlike HalfLife 2, which I started and couldn't resist using up several evenings getting about halfway through it. I'm hoping to be tenacious about giving it up for August!

Back to work tomorrow... we have had a lovely, relaxing weekend, culminating in a visit to some family friends in North London, where we all enjoyed a barbecue and a kickabout. I'm writing this at a 'fun with food' summer holiday event at Lenni's school, where the children have the chance to make all kinds of things - edible and artistic - with food. We're really fortunate to be in a town that offers Family Workers at the schools - an excellent use of our Council Tax, I feel - it would be great if the idea caught on.

We're also off to see WALL´┐ŻE at the cinema this afternoon - the children's first experience in front of the big screen, which will be exciting for them (and probably quite loud!) and all too soon, the long weekend will be over, and I'll be back to work in the morning. It's lovely to have a 'bonus day' with the children, though - definitely one of the benefits of the summer holidays!

Link of the day:

  • www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/eurekayears : I've long been an admirer of Adam Hart-Davis, and this is something of a hidden gem - a half-hour programme dealing with a year picked out of history for its developments and discoveries. We tend to 'Listen Again' to it on a Saturday morning... a great (and educational!) way to start the weekend!

Posted by james at 5:37 PM

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Adding microphones to church sound reinforcement - economically!

In an attempt to reduce the use of our vicar's lapel radio microphone at church, since it gets through 9 volt batteries at a terrifying rate, I made some plans to put static microphones on the lectern (moving the existing gooseneck microphone to the pulpit) and the altar, since that's where a fair amount of the action happens.

Fortunately, there were enough inputs to the main amplifier to accommodate new microphones; even better, both the lectern and pulpit already had cabling to them. So, the challenge was to find some reasonably economical microphones and an easy way to run a new lead from the altar.

I'm well aware that purists and many professionals are extremely dismissive of Behringer equipment, since it tends to be very inexpensive but I already have a few bits, and have no complaints with the quality or performance (save for a little ire at the LED backlight on their cheapo valve mic pre-amp!). You're not going to get top-studio sound out of that equipment, but often that's more down to the character of the 'boutique' equipment, rather than any small increase in noise and distortion (since modern design has helped to reduce them simply and significantly) from the cheaper kit.

I popped to Charing Cross Road and Denmark Street in central London a couple of weeks back and a small shop called Rockstop Music helpfully sold me a pair of Behringer C2 small diaphram condenser microphones (designed to be used as a matched stereo pair) for £45 - amazing, given their sensitivity. With five pounds worth of accessories from Maplin (a little gooseneck and a desk stand; the microphones already come with a clip and small popshield), the lectern microphone was a job quickly, and easily done.

For the cabling, I was a little creative - since the PA takes a balanced signal, I thought it might be interesting (and again, very economical, since there was an offcut remaining from work) to see if I could use some CAT-5 network cable to take the low-level audio the 40 metres to the amplifier input. Since the elements of the cable are already twisted, this presented something of an opportunity, if it worked!

My intention was to use one colour, which is normally twisted as a pair, for the signal; orange for 'hot', orange/white for 'cold', then use both brown and brown/white for 'ground' and the remainder for the 'shield'. It seemed to work - at 22pF/m, capacitance at nominal 600 ohms isn't an issue for frequency response, and it was very quiet, too, with no hum induced from the long run. Add to that the neutral colour of the cable and, for little more than £50, (or ten Duracell batteries!) both microphones have made a very beneficial difference, and, with their cardioid pattern, give really good audio coverage - mainly where the books are, so most likely to be used!

Behringer C2 on the lecternBehringer C2 on the lectern

Posted by james at 10:17 PM

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Daily Photo of the Day : hoop-la!

Once again, the main route near which our road lies was closed for the weekend; it's really rather odd that it's taken so long to do (three weekends so far!) since it seems they've just increased the size of the roundabout (see before/after shots below) and resurfaced the roadway either side of it.

At various times during the past days there's been a loud, insistent whirring - much like a vacuum cleaner - so Lenni, Chris and I decided to investigate. It seems that, once the asphalt/tarmac has been laid, it needs to be cleaned, and a road sweeper made a slow pilgrimage from one end of the recently laid patch to the other.

The children enjoyed watching from the top of the footbridge - but work stopped briefly for tea, and I managed to capture this rather entertaining photo. Now we know what road maintenance workers do during their break!

Photo of the day: hoop-la!
(click for bigger)


Roundabout - before and after

roundabout : before
roundabout : before
roundabout : after
roundabout : after

Posted by james at 5:39 PM


Christopher had his birthday party yesterday - since he turns nine years old at the beginning of August, we decided that he'd have a better chance of some of his school and Cub friends turning up to a party if we had it right at the end of the school term.

We decided to hold the party at Dell Farm - a farm that's run by Luton Borough Council. a great idea, since schools arrange week long trips there during the course of the year, with various interesting activities, including a walk along the Whipsnade hills, climbing and, of course, tending to the animals there.

One of the unique points, though, is a small network of man-made "caves" underneath one of the fields - it was this that formed the theme to the party. The children absolutely loved it; the man appointed to run the party was charismatic and friendly, and even the most nervous of them - who came with severe reservations about entering the caves at all - had great fun. I'd certainly recommend it, even though I was just a little too big to fit through the narrowest set of tunnels!

The weather held out for much of the afternoon, but even that didn't matter too much, since the party was in a barn, and we were able to shelter there and have a bit of a dance when the rain interrupted our tour of the farm. Unfortunately, though, I forgot my camera (oops!) so the rather fuzzy photo below is the only evidence of the fun we had, shortly after we'd left the caves - with everyone surviving!

after the caving party!
After the caving party...

Posted by james at 5:19 PM

Sunday, 13 July 2008

A new Discovery!

It's not often that there's something to shout about in Luton, but the newly opened Discovery Centre at Stockwood Park has really impressed me. Although the official opening was yesterday, by the time we had got ourselves prepared for the day (Saturday mornings are traditionally fairly easy-going!) the rain had arrived, so we postponed our visit till today; Trev and the girls came down mid-morning yesterday, too, so it was great to be able to go with them, too.

Although there was a constant flow of people arriving at the place, which was cleverly designed to annex the existing walled garden and parkland of Stockwood Park museum, it wasn't too busy, meaning the children could easily play on the modern equipment there and enjoy the attractions that surrounded it, such as the bee exhibition - which was attended by the Beekeeper, who was engaging and informative, with answers to all those questions that I'd been waiting to ask! - and miniature garden displays vaunting the benefits of small-scale crop growing, including companion planting and all sorts of other terms that I'd first learned on the fine Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast!

The sun was hot - the closest to a traditional July day that we've come so far this year - so we didn't stay too long, but there is no doubt we'll be returning, since it's a fantastic place to take the children. I've always believed that Stockwood Park (certainly in the warmer months) is one of the highlights of Luton, so this has served to further emphasize it on the list of 'places to take visitors' - and it's certainly a reason to come to the town, now.

And so the last week of the school term starts tomorrow.. I've got a few bits and pieces to sort out at Dad's (not least a long-awaited re-install of his laptop.. don't get me started on Microsoft Office 2003!) and then Beth and I are hoping to spend a couple of hours in the garden, just getting it tidied up. The displays at the park have inspired us.. it's our ultimate aim to make it a combination of somewhere for the children to be comfortable (so hopefully getting rid of the Leylandii that border it, since both Beth and Lenni are allergic!) and a habitat for nature.. just not cats (I've recently invested in an ultrasonic cat repeller to try and prevent them from leaving their deposits on the vegetable garden.. eugh!)

So I shall close now, with a couple of photos of the children enjoying the facilities at the Discovery Centre... there are - as always - more in the gallery.

Lenni, climbing - as always!
The bee exhibition
The 'composting' activity

Posted by james at 9:55 PM

Monday, 7 July 2008

Two weekends (with work in the middle!)

The last couple of weekends have seen something of a contrast, with an intense couple of days in the studio a week ago, and plenty of time out and about yesterday and today.

My dear friend Vikki (singer of 'Shopping High') came down for a visit; we had a couple of projects to work on, the first being a rendition of Sunshine On Leith by The Proclaimers; it's intended to be the theme to a multimedia project she is working on at the moment.

Since there aren't that many good backing tracks for this (relatively obscure) track, I set about creating my own, and I think it went quite well. Since I've been following the Audio Masterclass course, I am hoping that my production skills have improved somewhat, with clearer sound in general and a better blend of instruments.. here are excerpts of the original, my backing and the full version of the final cut.

the original version

proclaimers-sunshineonleith-48k.mp3 (300kB MP3 excerpt @ 48kbps)

my instrumental version

jamelopoeia-sunshineonleithinst.mp3 (1.3MB MP3 excerpt @ 192kbps)

Vikki's vocal version

jamelopoeia-sunshineonleith.mp3 (1.1MB MP3 excerpt @ 192kbps)

We also made some good progress on a rock song I composed last year, but haven't done much with. 'Take Me With You' is intended to be a richly instrumented quasi-gothic arrangement, with lots of strings, vocals and guitars. After a couple of (rather necessary!) tempo changes as I developed it - from too slow, through unplayably fast, to 'just right' Vikki laid down some guide vocals to give the song a better melodic basis that I think will help wrap the rest of it around it..

Here's the original as I wrote it - well, at least some of it! I worked on the middle-eight chord and melody shortly before Vikki arrived!

the originally composed version

jamelopoeia-takemewithyoudraftinst.mp3 (1.1MB MP3 excerpt @ 96kbps)

the first attempt - a little too fast!

jamelopoeia-takemewithyou-fastinst.mp3 (1.1MB MP3 excerpt @ 192kbps)

...and here is the basic version we recorded!

jamelopoeia-takemewithyou-vocal.mp3 (5.8MB MP3 @ 192kbps)

While the microphones were all plugged in and the mixer set up (mostly! I kept on having to reconfigure the AUX/STEREO output to send pre-faded headphone feeds) to record, we worked on some cover versions of karaoke classics ('Days' by Kirsty MacColl, 'What's Up' by 4 Non Blondes and others) and the weekend soon disappeared. It was excellent practice for me - and a much-needed return to the studio, since I've not done any music in a long time.

The weekend that's just gone has been a family one; Beth had an OU tutorial on Saturday morning, so the rest of us descended on my Dad - Lenni loves Bella (his golden retriever) and it's always good to catch up with him. We have the promise, during the school holidays, of setting up some miniature rockets that we can launch and then run after as they descend to earth - hopefully with a parachute!

Beth and the children at Christopher's school summer feteAfter lunch we went to Christopher's school fête. Beth was helping run a stall, so we popped over to see her on occasion to show what the children had bought and won - token things, really, but isn't that what it's all about? Fortunately, the rain dried up for the afternoon, so we were able to play out on the green at the front until teatime. That was that last of the dry weather, though, and Sunday was an 'indoor' day; I worked on an XP rebuild for Dad's laptop (I'm still surprised they ever dispatched them with 256MB of memory.. it gets eaten up so quickly!) It's awaiting an order from Ebuyer to make it wi-fi capable, and then it's back over to him to finish writing his memoirs...

The weekend's now but a memory, and tomorrow marks my return to work - the rainy season is here at the moment, so I'll be wearing my coat! Later this week I'm taking a trip to Worcestershire to lead the second half of another course.. hopefully I'll be able to recall what I did last time! Non-stop fun and action, as always.

Posted by james at 10:16 PM

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