Sunday, 13 December 2020

Behringer RD-8

Let's have a look at the Behringer RD-8, a modern-day clone of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. The TR-808 used analogue circuits to generate a bunch of percussion sounds, and so does the RD-8, but whereas the TR-808 is a valuable antique that has been out of production for thirty-seven years the RD-8 is only a few months old and is keenly-priced, retailing for around £290 or so.

What's it like? Is it any good? Can it cure erectile dysfunction? Let's have a look. Physically it has a metal base, plastic end-cheeks, possibly a metal top - could be polymer, I'm not sure - but it fits together well and doesn't creak. I was struck by its size. It's much bigger than I expected:

In this picture it's sitting next to a Korg Volca Beats, which is also modelled on the 808. Over the years there have been lots of 808-style drum machines, but as far as I can tell the RD-8 is the first attempt to directly clone the original as a desktop module. Roland makes no less than three 808-style drum machines - the TR-8, TR-08, and TR-8S - which use a mixture of virtual synthesis and samples to model the 808, but the company consistently refuses to re-release their older instruments in unmodified form and the 808 is no exception.

Is there any reason to own a physical 808 in 2020? Or a drum machine at all? Why not use samples and a bunch of MIDI knobs? On a rational level there is no reason, but the RD-8 makes a good case for itself because the interface is generally painless and it's a fun performance tool. It also adds some features that didn't appear in the original 808 and are awkward to implement with a sequencer. The RD-8 has a huge front panel with a bunch of easily-tweakable knobs, plus the outputs and trigger outputs play well with outboard gear, and of course what if you don't want to gig with a laptop?

The RD-8 apparently sounds just like an 808, which is to say awesome, although the tuning of some instruments isn't quite the same. I don't own a TR-808 so I can't directly compare. Roland claims that the 808's fizzy sound came about because the machines used a batch of out-of-spec transistors that are now impossible to source, but whatever the truth of this Behringer seems to have had no trouble emulating the original.

The general arrangement of the panel owes a lot to the 808, although the backlit instrument select buttons and LED status display are new. The original 808 had an instrument select knob instead. One of the most interesting new features is PROBability, which assigns a random chance of triggering to individual notes, but POLY is also good for live fills.

The original 808 was launched in 1980. It replaced the earlier CR-78, which was a little wooden box that was simultaneously awesome-awesome and naff-awesome. The CR-78 had preset Bossa Nova and Samba rhythms, but there was a starkly minimalist coldness to the drum sounds that appealed greatly to contemporary Cold Wave bands. It's all over John Foxx's Metamatic, e.g.:

The CR-78 was mostly aimed at well-heeled home and amateur musicians who needed something to jam with, but the 808 was designed as a flagship professional drum machine for studio professionals. It was one of the first drum machines with a comprehensive, editable sequencer, and unlike the CR-78 it had programmable patterns that could be arranged into a complete song.

In theory it should have been a huge hit, but it had the misfortune to be released at the same time as the Linn LM-1, which totally overshadowed it. The Linn LM-1 used digital samples of actual drums, and although it sold in tiny quantities - just over five hundred units - LM-1s were snapped up by the world's top recording studios. What does the LM-1 sound like? Check out The Human League's "Don't You Want Me", or Michael Jackson's Thriller, or indeed the vast majority of mainstream synth-pop from 1980-1984 or so.

Back in the day the 808 was used prominently on Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and Phil Collins' "One More Night", but I have the impression that for mainstream pop producers in the early 1980s its obviously synthetic sound made it a novelty rather than a viable instrument. I'm fairly sure it's also on Altered Images' "Love to Stay", which I point out purely so that this blog post can have Clare Grogan in it:

I'd like to say "that's enough of Clare Grogan", but you can never have enough of Clare Grogan.

As with the original 808 the RD-8 has a mono master output, plus individual outputs for each part. It also has MIDI in/out/thru, a USB socket, clock in/out, and three trigger outputs, which are by default assigned to accent, handclap, and cowbell, the idea being that you can drive external equipment from a pattern played back by those instruments. In the video below I use the cowbell trigger out to drive a Korg Volca Sample.

The 808 wasn't a complete flop. Roland quotes sales of 12,000 units, which sounds very small today but was impressive for a drum machine costing over $1,000 in the wake of the second oil crisis. It outsold the LM-1, LinnDrum, Oberheim DMX, and E-Mu Drumulator, but it failed to define the sound of mainstream pop music in the early 1980s, and that must have hurt.

There was however a happy ending for the 808. So the story goes the machine found a second life on the used market. As with the Roland TB-303 it fell into the hands of talented DJs and hip-hop musicians who loved its synthetic electronic sound. The TB-303 flourished and then faded away, but the 808 remains ingrained in the fabric of contemporary pop music because there's something definitive about its sound. It's one of the mother sauces of modern music.

The 808's most famous instrument is the kick drum, which is essentially a low-pitched sine wave. With the right processing it's a distinctive pop-pop-pop noise with a solid meaty bass thump underneath it. The snare drum is an assertive white noise "spish" that goes well with everything. A close third is the handclap, which is let down slightly by the fact that it's uncharacteristically realistic; it doesn't have as much character as the Oberheim DMX's handclap, for example.

The rest of the 808's sounds are less distinctive, apart from a peculiar metallic cowbell that sounds nothing like a cowbell, but on the whole the TR-808 generally sits well in a mix. The simple kick drum works as a musical thickener, and it has always been a common practice to pair it with another drum machine, such as Roland's own TR-909, which had a generally cleaner and punchier sound. Older readers might recall Rebirth, the late-1990s virtual instrument that had a pair of TB-303s plus a TR-808, and in later incarnations a TR-909 as well. The TR-808's only major weakness is that the kick drum vanishes on laptop-style speakers, because it's just a low-pitched sine wave.

In a fit of boredom I decided to paint my battered old Power Macintosh G5. This has nothing to do with the rest of the article, I just thought I'd share it.

Ironically the clipped, acoustic-sounding drums of the Linn and the booming snare of the Simmonds SDS-V have dated horribly, whereas the TR-808 has a timeless quality; lots of electronic acts in the 1990s used samples of the TR-808, and it's plastered all over Artificial Intelligence-era Warp Records releases; it fell out of fashion during the Big Beat years in the late 1990s, but came back in force during the unstoppable rise of hip-hop during the 2000s, and since then it hasn't really gone away. If you sit in McDonald's long enough in Britain in 2020 you'll eventually hear skittery 808 hi-hats coming over the tannoy.

Enough of the 808, let's focus on the RD-8. As with the original it has a sequencer that can string together multiple patterns, but it adds some features. The original 808 could store sixteen patterns, which could be arranged into a single song; each pattern was composed of a pair of sixteen-step A and B variations. The RD-8 on the other hand has sixteen songs, each of which stores sixteen patterns, and each pattern can be up to 64 steps long. Each song has its own set of sixteen patterns, so although the unit can store 256 patterns you can't, as far as I can tell, have a song that has more than sixteen different patterns in it (you can however chain songs together).

If you assign a pattern to one of the last four memory slots you can use it as an auto fill pattern, which plays once and then goes back to the pattern you were playing originally. I have to say that so far I have programmed two patterns plus a fill, and the extent of my programming has consisted of generating a short sequence just to see if it works. The original 808 was apparently difficult to sequence and from what I have read most hip-hop musicians back then played it live, entering notes on the fly and switching from the main rhythm to a fill every so often.

There's a switchable, global low-pass/high-pass filter with resonance, plus a compressor that can be applied to individual drum voices. Behringer calls it a "wave designer", but it's a compressor. The filter can be sequenced; the compressor can't. In my experience the compressor is unsubtle and the filter is global, but they're both nice to have:

The filter/compressor are only applied to the mono master out. They don't play through the individual outputs or the headphone output, so presumably Behringer expects you to use your own compressor and filter if you use the RD-8's outputs.

There's an individual step repeat mode that adds little trills, in addition to the live step and note repeat buttons on the front panel. In this sequence I've made the hi-hat go tr-tr-tr:

The polyrhythm function lets you selectively alter the step count of individual parts, so that instead of looping after sixteen steps the selected instrument loops at step (for example). This is one of those features that sounds cool in theory, but I struggled to make use of it until a bit of playing around revealed that it's great for rolling, jazzy-sounding fills:

In that clip I'm simply switching poly mode on an off every few bars. It strikes me that with a lot of work and some added sauce from the probability and random functions the poly mode could be a fiendishly complicated. As mentioned up the page you can set the sequences to loop at 16, 32, 48, and 64 steps, with fast-forward and rewind buttons stepping through sixteen-step pages on the front panel. The RANDom function lets you assign a bunch of instruments to a step, such that the RD-8's little electronic brain picks one instrument at random and plays it on that step, and as mentioned the PROBability function assigns a certain level of probability to individual instrument steps, which is useful for semi-random fills or hi-hat lines.

The multiple outs are shared with the 808. In this sequence I've fed the hi-hats through a stereo flange and the cowbell through reverb:

The RD-8 has both standard MIDI and USB MIDI. It uses one channel, with the notes mapped in a slightly curious way (the kick is C, there's nothing on D and the snare is E, etc), although you can remap them, so there's nothing to stop you plugging your RD-8 into a sampler and using the sequencer to drive other instruments.

I mention MIDI in particular because my Korg Volca Sample - a great drum machine in its own right - spreads its instruments across ten separate MIDI channels. The RD-8 is much more sensible.

Bad stuff? As Sound on Sound's review points out, the probability function is by default activated on each step, which means that when you turn it on your sounds suddenly go crazy until you painstakingly hit every one of the step buttons to turn it off. A later firmware update apparently fixes this, although on my unit it didn't seem to have any effect.

To save a pattern from step mode you have to press PATTERN - SAVE - PATTERN - [pattern number] - SAVE one after the other. Why not just switch to pattern mode and hold down SAVE-[pattern number]? Why bother with the convoluted copy procedure when you could just select e.g. [pattern number 1], and hold down SAVE-[pattern number 2]? Conversely I had no trouble working out how to copy steps 1-16 of a 32-step pattern into steps 17-32, so perhaps the interface was designed by two different people.

In general Behringer gets a lot of stick for releasing clones of other manufacturers' gear rather than innovating in its own right; the Behringer Model D, for example, is essentially a Moog Model D at less than one-tenth the price. The RD-8 is in an odd grey zone whereby it sounds exactly like an 808 and is clearly based on the original, but it adds a bunch of features that differentiate it. My attitude is that Roland could at any point in the last twenty years have re-released the 808, and it would have sold like hot cakes, but they chose not to.

Up the page I mentioned erectile dysfunction. The RD-8 can do nothing for the physical component of ED - it's not heavy enough to cure Peyronie's - but after playing the kick drum through some bassy speakers at 140+bpm I found that it had a considerably beneficial psychological effect. I also noticed improved digestion and a pleasant tingling sensation in my lower limbs. I am not a qualified medical professional and this could of course be entirely coincidental.

In summary, is the RD-8 any good? It's apparently a spot-on recreation of the 808 and it sounds awesome in its own right; the programming is mostly easy with some rough edges, and the addition of balanced outputs and triggers etc lift it up a massive notch from Korg's Volca units. It's also much less noisy. In a live context you'll probably be the object of mockery for owning a cheap clone, and it remains to be seen how it will hold up on the used market - there appear to be absolutely no used models for sale on eBay as I write these words - and on a physical level it takes up a lot of space, but I've had masses of fun playing with mine and I can't imagine getting rid of it.

Behringer is apparently working on a clone of the Roland TR-909. The two instruments complement each other, but the 909 has the advantage of sounding slightly less characterful than the 808 - the 808 has an inherent retro quality whereas the 909 works perfectly well as a "normal" drum machine. The 909, or at least samples of the 909, were used on mainstream pop records well into the 1990s, and it's not especially dated even in 2020. I mention this because if you plan to only buy one drum machine, an 808/RD-8 is an eccentric choice unless you really like electro. Which I do.

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Alesis Microverb II

Let's have a look at the Alesis Microverb II, a budget-priced effects box from 1988. It's a 16-bit stereo digital reverb unit that sold for around £200 when it was new, at a time when digital reverbs typically cost three times that. There was a whole line of Microverbs, beginning with the original Microverb of 1986, then continuing with the Microverb III of 1991 and the Microverb 4 of 1996, by which time everybody wanted Alesis' own Quadraverb instead, so the line came to an end.

The Microverb was aimed at bedroom studio producers, but the form factor was such that it could easily be taken on the road as well. As a consequence the units I have seen tend to be either chipped and battered or mint-with-box-plus-original-PSU. Physically it feels like a solid chunk of metal. Nothing rattles although the pots crackle a bit. I need to get hold of some switch cleaning spray.

Alesis was founded in 1984. The company initially majored in digital effects boxes, but it branched out with the sample-based HR-16 and SR-16 drum machines and the popular ADAT multi-channel digital audio tape system of the 1990s. For a while ADAT was a big thing and as far I know it's the only digital tape system ever mentioned in song by The Prodigy, in the opening lines of "Diesel Power".

The Microverb has 16 non-editable presets. Reverb only, no delay. You can change the ratio of dry/wet but that's about it. There's a single LED that glows green (all is good), yellow (the incoming signal is cool) and red (the signal is distorting).

Sadly Alesis was not immune to the Great Hardware Apocalypse that hit the world of music production at the turn of the millennium. There was a point in the very late 1990s when Pro Tools and Cubase VST etc hit critical mass, and seemingly overnight the world's recording studios dumped their digital audio hardware in favour of software. Back in 2000, 2001 I remember seeing stacks of Akai samplers and Alesis ADAT machines for sale in Notting Hill's Musical Instrument Exchange, which itself went out of business itself a few years later.

The likes of Lexicon and Dolby managed to survive at the very top end of the market, but Alesis had always targeted the amateur musician. Unfortunately even low-budget bedroom producers were caught up in the Great Hardware Apocalypse. They threw out their Tascam Portastudios and Microverbs in favour of free VST plugins and legitimately-purchased copies of Fruityloops and latterly Albeton Live, leaving Alesis without a market.

The back is equally simple, with individual left and right inputs and outputs. If a mono source is plugged into the left input it comes out as stereo. The defeat plug is for a footswitch that ducks out the reverb. There isn't a discrete power switch.

As a result Alesis filed for bankruptcy in 2001. It recovered and continued as a going concern for at least fifteen years afterwards, but I can't tell if it's still active or not, or whether it develops new products or simply resells stuff made in China. It has a website but it's very spartan.

Let's talk about the Microverb. The first two versions were housed in a small case that was one-third the width of a standard 19" rack, hence the name. There was a family of Alesis Micro effects, including the Micro Limiter, Micro Expander, and Micro Gate. They all had fins on the sides so that three units could be slotted together to form a 19" rackmount unit:

In an example of feature creep the Microverb III and 4 came in standard rackmount cases, so they weren't really micro any more. The real successor of the Microverb was the Nanoverb (1996), which looked very similar to the first two Microverbs and had a similar feature set.

Alesis also sold the half-rack-sized MIDIVerb, which paralleled the Microverb range but had MIDI control. It went through four iterations which were released about a year before the corresponding Microverb.

The first two MIDI/Microverbs require 9v AC power. Suitable adapters are surprisingly hard to come by.

To make things even more awkward the PSU connects to the Microverb with a 3.5mm audio-style jack.

The company's other products included the Quadraverb (1989) and Quadraverb 2 (1993), which had EQ, delay, chorus/flange and reverb, and were generally much more capable machines; the Quadraverb GT included distortion and speaker simulations and was also sold in a compact case as the Wedge. Price-wise the range was roughly £250-350-450 MIDI/Micro/Quad in that order. There were also one-offs such as the MIDIFex preset digital delay unit and the Ineko and Picoverb preset reverb units of 2002/2003 and probably lots of others. For a small fee Quadraverb owners could upgrade their machines into the Quadraverb Plus, which could sample one and a half seconds of audio; curiously the company never released a rackmount sampler, although their Nanopiano and Quadrasynth instruments made extensive use of sampled sounds.

What do they mean today? Apparently a bunch of Warp Records artists from the Artificial Intelligence era used the Quadraverbs, because they were the most flexible cheap reverbs available at the time; the guitarist from Phish regularly has or had a Microverb in his live guitar rig for its backwards reverb effect, and perhaps because of its compact size lots of people on the internet seem to have Microverbs tucked away in a cupboard somewhere. Alas, in common with most other professional digital audio gear from the 1990s Alesis products fall into an awkward place whereby they're not quirky enough to have a retro following but they're less practical than a VST, so what's the point? Some people hanker for the scuzzy sound of 12-bit samplers, but Alesis' gear was mostly 16-bit, 44/48khz, so it doesn't have much inherent sonic character.

But what of the Microverb II? To test it out I recorded a track with it, using a Behringer Model D and a Korg Volca Modular. Each of the five tracks was put through the Microverb at a modest mix setting. The instruments were fed into the Microverb and thence into the audio interface, e.g. I didn't use it as a send effect:

On the bad side the two gate effects aren't very good - the second one sounds too metallic - and most of the sixteen presets feel like variations of each other. Furthermore the unit would have benefited greatly from an EQ knob, or at least a top-end filter, because the reverbs are all very bright. Perhaps it was the fashion back then. With the mix knob turned up above 40% or the reverb takes on an unpleasant ringing tone. It has a "boxy" sound, for want of a better word. I had to do a lot of fiddling with the signal volume, input, and output controls to keep the noise down; if you're a fan of endless sustain compression it's not as noisy as I expected, but it's still noisy.

But on the positive side the reverb is surprisingly transparent at lower mix settings. Essentially the best presets are SMALL 2, which at around 10% thickens out the sound nicely and at higher levels adds a curious but not unpleasant ringing distortion effect; any of the MEDIUM presets, which again at moderate levels thicken out the sound; and LARGE 4, which has a much longer decay than the other presets.

Off the top of my head I used LARGE 4 at around 30% on all of the tracks above. At a higher level the sound becomes an unpleasant swirling mass, but with moderation LARGE 4 generates a nice ambient swoosh.

Now, I don't want to oversell the Microverb II. I bought it mostly as a novelty. I wanted to hear what a 1980s reverb sounded like, and I also fancied the idea of plugging a reverb into another reverb.

I also have a Stymon Bigsky (pictured), which is far more flexible. It has dozens of presets, some of which are very good, and they're all editable. The sound is a lot smoother, and even with the mix level turned up the reverb never seems overpowering; the original sound seems to float over a sea of warm reverb, whereas at higher levels the Microverb feels like sticking your head inside a metal box. In fact let's compare the two:

In that video the Model D section has been fed through a compressor. You can hear the noise at the end of the sustain tail. The Big Sky is fed through the same compressor - I essentially just swapped the two boxes - but is obviously much less noisy, and the reverb is more pleasant.

Still, the Microverb II is better than I expected; at the very least LARGE 4 at a low mix level is a neat ambient thickener. Of course in terms of flexibility the excellent and free Valhalla Supermassive plugin beats it hollow. I sequence with Logic, and I've never been enamoured of Logic's built-in reverbs - there are half a dozen, but none of them stand out - but you can chain them together with multiple effects and EQ plugins with just a few mouse clicks, whereas the Microverb requires cables and a power socket. At this point I'm curious to find out what the Quadraverb sounds like.

Monday, 16 November 2020

MRE Menu 10: Chili and Macaroni

Back in the 1960s rock and roll was only a decade old, and with a very few exceptions there were no old rock stars. Even in the 1980s, when it became impossible to hide the fact that the Rolling Stones et al were middle-aged men, they still weren't all that old in objective terms. Mick Jagger was only 43 in 1985; Don Henley was 38. Their voices had matured, but on the whole they still hadn't lost their range, in fact they were at an age when classical tenors (for example) are still in their prime.

However in the 1990s and 2000s it became obvious that the likes of Paul McCartney and the chaps from ZZ Top couldn't hit the high notes any more. Even in the absence of physical self-abuse the muscles in their vocal cords had weakened and their larynxes and grown stiff.

Some singers try to mask their decline with technology, or backing singers, but I've always been fascinated by musicians who try to adapt their style to work around their physical limitations.

Menu 10 includes the main meal, a beef snack, vegetable crackers, some peppermints (not pictured), trans-fat-free cornbread, a carbohydrate drink, and some cheese spread with jalapenos. And crushed red pepper.

Perhaps the most famous example is Billie Holiday. In her youth she was praised for the intimate character of her voice, and as she aged she managed to compensate for the loss of her upper register with clever phrasing and intonation. By the time of her last album, Lady in Satin (1958), the edges of her voice were ragged, but the album is widely praised as a classic because she picked material that complemented her vocal fragility.

A similar thing happened to Johnny Cash. As a young man he had a powerful baritone, but by the time of his late-90s American Recordings his voice was scratchy and hoarse. Nonetheless producer Rick Rubin resisted the temptation to mask Cash's rough edges with sampling and multi-tracking; instead the albums were recorded in a few takes with just a pair of microphones and a digital tape recorder.

The end result revitalised Cash's career. As an older man his gritty, lived-in voice exuded gravitas, and on the likes of "Hurt" and "I Won't Back Down" the contrast between his younger and older selves gave the songs an added layer of poignancy.

The accessory packet has the typical mix of gum, useless toilet paper, iodized salt, and coffee instant type II, plus some actual sugar (instead of fake sugar).

Some singers even embrace their physical decline. Mark E Smith of The Fall was never a conventionally skilled vocal performer, but as a young man he had an aggressive, sarcastic vocal style that cut through the two-drummer wall of sound of the band's early recordings. However he eventually developed respiratory problems, and for his last decade of recordings he adopted a strangled, hoarse growl of a voice that exuded defiant menace, and today we're going to have a look at MRE Menu 10: Chili and Macaroni.

Does it exude defiant menace? No, it's surprisingly good. Chili and Macaroni is one of the oldest MRE menus. It was introduced in 1995 and has been part of the repertoire ever since. There have been minor variations over the years but since 2015 the menu has stabilised around chilli, a meat snack, crackers, and a cake of some description, plus cheese. It's versatile enough to be eaten in several different ways, although in my opinion it would make more sense to have tortillas than crackers.

Of note the Americans call it chili. Here in the UK it's chilli. As a post-modern joke I briefly contemplated spelling every word in this post with two Ls, but thought better of it because people who start reading half-way through the text would be confused. I love you, dear reader. I want you to remember that I could have hurt you, but chose not to. I want you to remember that.

Let's try out the coffee, instant, type II. It's decent-quality instant coffee, hard rather than smooth.

The spoon had a noticeable curve. I placed it side-by-side with several other MRE spoons and none of them had the same curve. It was too pronounced to be a tolerance issue. Was it damaged in transit? Production variation? Was it the heat?

MREs are shelf-stable meals that are made for the US Armed Forces by Natick Labs of Massachusetts. They were first fielded in the 1980s, when they replaced canned C-Rations, but they didn't enter widespread circulation until the Gulf War of 1991. Several different companies package them, and each meal has some variation in terms of sweets and entrees etc. The very earliest meals had a lot of freeze-dried food, but modern MREs are all "wet", which is useful in the field because soldiers sometimes only have time to squeeze the packets directly into their mouths.

Early MREs had a reputation for awfulness, but as of 2020 they appear to be grudgingly accepted as decent albeit monotonous food mass. Service personnel don't eat them all the time; in fact they are apparently forbidden from eating them for more than twenty-one days in a row, presumably because they don't have much fibre.

Beef jerky. It tastes a bit like Pepperami, but less spicy.

It looks hideous. I would probably look hideous if I fell into a beef mincing machine. Somewhere in the universe there is a planet where cows eat people.

MREs don't make any sense on the civilian market. They're designed to last for five years, perhaps longer in cool conditions, but dried rice will last even longer. For camping or hiking they're too bulky and generate too much plastic waste (more of this later) and just as an occasional treat they're too expensive. They are however a fun novelty.

I've covered the coffee and the beef jerky. Now I'll get the main meal cooking in the FRH:

While that's hissing away I'm going to try out the cornbread. I'll also switch back to the past tense.

Cornbread isn't part of the British diet. I assumed it was a bun of some kind, but it's actually a sweet cake. It's surprisingly good. Not too dry, not too sweet, and it actually tastes of something. I dunked some of it in the coffee, taking care that it didn't break apart. It would go well with cream or jam. If nothing else the MRE people have worked out how to preserve cakes.

I had a poor initial impression of the fruit punch. I've tried it before, and as pictured above I was unable to get it to mix properly. Stirring it just moved the clumps around. However I tried pouring water into the fruit punch packet and shaking it around, and that mixed it up nicely.

Perhaps you're supposed to put it in the otherwise-useless beverage bag. The end result was a nondescript, pleasant fruity drink. The packet doesn't have room for much water so I probably didn't dilute it enough. Would it go well with ice-cold vodka? Probably.

I mentioned plastic waste up the page. Menu 10 also includes peppermints which are all individually wrapped in plastic, despite also being vacuum-sealed in a bag which is in turn sealed into a bag which is sealed into the MRE:

Perhaps the MRE people were worried that a rip in the packet would make the entire meal taste minty. The mints are Life Savers, which are popular in the United States. I learn from the internet that they predate Polos. They're larger than Polos. I tried one of them. It was a Polo.

The meal includes vegetable crackers instead of the more normal wheat-based variety. The last time I tried one was on Lantau Island in Hong Kong, but it was too hot to eat dry crackers so I only had a small bite. They're not bad - imagine a cross between an oatmeal biscuit and a cracker, but unsalted and unsweetened - but they're far too crumbly to eat by themselves, so I ended up mashing them into the main meal.

By now the main meal was ready, so let's decant it onto a plate, along with the cheese and the red peppers:

The red peppers were bland; I was worried I had overdone things, but their influence on the meal was minimal. Overall the end result was pretty decent, bearing in mind that it was gloop. It would have been awesome post-pub food with chips. I piled some of the food onto what remained of the crackers:

It might not look like much but it was one of the best MRE meals I have had. In a civilian context it was superior to canned chilli macaroni, but not as good as a plastic-tray pop-in-the-microwave don't-forget-to-pierce-the-film does-anybody-leave-it-to-stand-midway-through-heating-it meal, although it's close.

One thing Menu 10 has in common with other MREs is that the main meal is unusually small. European military meals tend to have fewer sweets and a larger main meal, but perhaps MREs are designed so that soldiers can quickly wolf the food down in case of artillery attack. Who knows.

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Rollei Retro 80S II

Have you ever heard Tom Heasley's On the Sensations of Tone? It's an album of solo tuba pieces played in a big echoey room so that the tuba becomes a big wash of formless sound. It's not a million miles from Steve Roach's Structures from Silence, but with a tuba. Not an instrument I have ever associated with ambient music.

The album had a limited release on compact disc in 2002 but nowadays it's also available on iTunes. It has nothing to do with the subject of this blog post but I like it a lot.

Let's move on.

Last month I popped off to Pisa. At the time it was one of the few places British people could visit without having to quarantine after coming back, although sadly the rules have since changed. I took along some of the Rollei Retro 80S I wrote about a couple of months ago, because otherwise it's just going to expire. I bought a batch of it earlier in the year for another trip that had to be cancelled.

Retro 80S is a contrasty black and white film derived from aerial surveillance film. It has extended red sensitivity in order to cut through haze and is presumably meant to be used with a dark red filter, but for the images in this post I didn't bother. It's sold by the entity that owns the Rollei brand name in Germany. I have no idea if Rollei still manufactures it, or if instead they bought the Czech Air Force's last million feet of the stuff a decade ago and have been putting it in 35mm film canisters ever since.

I also took along my Pen F and a telephoto lens, viz:

I've written at length about the Olympus Pen F before. It's a half-frame SLR system from the late 1960s, early 1970s. Olympus also sold a modest set of lenses, ranging from 21mm at the wide end to something around 200mm at the long end, with a couple of zooms. The lenses are tiny little jewels and the camera bodies are among the most attractive cameras ever made, sleek and smooth in a slightly 1950s space-age style. There was also a range of half-frame Pens with built-in lenses.

The Pen F used standard 35mm film, but the frame was half the width. Essentially it was the same as 35mm motion picture film, specifically Super 35. It had a cropping factor of around 1.4x, roughly the same as APS-H. The 21mm lens acted a bit like a 28mm in full-frame terms; the standard lenses were 38-40mm. The 70-210mm lens pictured above acts like a 100-300mm, give or take a few mm.

One of the great things about the Pen F is that it could use lenses from other SLR systems, which extended the range of focal lengths greatly and allowed the use of exotic optics such as fisheyes and tilt-shift lenses. The Nikon F adapter is particularly useful because Nikon still uses the F-mount today. Here's my Nikon F adapter. in the middle:

The only major limitation is that it's manual stop-down, e.g. you have to focus wide open, then stop the lens down yourself when you shoot. I generally left the 70-210mm at f/4, which is a half-click down from wide open.

The telephoto lens is a Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 Series 1, a classic old zoom from the 1970s. In its day it was hot stuff. Slightly faster and longer than the 80-200mm f/4 lenses sold by Nikon and Canon, with a separate macro mode that went down to quarter life size. All of the photos in this article were taken with this combination of lens and camera body. The macro mode compensated for its only major limitation, which was a relatively long minimum focus distance of around 2m/6ft, which isn't disastrous but feels awkward.

Optically all of the 70-210mm f/3.5 lenses I have used - there were several models - are similar. Decent wide open until 150mm, albeit with purple fringing and soft corners; sharp across most of the frame at f/5.6 from 70-150mm; you have to stop down one more stop at 210mm; the colours are muted; the bokeh isn't great.

Manual focus zoom lenses are awkward to use on modern camera bodies. They were awkward even in the 1970s. There's a reason why there are so many boutique manual focus prime lenses but no boutique manual focus zoom lenses. The 70-210mm Series 1 is also a push-pull-twisty-turny zoomy-focusy lens, although thankfully mine doesn't slop back and forth.

At left 70mm, at right 210mm, after stepping back several paces. I think it was f/4. Film doesn't have EXIF information. Even in this small photos the image is obviously softer at 210mm.

With 80-speed film f/3.5 isn't very fast, but the Pen F has a smooth shutter, so I aimed for 125/s or 1/60th at a pinch and it seemed to work.

The Pen F is still an eccentric choice as a telephoto camera. On the positive side half-frame squeezes 72 shots out of a 36-shot roll and the camera itself was smaller than the lens - I essentially carried the lens around with the Pen F hanging off the back - but against it the viewfinder is relatively dim, it doesn't have a split-image focusing aid, and the resolution of half-frame is modest.

As mentioned up in the page half-frame uses almost exactly the same frame size as Super 35mm motion picture film, so in theory a professional scanning bureau should be able to squeeze roughly 4K of resolution out of it, but I only have a flatbed scanner.

It was a melancholic experience, wandering around Pisa and Florence and the Cinque Terre in late 2020. There were still crowds, but the museums had reduced opening hours and some of Florence's central market had been closed off. For the avoidance of all controversy I wore a facemask almost all the time, so my enduring memory of Italy in 2020 is the smell of chewing gum and not having to shave.

Italy was hit by coronavirus hard and early, but by September it had recovered. However as I write these words there is a second wave and British people can no longer go to Italy without quarantining on the way back. I flew with Easyjet from Bristol Airport, taking along the Brompton folding bicycle mention in this post; Bristol Airport was like a military checkpoint and for the first time ever the passengers didn't leap out of their seats the moment the pilot put on the parking brake, but apart from that the plane was packed and the experience of travel felt relatively normal.

Over the last decade or so there has been an attempt to turn airports and railway stations into boutique shopping hubs. Even before coronavirus it was a hard sell - airports and train stations tend to either be in the middle of nowhere or at least out of the way - and I pity anybody who opened a shop in one of these places. Bristol Airport's entire landside area was closed and the airside shops were struggling with crowd control.

Imagine if birds could spread Coronavirus. We'd have to tape their beaks shut and feed them intravenously.

Coronavirus is a thief. It has stolen some of the time we have left. It has pushed all of our plans into the future, leaving us with blank empty space to fill. Obviously that's not a problem for me, dear reader, because I'm a mentally hyperactive creative genius, and you're pretty good yourself, but what about them?

Usually disasters have a definite end, sometimes definite enough to celebrate with a great big party, but this time there will never be an end. Eventually coronavirus will eventually recede from the public consciousness but it will never go away, and perhaps one day the blind watchmaker of the natural world will engineer a virus that spreads faster than COVID and kills more certainly, and our dreams of conquering outer space will come to an end. Until then, dear reader, you are still alive.

Monday, 5 October 2020

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020

Let's have a look at Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, a game that asks the questions "should I turn on the pitot heater" and "what does inert sep on mean" and "why does the plane keep stalling" and finally "I'm going to die here" and "it was all my fault", which technically aren't questions, but they did go through my mind as I flew through a storm over the glaciers of southern Chile.

In real life I've never done that. I've never flown through a storm over the glaciers of southern Chile. After trying it out in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 I'm not keen on repeating the experience, but at the same time I do want to experience it again because it was fun. There was a certain frisson of excitement. It was dangerous, but fun.

That's why people get themselves killed, isn't it? That frisson of excitement. It's a primal thing. After escaping from tigers our ancestors were flooded with a sense of relief; they wanted to experience that sensation again. Old men hanker for it.

Alternatively you can turn off MSFS2020's damage model and use the computer autopilot to explore the world risk-free, but come on. Amelia Earhart didn't have the option of turning off the damage model. Her autopilot was a bunch of gears attached to a cable. She could fly a plane just fine, and she was a girl.

You don't want to be beaten by a girl, do you? Admittedly Earhart did actually die. She must have hankered for that frisson of danger too, and that's what killed her. Perhaps men and women aren't so different in that respect.

Lost over the ocean in a Lockheed Electra. That's pretty manly. In another world she made it home safely, and when the Second World War broke out she offered her services to the US Army Air Forces, who completely ignored her because she was a girl, and then she retired into relative poverty in the 1950s and spent the rest of her life dreaming of planes.

Say again, this place

I'm digressing here. MSF2020 is a reboot of the venerable Flight Simulator series, which dates back to Sublogic's original game from 1982. Back in the 1980s and 1990s the IBM PC was very bad at moving sprites around the screen, so it was rubbish at Street Fighter 2, but it could crunch numbers like nobody's business. Therefore it was the go-to platform for flight simulators. Not just civil simulators but also the WW2-themed Air Warrior, which was one of the first massively multiplayer online games.

The flight simulator market thinned out in the late 1990s, and by the time of Flight Simulator X in 2006 Microsoft's product was essentially the only mainstream franchise left standing*. It had a vibrant market of add-on scenery and aeroplanes, which was in some respects ahead of its time, but in an age of Grand Theft Auto and Crysis flight simulators fell out of fashion and Microsoft seemed to lose interest in FSX. People just didn't buy joysticks any more.

* As of 2020 the surviving competitors in the civil flight simulator market are Lockheed's Prepar3D, an extensive modification of Flight Simulator X intended as a professional flight training tool; FlightGear, an open source simulator that tends to be sold by eBay and Amazon sellers in packaging that makes it look like Flight Simulator, and XPlane, which isn't open source. Are they any good? I have no idea, I haven't tried them out. I love you, dear reader, but I feel that my time is better invested elsewhere.

The game uses a mixture of hand-made scenery and autogenerated models synthesised from Bing Maps' top-down views of the world. On the one hand the synthesis is very impressive, and it was the only way the developers could recreate the entire world, but on the other hand there's still a lot of room for third-party handcrafted models. They've obviously modelled Ponte Vecchio, but not the other bridges. In general bridges and viaducts are a weak spot.

A later patch reworked the water, which at least in early versions of the game looked out-of-scale. The buildings however are uncanny.

Microsoft tried to reboot the series with Flight, an online-only title that was launched in 2012. It only had two planes, and the only scenery was Hawaii. It failed to set the world afire and so Microsoft shut it down just a few months later. It's no longer available.

I took a trip over the Aral Sea, although it's now a large lake because the water was diverted for irrigation back in the 1980s. Some of the land textures are jagged - the area isn't high on Bing Maps' list of priorities - but nonetheless I still had the sensation of flying over a parched desert.

Some aircraft have weather radar. In this screenshot there's a lot of weather, and I'm in the middle of it.

The June 2019 announcement that Microsoft was working on new Flight Simulator came as a pleasant surprise. The developers - a French company called Asobo - were obscure, but the pre-release screenshots were very impressive. After a brief public beta period the game was released in August 2020 to generally strong reviews. The major criticisms are that it has a lot of bugs and the airliner flight models don't feel realistic, and it needs a very powerful PC to run at 4K, but otherwise the critical consensus is that it's a visually stunning first effort.

Each of those white dots is an airfield. Some are major airports, some are just grass strips. You can fly from any one of them.

In this flight I did a circuit of Easter Island, looking for Moai. I couldn't find any. As mentioned elsewhere in the article the game has fewer hand-made models than FSX, but compensates for it with a much better building-generation engine.

In the first month of release it has apparently sold a million copies, no doubt helped by the fact that actual real-life air travel has been disrupted by the plague. The developers promise to support it for at least ten years, which is nice to know, although given that so much of the game is streamed from the internet there's an ever-present worry that Microsoft will turn off the servers, rendering most of the world an undetailed husk. The entire world map apparently takes up around 2-3 petabytes of data - that's 2-3 million gigabytes - so there's no chance whatsoever you'll be able to backup the entire world. The game will run in offline mode but with low-detail scenery.

One popular pastime is to fly over your local neighbourhood. I've walked up to the top of that hill, past the badges, and it's more or less spot-on except for a couple of spurious houses.

What's it like on modest hardware? Let's have a look.

Flying through fog is surprisingly easy once you learn to use the autopilot. But what if the autopilot fails? Supposedly it takes an average of 178 seconds for visual flight pilots to become disorientated when flying through instrument flight conditions, and I can believe that. You have to train yourself to see with an attitude indicator, speedometer, and compass instead of your eyes.

Shek Pik reservoir in Hong Kong, in the game and real life respectively. As you can see the terrain elevation is spot-on.

Bad stuff first. The game is a 120gb download, and although it's available with Steam it downloads its own client first, then asks you to leave the client open while it downloads the game. It's not much fun if you have a data cap. The game is available as a 10-DVD set - this is the version I have, and I wrote about the installation process here - but it still has to download several gigabytes' worth of patches, and the terrain is streamed from the internet.

Twilight of LGA 1155
LGA 1155 is a socket released by Intel back in 2011. It remained competitive for an unusually long time, but a number of modern games have overwhelmed it, MSFS2020 among them. It's actually one generation older than MSFS2020's minimum requirements, but my machine is at the upper limit of what LGA 1155 could do so it runs the game. Confusingly LGA 1155 was replaced by LGA 1150, and then LGA 1151 and LGA 1120 (they're named after the number of pins; a bad idea).

LGA 1155's star chip was the i5-2500k, a neat little quad-core 64-bit chip that ran at 3.3ghz but could be easily overclocked to 4+ghz. The i5-2500k remained state-of-the-art until the middle of the decade and only really hit a wall when 4K gaming became mainstream in recent years. With a good graphics card, lots of memory, and an SSD, an i5-2500k system will still run most modern games at 1080, but at moderate settings and not at a steady 60fps.

If your aircraft starts to ice up you have a number of options. Dive below the clouds, where it's warmer; turn on the anti-ice system; keep going and hope for the best; climb up into the sunlight.

I have always loved you, though I was born a galaxy away

I mention LGA 1155 because it was the last Intel chipset that supported Windows XP, so for a lot of PC owners it was the point at which they upgraded from a dual-core, 32-bit XP system with a 4gb memory limit to the modern age of 64-bit chips with four or more cores fitted to motherboards that can address 32gb of memory or more. I built my own PC from parts back in 2011, with an i5-2500k at the core, although I've since upgraded it to a Xeon 1275, which is the server analogue of the i7-3770k.

The i7-3770k is essentially the most powerful CPU available for LGA 1155, the end of the line for that platform. It has four logical cores and four virtual cores generated by a technology called hyperthreading. It benchmarks 50% faster than the i5-2500k, but for a long time the cost didn't justify the upgrade; as of 2020 however they're cheap on the used market.

The game uses a form of megatexturing, as with Id Software's Rage, but on a planetary scale.

My machine's weak link is the GPU, a Geforce 1650 with only 3gb of memory, but MSF2020's built-in frame counter often says that I'm limited by the CPU, because MSF2020 taxes the whole machine. Most games can be solved by throwing a better GPU at them, but not MSF2020. It streams the world from the internet, so it benefits from a fast, stable internet connection; it has to load a lot of cached data, so it benefits from being installed on an SSD; the CPU has to instruct the GPU do draw potentially thousands of buildings, while simultaneously running flight and weather models, so you need a good multicore CPU. A good GPU is of course essential, but with MSFS2020 it needs to be part of a strong system.

Therefore if you have an LGA 1155 machine you really have to max it out. In my experience the game is perfectly playable and good-looking at 1080 on my machine, but even so it occasionally stutters, and at low altitudes over detailed cities - Tokyo and New York, for example - it chugs. 4K would overwhelm it. I get around 40fps flying over bare terrain or in cloud, 25-35fps over New York, with autogenerated traffic turned off. I find that putting most of the sliders at medium, with reflections at high, clouds at ultra, anti-aliasing at TAA, texture resolution at high strikes a good balance between performance and looks.

Bugs? To date the game has only crashed once, during a period of high multiplayer activity after the release of a reworked Japan. Some of the terrain looks awful, in different ways:

Victoria falls really doesn't work. The photogrammetry engine got confused.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is simultaneously a flat texture map and a model, each with a different shadow. The surrounding buildings are 3D but the Duomo and Battistero are flat.

This is the island of Miyake, south of mainland Japan. The volcano isn't filled in, so the game generates ghosting inside the crater.

The autopilot occasionally seems flaky, but that might just be me. I now set HDG and VS speed modes at the beginning of flight instead of trying to use ALT HOLD, which tended to make the plane crash. The game has two pause modes - active pause keeps the simulation running but holds your plane still in the air, normal ordinary pause-pause freezes the game. Active pause is nice if you want to see the world move around you, but curiously your plane still accelerates and decelerates, even though it's standing still, so you can overspeed if you activate active pause while in a dive, in which case your plane falls apart in mid-air for seemingly no reason.

The airliner and its contrail is part of the ground texture. Occasionally Bing Maps' satellite coverage has cloud cover, which the game is generally smart enough to turn into green grass.

There are grumbles on the internet that the modelling and avionics of the game's two airliners, the Airbus A320 and Boeing 747, are only approximations of the real thing, but I can't tell, I haven't flown either. The 747's in-game cockpit seems unusually bare - a lot of switches are "inop", and some of the navigation panels are just cosmetic - and on my first flight the aircraft seemed keen to turn the autothrottle on immediately after takeoff, which made slowing down to land difficult.

One of the game's strongest elements is the real-time weather / time model - you can switch from live weather to a number of presets while the game is running and also alter the time of day. In the shots above I didn't like the look of that huge cloud, so I made it go away!

Incidentally I have flown in a A320, but sadly not a 747. The 747s are rapidly being withdrawn from commercial service. Even in The Before Times they were an endangered species, but there was still a chance I might be able to fly on one. No longer.

On an unrelated note the AI air traffic controller will clear me to land on a certain runway, but there doesn't seem to be a way to cancel that instruction and pick another one. The in-game map also doesn't point out which runways have an ATC and which are unstaffed, so I worry that I've wasted time trying to talk to ATC staff who aren't there. The in-game map is somewhat akin to Google Earth, but at a much lower level of detail, and when you zoom in it just turns grey, so planning a sightseeing flight is unusually difficult.

Of course the game has only been out for two months and there have only been a couple of patches. The general critical consensus is that the game was released too early, but in Asobo's favour it's obviously a very difficult undertaking; simply clearing the rights to all the in-game textures and building models must require a team of full-time staff (some military airports are censored on Bing Maps, for example).

To date there doesn't seem to be a killer add-on in the marketplace. There are lots of ports from FSX, but no detailed model of a Concorde, for example, or a Second World War fighter plane, but it's still early days.

That's enough gripes. Even at 1080, sub-60fps, the game is visually stunning. Sometimes the ground textures have obvious seams, but on the whole the game renders the world out to the horizon without obvious tiling. The weather model is excellent, the in-cockpit lighting looks very realistic, and there are nice touches such as the reflection of instruments in the cockpit windows at higher graphic settings. The high-temperature exhaust from the turboprop aircraft makes the air shimmer. In the following images the iced-up windows were simultaneously attractive and disconcerting:

There doesn't seem to be a way to open the windows and scrape off the ice so I turned on the windscreen anti-ice feature, and for good measure the engine anti-ice, which sapped some of the power. The game models cars and boats, and the little people who wave signs at the airport, what are they called? aircraft marshals, and the cockpit has an avatar for you and your co-pilot, but you can't get out and walk around. The game doesn't have "space legs". It's not Microsoft Everything Simulator 2020. If you want to have a beer after a strenuous flight you have to have an actual beer in real life.

On one level MSFS2020 is a hard sell, because it's not a game in the conventional sense. It has a number of landing challenges and bush aircraft tests, albeit not to the same extent as FSX - and there are no helicopters, so you can't rescue people from an oil rig (for example) - but for the most part the gameplay consists of generating a flight plan and then navigating between two airports. The game doesn't penalise you for just flying directly between the two locations without using waypoints. You don't have to learn about the downwind leg, whatever that is.

And yet there is something magnetic about navigating through freezing clouds above the Andes, or checking out the Alps at close range, or flying around Easter Island, or buzzing the Golden Gate Bridge etc. Back in 2006 FSX captured some of the sheer visual beauty of flying around, but MSFS2020 trounces it.

At top MSFS2020 (2020), at bottom FSX (2006). Curiously FSX has a few buildings that MSFS2020 doesn't (the Bank of China Tower, just visible at the tip of the Cessna's right wing in the FSX image). In its favour FSX captured the topography of the distant hills accurately, but the lighting obviously belongs to an older generation.

Aircraft? The standard version has two jet airliners, plus a small Cessna business jet, plus a mixture of stunt planes, two-four seat piston aircraft and a couple of smaller turboprops. There's a Cessna Grand Caravan and a Beechcraft King Air, but on the whole the game majors on smaller aircraft; there's no Twin Otter, no Skymaster, and none of the various Fokker / Dornier / Embraer / Bombardier regional turboprop / jetliners. To be honest I don't miss them, but a floatplane or tundra-tyres Twin Otter would be neat.

Uniquely the Icon A5 can land on water. It's unspectacular - there's no wake.

Antarctica was flaky in FSX. Something about the coordinates so far south messed up the texture mapping. MSFS2020 is much the same. The real life McMurdo station is a sprawling little town, whereas here it's represented by a rectangular trailer park.

There are two variations of the Piper Cub, plus the unusual Icon A5, which is a small amphibian. The deluxe and premium deluxe editions add a Boeing 787, a third Piper Cub, and mostly light aircraft, with some variations of the basic models, but nothing particularly killer, so I bought the standard edition.

The game models some of the aeroplane interiors, although you have to use the drone camera to explore them.

The developer mode lets you turn off all the textures and even revert to wireframe mode, in which case the game vaguely resembles the earliest versions of Flight Simulator.

Is it worth the money? Reviewing MSFS2020 is hard. I can't evaluate it as a serious simulation but the 747 in particular has a lot of inoperative switches and the internet is of the opinion that if you are a serious enthusiast, with a mock-up cockpit, it's unfinished. There are grumbles that the flight model is unusually twitchy, and that the big airliners run out of fuel far too quickly, and that binding keyboard controls is needlessly obtuse.

At this early stage the marketplace is barren, and with a game such as this the third-party infrastructure is almost as important as the main event. Furthermore the game is still in active development, so as with No Man's Sky - although hopefully not to the same binary extreme - a year from now it'll be a very different title.

However for a novice such as myself who just wants to explore the world it's terrific, and I feel I got my money's worth. The ground textures aren't as detailed as Google Maps, but they're close, and as mentioned the topgraphy is spot-on. If they introduce helicopters or even a completely autonomous camera it might even develop a second wind as a world simulator, along the lines of Google Earth. The real-time weather / time-of-day slider is almost worth the price of... well, that's hyperbole for a game costing £60-£120 depending on the edition, but I can't think of anything quite like it. It'll be fascinating to see how it develops.