Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Check Your DPC Latency!

First off, I am not sure how much of this article will relate to MAC, but it is definitely applicable to Windows. DPC Latency is the delay in receiving Deferred Procedure Calls (DPC) that can cause delays (pops, cracks, etc.) in streaming audio and video. While managing a task, processors are interrupted regularly to perform higher priority processes. Even when the system is idle, interrupts are being sent. They're absolutely necessary for the PC's processor to work.

DPC is a device driver's callback routine on how to continue the process before interruption. If there are two devices (two audio cards for example) in conflict, there may be some delay in returning to the original process. Imagine that you are having a bilingual conversation with a stranger, but someone interrupts you to do something more important. Once you finish talking to that person, you try to remember what language you were originally talking in. You may have a conflict in your mind of whether to use English or Spanish, so you wait and think about it for a minute. This is DPC latency because you are choosing which device (language in this case) to continue the process. In a computer's case, it's deciding between software drivers that are running hardware.

In other words, this can devestate your DJ performance. I have three audio cards: an external, an internal, and an internal Audio/Video TV capture card. The A/V Capture card's drivers was conflicting withe the other two sound cards. I disabled the capture card's drivers in Windows Device Manager, and my DPC latency dropped from 2 ms and 7 ms latency spikes down to a steady 0.2 ms DPC latency. What's that mean? My audio and video stopped randomly popping and crackling and my computer began to run a little smoother.

To check your DPC Latency, go to and run the small program for a minute or two. If you are constantly in the green, you're ok. If you're spiking up in the yellow, you might want to look into resolving any driver conflicts. If you're in the red, you definitely want to try to fix this. It is probably causing some popping and crackling in your playback. Try disabling any unused audio/video/networking drivers. This is the simplist solution, but there may be more complex solutions. Native Instruments Traktor Pro Technical Issues forum has a sticky about DPC latency with Dell computers. Don't disable random drivers, as you might disable something important. To access device manager, right click "My Computer" and select "Properties". Select "Hardware" tab and "Device Manager" button.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Revision: Virtual DJ software

Awhile back I wrote a Software comparison (part 1), which included Virtual DJ. I missed one crucial feature of Virtual DJ 6.0 somehow: VDJScript. This is one amazing feature that allows the user to write code in VDJScript to design custom skins, midi maps, and plug-ins. Virtual DJ now allows you to essentially make your own DJ controls. How cool is that!? It's a little more complicated than competitors software, but there are plenty of midi maps and skins to download from the user community. In my opinion, this places Virtual DJ on top of the "two-deck" customizable DJ software market.

My advice is to take a deeper look at Virtual DJ if you want the most out of your software. It may not offer what you need, but it definitely deserves looking into.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Review: Bome Midi Translator Pro 1.7.1

What is Bome's MIDI Translator? In simple terms, it can be compared to a language translator for MIDI messages. You may only understand English, but your peer can only speak German. You need someone who can translate from German to English and English to German. Bome's MIDI Translator is language independant of course. Instead, it is software produced by Bome to translate to and from MIDI protocol.

The software works with one or more input devices and one or more output devices. Each device can be a hardware device (such as a USB controller or keyboard) or virtual software, such as a program you're using. Essentially, the MIDI Translator can be programmed to intercept messages and take many different actions with them before sending them through to the output device.

The translator can edit the bytes in the MIDI message, completely block the MIDI message, route the message through without any editing, turn the MIDI message into text, or send numerous other commands to your output device.

Bome's Midi Translator can translate high resolution MIDI data into more commonly supported lower resolution data, as seen in DJ Tech Tools Mini Translator. Bome's MT can also create multiple modes of operation, utilizing as many "Shift" modifiers as you have buttons. Stanton's DaRouter demonstrates this well with their SCS.3 System.

Bome's does not replace midi mapping, but it instead acts like a modifier that intercepts the data between your MIDI controller and your MIDI Map in the software. It gives the user full control of their MIDI device's inputs and outputs. Unfortunately, the translator cannot give MIDI functionality to buttons that do not output a signal.

The software is well-designed and simple to use after reading some short tutorials on Bome's website. It does have a MIDI Learn function. However, that does not mean MIDI translating is a simple process. Each project is different since each MIDI message is different. Creating your own MIDI Translator project is like custom programming your own software. You tell it what to do or it doesn't work. Each project is as simple or as complicated as you make it. There are a lot of available rules, translations, and outputs. Intend on investing quite a bit of time in learning how to program your MIDI devices with MIDI Translator. Once you do have a functioning translator project, you'll be amazed at what you can do.. and you'll be wishing you had more hands to operate your devices!

If you are wanting more out of your MIDI devices than what your current software and hardware can provide, I highly recommend Bome's Midi Translator Pro. I must admit that the price tag is a bit stiff for what it is, but it may just be worth it for the mostly bug-free, simple interface.

Download the demo (which has an incredibly annoying 20-minute time limit) to get a better idea of its functionality. I also recommend downloading Bome's SysSX, which displays all connected incoming and outgoing MIDI data. This is great for testing your translator project files.

If you are pretty happy with your current MIDI functionality, this software is probably not worth the trouble to you. I cannot stress enough that it is not for people who want to pick-up and play. It is definitely out there for the people who want ultimate MIDI customization. Keep in mind that this is in ADDITION to your MIDI maps; it does not replace MIDI mapping.

Friday, February 5, 2010

MIDI Controller Neoprene Sleeve with 3-Sided Zipper

That's right! I finally found a laptop neoprene sleeve that fits my needs for the Stanton SCS.3 System (2 3D's and 1 3M). I bought the Shoreline 15.4" black neoprene sleeve (second picture below), but there was a similar model with a handle and more rugged exterior available (seen to the right). They are both $35-40 from Mori Luggage & Gifts. The bag to the right can be found here.

The other bag, which is what I bought, can be found here. What's special about these sleeves is that they zip up on 3 sides, allowing you to simply unzip the cover and fold it back and begin playing. You don't have to pull the controller out.. just unzip it and go! Then when you want to keep dust off it, just fold the top back over it. This cover works PERFECT for the Stanton SCS.3 system because it keeps all the unit together in one piece. You can literally pick it up with one hand like a pizza pan, and all three units stay together solid as a rock. It's a really good fit for this controller, and it keeps all the dust off your touch-pads.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

USB MIDI and You - 7 Bit and 14 Bit

USB MIDI ventures out of the traditional audiophile's knowledge base and into the computer science field. I feel like this topic isn't covered enough in the digital DJ area. Many digital DJs use USB Midi, but it seems many of us do not understand it. Hopefully this post will help.

What is USB?

Universal Serial Bus - a method of transmitting and receiving data between the computer and an external device. It provides 5 Volts DC and up to 0.5 Amps to power connected devices. USB 1.1 and USB 2.0 are the most common devices on the market. USB 2.0 is over 10x faster and handles more data than the USB 1.1 does, but they look the same physically.

What is MIDI?

Musical Instrument Digital Interface - an interface used to transmit and receive bits of data between a controller (keyboard, synthesizer, drum pad, DJ controller, etc.) and a processor that outputs audio notes, which differ depending on the digital MIDI notes received from the controller. A traditional keyboard's keys just tells the central processor to output that note's sound (which is saved inside the electronics memory). Traditional MIDI uses its own 5-pin connector, but now-days more devices are using USB because it is very fast, provides power, and it is standard amongst most platforms.

What's the difference between Traditional 5-Pin MIDI and USB MIDI?

USB Midi provides a power source also, so no need for an additional power supply unless the controller needs more than 5V/0.5A. USB 1.1 is roughly 300x faster than traditional MIDI connectors. The 5-PIN connections are typically connected in serial (i.e. daisy-chained) so they are all on the same channel, unless each device is placed on a different MIDI channel. USB connections are typically connected in parallel so they are on separate channels, even while connected on a hub, since the hub separates the data for you.

What's a MIDI Channel, is it needed for USB?

Midi Channels are mostly useful when daisy-chaining MIDI devices. Daisy-chaining is when you connect the output of device 1 into the input of device 2 and the output of device 2 into the input of the next device. So without MIDI channels, both devices could be sending the same MIDI message on the same MIDI channel... which is like two people talking at the same time - you don't hear both people 100% of the way they're meant to be heard. MIDI Channels attach a channel message to the MIDI message so that the processor knows which message came from which device. Since USB MIDI usually puts one device on a separate USB port (rather than daisy-chaining them), there is no need for a software-channel. Most computer software recognizes separate USB devices, but if a software does not recognize the difference between the devices.. MIDI channels may be useful in separating the two devices. This is a rare case, since most commercial PC software uses the operating system to recognize separate USB ports. It never hurts to use separate MIDI channels though.

Is Latency a problem? Does USB MIDI have latency problems?

Even the smallest latency is less than ideal, since Zero latency is preferred. Zero Latency is preferred to sync up your inputs to the audio and visual outputs of the controller and computer. If you have any latency, your timing will be off slightly when mixing. I wouldn't say that it is significant though. The largest latency problem is audio latency that is created due to slow signal processing and Digital to Analog conversion. ASIO low-latency audio drivers are solutions for this problem. Audio latency can be reduced to 2-5 millseconds of delay, which is nearly impossible to distinguish. USB latency is even less than that. Transmitting a single 14-bit MIDI message (i.e. pressing one button) over a USB 1.1 cable creates around 1 microsecond of delay... and there's 1000 microseconds in one millisecond. So no, don't worry about USB latency with MIDI.

What is 14-bit MIDI?

One of the standard bit sizes (the number of bits of data in a message) for MIDI messages, particularly in USB MIDI DJ controllers, is 7 bits. More recently, MIDI controllers have been handling higher resolution 14-bit MIDI messages. There's twice as many bits in each message. Each bit of data contains a 0 or a 1, but when you combine bits.. such as 7 bits... those 7 bits can contain 128 combinations of 0's and 1's... so 7-bit MIDI can transmit 128 different values. 128 values!? That's plenty for each control, isn't it? Well.. for simple buttons and knobs that don't need much resolution, such as on & off buttons, controls for volume control, etc.

However, some controls could benefit from higher resolution data, such as frequency selectors for advanced filtering, perfectly beatmatching with the pitch fader, and scratching or manually "playing" the record by hand. 14-bit MIDI handles this much better than 7 bit, since 14 bit is capable of holding 16,384 different values per message. So when you move the control on your pitch fader, the computer can now recognize 16,384 different positions on the pitch. When you do this with 7-bit, it only recognizes 128 different positions on the pitch. These kinds of things don't matter in the analog world (turntables for example), where it recognizes the exact position of the pitch.

Why do I care about Bit-Size?

Since turntables pitch faders and cartridges are analog, the amount you move the pitch fader or the record directly translates to what you hear without skipping any audio. Analog controls sense the exact value, but when you have a digital interface, such as MIDI, connected to an analog control, such as a pitch fader, some data is lost. The Bit-Size of the digital message data determines its resolution. More bits = higher resolution. Higher resolution = less data loss = closer to a full analog representation.

What happens with a digital MIDI controlleranyway?

Even though you may be turning an analog knob that has full 360 rotation, the computer only recognizes bits and pieces of your rotation. So if you turn your knob one full rotation... the computer doesn't receive a continuous rotation, like an analog turntable does. Instead, the computer receives steps of information. Instead of starting at 0 and continuously, progressively working its way up to 360 (recognizing down to the slightest movement, such as 0.04792579878528942 degrees), the MIDI interface causes the computer to receive something like this: 0, 3, 6, 9, 12, ...., 354, 357, 360.. etc. in samples. Twice as high resolution would cause it to be more like: 0, 1.5, 3, 4.5, 6, 7.5, 9, 10.5, 12, .... etc. Half the original resolution would cause it to be more like 0, 6, 12, ... etc.

Could you give me an example?

The pitch fader on a traditional turntable allows you to perfectly beatmatch two turntables. 7-Bit MIDI allows 128 values on your pitch fader. So if you are using a +/- 8% pitch fader on a 100 BPM track, your pitch fader ranges across 16 BPM (-92 BPM to 108 BPM). Your 7-BIT MIDI Pitch fader can represent 128 different BPM values in that range. So your computer will be up to 1/8 of a BPM off of where you may want it to be. So in a minute or two, the crowd is going to hear mismatched beats.. so in 8 minutes, you'd be a whole beat off, just because 7 bits won't let you be more precise. There is a notable difference between 128 BPM and 128.125 BPM.

14-bit would allow 16,384 values, so in the same situation, it would be 1/1000 of a BPM off of where you want it. Can you tell the difference between 100 BPM and 100.001 BPM? Probably not, and it'd take 16 hours and 40 minutes for you to miss a whole beat due to the inaccuracy. I seriously doubt you'll be playing the same tracks for 16 hours and 40 minutes... :)

If you increase the percentage of the fader sensitivity (to 10, 50, 100%) or the track's BPM is higher, your problems get worse. If your fader sensitivity is set lower (5, 4, 3%) or the track's BPM is lower, your problems are less noticeable but still exist. The higher the resolution (more bits in MIDI data), the more accurate the computer will respond to your actions.

So it effects Pitch, I'll use the Auto-Sync. What else?

Jog wheels are a big problem also. You've got 360 degree rotation on the jog wheel of course, and that's split into 128 values... you can already see the problem, can't you? So the computer only adjusts itself (i.e. moves the playmarker in the song.. which outputs the audio) every 2.81 degrees rotated around the jog wheel. So when you manually try to play the song, without any software sensitivity adjustment, by pressing around the jog wheel, what happens? It skips half the sounds being played back! Same goes for scratching... it skips half the sounds! So how is this adjusted? The software's sensitivity must be adjusted so that you have to use larger movements to move the playmarker less. So you might have to move your hand two or three times further to get the same sound as you would had it been a very high resolution MIDI interface. Further distance = slower scratching and playback. This is why you don't notice the skipping as bad - the software makes adjustments... but you still lose in one way or the other.

With 14-bit jog wheels, the computer receives a message once every 0.022 degrees moved. So the computer knows where your hand is down to 2.2% of a degree. The MIDI conection is no longer the bottleneck for transmitting the data, and sensitivity does not need to be reduced on the software side of things. The latency is still in the range of microseconds when sending this much data.

Why is MIDI Digital instead of Analog?

Analog data requires more bandwidth and takes up more space. It also requires periodic calibration of the controls, and it suffers from noise issues, which could create an unsteady response. Digital data requires less bandwidth and space because it only needs to know when the value changes, whereas analog always wants to know what the value is at that time. No control calibration is needed with Digital, and noise is not an issue. Noise is only an issue in extremely high-power situations, where a power generator could generate enough Electromagnetic interference that it causes a 0 bit to turn into a 1 bit, or vise versa.

Digital data may have some data loss; but thanks to high resolution sampling, the loss is negligible. The point is that it's important to have high resolution controllers. If you went too large (say 256-bit, like some graphics processors), then you could have some serious slow-down due to processing time.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Adhesive Foam Pads in the Kids Art section

My good old american made plywood & cardboard desk is falling into a sinkhole of its own. In normal words, there's no support in the middle of the desk and it's beginning to bend inwards. So that's causing my keyboard and my midi controllers to rock around when I press their buttons. It didn't irritate me that bad until I got my Akai pad controller. When I press on a pad, the unit rocks back and forth (making an annoying sound).

So I went to Walmart last night to try to find a solution. I looked at foam pads, looked for rubber tape, removable adhesives... everything in the tape, crafts, and picture hanging sections! I couldn't find anything! Just before I was about to give up.. I walked down the children's art section. Wow, what did I find here? Darice Foamies "no messy glue.. acid free.. just peel and stick!" stickers! I laughed at first, thinking.. wouldn't that be something if I put these little kids foam stickers on my equipment?

Then I noticed they had a package made in shapes of footballs, basketballs, volleyballs, and soccerballs. They're a little less than 1/8" thick, and they are about 1 inch in diameter. Perfect for my uses! The little volleyball stuck right onto the bottom of my Akai MDP24 pad controller's existing pad. Now it doesn't rock at all!!! I'll be saving these for many uses to come. I'm sure some cabinets could use some of these (after cutting them up).

Friday, January 29, 2010

Review: Akai MDP24 (MDP26) Pad Control

I didn't plan on getting a new pad control anytime soon, but I found a used version of the exact model that I wanted at a really good price. So of course, I couldn't pass it up! The Akai MDP24 (pictured here) has been discontinued, and its replacement is the MDP26. The MDP26 is essentially the same thing, except it has a black cover, 6 knobs instead of 8, a key note button, a swing button, and a tap tempo button. Aside from that, they are practically identical. The MDP26 sacrifices 2 knobs in exchange for a tap tempo (for setting BPM) and note repeat (with swing to adjust how often the note repeats). Note repeat is useful for emulating drum rolls and such.

Having said that, I purchased the MDP24 because the difference wasn't that important to me. The unit is very solid and feels like it was built with quality. The pads are a little squishier on the corners because they don't directly touch the sensor pads there. This can be considered a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

There are over 30 customizable presets that can be named and controlled directly from the LCD screen. Each preset allows you to name it and change the parameters of each pad, fader, and knob. Pads can be used to toggle on/off mode, press/hold mode, and program-change mode (for changing instruments and such). Knobs and faders can have their minimum and maximum values setup independantly. Every pad, knob, and fader is capable of sending 0 to 127 bits of MIDI information, based on the amount the knob/fader is adjusted or how hard the pad is pressed.

The pads are not too squishy, but not resistant and hard either. They provided a nice rubber bounce to them when hit, and they are pressure-sensitive for sending lower/higher velocity (volume) messages. Each pad can be customized to signal certain notes (4 banks of 16, so a total of 64 notes). You can also assign aftertouch values to each pad, allowing the after-effect of holding down the button to be different from the initial effect of pressing the button.

The faders and knobs are both very responsive. Aftertouch can be setup with each of these also. The controller can also send play/stop/record/FF/RW messages to hardware that recognizes Midi-Machine Code.

One of my favorite features about this controller is that it is software-independant. It is truely plug-n-play compatible. The software is there if you want to use the included samples and VST plugin, or if you want to edit your presets via PC instead of the controller's LCD display. Other than that, the software is mainly used for updating firmware to the device. So any patches and changes made to how the controller works is downloaded from the computer and permanently stored in the device itself. What's so great about this? You can take this controller and plug it into any computer that recognizes USB 2.0 and Midi messages. No need for drivers! So there is no waiting around for drivers when the next version of Windows comes out.

Overall, great product! My only complaint is that the USB cord is way too short (about 3 feet long), but it can be replaced with a cheap A/B USB cable.