August 2015 Archives

New Toy: USB Turntable for Digitizing Albums
August 27, 2015 9:35 PM | Posted in: ,

Photo - Turntable

This arrived from Amazon yesterday afternoon...my first new turntable in, oh, about three decades. It's an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB direct drive model, and it's pretty awesome, considering my rather modest needs and expectations.
 
We have a turntable but it has a few shortcomings. First, it doesn't play 78 rpm records; more about why that's important in a moment. Second, it doesn't have an integrated pre-amp, meaning that it must be connected to a receiver or amplifier with a phono input. And, finally, it doesn't have USB connection capability (that should be obvious, considering that USB didn't exist in the mid-80s).
 
I chose this model primarily for a combination of features (all of the above) and price (I could have spent a lot more, but I'm not an audiophile and this turntable will see limited use). And I had two reasons for wanting a new turntable. I want to digitize my record collection. It's not extensive - maybe 200 albums - but it does have some sentimental value, and there are some songs that seem to be unavailable through the normal online channels. The album shown in the photo is a good example. Elbow Bones and the Racketeers had one hit in the 80s, A Night in New York, and the album where it resides isn't available in digital form on iTunes or Amazon.com.
 
Photo - Label of old 78 rpm recordIn addition, while packing my father-in-law's household possessions in preparation for his move to a new home, we ran found about forty twenty-four 78 rpm records, 10" in diameter which is smaller than the 33 1/3 rpm LPs we're accustomed to seeing, and neatly organized in sleeves in two binders. The labels on most of these records say "Sample Copy - Not for Sale" or "Special Record For Radio Station." They appear to be demo records, each containing one song, provided by the recording studios for radio airplay, and my FIL has no recollection as to how they ended up in his possession. Based on some quick internet research, they seem to be from the period 1950-1952. I don't think they are collector's items, but I would like to listen to them and capture some or all of the music in digital format. So, I need a turntable that will play 78s and also easily connect to a computer.
 
This turntable meets those needs and more. It also has tone-arm weight, tracking, and height adjustment capability, variable pitch control, and reverse mode (so I can reality-test the presence of all those purported Satanic messages on various records). Admittedly, the pitch control and reverse mode are nothing I'll ever use, unless I plan to become a DJ in my retirement years, but they're still fun to experiment with.
 
And, finally, the turntable has a switchable line-out/phono-out output so that I can connect it either to my A/V receiver or to powered speakers (as shown in the photo) or a computer (via the aforementioned USB connection).
 
What it doesn't have is auto start/stop. You have to manually place the needle on the record and then remove it at the end of playback. AT makes a comparable model with the auto capability, but I didn't want to pay the extra money.
 
This is also the first record player I've bought that required assembly after unboxing. The stylus, counterweight, platter, and pad all had to be installed, and then the tone-arm balance and tracking had to be adjusted to meet the specs of the stylus (2 grams weight recommended, if you must know). The documentation of the steps for doing all of this was quite clear, in direct contravention of the international standards for stereo instructions. And accomplishment of these tasks gives me the appearance of an audiophile without needing any actual competency.
 
The unit ships with the free, open-source sound editor Audacity which can be used to clean the digitized sound by removing the clicks and pops that plague vinyl. It also has some special capabilities and a recommended workflow for recording and cleaning sounds from 78 rpm records. This is more complicated than you might think; well, at least it's more complicated than I expected.*
 
However, before I can begin the digitizing process for the 78s, I'll need a new stylus. Styluses (aka "needles") for modern 45s or LPs are narrower and will damage the grooves of 78s, as well as pick up more surface noise than usual. 78s also usually require a heavier tone-arm weight to properly track. So, I've ordered this stylus from LP Gear that's specifically designed to fit the AT cartridge that came with the turntable. It's also designed for a slightly lower tracking force than many 78 styluses and I think that will help to extend the life of the records.
 
My ears aren't discriminating enough, nor is my A/V system sophisticated enough to discern the legendary "warmth" of vinyl-based music (vs. the alleged "coldness" of its digital manifestation), but there's something about the physical interaction with the medium that's pleasantly nostalgic. It's similar to the difference between holding a printed book vs. reading it on a Kindle or iPad. It's not necessarily better, but the differences are worth preserving, even if for reasons that aren't entirely logical.

*Between the time I started writing this post and when I actually published it, the new stylus arrived and I installed it and tested it with the 78s; it works perfectly. I've also installed and configured the software and connected the turntable to my Mac Pro, and that is also working well. Stay tuned for some audio samples!

Hotter'N Hell 16.09
August 22, 2015 5:28 PM | Posted in: ,

Bike Computer

The photo shows one of the computers on our tandem bicycle following our ride this afternoon. The number in the lower left corner of the screen is the temperature in degree Fahrenheit. No, it wasn't 10º in Midland, Texas, in August; the computer is obviously not designed for hot weather as the temperature readout only has two digits. So, it's actually reading 110º.

However, that's not accurate either. It's always read much higher than the actual temperature (Weatherbug said that it was really only 100º), at least in hot weather. It's fairly accurate in more temperate conditions.

Regardless, 100 was plenty warm. We don't normally choose to ride in this kind of heat but because of other obligations and errands, it just worked out that we didn't start until almost 4:00 p.m. We were out for only about an hour, and it wasn't horrible, but that's about our limit in these conditions.

We have Camelbak packs on our bike and so it's easy to stay hydrated. But even that's a challenge because the water in the short length of plastic tube heats up quickly, so that your first mouthful is bathwater warm. You quickly learn to spit out that first mouthful in order to get to the cold water.

It is possible to acclimate to the heat, and to some extent we've done so. You can't live in West Texas in the summer without getting accustomed to it. And while it's often said as a joke, it is true that a dry heat is much easier to bear. Humidity this afternoon was only 19%...and even that is a bit high; it's not unusual to have humidity less than 10%.

This isn't the worst heat I've ridden in...not even close. On June 27, 1994, Midland experienced its all-time record high temperature: 116º. I was curious about how it would feel to bicycle in that kind of heat and so I went for a ride - a short ride. It wasn't much fun, to be honest, and I don't recommend it.

But we've also ridden in a few Hotter'N Hell Hundreds, and the heat and humidity in Wichita Falls in late August is just brutal. Again, it's something that you might want to experience just to say you did it, but it takes a special kind of crazy to ride it year after year. If you fall into that category, you have my respect.

Hands on with the Nest Cam
August 20, 2015 6:26 PM | Posted in:

I purchased and installed a Nest Cam wifi security camera yesterday and so far I'm finding it to be exactly as advertised: easy to install and configure, and impressively useful. The device itself is small and elegantly designed.
 
Photo of Nest CamWe already have Nest smart thermostats in our home, and the camera integrates seamlessly into the account that monitors and controls those devices. The camera connects to your home wifi network, and the free Nest app (works with iOS and Android devices) lets you monitor the live video feed from the camera wherever you are.
 
Picture quality is impressive - up to full 1080p high def color with digital zoom capabilities. The camera has integrated infrared LEDs that provide night vision, and it works quite well. Even in a completely dark room the black-and-white video feed is clear and detailed.
 
The camera also has a microphone and speakers so you can listen and talk to anyone near it. The microphone is quite sensitive; I can hear sounds from a TV in another room across the house.
 
The camera can be configured to send an alert to your phone when it detects motion or sound (can be configured separately). You can create a day-by-day schedule of times when the camera will automatically turn on and off, and if you have a Nest thermostat, the camera can coordinate with that device to automatically turn on when you're away.
 
When it detects enough motion (or sound) to activate, it then records a short video which is stored for review. I'm not sure how long those videos are kept, or how many are accessible. Nest has an option called "Nest Aware" that allows you to store up to 30 days of videos for an annual fee ranging from $100 to $300. At this point, I don't see a need for this option so I can't comment on how well it works. However, the Nest Aware account offers some additional features like the ability to "fine-tune" the motion and sound sensitivity of the camera. For example, according to the Nest website, the camera will activate when the doorbell rings, but not when your air conditioner cycles on, because it can identify the latter as background noise. You can also export video clips into a format that can be shared with others, which I suppose would be useful if your dog is apt to do amusing things in your absence.
 
The camera comes with several mounting options. It can be placed on a shelf, permanently mounted to a wall, or attached to a refrigerator door or metal filing cabinet via a magnetic base. Note that the camera is for indoor use only, and must be plugged into an AC wall outlet.
 
You can connect up to ten cameras to a Nest location (with a limit to two locations for a given Nest account). The camera is $199, and is available at all the usual big box stores as well as online via the Nest website.
 
We already have a camera as a part of our security system, but it's pretty dumb and clunky compared to the Nest Cam. Even the security system installer couldn't get the camera to connect to our wifi and so we've got a separate wireless router just for that camera. I'm seriously considering replacing it with a Nest Cam.
We spent another long* weekend at Horseshoe Bay, where the six-week dry spell was broken, albeit in an insignificant way, by a quarter inch rain shower on Saturday morning. Normally, we would have groused about the disruption of our plan for a morning bike ride, but in light of the drought conditions we were happy to linger over coffee. And by early afternoon, all signs of the rain had disappeared.

The change in the countryside due to the sudden absence of rainfall is startling. After record spring precipitation that raised lakes to levels not seen in years and produced a stunning crop of wildflowers, most of the Hill Country had no rain in July, and the dry spell continues in August. Couple that with a long streak of triple digit temperatures, and the effect is depressing, and a little dangerous, as the threat of wildfire is very real.

Below are some pictures that illustrate the change in conditions. These photos show the land adjacent to our townhouse. They were taken about a month apart, and the differences are striking.

HSB field - July, 2015

HSB field - August, 2015

There's a small catch pond behind our neighborhood. It collects rainfall runoff, and up until now, it has stayed full. Again, here's a view from July, compared to now.

HSB pond - July, 2015

HSB pond - August, 2015

The second photo was taken after the rainfall I mentioned above. I suspect the pond is now completely dry.

I mentioned the wildfire threat, and it's very real. We saw evidence of small fires along the highway, and Horseshoe Bay itself had a fire that burned more than 100 acres a few weeks ago. On the drive home last Monday, we encountered a fire that had just started on the side of the highway between Llano and Brady. It was actively burning and was large enough that there was nothing we could do with our small extinguisher; Debbie called 911 to report it. I trust it was contained because I've seen no reports about it.

It's a strange state of affairs when the countryside in West Texas is greener than that in the Hill Country.

Despite the depressing heat and drought, we still managed to enjoy a dance. We stopped off at Pecan Street Brewing in Johnson City for dinner...our first visit, but definitely not our last. We then headed over to the Mercer Street Dance Hall in Dripping Springs where the People's Choice Band was performing. 

People's Choice Band at Mercer Street Dance Hall

People's Choice is a cover band from Austin and they are, in a word, awesome. Their set was primarily country, no doubt because of the venue, but they played everything from Patsy Cline to Meghan Trainor, and from Uptown Funk to Luckenbach. The lead singer bears a physical resemblance to Jim Morrison, but I doubt the Lizard King could have pulled off such an uncanny vocal impression of Willie Nelson. Anyway, if you have the chance to catch PCB (as they refer to themselves), my advice is to not miss it.

As I previously reported, Mercer Street is a great dance venue, but this Saturday night event wasn't without its challenges. It seems that the owner's daughter was celebrating her 16th birthday and so we had to contend with more than fifty teenagers in addition to the usual adult crowd. It was literally standing room only for much of the night, and there were times when the dance floor was so packed that we elected to remain observers. Here's an example (keep in mind, however, that this was a line dance, meaning that even if you couldn't dance or didn't have a partner, you were still qualified to be out there).

Line dancers pack the floor at Mercer Street Dance Hall

It would have been easy to resent the presence of the kids (and, honestly, had we known in advance about their presence we might have elected to stay home) but they were well-behaved and entertaining to watch, so we rolled with it. Crowded dance floors are just a fact of life, and there's no point getting stressed about it.

It's an hour's drive from Dripping Springs back to Horseshoe Bay, so we bailed a bit early and got home around midnight. But we were up early enough on Sunday morning to make the 9:00 service at First Baptist Church in Marble Falls, where they were enjoying their first service in their new complex overlooking Lake Marble Falls. It's a beautiful facility and is a few minutes closer to us than the old location. The planning for the new church began thirteen years ago; a lot of hard thought, hard work, and financial commitment went into the project and it shows. At some point, if our plans work out, this will be our post-retirement church home.

New worship center at 1st Baptist Marble Falls

The church's worship center has large windows on one side that I think give a view of the lake. They had remote controlled covers which were closed during the service, which I assume was to lessen the temptation to gaze at the scenery instead of listen to the sermon.

We also had a little wildlife excitement during the weekend, when Debbie spotted this snake in the corner of our garage.

Small snake in our garage

It's hard to get a true sense of scale (no pun intended) from the photo; the snake was about 18 inches long, but very fast and very aggressive. There was quite a debate on Facebook about the identification of the species, but the final consensus is that it's either a rat snake or a coachwhip. Neither is poisonous, which is good, since it disappeared under an exterior wall just outside our garage.

I did manage to get a video of the snake, which I think is interesting because of its "warning" behavior. Note the vibration of the tail (near the end of the video), like you'd see from a rattlesnake. As it turns out, many species of snakes exhibit this behavior (including the quite venomous copperhead).



We discovered that Monday mornings are probably the best times for paddleboarding on the lake. We ate breakfast at the resort hotel, then grabbed our Bic SUPs and spent more than an hour on glass-smooth water. I think we saw a total of three boats and one jet ski during that entire time...it was wonderful. Afterward, we hopped on the bike for one last ride around Horseshoe Bay West, and then it was time to bring the weekend to a close. 

Returning to 5:00 a.m. alarms, 9-hour work days, and lawn mowing chores is difficult, but without them, a vacation is more satisfying because of the contrast. 

Ah, who am I kidding? I could get used to "vacation" on a permanent basis!

*"Long" in this case refers only to time, not perception. Our "long" weekend passed all too quickly.

Our Excellent Summer Texas Music Tour
August 3, 2015 8:48 PM | Posted in: ,

July was Live Music Month here at the Gazette, as we had the opportunity to hear - and sometimes dance to - the music of an interesting variety of Texas bands. Here's a quick rundown of what we saw and heard, and also a brief review of each venue in case you want to visit any of them.

The Fourth of July weekend found us at the Mercer Street Dance Hall in Dripping Springs. Two bands were on the bill that night: Silo Road, an Austin quartet playing Texas country and Americana and the headliner, the Tejas Brothers out of Fort Worth.

We arrived in time for just a few songs from Silo Road, but found them to be musically tight and danceable. We'd like to hear more from them in the future.

The Tejas Brothers are musically diverse, playing everything from George (Jones and Strait) to Joe Ely and Freddy Fender. Besides being excellent musicians, they're also polished entertainers, and whether you dance or simply listen, you'll enjoy their show. Frontman Dave Perez is an accordion virtuoso with vocal skills and personality to match.

Tejas Brothers at Mercer Street Dance Hall
Tejas Brothers

Venue Overview: Mercer Street Dance Hall is a relatively new (opened in 2013) venue with a unique terraced seating area, full bar, and a family-friendly non-smoking atmosphere. It has a good-sized plywood dance floor that was perfect for boot scootin'. The clientele was diverse, with a big local contingent sprinkled with Austin hipsters.

The following week we made our way to Buchanan Dam for the regular Wednesday live music dance at Pardner's, where Bubba Cox and the Can't Hardly Playboyz did not live up to their name, because those guys can flat out play some classic country and western swing. Bubba's 'Boyz are the house band at The Cotton Club in Granger, but they make the trip west to Buchanan fairly regularly. A highlight was the vocals of the keyboardist, David Kyle.

Venue Overview: Pardner's is the prototypical Texas honky tonk, with an octagonal (and very slippery dance floor that was often too crowded for spot dancing...you'll be fine if you keep moving, though) and a demographic that skews to late baby boomer (not a surprise when you consider the music starts at 5-ish on Wednesdays). It's a big venue, but be warned: smoking is allowed. Fortunately, we didn't see many smokers, and the ventilation system is top-notch.

Our next stop was at the historic Luckenbach Dance Hall to hear The Merles, an Austin quintet that specializes in "classic country and western swing." They had just begun their set when we arrived, and we experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance trying to match the look of the musicians with their sound. I won't try to guess their ages but I feel confident that the music they played was that of their parents (or grandparents). I would also venture to say that Bob Wills, Merle Haggard (the band's namesake), Patsy Cline, and Waylon Jennings would give hearty approval to their musical homage. Their drummer confirmed that they come by their musical tastes honestly; he told me he grew up listening to those classics in the cab of a tractor in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa.

We look forward to hearing them again.

The Merles at Luckenbach
The Merles

Venue Overview: Luckenbach probably competes with Gruene Hall for the title of best known dance hall in Texas. We've danced there on many occasions and always enjoy it. It's another family-friendly venue. The dance floor can be a bit on the crowded side, but on this particular night the tables and benches were arranged so that the dance floor extended down the center of the entire length of the hall, which seemed to open things up more than usual. Note that Luckenbach has no air conditioning, so come prepared to sweat.

We later traveled to Fredericksburg for the annual "Night In Old Fredericksburg" festival, which took place at the Gillespie County Fairgrounds. There was a variety of music throughout the day and night, and we sampled three distinctly different acts.

The first was a polka fusion group (that's totally a thing) from Austin called Off the Grid Band. Forget all of your preconceived notions about polka bands; these guys rocked. They did play some traditional German polkas and Cajun zydeco, but they also covered some rock and pop classics (e.g. the Stones' Paint It Black, Steve Miller's Swingtown and Mungo Jerry's In the Summertime). 

Highlights included the use of a Zendrum as the primary percussion instrument, and the absolute shredding skills of the picker who played a Steinburger-looking guitar. (Here's a good review of the band by a polka expert, which I'm not.)

Off the Grid Band at Fredericksburg
The Off The Grid Band

Venue Overview: OTGB was placed under a tent on a gravelly section of parking lot, so dancing was out of the question for us. That wasn't a problem as much of their music didn't lend itself to our style of dancing, but it was so enjoyable to listen to that we didn't mind. This is another band that we'd like to hear again, although preferably in a non-100-degree afternoon outdoor setting.

We returned to the fairgrounds later that evening in time to catch the end of the set by The Seven Dutchmen Orchestra. I counted nine people in the orchestra, so someone is confused about either nationality or gender. Anyway, this group does specialize in traditional polkas, although we danced one very nice waltz and then watched a Chicken Dance competition that went on far too long (one might say that's redundant, and I wouldn't disagree). If this is your musical stein of beer, keep an eye out for them.

The headliner of the night was the Chris Story Band, based in Kerrville although the members live throughout the Hill Country. We've danced to their music multiple times through the years - they've played in Midland on several occasions - and they're consummate professionals (for example, the piano player was in George Strait's band until his retirement last year). Their first set was a little too heavy on the "bro-country" genre that's unfortunately dominating the contemporary Nashville recording scene at present, but the group is quite versatile and you're sure to hear much that you like throughout the night.

The Chris Story Band at Fredericksburg
The Chris Story Band

Venue Overview: The evening dance was held on the "dance slab" at the fairgrounds, a huge uncovered circular chunk of concrete that will easily accommodate fifty couples or more. Although concrete is not the ideal dance surface, this installation is smooth and works just fine with leather-soled boots. And there's nothing quite as enchanting as dancing under the Texas night sky, with a slight breeze to dispel the day's heat.

Our final stop on this musical tour was at the annual "Beer By The Bay" festival at the Horseshoe Bay Resort. It's two nights of music, food, and of course, beer, held on the lush grounds of the resort hotel. We didn't attend the Friday night performances that featured Pam Tillis and Dale Watson, due to previous commitments, but we were there for the Saturday night performances. (In the interest of full disclosure, even though I'm calling this our "July Live Music Month Tour," the following took place on August 1st. I'm sure you can deal with that.)

The first of those was by Brandon Rhyder, another Texas Country (I'm using that as a genre; if you're from Texas, you'll know what I mean) singer/songwriter from Austin. He had a number of enthusiastic fans (and family members) in the audience, but frankly his music didn't suit us, and the sound system was unfortunately turned up to the point of painful distortion. It may be that the environment was such that we didn't get a chance to fully appreciate his talents.

Brandon Rhyder at Horseshoe Bay
Brandon Rhyder

The next performance was, for us anyway, everything the previous one was not. The Nightowls are a 10-piece soul/R&B/pop ensemble from - you guessed it - Austin, and they had the crowd on its feet throughout the night with original and cover tunes and choreography that evoked Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Temptations. We bought one of their CDs after the show, but this is a group that you have to see and hear in person to fully appreciate. Highlight: The closing performance of Shout, complete with audience participation.

The Nightowls at Horseshoe Bay
The Nightowls

The BBTB finale featured the legendary Asleep at the Wheel, a group that's been in continuous existence since 1969, although the only constant member is Ray Benson, its founder.

This was our first time to see this group live, and I had wondered if they could live up to the hype. Listen, you don't win nine Grammy Awards for phoning it in, and we found that, if anything, the hype fell short of the reality. You may not even like Western Swing, but if you get a chance to see them in concert, don't pass it up. Highlights included: a completely unexpected and animated sax solo by the steel guitar player, Eddie Rivers (whose persona up to that point appeared to be an incarnation of Junior Samples in a straw Stetson and pearl-snapped short-sleeved shirt); several astounding fiddle duets; and the ultra-bass notes that Benson hit on one song that could be the cause of the earthquakes that are starting to pop up around Texas.

Asleep at the Wheel at Horseshoe Bay
Asleep at the Wheel

Venue Overview: The grass-covered grounds of the Horseshoe Bay Resort are a pleasant setting for these performances, but it's a crime against nature to have groups like The Nightowls and Asleep At The Wheel appear at a venue without a dance floor. Nevertheless, more than a few people braved the lawn in front of the stage to dance, and MLB and I got in a very nice swing dance to one of AATW's tunes. OTOH, if you like to get up close and personal with the musicians, you'll find no better setting that this. There are no barricades in front of the small, low stage so one can get almost uncomfortably close to the performers.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from August 2015 listed from newest to oldest.

July 2015 is the previous archive.

September 2015 is the next archive.

Archives Index