Edirol UA-101, external USB soundcard, Garageband

Have you ever wanted to split the output from your garageband tracks into different channels? It turns out that whilst you can bring multiple inputs into garageband and record each to a separate track as you are composing, so you can output these tracks when you play back.

The secret lies in using a decent external sound card and plug it in to your USB port. As an example, I recently bought an Edirol UA-101 device off eBay (they are a bit like hen’s teeth though) and wanted to use it on the community radio station as part of an outside broadcast solution. These wonderful little boxes allow you to set your mac playback through to USB and then collect it and split to different channels. The UA-101 has ten such (or five stereo) which is more than enough for what I needed.

Just connecting it to the mac and it is identified as a valid sound device – go into your Settings/Audio and set it to be the playback device. In Garageband preferences, make sure that it is being used there too, and you can then allocate a channel per track so that on playback you can send each track out. From the UA-101 you then connect the output to a mixer and you can then manually fade in each track from Garageband exactly as you want it. This avoids having to adjust the audio levels in garageband all the time (something I find great fun, but a little clunky), and you can then send your mixer output off to be recorded at the levels you create with the mixer. Genius!

Obviously, there are later models than the UA-101 that you can use – Saffire, Roland Octa to name a few. These are more and more frequently using Firewire over USB, and that’s not a bad thing in general – but I kind of like the way the USB interface works. Oh, the Octa is around £450 new, but the UA-101, if you can find one second hand, will be about half of that or less…


provisiondirect, buy video camera, camcorder purchase

Today I was caught up with the need to buy a decent camcorder and a few accessories. In the past we have used Sony HVR-Z1 cameras (the same used on the BBC Blast tour) which are well featured and durable, and produce great shots for video work. Sadly, they are now discontinued, and although there is a strong second-hand market for them, it is sometimes better to upgrade.

So up steps the Sony HVR-Z5. Almost identical, but with better optics, more considered ergonomics and additional settings in almost every feature it is a direct replacement and all of the Z1 accessories will still fit. This looked like the right piece of kit, but who to buy from? With almost every site in a google search for camcorders returning some price comparison or review site it is easy to find these things reasonably cheap (OK – £2,500 isn’t cheap, exactly). The thing is, they are mostly offered for sale with the standard one year warranty, and I had hoped for slightly more.

As usual, for all things video we call a select list of suppliers. Today we were delighted with the service from Jeremy at provisiondirect.co.uk. This company has an enviable reputation for great value and excellent product range. We have recommended them to clients looking to purchase kit, and indeed we have made one or two modest purchases there ourselves. Today was the day for buying again!

Jeremy is one of the most knowledgeable and friendly folk when it comes to pro and prosumer video gear. He is often very busy, but when you do get him, he finds the most brilliant pieces of kit for you, and tells you exactly ‘how it is’ with everything. After talking to Jeremy today I was satisfied that they still provide one of the best routes to buying kit, and the value he gives is second to none. So it was that we bought a Z5 with 2 year warranty at probably the most competitive price available. Not content with that Jeremy also added a few extras for us, which was brilliant… unexpected and not asked for. That’s the kind of person you are dealing with – full of information and very willing to help.

It is with great pleasure that I recommend to anyone looking to purchase a decent video camera, lighting, accessories, sound equipment, anything related to video, really provisiondirect.co.uk.

Anglia Ruskin Summerschool 2009

The beginning of May has been the time when Anglia Ruskin invite prospective students in to experience university life. Each year we have worked with them to run a mini project using digital technologies, and this year was no different.

The theme was ‘broadcast journalism’ as in previous years and our role was to lead the project and work with the students to teach them some of the skills for video capture and edit, presenting, camerawork and production. We also get to define the task, too.

This year it seemed obvious to have the group make a five minute news story on the impact of swine flu. Working in small groups the students were given a variety of tasks, such as gathering vox pops, researching the facts, organising the schedule and presenting to camera.

It was a tough challenge. From no experience whatsoever we expected the young people to create a news broadcast and present it live over the Internet by 3pm on the second day.

It is therefore a real delight to say that they did. It was a close call, but they rose to the challenge and managed to produce a very credible result. Given that this was their first ever attempt, and the time constraints are huge, I think the result is yet another example of the stellar performance of young people when given the opportunity to be creative. Getting the level of challenge right is incredibly important, but giving enough space for creativity to thrive is more so…

If you want to see the result, have a look on YouTube for Anglia Ruskin Summerschool 2009. I will link to that from here as soon as I can.

BAFTA Be Very Afraid 5, Trackstick Geomapping, 3D Maker

On Monday Matthew and I worked with City College Norwich RUGRoom students at the ‘Be Very Afraid‘ event at Bafta in Picadilly, London. This annual extravaganza of digital talent showcases to a wide spectrum of visitors some of the many excellent things happening in schools and colleges around the UK. This year was no different with a superb range of digital technologies being used in a variety of creative ways.

City College Norwich have been working with Geo Mapping – using a GPS enabled device (called a ‘Trackstick‘) to log locations every few seconds and enable the user to download the data which can then be added to Google Earth. The result is a path that shows as a line across the map, and which, with careful planning, can be made into all kinds of shapes!

The students from City College Norwich had to plan their routes using maps of the area around Picadilly, and make sure that they created an interesting shape. They then stepped out on the town to walk the walk, returning to download their data. Once they had it in Google Earth they didn’t stop there! They took screen grabs and manipulated the images using ‘3D Maker‘, a small app that makes a number of 3D files, some of which require a pair of 3D glasses to see – you remember the kind, one red lens, one cyan lens…?

The result was a lot of walks in the shape of cup cakes, boats, shoes, geometric designs and all kinds of interesting images. However, of far greater importance was the ability of the students to undertake a considerably complex task (which they did with ease) but also to communicate it to the many visitors who were intrigued as to what was going on. The highly demanding environment of a show such as this really tests the nerve of people who are normally reluctant to talk to people, and I am delighted to say that each of the young people at the event from Norwich were excellent ambassadors for the college.

A quick word about ‘3D Maker’ – it is a superbly simple application and needs no real tuition to use. You simply take your image, scale it to fit on the screen when at 100%, then select the items in the image that are to become foreground in the 3D output. You trace around them and adjust a single slider and the app does the rest! You can set foreground, middle ground and background items pretty easily, adjusting the extent of the ‘3D’ effect. Wearing a pair of 3D glasses really brings the images to life. If you are even remotely interested in tis kind of artistic imagery, go and buy a copy of 3D maker!

A quick word also about Tracksticks – wonderful little devices that just work as you expect. Turn them on, let them acquire a satellite signal, and go for a walk! When you get back to your computer you’ll need the Trackstick Manager application to download the data to, and then export in the appropriate format. Google ‘.kmz’ files are a snap, and loading them in to Google Earth is a double click away. One slight reservation about the Tracksticks and that is with the software which is PC only right now. A nice and friendly mac version would be the icing on the cake, and really help make the trackstick experience very good indeed.

Scott Kelby, photography and a 50mm f1.8 lens

book_coverI have just bought Scott Kelby’s recent book Digital Photography volume 2 and love it. I read the first book and learned that Scott’s style is down to earth and practical. He uses a lot of humour to ease you in to the subject for each chapter, but there are some seriously good tips and hints in each section.

Since I consider myself a learner still (and probably aways), particularly when it comes to photography, I really find this kind of book extremely useful. Yes, there are bits that are probably common sense and need not be said, but then again there will be folk will appreciate the information nonetheless. After all, having your common sense ‘confirmed’by an authority such as Scott can only be a good thing!

One immediate action as a result of reading the book was to buy a Nikkor 50mm f1.8 lens. I love it… so fast compared to even my f2.8 Sigma and the results are tack sharp. Thanks Scott! It didn’t cost a fortune, and I am sure it will be a firm favourite of mine very soon (probably by Friday afternoon, since it will be used for a wedding shoot then).

Reading Scott’s book also prompted me to  go through all of my kit and check out some of the features I know I don’t use so often. One such is the ability to use my SB800 flash gun ‘off camera’ using the wireless connection from my Nikon D200. I love the depth you can get when you move the light around to a different angle instead of blasting right off the top of the camera. Another tip was to shoot ‘tethered’ – i.e. using a USB lead from my camera straight in to my Mac. This needs a piece of software from Nikon (30 day trial) and you’re away. I liked the ability to see the image right on my laptop screen instead of in the viewer window on the back of the camera, but the software leaves a lot to be desired… more on that in another post, I think.

All in all, the two books I now own from Scott are proving to be a goldmine of useful information and I can thoroughly recommend them. The information in the second one about the use of flash is brilliant (no pun intended), and just what I needed to give me the confidence to go off and try stuff out. Buy the book – you won’t be disappointed.