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Saturday
Oct252014

Joss Stone Featuring Jeff Beck - No Man's Land

Little did I know, preparing for a guitar session with a friend of the studio, that I'd be recording the legendary Jeff Beck, on a Joss Stone track.  It was all hush-hush, and rightfully so... Jeff didn't want anyone to know he was in town, even though he was due to play with Billy Gibbons and ZZ Top at the Greek Theater just a few days later.  We got a couple of amazing Matchless amps set up beforehand, but he brought over Billy's Magnatone Varsity to handle the rhythm tracks.

I am immensely proud and happy to have been a part of this.

 

Monday
Apr142014

Home Security

The last thing anyone wants to deal with is returning home to a house ransacked by a bunch of greedy thieves, and dealing with the aftermath.  I’ve heard way too many stories from friends of mine, and it’s always a concern both when I leave for work, and when I leave to go out of town.

Finding a way to quell those concerns has always been something I’ve tried to work on, and I’ve set up a few very affordable camera systems of my own, which relied on a webcam plugged into a computer that was always turned on.  The resolution was always pretty bad, and low light performance was mediocre at best.  To really have a camera system that you can rely on to protect your home, you need to invest in something specifically built for the task.

There are many prepackaged systems you can buy through various online and brick-and-mortar stores at a wide range of cost.  The problem I’ve seen with many of these systems is that they are built upon proprietary hardware and software, and rely on their own methods of viewing and archiving footage.  The cameras themselves are usually the least expensive part of these systems, and their quality leaves a lot to be desired. Upgrading any part of the system sometimes involves replacing the entire system as well.  I’ve set up four of these types of systems in the past five or so years, each costing around $1,000.  They all served their purpose, but when I was planning on what to do with my own apartment, I didn’t even consider these systems, as they are all cost prohibitive.

What I did consider, was the next logical step from my existing webcam setup, which was a purpose built webcam that is standalone, and connects to the web without the need for a host computer.  The first I researched was the Logitech Alert system.  I only needed to read into the first couple of reviews to find that it wasn’t the solution I was looking for.  The fact that it relies on power line networking detracts from an otherwise decent product.  Power line networking uses the existing power lines already running through the walls to connect various network devices.  In theory it works well, but in practice, I’ve found it to be unreliable in some cases, and not usable at all in others.

After searching for a few alternatives, I stumbled upon Dropcam.  There were only a handful of options for WiFi enabled cameras at the time, but Dropcam stood out right away because of its simplicity, and ease of setup and use.  I ordered a couple for work, and eventually one for my home, and was impressed right away with the quality.  After a few months, I purchased a few more for my workplace, and eventually upgraded to the latest Dropcam Pro for home.

A review of the Dropcam Pro, along with some more discussion regarding WiFi enabled security cameras in a post to follow…

Sunday
Dec012013

High-Tech Living: Part Two

The light bulb was invented around 200 years ago, and only in the last 20 years or so have we seen any real change to the design we take very much for granted. The most common type of light bulb, the Incandescent bulb, is very inefficient, using approximately 10% of its energy to produce light, with the rest lost to heat. The 1990’s saw the introduction of more energy efficient CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lamp) bulbs and more recently LED bulbs, which can now be found in most hardware and lamp stores.

I first became interested in LED bulbs when they did something other than turn on and off. I saw the LIFX Kickstarter campaign, and was floored by the idea; a connected LED light bulb, that could change to whatever color you wanted, all controlled from your phone. After raising over $1.3 million in funding (with an original goal of $100,000), the LIFX developers gained a lot of attention from both consumers and other electronics companies. Toying with the idea of funding the company, I did some more research, and found a few other examples of similar products, but they were mostly controlled with proprietary wired systems, requiring expensive installations. I did however find Philips was ahead of the pack, with some wired solutions that seemed pretty close to what I would consider to be the best hardware solution. I didn't want to put any money into LIFX yet, as I was waiting for the complete package to be finished. The software and wireless solutions needed to be worked out before anything could be marketed at anything more than the niche market these types of products already maintained.

Shortly after I saw the original LIFX Kickstarter campaign, Philips unveiled a new lighting system, dubbed “Philips Hue”.  Based on the same hardware I had seen before from Philips, the new Hue system incorporated the ZigBee protocol (an open standards protocol for wireless lighting automation), and connected to your home network via a Bridge, a small device that connects the bulbs to your network.  The Bridge wirelessly connects to the Hue bulbs, and allows you to control the lights from your phone, tablet, or computer, whether you are on the couch, or in a different country.

Philips chose to sell exclusively through Apple and its stores for the first few months, occupying shelf space next to Apple’s other high-tech products. This is where I first saw the Hue system in person, and decided to pick it up on the spot to test it out. Where as LIFX was the one that got me interested, Philips was shipping, and I couldn't pass up the chance to try it out. The starter pack is $200, and contains one Bridge, and three Hue bulbs. I brought it home, set it up, and within minutes, I realized this was going to be the future of lighting in both homes, and businesses. I can control the lights from my phone, create “Scenes” for my entire home, and turn on and off lights from anywhere, all the while saving energy by using 10% of the energy used by an incandescent bulb. 

I created a few presets for my home, and used it for a couple months, before eventually purchasing a starter pack and many more bulbs for my workplace. Philips then released a software update that introduced a few features that further convinced me I wouldn’t want to live without these if given the choice. Among those updates, they introduced the ability to use the iPhone’s Geofencing API, which gives access to your phone’s GPS location, allowing an app to know whether you are still in the same area or not.  This feature alone is worth the price of admission… the app uses a rough location of my home, approximately one city block, and automatically turns off my lights when I leave, and turns them back on when I come home. I never need to worry about leaving lights on when I leave, and I never need to worry about fumbling for the light switch if I’m carrying a few bags from the grocery store.

This feature, combined the few presets I’ve set, make this a complete life-changer… I’ve since purchased the new Friends of Hue LightStrip, which is a 6.5 ft strip of LED’s, and stuck it behind my TV, giving a cool glow that emanates from the rear of the TV set, and reflects off the entire wall behind it.

The difference this lighting system makes in my home is incredible.  The effects it has on my mood, comfort level, and the convenience it brings from allowing me to control all of my lights from my phone, and not having to worry about turning off and on lights when I leave, is all immeasurable. Reading about it got me interested, setting it up for the first time got me excited, but using it for the last year, has made me a life-long fan and user.

Sunday
Nov242013

High-Tech Living

For the last few hundred years, there have been a lot of various gadgets and forms of technology that have helped us live in a more modern home.  Everything from the refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, to even the light bulb, was developed to enhance or improve our lives in one way or another.  With the advent of modern computing and electronics, we saw the introduction of many new technologies that eventually became commonplace in most people’s homes.  In the last few years however, the market for gadgets and home automation technologies has grown exponentially, and we’re seeing new products being unveiled every week.

The first of these that I gravitated towards was the Nest Thermostat.  Created by Tony Fadell, former designer at Apple, this thermostat takes an otherwise boring and low-tech approach to heating and cooling a home, and brings it to the 21st century.  There have been programmable and WiFi enabled thermostats on the market for years now, but none executed as well as the Nest.  First and foremost, the design is very modern, and its circular design is no doubt inspired by the click-wheel design on nearly all iPods, which Fadell helped create at Apple.  The user interface is reduced to three elements; a circular display in the center of the unit, a metal ring for navigation, and as a selection method, the entire unit clicks in.

Apart from the design, another big selling point is how it handles scheduling.  Over the course of a few weeks, it learns your schedule, and what temperatures you set it to throughout the day and night.  Aside from notating when you change the temperature, it also uses an array of sensors to detect motion, light, and humidity, to further enhance its accuracy.  After a certain amount of data gathering, the thermostat automatically sets the temperature appropriately, and you rarely have to worry about reprogramming it.  The Auto-Away function is very useful, detecting whether anyone is home, and it will go to a predetermined temperature for when your “nest” is empty.  In addition to adjusting the temperature on the unit itself, the Nest app on your smartphone or tablet can then control the thermostat from wherever you are.

All of these features are very cool, but the reason for most of them isn’t just for the sake of form.  The function is to help you save energy, and reduce costs of heating and cooling your home over time, through the use of subtle suggestions when making adjustments to temperature and Away settings.  Once a month, I receive a Nest Energy Report email, indicating how much energy I’ve used the past month to cool my apartment, and a comparison between previous months.  Speaking from my experience with this thermostat for the last year or so, I can say it’s probably saved me a couple hundred dollars, which means it has nearly paid for itself, with the unit priced at $250.

The next gadget I purchased was the iRobot Roomba Vacuum Cleaning Robot.  Most of my apartment has carpeting, and as a result, it needs to be vacuumed regularly to look clean.  Besides the laziness excuse, I really didn’t enjoy vacuuming; it’s noisy, cumbersome, and it’s a chore I chose not to do as often as I should have.  I always had an eye on getting a robotic vacuum, but the prices kept me away.  That changed when I saw the Roomba 650 at Fry’s Electronics, on sale for $250.  Looked up some reviews, and decided to pick it up on the spot.

My impression before even starting it up, was that it was a neat toy, but may not pick up dust as well as my regular vacuum.  After I let it do a pass through half of my apartment, I was blown away by what it had picked up.  After the second pass, it picked up just as much as the first.  My apartment was actually looking a lot cleaner than it had, even with regular cleaning with my normal vacuum.  I eventually set it to vacuum every other weekday, at 4pm.  It takes about 45 to 60 minutes to do a full pass around the apartment, and when I come home from work, the place looks like I had a maid come in while I was away.

While the Roomba may not cut down on energy costs, it certainly cuts down on time spent vacuuming myself.  That alone was worth the price of admission, and knowing that nearly every day at 4pm my apartment is getting a little cleaner whether I’m there or not, is quite satisfying.

Coming home to a clean apartment, at exactly the right temperature, is something I certainly won’t be giving up any time soon.

Monday
Aug192013

From Unlikely Places

I had the opportunity to work with some amazing musicians last December, and without knowing it, participating in the beginning of a new band, and experienced some of the best tracking sessions I've been a part of in a long time.

George Lynch was the headliner, per se, as he was the artist mentioned when I was inquiring about session details from the studio. What I didn't know, was Pancho Tomaselli and Sal Rodriguez from War would be his backup.  What ensued, were two days of the dirtiest, funkiest, most laid-back -- but at the same time -- exciting sessions I've been a part of for a long time.

ESP Guitars put together a little clip of the last jam they performed, before wrapping up the two day session.  Audio was the result of a 30 minute mix, but I'm still pretty happy with it!