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February 2008 Archives

February 5, 2008

San Francisco is my Nature Valley

If you had a chance to read my first article, then you know that my enthusiasm for the digital media space was ultimately spawned from a desire to enter and win a video contest (grand prize $10K). I didn’t win the contest, but that hasn’t stopped me from entering at least half a dozen more! (I can be as tenacious as a weed).

Should you have enough time on your hands / interest in me to review my YouTube history , you’ll see that I also threw my hat in the ring for LG, Pepto Bismol, 1-800-Flowers, Swiffer and Nature Valley…sometimes I break from contest trolling and dabble in what I like to call my “glass-half-empty view of the world” (take a gander at “Hey Volkswagen Driver!” to see what I mean)….but then my own brand of cynicism can start to bum me out and I inevitably go back to contest submissions (but remember, only those which I think I stand a chance of winning).

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One of my recent entries, my “Nature Valley” submission (yes, the makers of those dry but delicious granola bars) was really quite simple in structure. After reviewing the competition (ALWAYS review your competition so you know what you’re up against) I could see that the featured videos moved a bit slowly, the angles weren’t always fabulous, the audio/narrative was native (as opposed to recorded afterward in the quiet of your own home or sanitarium) and sadly not dubbed in once the video footage was edited and ready for audio to be introduced. It’s a seduction really. A slow dance. You can’t just throw it all together and hope for the best. Ya just can’t. Thus, a lot of the entries had a very “rookie” feel to them. That’s not to say mine was stupendous (and admittedly it could use some work) – but I’ve learned a thing or two about the basics.

Carrie’s basics:
1. Keep things easy to watch by recording in a way that allows the viewers’ eyes to rest (use visuals that are inviting, not jumpy and that don’t move too fast or transition too quickly)
2. Don’t keep the native audio on your final cut – silence that and either add a music track to the whole piece or narrate your video so that the sound quality is something you aren’t embarrassed to own up to
3. If you’re entering a contest, pick unusual landmarks (the Golden Gate Bridge for one!), unusual subjects (costumed or otherwise) and add some original songs/lyrics to your work to make it stand out. Get creative folks! It’s your time to shine!

Nature Valley was kinda a no-brainer for me. I mean, I live in San Francisco – literally right up against Baker Beach and the Presidio. I’d be hard pressed to find a better spot to film in and again, stuff like famous bridges, statues, towers, etc. all make for footage that people wanna see. And, sometimes, a little Velveeta in your narrative helps. I’m not saying to go Hallmark on us, but slow down your speech, enunciate and tell me why I want to listen to you for a full 60 seconds. Seduce me with your prose and lyrical ways….I dare you!

When filming something like I did for Nature Valley, you’ll need to solicit a friend, significant other, family member (that still owes you from when you moved them cross country) etc., to help because unlike staged home/office settings in which a tripod or flat surface can be used to mount a camera, you’ll be moving about and using wide angles, close ups, action – all things that will necessitate a helping hand. (And, if you really don’t have ANYONE to help you, go on Craigslist and hire someone).

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Lucky for me my bf agreed to help me out and so we set off on a bright Saturday to get my footage. I knew he wouldn’t have much tolerance for “retakes” and such and so I limited my favor-asking and ultimatums for the end of the day. I figured, it didn’t matter if we got the “perfect shot” every time, what’s important is getting enough footage to edit down and wind up with something reasonable to work with. That’s the key here. More is more. You don’t want to get stuck with just enough to scrape it together and then feel deflated by your shoddy outcome.

After I caught at least 30 different video segments of me walking, hiking, skipping, jumping, blowing on dandelions (blah, blah, blah) all I had to do was take the camera home, upload my clips and then edit it in a way that transitioned smoothly and moved the plot along. Because of the way in which this particular video was put together I could use the “narration feature” in Creator 10 to walk viewers through it. It was pretty cool to discover this actually, and I found I could have the video playing while I narrated so that I didn’t have to script it out first – I could literally tell a story and have it sound fairly natural.

I’ve blathered on long enough and I know you want to read about some breakthrough with Blu-ray – so off I go. But do leave me a comment (positive please - my ego is quite fragile) and I just may write you back! ;)


February 7, 2008

Building a Better Tripod

I have a confession. At last week's big PMA camera show in Las Vegas, it wasn't all the colorful new digicams that really grabbed me, it was the tripods! I like to take longish exposures indoors to avoid using flash (natural light is always better), and also shoot outdoors in places where I'm not exactly going to carry around a full-size tripod. So three gadgets in particular caught my eye: the Gorillapod, QuickPod and StickyPod. All three will probably end up in my bag of tricks since they serve different purposes, and are small and portable.

First up is the Joby Gorillapod. This genius tripod has legs made up of fully-articulating ball-and-socket joints, so you can bend and twist and wrap it to "firmly secure your camera to just about anything." Rubbery rings and feet prevent slippage.

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Wrap it around a table leg, pole or tree branch, steady it on a rock, or just set it on your desktop. The Gorillapod can handle it all. It even comes in three sizes and several colors, so you can make your fashion statement. The bigger sizes support heavier DSLR cameras and camcorders.

Next on my wish list is the Fromm Works Quick Pod. This hand-held monopod is specially designed for getting yourself into the picture (always a good thing), and has a small mirror that makes it easy frame your self-portrait. Two sizes are available, a smaller one for point-and-shoot cameras, and a bigger one for DSLRs. The smaller one also works with optional tripod legs, magnet and suction cup attachments, while the bigger one has a long enough telescoping arm that you can use it as a monopod resting on the ground. Both collapse down to fit in most any camera bag.

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Finally, the My Sticky Pod is an oldie but goodie. This little suction-cup tripod can be stuck to the outside of moving cars and motorcycles going up to 40mph! Or faster if you keep it out of the wind. It even works underwater -- stick it to the side of your boat with a waterproof camera. A special Dash Cam model mounts to both your dashboard and windshield. An optional 12-inch extension bar lets you position the camera at pretty much any angle. Models for all sizes of cameras and camcorders are available.

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February 12, 2008

Adventures in CD Ripping, Part 1

Like many music fans, I've long been wrestling with the best way to rip and manage my large 2500+ CD library. Sure, I’ve gradually accumulated a bunch of music on my hard drive that I use for portable playback, but it's a tiny fraction of my collection. (That's not even mentioning the 900 LPs...a story for another time!). A few years back I tried to organize things with a couple 400-disc CD changers and PC-based jukebox software. But keeping track of which discs were in which slot and controlling the changers was a royal pain. And definitely not random access...Who wants to wait while CDs get switched out between every song??

So that experiment got abandoned and since then I've just been muddling along with most of my discs sitting on shelves collecting dust and cluttering up the living room. In my digital fantasy world, everything would be stored on a network media server, from which I could stream different music to every room in the house, all using a convenient remote control interface with instant search capabilities. I could do things like find all 12 versions of Hey Jude and play them back-to-back comparing differences. Or if I'm on a Van Morrison kick, play every album in chronological order. And all in pristine full CD quality over excellent speakers, no compression or tiny ear buds involved! While the second half of that fantasy may still be a little ways off (at least budget-wise), the first half is completely doable at a reasonable cost, thanks to free-falling hard disk prices.

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The logistics, however, are daunting. As a quick test, I ripped two representative CDs in my laptop drive. It took almost 15 minutes, including time to pop the discs in and out. Multiply 2500 by 7.5, and that's 312 hours of ripping...So I've been working on ways to streamline the process, and thought I'd share some tips with others embarking (or re-embarking) on the same quest. As I move forward, I'll share my experiences and tips on the organization and streaming aspects. Meanwhile, if any of you have advice on this topic, please comment! I'll round up the best suggestions in future posts.

1) Get a RAID drive to store your collection, and back it up again, if possible. I've already reached the 500-discs ripped mark twice, only to experience file system corruption and loss of weeks of work both times. This is a job you don’t want to repeat, believe me. Get a RAID 1 or 5 drive that protects you if one drive fails, and use Creator or Toast to back up the final collection when you finish. (In case a hurricane, flood, fire, earthquake or other disaster comes along and wipes out your entire drive...)

2) Rip in Lossless quality. Again, this is a job you only want to do once. You can always convert part of it to MP3 or AAC for your portable player, but if you want to be able to put your CDs away in the basement for good, rip at full quality. Disk storage is now cheap enough that this is practical. My entire 2500+ collection should fit on a 1TB drive (at about .45GB per disc in Apple Lossless format). A 2TB RAID array can be had for under $700, or 28 cents per CD for fully backed-up accessible storage. Note that I'm using Apple Lossless since I use iTunes. Other popular lossless formats include FLAC and Monkey’s Audio. Easy Media Creator 10 has native FLAC ripping support, and can convert FLAC to almost any other audio format. There's an excellent discussion of lossless formats here.

3) Use a fast CD Recorder for ripping. I'm using iTunes to rip to Apple Lossless, as well as the automatic feature that starts ripping as soon as you pop in a disc, and ejects the disc when it's done. But the drive itself also needs to be fast, and most combo CD/DVD recorders are much slower at ripping that dedicated CD drives. So I bought a 64X CD reader off eBay for $40, and can now rip at an average speed of about 2.25 minutes per disc, including insertion/ejection times, a vast improvement.

4) Rip one artist at a time. After ripping, you'll want to correct the artist/track names and album titles retrieved from CDDB, so that all the artist names appear exactly the same, and album titles are consistent. It's easiest to do this one artist at a time. At this point, you should also correct the genre (rock, R&B, jazz etc.) to what you want it to be, again consistently for each artist. I also change album dates to the dates the music was actually recorded, rather than the date issued, and add a custom comment if the album is live (so I can search for all Live tracks by an artist, for example). You may have other priorities in your CD organization, but now is the time to make the data changes, before you put away the CDs. I also add album cover art at the same time, making sure it matches the actual cover. All this organizational work is much less cumbersome when you do it as you go, with CD jackets in hand, and not all at once at the end. I find both ripping and organizing to be great activities to do while I watch TV.

February 14, 2008

WANTED: Thicker Skin Please

One thing I’ve realized recently is that posting personal projects on YouTube (videos, songs, photo slideshows, or otherwise) can be a very humbling experience. I say this because for those of you keeping up with my blog, you know that I’ve become fairly entrenched in the contest submission side of things. I now have perfect strangers leaving questionable feedback for me (note: friends and family can only say nice things or I disown them) and I’m feeling a bit like I did in high school when someone made fun of my outfit, or worse, criticized my essay in English class for being “lame.”

At 35 I see that I’m nearly as sensitive as I was 20 years ago when it comes to my work, especially projects as intimate as a video or song that I’ve written. (I once dabbled in stand up comedy and ditched that pretty quickly). Easy Media Creator has helped me churn these puppies out a dime a dozen, but sadly hasn’t changed the emotional part of the process for me. And, despite the time that goes into each project (fast turn or lengthy), each end result is still a very unique and intimate window into my world. Thus, when the “not-so-glowing-reviews” come in it kinda stings! I can only imagine how celebs deal with it every day. ;)

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An interesting case study for you readers: I recently entered a 1800Flowers contest in which the proposition was to create a video valentine that illustrated a first date, first love, etc. in honor of Valentine’s Day. I wrote a song that I felt very confident about and created an accompanying video of my actual boyfriend (his appearance wasn’t altered to spare his identity) and threw it to the masses. Everything that came in by way of feedback was very positive initially. People saying that the song had been stuck in their head all day, and that it was so cute they hoped I’d win, etc. Then, just as the close of the contest drew nearer and I thought I might actually have this one in the bag, a dark horse came up outta nowhere! Some young “punk” (yes I can use this word now that I’m in my thirties) threw his hat in with – admittedly – a fairly well-made video and fun song about how he “scored his girl.” He has a beefy subscriber base and as such, was able to get immediate traction/click thru on this new vid. Now, instead of using his powers of fan base for good, he used them for evil. He instructed his legions of lemmings to vote for his submission (makes sense) but then to also go through and trash all the other submitters’ work! This is the part of the process that can feel terribly “unfair.” I love using that word even as an adult. My mom always said “life isn’t fair” but I keep thinking maybe one day it will be! One day hard work and kindness will win out! Won’t it? Nah, probably not.

Soooo, long story short, here are my tips on how to “possibly” win a YouTube contest (though it hasn’t yet worked for me):

1. Get as many subscribers as you can PRIOR to the contest start date (that way, when you upload your contest video your subscribers will be notified and will watch your submission right away and give you a solid rating).

2. Stick to the contest guidelines. If the rules say to limit your work to 30 seconds, make sure your vid is 30 seconds. (Hint: If you have a 30 second audio track, Creator can sync your video to your audio and ensure you don’t exceed the time limit).

3. Stay on topic. I wrote a “feel good” song with positive and fun imagery because I imagine 1800Flowers' target audience is your typical 25 to 55 year old, working person (i.e. has some disposable income) who enjoys a little mush when they are thinking of buying flowers. (I mean, who wants to listen to rap when they are in the mood for love anyway?! My bitterness is emerging…).

A winner is going to be announced on YouTube’s homepage ON Valentines Day so you can check to see who wins. I think at this point I’d be happy for any one of the finalists OTHER than the kid who trashed everyone else. Karma please work this time! Please?

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Had to update you all with the coolest friggin' technology! I just figured out how to SELL my original music (as an unsigned artist of course), using a service called Snocap! Check this out!!! (And the cart featured here even works!) ;)

February 18, 2008

Checking Out Windows Live

Some of the best reasons to upgrade to Windows Vista are the free Windows Live tools, which include Spaces, Photo Gallery and Writer. While I've been using Vista for a while now, I hadn't tried these features out yet, so I decided to download Windows Live and see what all the fuss is about. In particular, I was looking for free and easy ways to share and store all the many photos and video files I produce with Roxio's PhotoSuite and VideoWave, such as on a personal blog or Web page.

When you go to Get.Live.com , you have a choice of which Windows Live components you want to install. I opted for Photo Gallery and Writer, since along with Spaces, they allow you to create media-rich photo sharing sites and blogs. Downloading any of the components gives you access to Spaces, which is a personal Web sharing area. (Several other Windows Live products are also available, such as Hotmail, Messenger and OneCare, which you may already be familiar with.)

After installing Photo Gallery and Writer, they appear in your Program menu, and you can open them at any time to create a new slide show or blog posting. I opened Writer to see what was involved in making a blog page. A blank page with a title area invited me to write something, and a handy side panel had tools for inserting photos, videos, hyperlinks and more. I typed a title and some text, inserted a picture with the tool, pressed the Publish button and voila! I had a blog page within my Spaces account without reading a single line of documentation (results below). You can also add tags and categories for your posts, and edit the visual theme of your page. Then send a link to your friends and watch the comments come in!

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Photo Gallery is just as simple to use. When you first open it, it will automatically gather and present all the files in your Pictures and Videos folders. You can view by folder, date taken, or tags. Tags are a great organizing tool. For a picture of your kids taken at Christmas, you could add tags saying "kids," "Christmas." "Holidays" and "Grandma," for example, making it easy to search across those tags in the future.

Now you can start sharing the photos in the Gallery. To email a pic or group of pics, just select it and choose the E-mail button from the toolbar. Similarly, you can publish photos to your Spaces account for Web sharing, order prints, and more. When you publish photos to Spaces, it will ask you if you want to create a new album, or add them to an existing album. I selected five pics to upload to a Travel album, which then appeared in my Spaces account as below:

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Once you've created a Spaces photo album, you can send a link, order prints, share it on Facebook, or use the pics in your blog. You can also create permissions for albums. I liked that I could limit access to my album to my Messenger contacts, Spaces friends or specific contacts I selected. Albums can also be completely public, of course.

Overall, I was really impressed with the simplicity of both photo sharing and blogging, the fact that I didn't need to read any instructions to get up and running, and the powerful features that remain to be explored. If you've been wanting to create a blog or Web slideshow, and want complete, yet flexible control over who sees them, Spaces, Writer and Photo Gallery are powerful tools. And best of all, they're free!

February 21, 2008

Decoding & Encoding

All right. It’s time, long past to get rid of the ol’ VCR once and for all. We’ve been in the 21st century for a few years, yet I still have shelves of magnetic media gathering dust. Yes, I have been investing in digital copies of my favorite films, but I don’t think a major studio is about to release my home movies on DVD.

Here’s how I’m doing it.

Using the composite connectors (those cables with the red, white, and yellow connectors), I connected my computer (with the help of the Dazzle DVD-100 included with Roxio Easy Media Creator 10 Deluxe Suite) to the video-out jacks on my VCR. Yeah, this does mean moving the VCR into my office, but it’s the final stage before getting rid of the VCR altogether.

Under the Video Tab in EMC 10, I selected “Capture Video.” (I could have also used “Plug & Burn,” but I want to edit my videos before authoring the perfect DVD.)

There are a few things I found out when capturing video from my VCR. Under “Capture Settings,” using the default quality of “DV,” chews up a LOT of hard drive space. Yes, it is the highest quality setting. When editing video you typically want to go with the highest quality setting to minimize the flaws that can crop up when re-encoding video after editing. (It’s the analogy of making a photocopy of a photocopy.)

But there’s a limit to how high you need to go with the quality. A single layer DVD holds less than 5 GB of data. Capturing an hour of video at DVD quality takes over 12 GB of space. Also, consider the quality of the original source tape.

I’ve achieved good results using the “DVD HQ” setting (mpeg-2 at 8 Mbps) which uses up less than 3.5 GB per hour. This is still higher quality than VHS, which means I won’t lose any quality when editing the video.

For a more in depth discussion on quality selection and capturing from VHS tapes, check out this forum thread on VideoHelp.com.

All right. I’ve got everything hooked up, and I’ve selected the quality setting. After clicking on the capture button, I start playing the tape. This way I make sure that I don’t miss the first couple of seconds. (I can always trim it afterwards.)

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There I am, in the top hat and tails, not to mention a beard that could provide shelter for a small village. How things have changed. I haven’t seen that beard in ages. (Last I heard, it was heading on a trek toward Alaska.)

Once the preset capture length is reached, the video is saved to the hard drive, ready for editing. That however, it a topic for another time.

What have been your experiences in capturing video from a VCR? Do you have any preferences on the quality setting?

I look forward to hearing from you.

February 26, 2008

Learning to Play Music the Easy Way

I am an American guitarist living in Germany, and I try to practice and learn new things every day. When I was younger, I used to try to copy licks from LPs. It was a major pain to continuously pick up the tone arm, move it back to the correct spot, set the needle down, and listen to the guitar phrase over and over, but that is how we all did it back in the day. Then cassette tapes came along, and I could rewind. That was very cool, though rewinding to the exact spot was tricky and annoying. When CDs came out, I started ripping them to my hard disk and using the Roxio Sound Editor to trim to just the parts I wanted to learn, and using repeat play to listen over and over. That was the best method yet.

However, in the past few years, more and more music instruction is available on DVD. DVDs are great because I can actually watch the hands of my favorite music teachers, and learn not just the notes, but the correct finger positions. The good news is that I can order instructional DVDs from the US watch them on my German PAL TV (it does not work the other way – European PAL DVDs will not play on US NTSC television). However, DVDs have one major disadvantage – I can’t watch them while I am driving my car or jogging in the park. But, RecordNow Music Lab Premier has a neat trick that allows me to convert my instructional DVDs into MP3s or audio CDs so I can listen to the teacher even if I can’t see him or her.

It’s easy to convert my DVDs. I put the DVD in my drive (this only works with non copy protected DVDs), and launch RecordNow. Under the Audio tab, I launch the Batch Audio Converter. I then select ‘Add tracks’ which opens the Media Selector dialog. I click on the Folders tab (if not already selected) and select the drive that includes my instructional DVD. On the right side of the Media Selector, I can click on either the entire movie or, with CTRL-click or Shift-click, specific chapters. I can preview my selection by clicking the Play button towards the bottom of Media Selector. Once I have made my selection, I click the Add button and follow the steps to import them into the Converter. After they have been added to my project, I can click the Convert button to convert them to MP3, WMA or other file formats for playback on hard disk; or I can click on Send to Portable to copy them to my iPod, MP3 player, etc.; or use RecordNow Audio CD to convert the MP3s to audio discs. (By the way, this feature is only available in RecordNow Music Lab 10 Premier and in Easy Media Creator 10, and not in the standard version or RecordNow Music Lab.)

I’ve found that it is most effective to watch and study the DVDs with guitar in hand, and then to reinforce the lessons by listening to them when I am on the go using my MP3 player.

As a result of my diligent practice routine, I have started to get more gigs in the area where I live, which is near Aachen on the western border of Germany. One night I was playing in a “Kneipe” (pub), and someone in the audience yelled, ‘Herr Griffith, you are a blues man… but a good man!’ I am even getting coverage in the local newspapers!

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Apart from fame, glory and schlepping equipment late at night, playing good music provides pure joy, and a couple of musician friends told me that my guitar picking has noticeably improved recently, so I guess this new practice technique is working.

February 28, 2008

How do the heck do I get my photos off my phone?

I’m like a lot of people today in the fact that I carry a phone that has a built in camera with me everywhere I go. In fact for my everyday phone, I have chosen a device that seems to be more of camera (5MP sensor and pretty advanced camera processing software) and it just happens to have a phone as part of its function.

Sure I take the occasional photo that I MMS to my friends, but my own personal habit is I use the camera phone because it is always there and I can take a snapshot of something that I would typically just have missed because I didn’t have a camera. If I don’t send the pictures via MMS and if I don’t email them from the phone as an attachment, how the heck do I get them off the phone?

Some phones store the images on a memory card – typically a micro or miniSD card. With some of these cards, you can get a adapter that then lets you insert the card into a computer SD card reader to copy the photos off. That’s normally a big headache since for many camera phones, removing the memory card involves disassembling your phone to get at the card.

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Other methods include (if the carrier has unlocked the functionality), using a USB cable to connect the phone to the computer or using Bluetooth to wirelessly transmit the photos from the phone to the PC. All of this is interesting, but still involves a lot of manual copying of files and photos.

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With Creator 10 and Media Manager, we’ve really tried to address this basic need for those of us that would really love to get our photos out from the phone and onto the PC so we can view them in all their full screen glory or perhaps create something like a slideshow or a panorama slide. Syncing is a vital part of this process. Set up the camera phone the first time for syncing, and any new pictures that have been taken since the last time will automatically be backed up and copied onto the PC. That way, you can now print them out, and be confident that if something unfortunate were to happen to your phone, you always have a copy of those snapshots in life somewhere handy...

I would be interested to hear how many of you actually do get your picture off our camera phones or do you just leave them on there until memory has run out? Have any of you had instances where you have lost your phone or even upgraded to a new one and now don’t have your important photos with you?

About February 2008

This page contains all entries posted to MyMoments in February 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

January 2008 is the previous archive.

March 2008 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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