My Setup – 2018

My original setup post was five (!) years ago. Since that time almost as much has changed as has stayed the same. Let’s go through everything and see where things were, are, and may be headed towards…

Who Am I?

I’m still Christopher, and my day job is still in IT. Music and writing are still my passionate hobbies, but that’s where they’re likely to stay. Doesn’t make them any less important to me!

Hardware

I built another desktop about four or five years ago, and it still handles everything I need it to just fine. Like the previous system it has a dual-core processor (this time a cheap low-power Intel Pentium) and 8GB RAM (I’ve thought about bumping it to 16, but it’d cost just as much as putting 16GB DDR4 into the next eventual system). The system drive is a 256GB SSD, while /home sits on a 2TB HDD. That’s primarily for Plex server, and it’s a little over half full. At the rate we (rarely) buy any new movies and shows, it will last well into the next system. Or by then a 2TB SSD will be cheap enough, that’d be nuts. The next system may get an AMD Ryzen or Intel i5; it’ll have a LOT more cores.

After starting out on Windows 7 and getting the free upgrade to 10, I moved it over to Linux Mint 18.1 when it was released. Everything just works, and I really like Cinnamon (seriously have you tried Gnome 3 on Ubuntu 18.04? Lol what a dumpster fire). No it can’t run my audio software, but that’s its only negative. It’s since been upgraded to 18.3. I may upgrade/re-do it once 19.1 is out, but since it runs Plex it’s definitely become a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” system, while the HP laptop can be the Linux distro guinea pig. The monitor is due for an upgrade, but I don’t know if I want to jump to 4K yet; I do want at least 27″ of screen space. I’m still using a plain mouse and an Apple keyboard. The latter may one day be switched out for a mechanical keyboard with brown switches (I have blue ones at work and they’re wonderfully clacky, but my wife would kill me lol).

The 2 older Mac laptops are long gone. Their limited RAM support and dying batteries spelled the end of their days. Now we have a 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina screen. My god is that great to work on. Its battery is still going strong, it has a decent 8GB RAM, and the SSD is still fairly fast. It just recently got upgraded to macOS Mojave, and for a .0 release it’s almost shocking how smooth everything is. Finally dark mode!

We have an HP Spectre laptop with Linux Mint 19 on it. It’s much faster than even the MacBook Pro. The only downside is its battery stopped working, which I removed. A new one just isn’t worth the price and its small size wouldn’t give it anywhere near the battery life of the MacBook Pro. It’s still nice to use, and it may be good for road trips and the like.

The iPad is also gone, it was just too slow to run even the basics. The new ones look great, especially the Pro, but I’m just too cheap and I have a phone that can cover most of that stuff. I do have a Kindle (cheapest one w/o a backlight) that I like to read from, although I’m not impressed with its battery life, even with keeping it on airplane mode most of the time.

Not that long ago I moved from the iPhone 6S to 8+. The battery was starting to crap out on the 6S, and I wanted the bigger screen and newest (at the time) processor. With the newly-released iOS 12 (like Mojave it’s crazy good for a .0 release) the 8+ still feels brand new, and provided its battery holds up I won’t be in a rush to upgrade for quite awhile. But, weirdly enough, I’ll likely go back to a smaller screen, if only for the weight reduction (trying to work out with a large phone in your pants is a pain!).

We have Rokus on all of our TVs, running Plex or Netflix. The living room also has a PS4, which doesn’t see a whole lot of use. It does stay for being the back-up Blu-Ray player for those that refuse to be ripped. Besides a larger-sized TV I did setup a receiver just to have 2 nice Klipsch bookshelf speakers. To me sound is more important than visual quality (seriously we stream Netflix at 480p, take THAT data caps!) and it still blows me away how much more enjoyable films are with that setup.

Musical instruments haven’t changed at all, and I don’t foresee any new additions or such. I still like my Yamaha acoustic, but admittedly haven’t played it very much. I also rarely play the Strat, even after having its bridge fixed. I still like the feel of the Les Paul Studio the most, and aside from experimenting with heavier strings and tuning in D standard it’s pretty much set as-is.

The Stingray bass is also still fun to play. I tried a set of tapewound strings and loooooved the feel of them! Unfortunately the G string wouldn’t stay on the tuning peg so I left it off. I’ve since gone back to roundwound strings, and hate them. I’ll eventually get another set of tapewounds and have the luthier give it a full setup. Otherwise the Stingray is a joy to play on, even if it weighs at least twice what the Les Paul does (no joke, holy shit). I did replace the small guitar amp in the living room with a larger Fender bass amp, and it’s unbelievable how light it is! Yeah it weighs less than the Stingray, jeez. I still have the other bass amp in the garage, and like the drums would prefer to donate rather than try to sell it.

I still have the drums, but I’ve had no urge to play them. It may be worth it to try to sell it for at least a little money, but honestly I’d rather donate it to a school or church.

While I’ve posted twice about searching for a synthesizer, I don’t foresee ever purchasing one. It’s gonna take up too much of what little room I have or could make, and since I already use headphones for Reason I just won’t want to be so “closed off” in the house. It’d bad enough I have to keep the door closed because I can’t trust the cats! I’m likely just going to get a nice compact 25-key MIDI controller to use in Reason. It already offers enough instruments and sounds, and I did also purchase MiniBit for some retro goodness.

Software

For writing there’s a mix of writing in plain text as well as formatting, whether for short stories (and perhaps novels) and screenplays. While I championed doing as much as possible in plain text for years, I’ve recently relaxed and used what I feel is the best tool/software for each aspect. For plain text I use just about anything, switching daily between Notepad++, Sublime, Visual Studio Code, and iA Writer. Due to all the writing for Basic Fantasy RPG being done in LibreOffice, that’s what I’ve tended to use for short stories (and that novel fragment); I even uploaded a short story template for it. I also made one for Apple Pages; if I’m using the laptop for an extended period of time I’ll use that instead of LibreOffice; it just runs so much smoother and really isn’t that overkill for basic writing needs. I do want to try it out on the phone as well.

For the little amount of screenwriting I do, I’ve honestly gotten tired of Fountain, despite the enthusiasm I used to have for it. I didn’t mind writing in a text editor (Visual Studio Code even had an extension for text highlighting), but I grew weary of the little things in Highland that didn’t work, and the newer 2 release didn’t fix them. It also pushed itself more for other kinds of writing, which I didn’t agree with. Yes it can be good to write “distraction free”, but the page structure and length DOES matter in screenwriting, and in Highland particularly I was constantly switching back and forth to the preview. Plus, in 2 it now by default centers character names and dialogue, so it’s already contradicting itself. ANYWAYS, I spent more time testing out Fade In Pro, and my goodness I can’t believe I didn’t go with that sooner. Plus, when I had an issue with something I emailed Kent and he not only replied within a day or so, he incorporated some changes in the next release, which didn’t come too long after. Amazing! Oh yeah, it’s also the ONLY screenwriting program to run on Linux. Boom.

For file syncing I’m still on Dropbox. It’s never had a problem, and again it’s the only one in its category to run on Linux. I don’t have my pictures on it anymore, so I have more than enough space for documents.

For web browsing I’m pretty split between Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. The latter is just due to the battery life on the laptop, while I prefer Firefox overall for its open nature, plug-ins, and bookmark syncing.

For audio I’m still Team Reason. I finally upgraded to 10, and overall have been pretty happy with it. It is a bit hard to work on the laptop’s smaller screen, while at work it’s amazing to have it all showing or still split off parts of it to hide when not immediately needed. It still looks meh on a high-res screen, and there is a lot of newer items that can put off those new to Reason and DAWs period. But, it’s still the easiest for me to work with, and I hope to spend more time with it.

5 Days, 5,440 words

For a long time I’ve loved the idea of writing, the notion of it. Sitting in front of a computer or typewriter, sipping on a beverage, and just letting the inspired ideas pour out on screen or paper. It was something creative and productive, proof of time well spent.

Since then I’ve gone through periods where I read about writing, and perhaps even attempt it, but then it quickly fades away, usually replaced with enthusiasm for something else like music.

Lately I began re-reading No Plot, No Problem, written by the founder of National Novel Writing Month Chris Baty. This was a very thoughtful and well-received gift from my brother, and in the past I had gotten excited for and even began a NaNoWriMo session or two, but it never really got far. My longest piece, simply titled Awesome Novel, is 40 pages and 6,800 words. I don’t remember it taking that long to write, but re-reading it shows that nothing really happens.

The biggest point the book makes so far (the later part of the book isn’t supposed to be read until getting into your month-long novel writing endeavor) is simply getting into the most important habit a writer can have: sit down and just write. This can seem like such an odd thing, especially when attempting a much larger body of work. Aren’t I supposed to spend all this time planning, outlining, refining? In actuality, no! Sure, it helps to have at least something in mind, a rough summary of a plot and/or one or more key characters. In his book Chris recommends taking at most a week before NaNoWriMo to do any planning, but no more. Anything further just lets anxiety, doubt, and over-working starts to ruin things. So many people seem to forget that the first draft not only doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t even have to be anywhere above the level of total dog shit (important note: that’s my take on it, not from Chris).

I had heard of several writers on /r/writing that had done just that, gotten into the habit of simply sitting down and writing. Some had done it for a few days, others a few weeks, and a few were approaching a year if not longer. Everyone pretty much agreed: almost everything written was fairly bad and/or embarrassing, but not as terrible as they had feared. And some of it was, surprise, not too bad. Almost usable as-is!

I think that’s the “secret” of writing. Just like movies and TV, and fitness models and such, we always see the end results. It’s the same when we read a book. We’re viewing the final work, the last draft or edit, or the person at their peak physical prime. All things that took time, blood, and sweat to even begin creating, and that much more further down the line to refine, reshape, and even completely change if and when it wasn’t working.

The point is that we don’t need to worry about what others might or will think. When writing there is no obligation to show the text to anyone, either now or ever if we choose. We can take what’s been written and either continue building off of it, edit and re-arrange before continuing, or if it’s a complete dead end just close the file (no reason to delete, you never know one day…), start a new file, and try something else. Second, third, fourth, and further drafts are when to let the analytical reasoning half of the mind into the room to see what’s been going onto the screen or page.

(Holy shit my habit of writing more has seeped into this post). ANYWAYS, I decided at the beginning of this week to see if I could develop that same habit, simply sitting down in front of a blank screen and just take off. My first day’s writing was around 800 words, and for the rest I tried to get at least 1,000, usually coming in just above that mark, with the largest close to 1,200. On one day I didn’t get to do my writing until later in the day, and it was starting to get close to not even coming close to my daily number. The weird thing was even after just a few days I really wanted to keep my streak going, so after dinner and a little Netflix I made sure to get my laptop and start writing, and within 2 hours I had my 1,000 words.

The end results are the same as what was mentioned on that sub-reddit; most of it is pretty meh, but there are a few small portions that could be worth taking and trying to make something of it. That may be something I do later on, but for now I’m gonna keep writing new material during the week (taking the weekends off to relax and recharge). One thing I did notice is that so far the writing follows Awesome Novel in that nothing really happens. I think this week I need adopt a  soap opera, melodramatic overkill mode, and just throw much more action and such at the reader. A novel can afford to take time to meander and delve into little things here and there, but for short writings I need to get going.

I don’t know how long I’ll keep doing it, but it will be at least for a few more weeks. I do want to eventually gain enough experience to eventually move onto what Ray Bradbury recommended doing, which is writing a short story a week. That would be pretty easy to do, word count-wise, as it would still be around 1,000 to 1,500 words a day for 5 days. The main difference is that I would need to have a little bit of prep going into it, at least a rough idea of the story I want to tell.

I think if I could get into that, and work in that mode for a few months, then I would finally be ready to possibly take on the writing of a novel. I don’t know about doing it within a single month, as my job and daily responsibilities simply can’t be compromised, but perhaps two months would be more than reasonable to devote free time on.

Horror Short Films

I can’t remember what I was browsing when I came across a link to a horror short called Lights Out. Needless to say I was pretty spooked. I then had to watch all of ponysmasher’s videos, including his very informative how-to’s. Of course that led to watching many more horror shorts.

This may be my favorite format for a true horror experience. A longer film rarely succeeds in building tension over the course of 1.5-2.5+ hours. There are some notable exceptions, such as The Shining and Session 9. The same is true with books. Except for perhaps House of Leaves and The Haunting of Hill House there aren’t many books that can build and maintain a sense of horror, dread and even mystery. Like film, a horror novel must not only leave the reader/viewer in agony, but also have her constantly asking “What was that? How? Why”.

In order to start even thinking about creating a horror short, I would naturally start with a script. Now I’m sure perhaps ponysmasher and others may not start that way, or maybe not even have a written script at all; but I can guarantee they are still working from a “virtual script” in their mind. Screenwriting already has to be much much more brisk than a novel or even a play, and it’s even more critical for a short. You have between 2-10 minutes to get it done. There’s no time to screw around with scene setting, and most won’t even have any dialogue. So it’s really about noting the locations you want to use, the shots you know you want to get in, and the actions of the character(s) and the monsters/ghosts/etc. to up the ante.

Next comes the time to film the horror short. As these are very low-budget, there’s both more and less to worry about. First, you need to find and decide on where to film it. There can be both indoor and outdoor locations to consider, and even locations such as in and around a car or other “mobile locations”. Then there’s the 3 pillars of equipment: lighting, sound, and cameras.

  • Lighting: For outdoor locations, is it supposed to be daytime, nighttime, or both? For a short film, you shouldn’t need more than a day or two shooting on location, so it’s unlikely (but still possible) you’ll have to worry about the weather interfering. With the advent of CFL and LED lighting it’s much easier to have powerful lighting both on a budget as well as minimal power usage. Along with bulbs consider any needed stands, hoods, screens, etc.
  • Sound: Will you need to record any audio on-scene, or will it all be in post? If the former, you’ll need to consider how to control ambient noises, especially in outdoor locations. There may be some you won’t really care about, or actually want to have recorded, such as birds and the wind. For any dialogue it may be better to record in post; the actor(s) can either read along while watching the film to sync their lips, or you can record them talking and then match up in the editing software. You’ll need to consider choice of microphone. For on-set recording you’ll likely need a shotgun mic, such as the very popular Rode NTG series. If you’re not mounting it to the camera you’ll need a pole and/or grip, along with a wind protector (lovingly called the Dead Cat by Rode).
  • Cameras: Depending on your budget and needs, there’s a wide variety of cameras you can choose from. These days you may even be able to get acceptable quality from your phone’s camera! Some entry- and mid-level video cameras will have a built-in lens while other mid- and all high-end cameras will need a separate lens. In this case you may want to purchase at least 2 lenses: one to use in close-ups, and another to use for panoramic shots.

After you’ve filmed everything, next comes post. Not only will you need to edit your video into a tight and cohesive cut, this is also when you’ll record any sound effects and voice-overs, dialogue re-takes, etc. If you’re talented you may even want to record or synthesize a soundtrack and/or some effects. Along with the editing you may need to consider correcting or customizing your color grading.

What about effects? Some talented filmmakers such as ponysmasher are versed in the use of software such as Blender to create any needed creature effects as well as any prop and lighting adjustments or additions.

Finally it’s time to share your film with the world. The 2 most popular sites are Youtube and Vimeo; I greatly prefer the latter, but for sheer number of viewers there’s no doubt Youtube is the de-facto. If you make enough films and start to get more attention, you may want to try to enter any number of short film contests and shows. That along with online exposure may take you further in the film world than you had ever anticipated.

Writing in Fountain

If you are a screenwriter or at least like to dabble with writing movies you’ve probably heard the controversy surrounding Final Draft’s latest update, if it can be called that.  Called out by the Scriptnotes podcast, Final Draft even came on the show to attempt to refute the criticisms… and failed miserably.

After such a long wait for a lackluster improvement, others have stepped in to fill the void and actually utilize the growing ubiquity of smartphones, tablets, cloud syncing, etc.  From John August and Stu Maschwitz, a new markup syntax, Fountain, allows you to write a screenplay in any plain text editor.  There are also programs that will take those Fountain files and output a formatted screenplay in PDF format, perfect for sending off to LA!

As I’ve mentioned in my post about plain text (holy crap was it really that long ago?), I am now a huge proponent of any system that doesn’t tie me to one program in order to work on something.  Like any other plain text file/format, Fountain allows me to work on a script on any device in any text editor, as well as keeping that file synced and backed up via Dropbox, iCloud, OneDrive, etc.

As the Scriptnotes podcast pointed out, while Final Draft may have made it look like someone had to use their program and FDX file format in order to send out a screenplay, that’s complete bunk.  A reader wants a screenplay, period.  They want it in the correct format, traditional Courier font, etc. and that’s it.  It can be printed out and mailed old-school, a PDF, a Word file, FDX, it doesn’t matter.  PDF is nice because you can lock a PDF down except for printing.  If they wanted to make changes, well that’s when you and/or your agent should be getting a call or email.

So, is it hard to learn to write in Fountain?  No!  Far easier than Markdown and even basic HTML, there aren’t too many specific keywords or symbols needed when writing a basic film screenplay.  Now if you’re writing for the stage or an animated TV show, you might have a little more work to do.  But, like any other writing or even programming, the point of Fountain is to write now and worry about formatting later.  If you’re writing a long dual-dialogue scene, then just write the character names and their dialogue.  Then when you’re finished you can look on the Fountain syntax reference page and find out exactly how to set it up.  But don’t do that while you’re trying to get the words down.  Remember, the formatting only matters at the end when you’re ready to send it off.  Until then, write with a large sharpie on paper towels for all I care.

My Setup

As a fan of both The Setup and the Workspace posts on John August’s site, I thought I would make a similar post.  Note that this is for what I do at home, not my day job.

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Christopher.  My day job is in IT, but I consider my “true work” to be a mish-mash of writing and composing/playing music.

What hardware do you use?

I have a desktop system that I built  a few years ago.  It wasn’t high-specced even then, but I have since doubled the amount of RAM as it’s gotten so cheap.  The DVD drive went out, so right now it doesn’t have any optical drives.  I originally put Windows 7 on it, but it now rotates between various linux distros.  I recently put on Ubuntu 12.10 which was working great until I switched video drivers to try out Steam, and now I only get my background, and the log-in screen won’t let me choose a different session.  I can’t believe it’s 2013 and the most “user-friendly” linux distro still has these kind of problems.  Either via USB or an external DVD drive Windows 7 or 8 will be going onto the system, and my days of trying out linux will be over.

I also have 2 Mac laptops, both are now about 5 years old.  The white MacBook has a newer battery that actually works, while the Apple-replaced one in the MacBook Pro barely lasts a few hours (even with dimmed screen, etc.).  The MacBook came with 2GB RAM and that’s the max it can handle; its hard drive was replaced a few years ago with a 7200 RPM one that helped a little bit. The MBP has been upgraded to 4GB RAM but still has it’s original hard drive.  I’ve debated putting an SSD in there, but with the worse battery I think I’ll just start saving towards a MacBook Air or Retina to replace both of them.

I also have an iPad (2nd generation) and my HTC Inspire 4G.  The iPad is still pretty good performance-wise and it’s battery is still great; while I do think a Retina screen would be great I’m in no rush to replace or supplement it.  The phone is getting pretty slow, even with a factory reset.  It was updated from Android 2.2 to 2.3, but I’m on the fence whether to go to a Nexus, iPhone or Windows Phone.  I’ll have to see what may be out later this year.

My key piece of music gear is my Yamaha acoustic guitar.  My very first guitar was a used Yamaha acoustic, and I was happy to finally get another acoustic recently.  It plays extremely well and it didn’t cost so much.  I’ve had various electric guitars over the years, both Strat-style (single-coil pickups) and Les Paul-style (humbucking pickups), but as my interest in certain styles of music has waned so has my interest in those instruments.

I also have an electric bass, and it’s a nice change of pace from playing a 6-string guitar.  It was my most expensive purchase, but once in your hands you can feel it.  I also have an amp to go with it, a simple solid-state combo unit.

I have a PDP 7-piece drum kit, and if it wasn’t for the great price I got it for I would admit it’s totally overkill.  I started with a Pearl double bass pedal but have moved back to a single Pearl 900, as its responsiveness can’t be matched and again my waning interest in music that really used a double pedal.  I added a Pearl brass snare drum, and have Paiste hats and a Zildjian ride.  I’m still looking into a crash, which will likely be one of those brands.  I also have a Latin Percussion cowbell, but until I get a mount it’s not used.  For drumsticks I rotate between thin jazz sticks to thicker 5B or even 2B, from either Vic Firth or Pro Mark.  My throne is a Roc-N-Soc, and my rear thanks me.  I use Pearl 900 hardware.

And what software?

Most of my writing is done within a plain text editor.  I’ve learned to leave formatting (except for screenwriting) until the very end, so the excess features and bloat of any word processor is overkill to me.  As I’ve written before, I also prefer keeping my work in plaintext so that I never get stuck in an obsolete or un-supported file format.  I’ve been burned by Sublime Text’s one update for version 2 and now charging again for 3, so I now rotate between Notepad++ and TextWrangler when working on Windows and Mac accordingly.  When I do need to work on formatting, I am happy in either Word or Pages (even though it’s in sore need of an update).

For screenwriting I use Final Draft.  I started out with Celtx, and for no cost it’s an outstanding value.  I’ve started looking into the Fountain markup language, and if it gains traction in Final Draft then I will likely move my screenwriting to a similar “plain text first and then formatting in a full program later” pattern.

I use Dropbox to keep files synced between the systems.  Right now I have a free account and have more than enough room for my documents and photos; eventually I will probably upgrade and move all my music over to it as well.

I have an older version of Propellerhead’s Reason.  This was before Reason and Record were re-integrated.  In my opinion Reason, like Ableton Live, is coming out with new versions far too often.  I can’t help but feel that it smacks of greed, lack of direction, etc.  I also grew tired of relying on one program to try to compose a whole song, even though I will give the nod to Reason for its completeness.  I do wish they’d upgrade the graphics, as we’re no longer on 800×600 screens and it’s too hard to read the instrument panels.

I do like Propellerhead’s newer iOS app Figure.  It has a very nice interface, and there have been some good updates for it.  I would like to see them apply this to Reason and their other software, and perhaps then I’ll take another look.

For my recording needs I’m fine with using Audacity, and it’s hard to beat free. I’ve dabbled with Garageband and it’s ok; if music was my main focus/income I would definitely go with Logic Pro over anything else.

What would be your dream setup?

I’m pretty happy with the abundance of equipment and options I have.   I still feel I have too much, and will likely continue to downsize and simplify.  I think the 2 older laptops need to be replaced by one good one, and I need to fix the desktop’s OS situation.  For writing I want to be able to work on it at any time and any place, even if I just have a phone or tablet available.  For music, I’m happy with an acoustic guitar and a notepad.  For recording, I may just buy a portable recorder for ideas and rough tracks, and then look into a nice USB mic for recording to the computer.