Hedders' Ramblings

Gaming, home tech, politics, music, whatever really

Spirits In The Forest

Depeche Mode are one of my very favourite bands. I love their music. But they need to stop now, and their film “Spirits In The Forest” perfectly illustrates why.

The premise, I love. A spiritual sequel to “101”, following a bunch of fans’ journeys and stories, of what the band has meant to them through their lives, intercut with concert footage. The divorced dad in Bogotá who reconnected with his kids through making YouTube videos of them doing DM covers. The young girl from Ulan Bator who lives with her grandmother. The gentle, soft-spoken Romanian who learned English so he could translate DM’s lyrics for his friends. The cancer survivor. It’s lovely, really it is.

The trouble is the concert footage. And lord, it pains me to say this, even to admit this to myself, but here it is. DM were, once upon a time, one of the greatest live bands in the world. Just watch “Devotional” if you don’t believe me. It’s epic. But, now, in 2021, they’re just plain not. Dave’s voice is shot. He knows it, too, retreating into Vic Reeves club singer crooning and clowning around as a way to avoid having to actually hit the damn notes. What’s almost worse is that Martin isn’t far behind him: that legendarily huge, rich tenor that created those magnificent harmonies is sounding increasingly reedy and cracked.

Singers’ voices do change as they age. That’s a well-understood phenomenon. Sometimes they find a way to master that change, and become – if anything – better than they were in the first flush of youth. Bruce Dickinson’s a great example of that, as are Floor Jansen and James Hetfield (yes, they’re all metal singers but the point stands – and metal singers over 35 or so have to develop really good technique if they’re not going to blow out their vocal chords).

The first time Dave Gahan’s voice changed, he got on top of it and made it work. The roaring, stadium-filling baritone from Songs of Faith and Devotion gave way to the creeping snarl that percolates through Ultra, Exciter and Playing the Angel. It let him do some of the best work of his career, in the form of the Soulsavers record. Thing is, it’s changed again, and this time he hasn’t got a hold on it.

That is, perhaps, understandable. He’s nearly 60. And Christ, the man performs. He’s all over that stage like Mick Jagger with a flea up his bum. But Depeche songs aren’t about prancing and posing. They’re songs. They’re all about the voices. They need that plaintive tunefulness that makes Depeche … well, that makes them Depeche. They need Dave and Martin both to be absolutely on top of their game vocally.

And, in this film, they aren’t. So much so that I, a lifelong fan, can’t bring myself to watch it again. It’s the first DM concert film I’ve watched where I haven’t wanted to be there.

Perhaps, really, they just need to stop. They have one hell of a body of work behind them. But enough is enough. I for one don’t want to have to watch them fading away like this.

Fiio M3K

I’m that guy who still buys CDs. I have hundreds of the things. Why? Well, there are all sorts of reasons; I like physical media, I like album artwork, I often listen to music in places that don’t have a great Internet connection, and I also have a few issues with the way some of the streaming services treat recording artists.

Equally, I do like to have a good chunk of my music to go, and I’ve generally done that with high capacity digital music players. For years, I’ve been using an iPod Classic 160Gb with the Rockbox firmware, and it’s been great, but the iPod hard drive has finally croaked and right now I can’t be stuffed to start spudging around to open it up and try to replace it. Apple didn’t do repairable, even back then. So, I needed a replacement and what with just having paid for Christmas and a new washing machine (don’t ask), I didn’t really want to spend a fortune.

Which is how I lighted on the Fiio M3K. Fiio have been making a bit of a name for themselves with high quality digital audio players aimed at the audiophile, and the M3K is their entry-level model coming in at just 60 quid. It had good reviews, from hifi websites as well as from Amazon, and all in all it seemed like a decent machine for the price point.

It arrived today, and these are my first impressions of it.

The Fiio M3K. Hand for scale.

As you can see from the picture above, it is pleasingly tiny. Is it any good though?

Good things first. The screen is small but decently bright and perfectly readable. It feels solid and well-made, the silicone case it comes with feels good and the side buttons are pretty intuitive and responsive.

Most importantly, it sounds really good. FLAC audio sounds spacious, defined, clear, and alive. There are plenty of EQ settings and the like, but after testing with everything from Tom Waits to Nine Inch Nails (Reznor and Ross’ complex soundscapes and high dynamics are always a good workout for a music player) I haven’t felt the need to change anything from the default. Paired with my beloved Grado Labs backless headphones it sounds sublime, much better than the iPod Classic ever did.

There are some niggles and compromises. First off, this is a 60 quid device, and most of that budget has gone on the high quality DAC. Intensive operations like rescanning the library when you add new files are not quick, and you can’t use the player while it’s doing it. In fact, I had some issues with it locking up doing the initial scan of around 130GB of music. Turned out it didn’t like the dodgy knock-off MicroSD card I was using. Switching to a quality Sandisk card made the problem go away. Not an uncommon issue, but one to be aware of.

The touch controls on the front are OK, but they’re not as good as the iPod Classic’s peerless jogwheel, and in fact I’ve found a few instances where it wouldn’t respond to my fingers. Again, this is a 60 quid device, so comparing it to a device that cost four times that ten years ago probably isn’t fair, but something to work on for future revisions perhaps.

Overall, I’m really happy with it. I have Auri’s gorgeous Night 13 playing on it as I type this, and I’m spotting details I’ve never noticed before, even on the same headphones. A device this cheap shouldn’t sound this good. For the money, you can’t go wrong, really.

The Anchoress is back

Well now. I did wonder when we would be hearing from The Anchoress again. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t totally on board with In Memory Of My Feelings, her collaboration with Bernard Butler (which is odd, because it seems like a match made in heaven), but she’s been slowly releasing tracks from her forthcoming second solo album under the Anchoress moniker and … well. Well now.

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See for yourself. This is really rather glorious, isn’t it?

The Sinden Lightgun

One of the little-mentioned casualties of the move away from CRT technology for our TVs and computer monitors was light gun games. As everyone who lives in the gaming world knows, light guns don’t work on modern TVs. They need to be able to track the CRT beam; no CRT beam, no workee.

Nintendo’s Wii had a sort of solution with its Wiimote, which used an IR sensor bar, but as anyone who has tried to play House of the Dead on the Wii can attest, it’s not what you’d call accurate.

Enter Andy Sinden, inventor of the Sinden Lightgun, a light gun that works with modern TVs and is way more accurate than IR-based solutions like the Wiimote. As I understand it, it’s basically a camera in a gun shell that recognises the on-screen border created by the driver software and uses that to work out where you’re pointing it, with exceptional accuracy. As far as Windows and Linux is concerned it appears to be a mouse, which means that it can be used with a wide variety of games, platforms and environments. So, you can run your old arcade gun games in MAME, and play them on your PC or Raspberry Pi or whatever, on your modern TV, with a proper gun.

I was one of the backers of the original Kickstarter campaign, and so I received my Sinden Lightgun yesterday. I think general release / order fulfilment is January or so.

The hardware itself is reminiscent of the Saturn light gun. It’s not what you would call a premium product – it is injection moulded rather than 3D printed, but the plastics have a slightly scuffed and overly shiny look to them reminiscent of a cheaper child’s toy. For the money, I would have liked a slightly more high-end finish and a bit more weight to it, although that probably wasn’t practicable given the small production run for the Kickstarter. It doesn’t feel fragile though, the trigger is microswitched (a nice touch) and the other buttons are well-placed and feel decent enough. Crucially, the USB lead is very long (~5m I think?), so you can stand well back from larger screens. So … not blown away like I was by the Spectrum Next, but not bad at all.

The software is not, in its current form, going to win any UI design awards. It’s in beta still, so that’s not necessarily unexpected, but it is … basic, shall we say. No doubt that will improve with time. It is after all just a beta.

The software has also proven somewhat unstable for me – it frequently throws exceptions when I launch it. Again, it’s a beta, and Andy is clearly a capable guy, so no doubt that will improve.

The biggest issue I faced was setting up MAME, because I’m really not familiar with it and the learning curve is, shall we say, steep. Honestly though I didn’t make my life easier by not reading the Sinden Lightgun wiki properly.

All of these niggles fell away pretty quickly once I got it working though. Damn, this thing is fun. I’d forgotten just how much I miss light gun games. Time Crisis, Terminator 2, Operation Wolf, Lethal Enforcers … ahhhh. They all work great.

Gun game nirvana

So … yeah. It’s not quite ready for prime time, perhaps. But the core technology is sound and works well. I can certainly see it being supported out of the box by MAME, RetroArch and so on in the future, and if it catches on then, who knows? We could be looking at a whole new generation of light gun games. Imagine a new House of the Dead or Virtua Cop game using the latest Unreal Engine. Now you’re talking.

OSSC

My trusty old Trinitron CRT finally croaked. It was a lovely screen, perfect for the old computers and consoles that I like to mess around with when I’m not working or wrangling children. But its time had come.

Frankly, now that I’m working at home, I can’t really spare the desk real estate that a CRT needs either.

So, a modern screen is needed. Trouble is, they really don’t work well with old machines. Old machines tend to output video at 240p, 480i, or 480p tops. Even if your TV has a SCART connector, it probably won’t handle those sorts of low resolutions well. It will try to upscale them, but TV upscalers are made for movies and so the result is a blurry, laggy mess.

The OSSC. Not pretty, but very functional.

This is where the “Open Source Scan Converter”, or OSSC, comes in. It’s a nifty little device that takes your old console or computer’s SD RGB output and “line doubles” it up to 720p or even 1080p.

The results are spectacular. The “modern” screen in my home office is an El Cheapo Phillips 24″ flat panel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine. But it can’t cope with anything that isn’t HDMI and high def.

With the OSSC hooked up, all my consoles look fabulous. Razor sharp images. No artefacting or noise. No blur. No “smoothing”. No lag whatsoever. It’s fabulous. I don’t have the ability to take screenshots of it, which is a shame because it really needs to be seen.

There are a few issues. My Amiga 1200 does some weird things in Workbench. My Atari ST produces a perfect image, but there’s no audio for some reason.

But those are teething troubles at best. The OSSC is incredibly configurable and I’m sure there’s a setting somewhere that will address these problems. (EDIT: Both of these issues went away with the 0.86 OSSC firmware update.)

Fundamentally, this is an amazing device which bridges the gap between retro consoles and new TVs beautifully. I’m very pleased with it.

Privilege

I have a range of mental health problems. Depression, its bosom buddy anxiety, and pretty serious attachment issues have been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.

Why? Well, I went to boarding school. Yes, I’m posh – well, sort of. I’m an FCO kid. I was privately educated, at enormous expense. And it destroyed me for life.

Yes, I’m aware of my “privilege”. And it has opened doors. I’d be lying if I pretended otherwise. But consider this.

Imagine a rather shy and introverted little boy, aged 8 or 9, who has overnight and for reasons he doesn’t really understand lost his home, his family, his personal space and privacy, his freedom, his safety and his access to anyone who cares about him or any sort of affection or comfort or solace whatsoever, all in one fell swoop.

Imagine that he then finds himself trapped in a relentlessly hostile environment where nobody is on his side and nowhere is safe, and where there’s a good chance that at any moment someone will beat the shit out of him because they feel like it or because it’s funny.

Imagine that is then his life until adulthood.

Honestly, it’s like a bereavement. Not all kids survive it – anecdotally, most boarding schools see at least one suicide attempt every year. Certainly, my own did. Some succeed. The ones who don’t are quietly removed. Either way, the whole thing is brushed over.

If you do survive, then you emerge a changed person. Tough, self-reliant and self-sufficient, certainly. The hoary old cliché about the regime being “character forming” is certainly true, as far as it goes. But you are also completely closed, defensive and wholly incapable of empathy or normal human relationships. You don’t love anyone or anything. You can’t. To survive that decade, you had to kill the part of you that feels, or bury it so deep that nobody else can get to it.

This is how the (in)famous English “sang froid” / “stiff upper lip” is created. By systematically brutalising and traumatising small children.

I survived, but the long-term effects on me have been pretty profound. It’s controlled and stabilised with medication; a cocktail of Sertraline and Mirtazapine seems to keep me relatively uninterested in offing myself, but even with the meds, I struggle.

Now, recall that the people who are the product of this system, these broken, stunted souls … they run the country.

Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Floored.

No pun intended. Well, maybe a bit. But there is a very reasonable argument that Floor Jansen is straight up the best singer in the world right now.

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Nightwish are rapidly becoming one of my very favourite bands.

A tale of two games

Unusually (for me, anyhow), I recently picked up two AAA games for my PS4 at pretty much the same time: The Last Of Us Part 2, and Ghost of Tsushima.

Let me say straight off that they’re both magnificent pieces of work. Clearly, some very talented people have put a lot of time into both games. They both look and sound incredible, control is tight and presentation has been polished until it shines.

Thing is, only one of them is actually enjoyable.

The trouble with The Last of Us is that – while it is magnificently written, wonderfully plotted, deeply atmospheric and at times heartbreaking – it isn’t fun. Not one bit. It’s relentlessly, relentlessly grim and dark and just plain horrible. Gratuitously so, at times. And while I can totally see what Naughty Dog were going for and why, the combination of the grim setting and the gameplay style they have gone for means that the end result is a game that feels like work. It invites you to care about its protagonist – and it does it very, very well. And then it throws you into these difficult, tense combat situations, and despite scarce ammo and some really unfair checkpointing you manage to get through it, and then your reward is a cut scene in which yet another absolutely horrible thing happens. It’s just … relentless.

Naughty Dog clearly realised this, hence the rather jarring “light relief” moments shoehorned in from time to time as flashbacks. It isn’t however enough to lift it out of being one of those games that you feel like you ought to play, rather than a game that you actually want to play. In many ways it’s sort of the video game equivalent of The Passion Of The Christ: I sat through it, and it certainly is powerful, but do I want to watch it again? Dear God, no.

Compare and contrast the sheer joy of Ghost of Tsushima, a game which absolutely nails escapist power fantasy in a way that nothing has since The Witcher 3. It’s beautiful, and fascinating, and above all the actual core gameplay mechanics are genuinely fun. It has its share of brutality – it is, after all, a game about the Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274, a conflict not exactly known for its observance of modern notions of human rights. The difference, though, is that whereas The Last Of Us subjects you to its brutality, in Ghost Of Tsushima you can do something about it. You have agency, in a way that The Last Of Us just doesn’t let you have.

The Last Of Us Part 2 is an important work and I’m sure it will be cited frequently in the ongoing videogames-as-art debate (I thought that was settled by What Remains Of Edith Finch, but what do I know). But Ghost Of Tsushima is the better game.

Flabbergasted

I get that symphonic metal isn’t to everyone’s taste. But you need to stop what you’re doing and watch this:

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I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever heard or seen a better singer, in any genre. The extraordinary vocal prowess. The sheer stage presence. I don’t mind saying that I’ve become mildly obsessed with this band as a result of watching this.

TZXDuino

One of the drawbacks of the Spectrum Next is that it can only load TZX files by using the Pi Zero accelerator. That actually works fine in itself, but you can’t directly control the Pi, and so it doesn’t work for multi-load games because you can’t stop and start the “tape”. That’s a bit of a bugger, because many of the old Speccy games that I have enough nostalgia for to want to revisit today are multi-load games.

I needed something that would act like a real tape player, but hopefully without the flakiness.

First things first, I needed the right cable. The Next uses the same pinout as the Spectrum+3 for its tape interface and so – as with so many things retro – the peerless Iain Priddey of Retro Computer Shack comes to the rescue with his +3 tape cable, which also works nicely with the Next.

Armed with that cable, I spent some time trying to get my phone (the extraordinary Fairphone 3, if you’re interested) to output something that the Next could ingest as a tape signal, using the PlayZX app. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get the Next to pick up the audio signal though. That was odd, given that I tried stereo to mono converters and all sorts.

Happily, I came across this marvellous little device:

The TXZDuino, complete with nifty 3D printed case

It’s quite a simple device, at least in terms of what it does. You load up the SD card with TZX files, plug the 3.5mm jack into EAR on the Speccy, apply some power, start the tape loader on the Speccy and then select a TZX file with the back and forward buttons and hit play. You can pause and unpause it at will, and it also seems to be smart enough to pause itself automatically if it detects a long enough period of silence.

And to be honest, it just works. No muss, no fuss. It supports folders, and seems to read the SD card pretty swiftly. The manual stresses that some TZX files using certain custom loaders might not work unless patched, but so far I’ve not come across any problems.

For thirty quid, I’m absolutely delighted. Now, if only Fighter Bomber ran properly on the Next – I’ve been itching to try running that at 28 Mhz!

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