MythTV on Ubuntu

A few months ago I rebuilt my development box to be a PVR using Ubuntu Linux and MythTV. I originally planned to use Mythbuntu but had a lot of issues installing it, let alone getting it to work the way I wanted it to.

Firstly I did a standard Ubuntu 7.04 desktop install – Gnome desktop, LAN connectivity – and hooked it up to my Dad’s Panasonic widescreen projector via VGA cable. This was a little problematic as both Ubuntu and the Projector were trying to adapt to each others settings rather that just going for WXGA like they ought to have. Eventually I got a nice 1366×768 picture going and set about installing MythTV.

MythTV screenshot

MythTV is a PVR software project that is roughly comparable to Windows Media Centre. There is even a theme that will ape WMC if you like, but at it’s heart it is a TV recording and playback system, but you can make it do almost anything using the various plugins. In my case I was using an old Twinhan Digital TV tuner card, outputting to the projector and the stereo amplifier in the lounge room.

Installing MythTV isn’t painful at all using Ubuntu’s software repository: $sudo apt-get install mythtv

Configuring it on the other hand was very complex. If you are very lucky your system will detect your video card — my tip is to get it working beforehand – if /dev/dvb0 exists configuring MythTV is much simpler.

Once you have MythTV talking to your TV card you can scan for channels and watch and record TV, if you like. MythTV is setup as a frontend/backend arrangement (or client/server, if you prefer). The MythTV backend needs to be constantly running so it gets schedule updates and can start and stop recording when unattended. The frontend does not have to be on the same computer and is the part where you get to interact with the program and videos.

One cool thing I got working after a bit of effort was the Electronic Program Guide (EPG). Until this was working the box was really a learning experience rather than something useful. Using the community provided guide over at Oztivo and some clever scripting to get the EPG periodically, suddenly MythTV was alive and autonomous. Tell it you want to record Formula 1, or the Rugby World Cup, or The Unit or Heroes or Doctor Who and it schedules it as soon as the program appears in the guide data. You can pay for the IceTV guide if you like, but I found the XMLTV format provided at OzTivo to be both accurate and accessible.

Playing back recorded videos has a few cool features. Using simple keyboard commands or your remote control (once setup) you can easily skip advertisements or jump forwards or backwards through the video. Even better, you can get MythTV to scan the program for Commercial breaks (blank screen, lack of station logo etc) and it will automatically mark or even skip these breaks for you. This was great and makes TV much more watchable.

The recorded programs are stored in MPEG2 format and are simple to edit and store for future reference or archive (to DVD or as XVID).

All in all this was the most powerful PVR I have come across, but was a definite challenge to get going. If you want a HTPC, I’d recommend almost everyone to use Windows Media Centre as it is much simpler to setup. If you want a PVR, buy one from a shop – they are getting quite affordable, are much quieter than a PC and are simple to use. At Strathfield Car Radios they even have a SD Set Top Box for $79 that you can put your own Hard Disk Drive into for an incredible bargain PVR.

The advantages of MythTV over those kind of setups are mainly in the EPG, the Commercial skip/delete facility and the built in Networking. Plus the fact it is completely free – both free as in beer and free as in speech.

MythTV screenshot 2

Wiring up a 5.1 surround sound system

Yamaha RX-V361B AV Receiver

Recently my sister purchased a Yamaha RX-V361B 5.1 home theatre receiver. My Dad first had a go at setting it up, but failed as there was a hardware fault with the receiver. After it was repaired/replaced, my brother, brother-in-law and myself had a go at setting it up (ruined the family Christmas celebrations, unfortunately.

My sister has a bit of a complex setup, a DVD player, Digital TV STB and Foxtel receiver all currently going into their 42″ plasma TV. They put a couple of restrictions on us setting it up too – all devices must still be watchable with the surround sound amplifier turned off and it must be simple to use (not too complex a procedure on the remote controls).

We couldn’t do it.

We tried, but it just wasn’t possible to have high quality picture coming through the AV receiver as well as directly to the TV, so you ended up having to chose between best quality or simplest.

The problem was mainly due to the Foxtel box. Foxtel signals are not very high quality. The Fox box is able to output video via S-video or Composite cable, at that’s it. Sound is only stereo. Both the other devices have at least Component picture (plus S-video plus composite) and the HDTV box has DVI/HDMI as well. Both have digital audio out (optical or coaxial) which allows the receiver to turn whatever signal is coming in (2.0, 2.1, 5.1, DTS, 7.1 etc) into the appropriate signals to the 5.1 speakers installed in the room. Plus stereo.

The Yamaha amplifier only has a “pass-through” video output to the TV. By this I mean that if you have one signal coming in as composite, one as S-video and one as component, they will be relayed to the TV via the corresponding output, the composite will only come out the composite, the S-video will only come out the S-video, the component will only come out the component. This meant if you decide to change the box you are watching, say Fox to DVD, you would have to change the input on the Amplifier, then change the input on the TV – this does not meet my sisters simple directive.

So what we did was hook all three input devices to the receiver via S-video cables, purchased from your local supermarket. This had a couple of unforseen consequences. Firstly, the DVD player would not output a 16:9 widescreen image via the S-video connection. Secondly the Foxtel box needs to be tuned to either output via composite or S-video, not both, and one or the other must look awful at all times.

We got past the first issue by trying a second DVD player that was fortunately in the house, this one was happy to output widescreen on all connection types. The second we couldn’t beat. Foxtel’s hardware deficiancies simply could not be beaten. In the end we had to get the residents to decide if they would normally watch Fox via the receiver and tune it for S-video, or direct on the TV, in which case we would tune it for composite.

We ran secondary outputs direct from each device to the TV. The DVD had a component cable which went straight to the TV, the HDTV had a DVI/HDMI output we were able to plug straight in, and the darn Fox box had that composite cable which wasn’t very watchable (all devices were able to send stereo via RCA to the TV in addition to the signal going to the AV receiver). This allows my sister to just flick around the inputs on the TV remote without having the amplifier on, if she chooses. We also explained that the DVD and HDTV pictures were actually better straight into the TV and to only have the sound coming via the amp, whereas the Fox needs the amp to show it’s best.

It was all a bit complicated, really, which is unfortunate. Fortunately, the sound from the Yamaha amplifier and JBL 5.1 speakers was excellent. Many hours of home entertainment are in store at that house, I tell you.

JVC RXD-701S AV Receiver

My Dad has also recently purchase a home theatre amplifier. His is a JVC RXD-701S 7.1 surround receiver which he has hooked up to the projector and various speakers we have scrounged/created over the years. One nifty feature of this unit is firstly it’s HDMI capability and another is video upscaling. Basically what this means is that if you have a bunch of different inputs as we had at my sisters, the receiver will translate them into the highest quality connector you have available (in Dad’s case HDMI) and send that signal to the video monitor. This means select one input on the projector remote and the receiver is happy to do the rest of the switching by itself.

Unfortunately Dad reports that the JVC doesn’t have as many inputs as the Yamaha, nor is it as flexible at mixing and matching audio to video signals, but it should provide a mighty sound and very impressive home theatre, when coupled with the projector and 106″ screen he has.

The other part of wiring up a home theatre system, the tedious bit, is the running (and hiding) of the speaker wire and the installation of said speakers in unobtrusive locations. Fortunately my brother-in-law had already done this at his place which allowed us to focus on wiring up the inputs to the amplifier. Dad hasn’t done his yet and I doubt it will look as neat for some time as Dad is upgrading bit by bit, rather than starting from scratch.

The Cheesecake Theory

Kahlua cocoa coffee cheesecake

A few years ago I was at a Christian music conference which was aimed at helping church musicians play better at church. There was a service on Friday night, some instrument specific tutorials on the Saturday and a couple of all-in group sessions during Saturday day. At the instrument specific sessions, particularly the one for guitar, we were taught a technique for keeping out of the way of the other instruments. This was to play only the DGB strings and generate all the chords (major, minor and suspended chords all only include 3 notes) by using only 3 chords shapes in the 3 major positions on the neck. I found this pretty interesting and subsequent usage has shown that it works, it just requires a bit of planning and practice time.

The main highlight of the conference was the combined worship workshops. At these they introduced us to “The Cheesecake Theory” or building up a band sound. It goes like this:

  • The biscuit base – made up of the drums and bass guitar, this gives the music it’s starting point, everything develops from the basic rhythm and feel coming from the beat (kick drum and bass guitar) and counterpoint (snare). Bass players were told to only play when the kick drum is hit.
  • The cheesy middle – the chordal instruments, piano/keyboard/organ and guitar. Basically these two spend all day getting in each others way, as the guitar can play 6 notes at a time and the piano can do even more! Piano players in particular can be a whole band all to themselves so it is often hard for them not to play only a part of a song. The method they taught us is for one instrument (say the piano) to play longs chords, one to a bar, and the other (guitar in this example) to play short notes, say staccato strum on beats 2 and 4 (often the same beat as the snare). These roles are very reversible, the guitar can do long strums and the piano sharper chords.
  • The topping – be it strawberries and cream or chocolate drizzled over, the main thing to remember with the topping is moderation. In the band it means the single line instruments, violin, flute, trumpet, saxophone etc. They advised us that for most effect to keep these instruments back and allow space. They are best played in introductions and when the song needs a lift, such as in the chorus or bridge, or perhaps in a later verse. Another good time to put them in is in the space between lines, so long as no one else is trying to improvise in that space.

They ran through a couple of examples of playing songs this correct way (everyone being disciplined and playing their role) and playing a song badly. When they played the song badly (I think it was Shout to the Lord) the song was a horrible mess. Everyone was trying to be the star and play over each other, the singer was showing just what she had learned at singing lessons that week, the guitar was doing a magnificent solo, the bass was playing a cracking riff, the piano was being frilly and thumping down low as well, the flute was just playing and playing and playing and the drummer was putting in fills and crashing cymbals with abandon. The meaning of the song was completely lost and I doubt God was glorified, despite the musicians trying their very best and playing quite well individually.

That’s what the conference was about – putting the group above the individual and making sure the words are front and centre, being built up by the music being played, not being overwhelmed by it. One of the other attendees asked what you do when some of the instruments aren’t available, such as at her church there was no drummer or guitarist. So the band took out those instruments and demonstrated how you can still have a good sound so long as you still can keep the 3 parts of the cheesecake – base, middle and topping.

You do have to change how you play a song, however. You often can not have as driving a feeling without drums, not as flowery an intro without piano, but you will be able to get by on most songs. Having a good piano player is able to cover up a multitude of missing parts, they can play the melody or harmony if you have no single-line instrument, they can play chords if you have no guitar, they can play a bass beat with their left hand if you are missing a bass guitar or drums.

While you can get by without an instrument, it is often much better for them to be there. For instance, would you go watch a rock band like U2 or KISS if the drummer was absent? No, the music would be missing a vital ingredient and less than it could be. You could go an watch an orchestra but if it was missing the string section it would be missing some of the magic.

A band works best when it’s members are working together and for a common purpose. In our case at church that purpose it is to glorify God and encourage our congregation to worship Him. Giving your all may mean being restrained and disciplined while you play, but this in itself is showing deference and humility and to be encouraged, not disparaged.

Sorry to anyone misled by the title of this article. For recipe ideas please try Triple chocolate cheesecake or New York cheesecake or Strawberry cheesecake.

SNC Music Review 2007

Mozarteum grosser saal buehne mit orchester

There were a lot of distractions and hardships at Toongabbie Anglican Church in 2007. Early in the year all our full time staff departed for other pastures and while church changed slightly, Sunday Night Church soldiered on, praising our God and learning from His word. Unfortunately the year contained too many personal tragedies and too few joys, but God remains sovereign and we remain his servants.

This year it was great to see more new musicians join the SNC music team. Renee started singing with the band, James joined us playing piano, Emma helped out with her flute and David got back into his drumming after about a 10 year break. All of these new guys showed great improvement by the end of the year, if not technically on their instruments, certainly at playing in ensemble, which is a skill all of it’s own.

I would like to thank all the musicians who contribute to music at SNC, the service wouldn’t be the same without everybody’s hard work and we do a great job encouraging the congregation in singing together, praising our God and exhorting each other to continue in faithful obedience.

Another change required this year was a rotating group of guys running the sound desk. This was a big help to the musicians and helped the service run smoother. There were a few teething problems learning the gear, partly due to it being a new skill and partly due to the equipment having a personality. Thanks to Craig, Eddie and Graham for showing up to church early each week for little reward – the musicians certainly appreciated your efforts.

New music introduced to SNC in 2007:

This was a lot less new songs that we have done in previous years as we only had two New Music Days and only did one musical item (at Easter) all year. The plan is to have a NMD each school term, though the October/November one often gets wiped out by Christmas preparations. This year, we also missed doing one in April/May due to the changes we were going through at Church and an unusually busy and stressful time at work.

Looking forwards to the new year I have been considering the leadership structure of music at SNC, how much time I can commit to it and how best to choose and prepare songs and musicians. One idea is stepping back from leadership completely, but I’m not sure how much help that would be. Another is to have regular meetings, say on the 2nd Sunday of every month to pick songs for the upcoming month. This way whoever would like to contribute to song choice could and we would always be 2-6 weeks in advance. The musician roster could also be chosen at that time, or previously, possibly as far in advance as 3 months. Or we could just continue on as is, if people are happy and I can cope with the workload.

Hopefully the musician roster will be relatively stable, although we start the year short on singers again. I look forward to another year serving God with grace, humility and enthusiasm, hoping that the Lord will bless our church with a congregation keen to serve Him and to sing loudly.

Previous annual music reviews: 2006 SNC music review 2005 SNC music review

Jenolan Caves

Just got back from a bit of a holiday, the first stop of which was to Jenolan Caves. There is lots of good information online about the Jenolan Caves (some of best at wikipedia) so I won’t rewrite it here.

My Jenolan experience started with the windy road to get there. Priscilla was driving so I was able to enjoy the view, but a tight twisty road on a damp day was a little nerve wracking. Then suddenly you come around a corner, see the gorgeous blue lake on your left and start looking for a parking spot. But there is none – at least on the northern side. You need to drive through the Grand Arch to get to the tourist area – historic Caves House, the information centre and the car parks a little up the hill.

Daniel in front of Grand Arch

Once you have parked you have a bit of a bushwalk back down to get your tickets for a guided tour – I had a gift voucher but for regular folk it is $23 for an adult. We did the Lucas Cave, named after the local federal MP for the area back in the 1860s as it has a good variety of formations as well as the biggest caverns.

The caves were very busy the day we were there – tours usually run every half hour but today they were going every 15 minutes. This meant that we had to keep moving but at least the group size was smaller than it could have been. We met our guide (Ted) and the other 30 or so people in our group and started walking up the stairs to get to our cave.

Priscilla struggling through tight passageways

The passageways were a lot lower and narrower than I was expecting. I have been 400m underground in a copper/gold mine, all by myself in some pretty tight places, but at least you had freedom to move in most directions and stretch out. I admit to feeling a little claustrophobic inside some of those passageways. It was okay while we were moving, but occasionally a slow person would get in front of you and the queue would stop while they struggled up the stairs. At these times the heat, humidity and stuffiness started to encroach on your comfort and I was happy to get moving again. The other good thing about being in a mine (other than the 4m wide, 5m high smooth tunnels and the tunnel ventilation) was I had a map and could figure out where I was and where I was going – I was unfamiliar with the cave I was in and wasn’t that comfortable with the idea.

The first stop in the anteroom, but it is really just to catch your breath and have some of the basics of limestone caves explained to us tourists. Then it is off to the Cathedral – 51m high with about 10 or more different formations such as the pipe organ, the pulpit, the stained glass windows – which is experienced via a light and sound show that highlights each zone in turn. Apparently each month there are concerts within this cavern, a unique experience I’m sure but I’m not convinced you need to trick up a cave that is quite an effort to get to with such frippery.

Daniel in anteroom

From there you descend to the very wide exhibition chamber which has more features that I can recount. Lace curtains, broken column, the unicorn, wedding cake – beautiful white limestone which has trickled into formations that you wouldn’t choose to create but which nature has managed to render using water and limestone.

We took a diversion to the Mafeking Chamber as we were too close to the group in front. This is arguably the prettiest section of this whole cave and most tour groups miss out on it as it requires a backtrack.

Mafeking Chamber

You finish the tour walking on a bridge over the underground river (the Styx, though no ferryman in sight) and in the Bone Cave, which despite it’s ghoulish name only included one wombat skeleton and some coloured lights. Then your tour ends, about 90-100 minutes after you began it.

Jenolan Caves also give you entry to a self-guided tour of the Nettle Cave with your purchased tour, but Priscilla and I were in a bit of a hurry so we didn’t do that one. Also we were a little worn from all the steps and glad to see the sky again.

Priscilla looking over Blue Lake