Once upon a time, Propellerhead ran an ad showing a bunch of hardware synths in a trash bin to make a point. This time, we get the opposite – a KORG Polysix for Reason running back in hardware.
By now, these arguments about analog versus digital, software versus hardware are all surely irrelevant to music making. But recent developments go one step further: they produce an environment in which inventors and developers no longer have to care. The vision is, make your cool effects and synthesis code, then freely choose to run them inside a host (like Reason), inside hardware. or even on the Web.
Propellerhead showed me some of these possibilities of their Rack Extension technology when I visited them this winter and talked to their developers.
You can actually try the Web side of this right now – Europa for Reason runs in a browser. It’s not just a simulation or a demo; it’s the complete Rack Extension. That clearly offers a new take on try-as-you-buy, and allows new possibilities in teaching and documentation – all without threatening the sales model for the software:
A browser may be a strange place to experience the possibility of Rack Extensions running in hardware, but it’s actually the same idea. ELK MusicOS from MINDMusicLabs allows the same tech to run on a Linux-based operating system, on any hardware you want. So if you want self-contained instruments with knobs and faders and buttons – and no distracting screens or awkward keyboards – you can do it.
It’s not so much post-PC as it is more PC than your PC. Computers should be capable of ultra-low latency, reliable operation, even running general purpose systems. The problem is, musicians aren’t the ones calling the shots.
MusicOS can cut latency below 1ms round-trip, runs on single Intel and ARM CPUs, and has official support for VST and Rack Extensions – plus full support for connectivity (USB, WiFi, Bluetooth, 4G mobile data, and MIDI).
What was cool at Superbooth was seeing some recognizable hardware prototypes using the technology. We saw a VST plug-in just before the show from Steinberg; for the Rack Extension side of things, you get a Eurorack module version of KORG’s Polysix, using their own Component Modeling Technology. (So it is a software model, but here with hands-on control and modular connectivity.)
For now, it’s just a prototype. But Rack Extension support, like VST, is officially part of MusicOS. Now it’s just up to hardware makers to take the plunge. Based on interest we saw from CDM readers and heard around the show, there is serious market potential here.
In other words, this could be the sign of things to come. ELK’s tech works i such a way that more or less the same code can target custom hardware as desktop software. And compatible systems on a chip start around ten bucks – meaning this could be an effective platform for a lot of people. (I’m not clear on how much licensing costs; ELK ask interested developers to ‘get in touch’ so it may be negotiated case by case.)
It may have been in the temple of wires and racks, but Berlin’s Bitwig chose this weekend’s Superbooth to launch a public beta of their all-modular DAW, Bitwig Studio 3. It lets you wire together with hardware, or just inside software, or as a combination.
It’s called The Grid – and it’s all about patching inside your music workflow, so you can construct stuff you want instead of dialing up big monolithic tools and presets. And that sounds great to builders, I’m sure.
Going modular was really the promise of Bitwig Studio from the start – something to rocket the software from “oh, hey, I can run something kinda like Ableton on Linux” to … “wow, this is something really special.”
The idea is, get a music making tool that not only behaves like a set of tracks and channels, or a bank of patterns and samples, and more like a toybox that lets you built whatever you want from various blocks. And before anyone tries to launch another of those “hardware versus software” debates (yawn), a friendly reminder that computers used a modular generator model for digital audio in the late 1950s – years before any recognizable hardware modular was even a thing. (Okay, granted, you needed a stack of punch cards and access to an IBM mainframe or two and the user base was something like ‘people who happen to know Max Mathews,’ but still…)
Bitwig Studio 3 is in beta now, so you can toy around with it and see what you think. (Bitwig are very clear about not putting important projects in there.)
— all in all, it’s a really nice selection of tools, and a balance of low-level signal tools/operators and easy convenience tools that are higher level. And it’s also not an overwhelming number – which is good; it’s clear this should be its own tool and not try to replicate the likes of Max, SuperCollider, and Reaktor.
Also in this build:
Reworked audio backends for every OS (good)
Ableton Link 3 support with transport start/stop sync
And – a little thing, but you can view the timeline with actual time (minutes, ms) …
More on this soon.
Beta users will find a really nice, complete tutorial so – you can start practicing building. Have fun!
As of today, April 25, 2019, Ubuntu Studio 16.04 LTS has reached the end of its support cycle. We strongly urge all users of 16.04 to upgrade to Ubuntu Studio 18.04 and add the Ubuntu Studio Backports PPA for support through April 2021. Our next LTS release, 20.04, is expected in April 2020. Ubuntu Studio […]
Council Chair Erich Eickmeyer will be in Bellingham, WA, USA this weekend for Linux Fest Northwest 2019, and will be bringing his audio setup to demonstrate Ubuntu Studio at the Ubuntu table. Check out the post on his personal blog!
Taking an old piece of gear and cramming it full of modern hardware is a very popular project. In fact, it’s one of the most common things we see here at Hackaday, especially in the Raspberry Pi era. The appeal is obvious: somebody has already done the hard work of designing and building an attractive enclosure, all you need to do is shoehorn your own gear into it. That being said, we know some of our beloved readers get upset when a vintage piece of gear gets sacrificed in the name of progress.
To start the process, [Freshanator] created a 3D model of the inside of the radio so all the components could be laid out virtually before anything was cut or fabricated. This included the design for the speaker box, which was ultimately 3D printed and then coated with a spray-on “liquid rubber” to seal it up. The upfront effort and time to design like this might be high, but it’s an excellent way to help ensure you don’t run into some roadblock halfway through the build.
Driving the speakers is a TPA3116-based amplifier board with integrated Bluetooth receiver, which has all of its buttons broken out to the front for easy access. [Freshanator] even went the extra mile and designed some labels for the front panel buttons to be made on a vinyl cutter. Unfortunately the cutter lacked the precision to make them small enough to actually go on the buttons, so they ended up getting placed above or next to them as space allowed.
The build was wrapped up with a fan installed at the peak of the front speaker grille to keep things cool. Oh, and there are lights. Because there’s always lights. In this case, some blue LEDs and strategically placed EL wire give the whole build an otherworldly glow.
The GStreamer team is excited to announce a new major feature release of
your favourite cross-platform multimedia framework!
The 1.16 release series adds new features on top of the previous 1.14 series
and is part of the API and ABI-stable 1.x release series of the GStreamer
GStreamer WebRTC stack gained support for data channels
for peer-to-peer communication based on SCTP, BUNDLE support, as well as
support for multiple TURN servers.
AV1 video codec support for Matroska and QuickTime/MP4 containers and more
configuration options and supported input formats for the AOMedia AV1 encoder
Support for Closed Captions and other Ancillary Data in video
Support for planar (non-interleaved) raw audio
GstVideoAggregator, compositor and
OpenGL mixer elements are now in -base
New alternate fields interlace mode where each buffer carries a single field
WebM and Matroska ContentEncryption support in the Matroska demuxer
new WebKit WPE-based web browser source element
Video4Linux: HEVC encoding and decoding, JPEG encoding, and improved dmabuf import/export
Hardware-accelerated Nvidia video decoder gained support for VP8/VP9 decoding,
whilst the encoder gained support for H.265/HEVC encoding.
Many improvements to the Intel Media SDK based hardware-accelerated video
decoder and encoder plugin (msdk): dmabuf import/export for zero-copy
integration with other components; VP9 decoding; 10-bit HEVC encoding; video
post-processing (vpp) support including deinterlacing; and the video decoder
now handles dynamic resolution changes.
The ASS/SSA subtitle overlay renderer can now handle multiple subtitles
that overlap in time and will show them on screen simultaneously
The Meson build is now feature-complete (with the exception of plugin docs)
and it is now the recommended build system on all platforms. The Autotools build is
scheduled to be removed in the next cycle.
The GStreamer Rust bindings and Rust plugins module
are now officially part of upstream GStreamer.
The GStreamer Editing Services gained a gesdemux element that allows
directly playing back serialized edit list with playbin or
There are times when being seen to listen to music through headphones might get you into trouble. For these moments, reach for a handy solution: bone conduction speakers that discreetly pipe the music to your eardrums through the bone of your skull. [Samuel] wanted just such a covert music listening device, so created his own in a set of 3D-printed glasses.
He first tried using an Adafruit bone-conducting transducer but found that to be too bulky. What you see here is a smaller module that [Samuel] found on AliExpress (search for bone conduction module). The GD-02 is much smaller and thus more suitable for hiding in the arm of a pair of glasses. For the rest of the electronics he used a PCB and battery from a donated set of broken Bluetooth headphones, a space for which he was able to conceal easily in the 3D-printed frame of the glasses. The battery is in one arm and the board in the other, and he says the wiring was extremely fiddly.
The result is a surprisingly svelte set of specs that you might not immediately think concealed some electronics. His choice of bright yellow filament might give the game away, but overall he’s done a great job. This certainly isn’t the first bone conduction project we’ve shown you, some of the others have used motors instead of bone conduction transducers.
How’s that for a thrilling title? But this topic really does encapsulate a lot of what I love about astrophotography, despite the substantial annoyance it’s caused me lately…
My quest for really nice photos of galaxies has, inevitably, driven me towards narrowband imaging, which can help bring out detail in galaxies and minimise light pollution. I bought a hydrogen alpha filter not long ago – a filter that removes all of the light except from a hydrogen emission line, a deep red narrow band of light. This filter has the unfortunate side effect of reducing the total amount of light hitting the sensor, meaning that long exposures are really required to drive the signal far above the noise floor. In the single frame above, the huge glow from the right is amplifier glow – an issue with the camera that grows worse the longer my exposures. Typically, this gets removed by taking dozens of dark frames with a lens cap on and subtracting the fixed amplifier glow from the frames, a process called calibration. The end result is fairly clean – but what about these unfortunate stars?
Oblong stars are a problem – they show that the telescope failed to accurately track the target for the entire period. Each pixel in this image (and you can see pixels here, in the hot pixels that appear as noise in the close-up) equates to 0.5″ of sky (0.5 arc-seconds). This is about two to four times my seeing limit (the amount of wobble introduced by the atmosphere) on a really good night, meaning I’m over-sampling nicely (Nyquist says we should be oversampling 2x to resolve all details). My stars are oblong by a huge amount – 6-8″, if not more!
My guide system – the PHD2 software package, an ASI120MC camera and a 60mm guidescope – reported no worse than 0.5″ tracking all night, meaning I should’ve seen perfectly round stars. So what went wrong?
The most likely culprit is a slightly loose screw on my guidescope’s guiding rings, which I found after being pointed at a thing called “differential flexure” by a fantastic chap on the Stargazer’s Lounge forums (more on that later). But this is merely a quite extreme example of a real problem that can occur, and a nice insight into the tolerances and required precision of astronomical telescopes for high-resolution imaging. As I’m aiming for 0.5″ pixel accuracy, but practically won’t get better seeing than 1-2″, my guiding needs to be fairly good. The mount, with excellent guiding, is mechanically capable of 0.6-0.7″ accuracy; this is actually really great, especially for a fairly low-cost mount (<£1200). You can easily pay upwards of £10,000 for a mount, and not get much better performance.
Without guiding though it’s not terribly capable – mechanical tolerances aren’t perfect in a cheap mount, and periodic error from the rotation of worm gears creeps in. While you can program the mount to correct for this it won’t be perfect. So we have to guide the mount. While the imaging camera takes long, 5-10 minute exposures, the guiding camera takes short 3-5 second exposures and feeds software (in my case, PHD2) which tracks a star’s centre over time, using the changes in that centre to generate a correction impulse which is sent to the mount’s control software (in my case, INDI and the EQmod driver). This gets us down to the required stability over time.
The reason why my long exposures sucked, despite all this, is simple – my guide camera was not always changing its orientation as the imaging camera was. That is to say, when the mount moved a little bit, or failed to move, while the imaging camera was affected the guiding camera was not. This is called differential flexure – the difference in movement between two optical systems. Fundamentally, this is because my guidescope is a completely separate optical system to my main telescope – if it doesn’t move when my main scope does, the guiding system doesn’t know to correct! The inverse applies, too – maybe the guidescope moves and overcorrects for an imaging system that hasn’t moved at all.
With a refractor telescope, if you just secure your guidescope really well to the main telescope, all is (generally) well. That is the only practical potential source of error, outside of focuser wobble. In a Newtonian such as the one I use, though, there’s plenty of other sources. At the end of a Newtonian telescope is a large mirror – 200mm across, in my case. This is supported by a mirror cell – pinching the mirror can cause huge deviation (dozens or hundreds of nanometers, which is unacceptable), so just clamping it up isn’t practical. This means that as the telescope moves the mirror can move a little bit – not much, but enough to move the image slightly on the sensor. While moving the mount isn’t an ideal way to fix this movement – better mirror cells reduce this movement – it’s better than doing nothing at all. The secondary mirror has similar problems. The tube itself can also expand or contract, being quite large – carbon fibre tubes minimise this but are expensive. Refractors have, broadly, all their lenses securely held in place without issue and so don’t suffer these problems.
And so the answer seems to be a solution called “Off Axis Guiding”. In this system, rather than using a separate guide scope, you use a small prism inserted in the optical train (after the focuser but before the camera) to “tap” a bit of the light off – usually the sensor is a rectangle in a circular light path meaning this is pretty easy to achieve without any impact to the light that the sensor receives. This light is bounced into a camera mounted at 90 degrees to the optical train, which performs the guiding function. There are issues with this approach – you have a narrower (and hard to move) field of view, and you need a more sensitive guide camera to find stars – but the resolution is naturally far higher (0.7″ rather than 2.5″) due to the longer focal length and so the potential accuracy of guide corrections improves. But more importantly, your guiding light shares fate with the imaging light – you use the same mirrors, tube, and so on. If your imaging light shifts, so does the guiding light, optically entwined.
The off-axis guiding route is appealing, but complex. I’ll undoubtedly explore it – I want to improve my guide camera regardless, and the OAG prism is “only” £110 or thereabouts. The guide camera is the brunt of the cost – weighing in at around £500-700 for a quality high-sensitivity guide camera.
But in the immediate future my budgets don’t allow for either of these solutions and so I’ve done what I can to minimise the flexure of the guidescope relative to the main telescope. This has focused on the screws used to hold the guidescope in place – they’re really poorly machined, along with the threads in the guidescope rings, and the plastic tips can lead to flexure.
I’ve cut the tips almost back to the metal to minimise the amount of movement in compression, and used Loctite to secure two of the three screws in each ring. The coarse focus tube and helical focuser on the Primaluce guide scope also have some grub screws which I’ve adjusted – this has helped considerably in reducing the ability for the camera to move.
Hopefully that’ll help for now! I’m also going to ask a friend with access to CNC machines about machining some more solid tube rings for the guidescope; that would radically improve things, and shouldn’t cost much. However, practically the OAG route is going to be favourite for a Newtonian setup – so that’s going to be the best route in the long run.
Despite all this I managed a pretty good stab at M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. I wasn’t suffering from differential flexure so much on these exposures – it’s probably a case of the pointing of the scope being different and so not hitting the same issue. I had two good nights of really good seeing, and captured a few hours of light. This image does well to highlight the benefits of the Newtonian setup – with a 1000mm focal length with a fast focal ratio, paired with my high-resolution camera, I can achieve some great detail in a short period of time.
Alongside my telescope debugging, I’m working on developing my observatory plans into a detailed, budgeted design – more on that later. I’ve also been tinkering with some CCDinspector-inspired Python scripts to analyse star sharpness across a large number of images and in doing so highlight any potential issues with the optical train or telescope in terms of flatness, tilt, and so on. So far this tinkering hasn’t lead anywhere interesting, which either suggests my setup is near perfect (which I’m sure it isn’t) or I’m missing something – more tinkering to be done!
The changes for this seasonal release are as follows:
Re-defined all main application UNIX signal handling.
Fixed possible crash in drawing clips while rare loop-recording/takes situations.
Main window stabilizing is now kind of asynchronous re. menus, tools and status bars.
MIDI Controller's Latch Trice again,
mode attribute on tracks and plugins are now properly saved/loaded as meant to be.
Qtractor is an audio/MIDI multi-track sequencer application written in C++ with the Qt framework. Target platform is Linux, where the Jack Audio Connection Kit (JACK) for audio and the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture (ALSA) for MIDI are the main infrastructures to evolve as a fairly-featured Linux desktop audio workstation GUI, specially dedicated to the personal home-studio.
After many years, Carla version 2.0.0 is finally here!
Carla is an audio plugin host, with support for many audio drivers and plugin formats.
It has some nice features like automation of parameters via MIDI CC (and send output back as MIDI too) and full OSC control.
Version 2.0 took this long because I was never truly happy with its current state, often pushing new features but not fully finishing them.
So the "solution" was to put everything that is not considered stable yet behind an experimental flag in the settings.
This way we can have our stable Carla faster, while upcoming features get developed and tagged as experimental during testing.
Preparations for version 2.1 are well under way, a beta for it will be out soon.
But that is a topic for another day.
Changes since 2.0-RC4
Fix missing argument in note-on/off osc example
Fix word-wrap in add-plugin dialog
Fix Windows README.txt line endings
Build windows binaries with -mstackrealign
Don't show side panel in carla-control
Show "Label/URI" instead of just "Label"
Keep application signals alive (so Ctrl+C works even while engine is closed)
Update copyright year
To download Carla binaries or source code, jump on over to the
KXStudio downloads section.
Carla v2.0.0 is available pre-packaged in the KXStudio repositories and UbuntuStudio backports, plus on ArchLinux and Ubuntu since 19.04.
On those you can simply install the carla package.
Bug reports and feature requests are welcome! Jump on over to the
Carla's Github project page for those.
There is no manual or quick-start guide for Carla yet, apologies for that.
But there are some videos of presentations I did regarding Carla's features and workflows,
those should give you an introduction of its features and what you can do with it:
This is a small notice to everyone using Carla and JACK2 with the KXStudio repos.
First, in preparation for Carla 2.0 release, the (really) old carla package is now the new v2.0 series,
while carla-git now contains the development/latest version.
If you are not interested in testing Carla's new stuff and prefer something known to be more stable,
install the carla package after the latest updates.
Second, a change in JACK2 code has made it so a restart of the server is required after the update.
(but for a good reason, as JACK2 is finally getting meta-data support; this update fixes client UUIDs)
If you use jackdbus (likely with KXStudio stuff), you will need to actually kill it.
If that does not work, good old restart is your friend. :)
One important thing to note is that the lmms package now conflicts with the carla-git one.
This is because some code has changed in latest Carla that makes v2.0 vs development/latest ABI-incompatible.
In simpler terms, LMMS can only either be compiled against the stable or development version of Carla.
The obvious choice is to use the stable version, so after the updates if you notice LMMS is missing, just install it again.
(If you have carla-git installed, carla will be installed/switched automatically)
I tried to make the transition of these updates as smooth as possible,
but note that you likely need to install updates twice to complete the process.
In other news, we got a new domain!^-^)/
Also Carla v2.0 release date has been set - 15th of April.
Unless a major issue is found, expect a release announcement on that day.
See you soon then! ;)
ardour.org is pleased to announce a new youtube channel focused on videos about Ardour.
We decided to support Tobiasz “unfa” Karon in making some new videos, based on some of the work he has done in other contexts (both online and at meetings). unfa’s first video won’t be particularly useful for new or existing users, but if you’re looking for a “promotional video” that describes what Ardour is and what it can do, this may be the right thing to point people at.
In the near-term future, unfa will be back with some tutorial videos, so please consider subscribing to the channel.
Thanks to unfa for this opening video, and we look forward to more. If people have particular areas that they’d like to see covered, mention it in the comments here (or on the YT channel).
This is part 1 of what I hope will become a series of posts. I’m going to focus in this post on my getting started and some mistakes I made on the way.
So, back in 2017 I got a telescope. I fancied trying to do some astrophotography – I saw people getting great results without a lot of kit, and realised I could dip my toe in too. I live between a few towns, so get “class 4” skies – meaning that I could happily image a great many targets from home. I’ve spent plenty of time out at night just looking up, especially on a moonless night; the milky way is a clear band, and plenty of eyeball-visible targets look splendid.
So I did some research, and concluded that:
Astrophotography has the potential to be done cheaply but some bits do demand some investment
Wide-field is cheapest to do, since a telescope isn’t needed; planetary is way cheaper than deep-sky (depending on the planet) to kit out for, but to get really good planetary images is hard
Good telescopes are seriously expensive, but pretty good telescopes are accessibly cheap, and produce pretty good results
Newtonians (Dobsonians, for visual) give the absolute best aperture-to-cash return
Having a good mount that can track accurately is absolutely key
You can spend a hell of a lot of cash on this hobby if you’re not careful, and spending too little is the fastest path there…
So, having done my research, the then-quite-new Skywatcher EQ6-R Pro was the obvious winner for the mount. At about £1,800 it isn’t cheap, but it’s very affordable compared to some other amateur-targeted mounts (the Paramount ME will set you back £13,000, for instance) and provides comparable performance for a reasonable amount of payload – about 15kg without breaking a sweat. Mounts are all about mechanical precision and accuracy; drive electronics factor into it, of course, but much of the error in a mount comes from the gears. More expensive mounts use encoders and clever drive mechanisms to mitigate this, but the EQ6-R Pro settles for having a fairly high quality belt drive system and leaves it at that.
Already, as I write this, the more scientific reader will be asking “hang on, how are you measuring that, or comparing like-for-like?”. This is a common problem in the amateur astrophotography scene with various bits of equipment. Measurement of precision mechanics and optics often requires expensive equipment in and of itself. Take a telescope’s mirror – to measure the flatness of the surface and accuracy of the curvature requires an interferometer. Even the cheap ones cooked up by the make-your-own-telescope communities take a lot of expensive parts and require a lot of optics know-how. Measuring a mount’s movement accurately requires really accurate encoders or other ways to measure movement very precisely – again, expensive bits, etc. The net result of this is that it’s very rare that individual amateurs do quantitative evaluation of equipment – usually, you have to compare spec sheets and call it a day. The rest of the analysis comes down to forums and hearsay.
As an engineer tinkering with fibre optics on a regular basis, spec sheets are great when everyone agrees on the test methodology for the number. There’s a defined standard for how you measure insertion loss of a bare fibre, another for the mode field diameter, and so on. A whole host of different measurements in astrophotography products are done in a very ad-hoc fashion, vary between products and vendors, and so on. Sometimes the best analysis and comparison is being done by enthusiasts that get kit sent to them by vendors to compare! And so, most purchasing decisions involve an awful lot of lurking on forums.
The other problem is knowing what to look for in your comparison. Sites that sell telescopes and other bits are very good at glossing over the full complexity of an imaging system, and assume you sort of know what you’re doing. Does pixel size matter? How about quantum efficiency? Resolution? The answer is always “maybe, depends what you’re doing…”.
This photo is one of the first I took. I had bought, with the mount, a Skywatcher 200PDS Newtonian reflector – a 200mm or 8″ aperture telescope with a dual-speed focuser and a focal length of 1000mm. The scope has an f-ratio of 5, making it a fairly “fast” scope. Fast generally translates to forgiving – lots of light means your camera can be worse. Visual use with the scope was great, and I enjoyed slewing around and looking at various objects. My copy of Turn Left at Orion got a fair bit of use. I was feeling pretty great about this whole astrophotography lark, although my images were low-res and fuzzy; I’d bought the cheapest camera I could, near enough, a ZWO ASI120MC one-shot-colour camera.
Working out what questions to ask
The first realisation that I hadn’t quite “gotten” what I needed to be thinking about came when I tried to take a photo of our nearest galaxy and was reminded that my field of view was, in fact, quite narrow. All I could get was a blurry view of the core. Long focal length, small pixel sizes, and other factors conspired to give me a tiny sliver of the sky on my computer screen.
Not quite the classic galaxy snapshot I’d expected. And then I went and actually worked out how big Andromeda is – and it’s huge in the sky. Bigger than the moon, by quite a bit. Knowing how narrow a view of the moon I got with my scope, I considered other targets and my equipment. Clearly my camera’s tiny sensor wasn’t helping, but fixing that would be expensive. Many other targets were much dimmer, requiring long exposures – very long, given my sensor’s poor efficiency, longer than I thought I would get away with. I tried a few others, usually failing, but sometimes getting a glimmer of what could be if I could crack this…
It was fairly clear the camera would need an upgrade for deep space object imaging, and that particular avenue of astrophotography most appealed to me. It was also clear I had no idea what I was doing. I started reading more and more – diving into forums like Stargazer’s Lounge (in the UK) and Cloudy Nights (a broader view) and digesting threads on telescope construction, imaging sensor analysis, and processing.
My next break came from a family friend; when my father was visiting to catch up, the topic of cameras came up. My dad swears by big chunky Nikon DSLRs, and his Nikon D1x is still in active use, despite knackered batteries. This friend happened to have an old D1x, and spare batteries, no longer in use, and kindly donated the lot. With a cheap AC power adapter and F-mount adapter, I suddenly had a high resolution camera I could attach to the scope, albeit with a nearly 20-year-old sensor.
Suddenly, with a bigger sensor and field of view, more pixels (nearly six megapixels) I felt I could see what I was doing – and suddenly saw a whole host of problems. The D1x was by no means perfect; it demanded long exposures at high gains to get anything, and fixed pattern noise made processing immensely challenging.
I’d previously used a host of free software to “stack” the dozens or hundreds of images I took into a single frame, and then process it. Back in 2018 I bought a copy of StarTools, which allowed me to produce some far better images but left me wanting more control over the process. And so I bit the bullet and spent £200 on PixInsight, widely regarded as being the absolute best image processing tool for astronomical imagery; aside from various Windows-specific stability issues (Linux is rock solid, happily) it’s lived up to the hype. And the hype of its learning curve/cliff – it’s one of the few software packages for which I have purchased a reference book!
Stepping on up to mono
And of course, I could never fully calibrate out the D1x’s pattern noise, nor magically improve the sensor quality. At this point I had a tantalisingly close-to-satisfying system – everything was working great. My Christmas present from family was a guidescope, where I reused the ASI120MC camera, and really long exposures were starting to be feasible. And so I took a bit of money I’d saved up, and bit the hefty bullet of buying a proper astrophotography camera for deep space observation.
By this point I had a bit of clue, and had an idea of how to figure out what it was I needed and what I might do in the future, so this was the first purchase I made that involved a few spreadsheets and some data-based decisions. But I’m not one for half-arsing solutions, which became problematic shortly thereafter.
Of course, this camera introduces more complexity. Normal cameras have a Bayer matrix, meaning that pixels are assigned a colour and interpolation fills in the colour for adjacent pixels. For astrophotography, you don’t always want to image red, green or blue – you might want a narrowband view of the world, for instance, and you for various reasons want to avoid interpolation in processing and capture. So we introduce a monochrome sensor, add a filter wheel in front (electronic, for software control), and filters. The costs add up.
But suddenly my images are clear enough to show the problems in the telescope. There’s optical coma in my system, not a surprise; a coma corrector is added to flatten the light reaching the filters and sensor.
I realise – by spending an evening failing to achieve focus – that backfocus is a thing, and that my coma corrector is too close to my sensor; a variable spacer gets added, and carefully measured out with some calipers.
I realise that my telescope tube is letting light in at the back – something I’d not seen before, either through luck or noise – so I get a cover laser cut to fix that.
It turns out focusing is really quite difficult to achieve accurately with my new setup and may need adjusting between filters, so I buy a cheap DC focus motor – the focuser comes to bits, I spend an evening improving the tolerances on all the contact surfaces, amending the bracket supplied with the motor, and put it back together.
To mitigate light bouncing around the focuser I dismantled the whole telescope tube and flock the interior of the scope with anti-reflective material, and add a dew shield. Amongst all this, new DC power cables and connectors were made up, an increasing pile of USB cables/hubs to and from the scope added, a new (commercial) software package added to control it all, and various other little expenses along the way – bottles of high-purity distilled water to clean mirrors, and so on.
Once you’ve got some better software in place for automating capture sessions, being able to automatically drive everything becomes more and more attractive. I had fortunately bought most of the bits to do this in dribs and drabs in the last year, so this was mostly a matter of setup and configuration.
It’s a slippery slope, all this. I think I’ve stopped on this iteration – the next step is a different telescope – but I’ve learned a hell of a lot in doing it. My budget expanded a fair bit from the initial purchase, but was manageable, and I have a working system that produces consistently useful results when clouds permit. I’ve got a lot to learn, still, about the best way to use it and what I can do with it; I also have a lot of learning to do when it comes to PixInsight and my image processing (thankfully not something I need clear skies for).
Settling in to new digs
Now, of course, I have a set of parts that has brought my output quality significantly up. The images I’m capturing are good enough that I’m happy sharing them widely, and even feel proud of some. I’ve even gotten some quality-of-life improvements out all this work – my evenings are mostly spent indoors, working the scope by remote control.
Astrophotography is a wonderful collision of precision engineering, optics, astronomy, and art. And I think that’s why getting “into” it and building a system is so hard – because there’s no right answer. I started writing this post as a “all the things I wish someone had told me to do” post, but really when I’m making decisions about things like the ideal pixel size of my camera I’m taking an artistic decision that is underpinned by science and engineering and maths – it has an impact on what pictures I can take, what they’ll look like, and so on.
But there’s still value in knowing what to think about when you’re thinking about doing this stuff. This isn’t a right answer; it’s one answer. At some point I will undoubtedly go get a different telescope – not because it’s a better solution, but because it’s a different way to look at things and capture them.
So I will continue to blog about this – not least because sharing my thoughts on it is something I enjoy and it isn’t fair to continuously inflict it on my partner, patient as she is with my obsession – in the hopes that some other beginners might find it a useful journey to follow along.
tracker.ardour.org has been upgraded from an ancient version of Mantis to the most current stable release. The website looks very different now, but all existing bug reports and user accounts are still there. We hope to find some way to limit the bug-report spam that has recently turned into a small but annoying time waster, and ultimately to enable single-sign on with the rest of ardour.org.