Flight Simulator 2020: First Impressions

I've been a fan of Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) since it was first introduced. (Or even earlier if you count SubLogic Flight Simulator that preceded it.) I have owned every version of MSFS, and I usually rushed out to buy each version when it hit the stores.

flight-simulator-box-shots-mosaic

I would have to say, though, that my favorite version had been Flight Simulator X (FSX), which was released in 2006 - the levels of detail and realism were amazing. Unfortunately, FSX was the final version of MSFS. Microsoft chose to unceremoniously kill off MSFS in 2009, and like every other MSFS fanboy, I was quite upset to see it fade into the sunset. There were a few failed attempts to breathe life into the franchise via Microsoft's Flight and Steam's rerelease of Flight Simulator for their gaming platform, but each offering fell far short of the goal.

fsx-box

Needless to say, I was thrilled when I heard the news that Microsoft was reviving the series with Flight Simulator 2020, which promised unbelievable video quality and unparalleled realism. As I had done with every previous version of MSFS, I bought FS2020 on the day of its release and installed it immediately. As soon as the installation was done, I launched the application to see - nothing. MSFS displayed a message to inform me that my GeForce 9800 GTX video card was not powerful enough to run FS2020.

This was disappointing, to say the least, but I wasn't too worried - because I had already purchased an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 video adapter for my computer. However, I had too many tasks competing for my limited time, so I had to delay the installation of my new video card. That being said - today was the day! I powered down my system, swapped out the old video card for the new card, and rebooted. As soon as the operating system was up and running, I launched FS2020 and was excited to see - nothing. Well, not exactly nothing; what I saw were two error messages:

msfs2020-connection-lost-please-ensure-you-have-an-internet-connection
Connection Lost - Please ensure you have an active internet
connection, and check the forums for additional information.

-and-

msfs2020-access-to-the-content-servers-is-unavailable
Access to the content servers is currently unavailable. Please
ensure you have an active internet connection, and try again later.
Please visit https://flightsimulator.zendesk.com/ for additional information.

Unfortunately, those error messages sent me into an endless loop that always resulted in my seeing these same messages again and again; and since there was no other way to exit the application, I had to hard kill FS2020 using the Windows Task Manager. I followed the advice from the error messages and I checked the forums, where I found the following two threads that described my exact situation:

I tried everything that was suggested in both of those threads (as well as suggestions from several other forum threads and blog posts), but so far - no luck. I still have yet to see anything from MSFS2020, but I'll keep looking.

Annoyed

With that in mind, here are my first impressions of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020:

  • Game Experience = I have no idea. I have yet to see the actual game.
  • Installation Experience = terrible. The minimum requirements are excessive, and when an end user can't get a game to run as soon as they're done installing it, that's a catastrophic failure for which the game designer is solely responsible.
  • Troubleshooting Experience = terrible. End users are pretty much on their own when something fails. Microsoft's single troubleshooting recommendation is for users to check the forums, which is way below par for a major software product from a major software company.

On a related side note, I installed MSFS2020 using the Microsoft Store application for Windows 10. That app is relatively easy to use, but it could be a lot better in my opinion; I often find myself highly annoyed at how difficult it is to find apps that I know have been released and install them.

More 511th History: Memories of Border Duty on a Cold Winter's Day

I have a lot of interesting memories from my days on border duty during the waning days of the Cold War. To be honest, it was a strange time to be stationed in Germany. The "Bad Guys" across the border were still poised to attack at any time, and the "Good Guys" on our side of the border were still prepared to repel them if the balloon ever went up. When I am asked to describe what it was like to serve along the East German border, I generally characterize my experiences as a giant game of "Cat and Mouse" or "Hide and Seek." We spent a lot of time trying to figure out where the bad guys were and what they were doing, and the bad guys spent a lot of time trying to figure out where we were and what we were doing.

I have also explained that my time was generally broken down as follows: 95% boring, 4% interesting, and 1% terror. I can't really talk about the 1% terror, except to say that it was the most-addictive part of the job. Although, come to think of it - I can't really talk about the 4% interesting, either. Suffice it to say that the 5% of my job that wasn't boring can't be discussed until sometime after I'm dead, so don't bother asking. Seriously.

That leaves the 95% of my time that was boring, which is mostly open for discussion.

Here's the way that we typically operated along the border: we'd get a call at zero-dark-thirty that the bad guys might be up to something, and about 30 minutes after I got the call, our vehicles would be rolling out of the gates of our post and headed toward the border to determine whether the bad guys were up to something that wasn't good. This meant that I kept all of my military gear fully loaded in the trunk of my car at all times, so when I got the call - all I had to do was throw on a uniform, jump in the car, and head off to post, where I would quickly dispatch my vehicle and pull it into place with the rest of the vehicles that were ready to deploy. It didn't matter how crappy the weather conditions were - it could be raining, snowing, or freezing - when we got the call, it was time to go. (Sometimes we would roll out to the border when the roads weren't safe enough for travel, which meant that we would have to remain on the border until the roads were safe to come home.)

East German Border in Winter

Depending on which border site we were deploying to, it might take a couple of hours to get to our location, where we would immediately set up all of the gear that was necessary to figure out what the bad guys were up to. As soon as everything was set up and configured, we'd start doing what we were trained to do, until such time as we were able to make a good/bad decision on what the bad guys were actually doing. If you weren't the soldier who was determining what the bad guys were doing, there were a host of other activities for you to do: pulling guard duty, setting up camouflage, encircling the operations area with concertina wire, or pulling radio watch. If you weren't doing any of those thingsā€¦ well, we had so few people in our platoon that you were pretty much guaranteed to be doing one of those assignments.

You'll notice that I didn't mention sleep, because for the first few days of any deployment there usually wasn't a lot of sleep happening. Most deployments started out with all hands on deck, because we were trying to determine the status of the bad guys. However, after a few days things would start to calm down, and then we'd allow people to rotate on and off for sleep. (I've mentioned it elsewhere that my personal record for lack of sleep was four days... at which point I began to hallucinate.)

However, at any time we could be ordered to "jump," which meant to pack up all our gear in a hurry and rapidly deploy somewhere else along the border. Our next location might be 30 minutes away, or it might be hours away - it depended on what needed to be done. The jump order could have been because the bad guys moved somewhere else and we needed to follow them, or it could have been because the location where we were situated wasn't yielding enough results to figure out what the bad guys were doing, or it could have been because some @#$% idiot in charge decided that it would be amusing to torture his troops, or for any number of other reasons.

I'll paraphrase Alfred Lord Tennyson to sum up how I felt about my situation:

Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew.
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

We weren't always required to jump during a border deployment; on many occasions business was good enough to stay in one place for the entire time we were working. However, there were other occasions when we would jump more than once, and I recall one especially heinous winter deployment where it seemed that we were jumping every other day. (Or perhaps we jumped every day... that deployment is kind of a blur now that I look back at it.)

I mentioned earlier that sleep was often hard to come by, and for this deployment that was especially true. It seemed that just as soon as we would get set up in a new location and start monitoring what the bad guys were doing, we would get the order to jump, and away we went. I also mentioned earlier that we had far too few people in our platoon, which had another detrimental effect on all of our jumps: we didn't have enough people for there to be a driver and assistant driver in every vehicle, which meant that I was on my own every time I climbed behind the wheel of my truck.

Let me paint a mental picture of what that was like: I hadn't had sleep in days. I was cold. I was hungry. I was tired. I missed my wife and kids. I hurt in places that I didn't know existed after hours of sitting on a seat that was made by the lowest bidder as I drove through mile after mile of snow-laden roads under overcast skies. Night and day had a way of devolving into a constant, dismal blur due to the odd hours working inside gear that had no windows to the outside world, and there was no easy way to tell if it was morning or evening due to the oppressive nature of the unyielding blockade of gray clouds that blotted out the sun. As we made our way from location to location, we often took farmroads that meandered through scores of tiny German villages and fields that were buried by snow. We soon had no earthly idea which way was north or south... our sole point of reference was that we were following the map, and the map never lied.

Since I had no one else to keep me sharp as I drove on in solitude, I had to come up with a way to keep my brain engaged - and my solution was simple: screaming. I spend a lot of time alone in the cab of my truck screaming in order to force my anatomy to kick in some adrenalin that would keep me going for another few minutes, then I'd start screaming again to repeat the process.

If all this detail sounds miserable, let me assure you - it was.

At some point during this deployment we were on the road, and as often the case - we were somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The snow had reduced traffic down to a single lane, which didn't impact our travel at all since the Germans had the good sense to stay home where it was warm. In hindsight, I'll be willing to bet most of the bad guys were lying at home in their cozy, warm beds, too. I think it was probably only our platoon that was wandering the German countryside at that hour. Nevertheless, I was exhausted, and my throat hurt from screaming - but I had to go on, because that was my job. And if I didn't do my job to the best of my ability, good people could get hurt by bad people, and so I kept driving.

East German Border in Winter

My truck was following closely behind one of our M113 Armored Personnel Carriers, and the M113's tank commander was a great guy: SPC Heggie. As miserable as I was, Heggie had it much worse. I had the relative privilege of sitting in the cab of my truck as we drove, whereas Heggie had to sit in the commander's seat of his tracked vehicle for the duration of our journey, which meant that his entire upper torso was fully exposed to the cold, winter air. He was bundled up in all his extreme cold weather gear: jacket, scarf, goggles, helmet, gloves, etc., even a facemask that was designed to stave off frostbite in arctic conditions. But despite all that cold weather gear, Heggie still had to brave the icy winds of a German winter for hours at a time. My situation may have sucked, but Heggie's situation sucked even more.

We had been driving like that for an indeterminate amount of time, when I saw Heggie turn around and look at me for a moment. At the time, I thought that he was checking to see that I was still there, and I hadn't fallen asleep and driven off the road somewhere. That thought seemed to be confirmed when Heggie turned his back on me again, but I saw him press the microphone on his helmet to his mouth, which meant that he was trying to talk to the M113 driver about something. Of course, in those conditions - with the wind and the face mask and the incredibly loud volume of driving a tracked vehicle on a road - Heggie wasn't "talking" so much as "yelling" to the driver in order to compensate for the lousy conditions.

Then I saw the strangest thing - the M113 made a quick shift to the right, then it straightened out again. This meant that the right track of the vehicle was now riding squarely on the shoulder of the road, and running over all of the white, meter-sized markers that lined the edge of the avenue. Our nicknames for these road markers were "Machts Nichts" poles, because - according to prevailing opinion - the Germans would shrug their shoulders and say, "Machts Nichts (no big deal)" if they discovered that one or two of these road markers had been destroyed. However, this wasn't one or two machts nichts poles - it was dozens of them. As the M113 drove over them, I saw pieces of white plastic and crushed wood flying up into the air behind the tracked vehicle - and I began to laugh. I laughed long and hard, as though this was the funniest thing that I had ever seen in my life. Oh, I'm sure that the depth of my reaction was due to how punchy I was with exhaustion, but still - that was just so darn funny. Words cannot express how much I enjoyed that spectacle.

After ten or twenty seconds, I watched Heggie press the microphone on his helmet to his mouth again, and the driver of the M113 quickly adjusted his course back onto the roadway. Heggie turned around in his commander's seat to look at me again, then he pulled his facemask and scarf out of the way so I could see his ear to ear grin. I exploded into laughter once more, then Heggie replaced his facemask and scarf and turned forward to face the icy winds of winter once again.

More than thirty years have passed since this brief episode unfolded on a dismal day in the middle of nowhere, but I remember it like it happened yesterday. And Heggie - he holds a special place in my thoughts of days gone by like some sort of mythic Norse hero. He made my day - and he probably kept me from crashing my vehicle due to exhaustion or the inescapable reality of my miserable circumstances.

I really needed that laugh. And you can't buy experiences like that for any amount of money.

Those who can - do. Those who can't - teach.

A few years ago I elected to take a class at the University of Arizona as a refresher for a programming language that I hadn't used in over a decade. I was originally self-taught in the language, and I knew that the language had evolved since I had last used it, so I thought that it would be worthwhile endeavor to study it formally.

The class was going well, but when I turned in one of my assignments, the professor had dropped my grade a full letter because - seriously - he didn't like my variable names. Being an adult - and not an 18-year-old that's fresh out of high school - I have no problems confronting an academic when I think they're incorrect. In addition, as someone who has been in the software industry for years, I have no problems calling BS when I think it's warranted.

I scheduled a time to meet with my professor, whereupon I told him that I thought he was wrong. All my variables were descriptive of their purpose, and I used a consistent format across the entire assignment. In addition, I wanted my grade restored.

The professor looked at me and said, "No one names variables like that."

I replied, "That's called 'Hungarian Notation.' It's a widely-used standard in the software industry."

He attempted to counter with, "That's outdated. No one uses that anymore."

To which I replied, "I work for Microsoft. We write millions of lines of code every day using that notation."

He grumbled a bit more, but eventually he acquiesced and restored my grade.

I later discovered that this particular professor earned his BS in Computer Science, then his Master's, then his Doctorate, and then went straight into teaching at higher education establishments. In other words, he's never worked a single day in the industry that he is teaching about, and yet somehow the software engineers of tomorrow are supposed to learn from him?

Wearing a Mask Could Be a Lot Worse

I posted the following image to a veteran's forum with the following caption: "Whenever I hear people whining and moaning about having to wear a mask, I remember days like this, and realize why I have zero F's to give them."

Army-in-MOPP4

Believe me, there's nothing like putting on a full chemical protective suit over your regular uniform, complete with gas mask, rubber booties and gloves, and then working outside in the deserts of Fort Huachuca (in southern Arizona) to make you realize that the human body wasn't designed to work in 100+ temperatures while wearing multiple layers of non-breathable clothing.

At-Least-Youre-Not-in-MOPP4

With that in mind, I would like to reiterate to all of the people who still complain about having to wear a simple mask for 15 minutes or so while they're shopping in a supermarket: "Just Shut Up and Wear the Darn Mask." In other words, get over yourself. Think about someone else for a change. Wearing a mask is a small price to pay for keeping the people around you healthy, and things could be a lot worse.


UPDATE: As I mentioned earlier, I had originally posted the opening joke to a veteran's forum, because I thought my fellow veterans would appreciate the humor. However, shortly after I posted this information, it was removed by one of the forum's admins with no explanation. As you can see, there was nothing even remotely political in this post, so all I can assume was that one of the admins is an "anti-masker" who took offense to the suggestion that wearing a mask during a pandemic isn't that bad. Oh, well... there's nothing that I can do about that. I guess some people failed to pay attention in their grade school science classes.

More 511th History: That Time I Was a Russian Major

At some point during my tenure with the 511th MI Company, I was requested by some high-ranking US military officials to help review the readiness of 11th ACR troops. The time was in the late 1980s, and a delegation could show up at any time for a surprise inspection during the drawdown of nuclear armaments in Germany. This was important work, and our senior leadership needed to know that our troops would do the right thing when the time came. On the other hand, they also needed to know that our troops would prevent bad things from happening, too.

With that mind, I was dressed in a Soviet Major's Uniform (from the Tank Corps), assigned a Russian "translator," and I was asked to pretend to be a particularly "difficult" guest during a faux inspection.

Soviet Army Armored Corps Officer Uniform

To be more specific, these high-ranking officials asked me to try getting into all sorts of mischief in order to evaluate how the unsuspecting 11th ACR troops would react. I'm the kind of guy that you don't have to ask twice - I could get into lots of trouble rather quickly, and my victims probably would have been seriously ticked off if they ever suspected that I wasn't who my official escorts said I was.

My translator was SPC Meyers, who was a good friend of mine from the 511th. We were both passably fluent in Russian, which was more than was necessary to fool our unsuspecting victims. All of our personal conversations in Russian were about what was going on, how much fun we were having, where to go for lunch after we were done, what we should do to mess with people, etc. However, whenever I would say something in Russian, my friend would "translate" something entirely different (and often exasperating) to our hosts.

Here's an example:

Me [Saying something innocuous in Russian to my translator.]
Translator "The major would like to see inside an Abrams tank."
11th ACR dude "No, that's off limits."
Translator [Saying something innocuous in Russian to me.]
Me [Saying something innocuous in Russian, but louder and angrier.]
Translator "The major is very upset; he says that's part of his inspection duties."
11th ACR dude "I'm really sorry, and uh - can someone help me? What do I do now?"
Translator [Apologetically in Russian to me: "He'd kick our butts if he knew we were so full of crap."]
Me [Angrily in Russian: "Yeah, but this is so much fun. Still, we'd better not show our faces around here for a few weeks."]

Ah, good times.

RIP Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020)

This news came as an absolute shock when I heard it earlier today: Eddie Van Halen, Hall of Fame Guitarist Who Revolutionized Instrument, Dead at 65.

Like thousands of other guitarists, Eddie Van Halen (EVH) was my first guitar hero. His band, Van Halen, hit the music scene in 1978, which was the same time as I began to play guitar. I spent countless hours learning dozens of Van Halen's songs on the guitar and playing them live at various gigs throughout my younger days.

Eddie-Van-Halen

There are a handful of guitarists who I would say profoundly influenced my life as a musician, and EVH would easily be in my top five. EVH was a true pioneer, and his influence wasn't just on me; I think EVH inspired more guitarists than any other guitarist in history - even more than Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page. As far as music in general is concerned, you could probably make the argument that few musicians in all of history have had as profound an impact, both for their instrument and their genre.

EVH's signature solo "Eruption" was the sound that launched a thousand imitators. While some might make the argument that this guitar player or that guitar player played this or that solo better than EVH, the fact remains that - for all intents and purposes - EVH did it first, and he did it better than anyone before him. EVH was a true innovator, whose technical skills and unique approach to the guitar was directly responsible for thousands of other people's careers.

I'm a big fan of Rick Beato's YouTube Channel, and a couple of years ago he created the following video, which describes Eddie's profound influence on guitar playing and rock music better than I could ever do.

EVH struggled with a myriad of health and substance abuse issues for decades, and it was great to hear that he was clean and sober from 2008 onward. But still - I think the years of physical abuse finally took their toll on him, and I was deeply saddened to hear that EVH lost his battle with cancer today at the young age of 65.

As I have grown older, it has been difficult to say goodbye to my childhood heroes. Chris Squire of Yes passed away in 2015, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake of ELP both passed away in 2016, and Neil Peart of Rush passed away in January of this year.

Despite the fact that I never met any of these musical influences, I somehow feel like I've lost several close friends. That isn't supposed to happen. Heroes are supposed to ride off into the sunset. They're supposed to be immortal. Heroes aren't supposed to die like ordinary people.

RIP EVH. You will be sorely missed.


POSTSCRIPT:

If I was to pick my top five six guitar influences they would be (in no particular order): Eddie Van Halen, Alex Lifeson, Steve Howe, David Gilmour, Randy Rhoads, and The Edge. While I have been influenced by dozens of guitarists, I can honestly say that something from each of the guitarists that I listed shows up in my playing almost every time I play the guitar. (For more about that train of thought, see my A Few of My Favorite Guitar Solos post from several years ago.)

A Few Thoughts about Trevor Rabin

Trevor Rabin slowly emerged as one of my favorite guitarists. I first learned of him when he was working with Manfred Mann in the early 1980s. (Thankfully I had missed his debacles with the glam rock band Rabbitt.) When the song "Owner of a Lonely Heart" came out in 1983 and became a huge hit, I wondered what the heck Rabin was doing with Yes, and how badly would he ruin the band. However, that feeling evaporated as I heard more of the 90125 album. Oh sure, that particular musical offering was more about creating "pop music" than "progressive rock," but still - Rabin had some SERIOUS musical chops.

Yes

When I saw Yes in 1984 during the Tucson stop of their 90125 tour, Rabin upped his game to a whole new level in my estimation. He completely nailed songs from both catalogs of Yes' music - both the old and the new. In fact, I much preferred Rabin's live versions of classic Yes songs like "And You and I" and "Yours Is No Disgrace" over Steve Howe's live versions. Rabin was far more meticulous than Steve Howe at getting all of the guitar parts right in a live setting. On the other hand, Steve Howe seemed to wander all over the neck in a never-ending stream of musical ramblings on every live Yes recording, which often sounded like he was almost drunk. However, Rabin also added some unique parts of his own to those vintage pieces; I had to admit that Rabin added parts where Howe would never have thought to add them, and in the end I thought Yes' music with Rabin's additions were sometimes better than the originals.

After the Tucson concert had ended, a few friends and I met Yes backstage, and Trevor Rabin was one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet. After our group of friends had an informal meeting and autograph session with the entire band, most of the band members wanted to climb into their waiting limousines and speed off to their hotel for the night. But Rabin was involved in a great discussion about music with my friend Larry and me, so Rabin waved them off and said he'd catch up with the rest of the band later.

Larry was the drummer for a band that we were both in at the time, and our discussion with Rabin was simply about music - and that's it. Rabin wasn't acting like a rock star, he wasn't basking in the adulation of fans, and we weren't showering him with adoration and compliments. The three of us were talking about guitar effects, and production techniques, and songwriting, and about music in general. In short, this was simply three normal guys having a normal conversation about their favorite subject.

During the course of our discussion, I told Rabin that I thought he was a great replacement for Steve Howe, who was the predominant guitarist for Yes during the 1970s. I immediately sensed that I had touched on a sensitive subject, so I let it drop. However, some years later I was reading an interview with Rabin in a guitar magazine, and he said that the hardest thing for him while he was a member of Yes was constantly being compared with Howe. That's not what I meant to do, and I felt badly that I had been part of that experience for him.

A few years later I joined the US Army, and by the late 1980s I was stationed in Germany. If you've read any of my military-related posts, you'll know that I spent a lot of time out in the woods chasing bad guys. However, when I wasn't working, you would find me curled up with a Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton novel, and quite often I was listening to Trevor Rabin's Can't Look Away album. Once again, it was more of a pop music album, which was different than my general preference for progressive rock. Still, I had this album on cassette, and I nearly played it to death during my tenure there. The following video features the song "Something to Hold Onto" from that album, and it's a great example of just how weird an 80s rock music video could be.

In 1991, I caught Yes on their Union tour in Frankfurt, Germany. During this concert, I saw Rabin save the show when the audio for Howe's guitar dropped out during "And You and I." For some reason, Howe's sound vanished from the mix during the acoustic breakdown in the middle of the song. Rabin had been standing off to the side, but when Howe's guitar disappeared, Rabin jumped over to his pedal board, hit a couple buttons, and came up with a plausible acoustic sound to finish the section, with barely a moment or two of dead time. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I eventually found a video of that show. The camera was predominantly focused on Squire and Anderson so you can't see everything that's happening, but you can hear it. If you watch the following video, you can hear Howe's guitar disappear around the 20-second mark, followed by Rabin's guitar filling in the gap for Howe a second or two later.

Rabin eventually left Yes, and he spent several years writing soundtracks for movies. (IMDB currently lists him with 60 credits as a film composer.) However, in 2012 Rabin released his Jacaranda solo album, where he showed that he still hasn't lost his touch as a guitarist. In addition, the following video shows that he hasn't lost his touch with odd music videos, either.

In what would seem like a rare moment in musical history, the surviving members of Yes put their pasts behind them and teamed up to play a couple of their classic songs when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. (Quick side note: Chris Squire, the longtime bassist of Yes, had recently passed away, and Geddy Lee from Rush filled in for him.) It was nice to see Rabin back with the group, and to be honest - the following video shows that Steve Howe isn't aging well; his guitar chops are starting to fade, and he made several embarrassing mistakes. On the other hand, Rabin looks like he's having a ball, and he seems to have a great musical rapport going on with Geddy Lee. (Hmm. Perhaps the two of them should do a side project together?)

One day, I'd like to meet Trevor Rabin again and apologize for my poor choice of words from when I met him back in 1984. It's a poor excuse, but I was only 18 years old at the time. I honestly meant what I said to be a compliment, and I didn't realize how Rabin would receive that. Who knows? Maybe some day I'll get the chance.


POSTSCRIPT:

On a totally unrelated piece of trivia, the writer and director Joss Whedon is a big fan of Yes, and I recently learned he named his Mutant Enemy Productions company after the acoustic breakdown section of Yes' song "And You and I."

MutantEnemy

The lyrics for that section of the song are:

"Sad preacher nailed upon the colored door of time.
Insane teacher be there, reminded of the rhyme.
There'll be no mutant enemy we shall certify;
Political ends as sad remains will die.
Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you."

You can store that piece of trivia awesomeness for a rainy day...

Modding Aviom Headphone Jacks

If you've played music in a live setting sometime within the past decade, chances are that you've used some sort of in-ear monitor or personal mixer system. Whereas in the past musicians were forced to compete with each other's sound through floor monitors, these newer in-ear/personal systems allow each musician to control their personal mix, which only they can hear in their headphones. As an added bonus, when you switch to an in-ear monitor system, there is no need for floor monitors, and therefore your stage volume can be significantly reduced. (And if you use direct systems, amplifier modeling, or isolation cabinets, you can remove all of your stage volume for everything except your acoustic instruments.)

Needless to say, these systems are great, and one of the most-popular manufacturers of in-ear monitor systems is Aviom, which makes several different types of personal monitors. Over the years, I have used their A-16 and A-16II personal mixers in a variety of settings. They're a little older by today's standards, but I still see them in use all over the country.

A-16II-front-panel

These Aviom systems work great, but they have one nagging design flaw that I hear about from everyone I know who has used them: the headphone jacks are soldered to the circuit boards, but they're not secured to the case with a nut. As a direct result, the headphone jacks eventually separate from the circuit boards, causing the mixers to lose signal to one or both ears. And this happens a lot.

aviom-mod-01

Thankfully, there's an easy mod that you can perform on your Aviom systems to make up for this design flaw: you can remove the headphone jack from the circuit board, and replace it with a headphone jack that is mounted to the case. This is a pretty simple hack, and it usually takes me around 10 minutes per mixer to swap out the parts. With that in mind, you might want to modify all of your mixers at the same time. (Which is what I chose to do.)

aviom-mod-02

MODIFICATION INSTRUCTIONS

To perform this modification, you'll need:

  • A stereo panel mount jack to replace the old headphone jack
  • A small spool of wire to connect the panel mount jack to the circuit board
  • A small screwdriver to assist with removing buttons
  • A soldering iron, some solder, and basic soldering skills
  • OPTIONAL: Alligator clip wires for testing
  • OPTIONAL: Electrical tape to insulate the circuit board

WARNING: This modification will probably void your warranty. But these personal mixers are old enough that yours probably aren't under warranty anyway. But still, you might want to check.


STEP 1 - Remove all of the knobs and buttons from the front panel. The knobs should pull right off, but sometimes I need to use a small screwdriver to pop off the buttons. (Note: keep track of which buttons came from where, because several of the buttons have different holes that let the LEDs shine through.)

aviom-mod-03

STEP 2 - Remove the screws from the bottom panel, and I've highlighted all of their locations in the image below. The only tricky part about this step is that one of the screws is probably hidden under one of the labels, which is undoubtedly to prevent people from modifying their Avioms and voiding their warranty.

aviom-mod-04

STEP 3 - Open the case and remove the circuit board. Once you have the circuit board removed, you can locate the headphone jack, which I have highlighted in the following image.

aviom-mod-05

STEP 4 - Remove the headphone jack that is mounted to the circuit board. In every situation where I've replaced a headphone jack, I was able to simply pop them off the circuit board without doing any damage, which is probably because the continuous abuse of plugging and unplugging headphones has usually separated the headphone jack from the circuit board already, which is why this mod is necessary. However, if you try to remove the old headphone jack and it doesn't seem to want to move, you should desolder the old jack instead of forcing it.

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STEP 5 - Solder wires onto the circuit border in the locations shown in the image below. Pay attention to where the ground, left, and right wires are soldered. As you can see in the image, I use alligator clip wires to test out my soldering before I solder the wires to the new stereo jack.

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STEP 6 - Solder the new stereo jack to the wires, then test out the circuit before reassembling the mixer.

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STEP 7 - Mount the new stereo jack to the case. While it may not be necessary, I usually place a piece of electrical tape on the circuit board where the jack will be located, and I do this to keep the new headphone jack from coming into contact with the circuit board.

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STEP 8 - Secure the circuit board in the case, assemble the two halves of the case back together, and then replace all the screws, knobs, and buttons. (Make sure that you put the buttons back in the same locations where they were before the modification.)


That's all there is to it!

The first mod that you do might take a little bit longer as you get the hang of it, but once that's out of the way, any remaining mods should be quicker.


BONUS TIP:

There is one extra step that you can take in order to improve the stability of your Aviom systems. If you're using the stand adapters that allow you mount your Aviom systems on microphone stands, there's an additional hack that I use which you might want to consider. I plug a right-angle headphone adapter into the Aviom's headphone jack, then I plug a six-foot headphone extension cable into the right-angle adapter, and then I secure the headphone extension cable between the Aviom mixer and the stand adapter so that it cannot be pulled out of the right-angle adapter. This system will prevent the cable from being ripped out of the headphone jack, and if you're using heavy microphone stands, anyone who walks away from the Aviom system with their in-ear headphones will probably yank their headphone cable out of the extension cable.

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Dealing with Bullies

I hear a lot about bullies in today's schools, and I wish that we lived in a world where kids would never have to face a bully. But that being said, bullies are a sad reality, and I don't think that we'll ever find a way to fully prevent them from doing harm to others. Today's bullies are often hiding across the Internet and posting terrible things about their peers from the safety of their smartphones and PCs, but that wasn't an issue in my youth. When I was in grade school, I had to face my bullies every day.

When I was the sixth grade, there was some punk kid who tormented me every day, and I was tired of it. One day, this schmuck was walking over to me, but before he had a chance to say or do anything to me, I preemptively landed two blows to the stomach with my right and my left, and as he started to double over forward in pain, I landed a perfectly executed uppercut to his jaw that sent him reeling backwards into the dirt. As I stood over the out-of-breath mass of bleeding and blubbering shock that was lying on the ground, I told him emphatically, "Don't EVER mess with me again."

Several things happened that day:

First of all, this did wonders for my self-esteem. I learned that I could fight my own battles. I didn't need to be a victim, and I didn't need someone to fix my problems for me.

Next, NO ONE messed with me at school after that; this entire showdown had happened while everyone was out of class, so I had a huge audience watching as I obliterated my foe.

And last - the schmuck never bullied anyone again, and we eventually became friends. It may seem surprising, but boys are like that; they want to establish the pecking order, and once that's out of the way, they know who they are and they can move on.

This generation goes out of its way to shield children in bubble wrap from the rest of the planet, but fails to realize that it will NEVER stop bullying. Sometimes what a bully needs is a mouth full of fist to knock them into reality; trying to give bullies a lecture and "time out" will only teach them not to get caught. On the other hand, when bullies have the @#$% kicked out of them, that will teach them how to become better people.

September 22nd is National Veteran and Military Suicide Prevention Day

At the risk of Too Much Information (TMI), I'd like to share something that I've never talked about with anyone other than my wife.

Here's the backstory: a few years ago I was diagnosed with Essential Tremors, which is a disorder with hand & feet tremors that resembles a non-fatal form of Parkinson's Disease. I had hoped to retire one day and be able to tinker with electronics or play my array of musical instruments, but now I suddenly found myself in my mid-50s and facing the very real possibility that I might not be able to hold a pencil or a fork in a few years.

I went through all of the stages of grief; at first I was in denial, and then I was viciously angry at God. I kept asking Him, "Why me?" and "Why couldn't you just kill me?" It was humiliating each time I had to ask my wife to help me eat, or when I had to pull off the road and ask my wife to drive because my feet wouldn't do what they were supposed to. It was even more embarrassing when I was at a restaurant with family or friends and I kept missing when I tried to feed myself.

I eventually launched into a major depression, and all of this happened at a time when my job took a major nosedive; I was overworked and had a boss who had no idea who I was or what I did. As each day grew worse than the last, I finally reached the breaking point, and I want no sympathy for this - but I had my note written, I had all my accounts in order, I had all my passwords printed out so my wife wouldn't have to look for anything, and I had a noose all set to go. I'm great at tying nooses; I learned how to tie an ultra-secure noose as a Boy Scout, so I had everything tested and ready in our garage where I knew that nothing was going to fail on me.

I was literally within minutes of stepping into that noose when I was somehow distracted by something; to this day I don't recall what it was, but I stepped away and never stepped back.

I eventually found a doctor who put me on the right medications to manage my tremors, and I found a counselor to help me pass through the final stages of grief - from depression into acceptance. Now I look back at what almost happened and think, "Holy crap - what was I thinking?" But the truth is, when you're that depressed, you can't think. And you don't WANT to think. You just want it to end. In hindsight, I should have sought help sooner: I should have seen the doctor sooner, I should have seen the counselor sooner, and I should have told my wife that despite my day to day appearance, I really wasn't handling my situation.

When I think back on my time in the military, I realize that soldiers are taught to be completely self-sufficient, and I think that makes it hard for veterans to ask for help. But if we veterans are honest with ourselves, we were never completely self-sufficient. In every duty station where I served, I was surrounded by awesome folks who knew exactly where I was at, and we all helped each other. Oh sure, there was the occasional jerk or two in each unit that we couldn't trust, but for the most part - we were surrounded by people who understood all the ups and downs that we were facing.

Now that my situation has changed for the better, I've found a support group for my tremors where I can hear from other people that have gone through what I'm going through, and it really helps. To be honest, that's also why I love a veterans group that I belong to. There are parts of my life that no one outside the fraternity of the Armed Forces will understand, like why I laugh out loud every time I see a yellow bird lying dead outside a window. But all of my fellow veterans get it.

To finish off this post, I'm doing great now - and I've learned to take each day one at a time. I don't mean to make light of anyone's burden, but I look at the following images all the time. The image on the right reminds me that I shouldn't try to do everything alone, and the image on the left reminds me that the same drive and determination that enabled me to endure and do amazing things in my youth is still there, and I can tap into that drive and determination in order to help me make it through the stupid things I face today.

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