Let it Rain Music

Today I installed a simple bypass wiring harness on my Pioneer AppRadio 4. That allows it to have full A/V functionality without being connected to the parking brake, which isn’t a safety concern for me since I’m almost always docked on the RETROpad. The bypass also allowed me to finally update AppRadio’s firmware.

This CarPlay-enabled receiver puts out 50 watts to each of four speakers, so the sound is rich and full. I’ve had good audio out from my TV from day one, just by using an RCA-to-3.5mm audio cable to the receiver. But now that I have a music keyboard, it’s important to run audio from my iMac to the receiver as well.

The receiver sports a variety of inputs, including HDMI plus analog A/V over both RCA and phono plugs. What it lacks, sadly, is a digital audio IN. My TV doesn’t have an HDMI OUT but it does have a digital audio OUT (using a fiberoptic TOSLINK cable), so that would be ideal. That way the AppRadio could process Dolby surround sound. But no, it looks like I’m stuck on analog unless I find an HDMI switch box that takes TOSLINK plus other sources.

So my plan is to run another long (20-foot?) 3.5mm audio cable from my iMac to all the way around the galley and up to the receiver. Then it can connect to the audio (red/white) RCA inputs and the AppRadio should just ignore the video (yellow) jack.

By the way, Bluetooth sounds great for Logic Pro, GarageBand, Final Cut Pro or iMovie audio output. But the inherent latency rules it out for realtime keyboard use. It’s no good to press a key and then hear the sound half a second later. Live audio needs to be transmitted by cable so all those electrons get to the speakers in time.

What also sounds good in the RETROvan is a torrential rainstorm, like the one we’re having right now. Mazy is curled up in the passenger chair on her blanket, just above the fireplace. Happy as a clam to be with me after a rough night last night. Her kidneys and digestive tract are failing. No more leftover cereal milk for her…

RETROvan Credits

As 2017 and Phases 1 & 2 of the RETROvan project draw to a close, it’s time to thank everyone who helped directly or indirectly for over 400 parts and other line items. Here’s an alphabetical list of the sources and sorcerers involved:

If I forgot anyone, I’ll add you later with my apologies.

Happy New Year, everyone!

The Day After Christmas Eve

We celebrated Trump’s imaginary War on Christmas with our dear friends and neighbors.

Bob is an accomplished Jazz Photographer and a former Professor of Filmmaking. Diane is a Public Relations professional and Editor. Together they built a craftsman-style writing studio behind their house, which served as an inspiration for the RETROvan.

Here we are, Olivia and me, after discussing an interesting media project. More on that later. Meanwhile, all four RETROpods filled the air with holiday cheer.


This is a cute little retro camper sent to us by Robbie & Beni. Bob & Diane also gave us a cute little retro caravan ornament, customized with a RETROvan license plate on the back.

We had strung up some LED lights on both top shelves. The reflections remind us of the Northern Lights. We would like to see that for real someday…

Happy Winter Solstice!

Thursday was the Winter Solstice—the shortest day of the year in the worst year in American history. I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore. Well, not officially. We’ll still say “Merry Christmas” and all that because we try to be nice people. And because Mazy still believes in Santa Claws.

In the morning after Crunch Berries and coffee, Steven helped me install the rear RETROpod speakers. They look and sound great!

This was no easy task, in part because the rear shelves and ceiling panel T7 had to be removed. And then one of the mounting bracket’s threads were malformed. So we had to do what Engineers do: Improvise.

We also had to move my mounting holes in four inches because I failed to allow space for the shelves. But no worries, I’ll dress them up later. Then I introduced Steven to the joys of low-voltage wiring.

The kids spent the rest of the day playing with new toys. With Steven on his new mini keyboard, the All-Shannon Girls Choir on vocals, and Collectible Batman conducting with his Batarang.

After some HoneyBaked Ham, punkin’ pie and whipped cream, Mazy got drunk on egg nog and stumbled to bed with visions of defenseless baby mice dancing in her head. The holidays can be so exhausting…

Thoughts & Prayers

We’ve really been enjoying the RETROvan lately, especially with the new oil-filled space heater keeping things at a cozy 69°.

Olivia found a cool mini retro Christmas tree and Mazy loves the rubber floors. I’ve been working in Xcode on my 5K iMac, updating some of my smaller apps in the App Store. I even rewrote one older Objective-C app in Swift. I’m ramping up to take a new gig somewhere in early 2018, all part of the plan.

Shows flashes of brilliance. Works well with others.

Today, the 501 Amtrak Cascades derailed near DuPont, Washington killing at least three people and wounding up to a hundred. Tomorrow, Steven and Shannon were booked on the same train from Seattle to Portland.

Let that sink in, parents…

I-5 southbound will be closed up to 48 hours while WSDOT deals with the carnage and the NTSB conducts its investigation. So we got refunds and booked the kids on flights instead. Anxious to see them tomorrow and spend some quality time over the Winter Solstice.

This was the 501’s inaugural run and the route was new. The tracks, however, were built for freight and military trains. Not passenger trains. Amtrak calls that a high-speed train, which is ridiculous if you’ve ever ridden an actual bullet train. The 501 has a top speed of 79 MPH — on a straightaway. But for some reason, it tried to take a 30 MPH curve at 78 MPH, over a freeway overpass. The criminal negligence in that scenario is off the charts and I’m sure the victims’ families will show no mercy to Amtrak.

Some would be spouting “thoughts & prayers” at such a tragedy. Others know those are empty platitudes. Thoughts and prayers don’t keep trains on tracks, folks. That is a job for physics, engineers and lawyers.

Safe travels, everyone.

RETROpods Away!

Today I got busy and fabricated my other three RETROpods.

These are custom aluminum and acrylic speaker enclosures that resemble torpedoes.

The “bullet” style speaker cans are sold for wakeboard towers on ski boats. They’re made for 6-inch speakers but my Sony Marine 2-Way speakers didn’t fit the hole pattern. So I had to get four red adapter rings cut at TAP Plastics in Tigard months ago. Above, you can see I placed a can in a mixing bowl for stability while I worked on it.

The process goes like this: I align a red ring on the can’s lip and tape it in place with Frog Tape. Using a safety pin, I reach inside, find the four screw holes I want and then scratch their location on the ring from the bottom up. Then I drill out those holes and countersink them to keep the screw heads flat.

Next I align a speaker on the ring and make sure the Sony logo faces the right way. Then I mark the mounting holes simply by spinning a screw hard enough to scratch the plastic.

Now I can drill out the mounting holes. Note how they’re offset by 45° from the first set of holes. The plastic ring is has a 1-inch lip, compared to the can’s original 3/4-inch lip. This gives the speaker enough lip to mount on. And it will also look better, using the RETROvan’s color scheme of red, white and black.

Next I made an 18-inch section of 16 AWG marine-grade wire with heat-shrink spade connectors. I threaded the cable through the center hole and then screwed the heavy aluminum mounting bracket in place from the inside of the can.

And lastly, I screwed the speaker in place with the four screws it came with. I used a power drill only long enough to tap my new holes and make sure they were coerced back into alignment where necessary. The rest was hand-tightened so as not to stress any plastic.

And here’s the result. After snapping the screw covers into place, this RETROpad is ready to hang in one of the back corners using two bolts coming down through aft ceiling panel T7. I’ll wait to do that until Steven gets here next week, since that’s a two-man job.

Warming the Nest

George Morlan Plumbing in Tigard came through today. I took my water tank in and showed them what I needed. It took some digging but Tim found the exact three fittings I needed. They were the last ones in stock and the total came to a whopping $4.68. The parts include two barbed elbows and one plug. I drilled a small hole in the plug to form a vent. That vent will keep the water tank at an equalized pressure when filling or draining.

I returned my disappointing First Alert CO and Smoke Detector to Amazon because of its cheap build quality. I also returned a slew of unused parts to Home Depot and I got enough store credit to buy this for $119:

This second-generation Nest Protect device not only looks better, it will send alerts to my iPhone even if I’m not in the RETROvan. It monitors for smoke and carbon monoxide solely on ten-year batteries, and it’s easy enough on my eyes to even mount over the dinette table and berth. We feel safer already.

It’s been in the 30s at night lately and my cool little space heater is struggling to keep up. So I found this cheap ($60) oil-filled unit made by NewAir. It only consumes 400W and it too has a built-in thermostat. So that should be efficient enough to get the RETROvan through some cold winter nights. It’s just the right size to place under the table near the back doors, keeping our feet (and Mazy’s paws) warm. Plus it looks pretty retro.

The Barista Is In

A few more odds and ends arrived today, so I finished securing my seat cushions to their bases, and boy does that make a difference. This is one of those easily-overlooked aspects of user experience; the idea that you shouldn’t have to worry about a bulky seat sliding or shifting when you get in and out. It’s one of those things that your guests won’t notice unless it’s broken.

The trick was to switch to Velcro’s “Auto” version, which has a different adhesive compatible with flexible vinyl. You may recall my headrest cushions loosened up and fell off the walls, so I’ll try the same fix there once three more rolls arrive.

My Keurig coffee maker arrived too. It’s a bit bigger than I expected but the color looks great and the coffee is familiar. I’ll have to find a new home for my Nostalgia Electrics machine now:

This was replaced with a Keurig.

I also got a cool skull & crossbones beer cap catcher for next to the sink.

The opener arrives later.

Smoke on the Water

Today I ordered a First Alert combination smoke and carbon monoxide detector. I’m mostly concerned about waking up dead from CO poisoning in an enclosed space, especially with the vents closed during winter.

This got returned.

It’s a pretty good size to install on a wall or the ceiling, and the B&W style matches the RETROvan nicely. There are more complex devices available, but they don’t get very good reviews. This one has a 10-year battery and voice alerts, so you can’t really go wrong for $54.99.

My custom 11-gallon water tank finally arrived. Once I removed the shelf, it fits the galley cabinet nicely. So now I just need to get the right 1/2-inch NPT barbed elbow fittings. Hopefully a trip to George Morlan Plumbing will solve that. On top, there’s the filler inlet and the vent. On the bottom is the outlet that connects to the pump.

The idiots at RONCO Plastic did put the ugly part of the tank on the front (with their embossed logo upside-down), so I had to turn it 90° to hide that. And you can see I still have room in the cabinet for a fire extinguisher, MAGLITE and more tall bottles, cleaning supplies, etc.

I’m going to mount the SHURFLO water pump right onto the plastic with screws, which should work fine for vibration and noise. You can see it above, nestled just under the sink. Next step is to trace the drain hole onto the wall panel and cut it out. But I’m in no hurry to disassemble the galley for the last time. At least not until I have all the correct fittings in hand.

I found a perfect use for my Pirates of the Caribbean flag. It provides privacy from the outside and just enough translucency from the inside. And it reflects my worldview during these dark days of the Zombie Apocalypse.

I also ordered a cool retro USB microphone for working in Logic Pro X and Final Cut Pro.

Ghost in the Machine


Last night I went to Guitar Center in Beaverton to pick up a music keyboard, which basically makes the RETROvan a mobile media studio in addition to software development.

Meet the AKAI Professional Advance 49, a NAMM Best-of-Show award-winner from 2015. This technology is lightyears ahead of the keyboards, samplers and drum machine kit Gary Tobin and I assembled in the 1980s, when I was really into composing via MIDI. Electronic Arts’ Deluxe Music Construction Set was the bomb on my Mac, back then. It was the one app I’d want to have on a desert island.

No, I’m not a musician per se. I was forced to take music lessons as a kid (piano, wind and guitar), but I was always a better listener than a player. I do have a passion for composition, seeing as how that’s really an exercise in programming. And now I seem to have developed a deeper interest in lyrics and social commentary, inspired in part by recent releases from some of my favorite artists.

Now that Phase 2 of the RETROvan project is wrapping up, I had been researching a variety of equipment options (things to do and see) but as soon as I saw this keyboard it just screamed out Star Trek! It bears an uncanny resemblance to the various control consoles on the original USS Enterprise set, like in the Transporter Room:

The keys are semi-weighted and they have both velocity- and pressure-sensitivity. So they feel great, and the action should get even better over time. But the best feature is all the backlighting. Those drum pads are fully programmable, including the LED colors. When the AKAI is turned off, it’s all black & white. But turn it on and it lights up like Olivia’s face on a warm spring day:

This keyboard comes in three sizes: 25 keys, 49 keys and 61 keys. But the RETROvan’s table/desk is 24×48″ and it has to support my 27″ 5K iMac. So the Advance 49 was just the right length for me. Its control layout is very efficient and compact, measuring 29.5″ x 11.5″ x 3.63″. So both it and my Mac’s keyboard/trackpad fit nicely up front and I can just slide up and down the bench seat. What about the “missing” keys you ask? No worries, most keyboards can span ten octaves by simply hitting the Octave ± buttons. And that’s all you need for composing, versus live performance.

I plan to spend some time learning the system along with Apple’s Logic Pro X software. That DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) can also produce music notation (sheet music) with lyrics. And yes, I have a trove of lyrics that are begging to lay down tracks. I also have about a hundred 8MM home movies and old independent films that I’d like to do some narration over, and some sound-tracky stuff.

My son Steven is an accomplished bassist, so maybe he’ll collaborate. And of course my in-laws (Robbie, Conor and Kevin) are all brilliant musicians. Me? I can get a sound outta almost anything. Just ask Mazy.

When the cat’s away, the mice will play…