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January 22, 2015

Filed under: music»tools


Whitman is a simple sampler (womp womp) written for modern web browsers. Built in Angular, it uses the WebAudio API to load and play sound files via a basic groovebox interface. You can try a demo on GitHub Pages. I put Whitman together for my dad's elementary school classes, so it's pretty simple by design, but it was a good learning experience.

The WebAudio API is not the worst new interface I've ever seen in a browser, but it's pretty bad. Some of its problems are just weird: for example, audio nodes are one-shot, and have to be created with new each time that you want to play the sound, which seems like a great way to trigger garbage collection and cause stuttering. Loading audio data is also kind of obnoxious, but at least you only have to do it once. I really wanted to be able to save the audio files in local storage so that they'd persist between refreshes, but getting access to the buffer (at least from the console/debugger) was oddly difficult, and eventually I just gave up.

But parts of it are genuinely cool, too. The API is built around wiring together nodes as if they were synthesizer components — an oscillator might get hooked up to a low-pass filter, then sent through a gain node before being mixed into the audio context — which feels pleasantly flexible. I'd like to put together a chiptune tracker with it. Support is decent, too, with the mobile browsers I care about (Safari and Chrome) already having decent availability. IE support is on the way.

The most surprising thing about Whitman is that it ended up being entirely built on web tech. When I started the project, I expected to move it over to a Chrome App at some point (it'll be taught on Chromebooks). There are still some places where that would have been nice (file retention, better support for saving data and synchronization), but for the most part it wasn't necessary at all. Believe it or not, you can pretty much write a basic audio app completely on the web these days, which is amazing.

In the parts where there is friction, it feels like a strong argument in favor of the Extensible Web. Take saving files, for example: without a "File Writer" object, Whitman does it by creating a link with a download attribute, base64-encoding the file into the href, and then programmatically clicking it when the user goes to save. That's a pretty crappy solution, because browsers only expose data URIs to create files. We need something lower-level, that can ask for permission to write locally, outside of a sandbox (especially now that the File System API is dead in the water).

August 31, 2011

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Bass Check

Last week I achieved a goal that I've had for seven years, one that's even documented back in the earliest days of this blog: I bought a Jetglo Rickenbacker 4003 bass. Bass Northwest may have one of the world's most hideous store websites, but they delivered where it counts. And while I was there, putting my name on the list to get this bass, they told me an interesting story.

Rickenbacker only makes fifty basses a year, they said, and those basses are made in what (from a store's perspective, not Rickenbacker's) is essentially a random order. The company doesn't tell stores what color or type they're making on any given day, or when they can expect an item to arrive. Instead, a store will just get a note from the Rick factory in response to their standing order, letting them know that an instrument is on the way. You might think that this unpredictability would make it difficult for stores to sell these basses, but in fact the extreme rarity of Rickenbackers (not to mention the voracity of their fanbase) means that they find homes almost immediately.

Why does the Rickenbacker company make so few instruments each year? I don't know the exact reason, but I suspect it has a lot to do with it being a family-owned business--one that's extremely possessive of their designs (Ric is notoriously litigious towards "generic" versions of its guitars) and therefore still builds everything here, where they can retain close control. The management at Ric is obviously really proud of their domestic manufacturing. Each bass comes with a little "made in USA" sticker on the pickguard, which (on a black and white instrument) makes it look a bit like it's wearing a flag pin on its lapel. I almost expect it to run for office.

For whatever reason they've chosen to do it, Rickenbacker's stubborn refusal to move production overseas stands out. Practically nothing else that I own is built here, musical or otherwise. It's possible that a lot of things can't be produced domestically anymore: the New York Times had an article the other day on bringing manufacturing back to the US, and the difficulty of reviving an industry after so much of the skills and infrastructure supporting it have been outsourced. It turns out that manufacturing, which would seem like a largely solved problem, really isn't--and it's not easy to catch up if we fall behind.

Stop me if I get too Friedman-esque, but for me, seeing that little flag sticker on my new bass highlights a tremendous tension in today's globalized marketplace. I think Rickenbackers are probably designed better than instruments built overseas (they'd have to be, since there's no economy of scale to subsidized waste) and I like that their manufacturing is subject to our regulation. But the irony is that I might not have learned to play bass if everything was made like (and cost as much as) a Rickenbacker. My first bass, which I still own and play, was a $300 factory-made Yamaha BB404 from Taiwan.

So I'm trying not to be incredibly snobby about where my new bass is made, because I owe my ability to play it to cheap construction. Simultaneously, though, I think there's a lot of value in Rickenbacker's model, and I wish we did more to encourage domestic production--not out of jingoism, but as a way to keep our skills sharp and our products humane. Maybe that's a lot of baggage to lay on a single bass, but I've been waiting seven years for it, after all: I think it might be forgiveable to obsess a little.

April 7, 2011

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Touch vs. Turn

If Korg's DS-10 synth is a portable Reason, all dangling virtual cables and signal flow diagrams, Nanoloop (newly released on Android this week) is like a pocket-sized Ableton Live: simple geometric shapes laid out conceptually. It's an approach designed for screen interaction and readability instead of mimicking its' non-virtual counterparts. I like both Nanoloop and the DS-10. But I suspect I like real synthesizers more, even though they're bulky and inconvenient, solely because the real thing isn't trapped behind a sheet of glass.

Which is not to say that Nanoloop is not very cool. I never owned a copy of the Gameboy version, because I couldn't quite justify spending $40 on a cartridge for a 20-year-old game system, but its simplified layout (originally created for greyscale LCDs and few buttons) works well on a touchscreen. The built-in synths don't quite have the classic feel of a Nintendo sound generator chip, but there are more of them, including a built-in sampler (the Android version even allows importing custom samples from the SD card). Nanoloop's synth engine is certainly less powerful than the DS-10 (modulation routing is one of those things where the patchbay metaphor really does make sense), but it does fit the channel controls on a single screen (Korg's software has separate screens for subtractive synthesis and patching), and that really puts the emphasis on fast, efficient composition. So while I'm still terrible at tracking, this is an easy way to burn some time while waiting for the bus.

On the other hand, neither program is anywhere near as much fun as mucking around with a big analog-style synthesizer--I'll get lost in one of those for hours, and I don't even like playing keyboard. What's the difference? Big, chunky knobs, switches and buttons that I can physically handle to get a "grip" on the sounds. There's just something viscerally better about tactile synth controls. I feel the same way, incidentally, about my bass effects--no matter how many cool things I could do with virtual pedalboards, I always went back to stompboxes eventually. Nor am I alone: even in the age of touchscreens and DAW plugins, people keep inventing ways to make music software physical through devices like the arc or various control surfaces. It's like there's something people just really like about turning knobs and flipping switches.

As a generally pro-digital kind of person, I was kind of bothered to realize this about myself. I have no sentimentality about e-books, for example, and I'd rather suck lemons than record on analog tape. The more I think about it, though, the more I see the role of the tool as the distinguishing factor. Stompboxes and synthesizers are performance-oriented--they're all about process and inspiration. It's important that they be responsive in ways that are instantly intuitive, even if that requires extra bulk or lowered flexibility. Recording and editing audio, on the other hand, are (mostly) results-oriented activities: I'm not trying to discover new sounds, just rearrange existing elements, so I'm happy to deal with them at as high a level as possible.

Clearly, then, there's a thin zone between abstraction and control that makes a performance instrument satisfying. Given too much abstraction, you take away the player's expressiveness. With too little, they're overwhelmed. Virtual instruments and touchscreen interfaces aren't inherently unsatisfying, but they almost always require musicians to maintain a higher level of mindfulness to use them, the responsiveness will be less dynamic, and the feel just won't have the same richness to it. Where each player draws the line is probably up to them. Since I don't really consider myself a synth player, software synths like Nanoloop and the DS-10 will be good enough for now. On bass, though, I'll stick with my stompboxes.

February 16, 2010

Filed under: music»tools»effects


You may have heard that there was a blizzard last week, trapping the entire East coast indoors for about five days straight. Walking the dog in the morning after a big snowfall was like stepping into an apocalyptic movie cliche: howling wind, half-buried automobiles and buildings, and no sign of other life to be found. Even for a misanthrope like me, it was a little creepy. Belle started to go stir-crazy around day 2. I lasted a bit longer, but by Wednesday I needed something to do that wasn't beamed through an LCD screen, so I broke out my bass and pedals for the first time in a while, and started rearranging things.

For the serious pedal-head, it's possible to enter a kind of trance-like feedback loop while searching for new sounds: you shift between playing a lick, twiddling a few knobs, and listening intently to determine whether the new sound has moved closer to the ideal in your head. Play, adjust, listen, rinse and repeat. And there's no better way to trigger this kind of behavior than to scramble the order for your pedals and randomly activate a few of them--it creates a totally new sound, acts like a mental reset button. My drug of choice, of course, is distortion, and my current favorite is the Z. Vex Woolly Mammoth that replaced an MXR M-80 Bass DI+. Since picking up the Mammoth, I'd put the MXR on a shelf temporarily, but addled by the snow and the confines of the apartment I decided to put the two of them in series and see what kind of overdrive I could get.

The Mammoth doesn't like hot input from a preamp of any kind, pedal or bass, so the first experiment with the M-80 first in the signal chain didn't work out. And running the Mammoth into the M-80 with the usual distortion settings on both was interesting--it triggered a kind of overcompression effect--but the distortion from the MXR (which was once semi-accurately described to me as "bees in a tin can") was washing out the low-end from the Z. Vex. But when I kicked off the distortion and just tried the SVT-emulating clean channel on the M-80--wow. The preamp took the Mammoth's fuzz, thickened it and tamed some of the high-end. It was monstrous, and very cool, and I played with it for probably an hour and a half until I had it tweaked perfectly and my fretting fingers were sore.

The lesson here is not that I've got a new bass distortion that can level continents, although that's a nice bonus. It's the process of serendipity that got me there: being able to rewire or adjust my pedals in possibly stupid or odd ways, just to see what would happen. A good toolkit gives you that kind of freedom. That's one of the reasons I'm so keen on single-purpose effects boxes: multi-effects are just now reaching the level of sophistication that allows something as simple as shuffling the order of the signal chain, and they rarely make it fast or easy. A multi-effects unit is good if you already know what you want, but it's murder on creativity.

When I think about it, this is true for most of the tools I like to use. Javascript and PHP are ungainly, hackish languages, but the flexibility of loose typing and hash-based objects makes it easy to throw data around and see what sticks. Pro Tools is a mess from the perspective of plugin APIs and efficient resource use, but its flexible routing mixer is unmatched for patching audio around in a project. I remember first falling in love with word processing when I realized that you could move paragraphs around instantly--no more endless recopying drafts (and how I hated teachers in grade school who required handwritten reports). And we won't even get started on my unhealthy MacGyver obsession.

The Make crowd tends to say that you don't own a tool unless you can hack it. I think it's also a question of convenience--how easily can you surprise yourself when patching something together? When Mark Pilgrim wrote Tinkerer's Sunset, reminiscing about how he got started on an Apple IIe, the gateway was BASIC. And while computer scientists hate BASIC for the bad habits it spawned in a generation, it had one thing going for it: it's really easy to read and understand, as the programming equivalent of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. The only modern language with an equivalent level of ubiquity and cost is Javascript, and even it is much more difficult for a newcomer to grasp. It's harder to rewire it, harder still to find a serendipitous solution.

Or take electronics: when I was a kid, which was not that long ago, you could still take apart a stereo or a TV and see all the wires and bits inside. You could still blow a circuit breaker poking around in there, even if you never did understand what everything was (I speak from experience). Nowadays, it's all disposable system-on-a-chip engineering, even in an industry as low-tech as music. Those analog pedals of mine are a dying breed, and while I'm as big a fan of digital as you'll find, I hope there's room for both. The Z. Vex Inventobox and the Arduino are responses to the rise of black-box hardware, but they're also tacit admissions: that we have to special-order creative tools, separate from those designed for media consumption and ease-of-use.

I hope we don't lose the idea that it's possible to combine the two. You can have tools that are easy to use and easy to hack, even if we're told by designers that it has to be one or the other--that letting people open up the box would make it too complicated for the average user. Maybe it just takes a new model. If so, I nominate the humble, patchable, routable effects pedal. Because hey, if guitarists can learn to use them for boundless creativity, anyone can.

October 19, 2009

Filed under: music»tools

Two Cans

For years, I listened to music through the cheapest headphones I could find. This usually meant those $10 Sony earbuds, the awful plastic ones that leave your ears physically sore and boast of "deep bass" (read: less midrange). But since I was pretty much broke all the time, and rarely bothered to bring my CD player anywhere anyway, the earbuds had to do.

I didn't buy better phones until a few years after I started working with digital audio. While I was at the World Bank's Multimedia Center, the standard for all the video stations was Sony's MDR-7506 (or its original variant, the MDR-V6). The MDRs have been pretty well-known professional units for years--they're staples of mastering and post-production studioes--and lots of people hate them, saying that they're unsubtle and overly bassy. All of which is probably true, but they were miles above anything I'd used before. Suddenly I could hear all kinds of distinct parts in the music that had previously been masked by poor equipment. It was eye-opening, like the first time that I used a condenser mike instead of a dynamic.

Today I own three sets of nice headphones. I have a set of MDR-7506s for work, a Beyerdynamic DT 770 for those increasingly rare times that I do audio editing at home, and some Etymotic earbuds for portable use. I'd say these are reasonably-priced now--only the 770s cost more than $100--but there's no way I'd have seen them as "affordable" during my painful-plastic-earbud years. Which is not to say that I couldn't have saved up for a pair, but it would have been hard to convince me to do so, since I had no exposure to anything better.

Most people, I assume, are basically in the same position. Surely that's the only thing that can explain the proliferation of those awful white earbuds on the Metro. It's a catch-22: the only way people would consider better cans would be if they listened to them, and that probably won't happen until they actually buy a pair, which they won't do because they've never heard good headphones and can't justify the expense.

Some may argue that digital compression makes headphone quality irrelevant, and that could be true in some cases. But at modern bitrates, psychoacoustic compression isn't nearly the sound-muffler that it was during the Napster days. To the extent that it has an impact, compression is way less harmful than a poor speaker setup.

So this is a plea to all those people I see on the train with $10 headphones plugged into a $200 music player (or worse, using the pack-in earbuds). I feel your budgetary pain, guys, I really do. But the next time you feel the urge to upgrade, consider putting the cash into the other end of the headphone cord. I'm pretty sure you'll appreciate it.

May 28, 2009

Filed under: music»tools»effects

Consider the Mammoth

Part of an ongoing series obsessing over effects pedals. Other posts in this series concern the Line 6 PodXT Live, MXR M80 Bass DI+, Line 6 DL4 delay/looper, Boss LS-2 Line Selector, DOD FX25B Envelope, and Z-Vex LoFi Loop Junky.

Whenever I talk about distortion, the Wooly Mammoth has almost always surfaced at some point. I've wanted one for years--it had a near-legendary status among the fuzz addicts in the Lowdown forums when I first started learning bass. I salivated over the demo video. But I didn't actually get a chance to try it out until I was in Portland, and I ended up buying the Loop Junky instead. Luckily, it turns out there's a thing called the Internet that lets you order pedals from far-away locations, so eventually I picked up a Mammoth as well.

The Wooly Mammoth is, no kidding, basically the greatest bass distortion of all time. It's also kind of an oddball pedal. When Bass Player did a big effects issue a while back, they called the Mammoth an "archetypal boutique stompbox" with an "eccentric" circuit, and they weren't kidding. It doesn't like hot or low-impedence inputs (read: active basses), it lacks a blend function, and two of the knobs are labeled "pinch" and "wool." Chords may emerge mangled, especially triple-stops. Crank the wool too high, and it actually begins to feed back on itself somehow, self-compressing and adding weird harmonics. In short, the Mammoth, like the Loop Junky, has character.

Still: all is forgiven for a fuzz like this. It nails the bass sound from 'Hysteria' by Muse: that thick, chainsaw-like roar, but with each note perfectly distinct. The gating comes partly from the Pinch knob, which does something unholy to the distortion harmonics and eventually turns the fuzz into a square-wave synth. It's also immediately obvious why the Mammoth doesn't have a blend function: you don't need it. This is the first distortion pedal I've ever seen where the signal emerges with more low-end, possibly due to some kind of octaver/synth effect. I'm not sure how it happens, frankly--like I said, it's a weird circuit--but I'm glad it does.

This is becoming uncomfortably fawning. Perhaps it's appropriate to raise the question of cost: of course it sounds good, it's a ridiculously expensive piece of equipment. But is it really that much better? Is there an excuse for spending so much money for a single pedal? Indeed, these questions expose three facts you may want to take into consideration. First, I'm a distortion nut, so I can justify a lot in the name of a good fuzz. Second, I mostly play solo, so I don't have a lot of sonic competition or cover. Finally, anything this expensive often provokes a defensive attachment that's out of proportion to its actual worth.

More importantly, the above questions highlight a real conceit for many modern musicians: the idea that we're buying these gadgets for anything but our own satisfaction. With a very few rare exceptions (Bootsy's envelope filter, the ping-pong delays of the Edge), chances are the audience can't tell the difference, or bring themselves to care (those that do care are usually musicians themselves, and that way madness--or Steve Vai--lies). It's not to say that nice gear is a bad purchase, but it is a reminder of a truth that many of us sometimes forget: in the end, it's really about the song and not about the gear.

I like the Mammoth very much, and I'm glad I picked it up. It's far more fun than my MXR fuzz, although I miss the M-80's clean channel. But I'm under no illusions here--I know that it's on my pedalboard just for me. And at some point, I've got to start writing some new tunes, instead of just playing the old ones through new equipment, because that--and not the contents of a signal chain--is the real measure of a musician.

March 17, 2009

Filed under: music»tools»effects

POD People

Part of an ongoing series obsessing over effects pedals. Other posts in this series concern the MXR M80 Bass DI+, Line 6 DL4 delay/looper, Boss LS-2 Line Selector, DOD FX25B Envelope, and Z-Vex LoFi Loop Junky.

There are three pieces of Line 6 gear in my collection: the DL4 (possibly retired), the Variax Bass, and the Pod XT Live. Of the three, the last is probably the only one I'd recommend without exception. It's also descended from the most important musical product that Line 6 ever made, one that can legitimately claim to have changed the industry.

In 1999, Line 6 introduced the first Pod, named because it was a thick, red, kidney-looking thing. Its purpose was to provide a virtual guitar signal chain in one unit: pedals, preamp, power amp, and speaker cabinet. Later models added microphone and acoustic simulations to the mix. The Pod wasn't the first modeling processor--Roland's been making them for years, among others--but it took off in a way that its predecessors didn't, probably because its controls directly mimic the modeled amplifiers, making it simple enough for guitarists to use. Pods found a niche in a lot of home (and some pro) studios, as well as being used sometimes for live musicians that wanted flexibility onstage. They've gotten a lot better over the last decade: I know guitarists can be picky about them, but they sound eerily accurate for my purposes.

The Pod XT Live is the second or third generation of these modelers (depending on how you count--there's both a Pod 2.0 and a Pod XT series before the Pod X3), and it integrates a floorboard into the design. Run it straight into a power amp and a relatively flat cabinet, and it's a cover song machine--particularly with the Variax, which links up digitally to the Pod. I've set up flattering amp and effect combinations for my favorite bass models: a Jazz bass through a GK amp (my general-purpose rig), Rickenbacker through an Ampeg stack (great classic rock/punk sound), Stingray with a scooped Sunn/4x10 combination (for slap), and a few crazy models (like the twelve-string into an ultra high-gain "lunatic" amp). Even though I don't lust for amps the way I do for effects and instruments, I could still tweak the settings on these all day long. It's terribly addictive.

That said, the Pod isn't important because it lets me sound like Geddy Lee when I want to play "Limelight." It's important because it represents the democratizing effects of modern music technology. A pedalboard Pod like this will run you about $500 if you want the latest version, and you can knock off a couple hundred if you settle for scratch-and-dent stock of the previous generation. That's roughly 1/2 to 1/3 of the cost of one of the cheaper amps it models, and for amateur recording purposes it's probably a better deal--after all, most people can't crank up a Dual Rectifier in their apartment anyway, and the sound would be terrible if they did. Modeling tech might not make you Rick Rubin, but it gets you close enough. And while you can pull a lot of the same tricks with a $100 audio interface and a VST host, it's nowhere near as simple or foolproof as a Pod--trust me, I've tried.

I'm not really advocating that everyone should be aiming for slick production, of course. I'm a huge fan of messy, unprofessional recordings (audience: "You would be!"). But look: sometimes you just want a decent guitar or bass sound, and you don't want to fiddle around with expensive microphones and amplifiers and acoustic spaces for hours--or you can't afford to, in terms of time and/or money. I don't think you should have to, the same way that nobody should have to find an echo chamber or a plate reverb unit in the age of digital delay and 'verb units. Musicians should be able to cut straight through to making music. For me, that's when the Pod really comes in handy.

February 6, 2009

Filed under: music»tools»effects

Do Not Hold in Hand

Part of a series of meandering, tedious posts about the effects I use to make music. Other posts in this series concern the Line 6 DL4 delay/looper, Boss LS-2 Line Selector, DOD FX25B Envelope, and Z-Vex LoFi Loop Junky.

In addition to the obvious sonic convolution, a good pedal delivers a kind of emotional kick when activated. It comes from a combination of the cultural context associated with the sound (the 70's swagger of a wah, the jazz-club cool of a chorus), the short thrill of sudden change from one sound to another, and the intrinsic appeal of the effect itself on an individual. Everyone has one kind of effect to which they respond strongly. For me, that's distortion. There's something about the sharp, rich, aggressive roar of a high-gain fuzz pedal that puts a huge grin on my face every time I switch it on.

As usual, unfortunately, bass players face particular challenges when looking for a good distortion. Not only do effects designers seem to see the instrument as unworthy (or unprofitable) compared to the guitar, but bass frequencies often don't play nice with stompboxes: either the results are muddy and indistinct, or all the low end is hollowed out--or, in the case of distortion pedals, possibly both. Some bassists, like Amy Humphrey from Clatter, get around this by splitting the signal between an overdriven guitar amp and a clean bass amp. Sadly, for budgetary and volume reasons, this is not an option for most of us.

I've tried a lot of guitar-oriented distortion pedals, looking for the kind of "assault by wrathful deity" quality that makes me happy, and often came up short. The worst, by far, was a DOD Grunge pedal that made my bass vanish in the mix completely. I'm not alone in hating this pedal. Kurt Cobain is rumored to have been given one as a joke, and he loathed it so much that he lobbed it into the crowd at a show. At the other end of the spectrum, the ProCo Rat had a decent bass sound--literally, a decent sound. The Rat is not known for versatility, and while I'm not a fanatic about flexibility in my pedals, it's nice to be able to tweak things at least a little.

I've had better luck with the relatively few distortion pedals made specifically for bassists. What's different? In general, these units add a blend control, so players can mix in the original bass signal, thus replacing the low frequencies and transients missing from the distorted signal path. As a strategy, this is often a mixed success. One of the first distortion pedals I was actually happy using, the Digitech Bass Driver, somehow managed to produce a "blend" that sounded more like a clean bass and a very fuzzy bass playing side-by-side, perhaps due to a very sterile-sounding digital mixing bus (although Boss's all-analog OD-3 bass distortion shares this problem, in my opinion). Bass distortion pedals may also tune the distortion differently, hoping to add an edge without fuzzing the sound out completely.

The distortion pedal I use now, an MXR M-80, is a good example of success via attrition. It's still not quite my platonic distortion ideal, but it's been better than the other contenders so far. The fuzz is brash but controllable, thanks to a workable blend and a noise gate that tames some of the inevitable hum at the super-high gain settings I like. I'd prefer a parametric EQ, but the existing controls--with the mid boost centered at around 800Hz--do an effective job in getting different sounds, or adapting to different acoustic spaces. All in all, a decent distortion that does what I need it to do.

That said, the killer feature of the M-80 is that it's a two-channel unit: in addition to the distortion, there's a "clean" setting that runs the bass through the pedal's preamp and EQ system. If you press the "color" button next to the clean volume knob, it adds a preset EQ scoop that (to my ears at least) turns my single-coil jazz bass into something more like a Stingray or Sterling humbucker, perfect for slap bass and percussive looping. I could make do without that preset--loop-based musicians soon learn to pull different tones out of the instrument with just their hands--but it does make my life a lot easier. Any distortion pedal that takes over from the M-80 will have to be truly fearsome to make up for the loss of that second channel.

Still, like I said, I think everyone has one kind of pedal that appeals to them on a deep, irrational level, so I don't expect that I'll ever stop looking--or, as with the virtual pedalboard experiment I tried about a year ago, attempting to mix my own. I imagine it's something like what drives hot pepper fanatics, always on the lookout for a new capsaicin thrill. It's hard to explain to non-addicts--either of the pedal or the pepper variety--but maybe for these kinds of simple pleasures, it's best not to try.

January 21, 2009

Filed under: music»tools»looping

Requiem for a DL4

The Line 6 DL4 delay modeler occupies an enviable position on the pedalboards of a lot of musicians, both famous and not. It's considered by many to be not just one of the best delays available, but also one of the best loopers for the money. At the same time, it has a well-deserved reputation for unreliability. Even though it's been a decade since the pedal was first introduced, Line 6 hasn't ever produced a hardware revision to fix those issues. Why would they? The combination of the two means that a lot of people have bought DL4s several times over.

I am, in general, a fan of Line 6. Their modeling tech is impressive, and it's relatively affordable. More importantly, I usually find that they understand the ways musicians will use their products more than a lot of prosumer music companies do. So it's frustrating when an issue like the DL4's fragility goes uncorrected for so long--and it's really frustrating when the flaky DL4 in question is mine. I'm not keen on paying for another faulty unit (or driving it up to Maryland for a costly repair job), but it's hard to find anything that can replace the Line 6 at anywhere close to the same price.

Don't get me wrong, there are lots of loopers under $500 that beat the DL4 on a spec sheet. Boss has a whole set of pedals with longer sample lengths, or the ability to save samples for later. Its largest model can play multiple loops simultaneiously. Digitech's JamMan even records its audio to CompactFlash cards, so you can load arbitrary sounds from a computer. Either one of these, just to take two examples, is also much more durable than the DL4.

But neither of them is anywhere as usable for real-time looping. On both, for example, there's no way to go directly from the first recording pass into an overdub pass. The JamMan requires a double-stomp to enter overdub mode, which is much harder to time correctly, and the Boss pedals typically require playback to begin before overdubbing (the exception is the RC-50 pedal, which is A) enormous and B) only allows users to replace the default behavior, not make a decision at runtime). The great thing about the DL4 is that you don't have to make a choice--you can start with an overdub right away, or you can go straight into loop playback.

The same kind of thinking--or lack thereof, for other pedals--shows up in the one-shot feature. On other loopers, the option to play a loop just once (like a triggered sample) is usually set via a small switch on the actual unit, and it can't be changed while the loop is playing. In contrast, the DL4 has a switch set aside just for arming "Play Once" mode. At first, this seems like a waste of hardware, but don't be fooled: that switch is tremendously useful. It's not just good for the obvious applications of trigger-and-forget sample playback. You can also use it to tell the looper that you want playback halted automatically, freeing up your feet to make changes on other pedals at the same time. And if you're really good, you can use its ability to restart loop playback for compositional tricks that aren't otherwise available.

In other words, what you get with the DL4 isn't the most fully-featured pedal. But the designers have made sure that every feature it does have is accessible with one step at all times. If you're playing a looper as an instrument, and not as a foot-mounted samplebank, that's arguably far more important. Any time you have to reach down to adjust an option, or let a sample play through in order to get a proper overdub going, you've broken the performance.

When the DL4 started acting up, losing power or freezing onstage, I went looking for alternatives. The only one I've found with any potential is the Eventide TimeFactor, which offers overdub/play flexibility out of the box. Even then, to get a decent one-shot mode you have to add an external switch--but it at least gives the impression that it was designed with real-world users in mind. This may seem like faint praise (and it is), but it's something I think you can only rarely say about effects boxes. Why this is, I'm not sure. I suspect that the margins are too thin, and the consumer data too sparse, to provide proper incentives at the lower end of the market.

Frankly, when it comes to pedals gone bad, there are few good choices. Repair in our throwaway culture is expensive and hard to find. Reuse is a nice idea, but unlikely in practice, since I don't really have the technical background or patience for DIY pedal-making. And with commodities this expensive, the cost for a replacement is a bitter pill even in the best of times. In a rough economy like this, it's even harder to swallow.

Still, I'm trying to become less prone to fix problems through additional consumption. So if the choices are bad, perhaps the point is to find new ones. I still have looping tools available to me--the Loop Junky or a Mobius-based laptop rig. And I'm hoping this will serve as a reminder of why I started playing with loops in the first place: not just that I'm a misanthrope, but as a set of constraints for channeling my creativity. I like the DL4, but I'd gotten comfortable with it. Its constraints weren't really limitations anymore. It's probably time to find new ones.

December 22, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Review: Edirol R-09 Audio Recorder

A $300 handheld audio recorder is a hard sell to someone who isn't pretty crazy about sound gear. And frankly, for people who are audiophiles, it could still be a hard sell--why bother spending that kind of money on a single unit with built-in electret mikes, when it could buy a decent condenser and an SM57?

I bought the R-09 when I started at CQ, thinking that it would be useful for loaning to reporters. It's worked well for that--most journalists, when they buy a recorder, pick up one of the cheap voice/memo units, which sound awful and aren't terribly sensitive. For close-up work, that's fine, but it quickly becomes unusable in, say, a committee chamber. Reporters who borrowed the Edirol really appreciated its ability to capture quiet voices in poor acoustic spaces. One even bought his own after he found himself borrowing mine on a regular basis. It's also an easy device to use, which is important for non-technical people like the average journalist, and is sadly not true for all portable recorders these days.

Of course, the main goal for a unit like this--and the reason that you'd buy it over a set of separate microphones--is to use as a field recorder for quickly capturing sound without dragging a ton of equipment around. As such, a slight lack of fidelity is acceptable, since it's not like you'd be using a U47 to get a sample of street ambience anyway. That said, I don't have any complaints about the quality of the R-09's recordings. They seem relatively flat (EQ-wise) to me, the gain is adequate, there's not much self-noise or handling noise, and the stereo separation is surprisingly good. Recordings I did of union protesters on K Street a while back were clear and offered a great sense of space. More importantly, it's fast enough that I could capture something like a protest if I just ran into it--nothing to hook up, unless I want to plug a pair of headphones in to double-check the sound. Just pull it out of my bag, turn it on, hit record once to set the levels, then press it again to start recording.

That kind of convenience actually means that I've started using the R-09 for jobs where it probably wouldn't have been my first choice before. At CQ, unlike at the World Bank, I don't have the luxury of a studio with a selection of vocal mikes all set up and ready to go whenever I need them. While working on the debt explainer, I recorded Kerry with an ElectroVoice RE-20, which is a fantastic vocal mike, and myself with a Sony lapel mike. She sounded fine, I sounded awful, but I didn't want to drag all my recording gear down to the quiet room again to get a punch-in take. So instead, I carried the R-09 down to record a few lines, brought it back after each take, and imported the WAV files directly into Cubase. Because of the omni pattern, the resulting takes have a bit more room noise than Kerry does, but it holds up surprisingly well against the more expensive microphone, and the workflow was much more efficient and flexible.

Compared to the other prosumer field recorder I've used, the Marantz PMD-660, the Edirol unit is a lot smaller and a lot simpler. The Marantz was capable of doing rudimentary editing tasks, like tagging and file splitting, that the Edirol just doesn't do. It also boasted full-sized XLR jacks instead of the 3.5mm TRS minijack on the R-09, which was great if you wanted to use a external mike without an adapter, but if you didn't carry a mike, the internal microphones on the Marantz were genuinely terrible. So for certain applications--portable film recording, for example, or crewed radio production--the Marantz makes sense (and from its control layout, I suspect it's more aimed at those markets anyway). There's also a durability factor--the PMD-660 could probably be used to hammer nails between recording gigs. But for $300 less, the R-09 has been a really helpful tool that I'd recommend to anyone who either wants to step up from basic recorders, or needs to be able to capture sound at a moment's notice.

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