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December 26, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Heart to Hartke

A couple of days before Christmas I got a call from Larry Hartke. Hartke is the man who owns and runs Hartke Amplifiers, which you may know better as "those bass amps with the aluminum speakers and the reputation for blowing up." Of course, he didn't just call me out of the blue. For the last few months, the back page ad for Bass Player (and probably other bassist magazines) has featured Larry and his cell phone number, and asked people to call. Then they updated the ad, and said that Larry wanted to hear people's music. I'm a sucker for futile promotion efforts, so I called and left a message.

Larry called back a couple of days later, and we had a brief chat. He asked what kind of gear I used, and what kind of music I play. I mentioned the web site for the pretentious solo project, for which I have been woefully unproductive this vacation, and asked how the response to the ads has been. Hartke said he gets between 50 and 60 calls a day. "I've missed a lot of playoff games," he said, but added that he'd heard from bassists all around the country. Have hearts and minds been changed? Probably not, but that sounds like a pretty good connection to the community--and now people know who to call if their amp has problems, until he changes his number.

He's also sending callers a free set of bass strings, so if yours are sounding a little dull, it probably wouldn't hurt to ring him up.

December 9, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Bass Review: Cort Curbow

The Cort Curbow requires some degree of explanation just for the name. It was designed by the late Greg Curbow, a luthier well-known for extended range basses. Curbow doesn't manufacture this bass, however--they pass that on to Cort, maker of lots of odd low-end instruments. The Cort Curbow is also interesting in that it's not made of wood. It's actually built from luthite, a kind of synthetic foam that's supposed to sound like wood while being much lighter. The bass certainly looks futuristic enough.

Here's the problem, and it's a killer: the Cort Curbow has serious dead spots. Dead spots occur when the materials and construction of an instrument resonate with the strings, so that the vibration energy is dampened. The effect is basically that the note fades almost immediately. Almost all basses have dead notes somewhere, some worse than others. Fender-style basses are usually dead between the 7th and 9th frets on the G string.

The Cort has dead spots on either side of A# all up and down the neck. That means within a few frets of the 13th on the A string, the 15th on the G string, and the 8th and 20th on the D string. In fact, I'm not sure that they're dead spots in the traditional sense at all, because they move when the strings are tuned up or down. It's more that the whole bass resonates at multiples of 440Hz.

Is that such a problem? After all, the Cort Curbow is a cheap bass, and incredible sustain is perhaps more than we could expect. But dead notes to this extent also cause problems for someone like me who plays chords or double stops on a regular basis. Play a B chord up on the neck, and the B's decay, leaving only the fifth playing (in this case, F#). The problem is made worse with distortion, so that my fuzz chords lose important notes, and sometimes turn into different chords altogether. Clearly, I can't just work around this, never playing an A chord. That's a fundamental flaw in the instrument.

If I got a bass with this problem once, I would (and did) write it up to a manufacturing error. But this is the second Cort Curbow that I've ordered. Perhaps it was silly to try again, but the first instrument came from an online retailer and might have been faulty. For the second time, I ordered directly from Curbow, the luthier. For a price premium over the online shops, Curbow sets the Cort-manufactured bass up in their own shop. I wrote to them, mentioned the dead spot problem, and asked them to check before they shipped the new bass out. Getting a second bass with the exact same problem, down to the location of the dead spots, implies that this isn't a manufacturing problem--and indeed, the bass itself is very well-constructed. I'm guessing it's actually a design issue, probably centered in the luthite material that Curbow doesn't usually employ.

Whatever the explanation, it's not a usable instrument. I hate to say that. I really wanted to like the Cort, but all those extra frets don't do any good if they can't be used to play several notes from each octave. Return policy permitting, I'm sending it back to Curbow this weekend.

UPDATE: Curbow doesn't issue refunds. They're in discussions with Cort, but I'm not filled with confidence that this will end well. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to alter this bass so that it won't resonate at these frequencies? I'm considering replacing the body with re-routed parts from an Epi SG or a cheap Ibanez.

December 4, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»looping

Moore's Loops

Roland, the parent corporation of Boss pedals, has announced a loop pedal the size of a regular compact pedal for release this fall. It's a tempting package, and if I didn't already own a looper that I like very much, I'd probably want to pick it up. It has a mind-boggling amount of loop time (16 minutes) with non-volatile memory and an aux jack to store backing tracks or samples. There's an undo function, tap tempo, and built-in drum patterns. I really like that it's switched on by the output jack instead of the input, so that it doesn't have to be a part of a signal chain. Plus, Musician's Friend has it priced at $180, which makes it the cheapest and smallest looper that I'm aware of.

On the other hand, like all Boss compact pedals it doesn't lend itself well to complex hands-free operation. The single footswitch will apparently handle record, play, and overdub functions, plus undo (hold the switch) and stop (double-tap). Overloading a switch with that many functions makes timing far too complicated, especially for players that really integrate the looper into their songwriting: Undo is useful for inserting and removing chord layers, for example. Play Once (or "One-shot," as Roland calls it) automates ending a loop, taking some of the timing burden off the operator, but here it's been moved onto a separate playback mode of its own and requires turning the selection knob by hand to activate. The RC-2 accepts two extra footswitches via an extension jack, but it looks to me like those are only used for Stop and Tap Tempo. The more that I use the Line 6 looper's four-switch layout (Record/Overdub, Play/Stop, Play Once, Speed/Reverse), the more I appreciate it. And although the footprint for the Line 6 DL-4 is much larger than a Boss pedal, it's capable of going battery-powered for a surprisingly long time with a set of C-cells. Generally speaking, a 9-volt can't handle the drain from a loop processor for very long, so I'm guessing Boss's entry will really require a wall-adapter.

Bottom-line, it looks like it'll be a great entry-level pedal, but is probably more oriented to musicians with backing tracks or already-determined arrangements. That's kind of a theme for Boss's loopers, as far as I can tell--they lend themselves better to solo performers fleshing out their orchestration, as opposed to jam- or purely loop-oriented songwriters.

November 29, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Rondo Retro

Everyone's favorite cheap-but-quality instrument shop, Rondo Music, has a guitar with the exact body shape I'd love to see on a bass:

I love everything about it. Classic-looking, but still a little edgy--what William Gibson called "raygun gothic." Even better, when I e-mailed them about it, Rondo says they're considering making a bass version. I suggested two single-coil pickups and the same switching scheme as the guitar version. Whammy bar optional.

November 27, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»digital

DSMIDIWiFi (too many acronyms!)

Create Digital Music links to DSMIDIWiFi, a homebrew application that lets the DS act as either a MIDI controller or a synth over the wireless link. For some people this will be genuinely useful, and of course it's always nice to have something else in your bag of tricks. If nothing else, I can see using this to play with plugin parameters in Ableton or Phrazor, and the DS is actually small enough it could be disassembled and integrated into an instrument or another casing. DSMIDIWiFi also has the ability to add pitch-bend just by wiggling the stylus, which could be really expressive. On the other hand, I don't think it'll be challenging M-Audio's new wireless MIDI keyboard anytime soon--it's hard to play notes polyphonically on a DS, and there's no velocity sense capability. So for experimental musicians--or live musicians looking for an extra, non-traditional interface--this software will make sense. For most people, it'll be a novelty, and not much else.

Either way, the YouTube video that Tob, one of the DSMIDIWiFi programmers and creator of NitroTracker, put together to show off the program is pretty charming. In the future, all software should be demo'd by genial Scandinavians.

November 26, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»digital»ableton

Abusing Ableton Live Lite: More devices for the price of one

Ableton and Steinberg (makers of Cubase) seem to be the only audio companies that really understand the power of bundling. Buy any USB or Firewire interface or MIDI controller, and chances are you'll get either Ableton Live Lite or Cubase LE with it. And of course, both companies have a special upgrade pricing from those packages, saving $100-200 over the regular boxed edition. It's a good way to hook customers in. I've been tempted, although nowadays I'd be more likely to pick up Pro Tools M-Powered than Cubase or Live, just for compatibility and familiarity from my work environment.

Until I break down and actually buy a full DAW package, I'm working with the cheap stuff. Live Lite and Cubase LE are both good programs, each with its own limitations. Cubase LE doesn't allow MIDI plugins or use the latest VST plugin technology, but it does give users up to 48 audio and 64 MIDI tracks with 8 inputs/outputs, so normally it's my tool of choice. The fact that it's more traditional-looking and runs on lower-end hardware doesn't hurt. But unfortunately, due to poor impulse control the other day, I've temporarily uninstalled my copy, and it'll stay that way until I can find my old install CD or pull the files over from my other laptop.

So that leaves Ableton, recently upgraded to version 6. Live Lite only gives users four tracks, and won't let you use more than two of its proprietary plugins (called Devices) and one VST plugin at a time (between all four tracks). You can do a lot with four tracks, and Live Lite still boasts better routing and (surprisingly) a better GUI than Cubase. But the limitations on Devices and VSTs have been driving me crazy. I can get around the VST limitation by using Phrazor or another sub-host, but just adding EQ to vocal and bass tracks puts me up against the Device limit.

After some experimentation, here's a trick to get around the two-Device limitation without upgrading to the full version: instead of adding Devices one at a time to the track, create a Group out of the first plugin, then drag new Devices into that Group. Ableton counts a Group as a single Device instead of counting the individual elements, probably so they can include the enticing Group presets that they hope will incite you to buy the full version. You can drag Devices back and forth inside the Group to change their order, but be warned: once you've added something, trying to delete it again may cause Live to flash the nagware limitation window and cancel the deletion, although you can still delete the whole group and start over. Once you've got the effects stacked the way you want them, it might help to bounce the wet audio to a new track, freeing up the Device Group for more mixing. Treat it like one of the old four-track recorders, in other words.

I still think Cubase LE is the better bundle, and with the Tascam US-122 currently only $150 at Musician's Friend, it's hard to argue that it's not a bargain as a first interface. But with M-Audio's lower-priced boxes ruling the $200 range (and offering a Pro Tools M-Powered upgrade path), it's also easy to see why songwriters on a budget can end up with Live Lite as their main recording software. Being able to stack Devices with this trick goes a long way to making it a more useable solution, in my opinion.

November 7, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Curbow Stomp

As I wrote my review, I recently bought a Cort Curbow bass. I ordered it from Curbow Stringed Instruments directly because I hoped that ordering straight from the designer would be a safer proposition than one of the online retailers. Indeed, Curbow representative Simon Griffiths assured me in response to my concerns about instrument problems:

Yes, we do put them on our bench prior to shipping and set them up to optimum playability as far as it is possible. We have never had a dissatisfied client.

Sadly, Mr. Griffiths exaggerated his case. The bass is faulty to the point of unplayability, due to a pronounced resonance issue. And, he then informed me when I let him know about the problem, Curbow does not back these instruments with a refund policy. And because they state as much at the bottom of their terms and conditions, although not in any of the e-mail interactions I had with Mr. Griffiths, my credit card company can't do anything except advise me not to buy from them again. I'm stuck with an instrument that is unplayable--a defect that appears to be a recurring part of the design.

I'm writing this because I've found that Mile Zero sometimes rises to the top of the Google stack when searching on more obscure topics--and the Cort Curbow is a pretty obscure bass. I can't recommend this bass, but more importantly I would urge any prospective customers to forgo purchasing an instrument from Curbow Stringed Instruments, period. Their refusal to stand behind their own "optimum playability," for which I paid a premium of about $70 over the price of other online shops which would have offered me a refund, is craven. I wouldn't buy another Cort Curbow from them, and I certainly wouldn't send them the high-dollar fees for their custom bass solutions.

It pains me to say this. I've heard very good things about Greg Curbow, the founder of the company and by all accounts a fine luthier with a genuine concern for his customers. But if that was the case while Greg was alive, it does not appear to be true now. Caveat Emptor.

October 16, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»internet

MySpace is Terrible: Pass AND Fail Edition

So I log in to MySpace, as I usually do once a week just to check on it, and I find that there's a note up about the spam bulletins and comments that have been posted in my name--I thought it was just that MySpace security was the equivalent of protecting Fort Knox with a mighty wall of damp Kleenex, but I guess it's more interesting than that. Apparently password phishers have been redirecting people to trojan pages that look like the MySpace login using Flash. Then they take your password and use it to send messages about dating sites to other people. Which is ten kinds of awesome.

But let's make one thing clear: while it is true that most web-based applications are vulnerable to this kind of thing, and while MySpace can't necessarily be blamed for a weakness in Flash, the fact of the matter is that people wouldn't have fallen for this scam nearly as easily if MySpace weren't a buggy hunk of garbage that kicks users out at the slightest provocation. For once, the responsibility for this social engineering falls entirely on the system admins, and not on the users.

Good thing MySpace isn't the vanguard of American youth culture, with a staggering reach into people's home computers, most of whom have no idea how to protect themselves.

On a lighter note, MySpace cannot confirm that Mark Foley's account was cracked this way. So if you are an underage male who has received obscene messages from the ex-Senator, it may be less a security issue, and more your tax dollars at work under the Republican government.

October 2, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

A Walking Plank

Brian "Bumpcity" Timpe, monster bass player and Microsoft codemonkey extraordinaire, took up the challenge of creating a bass out of a 2x4, posting the results to the Lowdown. I especially dig the eyehook stringtrees and the drywall screw side dots. It doesn't sound too bad, either.

September 17, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Turn of Phrazor

Since Mile Zero is now the #11 on a Google search for "virtual pedalboard" (much to my dismay when I first started looking into using a laptop for my bass effects rig), and since I've had a few searches for information after first writing about it, I'd like to go into depth about the final results. As I've said, I'm not planning on using the laptop live for a variety of reasons, but it does make a fine recording setup.

As usual, I've worked on doing this on the cheap. There are plenty of ways to spend a lot of money for a laptop effects rig--Native Instruments makes Guitar Rig expressly for that purpose--but for many hobbyists like myself, spending a lot of money on that software seems extravagant, and might not go over well with significant others. I also see it as a personal challenge to do more with less.

I did end up purchasing one piece of software to run the pedalboard: Phrazor, which is technically a synthesizer workstation. Phrazor is built to let keyboardists and sequencer-based musicians easily run complex sets of virtual instruments and effects live, but it also hosts audio-based plugins. That makes it versatile enough to adapt for our purposes.

Phrazor provides 64 "Tracks," which are basically 8-slot effect racks. They can be chained or routed to other tracks, before being sent out through the audio channel. My pedalboard project contains one track for effects and another track for the Mobius looper plugin--the mix from the first track is sent to the second, so that the looper gets the complete effects mix.

Each track contains its own mixer. Click here for a screenshot of the effects track routing. There are two busses through the mixer, A and B. Each plugin receives an identical dry signal from the track's input (which can come from external or internal routing) along the A bus. The B bus is wired in series--it gets signal from a previous plugin, in a chain. So you use the A bus to mix multiple effects simultaneously, while the B bus feeds them into each other.

I realize that's tough to wrap your head around, so let's walk through the screenshot by way of illustration. Three effects--the compressor, Tube Screamer, and the Marshall Amp--feed into the B bus. Those effects are meant to be chained together. So when I activate the fuzz preset, my bass signal feeds first into the compressor. From there, it's sent to all plugins along the B bus, but most of them are muted. The first unmuted plugin is the Fuzz Plus, so I get my low-end distortion from there. At the same time, the signal also passes from the compressor into the Tube Screamer, which is muted but hooked into the signal chain (see the yellow arrow, indicating that its output is sent to the next plugin along bus B). The Tube Screamer sends to the Marshall, also muted and in series, before it finally emerges through the unmuted low-pass Filter. Because the last set of plugins have their A inputs muted, they get only wet signal from the previous plugin, and no dry signal from the main track Input.

By controlling the mixer's muting and signal flow, I can control which effects are heard and which ones are effectively bypassed. For my envelope pedal, for example, I mute everything except the GreenMachine Wah plugin. Phrazor stores the mixer state--along with any saved plugin presets--in the Track states to the lower right. It switches between those Track states in response to MIDI notes, which I trigger from the floor pedal (click here to see a screenshot of the remote states view). Technically, my floor pedal only sends program change messages over MIDI, but I use MIDI-OX to translate those into note messages for this purpose.

So that's effectively how the pedalboard itself works, but it doesn't explain how to record it. I have two audio workstations that came bundled with my recording hardware. The Tascam US-122 audio interface came with Cubase, which normally I prefer. Unfortunately, Cubase won't record post-effects, so I can't use it for this project. Instead, I host the Phrazor pedalboard as a VST inside of Ableton Live Lite, which came with my M-Audio O2 keyboard.

It barely works: Live Lite 5 only supports four tracks, and Phrazor needs three to run the pedalboard. Click here to see a screenshot of Live set up to record. "1 Audio" receives the bass signal from the interface and hosts Phrazor. In order to get MIDI messages to the plugin, we need a second track--"2 MIDI"--that passes input on to the first track. See how "1 Audio" has its Audio To control set to "Sends Only?" That allows it to feed to another track for recording ("4 Audio") instead of going to the Master output. If we recorded on "1 Audio" we would only be getting the dry signal run through the current Phrazor preset. Recording the MIDI signals as well would theoretically play back the control messages with the audio, but it's easier and more reliable to mix the output to an audio track during the song. The last audio track, "3 Audio," records directly from the microphone for vocals.

I've recorded a low-quality .mp3 of myself using the virtual pedalboard so that you can hear the results of all of this. You can click here to hear a walkthough of my effects board, including a breakdown of the elaborate distortion effect I wrote about in this post, and a familiar tune looped to show off how it all works in practice.

Future - Present - Past