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February 19, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Federal Holiday Notes: Another Productive Day with Customer Service

So Cort will take a look at and repair my bass for the dead notes on the neck, and I just have to ship it out to them, which is about $10. That's worth a shot, I think. If anyone else plans on dealing with them in the future, it's a lot easier to talk to them on the phone than to try and correspond by e-mail.

February 7, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Make me an offer

I'm putting the Hohner bass up for sale. It's a good instrument, could be a great instrument, but it's not my style. By tomorrow I should have the NoVA freelance bass, although I'll have to get up early to pick it up from FedEx in Springfield.

January 31, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Buyer's Remorse

Just some quick notes about basses that I've thought were interesting lately:

  • Cort is shipping my faulty Cort Curbow 4 back to me, at which point it will immediately go on either Craigslist or eBay, depending on my mood. They weren't willing to trade me for a different (working) model. I had a great conversation with Dan, the helpful but distracted tech support guy about it: "Well," he said, "You need to go to Guitar Center or wherever to ask them about a refund." "I did," I said. "The problem is that I got it straight from Curbow, and they won't honor the refund." "They won't?" "No." "...oh." "Yeah."
  • Eastwood Guitars is selling reproductions of classic-but-discontinued instruments, including the Airline guitars that Sears sold, which nowadays are best known for being Jack White's main axe. If you scroll down on the left, they make bass versions, and it looks like they've also got a copy of the Gretsch Broadkaster, one of the most amazing basses I've ever played. It's a third of the price, so I wonder how it sounds.
  • Speaking of Gretsch, they've also announced another bass that turns me green with envy, the Jupiter Thunderbird. I dig the pickups and the body style. Too bad it's going to retail for something like $2,500, which is not something I can really justify.
  • On the other hand, Line 6 has apparently decided that they can't justify making bass guitars any longer, so they're unloading their Variax 700 instruments at $500. These are the basses that use Pod-like technology to model 24 other basses. People seem to be split on whether or not it's actually a good imitation or not, but for the price it is hard to say that it matters. The downside to the Variax is that they go through batteries very quickly, although you can power them from a wall wart hooked up to the included DI. That sounds like a lot of hassle live, but maybe it's just my distaste for adding power adapters talking--I used to use a pedalboard that ran off the wall, and it was a constant worry to make sure I was close enough to a socket and the cable wouldn't come loose. Anyway, for studio work, the Line 6 is supposed to be very nice--no 60-cycle hum!
Filed under: music»tools»looping

Mobius

Wow. The moment I get all excited about a free looper and building an Echoplex, I run into Mobius, which is a full-featured Echoplex emulation, also supporting ASIO. I will be downloading this and playing with it. The feature set, including its implementation of Multiply, looks really sweet. It doesn't include Undo yet, which is unfortunate.

Why don't I use these PC-based tools personally? For one thing, because it's a pain hooking a laptop up at a show. I like the bulletproof nature of standalone effects like the DL4. I never have to worry about CPU spikes or driver conflicts on the pedal looper. Also, I like being bound to a highly-restrictive toolkit, just for the challenge.

On the other hand, if I were starting over today--or if I decided to work in a different context, perhaps with other musicians--it would be really tempting to break out the laptop instead of my pedals.

January 3, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Cort Curbow

Single pickup, active three-channel EQ preamp with slap switch, 34" scale length. Built largely out of synthetic materials that won't react to the weather. Comes in white, blue, red (faster), and black (louder). Twenty-five frets on the G string. Twenty-seven frets on the E. Beautiful access to the upper part of the neck.

So now we know where my freelance pay is going.

December 22, 2005

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Rebuild or resell?

After spending $300 on a "new" instrument, it's hard to put it aside. The Hohner B2B bass that I acquired from eBay has some genuinely nice features: the upper fret access is really phenomenal, and the weight/portability factor is a lot better than the All-Star's relative bulk. With all that said (and even after I've done my best setup on it) the pickups are still microphonic, the intonation is still a little wonky, and nobody carries double-ball strings. Some of these problems can be solved easily. There are several vendors I could visit online for strings, and the intonation/action issues will only improve as I continue to work on it. The pickups are not a cheap fix. I'd have to find a decent pair that will drop in with a minimum of drilling/routing, and I'll probably want to replace the rest of the electronics while I'm at it. And there's a question of how much the tone can possibly improve: the headless construction of the bass is supposed to eliminate dead spots, but it also has a very strange resonance across the entire instrument when played acoustically.

So at this point, I face a dilemma: should I drop the cash to try to turn this dud into a dynamo? Or should I leave it and save my money for another instrument? It's not the first time I've had this debate with myself. When I first started playing bass, I found myself torn between the idea that I could upgrade (and bass upgrades can be very tempting) and the danger of destroying a fairly expensive piece of equipment. Now that I'm more skilled at the process, I don't think I'd hesitate with even a more expensive axe than the All-Star. Customizing an instrument is a way to make it uniquely yours, and that's important in an age of mass-production. I don't think the Hohner is worth the extra dough, but it'll be a good travel bass and might get me a trade-in discount when I finally find something I like.

Why do I even need another bass? Good question, hard to answer. Musicians call the need for better, prettier instruments G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Some of it genuinely has to do with trying to find a new sound, or to get closer to the sound I hear in my head. Some is due to a need for physical improvements--better high-fret access, or easier pickup blend controls. The rest is simple lust: did you see the quilted maple top on that Fender? Or the gorgeous natural endangered rainforest woods used to make this Warwick Infinity?

On a semi-related note, I've decided I will be playing Dremo's tomorrow night. A four-song license to Rock will start around 9pm.

December 11, 2005

Filed under: music»tools»excel

The beat goes on

I don't want to turn this into an Excel-hacking extravaganza, but a visitor by the name of Andrew has turned DrumPad into a full-fledged drum machine, albeit one that currently supports only one pattern.

I couldn't resist, I modified it and turned it into a mini sequencer (attached). Just put 1's in the ticks that should trigger the hit, and hit play. Feel free to post it if you like!

I might expand it to handle multiple patterns, and let you arrange the patterns in a song. Pity I can't figure out how to alter the velocity of the wav.

Hey, I'm still impressed. To run this, you'll need the samples and bass.dll from DrumPad. You can grab Andrew's spreadsheet sequencer here. I'm going to have to move this stuff into the music directory once the link hubbub dies down, because it's not really gaming-related anymore.

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Band in the Box

Music Thing very kindly linked to DrumPad this morning, but they also included a reference to an old post of theirs about an Excel-based synthesizer. It is fascinating. I know nothing about synths, really, but now I'm going to have to learn.

December 9, 2005

Filed under: music»tools»excel

DrumPad.xls alpha

Download DrumPad here.

Minimum system requirements:

  • Microsoft Excel 97 or better
  • A computer capable of playing sound

Recommended system requirements:

  • All of the above plus a wireless controller of some kind.
  • ControlMK for mapping joypads to the keyboard.

Features:

  • Practically no configuration options whatsoever! It's an alpha, everything's in the code right now. The good news is there's nothing you can't change.
  • Play the drums on your computer! Oddly enough, finding free software to do this is surprisingly difficult.
  • Impress your friends! The idea that someone would build this kind of thing in the Office suite should provide at least 15 seconds of amusement to fellow corporate drones.
  • Impress me! Nothing says "I trust Thomas as a random stranger on the Internet" like opening your computer to a possible macro virus.

Installation notes:

Included in this archive is the bass.dll, which performs sound decoding and mixing for DrumPad. You'll need to put this somewhere that Windows can find it--the /WINDOWS or /WINNT directory will work fine. Not included are samples, because I don't want to be distributing possibly copyrighted or credited audio. However, I've been testing it using recordings of the Korg DDM-110 drum machine, which I found here. Just extract the samples from that page into the same directory as the Excel file, and it should work fine. If you want to use another kit, you can close the DrumPad subwindow and press ALT-F11 to enter the VBA editor. This is also currently the only way to change keymappings. The next version will allow you to alter the configuration from a GUI, and store it in the main worksheet.

Operating instructions:

Opening the sheet, assuming that you've enabled macros, automatically launches the DrumPad window. As long as you've got that pretty drumkit as your active window, the keyboard will trigger samples. Out of the box, the bindings are mapped as:

  • Spacebar - kick drum
  • F or J - snare drum
  • K - High tom
  • D - Low tom
  • G - Rimknock
  • H - Closed hat
  • U - Open hat
  • L - Clap
  • I - Cymbal
There are two keys for the snare so that you can theoretically do rolls and faster rhythms. To control the drums with a gamepad, use ControlMK to map the buttons to the appropriate keystrokes. I like to put the kick on the triggers, the toms and snare on the buttons for the right thumb, and the cymbal/hats and snare on the d-pad for the left thumb.

Hints and tips:

The first thing that you are going to notice is that you're not any good. Don't feel bad--this is a very difficult instrument, and you're lucky: you've probably played computer games that required you to chord and type right under your fingers. Real drummers have to have this kind of coordination across their whole body. It's fun to mock drummers ("What do you usually find on a drummer's music stand?" "Drool."), but we do have to respect at least the process behind the instrument.

That being said, let's start out with a very simple rhythm. We'll call this the "Meg White:" start hitting the kick drum on quarter notes ("1, 2, 3, 4"), and then add a snare hit on the 1 and the 3. Toss in some cymbals and you've now got just about every White Stripes beat up through Elephant. Try playing along with some .mp3s. It's simple, but it feels good, doesn't it?

Now let's shift things up and try a stereotypical rock beat. This will involve three rhythms. The first is a closed hat every eighth note ("1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and"). The second is a bass drum on every quarter note (or on every other hat beat, "1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and"). Finally, you want to add a snare accent on every other quarter note, which shuffles really well on the 2 and the 4 ("1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and"). This will take you a few minutes to get everything moving in concert, but it'll be instantly familiar when you do.

On a more technical note, I recommend using gamepads with all-digital controls for input, if possible. Your goal should be as precise as possible, and the throw of an analog trigger or stick makes it difficult to judge when the drum will respond. xBox triggers register halfway through their travel, which is not too bad but still not optimal. A PS2 controller is better, but may be intimidating for non-gamers (or even some gamers who don't have Sony consoles). My best recommendation, honestly, is an SNES pad, which includes triggers for the kick, plenty of other options for the sticks, but only as much as you could need.

Good luck, and feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions or comments. Work will continue on upgrades as I experiment with the controls and different musical combinations.

August 26, 2005

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Playing Close to the Vester

You can't see all the new wiring in that Vester guitar, but it's there. I know it's there, because I put it in this weekend. When the acoustic proved too noisy for the Nerdlet's needs, we picked up this electric guitar for around $75--the only thing wrong with it was a disconnected audio jack, which was an easy fix. But when we got it home and I went to pull the tone knob off the potentiometer shaft, a big chunk of the assembly came with it. Clearly, this was a sign that I needed to learn to solder.

My first attempt was, to put it bluntly, not good. The guitar worked, but only intermittently, and the soldering was very messy (my mistake was that instead of heating the joint and adding solder, I heated the solder and tried to stick it to the metal. This does not work at all, kids.). So I took all the old wiring out, bought new pots and switches, and reworked the whole thing. I even took the pickups out and ran new wires to them, because the old ones annoyed me. The diagram I got from Seymour Duncan didn't look anything like the original wiring, but it worked flawlessly the first time and is apparently still working. So! The Nerdlet now has a 2-humbucker guitar with fully-functioning electronics, a beautiful pearlescent purple finish, and a brand new Fender Telecaster neck (complete with black hardware--none more black, really).

As a result, I'm considering applying this newly-acquired arcane knowledge toward my own instruments. Not the All-Star, of course, because that bass has had everything but the bass replaced, and I don't want to risk putting any more holes in it. It will have to be a new instrument, and that means either building it from parts, or hacking a production model up inside. The former is not nearly as formidable as it sounds. Companies like Warmoth and Stewart Mac will sell you all the bits and pieces to your specifications. So say I wanted to put together a Beast-style bass with one single-coil pickup wired directly to the output, I could do that. It turns out to run about $600, which is a good price for a bass made of decent parts assembled exactly how I want them.

But the downside is that I would have to assemble it myself, including drilling holes for the neck, and that gives me the willies. It's not so much that I'm incompetent--I've done my share of woodworking--but a slip of the hand on either the neck or the body, and I could be out a couple hundred bucks. I get a little nervous just thinking about it. So I think the second option, subverting an already-constructed bass, is the best way to go. I can replace the wiring and pickups to get a great sound with little investment as long as the instrument itself is well-constructed. Luckily, there's a company called Rondo that specializes in just that--well-made basses for cheap that just need a little electronic work to be truly excellent (they do this, apparently, by paying their workers a decent wage, and not offering any different colors or customizations). I'm looking at the SX-SJB75. The wood is alder, a good strong choice, with a natural finish that I really like. It has a bridge cover that would conceal the removed/disconnected bridge pickup, and the controls could easily be removed and the holes soldered shut, for my perfectly streamlined instrument. Plus I dig the block inlays.

I mean, who doesn't like block inlays?

Future - Present - Past