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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.

July 2, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

A Circle of Learning

Every few months, I listen to a bunch of other people's music while twiddling knobs on the Bass Effects Rig of Doom, and I think to myself, "you know, I probably don't need to have the distortion pedal set at 'Chernobyl' all the time. In fact, I really like that smoother, bluesier sound I could get with a lower gain."

Then I listen to my recordings the next day (because of course I'm the kind of person who obsessively listens to their own recordings) and I wonder why the treble sounds so muted. And I realize that the reason I was originally using the Face-Melting Fuzz setting in the first place was because otherwise it requires me to dig in way too hard to get a good sharp attack out of the notes. So I crank the gain back up, and enjoy the softer touch.

Then a few months later, I'm listening to some other music...

June 28, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Don't Blame Me

An old thread on the Lowdown surfaced today via e-mail: we had been discussing the problems of usability for effects units, and it got me thinking about how we use technology. Perhaps an overview for non-musicians might help first.

You can split bass and guitar effects a lot of ways--by function, or by architecture, or by quality--but a big philosophical issue for musicians is single- versus multi-function boxes. The traditional FX pedal is a single function. It does one thing only, and hopefully does it well. Individual effects boxes can be digital or analog inside, but they tend to have manually-set knobs--they're not programmable, but they are very tweakable onstage. Musicians, being tactile (and sometimes not very bright) people, often like these standalone effects because they're simple and direct.

The other side is multi-fx pedals, which are capable of doing many things, often at once. For example, I have a Digitech RP-50 guitar pedal for experiments, which can add EQ, distortion, delay, and one other kind of effect (chorus, envelope, pitch-shift, etc.) all at once. Multi-function effects are almost always digital, because putting so many kinds of analog circuitry in one space would take up too much room and be incredibly expensive. Cheap sound processing chips can do credible imitations of the analog original, and it can be nice to have so many options available. So a lot of people start out with a multi-function pedal until they figure out where they want to spend a lot of money.

But if you're going to build what amounts to a sound-pedal-emulator, it's nice to have a save/recall function for settings, because now you're not just tweaking one pedal at a time, you're modeling several. Lo and behold, that's exactly the way it works: you set up everything the way you want it, and then the pedal typically saves all those settings into a "patch." This is cool, because it allows musicians to jump from one sound to another very quicly. You might have one patch that's lots of stereo delays and light distortion to sound like U2, and then another with very heavy distortion and a sub-octave to sound like Cheap Trick.

Naturally, there's a tradeoff for that much power and flexibility. Switching between patches tends to take time as the pedals--which are running on as little power and memory as they can possible get away with--unload one chunk of code from RAM and load the new patch to start processing. It's not a lot of time, maybe 20 milliseconds or so, but for that 1/5 of a second you are muted--effectively dropped out of the song. That's one reason why I quit using multi-FX and went back to individual analog pedals. I just couldn't stand having to pre-trigger my sounds to keep from missing a beat.

Zoom recently released the B2.1U, a multiFX pedal with only 8ms of switching time. Obviously, a few of us were interested in anything that would give us more power without the delay. However, one board member, well known for his vocal advocacy of a particularly flexible (but equally expensive and elaborate) effects unit, went the other direction. It doesn't matter how fast the switching time is, he said, because you shouldn't be using more than one patch anyway. Just set that up so you can change it a little, and you should be good to go. And he dropped this flame into the thread:

If one needs more than a single preset during a song performance there is something wronmg with either the device design, the user, or their conception of the song materials.

In other words: if you can't make it work with one patch, it's your fault. Even though the pedal organizes itself in presets and that is the primary mode of user interaction, it is not a design flaw that it can't do so quickly. It is your fault that you didn't plan around the huge gaping silence when you wanted to make a different noise.

I hate it when people make that kind of argument. It is a huge problem with technology. Blame the victim, not the crappy machinery. Sound familiar?

I am so tired of being told that it's my fault when things are hard to use. You used to hear this a lot from the Slashdot variety of Linux afficianado: the computer isn't hard, you just have to learn how to use it! Well, yeah. Maybe if it's that hard to learn, there's a flaw somewhere in the design, not in the people. If a game controller is intimidating to people, it's not that they're unintelligent or uninterested, it's that they're not willing to geek out for years in order to learn the muscle memory required. There's the infamous "blinking twelves" on an average VCR. All kinds of machines have this problem.

It's not that technology should all be simpler, because there is a time and a place for power and depth. But the tech community has been really good at shifting the blame from the designers, where it belongs, to the users, where it probably doesn't. What I've noticed is an inferiority complex by anyone who's not a self-defined geek. People are afraid of technology. They're convinced that they're not smart enough to use it. So they won't. And if the communications revolution of networking has shown us anything, it's that we don't benefit from people who just opt out of the web.

If you're reading this, you're likely to be a go-to tech person in your office or family. You can do something about the blame. Sure, you can't redesign someone's effects, or re-build their operating system. But (and I'm trying this myself, it's not easy) you can be more patient and friendly when explaining technology to someone. Make it clear that it's not their fault--and they're more likely to learn more, until they won't have to ask for help so much.

See? From effects pedal to broad societal doom-and-gloom in one post! Now that's value-added.

May 4, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Rondo Music

I've been meaning to mention this for a while: If you're interested in learning bass, or maybe even guitar, I've heard very good things about Rondo Music, which makes the SX and Brice sub-brands. People on the TalkBass forums rant and rave about these instruments. They're less than $200 (some of the guitars are less than $100), and although the build quality is sometimes rough (uneven frets, mostly) they are supposed to sound great and play like much more expensive basses.

They apparently keep costs down by making only a few set models, no customization or different paint jobs. And the interesting thing, to me, is that they're like the Costco of basses: in order to keep variety up, they change the lineup around constantly according to user demand. You never know what they'll be offering any given month--although the Fender imitations are pretty constant. They're a small operation, with a very attentive customer service rep.

I also love the way the photographer shows up in the chrome bridge cover of the classic J-bass here

April 30, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Artcore

I'm waiting on a final editing revision back before I post this month's Best of B-SPAN. In the meantime, here is a picture of a very pretty bass:

Of course, I have car problems and tuition to pay off before I can even think about picking up another bass (not to mention the bad luck that I've had with them). But: I played the single-cutaway version of this on Sunday, and it's got a very nice sound to it. The hollow body gives it an acoustic clarity that's rare, and it sounded pretty good with chords.

March 27, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Lost and Found Money

UPS has finally admitted that they lost or destroyed the Cort bass that I sent off for repair. They've sent me the paperwork for my loss claim. This means a "windfall" insurance payment, I guess. It's not actually free money, more like a return, but it's kind of nice anyway.

Maybe I'll order that Rickenbacker now after all...

February 25, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Controlling for Variax

On the left, my new bass. On the right, what was almost my new bass. Not to scale.

The winner is a Line 6 Variax, which is one of their digital modeling basses. Line 6 has made a name for themselves by creating very good simulations of amplifiers (the Pod) and effects (my looper, the DL-4, is actually their emulation of a dozen delay pedals). The Variax is supposed to do the same thing for guitars, by picking up the sound from a piezoelectric pickup built into the bridge and processing it until it sounds like one of many vintage or inconvenient (upright or acoustic bass) instruments.

The loser is a Malden Motorbass, an exercise in stripped-down bass minimalism, which appeals to me. It's got just one single-coil pickup, which is all I ever use anyway, and one volume knob, because I leave the tone on the All-Star all the way up. I like the look of the Motorbass, too. What tipped the decision away from it was that first, it doesn't actually give me anything I don't already have, and second, it's built like a Precision bass, which means it's meant more for solid, simple rock basslines. I think I'd regret buying it after a week, because it doesn't really fit with where I want to go musically except in the minimalism.

The Variax is interesting, though, from a kind of cultural standpoint. After all, there's no more superstitious market than guitar players. By nature, most of them are wary of digital technology to begin with, so it was probably due to go down like a ton of bricks anyway. But even still, this is a piece of hardware that incorporates some extremely sophisticated electronics. Guitar players can even use software to completely customize the models, and on the Variax bass you can move the virtual pickup on single-pickup basses (like the Stingray or a P-Bass) back and forward on the model, which is pretty sophisticated. And yet, with all this technology, it's still being used to imitate a bunch of instruments averaging about thirty years old.

You can argue that there are both positive and negative aspects to this fact. The best part of modelling, either through Line 6 or through companies like Digitech, is that it gives players on a budget access to a wide variety of tones (with greater or lesser levels of realism). Most people don't have the money for a '71 Rickenbacker or a '69 Fender, so it's nice if they can sound that way for not a lot of cash. But on the other hand, this fetishization of the past can be one of the great blind spots of popular music. After all, when digital audio recording first showed up, engineers used it as nothing more than a limited version of tape. It was only when people left the restraints of that paradigm behind that digital audio really became more interesting, and more sophisticated production began to take off.

Either way, I'm looking forward to using the Line 6 as a recording bass, since its power requirements may make it a bit cumbersome live. In those situations, I'll still have the All-Star. It's a bit more photogenic anyway. But if I were really going for looks, check out this modification that takes the Variax guts and puts them in a custom-made exotic wood body. If only I owned more machine tools, and a work room to put them in...

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!

Future - Present - Past