Monday, December 22, 2008

Skullcrusher Mountain Drone Guitar

On "Snowmageddon" (Friday the 19th) my office was officially closed due to weather, but since I live very close by I managed to drive in to do some work. But since I knew I was also going to the the only person in the building, I decided to take my Honeyburst T-60 and my Roland Cube Street along with the Sony PCM-D50 to do a little recording.

The track I wanted to work on is a "drone" backing track that sits low in the mix on Jonathan Coulton's song "Skullcrusher Mountain." It follows the major chord changes to the song, except that it is primarily played using "fifths," or chords reduced to their bare essence, just a root and a fifth and maybe the root again an octave higher, without the flat 3rds or dominant 7ths or other intervals that tend to sound very dissonant and produce a lot of beat frequencies when highly distorted.

I set up the amplifier inside the completely unused ladies' rest room in my building. I put my digital recorder on a chair inside a stall, next to a toilet, so that it would pick up as much reflected sound as possible from the hard tile floor and metal stall walls. I set the D-50's microphones to their wider 120-degree settings so that they would pick up more reflected sound. To avoid my own body damping the sound too much I propped the door open with the amplifier, and sat in the doorway next to it. This allowed me to hold the guitar up close to the speaker to generate the extended feedback on the final chord.

I put on my headphones (wearing them in part to keep myself from being deafened by the high volume) and played my takes while listening to the karaoke "Skullcrusher Mountain" for timing reference.

The final take is assembled from about six parts. Aside from one audible poorly-fingered chord, it sounds pretty much exactly like I envisioned, reverb, noise, feedback, and all. I'm very pleased with the result! It sounds totally grungy.

Note that this isn't a complete song, and doesn't truly make musical sense by itself; for example, there is a silent section in the middle because the drone guitar doesn't play under the bridge.

The MP3 file can be found here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The T-15

I bought a Peavey T-15 on eBay. The ad said:


The pictures looked pretty good, and although the starting bid was a bit high compared to other T-15s on eBay, I pulled the trigger. I also ordered bid on (and won) a set of four T-60 knobs, to replace the missing knob.

Here is what I got. First, I was shocked to find that the seller shipped the guitar in the taped-up case, without a box:

It seems to me that if you pack an item for shipment, and shake the package, if you can hear the item banging around in the case, then the shipping is inadequate. And that is exactly the situation. The T-series cases are pretty tough, and they have pads above and below the guitars, but they don't have foam or padding around the edge to hold the instrument in place. So every time the UPS truck hit a bump, the guitar banged against the sides of the case. You can see how the finish was literally ground off the guitar by this treatment. Here is the fresh-ground finish in the case:

There are several other spots where you can clearly see the ground-off, powdery finish in the case, and the corresponding spot where the case rubbed against the guitar, but the spots in the case are a bit hard to get my camera to focus on. It is much easier to get the camera to focus on the guitar. Here are some of the spots where you can see the fresh damage.

First, these two areas of damage (inside the horns) are entirely in areas where one does not typically find wear and tear. They seem to be entirely a result of the shipping, and they were entirely preventable. Had the seller took even a moment to stuff bubble wrap, or even newspaper, around the instrument to make certain it would not rattle around loose in the case during shipment, this would have been prevented.

It is very common for older guitars to have some finish damage, especially on the lower edge where the instrument may have been dropped, or fallen over. And the top of the headstock almost always has some dings where the instrument has gotten banged against a piece of furniture or another guitar or something. That is completely expected.

Here is the lower edge of the guitar. In this area you can see an older area of damage top left, where the guitar probably hit a floor or a stage twenty years ago or longer. (Note: damage through the finish that exposes the wood is not "nothing major," so the seller's description was somewhat deceptive).

But you can also see the newer shipping damage in which the finish is chewed up, in addition to the old "dings."

The good news is that since this is a nitrocellulose finish, some of these spots (at least, the parts where the damage does not go all the way through to the wood) can probably be restored. The bad news is that this kind of finish repair work is very expensive and can't easily be done in a home (I've done basic repair on polyurethane finishes using superglue and wet-sanding with graded papers, which works great, but nitro requires some nasty solvents). The other spots where the finish is damaged all the way to the wood might be repairable as well, but it would be much harder.

There is a more significant problem, though. I could not get the instrument to tune up well. The E string would not stay seated in the saddle, and did not seem to line up properly with the edge of the fingerboard. It seemed as if the bridge was not properly lined up with respect to the neck and strings. So I took the strings off. I found that the bridge was essentially sitting loose, held in place by only a single wood screw. I unscrewed that, and here is what I found:

The T-15 bridge consists of a cast aluminum piece with a combined sliding saddle for all the strings, that can be adjusted at two points. The bridge itself mounts to the body at three points: it sits on two metal studs bolted deep into the body, and is then kept from wobbling by a third wood screw. The metal studs are height-adjustable. The whole system forms a triangle and the 3 mounting points keep it from skewing around.

This instrument was entirely missing the two large, heavy studs that mount deep into the body. The bridge was held in place only by the single wood screw, which means the force of all six strings was being countered only at that one point, which is completely inadequate (I'm surprised it didn't pull the screw out). It also makes the tuning completely unstable, because if you tighten one string the bridge would literally pivot. It also had very little tone, because the bridge was actually resting on the soft plastic pickguard instead of on its metal studs.

There is yet another consequence: those studs are attached to the ground wire, which grounds the electronics. Without them, the ground wire isn't attached to anything:

Which means that the strings are not grounded to the electronics, and so the guitar picks up hum and buzz from televisions, lights, etc. (I expect some hum from single-coil pickups, but the sound of an ungrounded guitar is awful; it will even tend to pick up radio stations. In addition, if you have two single-coils with a 3-way switch, with the switch in the middle position the noise will generally improve as you have made the circuit hum-cancelling. But this doesn't work with a missing ground).

Now, the seller also has the following wording in his ad:

"As with many of our auctions, this item is being sold "AS IS". All sales are final."

I understand that, so I am not asking to return the guitar. However, I paid the seller $222.22 for this instrument. I paid extra (these often go for less) because this instrument seemed to be in better-than-usual condition.

The seller's ad downplayed the damage to the guitar, and It is not actually in playable condition (between the unstable bridge and the lack of a ground).

In addition, I paid the seller $32.52 for shipping, which was carried out in an entirely inadequate way, resulting in further damage.

The seller can't undo the finish damage, but in order to make this instrument playable at all, I will need to find a set of T-15 bridge studs and install them, and re-install the bridge (assuming the holes are not stripped or otherwise damaged, which I can't tell for certain until I try). That most likely means tracking down another T-15, preferably a heavily damaged or non-functional one, and cannibalizing it for parts. Even a damaged T-15 will cost me, with shipping, upwards of $100. And of course this does not take into account the value of my time in doing this repair work.

Here are the two messages I sent to the seller:

"I received this guitar today. 2 issues:

1. It was shipped _in the case_ with no box and no bubble wrap
or padding. There is fresh damage where finish was "ground off"
by the guitar banging against the sides of the case. I've bought
almost a dozen guitars on eBay and no one has ever done such
an poor shipping job. The case is not made for shipping!

2. There are supposed to be two adjustable metal studs
mounted in the body. The bridge normally sits on them. They
are missing. The bridge is held with _one wood screw_. One
of the studs is also supposed to connect to the ground wire.
Without it the instrument has terrible buzz.

I'm very disappointed by the needless damage, and I'm going to
have to find a set of bridge studs -- I'll probably have to
buy another T-15 to find these.

I want a $100 refund because of these issues. The guitar is
needlessly damaged and with the missing parts s not usable
as-is. I have detailed photos of the issues. Thanks."


"For reference, this is how to pack a guitar for shipping. The
other guitars I've purchased via eBay have all been packed
more-or-less as this guide recommends and they have arrived
in fine condition."

I believe this is an extremely fair request. Any further advice on how to handle this situation?

UPDATE 1: the seller offered to refund the purchase price if I ship the guitar back. So that's what I'm doing. I'm packing it up again in the same case, but this time the case is carefully stuffed with closed-cell plastic foam so the guitar is completely immobile inside the case. I put the incomplete bridge with wood screw inside the case pocket in a folded plastic bag, included a new set of strings, and replaced the missing knob with an original Peavey knob. So it will be his problem again, and I'm only out the shipping cost. I believe him when he says he didn't know about the missing bridge parts. I will leave positive feedback for his willingness to work out the problem!

UPDATE 2: the seller received the guitar, and it was re-listed again on eBay -- with the exact same ad as before, same photos, not disclosing the problem with the bridge, or the additional damage. Said re-listing took place several days before I received my refund. I wrote the seller a note saying "you know, I'd feel better about this listing if you refunded the money I paid you for this guitar before selling it to someone else." I got back a muddled note talking about how they were not really obligated to refund my money because all sales were final, but allowing as how they would anyway. I again politely wrote back saying "I am patient -- I'll look for a refund in a couple of days." The time to debate about whether a refund should be paid is before agreeing to accept the return, not after. I did receive my refund, only a few days after the seller received the returned item. But I repeat: never, ever deal with pawnshops when buying a guitar. I just wish there was some requirement that eBay sellers disclose the fact that they are pawnshops in their listings, because it isn't always obvious. I'm considering in the future asking every seller "are you a pawnshop?" before I place a bid.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Stratocaster, Telecaster, Rickenbacker, Ooh Shiny!

That's about what happened when I was browsing guitars on eBay. I'm now the proud owner of this super-cool Japanese-made Squier Super-Sonic. Ooh, ahh! It arrived in fabulous condition for a ten-year-old guitar, and is flashy yet relatively traditional and retro-looking at the same time. And best of all, these things aren't terribly expensive. People keep claim they will become "vintage" but they are still tremendous deals for someone who wants one to actually play, not stick in a climate-controlled storage facility for twenty years.

For a few years a decade ago the Vista series short-scale guitars were pretty much the best short-scale guitars you could buy. They are certainly superior in quality to the Jag-Stang which was rushed into production and has numerous issues, and generally better than most of the other Squier models, and perhaps some of the Fender models from that time period too!

There are four models of guitar and one bass. The guitars are the Super-Sonic, the Jagmaster, the Venus, and the Venus XII. The Jagmaster and the Super-Sonic are quite similar; I will talk more about these guitars in future posts.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

YYZ Riffs Tabbed Out

Note that in the original recording on the album Moving Pictures, Alex Lifeson plays parts of this song (especially the solo) using a lot of vibrato applied by the tremolo bar. I don't really like using the tremolo bar so the vibrato I apply is only done with my fingers. Note that in more recent live recordings he plays this song on a Les Paul with no tremolo bar so it can be done, but of course you are only bending up.

Without further ado, the tabs:

1. Intro Phrase

Plays over synth pedal notes: F#/G#/D#/C#/C

5 (A) ---3---3-3-3---3-3-3-3---------
6 (E) -----2-------2----------2-2----

Repeat the above pattern 9 times, then:

5 (A) ---3---3-3-3---3-3-3-3---------
6 (E) -------------------------------

2. Bridge to Chorus (3 parts):

Listen to recording for timing,
hammer-ons, and vibrato. I actually
play this in a position around the
9th fret now because it seems to
sound better up there, and also so
that I can do a slide back down
into the chorus. I'll let you work it
out from the videos; the notes
are the same!

1 (e) -----------------------------------
2 (B) ------------------------4-5-4------
3 (G) -------------------4-6---------4-5-
4 (D) ------------4-6-7------------------
5 (A) -3-3-4-6-7-------------------------
6 (E) -----------------------------------

1 (e) -----------------------------------
2 (B) -----------------------------------
3 (G) --4-5-4----------------------------
4 (D) ------------5-4--------------------
5 (A) -----------------------------------
6 (E) -----------------------------------

1 (e) -----------------------------------
2 (B) -----------------------------------
3 (G) --7-7-5-7-5-4----------------------
4 (D) ---------------7-5-4-(4) slide down
5 (A) -----------------------------------
6 (E) -----------------------------------

3. Chorus

Play twice:

1 (e) -----------------------------------
2 (B) -----------------------------------
3 (G) --2-2-----2------------------------
4 (D) -------4-----4-3-2-----------------
5 (A) --------------------4--------------
6 (E) -----------------------------------

1 (e) -----------------------------------
2 (B) -----------------------------------
3 (G) --2-2-----2------------------------
4 (D) -------4-----4-2-------------------
5 (A) ------------------4-3-2-4----------
6 (E) ---------------------------2-------

Play twice:

NOTE: although the video claims that the phrases
are identical but simply shifted in position,
on the original recording Lifeson does not play
7-6-5 descending but 7-5-5, so I have tabbed
it that way. These notes are quite fast so the
difference is hard to notice unless you slow
down the recording.

1 (e) -----------------------------------
2 (B) -----------------------------------
3 (G) --5-5-----5------------------------
4 (D) -------7-----7-5-5-----------------
5 (A) --------------------7--------------
6 (E) -----------------------------------

1 (e) -----------------------------------
2 (B) -----------------------------------
3 (G) --5-5-----5------------------------
4 (D) -------7-----7-5-------------------
5 (A) ------------------7-6-5-7----------
6 (E) ---------------------------5-------

Note: on second time through, the phrase above is
altered as follows to lead back in to the repeat
(listen carefully to recording for timing):

1 (e) -------------------------------------
2 (B) -------------------------------------
3 (G) --5-5-----5--------------------------
4 (D) -------7-----7-5-----5-5-----5-5-----
5 (A) ------------------7-------7-------7--
6 (E) -------------------------------------

Repeat the above, skipping the variation.

In the phrases below, pay particular attention to the
whole step bends. These can also be played
as slides. The left hand has to change position
and hammer in a way that might require some
careful practice.

1 (e) --------------------------------------------
2 (B) --4-5-7-----4-5-7-^bend^-7------------------
3 (G) ---------2----------------------------------
4 (D) --------------------------------------------
5 (A) --------------------------------------------
6 (E) --------------------------------------------

1 (e) --------------------------------------------
2 (B) --4-5-7-------------4-5-7-^bend^-7----------
3 (G) ---------2-2-2-2-4--------------------------
4 (D) --------------------------------------------
5 (A) --------------------------------------------
6 (E) --------------------------------------------

In the repeat after the solo, apply artificial harmonics
as per the recording of your choice.

This phrase is difficult to notate: listen for hammer-ons
and slides and position changes all while playing notes
on a single string as well as vibrato. "/" means to hammer
to the higher note on the same string.

1 (e) --------------------------------------------
2 (B) --1-3/3-5-3-5-3-5/8-1-3-3/5-3-5-3/5-8-5-8-5-
3 (G) --------------------------------------------
4 (D) --------------------------------------------
5 (A) --------------------------------------------
6 (E) --------------------------------------------

4. Rhythmic Section

The two chords are B7 and C7 (barre an E7 chord form
at the 7th fret and 8th fret).

Listen for variations: pick root on 6th string and strum,
or "scrub" rapidly with muting via your fretting hand to
achieve a staccato sound, or pick additional bass notes
to parallel the bass line:

To B7, add:

4 (D) -9-----7-------------------------------------
5 (A) ----9----------------------------------------

To C7, add:

4 (D) -10------8------------------------------------
5 (A) -----10---------------------------------------

In more recent live performances Lifeson seems to play
the last two B7/C7 as a barre form down at the 2nd/3rd
fret instead, but I'm not sure why. Maybe he's playing them
as straight major chords the last time through? It's pretty
difficult to pick out a one-string difference in a heavily
distorted and chorused chord played on top of maniacal
drums and bass.

5. Guitar Solo

The first part of the solo (before the synthesizer
chords) is broken into five riffs. Listen carefully
for the bends (see the videos, too).

Riff 1:

1 (e) -10-8-7-------------------------------------
2 (B) ---------0-7-8-10-8-10-8-7-8-7--------------
3 (G) --------------------------------9-----------
4 (D) --------------------------------------------
5 (A) --------------------------------------------
6 (E) --------------------------------------------

1 (e) --------------------------------------------
2 (B) --------7-8-10-8-7---------7-^-7------------
3 (G) -8-8-9--------------9-8-9--------9-8-9------
4 (D) --------------------------------------------
5 (A) --------------------------------------------
6 (E) --------------------------------------------

Riff 2:

1 (e) ------------------------14-12-11-12-11------
2 (B) -0-1-4-1--0-4-7-4-0-12----------------------
3 (G) --------------------------------------------
4 (D) --------------------------------------------
5 (A) --------------------------------------------
6 (E) --------------------------------------------

1 (e) -----------11------11-12--------------------
2 (B) -13-12-13------13---------14-13-------------
3 (G) --------------------------------------------
4 (D) --------------------------------------------
5 (A) --------------------------------------------
6 (E) --------------------------------------------

Riff 3:

Note: extremely fast with slides. If possible, drastically
slow down the original recording and play the phrases
very slowly until the pattern begins to make sense.

1 (e) -17-12-14-12-15-14-11-12--------------------
2 (B) --------------------------16-13-12-13-15----
3 (G) --------------------------------------------
4 (D) --------------------------------------------
5 (A) --------------------------------------------
6 (E) --------------------------------------------

1 (e) -----------------------------------
2 (B) -15-^-15-13-12-13-12-13-^-13-12-10-
3 (G) -----------------------------------
4 (D) -----------------------------------
5 (A) -----------------------------------
6 (E) -----------------------------------

1 (e) ------------------------------
2 (B) --12-13-12-10-12-10-8-10-8-7--
3 (G) ------------------------------
4 (D) ------------------------------
5 (A) ------------------------------
6 (E) ------------------------------

Riff 4:

Note: entirely on the B string! Watch my video, since
this one is complicated.

2 (B) --0-1-4-1-0-1-0-5-7-4-0-4-5--

2 (B) --4-5-4-0-10-13-10-12-10-8-10-7-8-7-8-10--

Riff 5:

The final series is played as a descending series of

2 (B) --0-10-12-10-0-10-12-10-0-8-10-8-0-8-10-8-

2 (B) --0-7-8-7-0-5-7-5-0-4-5-4-0-1-4-1-0--

The note Lifeson uses to sustain and generate
feedback during the first part of the synthesizer
section is "A," maybe played on the G string at
the second fret and then played an octave or
two higher; I'm not certain.

6. Synthesizer section

Note: to play this song on solo guitar, I play the
synth chords Am, G/A, D/A, F/A
as x02210, x00033, x00232, x003211 twice
then play some minor variations on what
the guitar does in the original recording,
which is more or less as follows:

1 (e) --------12-----------------------------------------
2 (B) --------------13-12-13-12-----------------13-------
3 (G) -----------14-------------12-14-14-14-14-----------
4 (D) -----14--------------------------------------------
5 (A) --12-----------------------------------------------
6 (E) ---------------------------------------------------

1 (e) --------12-----------------------------------------
2 (B) --------------13-12-13-12--------------------------
3 (G) -----------14-------------12-12-12-12-14-14-14-14--
4 (D) -----14--------------------------------------------
5 (A) --12-----------------------------------------------
6 (E) ---------------------------------------------------

1 (e) -------------------------
2 (B) ---13-15-13--------------
3 (G) -------------------------
4 (D) -------------------------
5 (A) -------------------------
6 (E) -------------------------

7. Closing

Play the chorus, ending on a sustained "G" on the
8th fret of the B string. Hold this with vibrato (and
feedback if possible) for 2 bars, then the big finish:

5 (A) ----3-3-----3-3-3-------------------------------------
6 (E) ---------2---------2----------------------------------

(Hold the F# with vibrato)

4 (D) ----4-2-----------------------------------------------
5 (A) ---------5-2------------------------------------------
6 (E) ------------------------------------------------------

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Summer's Really Over

We're back from a week's vacation in Grand Marais with my father and stepmother, visiting from California.

I made a video -- my first -- using Apple iMove, and uploaded it to a brand-spanking-new YouTube account. The video is our family vacation, in the form of a music video for Jonathan Coulton's song "Summer's Over" (Thing a Week #51).

Here is the video link:

I find Mr. Coulton's lyrics to be simple but beautiful; the song has been stuck in my head for the last few weeks.

Summer’s over
You’re going back to school
I’m staying here
Where else would I go?

Watch the leaves turn
Close up the swimming pool
Winter comes in
Sooner than you know

Nights get cold
And the flowers let go
Bide their time
Under the snow
As they go down they say

Summer’s over
Because it has to be
Just like before
Around and around

It’s a circle
Bringing you back to me
Stay where I am
I’m lost and found

When you go
You come back again
Close the door
The cold’s getting in
As I go down I say

I recorded a lot more still photos and a bunch of nifty audio on this trip. Most of you won't be interested in my raw home movies of kids waving, or my endless still shots of the kids walking down dirt roads. You might even think I'm a bit off my rocker for taking so many pictures of dying flowers. (It was all to fit in with the song lyrics, but I'll spare you the outtakes).

I also recorded several hours worth of water, wind, and people sounds. I took my Sony digital recorder to various spots along the Lake Superior shore at Grand Marais, and also recorded at Munising Falls and upper and lower Tahquamenon Falls. I've got a lot of water sounds, wind sounds, footfalls, boats, boardwalks, and stairs. Some of this material will eventually make it into podcasts. In particular, the William Hope Hodgson novel The House on the Borderland features a waterfall, so that should be very cool! There are also lots of other Hodgson stories set on ships, and Lake Superior will just have to serve as a stand-in for the Sargasso Sea.

Finally, I'm trying to get some recordings of my father playing ukulele and/or banjolele and singing. I picked up a summer cold and my voice is shot this week, but I might try accompanying him on guitar or tenor ukulele, or maybe I'll try to track the parts separately and add a bass or guitar parts later.

We had an ambitious recording project in mind when we headed up north, but it started to seem too much like work, and I could not figure out how to do true stereo recording using the Boss portable studio he brought with him. Consequently, we're going to have to try to complete something a little more modest before he leaves at the end of the week. It is a busy week for me -- my son Isaac is starting high school, I'm back at work after a week away, and as usual I have far more projects planned than time to finish them!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Aphorisms on Recording, Number One

Sometimes, Compression is the Better Part of Volume.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Cross-Blog Information and Introductions

In order to try to avoid boring people with material they aren't interested in, I have divided my writing up into five separate blogs. The downside to this is that I have a tendency to wander from one area of interest to another over the course of a typical year, so it may look like I've dropped off the face of the earth. In case anyone is interested in following what is going on in one of my other blogs, I thought it might be useful to post this road map once in a while.

Geek Like Me Too is my general-purpose personal blog. The most recent postings are about a recent Jonathan Coulton concert in Pontiac that I attended and recorded. I have provided recordings of the show as a set of MP3 files, of interest to geeks who like music.

Geek Like Me is its predecessor, done in Blosxom, now still up only for archival purposes.

Geek Versus Guitar is about guitar playing. Recently I've recorded a few Jonathan Coulton songs myself. It will also be about learning to produce songs with my home studio.

Praise, Curse, and Recurse is about programming topics, mostly Haskell, Python, and Scheme. My free time has been devoted to other things but I will no doubt be back around to programming before too long.

The Marcella Armstrong Memorial Collection is about my family history, and the big task of scanning, restoring, preserving, and archiving family photos and documents. Of interest to any family members, but also of possible interest to people doing their own similar projects.

Tales from the Potts House: William Hope Hodgson contains information about the "Hodgecast" podcast available on iTunes, in which I record classic William Hope Hodgson novels and stories. I have more podcasts planned in both this series and possibly others in the near future.

Anyway, there it is... please join me on any of these blogs that might catch your interest. I always have far too many projects going at once!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Skullcrusher Dad

I don't claim to be a great singer, but after three or four tries my voice loosened up enough so that I don't think my attempt at Skullcrusher Mountain is totally embarrassing, only slightly embarrassing. But what else are blogs for? I really should see if I can transpose this to a different key.

This is another Jonathan Coulton song. This tracks are made available under the same license terms as the original: Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial 3.0.

Christmas in July

Today we did some recording outside with my little Sony digital recorder Thus, I give you the Potts family recording of Jonathan Coulton's song Chiron Beta Prime. Isaac is unfortunately not in the picture (he was taking it) but maybe we can Photoshop him in later. The Asian girl is not actually one of ours, she is a neighbor who came out to join us. If you listen closely you can hear the sound of glass crashing in the dumpster behind the Trader Joe's store a few yards away from our apartment building.

These tracks are made available under the same license terms as the original: Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial 3.0. I don't quite know what the "unported" means except I gather they are constantly updating their licenses.

For what it's worth, the license I normally use for my blogging is Attribution, NonCommercial, ShareAlike. ShareAlike means that the derivative work can only be distributed under the same license. Since I don't think it is correct to impose further restrictions on Mr. Coulton's work than the ones he originally offers it under, I'll use his license instead, although it appears he does not technically require this. This is complicated! But I think it means you can use our version of this song to create another derivative work and make that work available for non-commercial use without using the same license. Will artwork in the future often come with a chain of attribution and derivation kind of like the way that digital signatures are validated cryptographically by a chain of trusted signers? Maybe I spent too much time out in the sun today.

Anyway, I hope you like the song, we had fun recording it, and thanks again to Mr. Coulton for making his work available. If you like his song please support him.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Little Fretless Bass and the Cher Effect

Here is a new version of "The Future Soon" which has a fretless bass line -- my first attempt at recording a bass line. The bass is a fretless Steinberger Synapse 5-string (one of the new ones). These basses are interesting because they are composite: part wood, part carbon fiber, with a shell on the neck and body kind of like the Parker Fly, and they have a piezo pickup at the bridge with a hunk of ebony in it. This gives it a tone that sounds a lot like an acoustic upright bass! It also has a magnetic pickup, but for this track I used only the piezo pickup.

The guitar track is the same dry track dirtied slightly by putting it through a tube amp simulator in Logic, giving it just a little bit of crunch, which I think sounds interesting on an acoustic guitar. The bass is also through an amp simulator and a little flange.

I heavily tortured the vocal line by applying the "Cher Effect" (unnatural pitch correction, like the effect used in the song "Believe," plus a little chorus). It seems oddly appropriate for a song whose narrator aspires to become a cyborg! I want to try to record some more vocal takes and get a better track at some point when it is quiet around here (that was a little joke).

This really tortured my little Mac Mini (Logic kept throwing up somewhat random misbehavior), as well as my sanity. It's hard to try to record a bass line through headphones while in the same room there is a Sesame Street DVD playing, my son playing his guitar, and two babies yelling. At least it was better than yesterday, when I was recording the guitar part and they kept running around and crashing into me. That made it extra-challenging! At one point I was thinking to myself "I bet Jonathan Coulton doesn't have to put up with this" but then I realized -- he has a toddler at home, and does his own recording in his apartment, so he probably does!

More Info on The Future Soon Guitar Parts and Rough Cover

OK, for those interested, here's a lot more info about the Jonathan Coulton song.

"The Future Soon" is played kind of freely, unlike some of his other tunes such as "Chiron Beta Prime," which has a very steady rock beat, so I did not record it using a click track reference (although maybe I should have). I recorded the guitar line. It took a few takes to get a reasonably good one, and a couple of very minor edits (yes, I must confess, I was not able to jump to the Aaug chord on the 5th fret at the end of the the line "when Laura calls me home" smoothly, so I had to do a little edit there. JoCo wrote a while back in a forum post that he finds that chord difficult to jump to and so skips it when playing the song live, so I don't feel too bad. I'm sure after playing it a few dozen more times, I'll get it.)

Anyway, this guitar track has some string buzz and some timing flaws, but I thought it was good enough to let other people hear (I have to stomp on my perfectionist tendencies, or I never finish anything). I'd welcome any feedback.

Technical details for recording geeks: I played this on my Ovation acoustic/electric, an Elite 1778T-PTF (with an outrageous purple flame design painted on a spruce top), directly into my Apogee Ensemble, and recorded and edited it in Logic. I'm not entirely satisfied with the sound of the Ovation going direct like that; the preamps are very clean, but the dry result seems a little toneless. Maybe I just need to play with the EQ a bit, or maybe it needs an amp simulator. I'm also considering adding a tube DI box to my recording rig at some point, like the Summit Audio TD-100.

Taste in guitars is very personal; JoCo seems to play Martin acoustics, which sound a little more hollow and woody, while the Ovation has a plastic body and thus sounds a little more artificial. This model Ovation also has an ebony fretboard, which makes it sound even brassier. I'm biased towards more "modern" instrument materials and designs, I guess, although at my age you might expect that I'd prefer more traditional guitars. I really like the sound of the Parker Fly (steel frets and carbon fiber and piezo pickup), Chapman Stick (steel fret-like bars), Steinberger basses, and graphite-top guitars. But for electric guitars tones I also like single-coil pickups on instruments with hollow, more natural, woody tones like my Peavey Limited ST. No, I can't explain it either, but I know what sounds good to me.

Anyway, my son is also learning guitar and bass. He's pretty new to both instruments yet, and although he's making a lot of progress, this song involves some very quick chord changes, so he can't quite play it at speed yet. But he can sing! He used to be in the Boy Choir of Ann Arbor. His voice is half-changed now and he's not quite gotten full control over it yet, but it is still a lot better than my scratch vocal for the song (it is right off the high end of my range, so you really don't want to hear me sing it). I'm very proud of him for doing this!

If you would like to learn this guitar part yourself, and I highly recommend it to aspiring guitarists because it is a really nice set of chords, I refer you to suuuupaadave's YouTube channel here. You can also find the videos on his blog. The lesson for "The Future Soon" is in his very first post. I don't claim to play it exactly like either suuuupaadave (or JoCo) does, but I think my play-through is pretty close.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Future Soon Guitar Parts and Rough Cover

The first somewhat odd fruits of my little collaboration with Mr. Coulton (of which he remains blissfully unaware so far, lucky him!) are ready.

These tracks are made available under the same license terms as the original: Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial 3.0.

Here's the dry guitar track (no reverb, no effects, flat EQ).

And here's a "wet" version with a little compression and chorus.

Here's a version with my 13-year-old son Isaac singing the vocal. I'm calling this a rough cover version because it isn't reallly EQ'ed and mixed properly, and the vocal track was really just one take without much practice and without any editing.

Now, one more version. I recorded a fretless bass line. I'm not a very good bass player, so this was quite painful because I had to assemble it from numerous takes; it's still rather imperfect. There's a light flange on the bass line but nothing else done to it. The guitar is run through an amp simulator that dirties it up just a bit and a spatial effect. For this version I also applied the "Cher Effect" to the vocal -- unnatural-sounding pitch correction and chorus. It seems somehow appropriate on a song where the narrator imagines himself becoming a cyborg.

I'm uploading MP3 files, but here's an offer: if you would like to use my guitar track in a some kind of cover under the same license terms, I would be very happy to collaborate with you. I could send you an uncompressed original file, or re-record it at whatever BPM you specify (well, within reason). I am not great at recording to a click track at an arbitrary beats-per-minute rate -- my attempt to turn "Chiron Beta Prime" into a ballad by slowing it down to 90 beats per minute was not entirely successful, but I'll do my best. Or, if you want to record a vocal track along with the track as it is and send it to me, I'd be happy to take a shot at mixing it, although I don't claim to be a true pro at this kind of thing yet.

Cuckoo for JoCo

I've been inspired recently by Jonathan Coulton's songs and his story about quitting his day job to pursue his dream of being a professional musician. We went to see him perform in Pontiac on the 10th of July (my concert recording can be downloaded here. I'm not quite ready to quit my day job, but I've been inspired to work harder on my music and podcast projects.

Besides just being excellent songs, the sleeper feature of Jonathan Coulton's songwriting is that he has released just about everything under a Creative Commons license (attribution non-commercial 3.0). This has various consequences, but the two most important for me have been:

1. I was able to record his recent concert in Pontiac, edit the files and post MP3s for other fans to download for free without breaking any laws. That's fantastic! Kind of like trading Grateful Dead recordings.

2. I am allowed to use his songs in my own creations, such as recording a cover or remix, as long as I follow the license (basically, I have to give him credit, and it is done for non-commercial use).

This also means that guitar player geeks like me are getting seriously into his work because they can share tabs and analyze his chords and share their findings without copyright restrictions.

Anyway, in my next post I'll share the first fruits of this kind of collaboration with Jonathan Coulton!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

New Neck and Pickguard for the Jag-Stang

I have some new guitars, but I'll hold off talking about those. Right now I'm excited about a new Warmoth-made neck I ordered for the Jag-Stang. It's a thing of beauty, finished with a vintage tint, and a nut and stainless steel frets pre-installed. I've been sold on stainless steel for at least some instruments after playing a Parker Fly.

I also have some auto-locking vintage-style Gotoh tuners to install, and a new Warmoth bridge with adjustable string saddles to help conform to the new neck radius. The Jag-Stang also got a new pickguard a few days ago, purchased from a guy on eBay. It's a nicely made pickguard, but it is difficult to judge how the colors will look when buying online. It's black abalone (with greenish/blue). This looks kind of strange against the red body, but it was hard to judge before installing it. It would probably look much better on a black or blue body. I'll withhold final judgement until the whole thing is back together, but I think it will unfortunately look somewhere between "unique" and just plain ugly.

The pickguard needs to be cut down very slightly around the neck pocket, preferably without removing it. The headstock needs holes drilled for the tuners (not the big holes, but small holes for the screws). The bridge will need the usual Jag-Stang tape or tubing to keep it from shifting (I don't really use the trem, and it should add to the tuning stability). The guitar synth pickup needs to be reinstalled. I think this time I'm going to take it to a local luthier. The part I really don't fully trust myself to do is drilling holes in the headstock. I don't want to screw up a nearly $300 guitar neck!

Ultimately, I would still like to build an all-new Jag-Stang. That would involve replacing the body with a Warmoth body. The original Jag-Stang pickguard shape won't quite fit the Warmoth replacement body so I'd need a Warmoth pickguard. I'd have the body routed for a Gotoh Tune-o-Matic bridge with stop tailpiece (I'd consider string-through-body ferrules but I'm not sure that will work with a Tune-o-Matic bridge). If I did that, I think the only parts that were original would be perhaps the jack plate and the switches! That's OK, the original Jag-Stang was just not a well-built guitar!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Cavalcade of Guitars, Part 1

I've acquired quite a few guitars lately, and gotten rid of a few as well. Here's an update that isn't really up-to-date, since I started writing it several months ago.

My Peavey Limited's frets are now in gorgeous, like-new condition, thanks to the expert luthiers at Elderly Instruments in Lansing. It's a player's guitar, not (yet) considered vintage or rare or terribly valuable, but I love playing it.

I sold the black/orange sunburst finish Epiphone Les Paul Special II that I was using as my "I don't care if the babies get their hands on it" guitar in the living room. I really like the handsome design, but those instruments are made in Indonesia out of plywood and cheap parts and will just never sound and feel very good. I could have put some money into getting the frets leveled, but the neck just wouldn't get into proper alignment. I wouldn't even particularly recommend one to a beginner student on a budget, since a student could find something far better used, for just a bit more money. Someday maybe I'll find a Gibson Les Paul Special that I like, although I have a whole separate set of gripes about heavy, fragile Gibson designs.

I traded in my old Ovation Ultra acoustic for a newer used Ovation Elite with purple flame graphics. Well, it wasn't exactly a trade in, but I got a little back out of the old one. The flame graphics were not my first choice, but there are certain compensations -- it has an ebony fingerboard and bridge, and a fantastic matte finish maple neck with a very nice soft "V" profile. It has an interesting bridge modification: the bass strings are slightly higher, which means that the overall action can be lower while preventing buzz on the wound strings. This feels slightly odd at first but sounds great. The acoustic (unplugged) tone is altogether better than my old Ovation, and indeed better than any of the dozen Ovations I tried out with the exception of a couple of high-end graphite-top Adamas models. Some day I'd like to own an Adamas, and perhaps a Martin too, but not today.

There's a slight issue with getting the battery compartment open; it's difficult; in the store, it was jammed completely, and I had to get one of the Elderly repair techs to help me with it. But on the up side, apparently one rarely needs to change the batteries in these things. (But when one does, one wants to do it in a hurry).

The only other thing I'd really consider changing are the tuners, since the ones on the instrument are OK but don't feel quite as good as the Schaller tuners on my old Ovation. I think I could drop new black Schaller tuners right into the existing holes in the headstock for an inexpensive upgrade that wouldn't negatively affect the resale value. But I'll probably just leave them alone for now, since the existing ones are not terrible. And the top makes it a conversation piece -- you might call it cool or you might call it hideous, but at least it is a conversation starter!

I also purchased a Music Man 4-string fretted ash and maple bass. It was a wholly excellent instrument, and I got it for a pretty good price. But after finding a lightly used Steinberger Synapse 5-string fretless bass for sale at Elderly, I decided that I just am not that interested in playing a traditional bass at the moment, especially one I purchased new, so I returned it.

The Gibson Steinberger instruments have a poor reputation in comparison to the originals, but I think this reputation is only partially justified. The "Spirit by Steinberger" line doesn't have much to offer in the way of design, but the bass is a member of the newer Synapse family, and it really is an intriguing package, with a fully "designed" feel and tone that tells me Ned Steinberger was heavily involved in the instrument's development. Some of the details, though, just aren't as clean and polished as I'd like. With the piezo pickup engaged, it sounds remarkably like an acoustic upright bass. It's definitely the thing for someone like me interested in some more unusual sounds.

Besides, having actually played a few original Steinbergers recently, I can say that although I like them quite a bit, when I find one that I can afford, it is in poor condition. And when I find one that is in good condition, I can't afford it. By "poor condition" I don't just mean that there are some scratches or dings, I mean there are serious playability issues that affect the sound.

Original Steinbergers are considered "vintage" and I have made a semi-solemn vow that I will never pay the "vintage" instrument appreciation tax. I guess it stems from my basic disagreement with the "law" of supply and demand that says that if something is in demand, a seller can and should price it almost entirely out of the market, keeping it on a high shelf or in a locked case until that one even greedier buyer comes along, believing that he or she can make even more money off the future appreciation of the instrument, sell it to that buyer for as big a profit as possible. It has never seemed appropriate to enshrine greed as some kind of fundamental economic principle, any more than it seems appropriate to consider all the human factors and environmental factors that go into manufacturing and selling a product as "externalities." But I guess I'm some kind of tree-hugger and I'd probably do really badly if I tried to run a guitar store.

Besides, I don't believe most instruments really "appreciate" in value in any meaningful sense. While a chunk of wood will get drier and develop more tonal character over time, just about everything else on the guitar will deteriorate and need restoration. Some aspects of guitar-building were done better in the old days -- the "fit and finish" on the neck of my 1972 Fender Competition Mustang was amazing -- and some weren't -- the bridge and pickups were never really very good, and most vintage wiring and shielding is actually worse than its modern equivalents. It's heartbreaking to see the way so many older instruments warp and become unplayable even without severe mistreatment. And original Steinberger parts are becoming scarce, and they are harder and more expensive to repair than wood.

I played several original Steinbergers at Ed Roman's guitar shop in Las Vegas, and I was somewhat disgusted that he had priced these instruments at four or five thousand dollars, but had not even bothered to have his shop clean them up. It set off my alarm bells to hear a store salesperson explaining that if I bought it, then they would fix the broken switches, crackling pots, wiring problems, etc. That didn't really help convince me to shell out the money. What is the motivation for the shop to get it cleaned up after I've swiped my credit card?

Not to mention that Steinberger never released a fretless bass.

But buying a Synapse meant compromising another one of my semi-solemn vows, to only buy American-made instruments. The "Made in USA" labeling is conspicuously absent from the Synapse line. But I like it anyway.

I also picked up a Parker Fly Classic -- a used one in excellent shape. I've wanted for at least ten or fifteen years to have a Parker Fly. There is only one minor issue with this instrument: the battery compartment door latch is cracked, and should be replaced. What is it with battery compartiments? But these things are amazing.

I'm also fixing up the old Jag-Stang. It now has a new Warmoth neck with stainless-steel frets. I've put a new pickguard on it. The fit of the neck in the neck pocket is not quite as precise as I'd like. The next time I go up to Lansing, I'm going to take it with me and ask them to mount the locking tuners (so I don't screw it up) and see if they can turn it into a playable instrument again.

Finally, a Godin nylon-string solid-body, with piezo pickups and 13-pin synth out. The triggering with my guitar synth is fantastic!