Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ghoul Tide Guitars

I've mixed together most of the guitar tracks (Babicz 6-string acoustic and Adamas 12-string acoustic) I recorded for Joe "Covenant" Lamb's song hilarious and horrifying holiday-ish song Ghoul Tide. You can find it in the form of a little instrumental ditty on Bandcamp. There are also some bits of Logic MIDI instruments I used as placeholders the little Christmas song quotes.

This song also features the Steinberger XQ-4 bass. The version I mixed for Bandcamp is my playing; my son Isaac also contributed a track, and Joe actually used a bit of both in the final song. You might be able to tell the bits apart because Isaac is used to playing an upright acoustic bass, and so plucks a lot more heavily (you can probably hear this even after volume leveling and compression are applied; I had to turn down the input levels for his parts because he was clipping the A/D converters!)

I'm finger-picking a 12-string on this track. It's a little rough! Also, apologies for my whistling nose. I haven't figured out how to record an acoustic guitar part into a mic without getting some breath noises. I guess I have to hold my breath when I'm sustaining a long note or chord and time my breaths with strums!

Common Lisp and Song Fu 6

I was fortunate enough to be able to record two original songs for the Masters of Song Fu competition, under my nom de (Ken) plume, Common Lisp.

For Round 1, the challenge was:

Write a song that is about (or at least has key to the central narrative) RAIN (the meteorological phenomena). At some point (or throughout) the song, you must utilize an instrument (or vocals) that represent the rain...

My entry was a sort of nerdcore science rap called Polly Loves the Rain. There it is, my first ever complete original song. Joe "Covenant" Lamb was kind enough to track the sung vocal part for me. I added some backing and harmony to his part. My vocal in the the original upload that appeared on the competition page was a little rough, but I managed to record a slightly smoother version and tweak the mix a bit.

There's a video here, based on that earlier mix.

I had a great time recording this song and am very grateful for all the people that told me they enjoyed it! The drums are all from Logic's library, pieced together into a MIDI track; the bass line is my Steinberger Synapse fretless; the keyboard part is again a MIDI track, pieced together using my DX-7 as a keyboard controller; the guitar parts use a Squier Super-Sonic. The microphone I used for this one is the Oktava ML-52 ribbon mic (mine is actually branded an Electro-Harmonix EH-R1).

For round 2, the challenge was:

Write a song that does not rhyme.

CLARIFICATION: Your song can be in any style, but must not contain any rhymes of 2 dissimilar words within a traditional verse structure. Exact repetition of a phrase or word is permitted...

Some challengers were very clever with the premise, writing songs that mocked the concept itself, poking fun at Ken, or implying rhymes. I wasn't nearly that clever -- instead I wanted to write an anthem inspired by a David Feldman gag; in one of his podcasts he made the joke "It's 2010, and I'm still writing 'Dick Cheney is a War Criminal' on my checks."

After his daughter Liz decided that the best thing she could do with her time was to contribute more overheated rhetoric -- attacking Justice Department lawyers for representing Guantanmo detainees, portraying them as sympathetic to Al Quaeda -- I wanted to try to bring the conversation back to what I thought it should really be about: the fact that the men who lied us into Iraq still walk free. I wanted it to be in the style of, kinda sort, The Clash. So here is War Criminal, my second original song. There are some things I might tweak, especially the drums, but overall I'm pretty pleased with the way it came out.

On that track, the drums are again all from Logic; the guitar parts are the Parker Fly; the bass part is, if I recall correctly, the Steinberger XP. For vocals, I used a newly arrived Oktava MK-219 condenser (I picked up two of these at a very low price on eBay; the plan is to have the Michael Joly electronics and capsule upgrades applied at some point, but I like the way they sound on my voice). Everything is direct into the Apogee.

Unfortunately, I had to drop out for Round 3. The round 3 competition involved writing a song that featured a recipe. I was sketching out a few ideas involving water, barley, yeast, and hops, in the style of a Celtic reel, but I developed some kind of bronchial infection. I couldn't sing, had a fever, and was just too washed out to work on the song. I saw my doctor, and confirmed that I didn't have anything dangerous (it wasn't pneumonia), but still, what with our somewhat stressful home life (4 kids and a lot of chaos), I lost a number of work days, and it took me over a month to completely recover. By that time Song Fu 6 was long-done. At some point I'd like to try to complete my round 3 song.

Overall I was very happy to have finally gotten a chance to compete, as I had been considering it for several previous Song Fu competitions but hadn't quite worked up my courage yet. I really enjoyed my interactions with the other competitors. I'm disappointed that I had to drop out. The future of Song Fu remains slightly unclear after several prominent rounds fell apart due to masters who bailed out. That's a shame, but even if it isn't Song Fu under the same name and management, there will be more of this kind of thing -- the idea is too much fun to die. I am looking forward to a future excuse to write and record songs!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Herd Mentality, Part 2: the Second Dozen

13. A 4-string Steinberger XP bass. This one was featured in Guitar Pron 11.

14. A Steinberger XQ-4 version 1 bass. This one was featured in Guitar Pron 8.

15. A 5-string Steinberger Synapse fretless bass. I don't have any photos of this bass, although I have used it in a couple of my YouTube videos. I'll feature it in an upcoming installment of Guitar Pron. These discontinued basses are interesting but I don't actually recommend that anyone buy them.

There is another Steinberger bass -- the white Music Yo era XQ-4 version 2. This one was featured in Guitar Pron 3. However, I gave this one to my son, so it isn't officially part of my herd any more.

16. A Godin LGX-SA. This guitar was featured in Guitar Pron 2.

17. A Godin SA nylon-string. This one is on loan. I'll take some photos of it when I get it back.

18. An Adamas 12-string acoutic guitar. This guitar was featured in Guitar Pron 7.

19. An Ovation USA Elite with Tribal Flame finish. This one needs good pictures.

20. A Babicz Identity Jumbo. This guitar was featured in Guitar Pron 12.

21. An Ovation Applause tenor ukulele.

22. An Ovation Applause Soprano ukulele.

23. This one is not very photogenic; it is a Jag-Stang that I have horribly abused over the years, practicing my repair and upgrade skills. It turns out my luthier skills aren't so hot. It has a custom Warmoth neck with stainless steel frets, Gotoh vintage locking tuners, a 3rd-party pickguard, and upgraded Seymour Duncan pickups. However, it still needs a lot of assembly work, and so right now really is a parts guitar!

24. A Parker Fly Classic, which I haven't yet photographed.

It's possible I am forgetting one!

Update 11 Feb 2010

Oops, yep, I am. #25 is another Peavey Limited, this one an HB (dual humbucker) model, with a blue flame maple top. You can hear this guitar on this unused concept from Joe Covenant's song That's the neck pickup, with the tone pot rolled off just a bit.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Herd Mentality, Part 1: the First Dozen

So, I have quite a few guitars now. Most of them have come from eBay, and most of them were bargains. I have a little problem, though; I can't actually tell you exactly how many I have, because I don't know. It's time to take inventory. Here are the first dozen.

I don't have enough space to keep them all at home, so at any given time, a rotating selection of instruments is in a climate-controlled storage unit. I try to keep them all in hard cases wherever possible, which protects them from getting knocked around, but also helps protect them from sudden humidity or temperature shifts. That's the theory, anyway. The guitars in storage look like this:

I recently pulled them out to check on them, photograph them for insurance purposes, and record the serial numbers. Here are the cases lined up:

That's a dozen, plus a couple of gig bags that I wanted to save. Here's a roll call:

1. Squier Super-Sonic, silver sparkle. I actually have three Super-Sonics; this one is A016447. Two of the Super-Sonics, were featured in Guitar Pron 5. This one is in excellent condition with no issues, as is the blue one; the other silver ones has some electronics issues and currently has its guts hanging out waiting for me to finish fixing it.

2. Squier Venus, black. Set up with 10s. Featured in Guitar Pron 10. No issues; this guitar is in excellent shape. It is one of the best-sounding guitars in my collection, especially with the single-coil pickup.

3. Squier Venus, sunburst. Set up with 10s. This one has some minor electronics issues and is waiting to go up to Elderly. I need to take some outdoor photos of both the Venus guitars; they just don't photograph well with a flash.

4. Godin LG. Featured in Guitar Pron 9. I have a new bridge for this guitar, to replace the chewed-up bridge height screw. I think I can do that repair by myself without any trouble; I just haven't gotten to it yet. (Are you sensing a recurring theme here?)

5. Peavey Firenza, USA model, with two P-90 pickups. Set up with 11s. This is an amazing guitar. It's built like a tank, and the pickups sound absolutely fantastic. I'd put it up against any Gibson with P-90s. I'll have to do a write-up about it, and record it. I'm keeping an eye out for another one of these, preferably a minty tobacco sunburst model. This one needs some minor fret work; it's been played heavily, but has no serious damage at all. It's a gorgeous guitar, although this photo doesn't really do it justice:

6. Peavey Limited HB, natural flame maple top. This guitar was featured in Guitar Pron 6. It is probably the prettiest instrument I've got, and it sounds great too.

7. Peavey T-60, natural ash body with rosewood neck. This one is a somewhat battered player, but it is an earlier T-60, built incredibly well, and has been beautifully maintained, and sounds and feels great. In fact, the action and "play feel" is the best of any guitar in my collection, with the possible exception of the Parker Fly. With scratches and buckle rash, though, it isn't all that photogenic. Here is a shot:

It needs a new output jack. It's one of the long through-the-body types, and the wiring on these is elaborate and delicate, so it is going up to Elderly.

8. Peavey T-60, natural ash body, maple neck. This is the most common kind of T-60. This one is in pretty good condition, but I'm just not a big fan of the maple-necked T-60s. They don't feel quite as nice to me as the models with the rosewood fretboards. I'd consider selling this one (via eBay) at some point. The glue holding the interior velvet-colored panels in the case has deteriorated and so it needs some kind of restoration work on the case. I might try to hot-glue it. I still watch T-60s go by, but I'm also keeping an eye out for just the right T-15, or T-27, or even a T-40 bass.

9. Squier Jagmaster. I have a love-hate relationship with this guitar. It has a neck pocket issue; the fit and finish just isn't quite up to the standards of the other members of the Vista series. Some of the Jagmasters have the truss rod adjustment at the headstock, like the Super-Sonics, but this one has one of those traditional Fender necks where you must partially remove the neck to get to the truss rod. I really don't like that. When I removed the neck, a big chunk of finish alongside the neck pocket came with it. It's also got an overly heavy body. However, it sounds really good, and I love short-scale instruments. Like I said, a love-hate relationship. I'm keeping my eyes out for another one, with the truss rod adjustment at the headstock. I've seen several go by on eBay, but they are either very damaged, have been heavily modified, or are priced far too high for me.

10. Godin Freeway 4-string bass. I'll have to write this one up too; they are real bargains. It would be a great first bass for a student. This one is set up with flat-wound strings and has a very nice mellow tone.

11. Peavey Limited ST, tiger's eye flame. This guitar was featured in Guitar Pron 1.

12. Peavey T-60, Iced Tea Burst. This guitar was featured in Guitar Pron 4.

That's it for now. More later!

Guitar Pron 12: Babicz Jumbo Acoustic

During a recent trip around New York and Connecticut I stopped in Troy, NY to visit Cathedral Music, where I came across this intriguing thing, the likes of which I had never seen before:

Jeff Babicz is a former employee of Steinberger sound during the Newburgh years. From what I hear, he may even have helped build one of my Steinberger basses. He seems to have made it his mission to bring some fresh ideas to acoustic guitar design, while retaining the best traditional elements.

The Babicz Identity series acoustics look a little odd -- the most striking thing is the "fanned" strings. But it isn't just for looks -- it's a functional design element. Basically, the strings are not anchored to the top of the guitar at the body in the usual sense. There's no major single point of strain where the entire pull of the strings is yanking sideways on the middle of the delicate top. Instead, they pass over the bridge and a kind of anchor, where they then fan out to anchors attached around the perimeter of the top. These apparently transfer the strain to the curved body which, being an arch instead of a flat piece, is better-equipped to handle it.

The net upshot is that when you tap on the top, next to the bridge, it sounds like a bass drum. The top resonates much more freely, and so the guitar produces very rich and resonant bass. But there's more to it than that -- apparently the floating bridge is not even glued to the top, but bolted to slots cut in the top, such that the bridge can be loosened and moved to change the intonation as the guitar ages.

There's one more really intriguing innovation: the neck itself is not actually attached to the soundboard. It's attached to some kind of special internal block with a mechanism that actually will raise and lower the neck with respect to the soundboard, as a whole. This has nothing to do with the truss rod, which is to set the neck relief -- it sets the position of the whole neck with respect to the bridge. All you do is stick an allen wrench in this little hole and give it a turn or two. The guitar actually came with an allen wrench fastened to the back of the headstock. However, the adhesive holding the little plastic holders to the back of the headstock had gotten a little old, and it was coming off, so I removed it and cleaned the adhesive off with a little vegetable oil. It came off just fine, and the allen wrench is now in the case.

The movement of the neck is so accurate and clean that you can do this and change the action on the fly, and it doesn't even put the guitar out of tune. That sounds hard to believe, but it's true!

This jumbo, smaller than a dreadnought and a little better suited to finger-picking, has a spruce top and rosewood back and sides. The top is not one piece, though, and it is made in Indonesia. You can also get a hand-made guitar built by Jeff Babicz himself. I'm setting aside a little money in the hopes that one day I'll be able to order my hand-built dream guitar from Jeff.

This guitar has no electronics. There's a black model with built-in electronics, called the Spider, that looks very nice. There is also a hollow-body electric version. I'm keeping an eye out for one of those! I've never owned a jazz box, and it looks like just the slightly offbeat but great-sounding instrument that I would really enjoy playing. Jeff has apparently prototyped a 12-string version acoustic-electric model that is flat like some of the Godin models. That sounds amazing. I don't think these are in production, though.

My mic technique is not the greatest, and my finger-picking technique is not the greatest; my nails had not grown out properly yet, and I was just getting used to playing using my nails instead of fingertips. But with that caveat, that the flaws are mine and not the guitar's, you can hear me play this guitar in this video. (The guitar track is doubled, but it will give you an idea of what it sounds like).

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Song Fu 6, Round 1

My entry is here. I guess maybe you'd call it nerdcore -- I'm a big fan of MC Frontalot -- but it is also inspired, perhaps, by They Might Be Giants songs about science. Given that I'm mostly a guitarist, my first impulse was to grab my guitar, but I decided I wanted to try something different, and so didn't compose on the guitar at all, but started with the lyric and percussion, then added a melody for the choruses in Apple Logic.

I started off with a different lyric and completely different song, which sounded like a mournful, slow early Peter Gabriel track. I decided partway into that one that it wasn't really doing it for me, and fortunately this lyric popped into my head as fast as I could write it down. It got a rewrite, but there isn't a lot of time in Song Fu for rewrites, especially after I had abandoned one concept already -- you've got to freeze your ideas in the form of real tracks quite quickly.

Joe "Covenant" Lamb was kind enough to sing a vocal track for me, which I then mixed with my vocals.

Given the realities of life with a day job and small children, I only really had one afternoon to record vocals, although I was able to get a few hours in the evenings earlier in the week to work on the lyrics, MIDI instruments, and bass and guitar parts. It just so happens I've had a sore throat for a couple of weeks now, but I did the best I could, given that I was rapidly running out of time.

Despite all this, I'm quite pleased with it -- it came out better than I was expecting. I was concerned that I would just freeze up solid and draw a blank, given that I've never recorded an original song before (aside from some instrumental improvisations), and I don't really know a lot about writing melodies and accompaniment parts.

There's a video to go with it.

I'm playing the Steinberger Synapse 5-string fretless bass and the Squier Super-Sonic on this track. It's more-or-less in the key of G. If you're a guitarist, you may be wondering what I'm playing in that "rain" harmonic riff. It's a little cheat. For that riff, the Super-sonic is tuned to an open E7 chord. Then, I have a capo on the 3rd fret to make it an open G7. The harmonics are then all octave harmonics at the 15th fret. To make this sound right, you have to tune the guitar very carefully after the capo is applied.

Guitar Pron 11: Steinberger XP Bass

Up for your consideration today is a relatively rare Setinberger instrument from 1985, a P-series 4-string bass with passive, low-impedance EMG pickups (unlike most Steinberger pickup systems, these don't require a battery). They are the best-sounding bass pickups I've ever played, hands-down, usable over the whole tone range. I've been looking for one of these for a while. They are not as collectible as the all-synthetic L-series instruments -- this model has a small V-shaped wooden body -- but they definitely have that Steinberger tone and mojo. Steinberger made these with various styles of pickguards; one of the most common was a "pebbled" pickguard with a rough, textured finish and a white stripe around it. I actually like this all-black version best, although my camera always has trouble with reflective black instruments.

Unfortunately, Joshua pulled this bass off the bed only a week after I acquired it, and it fell on the floor. The only real damage was to the leg rest, which snapped off. These are fortunately replaceable, although original parts are getting harder to find; Music Yo and Gibson no longer sell parts for vintage Steinbergers.

I'm keeping my eye out for a matching P-series 6-string guitar. I'd love to have one of those. These instruments even had a brief film cameo; they are the guitars that Rufus (George Carlin) gives to Bill and Ted at the end of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

I'll definitely be recording this bass as soon as I need a fretted bass part for a song!

Rugged Construction, Kinda

So, I have this Carvin SX-100 amplifier that I got cheap from the local Music-Go-Round after doing a listening test with several different amps. It sounded the best with my Ovations.

I used it for exactly one gig -- our Halloween/birthday event -- and then Joshua grabbed a my guitar cable that was plugged in the jack, and gave a sideways yank. The jack shattered. Upon taking it apart, I found that it had been broken before, and airplane-glued back together. This picture shows the little board the jack was mounted to.

"No problem," I reasoned. "I'll just contact Carvin and find another one of those little jack boards. They made them replaceable for just that reason."

Not so much. Carvin doesn't sell that little board. It doesn't appear they ever did sell it separately. But -- they do sell replacement jacks (that's a dance music group -- "Replacement Jaxx!") They had two types. I couldn't figure out exactly which part would fit, but they were only a couple dollars each, so I bought one of each. Note the history of a part. "A lot of these are breaking -- can we get some kind of reinforcement on this part?" "Yeah, OK, we'll put a metal sleeve in it." A couple years go by. "A lot of these are breaking -- can you beef up that part?" The result is the part on the right with the steel barrel. Unfortunately the part that screws onto it to mount it into the front panel of the amplifier (far left) is still plastic. They don't seem to sell a more rugged version of that.

I'm not that great with a soldering iron, but fortunately I have a co-worker who is. So, problem solved. Assuming Joshua doesn't break anything else. Note to manufacturers: "rugged construction" has to apply to every single part of your product, or it is a pretty meaningless term! And make high-wear parts replaceable by end users without a soldering iron!