Saturday, November 21, 2009

Furby Guitars

So, just for fun, here is a rough mix assembled from some of the very raw (and even somewhat out-of-tune) tracks I put together hastily for Joe Covenant's Song Fu Round 1 entry.

On the left are 3 tracks of ukulele; on the right are 3 tracks of 12-string acoustic guitar. I wasn't really intending for all of them to be used together! I was fully expecting Joe to pick and choose and edit (which he did).

This obviously isn't very polished; as I explained in a previous entry, I was extremely rushed. At one point, my family was waiting in the car for me to finish recording the 12-string chords so we could jump in the car and drive to Saginaw. But still, I think it sounds fun. For those who enjoy watching sausage being made. Out of furbies.

My Monkey

This is the Mandelbrot Set's final mix of Jonathan Coulton's tune "My Monkey" -- on I have several tracks in here: fretless Steinberger Synapse bass, finger-picked electric guitar, and some layers of acoustic guitar. The gang is getting better! I did not mix or master this one. I put some concentrated effort into the guitar part quite some time ago -- I think it was back around the beginning of 2009.

I've put together a track of just my contributions, mixed and mastered, including an unused synth track I recorded (which, in the final, I think was replaced by a recorder part). When recording these tracks, I made an effort to clone Jonathan Coulton's source tracks as closely as possible, just to see how good a job I could do. I think my completed parts actually sound more polished, but I had an advantage: I wasn't trying to finish recording for a Thing a Week deadline. The only part that is really different is that I decided to use a fretless bass. The part is basically the same, just with that fretless feel. While I think I got the intonation reasonably good, using quite a few takes and a lot of editing, I'm still pretty much a beginner on the fretless and have a lot to learn yet.

So what's in the track? There are 3 separate complete takes of the entire electric guitar part, recorded direct into Logic via my Ensemble. I can't remember for certain which guitar I played, but I think it may have been the T-60. The guitar part goes into an amp modeler, an EQ, a Logic plugin called Ringshifter which provides the phaser effect, and then a compressor. There are two acoustic guitar lines: one is basically the same chords as the finger-picked part, and the other is the same chords played with a capo seven frets higher, or a perfect 5th up. The acoustic is my Ovation acoustic-electric, also directly into the Ensemble, through EQ, compressor, a sample delay plug-in, and Space Designer, using a room model called "Slap Chamber" for that slap echo. The synth parts I recorded by using my DX-7 as a MIDI controller rather than an audio source, doing a little editing of the resulting piano roll data in Logic, and then playing it back using a software instrument synth pad called "Glassy Ascent."

If you are interested, you can see a sloppy YouTube clip of the bass part here, and a mini-lesson for the finger-picked electric guitar part here.

Listening to it almost a year after recording these parts, I can hear some timing flaws; there's an issue where the chord changes at the end don't match the original song perfectly. However, I still am proud of the finished product!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Song Fu: Vote for "Tom Furby"

Please go here and vote for Joe "Covenant" Lamb's song! And whoever else's songs you like best.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ukuleles Aren't Cool

Or so Joe "Covenant" Lamb says. But yet... wait... Joe! What's that on your Song Fu #5 round 1 entry? Could it be... your friend Paul playing 3 tracks of ukulele? And a few more tracks of 12-string guitar?

The uke is an Applause model, Ovation's lower-end brand, made in Korea. I have it strung up with Aquila "Nylgut" strings that work great, although like all nylon strings they stretch, and stretch, and stretch, and so have to be constantly re-tuned. It's a tenor-sized instrument. They are tuned the same as a soprano, but with a longer scale, which means higher string tension, but also wider fret spacing. That's a bit plus for me since I'm so used to playing guitar; I have a hard time playing on the tiny fret spacing on my soprano uke. But the real feature I like best about this uke is that you can plug it in -- it has a built-in piezo pickup and EQ. So I was able to record both the 12-string and the uke direct.

The back story -- I collaborated with Joe on the Mandelbrot Set's version of Skullcrusher Mountain. He lives in Dundee, Scotland, which makes it a little tricky to organize a jam session, but I've been trying to find a way to collaborate with him on one of these songs for a while now; usually I've been unavailable in time, since the Song Fu entries always have a short deadline.

On Saturday I chatted with Joe online briefly about this track -- he was having trouble getting a harmonizing guitar part that really worked well. He sent me a track with his vocal plus drums. After the kids were asleep I hauled out my tenor uke and came up with a track to go along with the song's melody, and then a couple more tracks to harmonize with it. The song really called for a mandolin. I don't have one of those, but after this experience I might consider getting one.

Recording this was complicated a bit by the fact that Joe's vocal seemed to be in Eb; I'm not quite sure how that came about. So I had to play the uke melody and harmony parts in Eb. It also just never seemed 100% in tune with Joe's backing guitar, so I was messing around with tweaking it by a few cents, and wasted some time with that. It was getting pretty late, so I very quickly bashed out some accompaniment chords on the 12-string guitar too, again playing in Eb with a bunch of barres that didn't sound very good, partly because my hands aren't really strong enough to do good barres on the 12-string, at least not after all the playing I did on Friday night.

Anyhow, we got everyone up and out, took the kids to dim sum for lunch, and then were planning to go up to Saginaw to visit Grace's mother. I left everyone napping in the car and came in to see if there was anything else I could help Joe with, since I think today was his deadline. He asked me to re-record the 12-string, so I spent about an hour getting something better recorded on the 12-string. Ten minutes of that was retuning it to Eb. Fortunately the Adamas has extremely stable tuning so I was able to retune it and quickly lay down several tracks without worrying that it was going out of tune while I played. I recorded chords for the choruses, then a sort of harmony line, and then realizing I was very short on time, one more track of little scraps of harmony, in the hopes that Joe would be able to find something usable. I uploaded those, shot Joe a quick note, and we headed out.

We got back late, and I saw via Facebook that Joe had posted his song, and really made my guitar parts sound great. I think he used both the original and new 12-string chords, judiciously edited and doubled. I'm pretty sure he used at least some of almost every one of the seven tracks I sent him -- maybe even every track. He did some editing that is so tight I'm not even sure exactly what he did. Even some of the bits and incomplete phrases that I left on that track of "extra scraps" made it in there. It gets doubled and then doubled again and pretty wild, but it all somehow works together, with only some minor timing flaws. With more time I could have done retakes or time-aligned the attacks, but given the material he had to work with, I'm very impressed with the way he put it all together!

It helps that the song is so funny that I nearly wet myself when I first heard it. I hope you will listen to it, and more importantly, as soon as voting is open, vote for Joe!

See the Song Fu page round 5 page here. Check back to see when voting is open.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I'm Your Moon (Jonathan Coulton Cover)

I wasn't quite sure if I was going to put the lyrics onscreen for a karaoke track, record it on the 6-string, or record it on the 12-string. This isn't quite what I had planned to do. I wasn't even going to try singing it at all. But I think it came out pretty well! Especially for something recorded with sore hands, and in a couple of hours.

Paul's Cover of "I'm Your Moon" by Jonathan Coulton (YouTube video).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Working on the Moon

I've been working on Jonathan Coulton's song "I'm Your Moon."

Just a year ago this song was just out of my reach as a guitarist. But while some of my friends are probably sick of hearing my play Coulton and They Might Be Giants tunes, there is a madness to my method: my playing is improving. I'm able to grab chords faster and more accurately, I've memorized more chords, my right hand technique is better, my ability to sing along without wandering off key has improved, and I'm better at staying on something resembling a tempo. I've also learned a lot of convenient walking bass notes to add to chords. Coulton uses these a lot, and it's a great technique for acoustic playing.

This song is still pretty rough, but I'm gradually improving. It's an interesting song for a guitarist: there's a repeating set of chords that you play as picked arpeggios, and it sounds more complex than it is. It's really just two fingers nailed to an Asus2, with a bass note changing around it. It's useful when learning it to try playing just the bass note, so you can get used hearing it as part of the figure. The following bit of tab is borrowed from the tab on the Jonathan Coulton Wiki:

   A/E     B7/D#     Bm7/D   FMajb5

The hard part is not playing this riff; once you get into position and figure out the basic moves, it's easy. The hard part is jumping into it and out of it smoothly.

The song initially appears to have a big wad of additional chords to learn, but upon a little study, they aren't as hard as they look. There's a barred C#m, and a B major based on the second fret. I usually play this with just fingers 1 and 3, which means bending my third finger backwards. It might be time to break that habit and get it so I can consistently grab it with all 4 fingers, in order to help ensure that the first string rings clearly.

There is also F#m/C#, which sounds complicated until you realize it is just a barred F#m played in the normal way but without the 6th string. This allows you to emphasize the C# bass note. There's an E/A, which I just noticed I'm still playing wrong. Then there's this little trio of E major-based chords: Esus4, E, Eadd9, E. The jump to the Eadd9, fingered 024100, is a little tricky; I have to swivel my hand position so that Iift my third finger off the fretboard and reach with my pinky for the 4.

Aaug/C# is not difficult to play, but the Bm/Bdim switch I find tricky, and Bm to Bm7b5 (x2323x) is also tricky. I have finally gotten better grabbing the Bm7b5 chord shape, but just because I can go pretty reliably from from a D major open fingering to Bm7b5 doesn't mean I can reliably and quickly grab it when going from Bm. It's all about rearranging the fingers quickly, so quickly that it's pretty much a reflex action. The Bdim and Bm7b5 shapes are worth getting used to, though, since they appear a lot in less common chord voicings.

Finally, there's this little riff:


Coulton plays this when he sings "round and round." It's a clever little phrase and one of his little musical puns where the sound matches what he's singing.

Here's a quick video clip I recorded of yours truly practicing "I'm Your Moon". It's too dark, it's backward, and the sound isn't great, but it's what I could manage today; I had one baby sleeping on the bed a few feet away and another listening down next to my feet (and occasionally making comments).

I'm hoping to continue polishing it a little bit and recording a better version in a few days. I've set an additional challenge for myself, which is to play it on my 12-string. Those suspended chords sound gorgeous on the 12-string, but it's hard to get the little arpeggios and the barred chords and especially that Bdim to ring out cleanly on the 12-string without any buzzing and without hitting any unwanted strings. My fingers feel like I've been working them out on a cheese grater! If I can pull it off, though, it will make a beautiful recording.

This is one of the more wistful and gorgeous of all Coulton's compositions. I particularly like his use of suspended chords to make the song sound like it hovering somewhere between major and minor; those arpeggios also contribute to the feelings of circular movement and timelessness.

If I can get this song down cold, I think "Blue Sunny Day" would be a worthy next target. That song is just loaded with interesting voicings and really gets you jumping around the neck! And then of course I really still need to do some heads-down work on my fingerpicking; I'd like to be able to play "Millionaire Girlfriend," "You Ruined Everything," "I Crush Everything," and "Summer's Over." None of them seem out of reach of my left hand, but I've got to train my right hand to get those fingers picking!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Squier Venus Single Coil Demo

Here are a couple of recordings I made using the the black Squier Venus. If this experiment works you'll be able to hear what I consider so appealing about the tone of these guitars and why I just picked up two of them.

I ran the Venus running directly into my Peavey Mini Colossal 5-watt tube amp, with the power soak (output volume) turned all the way down so it doesn't drive the speaker at all (it's late, after all). I'm feeding my Apogee Ensemble with the XLR recording output of the Mini Colossal. It's going into Logic 9, into a virtual channel strip with a noise gate (the single coil pickup needs it), a pedalboard containing a compressor and chorus set relatively low, and then through a channel EQ and channel compressor. The whole track is then run through Ozone 4 using a 3-band tube saturation mastering preset, which isn't really doing that much except applying the multi-band compressor with the overall gain rolled down a bit.

The first tune I'm playing is Jonathan Coulton's "Chiron Beta Prime." I dig how this guitar's single coil pickup puts out quite a bit of throaty bass and mids. The volume control is rolled down to about five, and the three-way switch is set on the single coil neck pickup only. Your taste may vary, but I like the slightly laid-back tube crunch together with the chorus. I'm doing some palm muting and there are a lot of seventh chords that would sound very dissonant if the tube distortion was cranked up to heavy metal levels, but as it is they seem (to me) to just give a spray of harmonics that are bright but not shrill. But then, I'm probably going deaf, so your mileage may differ.

Just to do a little comparison and contrast, I also recorded "The Future Soon" using pretty-much identical settings but with the pickup selector switched over to the humbucker. I brought the guitar's volume knob down just a little bit more to keep the volumes at least approximately comparable. Note that the Venus has no tone control. The humbucker is loud and jangly. I prefer the sound of the single coil when recording a lightly distorted guitar part like this, but I think both of them actually sound pretty good. The humbucker is probably better suited to either a clean tone with EQ rolling off the highs, or heavier distortion to smooth it out a bit. Clearly more experimentation is needed!

If anyone cares, I played both using a Herco Flex 50 pick, which gives quite a bit of "snap."

Working on the Venus Guitars

So, today I got some screws I ordered from Stewart-MacDonald, and it was time to see if I could get the sunburst-finish Squier Venus back together. It needs height-adjusting screws and springs for its bridge pickup, and the pickguard is currently off. I also need to solder the ground wire back onto the output jack, since it popped off when I removed the pickguard.

It will look something like this when finished (well, plus strings). You can see why I am eager to get it put back together; it is a gorgeous guitar!

Unfortunately, neither type of screw I ordered today will fit the hole in the pickguard. I've already taken one of the originals to Stadium hardware, and they couldn't match it. I have a set of "Metric Hum Ht. Screws" on order from Allparts, along with some pickguard screws and pots, and we'll see if they fit. If not I'm at a bit of a loss; I may have to take apart the black one to get a sample of the correct screw and see if I can get it measured precisely. Here is one of the Stewart-MacDonald screws, not fitting.

Meanwhile, I got the black one intonated for tens and it sounds fantastic. I've raised the bridge slightly to give it slightly higher action. I'll see if I can make a quick recording of this guitar. It's got a lot of gorgeous hollow "scooped" woody tone, especially from the single coil. Joshua prefers to use the bridge pickup, though.

He also likes to turn the volume all the way up.

Here's one more guitar porn shot of the unusual bridge and pickguard design.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Screwed by Screws

So, I'm trying to get back to a project that has been on hold -- finishing up the final tweaks and repairs on three Squier Super-Sonics.

Super-Sonic number 1 is in storage, and is about as mint as possible, showing only slight finish aging that actually makes it look very pretty.

Super-Sonic number 2 also has some small bridge issues, and I've been trying to fix them. It looks like a previous owner stripped out some bridge saddle height adjustment screws and replaced them with some screws that weren't hex, and so they were a fugly mix that clearly was not original.

To fix this, I ordered a Fender set of replacement saddles. But here's where the story gets stupid and becomes all about metric and American parts. The saddles on the Super-Sonic look like traditional stamped Strat saddles, and are even stamped "FENDER." But although the saddles themselves are nearly identical to the USA parts, the screws are not. Of course, this isn't immediately obvious -- they are very close. Close enough that you can screw the USA screws into the Japanese saddles, but they are a little too loose. And if you try to screw the Japanese screws into the USA-made saddles, they won't fit, and since the metal of the saddles is so soft, you can easily ruin the threading. And the Japanese intonation screws also wouldn't fit into the USA-made saddles.

Anyway, as usual when screwing around with these Japanese parts I wasted a lot of time. The upshot is that the Super-Sonic now has Fender USA saddles, height adjustment screws, and intonation screws. It's nearly identical except that the screws are American gauges now. Does that constitute some kind of crime against authenticity that will ruin its vintage value? I don't know. I just know that it is a huge pain to try to find matching parts.

The next thing wrong with Super-Sonic number 2 is that the pots are really corroded and crackle and cut out very badly. I think they may be beyond cleaning. I have some nice new CTS 250K split-shaft pots to replace them with. But, of course, the pots on the original are smaller. The replacements won't fit through the faceplate, and the shaft won't fit the Mustang-style knobs. Ugh. What's my alternative? Cracking the pots open somehow without removing the soldered-on wiring so I can get in there with some spray contact cleaner? Get non-matching knobs and find someone who can widen the holes in the faceplate?

Super-Sonic number 2 also has some really poorly-behaving tuners. I have a set of locking vintage tuners that are supposed to be drop-in replacements for the Klusons... but I'm not optimistic that they will fit. For one thing, the holes in the headstock were drilled slightly too large, even for the tuners that are already in there. The bushings tend to fall out when you remove the strings. What's the repair that keeps the guitar as original as possible? I'm not quite sure.

The last thing wrong with Super-Sonic number 2 is that all the pickguard screws are corroded and need to be replaced. Pickguard screws ought to be as common as dirt, but I'm still looking for an exact match for the originals. They don't match the common Fender or Gibson sizes.

Super-Sonic number 3 has some more issues: the 3-way switch was cut down to a little stump by a previous owner. No 3-way switches I've been able to find will fit the very short body cavity, not even a special "short" Switchcraft switch. I think the answer is a switch from Allparts they call a Korean 3-way that looks like a match. If that fits then it's just a matter or careful soldering.

Super-Sonic number 3 also is missing its original string trees, so I'm trying to find string trees that match the Super-Sonics. They aren't quite the same screw size as any others I've been able to find, and use little white plastic spacers. If I want it to look original I have to find something that matches. Allparts has something that looks about right, but the Super-Sonic uses two different sizes of white plastic spacers. It's maddening.

I've also got a screw issue with one of my Squier Venus guitars -- it needs humbucker height adjustment screws that don't seem to match humbucker height adjustment screws from any other humbuckers I've seen. My local hardware gurus at Stadium hardware, which boasts a selection of thousands and thousands of screws, couldn't help me.

It would help if Allparts actually had measurements on all their parts, instead of blurry little photos.

This is not a hobby for the impatient!