Sunday, 18 December 2016

Information+choices overload indecision

I had to break through another information+choices overload indecision barrier over the weekend. You know the barrier. You need/want something, not exactly sure what type/model/manufacturer you need/want, so you have a look and are overwhelmed with information and choices, and bottom line "I don't want to feel that I made a mistake, or look like I made a mistake" so in your indecision you do nothing. If you don't suffer from this afflication, well done, my hat is off to you.

In this case, it's amplifaction. Not even specifically guitar amplification. Let me explain.

At home I have an electronic drum kit which has never had a dedicated amp, and the kids especially The Boy likes to play on it. I don't like them using my amp for it, because drums are really thumpy and can "blow" a guitar amp. My daughter plays bass guitar through an awful keyboard amp. My gig amp is an old Ashton busker's amp which has an adequate sound, but it doesn't have a lot of punch.

So I happend to walk past a music store, and went in. "I want a cheap amp that I can put an electric drum, a bass guitar, and an acoustic guitar through." (Yes I knew this is impossible, but I wanted to see what he said ;-))

A super-chatty and helpful bloke then spent an hour and a half with me. Here's a quick list about what we talked about in relation to my issue:
  • Electronic drums have a huge thump on the bass drum waveform, which requires a lot of power and speaker size to properly service. Guitars generally don't create anything thumpy like a bass drum so guitar amps aren't designed to do that.

  • Bass guitars are lower frequency but also don't have that thump of a bass drum waveform. They will work on a guitar amp but again, guitar amps aren't designed for that lower frequency.

  • Practise amps and guitar amps aren't just about amplification, they are also about effects and getting a "sound" out of your guitar. Years ago I decided for a classical guitar completely clean is what I like, let the room shape the sound. Some equalisation is nice to overcome room limitations, but the guitar does that at the pre-amp. Perhaps a tiny bit of reverb is nice for some people, like if you were playing outside with no "room feel", but for me, any effects just "muddies" the sound.

  • You can buy speakers - passive speakers, and active speakers. Passive means you need an amp to drive them. Active means they have an amp in them. An active speaker is kinda like a PA (Public Address) system, but PAs generally have a bit more going on - some sort of mixing, multiple inputs, a sub separate from one or more midrange speakers, and built in amps. More like a package. An Active speaker is a speaker, with an effect-free amp built in.

At this stage I hit "I dunno!" <hand goes to head>. All I wanted was something so the kids could play the drums again, but it was versatile for anything else. But the "active speaker" format was starting to look pretty good. You can buy hugely powerful amps built into a plastic box with a 12", even a 15" speaker, just give them a signal and they reproduce it, a truely flat frequency response (what you hear is the same as from the instrument simply louder - no bass increase, no treble increase, it's flat). Sure, We all get twitchy with this Chinese plastic gear "It should be made of plywood, and heavy, and yudda yudda", but when I did a test play through with a shop nylon, it was really, really nice.

Uh oh. Now it was a case of "why don't I buy a new amp for me, and let the kids blow up my existing amp?" And then it came back to something I have been avoiding for a decade - "Okay, if I'm going to buy and amp for me, what should I get?" Because now we were back into the land of guitar amps. Arghh!

"Okay, show me The Best." I played through some good 'ole AER Compacts. "Righto - stop right there, I don't need to see any more. I have researched amps many times over the last decade, and was about to buy an AER years ago, but didn't. If I need an amp for me, it will be an AER Compact. And this one is still a beautiful sound." They are still $1500 amps however and that doesn't fit in my budget.

And that got me through the barrier, w00t! Because see, I already know that I "need" an AER, but currently don't want to afford it. And one of these plastic fantastic active speakers will achieve what I need right now (drums, bass, acoustic, even the piano). (The shop dude reckoned if I had two of them, with a little mixer, that would actually be a really good fit for me - it would "fill" a venue creating stereo sound and it would be great.)

I had been looking at the secondhand market on and off for a year for an amp. I was in the shop. This amp fitted what I needed. It was more than what I wanted to pay, but what I wanted to pay was zero. So I walked out with it, a Behringer Eurolive B112D.

Heh, it says "1000W". I'm an electronics engineer, you aren't fooling me Behringer. In fact a brash statement such as that immediately puts me off. What I had to do was ignore that "specification" and judge it purely on what it could do. And when I put it on the drums, and kicked that bass drum, streuth! The 12" speaker and whatever actual power is driving it is _plenty_ enough. And then I played my nylon through it, and the fatness of the sound was beautiful. It's coming with me to gigs from now on :-)

...but in the back of my mind lurks the AER Compact Classic Pro - the classical guitar version AER amp. I mentally decided that all gig proceeds I get from now on will go into a jar labelled "AER" :-)

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

What's happening December 2016

A few musical things have happened since I last spoke, been an interesting few months.

The year 11 student, let's call him "Dave", we managed to get one session in before exams and holidays hit in.  I got him to play me some stuff, and tell me about himself and what he is doing.  He plays some really nice fingerstyle, funny how those young hands/muscles/fingers are so dexterious and nimble.  Not too many songs in the bag just yet, but good quality what is there.  A few half-songs, so I had to pull him up on that - no half songs allowed!  Interestingly, he's not even a guitarist, he's a drummer!  Self taught on the guitar, he just loves it and is very motivated.  And that's the key - self learning and motivated.

Like my son, who was doing recorder this year, being year 4 (age 9).  I remember doing recorder about that age.  He was taught from a book "black belt recorder" or something like that, the idea that you get "belts" as you progress, aiming for black belt.  He took it on as a challenge and had another boy he was in competition with.  I thought "whatever keeps you going is good", and although the competition got unhealthy at some stages, he was playing the recorder all the time.  Why watch TV when you can play the recorder?  My wife and I were impressed at his abilities, I printed out some recorder sheet off the internet "here play this" and much to my amazement, he sight read it, a little clumsy, but he basically saw a note on the page and it immediately turned into a note on his recorder.  Fantastic!  That's what you want!

Played the piece that is until he abruptly stopped.  "We've never learnt that note." "Oh.  Let's look it up!" Turns out it is one of those half thumb high notes. "Oh, Mrs Davis told us about them, but we didn't learn them.  But I see how it works, I'll practise it."  And within a week he played that song for his class.  And just today, at last day of the year school assembly, he won the award for highest achievement for year 4 music.  Got himself a scolarship to play Alto Sax next two years to boot.

Okay, proud Dad there a bit, but my point is that my son, like Dave, are self motivated and keen.  That gets you wherever you want to go.  That leaves natural talent behind.  That keeps you playing an instrument for life.

Meanwhile, plenty of Sunday afternoon gigs at the cafe.  As Summer is rolling in, the place is getting quite deserted.  Last week I played for 6 people.  Quite a way down from the 30-40 in Spring.  The owner is still keen, he's swapping between me and a singer/guitarist; I'm not charging as much so I've been getting the gig a bit more recently now the number of patrons are down.

The problem with the gig is that I play for 2 and a bit hours, pretty much non-stop, and then I put the guitar away when I get home...and don't pick it up again until next Sunday.  I like the gig, I like the interaction with people, I like to play through my sets.  But I must get enough of a fix that I don't work on new arrangements, or anything else during the week.  It's almost like playing the gig turns it into a job...

Now I've spoken about hand/finger pain a bit over the last few years, and how my current stretching and daily shot of turmeric keeps it minimised.  Well I've got a new one for you.  I'm calling it Oldmanitis, but after 2 weeks of pain which included visits to the doctor and physio, it's been identified as Cervical Radiculopathy, likely at the C7 vertebrae maybe 8th.  Also known as "pinched nerve", it radiates pain into your shoulder and pins and needles down the arm and into the hand.  Mine is getting better and the physio is not concerned. I still have full muscle strength.  Daily anti-inflammatories are helping, "it should be gone soon."  Before you ask, no, it's unlikely that it is guitar playing related, most likely from cycling.  I try to do 80-100kms a week commuting to work, which I've been doing for 5 years now, to keep fit.  I recommend it, but don't get yourself a pinched nerve in the neck. Fortunately it doesn't hurt to play guitar!

Until next time!
JAW