Monday 19 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!

Wednesday 21 September 2016

What's happening September 2016

I am still playing from time to time at Deli Chicchi on a Sunday afternoon/evening. The owner Glenn believes in live music and good on him. Sure you can have your home theatre big screen blasting out a blu ray recording of The Eagles live, and you will get a great experience, but you weren't there "in the moment" and even though live music at a pub/cafe won't be quite the same grand experience, you will get "in the moment". Both experiences are great but here in my small city of Perth, people, as a generalisation, haven't (re-)discovered the joys of live music. So get out there!

I haven't recorded anything lately even though my computer game tune arrangement is ready to go and I have already played it several times in public. So nothing to report on that front.

A few times over the past few years I have spoken about finger pain, last year; in 2011, all the way back to 2010. The sad conclusion I've had to draw is that yes, if I go to hard on my left hand doing awkward fretting I am going to cause myself pain. Is it arthritis setting in? I don't think so. Am I managing the pain? Yes; just. It's a sad thing when you know you are capable of doing something but you shouldn't do it. So pulling back is a hard thing to do.

Stretching fingers/wrists and hands helps but it isn't a cure-all. I have some regular stretches I do while I'm at work and they increase how far I can do without busting into pain-and-damage land. Stretching during a long playing session, especially simply pulling your hands back at the wrist is a good idea. I have also been taking turmeric pretty much every day for more than a year now. Yes, the yellow spice; it is a natural and cheap anti-inflammatory. Mix a quarter of a teaspoon with water and down it, once a day in the morning. I've become accustomed to the taste, it grows on you. When I have forgotten to take it for more than a week I notice that I get into pain-and-damage land much sooner. So I'm giving it a tick and sticking to it.

I am going to catch up with a year 11 student at my kid's school sometime soon. I saw him once at a music show belting out some pretty good fingersyle; he has skills. I thought "I could show him some stuff, and save him from having to learn the hard way the past few decades what I have learnt." So I spoke to the music teacher and he introduced me. He seems keen, I will find out what his goals are and see if I can help him get there. It would be nice to be a "guitar mentor", I feel like I've got stuff to give. Life is big, and wide, and varied, and everything isn't about guitar. But at least the parts that are about guitar can be as worthwhile and fruitful as possible :-)


Thursday 8 September 2016

Powertab to MuseScore

I've finally decided to move out of the 2000's and into modern day - I'm switching from Powertab to MuseScore. Why? It creates really nice scores to play from. I'm still transitioning so I might still do the grunt tab work in Powertab and then import it into MuseScore to finish it off. The tab entry process for MuseScore, which I have tested previously, is a bit different than Powertab, so it's going to take some getting used to.

What has finally won me over is how beautiful - and useful - the score sheet is. Here's an example, the current piece I am arranging, click on it to show detail. How good is that!
Now proper musicians will rightly balk at this, but here are my random thoughts about this presentation of the score:
  1. Clef notation is great because it gives you note duration. Tab does not normally give you note duration, but this "full tab" presentation does!
  2. Clef notation doesn't give you left hand fingering positions (unless specifically marked), Tab, by its very nature, does. Fingerstyle tends to wander all over the fretboard to get the fingerting resolves needed, so knowing that you need to play a C on the third string rather than the second string is important.
  3. Clef notation is hard to read when the notes go too far above and below the clef. Tab doesn't have that problem.
So in this score I reckon I have the best of all worlds - string, fret, music tails to show note duration as well as duration spacing - and it's all presented in an easy to read fashion, with plenty of score per page!

Let me know what you think!

Thursday 11 August 2016

What's happening August 2016

Recently I was working away again, and took up my main guitar.  Managed to get a lot of playing in, nothing new, just practise on the old stuff.  This turned out to be fortuitous; when I came back Glenn at Cafe Chicchi got in contact with me and I've been playing out there around every two weeks.  It's great to be out there playing and chatting to patrons again.  If you are ever in the Mount Claremont area, check on their webpage if I'm playing on the weekend, and stop by. Make sure you say hello!

I still have "The Chain" to record, I need to get the motivation to get on with it.  When you aren't recording, it gets easier to keep not recording.  If you know what I mean.  Great song, I've done a pretty good job with it if I do say so myself, I'm looking to get it out to you.

I also need to finish making my little guitar USBs.  Did I mention it to you?  I get asked from time to time "where's your CD?" Well, CDs are pretty olde school, I decided I could do better than that, so I bought a batch of USB sticks in the shape of a little classical guitar.  They were around $5 each, 8GB flash, they are a very cool shape although it would have been better if they were hard plastic rather than flexible plastic, but no matter.  I plan on filling them with all my MP3s, sheet music, videos, lessons, and anything else I've ever created.  Most of it is available here, but not the raw videos, so you are getting something you can't normally get.

I was thinking $20 each, and the offer that if you ever see me again, I will swap it with the latest revision.  Each time I make new stuff I will update it.  And I will sign/initial each one.  And you get to talk to me when buying it! :-)


Tuesday 7 June 2016

Why Can't This Be Blog?

Not much activity recently but two songs are ready to record - Shine and The Chain.  Pretty happy with both; I'm going to get my wife or daughter to do the recording rather than just tripod up a fixed camera position.  So:
  • Record video from varying changing angles, doing a few play throughs,
  • Record an audio track through condenser microphone in a separate session,
  • Punch out errors in audio track for a nice'n'clean('n'fake) "studio" recording,
  • Chop and paste video bits from my favourite angles to match the studio recording.
So it's more of a "music video" for the song than a recording of me playing the song.  If you know what I mean.  I did it previously for Get Back and I reckon that is one of my more memorable videos of recent times.  Next time I will go hand held camera rather than various fixed position angles, seems to have been a popular style of videography for a while.

Meanwhile, true to form, I stumbled across another song "I just had to do".  Van Halen, "Why Can't This Be Love", classic 1986 right when I was into popular music.  During the late 90's I made my engineering team listen to this song non-stop for about 2 hours during a pretty intense phase of a project, partly because I still loved the song, partly because when I pressed stop they would realise that intense work is better then intense work + non stop Van Halen, and partly because of the bestest stupidest line in a song ever: "Only time will tell if we stand the test of time."

First song after Lee Roth left, by Sammy Hagar.  I've still got the bridge to finalise but the rest is mostly done, just gotta get it playing cleaner.  Here is me Hagar'ing it:


Friday 4 March 2016

Shine with three point lighting

Heh, I had to giggle at that title.

I recorded a video tutorial on a song I'm working on, Collective Soul "Shine". I can play it well enough to do a tutorial. I also recorded it using my new three point lighting system that I purchased from ebay late last year for around $AUD150 (2015). I had been looking for an excuse to use it. All my videos for too long have had bad lighting. Well no more!

Definitely an improvement, but more learning required. Firstly, don't position the light so that it reflects off the guitar into the camera. Try not to have such a blotchy red face. Don't illuminate the solar panel on top of my head too much. Oh well, can't help much of that. Makeup? Nah, that's going too far.

Here's a photo of my set up. In a room currently full of junk, I was using a backdrop but it wasn't flat enough and was catching shadows so I stuck with the wall. Things to note:

  • Rear upper light
  • Key light (brighter) on my left as I sat
  • Fill light on my right (dimmer).
  • Camera in front of me and a mirror behind it (camera doesn't have a forward LCD).
  • Zoom H1 mic on small grey tripod. 
  • Dog wondering what I was doing.

Now as for the video, I've kept it shorter than my usual waffle and just got on with it. Enjoy some gen-u-ine Aussie accent. Look it's a great song, give it a crack. Why have I hit the grunge? Dunno, but it is the second grunge song I've done recently.

Here's the video, tab in ASCII follows. I will post the pdf when I get the song recorded for real. Enjoy!







Wednesday 17 February 2016

What's happening February 2016

I have been doing hand and wrist stretching for around a month now, and apart for pushing the stretches too far on one occasion it has been great.  My pinky pain has gone away and I have found that the fingering that was previously causing me issues is not causing such a problem anymore.  I'm recommending that we all do hand and wrist stretches.  Don't push too far, and don't stretch when your hands are cold and stiff.  There are plenty of good videos on YouTube about it, my personal favourites are pushing your hands back at the wrist, and stretching your fingers apart.

I'm working on three arrangements again, it always ends up being three, I don't know why. "The Chain" is basicaly done, ready to be recorded.  I saw Kel Valleau do "Smells like Teen Spirit" on YouTube a while back, as always he did a great job.  Was enough to inspire me to have a crack.  I remember that song back in the day, one of the guys I worked with at the time loved singing it.

What inspired me about "Smells like Teen Spirit" was that it is only a few phrases to learn but they looked quite challenging. I've also basically finished with it and am ready to record a video. I reckon I'll write a post about it sometime soon, it's worthy of a story.

While practising it, my wife remembered another grunge song from the era which we both liked, Collective Soul "Shine" which sparked an interest in me.  I didn't notice any existing fingerstyle arrangements of it so I had a quick crack based on some tabs I found.  As with any fingerstyle arrangement adding the melody line is the trick.  And as I've found before, pushing all the music back down to open chords helps, and this particular song suits Drop D tuning.  I still really enjoy Drop D tuning.

And grunge, ha ha, what a style of music :-)

Meanwhile, I am gigging again, at a cafe in Mt Claremont in my home town of Western Australia.  Great to be back out there,  Since I've been away for so long I have found my performance anxiety levels are back to high, and my tunes were rusty.  I played a demo a week back and played a proper session over the weekend.

Perfect crowd for me, correct age group. I love it when I ask if anyone has a band request, and I happen to have a song from that band in my setlist! I kept playing even when there wasn't so many people and they weren't as engaged. I played songs I was very rusty with, which made it a good practise session too.

I ended up playing more or less non stop for about 2 and half hours.  Longer than I should have, but I wasn't experiencing pain or discomfort so why not.  Towards the end I was starting to drop notes and my hands were getting too sweaty so I knew it was time to stop.  I always carry a clean cotton rag to wipe the sweat off my hands and fretboard from time to time while playing, which is a good tip I came across a while back.  Even wiping the strings after playing, the amount of sweat and oil I had added during the session really deadened them.  Later in the week the bass strings were still very dead, so I took them off and gave them a clean, and restrung them backwards.  Another good tip I came across - reversing them gets the fret wear on the other end, exposes a bit more unplayed string and brightens them up.

At the end of my set the cafe owner pressed some folding currency into my hand, I look forward to the next!


Monday 25 January 2016

D'Addario EJ45FF strings

A few months ago when stocking up on strings (I'm sorry Local Music Shop, but I buy my strings online, because I always get exactly what I want and it is half the price even with delivery) I noticed my normal string of choice - D'Addario EJ45 - now come in a "Carbon" version. I finally wound them on and observed a few points:
  • The trebles are transparent. For some reason I thought they be non-transparent!
  • The trebles are thinner. In fact the 3rd string is about the same thickness as a normal 2nd string. But then on the basses, the 4th string is a tiny bit thinner, the 6th string is a tiny bit thicker, neither enough to notice, the 5th string remains the same:
String     | Nylon  | Carbon
1st string | 0.71mm | 0.61mm
2nd string | 0.82mm | 0.69mm
3rd string | 1.02mm | 0.84mm
4th string | 0.74mm | 0.71mm
5th string | 0.89mm | 0.89mm
6th string | 1.09mm | 1.12mm
  • The thinner trebles are noticeable, but did not cause me any issues.
  • The trebles a brighter tone than nylon. Note the "carbon" in carbon strings means that the filament is made from fluorocarbon, which is essentially a hydrocarbon where all the hydrogens have been replaced with Fluorine. The Carbon-Fluorine bond is apparently the second strongest bond known next to Silicone-Fluorine. Interesting. Nylon on the other hand is a synthetic long-chain polymer which makes more sense as a fibre, but we've just run out of my chemistry knowledge.
  • The basses are about the same tone as the standard EJ45's. Maybe slightly brighter, hard to say, you'd have to do a control test.
  • The trebles feel "silkier", maybe "slipperier" might even be a better way to describe them. The basses have the same touch and feel as nylon wound, I didn't detect any difference.
  • The trebles bedded in faster than nylon, as in, they stopped stretching and held their tune[1] in less time. The basses maybe the same too, I find the nylon wound basses bed in reasonably quickly anyway. Note that I have been re-stringing the same way for a while - basses one twist at the bridge, 2nd/3rd treble two twists, 1st treble three twists. At the tuner I pull the string tight and loop it over itself so a minimum amount of turns to reach tune. This has always been the best way to get a fast bed-in for me.
  • The tone lasted long enough, not double the time considering the double the price.
I played a few long gigs on this set of strings which deadened them quicker than if they were just in a practise rotation.  So the dynacore basses have a slightly better tone than the standard basses, and the tone hangs in there a little bit longer.  The carbon trebles have a nice bright tone that lasts but over time I found I disliked the thinner strings.  Will I use them again?  No, but in the future I will try the "dynacore" and the EXP coated sets. There's a web page showing all the D'Addario string variants here
[1] No classical guitar ever holds its tune. Just you holding the guitar for a few minutes is enough to put a bit of body heat into it which changes the tuning...which you re-tune compensate...and then when done pack away...and then next time it is out of tune again because it is cold again...


Sunday 10 January 2016

What's happening January 2016

Warm wishes for 2016, and warm it certainly is, summer is sure heating up Western Australia.  This year is my 10th year anniversary of being on Youtube, how times flies. Youtube had been around for around for about a year when I created my account in May 2006, so I felt like a late comer, but it seems now like I'm an early adopter.

Meanwhile, whilst practising one of my latest songs I injured my hand again. Argh. Same as last time, left pinky. It's some sort of strain, only hurts when I use it...I've mentioned before that when you are practising it's not a good idea to do the same movements over and over again.  I should listen to my own advice.

I stopped playing for a week or two which coincided with Chrismas so it was not too bad, but I was very disappointed with my boo boo.  I started doing some research into what it is, and what I can do about it. It seems that it is an over-use injury, somewhere between tendonitis and carpal tunnel but not arthritis...nothing Dr Google could fully diagnose.  I did however come across much interesting and useful stuff.

Did you know your ulnar nerve is the "largest unprotected nerve in the human body (meaning unprotected by muscle or bone), so injury is common" (Wikipedia).  The reason I mention this is because it is connected primarily to your pinky, via your elbow.  It is your "funny bone" - when you whack your funny bone it is your ulnar nerve you are whacking. Since both my pinkies suffer from the same problem I'm pretty sure my left hand pinky is only aggravating an existing issue at my elbow.  Cubital tunnel syndrome is similar to carpal tunnel syndrome except rather at the wrist it is at the elbow, entrapment of the ulnar nerve.  I don't think that is what it is, except it made me realise I've had elbow issues for years.

Anyway, what was the most enlightening was what to do about all these finger, wrist and arm issues - stretching!  After watching a few Youtube videos, I couldn't believe how flexible some people's hands are - and how stiff I am.  In fact, I sat down with my wife and we did a ten minute video doing a bunch of different hand stretches, and my wife's hands are far more flexible than mine!

So I've been doing a bunch of stretches daily, or more, things like bending my hands back and forward, stretching fingers apart, pushing thumb against the wrist and backwards. Very quickly I noticed my hand flexibility improved. It didn't make my problem go away, but it's early days, I'll report back with findings.