Touch My Booty

Pop songs that become hits and move millions of people are a miracle, even for singer as talented as Mariah Carey. It’s even more miraculous when a pop song that has had its way with the earholes of millions (and their money) not only makes it onto the playlist of a recovering jazzaholic like me, but then gets repeatment treatment. Mariah Carey has had an edge (curves, actually) in gaining access to both of my earholes since I was twelve years old, and saw her posing wearing a black mini dress all over Tower Records in Manhattan. So I have always hoped to hear a song good enough to justify getting that 12″ vinyl full of those pictures, or even just to sit through one of her videos with audio not muted.

Ultimately, it finally took a cover by a Japanese artist to take her music seriously. There’s nothing sexy about row of guys at a local bar complaining about their (ex)wives, so I was easily distracted from the conversation when I heard a girl sing, “Touch My Body/Throw me on the floor.”  Of course, I found the original first, and eventually paid crApple $2.50 for the single. Now I am not a man who can rest if he suspects that he’s just been the victim of a ear-fuck, so I started to use my musical training to speculate about how this song put me under its spell. Latent preteen lust for MC? Nah, bro…

Besides the lyrics which are impossible to ignore, I like the chord changes/voicings (G/E-A-Bm7-F#m7-Bm7). I like the space between the kick drum’s pulse and finger snaps and hand-claps instead of the usual snare sound. I like the simple chimes and strings ornamenting the arrangement. I like the clean and intimate production.  The melodic and harmonic content is so simple that it seems like a children’s song for adults, but that’s a particular asset in a pop song. The whole track is so accessible, and does nothing to distract from MC’s vocal technique and the sexuality she clearly articulates.

So I became curious about who could make such a minimalist masterpiece, and found a surprising amount of information and misinformation (chord changes) on Wikipedia about such a short and simple song. Writer credits show that it took no less than FOUR people to compose! My first guess was that each of them wrote a part for each octave in MC’s range, but after accepting that that joke was neither funny nor accurate, I started to draw a picture in my mind of what writer’s credit really means in a  recording environment. Wrote the chorus? Credit. Wrote a verse, or changed one word? Credit. Programmed the beat? Credit. Played keyboard parts critical to completing the arrangement? CREDIT, MUTHAFUCKA.

The old model of copywriting a song’s melody has been inadequate since sheet music stopped being the best medium for popular songs to reach the population. (That’s why we have now have bebop.) The people at the very highest levels of the music industry working with artists like Mariah Carey got where they are today at least partly due to big ambitions that include business savvy. So they must have realized now that ANYONE can be included in a writing credit, and are smart enough to demand it, even if they didn’t contribute to writing the melody. Hell, the melody is barely more than two notes.

No one in at that level of the music industry is getting screwed out of royalties for contributing some small but crucial  element of a song that makes it a hit. Drummer Ginger Baker, singer Clare Tory or arranger Johny Pate are just a few of the skilled artists who later had to sue in order to get their slice of cheddar from the hits they were literally instrumental in creating. The real content (and work) of the Touch My Body is the lyrics, the production and especially the singer’s improvising. I would like this song if almost any female vocalist had done it, but I probably wouldn’t have obsessed over it without MC’s riffing at the end.

After listening to the tune for fuckteenth time, I realized that have I always liked her singing on tunes like Dream Weaver, Emotions, All I Want for Christmas is You, and others. Not the track. Not the high notes. It’s the riffing (or melisma if you ain’t got soul.) That’s the same kind of shit I love to do with my own limited vocal and guitar skills to give it flavor. I believe that singing like that is a model for me to aspire, which in turn helps me to connect with people like the drunken old hipster, sweet Irishman, and curious 9-year old girl in Topper’s bar last night through music.


Parallels: It’s Not the Water that Kills You, It’s the Voltage.

My little Behringer XENYX 502 mixer surprised me last week: It passed an audio signal WITHOUT POWER!

Recently I decided to finally get a set of powered monitors after discovering the affordable Fostex Personal Monitor series. The white PM0.3 look like glorified PC speakers, but they fit perfectly on my shelf and are not over powered for my small space. They don’t have TRS inputs or a built-in power supply and heatsinks like the PM0.4s I initially spotted in a recycle (2nd hand) shop in Cheeba, but sound clear, balanced and hum-free driven by the Xenyx. What’s this have to do with passive mixing?

Having a pair of powered monitors seemed to finally fully actualize the function of this mixer that until now I’d mainly been using as a headphone amplifier. Now I can finally listen to records again while doing dishes and nap on the couch without cans pinching my ears or hair, or getting tangled up in the cable and yanking the mixer off the shelf and then breaking something. Best of all, I can plug in and power up much faster to jam with my music. They even did a good job monitoring the wet signal from my TC Electronic HOF Reverb in an LRC tri-amp setup with the Little Lanilei dry. What’s this got to do with electronics?

As a bonus, I discovered that they will also work just as well driven directly by the little Audio Technica AT-PEQ3 I got with my Technics 1200 from an old friend. This was a happy discovery resulting from a connection fail: I mistakenly plugged the output of the phono amp/eq into the main output of the mixer (next to channel 4/5 where it should have been). When I tried to adjust the levels and got no response. That got me thinking.

Then I noticed the blue LED was dim, yet didn’t assume it was broken because I heard the music coming out of the speakers clealy. Powering up the mixer stopped the music. However powering up requires me going across the hall into the bathroom to plug in my Furman power conditioner into the only grounded outlet in the apartment, normally reserved for the washing machine. So discovering that I could listen to music without this step was a joyful one.

According to the manual the main outs are in parallel with CD/TAPE which I have connected to the Fostex personal monitors. This means that they are directly hardwired together, and so actually completed the signal path between the audio source and the monitor inputs. So why did powering up STOP the music moving from one output to the other? Intuitively, I knew the answer. Academically, I think this fail helped me understand the difference between electrical voltage and current.

Electronics textbooks often compare voltage to water pressure. Maybe because of this, I pay attention when playing with water. For example, I was playing in the park with my kids over the weekend, and came across a water fountain/faucet. Our thermos was empty, so I tried to fill it up but the lower faucet (pointing to the ground/earth*) wasn’t working. Not to be denied, I put the thermos over the fountain, and tried to fill it upside down, figuring the water pressure coming out of the spout would be enough to fill it up. We’ve all seen this in a plastic water bottle somewhere. This didn’t happen though, and water started spraying everywhere but inside the thermos. Some water did make it into the narrow thermos, maybe about a 1/4 of its volume. Unfortunately this was just enough to stop anymore from getting in because the pressure from weight of the water inside was greater than the projectile force of the water coming out of the tiny hole.

This is exactly what I imagined was happening with my mixer. The AT PEQ is designed to put out a strong enough signal to drive powered power speakers, same as the mixer. So even if there are any other solid state components connected in parallel to the outputs, the load is not enough to impede the line-level signal. However powering up the mixer from the washing machine outlet in the bathroom, stronger voltages must now be present in the circuit which resist the audio signal (voltage) from the turntable preamp. The components in the (probably resistors) are designed so that the signal flows only one way: OUT. So in conclusion, solid state components like resistors, diodes and transistors can stop the flow signals, but so can other electrons with a more voltage flowing in the opposite direction or polarity.

I’ve been trying to get my head around electronics for three decades, but haven’t learnt much from textbooks because I don’t get dirty and dangerous experimenting. It’s just the fear of ruining something or hurting myself or just wasting time with things I don’t really understand, which is a stupid shame because this is really the only way I can learn how this stuff works.

Ebtech LLS-2 for +4dBu Effects Loops

IMG_4879Anyone bothering to read this blog will have noticed that one of my treasures is an early Little Lanilei 1/4 Watt tube amp. It turns out I was still using it wrong until last week when an Ebtech LLS-2 arrived from the States. This magic black box makes the little amp compatible with the effects like reverb and cabinet simulation that I need for silent practice. LLS doesn’t stand for Little Lanilei Softner, but that’s effectively what it does for me. Without it, the signal from the amp’s line out is hot enough to cause some very nasty distortion in my Korg Pandora even at low levels; and not the good kind that the Lanilei was designed for, but the harsh and splattery digital variety.

The Ebtech has two channels, each with two jacks labelled “+4dBu” and “-10dBu.” I’ve never been exactly sure what that means for signals, so the only way to be sure was try it. The website said the amps line-out jack is compatible with +4db effects, so I plugged the Little Lanilei into the +4 jack, and the -10 into the Pandora’s input. The level was much more manageable and the sound was much warmer. Still, one of the symptoms of impedance mismatch can be loss of high end. Since there was certainly less of everything, I tried reversed the connections to check that I wasn’t doing it wrong. With the Pandora connected to +4b, the sound was so loud and harsh I think it damaged my hearing a bit!

Plugging a Y-cable into the Little Lanilei’s line-out turns it into an effects loop. Before the LLS-2 I had the opposite problem with my modded Boss digital delay: the repeats sounded weak and undefined (though with a stock Boss DD-3, this might actually be a good thing.) Boosting the E.LEVEL compensated for this, but the sound quality was still different. Fortunately, the LLS-2 has a second channel for stereo gear, but I can use for matching impedances for both the SEND and RETURN of an FX loop. BOSS compact pedals are supposed to be -20db effects, so it seemed obvious to connect it the -10db jacks, but isn’t the output of a buffered pedal a line-level signal, thus compatible with the high-impedance inputs used on pro-gear, meaning I don’t need impedance matching for the RETURN signal, right?

No, actually. While there was no loss in overall volume without the LLS-2 between the the DD-3’s output and FX loop return, the delays sounded small, inarticulate and grainy! However with the right connections (-10 from effect, +4 to RETURN), the sound was perfect. To test for volume loss, I pulled the TRS plug out of the line-out jack, and the amp suddenly got a lot louder. Even though the amp wasn’t as loud with the LLS-2, the Little Lanilei was not designed to be loud but sound great at the lowest volume possible. That it does that inspiringly, especially now with the Ebtech LLS-2 moderating the effects.

Saturday Night Special (Fender Blues Junior)

Saturday night’s gig was the highlight of a dramatic three-day weekend that included meaningful interactions with apathetic police, nutty nay-bores, energetic children, confusing local roads, cool liquor store owners, strong imported beers, sexy girls, whisky, torrential rain, shopping malls, sunsets, DVDs, greasy noodle shops and my future ex-wife. However the most pleasing interaction by far was between my Ibanez George Benson guitar, mini-pedal board and a blue Fender Blues Junior amp.

More than lack of practice, what to wear and who hang with after; I was worried about having to use an 80-watt Fender Twin, overpowered for a Shibuya cafe that would barely accomodate 80 people. At my last gig with this R&B cover band, I had a choice between a Roland JC-120 and a 15-watt solid state Fender Studio Drive with an 8″ Celestion “Red Force” speaker. I chose the latter, and was very pleased with the results, though the band lamented they couldn’t hear me enough.

This wasn’t a problem this time. I was able to dial in a tight, bright and balanced sound very easily even with the reggae DJ spinning in the background. With the gain and bass set to about 1~2, I had enough clean headroom and none of the boominess I get with big amps in small rooms with the GB-10. Not wanting to repeat history, I engaged the Fat, and cranked the Master up to about 7, tweaked the treble and literally never looked back.

My pedals that night were my new Xotic SP Compressor, AMT “Japanese Girl” Wah, SD Tweak Fuzz and Line6 Echo park all running on my portable Eneloop power supply.  I love these pedals, but was a bit disappointed with their performance with this amp. That’s probably because my settings are optimised for a different environment (usually headphones), and I never really had a change to test them during sound check.

Back home, I did some research on this little machine. Some people complain of harshness, but playing a dark-sounding archtop with overwound humbuckers, brass bridge saddles and flat wounds, this wasn’t an issue for me. Extended highs are welcome for cutting through a 12-piece funk/R&B for a percussive attack and chord clarity. It turns out that this amp can be easily modded to sound more like a Twin, which is what I’ve been seeking in an amp for years.

That doesn’t mean I’m going out to get one, though — not just yet anyway. I’m still waiting for a handmade Little Lanilei 3350LT right now which is cheaper, more portable and should sound better at higher and lower volumes. Even 15 watts would be too much my apartment and the crazy old unmarried and unemployed bitch who lives next door. Then again, I’ve been changing amps about twice a year since selling my Mesa/Boogie Studio.22, so who knows.

Qwik Summer Reviews

Summer’s seen some some serious shopping. Blog blabbing boring begets quick concise comments:

  1. Xotic SP Compressor: Awesome on my G&L, less effective with my Ibanez GB-10 in spite of all the dip switch settings. The three-way switch and blend knob on the top can go from very subtle compression, to nice squash, and even overdrive an amp nicely. Sounded amazing with a little Fender SD-15 practice amp. Still not ready to get rid of my limited edition sparkle-red Barber Tonepress, though.
  2. AMT WH-1 “Japanese Girl”:  Smaller and lighter than a Boss Pedal, this pedal makes my pedal case a lot easier to carry, saving my shoulder for the gig but better suited to my 8-year old son’s foot than mine. It has a very chewy sound more like an envelop filter compared the hollow funkiness of the Budwah, but I love filters, so I’m totally satisfied with the sound (but not selling my black-label Budwah.) Some adjustment to my heel-toe technique is required, adjustable pedal tension with a hex wrench helped. Being op-amp based, there are no issues in front of a fuzz.  The switch and LED make using it easier to use live, too.
  3. Fusion F1 Gigbag + F2 Attachement Bag: This gig bag provides plenty of protection for the guitar, lots of pockets for stuff and support for my back and shoulders. However the killer selling point are the attachment bags that I can use to stow a small pedal board (about five devices), leaving both hands free. The attachment bags is also a great stand-alone laptop backpack, and I now use it everyday on my commute.
  4. Korg Nanopad 2: Cheap and compact, but not user friendly. The pads are touch sensitive, but just barely. They only seem to be capable of three levels, and sometimes don’t trigger at all. The advanced features like scale/key for the XY-pad are not intuitive, but I’m having a lot of fun after read the brief manual several times. I was getting confused by the buttons for Scale/Key/Octave/Range, etc. which only affect XY pad. The editing software can help manage velocity, tempo, scales and opens up some new creative possibilities like toggling pads to hold notes and triggering multiple events, like chords.
  5. Planet Waves PW-GR-01 Guitar Rest: As soon as I saw one of these, I knew I had to have it. Only $10 and made in the USA, this is one of those accessories that should have been made decades ago. It’s not perfect, but does really make reaching for my guitar and picks a lot easier, and again when I put them down.

Grounded in the Bathroom

A grounded (earthed) outlet has been starting my in the face every time I shower or shave, but I guess I didn’t noticed because I was too focused on the handome man in the mirror. Also, it’s currently wired up to the washing machine.  However, this weekend I finally decided power the Little Lanilei with it, using a 2-prong adapter with a ground lug.  Not surprisingly there was a little bit less hum when the amp is grounded/earthed. It’s still a bit noisy at high-gain, but much quieter than the Valbee. Clean, the only hum is the 60-cycle variety from the single-coil pickups.

The big surprise was that the bathroom has surprisingly good acoustics and isolation. Turning the little amp up to a sound pressure level I could actually feel instead of just hear, no one complained. So I brought in my Boss RC-3 to autoplay the amp with a loop, then went outside to see it was audible. It wasn’t. The fan in the kitchen and passing cars were the only  sounds I could hear. So I went back inside, and turned the amp up half-way. In our tiny bathroom that’s more than enough sound pressure. Outside the apartment it was just barely audible. Back inside, my kids were complaining, and had taken initiative to disconnect cables. So today while they’re at the pool, Papa’s gonna make some noise!

Bathroom PlugThe other surprise was that there really isn’t much difference in the sound at 100V than 120V, at least not at less than half-volume. Maxed out might be a different story, though. Either way, it doesn’t really matter because I found that the lug on the adapter is long enough so that I can still plug the little step up transformer into the outlet with the adapter in between.

In addition to the isolation and sound quality, one of the nice things about playing in the bathroom is that mirror I mentioned at the top. It lets me see what my hands are doing, and the stupid faces and poses I make when playing. With no chair or air conditioning there, it gets uncomfortable fast but it’s worth it for the quality practice and fun I’m having.

Little Lanlilei Love

Little Lanilei is a compact tube amp that I first heard about through my friend Ben Gross about 10 years ago, and ignored because it was seemingly designed for rockers, not aspiring jazzers like I was back then. However fate conspired to send of these handmade beauties my way last summer. As I’d anticipated, she didn’t play clean. She was made to get dirty. But she was so cute that I kept her on my shelf to decoration my practice room. Then I came upon hard-times, and I had to start downsizing my collection of unique gear.

Little Lanilei was an obvious candidate for auction, but I needed to test her to one more time to make sure she was alright. After all, I had only been able to afford her in the first place because she was messed up and neglected by her previous man: a guy who argued with me for a long-weekend over shipping the power cable and service culture. Even after fixing her up with a soldering iron and a new tube, she still didn’t sound right at max volume plugged into 100V Japanese mains.

Search an ye shall find, and verily unto me was delivered a cheap step-up transformer small enough to fit into my guitar or suitcase. So I got us a cheap soundproofed room for an hour, plugged in and turned on. It took a while to find the sweet spots on the red and white gain and tone knobs, but once I found them, I also found myself really enjoying the sound that came out of that little mermaid-embroidered grille, especially sandwiched in between my pedalboard and a Marshall cabinet.

I actually had so much fun, all I could think about was doing it again the next week. So I invited some coworkers into the studio for an hour to see if the little amp could cut through drums and bass. Sitting atop a Marshall half stack at ear level, and boosted by my Barber Tonepress, she sang true over the bass player’s 20-watt Warwick practice amp, and even managed to stay audible over the drums and my vocals. There was never any danger of being too loud with this 1/4 watt amp, and overpowering anyone or damaging their hearing.

After being complimented on the amp’s appearance by my coworkers and the studio receptionist, (and failing to find any bidders at my desired starting price) I have decided to keep her. My experience let me get to know her better, and in the process, hear better, too. Now I know that I can even use her for jazz at home, if I turn down the guitar’s volume, and the amp’s tone control. Swapping in a low-gain JAN 6189A preamp tube helps, too. I think I’m in love with Little Lanilei.