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.

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ARTEC QTB Onboard Booster

The idea of a battery dying or going dead in the middle of a performance is enough of a reason that most guitarist think active electronics are a terrible idea. Besides the impractical logistics of unscrewing your pickguard in the the middle of a gig, the conventional wisdom is  that the guitar gods of the 60s didn’t have active electronics, than we don’t either. Elder pickup guru Bill Lawrence was quoted as saying “Batteries belong in flashlights.” However the reality is that bassists and acoustic guitarists use active systems all the time, and so do heros like Eric Clapton, David Gilmour and BB King, not to mention lords of metal like Metallica and Zack Wylde. So why do we electric guitarist still shy from them?

Some time ago, I became interested in the idea of an on-board buffer to save space on my pedal board. There is really no way to easy way to mount such a device inside my GB-10, and I never really felt it was necessary with my G&L Legacy’s control circuit. So I got a Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer. However in my search, I found the Guitar Fetish website. After months of browsing, and finally  I decided that I needed a solo boost for jam session where setting up pedals on stage is awkward and kind of embarrassing. However when I tried ordering, they wanted me to fax a copy of my credit card an ID. Not wanting to be bothered, I found the same part here in Japan sold under the Artec brand for the same price.

The circuit I ordered is the QTB, which is a rotary switch providing +3, +14 or +20db of clean boost, which is enough to overdrive any amp. They also make an onboard distortion circuit for which I had zero expectations, but how I would have wished for one of those on the first electric guitar I got when I was 11 years old. The mid-boost circuits the make I imagined would just make the sound muddy and inarticulate. The QTB also colors the tone slightly. There seem to be a little less highs and lows, kind of like a tube-screamer. Rumors that these cheap Chinese preamps are noisy are exaggerated. In the buffer setting (no boost), there is no additional noise. At the 20db setting, extra noise is inevitable.

Installing it was a bit of a challenge, but I took my time and completed the procedure in about 3 hours with only one mistake which I noticed early on fortunately.  I was afraid there would not  be room for the battery and had to put it in between the neck and middle pickups with some tape to hold in in place. Also, the stereo jack required for operation is a bit of a squeeze in the jack cavity, but it doesn’t make any popping noises when plugging in and turning on. The biggest challenge was mounting the control pot. The shaft was slightly narrower than standard sized pots, and the normal nuts didn’t fit but I used one anyway to secure it snuggly onto the pickguard.

My only complaint about this circuit is that I loose the tone control for the bridge pickup. I was using different values for each: 47nf for the neck and 10nf for the bridge. Since I now only have single tone control, I decided to compromise and use a 22nf cap which doesn’t really sound good on any of the pickups. So I may just try the 10nf instead. Also, I noticed that the bass cut has hardly seems to have any effect with the booster engaged. So spent the weekend messing with the wiring, mostly failing. However, at least I have a more palatable treble-bleed now with a 1000pf ceramic cap in parallel with a 150k resistor. Right now the guitar sound mellower, but the tone control does not seem work at all.

It’s also possible that the harshness is just because the pickups are too close to the strings, but if I lower them, the high-E will be weak. So I’m actually considering swapping the Keystones with a $21 set of no-name Chinese pickups with 50mm spacing and about the same impedance as the original Duncans. As for the QTB booster, I like what it does for the sound, but the operation is a bit awkward and redundant. That’s what pedals are for, right? A better strategy would be just to play the guitar with the volume rolled off slightly, and then dime it for solos. This would also capitalize on the treble-bleed’s bass cutting properties. Likewise a good TS-style pedal should do that for solos, as well.

 


Mo’ Fun with the GB-10

Fun fiddling with my GB-10 this week. Youtube browsing brought me around to the coolest James Bond theme ever, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I can’t think of any better way to break in a fuzz than playing John Barry’s brilliantly ominous line of half-notes. With my Keystone-loaded G&L , the SD Tweak Fuzz produces some very nice, thick distortion but didn’t get get the raspy, nasal nastiness you hear on 60 and early 70s recordings. It doesn’t However, with the GB-10’s hotter mini-humbuckers, I can nail that tone. I got a hint about this from watching Freddie Stone using an semi-hollow, like a lot of guys probably did back then. Something about the attack must help get this tone.

Shortly after finishing with the Tweak Fuzz, I took the GB-10 to Guitar Lab to have the new Gotoh brass/aluminium ABR bridge installed. Ito-san said he could slot the saddles in an hour and for 30% less than his initial estimate. When I came back, he let me test it through the ’68 Silverface Twin in his shop ,and the guitar sounded better than ever. Even with the bright new DR Legend flatwounds, the guitar had the round, warm jazz tone I have been seeking for over a decade, minus the sharpness and hardness I sometimes get with this guitar. It also sounded better unplugged, but everything is a trade-off. The extra-sustain and warmth comes at the cost of some funkiness and presence, but it’s still worth it.

Last night I went to a soul/funk jam session in Akasaka for a field test. On the way up the steps in the subway, I tripped and the gig bag hit the stone stairs hard, but the guitar was fine — a testament to the durability of the design. However the tuning pegs still confuse me. The repair guy mistakenly replaced the high-E string with a .013, and I tried changing it before my turn to play but didn’t get it quite right. All the players at the session were very good, but everything they played seemed rehearsed. Before playing, I was presented with a book of charts to choose from, and was delighted when I saw that Too High was in there. However, the other musicians couldn’t play more than just the vamp.

Forget trying to call anything that wasn’t in the book. I called Everybody Loves the Sunshine. The bassist on the stand knew it, but the house keyboard player didn’t, which surprised me. My friend Yosuke wanted to play Do Me, by Prince. This is easy enough, but later he said he was disappointed at the lack of effort these younger less experienced musicians put into performing. They weren’t particularly friendly either, not like the other session we usually hit. I thought maybe they were intimidated, but it was more likely just a the sort of college in-group vibe where everybody’s interests are similar, but unfortunately not really open to anything else. Still, I think I’ll go back with some of my own charts next time.


Rewire

Fails stopped this weekend, and now Reason 2.5 and Live Lite 8.4 are working as Rewire slave applications to Tracktion 2. Since my job provided me with a new MacBook Air, I wanted to use Live on the faster machine.  It definitely  responds faster than on my old single-core 867Mhz Ti PB, but Tracktion 2 won’t run on the new machine (icon shows up with a slash through it), and can’t even install my copy of Reason because it doesn’t have a CD Drive…not that I’m expecting that to run either. It seems these older applications don’t like Intel processors… Tracktion 4 has just come out, but apparently the demos I downloaded have Rewire bugs.

So I tried rewire on my G5 Tower using OS 10.6.3, 10.6.8 and Tiger (10.5). With 10.6.8,  Tracktion recognized Live just once, but no sound came through. On a whim, I installed the Live 9 demo, which fucked it all up. Now all I get is an error saying something like  “Rewire device unavailable.” Reinstalling the applications and the latest version of Rewire didn’t help. With Tiger, I got the same result. However with 10.6.3, I could at least choose Live as a Rewire slave app, there was no sound. So I went back to the trusty old Powerbook with a Rewire v1.7 installer, and finally got all three apps working at the same time. Previously Rewire v.1.4 was there after I reinstalled Reason 2.5. So that worked, but not Live Lite 8.

Watching the three applications running and communicating seamlessly at the same time on my  10-year old machine was really amazing, especially considering Live Lite 8 isn’t supposed to even run on anything slower than a 1.25Ghz Intel processor. However it is still frustrating that I can’t use these apps together on either of the dual-core machines in my possession now. It was also a wake up call for how ignorant I am about Macs. Also, the solution was the obvious one, so it depresses me that it took so long for me to get around to trying it. However, it does reinforce my resolution to use the old Powerbook exclusively for music (not for games, porn, P2P and family abuse) as I had intended when I purchased it.


New Mod Project: GB-10 Bridge

One of the great things about the Ibanez GB-10 is its unique and almost monolithic design. Unlike a strat, it really doesn’t want to be modified. Good luck finding replacement parts for those floating pickups, brass zero-fret and adjustable tailpiece. Even the pots are wrapped in plastic bags to keep the dust out. These features are so unique, it seems a waste to make the redundant. So almost any mod you want to make to this guitar would cost you dearly…except the bridge.

In spite of Ibanez’s solid realisation of George Benson’s brilliant custom design, the guitar is not perfect. For some more modern music, you find yourself wanting a bit more sustain and bite. Turnaround for some more mainstream jazz, and it feels you could use a bit more depth and woodiness. The only easy options you really have to mod the tone are:

  1. Strings: Flat or wound, 12s or heavier for jazz, 11s for blues and R&B.
  2. Amplification: Best through a Polytone or Fender Twin, IMHO. Sometimes a little bit of compression or clean boost helps, too.
  3. Bridge and Tailpiece: In addition to using the tailpiece to adjust the pressure of the bridge on the top, an OEM ABR bridge can literally be a drop-in replacement part.

Re #3, I was fortunately enough to have a cheap ABR bridge lying around which had been cut for a different guitar. It fit the GB-10’s wooden base, so I gave it a try. Obviously it the intonation, and some chords sounded a bit better. Sustain was a bit better, too. However, the guitar seemed to loose a little depth and woodiness. Plain strings sounded a bit coarse, and the lower strings sounded a bit dull. The G-string wasn’t as resonant, meaning I had to use a .26 to get the top moving.

To reclaim some of the tone without sacrificing the sustain or intonation, I want to try different bridge materials. Brass is the obvious first choice, having a reputation as the most resonant metal. However, there are other options as well, like nylon saddles or graphite saddles. Harder materials like steel and titanium seem a bit less of an appealing option, but then again, a bit of extra high end might be just what is needed for such a dark sounding guitar.

I don’t know what the ABR bridge I have on the guitar now is made out of, but because it was so cheap ($25), I guess it’s zinc. Some of the black plating on the saddles has been rubbed off when the slots were cut, and the material underneath is dull gray like original tremolo block in my G&L Legacy — not colorful like brass, or shiny like steel. A brass or gold bridge would match the other hardware on the guitar, too. However, the guitar is almost 30 years old, and a lot of the gold plating has faded or chipped off, so a “distressed” or “aged” bridge might be the way to go.


Upgrading Ben’s Black Bass

Bass is the bigger half-brother of the electric guitar. Thanks to (Sir) Paul McCartney, and later James Jamerrson, Jaco Pastorius and Ron Carter, I’ve always been very interested in the bass. I love the way it sounds, the deceptively simplicity of it’s technique, and the subtle but essential position it has in modern music. The only reason I don’t play it more is because guitar is usually more fun, but not always. So sometimes, more often recently, I reach for my friend’s old black Bill Lawrence bass.

It looks something like a Spector with brass hardware and a PJ pickup configuration, and plays well. However it doesn’t sound (or look) as good as the ash-bodied Fender PB-70 I bought last year so I could help my friend form a band, even after putting my favorite GHS flatwounds on it. I got rid of the PB70 when Ben unloaded his gear on me, and went back to Berlin. So one of my current projects is upgrading Ben’s black BL bass, now that I’ve made progress with some of the others.

Considering the name on the headstock, it’s surprising it doesn’t sound better, but the problem might just be that the pickups are not close enough to the strings. At least, that’s what the man himself would probably recommend first. Replacing pickups is expensive, and even if the pickups in this bass were not made buy BL, they a probably Gotoh pickups which are very good. So I’m going to get some spring-loaded pads soon to fix this issue.

However, after opening up the the control panel and seeing the massive control cavity underneath, I’ve been thinking that it would be a shame to waste all that space by not putting active electronics in there. This can also get very expensive if you want electronics made by Bartollini, EMG, Sadowsky or some other high-end cottage. If you don’t mind electronics made by Chinese teenagers, Artec makes a nice drop-in package  for about a fifth of the price.

Since I’m not really a bass player, this should be more than adequate for my needs, but the question remains, do I really need active tone controls in my bass? The argument I’m making to myself is that if the bass sounded better plugged in direct to a mixer, I would use it more. Plugging it into the Korg PX4, finding an appropriate preset and then tweaking it is pain in the ass. It’s the kind of thing that stops me from PLAYING the bass. But would you really play the bass more, Adam?

For about a week, definitely. Then what? Sell it? Sure. Upgrading it would definitely increase it’s appeal as another auction. This is the same dillema I’m having right now over a VOX VT20+. My Valbee is in pieces on my workbench where it will stay until I can complete testing of every component and circuit in the amp to get rid of the buzzing that makes it useless for home practice. So I need a new amp that I can PLAY, not just tinker with using a multitester and a soldering iron.

Actually, the VOX VT20 would be perfect for practice. I could store my settings, plug in headphones without an adapter or additional gear, and wouldn’t even have to bother plugging in my stop boxes. However, I could plug in my iPod which is something I can’t do with the Valbee. And if it the models do sound artificial and glitchy like the Korg Pandora’s REMS technology which they are probably based on, I can easily sell it, too. But the question again remains: will a new toy really inspire me to PLAY guitar, or just play with gear?


Project Progress Report

For all the people who aren’t reading this blog who aren’t wondering what the seven projects on my workbench are, I’m haven’t listed them with their current status below:

  1. Mean Green Machine Project: The “Mean Green Machine” is code-name for my G&L Legacy, and the current project is optimising it for serious wanking. Repairs to the high-E tuner are complete, and the guitar is staying in tune as well as can be expected for a guitar without a locking nut. After playing with the tremolo set up some more and evaluating the tone, I’ll have the micarta nut replaced with bone or graphite. 
  2. Lo-Noise Valbee Project: Last night I plugged the FX Loop’s  SEND jack into my mixer to check for hum. Until now I assumed the problem was confined to the power amp, but confirming it’s omnipresence suggest its actually the power supply. A superficial test of the all the components on the board didn’t reveal anything because they have to be removed first. That means I need to desolder, check and ideally replace  every component on the power supply PCB. If that doesn’t solve the problem, I’ll have to build a variable power supply to check the transformer. This is going to take a while, so I’m going to get a VOX 20 or Blackstar HT-1R head to play at home in the meantime.
  3. Aria AVW-100 Project: Last night I also replaced the ON-ON switch with a suitable replacement I found in Akihabara for about 500 yen, but the sudden and unexpected volume boost when switching hasn’t gone away. It’s almost worse. If I were to guess what’s wrong, I’d say that the wah and volume circuits are BOTH on for a second. Meanwhile, the 1800 yen Burns pot another guy sold me won’t fit because the shaft is too thick, so I’ll have to go back and search for some long split shaft mini-pots. For now, I’m giving up on this, and am considering selling it.
  4. AKG K141 Studio Headphone Repair: Just as I made my decision to get 3 meters of cable from a vendor in Akihabara, I realised that I would need a stopper sleeve for the new cable. This is a phallic T-shaped part that wraps around the cable, and holds it inside outer shell. Too lazy and hungry to make the rounds again, I also realised that  I could just make an incision in the stopper sleeve with an X-acto knife, so I could wrap this part around the new cable. Then I realised that if I could do that, I could cut some insulation off the old cable and just reuse it. DUH!!! Easier said than done, though. The three leads inside the headphone cable were glued together which was reassuring because it meant I couldn’t have fucked the cable strands up too badly, but it also meant that I had to use a cigarette lighter to melt the substance glueing them together. Little spots of blue grease appeared on the leads, and loosened them up enough to get my X-acto knife between them, and use the dull edge to split them up. I think I can remember the wiring, but want to confirm first. Meanwhile, I’m still amazed at my own failure to see this solution to the problem until the very moment I spend money on it.
  5. Sony Speaker Box Project: The first step in this project is to dismantle my Sony headphones and measure the dimensions of the driver. However, I want to wait until the repairs above are complete before canibalizing my only functioning pair of cans. So the project is still in the planning and consideration stage.
  6. Custom Tubescreamer Project: As one of the component technologies and testbeds for making my own personalised Tubescreamer, I acquired a Mid-Booster kit from Akihabara well over a year ago. So far, all I’ve done is analyse the circuit extensively, and try to assemble it on a bread board without a proper schematic. However on my last trip, I found pre-drilled enclosures for about 1500 yen, which I plan to get on my next trip. This project is not a priority, and I may just decide to use the parts in the kit for a completely different circuit, like a homemade Barber Silver LTD.
  7. LM386 Perqiue Blend Project: Impressed but not totally satisfied with the Smokey HI-GAIN orignal, I got a pair of LM386 ICs ,and have been saving my empty packs of the black-label American Spirit Perique Blend cigarrettes to make my own which will have better clean sounds. The hard part will be selecting a good 2″ speaker, but I found several options on my last trip to Akihabara. The trick will be to make a switching system to audition different speakers.  Will also need to get a glue gun for this project.