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.


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.

Image


False Memories – False Music – False Facsism

False memories of music start to playback in my mind after I’ve been working on a particular piece of music for a long time. After hearing it over and over again, it starts to sound slow, monotonous, square…retarted, even. It’s as if I’m hearing my favourite song on a walkman with dying batteries as while starting to fade into unconsciousness during a bad acid trip. (And no, I’ve never actually had this exact experience. Have you?)

Until last night I simply interpreted these false music memories as a warning sign to move on and find new music to enjoy. However, last night as I stood in the shower waiting the full five minutes recommended by the Body Shop for their hair treatment to take effect on my unruly curls, a different realisation appeared a few centimetres below somewhere inside my cerebrum. What if this were more than a warning, but an defence mechanism against brainwashing? In other words, the false music memories are actually false music rendered harmless by heuristic antibodies.

What I am really trying to say with those $100/hour words is  simply that I am in the habit of being wary of the difference between music that is familiar and that I genuinely enjoy. I savour the latter so much that I avoid repeated listening to preserve the magic of music I love, like Stevie Wonder’s Innervsions album. Unfortunately, an occupational hazard of being a musician is the having to listen and/or perform a piece a sickening amount of times for the sake of transcription and study. This is exactly what I was doing before last night’s shower and hair treatment.

What I think my mind is really doing, is isolating the emotional content from the more tangible linguistic and academic elements. Even a jingle made for soda commercial has some emotional content which makes it appealing to the listener. However that comes from the creator’s love for their work, rather than the the contractor’s love of sugar-water profits. Once I asked a  session musician friend how he could tolerate having to play terrible music devoid of any integrity?

His answer was that his sincere performance as a musician would gives it the integrity missing in the concept, if only just a little bit. So while the performance contains sincere emotional content, the actually message in the musical concept is something entirely different. Obviously, in the case of a soda jingle, the message is, “Buy THIS soda!” Repeating this message as often as possible is a crude attempt at mind control. Hence, my mind is rejecting the music because of the intrusive nature of the message, and process is to strip the message of emotional power of the music. That’s why I seldom drink soda pop, and then only Pepsi. (Better taste, better logo, better commercials.)

I’ve always been paranoid about some cabal of DJs and record producers crafting the music they think everyone should like, and then conspiring to saturate the media with it until enough people buy it to recover their investment. As a fiercely individualistic individual who rarely tolerates sameness, it makes sense that my mind would have defences against similar attempts at such behaviour programming by the free market, government, school or even my own workplace. It’s so extreme that I even question whether this compulsive rejection itself is not the effect of some liberal education I’ve received from watching so much PBS.

Case-in-point, the tune I was working on last night was an arrangement of the old pinball number count from Sesame Street for my band. The objective of this song’s non-musical content is teaching kids (like mine) to count to twelve. After hearing it maybe hundreds of times in my life; first on channel 13 as a kid, then on Youtube, my iPod, my sheet music software’s GM sounds, and played on my own guitar/bass; my own version of the song in progress my old TiPBG4 has passed the repetition threshold. My mind’s response is to conjure Patrick Stewart, commanding, “Halt! Come ye no further! You’re educational message shall not penetrate the sacred inner sanctum of Adam’s mind!”

Captain Picard then sets phasers to stun and bathes the mnemonic sound analogues in pure energy, rendering them an impotent stream of integers. This time, the reaction is in error, though. I can already count to twelve. I embrace the message of educational content,  and this song has already penetrated the inner sanctum (the soul) long ago…aeons ago…from the beginning of time even because music is timeless. The music that moves us is merely a code releasing something trapped inside us that has existed from the beginning of creation so it can reconnect with its source. Every time I hear this song, and think about the people who made it (including the creators of Sesame Street who contracted them), I marvel at the creativity. The results of their efforts probably totally surpassed everyone’s expectations for what was supposed to be a little ditty for teaching kids to count.


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.


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?