Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Time to update the resume

I just got word that I've been selected as a "finalist" for the Metro DC Dance Awards in the category of "Excellence in Sound Design/Original Composition." This year, the nomination is for my piece with Step Afrika!. It's the second year in a row that I've been a finalist. Woo hoo!


Wickett on the way home from Prospect Park

All the boys in the house are freshly shorn for summer. Cameron buzzed my head last week, step one in her rock-star makeover plan. Wickett got his shave yesterday. Now he looks nothing like a rock-star, but hopefully he won't be so hot.

Wickett's shave

Friday, June 15, 2007

Stupid Pitchfork - Pimpin' Fort Reno

Stupid Pitchfork posted this article last week... plugging the upcoming Fort Reno show: Joe Lally and DCIC, opening for The Evens. No mention of DCIC, though. Stupid Pitchfork. Anyway, good press for the show. Hopefully it will get some local media mentions too. In any event, I'm sure it will draw a good crowd and be the most fun event of the summer. Don't miss it. Most fun event of the summer. And it's free.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

My Laptop Guitar Rig

I've been getting many hits on the blog with search terms like "guitar and laptop" so I figured I'd take a few minutes and give the lowdown on my laptop guitar rig... this post will only be of interest to a subsection of guitar & computer geeks. If that ain't you, then read no further my friend.

Several years ago, I sold my racks of guitar effects & processors, convinced that it was redundant (and heavy) to use all of this dedicated hardware to perform functions that my laptop oughtta be able to handle by itself. I've since learned that this is not entirely true, although improving steadily as technology (and market demand for these gadgets) progresses.

I sold my tube pre-amp (an ADA MP-1) and my Rocktron Hush IIcx (guitar noise reduction). I still regret it to this day. I bought them both used, and sold them several years later for what I paid... they retained all their value, and sounded great. Oh well. I've since picked up a tube preamp, and a new guitar (with a humbucker, so I can avoid using my noisy single coil pickups if necessary).

So that's the first lesson... get the guitar signal into the computer using actual tubes. The amp and cabinet simulators are impressive, but still don't cut it (in my opinion). I use Amplitube, and Guitar Rig, but they both sound better when there's a tube in the signal chain before they get any audio. Here's the geeky goodness from the start of my signal chain to the finish:

1. Guitar
I have a heavily customized strat-style guitar. It has three Van Zandt "rock model" single coil pickups. They sound beautiful, but my guitar is very noisy. It doesn't play well with theater lights and clubs that don't have properly grounded outlets. I don't know if that's the pickups or my guitar - it could be that the guitar is not properly insulated and a good guitar tech could make it nice and quiet, but I haven't spent the money to find out. I've also got a custom neck, made by Warmoth. It's the biggest thing they could make for me that would still fit on a strat. I have Gotoh tuners. Recently, I bought a Les Paul "BFG" that has a humbucker and a single coil pickup. The humbucker solves my noise problem.

1b. Distortion pedal
When I'm not too lazy to bring it with me to gigs, I use a Buda tube overdrive pedal. It has two actual tubes in it and it sounds delicious.

2. Preamp
The output of the guitar heads to a PreSonus BlueTube preamp to get some real tube color before I send it into the computer. This is a nice, versatile, piece of gear. I got mine used, and I'm very happy with it. When I'm not using my laptop rig, I use this preamp & my Roland keyboard amp. This thing actually gives me a decent guitar tone through a keyboard amp.

3. Audio Interface
I'm using a PreSonus FirePod to get audio in and out of my laptop. It took me a few weeks to get it working nicely with Windows XP, but now that I have it set up, I'm very happy with it. It sounds nice. I've used it for recording in many different contexts, and it always does the trick. I picked mine up used (thanks Graham!).

When I first set up my laptop rig, I was using an M-Audio MobilPre interface. That thing is a piece of junk. I don't recommend it. The preamps do, in fact boost incoming signals. They do not, however, sound particularly good.

4. Laptop
I have a Sony Vaio with a Pentium 4. I will not buy another Sony laptop. It had a problem with overheating, which caused the CPU to slow down, which caused glitchy audio. Blowing the vents with canned air fixed the problem (for now). I also get some nice noisy interference, even when things are grounded properly. I've tried my audio interface on an old iBook, and there's NO NOISE. So I'm pretty sure the problem is inside the Sony.

5. Software
Once the guitar gets into the laptop, I'm using a variety of things. Mostly, I'm using Audiomulch. This is fabulous software (and cheap!). There's a large, active user community, and it keeps improving. It does lots of things that I don't use, but it makes a great environment for patching together contraptions for signal processing. It hosts VST's, so I can use lots of third-party processing contraptions, and it's very easy to manage signal routing and mixing. In some ways, it's like Max/MSP for guitarists (i.e. idiots). You can't build your own gadgets, but most guitar gizmos have been duplicated as free VST's. Almost all of the VST plugins that I use are available for free. The exceptions being Guitar Rig and Amplitube. Audiomulch is great for real-time processing, and I've been performing with it for several years. It's reliable. Can't say the same for all of those free VST's, so you need to keep an eye out for sloppily coded plugins that can make things unstable.

6. Control Surfaces
Now that all my processing is happening "in the box" I need some knobs and buttons so I can actually perform live and control this stuff. I use two: one UC-33, so I have knobs and faders, and one ART X-15 Ultrafoot. I picked it up used, very cheap, and it seems to be durable. One drawback is that the paint job is so horrifyingly ugly. I solved this with black paint and a paintbrush. I also don't like to have manufacturer's logos visible on stage, so I was happy to paint over that junk anyway. Audiomulch makes it so easy to map MIDI controllers to the software processors, even a guitarist can do it. With these two control surfaces, I have all the knobs, faders, and footswitches I could want, and set up is a piece of cake.

7. Outboard gear
When my laptop was overheating, I didn't trust it to do looping. So I put a Lexicon JamMan in my rack with the FirePod. Since the FirePod has 8 ins and outs, it was very simple within Audiomulch to make an aux send to feed the JamMan, and an aux return to bring it back into the laptop. Now that I have the laptop heat issue resolved, I still use the JamMan just to take that function off my CPU, and leave processor power for other stuff.

8. Amplifier
So, now the laptop has done it's magic and it's time to bring audio out into the real world... I use a pair of Roland KC-150 keyboard amps as a makeshift stereo PA. They are fairly small and lightweight, and versatile. They are transparent sounding, so there's no additional amp color added at this point. I also bought two long (50 foot) cables to go from balanced TRS 1/4" (the output of the FirePod) to XLR, so I can patch into a house PA when I'm playing in places with good sound systems -- and keep a balanced connection.

So I think that's it... that's my laptop guitar rig in a nutshell.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Recap

I've got a few assorted bits of news to share... in no particular order:

1. Last Sunday was the end of my run of shows with Step Afrika. It was loads of fun. They are incredible. The new theater at Atlas is really nice (and really well equipped), it was a treat to do five shows in a row at such a plush venue. Step Afrika packed the place too. Most of the shows were sold out - or damn close to sold out. The crowd went nuts every night. There were many families with kids there, and the kids were adorable; after the show some of them wanted all the performers' autographs. That was new (and hilarious) for me... I had to sign autographs! The show got a great review in the Post. Thankfully, there's hardly any mention of my piece (and no, it's not techno music). The critic was there on opening night, when our piece, "Nxt/Step" was marred by technical problems (we didn't get the live video stuff really worked out until the final show, actually). After the first two shows, I was asked to change my little "solo" section - so it would rock more. Which I did, so I got a little solo every night where I got to rock out. I just got word that they've been asked to do this piece in New Orleans at the NPN conference in December. I probably shouldn't mention that so as not to jinx anything... but keep your fingers crossed - it would be cool to travel with them & cool to perform and mingle at NPN.

2. The DC Improvisers Collective's latest CD, "Meme and Variations" got reviewed in Cadence Magazine... and the critic singled out the prepared guitar work... and compared me (favorably) to Keith Rowe and Sonny Sharrock. Crazeee.

"...No such limitations [on spontaneity] hamper the free blowing of the DC Improvisers Collective (Ben Azzara, d, perc; Daniel Barbiero, b; Jonathan Matis, g, prepared g, electronics; Mike Sebastian, ts, ss, bcl.) The 57-minute Meme and Variations (Sachimay 31) presents ample opportunity for everyone to solo, and this is accomplished with skill and thoughtfulness. The prepared guitar work is especially noteworthy, sounding at first like a mixture of Keith Rowe and Sonny Sharrock but taking on a refreshing life of its own as the disc proceeds. The four long tracks (Affinity is as Infinity Does/Four Soliloquies (a) The Composition of Air (b) Opaque Mirrors (c) A Portrait of Jerome Horwitz as a Young Man (d) The Unwobbling Pivot/After Europe After the Rain/Meme & Variations) veer between modality, swing, and controlled freedom."
3. And to top it all off... The Fort Reno schedule is out - and we'll be playing with Joe Lally on July 2nd, opening for The Evens. (I get to open for The Evens two years in a row - how lucky is that?) It's free... and it's going to be a really fun night. Come on out, I'll bring a big cooler full of soft drinks and snacks, and you can throw a ball for Wickett. He'll be your friend for life.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A very special day

Today was certainly a good day. For many reasons...

1. Cameron and I both kind of took the day off (now that we're both freelancing it's hard to tell if it's a day off, or just a day unemployed) and had lunch at Sticky Fingers Bakery. Yum. They have vegan soft-serve ice cream. I haven't had soft-serve in many years. That was very special.

2. After lunch, we went and bought my new guitar. I shouldn't have spent the money, but I felt like I found "the one." I found out about it yesterday. It's not particularly rare or hard to come by. I stumbled across the manufacturer's website because I googled "Duane Denison" (I've been on a Jesus Lizard kick lately) and there's a promo video where he gives a sales pitch for the guitar. It's a Gibson Les Paul "BFG." The marketing stuff from Gibson is hilarious. "It's a stripped down rock 'n' roll flamethrower..." (and that's only the first sentence in their hyperbole-drenched promo blurb). I guess the demographics for electric guitar buyers must be a strange mix of knuckle dragging Neanderthals and teenage metal enthusiasts. My inner caveman head-banger must be the one that controls my wallet, because I ran out and bought one. It's black. Sort of... The idea behind this instrument is that it's sort of unfinished and raw looking. It has all the components of a "real" Les Paul, but none of the fancy finishing touches. The top isn't sanded, there are no covers on the pickups, no truss rod cover, etc etc - but it sounds like the real thing, because it is. But it's a little bit cheaper since it's kind of unfinished. A perfect match considering what my current guitar looks like (hacked up with a circular saw and the paint stripped off). But this one sounds and plays soooo much nicer. I've never actually had a "pro" grade instrument before. Woo hoo! Very special.

3. Today was my first peach of the summer. Nothing fancy, just from the neighborhood Safeway. A white peach. Ripe and delicious. Very special.

4. The weather was really nice and we made dinner on the grill. Tofu and vegetable fajitas - with a cilantro-lime marinade. Delicious. We made it with cilantro from our herb garden, and ate outside on the deck. Very special.