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Category: Gear / Advice

Electro Harmonix Bass Micro Synth

The Electro Harmonix Bass Micro Synth gives bass players who are looking to dive into the murky waters of synth bass sounds an opportunity to access a range of classic…

The Electro Harmonix Bass Micro Synth gives bass players who are looking to dive into the murky waters of synth bass sounds an opportunity to access a range of classic synth tones without having to go anywhere near a keyboard. Although far more limited in its scope than more recent synth pedals, like the Future Impact or the Source Audio C4, the intuitive control layout of the Bass Micro Synth means that bass players can start experimenting with sounds almost instantly without having to delve into complex sub-menus:

The Bass Micro Synth is controlled by numerous sliders that govern the following parameters:

  • Trigger affects the dynamic level at which the effect is triggered; this can be thought of as ‘sensitivity’ or ‘threshold’. The trigger only affects parameters in the filter sweep section of the pedal
  • Sub Octave controls the level of the 1-octave down signal
  • Guitar affects the dry signal volume of the bass
  • Octave controls the volume of the 1-octave up signal (the octave above signal is slightly distorted to provide a richer tone)
  • Square Wave affects the volume of the square wave distortion
  • Attack Delay increases or decreases the time taken for a note to reach full volume. Higher settings can remove the intial attack from notes, resulting in a ‘bowed’ sound
  • Resonance controls the intensity of the filter sweep
  • Start Frequency and Stop Frequency govern the frequencies at which the filter sweep starts and stops; different settings can result in ‘up’ or ‘down’ sweeps
  • Rate controls the speed at which the filter sweeps between the start and stop frequencies

If the range of controls on the bass microsynth seems daunting then don’t panic; EHX also publish a pdf of sample settings (link here: EHX Micro Synth Sample Templates PDF) that lets you get straight to the good stuff without hours of unnecessary knob-twiddling. I went through all their tone templates to see what the pedal is capable of:

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The Gear Paradox (feat. Fight Club)

Uh-oh, it’s another post about gear. The main questions that you might have are: Why are you trying to use a Whammy pedal as a pillow? What the hell does…

Uh-oh, it’s another post about gear.

The main questions that you might have are:

  1. Why are you trying to use a Whammy pedal as a pillow?
  2. What the hell does this have to do with Fight Club?

Both of these can be answered by watching the following gear-orientated soliloquy:

T.H.Palmer’s famous self-esteem poem advises ‘If at first you don’t succeed then try, try again’, which is exactly what I’m doing in an attempt to confront my own gear addiction. For the back story on my struggles with gear hoarding, take a look at the post that started it all, The Gear Fallacy.

Having failed spectacularly to keep my 2016 resolution of not purchasing any new equipment I decided to give it another shot and, at the time of writing, I’ve been ‘clean’ for almost 6 months.

But I haven’t won my battle yet. I’m still confounded by what I’ve named ‘The Gear Paradox’.

What the hell is ‘The Gear Paradox’?

Just when you thought that I couldn’t be any more pretentious I drop this on you. I’m sorry.

Simply put, The Gear Paradox expresses the difficulty in reconciling the knowledge that fixating over gear is a waste of time with the desire to have an appropriate sound for every musical situation, which necessitates a certain amount of attention to detail when it comes to equipment.

I don’t yet have a solution to this conundrum, but here are some facts ideas that have helped me to work out how I feel about gear and manage my addictive, equipment-hoarding tendencies. Maybe some of these will ring true for you:

  • 90% of ‘your’ sound is down to you: your fingers, your technique, your sense of time, your harmonic knowledge and how ‘big’ your ears are. Gear accounts for only 10%. Many players invert these percentages and perpetually change their basses/strings/pickups/amps/pedals in an attempt to solve problems in their playing.
  • There is a perception that possessing rare or expensive gear somehow makes you a better player. This is exacerbated by the superficial nature of image-based social media platforms that allow us to engage in a perpetual show of one-upmanship and endlessly fixate on what others have rather than focusing on our own progress.
  • Your band and your audience don’t care about your gear – they want you to show up on time, play the right notes and make everyone in the room feel good; if you can’t fulfil those 3 objectives then the type of magnets used in your pickups really pales into insignificance.

One analogy about the importance of gear (or lack thereof) is from world class producer/arranger/writer/educator Richard Niles (I couldn’t find the original quote so I’m paraphrasing, but the essence is the same):

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re making music with a guitar, a bass or a computer – it’s the music that’s important. It’s like having a delicious meal in a restaurant and asking the chef what sort of spoon they used to stir the soup.”

Stop worrying about spoons and instead work out what ingredients are missing from your soup.

(Your soup might already have all the right ingredients, it just needs to simmer for longer).

What’s The Best Bass For Metal?

This nebulous question (and others in a similar vein) crops up again and again across the length and breadth of the internet. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the comments underneath virtuoso bass performances asking questions about what brand of strings or which pickups the player is using – the phrase ‘barking up the wrong tree’ doesn’t even come close.

Sax supremo Bob Reynolds deals with this far more eloquently than I ever will:

The War of Art‘ is well worth it, by the way.

Contrary to what the internet would like you to believe you don’t become a great Gospel player because your headstock has ‘MTD’ on it, you don’t get the bass chair on a show in a London theatre by owning an Overwater and having a multi-scale fanned-fret Dingwall won’t make your metal playing any heavier.

There is no substitute for doing the work; I say this as someone who, in spite of 17 years of playing, still has a TON of work to do and avoids doing it by writing blog posts and filming silly videos. Do as I say, not as I do.

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On egos and octave pedals: putting the 'fun' back into functions

The reality of attempting to eke out a living as a professional musician in London (or anywhere else, for that matter) is that you have to let go of many…

The reality of attempting to eke out a living as a professional musician in London (or anywhere else, for that matter) is that you have to let go of many preconceived notions of what you will and won’t do for money (musically speaking, I mean…).

Credibility and artistic merit are all well and good until your rent is due, and subsisting on baked beans gets old pretty quickly.

Getting your bass to pay the bills can be a slow process, and there are certain avenues that make it easier to stay afloat; one of the main paths to financial stability (which is always a relative concept) for me has been playing in covers bands for weddings and corporate events. Whilst these gigs are always financially rewarding, many musicians are ‘down’ on function gigs because they can be musically mind-numbing; there are only so many times that anyone can play ‘Sex On Fire’ in a year before the rot starts to set in.

So how do you (or I) maintain any semblance of sanity and professionalism in the face of having to play musically nebulous mainstream pop nonsense week after week? The solution falls into two parts:

1. Get over yourself

Rather than being a snob about the repertoire, remember that this is your job. If you can earn enough to live by playing odd meter, polka-influenced death metal (or whatever your musical passion might be) then that’s great – sadly the fact of the matter is that you have to sell yourself at some point, but that doesn’t mean that you’re selling out by playing music that you might not feel passionate about.

I keep my ego in check by reminding myself that I’m getting paid to play an instrument, which is a ridiculous indulgence in itself. If you resent the music or the gig (or the people) then that carries over into your playing and reduces your ability to carry out your job description, which is to make people feel good by playing music that they want to hear. That’s not such a bad way to frame things, is it?

 

2. Find the ‘bright spots’

Part of the secret to finding joy in performing music that you feel indifferent about is treating it with the same respect that you would if you were gigging repertoire that you love. If you allow yourself to really get inside the music, even the blandest pop tune can present opportunities to access the more creative side of your playing.

For me, the ‘creative side’ of my playing in this context involves using an octave pedal as much as I can on a gig without getting dirty looks from the bandleader or making people on the dancefloor feel unwell. The overly processed and mechanical nature of modern chart music means that there are plenty of occasions when I have to play songs that were created without any real instruments and have to emulate a synth part.

So why don’t I just take a bass synth to the gig?

Chairman of the (pedal)board

Maybe it’s sheer bloody-mindedness on my part, but I made the decision some years ago to try and recreate any synth bass sound that I heard on a record using just my bass guitar and a handful of pedals; regular readers will just recognise this as an attempt to validate the purchase of lots of unnecessary gear, but I convinced myself that it was a worthwhile endeavour.

Here’s the thing – I already own an original Novation Bass Station synth, but I hate it. Attempting to gain the amount of knowledge on analogue synthesis necessary to program synth patches with any real authority was like being back in a school physics class (I say this a someone who was a total teenage physics geek) and I quickly abandoned the keyboard bass approach.

If the necessary nerdiness wasn’t enough there are other factors that made the prospect of playing synth on a gig a total ballache; keyboard skills, having to lug extra equipment to the gig and working out the logistics of onstage signal switching are just a few.

So I stuck to my guns and opted for the tap-dancing route.

Sometimes ‘good enough’ is good enough

After much experimentation with numerous octave pedals, overdrives and envelope filters I found that I could approximate most of the tones in a given setlist without having a pedalboard that weighs more than I do.

Here’s the thing: even though you might not be ‘nailing’ the exact tone from a recording the important thing is that the crowd doesn’t care and neither do your bandmates. Often being in the right ballpark is enough to get approving nods from people that you’re sharing the stage with.

I spent a long time trying to get my bass to recreate the synth sound from Maroon 5’s awful, glitter-rolled turd of a song ‘Moves Like Jagger‘ before realising that getting the exact tone would cost me a lot of time and money, but I could arrive at a perfectly acceptable ‘wob wob wob’ sound using octave, envelope filter and a volume pedal.

Other tunes have required the ubiquitous octave pedal with a particular technical approach; Clean Bandit’s 2015 hit ‘Rather Be’ absolutely refuses to die and I managed to keep myself amused by transcribing the distinctly un-bass-like synth line from the verse and using a combination of plectrum and palm muting to get somewhere near the tone and articulation of the original.

You can see my mangling of the aforementioned song here, complete with a breakdown of different pedal settings for various sections of the tune:

You can also find the transcription of my bass arrangement for ‘Rather Be’ RIGHT HERE

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All The Gear, No Idea: 18 Months With The Noble Preamp

Having previously documented my struggles with gear addiction (the post on my issue with hoarding equipment can be found HERE), I’ve decided to make 2017 the year that I do…

Having previously documented my struggles with gear addiction (the post on my issue with hoarding equipment can be found HERE), I’ve decided to make 2017 the year that I do something positive with the numerous bits of kit that I’ve stockpiled over the last few years. It seems that the most pragmatic approach to neutralising my urge to buy shiny new gear is to actually sit down and make full use of the things that I already own – I’ve definitely been guilty of testing new pedals for the first time on a gig, which is something I’d suggest that you NEVER, EVER do (my bandmates are very long-suffering).

Here’s my first attempt at an in-depth gear review. I chose to start with the Noble Preamp DI, which has been a staple of my setup since I bought it 18 months ago. It’s probably the piece of gear that I get asked the most questions about from other musicians, sound engineers and producers whenever I take it to a gig or record with it – which is pretty much all the time:

 

Built like a tank and with a number of very practical features for the working bassist, the Noble is by no means a ‘magic bullet’ but definitely falls into what I’d term the ‘Swiss army knife’ category for gear; it cuts down the time that I need to spend thinking about what gear to take on a gig, and actually reduces the number of items that I need to pack in the car or lug on public transport.

Noble Preamp Pros

  • Rugged construction (bonus points for the light-up power button and logo)
  • High impedance jack input handles electric and upright bass equally well
  • Extremely clean, noise-free xlr out signal
  • Simple but musical (and useable) EQ controls
  • Individual power supplies for up to 6 pedals
  • Analogue warmth provided by two REAL TUBES

Cons

  • Only for sale direct from Noble – hard to try before you buy
  • Price tag represents a fairly serious investment for most players

 

Interested in finding out more about the Noble Preamp? Visit the Noble Amps website or feel free to ask me a question in the comments section.

 

 

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Received Wisdom: 3 Pieces of Advice I Should Have Listened To

Are you as terrible at taking advice as I am? While putting off filing my tax return (one of my favourite January activities) I did a few calculations:   Over…

Are you as terrible at taking advice as I am?

While putting off filing my tax return (one of my favourite January activities) I did a few calculations:

 

  • Over the course of 2015, I taught roughly 1200 one-to-one music lessons
  • That’s in excess of 600 hours spent telling other people what I think that they should do to improve their playing.
  • That’s the equivalent of 25 whole days of dispensing advice about music. 

 

 

Why is this important? It shows that the amount of time I spend giving advice is wildly disproportionate to that which I allocate to receiving advice from others about my own playing (or teaching). 

This got me thinking about important lessons that I’ve taken in the 15 years since I first picked up the bass and reflecting on the pearls of wisdom that have had the most significant impact on my musical development. 

The most worrying fact is that the most valuable pieces of advice are the ones that I’ve actually paid the least attention to.

 

The 3 pieces of advice I should have taken on board

 

“Don’t party until you’re 25”

 

If (like me) you’re over 25, don’t panic – this can still be applied to a degree. Some readers will see this as a rather hardline approach, but for aspiring professionals it’s worth thinking about. 

 

The source: This nugget came courtesy of the owner of the only live music venue in the small town where I grew up. I was 18, and on the night in question I was helping out my teacher at the time as guitar tech for his band. I got chatting with the venue’s owner after the gig, and mentioned that I was getting ready to go to music college and wanted to make a career from music. The above was his only piece of advice on how to succeed. 

 

The meaning: Your teens and early 20s are when you will form the foundations of your musical identity. They are also the years in which you will (most probably) have more free time and fewer responsibilities than at any other age – devoting this free time to working on your musicianship will pay huge dividends later when ‘real life’ starts to eat into your practice time. 

 

Why it didn’t stick: I deluded myself into thinking that I was working hard enough and let other areas take equal priority over playing – the fact that the music college I went to was above a pub didn’t help matters… In short, I partied. 

 

What you can do about it: Sleep less. Watch less TV. Spend less time on social media. Have two drinks at the pub rather than seven. Stop wasting time reading blogs like this one and do some practice. This article by pianist James Rhodes is a wonderfully savage introduction to cutting out the rubbish in your life and getting back to what you love.

 

“Go after the sound you love”

 

The source: The venerable Richard Niles, award winning producer, arranger, guitarist and all-round musical übermensch. The quote itself is actually attributed to Pat Metheny, with whom Richard has worked with on frequent occasions. 

 

The meaning: Make the distinction between what you want to learn and what other people tell you that you should be learning. Embrace the music that you are passionate about and steal as much as you can from it – don’t shy away from your musical heritage. Don’t get distracted by people telling you that you should really listen to Miles Davis if the sound you’re after is bluegrass-meets-Squarepusher (I’d love to hear from anyone who is actually after that particular sonic equation). 

 

Why it didn’t stick: The short answer here is decision paralysis: presenting myself with too many options and failing to pursue any one of them to the level required to really absorb the sound into my playing. 

 

What you can do about it: Adopt the Helsinki Bus Station Theory (yes, really).

 

 

“If you have to practise* for the gig, you shouldn’t be on the gig”

 

*It’s important to note that I mean practise in the sense of developing mastery of a musical concept through persistent effort, rather than playing through new material that you might have to memorise for a gig. 

 

The source: Renowned bass educator (and No Treble contributor) Joe Hubbard

 

The meaning: Have the humility to realise that there are certain gigs that you should say ‘no’ to because they lie too far outside of your current comfort zone. Because of the many external (not to mention internal) sources of pressure that are present during any live performance situation, your musical ability has to be sufficient so that you can have a ‘buffer’ to absorb the distractions without your playing being compromised. 

Let’s say you have to learn a tune with a taxing unison line or ‘bass feature’ in it (‘Spain’, ‘Got A Match?’, ‘Sir Duke’ and ‘You Can Call Me Al’ are just a few off the top of my head) and you’re struggling to get it up to tempo in the practice room. There is NO WAY that you’ll be able to execute that same part at tempo on stage in front of an audience – you need a technique buffer of roughly 10-20bpm that will allow you to absorb distractions and still play the part properly. 

This isn’t just a chops thing. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is saying ‘yes’ to a gig which involves playing music that puts you out of your depth stylistically – if you have no real interest in listening to and studying jazz then don’t pitch up on a standards gig with iReal Pro on your iPad and hope you can survive the evening. Don’t say ‘yes’ to the progressive metal gig if you’re not comfortable with odd time signatures – there’s no shame in being honest about what you can and can’t do musically. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be constantly striving to improve your playing and getting better gigs – there are plenty of opportunities to work on the performance aspect of music without being on a gig where the audience and the other musicians expect you to be on top form.

 

Why it didn’t stick: It’s easy to tell yourself that you’ll turn down certain work until you realise that you have to pay your rent this month. Learning how to say ‘no’ to work also takes time for both financial and psychological reasons – it’s an ego boost to be called for a gig, and you might not want to have to pass on work to other musicians for fear that you won’t ever get called for anything ever again.

 

Do you have any wise words to share?

If there’s a piece of advice that has really helped you in your musical development then why not share it by commenting on this post?

 

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Reality Check: You Are Not Your Gig

Almost every week of the year I play function gigs; weddings, parties, corporate events, fundraisers, product launches – the occasions are varied but the music is largely the same. Regardless…

Almost every week of the year I play function gigs; weddings, parties, corporate events, fundraisers, product launches – the occasions are varied but the music is largely the same. Regardless of whether I’m working with bands that I play with regularly or depping (usually at short notice and always without rehearsal) in an unfamiliar band there are always tunes that crop up on every single gig.

Some of these songs are great, while others are thoroughly loathsome. The challenge is treating them all the same.

When I left music college some years ago, I was naive and principled in thinking that I’d be able to forge a career as a musician through only playing music that I liked, and I even had a list of gigs that I’d never ever do.

Seven years later and I’ve done almost all of them.

So what changed? Firstly, it’s easy to be idealistic about what you deem to be musically credible until your rent is due.

Reality Check: Realising That Your Job is Not Your Career

Attempting to make a living through music in London (or anywhere else, for that matter) is a tall order, and if it’s a choice between doing a musically dubious gig or having to take a non-musical ‘day job’ to make ends meet then the former will always trump the latter.

The second change was that I grew up (well, a little…) and accepted that part of being a professional involves treating all music equally regardless of personal tastes. The audience members at every gig deserve your respect, the other musicians deserve your respect and, crucially, the music deserves your respect.

One of the items on my list of gigs that I’d never do was anything related to tribute acts – then about 5 years ago I accepted a corporate gig where one of the sets was entirely of ABBA tunes. Whilst I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to dress up for the gig, I wasn’t exactly overjoyed at the prospect of learning 20 songs by a band that I wasn’t remotely keen on.

The process of transcribing a number of ABBA songs forced me to reconsider my viewpoint of music that I’d previously deemed to be cheesy, lightweight pop nonsense – the bass playing (courtesy of the late Rutger Gunnarsson) is creative and melodic whilst always serving the songs, with many of his lines bearing the influence of Paul McCartney and James Jamerson.

The charts that I made for that gig have been tidied up and are now available for download from the transcriptions page.

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