I Repaired My Bass Amp and Now I Feel Like a Wizard

I think it’s safe to say that I’m fairly handy with a soldering iron. No, I’m not designing circuits from scratch and turning the world of audio hardware on it’s ear, but I can follow instructions, put parts on a board, and troubleshoot when it doesn’t work right. I’m not only competent at it, I actually enjoy it.

Repairing things is a different matter. I’ve never replaced a burnt out or malfunctioning part on a device’s circuit board. Strangely, I’d never made the connection between building a device and repairing one. It’s really the same thing, but potentially easier as you may only need to replace one part to get the device working again.

I was forced to consider this connection on a trip to the thrift store. I was scoping the electronics section, as I always do, and found an Acoustic B20 bass amp. I was priced at $19.99, but marked “as-is” which we all know is a euphemism for “broken”. The screws had been taken out of the head, so I pulled the head out and inspected it. The fuse was obviously blown, but the rest of the board looked OK. It was a long shot, but maybe the fuse just needed to be replaced. A quick Google and a few clicks later informed me that Acoustic released a batch of these amps with faulty capacitors. Replacing the capacitors would fix it. A Craigslist ad showed that these amps go for $90-$100 so $19.99 was a steal. I decided to roll the dice and get it.

The first thing I needed to do was locate parts. Since I usually build from kits, I don’t have a lot of extra parts lying around to to use in a repair. So I had to find a parts store. Well guess what? It’s 2014 and not many people do through-hole electronics anymore. Austin is a pretty creative place, but the neighborhood parts store is gone and Fry’s electronics is the only game in town. My other option is to order from the internet, which can be cheap, but shipping cost and ordering in such a small quantity would make the price difference about the same. So I went to Fry’s and bought a box of 315mA 250v slo-blow fuses and a 2200uF @ 25v capacitor. Actually, I got a 2200uF capacitor, but at 35v (which I’ve been assured is fine). They didn’t have the 25v one.

Back at the workbench, armed with my new parts, I pulled the head from the amp and got to work. The first thing I did, and I recommend this to anyone doing any sort of repair work or trouble shooting, was take a picture of the current state. This is so if I hit any snags I can reverse my work. I installed a new fuse and powered it up. The light came on! And then the light went out and the fuse blew. Looking closer at the two capacitors on the board, I noticed they looked a little bulged and oozing (not a healthy part). The next step was to take the board out of the head and remove those busted caps.

As usual, there are millions of little screws, nuts, and washers. I put them all in a little cup and after a little fumbling, I was able to flip the board over and desolder the caps. Amazingly, the solder was really tough to melt. When it was melted, I removed the caps and installed the new ones. They were a bit bigger than the old ones, but bit of a bending and they were soldered in.

I installed another fuse and powered it on. The light came on and stayed on. Encouraging! So I plugged in a bass and nothing happened. I was less encouraged. Before I freaked out, I plugged in a pair of headphones to see what would happen. I could hear the bass in the headphones! So maybe I had a blown speaker.

I took off the grill (which is nicely held in place with strong velcro) and examined the speaker. It looked pristine. At least it wasn’t blown. I decided to check the connection on the back. The wire was completely disconnected. Aha! So I plugged it in, powered it up, and my bass was booming (probably to the annoyance of my neighbor).

My total outlay? $30, but I’m going to count $10 of that as repair education tuition. I learned that disassembly and reassembly are the hardest part of repairs. I learned that it pays to have cheaply acquired common parts on hand. I learned that I can do this. I learned that it’s not magic, but I do feel like a wizard.

Hey, Akai! Where’s the EIE Pro Driver for OS X Mavericks?

Last year, when Apple released OS X Mountain Lion, I posted about it. It took 2 weeks for them to get compatible drivers released. This year, with the release of OS X Mavericks, they’ve done it again.

Mavericks was released on October 22. As of this writing, I’ve been waiting 49 days for a driver. Of course, I learned my lesson from last year. I didn’t upgrade to Mavericks and have been waiting for an official driver.

A few weeks after Mavericks was released, a user on the GetSatisfaction forum figured out a work-around to install the driver in Mavericks. Apparently the problem is an issue with the package signature. Now I’m not a software developer, but from what I’ve heard this isn’t a huge problem to fix. As it is, the OS won’t install it.

So why the delay? Akai is short on answers. But one of the forum posters has done some digging and all the brands owned by their parent company InMusic (Akai, M-Audio, Alesis, Alto Professional, Ion, MixMeister, Numark, and Sonivox) are suffering driver lags. There’s only one customer support rep dealing with all the people complaining on the forum and he has no new information. They’ve left him to take the heat. The best he was able to do was refer people to the (unofficial and unsupported) work-around. The smart money says that all of InMusic’s departments are cheaply outsourced and strained.

Well, I got tired of waiting and decided to risk the work around. I uninstalled the driver, backed up, upgraded to Mavericks, and performed the driver work-around. It mostly works. I can monitor and record with the interface and the OS sees my external drives on the USB hub. However, the sound card can’t be used as a system sound output device. This is OK for me, but some may not like that compromise.

If you can live without system sound functionality, you can upgrade to Mavericks and use the workaround below.

Step 1: Download the latest driver from here.

Step 2: Unzip the driver and mount the enclosed DMG.

Step 3: Right-click on the “Akai EIE Pro 2.2..5.app” bundle and select “Show Package Contents”.

Step 4: Navigate to “/Contents/Resources/Akai EIE Pro_2.2.5.pkg” and run it.

Step 5: Follow the onscreen directions as usual.

I hope this helps someone. This is the last time I’m putting up with this. Focusrite just got a new customer.

Using Multiple Outputs on the Nord Lead 2

One Track Mind

When I record, I tend to do one thing at a time. Most of the instruments I’ve owned have either one output in mono or two outputs in stereo, and I’m used to that. I don’t have many stereo effects, so I’ve largely worked with mono sources that can be passed through mono effects pedals or have stereo effects applied later in the DAW. This has served me well for guitars, synths, and drum machines for most of my life. Combine this with a lot of time spent working on music alone playing one part at a time, and it becomes a habit.

I say all this to explain why it’s taken me so long to explore the multitimbral features of my Nord Lead 2. Today, I dug into its routing options, and while it has a pretty simple system, there are a few quirks that might stymie someone attempting it for the first time.

Timbrality? What’s that?

If you spend enough time playing with musical instruments, eventually you’ll run into the concept of “timbre”. An instrument’s timbre (pronounced “tam-bur”) can best be compared to a person’s voice. Everyone has a different voice, and these differences come from the variations in human physique. The size of a person’s head, tongue, mouth, lips, and chest all contribute to the overall sound of a person’s voice. The same can be said of instruments. It’s what makes a piano sound different from a guitar. They have different shapes, are constructed from different materials, and have different methods of producing sound, so they sound different when playing the same pitch. Some instruments, like an electric guitar, have switches and knobs that can change its timber (guitarists like to call it “tone”) by changing the configuration of the guitar’s pickups and EQ, but it only has one timbre at any given time. If you want different guitar sounds, you have to record them separately, one at a time.

But what about synths? As mentioned earlier, for much of the synthesizer’s history, synths produced one sound at a time, through one output, one note at a time, in mono. They had knobs, sliders, and switches giving them near infinite flexibility of timbre (and these options are what make one synth sound different from another synth), but it was still only one timbre at a time. Eventually synths allowed the player to switch timbres (synthesists like to call them “patches” or “presets”) with a push of a button and save favorite timbres for later. However, the old limitation of one timbre at a time remained.

Multi-timbral synths, like the Sequential Circuits Six-Trak and the Casio CZ-101 added the ability to make more than one sound at a time. When these synths were hooked up to a MIDI sequencer, a keyboardist could play organ, bass, and lead synth all from one physical unit. The cheaper units used only a pair of stereo outputs, but more professional models featured separate mono outputs for each sound, so you could mix them or add effects separately. You could have a dry, compressed bass sound on one output and a reverb-drenched pad on another output. A whole song could be performed from one synth. This was a big improvement.

Setting Up the Nord Lead 2

The Nord Lead 2 is a multi-timbral synthesizer like the Six-Trak or CZ-101. It has four outputs and four parts (called “slots” on the casing). You can assign a different patch to each slot and route the slots in a number of different ways. The synth has no built in effects, but supports a sort of faux stereo as well as mono output.

When setting up the Nord Lead 2, it’s easy to miss one small detail: when you use only one cable, plugged into output “A”, you will hear slot “A” and slot “B”. They may be layered or separated (when you switch the active slot), but they will both come out of output “A”. If you plug the cable into output “B”, you may only hear slot “B” or slot “A” depending on other settings. If you want slot “A” to come out of output “A” and slot “B” to come out of output “B”, you must use two cables: one in output “A” and another in output “B”. I was baffled by this until I plugged 2 cables in, and now the slots are perfectly separated.

Clavia cleverly put a little map to the far right of the controls, so you don’t have to dig out the manual to set output routing. We have 8 different modes available for routing:

  • Mono/unison stereo to outputs “A” and “B” (mode “1Ab” on the LCD)
  • Mono to outputs “A” and “B” (mode “2Ab” on the LCD)
  • Alternating to outputs “A” and “B” (mode “3Ab” on the LCD)
  • Slot “A” to output “A” and slot “B” to output “B” (mode “4Ab” on the LCD)
  • Mono/unison stereo to outputs “C” and “D” (mode “1cd” on the LCD)
  • Mono to outputs “C” and “D” (mode “2cd” on the LCD)
  • Alternating to outputs “C” and “D” (mode “3cd” on the LCD)
  • Slot “C” to output “C” and slot “D” to output “D” (mode “4cd” on the LCD)

As you may have noticed, the first four modes are duplicated for outputs “C” and “D”. There is a ninth mode (“-cd” on the LCD) that sets outputs to the exact same routing as outputs “A” and “B”.

To change the output mode, hold the “Shift” button, and press the “Out Mode” button (located under the LCD display). The display should show the current setting such as “4.Ab”. You can then press the up and down buttons to change the output mode. Press the “Out Mode” button (without holding the “Shift” button) to change the “C” and “D” settings. Press the “Shift” button again to exit the menu.

The Output Modes

The first output mode is “1Ab”. This is the default output mode. All sounds from slots “A” and “B” are sent to outputs “A” and “B”. The sounds will be mono or stereo depending on the patches assigned to slots “A” and “B”. No matter what sound you assign to the slots, they will come out of outputs “A” and “B” with the intended mono or stereo image. If both slots are set to a mono sound, the output will be mono (equal volume over both outputs). If at least one of the slots has a stereo patch, the output will be stereo.

This second output mode is “2Ab”. This mode sends equal levels for slots “A” and “B” at the two “A” and “B” outputs. Even though the sounds are coming out of the 2 outputs, the levels are the same and there is no discernible stereo image.

The third output mode is “3Ab”. This is the forced stereo mode. The sounds from slots “A” and “B” are sent to outputs “A” and “B” in alternating fashion, creating a faux stereo image. All sounds, be they mono or stereo, will have a stereo image. This is the most stylistically drastic mode and entirely subject to taste.

The fourth output mode is “4Ab”. This is the forced mono mode. The sound assigned to slot “A” will come out of output “A”, and the sound of slot “B” will come out of output “B”. Sounds will be in mono, no matter what their settings. You can process each sound individually over separate mixer channels. This is useful for multi-timbral performances where you want effects on some of your sounds, but not all of them. I find it especially useful with using the Nord Lead 2 as a drum module. You can put a kick, snare, closed hi hat, and open hi-hat on the 4 slots, and effect each drum differently (such as a compressor on the kick and a delay on the snare).

The “C” and “D” outputs and slots have exactly the same routing options, with the addition of the “-cd” mode. This mode copies the behavior of slots “A” and “B”. For instance, if you have “A” and “B” set to “3Ab” and “C” and “D” set to “-cd”, all 4 slots will come out of outputs “A” and “B” with forced stereo sound. No sound will come out of outputs “C” and “D”.

To Learn New Things

I’ve found one of the most effective methods of G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) relief is to get more in-depth with the gear you already have. Learning a piece of gear inside and out inspires creativity and can break a stubborn run of musician’s block. In the case of the Nord Lead 2’s output options, I’m now inspired to use it as a percussion instrument. So get in deep with your gear, you never know what you might find.

An Open Letter to Roland

Roland,

I know the last time we parted ways it was messy. You wanted me to love you for the crystal clarity of your 16bit/44.1K samples, but I was happier when you were grungier and less sophisticated. I know you tried to meet me halfway, and for a while I was on board during your “groovebox” phase (I know, I can’t look at the pictures either). But let’s face it, you’ve been spinning your wheels since I left you. The last time I cared, you were in that sexy black number with the Super-Saw, but you still had the D-Beams. You don’t need all that fake stuff.

Whenever I happen to see you in public, I hope that maybe you’ve gotten your act together. Maybe you’ve gone analog or you come up with some new style of synthesis. But I’m always disappointed. You’re still trying to impress the church music and home organ crowd.

When are you gonna realize you’re funkier than that? When are you gonna stop trying to please the P&W crowd and let your keys down? Let a few knobs show! Stop hiding behind your menus! Let me see that sexy bitch that could pack the club floors back in the 80s! Come on. It’s time.

Best of love,
Ben

The Build Your Own Clone Classic Overdrive

Let's get down to business!I love guitar effects. Ever since I discovered that blue Teisco in my parents’ attic, I’ve been in love with altering guitar tone. Once upon a time (before I sold all my gear in the early ’00s), I had quite a collection of stomp boxes and pedals. Now that I’m rebuilding my collection, I’ve accumulated a small stash of pedals (mostly Boss units), and I’m hungry for more. But damn are they expensive!

One of the things that has changed since I was collecting guitar effects is the explosion of “boutique” pedals, amps, and guitars. These unique, often one-of-a-kind devices are expensive and hard to get ahold of. Most aren’t sold at Guitar Center or other musical instrument retailers. Many are handmade by a single engineer in his spare time. Musicians argue over which pedal has the most tone voodoo, but I believe they aren’t magic. They’re just like any other piece of gear, made of the same parts and circuits. Because of this belief, I decided to return to electronics and build myself a pedal in an effort to demystify the boutique gear.

Enter Build Your Own Clone. These guys lovingly produce complete kits that replicate (or “clone”) the components and circuits of popular vintage and boutique effect pedals. Each kit includes a case, PCB (printed circuit board), and all the components needed to build the effect. The instructions are detailed, and the quality is great. The best part (or maybe worst depending on your point of view) is that the case is blank and open to whatever decoration you can imagine. You end up with a high quality boutique effect pedal for one-half to one-forth the cost of a commercial unit.

All the resisters are in.

So, what pedal to build first? Earlier last year, I bought an Egnater Tweaker 40 tube combo amp. It’s a beast and sounds dreamy. Its only shortcoming is that even when set to high gain mode, it doesn’t reach the levels of overdrive that cause feedback. It’s a crunchy amp, but it wasn’t designed to be a metal monster. That’s fine with me as I don’t play much metal, but having a super overdriven tone is a nice option. Since I’m still a novice at electronics, I figured the Classic Overdrive was within my skill level, would help push my Egnater into the metal zone, and at $69.99 wasn’t too expensive a risk. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Classic Overdrive is a clone of the Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer pedal. It’s a simple 3 knob overdrive pedal that creates a crunchy blues or hard rock tone on a clean channel. When you use it on an already overdriven channel, you get into metal territory. They were invented to help the then new solid state amps achieve the sound of an overdriven tube amp. The Tube Screamer does a fairly good job but sounds even better when paired with an actual tube amp.

Over the years, many companies (including Ibanez) have put out various clones and mutations based on the Tube Screamer circuit. Most of them are over $100 with the official TS-808HW (hand wired) pedal selling for $349! At $69.99, the BYOC pedal is an insane bargain.

This Christmas when my parents asked for gift suggestions, I requested a Hakko FX-888 soldering station. To my delight, they came through. It’s a great tool and made populating the circuit board much easier. It took me roughly 4 hours to complete the build (over the course of 2 movies on the TV.) Aside from a reversed wire to the A/C jack, it worked right out of the gate. The hardest part was getting the pots and jacks mounted just right, but if you slow down and take your time, it’s not hard at all.

She's alive!

How does it sound? Beautiful. I can dial in tones from slight break up when you pick hard, to bluesy hard rock crunch. When paired with my amp on a high gain setting, I can get some pretty extreme distortion and feedback. I compared it to my Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal and it’s much smoother and warmer than the DS-1.

The Classic Overdrive has simple controls: three knobs for volume, tone, and drive. The switch is “true bypass”, meaning when the effect is off, the signal is disconnected from the circuit, so there’s no chance of altering your tone. The tone knob boosts bass and cuts highs when turned counter-clockwise and the opposite when turned clockwise. The drive knob controls the gain of the pedal, pushing it into break up or distortion. The volume knob controls the overall volume of the signal so you can match it to your clean volume. With the drive set to 7 o’clock (no drive), the volume at 5 o’clock (full volume), and the tone at 12 o’clock (half way) you can get a boost on your clean channel. It’s not transparent; the pedal adds some coloration, but there’s no break up. This is a great setting for clean soloing.

My overall experience in dealing with Build Your Own Clone and the actual build process was fantastic. I’m looking forward to my next build. I think it might be a compressor to go with this overdrive unit. But first I have to decorate this pedal. Lucky for me I live with an artist!

Akai Drops the Ball on EIE Pro Drivers for OS X Mountain Lion

I love my Akai EIE Pro. It’s a great piece of gear; rugged and dependable. I use it weekly to record my podcast “You Talk Loud” and my musical experiments as well as the music of fellow Austin musicians. Well, at least I used to.

On Wednesday July 25th, Apple released the latest version of OS X: 10.8 Mountain Lion. Mountain Lion adds many features that I love on my iPad and integrates OS X with all the iOS devices. iCloud, Notifications, Notes and Reminders: all these things are very attractive to me.

However, I’m not a fool. Computers have been a part of my life for 24 years and in that time I’ve learned that the .0 release of any software has bugs. I’ve read that Apple products are not immune and people working creatively with them are wary of upgrading. Applications need to be checked for compatibility, the machine itself needs to be prepared for the upgrade, and all data needs to be backed up. So with this in mind, I set out to see what problems I might encounter if I upgrade.

My checklist was fairly short: Ableton Live. Since Logic and GarageBand are Apple products, I was confident they would continue to work. “You Talk Loud” is recorded in Ableton Live and luckily for me Ableton had updated Live to be compatible with 10.8. So after upgrading Live, I figured I was set. Not quite.

I waited a few days for the smoke to clear and the reviews were unanimously favorable. No one seemed to have any problems with Mountain Lion upgrades. I upgraded the drivers for my EIE Pro and upgraded the firmware on the unit. I was ready to rock.

The upgrade was painless. Everything worked as it should and I was happy. That is until I plugged in my EIE Pro. Nothing. Not recognized by OS X. I redownloaded the drivers, uninstalled, and reinstalled. Still nothing. I uninstalled Soundflower in case that was causing issues. Nope. I fired up Audio MIDI Setup I saw a blank device in the MIDI settings, but no interface in the audio properties. I was crestfallen. I’ve been on OS X long enough to forget about driver problems. “Those are for Windows users!” I thought. No such luck.

What did Akai have to say? Nothing. There was no announcement, no explanation, no recourse. I sent them a support email, only to receive a reply 4 days later that told me they did not have Mountain Lion compatible drivers. They assured me that they would be released shortly. That was Monday. As of this writing, it is Friday, August 3rd. I still have a non-functioning EIE Pro. A thread on the Akai forum has been bubbling over comments from irate EIE Pro users. We’ve been commiserating and trying to get some answers, but so far it’s all been form letter replies and weak apologies from their social network team. No hard data. The most shameful part is that all the useful information I’ve received has been from the user community and not from Akai themselves.

I’m actually more disappointed than mad about this. I’m disappointed that they have such terrible customer service. I’m disappointed that they waited until release day to test driver compatibility. But mostly I’m disappointed that this is the last Akai product I’ll ever buy. They’ve let me down so much that I can’t trust them to be there if I have problems in the future. I wanted to get an APC40 controller, but I’m going to get something else. Maybe a Native Instrument’s Maschine. Shame on you Akai. Get your shit together.

Complain to Akai via Twitter: https://twitter.com/akai_pro

Update (8-07-2012)

Two weeks after the release of Mountain Lion, Akai finally posted a compatible set of drivers. Of course I had to find out via the complaint thread on the Akai forum, not from Akai themselves.

Visit the EIE Pro page for the new drivers: http://www.akaipro.com/eiepro/

Or download them directly from me: akai_eie_pro_driver_2.1.18.zip

My Podcast, “You Talk Loud”

A few months back, my friend Hunter Demyen and I recorded a podcast that we went on to call “You Talk Loud” (for reasons that are obvious if you listen to it). It sat in the can for a while, both of us unsure if we wanted to make a commitment and do something with it.

On Febuary 3rd I got tired of waiting and I approached Hunter and his roommate Brian to record a second, more official podcast. This was to be the start of what I hope will one day blossom into a media production company. We recorded the podcast the following day and ever since we’ve been building toward launching the site.

Yesterday we launched. It was a bit nerve wracking as we wanted to meet an imposed midnight deadline and there was a lot to do. I had to work my day job and Hunter faced internet problems. We had to get the show notes made, a description written, the RSS feed needed to be set up, and we needed to submit the show to itunes. It was tough, but be made the deadline.

The response has been great. People like it. As far as I’m concerned we’re already a success. The plans for phase 2 are to build a social networking audience as we record and produce new shows. I feel pressure to do a good job, but it’s the right kind of pressure. I love what we’re doing.

Visit youtalkloud.com, follow us on twitter @youtalkloud, and like us on the facebook page.

Despot – Live at Emo’s East (10/28/2011)

On Friday October 28th, I went to see Das Racist with Despot and Danny Brown at Emo’s East in Austin. As is becoming the usual practice for me, I took along my recorder and taped the show. The whole night was fantastic, with a great vibe and lots of energy.

I’d never heard of Despot before that night, but I sure as hell will be looking out for him in the future. He tore up the stage and put on a great show. Unfortunately, due I’m sure to some drunken mistake, I lost half the set. In any case, here is the half I did get. Thanks goes out to Emo’s East who didn’t give me shit about recording and to Despot who was a good enough sport to let me post it.

I’m in the process of mastering the rest of the show. When I’m done I’ll put up links to Apple lossless and high quality MP3 files.

Recording was done with a Tascam DR-07mkII at 44.1Khz/24Bit.

Despot – Live at Emo’s East (ALAC)
Despot – Live at Emo’s East (MP3)

Back in Business with My Firestudio Mobile

Return to Base

Presonus Firestudio Mobile

My Presonus Firestudio Mobile arrived yesterday after being sent back to the manufacturer for repairs. For the year that I’ve owned it, the unit has made occasional pops and clicks on the S/PDIF channels and occasionally drops MIDI messages. Neither of these problems are major, but as my warranty is running out in a week, I decided to ship it off for repairs.

Fixed?

They claim the unit circuitry was “cleaned up” and then tested overnight, but I don’t really know what that entails. After hooking it up and working on a track for an hour or so, I noticed pops and clicks again. It appeared that the fix didn’t take. I decided to install the drivers on my MacBook and plugged it in. The MacBook had some hiccups getting the interface to be accepted by Ableton Live, but eventually it all worked out. I didn’t hear any pops or clicks on the Mac, and this makes me think there is some issue on the PC. However, after a while the box stopped working altogether. It would sync up with the Mac or my desktop, but there was no sound coming out or going in. I decided to re-flash the firmware and so far it’s working fine in both OSes. Since I don’t use the S/PDIF channels, I can keep them muted in the mixer software. I also use another device for MIDI and not the one on the interface. These workarounds are what made me take so long in sending it in, as I could still record with it. It’s just frustrating to pay $200+ and not have a fully operational unit.

Something different

My interface is a Presonus Firestudio Mobile. This little box allows me to plug in up to 10 audio devices for multi-channel recording. Since it’s firewire based, I can take it along with my MacBook for mobile recording. The preamps sound good, and I find all the inputs useful for my collection of synths and other gear. Overall I’ve been pleased with the unit, but I think my next interface will be from another manufacturer.