An Open Letter to Roland

Roland, I Miss You, Baby

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

You Really Can Build Your Own Clone

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 Want My EIE Pro!

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 New Podcast is Born

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.

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.

Hello World

A Fresh Start

Welcome to the new home for my creative output. I’ve redesigned this site to be focused on my audio work and my thoughts on recording. The last site was too general and unfocused, so now its main purpose is to release my recordings and showcase my development as an artist and engineer.

Though there’s a blog on this site, I’m only updating it with news about my progress in recording, performances I attend or conduct, reviews of musical and audio gear, and recorded material I release. For my more personal thoughts, you can follow me on Twitter or Tumblr.

A New Platform

I recently bought a Macbook Pro and I’m making the switch from Windows 7 to OS X . While at first it seemed like it would take some getting used to, I’ve found that I love OS X and I’m rapidly losing patience for Window 7.

The purpose behind the Mac purchase is that I’ve finally given in and accepted that Apple owns the audio industry. And while working in Ableton Live on my windows desktop is fine and good, if I ever hope to work with other musicians and studios, I need to learn the industry tools. That means OS X, Pro Tools, and Logic.

I didn’t see the point in throwing the baby out with the bath water, so instead of selling my desktop, I bought a MacBook. This gives me the added bonus of making my recording rig mobile and gives me more to options than were available on just the desktop. However, I predict that it’s only a matter of time before I sell my PC and buy a Mac desktop.

Some Old Business

I’ve completed the digitization of over 30 cassettes that make up the bulk of my recording catalog. Some tapes have been lost to the ages, but not too many and they probably weren’t that important.

My songs span variety of genres ranging from rock to electronic to ambient and noise. Most of these tapes were made in the mid to late ’90s, when I was at a sort of creative crest.

With the gear and technology I have now, I’m capable of cleaning, restoring and remastering these recordings, making them sound the best they can. All of this material will be released on this site.

Selling Out

The last addition to my site is a store in the form of a Bandcamp page. You can get to it buy clicking “Store” in the menu bar. Bandcamp is a way for me to accept payment for my songs. I’ve set the pricing model as “pay what you want”. This is the same model Radiohead used for “In Rainbows”. You can enter any price you want in the payment field and I’ll get paid directly. Since I make MP3s of my tracks available here, the store is a way for you to get higher quality FLAC files and make a donation.

Thanks for visiting (and reading all this), stick around for more releases.