Musical Comedy of Errors? Yep. It was.

Hoooo boy, guys. What a mess. I had my first non-comedy show last night, and it was cool to be able to perform some of the non-silly songs in an environment other than an open mic, but man, the tech problems! In terms of things working as they ought to, it was a complete and utter fail.

When I was practicing earlier in the day, out of the clear blue, my low E string started buzzing. It wasn’t a gradual or subtle thing. It was a really bad buzz on just that one string, and it was worse with the capo. So, there was some troubleshooting, and after some fiddling around with the capo and without the capo, and on different frets, etc, I eventually determined it probably needed a bit of a truss rod adjustment, so, out came the screwdriver. I got it squared away – at least sans capo, which was good enough for the upcoming night, since I didn’t plan to do any songs with the capo, and I figured I’d troubleshoot later. I suspected my capo might be a bit worn down, which might be contributing to the issue, so I figured I could pick up a new capo en route and check the theory later.

I knew there was a music store en route, so I decided I’d pick one up on the way. After all, I already planned to leave super-early. It was a nice day, if a bit windy, and I wanted to take a walk and enjoy the weather before the show. A minor detour to Sam Ash wasn’t going to hurt my timeline any.

I thought I was all good to go. I had my guitar. I had my low G uke and my little Andoer stick on pickup for said uke. Everything had been tested within the past week and was working just fine.

When I got to the venue, my friends were already there, so I ended up stopping before going for a walk. I didn’t rule it out once I had my things all settled, though. I figured a preliminary tune up while the venue was quiet was a good idea. Plus, I could test my capo theory with the new capo.

Turns out I was right on that front – no buzz with a different capo, so I guess my pretty green capo’s reached it’s life expectancy at this point. Buuutt…I heard something rattling when I picked up my guitar. WTH was in there? Had a pick fallen inside or something. Had my cats unwittingly swatted one of their toys up into the soundhole? (You laugh, but Cleo has absolutely thrown her toys so far in the air when playing that we’ve found them on bookshelves there is no way she could possibly reach. I have found toy mice inside of half empty tissue boxes. So, this was a realistic guess.)  No such luck, though. My input jack was loose and rattling around inside of my guitar. Well, fuck. There was no way to remedy that on the spot. There were no hardware stores nearby. I couldn’t reliably go back to the music store to see if they could fix it for me on the spot and get back before the show started. So, I decided my best bet was just to tape the thing inside the soundhole for the time being so it at least wouldn’t be rattling around and use the stick on pickup for both instruments. It seemed like it was going to be the path of least resistance, since I did have an alternative way to amplify my instruments on hand, even if it meant they were both going to sound a little tinny. I considered hanging the wire right out of the soundhole to plug in that way, but I couldn’t find a method where it wouldn’t bump into the strings, so vetoed the idea.

But, okay, fine. I was going to have to see if the hex nut was sitting on the floor at home, or go to the hardware store for a replacement, but there was nothing I could do about it short term, so I was focused on just getting things amplified enough for the space I was playing, and I was confident that once I found the sweet spot on the guitar for the stick on pickup, it would be fine. I would just have to hope I didn’t get any significant feedback. So, with the sound system set up, we plugged in the removable pickup and I stethoscoped my way to finding the sweet spot on the guitar. Fine, it was under the saddle, similar to the uke, but a little closer to center. Alright, good. That would work.

Or, so I thought. I’d tested everything (briefly) and it worked. …until I had to actually get up there and do it. The same thing that worked in testing was unresponsive when I actually needed it. I could hear the mic when I tapped it. It was definitely on and connected, but the venue’s set up wasn’t pulling any volume out of it. Even though it was on, it was no louder than if I was acoustic. …fuck’s sake. I know that’s not my little pickup. Cheap as it is, the lost cost is in sound quality, not volume. But, she just wasn’t getting more than a whisper out of it.

So, I had to give up and play acoustic. It was a small face, I gave a shout out to the room and the people in the back claimed they could hear the instrument just fine.   Now, knowing I’m going to be playing acoustic, the mic should have been turned down a bit to balance it out, but…no, that was not done, so I dunno, I think I really might as well have been singing acapella for all the uke and guitar you could hear.

So, it was a pretty mixed bag of a performance. I performed fine, but the tech issues made me feel pretty lukewarm to the entire thing.

Still, it was a learning experience. I learned that:

  1. Check over your damn instruments before leaving the house with them. Nuts and bolts loosen over time. Plug things in at home occasionally, even if you don’t need to, just so you’re sure it works when you need it to.
  2.  Even if all of your equipment has been tested and is in good repair, you can’t by default assume the equipment at the venue is in the same state of good repair. You also can’t assume that a venue that knows it’s hosting a musical performance is going to have an instrument mic on hand, because no, they didn’t.
  3. It’s probably a good idea to keep small repair items in my guitar case – a small screwdriver, extra battery, some nuts and washers, maybe some electrical tape, because my audio jack issue could have been fixed in about 10 minutes if I just had a spare hex nut and a screwdriver on hand.

 

So, I dunno. I guess going forward for future shows it’s going to be in my best interest to have my own amplification on hand. A battery-operated mini-amp and audio cable, or a mic and stand tossed into the back of my car ‘just in case’ would have saved a lot of headaches and the end result would have sounded better for the audience.  Live and learn, I guess. When it comes to tech, sometimes, even your backup plan needs a backup plan.  And, maybe I have an excuse to buy another guitar, you know, as a spare. 😀 (Kidding. If I buy another guitar it’s obviously just because it’s pretty and I want it. Let’s be real.)

And, oh yeah. The guitar is fixed. How the hell the hex nut ended up on my bathroom sink, I have no idea. But, I’ve decided to blame the cat.

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Things I learned right away about my -absolute first- Audio Interface

So, I mentioned here before that I got the Focusrite Scarlett Solo as part of my holiday haul, and so, have spent the past week or two spending a good amount of time noodling with it. Today, I’m going to share with you some absolutely newbie sort of things that I learned.

1. Plug the little sucker in before opening your audio program. Close your audio program before unplugging it. I’ve minimized my program a few times, forgot I had it open, and when I went to unplug the Solo, the computer lets out a deafening wail that does not stop until the program is closed. This is not a program specific thing. It’s happened in at least two separate DAWs. Save your eardrums. Close the program first.

2. Mic response on the Scarlett Solo is problematic. The instrument input responds much more readily than the mic input, so you’re going to have to make volume adjustments after the fact. You’re probably going to have to have more gain on your mic. Or, alternatively, buy something (like a cloudlifter, for example) to boost your mic’s signal. If, as a new user of Audio Interfaces, you expect to be doing a lot of vocals, or playing a lot of acoustic instruments, budget with this in mind. By the way, if you are looking at the solo, a boosting device like the cloudlifter costs more than your interface. If this is high priority for you, you might want to just look at a higher quality interface out of the gate to save yourself the tears of woe.

3. Gain increases volume, but reduces clarity. So if you really need that mic to come in at a higher volume, know that you’re likely going to have to make adjustments to clean things up after the fact, or decide to go a little gritty by adjusting your instrument of choice to match.

4. Not all programs will respond to your interface the same. Some things are your program. Some things are your interface. Some things are your microphone, or your cables. Learn to sort of what problem is coming from where. Have spare cables to check. Heck, have a cheap backup mic to check (my backup cost under $30. Would I want to record with it? Not really – that’s why it’s a backup – but it can definitely be used to troubleshoot.). Some programs are going to hear things coming through your interface better than others. Other programs are going to be more sensitive to background noise. Most programs will default to your interface if it’s plugged in at boot up, but some won’t. You’re going to have to get used to checking your preferences in each of these programs until you know which program is likely to do what.

5. Anything recorded through a mic input is going to have more trouble with excess noise than things recorded through an instrument input. This one, admittedly, is fairly obvious. But there are things you don’t quite realize are making noise around you until you attempt to mic a ukulele. Just saying. An instrument input will pick up the sound of your fingers hitting strings when you shouldn’t be. A mic input will pick up the sound of you shifting weight in your chair, or your instrument shifting on your lap, if you’re not careful.

6. Nothing will find your mistakes better than an Audio Interface once recorded. When you start recording things as single tracks, you might be in for a rude awakening. If you’ve, for example, been recording everything into your cell phone, your voice will end up covering some of your errors in guitar playing. Once you take that vocal away and have a clearer overall recording all those little things that make you cringe? They’re you. Work on them. Also, I notice my strings need to be changed way more quickly with a recording and a pair of headphones than I do with just my ears and the tv playing in the background. Change your damn strings when they need it. Don’t be me and wait until the high E sounds like it’s crying, or the whole set slips out of tune before you can finish a song. Listen to what your interface is telling you about your playing and your instrument. Isolating sounds from each other has a wonderful way of being completely merciless.

7. Use a mic stand, and keep your darn hands off of it. Breathing is noise. Chairs are noisy. Fingers are noisy. Everything is noisy, okay? And your mic picks up handling noise. Just the sound of your fingers holding it can turn into background noise, whether you think you’re moving your hand or not. Save yourself some heartache and use some sort of mic stand to reduce potential for that sort of noise. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I favor a low profile mic stand, because I can wedge it in comfortably close to tight spaces without tripod legs tripping me up, and I can get it to a comfortable height, but a cheap little desktop stand will also do the trick. Just make sure whatever you choose adjusts tall enough for you to sit in front of it comfortably. My desktop stand does not. I’m only 5’4, with most of my height in my legs, but I find that I have to hunch over it. This works fine for short intervals, but will become uncomfortable to use for any extended period of time.

8. Headphones. For the love of everything good and right in the world, get yourself a pair of decent headphones. They don’t need to be top of the line, I’m not saying that. I’ll never be the person to tell you you have to fork over huge wads of cash to get something workable, but if you’re already shelling out cash for an audio interface, then if cringing at the idea of a few more bucks for studio headphones, you need to reexamine your priorities. Bargain hunt. There are sales on last year’s phones all over the internet. I bought my CAD phones for $25 (which included shipping). So you can definitely get a good deal if you look. Check all the music retailers for who has a sale that week, check ebay, heck, check craigslist. Musicians upgrade from perfectly good gear all the time. But using some $5 crap from [insert major retailer here] and expecting it not to cost you all the benefits I discussed in #6 is just plain silly. Your headphones will block some ambient noise from your ears in a way your PC’s speakers can’t, isolating things down to what you’re playing. Working with that level of quiet is hugely beneficial in ways you can’t always predict until you’ve done it.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. I’m sure I forgot tons of things. But, at least it gives you an idea of all the things my brain has been full of after working with my Solo for two weeks or so.

Weird difference between Rocksmith for PC and Rocksmith for PS3

I mentioned not too long ago that after finally getting a PS3 (now that the 4 is out, and the 3 is fairly cheap), I decided to get Rocksmith 2014 for the PS3.  I’ve had it for the PC for a while, and I liked it, but ended up not using it as much as I’d like due to limited USB ports, so I thought a used PS3 disc was a good investement to sidestep that particular issue. Overall the experience has been good.

It did confirm that it was not the PC/HDMI cable combo that was causing the String Skipping Saloon to freeze, though. This also happens to me in the PS3 version, where I’ll hit a string, the game won’t hear it, I’ll hit it again, and while the things I’m supposed to be hitting are still moving, the thing my bass is supposed to be controlling will just be locked in place for 3-5 seconds, then suddenly registers all the plucks at once, so I end up shooting the wall. This is a pretty fun way to lose a round, too – when it’s no fault of your own, but the game is just not responding.  This is happening exclusively in that one part of the game, so hopefully they’ll correct it in the next release. But, it’s good to know it’s something that happens across the board, not just in the PC version. All the other guitarcade games run fine.

But, there is a kind of weird setting difference in the Learn a Song section that I can’t quite understand.  In the PC version, I’ve gotten used to starting a song I’ve never played, and it gives me kind of a ‘beginner’ version, then adds notes when I’m hitting them well as I go, takes them away when I’m doing poorly, which is helpful.  Sure, there’s the riff repeater to slow things down, but honestly, the first time out of the gate, my eyes can’t even register what’s coming at me right away, so I really liked this feature, where it builds the song brick by brick. For some reason, the Ps3 version is not doing this. I click on a song I’ve never glanced at, and it’s just spitting me the full, most complicated version, like ‘sink or swim, bitch.’  Not cool, Rocksmith. Not cool. I’m not sure what the difference is here. The two games are entirely separate. The PC version runs through steam; the ps3 version runs through Uplay, so the two games aren’t tied at all. My progress from one hasn’t transferred to the other, so there’s no reason the game should assume I know what I’m doing (which, I don’t), but it does seem to be making that assumption, and I’m not sure why.

Of course, the way to work around it is to work up to it yourself by going into the Guitarcade and using the score attack mode, working your way up from easy to hard before moving on to Learn a Song.  I’m just not sure why the two versions of the game handle the Learn a Song in a different way. It seems odd to me.  I am certainly not ready to tackle any of these seriously involved metal songs, or even the Who, the first time out of the gate when they have some seriously involved stuff going on. There have been songs I’ve started and quit 10 seconds in because there’s just no way in hell I can process all that information, let alone play it, without giving my eyes smaller chunks to work with first, and building up from there.  It’s very little to do with my hands, and more to do with the time it takes for my eyes to send signals to my brain.

This is also how we read. We don’t read every letter in a word. What we actually do, once we know the letters, and know the words, is read entire words as one unit. So we might see “read” and from the shape know the word, rather than the letters. This is really not possible in learning a new song (not for a rookie, anyway). We’re still learning the letters. This is, of course, why they put the riff repeater in the game; so you can slow down a section of the song and learn to read it before having to play it.  I just don’t quite get why the PS3 version has taken the sink-or-swim tactic to learn a song when the PC version gives it to you in smaller chunks. The difference in functionality just doesn’t seem to make sense.

So, while I used to just dive into Learn a Song, it seems on the PS3 version, I’m going to be spending more time in the Score Attack section of the game, to give my eyes less data to process, and then work my way up from there.

Programs are weird.

On an only vaguely related note, I think my new Schecter has lower action than my Ibanez. I’m definitely finding myself more prone to fret buzz (not related to yesterday’s fret buzz issue) when I pluck the string a little on the harder side.  I either need to learn to be more gentle, or get a heavier gauge string to raise the action a hair. I remember when I was an older kid, having to teach our much younger neighbor to pet our dog gently. Our dog happened to be a passive old lady who was great with kids, but I remember teaching this little toddler ‘pet the dog gently’ because she used to basically whack the poor thing, thinking the dog actually liked it; I feel a bit like that when I pluck a string a bit more firmly than the bass likes, like it’s going ‘hey! Not so rough!’ lol. Not something I had to worry about with my Ibanez.

Until Next Time, still breaking in my new bass.