I’ve bought a new toy. It took me about 2 years to get round to it, but once I’d tried it out I knew it was the right thing to do!
It’s not a Star Trek teleporter, nor is it a one-man bass riser, it’s a very cool monitoring system that, when you stand on it and play, transmits the sound of the bass through your bones and into your ears. Yeah, I know, it sounds ridiculous but now I’ve used it on a few gigs I don’t want to ever be without it.
I first heard about this type of system because a few drummers I know use the drum stool/throne version. Drummers usually like a lot of kick drum in their monitor, but this can be hard to achieve on some stages, especially with so many bands using in-ear monitoring. I saw this stool being plugged into a green amplifier and had to ask what was going on.
“Put your earplugs in, sit there, and use the kick pedal” said the drummist. So I did.
Really surprisingly, I could hear a really nice, fat, but crisp bass drum right in my ear.
“…they also do one for bassists” he said…
It took me over 2 years to finally decide (the whole system is about as much as a decent bass amp, so not something you’d buy on a whim) but I went down to Porter & Davies and tested one out. A few minutes playing bass while standing on the platform and I was convinced.
I’ve used it on every gig since I bought it, and I’ve also used it in the studio when recording with Space Elevator – the difference between just hearing the bass in headphones and feeling it in your body, your ears and even in the strings is like standing in front of a huge bass rig, but without everyone else in the room shouting at you to turn down. When recording, I was able to set up in the live room with the drums, and feel like I had the amp cranked up, but with hardly any noise in the room (amp volume was off, just using it to get the sound DI from my amp and into the desk)
The feeling on the strings is the most surprising – the strings feel really “live” in your fingers, and this means you can play with so much more dynamics, because you can feel and hear when you are playing loudly. Want a bit more dynamic range in your playing? Dial up a little more Master Volume and you’ll play with a lighter touch. As I can be a little heavy handed, with a tendency to “dig in” (blame my formative years in heavy rock bands!) this is a real bonus for me.
If you’ve been used to massive volume on your amp, but bandmates keep wanting you to turn down, or if everyone is switching to in-ear monitors and you now struggle to hear your bass through those tiny little speakers in your ears, this is a good place to look for an answer.
I don’t know how well it would work without earplugs or in-ear monitors (I ALWAYS use earplugs), but for me it’s been bloody brilliant!
There are only three downsides I’ve found so far:
- One more trip to the van on load in/load out
- You do have to occupy a definite area on stage (on smaller stages this might actually be a bonus as you save yourself some room that nobody else can pinch off you!) – on larger stages I would use my bigger amp to make the area near the drums vibrate, then have the platform set up in front of the mic, so you’ve got two “sweet spots” where the bass really throbs
- It’s a real talking point when you set up – everybody wants to know what it is, what it does, and can they try it (you might like the focus being on you, but I didn’t choose bass as my instrument to be the centre of attention!)
It’s still brand new, and isn’t even in the Porter & Davies online shop at the time of writing, but they can supply the platform if you contact them, and you can visit them to try before you buy.
As part and parcel of being a musician these days, you seem to need to do so much more than just play music. You need to understand marketing, social media, website maintenance and management, and (certainly if you use a DAW – home studio recording system) you need to be your own IT support team. This post is about the trouble I had connecting my MacBook Pro to a Dell Ultrasharp U2412M Monitor.
I recently retired my ageing iMac and replaced it with a shiny new MacBook Pro (MBP). It was the best computer I could afford (and I’m not really sure I could afford it – no doubt my accountant will tell me later) and it should last me for many years to come.
Much as I loved my iMac, it had become slow and I think the constant updating and improving of the software I wanted to run on it had managed to stretch it past its original design specifications. The MBP is much more powerful, faster, with much more “disk” space (it’s actually got a solid state drive, but let’s not get caught up in that) so I was very happy with the purchase.
One thing it had a lot less of was screen. My iMac had a 20″ screen while the MBP has only a 15″ screen. This meant I needed an external monitor to give me enough room to work. A “Retina” screen (something about twice as many pixels – basically very high quality display) on the MBP means that only certain monitors would work with it. This is frustrating and not least because the Apple external monitor costs hundreds more pounds than I have left…
So I did some research and found a good recommended external monitor is the Dell Ultrasharp U2412M It’s about £180 and various MacBook Pro users had recommended it online, despite it not officially supporting Apple computers. So I found one on eBay (the seller included the cable they had used to connect it to their MBP, so I thought I had everything I needed.)
The monitor turns up a few days after I bought it and I plug it in using the supplied lead (Thunderbolt to DisplayPort) and off I go. Doesn’t look quite as crisp as I’d hoped, but it works. After a few hours of using the monitor I realised that the screen was occasionally going black for about 2 seconds, then coming back on. I carried on with what I was doing and made a note to look it up.
The very next job I had to do required me to use the PC which the Missing Persians were recording on, and that doesn’t have a monitor – so I used the Dell screen and it worked perfectly (using a VGA cable) so I started to think it was my Mac at fault.
Next time I went to use the Mac the screen had also started showing horizontal dotted lines – sometimes these would be about a pixel deep and dart across the screen (left to right) and sometimes they’d be a band of dots reminding me a little of when the tracking needed adjustment on your VHS video. Searching for all those symptoms brought back a load of results suggesting faulty video cards, motherboards, whole heaps of expensive stuff. This wasn’t looking good.
I contacted Apple support – after a series of tests on my Mac (no problems found) they recommended I spoke to Dell.
I contacted Dell support – they suggested a series of tests on my monitor (no problems found) then recommended I spoke to Apple.
I tried several different cables and adapters to go from HDMI > VGA (laptop screen goes blank, then Dell monitor says “No Signal – Entering Power Save Mode”)
I’d also tried several different monitors I had lying around (is there anyone who doesn’t end up with a load of useless computer junk in the house?)
Eventually I stumbled across the answer – a Macbook user had found that the cable he was using was faulty and another suggested that when he used a genuine Apple one he found it worked. I couldn’t get a “Genuine” Apple cable but on the Apple website I bought an HDMI > DVI-D lead made by Belkin – it was a bit of a guess, there were two different types of cable I could have tried and I just picked one.
Fortunately for me, the monitor now works very well!
It’s a shame that the Mac is too fussy to work with any old monitor (like most PCs I’ve used will) but maybe that’s progress. I haven’t bought a high-end PC for a while so I can’t comment on what problems exist there. It’s also a shame that the Apple recommended monitor costs about as much as a second hand car. But I know Apple products have always been expensive. I also know that iPods and the like are really funny about what cables they will charge from or devices they will connect to via third party USB leads. I offer no comment on why this might be.
I’m just hoping this post can be useful if anyone else is in a similar situation!
I started writing this post when we’d booked some time together to begin recording the Missing Persians second album – I then saved the draft.
I’m typing the text you’re reading now when we’re about halfway through the recording process. We’re doing it slightly differently this time, but still recording it ourselves and still using Reaper (I’m actually a Cubase man, but Reaper was chosen as a lower cost option which would allow us to take a PC to our own houses to record individual parts without me having to give up my main computer, or getting everyone in the band to invest in Cubase!) Reaper has some idiosyncrasies which I’m not sure I like, but all in all it works quite well.
Learning from our previous experience…
Last time we recorded pretty much everything live except for guitar solos and vocals – but as we didn’t have enough inputs on our sound interface we mixed drums down to a stereo track before going into the computer. This worked OK for most songs, but one or two were discarded due to problems with the drum mix which we obviously couldn’t do anything about afterwards. We also had a certain amount of bass and guitar spill on the drum tracks which wasn’t ideal. When I came to mix we had to lose a number of good recordings due to missing a crucial problem with drum sounds or a balance issue, so this time I wanted to do it slightly differently.
We still wanted to keep it as live as possible to capture the feel of the band, but we also wanted the flexibility to fix errors and change our minds about things after the event. So we compromised a little – this time we managed to get all the drum tracks on separate channels (to help with mixing) and we only recorded bass and drums together, with guide guitar and vocals captured on lower quality line in channels (just so we had some sort of context for overdubs.)
We used the sofa as a sound barrier to avoid hearing bass guitar on the drum tracks. Bass was DI’d out of the back of the amp, so no spill the other way round. The output from John’s effects was plugged directly into a Line input and we only used it for a guide. We’ll capture the sound of John’s amp when he overdubs later.
Recording the acoustic guitar separately also gave Chris chance to recover from his broken wrist – sustained on the last day of his holiday shortly before we started recording the album (you can see him manfully struggling on despite being hampered by the cast in the photo below!)
The glass door in Nick’s house was perfect to allow us to keep eye contact but keep separation so no acoustic guitar (that loudest of instruments!) spilled onto the drum tracks…
This process is working well so far – we recorded bass and drums at our drummer Nick’s house, and then Chris has taken the PC and is recording his vocals, acoustic guitar and mandolin at his own pace (now that the cast is off he is finding this much easier!) Electric guitar and vocals are being added in the coming weeks.
Based on what we’ve recorded so far it’s coming along well. We recorded 19 songs in total and will choose the best dozen or so to create the finished product. It will be available via our website the Missing Persians Bandcamp page (copies of our first album can also be purchased here)
I’ve just replaced my main music computer. My ageing iMac was becoming unable to cope with what I ask of it (running Cubase and some video editing being my main concerns) without showing what a friend of mine has called “the rainbow wheel of perpetual patience” after every click of the mouse.
So just after I bought the new machine to replace it I started seeing one of my external hard drives was unexpectedly ejecting itself and showing signs of being in need of replacement too.
First opportunity I had (today) I started copying things off the external drive onto a new one, but already the drive was starting to stop even more often – I have about 250GB on this drive which I wouldn’t really want to lose and I was managing to copy about a gig at a time before the drive would shut down. It would spin up, appear in the Finder, I’d grab a few files, it would copy some of them, then it would stop. A message appears on the Mac saying “The disk was not ejected properly” then after a few seconds it spins up again, mounts, appears in the finder then the message about ejecting appears again.
If I switch the drive off for a while I can get a bit of use out of it (about 5-10 minutes) then it starts ejecting again.
A quick search led me to believe that the drive was possibly failing when it was getting hot, so out came the screwdriver and I took the drive out of its case. I stood the drive on its edge (to get the most of the surface area cooling) and directed a desk fan at it. This allowed my about an hour of use before it would get too hot and eject again. So I grabbed the most important stuff first and continued through until I’d copied everything over to the new drive.
Luckily, I keep backups of everything *really* important but it’s tricky (and costly) to keep buying hard drives to keep enough backups (my previous work in IT tells me you can never have enough backups!) so some stuff is sometimes at risk. I’m just grateful I was able to copy everything using my rigged up cooling system – I’d like to think that this tip will be useful for someone else!
After about a year of rehearsing and gigging, The Missing Persians decided to record their first album. It was released (or as our singer/songwriter Chris likes to say “escaped”) on Saturday 19th July 2014 at our Thamesfest performance – you can also hear and/or buy it from The Missing Persians Bandcamp page, either as a digital download or a physical CD.
We’ve all paid good money for recording time at studios, but there is something about the clock ticking away which can change the mood of a performance. Some people cope with the pressure better than others, but it only takes a technical problem with an instrument and you can lose a whole morning. That time has to either be paid for, or you are going to have to compromise on how much time you have to mix.
As we all had some previous experience with home recording, we recorded and produced it entirely ourselves (with a couple of exceptions in the last stages). I’m pretty pleased how it turned out, so I thought I’d note down some of the things we learned:
You can record your band yourselves in your home studio
Admittedly, we did have a rather motley selection of microphones that we’d all gathered over the past 20+ years of being in bands, but most of these were good ol’ Shure SM58s. Not hugely expensive, but robust and decent quality. Vocal mics were Seinheiser. We set up (two guitars and one bass) in our friend JJ’s living room, with the drums set up in an adjoining room. The drum room was padded a little with duvet/sleeping bags to reduce some of the echo of the room, and I set up in the doorway so Nick and I could have eye contact while we were recording. We also had a set of drum mics which cost about £200. One contraversial thing we did was use a small mixing desk to mix the drums down to a stereo pair. This was done because we only had 8 inputs in our sound card, and we did live to regret this choice as we were unable to use a few takes because the drum mix had changed at some point without us noticing. The whole lot went into a reasonable spec desktop PC running Reaper – I’m more of a Cubase fan myself, but Reaper didn’t take long to learn how to use and was a cheap, useable solution (we did it this way as a) we couldn’t fit in my small studio at home and b) I didn’t want to move my studio 25 miles up the road while we recorded the album).
Choose the best overall performance rather than the fewest mistakes
We wanted to have a “live” sound, so we recorded the songs pretty much live (without vocals), then did a few overdubs for vocals, guitar solos and fixes. Often there was a really good sounding take (but with a number of mistakes) versus a slightly less exciting take which was note perfect. I’m sure it’s always better to choose the one that sounds liveliest and try to fix it, rather than choosing one that’s “technically” correct but doesn’t have the feel. Listen carefully to some Beatles or early Bowie on some really good headphones and you can hear things which were clearly mistakes, but recording again might have never got the same feel as the version that made the album.
Take a long time over the mixing process
I don’t mean take months over it, but if you’ve not done much of this before you need to accept that to get the sound right you are going to have to do a lot of experimentation. Listen to the song and keep gently refining it. Remember everything you hear affects everything else you hear (we kept using the phrase the “three stooges affect” where it sounded like everything is trying to get out of the same frequency range in the speaker). We all took turns at rough mixes and some of the first attempts were quite surprising (not always in a good way!) We explored how to control levels of instruments with a little compression (to make the louds not SO LOUD) and then use EQ, volume and panning to find space in the speakers for everything to sit. In the end, it worked out best for one of us (somehow the job fell to me) to sit in a room and work on the mixes, then share (Dropbox) works in progress for comment (digital recording means you can keep multiple mixes – just remember to name them sensibly so you can tell which is which!) We then got together at mine for final tweaks just before we finished the mixes.
Once you think you’ve got the mix right, listen to it on as many devices as you can.
Just stands to reason; you don’t know what people are going to listen to it on (earbuds, audiophile equipment, massive PA, laptop speakers) and you should try to make it sound as good as it can on all of these. You’ll be surprised how the bass can overpower some systems and be completely missing from others.
Pay someone else to master it
Just because you know how to play an instrument, and know how you want your songs to sound, it’s tempting to look for some digital software with a “Make it sound awesome” button on it. I don’t think that’s going to happen; just spend a few hundred quid on getting someone trusted to have a listen with their ears. You may be amazed at what they pick out that you hadn’t noticed, and it will sound all the better for it. We used Tim Turan in Oxford and I think he was worth every penny.
It will cost more than you think
Even doing most of the job ourselves, it did cost us quite a lot of money (£2000+) to produce 500 CDs (PC, audio card, microphones, mastering, duplication) but recording at a studio would have meant we couldn’t have done it over the course of several weeks, couldn’t have decided after listening back to rough mixes that a particular song didn’t have the feel and let’s do it again, and couldn’t have experimented quite so much with sounds and overdubs. We were also able to stay relaxed through the whole process, and I think that was one of the most important factors in making music we are proud of.
One of the joys of working with The Missing Persians is that I get to do a lot more singing in the band than others where I just concentrate on playing the bass guitar. I’ve always been willing to step up to the mic for a bit of backing vocals (I tend to default to a third above the melody) but this has always been a bit of an “added extra” rather than the main event.
The Missing Persians, however, require a bit more concentration as many of the songs call for three part harmonies. This is good fun when they go right, but does have a tendency to highlight any inaccuracies on my part! Infact, backing vocals are largely a case of watching the singer and making the same kind of noises they do, and I find the actual lyrics are not quite as important as singing the same words as the main vocalist – if they start singing the wrong chorus hardly anyone is going to notice as long as you are all singing the same thing.
My usual method for learning lyrics (certainly when it’s more than just joining in on the chorus) used to be relying on lyric sheets in front of me, until the words just sort of get absorbed into the memory accidentally. Trouble is, this method can take rather a long time because if the lyrics are there, you’ll read ’em rather than learning ’em!
I recently had to learn lead vocals for a cover of Sweet Gene Vincent by Ian Dury and the Blockheads. If you don’t know the song it has a fair number of words in it, and there’s a bit of twisting and turning. There are two similar sections where the vocal is very prominent and Ian spits the words out fast and furious:
“White face, black shirt, white socks, black shoes – black hair, white strat, bled white, dyed black”
“Black gloves, white frost, black crepe, white lead – white sheet, black knight, jet black, dead white”
As you might imagine, it’s easy to end up singing about white hair and black frost or even making up nonsensical words while you stumble over your own teeth…
First off I tried simply singing along to the song repeatedly to learn them, but as soon as I tried it in rehearsals with the band (without Mr Dury accompanying me) I found I was still floundering. I’d sometimes completely lose my place and have to “nah nah nah” until something I could get a grip on came back to me. So I did a couple of gigs with the lyrics just on the floor next to me, but that just meant I was looking at the ground between each line, whether I knew the next words or not!
One thing I had noticed from telephone conversations (stay with me) was if someone called for my girlfriend and I wrote down a message, 9 times out of 10 I remembered the message without finding the bit of paper, so I wondered if the act of writing the words down actually helped the memory (it turns out there’s quite a lot of research on the subject suggesting that it does just that).
So I wrote down the lyrics from memory, using a pen and piece of paper (as opposed to typing into a Word doc) then looked up the lyrics again online to fill in the blanks. Turns out I remembered most of them, with just a couple of words wrong. I then wrote them out from memory once again without any problems.
For the next couple of days I sang the lyrics to myself whenever I had a moment (sitting in traffic for example) and was able to remember them much more easily. Even better, when I got to rehearsal the words were just there in my mind without searching for them or getting panicky.
On Saturday I’ll find out how I do in the gig (no cheat sheet, no safety net!) when the Missing Persians play at the Florence Park Community Centre in Oxford (shameless plug for public gig!)