So I’m very pleased to say that on January 31st, my band The Acropolis of Soul got together along with a friend Scott Birch and shot a whole ton of videos. I have been working on the multitrack audio with an unparalleled amount of perfectionism and my guitarist comrade Vincent has been editing the videos. Here is the 1st tune from that session, an improvised jam that I named “P-996 Lazer” after the fighter jet in GTA. I feel like improvising or maybe playing music in general is, to me, all about trying to get up and do something spectacular, something bigger than your normal everyday stuff. Hopefully it’s exciting and electrifying, hopefully you take risks and in the end do something sweet. Which also sort of describes trying to steal the fighter jet and blow up some unsuspecting fools back in LA from GTA! Anyway, check out this jam and Vince’s great video editing and effects work. There’s soon to be a lot more and I’ll post them here in a playlist.
Archive for the ‘Music’ Category
I’m very pleased to report that the audio engineering and woodworking arms of Microcosmologist Industries have concluded their latest joint venture with the completion of the J-Sub mark III.
It’s exciting to have this bad boy completed. I’ve been enjoying the sounds over the last week and its been surprising me with the way that a subwoofer really adds power and heft to almost any track. It’s been a while since the last sub was around so it’s a real pleasure to have this guy in the house. I already went into detail about the design goals and component selection in my prior entry so I won’t get too nerdy here. As a final touch I added some handles on each side since this thing weighs a LOT and it’s cumbersome to move. The feet I ordered for it had optional “tiptoes” (ie supersharp spikes) on the ends of them, which I elected to remove because of the weight. Those things would go straight through any carpet, no question. I also filled the bottom half of the enclosure with cheap polyester batting used for making pillows. For more technical information, take a look at this post.
Overall I’d say it turned out excellent! I’ll get a feel for its performance in the weeks to come, as I continue listening to different material and the cone itself gets broken in. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I’ve made several tweaks to my electric trumpet setup over the last few months and I’m feeling fired up about the results. Most notably, I managed to score a Leslie rotating speaker off Craigslist, which is a rightous acquisition on many levels. I’ve been at many live shows and studio sessions that used a Leslie for organ amplification and having stood next to one, I can attest that although there are many rotary emulations and good quality recordings of rotating speakers out there, there’s simply nothing like being in the room with the real thing. There’s a rich 3D quality when you hear it in person that needs to be experienced in realtime. For a long time I’ve always thought it would be so cool to have one, and now it’s sitting in my living room!!
My Leslie is a model 205, which is a weird, obscure model. It sat on Craigslist for over a month before I showed up to buy it, probably because it’s a rotosonic model. Rotosonic means that instead of the traditional double horn on top, this model has a rotating drum with a Jensen 6×9 speaker inside of it. Since organs sort of need that screaming, bright sound that a horn gives, most keyboard players would scoff at this substitution. However the trumpet is bright and screamy enough already so the 6×9 speaker works out well for my needs. Here’s an album of pictures I took (click the arrows to see more):
The model 205 is also weird in several other ways as well. It incorporates 5 separate speakers which are independently amplified by a large tube amp and selectable with a relay box. There’s the rotating drum up top with two 6x9s inside (one on each side), another single 6×9 on the bottom inside the rotating drum which spins in the opposite direction, a stationary downward firing 15″ inside the center portion of the cabinet, and a stationary 6×9 which is mounted in one corner on the top. The top drum has a two speed motor for fast and slow rotation and the bottom drum has a fixed, fast-speed motor. The cabinet itself is also slightly unusual, with a different number of louvres than most Leslies and no split in them.
All in all, it’s a total oddball, but one that I think I can configure nicely to fit my own preferences. When I searched for pictures of this model online I could not find any photos of it, only a single video on YouTube from a guitarist who had reconditioned one. For that reason I have posted a lot of photos here in case someone else is trying to research this obscure model. The top drum itself is also different than the bottom drum despite the fact that they appear to hold identical 6×9 drivers. For some reason the designers at Leslie decided the angle the top speakers downward slightly, and added that lightning shaped baffle which partially covers them. Why? It just is. Roll with it.
Getting this Leslie is a major coup for my little home recording operation, and also for the realtime enjoyment of the sounds as they’re being created. It’s gotten me thinking about the major shifts I’ve gone through in the evolution of my electric setup into what it is now. This feels like the beginning of a new era for me. Looking back, I think I could group my setup into three distinct phases:
Version 1 (The Muse Cafe Dawning):
Yamaha Silent Brass as pickup, softshell pedal case on the floor, amplified by a Mesa Boogie wicker-faced guitar amp
Version 2 (The Crystal Gravy Setup):
Audio Technica wireless mic as pickup with feedback suppressor and SWR bass amp for amplification with pedals in a hardshell case on top of a keyboard stand
Version 3 (100% Juice Style):
Barcus Berry brass transducer as pickup, custom wooden pedalboard on top of keyboard stand, SWR bass amp, DI input box for recording pedalboard (later a Behringer mixer), shure SM57 on straight stand for acoustic sound
Version 3.5 (The Acropolis Refinements):
Leslie rotating speaker, PedalGenie rental pedals adding variety, powered Mackie mixer for recording pedalboard, Sennheiser E609 Silver on boom stand for acoustic sound
Anyhow, I’m very excited about this baby. You can hear it on this recent recording which I uploaded to my YouTube channel. It’s being used by the organ in that recording, which is the traditional, easily identifiable way to hear it. Note that the keyboard is not adding its own leslie effect, so the warbling and the tremolo you hear on the organ is all due to this speaker. Man this thing is neat! I’ll have some trumpet recordings with it in the near future…
Somehow, I’m not sure how, it has taken me this long to report the news that I am building a giant subwoofer. I ordered the drivers all the way back in September and now I’m excited to finally be making some real progress on the J-Sub mk.III. Although this is the third subwoofer I’ve built, this is the first one that I get to keep, which makes it especially exciting. This time around I tried a few different things on the enclosure and overall I’m feeling very pleased with the results. First off, a few specs: The amp is 300W, class A/B which means it has a very classy THD of merely 0.08% which is unusually great for a sub amp (Keiga KG5230 Subwoofer Amplifier). I elected to mount it on the side of the box so that it’d be easy to reach in case I want to fiddle with the controls. The driver (SB34NRX75-6 datasheet) is a 12″ SB Acoustics, one of the few available which is intended for a sealed box (SB Acoustics SB34NRX756 12” Woofer). I took this approach because my goal here is accuracy and tightness, not loudness or low frequency extension. I’ve had subs before that went loud and low, but I’ve never had one that was super clean and punchy so I decided that’s what I wanted. This makes sense given that I’ll be using it to help master recordings. And there’s also the fact that super low frequencies are incredibly good at punching through any wall imaginable, which means I’d be wary of letting her rip. In college I built my roommate a passive/active sub with Peerless XLS (extra long excursion) drivers and 500W behind it. Our room was on the east side, 1st floor but you could hear that sub on the 4th floor west side… in a concrete cinder block building! That’s just too much.
Sealed boxes always demand a larger size than a ported box. My enclosure is four cubic feet, which is very big in person. I knew there would be a side wide enough to accomodate my 12″ driver, so I elected to proportion the internal dimensions according to the golden ratio–the height is 1.62 times the width, which is 1.62 times the depth of the inside volume. This ratio was famously used in the Egyptian pyramids, The Parthenon, works of art by Da Vinci and Dali, and also naturally occurs in both plants and animals. I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the golden ratio and how it pops up so many places
For the enclosure I used 3/4″ MDF, which is the ideal material for speakerboxes thanks to its acoustically-dead properties. MDF is basically wood ground up into fine pulp then compressed back into a solid piece with high density and perfect uniformity. The downside is that it’s very heavy and it generates clouds of superfine dust whenever you cut it, which is very annoying and unhealthy to work around. I did all my cutting outdoors with a fan blowing the dust away from me. Even then I held my breath while cutting and walked away before inhaling again. That dust is no joke.
The MDF was then covered with 1/4″ oak veneered plywood. Since it’s plywood, it has a fantastic looking outer layer and then some unknown garbage wood sandwiched inside it. Initially I had felt pessimistic that I would be able to get good-looking edges since I thought using my high speed router would cause chipping and rip-outs on the thin oak layer. Fortunately I was completely wrong about this! Using a scrap piece as a test, I found out that my laminate cutting bit created perfectly flush edges with zero rips in the oak, and my 1/4″ roundover bit actually created a smooth edge with a nice grainy look. This was a very pleasant surprise. My one flaw was not having the 40+ inch clamps it would have taken to clamp the top and bottom laminate pieces. Because I didn’t have enough pressure on them, there is a small 32nd to 16th inch gap at the center where the sides meet the top/bottom. I can live with this.
A few coats of stain and a few coats of poly and she’ll be ready for action!
In the words of Frank Sinatra, “It Was A Very Good Year” for funky music, 2015. The following is a long-form discussion and dissection of the many pieces of musical news in my world; it’s big but hang with me there’s lots of substance to talk about. We got new albums from Lettuce and The New Mastersounds, and a new festival right in my backyard brought some mean groove to the Texas countryside. And. I made some pretty fresh music myself, if I don’t say so. The Funk is alive and thriving although I’m pretty sad to chronicle it: Bear Creek was cancelled this year.
2015 In Funk Pt 1: The October Bear Creek that wasn’t
This year the Legendary Bear Creek Music Festival which I’ve written about time and time and time again was initially rescheduled about a month earlier than its traditional mid-November timeframe, which was a tantalizing proposition for literally hotter dancing and brand-new-good-old times, however due to undisclosed complexities, the organizers cancelled the fest this year which was… devastating news. According to at least one trusted source the odds are not favorable that it will return (although never say never). This is pretty sad news for the feet and the spirit….
About one year and some weeks ago my friend Bill and I were taking a breather after a long day of soaking in the incredible vibes at Bear Creek 2014. We were sitting by the edge of a pond to let our feet rest and I said to him, ‘you know some day they’re going to stop putting this fest on, for one reason or another, and we’re going to look back at this time period like it was some kind of utopia or a golden age for music like this.’ Little did I know at the time how prescient of a thought it was. I wish it hadn’t been.
Me, I hate to wear bracelets so as soon as I got home from the fest I clipped mine off and kept it to put inside the frame with the festival poster I had picked up. But Bill loves to keep his on as a daily reminder of the fest. When I heard the news I texted him right away and you can see his reply in the screenshot here. When I talked to him on the phone about it later he said “Man, I wore that thing to work every single day… every business meeting.”
It’s a testament to the power of what happens when everything goes right at a fest and some incredible magic is created which can only happen there, away from the business meetings and the grind of existence. Something ‘big’ enough that it becomes part of who you are. Bear Creek inspired me to push off in certain direction with my own music for sure. With the concentrated dose of pure funk, jazz, and soul I think that fest tipped my scales toward a certain sensibility much more than an eclectic fest could have done, and drastically more than a series of small concerts peppered througout the year in a drip-feed. If you love this kind of music, if it speaks to a certain thing inside your being, Bear Creek was a lightning strike to the soul.
These days there are tons of great fests out there, and plenty of them offer what feels like an escape to some alternate reality, or at least a vacation from your typical reality. But Bear Creek was that and something more. It was a meeting of the minds. A congress of groove-seekers unmatched. It was a place where the headlining acts were Lettuce and The New Mastersounds, a place where heroes of the genre got to really get up there and rip it at 200%, boosted beyond the normally possible range by the energy of this crowd. Everyone could feel that vibe.
It was a place where, when the final act had finished, the crowd chanted for an encore by singing a looping rendition of the chorus from the Parliment anthem “We Want The Funk”. Replete with the falsetto “ooohhh weeeeeee” it went on until the musicians came back out and fired up the jams once more. We Want The Funk.
Word, Bear Creek. Word.
2015 In Funk Pt 2: Top Tier Inspiration on the Stereo
Within the last month, two superb albums have dropped and I feel it’s worth discussing them together. 1. Made For Pleasure by The New Mastersounds and 2. Crush by Lettuce. These two bands are sort of like two sides of the same coin. They both are well-established and highly-talented groups of musicians making original funk music although they’ve each got a different philosophy on how. Lettuce is pushing further into their own direction with a huge number of members in the band, lots of effects, a clean/modern mastering sound, and complex song structures. Their identity is still evolving. The New Mastersounds are rooted in their quartet playing tunes of simple structure, mastered with a vintage/analog sensibility; all of which have been refined to such a beautiful richness that there’s really no need to start flipping knobs around. NMS are pretty well “dialed-in” as far as their identity and what you might expect from them, but they do manage to toss in plenty of treats for their returning listeners.
A common theme between these two albums is the studio-implementation of things they’ve been doing live for quite some time now. In the case of the New Mastersounds, I’ve seen them perform reggae grooves as far back as 2008 but until “Made For Pleasure” there’s never been a proper reggae tune on one of their albums. Adding to the novelty is the fact that it’s a cover of the Iggy Azalea tune “Fancy” transplated into a reggae groove with the lyrics “I’m so Irie”. That’s perfect.
A very welcome additional treat for this listener is the presence of the peppy and crisp West Coast Horns on four of the album’s eleven tracks. In particular their trumpeter adds a hot sizzle to the action which I really love. In the words of my friend Vince “try as I might, I just can’t get into Mastersounds with vocals” and I will echo that sentiment. The tunes with Charly Lowry, on their own, are a great soul tribute that would feel good on an album of their own. But sandwich them between the high-level instrumentals at which the Mastersounds are so adept and cranking out, the the vocal-driven tunes feel like a sideshow, a distraction.
“Pho Baby” centers around a chord progression style which feels abnormal for the Mastersounds, but in a pleasing way. I imagine that tune would feel great toward the end of a festival set. “Let’s Do Another” gives you a dose of vibraphone, tabla, and horn section on top of the mastersounds which was a wholly unexpected combo that continues to please on repeated listens. But my favorite track is definitely “Cigar Time” which is a no-frills tune that simply delivers what the mastersounds do best: a steady groove with that magic ratio of funk and jazz behind some superb-sounding guitar and organ solos that compel you to nod your head. How these guys keep producing such quality material album after album is a marvel to me, one I plan to continue studying indefinitely.
And then there’s Crush, the 4th album from Lettuce. This record’s got a lot of meat and a lot of attitude, as you’d expect from the boys. I gotta admit, I’m not sure I’m totally a fan of how they mastered this album. Compared to other offerings in the genre (as described above!) this album sounds thin and digital to my ears. In particular the obvious noise gate on the beginning of “Phyllis” is a confounding production fail, if you ask me. One thing I AM totally (read: predictably) loving about this new Lettuce album though, is the amount of effects on the horns! In track 2 “Get Greasy” Ryan Zoidis has a killer solo using what sounds like envelope and a synth pedal. it’s making me want to dig into my own synth pedal capabilties…
This is also the first studio album with trumpeter Eric Benny Bloom and he fills the large shoes of Rashawn Ross nicely I think. Rashawn’s high range is… formidible. Bloom takes the “screamer” dial to about 80% of where Rashawn had it, but he makes up for the rest with his much more thoughtful solo capability. The sheer firepower of his successor was always a thrill but given a choice I’d take Eric. Plus, this guy is into effects and I have… let’s say “more than just a casual penchant” for that. In 2014 he was present for Bear Creek and I got a taste of his approach.
That year’s fest was also the moment in which the stylistic shift on this record was first displayed. There were a lot more spaceout/dubout moments than ever before, which I think is a fantastic counterpoint to the “Rage” funk. In so many different ways, musicians of all genres try to take their listeners up to a high place then give them some breathing room to cool off. That’s the essence of dynamics since staying planted at 100% all the time turns into a grind.
I’m glad to see Lettuce taking this new direction. My friend Bill had a more tepid reception to the change and prefers the tone set on their previous record Fly. I’d argue there are still plenty of in-yo-face numbers here, in particular “The Lobbyist” stands tall for me, and “The Force” is a spectacularly dramatic opening theme. I’d love to see them open a show with that, and maybe reprise it once before the end.
2015 In Funk Pt 3: Art Outside
As chronicled previously, the incredible Bear Creek music fest was cancelled this year, leaving an opening for some other musical experience to fill. Fortunately for our heroes, right here in our Texan backyard there was a gathering called Art Outside which had a very enticing lineup of both funk and electronic music. I had been badgering my wife to come along with me to a music festival for a long time and the variables had lined up to persuade her to join in. Only problem was the weather. Hurricane Patricia was just making landfall in Mexico and the effects would soon be sweeping across the state, leaving just enough of a window for two glorious days before the drought-cracked soil of Rockdale TX would get all the moisture it could handle and more…
The New Mastersounds had the closing slot on Thursday night where the elite crew of 4-day warriors kicked off the festivities. Having seen them over a dozen times now, I’d say it was a lovely festival set with a great song list. Summercamp with it’s delicate and sparse breakdown flowing into a 4-on-the-floor dance groove was a favorite for me, as well as their rendition of “Hey Fela” with West African master percussionist Weedie Braimah from the Nth Power imbuing the tune with an afrobeat feel. Eddie Roberts seemed a bit reserved that night, opting for cerebral jazzy phrases and never really rocking out full-tilt the way I know he can. I’m not certain but I’m pretty sure they played a dubbed-out cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Well Dressed Man” in which Roberts actually used a delay pedal; a common piece of guitar equipment he purposely eschews.
Having seen these fellows at their finest there was a feedback loop which never connected that night–Eddie seemed visibly annoyed at times with the lack of crowd reaction to push the band higher and likewise the crowd never really went wild because the band never really took-it-there. “Are you all still awake out there?” he asked at one point. That aside, the set delivered the goods in a mellower way for sure. I did a lot more standing and listening than dancing, but my ears were thoroughly engaged for the entirety of their set.
The Friday itinerary was a sandwich stacked high with lots of wonderful ingredients. The Easy-Star Allstars performed their reggae cover of “Dark Side of The Moon” in its entirety along with a smattering of Micheal Jackson, Radiohead, and The Beatles. As a last-minute surprise to close the set they broke into Led Zepplin (could it be foreshadowing for their next album??) and out of nowhere 4 or 5 people in the crowd started throwing long streamer ribbons which zigzagged the audience in a web of colors. That was a very cool festival moment.
Coming off the Easy-Star streamer surprise we caught Nightmares on Wax, who opened up with “Les Nuits” one of my all-time favorite downtempo tracks. In a live setting it felt totally different than it does on the stereo at home though! His set was surprisingly packed with soul-tunes: “Sir Duke” from Stevie Wonder, “Give The People What They Want” from the O’Jays, and a very memorable Marvin Gaye “Inner City Blues” remix. The sound was bone-jarringly loud and we kept telling ourselves we were going to move back ‘after this track ended’ but his DJ set kept it locked and there was no good time to come up for air! It feels weird to say it but even among all the other great artists, this set was my favorite moment in the fest. The buzz of the crowd, the tune selection, and the DJ mixing from NOW was on-point. The dome stage which wrapped around the audience definitely added something as well.
Third heavy hitters on the Friday night agenda were Lettuce, touring the country to promote their aforementioned new album. The show was a fun time, I’d even say it was great, but after talking to 4 different people about it at length, the jury agrees unanimously that something was… off. First off, Eric Krasno wasn’t there. Lettuce has about all the musical firepower that you can wish for but Krasno really is a soloist of unusual caliber. His sound, soaring above the raging rhythm section and searing hornlines, is what has sent many a Lettuce jam over the top. Without him, something just feels missing. Chatting about this at a party, I later learned that Krasno is only playing certain Lettuce shows these days. That’s a pretty unfortunate changeup. But all that aside, they did play a crazy-fast version of Lettsanity, many of their older classics including Squadlive, and the new tune “Sounds Like A Party To Me” which I was feelin. Nigel Hall hooked it up there.
Finally the last show that we stuck around for was a Bonobo DJ set. Gotta say, I liked what I heard. I’ve seen Bonobo play a live set before, with drumset, horn soloists and the whole nine yards and it had just felt… low energy. So my expectations weren’t very high. His set sort of started out with a simmering energy and gradually built up, with a lot of rich-sounding atmospheric tracks that had a steady 4-on-th-floor beneath it all. I honestly didn’t think Bonobo had what it took to keep the dancing masses moving from 2-4am, especially after a Lettuce set, but he proved otherwise.
After Bonobo handed the turntables over to the next act we adjourned for the night, pausing to grab a slice of late night pizza on the way back to our tent, and that’s when it hit: An incredibly loud thunderclap signaled the flipping of a switch in the atmosphere above us. About five minutes after that sound a steady, strong downpour began which did not relent until perhaps two days later. By sunrise the grounds had been utterly drenched and the soil turned from cracked and hardened into a mud-pocalypse the likes of which I had never been involved with until that weekend.
2015 In Funk Pt 4: Onward and Upward in the Living Room
This year has been an incredibly great period in my own musical development and productivity. It saw the creation of a new project, The Acropolis Of Soul and the conclusion–on a high note–of my long-running group 100% Juice. I’ve refined my recording and mastering techniques along the way and finally started to produce a few YouTube videos as well, something I’ve long wanted to do. I also became a member of PedalGenie.com which is an effects pedal rental service, allowing me to try out lots of new sounds. And of course, we had lots of great jams which allowed me to grow as a player. Listening back to these moments has been enjoyable on a visceral level but also deeply enriching on a cerebral level as well.
I was sad to hear the news that Bob Saviano, the drummer for 100% Juice had decided to move to Colorado, but the silver lining was that it gave us a push to polish up our songs and have that two-day recording session we’d been talking about for a long time. 6/27 and 6/28 produced several top-tier improvised jams and a few “best-ever” takes on songs we’ve been playing for a long time. The fact that these would be our last sessions also gave me a blank check to spend as much time as I wanted on post-production to clean everything to a spotless finish and add all the overdubs I might want. Adding overdubs–that is also another thing I had always wanted to do but didn’t begin until 2015!
In retrospect, 100% Juice has been one of the best musical projects I’ve ever had in terms of personal development into the kind of music I want to make. I’m feel very proud of the sounds that came out of it, even though I can still nitpick my own playing to death. We did some video recording on 6/28 and there are still several tracks remaining to publish from that day. As of this writing, two tracks are completed and published to YouTube. The video below is our take on the Lettuce tune “Blast Off”. For this video I took our multitrack recording and bounced it to quarter inch tape on reel to reel to get that analog warmth. Again, another thing I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Hear it for yourself:
My musical partner in crime, Vince Chihak has joined up with our new group The Acropolis of Soul, which first met in February of this year. Over the year we’ve had 11 sessions and there’s been some killer stuff to come out of those. Our soundcloud page is accessible by clicking on the cassette below:
Schedules have been a challenge with this group since everyone has busy lives. The Acropolis will probably never become as prolific as 100% Juice was, but the flip side to that coin is that it gives me more time to work on the production for each session and add overdubs more often. To reflect all these nice things that have been happening I made a few updates on the music section of Microcosmologist which now has links to my soundcloud and YouTube pages as well as links to download some of my favorite recordings under the Trumpet section.
One never knows what the future may hold but right now at the end of the year, looking back, I’m feeling fantastic about everything that’s transpired musically, thankful for my excellent counterparts, and couldn’t be more jazzed to see where the adventures take us next… on to 2016.
The first time I heard Neon Indian was in 2005 when I heard “Terminally Chill” while shopping at American Apparel and had to Shazaam this awesome retrowave tune that was undeniably hip. The rest of their first album “Psychic Chasms” was right up there on the same level. Lo-fi production jam packed with weird sounds, crude drum machine, and old-school synths. Ten years later, they are releasing their 3rd album “VEGA INTL. Night School” and after listening to it many times now my geekout level has reached critical mass.
The first thing I’ll say about this album is that it genuinely surprised me. Neon Indian’s previous album Era Extrana was, let’s be honest, a complete flop for me. It had zero tracks on it with staying power. I listened to it several times when I got it, wanting to like it, hoping that it would ramp up in appeal but it flat-lined for me and never jumped up. I have not gone back to it since.
There’s tons and tons of artists out there in all mediums who create something magnificent, something worthy of attention, but then seem unable to ever reignite that level of greatness again. Coming away from Era Extrana, I was convinced that this was Neon Indian. Something lined up for them during the creation of their first album Psychic Chasms and it was magic. All the right elements came together and awesome, memorable music resulted. But in their sophmore effort it was obvious that whatever had ‘clicked’ that first time around simply wasn’t there anymore. I thought hmph, so that’s it then. My expectation was set: LOW.
So it’s super, super inspiring as an artist to hear what happened on “Night School.” After listening to it many times over, I feel that it’s an even stronger album than Psychic Chasms. It’s still brand new so that’s a bold statement because music needs to age a little bit for the proper context to settle in. Time tells you how often you come back to it, how much lasting appeal it has in the panoloply of everything you might want to put on. Most of the time good music occurs as a slow realization along the lines of “hey, this is pretty good > ooh, actually this is really good > oh man, this is a cut above > yeah this is classic material” Night School is the rare exception where the very first time I listened I knew immediately, yep, this is fire.
What separates an “album” from a playlist of songs is cohesiveness. To me an album is a set of songs that creates a mood or takes you on a journey, something that’s complete and self-contained. The mark of a good album is when you create a playlist of random stuff and you insert one of these tracks, hearing it makes you want to hear the next song from the original album instead of whatever’s next on your playlist. With Night School, Neon Indian has achieved that style of continuity.
Okay okay, what makes it so good?! Let’s break it down:
Outrageous palette: the overarching theme is a cheezy late 80s/early 90s shopping mall pop sound deconstructed and rebuilt with modern sensibilities. That’s the core. But a better question is, what doesn’t this album have? I hear hand percussion of many varieties, acoustic guitar, japanese flute, old-school rebirth synthesizer, a sax solo, old TV samples, female backing vocals, detroit techno, chiptunes arppegios, and all manner of odd-sounding effects/processing. There’s a little bit of eastern European flavor going on in there, and definitely homage to Depeche Mode style guitar. The whole thing is very electronic and processed but they manage to throw in something organic a lot of the time too. There’s simply an absurd amount of different sounds to chew on.
Catchy hooks: the main chorus on nearly all tunes is very hummable. There’s a lot of anthems built around simplistic (read: accessible) phrases and Neon Indian dishes that out with proper buildup around them. Often they present a simple melody which repeats again with an extension to the phrase the second time. It’s a tested forumla that works.
Songwriting: The album has a 1 minute intro track. There’s pre-choruses. Breakdowns. Bridges with chord changes. Unexpected basslines. Nothing gets me quite like an unexpected bassline does. After listening to music your whole life you get a pretty good idea of where a particular bassline should lead. When it doesn’t do what your ear expects it to do, that kills me in the best way. If you were to try to cover any of these songs, you’d have to sit down and write out all the sections that are going on.
Production value: There’s a million little touches. Every tune is jam packed with little nooks and crannies. Add a funky synth here that only comes in once and never again. Okay, this tune gets a weird telephone-sounding breakdown at the end. This one has a free-form cadenza intro. There’s a six bar interlude here. The big single from the album gets a seperate part II reprise track that takes it to a mean big-room dancefloor feel. And the whole thing is caked in delay/reverb fader-riding that shoves all the right nuances in your face.
So yeah, I’m blown away by this one. It’s a masterpiece of nostalgia-mining, pop-glitz, thoughtful production, and selective exploitation of dated sound palettes. I still say Beck is the king of taking elements that would sound stupid by themselves and mashing them into a bafflingly awesome whole but damn, Neon Indian has shown up to the record store with a gauntlet to throw. Night School is an album with something to prove and it does it relentlessly. As a musician myself I am inspired by just how severly this blows their previous record straight out of the water. Neon Indian’s style may not be for everyone but wow, what a record.
Here’s a few more photos to document the transitory pedalboard setup of the month. I’ve continued borrowing pedals from the fantastic service PedalGenie.com and this month I’m enjoying three new ones: 1. The SolidGold FX Apollo Phaser 2. The SolidGold FX Funkzilla envelope filter and 3. The Electro Harmonix Pulsar Tremolo. Here’s an overall shot of the board as she appeared for the 5/15/15 and 5/22/15 sessions:
1. The SolidGold FX Apollo Phaser is a decent-to-good phaser packed with some totally amazing features. What I mean by that is, purely as a phaser, I still prefer the 1970s Maestro Phaser also seen in the overall photo, BUT the Apollo has some super creative ways of applying the phase that I’ve never seen on another phaser. First off, you can connect an expression pedal and use it to control the position of the phase combination. They describe it as an interesting take on the wah, but since a phaser is totally different than an envelope I’m going to say that the similarity ends with the fact that both are controlled by your foot. This was the feature that drew me to the pedal and I will say that it delivered, conceptually, on what I envisioned when I read the description. In use, the expression control seems to be subtle in the context of a full band. Turning up the resonance of the filter makes it cut a bit harder, and it is quite captivating to mess around with. Matter of fact I have held onto this one from PedalGenie for two months to give myself more time to see what plays out with this expression pedal control.
It took me a while to figure it out, but the expression pedal control is best used slowly, to create a textural metamorphosis rather than quickly, like you’d “waka-chicka” on a wah. With that approach a ‘bigger’ sound is yielded, one which allows more subtlety to come out. Surprisingly, in the context of improvisation the feature I find myself reaching for more than the expression pedal control is the randomizer function, which bounces the phase position all over whimsically. This, combined with the tap tempo control allows you to create a rhythmic texture that sounds similar to a step filter. I really like that effect. The randomizer and the expression control both do a lot to make this pedal something special. I know I am going to miss this one a lot when it’s gone.
2. The SolidGold FX Funkzilla Envelope Filter–with a name like that, how could it be bad?! It might be the coolest looking pedal I’ve ever seen with the Godzilla graphic and the sparkly purple paint job. It also has expression pedal input although I couldn’t seem to make it do much that felt interesting. Last month I had tried the Voodoo Labs Wahzoo pedal which is a wah, step filter, and autowah all in one. Regretfully the attack range of the autowah on that pedal was simply out of range for what my trumpet produces, and it literally did nothing. So the Funkzilla is the autowah sound I was wishing for! When you play a very fast phrase you can feel it getting slightly behind on its attack but for the most part it keeps up well even through brisk phrases. This sound is a lot of fun.
The first session I Funkzilla’d (YES!) I had the ‘Zil after the wah pedal which I think was a mistake. On the second one I used it before the wah, which allows me to slowly sculpt the tone without losing the Funkzilla filter attack. So this guy belongs early in the signal chain I think.
One thing I despise about both of these SolidGold FX pedals is the footswitches they use are hard as a rock and click very loudly when you engage them. Even if I was a guitarist and these were on the floor, I think I’d still dislike that. In our recordings you can hear them click on and off loud and clear. Why anyone would prefer this type of a switch, I do not understand. I’m very biased since most of my pedals reside at waist height and I actuate them with my hands, but were I to buy either of these pedals, I think I would open them up and rip out these awful switches to replace them with soft ones.
3. The Electro Harmonix Pulsar Tremolo is the most complicated tremolo I’ve ever seen. Complexity is a double edged sword of course, and I feel like I’m stumbling through hallways in the vast mansion of what it can truly do. Right away the coolest feature seems to be the fact that this tremolo offers a few rhythmic patterns besides a constant on/off cycle. Those patterns can also be adjusted to have a different attack with the waveform style knob, swapping from a hard-edged square wave to a smoother triangle wave, to the smoothest sine wave setting. There is a ton of variety in here. I’m blown away by the possibilities that it offers but I’m also left wondering how many people ever touch the bottom on this thing. One dangerous aspect of a very complicated pedal is when you’re in the heat of a cool moment and you reach for it, expecting, you know, a tremolo–but instead it’s still set to that weird-ass setting from earlier in the jam that you were playing around with and was cool at the time but is totally out of place now. The Eventide Pitch Factor has burned me a few times in the same way. Awesome pedals, and they do so much, but they demand your attention to really control them.
4. The TC Electronic Flashback Delay–I got this pedal as a loaner from PedalGenie and I liked it so much that I had to actually buy one to keep full time. This now makes 3 (yes, three) delay pedals on the board, which is getting a little bit ridiculous, but wow, it has such a tremendously big soundstage when used in stereo that I was instantly hooked to it. Vince (our guitarist) commented on a portion of our jam “that’s quite a trumpetscape”… any pedal that can coin a new word deserves consideration as a permanent member, I think. Besides it’s giant stereo field which immediately makes it presence known, the Flashback also has a host of varied sounds which each have their own appeal. I’ve been digging the LoFi mode and the Ping Pong most of all, but the mod has quite a pleasing modulation sound as well. And the Tone Print setting lets you add in pretty much anything else you can think of using the very comprehensive editor which runs on your PC and transfers new settings over via USB. That’s a brilliant idea.
So full-time TrumpetScape™ Technology is now on hand and life is good. Having these extra pedals around is a lot of fun and stimulating.
The culmination of my most recent loudspeaker construction project is finally here! The JB mk.IV’s are now complete. I spent a good amount of time listening and I’m feeling great about how they turned out. Some digression:
On the enclosure: I would use Red Oak again, for sure. My nervousness for working with hardwood for the first time was totally misplaced. When cut with my circular saw, it was essentially the same as pine or any other softwood. Only with the router did I get burning of the surface and it was fairly easy to simply sand that away. If I did another pair like this, I’d probably pay extra to go to a lumberyard instead of Lowes though, since I suspect that some of the porosity I saw on the inside of my cuts wouldn’t be there with a higher quality of board. You can only expect so much from a big box store.
2-in-1 polyurethane/stain; I would use that again. Wipe-on polyurethane was simply too thin though. That’s good for a final finish only but any sanding is going to take it straight back off again. As my final step I used a triple-thick polyurethane that worked well, although I notice that it did irritate my eyes for about 24 hours afterward, and that’s even with a fan blowing the vapors away from me in the garage. Maybe that stuff has to be used strictly outdoors. The end finish came out quite glossy as you can see in the pictures although it’s not a mirror finish since I did eventually reach the point of no longer caring about how perfect they looked, especially with the flaws already noted in my carpentry. I was too anxious to get to the listening!
On the design: It’s a minimalist design, really. Two driver system with the simplest crossover possible: the -6dB/octave Butterworth filter, which uses only a single capacitor and a single inductor. That’s somewhat of a major feature on these speakers since nearly all popular designs opt for a Linkwitz-Riley filter with the steeper -12dB/octave rolloff that allows the tweeter to be crossed off lower and/or play louder. The values I selected for the components do leave a slight gap: the cap rolls off at 2.65kHz while the inductor rolls off at 2.55kHz.
With my mastering and EQing experience, I figured a slight dip at 2.6kHz would actually be pleasing to the ear anyway. The major advantage to the Butterworth filter is a linear phase response to the rolloff region–that is to say there will be no phase cancellation or comb filter effects around the crossover frequency, which all of the other crossover designs suffer from in varying severity. Judging by online reviews of the tweeter and its response curve, I should be able to get away with loud volumes at this crossover point since the resonance frequency of the tweeter is 1.1kHz. Both the tweeter and the woofer had very smooth response curves, so the expected character of the system should be quite neutral. As with my brothers speakers I knew right away I wanted to use an L-pad to compensate for the impedance and sensitivity mismatch between the woofer and the tweeter. The L-pad is a fun way to get a lot of different sonic flavors from a single system as well, since it’s essentially an extra tone control for your stereo system. Never again would I build a speaker without one.
For the crossover components, I did go a bit higher end since there’s only 4 total parts. German copper foil inductor for that precision midrange and a French polypropylene film cap for that snooty, refined treble. I did not even both mounting these to a PCB, instead screwing in a spare piece of wood to clamp down the heavy inductor, and a glob of silicone to secure the cap. Both are soldered directly to the inside lug of the + binding post to eliminate an extra set of connection points. The opposite end of the copper foil inductor was also attached directly to the woofer binding post, so it actually has no extra internal wiring on the + connection. For the rest of the wires I used 14 AWG solid copper wire that I also employ as the main bus wire on my railroad. It’s the same type of wire an electrician would use to wire light switches and outlets in a house, so very heavy duty. Totally overkill considering the stranded speaker wire which will probably be connecting these to any amp. It is somewhat difficult to work with though, since it’s stiff and fights against every bend. I’m 50/50 on whether I’d use it in another design.
Philosophically, these units are quite different than the large speakers I built back in high school that are serving in my living room: those are 3-way with a dome mid, powerful low-reachingwoofer, and a complex computer-designed crossover that has like 40 elements in it. Since there are so many possible choices to make with speaker design it’s almost stupid to do the same thing twice but what can I say, I loved the tweeters from my brother’s green speakers so much that I had to use the same model again on these units since I missed their sound. Every speaker I’ve ever done has used cloth dome tweeters since I prefer their gentle timbre over a metal dome or a horn.
On the sound: I already knew that these tweeters were fantastic so they have been a joy to have back in my life again, so the ScanSpeak midwoofer is really the new player of intrigue for me here. Prior to building my brothers green speakers I had always wondered about the revered ScanSpeak brand and having been blown away by how good their tweets sounded I resolved to use a woofer of theirs as well on my own design.
Initially my impression was neutral. The effect that a quality midwoofer has on the overall sound is more subtle, compared to the airy, delicate treble of fine tweeters. Woofers typically do need a break-in period to loosen up and these seem like they needed that more than other drivers I have known… In my initial listening I did listen to “Spotlight” by SPC ECO and while experimenting with the tone controls on my Kenwood, I flipped on the 800Hz presence boost and immediately exclaimed “Oooh! Oh yeah!” after just a few moments of taking in the sound. Since the midwoofer is taking charge of everything from 2.55kHz and below, that’s definitely all his doing. I’ll need to spend some time breaking these in first, then listening to familiar material to give a true appraisal….
As for the bass, it does not extend very low, but that was an intentional feature of the overall design. These speakers are intended to be paired with a subwoofer, not yet built. Knowing that, I purposely chose a midwoofer that had a high roll off and a good high end. Ideally I would have preferred a closed box but without making it a three-way design I could not find a driver that satisfied me. Everything that would go low enough in a closed box had a poor top-end response, either not reaching far enough or having too rough of a curve for my taste. Perhaps in the future I may experiment with drivers that do have coarse resonances and choppy curves. Like I did mention before, some dips in the response curve can sound pleasing in the right spots.
I have superimposed the response/impedance plots of both drivers here; the plot is remarkably smooth for both drivers and with a 1.5×4″ port, an F3 of 80Hz is achievable with this woofer according to the Madisound website. Final enclosure volume is 4.5 liters or 0.16 cubic feet which is fairly small. The intended volume was 4 liters for the port design, but it’s good to go slightly over for internal bracing, components and stuffing; factoring those variables in, we’re probably beneath 4 liters again, but I have read that stuffing makes a box “look” bigger to a woofer. Another point of compromise was the ratio of sizes between front/top/sides. Ideally I would use 1.618, the fabled golden ratio. However the size of the driver faceplates dictated that wasn’t going to be possible, so I ended up with 1.3 and 1.9 instead.
One other thing I did was to router off a smooth rounded edge on all sides of the front to reduce diffraction of the high end. The tweeter faceplace comes right up to the edge of the front panel though, so a harsh edge was unavoidable there. Curiously, I like the way the treble sounds when standing slightly above the axis of the tweeter so maybe a certain amount of diffraction is good sometimes? Or that could just be the overall directional response of both drivers that I’m hearing or something else entirely, who knows.
More for my own later reference down the line than anything else, here is a breakdown of the parts:
10uF Solen PB10 mfd Metalized Polypropylene film fast cap
0.50mH Goertz CF.5 (16AWG) copper foil inductor
ScanSpeak discovery D2606/9200 1″ textile dome tweeter
ScanSpeak discovery 15W/8434G00 5.25″ midwoofer
Yung 100W 8ohm L-pad
Goldwood 1.5×4″ flared port
Lowes Red Oak panel x2, 7.25″ wide
Generic gold binding posts
And some further reports as my listening extends into the weeks:
Moving these speakers from my Kenwood receiver over to my Marantz PM750DC yielded a major difference in the sound. Maybe it’s a combination of the room and the speaker placement but they have a new life to them near the railroad now.
Basslines on Donny Hathaway’s rendition of “What’s Going On” come out clear and defined from my Marantz 6100 turntable. I underestimated the capabilities of these midwoofers on their low end. Happily thus far I haven’t heard a tune that exposes any bloated notes on basslines. That’s always a pet peeve for me. These speakers will really shine with a sub, afterall that’s how they are meant to be paired. But until that’s built I can be content with what’s here.
A whole new amount of depth and life appeared on Royksopp’s “Senior” album, one I have not listened to on a great set of speakers intently.
Found a few new details in familiar recordings: you can hear the snare rattle as the toms are played at the beginning of Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle”. And there is some kind of percussion instrument I never noticed before despite listening to Seal’s “Dreaming in Metaphors” hundreds of times–a song I used to be all about in high school.
Something totally unexpected: I often listen with an extra compressor plugin “juicing up” anything being played over the PC, but who knew–with these new speakers I find myself turning the compressor off more and more, just listening to the original audio exactly as it was. Compressors can often bring out extra details but jeez, these speakers are exposing how a wide dynamic range actually sounds better than a totally squashed signal that has all information crunched into a narrow volume range. That’s a beautiful realization I did not anticipate.
Getting a new pair of speakers sure is a great excuse to go back and listen to familiar music you may have listened to over and over at one point in your life…. which takes it all back to what this whole pursuit is really about
As posted about previously, I had encouraged my drummer to get the Marantz HD-440 speakers, since I have very much enjoyed owning a pair of their big brothers, the HD-770s. The “High Definition Series” speakers have walnut veneer cabinets and were built sometime in the 70s. In the Marantz 25th anniversary catalog (dated 1978) they are for sale as the medium tier product underneath the “Design Series”. For a mid-tier product though, these are extremely nice. And as an aside, that 25th anniversary catalog is a feast for the eyes if you’re into this kind of thing… here is a link to it at HiFiEngine. You’ll need an account to view it but it is easy to create one… it’s worth the effort to check out that super sweet catalog.
It’s clear they put some thought into the design of these units. The most attention-grabbing feature for me was the 1″ dome driver, which is labeled as a tweeter. I’d call that a misnomer though, since the overall frequency response is given as 33-22kHz +/- 3dB @ 125W of “program material”. Crossover Frequencies are 750, 2300, 5000Hz so that 1-inch “tweeter” is handling 2.3k-5kHz. I have always been a big fan of dome midranges for their lifelike sound, especially on anything of an earthy, organic variety like acoustic guitar, piano, or exposed vocals. Dome mids do a great job of putting those things “in the room” with you. Interestingly the HD-770 has a stated efficiency of 90dB which is very high for a speaker depending on a 12″ woofer to handle the low end, since the woofer is almost always the limiting factor on efficiency and high efficiency woofers are relatively rare in larger sizes.
From the factory HD series units were supplied with a “Vari-Q damping acoustical plug” which you could insert to tune the port if you wanted to change the bass response. The trade-off was more definition in the 50-75Hz range, at the expense of anything below. My speakers were bought secondhand off Craigslist and did not come with this accessory. I see some on ebay with the mention that the original foam is long gone… a running theme. Like the HD-440s, the woofer foam on the HD-770s also crumbles away with time. In my case the previous owner swapped out the original woofer for a replacement driver instead of re-foaming it. This can easily be spotted by the convex woofer dustcap; the original was concave. Given the apparent attention that the Marantz engineers paid to driver selection, I wish he had re-foamed the original. If an opportunity ever presents itself, I would like to acquire the original driver and restore these to their intended stock configuration, although the replacement is doing just fine for the time being. After searching a while on eBay that seems like a pipe dream though, since a pair in need of re-foaming recently sold for $227.50. That says something though–one, the original drivers were good and two, the market of people out there enthusiastic about keeping theirs in prime condition remains hot. My set is also missing the metal ring which mounts around the largest woofer, which is too bad because it does look cool.
The HD-770s have a three-section resistor (aka L-pad) control panel on the front which allows you to individually adjust the volume of the super tweeter, dome midrange and cone mid-bass drivers. When I built the green speakers for my brother I definitely learned that L-pads are a tremendous asset to any speaker design. They really allow you to tweak the “voicing” of the sound to whatever suits your liking. It can’t be over-emphasized just how much of an impact this has on the sound. Put it this way: never again would I built another set of speakers without L-pads.
These units have a really funky grille, which has brown fabric which comes outward at the center. I can’t decide if they look cooler with out without the grille on, so I keep the one closer to the door equipped with the grille to protect it from passing foot traffic and the one near the window exposed so I can enjoy the neat appearance of the drivers. Hopefully these units will last me a long time. They are certainly ready to pump out some serious dB’s but still have a soft touch for nuance at the same time. That’s a real nice combination.