Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Music Library Catch-up!: B-52s, Bats, Beach Boys, Beck, Bee Gees, Beethoven, Adrian Belew, Andrew Bird, Birthday Party, Bis-quits

The B-52s – The B-52s (1979). This is the sound of sublimely silly dancing joy. There should be a sociological dissertation in the frisson between all the Southern post-punk/jangle bands that went out of their way to incorporate disco and dance beats into their sound and the Southern indie audiences who steadfastly refuse to dance to this music. I wrote briefly about the B-52s back at the beginning of this project here.

The Bats – Couchmaster (1995) and Free All The Monsters (2011). Speaking of folky jangle-rock, the Bats continue to churn out excellent folk-psych rock with a steady focus. If I didn’t know before starting that these albums were released 16 years apart, I would have thought they were roughly contemporaries. On a personal note, I managed to say hi to Robert Scott when he was in town with The Clean earlier this year, which made my day. I’ve written about the Bats before here, here, here, and here.

The Beach Boys – The Smile Sessions (recorded 1967, released 2011). Oh, my beloved Beach Boys. Giving the uncompleted SMiLE album the same treatment as the Pet Sounds Sessions box of the mid-1990s, this box set collects all the available tracks, scratch tracks, and false starts from the aborted SMiLE sessions. This edition starts with a reconstructed SMiLE from the original sessions that sounds quite similar to the Brian Wilson-Wondermints collaborative SMiLE from a few years back. This one is better, though, because it’s the fucking BEACH BOYS on vocals. And the Wrecking Crew on instruments. This is the 5-disc version with many, many variations on the tracks as Brian Wilson tried to figure out what he was doing. One of the best albums of the rock era, even though it just saw the light of day at the end of last year. Previous posts on SMiLE and the Beach Boys here, here, here, here, and here.

Beck – Record Club 4: Kick and Record Club 5: Yanni Live At The Acropolis (both 2010). Beck’s Record Club concept from 2009-10 was one of his best ideas in years. The first of these was a cover of the INXS album with St. Vincent, Liars, and Sergio Dias of Os Mutantes. Although the INXS album itself sounds like 9th grade to me now, the Record Club’s cover is full of pleasantly alien sounds and appealing looseness. Beck made the Yanni cover album with Tortoise and Thurston Moore, and it is, as you might guess from these collaborators, a hot noisy mess drenched in irony. Previous Beck and Record Club entries here, here, and here.

The Bee Gees – Odessa (1969). This is a great example of the early, Beatles-besotted Bee Gees. Like the similar and similarly titled Zombies album Odessey And Oracle, the Bee Gees deliver a bunch of little pop symphonies one after another with each track burning with ambition and bursting with pop hooks. Excellent stuff. Earlier Bee Gees entry here.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (Roger Norrington and Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, 2003). I must claim my usual inability to speak intelligently about classical music here (and I know, you’re asking why I would limit this to just classical music). It is Beethoven. The music is moving and intellectually stimulating. Not even going to link to my last attempt to speak about Ludwig van B.

Adrian Belew – Lone Rhino (1982). Belew’s first solo album follows years of making his mark as the most fluid and synthetic-sounding guitarist in the world on the Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music and Remain In Light and as the vocalist/guitarist for the early 1980s New Wave version of King Crimson. Belew is an endlessly creative guitarist, able to conjure otherworldly sounds from his instrument and yet still find the heart of the song, and this is a stunning album. My King Crimson notes are here and here.

Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself (2012). Here’s a bit of a troublesome album to assess. It’s my least-favorite Bird album in years, but it’s also one of my favorite albums of 2012 so far. Perhaps I have not sat with it as much as I should have, but none of the tracks have really taken root in my head. So, for the time being, let’s say that it’s enjoyable, but it’s not quite as epic as I have come to expect from Mr. Bird. Previous Andrew Bird here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The Birthday Party – Junkyard (1982), Mutiny/The Bad Seed (1983), and Live 81-82 (released 1999). This is awesome stuff: violent, harsh, ugly, and utterly extraordinary. I’ve become quite enamored of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds recently, and hearing how Cave and Harvey sprung from this unholy union with Rowland Howard is breathtaking and sometimes frightening. Previous Cave post here.

The Bis-quits – The Bis-quits (1993). Inside baseball, Nashville-style. This sub-supergroup brings together Tommy Womack of Government Cheese (and author of The Cheese Chronicles, a brilliant memoir of life on the road with a second-string band), Will Kimbrough (who is not just a great singer/songwriter/guitarist on his own terms, but one of the hardest working sidemen in all of Music City), Mike Grimes (proprietor of Grimey’s, which is Nashville’s greatest music store), and Tom Meyer on drums. Great stuff, although the different influences of the personalities involved means that it’s a bit uneven. My pal Andy wrote an article about the Bis-quits and the Nashville scene for a little magazine called The High Hat that figures large in my past. One of these tracks discussed here.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A Man, A Plan, A Soldering Iron, Pt. 2: The Fuzzening

When last we checked in, I was yakking about my first few projects, which culminated in a buffer-the-tone-vampire-slayer pedal. With that pedal working like gangbusters, I tackled my next two projects: a CS-3 mod and a few Fuzz Faces, two of which would be Christmas gifts.

My Boss CS-3 compressor/sustainer was a gift from my buddy Mike Nix, who is, I should say, a hell of a guy. He knew I was down in the dumps and sent me the pedal to cheer me up. I'm saying now, in this public-ish forum, that I will build him something cool to say thanks.

Compressors, for those who may need a refresher, squeeze the sound to flatten the volume. An uncompressed guitarist can play quiet or loud based on how hard he or she hits the strings, but a guitarist playing through a compressor plays every note at the same volume. This produces a sharp and clean effect, one often used by country guitarists. A compressor also sustains each note by raising the volume on the note's usual decay, which can give the guitar a pleasant overdrive effect.

The general consensus on CS-3s is that they are the most inferior compressor that Boss has produced, but there was a wealth of information online to how to tighten up the sound. I made a workplan based on a number of sources:

Here's the technical side of what I replaced. Please feel free to skip this if you have no interest in pedal modification.

1. LED Mod: I switched out the LED and R35, which Sava had incorrectly listed as R33 somewhere. That was a little tight.

2. Wampler/Fat Body/Ovnilabs Mods. I switched out:
  • C1 (was a .027uF cap, is now a .22uF cap)
  • R5 (10k to 470 ohm)
  • R36 (10 k to 100 ohm)
  • R32 (220 ohm to jumper)
  • D10 (1N4148 to jumper)
  • C2 (.022 to .1uF)
  • C13 (.047 to 2uF [two 1uF caps wired in tandem, which is too big for the board, but barely fits, so there])
  • C4, C6, C14, and C17 (1uF to 1uF film cap).
These changes made the pedal sound much, much better. Highly recommended.

3. Ultimate Guitar Mods:
  • D2, D3, and D6 (didn't record what the diodes were, but I switched them for 1N34A)
  • C10 and C16 (.047uF to .1uF)
  • C9 (didn't record what it was, switched for .047uF
  • IC1 and IC2 (used a stacked board from Monte Allums to lift the dual stacked opamp daughter board over the main CS-3 board and switched the DIPs for a RC4558P and a BBOPA2134PA) 
I didn't hear much different from the capacitor changes. The diodes gave the sound a little more clipping. The major thing was the op-amps. The new ICs took the sound from great to AWESOME.

4.  Sava Mods:
  • C7 and C15 (.01uF to the same in metal film)
Heard no difference. If I were to do this again, I'd leave all the capacitor changes from the last two mods out. Here's an image of the board. Note Monte Allums's boards sticking up on the right side. One is folded partly down, but the other has room to stick straight up on the board. I added all the reddish brown caps and the jumpers, but I'm too lazy to figure out what else.

Here's how it looks. I painted an infinity symbol over the 3 in its title, but that's pretty silly in retrospect. Here's a video of someone playing a CS-3 with the Wampler/Full Body mod. Mine sounds sort of like this, but it pops more.

Feeling pretty good about the success of the CS-3 mod, I decided to tackle the traditional first pedal build of the nascent pedal hacker: the venerable Fuzz Face. One of the earliest guitar pedals, the Fuzz Face uses positive ground germanium transistors to distort the heck out of the sound. Discerning fans will recognize this as the key component of Jimi Hendrix's tone. Here's a demo:

After some discussion with my wife, I decided that a household with two curious kids was no place to keep the kind of chemicals I would need to make my own PCBs. Probably a good idea for the time being. This time I bought materials from two of the best vendors out there:

  • Mad Beans Pedals: Brian at Mad Beans makes some of the best available PCBs for hobbyists. As I intend to document, I've bought from him pretty much every time I've built a pedal. I bought Mangler boards from him. 
  • Small Bear Electronics: Steve at Small Bear was one of the first online hobby shops to provide high-quality components for pedal builders. He offers parts that no one else can touch. I bought enclosures and components from him, especially the germanium transistors I needed.

I decided to build three. One for me, one for my brother-in-law Jeff, and one for my pal Matt. The transistors at the heart of the pedals must be paired together, one with a high output within certain restrictions and one with a low output. Also, since these are vintage components that have hardly any uses outside of pedal building, they are quite scarce. I intended to buy three pairs of tested and paired transistors from Small Bear, but he wrote me that his stock was too depleted for that. Instead I wound up buying one set of paired transistors and about ten untested and unpaired ones. Using information from a handful of websites (this one was the best), I learned how to test these transistors and pair them myself.

I also decided to add a dying battery simulator directly into the pedal using the crystal-clear instructions from Dano of Beavis Audio Research, which is, flat-out, one of the best damn sites out there for pedal hobbyists. Dano, if you ever read this: thanks, man. You are the best.

So I populated the board and drilled out the enclosures. As the photo on the right shows, I used Hammond 1590BB enclosures and drilled them out with the idea of putting the footswitch on the right and an extra potentiometer, which I'll always call a pot from now on, on the left. I used MXR-style knobs and put a rubber MXR-style foot control on the dying battery pot. Here's what they looked like with the knobs attached before being painted.

And here's what they look like when painted. Matt got the red one and Jeff got the yellow one. The green one lives on my pedalboard. When I want Stooges tone, that's where I go.

Next time: The Rat and how to fuck it up.

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Cary, NC, United States
reachable at firstname lastname (all run together) at gmail dot com

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