Monday, September 1, 2014

Things that the Sound Guy has That Nobody Else Does


If you have ever been in charge of sound at an event, you know that you are probably the best-prepared person there. Whether it is a company picnic, a carnival or an awards show, the sound person is the go-to for anything that anybody else forgot to bring. One exception is my wife’s friend, Leslie, who has a Broadway background and organizes her events like I have never seen before. She knows how to put on a show!

I have thought it over, and here is a list of stuff you are going to have in your road case or tote that nobody else thought to bring, even though they desperately need it for their job. Here goes:

1. Tape. Chances are that the poor folks running the school carnival did not plan that the booth signs that the kids made would need to be stuck up somewhere. They see your roll of gaffer tape and start salivating. Besides the fact that it costs you 20 bucks a roll, it does a terrible job of sticking down banners and tablecloths. Maybe toss a roll of masking tape in your gig kit – it will save you trouble in the long run.

2. The Schedule. How many times has the event organizer come up to you and said there will be a skit, or a dance act, or an award presentation, but could not tell you when any of these things were going to happen? Everything is a last minute call on their part, it seems. Bring a piece of paper and a pencil so you can help them figure it out. You know they won’t have anything to write with…

3. Power. One way or another you have the power. Electric power, that is. If they are looking for an extension cord, you are the one that has it. If you are in the middle of a park with your own generator, you know that the snow-cone guy’s POS Harbor Freight generator will not start and he will have to glom onto one of your outlets. So, you get static through your speakers every time he grinds up a block of ice. Every time.

4. A Table. Nature abhors an unoccupied flat surface, and you have one. That award they are going to hand out? It ends up on your table. Random cell phones just end up there – keep an eye on yours so it does not disappear by mistake. And miscellaneous drinks – they always end up on your table, even though you have plenty of expensive electronic crap to spill it on. Someone else’s drink has a half-life of about two seconds on my table. Go set it on the guitarist’s amp, please.

5. Tools. Screwdriver? Check. Pliers? Check. Pocket knife? Check. Your multi-tool is priceless, because nobody else has any of these things. Flashlight? Yeah, right.

6. Direct box and cables. Hey high school kid with the cheap-o acoustic/electric guitar – did you bring a cable? No. Did you bring a direct box? What’s a direct box? Exactly.

7. Shade. Out in the middle of a field in the dead of summer your easy-up will become a lot more popular than you could ever imagine. Stake out your turf early so that you get to enjoy it too, and make sure you figure out which way the sun is going to cross the sky so you are not frying in the late afternoon.

8. A sense of humor. Someone has to keep things light, and it will not be the cranky principal, the stuffy vice president, or the overwhelmed scoutmaster. Maybe you should be that someone!


Saturday, August 30, 2014

BOSS CS-3 Compressor Sustainer Guitar Effects Pedal Review


You can pay anything you want for guitar effect pedals, and the choices include crummy junk for twenty bucks (probably put together by little kids in sweatshops) all the way up to boutique pedals with prices so high that they must use unicorn hair for wiring. Somewhere in between are BOSS pedals, which are reasonably priced, good quality, and the mainstay of many working musicians. Today we are going to take a closer look at the BOSS CS-3 Compressor Sustainer pedal.

What exactly is a compressor sustainer pedal? Well, this one compresses louder signals and boosts softer signals, resulting in more even output. At the same time it can sustain your notes, making them sound longer. Putting these two features can result in a smoother sound, and this will work with either guitar or bass.

The CS-3 is a standard single-space sized pedal, measuring 2-7/8 inches wide by 2-3/8 inches tall by 5-1/8 inches long. Take that, metric system! In that same vein, it weighs in at around 15 ounces. This pedal runs on a single 9-volt battery or it takes the optional BOSS PSA adapter. It draws 11 mA at 9 volts, in case you are thinking of hooking it up to a pedal board power system.

By the way, if you run the unit on battery, make sure you unplug the input when you are not using it, as the input jack acts as the power switch.

It has the same general style as other BOSS pedals, but this one comes in a lovely shade of blue. The outside of the sturdy metal case has a single 1/4 input, a single 1/4-inch output and a jack for the aforementioned AC adapter. The expected BOSS high quality is to be found here, with a smooth finish, clean wiring, and knobs that have a nice feel. These knobs include Level, Tone, Attack, and Sustain, so it is not too complicated. Here is what they do:

Level: adjusts output level, not input level

Tone: high frequency boost and cut

Attack: enhances the intensity of each note by controlling how quickly the compression activates.

Sustain: adjusts the sustain time. If turned counter-clockwise it acts as a limiter.

The CS-1 was one of BOSS' first mass-production pedals, and it has changed quite a bit over the years as the model name has changed to CS-2 and then later to the CS-3. There seems to be a bit of hate out there for the CS-3, particularly with the changes in the circuit and the addition of a tone knob. That being said, I like having the tone pot on the unit so that no changes are needed to my guitar settings when I switch the pedal ON.

The CS-3 is at its best when it is asked to provide a high level of compression, and combining it with the right guitar/amp combination (think Les Paul and a Marshall). It certainly can squish things down, and there are definitely usable ranges, to be found though I would avoid anything outside of the 9:00 to 3:00 range as there is too drastic of a difference in tone when the unit is switched on. Increasing sustain seems to enhance the compression effect, so I usually keep it below 10:00. The tone control is very useful, and it helps dial out most of the muddiness that comes bout from the compression. With these settings the attack can be spot on without a ton of mush.

In a nutshell, the CS-3 is a pretty good pedal for a reasonable price, which is what BOSS is all about. This pedal would be good for hard rock and metal, but if you are playing jazz, country or blues it will not make you very happy because it is hard to get a clean sound out of it.

Unfortunately, there are a few downside to this unit. For starters, it does not have true bypass, which is something that everybody and their brother wants. In truth, there is some color added to the straight tone when bypassing the pedal, and gear nuts are fanatical about this. But more importantly, is that, no matter what the manufacturer says in their sales literature, this pedal is pretty darned noisy if the controls (Level and Sustain) are used very aggressively.

By the way, there is a considerable number of folks out there modifying these pedals to reduce noise and improve tone, but I have not had the opportunity to try one. If you have, please add a comment to let us know what you think!

If these are the features you are looking for and if you can handle a little extra noise in your signal chain, the BOSS CS-3 Compressor Sustainer may be the pedal for you. It will get the job done and is certainly reasonably priced with a list price of $154.50 and a street price of $99. They are way cheaper on the used market, but you will be giving up the 5-year warranty if you go that route. Check one out before you buy to make sure it is really what you want, and let me know what you think.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

1983 Westone Thunder III Version 1 Bass Guitar Review


I have had a decades-long love for vintage Japanese guitars and basses since I purchased my first Aria Pro II bass back in 1986, and since then I have owned and played more instruments from Japan than I would dare to admit. Well, today we are looking at really sweet one: a minty Westone Thunder III bass from 1983.

For those of you who have no been studying the history of Japanese guitar builders, here is a quick run-down on the brand. Matsumoku was a Japanese company that specialized in making guitars for many brands, including Aria, Epiphone, Vox and more. They built very good instruments, including copies of popular American instruments that caused some legal difficulties.

After building instruments for other companies for all of those years, in 1981 they decided to start their own brand and Westone was born. Their products were never a big hit and in 1987 Matsumoku sold the brand to a Korean company, and by 1991 the brand was gone. Not many of their guitars were imported to the US, and it seems like most of their products went to the UK.

If you look at this Thunder III, the most obvious thing is that this looks an awful lot like an Aria Pro II Super Bass. Of course those Super Basses looked a lot like the Alembics that they were copying, but that is a yet another bag of snakes. Anyway, it has a clear-finished laminated Canadian ash, maple and walnut body, rosewood fretboard, 2-on-a-side tuners, and a brass nut and bridge. This is not a coincidence, as Matsumoku built those Aria Super Basses too!

But, there are a few important differences. For starters, the Thunder III body has less extreme cutaways and it has 22 frets instead of 24. Also, the fret markers are cool little snowflakes, and the brass bridge has a more conventional design, which in my opinion looks better than the Aria bridges. But the big deal is the electronics package, which is really cool.

The Westone Thunder II Version 2 had optional PJ (HF600B and SA800B) pickups introduced in 1982, then in 1983 they renamed this PJ model as the Thunder III with no changes. These pickups are different than the humbucker(s) in the Super Basses, though they appear to use the identical 18-volt onboard preamplifier. The controls are not the same either. Instead of the 6-way control switch, the Westones got volume, active and passive tone controls as well as phase reverse, 'dual tone' (series/parallel) and active tone switches.

This one is kind of a time capsule, with no wear and just a few bumps and bruises and the frets and brass parts look like new. It is really a beautiful instrument, and it plays just as good as it looks. It has a 1 5/8-inch wide nut, and the neck profile is a comfy shallow C. One thing is that the body horns are so short that it makes the neck feels really long. It takes a little getting used to, but it sounds great in both the active and passive modes and it is worth the trouble. Having the P and J pickups gives it a lot more range than the Aria basses and it does a genuine Precision Bass tone as well as clean and edgy sounds. It can be a slap and pop monster too, if that is your thing.

I have only seen a few Westone Thunder III basses in the wild, and this one is still out in the studio if you are ready to get one for yourself. Drop me a line if you are interested, and we’ll see if we get it into your hands.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Album review: Clay Swafford – Rooster

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the July 25, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Clay Swafford – Rooster

Lost Cause Records

14 tracks / 48:56

I am a huge boogie-woogie fan, but also understand that this kind of blues music might not be everybody’s cup of tea. However, if you are a fan of the blues you are shortchanging yourself if you write off the genre completely, especially with artists like Clay Swafford out there. This young man is the real deal and the maturity, talent and emotion he displays with his performance on his debut album, Rooster, will make a believer out of you.

Clay Swafford was born in 1983, but this pianist is not new to the blues and boogie-woogie scene. Raised in rural Alabama, he discovered the blues at 15 (Otis Spann with Muddy Waters, no less), and by the time he was 16 he was on stage at the Pinetop Perkins Homecoming Celebration. At the age of 20 he was featured in the boogie-woogie piano documentary, Falsifyin, alongside established legends such as Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Both of these men recognized Swafford’s talent and were quite vocal about their respect for his talent. Since then he has played at festivals and clubs all over the south, both by himself and with established artists, such as the late Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.

For Rooster, Swafford did things his own way, dragging an old upright piano into the studio and miking it well. There is no digital wizardry or overdubs, so everything you hear is exactly the way it sounded when he laid it down, with every rattle, overtone and pop caught on tape for posterity. And it is glorious! The first eleven tracks include five originals, and he is joined by the lovely Texan Diunna Greenleaf on five of the covers. No drums, bass or guitar, just a piano master and one of the best blues singers out there.

“Rooster’s Boogie” is a short warm-up track that gives a preview of what Clay is capable of, which includes wielding a left hand that is like the hammer of Thor and a right hand that moves so fast that it sounds like there are two guys sitting on the piano bench. Pinetop Perkins said of Swafford, “I have ten fingers; it looks like he has twenty! He’s tearing the keys down on that piano, man!”

From there he alternates original instrumentals with cover tunes that feature Greenleaf, the first of which is Big Joe Turner’s “29 Ways.” After Turner’s original, this is by far my favorite version of this classic. If you are not familiar with Diunna, it is time you made your acquaintance with this living legend. Her voice is amazingly powerful, and the raw recording style of this disc conveys her inflections and emotions beautifully.

The standout original track on Rooster is “Olympic Strut,” because Swafford is able to slow things down from the usual breakneck boogie-woogie tempo and the listener gets a chance to focus on the feel of his astounding right hand work. He also keeps the speed down for Willie Mae Thornton’s “Sometimes I Have a Heartache,” which Diunna just tears to pieces. The heart that she puts into her singing is a high mark that any up and coming blues singer should aspire to measure up to.

Rooster finishes up with three neat bonus tracks. Clay recorded the first two in Clarksdale, Mississippi with his buddy, singer/guitarist Bob Margolin. They laid down their own versions of Muddy Waters’ “Mean Disposition” and Elmore James’ “Fine Little Mama” that feature Margolin’s gorgeous slide guitar work and his well-weathered voice. The final track is a live cut of “Tin Pan Alley” with Swafford joining Bob Corritone and the All Stars from the Rhythm Room in Phoenix, Arizona. These tracks show how well Clay plays with others, and that he is not a one-trick pony.

Whether you are a boogie-woogie fan or not, if you enjoy the blues and/or slick piano playing there is something for you to like in Clay Swafford’s Rooster. By the way, if you do like what you hear and decide to buy the album, be sure to read the liner notes, as there are neat tidbits about all of the tracks. This is a fabulous first effort, and surely there will be great things to come for this prodigy!


Monday, August 18, 2014

Yamaha MG06X Mixing Console Review


I have tried out more than enough mixing boards over the years, and eventually settled into the Yamaha MG series of boards as they are reliable, easy to use, and relatively cheap. So I was understandably excited when Yamaha introduced new MG models with upmarket modern features. Today we are going to look at an all-new model, the analog MG06X. It is a nice piece of gear!

I have a few different mixing boards, depending on what job I am doing, and the MG06X is the smallest of the bunch. How small is it? It measures 6 x 8 x 2 1/2 inches, and it weighs only 2 pounds. It feels solid though, thanks to its metal chassis (the old series was plastic), and it seems like it will hold up well in the long run. One godsend is that they got rid of the terrible dedicated power cable with the huge transformer (that weighed as much as a mixer) and went to an onboard power supply. The new-style power cord has a small wall wart and can be replaced at an electronics store if you get in a jam.

This board is useful in situations where I need just a few microphones and/or want to run an iPad or CD player through my powered speakers. In my world it ends up being used for awards shows, picnics, school dances and karaoke parties -- it even makes for a nice headphone practice amp for my guitars and keyboards.

Most of the basics are there, such as EQ functions, a headphone out, switchable phantom power for two of the inputs (channel 1 and two are combination XLR/TRS), and balanced XLR and 1/4-inch stereo outs. Unfortunately a few things disappeared from the previous entry-level MG-series mixers, including the effects loop, compression, the monitor outs, and the mids for the EQ.

Like all Yamaha mixers, they play a little trickery with their specs. They call this a 6-channel unit, but is you look at it 4 of the channels are the 2 stereo inputs that are only controlled in pairs. Sounds like 4 channels to me, but since I have owned other Yamaha mixers, I knew this before I bought it. Also, these extra inputs are all unbalanced ¼-inch and there are no RCA jacks, but there are plenty of adapters out there (or it is time to buy new cables). Some dealers are advertising USB connectivity, but there is none. Always check with the manufacturer…

What sets the MG06X apart from the competition is its nice array of SPX effects. There are a total of six reverb and delay effects, and they all work pretty well. These are just the ticket for churching up coffee house or karaoke gigs. It almost makes it seem like untalented people can sing!

I have used it for a few parties and small gigs and have been happy with the sound. The two microphone channels have D-PRE class A microphone preamps, and they also have pad switches in case you need them. The op-amp has a very clear tone and does not color the sound at all. Also, if you do not go overboard with the effects they can be a nice supplement to your mix.

Extra bonus features for channels 1 and 2 include high pass filters to help tame muddiness from unwanted low frequencies, and pad switches to tone down loud inputs. This is handy for the drunk people that shriek into the microphones at karaoke parties.

It is a bummer to not have any options for monitor output, no compression, and no mid EQ controls, but if you need that much flexibility you are probably going to buy a bigger mixer anyway. Sliding faders and mutes switches also would have been nice, but at this price point I am happy enough with the knobs that they provided.

By the way, this mixers can be mounted to a microphone stand if you purchase the optional BMS-10A adapter kit. With its metal chassis you might be able to bang this around, and if you do not need a powered mixer, monitors, computer connectivity or a bazillion input channels, this would be a great mixer for the money.

The Yamaha MG06X has a list price of $159 and a street price of $119. This is a bit more than the slightly larger old-style MG102C that I still have, but having the effects and a sturdier chassis make it worth the price differential, especially for karaoke. If you are doing small shows, it is definitely the pick of the litter.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

2013 Kala KA-SMHT Tenor Ukulele Review


Over the past three years quite a few ukuleles have come through the studio, but not many of them stuck around. Some did not sound very good, and some were just physically unattractive. Two that made the cut were the Kala SMHS and SMHT, which are both great instruments and good values. So, when my wife needed a ukulele for a players' group / club, it made sense to pick up one of the newly designed Kala SMHT instruments.

The SMHT moniker is a good indicator of what you get with this ukulele. The SM means that this instrument is constructed of solid mahogany, not a laminate, which is a huge plus. The T stands for tenor size, and I have no idea what the H stands for. Maybe it means "hogany."

It is a classy-looking uke with a clear satin poly finish and faux tortoiseshell body binding and black & white purfling. This binding goes around both the top and back and it joins with another piece across the end seam of the body. I love that look! The purfling and rosette are new for this year.

The neck is also shaped from mahogany and it is capped with a nicely-grained rosewood fretboard. The craftsmanship of the 19 silver-nickel frets on this one is very good, but I have seen some newer Kala instruments with rough fret ends and damaged fretboards, so be sure you pick a good one. If you choose to buy online, make sure that there is a good return policy.

The most noticeable differences on these newer SMHT instruments are the slotted headstock and die-cast geared tuners. Not only do these changes make the uke look up-market, but the tuners also work very well. The inlaid bridge is made of rosewood and the saddle and nut are both made of synthetic bone.

This Kala is a well-made instrument, with an even finish, nice joints and a great action right out of the box. The routing for the newly-added purfling and headstock are flawless, which is nice to see at this low price point. And, I appreciate the fact that it looks like a classic uke, with no odd cutaways, inappropriate F-holes or bizarre features.

It also sounds very good! This solid wood tenor has a warm and full mid-range tone that is nothing like the tinny jangle that comes out of entry-level laminated instruments (I am very partial to mahogany ukes). If you are stepping up from a cheap uke, or even if you are just taking up the instrument, this is a great choice. You will only want something better if you are going pro or if you hit the lotto -- it is that good.

The best part about the new Kala SMHT is that it is a great value. It is dirt cheap (because it is imported), with an MSRP of $350, and a street price of around $250. Shop around online and you might even be able to get them to throw in a case and tuner for free. Try one and see what you think!


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Review: Boston and Cheap Trick at the Forum in Inglewood, California


When I saw that the Boston tour was making a stop at the Forum in Inglewood, California, I had to go see them. There were no pre-conceived notions that this would be a super-great show, but I had never seen the band before and Cheap Trick was opening up for them, which is always worth the price of admission. Plenty of people think the same way, as this turned out to be a sold out show at the nicely-renovated facility.

To be honest, I did not even know that Boston was still together, nor that they had recorded a new album and were touring again. They band has pressed on after Brad Delp took his own life, having found Tommy DeCarlo on the internet to take on the singing chores and keyboard work, and he is pretty darned good. Of course, founding member and guitarist Tom Scholz still brought it to the stage, and the rest of the band was made up of guitarist Gary Pihl, Tracy Ferrie on bass, Kimberly Dahme on rhythm guitar, and god only know who was behind the drum kit. On guest vocals was American Idol finalist Siobhan Magnus, who also happens to be the niece of Ferrie.

Boston tore out a nearly two-hour set with over 20 songs, and it was actually pretty good. There were a few songs from their new album, Life, Love & Hope, but they mostly gave the crowd what they were looking for, which was all of their good stuff from the 1970s and 1980s. I do not know anybody who bought their newest album, do you?

Right out of the gate they hit it hard, starting off with “Rock and Roll Band,” “Smokin’,” and “Feellin’ Satisfied.” Scholz still has his distinctive chops (can you believe he is 67?) and his harmonization with Pilz was classic Boston. The band was tight, the vocal harmonies were good and DeCarlo was in top form. I have no complaints about their musicianship or their stage show.

The show did drag on a bit, and the few songs they did from their new album were certifiable yawners, but they played almost everything from their got-to-have-it double album. Boston did not leave out their gems, including “Peace of Mind,” “It’s Been Such a Long Time,” “Don’t Look Back,” “Amanda,” “More Than a Feeling” and “Long Time.” This was fortunate and made up for the sometimes ponderous pace.

It turned out that Boston’s performance was actually worth the price of admission. So, Cheap Trick’s set was like icing on the cake. I have seen them quite a few times over the past 30 years as they performed with bands such as Night Ranger and Aerosmith, and they have never disappointed.

They have been doing the same act for so long that you would think they would tire of it, but they still bring plenty of energy to each show. Robin Zander sounded way better than he did last year with Aerosmith, and at 61 he is showing no signs of slowing down. Rick Nielsen is still a total goofball, and his guitar skills have not faded. Tom Petersson did a passable job on bass, though I wish he had left the solo out. And there was a surprise behind the drum kit as Bun E. Carlos has stomped off and is suing the band, so Nielsen’s son Daxx was on the skins, and it was immediately obvious that Carlos made a mistake. Daxx is a much better drummer, and Bun will not be missed. Hah!

Cheap Trick mostly focused on their hits during their one-hour set, and they really brought their A-game. They included crowd favorites such as “Ain’t that a Shame,” “Surrender,” “Dream Police,” and I Want you to Want Me.” Every new rock band that is hitting big should be required to see a Cheap Trick show, or better yet, have to take them on tour with them so they can teach them what a real rock show is all about.

So I have to call the evening a success. If you have the chance to see Boston, see them. If Cheap Trick is on the bill too, definitely go see them. Trust me!