Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tommy Malone Natural Born Days

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the August 15, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.thebluesblast.com

Tommy Malone – Natural Born Days

M.C. Records www.tommymalone.net

http://www.mc-records.com/

12 tracks / 49:25

I have always heard that good things come to those who wait, and more often than not this adage is correct. Fortunately is also true for the folks that have been waiting a dozen years for Tommy Malone to release a follow-up to his debut solo album. His fans (and his soon to be new fans) will not be disappointed that it took so long.

Tommy Malone is one of the unsung heroes of the music industry, and he has been writing, playing and singing roots and blues music for more than three decades. You may know him from his association with various Louisiana-based bands, most famously the Subdudes. You may not know that his songwriting is highly regarded, and his tunes have been recorded by artists such as the Radiators (his brother’s band) and Joe Cocker. He grew up in Louisiana, and recently returned to New Orleans after spending five years in Nashville.

His latest effort, Natural Born Days, was recorded in New Orleans and is a wonderful product of a lot of great people. It has a dozen tracks, all of them originals, and Malone collaborated with his old buddy, Jim Scheurich, on half of them. His Subdudes bandmates, Johnny Allen and Tim Cook helped out on the writing chores as well. It was produced and mixed by John Porter, a 10-time Grammy award winner who has worked B.B. King, Buddy Guy, the Smiths, Bryan Ferry, Carlos Santana, and many others. He also contributed some of the guitar, bass, mandolin and percussion parts. The rest of the musicians are from New Orleans, including Susan Cowsill with the background vocals, Jon Cleary on keys, Doug Belote on drums, bassman David Hyde, Joe Gelini on percussion and Shane Theriot on guitar and omnichord.

“Home” is the first track up, and it is a short swamp blues rocker that tells the wonderful story of Tommy’s return to his hometown five years after Hurricane Katrina drove him away. His voice is well-weathered but his joy shines through as he details the vibe of the Crescent City. There is a lot going on in this song, from pretty vocal harmonies to Hyde’s fat bass line and Cleary’s hammering honky-tonk piano. It all fits together very well, which is not a fluke as the rest of the album is equally well put together.

The theme to “God Knows” could be a real downer, as it deals with the mysteries of why things work out so badly sometimes, but Tommy balances it out by looking at the unexplained goodness in our world too. I can only think that this is a result of his personal experiences with the aftermath of Katrina. This slow-paced rhythm and blues number features Nigel Hall on the Hammond and the Wurlitzer electric piano, and he does a masterful job of not going over the top, which would surely be a temptation on a song like this.

Malone included a little something for his diehard fans too, recording “Didn’t Want to Hear It,” a ballad he has been playing at his live shows for years. He does some fine acoustic guitar work here, and it is surprising that he does not show this off more on Natural Born Days, as he is a fabulous musician. As it is, his maturity and restraint are to be commended, as he lets the songs be more about the lyrics instead of what he can do with his fingers.

The title track of Natural Born Days is a touching tribute to Malone’s mother; it brought a tear to my eye the first time I listened closely to the lyrics as he paints such a realistic and loving picture with his words. It is in a country/funk style, with subdued slide guitar and a hint of Hammond B3, both of which have a symbiotic result when used together.

The final cut is “Word on the Street,” a soulful ballad with an arrangement that is a bit more sparse than the rest of the tracks. The listener is able to focus on the lyrics because of this, and wonder what became of this unfinished love story. This is a great final chapter, and left me more than a little curious about what Malone will come up with next.

I listen to a lot of new music and Natural Born Days is perhaps the best new album I have heard in the past year. It is obvious that Tommy Malone put his heart and soul out there for the world to see, and he should be commended for his talent and honesty. I hope you take the time to give it a listen; it will be worth it.

Mahalo!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Golden Age Pre-wired Harness for Gibson Les Paul Guitars -- Review

Greetings! I have plenty to complain about with the newer generations of Gibson Les Paul guitars. The company has lost it way and despite spending tons of cash on high-zoot machinery, they have a great deal of difficulty with making a guitar with a straight neck and level frets. They also have trouble in the electronics design area and they load up their instruments with features that nobody wants (robot tuning) or by screwing up a good thing by installing printed circuit boards and push-pull pots in their revered Les Paul models.

Well, it is easy to fix a bad neck or salvage a bad fret job, but at least you can easily re-wire your Les Paul like god intended with a pre-wired harness kit. There are a lot of companies out there selling these, and one of the better ones is the Golden Age kit from Stewart-MacDonald.

These wiring kits are made right here in Athens, Ohio by first world workers that earn a living wage, not by shoeless little kids overseas that will never see the inside of a school or eat a hot lunch. And these harnesses are assembled using quality parts that you would pick off the shelf if you had a choice, not the crap that Gibson gets from their lowest bidders.

The Golden Age 1934 Les Paul long shaft pot kit includes:

- FourCTS 300k potentiometers

- Two Orange Drop 223K (022uF) capacitors

- A Switchcraft three-way toggle switch

- A Switchcraft ¼-inch mono output jack

- Push-back cloth wiring

- A neat wooden template that you can use in case you decide to build your own harness next time

This is all good stuff, and it is neatly wired and ready to be popped right into your guitar. If you can figure out how to attach it to your pickups, it is as easy as pie. It was for me, and I had it soldered to my Burstbuckers in no time flat.

There have been no problems with my kit. Everything fit well, and there was no added static or popping and everything worked exactly like it was supposed to. I like it a lot, and would not hesitate buying another.

By the way, they sell these for many different guitar and bass models, so if you have a project instrument that you need to rewire, these guys might must have the solution!

What is finally comes down to is the cost of the Golden Age pre-wired kit. The street price is $80 with standard length pots (pre-1978) and $91 for long shaft pots. If you do the math, you are going to be out of pocket for over $60 if you buy all of these parts separately to do the job yourself. To me it is worth an extra $20 to have a job like this done professionally, because it will look just right when it is installed.

See for yourself, and let me know what you think.

Mahalo!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

2002 Martin D-17 Acoustic Guitar Review

Hiya!

I am a big fan of Martin guitars, and given a choice I will pick one of their instruments over similar models from other makers. Today we are looking at something a little different from them, the all-mahogany D-17.

The first thing too note is that this is not the same guitar as the currently produced D-17M, nor the D-15M, which is similar in appearance. They discontinued this model many years back, but this particular instrument has a little bit of history behind it.

This guitar has a serial number that dates it to 2002 because it was started back then discovered last year somewhere in their huge factory, long after the model had been discontinued. Martin went ahead and finished it up and shipped it out to a guitar shop in Ohio, where it was finally retailed.

This D-17 features a glossy finish over its solid mahogany top, sides and back. This is different than the current D-17M, which uses a Sitka spruce top that is tinted to look like mahogany (and the cheaper-looking satin finish on the sides and back). This instrument has a classy faux tortoise shell binding black and white purfling around the top, and the rosette is the 17 type.

The neck on this guitar is hand-carved mahogany with a low oval profile, and it is topped with a black micarta fretboard that kind of looks like ebony. The front of the headstock has a nice piece of East Indian rosewood laminated onto it, and the Martin logo is presented in gold foil, which matches the gold-plated sealed tuners.

This was a fairly expensive guitar (list price around $2000), and the craftsmanship is worthy of the price. The fretwork is very good, all of the joints are solid and even, and the finish is clear and even (but not too thick). If you ever have the chance to go to the Martin Factory tour in Eastern Pennsylvania, make sure that you go. The pride that their employees have in what they are doing is impressive, and the facility is unbelievable.

It plays very easily, and the sound is unique when compared to other Martin dreadnaughts. There is more bass than my D-18 or HD-28, but the tone is still even and it has a very sweet sound. It has a relatively narrow 1 11/16-inch nut, and it is well-suited to either strumming of flat picking. I would prefer a bit wider nut for fingerpicking, though. It is a good bluegrass or blues guitar, but it also has a versatile enough tone that it could be used for jazz too, if that is your thing.

It is a winner.

This D-17 came with the original factory hardshell case, which is about as nice as they come. Things like this really round out the package and reinforce the quality of the instrument, in my opinion.

Unfortunately, I was not be able to hold onto this fine instrument as I have two killer Martins (D-18 Golden Era and HD-28V Custom) that are just not getting enough play time. So I moved it along to a better home – too many guitars, and not enough time!

Mahalo!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ernie Ball 2921 M-Steel Regular Slinky Electric Guitar Strings Review

Aloha!

Ernie Ball has to be one of the biggest guitar and bass string manufacturers in the world (and they still make their strings in California), but despite their hefty market share they do not rest on their laurels. They keep coming out with new products, and I am a big fan of their Cobalt and coated strings, as well as their adoption of sealed string packaging to keep them as fresh as possible.

When the company introduced their new M-Steel guitar strings earlier this year, It seemed to me that all of the huge leaps in string technology have already been done, so what different could this new construction make? But, as I looked into them a bit more and actually tried out a few sets I must say that I came away impressed.

The big difference in this set is that the wound strings are based on a hex core that is made from Maraging steel, an alloy that is used in high-stress aerospace and military applications. The plain wire strings are made from tempered steel for additional resistance to fatigue. This means that these strings are supposed to last longer and be more resistant to breakage.

Most recently I tied out the M-Steel Regular Slinky set, which consists of 0.010, 0.013, 0.017, 0.026, 0.036, and 0.046 gauge strings. I installed them on my ’62-reissue Fender Stratocaster and cranked it up through my Fender Twin Reverb. I was able to A/B them with a new set of regular Slinkies on a similar Strat, so I could get a better idea of what they are really doing.

And I did not really need the comparison guitar, as right away it was obvious that the M-Steel strings were much louder and brighter (even for new strings), and they had a bit more sustain. More impressively, they were also able to produce more bass and low-mids.

This performance kept up for the two weeks I tried them , with very little degradation in tone and volume, despite pretty heavy usage. By the time I would ordinarily be installing a new set of strings these things still sounded very good. This is a good thing, because they do cost a bit more than regular Slinkies, with a list price of $21.50 and a street price that is right around 12 bucks.

From this experience, I would recommend giving a set of the Ernie Ball M-Steel strings a try, as they will last a bit longer than their normal line of strings, and they certainly do sound good!

Mahalo!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Fender Pawn Shop Special Greta Guitar Amplifier Review

Howdy!

I don’t know how I missed seeing the Fender Pawn Shop Special Greta guitar amplifiers when they were being produced, but I only recently found out about them. This model was introduced at the 2012 NAMM show and less than two years later they are out of production.

The Greta has vintage tabletop radio styling with gaudy red and gold paint, and just a speaker, a VU meter and a couple of knobs on the front. The idea was that it would be a nice amp for the living room that did not have the industrial look of most combo practice amps. It is not terribly big, measuring in at 6.75 x 10 x 7.25 inches, and weighing in at a little less than 9 pounds.

That speaker is an 8-ohm Fender “special design” (whatever that means), and the two knobs are for volume and tone. Around back is a ¼-inch guitar input, an 1/8-inch AUX in, an 8-ohm speaker out, a ¼-inch line out, a power switch and an IEC power cable jack.

This is a 2-watt amplifier, and Fender tucked a 12AT7 output tube and a 12AX7 preamp tube inside. This makes it loud enough for practicing around the house, but not for much of anything else. You could plug another cabinet into the speaker out (which disables the internal speaker), but it is still not going to yield that much more volume.

The Greta overdrives quickly, which is not too surprising, and it is fun to watch the VU meter head from “CLEAN” to “OVERLOAD” in a jiffy. The overdriven tone is harsh and grating, and just playing it by itself it is hard to tell if it is the amp or the crummy little speaker that is the problem. If you back of the instrument volume, it does have a nice warm tone. When plugging it into another cabinet, it is obvious that the troubles are related to the tubes, as just does not have the usual 6L6 / 6V6 Fender sound. Maybe the 12AT7 was cheaper, and these are pretty cheap Chinese tubes to start with. You are not going to choose to use this for a pre-amp or for recording.

So what good is the Fender Greta? It is good for exactly what it was set out to do, which is acting as a living room practice amp. You can plug your iPod into the back and practice along at reasonable volume levels. It is also ok to just use it as a speaker for your iPod, too. It does what it was intended to do, and not a whole lot more. They probably could have saved a couple of bucks by leaving the speaker and line outs back in the design studio, as I cannot imagine anybody ever using them. The inclusion of these parts set the users' expectations too high.

Maybe that is why they do not make them anymore.

When the Fender Pawn Shop Special Greta amplifiers were on the market they had a list price of $259.99 and a street price of $199.99, and when Guitar Center cleared them out they could be picked up for $99.99. Though no major retailers carry them anymore, you can still find new one online for around $200. If you like the looks and your expectations are not too high, this might be a nice addition to you living room!

Mahalo!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Radial Engineering J48 Active Direct Box Review

Howdy!

I have reviewed the Radial Engineering Firefly and JDI direct boxes before and had nothing but praise for them, but they have a lot of other great products in their line-up, including the J48 active direct box.

Radial Engineering builds an impressive collection of products, including my favorite direct box, the aforementioned Firefly. Their stuff is comes dear, as they use quality components and their boxes are built with workers earning first-world wages in Canada.

First off – why would you need a direct box? If you want to send your instrument’s signal directly to the mixing board, a direct box will allow you to do this with a minimal increase in outside noise as well as reducing signal loss. It does this by converting a high impedance signal to a low impedance signal, as well as balancing this signal.

If the impedance is lowered, it will travel over long lengths of cable with less signal loss. Unfortunately, low impedance signals are more susceptible to noise created by magnetic fields – and just think of all of the magnetic fields created on stage by the amplifiers and lights. Old-school landline telephones also send low impedance signals over ridiculous lengths of wire with virtually no added noise. How do they do it?

They use balanced lines, which I am sure you have heard of if you have ever messed around with sound equipment. Balanced line split the signal into two equal parts, with one part in phase and the other part purposely inverted (out-of-phase). There is also a magnetic shield, which makes up the third pin of your standard XLR cable. Outside noise that passes through the shield is picked up equally by both wires. When the two signals come back together, the out of phase signal is brought back into phase along with the noise it has collected. The original signal is now in phase and the noise goes out of phase with its counterpart and cancels itself out.

So, a direct box (or DI box) takes care of all of this in one little component: It converts the high output impedance of the pickup to a low impedance signal and convert the unbalanced connection to a balance the line. Then you can plug it straight into a microphone line input and put your sound into the hands of the guy running the board. I hope you trust him…

This was all done with no added power, and a transformer was used to accomplish this task. Active DI boxes came out about 30 years ago because it was found that passive boxes did not work as well with high-output active basses, onboard preamps and keyboards. These units use batteries or phantom power (48V) without an expensive balancing transformer to provide the same results.

The Radial Engineering J48 active direct box is a bit more spendy than other simple direct boxes on the market, but it uses the phantom power to run a balancing transformer and has a military-grade printed circuit boards so that it ends up being a durable piece of equipment that works very well and should last for the rest of your career.

Looking at the unit, it is about the same size as an effect pedal (5 ½ x 3 x 2 1.2 inches), and it has a 14-gauge solid steel chassis painted in a lovely deep blue with neatly screen- printed graphics. It is shaped sort of like a hardcover book, so the steel wraps around and protects the switches from being torn off if you drop it or as it bangs around in your road case, There is a rubber pad on the bottom to help isolate it and to keep it from moving around.

The input panel has the usual 1/4-inch instrument input and traditional thru-put (to send your signal on to an amplifier). There is a merge switch that changes the thru-put jack into a second input, thus allowing a stereo signal to be summed into a mono signal. The instructions printed on top if the box, in case you forget how it is supposed to work. There is also a -15dB pad switch in case you have an exceptionally hot input, and an LED for the 48V phantom power check.

On the other side, the output panel has a balanced 600-ohm XLR connector with a hot pin 2 hot per AES specifications. There is a polarity reverse switch to toggle pin 2 and pin 3 to allow interface with older non-AES compliant equipment. The ground lift disconnects the pin 1 to allow for input and output isolation. The LOW CUT switch is an 80Hz high-pass filter that minimizes resonant feedback with acoustic instruments. This switch also headroom by eliminating unneeded bass frequencies.

In the real world, it does all of this exactly like it is supposed to. After you get it set up and plugged in you can forget it is there and get down to the business of making music. It is really nice to have a product that does exactly what the company says it will. It specs out with a 20Hz to 30kHz frequency range and it is quiet and perfectly isolated and with no added distortion you can count on your signal getting to the board just the way that you created it. You can use it to run straight into the board or into the snake with no fear of overloading the system.

I have tried it out with really high output basses (Alembic, Sadowsky, MusicMan Bongo, and Kubicki Factor) as well as a variety of keyboards and acoustic guitars with active preamps, and all of them worked spectacularly with the J48. They sounded exactly the same as they did when run directly into an amplifier, and I am completely hooked.

All of this quality and performance do not come cheaply. The Radial Engineering J48 active direct box has a list price of $220 and a street price of $199. It is worth every penny, and you should have one in your gig bag! Mahalo!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ode to Gaffer Tape

Aloha!

I have used plenty of rolls of gaffer tape over the years for various live sound projects, because I have found it to be less destructive and a lot less work than duct tape. But it costs five times more than a similar roll of duct tape, and I always wondered why. Plus, what exactly is a gaffer?

Gaffer tape is cotton cloth tape that comes in rolls with widths that range from 1-inch to 6-feet (I buy the 2-inch rolls). It is more flexible than duct tape so it can mold around cable easily, and though it comes in most any color imaginable, the most popular color is flat black. Like duct tape, it is easily torn by hand, and wider pieces can be torn into narrower strips as needed.

The biggest difference is that it made with a synthetic petroleum-based adhesive rather than a natural rubber adhesive. This means that there is no residue left when it is removed. That means no sticky cables, and no mess on the walls of the rental hall, church or stage. For some reason people get pretty cheesed when their walls have sticky smudges on them. Also, the cotton cloth tears more cleanly than the plastic stuff they use for duct tape.

Because gaffer tape uses a different cloth and adhesive than other tapes and there is not as much demand for this specialized tape, it is made in smaller quantities and by fewer manufacturers. So, it is going to cost more – the law of supply and demand, baby!

I have seen different colors of gaffer tape used for stage blocking, and the black and yellow-striped tape to mark stage edges and other hazards. Sound guys sometimes use white gaffer tape to mark the channels on their mixing boards, and I hear that indoor climbers use it to mark their routes on climbing walls.

I hide my gaffer tape when I go to gigs and bring along a roll of regular duct tape of masking tape, because somebody always wants to borrow tape, and gaffer tape is not what they are looking for. It is terrible for holding up signs in windy situations, and it just doesn’t look as nice. Besides it is ungodly expensive and I hate seeing someone wander off with my $20 roll of tape and wondering if I will ever see it again.

So, what is a gaffer?

The gaffer is the chief lighting technician on a film crew. They got this name in the old days for the long hook (gaff) that they would use to adjust the overhead lights on the sets. By the way, the gaffer’s assistant is called the best boy, in case you have seen the name in movie credits and wondered what that meant.

Mahalo!