30/09/2019

Reading - September 2019

Confessions of a Menopausal Woman by Andrea McLean (2018)
This was lent to C by my sister, and I chose to read it partly to try and understand more about the menopause, and partly to see if C would like it. She won't. It seems churlish to criticise it too much, since it serves a genuine purpose and Andrea McLean is clearly well-meaning. It's just that the whole thing reads like an extended women's magazine article, with all the stereotypes and cliches that comes with it. The inconsistencies don't help either; my favourite one is when she takes piss out of how men having a "midlife crisis" buy an impractical new sports car, and then a few pages later explains how she cheered herself up after a particularly trying time by buying a new - deliberately impractical - car. But buried in the lazy generalisations and ludicrously media-world-centric viewpoint is some useful information - and if someone reads this because of its association with "TV's Loose Women star Andrea McLean" that otherwise wouldn't have had access to that information, then that can only be a good thing. 
Eric by Terry Pratchett (1990)
Possibly one of the shortest Discworld books, and containing the amusing idea of a demon-turned-bureaucrat whose idea of hell as a version of some inept council offices is apparently worse than the firepits and torture of traditional "hell". Rincewind is still an annoying character though. 
The Guitar Magazine (October 2019 / Issue 373)
Billed as "The Vintage Issue", this has some interesting stuff about vintage guitars but little about amps or pedals. I'm currently considering buying a new amp and wouldn't mind reading about vintage Fender Deluxes or Princetons.
First Man by James R. Hansen (2005)
I don't often leave books unfinished, but when something's been sitting right next to my reading chair for a couple of weeks and I find myself looking for other things to read instead, it's a sign I'm not interested. This is an important document of Neil Armstrong's life, written with his co-operation, and as such will be invaluable to future historian. However, for the casual reader, it's far too tediously detailed and as a result, much too long. And despite the many reviews on the back and inside, it's not particularly well written. Hansen has a very bad habit of referring to an event or a person in passing as if the main details had already been discussed, when in fact it's the first time this particular thing has been mentioned, which leads me to spend ages flicking back, trying to find what I've missed, when in fact I haven't. Ultimately, there's a really interesting story waiting to be told, but unless you particularly enjoy this kind of mind-numbing detail, just watch the film.
Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett (1990)
It's wrong to say that Terry Pratchett's novels are formulaic, because the does a gross disservices to the level of imaginative force in each book. Moving Pictures is obviously an affectionate satire on the golden age of Hollywood and the culmination, which involves a giant woman climbing a tower while holding onto an orangutan, is brilliant. But the story arc is very familiar and that's because it's what we get in every book. It's still funny and enjoyable but I think I need a brief break from Discworld!
Q: 50 Years of Rock 'n' Roll: From Elvis to The Beatles ... Part One: '50s + '60s edited by Mark Blake (2004)
Entertaining  Special Edition from (blimey!) fifteen years ago, containing a number of articles about key bands and events from rock 'n' roll's first twenty years. It's billed as covering the 50s and 60s but aside from a handful of the usual suspects - Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly - it's all about the latter decade, and mostly about the last five years of that. So, essentially, it accepts conventional rock wisdom, that things only really started in the late 60s. Such conformance aside, it's interesting, if a little lightweight. And marks subtracted for making a basic factual mistake when describing Jimi Hendrix's guitars as strung upside-down and claiming this is what made him sound so unique. WRONG! His guitars were strung conventionally, with the low E at the top; however, he used modified right-handed guitars which therefore looked upside down. The unique sound was because Jimi.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)
Now on my fourth reading of what has become comfort reading (something easy and fun to read that I know I will like), I am struck particularly this time by how different the book is from the film, understandable in many ways since much of the key scenes in the novel are probably impractical to film - for example, the first-person participation in classic movies (although they half-did it in the film with The Shining). I like both, but the novel is probably more satisfying (as I think I said last time I read it!).

27/09/2019

Dance Mania Vol. 1

Tito Puente & His Orchestra
1958

About eight years ago I pledged to brush up on my knowledge of the music of the 50s by listening to all of the "must listen" albums from a couple of big list books. I'm still working my way through them (hey, there are nearly forty albums!), and here's one of the last to write up.

I knew nothing about mambo - let alone the Tito Puente, the "King Of Mambo" - prior to listening to this, and in all honesty I think I'd struggle to distinguish between it and,say, merengue (the latter is more of a "marching" beat, apparently).

Dance Mania probably serves as a good introduction, even if it doesn't include the song most rock music fans would know Puente for, "Oye Como Va" (as covered by Santana on Abraxas). Unfortunately, not being familiar with the intricacies of the style means that all the tracks here tend towards sameness. It's all a bit early-60s jazz club, like the Purple Pit in Jerry Lewis's The Nutty Professor -  jazzy and brassy, maybe a bit like big band swing, except more relaxed. Great if it really floats your boat, maybe a bit wearing after twelve tracks of what is broadly indistinguishable music.

A couple of the instrumental tracks stand out for me: "Hong Kong Mambo" is a great riff, and "3D Mambo" has a great feel. Overall, it's good for something a bit different in the background though, and as ever with these recommendations, I'm very pleased to have heard it and know it.

31/08/2019

Reading - August 2019

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett (1987)
It's too long ago to be sure, but I think this was the first Discworld book I ever read. Since I don't have any notes on it in this blog, the last time I read it was probably over ten years ago. Yet it remains clear in my mind, and it's still one of my favourites. From the superb pun of the title to the climactic resolution, which (unusually for Pratchett) doesn't feel too rushed, it's all excellent fun. And of course Granny Weatherwax appears for the first time.
Mort by Terry Pratchett (1987)
Another enjoyable holiday read, loads of imaginative details, such as the footnote on p24 about how the only thing that travels faster than normal light being monarchy - one of my favourite quotes). Next up: Sourcery.
A Certain Chemistry by Mil Millington (2003)
I've read this book before, but this time I didn't finish it. It's a frustrating mix of what feels like three different styles of novel: a well-observed romance, a social commentary, and
a farce. The main character falls in love with a celebrity who he happens to be working for, and she for him; God pops up every now and then to explain why things are happening (the "chemistry" of the title also referring to hormones); however, the course of love doesn't run smooth and all sorts of incidents occur. It's the latter that spoils things for me, by feeling too contrived. Ultimately, although I enjoyed the romantic aspect of the story and wanted to know what happened, I couldn't put up with the farcical elements. (So I peeked at the end; the affair is doomed, his girlfriend kicks him out and the ending is left somewhat unresolved.)
Guitar Magazine ((Sept 2019 / Issue 372)
Feels like there's more features & fewer reviews this month, but overall a good issue.
Sourcery by Terry Pratchett (1988)
Rincewind isn't my favourite character but the book is as entertaining as usual. I kept waiting the The Luggage to play an important part in the plot but it never did, leading me to wonder why it keeps coming up.
Guitarist Guide To Amps edited by Michael Leonard (2013)
Nice to dip into at breakfast times and with lots of shiny pictures of unattainable amps. However I probably should have read my previous review of this as it is a bit disposable - and particularly now that it's nearly six years old, much of the make/model-specific information is out of date. Still, really made me feel like getting a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe or Twin! (I really don't need them but that's another story).
Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett (1988)
Next in my attempt to read all Discworld books in order, even though I think I read this less than a year ago. Still funny. Next is Pyramids.
Pyramids by Terry Pratchett (1989)
The satire gets a bit more pointed in this book, against religion this time. Some good characters who, sadly, don't appear again in any other books. I particularly like the camel You Bastard (the best mathemetician on Discworld).

04/08/2019

Pedal Power 2019

Comparatively, it's a cheap hobby. Honest darling!

I was re-reading my 2017 pedal survey and was honestly surprised by how many of the pedals I had then have been sold on. I genuinely thought I'd stopped chopping and changing so much! It's obviously time to review again, in what's becoming a biennial exercise. So I gathered them together on our nice kitchen floor (that green carpet is just horrible) and did a family shoot.

At the top are the pedals currently in daily use on my board. Those on the floor are in a cupboard and not used as much. The board itself is a Palmer Pedalbay 60 - not the most glamorous bit of kit but invaluable, even for a strictly home guitarist like me. Because it's all wired up, I just plug a couple of cables in and I'm ready to play. This is helped by a Voodoo Labs Pedal Power Plus, under the board, giving power to everything.

All right, that's the dull (but very useful) stuff taken care of. Onto the pedals themselves!


The board

In signal path order:
Bright Onion Mini Looper [5]
This is being used on the board solely as a patch box, otherwise getting the guitar lead into the M5 is awkward. However, it functions as a mute switch for the whole thing as a nice side-effect.
Line 6 M5 Stompbox Modeller [9] & EX-1 expression pedal [10]
"100 effects pedals in 1", they say. I'm a bit ambivalent about this, because I am not patient enough to go through them all meticulously, so it's a little wasted on me. However, for £70 (s/h) it's an absolute bargain and although the quality varies somewhat, all the effects at least good and some are excellent. Consensus on the forum seems to be that the delays and reverbs are very good, but actually I prefer to get my delay from dedicated units. However, I quite like the drives and the Cry Baby Super model ("Fassel") is really close to the real thing. So this regularly gets used as a wah (there are about 5 other wahs also!) and occasionally as something else if I need, say, a chorus, a phaser, an octaver or something else. Having it around gives a lot of options, needless to say.
Electro Harmonix Soul Food [8]
A staple of my board. Every drive I've tried sounds better with this kicking it up the arse. I am very tempted to try a "better" Klone to see if it actually makes a difference. The Wampler Tumnus is very good ... but would you really notice?
Tech 21 Double Drive [7]
This was up for sale earlier this year. No bites though, so I put it back on my board. My thinking was that I would be fine with the amp distortion, but this gives me a lot more options. It's really good - hardly worth letting go for the sake of £40-ish. Currently it's going head-to-head with the ...
ThorpyFX Gunshot [6]
I've never had a "boutique" overdrive and fancied seeing what the fuss is about. The Gunshot gets a lot of love online (as do all ThorpyFX pedals), but possibly it wasn't the best to start with, as it's supposed to be what the cognoscenti call a "MIAB" (according to the man himself) and also loosely based on a Tubescreamer, which doesn't really suit my amp, a H&K Tubemeister 18. That said, the pedal has a lot more range than your usual TS clone. As for whether boutique is worth it - well, predictably, it's about small gains. Having had a chance to try it slightly louder than normal, I think this would be fantastic on a gigging board - it really cuts through and has a lovely quality. At the volumes I normally play and record at, however, I am concerned it's going to be a bit lacklustre.

That's all the pedals in front of the amp. In the loop are: 
BOSS LS-2 Line Selector [4]
This is a great multi-purpose pedal. I've used it to run parallel distortion/fuzz, which was good fun. Classically it's used to switch between two separate banks of effects. Right now, it's here to take a feed after the pre-amp but before the delay & reverb effects, and send it into the audio interface. Then I can get the same approximate signal but use delay and reverb in the DAW, while still playing with delay on the signal I can hear.
BOSS DM-2W Delay [3]
I replaced the MXR Carbon Copy with a Carbon Copy Deluxe, but was disappointed in it. So I got this instead. It only came up on my radar recently, for some reason, but someone was selling so I grabbed it. This is the "Waza-Craft" edition, which adds a couple of useful features (longer delay, split dry/wet & expression control for rate) and uprates all the components, apparently. Anyway, it's a superb analogue, bucket-brigade delay. The only thing I wish it had is modulation - although you could add it in if you wanted, by using the separate wet-only output and recombining with the LS-2 (say).
Strymon DIG [2]
I sold the TC Flashback X4 and fancied a boutique delay of some sort - and, to be honest, I fancied a Strymon. They do a number of delays and it was a toss-up between this and the Brigadier - and this came up. It also has two delay engines, so that sold me. Instant Edge! A great sounding pedal, although I can't really tell much difference between the three models.
BOSS RC-1 Loopstation [1]
Having sold the TC Flashback X4, which I as often as not used as a looper, I needed a looper for practice, and this is as straightforward as any. The TC Ditto would have been smaller though.

The others

Dunlop GCB-95 Cry Baby [11]
Someone at work was selling this for a tenner. Bargain! It was missing the rubber stops underneath but I found a pack of replacements at Strings Direct. The movement is a bit shallow and the sound isn't quite the same as my Jen Super but it's OK. However, it's not being used because, as I say above, the M5 works just as well.
MXR Carbon Copy Deluxe [12]
This has been a real disappointment. I loved the original Carbon Copy and the Deluxe looked to have the additional features I wanted: tap tempo and expression control. However, the sound isn't there any more, the controls have very little range and you can't control self-oscillation with an expression pedal because regen isn't controllable with it. It's being sold.
Mooer Graphic G [13]
Useful for specific sounds, although, again, the M5 has various EQ options also, so not used very much.
MXR Phase 90 [14]
Phase is my most-used modulation and I like having it after distortion or fuzz (à la "Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhail") so this has actually now made it back onto the board in place of the Gunshot.
Moog EP-3 expression pedal [15]
Useful with various effects - it works nicely with the DM-2W and the DIG. Useful for special effects.
Jen Cry Baby Super [16]
I've written about this before and it still needs a new pot. Semi-seriously considering selling it to someone who would actually use it.
Tech 21 Sansamp ("Classic") [17]
I'd been on the lookout for one of these for a while. Apparently it's well used in professional circles for recording bass guitar, and so I tried this, with some success if I say so myself. It also does good guitar sounds. It's very flexible. I'd say overall the sounds aren't super-refined - or maybe I just haven't found the right combination of settings - but for a hobbyist recording, it's superb.
Fredric Effects Unpleasant Companion [18]
Bonkers fuzz, but again probably superfluous for the amount I use it and the fact that the M5 has a bunch of them.
BOSS FB-2 Feedbacker/Booster [19]
Another niche pedal, this time with no direct equivalent that I am aware of. Kept for those occasions when I want to simulate feedback. As a boost, it's somewhat industrial sounding.
Handmade Phase 45 clone [20]
Really smooth phase sounds, more subtle than the Phase 90.
Ken Multi MCP-7 Compressor [21]
Worth nothing and probably not worth keeping (again, given I have the M5) but not worth selling either.
Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay [22]
This isn't actually mine, it belongs to a friend. I did a back-to-back comparison with the DM-2W, and preferred the BOSS. It's a good sound though.
Korg AX1G [not shown]
My first multi-effects and, again, not worth selling really. Not sure what I'd ever use it for though.
Pedals that have come and gone in between this update and the last one are surprisingly few: a Source Audio True Spring (great pedal, but I prefer plate reverb) and a Hudson Broadcast Dual (didn't suit my amp). I bought both of these new, which was probably a mistake, caused by impatience mainly!

31/07/2019

Reading - July 2019

The Guitar Magazine (August 2019 / Issue 371)
An interesting "oral history" of the Strat, although the cover is a bit misleading: it shouts "Jeff Beck on the magic of the Strat" but in fact it's just a couple of paras from him in the middle of it all. Strymon's extraordinary Volante is reviewed and there's plenty else of interest.
Electric Guitars: Design and Invention by Tony Bacon (2017)
Most electric guitars are based on the original designs of the fifties, so it's no surprise that this book has a lot more detail about the early years, but too much of the subsequent history is taken up by detail the minor revisions made by Fender and Gibson over the following decade. Meanwhile, Ned Steinberger and Ken Parker - two of the most original guitar designers to emerge since - are given about a page each, while the Floyd Rose tremelo gets a couple of paragraphs. Lots of nice pictures of course, but much heavier on the kind of detail also available in other Tony Bacon books (like those about Fender and Gibson) and not enough on newer innovations.
Be My Enemy by Christopher Brookmyre (2004)
A bit gruesome in places but well-plotted as ever, and fun to read.
The Colour Of Magic by Terry Pratchett (1983)
Amazing to think this was written in 1983 and yet I didn't discover Pratchett until I was an adult. I'm doing all of them in order, I've decided, and so it starts here. All the traits are already in place, as indeed they are in his juvenalia, but lacking some of the pointedness of some of his later books and just rejoicing in the breadth of imagination. Next is The Light Fantastic, but I read that earlier this year, so I am moving straight onto Equal Rites.
My Bass And Other Animals by Guy Pratt (2007)
A tremendously entertaining romp through the rock 'n' roll highlights of a session man's life. Despite being as full of drugs and bad behaviour as Allan Jones's Can't Stand Up For Falling Down, it comes across as much less needy and desperate to be cool and instead as, well, boys having fun. Guy is obviously well-rated as a player (although he doesn't make a big thing about this), but just as importantly is clearly simply very charming, something that radiates from this book.

17/07/2019

Reading - June 2019

The Guitar Magazine (July 2019 / Issue 370)
"Is Gibson's 60th Anniversay 1959 Les Paul The Best R9 Ever?" - Guitar Magazine continues its quest to turn into Guitarist. Although I suppose it's inevitable, since everything I've ever read (including posts from GM editor Chris Vinnicombe on TheFretboard) indicate that sales go up when they put a Les Paul on the cover. Otherwise an interesting enough issue.
The Gibson 335 Guitar Book by Tony Bacon (2016)
Comprehensive and nicely illustrated history of the pioneering semi-acoustic. I've never played a 335 but my Yamaha SA2200 is basically the same thing and I'm really enjoying it at the moment.
Can't Stand Up For Falling Down by Allan Jones (2017)
I read Melody Maker every week for a couple of years, probably in the late 80s/early 90s. I preferred it to NME (I think I originally picked it because it had staples, when NME didn't - very practical, right?) but even then I got somewhat irritated with the rock myth-making and uncritical attitude to some of the more ridiculous excesses of rock stars. The whole idea that any behaviour can be excused "because it's rock 'n' roll" struck me as juvenile at the time and seems even more so now. Reading these collected articles from Allan Jones - editor of MM from 1984 to 1997 - it's clear this attitude came from the top. Most of his recollection of the "golden age" of rock involve drink, drugs and stupidity, and aren't really enlightening - they just serve to bolster what reputation he thinks he has. Mildly entertaining but not a patch on the writing, wit and insight of David Hepworth or Mark Ellen - the real kings of rock journalism in this period.
Lost In Music by Giles Smith (1995)
A discussion on the forum about the best rock bios reminded me of this - a rock bio of a failed musician. Giles Smith is a journalist but he played in bands and even had a record deal - of sorts. An amusing and easy read, and a nicely balanced account of life at the other end of the rock spectrum from the private jets and lavish lifestyles.
Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone (2012)
Having been fascinated by magic all his life, the author decides to find out more and ends up learning about himself along the way. There's plenty of fascinating detail about magic and its history, without getting needlessly technical or giving away too many secrets. In a funny way, this feels a bit like Neil Strauss's The Game, in which an unsuspecting innocent immerses himself in a hidden, mysterious world and finally becomes an initiate - only without the moral dubiousness and the feeling that you need to have a good wash afterwards.
Still Pumped From Using The Mouse by Scott Adams (1996)
Perfectly likeable collection of Dilbert cartoons from the mid-nineties. A couple of classics, a few more gentle laughs and the rest, y'know, fine.

31/05/2019

Reading - May 2019

You Can Beat Your Brain by David McRaney (2013)
The sequel to the "award winning" (it says here) You Are Not So Smart, and therefore second product of the very interesting podcast of the same name, this is a great pop-science book about psychology. In seventeen easy-to-digest chapters, McRaney sets up a misconception (say, "You honestly define that which you hold dear"), states the truth (in this case, "You will shift your definitions to protect your ideologies"), and then deconstructs why that is, citing studies and giving entertaining examples. Brilliant stuff, and well worth reading to understand more about why people behave the way they do ... although it's a lot to try and remember when it's your own behaviour! I read this from the library, which, annoyingly, doesn't have its precursor, only this.
Coal Black Mornings by Brett Anderson (2018)
Suede first came to my attention when my friend Pat dragged me to the launch gig for their first single - a short performance in the Covent Garden Rough Trade shop. With probably a couple of hundred people crammed into a tiny cellar, it was loud and immediate, and made me a fan. I bought the single, of course - and carried on buying for another decade - and read the interviews. Brett Anderson came across as a precious, precocious, somewhat self-conscious aesthete in the Morrissey vein - likeable, a bit prickly and full of himself.

This autobiography explains where that young man came from as, in clear, unsentimental prose, Anderson describes his childhood and teenage years. One of the things I like about the book is that, unlike many autobiographies, he doesn't understate how much work went into Suede and the sheer, bloody-minded persistence required to get to that first single. He's a bit pretentious sometimes, and when he's talking about the hard work involved in the creative process it is tempting to tut and think, "Get a real job," but overall I really enjoyed reading what he had to say. 

(Minor niggle: the phrase "coal black mornings" occurs several times through the book, and might be an attempt at a kind of leitmotif. Unfortunately it just comes across as unimaginatively repetitive and something that should have been spotted and replaced by an editor.)
The Guitar Magazine (June 2019 / Issue 369)
Notable for the inclusion of some "entry level" guitars, a mere nine hundred of your English pounds thank you very much. Granted, the new Sheeran guitars are a quarter of the price of a full-fat Lowden, but "entry level"? Competition is a Marshall DSL20CR ... crossing my fingers!
The Mixing Engineer's Handbook (4th Edition) by Bobby Owsinski (2017)
On every single of your favourite tracks, however much it sounds like it was just recorded like it sounds, it almost certainly wasn't, and it's probably the mixer as much as anyone who is probably responsible for making it better. Whether it's by adding a soupçon of reverb to fill out a sound, or placing the guitar in the stereo field just right, the mixer's job is crucial to the sound of the finished article. This book contains almost certainly as much as I will ever need to know about mixing, so it's nice to have it all collected in the first half of the book. The second half, which consists of interviews with successful (and, in some cases, famous) engineers, is also interesting but less likely to be revisited. Overall, it gives a real insight into how a good mixer can add a huge amount to any recording. (Quite large for a "handbook" though ...)
Being An Actor by Simon Callow (1984)
Brett Anderson's Coal Black Mornings (above) occasional descent into pretentiousness
 reminded me of the wonderful I, An Actor, but while reaching for it I saw this on the same shelf and realised I hadn't read it for a long time - and this really had to be read first. My copy dates from 1988 and I probably borrowed it from the library before that, and plenty from it has stuck in mind, including one of my favourite sayings, that it's not enough to be talented, you have to have a talent for having talent. The book is part autobiography and part a compelling explanation of what it's like to be an actor - a strange occupation in so many ways - and how it affects the life of that person. Callow is very honest and open about his feelings, and yes, while this does occasionally - OK, quite often - lead to the kind of uncomfortably pretentious moments so mercilessly mocked in the "Nicholas Craig" book, within his own world it all makes perfect sense. A really interesting view.
How Does It Feel? by Mark Kermode (2018)
I initially felt a bit meh about what seemed yet another account of a wannabe teenage rock star's failed attempts to make music. Even allowing for Kermode's constant self-deprecation, he does seem to have carried on trying for far longer than any ability would warrant. However, as the narrative continued, I began to have more and more admiration for his persistence and sheer bloody-mindedness, which by the end had managed to produce a parallel career - or, at least, a paying hobby - in a skiffle band. A testament to "just having a go" and inspirational in a way.
I, An Actor by "Nicholas Craig" (aka Nigel Planar & Christopher Douglas) (1989)
The late Rik Mayall's various versions of himself characters are well known, but his fellow Young One Nigel Planar's superb creation is much subtler and far, far funnier. Nicholas Craig is a bitchy luvvie based, surely, in no small part, on Simon Callow (see above). The book is hilarious throughout. For example, chosen at random, here he is on the subject of comedy:
The first thing to be absolutely clear about as far as comedy is concerned is that it is a desperately serious business. Serious and tough. You have only to watch master comedians like Leslie Phillips and Terry Scott at work to realize there nothing remotely amusing about it.
Fantastic stuff and yet surprisingly unknown.
How To Lie With Statistics by Darrel Huff (1954)
A classic - great fun and highly educative. I remember readying my Dad's copy probably thirty or more years ago. Huff genially demolishes most "scientific" statistics in popular publications that, incredibly, are still using the same tired techniques, 65 years later. None of it surprises but it's nevertheless a useful primer on how to read any spuriously precise facts and to always ask: Who says so? How does he know? What's missing? Did somebody change the subject? And does it make sense?