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Aster Farm Studio Diary

December 14

I edited the dialog for the new Bah & the Humbugs podcast. I've edited dialog before, but that was years ago, and I was working on tape. The modern digital era with a high-speed computer should make it much easier, right?

Not so fast — first I had to find my audio editing application, Peak. I hadn’t used it since I installed an operating system update half a year ago, so I had to install Peak, then install an update for it. I also had to get a new driver from Roland for my audio interface. Then I was ready to go.

Modern digital audio applications let you see the waveforms you're editing, which makes it easy to see the phrases, lines, and scenes. It’s easy to select and preview short segments, so I had little trouble finding the best takes. For some lines I combined syllables from separate takes, and even this was no trouble. Then I spent hours adjusting the timing and volume of the lines so that it all flowed smoothly. It’s easy to take out a cough, a breath, or a pause if you know what to listen for, and I found myself shortening some pauses and extending others by a matter of milliseconds to add to the dramatic credibility. All in all, it was quick and easy compared to the old-fashioned approaches of cutting tape with a razor blade or copying from one tape to another.

While I was at it, I added sound effects to one scene. The door you hear in the podcast is my actual front door. The snare drum is my electronic drum kit with the Alesis DMPro sound module, played with drum sticks on a Dauz pad.

May 27

While I wait for the parts to arrive for the cymbal pads I plan to make for my electronic drum set, I decided to take on another part of the project, which was the sound design. This was the daunting task of deciding just what sounds the drum set would make when I hit the playing surfaces with the drum sticks. It was every bit as difficult as I imagined, and I spent a week listening, comparing, and programming drum sounds.

As I guide, I listened to Yes's Drama and Big Generator albums. After a day or so I realized I could duplicate almost exactly the sounds I was hearing on those records, but I wasn’t sure that was what I was trying to get.

I wanted a drum sound that would be more expressive than the conventional hard rock drum sound, but without making it unduly difficult to play, and I guess it’s no surprise that I ended up with a progressive rock drum sound somewhat like what I hear from Alan White and Carl Palmer. I started with a kick drum tuned low with a muffled attack, then a high, slightly pingy snare drum. If I had an acoustic drum set, I might make these adjustments with a tuning wrench, gaffer’s tape, blankets, and pillows. On the Alesis DMPro, I got most of the sound by selecting, blending, and tuning samples.

The challenge with a sample-playback hi-hat is to make it sound alive. Someday I will get to use a physical-modeling hi-hat sound. In the meantime, the DMPro's routing matrix gave me enough expressive variation to give me an effective sound, though I think experienced listeners will know they are not hearing an acoustic hi-hat.

I added five low, thwacky tom-toms, some lightish cymbals, and a triangle and cowbell to complete the set. The splash cymbal and cowbell were the only presets I ended up using. I have a hard time imagining a drummer building a drum set out of the presets. They seem designed to appeal to keyboard players playing a keyboard rather than drummers playing with drum sticks.

May 15

When I plugged in my Peavey Generation guitar after installing the new fixed bridge, it sounded scratchy. Not sure what to do, I bought two books, one on guitar electronics and another on guitar repair. With the books as a guide and a multitester as my measuring tool, I found that the fault was in the guitar’s battery connector. It was damaged from being stored for years with an aging battery in it. I replaced the battery connector and the guitar sounds clean again. Now this guitar project is finally complete.

It occurred to me to replace the battery in the multitester too. A “long life” battery is supposed to be good for hours and hours of use. The name doesn’t mean you can expect it to last for years and years when you're not using it very often.

May 6

I guess one Peavey solid-body wasn’t enough because I bought a second one. I paid a bargain price for a used Peavey Razer guitar that seems to have quite a history.

Based solely on the physical condition of the instrument, I am imagining the following story for it. The original owner was a performer who played it perhaps only once, then smashed it onstage. The body shows stress marks around the neck of the sort that can only occur when someone holds the guitar by the neck and rotates the body into a solid surface with more than a ton of force — in other words, this was no accident. Only the right side of the guitar was actually fractured. The smashed guitar was tossed aside. Someone in the audience took it home and glued it back together almost as good as new. A guitar student played it for about three years. I can see the obvious fret wear on the first three frets with scarcely any wear beyond the fifth fret, a pattern that would match the play of a student but not that of a professional player. Then the guitar sat around in at least two places without a case, gathering dust for around 15 years. The springs and crevices had that much dust in them, and the oxidation in the rotary controls is beyond what would occur if the instrument had been kept in a case for most of its life.

The Razer does not have the famous neutral Peavey sound, but mimics the more muffled sound that Gibson is known for. I wouldn’t want to use it all the time, but I can see that the Gibson sound has its uses. And the Razer, like any Peavey guitar, is eminently playable, so I'm sure I'll be using it when I want something different or a vintage effect for a particular song. Perhaps I'll use it on “You Birds All Better Die,” a Paul Nordquist song that’s been one of my favorite rhythm guitar exercises over the years.

May 2

I was thinking about making drum pads and it reminded me that I had a guitar repair job to do.

When I purchased my Peavey Generation guitar many years ago, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Its Floyd Rose-design double-locking tremolo system seemed cool in the store, but when I got it home I had to choose between using super light strings that had no tone or spending an hour or more to tune the guitar every time I replaced the strings. After four years I concluded that neither option would work for me, and by then I wasn’t the only guitarist who had come to this conclusion. As the saleswoman at the local music store politely told me, a guitar with a “Floyd Rose” has no commercial value — they couldn’t sell it for a dollar. Every trader at a guitar show said the same thing. People told me how to “lock down” the floating bridge. It was easy to do and made the tuning more stable but didn’t make the guitar easy to string and tune.

At the same time that I couldn’t sell my guitar, I couldn’t find another guitar that could match the neutral tone of the Generation. I decided I would have to replace the floating bridge with a more practical fixed bridge. In principle, this should improve the guitar’s sound too, giving it longer sustain and a more resonant tone.

Now I am finally doing it. The first step was woodworking. It took a few hours, spread over several days, to fill with hardwood the vaguely rectangular hole that had cut through the body of the guitar. The next challenge was to attach a ground wire to the bridge — apparently I don’t have the best kind of solder for that. I put everything together tonight only to find that the bridge is too low. I can play notes at the 22nd fret, but not at any other fret!

The solution is a shim, a thin piece of hard material, placed under the bridge to raise it. I ordered a scrap of acrylic on eBay tonight for this purpose.

This guitar has been sitting without strings for six years, so it might take a month or so with strings on it before the neck is completely straight again. At this point, it isn’t quite playable, but I can practice scales on it. At least it looks better than it ever did!

April 24

As I was dusting my electronic drum set I noticed that the playing surfaces on the PoleKats (that’s the old name for the PolePad) had started to melt. The gum rubber was turning back into gum!

Surprisingly, they still play okay, but I plan on replacing them before the year is over. I had been thinking of getting something better anyway. I complain all the time how large playing surfaces are — not just the PolePad, but almost everything that’s designed for the electronic drum set. The oversized playing surfaces make it almost impossible to arrange the pieces into a good working drum set.

There is no reason a pad that replaces a cymbal has to be as large as a cymbal, unless you want to make a visual impact when you're playing an arena. Unfortunately, pads with simple, functional designs don’t seem to be available, so I have been looking at pad projects on the Internet. Let’s see . . . a heavy piece of aluminum . . . glue a small piezo speaker transducer to it . . . I think I can do that.



Rick Aster

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Aster Farm House

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