My New Year Project – Refreshing My Guitar Rig

Posted by Stu @ 11:11 AM, Wed 21 Dec 11

Filed under: Music

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Two Christmases ago, I finally fell in love with the Marshall amp I’ve owned since the 90′s, and that started me completely rethinking my approach to my guitar rig. This month, researching what I want to do with my rig has helped me cope with the frustration of recovering from knee surgery.

Amp Modelling Lacks Life

I’m not a gigging guitarist – my last live gig was in May 1992. I don’t have the talent to aspire to be a professional musician, but I’ve always loved writing and recording. I’ve never had the space to build a private studio the old-fashioned way, with analogue kit all mic’d up, so I’ve been playing with amp modelling kit for at least the last 15 years.

Mic’ing up tube amps is a right royal pain. First off, to get the most out of a tube amp, you’ve got to crank it up. As my flatmates at uni used to grumble, there are few sounds that carry like a loud electric guitar. They’re also very noisy – lots of hum and buzz making quiet passages difficult to record cleanly when you’re running them off domestic mains power.

Amp modellers (such as Line 6′s POD products) have none of these problems. Because they’re software solutions, you just run a guitar into the POD, and then run a USB cable out into your Mac to record directly into GarageBand et al. No microphones, no volume to annoy the neighbours, no electrical noise.

And no life to the performance.

It’s hard to explain, but even a crappy 2nd-hand valve amp picked up for a song off eBay has more character to it than any amp model I’ve played with, or heard, to date. There’s a warmth, and a resonance, that imho is just utterly absent from digital amp models. Through a tube amp, riffs gain a drive and an urgency, and expressive pieces … well, they sing.

A couple of years ago, we recorded some Christmas songs for some publicity videos for where I worked at the time. It was meant as a bit of fun, and everyone else brought in amps for the sessions. I had an old 100 watt Marshall 1×12 combo lying around the house that I don’t think I’d used for about 10 years, so I dusted that down, and took it in mostly because it was more convenient than trying to setup my digital gear at work. Boy did I have fun playing through that amp, so much so that after we were done, the amp moved downstairs to sit beside my wife’s instruments, whilst my digital gear ended up being packed up and unused ever since.

But the same problems for recording remained, and I had no idea what to do about it. Until serendipity provided help from an unexpected source.

Getting Some Help

In December 2010, I visited Aberystwyth University as part of my recruitment efforts for where I worked at the time, and ended up inviting some of their students to interview late in Spring 2011. One of the students I made a job offer to turned me down, but we kept in touch over Twitter, and it turned out we both share a love of, and a desire to discover and create, great tone. (“Ball-crushing” I think is how Matt likes to describe great tone :) Matt has been full of great advice and encouragement on guitar rigs, and our discussions ultimately kickstarted this project.

Alongside this, I’ve been driving my wife nuts for years with my complaints about the messy wiring for my digital rig, and how I wanted to replace it all with a neat-n-tidy rack-mounted setup. With a 19″ rack setup, everything is bolted in place into a cabinet, all the wires are squared away down the back of the rack, and (in theory) you turn a sprawling setup into something that just sits to one side that never gets in the way. Anyone who’s seen my home office knows that decluttering it is long overdue!

Rack gear though is something of a mystery to most guitarists. Most music shops don’t carry any rack gear, and most of the folks who work in such shops have never owned rack gear of their own. Google isn’t much help if you don’t know what to search for, and how to understand and evaluate what you find. That’s where Scott Kahn’s book, The Modern Guitar Rig: The Tone Fanatic’s Guide to Integrating Amps and Effects, comes in. It’s a great guide to the classes of equipment that goes into a modern guitar rig, and is aimed squarely at musicians like me who are looking to put together a “proper” guitar rig.

Scott’s book is based on what’s available in the US market – a theme that’ll keep cropping up throughout this project – but don’t let that put you off. It’s well worth the money, and like Matt’s advice and encouragement, has been a great help in getting this project started.

The project is simple – to turn my back on amp modelling, and rethink my guitar rig in the quest for great tone.

The Goal

Here’s what I want to achieve with rethinking my approach to my guitar rig:

  1. A home recording setup that doesn’t need any sort of amp mic’ing at all
  2. Real tube amp(s) for great tone
  3. Rack-mounted gear for tidiness and convenience
  4. Easy to adapt for live performance if I ever start gigging in my old age (unlikely, but I’d hate to back myself into a corner where that wasn’t possible)

and, above all, to have lots of fun in the process.

This rig is going to be built around the amp, so that’s where I’ll be starting in my next blog post.

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Some Thoughts On The Guardian Cardiff Closure

Posted by Stu @ 8:58 AM, Thu 28 Apr 11

Filed under: Opinion

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Like many many others, I’m both saddened and frustrated by yesterday’s announcement that the excellent Guardian Cardiff local reporting is to come to an end.

Along with Media Wales’s excellent Your Cardiff, the blogging and reporting from Guardian Cardiff has helped to start to build and bring together the online community here in Cardiff, and provide high quality, truly local coverage that we’ll never see the BBC provide (despite the license fee!). It’s already very clear from the comments just how much this resource is going to be missed, both here in Cardiff and in the other cities lucky enough to have had a Guardian Local reporter.

The source of our frustration is clear. There is a whole country outside of London, one which the London-centric media mostly ignores. (Hell, they can’t even get our weather right most days!) But it is where we live and work. And we really enjoyed reading, and contributing to, something that was very much local-centric. And something that was accessible too.

The Guardian Local folks were part of the local community. They made smart use of modern, online social networks to tap into the pulse of what was happening locally. Here in Cardiff, just one Guardian Local reporter managed to produce far more online coverage of local events than the whole BBC Wales news team here. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I compare the two, there’s no comparison … and I feel we in Wales should be getting a refund from our license fees until the BBC sort out local online news reporting once and for all. (Throw in Ed Walker’s work at Your Cardiff, and perhaps the BBC should be paying us, not the other way around …)

But money is what it always comes down to, and a look this morning at the Guardian Cardiff homepage perhaps tells the underlying story. If you look over at the right-hand side, there’s a conspicuously empty space where the advertising should be. It looks like the site failed to draw in enough paid-for advertising to meet its financial targets. (The Leeds and Edinburgh sites also appear to be short of advertisers today). Add to that today’s announcement that the Guardian is going all Huffington Post and asking for unpaid bloggers to contribute articles does suggest the realities of the situation.

Professional online journalism needs to bring in revenues. If it doesn’t, then it isn’t sustainable, and this (he speculates) could be the problem ultimately behind the Guardian Local closure.

And that’s what saddens me. Online advertising in the UK is booming, so much so that the UK alone makes up 10% of Google’s revenues (and Google earns 97% of its revenues from advertising according to its latest published figures). The Guardian, by overwhelming testimony from the local communities, did a great job in setting up the Guardian Local network, and its reporters did their jobs well. But we are all left to wonder what might have been had the Guardian also invested in someone to bring local advertising onto the sites in order to make them financially viable. That, from the outside, appears to have been what was missed …

… and sadly, why by the end of May, Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff will be missing their local Guardian sites.

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Why I Will Be Voting Yes On Thursday

Posted by Stu @ 5:38 PM, Sun 27 Feb 11

Filed under: Opinion

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On Thursday, the inhabitants of Wales will be invited to the polls in a referendum on whether the Welsh Assembly Government can pass laws without having to have them rubber-stamped by the UK Government in Whitehall. I will be voting ‘yes’.

I am no supporter of the WAG in their splendid isolation down in Cardiff Bay. You only have to look at:

  • the mess they’ve made of the M4 upgrade in South Wales (three years and counting, and there are still speed restrictions and regular closures along the route),
  • or the work to turn the Heads of the Valleys road into a dual-carriage way along its entire length (began 2002, not expected to be completed until 2020!),
  • or the way our schools are declining (when we moved into Pontypridd, it was the third most desirable place in the UK to live because of its schools; now emergency action is being taken because our kids are falling behind the UK national average)

(to give just three examples off the top of my head) to see how there is a legitimate concern both about its elected members and the officials who turn their policies into action.

I could also go into examples on health and promoting physical activity amongst the population (two topics dear to my heart as someone who runs a health-related class on an evening), or the make-up of the Digital Wales Advisory Board (none of whom are involved in any of the firms from the region who made the list of 50 fastest growing tech companies in the UK last year) and I’m certain that the No Campaign has many many more besides.

So why am I voting ‘yes’ on Thursday?

I believe that this is a moral issue, that Wales should be free to make its own laws, and yes, to make its own mistakes too. Everything finds its own level, and in time the WAG will mature into a positive and competent legislative for the whole of Wales.

Voting ‘yes’ on Thursday is another step in this process.

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Swimming

Posted by Stu @ 8:24 PM, Wed 17 Mar 10

Filed under: Personal Life

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As part of the process of recovering from my knee injury, I decided that it would be a lot safer for my knee if I tried to strenghthen it by learning to swim.

I never learned to swim as a child. I hated being in the pool, and even today cannot approve of what passed for swimming practice at the time. Making someone float face down in a pool of water that they don’t want to be in in he first place is a sure-fire way to make them panic. Badly.

Swimming twice a week has strangely become something that I really look forward to every day. In the water, I can move around without the knee hurting, because it isn’t bearing any weight. I get more relief from pain in the pool than even in bed at home.

I swim with my wife whenever possible, and being physically more active has lifted both of our moods considerably. I’m now managing around eight hours a week of activity, and once the knee has recovered enough for me to return to martial arts once more, that’ll go up by another five hours – and further still if I’m able to add a third Tai Chi class to my teaching schedule.

Every time I’m in the pool, I still feels very strange, very alien. I still swim like a brick, but I’m just pleased to be taking positive steps to coping wih the injury.

Now all I need is for the medical professionals involved to finally agree and execute the next course of treatment!

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Progress On The Personal Front

Posted by Stu @ 6:05 PM, Wed 17 Mar 10

Filed under: News,Personal Life

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I’m sure anyone reading my various blogs has probably forgotten about this particular one, as it has been almost two years since I posted anything much here about my personal life. So I thought that. It was time for a quick update on things just in case there’s anyone left reading this :)

You might not have noticed, but I’ve dropped my old Gentoo blog completely. It’s been over three years since I left the project, and although I had great fun working on the seed concept, it simply wasn’t worth the effort to continue. Thanks to the phenominal popularity of Ubuntu, Debian has comprehensively won the server wars. I think that is a shame, but it’s reality. People want to read about web development on a platform that they are actually going to use.

As anyone who knows me well would tell you, my life continues to be dominated by what I do. My role as Head of Engineering at Gradwell continues to challenge me and make me grow (although I am very homesick for my days as a developer), and my responsibility teaching Tai Chi ensures I’m seldom home until late every evening. My students think I’m quite mad travelling to Bath every day and then coming all the way back to teach the classes, but it’s worth it.

The photography has had to take a back seat for the last eight months, thanks to a serious car accident last summer which has left me with a long-term knee injury. (I like to remind myself that it is only permanent if you’re still injured when you die).

But in the last few weeks both my wife and I have started to get our energy levels back towards something approaching normal. Let’s see if it lasts :)

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