In Search of the Elusive Volume Control

Did you ever find yourself asking the question “How did I get here?”

The first pro-quality drum kit that I had was a Gretsch five piece with birch shells, Ludwig hardware, and Avedis Zildjian cymbals. It was purchased second hand in the mid 1970s. After being overly influenced by Bill Bruford, a set of six Remo Roto-toms was added a few years later. As much as I enjoyed the set there were two problems associated with it. First, in spite of some nice Shure and AKG mics, it was difficult to get a decent sound out of them in my home recording studio. Of course, being that the “studio” was a basement with scant acoustical treatment and a seven foot ceiling, the kit could hardly be blamed. The second and perhaps more confounding problem was the loudness level. In fair consideration to the rest of the family and neighbors, there were limits on when I could play. I simply could not afford any manner of “sound proof” room and unlike the ubiquitous guitars, basses, and keyboards that my friends played, there was no volume control on a drum kit. As I was finishing my degree in electrical engineering at the time, I was hopeful that there might be a technological solution down the road, something more advanced than the “beep-boop” Syndrums of the day.

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DIY Bass Trap

So I’ve been busy lately.  Built a new recording/practice studio this summer/fall and I’m finally getting a few finishing touches done. One of those “touches” is acoustic treatment.

One of the more important aspects of studio acoustics is making sure you have a reasonable reverberation time. At the bass end of things, most untreated rooms are filled with the acoustic equivalent of mud. Trying to mix in such an environment is difficult at best. So, the front line treatment is something called a “bass trap”. You can find decent bass traps from a variety of companies such as GIK. The job of the bass trap is to absorb low frequency energy thereby reducing the sonic mud for a more clear and detailed response. Many bass traps are little more than a frame filled with a rigid fiberglass or rock wool material (denser than typical house insulation) and covered with a fire-rated acoustical cloth (such as loudspeaker grill cloth).

As part of the construction, I wound up with a box of 12 two-by-four foot sheets of two inch thick Owens-Corning 703 rigid fiberglass left over. So I purchased eight yards of Guilford of Maine fabric from GIK and sew-on Velcro from Industrial Webbing, made a pattern that is essentially a two-by-four foot box with a lid, six inches high. The Velcro covers the three edges. I dropped in three sheets of the 703, closed the lid, and bingo, four nice bass traps. The photo below shows one of the units open, ready to receive the 703. Note that there is an extra 3″ of fabric beyond the Velcro to help keep any stray fibers contained.

Opened bass trap

Bass traps are most effective in the corners of the room. These units are stiff enough that they stand up by themselves so I simply propped them in each corner. Here is one sitting behind my drum kit:

Bass trap in corner

These were relatively inexpensive to make, especially considering that the 703 was surplus from the construction. I can barely sew on a button, so a faithful family member did the sewing duties for which I am extremely grateful.

FYI, a thread about the studio was started on the VDrums forum this past summer. You can find it here.

This Might Actually Be Useful For Someone

In the midst of the general flotsam and jetsam that is the Refuge, I thought I would post something that some readers might actually find useful.
DIY Guitar Rack, Completed
It’s an inexpensive DIY multi-guitar/bass rack. The one I made holds six guitars/basses (seven in a pinch) and total parts cost was around $20. It’s made out of PVC and pipe insulation. It’s about 36 inches wide, 30 inches high and around 10 deep. It can be scaled easily for fewer or greater instruments. All you need to put it together is a hack saw (and a rat tail file can be useful too, which I’ll explain).
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Non Essential Sound Products

A while back I offered my thoughts on a particular type of over-priced and over-hyped audio snake oil, namely power cables. So today I get my new issue of Bass Player magazine and what do I see? Why it’s an add from Essential Sound Products hawking their MusicCord AC power cord with the headline “Your stock power cord is choking your sound!” If you go to their site (which I won’t link to) you will find unsubstantiated claims about other AC power cords producing “Thin, One-Dimensional Tone; Attenuated, Gutless Bass Response; Hiss, Buzz and Noisy Backgrounds;  High-Frequency Roll-Off; Blurred Imaging; Bloated, Sluggish Bass Response” and other issues. Geez, I certainly wouldn’t want my bass guitar to suffer from “Bloated, sluggish, attenuated, gutless bass response”. Granted, I always thought that “bloated” was rather the opposite of “attenuated and gutless” in this sort of situation, but perhaps normal AC power cords are worse than I thought. Of course, you won’t find anything on their site in the way of serious double blind listening tests to validate these claims. As I offered a light critique in the afore-mentioned post, I won’t rehash it here. I only have three things to say regarding this company right now:

1. Apparently they have discovered (or are at least hoping) that naive musicians offer a profitable new market beyond tweak audiophiles. And hey, given that higher end basses are in the multi-thousand dollar range these days, maybe $100 for a power cord is well within the budget of the “tone paranoid”.

2. Not to be outdone by the power cord, the company also offers a six outlet power strip. With surge suppressor mind you! On sale, the bargain price of just a dollar short of $500. Why, you save $100 compared to the normal price! Gee, I can think of an alternate route: Go to the local hardware or electronics shop, pick up their most rugged surge suppressor power strip, give $100 to charity, buy a new stomp box, fold up a bunch of $20 bills and stuff them under the leg of that wobbly table in the back room to level it, and you’ll still be ahead.

3. They are not the worst offender. Look at this. That’s right, $3500 for an AC power cord.  This is nothing short of vile.

While searching for some material on this topic, I came across this article discussing whether or not there are audible differences attributable to power cords.  When I got to this part I just had to laugh:

To many in the engineering community, blind ABX is an accepted experimental design. Using the blind ABX protocol, we failed to hear any differences between an assortment of generic power cords and Nordost Valhalla. Therefore, we cannot conclude that different power cords produce a difference using the blind ABX protocol. However, we also cannot conclude that there are no differences. We simply failed to prove that differences can be detected to a statistically significant degree using a blind ABX protocol.

So in other words, if a proper double-blind test doesn’t reveal any differences, the only thing you have shown is that a double-blind test doesn’t reveal any differences. Apparently, there are no further consequences or conclusions to be drawn and it has nothing to do with what humans can or cannot hear. Brilliant!

ProAudio Review Jumps the Shark

As a long-time pro audio guy, I’ve been reading ProAudio Review for years. They do a good job of keeping me informed of the latest gear and spotting new trends. I received the September issue yesterday with the cover tease “Technically Speaking, Snake Oil Vs. Reality”. This was the topic of Editor Frank Wells’ column and I assumed that it was going to refer to a take-down of some dubious claims made by the “tweak audiophile” community from the perspective of audio professionals. What sorts of claims? Well, the audibility of $5000 loudspeaker cables, for example. What I discovered was pretty much the opposite.

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Opposite Foot Triplet

For those who read my continuing meanderings on getting my right side to behave just like my left, today we’re going to talk about triplets. Of course, these wouldn’t be your everyday, garden variety triplets ‘cause we’re too screwy for that here at The Chimp Refuge. No, this is going to be special.

Ah, the myriad joys and accidental discoveries of symmetrical drumming. For those who read my continuing meanderings on getting my right side to behave just like my left, today we’re going to talk about triplets. Of course, these wouldn’t be your everyday, garden variety triplets ‘cause we’re too screwy for that here at The Chimp Refuge. No, this is going to be special.

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Ultra Jazz Bass

As much as I like my recent vintage Fender American Standard Jazz Bass, I’ve always wanted to get some different tones out of it. The stock pickups are OK but I figured that some after-market units might do the trick. I didn’t want to go through the trouble of adding active pickups, what with the need for batteries and all*, so I picked up a set of DiMarzio Ultra Jazz pickups and set to work modifying the bass.

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Bill Bruford The Autobiography

Insightful, entertaining, and well-written, Bruford gives the reader a unique view into his 40 year career as a drummer to see just how he got to where he is and precisely how this business works (or doesn’t, as the case may be).

What do you expect when you pick up an autobiography of a rock musician? Sex? Drugs? Rock-n-roll exploits with a chainsaw and a gallon of baby oil at the Ramada? Scandalous stories of band-mates and sundry hangers-on? You get virtually none of that in Bill Bruford The Autobiography. It’s much better. Insightful, entertaining, and well-written, Bruford gives the reader a unique view into his 40 year career as a drummer to see just how he got to where he is and precisely how this business works (or doesn’t, as the case may be). You don’t have to be a follower of his music or even a drummer to enjoy this book.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first cracked the cover, but then I’m not much of a fan of rock star or music biz bios, my only prior experience being The Real Frank Zappa Book. No, Bill is not Frank, although I have tremendous respect for both men; Zappa being the iconoclast composer/guitarist armed with biting wit and Bruford the pioneering progressive rock (and eventually jazz) drummer with a hunger for exploration and a thirst for improvisation. While Zappa’s book is filled with usually humorous and sometimes outrageous tales along with his own take on socio-political topics of the day, Bruford’s offering is comparatively understated. Nothing tabloid-shocking here. No confessions of drug-rehab, groupie orgies, or snippy gossip of former band-mates or associated rock stars, although there are some nice asides considering people like Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Phil Collins, and Tony Levin, to name a few.

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Happy Birthday Bill Bruford

Master of the drum kit and poly-rhythmist Bill Bruford celebrates 60 years today. Well known among all manner of percussionists and drummers, Bruford’s work spans 40 years from his early days with Yes, his tenure with several incarnations of King Crimson, and his own band, Earthworks, along with work in bands such as National Health, Gong, Genesis, UK, and others. While perhaps best known as “the godfather of progressive rock drumming”, Bruford’s efforts in the late 1980s to now turned increasingly to small jazz ensembles. Bruford announced that he has retired from public performance in January of this year and has recently published his autobiography (of which I will be posting a review within the week).
More info on Mr. Bruford at www.billbruford.com

How Well Can You Count?

And now for something almost completely different on The Refuge: How well can you count? No, not like in grade school.

And now for something almost completely different on The Refuge: How well can you count? No, not like in grade school. I wrote and recorded a tune the other day. It’s called Timmy Umbwebwe Lights A Candle (yes, I have a thing for odd titles). The initial beat was composed on the drum kit. Not that I planned it this way, but it turns out that the main theme is comprised of three measures of 9/8 followed by a measure of 13/8. This counting is somewhat “plastic” though, and if you prefer you can think of it as alternating measures of 5/8 and 4/8 with an extra measure of 4/8 thrown in at the end. Any way you slice it, it comes out “odd”. Give it a try and see which way of counting it is more natural to you.
Popular Western music for some reason doesn’t really “go” for this kind of thing. Pretty much it’s all 4/4 with the occasional 3/4 ballad. Is it because people have a hard enough time dancing to 4/4 let alone 7/4 or 11/8? Is it because they were never introduced to it? I don’t know. But I do know of a few relatively popular tunes that were not written entirely in 4/4 or 3/4 (or an obvious derivative like 6/8). I’m thinking Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, and Sting.
Anybody care to guess the tunes?
(And to hear something that is a little closer to “normal”, try this, which is based on a melody I wrote for my wife while we were kayaking one afternoon)

Will Rock Band and Guitar Hero Foster New Musicians?

Well, at least Stevie Van Zandt and Britain’s Youth Music seem to think so. I’m skeptical.

Well, at least Stevie Van Zandt and Britain’s Youth Music seem to think so. A recent article in The Times refers to research by Youth Music indicating that the games have prompted upwards of 2.5 million children to take up musical instruments.
I’m skeptical. No doubt the games are a lot of fun for people who can’t play a musical instrument and they’re probably preferable to your average shoot-em-up. Further, it’s a decent wager that they do pique interest to the point where the kiddies bug mom and dad to buy them a guitar or a drum kit. But these games, while they mimic real instruments, are nothing like real instruments. It’s more like air guitar with props. This really hit home when I saw a video of the band Rush playing one of their own tunes on one of these games and not scoring particularly well.
I’d wager that once the reality of learning an instrument kicks in, junior’s new guitar will soon find a home in the corner gathering dust while waiting for the eventual indignity of placement next to an old stack of gardening magazines at the spring garage sale. Certainly, some kids will stick it out and eventually reach a level of at least modest proficiency, but how do we know that simply offering them real instruments at an early age wouldn’t be at least as effective? If all these games do is create a new generation of “table beaters” instead of competent drummers, haven’t we taken a step backwards?
There are few things that I love as much as playing musical instruments. I don’t know if other people get (or would get) as much enjoyment but there is something to be said for an artistic outlet that grows with you, challenges you, and allows you to express yourself (even if no one cares to listen) throughout your life. I always encourage people to give it a try no matter what their age.
I’m just not sure that pretending to do it is the best way of introducing it to people.

Fun Is Where You Find It: The Tune

Much has been written on the Refuge regarding what might be termed fine motor co-ordination experiments. That, and something to do with playing the drums in a manner that most drummers don’t, you know, like backwards. Some might ask “What is the point of practicing a double paradiddle on a bunch of left-side mounted toms for a right handed drummer?” I guess one could be philosophical and say “Because it’s there” but ultimately, doing something musical is what matters, at least to this little bonobo. Exercising your brain to perform unusual patterns at will simply gives the musician a larger vocabulary. You may never use it in casual conversation but it’s nice to know what “crepuscular” means (and perhaps more important, you get to make funny bastardizations like “crapuscular”).
In any case, for the curious two or three Refuge readers and the occasional demented passer-by, here’s a tune that recently emanated from the not-particularly-normal brain and appendages of yours truly. Yeah, this is the sort of thing I do on my days off. It’s called Fun Is Where You Find It. It’s about three minutes and 54 seconds of fun-finding, or approximately the duration of a world class mile race.
Some technical details. There are two basic tracks, electronic drums and bass. The synth pads are also triggered by the drums. The tune uses an ABACBA structure. The drums are panned as if the listener was sitting behind the kit rather than in front watching. Thus, you will hear roto-toms off the left and right as I have a symmetrical kit (three toms each side for this kit). For example, there is a little fill in the A section that sounds pretty standard as it moves across three small rotos, but they are played from center to the left in spite of the fact that the pitches are descending. This allows for a complementary fill later on the right side using more conventional sticking. The C section features marimba and xylophone parts, but like the drums, these are electronic instruments not the real thing (have you priced a symphonic marimba recently??)
One thing is certain after listening (well, besides the occasional sloppy playing and thrown-together mix): I rather enjoy dissonance and quirky rhythmic snippets. Hey, it’s just the way my brain is wired.
Oh, and happy Thanksgiving.
Update, Friday Nov 28, 9:40 AM Apparently the server where the tune resides is undergoing maintenance (link above), so here is an alternate link.

FAQ: Class D Audio Amplifiers

New from Audio Designline is this three page FAQ on class D audio amplifiers. Not extremely technical, but it answers many questions for the technically minded. I remember studying class D amplifiers many years ago in college. In those days the quality was decidedly not hi-fi and the reliability was somewhere in the vicinity of a well-worn Yugo. How times change. Now they seem more common than fly dung and class D controller ICs and ASICs are offered by numerous manufacturers.

Olympic Broadcast Acoustics

There had been reports of the usual last-minute rush to complete facility construction at the Beijing Olympics. Now I wonder if they completed the main broadcast center. While watching the coverage yesterday, at one point NBC went to Bob Costas at the center and I noticed something strange. It was apparent that Mr. Costas was close-mic’ed, but it was also obvious that there was an inordinately large amount of room reverberation leaking in. The RT60 seemed long enough that it appeared Bob was speaking from inside of an airplane hangar. I wonder if they had time to install any acoustic treatments in the broadcast center. The effect wasn’t enough to reduce intelligibility, but it was odd nonetheless, sort of an “excessively live” quality. I am curious to see (hear) if the situation continues.

Rock Drummers = Top Athletes?

So says the BBC. Researchers tested oxygen uptake and heart rate for rock drummers, including Blondie’s Clem Burke. They concluded:

“It is clear that their fitness levels need to be outstanding – through monitoring Clem’s performance in controlled conditions, we have been able to map the extraordinary stamina required by professional drummers.”

and further,

“It is hoped that the results could help develop outreach programmes for overweight children who are not interested in sport.”

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Fun with Resistive Position Sensors

So, how do these sensors work? Well, let’s go back to some basics. The electrical resistance of a material depends on the inherent characteristics of that material (its resistivity) and its physical layout.

As part of my continuing adventures in drumming symmetry, I have been working on a dual electronic hi-hat pedal. The idea is to have a single hi-hat pad respond equally well to either a left or a right foot pedal. It is similar to having both left and right kick drum pedals. For the hi-hat, this effect is sometimes realized through the use of a switch, but that requires some extra motion and it’s not possible to use both pedals at the same time. These pedals (both an FD-7 and an FD-8) are used with a Roland TD20 drum controller. The hi-hat pedal uses a resistive position sensor to indicate the location of the hi-hat pedal, be it fully up, fully down, or somewhere in between, to the TD20.
So, how do these sensors work? Well, let’s go back to some basics. The electrical resistance of a material depends on the inherent characteristics of that material (its resistivity) and its physical layout:
resistance = resistivity * length / cross-sectional area
In other words, if you take a certain amount of stuff and make it very long and skinny in shape, it will have a much higher resistance than if you shape it short and stout. Below is a photo of the sensor used in the Roland FD-7 (the FD-8 sensor is very similar).
HiHat_ResistiveFilm.jpg

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Acoustics 101

There’s a nice series of articles on acoustics and pyschoacoustics over at Audio Design Line. Part One, for example, looks at pressure waves, propagation velocity, frequency, wavelength, and related items.
The sequence is a nice overview if you’re interested in the mechanics of music and audio but have no formal training in the subject.