Yaba - Portable Speaker & Guitar Amp

Yaba

I recently ran across this interesting project on Kickstarter for Yaba.  Not sure of Yaba is an acronym, but it could stand for Yet Another Brilliant Amp!  Yaba is a tiny amplified speaker from PLX Devices.  It's about the size of a mouse, shaped like a miniature speaker phone that you might see in a typical office conference room.  You can place the Yaba on a table, floor or other flat surface to create what appears to be a pretty significant amount of sound from a portable MP3 player, iPhone or other music player.  More importantly, the Yaba X version can amplify a guitar. 

Of course, I wouldn't expect the Yaba X to be very loud, but if you need a way to amplify an electric guitar in lieue of a headphone amp, it might be worth looking into.  There's just under 2 weeks to get in on the Yaba action for as little as $29 er $39 make that $49 or $59.  The project is fully funded already, but this is a good way to get the Yaba or Yaba X before it hits retail at higher prices.


From Guitar to Bass

JayTurserViolin

I've never been a guy with a lot of natural rhythm; it's always been something I've struggled with.  Unfortunately, both bass players I play with have left their respective bands --one due to, ah, creative differences, and the other has gone back to his home of Australia.  So I decided to throw my hand in and attempt to learn to play bass.  I figured it would be good for me as a way to improve my rhythm.  And for some of the rock and blues songs we've been playing ("Come together", "Day Tripper", "Sunshine of your Love", "Killing Floor", "Early in the Morning") the bass line is pretty much the same as one of the guitar parts.  So how hard can it be, right?  I mean, it's only got four strings!

So I picked up a couple of used short scale basses and Roland cube amps on Craigslist and GuitarCenter.  One bass and amp are kept where I rehearse with my guitar buddy Rob, so I don't have to schlep gear every time we play, and the other set is at home.  

  • Jay Turser Violin Bass ($150 w/case) 
    A Hofner "Beatle bass" clone with a 30" scale that I picked up in white as seen in the photo above.  I've never seen another Beatle Bass in white, so I'm pretty chuffed about this.  
  • Ibanez Mikro Bass ($100)
    A really short 28" scale bass, also in white
  • Roland Cube 20XL Bass ($150)
    A solid practice amp, with built-in amp emulation and loud enough you can play with a drummer 
  • Roland Cube 100 Bass ($200)
    This is a discontinued model, loud enough to play a gig, but still only 35 lbs.  Lots of built-in effects so you can go from smooth Motown sound to Stranglers growl.  At $200 this was a steal.

I decided to go with a short scale bass which would be easier to transition from guitar.  It's still a bit of a stretch, but not too bad.  That makes it a different sound than the classic rock Fender P-Bass, but I figure with the effects and amp emulation, I can boost the low-end if I really need to.  For guitar players interested in picking up bass, a short scale bass makes a pretty easy transition.  The Ibanez Mikro is about the same size as a Fender Strat, so it fits nicely in the trunk of my convertible.  Alas, the Beatle Bass has to ride in the passenger seat.

I'm not giving up on guitar, but I'm going to see what I can do to learn some proper bass skills. Heaven knows you always seem to have more guitar players than bass players, so I figure it's a good skill to have.  It's certainly different from guitar.  But it's a cool feeling when you get a groove going with the drummer.  And so far, no pressure to do a bass solo.  

Any other bass players coming from guitar who want to provide advice?  Let me know in the comments below.  And if anyone has another short scale bass (Ibanez ARTB100, Eastwood, Gibson EB0 etc) in white they'd like to sell, I'm all ears.  


iReal b for iPad and Mac

Irealb

A buddy of mine Robert introduced me to a very cool application with the somewhat awkward name iReal b.  The name's not too important, but what iReal b provides is a fakebook for tons of Jazz, blues and pop songs.  Unlike other fakebooks out there, iReal b lets you add more and more songs including hundreds from the iReal b forums or even create your own.

You can set up the charts for a song by setting the tempo, the chords for the verse & chorus, the breaks etc.  Then iReal b will play the song for you.  You can also easily transpose the song to different keys, slow it down, speed it up, loop sections etc.  This makes it great for practicing songs or sharing arrangements with others in your band.  You can also view different chord inversions and add on different style packs.

iReal b is a relatively young operation and so the application doesn't include all of the capabilities of older applications like Band-in-a-Box.  On the other hand, iReal b is a lot cheaper and it's available for iPad, iPhone and Android as well as the Mac.  I was also pleased to see the iReal b folks add new songs based on requests from customers, including 50 Blues standards with songs by Albert King, BB King, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters,  Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton and others.

While the sound of the songs is not perfect (they sound a bit too canned for my taste), they are a good starting point.  iReal b is a good deal at the Mac app store for $19.99 and it's practically a steal for the iPad and iPhone or Android at only $7.99.


Guitar Player's Top 40 Licks App

Truefire_top40

Guitar Player magazine's Top 40 licks app for iPad is now on sale for only $1.99 compared to the regular price of $9.99.  This app was actually built by TrueFire the company that has delivered a slew of "50 licks" iPad apps for Blues, Rock, Jazz etc.  Think of this as a "greatest hits" collection of some of the best licks from different genres and styles.  There's video, backing tracks, tabs and some added classic articles and interviews right out of the pages of Guitar Player magazine's extensive archives.  The top 40 licks includes those in the style of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dave Gilmour, Jimmy Page, BB King, Jimmi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and more. 

If you haven't tried TrueFire, this is a great way to test it out cheap and see just how good their applications are.  If you like it, pick up some of the others.  If not, it's less than the price of a cup of coffee.  Honestly, what are you waiting for? 


New ZT Lunchbox Junior Amp

Ztjunior

ZT Amplifiers has announced the release of the newest member of the ZT Lunchbox family of amplifiers, the Junior.  It's even smaller and lighter than the ZT Lunchbox, weighing in at a mere 5 pounds, or half the weight.  The Junior is also smaller than the ZT Lunchbox making it truly lunchbox size at just 6.5" x 7.75" x 5.5" inches with a 5" speaker that puts out 35 watts and peaks at 80 watts.  The Junior can also run on 12V current, making it suitable for use on a boat or RV.  

I've got a ZT Lunchbox that I keep in the trunk of my car for whenever I need a portable amp.  While the tone of the Lunchbox is not exactly a tube amp, it's a nice clean sound and when coupled with an overdrive pedal it can be quite versatile.  I'm looking forward to checking out the Junior and putting it to the test.  With a street price of around $150, the Junior looks to be a great addition to the ZT Lunchbox series.


Canon G9 vs Sony RX100 for Concerts

Canon-g9_Sony-RX100

The first workout for my Sony RX100 was a short trip to many of Austin's great blues clubs a couple of weeks ago.  As luck would have it, Jimmie Vaughan was in town playing at Antone's.  I had seen him play this same venue twice earlier in March and July 2010, which I had shot with my trusty Canon G9.  While it's not a perfect side-by-side comparison, it is the same venue, the same opening act, and similar songs.  I also happened to be standing in pretty much the same spot, at the left hand side about 3 feet from the stage.

Canon G9 Photos & Video

Here's the best shot I managed to catch of Jimmy with the G9.  (Ok, he doesn't smile too often.)  You can see that there's a lot of noise in the photo and there's an overall washed out look, especially if you click to examine at it at full size.  This was shot using the High ISO setting of the G9, which is pretty much the only setting that will work in a concert venue.

IMG_9220

Here are some more shots with the Canon G9 I posted at PicasaWeb.  

 And here are several songs from July 2010. Note that the first two songs in the playlists for the two cameras are the same, giving an easy way to compare the quality.  Sound quality from the G9 has always been exceptional.  You can hear the guitar, bass and drums quite distinctly, especially on Jimmie Vaughan's songs.

Overall, I've thought my Canon G9 did a pretty good job on concert photos and videos.  But when you put it side by side with the more modern RX100, there's no comparison.  The G9 photos like intolerably grainy.  Not only is the RX100 slimmer, lighter and faster to shoot with, it's going to deliver much high quality photos in concert settings.

Sony RX100 Photos & Video

The RX100 did a much better job of getting low-light photos at required high ISO settings without the noise seen on the G9.  The blacks look much blacker and the photo of Vaughan with his white strat has a very dramatic contrast. 

DSC01332

Again, not a lot of smiles from Mr Vaughan, but the RX100 burst mode enabled me to get at least one.  I've also included some shots of the opening band, The Bluebonnets, as well.  All photos were shot in Program mode with an ISO of 3200 (and occasionally 1600) and are uncropped and unprocessed.  

And here are several songs by Jimmie Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton and the Bluebonnets.  Again, note that the first two songs are the same as the earlier gig which used the Canon G9.

 Viewing the videos at high resolution / full screen settings reveals just how much video quality has improved in the 5 years since the G9 was first launched.

The Sony RX100 does a much better job with both low-light concert photos and with higher resolution video.  By comparison photos from the G9 are a lot noisier at high ISO settings.  The RX100 focuses faster, has a better burst mode and generally, higher quality images.  Despite the fact that the G9 has a bigger zoom, I think in most cases, the RX100 will deliver more better quality pictures because of it's faster lens and larger sensor.  I also think a lot of the Auto+ and creative filters are great additions to the RX100.  The only downside of the RX100 high resolution video is that it makes for some pretty large files and lengthy processing and upload times.

However, while the video quality is excellent, I'm not convinced the audio from the Sony RX100 is better; in fact I'd say the audio quality is worse than the G9.  It's boomier and has a more washed out sound and is more likely to clip at very high volumes (above 100 db).  For blues or jazz, that may not be an issue, but if it's a deafening head-banging metal band, sound will be distorted.

That said, I think both cameras do a good job on audio and are much better than the Fujifilm X10, Canon S100 and most other point and shoots.  But this may be a question of personal preference more than anything else.  It's also possible that by setting the Wind Noise Reduction ON, it may sound better, though I've not been able to tell the difference myself. 

I've added a few more recent reviews following my first impressions post.  Let me know what you think in the comments below.


First Impressions: Sony RX100 for Concert Photos

Sony_rx100

I've been jonesing to buy a new compact digital camera for a couple of years.  I love my Canon G9, but it's several years out of date and while I think it does great for concert videos, it's not a great camera for low-light venues.  High ISO pictures have a lot of noise.  Still the camera is very compact, relatively easy to smuggle into venues and the audio quality is superb.  So I passed on the FujiFilm X10 (poor audio), the smaller Canon S100 (poor audio) and the Canon G1X (too large.)  

But a few days ago, I managed to pick up Sony's newest compact digital camera the DSC RX100 .  On paper, it looks outstanding: 8 oz, very small, F1.8 Carl Zeiss lens, built-in effects, etc.  It's not cheap ($650) but if it can get better shots than the G9, what the heck.  The first camera I got was dead after half a dozen shots; it would no longer read any SD card.  Sony let me swap out the camera at a store, which was very gracious of them.  One clear challenge: shooting videos in 12M 1440 x 1080 resolution makes for some pretty massive files.  Converting a 7 minute file to 720x 1080 took about 45 minutes on my Macbook Air and another 40 minutes to upload to YouTube.  While it's to have that kind of higher resolution, I don't think it would be practical when shooting half a dozen or more songs as I usually do.  I wish there was an MP4 resolution halfway between the high res 1440x1080 MP4 and the low-res VGA 640x480.  That would save a lot of processing and uploading time. 

Here's a sample video in MP4 at a local Austin blues jam held at Jax Neighborhood Cafe.  It's a nice venue with good lighting and the sound was around 96db, so not deafeningly loud.  You can click on the video to view it fullscreen.

And here's  another sample shot in AVCHD. (That's me singing slightly off-key.) 

The RX100 did a good job capturing the sound, but it sounds like it is very close to distorting at high volumes.  Or more likely that's just the crappy Fender JAM sold-state amp I was using.    

Here are some videos from Antone's featuring the Bluebonnets, Nick Curran and Jimmie Vaughan.  These were all shot in 12MP MP4 1440 x 1080 resolution and, I uploaded the files directly to YouTube without the tedious conversion process used by iMovie.

And some more video shot at 640x480 VGA resolution.  By default iMovie crops these films before uploading for reasons I don't understand, so they come out slighlty worse looking than if you upload directly as they get scaled to some other resolution.  (Lesson learned!)  I re-uploaded most of the videos directly to YouTube to avoid this problem.  But you might notice a couple are still fuzzier than they should be.  Also the louder songs by Dave Grisson appear to distor the sound.

And here are some still shots at PicasaWeb from various live venues.   All were shot as 20 MB JPEGs and mostly using automatic Program mode (P) at automatic ISO.  Occasionally I tested out 1600 ISO or 3200 ISO as well as the SCN High ISO or Auto+ settings.  Note all photos are uncropped and at the original resolution.  I've still got plenty more photos to upload next couple of days.

And here are some shots of a band where I used some of the creative filters built-in to the RX100.  Some look a bit over the top, but if used sparingly they can be interesting.  

 So far, I would say the RX100 is a nice, small and unobtrusive camera.  It focuses quickly and has the requisite number of dials, nobs and menus to let you control the photos and adjust for lighting.  Overall, it appears to be faster at focusing and shooting than the G9, and it performs reasonably well in tricky lighting situations.  But at $650, it's probably the most expensive point & shoot cameras out there.  And you've still got to shoot a lot of photos to get a few that capture the right expression and I have many photos where something isn't exactly right.  

And there are two significant drawback to keep in mind, relative to the G9.  When shooting in burst mode, it can take 10 seconds or more before the camera is ready to take another shot.  And the audio definitely clips at lower volumes than the G9.  Most of the time it should be fine but at very loud shows (over 100db), you can hear some distortion.  Hard to say how the G9 would have done under the exact same circumstance, but in several years of shooting the G9 it only distorted audio twice.

Not surprisingly, the Sony RX100 is getting great reviews; I've posted links to a few below.  More comments to follow.

 


Kickstarter Unplugged Electric Guitar Project

Unlimited guitar

I got an email about an interesting Kickstarter project called "The Unlimited Electric Guitar" by a company called Unplugged Instruments.  This is an offshoot of a Stanford electrical engineering project that combines an electric guitar with a built-in speaker and some custom iPhone apps.  It looks promising, though the project doesn't have the huge ambition of gTar (nor the polish.)  But for someone who actually can play the guitar, it's actually more appropriate.  

Check out the detailed video and consider making a donation to back this project.  But, as with most instruments, it's not a cheap project.  $275 will get you the finished guitar and they are aiming to raise $50k with more than half still to go in the next 20 days.

Update: I received some additional information from the team behind Unlimited Guitar.  They will be building out additional instruments including bass, keyboard and drums, each with built in iPhone interface and speakers.  (Not sure what that means for drums, but I'm sure it will be interesting.)  In addition they are working on "Guataraoke" style backing tracks so you can play along with your favorite songs, interactive lessons and more.  So far the team has garnered interest from heavy weights in the music industry including GuitarCenter and ZT Amplification.


Riffstation Software

Riffstation logo

Following up on my quick look at Vox's JamVOX III software, I recently learned about Riffstation a new guitar software package for Windows.  Riffstation is another take on the idea of building backing tracks from your existing MP3 library.  As with JamVOX you can isolate or cancel guitar parts in songs to make it easy to learn or jam along.  While Riffstation does not include amp or effects modeling like JamVOX, it goes a lot further in enabling you to recombine and mess with existing MP3 files.  For example, you can independently change the speed or key of songs, which is handy when you're learning a new song.  

Riffstation includes 3 major modules:

  • Jam Master -- Guitar isolation and speed / pitch editor
  • Riff Builder -- Ability to combine arbitrary bars (or beats) of a song
  • Chord Viewer -- Analyze a song to show its chords

Where Riffstation really goes over the top, is with the Riffbuilder module which lets you combine different bars (or beats) of a song into a brand new sequence, effectively creating a new backing track that is sonically similar but musically completely different from where you started.  This is so strange and powerful that it blows my mind.  You could, for example, take segments of some mother of all Led Zep songs, change the key, change the pitch, recombine two bars of the chorus with 4 bars of the verse and totally create your own mashup song.  The user interface detects where bars begin and end so that it's easy to do this accurately. This is frigging crazy!  Take a look at the video below for an example of some of the features.

Riffstation is a new product and it's initially available just for Windows for  €39.99 which is roughly $52 USD.  There's also a trial version for Windows, though it looks to have a weird nag timeout every 5 minutes.  (Really? In 2012?)  I'm looking forward to testing out the Mac version once it becomes available, but hopefully without the 5 minute interruption.  This is crazy innovative stuff and well worth checking out.

 


JamVOX III - Quick Test

Screen shot 2012-04-28 at 11.58.17 PM

I downloaded the trial version of Vox's JamVOX III software to put it through it's paces.  For those not familiar with the JamVOX, this is a software-only version of what was originally a software package that worked exclusively with Vox's own desktop speaker and computer/guitar interface.  Now that they've ditched the hardware, it's somewhat more flexible.  You'll still need an interface cable to connect your guitar to your computer, but those are easy to come by.  I tested both a Line6 GuitarPort and an IK Media Stealth interface and both worked fine without requiring any special drivers or fiddling.

So what is JamVOX?  In a nutshell, it's amp & effects modeling system that also doubles as a basic guitar recording system and has a number of unique capabilities for guitar players.  

  • 19 Amp models, 12 Speaker cabinet models 
  • 57 Effect models (Reverb, Delay, Compressor, Wah, Chorus, Phaser, Distortion etc)
  • Very basic looping and drum tracks
  • Guitar Extraction Technology (GXT) that lets you isolate or cancel out guitar parts
  • Ability to share guitar tones and GXT settings online
  • Plug-in support for Digital Audio Workstations (VST, AU plugins)
  • Available for Mac and Windows PC

Overall JamVOX III appears to be quite an improvement over prior versions. Better usability and much better GXT (guitar extraction technology) for "canceling out" guitar parts from existing songs.  The idea is you can take any MP3 file and with just a bit of fiddling, eliminate the guitar parts (rhythm or lead) that you want so that you can play that part instead.  It's a cool idea, but in earlier versions, there was quite a bit of distortion to the rest of the sounds.  In JamVOX III, the results seem much better.  

The guitar tones, amp emulations and effects are a bit disappointing.  They aren't as good as those I've used with Line 6, or my Zoom G3 multi-effects pedal.  But this is somewhat a matter of taste and depends on how much tweaking  you're willing to do. 

Here's my first sample, using the Beatles song "I've got a feeling."  In just a few minutes I was able to create a nice classic rock tone and then cancel out the John Lennon rhythm guitar part.  My playing is pretty sloppy, but otherwise you can get a feel for how JamVOX sounds from the video.  JamVOX also has some nice features for automatically changing the GXT settings at different parts of the song. (That's how you can hear the first few bars of the rhythm guitar from the recording, before I start playing.)  JamVOX also lets you shoot video with the backing track, just as I've done below.  (Though it would be nice if there was a count-in feature!)

I must admit that the first time I played along with the JamVOX using the GXT feature to cancel out the rhythm guitar part, it was kind of freaky.  It really does feel like some kind of alternate universe where you get to play with the Beatles or whatever other band you have in mind.  You can still hear the drums, vocals and bass pretty clearly and although I don't really show it in the video, it's a cool feeling.

While not perfect, JamVOX III does a very good job and makes it easy to create backing tracks from just about any song. Your mileage may vary, depending on the complexity of the song and how much effort you put into it.  The ability to share guitar tones and GXT settings online with other JamVOX users could be the killer feature that enables people to dive in and use the product on songs they know and love with a minimum of fuss. JamVOX appears to have a pretty vibrant community of users, but I was unable to test out the library of online settings to see how many songs have received the GXT treatment.  

JamVOX III is available for half price (just $49) during the initial launch until May 30.  This seems like a steal for anyone who is looking for a fun way to practice and record.  And the update is free for existing customers. 


Buying a Bass

Hofner icon

I played bass tonight at my regular blues workshop.  Normally, I play guitar, but our bass player was out and we always have too many guitar players anyways.  So I tried my hand with a heavy Kramer bass.  For several of the songs ("Killing Field", "Early in the Morning", "Ti Ni Nee Ni Nu") the bass and one guitar are generally playing the same riff, so it wasn't a big difference, other than the fact that the bass has a much bigger scale.  At 34", it's quite a bit larger than the 25.5" of a Strat or a Music Man.

Nonetheless, I think it would be handy to be able to play bass on occasion.  So I'm wondering about the short-scale 30" models like the Hofner Icon (or "Beatle Bass") shown above or the Fender Mustang bass shown below.  

Fender_mustang

The Hofner style "violin" bass is based on the model that Paul McCartney made famous early in his career.  From what I can tell, there are lots of "knock offs" of the violin bass model out there, but the Hofner version seems to be the lightest, weighing in under 6 lbs, or roughly half the weight of the Kramer I played.  

The Mustang bass has been used by many players, none of whom played with the Beatles.  My guess is it's not as light as the Hofner since it's a solid body.  I'm sure there are tradeoffs in the tone, and all that, but honestly who really knows?  I also tried out an Ibanez Mikro bass, and that was pretty fun.  

Or maybe I should buy a Steinberger bass.  That's not a shorter scale, but the headless design makes it more compact.  Not sure if its any lighter or not.  And I've no idea what kind of amp to buy.

So if you have an opinion (even an uninformed one) let me know.  Or if you want to sell me a good condition bass and amp, that would be fine also 

 


Kala U-Bass

Tal-kala-bass

I've played bass about twice in my life and so I'm really not someone with an informed opinion about what would make a good travel bass.  But, I must admit, the Kala U-Bass looks pretty cool.  Or at least it looks pretty cool when Tal Wilkenfield played it at this year's NAMM.  

If you've never heard of the Kala U-Bass, don't feel bad.  Kala was just announcing some new models this year and it's definitely not a conventional bass.  Kala is best known for their range of Ukeleles (get it?) and has made acoustic Ukelele basses for quite some time.  But what they've come up with here is pretty interesting.  It's a 21" scale solid body electric bass, with unique polyurethane strings that give it a surprising amount of bottom.  Components look to be high quality with custom HipShot tuners and a Shadow active pickup system.  

Because if it's compact size, the Kala U-Bass weighs in around 4 pounds.  That makes it smaller and lighter than even a traditional 30" short scale bass like the Hofner violin "Beatle bass".  And even though this is an unconventional bass, it's not quite as an extreme departure as the Ashbory Bass which has an 18" scale and is strictly fretless.

You can get the "made in California" U-Bass, with all kinds of ameneties, for around $1,200.  You can choose the finish, 4 or 5 string, fretted, non-fretted, and presumably half-caf-decaf.  The Asian made SUB U-Bass series is somewhat more modestly outfitted and ranges from $450 - $550 street price depending on the finish.  All prices include a nicely padded custom gig bag, suitable for carry-on travel.

Take a look at this video from Bassix for a sample of what the Kala U-Bass sounds like.  And if anyone has used this bass, please add your comments below.