Anyone who knows me well understands that I have a slightly unhealthy relationship with gadgetry. This ranges from phones to automated WiFi controlled lights in my apartment… I can’t seem to get enough! It’s something that has crossed over into my musical life too, so when I was asked to write a blog entry for TMF, I figured this could be a good opportunity for me to talk about this bordering on obsessive gear buying habit and explain what I use and how it all works. Maybe it’ll help me in a sort of a counselling type of way, or maybe it’ll make me worse, who knows?!
Probably the most important music gear I have are my bouzoukis. I only took the bouzouki up when I was in my early twenties – I was originally a fiddle player and had always fancied giving the bouzouki a go. So I bought myself a cheap Chinese made thing and taught myself some chord shapes. Fast forward 15 years and I’ve forgotten how to play the fiddle and now pretty much mainly play the bouzouki for a living, with occasional mandolin and guitar thrown in. My first proper zouk was made by the legendary luthier Nigel Forster, who was based in Newcastle at the time. I’ve now had 5 of his instruments, with two still in my possession. I keep trying to consolidate my collection down to just what I need, only to find that they’ve multiplied again. They’re a bit like rabbits, turn your back for a few minutes and before you know it there’s another one!
Like I say, I’ve currently got two bouzoukis, and not only are they stunning to look at, they’re also beautiful sounding things. But, the rabbits have been at it again, it looks like another zouk is on the horizon… whoops! I’ve realised that my shiny NK Forster instruments are getting a bit of a bashing on the road with some of the bigger tours I’m involved in, and it breaks my heart to see them manhandled by roadies going in and out of trucks etc. My band mate, Tom Callister, has been playing a carbon fibre fiddle for years, and it seems to survive the harshest of conditions. So I’ve asked the guys at Emerald Guitars in Donegal to make me a carbon fibre bouzouki! Apart from maybe a nuclear explosion, I think those things can pretty much withstand anything, and if what I’ve seen online is anything to go by they look and sound great too.
Something that a lot of bouzouki players talk about is capos. The Irish bouzouki as an instrument kind of lends itself to needing a capo, especially with the more open tunings so that you can cope with the various keys. I’ve probably tried every capo that exists, it sounds sad but I honestly don’t think there’s a capo that I haven’t tried. My conclusion is that none of them are perfect! The ones that sound the best are too slow for key changes in the middle of sets, and the fast ones often grip the strings too hard and pull the strings out of tune.
The most popular capo around is probably the Kyser, but I find they squeeze the strings too hard and also the handle part of the capo is a long long way away from the playing position – so not great for fast changes. The fastest capo for changes I’ve tried is the QuickDraw. It just stays attached to the instrument and slides up and down the neck with your left hand. I’ve found that these tend to pull the strings out of tune too though, and are either too loose at one end of the neck or too tight at the other. The best all-rounder capo I’ve found, for my instruments at least, is one made by D’Addario – the NS Tri-action Capo. It has a similar sort of look to the Kyser, but the handle is way closer to your playing position. It’s also got a much more even grip on the strings, so doesn’t tend to pull them out of tune too much.
Another bouzouki curse is sourcing the strings. While there are some manufacturers making bouzouki sets, their gauges aren’t always right. So bouzouki players tend to make their own sets up by buying single strings. Once again, D’Addario come to the rescue here, as they make a wide variety of strings sold as singles. For any bouzouki players who are interested, I’m currently using Phosphor Bronze 45s and 34s with Nickel Wound 20s and Plan 12s. A handy online store that tends to stock loads of single strings – Strings Direct. They’re often able to get you what you need by the next day too which really helps with the last minute post tour panic.
So, where does the bass come from?
Possibly the most frequent question I get asked by the people at the CD stand is ‘where does the bass come from?’. Anyone who uses octave effects similar to mine will sympathise with this I’m sure. To be fair to the audience members asking this question, it’s entirely my own fault for using the stupid effect in the first place. But I don’t think I’ve had a gig, when using my octave setup, where that question hasn’t been asked, so I’ll tell you!
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s become a very popular effect in recent years, especially on the trad music scene. You’ll be listening to a band that has no bass player, and at certain points in the gig you’ll hear/feel a booming bass line coming through as if by magic. The simple answer to this question – the bass is coming from the guitarist or bouzouki player.
There’s quite a few ways musicians can accomplish this effect. The simplest is by using an octave divider pedal like the Boss OC-3. This lets you dial out a range of higher notes from your guitar, leaving the pedal to use just the lowest notes and make an octave sound. I could never get this to work well with the bouzouki, perhaps due to the double strings or something.
Another option is to use a special polyphonic pickup (separate pickups on each string) on the guitar/zouk, which creates MIDI from what you play that can be used to trigger synthesisers. I tried this using an RMC pickup on a previous bouzouki of mine, but I found that the saddles used by the pickup affected the acoustic sound of the instrument too much, and the gear needed to make the rest of it work felt a bit overkill at the time… if only I knew the black hole I’d got myself into though!
Here’s Ian Stephenson showing how he uses the RMC pickup on his NK Forster Guitar, sounds class!
The third method is to have a single string magnetic pickup for just the bottom string of the instrument, and send this on its own to a pedal like the Boss or a POG or something. This works pretty well, but when I tried it I found that I needed to add compression to smooth out the sound and stop higher notes being louder, I also needed another pedal to mute the signal, and possibly getting a bit carried away I had another pedal for bringing the bass down yet another octave at certain times. A bit like the bouzoukis, the pedals were multiplying like rabbits and I had an enormous rig just for this one effect! I was sure that there had to be a simpler solution that sounded great and was easier to travel with.
After a lot of trial and error, I combined a few of these options to make what I ended up sticking with (ish… this is a serious gear buying habit after all). I now have a single string pickup just picking up my bottom string, this goes into my laptop (controversial?!) and via an amazing bit of software by a Danish company called Jam Origin, this gets converted into MIDI and triggers a really big solid sounding bass synth.
Here’s Nigel Forster showing my Irish Bouzouki just after he’d finished it, and briefly showing the Ubertar Single String Pickup at the end of the video too:
Finally I now have an octave setup that sounds awesome and only involves a tiny pedal board so is easy to travel with. Using a laptop gives a ridiculous amount of flexibility too. I can trigger audio samples, backing tracks, click tracks, control my own in ear monitor sound…. the possibilities are endless! I’ve also been using my regular zouk sound through the Jam Origin plugin to trigger string synths and create string pads based on what chords I’m playing. It adds yet another layer to the band sound without needing an extra musician and mouth to feed.
I’ve been gigging with this setup now for a good few years, and on the whole I’m very happy. Well, kind of… gigging with a laptop on stage has its drawbacks.
The most obvious one is that you have a very visible laptop on stage, and bearing in mind that I play trad music, this looks a bit silly. The big glowing Apple logo beaming out from the stage like a signal for Batman (Appleman?!..) is a bit off putting.
Also, laptops have a tendency to crash. It’s something that happened a lot when I first tried this, but over time I managed to iron out the creases and get it pretty stable. However it still happens very occasionally, and this does not contribute towards an enjoyable gig – just waiting for that dreaded moment where I have to stop the gig and restart the computer while a fellow band member makes some sort of quip over the mic about me checking Facebook.
This leads me to the other issue with the laptop setup… laptops take a good few minutes to boot up, and for for my setup to work properly the various bits of software need booting up in a particular order. I’ve got this down to a fine art, and can get it done pretty quickly, but it still takes a good few minutes, and not what you want while hundreds of people are sat staring at you impatiently!
So guess what?… I’ve just this week been on another shopping spree. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while ever since I found out that Jam Origin made an iOS version of their plugin as an app. What if I could ditch the laptop and just run the guitar/MIDI stuff off a mobile device, maybe an iPad, or even better, an iPod Touch! Ultra portability, it can all be mounted on a small pedal board, and it all launches in seconds.
It’s never quite as simple as you want though. I’ve become quite reliant on my ability to create an octave bass sound and string pads at the same time, and for this to work on a mobile device I’d need two instances of the Jam Origin plugin to be running, which isn’t possible. So, I’ve purchased a tiny wee dongle made by Sonuus that converts a monophonic (one note at a time) signal from a guitar jack and outputs MIDI via USB. If I let this handle the single string pickup bass stuff, then that frees up the Jam Origin app up to do all the string synth stuff.
After a quick trip to the Buchanan Street Apple Store, I now have an iPod touch on a pedal board, and the really great thing is that it seems to work perfectly! There’s an awesome app called AUM that ties everything together, letting me join up the various audio in/outs, MIDI synths and the Jam Origin plugin. This can be controlled by a MIDI foot controller pedal for turning stuff on/off with my feet while playing. I use the Keith McMillen Softstep 2 as it’s completely programmable and really portable. Another great app I’m using for the actual sounds is called ThumbJam. It comes with a load of great default instrument sounds, but also lets you load up your own samples and create new instruments. So I’ve sampled the notes from my old bass setup and loaded them into ThumbJam! It also lets you load up multiple sounds at once, and the AUM app can direct the MIDI to the relevant sound. I’ve also downloaded an incredible sounding orchestral sound app called iSymphonic to handle my string sounds. With these three apps on a tiny iPod Touch, I am able to reproduce most of the stuff my monster MacBook Pro was doing for the last few years!
Now I know this is dragging on a bit, but there’s one more bit of kit I need to make this all work. To get the two bouzouki audio signals into the iPod I need an audio interface. There’s loads of options available for this ranging from really portable and cheap to full on studio quality. The thing is, being a gear addict I also need something to create other guitar effects like delays, reverbs or whatever. With the laptop I just enabled virtual guitar effect plugins as and when I needed them, but I don’t want to overload my pour tiny iPod with yet another load of plugins. So after some digging I’ve found something that kills these two birds with the same stone.
Line 6 have a compact multi-effect pedal that also acts as a USB audio interface, the HX Stomp. Plug this into a tiny USB hub along with the Sonuus Guitar MIDI dongle and my MIDI foot controller pedal, plug that USB hub into the iPod Touch via Apple’s lightning to USB camera dongle (allows it to charge at the same time) and everything is now going into the iPod. The apps sort out the bass and strings sounds, the output from these apps comes out from the Line 6 HX Stomp and straight out to the sound desk. The Line 6 handles any other random guitar effects I need, and I’ve got another output from that going into a headphone monitor amp that mixes this together with a stereo monitor mix from the monitor guy. This then all feeds into possibly the most used and appreciated gear purchase I’ve made in the last few years… my Vision Ears IEMs. Without adding too much more info to this already way too long gear related post, I literally use these every day, from watching Netflix on flights, listening to music, and of course when gigging.
They sound actually incredible and fit so well you don’t know they’re even there.
So, could this be it? Have I finally reached the end of my gear buying habit? Well probably not, but hopefully this latest buying spree will satisfy my gigging needs for at least a few years.