Browsed by
Category: Music & Gear Reviews

I love music as much as making them. And I love the gear that enables me to do so.

For Free or for Fee? 5 Reasons why you’re not making money from music.

For Free or for Fee? 5 Reasons why you’re not making money from music.

 

Every kid who has picked up an instrument has always had this dream: to be a real rock star. From jamming in the garage to playing in small clubs in the underground scene to getting discovered by a major label and eventually trashing big shows and cashing in on sold out concerts. The life of a rockstar is always pictured as owning fancy cars and big mansions ala MTV Cribs. But in reality, for the majority of gigging musicians, the line stops at playing in small clubs. As much as many musicians would really like to push through with living a life of music, after a certain point, adulting kicks in. Working in a job, getting married, and having kids don’t seem to sit well with late-night gigs, collecting gear, and hours of rehearsal time. At least not when there’s no monetary gain. The reality is that keeping up with the lifestyle of a gigging musician is a privilege left for those who can shell out their own cash to continue such a pursuit. It’s really more expensive to maintain the lifestyle than what it earns if it even earns any. So for most musicians who don’t have the luxury of disposable income to pursue mere passion, there eventually comes a time to throw in the towel and call it quits.

It’s a reality that any adult with financial responsibilities has to face. And it can be frustrating to see other artists in the mainstream who don’t have half the skill or artistry but are garnering huge support from major labels and are the ones living the dream of a rockstar life.

There’s so much activity in the underground music scene and it’s filled with really great independent musicians. Gigs are everywhere, and great songs are always out on streaming apps. But with all these going on, still, most, if not all these musicians can’t even buy a decent instrument from proceeds out of their music. Gigs usually don’t pay, and if they do, it wouldn’t even be enough to cover for gas when you split it among a band of 5. So why are so many gigging musicians not making money?

Here are 5 realities to look into:

ARTISTIC MARKETABILITY

As much as the underground music scene is filled with incredible artists producing music that’s always pushing the boundaries of the artistic norm, the vast majority of listeners are simply not open for these types of artistic expressions. These artistic expressions usually alienate the common listener which is why many underground musicians appeal only to certain niches. Sure a lot of effort is put into making songs that would require a certain degree of skill to play such as irregular time signatures and high-level callisthenics, or simply melodies that are non-typical. But the vast majority of listeners will always prefer familiar chord progressions, steady time signatures, and very predictable melodies. Although every now and then some artists can get away with a game-changing sound which sets a new norm in musical tastes, those are very rare occasions.

IT ALWAYS BOILS DOWN TO BUSINESS

In as much as there’s clamour about how much of the independent music scene is not getting support from those big corporate backers and how the industries’ bigwigs prefer profitability over real art, this is already a reality that should be accepted. It takes money to promote, and investing in artists can be expensive. It is just but natural and logical for someone spending so much to expect a return on investment.

This goes back to the issue of artistic marketability. Labels usually get the flack for not supporting underground artists, but in reality, the real issue has more to do with the market rather than the labels. Labels won’t sell something that the market won’t buy, and it’s just logical. Just setting up a show is already expensive with the cost of the venue, sound equipment, promotional activities, etc. Promotions can always get some mileage for artists, but it would still be artistic marketability that makes people buy tickets for the shows.

EVENT ORGANIZERS ARE UNABLE TO GIVE GATE SHARE

Anyone who has been active in the underground music scene knows that there are gigs everywhere. Gig organizers, or prods, hold a lot of events and charge tickets to guests. But artists getting proceeds from gigs remains a rare occasion. One of the reasons why artists rarely get a cut is that prods don’t always meet the venue’s bar guarantee. The bar guarantee is the sales quota each venue, usually a bar,  sets that the prods have to meet for every event. In cases when the total sales fall below the bar’s requirements, the prod will have to fill in that gap. This will consume any ticket sales, and if that’s still not enough, the prod will have no choice but shell out from their own pockets, leaving nothing for the prod, all the more nothing for the artists.

One of the reasons why prods don’t always meet the bar guarantee is that gig-goers just don’t buy enough from the venue. Some gig-goers just choose to eat and drink elsewhere before going to the event. Either because it’s cheaper somewhere else, or they just don’t like the food served at the gig venue. The ideal setting where guests come to watch artists and also want to eat at the same venue is not usually the case. So even if some events look jam-packed with people, it’s not always in tangent with good bar sales.

THERE ARE TOO MANY ARTISTS ON A GIVEN TIME SLOT

Just like how many gigs there are in one night, some prods also have too many artists in one gig. For a typical gig that starts 8 PM and ends at 1 PM, 4 to 6 bands should just be enough to give each band a good set time and also for the audience to digest, appreciate, and have a good recall of each performer. But some prods push the numbers further by having around 15 or so bands in a 6-hour event. While this gives more artists a chance to be heard, this setup is just not conducive for good audience-artist recall. At the end of the event, it’s easy to forget who played what and who’s who. The extended hours needed to accommodate that many artists is also not a delightful idea for those who have work the following morning.

Another thing is that almost a majority of the audience in these band-packed nights are just the same people who will be playing. Band members outnumber total ticket-buying guests so ticket sales won’t be enough to generate significant gate share.

EVENT ORGANIZERS JUST DON’T WANT TO GIVE GATE SHARE

This is a bit controversial as this is one that can be controlled the most. Some prods hold events for their own personal gain. Sure they keep the music scene alive by making events here and there. But some are really just doing it to make a living at the expense of the artists. We all know that artists just really want to play,  hence the “play for exposure” is being exploited. These prods usually just pay certain VIP artists per event, while the rest of the bands who aren’t known enough are paid with the benefit of just getting an audience.

 

The underground music community is definitely alive and well. It’s filled with brimming talent and overflowing with artistry. But the conditions set by either natural or human factors certainly do put a fence between financial gains and most musicians. The question of playing for free or for fee will always remain a dilemma for many, especially for the veterans in the scene who have already come to struggle with financial responsibilities. It’s simply a matter of finding whether a life of music is something worth the expense, or just a phase in life that can be graduated from.

 

 

 

Gear Review: Lindy Franlin Unbuckers on PRS Standard 24

Gear Review: Lindy Franlin Unbuckers on PRS Standard 24

So I’ve recently acquired this PRS 20th Anniversary Standard 24. Looks great and plays great, but I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with its stock pickups. The 20th Anniversary Standard 24 comes armed with PRS’s Vintage Bass (VB) for neck and Hot Fat Screams (HFS) for bridge of which are the typical pickup combination on older PRS models.

While the VB/HFS combo does sound good, my recent quest for tone has seemed to have developed a different palate for my now very picky ears. I guess after owning dozens of guitars, and being in a band where we only play our original songs, I’ve begun to have very specific preferences about the exact tone I need. I’ve found the Vintage Bass to be lacking the character I’m looking for, while the Hot Fat Screams seemed to be a little too harsh for the type of music I play.

Seeing that the built-in tones wouldn’t work for me in the long run, I decided it was time I swapped them out for something that suits my style. I was actually a little iffy about the idea of having to change the pickups for a supposedly high-end guitar. So to do justice to my PRS, I thought that only a boutique, high-end aftermarket pair will do. I searched online, reading forums and lurking on eBay and Reverb, and have stumbled on the Lindy Fralin Unbuckers. The clever naming of this pickup already suggests its specialty – a humbucker that can also sound as a real single coil, hence the “unbuck”. I thought this was a great idea, as I’ve always loved both the thickness of humbuckers and the sparkle of single coils. The problem with splitting humbuckers is that while their humbucking tones sound good, their split coil tones always sound second rate. There’s usually a volume drop when running split, and you never really get the mojo associated with real single coils.

Wanting the best of both worlds, the Unbuckers seemed to be where my direction was heading. I also own a PRS Paul’s Guitar which also features great coil splitting abilities and has set the bar with how coil splits are supposed to sound to my ears. I decided to take a shot in the dark and bid for the Unbuckers I saw listed. The problem with purchasing pickups is that you never really get to try them first, and they can always sound different depending on the guitar you mount them onto. So I took a deep breath and crossed my fingers as I won the bid at $ 172. That was actually a great deal as these pickups are usually listed for $ 300 brand new.

Finally, it has arrived. The patina on the chrome covers gave them a beautiful aged look which very well compliments the slightly worn finish of my guitar. Once I had the VB/HFS pair replaced, it was time to give my judgement and see if these so-called boutique pickups really live up to their hype.

HUMBUCKER MODE

I tested the humbucker mode first starting with clean. Both neck and bridge pickups had great PAF characteristics, leaning more towards the brighter side. The low output gave a very clear and defined note articulation. The neck pickup had a nice open sound, while the bridge pickup was kept tight and balanced. Running with some dirt using my Strymon Sunset, the Unbuckers had a nice spanky grit on low gain mode. On high gain mode, they’ve managed to maintain their distinctive clarity without getting muddy at all even as I’ve pushed the gain knob further and further.

One thing to note though is that the Unbuckers are not “chugging” pickups. As opposed to the stock VB/HFS which really did give that macho testosterone filled low-end crunch and wailing highs, the Unbuckers will certainly leave you hanging in that area as it never gets over saturated with gain. Not an issue for me though since I don’t play music that requires that much distortion. I ran my signal through my effects laden board and the tonal fidelity was just amazingly clear amidst all my delays, modulations, and reverbs running at the same time. This is perfect for ambient guitarists such as myself who like to have plucked notes cutting through.

SPLIT MODE

I pulled up my tone knob for split coil mode. I repeatedly changed between full humbucker and split to check if there was any signal loss and couldn’t really perceive any. Volume was very consistent in both modes. As for the tones, the split mode was not only useful, it was actually very desirable. Splitting doesn’t just thin out the sound, but really gives you fantastic single coil goodness. I like that it’s got the twang of a Telecaster while still being distinctively unique. After all, I didn’t get a PRS only to have it sound like a Fender.  Hitting the strings hard gives a nice percussive tone which is great if you’re into chicken picking. Even when on high gain, both the neck and bridge pickup never sound ice-picky even when you move further up the neck up to the 24th fret.

CONCLUSION

The Lindy Fralin Unbuckers were my first jump into boutique pickups. It was a risky move but was very much worth it. Lindy Fralin’s claim of no volume loss and great tones hold true which makes these pickups a great choice for those who love humbucker and single coil sounds and want just one guitar to cover both bases. The clarity and tonal characteristics of the Unbuckers are simply astounding, which for my taste, makes them a great upgrade from the stock VB/HFS pickups. Although my Anniversary PRS has lost its ability to wail and scream due to the mellower pickups, that is something I really wouldn’t miss. I’d totally recommend the Unbuckers for those who prefer clarity over output.

You can check out the Lindy Fralin Unbuckers here -> https://www.fralinpickups.com/product/unbucker/

Gear Review: Strymon Mobius and Timeline

Gear Review: Strymon Mobius and Timeline

They say GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) never ends, and when it strikes, it strikes hard – deep in your pockets! The pedal board will never cease to evolve in search of the “perfect tone” as what satisfies the ears today might not be as satisfying tomorrow… Then again, it could just be GAS from watching too many gear videos on YouTube.

As a guitarist, I’m more of the Mike Einziger and John Fruciante type who leans more towards tone coloring effects and guitar textures rather than ala Paul Gilbert and Rhandy Rhodes who focus heavily on macho riffs and heavy shredding. Given my guitar influences, I’ve always relied heavily on delays and modulation effects in my playing. These effects are staples in how I think about writing music so much so that I could hardly think about making music over the naked guitar tone.

My pedal board has seen many changes and switch ups over the years since I’ve started using stomp boxes. I’ve always preferred the more simpler plug and play, set and go, analog pedals rather than the super sophisticated multi-effects with so many  knobs and buttons of what looks like something hung on Darth Vader’s chest. I just found the simplicity and sound of the analog effects much more appealing to me. Plus, I find satisfaction in looking at a board with differently colored little things, rather than just one big black machine with many buttons. I think that for stomp box fans such as myself, it’s also the art of collecting that’s part of the fun.

Hearing so much rave about Strymon pedals, I’ve recently developed a GAS for them. These digital pedals have been said to be at the top of the stomp box echelon in terms of both sound, performance, and of course, price. The first two are obviously what draws most guitarists, while the third makes a lot of them turn away. Their delay pedal, the Timeline, costs about $ 450 new. This is pretty steep considering it’s a digital pedal which only does delay sounds. You’ll have to shell out another $ 450 for the Mobius if you want modulation effects, and another $450 for the Big Sky for reverb. That would be about $ 1,350 getting all of them new. Compare that to just getting a top of the line multi effects such as the Line 6 Helix which already has distortion and amp simulations for almost the same amount of money.

But like any GAS inflicted guitarist, I just had to give in. As always, I lurked on eBay and Reverb for some good offers on used products, and was able to score a Mobius and Timeline for about $ 380 each. That’s still pretty hefty on the budget, so with fingers crossed, I decided to cash in on some of my rarely used beloved gear to cover for my recent purchases, hoping that it’s going to be a worthy tradeoff.

So they’ve arrived… The highly glorified Strymons! After carefully mapping out my board as to how and where to place them, it’s now time for the boy to play with his new toys! After a couple of times of using them both in a bedroom and band setting, I can finally share my thoughts and honest opinions about these pedals.

CONSTRUCTION AND AESTHETICS

Enclosed in a solid metal body, these pedals have the typical “built like a tank” construction. The controls, labels, and LED layouts look welcoming and un-intimidating. Colors and the beautiful matte finish does make these pedals aesthetically pleasing which is a plus. The only thing I’m not impressed with are the knobs which you press for toggling functions. Both these knobs on the Timeline and Mobius are already a bit wobbly when I got them, which should not be. This worries me as they may get wobblier in time due to constant use.

CONTROLS AND FUNCTIONS

One reason I stayed away from multi-effects is that I find them too sophisticated for simplicity. Having a lot of options and tweakability is great, but I’ve always found the control schemes for most multi-effects pedals a bit confusing and less user friendly. Some pedals require you to do advanced tweaking on the computer for best results, of which I certainly do not want to do at all.

Strymon’s interface is rather simple. Looking at its controls for the first time might be a little daunting, but it actually is very user friendly and has a very shallow learning curve. Everything is straightforward. The “type” knob lets you select the type of effect you want, or as they call, “machine”, while the other knobs are for general tweaking. Pressing the values knob lets you tweak even further, giving you more options and parameters to play around with. It’s very apparent that Strymon’s engineers have put a lot of thought to make sure all the features, flexibility, and customization, can be configured using such simple controls.

Notable Feature for the Mobius

One notable feature I like on the Mobius is the “pre/post” option. This function lets you change the position of the Mobius either before, or after the pedal you chose to pair it with, without having to physically reposition and rewire anything. I paired the Mobius with the Timeline. That way I can choose either to have the modulation go before the delay, or the delay go before the modulation. This is very useful for stacking effects like phasers and delays if you find it very significant having a choice between repeating sweeps versus sweeping repeats.

Notable Feature for the Timeline

A notable feature for the Timeline is the feedback loop. Attaching another pedal to the Timeline and enabling the feedback loop option lets you add the attached pedals effect to the Timeline’s wet signal. This lets you stack a chain of pedals on the Timeline to expand the variety of tonal characteristics of your wet signal. I don’t really use this feature as of now, but I think this is a cool feature I might use in the future.

SOUND QUALITY

Good looks and great features would mean nothing unless the sound quality is superb. And in this area, the Strymon delivers, and it delivers so well! The usual apprehension that analog purists have towards going digital is that digitals pedals tend to sound inorganic. To illustrate, it’s like comparing a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade versus a juice concentrate. The concentrate can come close to tasting like the real thing, but it’s still not the real thing! Typical digital pedals sound processed, as compared to the pristine and natural sound that analog pedals deliver. But over the years, refinements and advances in technology have been bridging that sonic gap, and Strymon has secured itself well in this position. I’m certainly no tone connoisseur, but to my ears, I can confidently place my bet on the Strymons when it comes to tone.

I stack them together with my Jekyll & Hyde overdrive/distortion and my Neunaber Wet reverb. With proper mixing, notes are clearly defined and playing dynamics remain accentuated. Even under a thick band mix, my guitar tone can still cut through with every “swoosh” and “wuaoh” from the Mobius riding the repeats of the Timeline. It’s really just that good.

SAVING

Both the Timeline and the Mobius have one hundred banks which allow you to save up to two presets for each bank. That’s a total of two hundred customized presets which you can name using using a maximum of sixteen characters. That’s more than enough space anyone could ever need. However, you can only use one effect at a time for each pedal.

EXTERNAL CONTROLLERS

Scrolling through the banks is done by pressing two of the three foot switches simultaneously. While this is the best way to do it given the Strymon’s physical layout, it can be a bit of a nuance when you want to get to a preset that is banks away. Since I assign one bank per song syncing both pedals in my band, this means that I have to scroll on each pedal every time for every song change. Good thing the Timeline and Mobius are compatible with third party foot switches. There are programmable midi based ones which allows you to control bank switching and even give you more space to save presets such as the ones made by Disaster Area and American Loopers. There are also simpler TRS based foot switches for just bank scrolling. I got a TRS based one from Analog Endeavors which I had custom made to be able to scroll across bank simultaneously on both devices. Here’s a video review / demo of the Analog Endeavors auxiliary foot switch in case you want to check it out. —>

CONCLUSION

The Timeline and Mobius definitely live up to the hype. Strymon has maximized technological advances to deliver flexibility and incredible customizability that can only be done through digital pedals, while delivering clear and pristine tones sought after from analog pedals. The wide array of tweakability you can do per machine gives you almost endless customization allowing you to make your own unique personalized sound, while the intuitive and straightforward controls let anyone easily become their own boutique pedal builder. The ability to be able to adapt to third party manufacturers for expandability is also huge bonus. The price may be steep, but serious tone aficionados who constantly seek after the best tone money can buy will surely find the Timeline and the Mobius a worthy investment, and a staple in pedals boards for the long haul.

 

Gear Review: ZT Club

Gear Review: ZT Club

Bringing an amplifier to gigs is a great way to be able to get a consistent sound wherever you play. But the hassles of lugging them around from room, to car, to bar, isn’t half as enjoyable as hearing them sound. I’ve been using a  50 watt tube amp which is already relatively light, but still considerably hefty.  While I really dig the way it sounds, I find the back breaking lifts quite a nuance.

So I thought that I needed something lighter and smaller, but at the same time, can give an uncompromised roar during live performance. Searching the web for some leads, I found out about the ZT Club. It’s a small solid state amp, 14″ x 15″ x 9.25″ in dimensions, and weighs only 22 lbs. ZT claims this little guy to be really loud, as concurred with by the few reviews I’ve read online. It got my interest. However, despite gaining a handful of following, the amp has been discontinued by ZT in favor of their smaller Lunchbox model.

I’ve searched around local distributors, but since it’s a discontinued model, availability has been a problem. Determined to get the amp, I turned to the used market via eBay and Reverb.com, lurking regularly for the chance that something might just pop up. Persistency paid off when I was able to score a Club for about $ 400. The cosmetics were far from top notch, but the function was superb. Besides, amps are made to rock; a treat for the ears rather than the eyes.

So it arrived, and it was time to test it out. I live in a 36 sqm flat, and with the volume and gain knobs at just about 8 ‘o clock, it was enough to be loudly and clearly heard in every corner of my condo unit. I couldn’t pump it more than that so as to not disturb the neighbors. I had to wait for band rehearsals in a studio to be able to gauge the true potential of this amp.

Come band rehearsals, bringing it along was a breeze. The size and weight was so convenient for transport, saving my now grateful vertebrae. I plugged it in with my pedal board and my PRS Paul’s Guitar. The drummer and bassist played to their usual levels as I dialed in the knobs to get the sound I wanted. First thing I adjusted were the volume and gain controls. I was able to match the levels of the band with the volume knob at 9, and the gain knob at 10.

The volume and gain knobs work just like with any other amps with this type of feature, but the application here is rather different. With the Club, the gain knob gives the amp more of a tubelike push, rather than a real distortion. Turning the gain knob past 9 is where the convincing “tubey” character begins. It’s got the distinct voice, push, and density we look for in tube amps, and it is seriously convincing. Pushing it past 12 is like using a tube screamer for a clean boost. Going past 2 and maxing it to 5 gives it a little over driven grit. I’ve found my perfect mix to have the gain at 10, just enough for a tubelike character, and the volume at 9, just enough to level with the rest of the band.

The rest of the mixing is for the tone controls. The Club only has knobs for treble and bass. Dialing the tone knobs is very responsive and super excellent for tone shaping. With both knobs at 12, the Club sounds very fat and beefy on the low and midrange.  I set my treble to 3 and bass to 11, giving me a brighter sound, while still maintaining some of the fat. The amp also responds well to stomp boxes. I got the perfect crunch I wanted from the Jekyll & Hyde, and the delays and modulation effects sounded crystal clear. Turning the volume knob a little more further pushes my levels beyond the rest of the band even with the drummer not holding back. Going past 12 would probably be enough to shatter glass. This thing is really loud! It also has reverb, but I didn’t find any use for it since all of my reverb comes from my pedals.

Convinced of its tonal prowess, I was confident enough to take it to its first gig, so I unleashed it at a local bar. The place was about 60 sqm in size with full band set up and acoustics for ear bleeding rock and roll. I didn’t mic the Club as to have all my sound be heard from the amp itself. I found myself adjusting the volume knob between 9 and 10, depending on how pronounced I had to be. With gain fixed at 10, I never went past 11 for volume as it would be too loud for the audience already. The size of the Club’s speaker was also enough to push air giving a good sonic distribution allover the place. It clearly stood up at par, if not better, against the in-house tube amps there. Given my first gigging experience, I’m confident that the club can definitely handle much bigger venues without a problem.

There are limitations to consider though. Its reverb is just on the mediocre side, and those who prefer built-in amp distortions should definitely look elsewhere. But for guitarists like me who get all those from pedals, the Club’s limitations are non-issues.

All in all, I am very pleased with the ZT Club. Its size is perfect for transport without compromising tone and output power. The bass and treble controls’ responsiveness allows for flexible tone shaping, making it very adaptable to various musical situations. And its tubelike sound is highly convincing despite being a solid state. It is not without question that there are so much better sounding, real tube amps out there. But considering the Club’s portability, price, and overall great sound, this thing can definitely be a serious go-to amp for both the bedroom and the gigging musician.