All the gain.

I’ve lately been enjoying the YouTube channel of “Scottish guitarist and luthier” Colin Scott, who seems to have a unique take and respectable presentation style about a number of both connected and disconnected subjects of interest.

And I keep coming back to this clip, because it keeps on making me giggle.

There is a followup, in which he actually does a demonstration that makes the point rather well.

“All the gain”.  The instructor in me just loves how powerful and memorable that imagery is.  Not likely to forget that point now!

Lots of other good stuff there, too.  I thought I’d leave a bookmark here for my own reference.  🙂


Toumani Diabaté.

Recently at a friend’s house for dinner, the background processing part of my mind quickly picked up on the background music station that was playing on Pandora.  The general aesthetic was often beautiful, and on several pieces I picked up a sound that was clearly not a guitar, not a harp, not a hammered dulcimer–and yet reminiscent of all of these things.

The sound was mesmerising.  It bore insistently into the part of my hindbrain where I live, and I kept trying to figure it out.

Oud?  No.  I’ve never heard an oud played like that;  I’m not sure it would be physically possible for a single player to do it, even if highly skilled in harp-style playing technique.  It didn’t sound like an instrument that is played lute-style on a fingerboard, but the string sound was clearly in that category nonetheless.

Koto?  The string sound was close, but it just didn’t seem right.  Koto was my initial guess, but again I’ve never heard koto played like that, and koto players almost always employ at least some of the string-bending articulation that goes with the traditional styles.  Whatever this was didn’t seem to employ any of that.  No, it was something else, and I simply could not figure it out.

So, in the interests of not wanting to be unsociable in this nagging quest to test myself (I love my friends), I just asked.  And that is how I became introduced to the Malian kora, and to Toumani Diabaté.

Holy virtuoso, Batman.  How crazy is it that I have gone this long without hearing this man’s work?  It’s not like I’m alien to west African music–but then again most of my interest has been in the magnificent drum rhythms, not the melodies.

Very well then.  I’ll consider myself both humbled and delighted for the discovery, however late.  (Things like this make me wonder:  what other loveliness might I stumble over tomorrow?  And that makes me smile.)  Needless to say, I’ve now got a Pandora station seeded on Toumani Diabaté, and thus far I am extremely impressed both at the general aesthetic of where Pandora has led me therefrom, and also at Diabaté himself, who appears to be both technical wizard and master of feel. Check this out as just one example:

Even among all the other obvious awesomeness, his muting really stands out, to my ears.  Wow.  And for an even clearer view of the playing style, watch him here with his father Sidiki:


Had to dish a bit here, and lay the bookmarks.  Yes, add all this to the short list please!

Dagnabbit, there goes John Zorn again.

I’ve said before that John Zorn is an enigma among enigmas for me.  In a nutshell, I just love most of what I’ve heard from him, but apparently when I trigger any sort of endorsement for Zorn in Pandora’s player, the “learning” engine gleefully and completely misses the point, suddenly forgetting (again) what I have repeatedly told it for some years:  that no, I do not now want to hear an endless procession of jazz piano trios because I liked something from John Zorn.  (Nothing against a good piano trio, of course, but this automatic and pervasive association–it doesn’t happen with anyone else–seems so utterly ignorant of the bulk of Zorn’s work, if not outright lazy in simply lumping anything the engine can’t understand as catchall “jazz”, as to make me wonder if it must somehow be willful.)

(Sorry, pedantic vent again.  Pandora’s been a useful thing for me for a long time now, and maybe I’m just “lucky” in the Chinese-curse sense, but this “learning” engine, sometimes…simply doesn’t.)

Anyway, today I heard Zorn’s “The Middle Pillar” from The Gnostic Preludes, and…man, it is so Zorn it just reaches right into me and starts ripping at insides with full abandon.

It needed a bookmark, and a thumbs-up in Pandora…which (sigh) probably consigns me to a few weeks of piano trio whac-a-mole.

For me, though, Zorn is worth that.  What a marvelous gift to music.


Maiden Alaska, alive and well.

“Daddy!  Yaah!”  The urgent joy in (3yo) Murray’s outburst was obvious.

I adjusted the rearview mirror down to have a look.  The grin on the kid’s face was absolutely ear-to-ear…but you could only see it between the wild, rhythmic bobs of his head.

Wait…surely this wasn’t related to what we were listening to, right?  As part of the girls’ ongoing musical education, I’d been spinning Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, and what had just gone by was the dramatic stop after the first anthemic guitar figure, at 1:37 on the timeline, into which jumps Bruce Dickinson’s belted-out a cappella first verse…wonderfully dramatic, really, but of course that’s me talking, not the kid, right?

But his sisters both confirmed it:  the boy was actually headbanging.

I wish I could have captured what I saw:  whatever it was that moved him–and I swear, based on the timing alone it must have been that big changeup and Dickinson’s delivery at the first verse that did it–my just-turned-three-year-old was all-in and ready to rock.  When I asked him about it later (“Murray, did you like that music we were listening to?”), he nodded vigorously and said again, “Yaah!”.

Well, all righty then.  I might have to scare me up a copy of the “Maiden Alaska” bumper sticker I’ve seen around here a few times.

As a point of order, the girls (9yo and 6yo) really seem to be digging it as well;  neither quite have the words for it but I think they like the galloping rhythms, the neoclassical writing and orchestration, the operatic vocal style..and the energy.  Bless them both, they seem to like a lot of what I’ve put in front of them so far, but even among the favored set there are a few names that they seem to go out of their way to request, in a way they don’t do for most others.  The biggest ones seem to be Sam Bush, Weird Al, Yes…and lately it seems that Iron Maiden may be shaping up to join that short-list as well.

Very well, then, kiddos.  For what my ear is worth, you could do much worse.  And so it seems appropriate to bookmark “Hallowed Be Thy Name” here, to mark the occasion.

And live:

So 1982…and yet pretty timeless as well.  🙂

Tommy Emmanuel, ‘Morning Aire’.

Nearly incomprehensibly beautiful.

For all his wizardry (and that of course is no joke), he has a touch and a feel that is breathtaking, even among the giants with whom he belongs.  Seriously, it would not surprise me to see a Jimi Hendrix, a Robert Fripp, a Stevie Ray, … reduced to tears on hearing him.

And YouTube does provide.  This clip does rather capture what so moves me about the above performance on the “Live One” record.


John Renbourn, ‘Caroline’s Tune’.

Another piece to which I was some-time-ago introduced by Pandora radio.  As it comes up again today, I realize it needs a bookmark.  Lovely and contemplative, and a great example of The Awesome that was John Renbourn.

There’s a YouTube clip of course, but the sound quality seems noticeably worse than what Pandora plays;  please forgive that and just listen to the playing.

One of the things about Renbourn (and the late Bert Jansch, for that matter) that I remain both fascinated and impressed by, is the overtly “raw” sound of his acoustic “lead” playing.  Sometimes (and there are examples in “Caroline’s Tune”) you can just tell that the “boost” of the solo or lead part is entirely in his hands;  he just plays harder when he wants the notes to stand out.  And here, I’m not just making the standard reference to someone who understands dynamics;  there is a difference between just playing louder, and playing harder, and I hear Renbourn and Jansch both as playing harder for many such passages.  Choosing that*.  These guys were clearly good enough players that this choice must have been a willful one.

As I learn more about audio processing, my developing ear wants to hear those timbres, which sometimes start to sound quacky, plinky, and harsh, as something to mitigate or otherwise smooth out.  These days it would be pretty simple to use a gain booster pedal to achieve that, to bring up the volume and allow a softer playing style;  likewise a saturation boost (quite possibly provided by the same pedal) could help to inject an extra urgency or fullness to the tone without changing the playing style.  But these guys seem to have done that with their hands alone, and somehow it seems too simplistic to say that it would have been better to inject technology into what could have been a purely acoustic performance.

Food for thought, at least for me.  One way or the other, I’m glad Renbourn and Jansch did it that way, because 1) I noticed, and it made me think;  and 2) it sounds plenty awesome to me regardless.


* At least in the studio.  I’d guess that at that time, other options for pulling such things off live were a great deal more limiting than they are now, and with some of the pioneering sounds that Renbourn was trying for (especially with Jansch in Pentangle), it may well have been the only way to get there.

Iron Maiden, of all things.

So I dropped the family off at the Anchorage airport, and starting at 4am, had four hours in the car for the return trip.

During this time I became a fan of Iron Maiden.


The backdrop is random enough.  See, just recently I’ve started going through all the recorded music I have, and happened across a collection of “80s metal” that a Colorado friend put together for my education.  He gave it to me oh, probably 2004 or so;  it’s not like it hasn’t been sitting idle for over a decade!  I don’t recall ever actually going through it before, until now.  I saw it, remembered the context, and thought it would be cool to reconnect with some names I haven’t really thought about in some time:  Van Halen, Metallica, AC/DC, etc.–none of which I’d really paid too much attention to before.  And it’s been eye-opening, too:  I have a very different ear now than I did back even in the early ‘oughts, to say nothing of the Eighties;  more of that stuff holds up well than I’d have ever guessed, and I’ve been having a ball with what one internet buddy calls the “retro-education”.  Now I’m starting to move on to names I didn’t pay any attention to at all at the time.

First up was Judas Priest, which I’m still working out for myself.  There seems to be much to like in there, and particularly I’ve got to hand it to Rob Halford as a fairly astonishing vocal stylist, but thus far the group is still a bit of hit or miss;  what I really need is a couple of good listening sessions in a better audio environment than the acoustic mess that is the Jeep.

Today, I decided to spin the collection’s anthology of Iron Maiden for the trip home.  It’s not that the family car’s acoustic environment is good, per se, but it’s “good enough”, miles better than the Jeep, and of course with such a drive my full attention was available.  The anthology was essentially 2-3 tracks each from the studio albums of the 1980s.

In a word:  wow!

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but what I heard was impressive.  Probably I was still suffering from a good deal of latent musical snobbery from my own past;  you know, the stereotypic sort of “this metal stuff is all the same and not that interesting”, “not as high-class as the more progressive stuff I like”, and above all, the notion that any act that concerned with its theatrical, visual image simply can’t be taken that seriously.  Which makes it right and proper that I should have such blasted right out of me by actually listening honestly.  (My own history is certainly replete with eye-rolling moments I’d rather forget, but have to own.)

Regardless of where I may wind up on Judas Priest by contrast, Maiden spoke to me immediately, and in a variety of ways that really stuck out.  The part of me that’s learning a bit about audio production noted the really excellent separation and clarity of instruments in the mixes, even during really heavy-sounding passages, on most of the records.  Too, I was repeatedly struck by the crispness and inventiveness of the rhythm section;  with both drummers, these guys are really good at driving the beat with the syncopated parts of the subdivisions, and yet no matter how adventurous they got with doing different things in the blend, not once in what I heard did they fail to rock.  Both the tone and style of the bass jumped out at me right away as well, along with a number of examples of harmonic movement (in the bass in particular) I would not have expected from blokes simply thrashing about;  somehow when I went later to do a bit of summary reading on the band, it was totally unsurprising to find that bassist (Steve) Harris is a principal writer.  (I’m still new to bass guitar signal processing, but I’m starting to really appreciate this notion of an aggressive and distorted note attack on a bass guitar, which then blooms into a much cleaner note, just saturated enough to stand out in the mix.  Harris may become a specific item of study in that regard!)

I thought the writing was quite good;  the tunes never bog down in monotony, and really there is always something quirky and defining going on, even when covering otherwise well-known musical territory.  As well, it seems to me like I can actually hear joy in the way the group plays with rhythm;  given the topical territory it sounds odd to hear myself using that word, but still, that’s the way I hear it.  With more time I’ll have to pay some better attention to the words themselves;  as usual I’m listening to the music first, the voice as instrument second, and only then the lyrical content of the words themselves.

Needless to say, I had figured I’d probably gain an appreciation I hadn’t had before;  I’d heard from several friends over the years that the group was worth a listen, but had never got around to doing it properly.  I wasn’t quite prepared for how much so, though, and once again am happy to admit my error in not giving a proper test drive sooner.

More retro-education to follow!