Saturday, 28 November 2009

Perfect Skin

As we age, there are certain uncomfortable physical realities that, however hard we may try, we cannot manage to avoid. That apparently superabundant energy of our youth sadly diminishes (so that staying-out on the town till 3am loses much of its previous gaudy allure, especially when the kids decide to wake up and be demanding an hour earlier than usual), mysterious aches and pains occur in unusual bodily locations with irritatingly increasing regularity, and it's time for this blog to address the important (but often neglected by we "bad-ass" bass players...not that I'm personally in any way "bad-ass", but I'm assured there are many of my fellow low-frequency muso's who fit that description) issue of dermatological care.

This is not, I must stress, to say that I've gone all "David Beckham", and am now an avid peruser of GQ magazine for essential styling and "product" (aka greasy chemical sludge to slap on your hair because you've nothing better to do with your time or money) advice. No, I'm still a proud alumnus of the "Billy-Bob Thornton International Academy of Grooming and Deportment". Additionally, an amusing little bout of impetigo, which decided to do the rare thing and mutate into full-on lymphadenitis left me looking like an extra from a no-budget zombie film for a couple of weeks. Which was nice. (The artist's impression - by a terrible artist, no prizes for guessing who - on the left gives a reasonable idea of the general effect). So I'm the last person who'd want to discuss the relative merits of assorted facial scrubs/balms/lotions/gels/loads of expensive cack for foolish people who believe glossy advertising pseudo-science.

No, this is all about the skin on your hands. Something it's extremely easy to neglect, but what with the seasonal weather bringing that delightful combination of cold, wind & rain, and the "musicians' lifestyle" often not being conducive to getting plenty of rest & recuperation, dry, cracked skin on the knuckles and around the fingernails can be painful - affecting practice and performance. (This is even more of a problem for those of us with small children, who find themselves washing their hands so often we start to wonder if we're developing OCD).

Ok, so the first step is obvious - wear gloves to keep your hands all snug 'n' warm, even when nobody else is so you might look a bit odd. Heck, you're a musician, buy black leather ones, they're always cool, so who cares what other people think? Or you could choose to wear only one glove, with lots of bright, shiny...errr...maybe not.

Anyway, in the past, I've hated using moisturising creams because they've always left my hands feeling far too greasy - hardly ideal just before a gig (then you're left trying to wipe the excess off on your jeans, and when that doesn't work you've got to nip off and wash your hands again, only now you have odd white stains down your jeans, which, depending precisely where you wiped your moisturiser-laden fingers could be deeply embarrassing...). But now I've found something that seems to do the trick, but doesn't affect my carefully-cultivated fingertip callouses, and manages not to smear itself all over the woodwork and strings...

So what is this wonder product that receives the "Mid-Life Bassist Seal of Approval"?
Step forward, Neutrogena "fast-absorbing hand cream (light texture)". (Yeah, ok, so most folk out there probably already knew about this stuff and use it on a regular basis - cut me some slack, huh? It's taken me a ridiculous number of years to finally come across something that works). It's great, and quite cheap, too, thankfully.

And I'm not just saying this because, by a bizarre and freakish coincidence, there happens to be a "senior scientist" at Neutrogena called "Andy Gilmour" (no relation whatsoever - plus I'm sure that, unlike myself, he's got a string of useful qualifications and, unless he's unfathomably profligate, a far greater degree of fiscal security). Nor do I receive any form of payment for anything recommended here...not that I wouldn't mind being a corporate whore, though. I have no objections to buying myself a more comfortable unhappiness, so in my current situation if they offered, I'd be stupid not to...any takers? no? Ah well.

Which just about wraps it up for this time. Except to say that in Edinburgh today I tried-out what is unquestionably the "Worst Bass Guitar Ever Made", but I'm not saying what it is yet...that's for next week.

And there'll be more regular posting now that I don't look as if half my neck had been replaced by Brian Blessed's.

You have been warned...

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

At the end of last month Liberal Conspiracy put up an interesting post on file-sharing and the current economics of the music industry, which was all well and good, except some fellow called John Band then came along and made a few silly statements in the subsequent comments. He claimed that since the means of distribution were as near to free as made no odds these days, then it's entirely defensible to adopt a "utilitarian" position, and say that music should therefore also be free, since "writing a song, a poem, an article or a story simply *is* cost-free" and "Recording music on your computer and putting it on myspace is free. The only cost is people’s time".

I pointed-out to Mr. B that there might be certain costs he was conveniently omitting (instruments, perhaps? years of bloody training, maybe?), and someone else demonstrated how the investment in a home studio set-up could easily reach £5,000. His reply? "Aye, and gbp5k is hobby money".

Now that vexed me sorely, since £5,000 is almost 40% of my gross annual income. "Hobby money"?? My hairy backside! It's one of our inalienable rights to parade our ignorance in public, but the casual, patronising dismissiveness of those two words... As I said, ensuing vexation of a high degree of soreness.

But it is, of course, possible to achieve decent results for a great deal less than five grand. Which set me wondering as to exactly how much the gear I've been using actually cost. So I did some digging through my old PayPal accounts...

The actual recording equipment itself certainly isn't exactly expensive. I do everything on a 6-year-old Korg D1200, (including wave editing to get rid of creaky chair noises during gaps in bouzouki parts - which isn't fun on a tiny LCD screen. Note to self - tighten chair before session next time), which cost me £148 on eBay about 18 months ago, and I daresay could be had for a chunk less now. At the most basic level it'll do 6 tracks of 24-bit, CD-quality audio, has a few useful effects - in amongst the reams of instantly rejectable ones - and is a damn sight better than what most of the 'greats' were using back in the 1960's, so I'm certainly not complaining. If what I do sounds terrible, I've only got myself to blame.

Alongside that is another eBay bargain - a Behringer Composer Pro XL compressor, £34.50 of assorted dials and buttons, some of which I know how to use in a more-or-less effective manner. All in a shiny, metal rackmount-able case. Nice.

My 'currently-borrowed from the generous & charming Martin Lennon' microphone is a 'SE Electronics se2000', available for under £80 online. Sounds ok to me, although it's easy to get expensive very quickly with mics, especially if you're trying to be clever and have several different types placed in a variety of positions, so that you can really 'sculpt' the sound of the instrument. Well, you can if you're not me, but someone who knows about proper sound engineering. And has plenty of money to spend on gear. Otherwise just the one is fine for now...

And that's about it for the "high-tech" side. Oh, the only music software I use is the excellent freeware version of  WavePad, and even that's almost entirely as a file format converter to meet the needs of various internet sites (even though it does offer lots of other features which I'm sure are of the highest quality. I just can't say, don't use them.Sorry. Please go and buy the full WavePad Master's Edition, it's great. Probably).

So now we can turn to the instrument side of things...and this is where the costs are perhaps most open to question, since the differences between what a player might actually have, desperately want, and truthfully need can be vast.

I could, for example, quite easily play bouzouki parts with something a little cheaper than a Fylde Longscale Archtop (retailing at just over the £1000 mark...ouch. At this point I feel I should make it clear it was a gift - there's no way I could have afforded this myself). Although it has to be said, its low, comfortable action and solid intonation do make playing some things physically possible - compared with my old, £99 Ozark bouzouki, anyway. That's not to say that the same couldn't be achieved for a touch less, mind you.

My Hohner Pro Jack Bass Custom V (snappy name), however, is a fantastic example of value-for-money. Bought in 1993 for £300 (equivalent to £458 today, according to this handy comparison calculator), it has served long and loyally, taking in a great deal of abuse and a de-fretting along the way.

I've also got an old prototype Bassix Electric Upright Bass, which would cost the best part of a thousand pounds to replace from their current models, but there's a wider range of cheaper E.U.B.'s on the market now, so it might well be the case that a fair whack of money could be saved for a relatively insignificant drop in quality.

There's also a nice Seagull S6 cedar-topped 'folk' acoustic guitar that I'm rapidly forgetting how to play (bouzouki and bass chords and tunings are warping my fragile little mind). That was £190 second-hand back in the mid-1990's (about £280-ish now), but with the Chinese now dominating the cheaper end of the market, similarly-priced 'decent' acoustic guitars aren't hard to find.

Finally, I can't leave out the Legacy SP40 digital piano that's hiding in the corner behind the sofa. It's got a fairly dire sound chip, (aggressive use of eq takes away a little of the worst elements, but only a little - and straying away from "piano 1" is *not* a good idea), but makes up for this with wooden, fully-weighted, hammer-action keys. All for £140 from a classified ad. The kids love it...

Anyway, all told, the equipment I used on, say, "The Mourning Tree", cost me £1,562 to assemble. Over the course of 16 years or so. Which could be worse.

"Hobby money", you might even say.

I'd still be vexed.

p.s. I know, I left out all sorts of sundries like strings, cables, etc...well, I'm a tight git oops, 'hard-up single parent', who changes strings only when I really have to, and I don't use flash cables, just HotLine ones, which are pretty robust and seem to do the job. You can, if you so desire, spend ridiculous sums on cables with all sorts of fancy claims attached to them. A simple wee article suggesting why you shouldn't bother can be found here.