Each year on the Lines forum, members list their goals (rather than “resolutions”) for the coming year, and check in with how well they did in the previous year. This isn’t far off from what I was doing before — it led to the “recording per week” project of 2016 that proved so pivotal for me. Anyway, my list for next year:
- Road Chill. This is the opposite of road rage (or maybe, roadkill?) Don’t be provoked by people being senselessly aggressive and unkind — whether it’s on a literal road or a metaphorical one (the information superhighway? the road to the future? okay I’ll stop).
- Practice and jam on the bass at least once a week (more is better). More about this below.
- Remember how much I like my synth setup exactly like it is, and don’t look for opportunities to trade stuff just out of habit or curiosity. Remember that it’s not gear that makes my music, it’s me.
- Keep getting in a bit of walking at work, and try for walks around the lake on weekends when weather permits. Maintain better posture. If the pandemic ends, maybe another Qi Gong class. Keep testing my blood sugar at least weekly.
- Look into making meditation a daily practice.
All about that bass: it struck me that we have a bunch of instruments sitting around unplayed. I don’t really have time for them all and still be able to carry out my primary synth mission, but surely there is room for a side quest?
Most of those instruments are sitting upstairs in the second bedroom, and I just don’t have the habit of going there and playing them. But habits like that aren’t too hard to start (e.g. my 2016 “finish a track every week” project).
My first serious stringed instrument was violin, and that seems to have set certain parameters which feel right and others which don’t.
- Guitar confuses me, with too many strings and weirdly inconsistent intervals between them (unless you go for some custom tuning method, which may also require different string types…) And the neck is too wide and too long and it just feels huge to me.
- Ukulele is pretty friendly, with 4 strings and many chords are relatively easy. The string intervals are very weird for playing melodies on, but then, it’s not really much of a melody instrument anyway. Soprano and concert ukes are too small for me, but tenor is relatively comfortable. And it is, let’s face it, twee. Fun and easy, but twee.
- Mandolin is only slightly more difficult with chords, has a nice sound, and consistent intervals, a decent size. But then…
- Bass has consistent intervals and is monophonic. Easy to jam on. There’s a cool factor. I really like the sound of a fretless bass, and I feel like of all these instruments it’s the one I would most likely be able to work into my “serious” synth music. But even a short-scale fretless (30″, as opposed to the standard 34″) is quite an awkward reach, and it takes some effort to play.
So for a few years now I’ve been considering an Ashbory bass — a funny little 18″ scale length fretless instrument with thick, low-tension silicone rubber strings. It looks like a weird science-fiction toy but sounds akin to an upright bass. I wish I’d grabbed one when they were more widely available and cheap, because nobody is building them now and prices have gone up.
Ukulele maker Kala, inspired by the Ashbory, invented the U-Bass in the late 2000s — also using those thicker, denser, lower-tension strings and relying on amplification, though there are both acoustic-electric and solid-body designs. The instrument, strings, and techniques have gone through a few iterations, attracted some competitors building copies and unique takes, and though it’s still pretty obscure it seems to be growing fast.
After doing my research, I found:
- The strings seem to have more influence on tone than anything else. Generally, I think the winners here are Pahoehoe or Thunderblack for the upright bass sound, and Gallistrings round-wound for a more electric sound that in some ways isn’t as cool… but a more familiar feel and they definitely work better with some techniques. So it’s hard to choose between them!
- Aside from the Ashbory, none of the solid-body U-basses has sounded as good to me as the acoustic-electric styles. (Which is kind of a shame because some of them look cooler.)
- On acoustic-electric, the wood really doesn’t seem to matter. Laminate, solid wood, bamboo… it’s all extremely similar. Probably because it’s not expected to carry acoustically on its own, just drive the pickup.
- The fancier Shadow preamp on the more expensive Kala models just seem to amplify string noise more than the standard ones on their cheaper models, which seem to be the same ones other builders are using.
- Fretted vs fretless: I gravitate to fretless, and the coolest sounds seem to come from them. In some demos they do have more string noise, but that varies a lot with string choice and preamp and technique.
Anyway, to kill the indecision I bought a used Hadean UKB-23 FL (fretless). The original strings were replaced by the seller with Kala/Gallistrings round-wound, though it’ll come with the originals. (Hadean’s marketing copy always says “Nylgut” but that’s the line for standard ukes — they have shown Thundergut, Thunderblack and Thunderbrown in their official photos.) I’ll see how that plays and make any string-changing or “I need a second U-bass to cover both ends of the spectrum” decisions after 😉