how it’s going

I am reading Dune for the first time — a book I’ve avoided until now because friends expressed dislike or indifference toward it. And wow, it’s a mixed bag. The first chapter was compelling and exciting… and then the second was melodrama that I actually laughed at. “I, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen!” twirling his mustache while reminding his son Sting Feyd and his favorite assassin what his name is and what his dastardly plot is and being fat-shamed. There’s an awkward level of third-person omniscience, where we’ll hear the inner monologues of multiple characters one after another. And I am not on board with the way some plot points are not just foreshadowed, but fore-reported. But there are definitely some cool ideas and spots of nifty language, and I’m enjoying it. When I’m not reading it I want to know what happens next and what was meant by a couple of mysterious things that were said, and honestly, Bene Gesserit powers are way cooler than the Force. Consent is really not much of a thing with them though, is it? Yikes.

On a recommendation, I’ve been going through the Hal Leonard Bass Method book. It can be a struggle to play what seems like really basic stuff when you are simultaneously:

  • Reading sheet music, when you’re not used to bass clef. Sometimes with finger numbers, sometimes position advice, sometimes with chord names, and sometimes you are not playing the root of the chord so those chord names are misleading.
  • Trying to intone the notes properly when playing fretless.
  • Sticking to the rhythm, using a metronome.
  • Alternating fingers on the plucking hand, and raking when moving from a higher string to a lower string.
  • Playing stuff that musically makes little sense, so you have to concentrate on reading what’s written rather than playing what you think it should be.

I recognize that getting this right will make me a better bass player, but I’m still thinking that reading sheet music is too much of a tangent for the kind of playing I want to do.

This book teaches 1-2-4 fingering (index, middle, pinky on three frets at a time) rather than “OFPF” (one finger per fret) at first, and I’m finding that’s pretty comfortable even at U-bass scale lengths. My thinking now is that a fretted instrument will be easier to learn on, and I may go for an Ibanez Mikro bass, with its 28.6″ scale length. They’re pretty inexpensive (partially marketed to kids) and look sharp (the “walnut flat” style especially appeals to me, even though there’s also a metallic purple [edit: I’ve seen more pictures of the walnut and some of them are actually ugly instead of beautiful! it varies so much. Better not risk it if not buying from a shop in person]). But I won’t want to abandon fretless entirely, and the U-bass will still have a role. I’ll probably switch off to emphasize different sound and different skills to work on.

In other gear news… so much for freezing my Eurorack setup, probably! Someone is selling/trading their Inertia and Polygogo. I’m still curious about the Inertia and kind of missing Maths anyway, so I feel like it would serve me better than Loquelic is currently — nothing against Loquelic but I can get those sounds in other ways.

The Polygogo is something I’ve been curious about thanks to a much cut-down version in VCV Rack. It too has some lovely FM sounds combined with its polygonal synthesis, which has some already FM-ish and sync-ish but unique tones… it’s tasty. The seller is interested in trading for an Akemie’s Castle, which is the only way I could make room. I’m of two minds about this — I’ve been thinking of trading the Castle for about 3 years now but every time I patch it I fall in love with the sounds. That doesn’t necessarily mean I can’t functionally get very similar sounds with other stuff though — including the Polygogo. So after some hemming and hawing, I made an offer.

Turns out the Polygogo was already sold, so that’s fine. I’ll buy the Inertia, sell my Loquelic, and keep the Castle still and not regret anything.

For the first time last night, I played with custom scale programming on the Ensemble Oscillator. I should have been doing this all along. The freely tunable versions of it fit extremely well with my workflow and can make some really beautiful drones. Honestly, before this I was also thinking of EnOsc as kind of secondary, in a similar space to other oscillators. But now I’m going to take advantage of this for sure and it might become extremely key. Or at least, off-key…

how do you be so short?

Bass guitar (or ukulele) seems to be a “journey” in much the same way modular is. One of the things I have to keep repeatedly learning is that a bass is not a violin.

My aha-moment is as follows.

On a violin, because the space between semitones on the fingerboard is relatively small, standard technique is to keep the hand in first position as much as possible and shift up the neck only when necessary. It’s easy enough for four fingers to cover a 6 semitone range. And I got used to thinking of low position and minimal shifting as the standard way string instruments are played.

On a bass, the strings are tuned in fourths rather than fifths, so you need to cover 4 frets rather than 6. But on a 34″ scale bass, it’s still a 5.1 inch reach between frets 1 and 4, from the index finger to the pinky, and just touching that spot at a weird angle isn’t good enough. This baffled me for a while — even on my 30″ short-scale bass, it’s still a 4.5 inch stretch (and no fudging it because it’s fretless), and that’s just not practical.

The main way this is resolved is with technique. Bass players don’t typically stick to the lowest few frets. Fret spacing gets closer toward the bridge, so the reach isn’t as far. Also by changing positions to match the key, they can maintain consistent fret patterns regardless of the root. Also, though it’s not universal (and not taught in the book I’ve been going through), many players use fingers 1/2/4 for 3 frets rather than 4 on the lower frets.

I realize also that this is also one reason why 5-string basses typically have a low B rather than a high C: not necessarily so you can play a 30.87 Hz B0 which probably doesn’t come up all that often, but so you can play up the neck a bit and still have a good range.

Short-scale and smaller basses also make that reach easier of course, and I plan to stick with them. The 21″ scale length of a U-bass is quite comfortable. I may give my 30″ fretless a bit more of a try now, farther up the neck anyway — but more likely I’ll sell or donate it. I could see a 5-string 30″ fretted bass working out, but I’m leaning more toward staying in the bass uke range or the Wing style 18″ scale stuff.

With all this bass talk, I want to say that yes, I am still very much doing things with synths. I’ve got 3 tracks recorded now toward the next project. (Admittedly, there’s a fourth that’s ambient U-bass; I’ll probably use a snippet of it as a transitional segment.) I’m also starting to have inklings about where it’s going, though in a difficult to articulate way… again, if I could express myself as well in words as in sound, I’d be a writer instead of a musician.

where am I going with this?

I have a couple of things recorded now for whatever the next album is going to be. As has happened before — especially with the last one, I’m really not sure where it’s going. I’m also not yet hearing something that really stands out and tells me “yes, I want more of this,” and these tracks might get culled once I do find that groove, or just collect more stuff. It happens. But clarity would be nice to have!

Even more so though: I don’t quite know where I’m going with bass, what my actual goal is, how I see myself playing it.

A lot of this is just me wanting to play something else, learn something new and be a bit casual-but-serious about it, if that makes sense. It may also awaken my interest in playing other instruments as well. Come for the bass, stay for the mandolin? I’ll consider that an optional side quest for now, or an expansion pack 🙂

I have a deep love for synth music. I like the bass and fretless in particular, but honestly, my appreciation for genres where bass guitar or upright bass are prominent is much more casual. I don’t dream of being the next Jaco or Flea or Bootsy, nor do I particularly want to play flashy stuff like Michael Manring or Charles Berthoud.

I picked the instrument not for its typical genre or role, but its characteristics — where it stands in terms of music theory, timbre and possibilities, and relative ease of playing. (The smaller scale length and lower string tension of U-bass in particular is a big part of that.) I feel like I can integrate it into ambient/drone music more naturally and comfortably than I could guitar, mandolin, percussion, etc. It’ll require some creative leaps as well as learning technique, and I’m kind of excited about that.

Ambient or drone bass guitar is not wholly unheard of, it’s just unusual compared to “regular” guitar. Groups like Sunn O))) and GY!BE certainly do involve bass. I’m aiming at a less rock side than that, and certainly more of a solo project. But it’s perhaps a thousand mile journey rather than a million.

In terms of technique, I doubt I will need to play fast, but I will need to play clean. My intonation needs to be good, even high up the neck, and my right-hand control will need to be on point. I want to be able to play cleanly without having multiple strings ringing out when I don’t want them to, so finding my way around the fretboard without open strings may be important. Slapping is probably not going to be needed, tapping or at least hammer-on may be. Finding effects that compliment the bass will be important, but that leans heavily on my synthesis experience anyway.

Figuring out workflow for recording will be another challenge. Not being a cephalopod, I don’t see how I can play bass and synths/mix faders simultaneously. I won’t want to knock the bass around while recording, with its piezo pickup that will transmit every motion noise. So I predict some multitracking in my future. There’s also looping as a possibility — I feel like I should be able to do that with software rather than relying on a looper pedal as such.

And of course, the kind of thing I decide to play will also determine questions such as fretted vs. fretless, Wing-like vs sticking to U-bass, or even something that could be played lap steel style or with other unusual techniques. If I want to use an e-bow, that also means steel strings.

Also, let it be known I’m deciding officially to pass on the Make Noise Strega (or any other small synths). I’m sure it’s a joy and it fits my style, but I can’t find a way to integrate it non-awkwardly without giving up other gear, and I don’t think the exchange would make sense. I still do want to set up a better stand for the Minibrute 2S just so it’s not so wobbly and awkward — but not to try to make room for more gear. Knowing that I may want other basses in the future will also make it easier to say “no more synths” definitively. 🙂

follow up

I’ve been reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Set beginning in 2024, after total economic and social collapse apparently brought on by climate change and hypercapitalism, it’s… not pleasant. I’m not sure I am getting much from the philosophical/psuedo-religious bits, but it does have the feature of the middle class being pinched in the middle — having relative privilege and comfort compared to the abject poor, and yet not prospering, not having stability and security.

That is an argument I see a lot from some leftists online: if you make (insert salary level here), or are living in (expensive city) then everything must be automatically easy for you, and therefore you’re part of the problem. I think it’s the same failure to understand and empathize with others’ circumstances that spawned the “avocado toast” meme, but it takes the form of resentment rather than disdain.

Yes, I have a decent salary, at this stage in my life. That was not always so, and I have a fraction of what Boomer financial advisors say I should have saved up for retirement. Prescription drug costs scare me, and sometimes I wonder how long it’ll take to die if I lose my job. Capitalism kills. I would happily pay more in income tax if it meant a stronger social safety net, partly because I’m not entirely self-absorbed and sociopathic, and partly because it’s very much in my own interests to do so. Universal health care and universal basic income are exactly what would make me more secure, not lower taxes. And taking better care of both the earth and the poor would have avoided the fate of society in Butler’s novel for sure.

Anyway, on to more pleasant subjects…

I wound up grabbing two Jean-Michel Jarre albums and the Yellowjackets one. Without the nostalgia lens the JMJ is… pretty good, just not mind-blowing. The YJ is honestly a bit disappointing; there are a couple of good tracks and more of a smooth jazz lean than I remembered.

Tomita is much less disappointing! He did have some cheesy and/or gimmicky moments but some of his albums are very satisfying overall.

I don’t think I’ll be able to find the “Robots” Kraftwerk compilation — it probably was never released on CD and not very widely even on cassette — but at some point I will track down the three classic albums I care about.

One of the key things that I practice on the U-bass is going to have to be intonation. I fired up a tuner plugin the other day and found that, when I thought I’d been nailing notes relatively well, I was off by more than I expected. Maybe the free-tuning stuff with synths has de-trained my ears, or maybe, a few cents off here and there is just natural. But I don’t want my pitch to be super sloppy — and maybe that second bass that I pick up eventually should be fretted.

I really like the look of an unlined fretless bass, like a classic upright double bass and the rest of the violin family. But in practical terms that’s much more difficult to get right, and I certainly don’t mind playing an easier instrument.

I’ve been looking at “Wing” style basses — much shorter, lyre-like instruments where the body is elongated and the neck is integrated with it. They use normal bass strings; many are half-scale and play one octave up, but some are sort of “baritone” and can use BEAD tuning or even standard bass tuning. Some instead have octave pedal electronics built-in.

Wing itself is a pretty spendy brand and have a long waiting list. There are a couple of brands that start even higher. But Italian brand Maurizio makes the Miezo, which is a bit more more “bass-shaped,” also look absolutely lovely, and are priced very reasonably given that they’re also all custom builds. [UPDATE: hours after I wrote that, they announced an upcoming price increase.] Polish brand MihaDo makes the (unfortunately named) FingyBass with several different options in stock in a variety of prices.

Maybe I should stick with the uke style basses, but I kind of like the hybridization these have gone through, the departure from a traditional bass role. It’s not like I had planned on playing bass in a band, at least not any conventional one. At any rate, I’m going to stick with my current bass until I’ve had at least six months of practice and experience with it.

here we are

It’s 2022 now. I don’t think many people are sad to see 2021 in the rear view mirror.

Honestly the thing that comes to mind when I think about 2021 is: at least I had music. That stopped it from being a crappy year. There were a few other things of course, and I’m generally grateful for the life I have (with some specific exceptions!) but work was one big stress-fest and of course, COVID. Here’s hoping this year will bring relief and respair.