that part of winter

This has been the sort of week where we went from 66 degrees to dangerously icy roads in two days. I really don’t mind another work-from-home day, especially since it didn’t come with a huge pile of snow to clear this time.

The still unnamed album is now in the mastering and figuring out the name phase. I will probably just default to the name of the first track, which also suggests some designs for the album art.

The mood of the album overall is more on the desolate side, although it’s not too unrelenting about it. There’s even a track named “Bleakest” — but it was named after an oscillator in VCV Rack that provided the heart of the drone. Though I’ve certainly had some days, I don’t really feel any more depressed than usual these last couple of months; this is just the music that came out of me. Music for the dead of winter after the festive season has passed.

A couple of things are on the way:

Fretwraps: these are like fancy hair scrunchies for the neck of an instrument, which you can slide back behind the nut or in front of it to gently mute any open strings. (Indeed some people have used scrunchies for this, but they’re not ideal.) This reduces their sympathetic vibrations when playing, without having to worry as much about muting them with your hands — especially helpful when tapping. I got the “Nik West Signature Edition” (purple and obnoxious bright green) for the Mikro, and “walnut” to match the U-bass. The U-bass has this issue a bit less, but it’s still there.

Foot controller: a used Line 6 FBV Express, which is an expression pedal and four configurable switches in a compact unit. With this I’ll be able to control stuff in Bitwig (and thus also the modular) while playing bass or synths — loopers and freezers, stepping through sequences, toggling stuff on or off, playing specific synth notes, or triggering whatever else. Volume swells and timbre shifts and whatever else I might normally do with a fader, but while my hands are busy with other things. There were a few different possibilities I could have gone for here, but this seemed the most cost-effective. It’s unlikely to save me from having to overdub to get more than a little synth with my bass on recordings, but it does expand possibilities. However, aside from this controller, I’m standing by my general resolve not to buy effects pedals, since software and modular can cover my effects needs.

whole again

I successfully fixed my U-bass tuner. I had to drill out the screw from the old one, and I even managed to break a drill bit in the process. But once I safely extracted it, everything else went smoothly.

The nut that holds the tuner on has a tube that runs through the hole in the headstock, and that was slightly wider than the old one — but the old one worked fine there. The tiny screw that are supposed to stop the whole tuner from rotating was less tiny in the new kit, so I didn’t have to fill in the old hole or drill a new one. I only replaced the D tuner; it looks so similar to the old ones you’d have to get a very close look to see differences.

I restrung using a slightly different method from what Aquila’s video showed, which meant less excess string wound around the post. Everything is hunky-dory now.

The Thunderbrown strings are nice. I’m not noticing any difference in tone from the old Thunderblack strings; there might be a hair little less sustain (but it’s still plenty) and I think I’m getting more mwah (perhaps due to the slight difference in tension and gauge). They’re supposedly a bit louder acoustically, but it’s not a big difference. The feel is sort of a “sandy” textured plastic, not too grippy but noticeable to the touch — maybe somewhere between a flatwound and roundwound in texture.

Overall, this isn’t a big upgrade, but then, I wasn’t complaining of stickiness with the old strings. People who find Thunderguts/Thunderblack too sticky, dislike the tendency of Pahoehoe strings to stretch forever and not stay in tune, but otherwise like the sound and general character of these types of strings would probably love them. People who want “normal” bass strings should go for the Gallistrings flats that Kala sells on their website.

8 tracks are done for the next album, and the U-bass appears on three of them — sometimes stealthily, and on one track there’s a synth sounding like it’s a fretless bass. I know my synth music influences my bass playing/recording (which is fully intentional) but some flow is happening the opposite way as well (which isn’t, but is not unwelcome).

I plan to record one more track, probably with the Mikro and some zingy resonator stuff with NI Raum. That’s one of the plugins that really comes to life with the right material, and the Mikro is the right material. Arturia’s Chorus JUN-60 is another; it’s moderately pleasant but not really ideal for most synth stuff I’ve given it and it does very little for the U-bass, but on the Mikro it’s fantastic.

old bass day

“New Bass Day” is a big thing at, where people show and tell about their new instruments. There are so many different variables in the design, features and appearance of a bass, and so many custom and one-off instruments, that it can be a fascinating thing to geek out over. GAS, the combination of curiosity, envy, and the thrill of getting New Stuff, seems like it might be even stronger among bassists than synth folks, and NBD is a bigger deal than New Module Day.

I’ve already gushed about my purple Ibanez Mikro GSRM20, which honestly is as far from unique as basses get, but they’ve got the design nailed. And I’ve raved about my Hadean uke bass (and ranted about the tuner problem). But here’s my Old Bass Day post:

SX Ursa 2 JR MN 3TS. Fretless, 30″ scale. Not pretty (some people hate the headstock on them, and… yeah, I see it). I bought it in 2013, knowing little about different bass designs and techniques — but it was cheap and available, I was curious to experiment with strings and electronics, and “short scale” sounded like a good idea. I noodled with it a little, found it awkward to play and awkward to keep near the computer with the synth gear, and mostly let it sit around.

As I know now, it’s in the style of a Fender jazz bass: two “J” pickups, 3 knobs, a neck that tapers a bit as it goes up for slightly easier playing, and a copycat of the Fender body shape and pickguard. The neck might be thicker than is normal though, and the body leans toward the heavy side.

(There are different designs of magnetic pickups for basses: J, P, MM, and some hybrids. All of them, one way or another, provide at least two different coils positioned differently along the string — they pick up string vibration out of phase from each other, and electromagnetic interference in phase, so they can cancel each other out for a cleaner signal. Different positioning of the poles and coils leads to different kinds of tone, and allows different mixes of the coils to sculpt the tone. Piezo pickups on the other hand, pick up acoustic vibration of the bridge rather than magnetic fields from metal strings.)

It had some kind of flatwound strings on it originally; I don’t know what. The sound was neither bright nor punchy — “bright” typically comes from roundwound strings and “punchy” happens more with P or hybrid basses than J generally, as I understand it. Not at all good for slapping or tapping, but strong in the characteristic fretless “mwah.” And the amp I have upstairs — a keyboard practice amp with a bad, rattly resonance to it — sucks in general but is especially unsuited for a bass. Overall, the impression I got was that it was kind of a dull, ungainly instrument.

Putting the Chromes on it and running it into Bitwig with the compression, EQ and optional light chorus that I set up for the Mikro, feels like the bass has risen from its grave. It’s not as spry as the Mikro and won’t be dancing a jig or doing parkour, though. It doesn’t have quite the double-bass mellowness that the U-bass has either. But I’ve upgraded my opinion of the Ursa quite a bit from “near trash” anyway.


My Aquila Thunderbrown strings arrived Monday, and I put them on, following Aquila’s YouTube tutorial. But I didn’t stretch them enough first, and they wound too many times around the posts, particularly the D, which is a bad idea. So I went to unwind the D and the tuner stuck. It just wouldn’t loosen any further.

Checking in with more experienced folks on the Talkbass forum, I was able to get the string off by stretching it over the post (these are very stretchy strings), but the tuner is still both jammed, and wobbling loosely in the headstock. To make matters worse, the screw that holds the gear and spool on — necessary to remove if I’m going to tighten it, check for damage, or replace the tuner — is stripped. It’s in a recessed part of the gear where my trusty Vampliers can’t get a bite. So I guess the next step is to try using a rubberband to get a better grip, and if that doesn’t work, carefully drill the screw out.

I have replacement tuners on order. Thankfully these are cheap and simple, at $15 for a set of four, rather than the $20 for a single Hipshot Custom Ultralight tuner that is all Kala sells. I don’t know if my own mistake (too many windings) is what botched the tuner, or if it exacerbated a defect or improper installation, or maybe the previous owner did something to it too. But hopefully this is all the expense that will need to go into fixing it; taking it to a luthier would be costly and I’d feel pretty dumb doing so, and few luthiers have probably worked on a U-bass much anyway.

The strings themselves seem nice though. They have a bit of texture to them and aren’t slick, but they don’t have the kind of sticky feel that the older Thunderblack strings had. I never had a serious problem with that, but then, it’s winter, the humidity is low and my skin is really dry. I didn’t really notice a big difference in tone. I was going to compare the sustain, but the tuner fiasco was a mighty distraction. A more thorough review with actual playing will have to wait until things are fixed and it’s got four strings properly wound, but my general feeling is: if the feel of Thunderblack strings bugs you, these may help a lot. If it doesn’t, it’s a minor upgrade, and you can wait until your old strings really need replacing.

As for the Mikro: the more I play it, the more I like it! I’m going to just stick with the current strings until they’re worn out, and probably keep roundwounds on it forever. I found some resonator effects where the zingy sound of running fingers over the strings creates some sonic magic, and I really like how easily I can slap and tap with it. I was doing some two-handed tapping with it last night and it was a joy — the technique looked difficult to me until I actually tried it — and found a use for ambient slapping.

My main crime right now in terms of technique is in how I let the pressure off the frets while the note is decaying, causing a rattle. Staying put until the note is done ringing out, or muting it first would help; it’s also likely that lifting the finger off faster, cleaner, all the way will prevent a rattle.

cannot not unsee

I’ve got about 50 minutes recorded toward the next album. It snuck up on me — one day I feel like it’s barely started and going slowly, the next I think I’m “halfway done” but really could master and release it right now, except that I want to try another couple of tracks first.

I found that the set of bass strings I bought a few years ago, intending to put on the Ursa short-scale fretless but never getting around to it, are exactly one of the ones that many players like very much on the Ibanez Mikro: D’Addario Chromes. There are a lot of different string characteristics, varying in tension, materials, and winding. The big divide is generally round vs. flat, with rounds generally being brighter and more “zingy” but rougher to the touch and noisier with movement, and flats being warmer and mellower and smooth. But there are some exceptions and alternatives — tapewound, groundwound, half-round, coated, and then different core profiles and a few other things that matter. Chromes are flatwound but people describe them as having “a round wound sound” as well as “deep and punchy,” although some have called them “twangy.”

I’m trying to decide whether to put the Chromes on the old bass and maybe rescue it — because with the current variables I don’t like it very much in feel or in tone — or just go ahead and put them on the Mikro. I suppose I won’t damage them in some way trying them on the older bass first, though.

Latest reads:

  • I mentioned Dune. I’ve finished it, and my overall feeling remains: it’s a mixed bag. But I can see how this book, released when it was, was highly influential. I already coincidentally compared the Jedi to the Beni Gesserit but I think that’s more apt than I realized; this book went deep into space magic/mysticism, space feudalism, a space empire. It’s essentially fantasy wearing SF clothing, which is where Star Wars went. Trek instead combined Westerns, a space navy, and handwavy technobabble.
    Dune is also remarkably dark. Testing the pain tolerance of children under threat of death as part of their training, a culture of oppressed people who have to drink their own body fluids to survive, a whole empire dancing to the tune of a capitalist cartel, a massive conspiracy using eugenics and the manipulation of religion and culture to achieve its mysterious aims… but also the theme of the whole thing seems to be that every victory is a kind of defeat. Try as you might, you could win but you will also lose, and a hero is the most tragic and disastrous figure there is. Huh.
  • Project Hail Mary. This was a ray of sunshine after Dune, even though it’s about a desperate attempt to save the human race. There should be more books where the protagonist is a cool science teacher who has to solve problems with science, rather than violence or treachery. This was the most science science fiction I have read in quite some time, and also wonderfully funny several times. Loved it!
  • There is No Antimimetics Division. This is a novel of SCP Foundation fiction, and it is humorous, absurd, very clever and very dark and scary. It’s in the paranormal conspiracy genre, where an organization which exists to protect humanity from “anomalies” also must deal with deadly memes and antimemes — ideas that encourage their own spread and ideas that resist/prevent their own spread. Trying to contain cognitohazards when simply knowing that the hazard exists exposes you to it. Drugs that cause people to be unable to forget, or unable to remember. Enormous creatures of the deep and omnipresent parasites that most of us simply cannot become aware of — and the frightening, bewildering lives of the few who can see them.

an object in motion…

Function generators/slew limiters can do many different things. When I think of typical modules in this department such as Maths, Function, Mini-Slew, Tilt, DUSG, Rampage and so on, the first application that comes to mind is envelopes. Send a trigger, get a rise and fall with variable speeds and shapes. Send a gate, get a rise, hold, and fall. Beyond that, making them loop so they’re an LFO is probably next. Then using it to smooth out other CV signals. Audio rate oscillation might be next, although few of these are designed to follow standard volt per octave pitch tracking and can maintain it over more than a short range. Somewhere below that is all the other stuff they can do — waveshaping, trigger delays, frequency division, crude audio filtering, and so on.

NSI Inertia is not typical. After a few hours of playing with it, I think envelopes are not its strongest role. The controls are a little weird for that and the shapes are always exponential unless you do some self-patching. On the other hand, you do get some atypical psuedo-ADSR shapes from it, and wobbles and spikes if you like, so it’s worth playing with even for that.

It’s stronger as an LFO or oscillator, where the shape and frequency are independent and you can play with other inputs to the trigger or main input to disrupt things. But it’s at its most unique when used as a lowpass filter, or perhaps somewhere in between a filter and oscillator. The “momentum” acts as resonance, the second-order output gives a -12dB/oct response, and the “skew” gives it a different cutoff frequency for rising and falling portions of the input waveform, which is almost like a blend control for filtering but goes beyond that. With more extreme skew it can act as a very different sort of frequency divider. And then there are applications like slewing incoming CV, where momentum can add spikes and wobbles, or FM pings accenting changes in level.

So yeah, it’s cool. 🙂

Also cool? The new bass!

It feels just right to me, has a great sound that works very well with various effects — this turned out to be a great match for me and I’m very glad I went for it. Playing with frets does take a little adjustment after the fretless U-bass and the older short-scale fretless (which I realize now is not a quality instrument in the least, but it might become a platform for experiments) but I think this will be easier to learn on too, and generally easier to integrate with the whole drone/ambient thing.

I do have some new Thunderbrown strings on the way for the U-bass though, since someone pointed to a US shop that has them for a reasonable enough price. It will be interesting to see how my approach to the U-bass changes after some time with the Mikro. I like that mellow, upright tone too and it’ll also have a place, but I think it’s going to be secondary.

We’ve been having Weather here — rain that became sleet, then ice, then a pretty solid amount of snow but nothing like the 16 inches that were possible in the forecast. Enough to work from home for three days, which I appreciate for reasons beyond not having to dig a car out until Sunday or deal with treacherous roads.

We’ve also been having a lot of avian visitors to the birdfeeder in the last couple of days — crowds of up to a couple of dozen house finches, chickadees, cardinals, juncos, a jay and perhaps some others. It’s quite a show and we both thought about setting up a webcam. Before that, it was mostly just a ninja squirrel and a cardinal who occasionally observed from a safe distance.