5 Drum Accessories You Didn’t Know You Needed

Here are some things that I’ve come across that can make a drummer’s life easier or, at the very least, more interesting.  Like any writer worth his sodium, I use some of these then texted my much smarter drummer friends to hear their ideas.

Here’s what the village came up with:

  1. The Miller Machine

    These guys are lifesavers for pit players. They allow one handed triangle and finger cymbal playing. Comes in handy when you’re in the middle of 315 bars of time and there’s invariably that one triangle note out of nowhere.

  2. Tangereens Percussion Sticks

    Plastic casings surrounding either a shaker or jingle bells. Great for creating different textures at lower volumes. And they come in handy at all of those corporate holiday party gigs.

  3. Muffbone

    It’s not what you think it is….You can use this clever little device for quick bass drum muffling. It fits between your pedal and batter head and provides a pretty broad range of options when you don’t have a lot of time to tune to the room.

  4. Drumbal

    Cruel twist of irony? Rise of the machines? This groovy little gadget helps replicate drum machine sounds such as white noise, hand claps, and electronic snare on your acoustic kit. I know, right?

  5. Manhasset Drummer Stand

    The ultimate ‘didn’t know I needed it but I’m sure glad I have it’ invention. This stand comes with a multi clamp and will attach to any tom or cymbal stand allowing you to always have the music between you and the conductor. Which they apparently appreciate.

Let us know in the comments if you have any other cool gadgets for drummers or for musicians in general.

Dear Santa: My Christmas Wishlist

This is my money-don’t-matter Christmas wishlist. If Santa spent the rest of his year as a hedge-fund manager and he had a ton of bread to drop on my Christmas list, this is the one I’d hand him.

So, with that in mind, let’s start off with a new piano.

A New Piano

I live in a studio apartment in Manhattan. I live way uptown, so my place isn’t as small as that sentence might suggest. Nevertheless, I have neighbors that I have to take into consideration when I’m thinking about making music at home.

For me, the perfect instrument has to have three things: 1.) the action has to be superb, 2.) it has to integrate flawlessly with MIDI, 3.) I have to be able to use it late at night with headphones.

The cheap solution is a digital piano. For over 5 years now I’ve been playing and practicing on a Yamaha P-120, and it’s been a trustworthy companion. But come on, now – Santa’s loaded this year – so I want the real thing.

I’ve been eyeing this Yamaha U1SG model for awhile now. It has all the features I need – real action, MIDI integration and a silent feature. The MIDI integration is optical, not mechanical, to it doesn’t change the action at all (very clever, Yamaha).

A New Computer

When some clever jerk thought up the idea of “planned obsolescence” in the mid 20th century, he could never have known how easy the computer industry in the 21st century would have it. As soon as you buy a new computer it immediately begins it’s journey toward becoming a totally useless piece of trash.

And so, while I acknowledge the malice and waste of an industry that primarily makes future trash, I’ll also say this: I totally want a new computer. New computers are just so…sexy, you know? The MacBook I’m writing you from right now is still mostly working fine, but if Santa is loaded, then I’m asking for a new Mac.

A friend of mine recently bought a new computer. While at the Mac store it occurred to him that he could either get a tricked out MacBook Pro, or he could get both a tricked out iMac AND a MacBook Air for about the same price. So, actually, he got two sexy computers. And I have been jealous ever since.

So dear Santa, while I know you can afford the ultra-sexy Mac Pro and cinema display combo, I’m only going to ask you for the 27″ iMac…AND the 128MB MacBook Air. Thanks Santa.

Studio Monitors

Tech-heads and audiophiles are going to cringe at this, but the truth is that I do most of my mixing and mastering through my 1998 Sony stereo system. You remember your ’90s era stereo, right? Double tape deck and 5-CD changer? That summer you discovered hair gel and your (now dead) appreciate for Mel Gibson movies? The Chumbawumba album you probably sourced too heavily from for the mix tapes you gave to friends?

Well, anyway, I hook my MacBook into the aux input of that stereo and do all my mixing like that. It’s not that bad, to be honest. Most people listen to our music through those crappy iPod earbuds anyway, so why are we even breaking our necks on audio quality? Yes, yes, because we care, I know.

So with that in mind, it’s probably time for me to get some nice studio monitors. I like these ADAM A7s. So Santa, if you could throw a pair in my stocking this year, it’d be much appreciated.

New Headphones

It’s time for me to get some new headphones. Actually, Santa, if you could bring maybe 4 pairs of new headphones plus this Behringer 4-channel headphone amp, that’d be very helpful. See, I have singers come over to record at my place pretty regularly now, and it’s becoming problematic that I only have one real pair of headphones in this place.

I like the reviews on these Audio-Technica ATH-M50 studio monitor headphones. Flat response, comfortable design, nice enough to mix with late at night, etc. They are a little pricey, sure, but come on, Santa, you already bought me a piano and 2 computers. Don’t get cheap on me now.

A New iPod

Ok, back to the malice and waste of the computer industry.

I own an early generation iPod – the first one that had a color screen. That makes it sound like I bought it forever ago, but it was really just a few years back. Anyway – I told myself that I wouldn’t buy a new iPod until this one broke. But, actually, this little guy still seems pretty healthy. Can you believe that? I feel like I stumbled upon the only thing in the technology industry that seems to be well-built and durable. At this rate I’m going to be stuck with this 4th generation brick until I’m geriatric. Why won’t you break, for crying out loud!?

So dear Santa, please break my current iPod and bring me a sexy new one. Please bring the 160 GB silver one because I’m greedy and I like to carry at least 25,000 songs with me at all times.

Flip Cam and Final Cut

Sure, I realize that it seems pretty unlikely that I’d become a YouTube sensation. But if this guy can do it (and get a deal with Microsoft out of it), then we all at least have a shot.

Seriously, though, it does seem like video has already become an integral part of a career in the arts, doesn’t it? Whenever somebody wants to find out more about an actor or musician, it seems like they 1.) log on to Facebook to look for mutual friends, 2.) check YouTube for embarrassing (…and/or quality…) videos of performances, 3.) check out the personal website, 4.) maybe, actually, call them (not likely).

So dear Santa, please bring me an instant YouTube kit, which I think would be a Flip cam and a copy of Final Cut. Thanks.

The Savvy Musician: Book Review

It was over 10 years ago now, but I still remember the first time I picked up a copy of Donald Passman’s book, “All You Ever Need to Know About the Music Business”. I remember thinking at the time that the Passman book felt like a step-by-step blueprint for the career path a lot of us were headed down.

With all due respect to Mr. Passman and that seminal book, the changes in the musician industry since the late 1990s have made that book largely irrelevant. The contraction of the major label industry in the past ten years has meant that recording contracts, and the nasty tactics that Donald Passman was so good at warning us about, isn’t as large a threat to our profession.

And it’s not just the Passman book that has become outdated. The past decade has, if not completely negated, at least disrupted nearly a century of accepted musician business practices. The Internet, CD Baby and cheap home recording gear have ruined whole libraries of music business books. And publishers have not been keeping up with the changes – how could they? We’re not at the end of a major change in the industry – we’re right in the middle of it.

A Book for the Modern Musician

Except now that’s changed. I finally feel like I’ve read a book that accurately provides a blueprint for the successful career of a modern, working musician.

The Savvy Musician is written by David Cutler. You can find it at Amazon, or at the SavvyMusician.com.  This is the book of the decade for the musician industry.  It should be required reading at music schools and every pro should have a well-thumbed copy on their shelf.

There are several striking things about this book.  First, the comprehensive depth of material in this book is remarkable.  From marketing, to performing, to networking, to composing – this book covers a huge amount of material.

Second, there are 165 short vignettes of stories and interviews from successful, non-famous, working musicians in the book.  The vignettes add a lot of credibility to the material without any gimmickry.  The fact that they come from successful, non-famous musicians is what makes them genuine.  It’s easy enough to make a living as a famous musician – I’m sure Paris Hilton has sold more albums than me – it’s stories from regular musicians that are really interesting.

Third, Mr. Cutler has thankfully not fallen into the trap of glorifying the almighty Internet – and I say that as an avid blogger, Twitterer, Facebooker and all around new media addict.  In this book the Internet is treated as any other tool in the musician skillset, but it is rightfully nestled aside other, just as important tools – like face-to-face networking and printed press kits.

Again, I know that is a strange thing to say on a blog, but even I know the limitations of this, my favorite media.  While the Internet has probably been the one invention that has most changed our industry in the last 20 years, we still have some ways to go before the Internet can solve all of the challenges that it has created.  Until then, the Internet is a tool, and as this book shows, a savvy musician would be best served using it as such.

That said – as our industry progresses into the 21st century, and as things continue to change for our profession, sequels to The Savvy Musician will likely need to expand their coverage of internet-related techniques.  Take that for what it’s worth – a pre-emptive criticism of unwritten updates in an unknown future.  For now, the coverage of the Internet in The Savvy Musician covers those things that are known advantages – having you own website, joining networking websites, etc.  We’ll have to see what Internet-related advantages prove themselves in the future.

Possibilities

One of the things I really liked in this book were the endless lists of possible gigs, contacts, venues and possibilities for a music career.  There are a lot of opportunities mentioned in this book that I either hadn’t thought of, or hadn’t considered in a long time.  It’s those lists that have really stuck with me since I finished reading this book, and it’s left me with a head full of possibilities for the future.

Can you imagine a better outcome from reading a book?  To walk around for weeks afterward, still considering all of the new possibilities it inspired in you?

I also appreciate the focus of the book – again, not on the famous – but also, not on the urban pro.  This book is not about New York or LA or any other major music center (a fault that we here at MW may well be guilty of).  This book focuses on, and gives examples of, musicians working anywhere.  One of the underlying themes of this book is that we can make a career for ourselves nearly anywhere.  There are always possibilities, but it’s for the savvy musician to go out and get them.

______________________

The Savvy Musician is published by Helius Press.  Visit the Savvy Musician Blog at SavvyMusician.com/blog.

Gifts for Musicians

Digital recorder

Digital recorders can be used for all kinds of things. Recording a lesson, a rehearsal, a demo recording, a practice session – it’s very important for musicians to be able to record things and listen back. Our medium is sound, afterall.

I used to use a minidisc recorder, but that technology never seemed to catch on. Now these digital recorders like I have shown here are the new thing. They record better quality audio, in stereo in this case, and download it directly to your computer afterward. That is very handy.

For a cheaper version, you could also get an iPod audio recorder, like the Blue Mikey Portable iPod Recorder for $69.99.

Black catalog briefcase

I use one of these when I go on solo piano gigs. There’s often a broad range of music and styles that I’ll play on a gig like that, and I’ll need to bring plenty of music books. They won’t fit into a normal briefcase, so I have one of these large, catalog cases.

It looks a lot more professional to be walking into a gig with a suit and a briefcase, you know? It looks sharp for your client.

Plastic toolbox

Do you know a rhythm section musician that is always carting his/her gear around? I bet they have a ton of chords, pedals, drum keys, guitar strings, etc., etc., etc., they they have to bring with them on every gig.

I’ve found that the best way to carry all that is a toolbox. It’s a great way to carry accessories, plus it stacks well with other gear, it’s easy to carry and it is meant to get beat around a little. I use a bright yellow one because I can always see it in the dim of stage and backstage.

Get a plastic one because they are light and sturdy.

Instrument-specific magazine subscription

This is a good one! Nearly every instrument has it’s own magazine these days. There’s Guitar World, Drum Magazine, Clarinet & Saxophone Magazine, The Trombonist as well as genre specific magazines like Down Beat (jazz), Opera News and Classical Guitar Magazine.

This is a gift that will continue giving year-round!

Dr. Beat Metronome

This is a great gift. I know several musicians that own more than one. I visited the house of a married couple recently – he a cellist and her a violinist – and they had a basket of them. A whole basket of Dr. Beats, can you picture that? It was beautiful.

For reasons I’ll never understand, Dr. Beat Metronomes are very expensive, as you can see here. There is a lower cost version of this one, though, the Boss DB-60 for $73.49.

A nice music stand

Raise your hand if you have one of those wire, fold-up music stands. Ok, put you hands down, I can’t see you anyway.

Musicians spend a lot of time practicing, and after they get out of music school that still spend a lot of time practicing. But after music school they don’t have the luxury of dedicated practice rooms with nice stands and grand pianos – they mostly practice at home. A great many musicians (don’t deny it) steal nice music stands from work or school and keep them at home. That might be a little questionable ethically, but it’s a testament to how valuable a good stand is to a practicing musician.

So for Christmas, consider buying them a nice stand (so they can return the one they stole…). Metal is nice, wood is also nice. What I personally prefer is a full back to the part of the stand that holds the music (the “face” of the stand). You need something that allows you to write and make notes on loose pages, and having a solid face to the stand allows that.

Stand light

This isn’t necessarily for that stand you just bought them. That stand will probably stay at home and stay well-lit. This light will be something your musician will bring on a gig. Stand lights are usually provided on gigs, but musicians can always use more light on a gig, especially if it’s a sight-reading job. This is a cool little light that will make all the other kids at school jealous. If you want something more traditional, you can buy a regular stand light, like the Stand Light by Weise

An instrument they don’t already play

As musicians, we got into this business because we love making music. Sometimes with all the practicing, all the critiquing and all the working it can turn into a job. Never a real job, mind you, but something approaching that feeling.

Sometimes musicians find it really refreshing to start learning a new instrument. There’s no pressure to be good at it, and sometimes it can help them rediscover their joy of making music. In other words, musicians can relieve the stress of playing music by playing music. This is what happens when your passion is also your job!

This can be a really refreshing gift. For violinists, you might consider a mandolin (the fingerings are the same). For wind players you might consider a Celtic Tin Whistle. And don’t forget – everyone likes a guitar.

New music

When in doubt – let them pick out some new music. You’d be surprised how infrequently some musicians buy new music. Personally, a lot of the music I buy isn’t recreational, but practical. Maybe I’m trying to learn a new groove, a new genre, or a new song.

Gift your musician an iTunes gift card and let them pick out some recreational music to listen to. They will be very grateful!

5 Music Gadgets I Can’t Live Without

Metronome & Tuner in one

I let my girlfriend borrow this for a few weeks thinking I wouldn’t miss it and I was totally wrong. Turns out we both can’t live without it. I didn’t realize how much I was using it to check tempos here and there (and to let horn players borrow for tuning…ahem…). This is a priceless little gadget for musicians.

I bought mine…er…my girlfriend’s at the Sam Ash in NYC a few years back. I see Amazon has it for $25. I think it’s well worth the dime.

Bose Headphones

I was actually given these as a gift, if you can believe that. Great gift, right? I thought so too. I really like these headphones – they have great sound quality, the block out an impressive amount of sound without the expense of noise-canceling technology, they are lightweight and comfortable. They fit really well around my ears and stay comfortable for long periods of time.

They are expensive, like most Bose products, but they’ve also lasted a long time for me. I’ve been using my pair for 4 years now and I’m very happy with them. The foam on the ear cushions is finally starting to flake off a bit, but the sound quality has stayed the same and I expect them to stay nice for quite awhile longer. If I lost them I’d definitely replace them right away.

USB MIDI Connector

This 2×2 USB MIDI interface from M-Audio is perfect for my rig. Most keyboard controllers for sale these days have USB connection built in – which means you can skip the old MIDI interfaces and just buy a USB hub (which could save you around $200+). If you have an older board that only has MIDI connectors and no USB (like my Yamaha P-120), buy this 2×2 connector and you be all set. How simple is that? Another priceless gadget.

I also take this gadget on the road with me, even if I don’t have my keyboard in tow. In the places I work I’m never far from a keyboard, and I’m always working on something in Logic or Finale. If I have this cord in my suitcase I can always pull it out and make that abandoned keyboard in the backroom my make-shift recording studio for the day.

MOTU Ultralite

Without exception, I think the MOTU Ultralite is the best audio interface in it’s price range. I’ve owned one for 3 years now and I have no complaints. I have a friend borrowing it right now to record an entire album. I have no doubt that this gadget is up to the task.

The preamps are crisp and warm, the dials and buttons are rugged and satisfying, and the chassis is trustworthy. The firewire port means that it can be bus powered through your computer (leave that big adaptor at home), but it can also be used as a stand-alone mixer if you need it in a pinch (so bring that big adapter). I’ve lugged this little electronic all over the country between tours and relocations, and it’s never complained. Pair this with a good mic and you’re done. This is a great product.

1/8″ Headphone Adapter

My cellphone is a Palm Centro. There are a lot of fancy bluetooth and non-bluetooth headphones that you can use with a phone like mine, but they can be expensive, or they have a special jack – and either way they can only be used with the phone.

Why not just use your regular headphones? All you have to do is buy this 1/4″ to 1/8″ adaptor and you can. It’s only $1.43 at Amazon, and I found mine at Radio Shack for around the same amount. Just make sure that you get a “stereo” adaptor, or you’ll only get sound out of one ear (I made that mistake once).

Once you have the adaptor, you can plug your phone into anything that you can plug your iPod into – your car, iPod speakers (not the docks, the kind with the 1/4″ jacks), other stereo systems. This is really convenient if you have some new music that you are trying to learn and you want to always have it with you. Maybe you’re learning a new standard, or playing with a new band and learning their charts – or maybe you just recorded a new album and you always want to have the new music with you to show others.

You can do all of this with an iPod, of course, but sometimes you want to leave your iPod at home. Say you go for a run – maybe you want to bring your cell phone for safety and your iPod for music – just bring your phone with this adaptor and put a playlist on the phone.

I know what I’m describing here is an iPhone, or countless other kinds of phones, but this is the cheap way that I do it. It works great for me and costs less than $2.

Top 10 Blogs for Musicians

One of the first things I do every morning is read or scan through a variety of blogs, most of which are sent to my inbox. The blogs range from music related to business related, and factual news to ideas or concepts that I have to twist a little to apply to music. On the ideas and concepts front, many of the writers are reading what each other have to say, which is good for all of us. This is how good ideas start.

Subscribing to RSS feeds is a great way to scan headlines and find the information most important to you. I recommend subscribing to all of these and trying to dedicate 30 minutes a day to a little reading about the industry.

1) Digital Music News – Reports on the latest headlines in the world of digitized music. Not a blog per se, but it’s the first thing I read every day and it gives me a heads up on what I might run into on other blogs.

2) Hypebot – News related but with an editorial slant.

3) Seth Godin – Marketer and author, usually unrelated to music but his thoughts and positive attitude are relevant and motivate me to try new things.

4) The DIY Musician Blog by CD Baby – An always helpful resource for independent musicians. If you find their blog helpful, also check out their podcast.

5) New Music Strategies – Author Andrew Dubber writes about many of the issues today’s independent musicians face, and offers some nice solutions to common problems.

6) Derek Sivers – Founder and former owner of CD Baby, Sivers always thinks about the little guy in the big picture.

7) Music Think Tank – A community of music bloggers riffing on their ideas.

8) Sound Music, Sound Money – Author/bassist Doug Ross offers some great advice on having a career as an independent or freelance musician.

9) Lefsetz Letter – Bob Lefsetz is highly opinionated and his newsletter will piss you off. But if you can get past his crudeness and negativity, his passion for music will strike a chord with you and his underlying perspective will make you think about your own music.

10) Bob Baker’s Indie Music Promotion Blog – Great tips for low cost indie promotion ideas and guerrilla marketing.

Basic Guitar and Fretted Instrument Set-Up

Sometimes you end up with a cheap guitar that sounds pretty good but the intonation is rough on your ears and the action makes your fingers bleed. If it’s not worth the cost of a set up, you might be able to make some adjustments yourself and make it a decent axe to keep around the house. I haven’t done this on a guitar, but I’ve done work on my mandolin and ukulele, so if you average out the strings, it’s the same basic principle. Before you get in over your head, do a little extra research, especially if you’re inexperienced at adjusting the truss rod or handling small files or sharp blades.

1) Make sure the neck is straight. Put a capo on the first fret and push down the string on the last fret. There should be a tiny amount of space between the 8th fret and string. If there’s nothing, loosen your truss rod. Too much, tighten it. Adjust it in quarter turns, and very slowly.

2) Adjust the bridge or saddle. In most cases, your bridge or saddle (the white piece on the bridge of an acoustic guitar), is going to be too high. There should be slightly more distance between the strings and frets as you move up the neck to allow for more vibration on the string, but too much will cause intonation problems. If it’s an acoustic with one of those white plastic saddles, you can simply pop it out to file or sand the bottom side to lower it, or if it needs more height put something underneath it.

3) File out the slots on the nut. On almost every new instrument, especially cheap ones, the nut will need some work. Your strings should be very close to the first fret, otherwise you’ll have intonation problems. The string vibration has a smaller amplitude here and is less likely the buzz. Professional guitar techs will have appropriate files for this job, but a set of these is almost as expensive as any instrument I’d have the nerve to work on so I use an exacto knife, nail file, and patience. Go very slowly and retest the string often. If you take out too much you’ll need a new nut, or else figure out a way to carefully add a little glue in the slot.

4) Adjust the intonation. This can mean several things. Classical guitars, ukuleles, and many acoustics won’t allow for much adjustment. But if your instrument has a movable bridge or individual adjustable saddles (as on most electrics), you can tweak the intonation. First put some fresh strings on and tune up. Then check the note at the 12th fret. It should be exactly in tune. If it’s flat, move the saddle closer to the fretboard. If it’s sharp, go the other way. Again, small movements do the trick.

If you have any problems, consult a professional before ruining your instrument. But if you have patience and enjoy doing this kind of work, I encourage you to try. I always smile when somebody picks up my $250 mandolin and comments on how nice it feels and I can tell them I set it up myself!

Buying Your First Guitar

Buying your first guitar, or your child’s first guitar, is a tricky process. You don’t want to spend a lot of money, and you have no idea what you’re looking for. But with guitars, you usually get what you pay for, and a cheap instrument can be a literal pain to play and sound awful. Those two things will take all the fun out of learning the guitar, and before long the instrument will end up in the attic. However, it is possible to find a good starter instrument without spending a lot of money, and there are things you can do to make it easier to play and have a better sound.

All of these tips rely on a guitar that’s in tune. At any guitar store, a salesperson should be able to help get you started with a few instruments and should tune them all before handing them over. But in the real world, you have to ask. Don’t be shy. Just because you’re not buying a $4,000 instrument today doesn’t mean you won’t someday.

If you’re unfamiliar with the different parts of the instrument, refer to the Wikipedia article on the guitar. Learn these basic parts: Headstock, neck, body, frets, fretboard/fingerboard, nut, bridge, and saddle.

Get a trusted brand. Yamaha, Epiphone, Fender, and a handful of others make good beginner guitars. Generally speaking, if you can find guitars with the same brand for $1000 or so, their inexpensive counterparts are usually made with very similar specs, just cheaper wood and labor.

Consider nylon strings. I put nylon strings on many of my beginner students’ guitars. They are easier on the fingers. Classical guitars will have nylon strings, but they also have a wider neck and flat fingerboard, which can be harder for little hands. Instead, when you find a guitar you like ask the salesperson if they can put a set of nylon strings on a guitar with steel strings. (The answer is “yes,” and if they ask why your answer is “because it’s for a beginner.”)

Don’t be too stingy. If you spend too little, which is $100-$300, the instrument is probably going to be a beast to play, which means you’ll either give up or outgrow it and need a better one sooner than later. If money is really an issue, decide on a couple guitars you like and then look for some used instruments. It’s always cheaper buying straight from a musician, just be sure to look over it closely for any damage such as warping.

Look for a straight neck. The neck has to be perfectly aligned if you want this thing to have a chance at playing well. When you hold the body of the guitar, point the headstock away from you and look down the edge of the neck. There should be a very, very slight concave curve. The frets should be level, and the strings should be parallel with the edges of the fretboard.

Check for buzzing. Play each fret on each string as well as each open string. If you’re a novice player, get somebody at the store to do it for you. If you hear buzzing, the neck needs adjustments to play properly. That could cost more money.

Continue reading Buying Your First Guitar

Instrument Maintenance and Repair Overseas

A few cruises ago, I was doing the farewell show. Right at the end of one tune with the first act, the tension on my G string (of course it had to be THAT one) let up. Naturally, I thought my string broke. The next tune, I had to play on three strings rather than four. I’ve heard stories of great players having to do this before, so I wasn’t worried.

The tune finished fine. At the end of that tune, B., one of the stage crew, ran to my cabin for me and grabbed my baggie of spare strings I brought with me. I brought two basses, and I don’t know why I didn’t just ask him to bring me my Fender. While thinking that, I was trying to change the string. It took about a dozen turns on the tuner to realize that it wasn’t the string at all…it was a broken tuner!

I sent A/V back for the Fender this time, while finishing this act on my broken bass. As soon as it was over, I gave a hand signal to the sound guy to mute my bass, made the change, tuned, and finished the show on my Fender. Problem averted.

I spent the whole of the last cruise on my Fender. I don’t mind, but apparently ship musicians hate the sound of a Fender Jazz Bass. Then again, I think I like playing the cheap bass better, since the more I bring it out of the cabin, the more likely something bad would happen to it. But it took a while to fix it, being in a strange place, not knowing where I can find a music shop. So here’s what I learned.

1.) Come as prepared as you can.

Because I had two instruments, I saved my rear, because I didn’t have to spend money on a new bass right away. I think I’m going to replace this axe, but now I have some time to shop around.

2.) Find a music store!

Up to this point, the only store I knew of was at the home port in Civitavecchia. It’s not a bad store, but it doesn’t have spare parts. They handed me a card for a repairman in Rome. If I did that, I would have had to wait until next embarkation day and get an early start.

I got lucky, though. In Istanbul, I heard there is a street of nothing but music stores just outside Taksim Square. One of the dancers gave me directions to Taksim. When I got there, I found one music store. After describing what I need to them through the language barrier, they told me they didn’t have parts there, but there are other music stores at the end of the street.

As I walked, I noticed all the clothing stores disappeared and the street was as I heard. Nothing but music stores as far as the eye could see! Actually, that’s not true. There was a record store of nothing but jazz, funk, and classical right in the middle of these stores, too! But the prices were about $30 for a CD. Ouch.
I went into store after store, looking for the parts. I finally found one at the Yamaha store. Turns out Yamaha uses this style of tuners. Cost me $20 for the set of four. So it was less than one CD.

3.) BRING YOUR BROKEN AXE WITH YOU!

I made the mistake of not taking my bass with me, mostly because I didn’t think I’d actually find a store with the parts I needed. My bass has an abnormal headstock; the three tuners for the lower strings are on the normal side for a regular bass, but the G string tuner is on the bottom end of the headstock. They had the choice of the typical setting: four on one side, or two tuners on either side of the headstock. Not thinking, I bought the set for four, rather than the set that’s for two on each side. Got back to the ship, and realized the tuner was backwards compared to my four new ones. Luckily, Istanbul was an overnight stay. Otherwise, I would have had to wait for three weeks to exchange it. I waited outside the store until it was opened, and exchanged the parts for the right one.

4.) Buy your own tools.

I thought I would have been able to borrow a set of crescent wrenches from maintenance. The problem with that is nobody knows where maintenance exists. When I ask, everyone tells me to go to crew welfare and they will contact them for me. I found one maintenance guy walking around, explained my situation, and he said he would deliver a set of crescent wrenches to my cabin. I waited a few days, and nobody ever showed. So in Paraeus, I went looking for a hardware store and bought a crescent that fit the hardware that came with the new tuners, and an adjustable wrench just in case the old bass had a different size nut.
Once I got back to the ship, I used my new tools and my Leatherman multi-tool (a tool I recommend all musicians have; sound technicians keep one on them at all times as well) and the bass was fixed in less than 20 minutes. But it took well over a week to secure all the right materials to actually fix the bass. But the bass is fixed, and the show can resume like before.

And, finally:

5.) Learn how to perform at least basic repair and maintenance on your instrument.

The MD, a sax player, has lots of complaints about his horn. T., the trumpet player, says his valves are sticking pretty badly, and he needs to have it looked at. That could be something I could fix here, but without a bathtub or a sink with a drain plug, that makes it hard. Either way, what I’ve learned, is out here, you’re pretty much on your on when it comes to maintenance of your instruments. Taking care of your instrument better than you ever have before helps here, too.

Freelance Musician Excel Spreadsheet

When I first started freelancing full-time as a musician, I found that I was quickly losing track of my income, and I was frustrated with the freelance accounting software that I found. I tried Quickbooks and several others, but I felt they were over-complicated with many features I would never use. For instance, very few of my projects required formal invoicing, but many project management programs based their organization around the creation and tracking of invoices. Furthermore, there were several specific things that I wanted in a financial tracker that I couldn’t find to my satisfaction in invoice-based accounting software.

I ended up creating my own Excel spreadsheet, gave it the super-hero name GigTracker, and I’ve been using it for several years now. I took the template and filled it with examples and it is available here for download as an ZIP file.

GigTracker.zip – Excel Template for Freelance Income

I’ve found the GigTracker spreadsheet is very helpful with a variety of issues.

Project Tracking

The first sheet holds all of the information about each individual gig, including the name of the event, date, time and place.

Continue reading Freelance Musician Excel Spreadsheet

Buying Guide: Piano or Digital Keyboard?

Always Buy a Real Piano

A real piano is the right answer here. But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about what you’ll actually buy.

Sometimes it seems like a real piano is more a piece of furniture than a musical instrument. I think people like to have pianos in their homes just because it proves an interest in humanities to visitors. Or perhaps they think that they’ll eventually get around to learning the thing one day. Or the woodwork and craftsmanship on the piano is so nice and the framed picture of the family, the lace doily and the green lamp all fit so nicely on top of it…meaning that it actually IS a piece of furniture.

Buying a real piano because it looks better than a keyboard is a very valid reason to buy a piano, especially if you have the money. Clavinovas and other digital pianos all have a very “techie” look to them, with all the lights and buttons and fake wood paneling. Keyboards and stage pianos are even worse, as they are usually set up on a keyboard stand (an ugly thing) and never hide their cords.

Surely, then if you are going to be placing the instrument in a prominent place in your home and you are concerned about the interior design, don’t buy something you need to plug it (an electric keyboard). Buy a big, beautiful, acoustic piano.

Don’t Buy a Real Piano

The problem with acoustic pianos, though, is that, like anything organic, their individual parts are decomposing. That’s probably a weird way to say it, but things made of wood and leather and even metal are materials that break down naturally, even when treated, and the parts of a piano are no different. If you left the piano for 1,000 years, perhaps, and came back to it, you might find that it would have just broken down into its individual parts altogether. You might only recognize it by the black and white keys laying in the rubble.

To be a responsible piano owner, you’ll need to keep up with the maintenance of the materials in the instrument. That means hiring a piano tuner once every 6-12 months for as long as you maintain the instrument. You could use a piano humidifier to keep the sound board from cracking. And once you, for whatever reason, stop maintaining the instrument – it’ll go into disrepair. It can be difficult to bring a piano back from disrepair.

I make owning a piano sound like a drag!

In the defense of real pianos, there is nothing that sounds or feels as nice as a real, maintained piano. There are so many nuances in the response of a real piano that could never be replicated on electronic instruments. What a perfect instrument! I wish I always played on real pianos!

But I hardly ever play a real piano these days. Strange, isn’t it? Recording sessions, theatre pits, jazz gigs, private parties, cruise ships, private homes – these places, more and more, are becoming filled with electronic replicas of pianos (aka keyboards). I play on these machines so much that I hardly feel right telling people I play piano!

And I’ll be honest, we’re not fooling anyone. Even the most untrained ear can hear the difference in sound between a real piano and a keyboard if they are compared. Its harder to tell on recordings because a piano and a keyboard recordings sound much the same now. Live, though, the projection of a real piano is impossible to reproduce with amplifiers and speakers. Electronic instruments don’t create the same space as acoustic instruments, and its always obvious which space you are in.

Buy a Digital Piano

Nevertheless, there are obvious benefits to buying an electric keyboard instead of a piano, and you can tell that there are benefits because all of the places I just mentioned (ships, theaters, etc.) have all switched. A keyboard never needs to be tuned. There is never need for a humidifier. There’s no sound board to crack.

Most importantly, an electric keyboard is a fraction of the initial cost of a real piano, and none of the maintenance cost. Keyboards are so cheap in comparison, in fact, that they are almost disposable. If the keyboard breaks you just throw it away, or sell it on eBay, and buy a new one. Unless your sentimental or totally broke, nobody fixes keyboards.

Another reason, despite what I said above, is that electronic keyboards are coming closer and closer to closing the perception gap between them and pianos. I mean that keyboards are sounding more and more realistic. There’s still the projection problem, and the interior design problems, but sound-wise the two are becoming less distinguishable.

Also, the feel of a keyboard is getting better, especially among Yamaha and Kawai (companies that, interestingly, also make acoustic pianos). And if it feels like a piano…and sounds like a piano…I guess people can forgive it if it doesn’t look like a piano.

On a side note – to get past this design issue of electric pianos, there are companies now, like Slam Grand, that make empty piano shells that you can fit a keyboard into. (These are especially popular in piano bars and cruise ships. This is not to be confused with fancy new player pianos like those that are in Nordstroms, country clubs and your rich uncles house. Those are real, acoustic pianos with added parts and computer chips making them able to play themselves.)

What Manufacturer and Model Should You Buy?

Ok, now on to what to actually buy.

Regard acoustic pianos…Yamaha makes good, cheap, pretty acoustic pianos. They aren’t exactly hand-made, but they are pretty good. I never cared much for Kawais. There are a lot of premium piano manufacturers – I always considered Bosendorfer was the big daddy – but if you want a really nice piano, get a Steinway. That’s my advice, at least.

With electronic keyboards, there’s a lot to choose from. You didn’t think it’d be easy, did you?

Let me specify here that I’m not talking about synthesizers. The difference is that synthesizers often have thousands of sounds and all kinds of fancy buttons and knobs. Synths do a lot of things well, but one thing they consistently do poorly on is PIANO. Piano patches on synths always suck. I never met one I liked.

I’m talking exclusively about piano replacements here. They go by various names – digital pianos, stage pianos, Clavinovas, or sometimes just “keyboard”. You can tell its a piano replacement because it’ll have 88 weighted keys and only have a dozen or so sounds. Don’t buy anything that has lots of bells and whistles (sounds, knobs, dials, buttons) unless it costs a fortune. Usually I’ve found that if a manufacturer has put all those bells and whistles in, and is still selling it for a reasonable price, it has cut corners on everything. For example, you could have 200 sounds…and they all sound like crap. Or maybe they gave you 4 extra knobs, but put in a cheap set of keys to keep the price down. If I went into a music shop and I saw a digital piano that cost $2,000 and it had one button that said “Piano” – I would buy that first. I wish they manufacturers would stop spending their R & D on a better vibraphone patch for their digital pianos. Dude, I’m not using the vibraphone sound, ok? Spend my money on JUST the piano sound and the set of keys.

I like Yamaha digital pianos the most. I have a Yamaha P-120 and I think its perfect. The piano patch is realistic and the keys feel reasonably enough like a piano. Don’t buy the Motif if you’re looking for a piano. Buy the CS 300 if you have the money. Buy the P-140 if you don’t. Stay away from Roland, I never liked their piano patches, and they don’t specialize in piano sounds like Yamaha and Kawai do.

Clavinovas are cool too, they sound and feel nice. They aren’t portable and there’s the interior design issue, but they are an ok replacement.

As a blanket advice to anyone buying any instrument at all – buy the absolute best instrument you can afford.

Note to Parents of Future Pianists

One more thing – if you are a parent thinking about getting your kid into piano lessons and you are wondering what you need to buy, hear me on this. At the absolute minimum, you need to get your kid 88 weighted keys. Do not, pleeeease, do not buy your child a Yamaha PSR series keyboard or anything like that with less than 88 keys and unweighted keys. Please! You might as well skip the lessons altogether. Your child’s hands need to gain the strength to play on weighted keys, and they need to know what it looks like to see 88 keys in their peripheral vision, they need to memorize the exact dimensions of an 88-key keyboard, so they are able to find middle C is with their eyes closed, so they they have a map in their head of exactly where every key is on the piano from the very top C to the very bottom A. They need to start generating this mental map of every detail of the piano at the absolute beginning of their lessons. It is very important. If you start on 61 unweighted keys and move to 88 weighted keys, you’ll make their brain start all over again.

Also – as I said above, buy the absolute best instrument you can afford.