Friday, January 27, 2012


A little thin on the blogging this week--sorry.

Here's A Beautiful Mess's new singer Natalie Rose at the GRC in Kerrville last Saturday:
She's overcoming her shyness and kicking serious ass on the vocals. Just an amazing talent, and I really hope my experience and skills can help advance her career.

Towards that goal, and also to advance my own career with The Televators and whoever else I might work with, I've started assembling a new home recording studio.

Dipped my toes in the pool with some freeware, and found that it's almost as easy to use as the obsolete multi-track tape machine I retired over 15 years ago:
It's a damn good thing that the computer Buz and I finished building a few months ago meets the minimum sys-req's for the latest entry-level digital studio software, because I'll be loading a Cubase® system on it tomorrow and will need to start recording ASAP.
Tonight the Televators worked on a song we (mostly me...) wrote three weeks ago and I spent some time operating our guitarist's ProTools to get my ankles wet.

The eventual goal is to be able to strike while the iron is hot and record new musical ideas as soon as they come. The added benefit is not taking up valuable full-band rehearsal/recording time that's already at a premium. We can record the whole group basic tracks together, then go our separate ways to re-write and refine and re-record our own parts individually like all the big rock stars are supposed to be doing these days.
It's a steep learning curve for me when you consider that I started in this business back when companies were trying to replace tubes with transistors, but every time I get cranky it helps me to remember the time a few years back when I didn't get to mix my old band BLISS in HemisFair Plaza opening for KC & the Sunshine Band.
The soundman had a new (at the time) Yamaha digital mixing board and I didn't have a clue how to operate it. Hardly any knobs. Kinda humiliating.
But I know good sound, and look forward to mastering the new technologies. Don't want to be denied many more times, especially when it comes to Natalie Rose and A Beautiful Mess, who are kicking it pretty hard right now and deserve the best I can give them.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Scanning Fender Guitars

From a Polaroid SX70 SLR:
My first bass--should have kept it!
After I had been playing guitar for about a year and expressed interest in trying bass too, mom asked my teacher if it was a good idea. He said that I was "a natural" and that exposure to more instruments could only benefit so she bought this bass from her hairdresser for $100 including the tweed hard-shell case.
It's a 1962 Fender Precision Bass, which turned out to be such a popular combination of woods, finish, and dimensions that Fender periodically produces modern clones that retail for over a grand.

At the time I got her, it was a beat-to-crap 14 year old bass that was probably only worth $300 if you included the case, so mom made a steal.
I thought it a cool coincidence that my new bass was made the same year I was born.
I got the wiring fixed, put on a set of RotoSound SwingBass strings to replace the dull flatwounds, and learned how to lay down a groove.
I also learned how to get my Geddy Lee and Chris Squire on.
It was badass.

Unfortunately, I had to justify the purchase by doubling the length of my guitar lessons to fit sight-reading in bass clef plus technique tips, and drag two heavy axes up the long set of stairs to my teacher's studio.
(Soon after we added classical guitar to the list, but thankfully I was allowed to use my electric so only an extra lesson book was added to my burden if you don't count the time--and to this day I have never owned an acoustic guitar).

Once I joined a "real" band and started playing bars at age 18 it was time to get my stage rig in order, so to finance my first echo unit I let the Precision go for $500. Not a bad profit, considering how little I had spent besides my time getting her in fighting form.
At the time, vintage Fenders had just started to rise in value due to the perceived degradation of the brand after it had been bought by CBS. Musicians (and apparently the Japanese collectors) had finally figured out the mojo living in the '50s and early '60s American instruments.

Of course I miss the old girl.
I learned all about the bass on probably the single best make and model and year there ever was. Nothing beats a Fender Precision--they are copied by everyone from cheap beginner models to boutique builders plus Fender American-made models (and Custom Shop), Made in Mexico ones using USA parts, and the Squier brand that uses overseas factories to produce some really fine and affordable versions.

There are a lot of producers that will insist you use their personal favorite or a rental if you don't bring a good one to a recording session, because the "Pbass" is really the standard of the industry, and has been since the mid 1950s when it was the first successful design that electrified bass and allowed musicians enough room in their cars to carry more than 3 people and a change of socks. Those big old double basses were a pain in the ass, and rightfully earned the nickname "doghouse".

Don't own anything remotely like a Precision right now, but I have a set of specs written down somewhere detailing a variation that would suit me right down to my toes. Maybe someday...

Maybe fifteen years ago I was in a guitar store in Houston and saw what could have been her twin going for $6400 and the prices were still rising fast for the next few years.
I refuse to look at eBay results in case it might make me even sadder, but it's really not about the money--I just miss an old friend that was special. Hopefully my bass has eventually found a home with someone who really appreciates how great it is and can make some good music with her.

This is a Fender Stratocaster I painted and tweaked in the early 1990s:
Sanded down the body and sprayed it white with rattle-cans and clear coats. Since it was a 1970s CBS Fender I didn't refuse what might have been sacrilege on a better instrument.
The knobs and pickup covers got some dayglo action, but the pickguard was the main focus.
I did this job when my brother and I owned a unique screen-printing company that specialized in everything BUT T-shirts. We took pride in finding a way to get a print onto materials and shapes that still confound the so-called experts.

I made the "splashes" by dipping tongue depressors we used for stirring into thinned custom blends of ink, then blasting fine droplets onto the pickguard with a burst of compressed air.
The technique worked so well I decorated a model rocket the same way.

Both projects got lots of attention at the time and gave me a bit of a reputation, but that particular look is dated and silly by today's standards.
But by doing the unexpected in a creative and competent way, I managed to impress the right people and get pulled into a very successful band as their new soundman.
Funny how that kind of thing happens.
Right place, right time.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Old vs New At The Stafford Centre

The Stafford Centre (in Stafford Texas, just southwest of Houston) is a very nice and modern facility for concerts, conventions, etc.
It was country music legend Ray Price's birthday (87 ?) and we opened the show with a 45 minute set.

The hall seats around 1400 (sold out, and the tix weren't cheap), so this is merely a rear corner view:
All the abstract angles and projections aren't just for looks--they come from computer simulations on the behavior of soundwaves in the space, to tame reverberations and keep the frequency response consistent in as many seats as possible. Rooms like these aren't boomy or muddy, and the people in the back can hear just as well as those in the middle.

Keeping with the theme of professionalism, the stocked mini-fridge in A Beautiful Mess's dressing room even had a bottle opener stuck to the side for our beers.

You always see these round unfrosted bulbs surrounding dressing room mirrors in the movies, even though they aren't much help. Tradition I suppose.

If you look closely, the trash can is labeled "stage left". The yellow floor stencil says "DO NOT BLOCK" because there's an exit door behind the can.
It made us happy to load our gear in and out of Exit Stage Left.

I should have taken a picture of the other stencils that said something about a drop zone and had skulls--if the counter-weights that let you move light trusses easily were to fall, these marked the landing zone where you shouldn't stand unless you have a death wish.

Big acoustic basses weren't loud enough once guitars and vocals got amplification, and were a pain in the ass to transport. That's why Leo Fender designed the first successful electric bass in the early '50s.
I never had any desire to play one of these monsters, and I don't much care for the sound either.

This is more to my taste, whether I'm playing bass or doing sound.

Natalie Rose and A Beautiful Mess cranking it out, featuring Steve Gonzalez.

We weren't allowed to fully present our own hard-hitting modern electric sound lest we offend the grey-hairs and fatigue their hearing before Mr. Price's much more organic and subtle acoustic presentation. I whole-heartedly concurred (which surprised more than a few people) and in fact had already reached the same conclusion long before seeing all of the extra violin players reading sheet music during their soundcheck.
Gotta do what's right in each situation. Bad soundmen have egos and agendas unrelated to right now.
ABM + Nat Rose get to hit it as hard as we feel appropriate at OUR shows, and that's as it should be.

So with zero conflict or drama--total cooperation all around--I'm still wondering why we suddenly lost the wonderful monitor mix established during soundcheck in the middle of our first song.
Nobody in the band could hear Natalie onstage well enough, then her monitors came back too loud and we had feedback twice-3 times, and the boys never got back what they needed.
I raised an extremely polite version of hell twice with no results, but we played on like the professionals we are and won an encore + standing ovation, so nobody cares much anymore besides me.

I've never screwed an opening act and never will, but it's a long standing tradition among the insecure and small-minded in this business. I'm sure anyone with a job has been sabotaged before, so you understand.

Meeting the fans and selling product in the lobby afterwards.

I had just finished the mixing board shot in my last post and was skipping down the stairs (yeah right) when The Legend himself passed before me on the way to his own exponentially bigger autograph and merchandise fan session:
Following in such a talented and successful man's footsteps is a humbling experience, even when just trying to steal a photo let alone forge a new career. I was a little freaked out getting this shot, remembering all the times I saw RP on Hee-Haw etc.

Country music will never be the same as I remember hearing it on AM radios back in the good old days, but at least it's still healthy and will survive in one form or another.

A Tired Mess

It's been a long and busy week.
Have driven across a fair piece of Texas in the last 48 hours and not quite done with it.
I'm satisfied with just working again, but when the work is also this nice I have to give thanks and pray that the rest of 2012 is much more of the same.

Going from gas station sandwiches for breakfast to gourmet catered backstage grub for supper was a bit of a shock at first, but I can get used to the good life pretty quick and act like it's no big deal.

More to come...

Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Future Of Country Music?

My band A Beautiful Mess is playing again, with our long-awaited new singer:
After months of listening to the guys talk her up (I'm going to drive all the way to Converse for practice sessions where I'll have nothing constructive to do??) it turns out to be true: Natalie Rose is the real deal.
Maybe I can get her to name the second album with all the big hits Views Of Texas...and mention me at the CMAs?

We chose a delightful honky-tonk/restaurant in the blink/miss town of Belmont TX for our first shakedown gig. Low pressure, a built-in crowd of locals, and not much money at stake so no hard feelings if things don't go well.

It's a band of seasoned professionals, so the music and sound are guaranteed.
We were just giving young Miss Rose a taste of our loud rock-style guitars and drums, bright lights, and a soundman who will take good care of her.

She took it in stride, and won over the crowd right away.
I can practically smell natural talent, and she's home-baked bread and bacon.

One of maybe 6 buildings in town.
I can recommend the Belmont Social Club if you want a $23 steak dinner or $12 burger plate in the sticks somewhere between Seguin and Gonzalez, right by the intersection of Alt90 and 80. The food looked and smelled amazing. It's a BIG two room place that didn't have a single seat to spare, which is really saying something at those prices. My big city cynicism asks if it may just be the only decent meal within 40 miles, but what the hell do I know about Belmont Texas?

Speaking of prices...
Our next show will be at The Stafford Centre near Houston next Thursday, opening for country legend Ray Price.

It's Ray's birthday, so come out and show some love for someone who's seriously owned every stage including the Grand Old Opry and every roadhouse between Atlanta and Bakersfield.

From what I hear, the production company's liason was a little condescending, explaining in agonizing detail what we need to bring versus what is provided, in specificity, ad nauseum.
Our representative smiled at his phone and maintained a respectful demeanor and even resisted the urge to drop the classic "This ain't our first rodeo" line.
His text to me took 99% less time to deliver: "We bring backline--hotel rooms provided".
("Backline" = Our own guitars, basses, amplifiers/pedalboards, and drums).

Just because our singer is 17 doesn't mean the rest of us are.

But this isn't Natalie's first rodeo, either. She's done some big shows before meeting us.
Deliver the goods, she will.