Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Playing Electronic Music, part 1

These days, tape pieces are relatively low-tech. Just about everywhere you go there is at least some sort of PA system with a CD player. At the very least there will be a stereo system. I've chosen to go the route where I bring everything along with me but the amp and speakers, though many others simply bring a CD that they can provide the sound guy. The reason for my preference is simply that I want to be able to control when the tape starts, to control the balance between the bass clarinet and the tape (I use a microphone -- more on that later) and the volume of my monitor.

A bare minimum: CD or iPod and cables to plug it in. The cable you'll need is one with an 1/8" plug at one end (for the ipod) and a stereo RCA (or better, 1/4" plug) on the other. Most venues don't have the adapters. This cable is less than $10 at Radio Shack. Total cost: $10 or less.

From there, you might want to have a decent microphone. Why? In order to mix your sound with the CD/iPod, you need to amplify yourself. That way, you can boost the tape part without drowning out the live part. It also blends your acoustic sound with the tape before it goes into the hall. It should be one of your first purchases. My personal favorite is the bass clarinet model form AMT (www.appliedmic.com). Those run about $800, but there are others, including stationary mics (i.e. not clip-ons) which are less expensive. Fortunately great microphones -- especially ones built in China like SE Electronics -- are amazingly cheap: less than $500. Many are even cheaper. But you'll want to get one that has a "cardioid" or "hypercardioid" pattern, since those are more appropriate for live contexts; omni pattern microphones will feed back much more easily. You might also need a cable and a mic stand, though those are ubiquitous in most venues.

Microphones that attach to the bass clarinet are, for me, more appropriate because I tend to be more, uh, "active" onstage. Since I stand when I play solo, I don't want to have to be tethered to one location because of the position of a stationary microphone. Just something to think about for yourself: do you want to always stand in the same place, or do you want the freedom to move about - say if you're playing a piece which requires multiple stands and you need to progress from left to right.

A small mixer is becoming less important, especially if you are planning to purchase a computer and audio interface, since much of the mixing can happen inside the computer nowadays. If you choose to get a small mixer, a Mackie 12-channel ($369) is the one of the more popular. They are inexpensive, sound good and are built like a tank. If you choose to go smaller and a bit lower quality, you can get one from Behringer or Alesis for as low as $100. You would plug the mic and CD player into the mixer, which would plug into the PA system. You could add a small monitor so that you can hear the tape part better. A good monitor should be small, light and self-powered. The Yamaha MSP5 is great, but heavy. ($250). Another choice is the Yamaha MS101 ($130) which is much lighter but is not as powerful. Often a venue will have a dedicated monitor for you to use, but just as often, they don't (or it sounds dreadful). For me, it's better to be on the safe side.

Summary (these are minimums):
CD player or iPod: $100-200 (but you probably already have one, right?)
Microphone: $200
Mixer: $60
Monitor: $130
TOTAL: <$600

So, these are the basics.

If you want to go all-out, check out the main site to see what my current rig looks like.

Michael Lowenstern
Earspasm Music

Buying a Bass Clarinet in 2009

So you're ready to buy a new bass clarinet. A huge expenditure. Probably the most expensive clarinet you'll ever buy. Kind of nerve-wracking, no?

With bass clarinets, even more than with clarinets, there are so many questions swirling around: Which brand to get, Buffet or Selmer (or Yamaha or Leblanc)? Low C or Low Eb? Student variety or Pro? eBay or Mail Order or Local Store? Used or New? Boxers or Briefs?

Well here are my unvarnished opinions. (What else would you expect?) I'm a Selmer man. I've always been a Selmer man, though I have recently tried a couple of Buffet horns that weren't bad. Yamaha and Leblanc aren't even in the running as far as I'm concerned, so I won't spend any time on them here. Sorry. Buffet horns are, in my opinion, designed for clarinetists who need a bass clarinet to FEEL more like a clarinet. Just look at the neck angle, and you'll see what I mean. A Buffet neck curves up at the mouthpiece to enter the mouth at more of clarinet-like angle. The Selmer necks enter at more of a Saxophone angle (though, now that I'm updating this post, some Selmer necks are available that also curve up). I believe that the proper angle for the bass clarinet is the latter. One (of many) reasons being that at the clarinet angle, the focus of the lip pressure is too low on the reed, and that there is too much opportunity to "bite" on the reed. The Selmer angle keeps that from happening. There are MANY other acoustical reasons I feel the Selmer angle is preferable, but I don't want to get into it, since that really isn't the focus of this article. Buffet horns also offer a little more resistance (more like a clarinet), which limits the amount of volume you can potentially get out of the horn. It also makes it easier to play, but ultimately it's better to have a horn with more "headroom." Plus the Selmer factory is in the heart of Paris, but I'll get to that in a moment. At any rate, if you're interested in all of the differences, GO TRY ONE. Don't listen to people on the Internet (including me); see for yourself. It's a HUGE difference, and one that you have to try to really appreciate. But for the sake of argument here, let's say you're going with the Selmer.

Next, do you want a student-level horn (sometimes appropriate) or do you want to go all-out and get a horn that will likely last a lifetime? I've tried just about every horn out there, and I've never found a good student level (~$2,000) horn. I REALLY wanted to find one so I could recommend it to people, but I haven't yet. I'll keep you all posted. My recommendation: if you are looking for a horn for doubling, you might be able to get away with one of these...otherwise, probably not.

The next choice is a simple one: Get a Low C bass. A low Eb bass is less expensive, but you'll make the difference up on your first gig.

Used or new? Again, there are many opinions floating around this point. There are those who believe that an old bass is intrinsically and sonically better than a new bass. I think that's hogwash. Old bass clarinets are notoriously OUT OF TUNE (and you will NEVER be able to make them inherently play in tune, no matter what you do to the tone holes). How about struggling to play an out-of-tune bass IN tune while trying to get a lovely attack in the upper clarion register at, oh say, mezzo-piano. Good luck. Sure, there is a certain "played-in" feel of a used bass, and of course they're less expensive. But if you can, try a new bass and an old bass side by side with both a tape recorder and a tuner. Then go eat dinner. Then, give the tape a listen. See if the used bass has a nice tight core to the sound. See if it's (relatively) in tune. See if it has a clear articulation in both the clarion and chalumeau registers. If so, by all means buy it. But please, don't let someone tell you that it's better BECAUSE it's old. Listen for yourself. Or bring a friend along who's not afraid to tell you the unvarnished truth if need be.

Now for the real $9,500 question: how much will it cost? The secret answer is about $7,000-$8,000, but you have to go to Paris. Here's where it gets fun. You can, of course, buy a bass from the Woodwind and Brasswind, a great store with a huge inventory of instruments. And you'll get a really, really good horn. And you may even be able to get free shipping, but that's probably pushing it. The price tag? About $9,000-10,000 as of this writing. Here's how I bought both of my horns, one in 1996 and the other in 1999. I bought a ticket to Paris and made an appointment with Richard Scotto of Quintette Musique. (He is, as of this writing, no longer in business, but there are other dealers around, so find one and make contact). Have them help you to make an appointment with Selmer for you to go try instruments. Then, book your flight around a production cycle at Selmer.

Get to Paris, eat at "Pain, Vin, Fromage" right behind the Pompadou Centre (sp?). Make contact with your dealer and with Selmer. Show up at Selmer at the appointed time, and they will set you up in a room with as many as 10 (!) bass clarinets (Again, you have to make sure Selmer is in manufacturing mode and that they have stock on-hand. As I mentioned, you can often do that with your dealer.) Once you're in the factory, you're about 20 feet from the guy who just made your horn. It hasn't been on a plane, in a box, in a warehouse, on a truck to the dealer, in another warehouse, and on a plane and UPS truck before you try it. It was 20 feet from where you will be at the factory. Not bad. "Factory Fresh" as they say. Another plus you'll only get at the factory: you can try up to 100 necks, and pick the one that you like best. Try that at a music store here in the states!

Time passes, and you've picked the perfect horn – or two. Write down the serial numbers and go have a coffee, or lunch. Then come back and try them "blind" – i.e. have a friend (hopefully you've traveled with one!) give you the horns without your knowing which one you're trying – and play it. Take notes. Then try the other (or others) and do the same. It should be easier to decide at this point. So, once you've picked the horn that you like best, you can have one of the instrument makers make any alterations to it (I had one install a new tenon cork, for example), for free. Then, you take the horn to the dealer's shop, who then writes you up a bill. If the exchange rate is favorable (it was MUCH more so when I was there in the late 1990's), you can get the horn for about $7,500. Another suggestion: if you have a mouthpiece, you don't have to buy one with the horn, which will take another $100 off the price. Likewise, if you can get a cheap case here in the US and bring it over, you can save the cost of the case. With this in mind, I was able to get each of my horns for about $4,000 (in 1999). However, you might want to consider buying an extra neck (I did) – they are about $200, and well worth the price. So, my tally: Plane ticket on Air Bangladesh (not recommended) from New York to Paris: $325. Housing (I stayed with a friend): $0 (but hotels are not unreasonable, especially off-season). A lot of great wine and cheese and food and coffee: $200. Bass Clarinet: $4,000. Total cost: $4,525. Buying a bass clarinet at the time: $5,600. I saved over $1,000, got to go to Paris for three days and got a MUCH better horn than I think I would have here.

So, while your mileage may vary price-wise, I think the difference in cost is comparable: you'll stand to save about 20% going to Paris to pick out your horn.

Oh, and I recommend Boxer-briefs.

Michael Lowenstern
Earspasm Music

Friday, March 20, 2009

Site nearly finished (nearly)

For those interested in being all beta-tester-ey, the new site is here: www.earspasm.com/beta. Depending on when you go, you'll notice varying degrees of functionality and/or bugginess. But I would love to hear from you if you do choose to check it out. Some bugs I'm aware of, but many more I'm sure I am not. (Obviously if you click on something and it simply doesn't respond, then it's there just for show for the moment, so you don't need to tell me about that...)

Anyway, the focus is going to be on a dashboard sort of style and layout. Lots of feeds from facebook and what I'm listening to on itunes, this blog, you know. Stuff.

Should be ready in a few weeks (or month or two, depending)

Have a look!