Jesus wept.

Today’s Apple press release.

(Full disclosure: I am an Apple shareholder. I’m glad their stock is up. But I think this is stupid.)

Update (the next morning): I just have to specifically call out this shot from the promotional materials. Seriously. Think carefully about what we’re seeing here. The woman wearing the “Vision Pro” is interacting with other people over FaceTime. None of them are wearing a big contraption on their faces. And they’re definitely real video, not avatars. She cannot possibly look to them the way they look to her. And, critically, they are definitely not using the product being promoted here.

Combine this bizarre demo with a very far-out launch date (I may be wrong, but I think this is the first time Apple has ever announced a product with a “next year” launch), and the whole thing reeks of the kind of vaporware desperation Apple’s competitors are frequently guilty of but Apple itself almost never succumbs to. “Real artists ship” is the phrase Apple has lived by. I’m not sure they believe it anymore.

Update to the update (that afternoon): So, Brian X. Chen of the New York Times got to try the unit, and it sounds like maybe these actually are digital avatars — or at least the woman wearing the ski googles Vision Pro here would be represented that way to the others. Still. Reading the rest of his first impressions, I am just affirmed in my extreme skepticism of this product. Maybe it’s time to cash out my Apple stock before it’s too late.

Update³ (even later that day): One last thing I want to talk about, since I’m mentioning Apple’s stock so much. Yesterday morning, just prior to the announcement, Apple’s stock was at an all-time high. Immediately as the keynote was beginning (1 PM EDT), the stock began to drop. It’s still very high as of the moment when I took this screenshot, but it’s lost about $5 per share from yesterday’s moments-before-the-keynote peak. Hmm.

Solid Gold Countdown ’82

Last week my wife tipped me off to this amazing artifact on YouTube, the broadcast by Pittsburgh’s channel 11 of the special Solid Gold Countdown ’82, which is… just… well… I can’t even put it into words. We watched the whole thing.

There is so much to unpack here. If you didn’t live through 1982, this will feel like it’s from another planet. As for me, it feels like going home.

But, I just have to say… of everything in here, the little nugget that has stayed with me for days after watching it is the commercial for a local car dealership, offering the low low interest rate of…


On trolls and truss rods, braggadocio and bridges: follow-up on my “first impressions” YouTube video about the Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass

Whew, that title is worthy of a master’s thesis. (Note: The majority of what follows is adapted from the script I wrote for a follow-up video that I have since decided not to make.)

About 3 months ago, I bought a Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass, and the day I took it out of the box, I made a YouTube video demoing the instrument and giving my first impressions:

In the time since I made that video, I’ve played the bass a lot, and I’ve had some ongoing frustrations with one specific aspect: I just can’t seem to get the action set to my satisfaction. The frustrations were exacerbated by a comment the video received last week, criticizing the high action on this bass due to the Fender Hi-Mass bridge… and also my abilities as a player.

Feeding the trolls

I’m not thin-skinned, but I do take criticism to heart. I know I’m not the most technically dazzling player, and I don’t aspire to be. I’ve been playing bass since I was 15 — that’s 34 years, if you’re into math — but I’ve never become a “shredder” for three reasons:

  1. I just don’t have the manual dexterity for it, especially as I’m getting older.
  2. I have not made my living as a professional player, so I have limited time (and motivation) to practice.
  3. Flashy technique is not the pinnacle of good bass playing.

I want to focus for a minute on that last point. Yes, technique matters. But playing fast is rarely the most important part of playing bass. Tone, groove, and fitting into the context of the rest music, where the bass is almost never the focus, are all, I would argue, far more important than ripping 32nd note runs at 200 BPM. Of course it depends on the genre, and on your goals as a musician.

These are my goals as a bassist: to play with a good tone, to lock into the groove, and to play lines that fit the music. And I think I’m in good company.

No, I am not implying that I am anywhere
near as good a bassist as Tony Levin.

I’m saying that he prioritizes the
music over flashy technique.

(Also, when he does want to do the flashier
stuff, he uses the Chapman Stick.)

Photo CC-BY-SA 2.0 Ian Muttoo

There’s also a fourth factor limiting my bass skills: since I’m a multi-instrumentalist, I’ve never tried to express all of my musical ideas on the bass. Playing other instruments has given me a measured perspective on the role of the bass in my own music.

OK, enough feeding the trolls. But even trolls sometimes make good points, and there is definitely a point here: even with the 10% discount I received from Fender, I expect a little more for $2000 than what I got with the Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass.

First impressions should never be made in the dead of winter

When I made the initial demo video, the bass had just arrived 24 hours earlier. (I let it sit for a day because it was the middle of a classic Minnesota January “deep freeze” where the high temperature was -8ºF.) I literally took it out of the box on camera. I shot the entire video, including doing what setup I could on a bass that was still adjusting to a new climate, that afternoon. I hadn’t had time to get to know the bass and really learn its strengths and weaknesses. Now that I’ve had it for three months, I understand it better.

There are a lot of really great things about this bass. But there are problems too. I’m judging it against my 2018 Fender American Professional Precision Bass. That bass, to me, is perfect. I mean, the Precision Bass and the Jazz Bass are very different beasts. But in terms of build quality, my American Professional P-Bass is as good as I’ve ever seen with a production instrument.

2018 Fender American Professional Precision Bass
Antique Olive, pickguard and pickup covers customized
La Bella Deep Talkin’ Bass Gold flatwound strings

2022 Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass
Arctic Pearl, no mods… yet
La Bella Deep Talkin’ Bass White Nylon tapewound strings

When I decided to get a Jazz Bass early this year, I admit I was swayed by the “Ultra” label… I decided that if I was going to spend a good chunk of money on an American-made Jazz Bass anyway, I might as well get the best production instrument Fender makes.

Well… OK. I will admit it. It’s (probably) not.

You can’t always get what you want

I used to want an American Elite Jazz Bass:

Source: Sweetwater

Then, Fender replaced the Elite with the Ultra. Overall, it seemed like mostly a lateral move. One really odd thing though, was the switch from the modern 3-screw high-mass bridge — the one that’s in my P-Bass — to the chunky 5-screw Hi-Mass bridge. Especially since it eliminates the string-through-body option. (They also changed the truss rod access in a way that definitely seemed like a cost-saving downgrade.)

3-screw bridge on the American Professional Precision Bass

5-screw bridge on the American Ultra Jazz Bass

This is the same bridge I had bought from Fender’s parts department to install on the “Frankenstein” fretless Jazz Bass I assembled a few years ago. It’s decent, but it’s not as nice as the 3-screw bridge, although it has the benefit of being drop-in compatible with the classic 5-screw bridge design, so it increases the mod potential.

The Squier Classic Vibe ’60s Jazz Bass that was the basis for my “Frankenstein” fretless. Source: Fender

But… who wants to mod what’s already supposed to be the “Ultra” bass? Hmm…

The bridge or not the bridge? Many factors affect the action

The Fender Hi-Mass bridge on the Ultra is chunky, and it affects how low you can set the strings. But how much does that really matter? Today we’re going to find out.

What is the goal of adjusting the action — a.k.a. the string height? Most players I know want the strings as low as possible, because it makes it easier to play fast notes… or really, just easier to play in general, because you’re not having to press the strings down as far, or as hard, to cleanly fret the notes.

I definitely want low action, because I want it to be easy to play. But the lower the action, the more likely you are to get fret buzz. Why? When you’re fretting a note, you’re basically creating a very long, thin triangle between the string, the bridge, and the neck.

Buzz happens when the vibrating string makes contact with other frets, so you need the angle between the string and the neck to be just large enough to keep the string from making contact with other frets. There are three ways to minimize buzz: adjust the truss rod to add curve to the neck, raise the bridge saddles, increasing the length of that “side” of the triangle, or… pluck gently, so the strings don’t vibrate as much!

It sounds like a joke, but the last point is important… turn up your amp and use a light touch, and you can really help this problem. It’s the only solution that doesn’t result in higher action. Still… this has been gnawing at me for 3 months with this bass. I’ve tweaked the truss rod and the saddles a bunch of times, tried modifying my plucking technique, and I just can’t get to a buzz-free sound without high action.

Some who have criticized Fender’s design of the Ultra Jazz Bass cite the height of the bridge as the problem, but I’m not convinced that is it. I can very easily lower the saddles and adjust the truss rod enough to get satisfactory “low action” on this bass… but at the cost of terrible buzz.

So, is it the bridge? We’re going to find out. As I mentioned earlier, I bought one of these bridges for a fretless Jazz Bass I was putting together — which, incidentally, I sold to help pay for this bass. The body of that bass was a Squier Classic Vibe ’60s Jazz Bass in Daphne Blue. I still have the stock bridge that came with that Squier. And now I’m going to install it on my American Ultra Jazz Bass, to see if a different, thinner bridge design can solve the problem of the high action on the Ultra Jazz.

Yes, I’m modding my Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass… by installing the bridge from an Indonesian-made Squier. Here we go.

Or… maybe not

That was the end of my prepared script for the video. The rest was going to, necessarily, come after I had swapped the bridge, which I was planning to do this morning as part of producing the follow-up video.

I woke up this morning not really wanting to spend the entire day making a video, not really wanting to swap the bridge on my Ultra Jazz, and… after having some coffee, realizing that I was still feeding the trolls (this post is too, but at least it’s less effort). I thought back to those diagrams of the “triangle” (which were still just images in my head at the time). And more importantly…

I realized that there was no possible way that swapping the bridge would help the situation.

Think about it: if the complaint is that the bridge is too thick, then I should already have the saddles bottomed out. Specifically, the action should still be too high when the saddles are bottomed out. And I’ve already verified that’s not the case. If I lower the saddles on the Hi-Mass bridge all the way, the action is fine. Beautifully low. But there’s terrible buzz. Putting on a different bridge that lowers the strings even more isn’t going to get rid of the buzz — it’s going to make it worse.

Clearly the issue I have is different. And it could probably be chalked up to my lack of expertise in guitar setup. The problem most likely could be fixed with a more careful truss rod adjustment, or possibly by shimming the neck.

I don’t have a caliper, so I can’t take a super-precise measurement of the string height. But I got out a tape measure and I compared the string height at the 12th fret on both the P-Bass and the Jazz.

String height on the P-Bass

String height on the Jazz Bass

It’s a bit hard to see because of the camera angle but… yeah, they’re pretty much the same. Within a millimeter of each other, at least. On both basses, the bottom of the E string is about 4 mm from the fretboard. (Yes, that is from the fretboard, not the top of the fret itself. It was just easier to measure this way, in this moment.) Both basses are set up fairly well in terms of fret buzz — not absolutely perfect, but little to no buzz unless I’m really plucking hard.

So… uh… what? The action isn’t really unusually high at all. It’s just my perception. But why is that?

I’m not saying it’s the strings, but… it’s the strings

The one factor, I think, that is making the biggest difference here is the strings.

I’ve had these La Bella gold flats on the P-Bass for about 6 months. I think they sound good, but I don’t really like them otherwise, for two reasons: first, they have a much higher tension than I’m used to, so it kind of hurts to play them after a while. And second, the alloy seems to have corroded slightly on the surface, making the strings a bit “sticky” to play, and they leave a distinctive metallic smell (and sometimes even black residue) on my fingers when I play.

I discovered the joys of tapewound strings during my shortlived ownership of a Schecter Stiletto Studio bass last year. (That bass had its own unique problems so I returned it.) When I got the Ultra Jazz, I immediately replaced its stock strings with these La Bella “white nylon” tapewounds. They are super-smooth and a joy to play. They are also much lower tension than the gold flats. I am now convinced that this is probably the biggest reason why I’ve had more issues with fret buzz on the Ultra Jazz than on the P-Bass.

I’m not in a huge hurry to test this theory though, for one kind of silly, superficial reason. I really like the look of the silk wraps on the ends of the strings, but I’ve learned that if you remove the strings, that silk frays really easily. So I’m trying to avoid removing these strings unless I absolutely have to.

Fortunately, for my next mod, I won’t. I’ve got a wild looking replacement pickguard coming next week. I can’t wait to see how it looks. (And, if it looks like crap, it’s easy to go back!) For now, those measurements I took are easing my mind.

Update (May 4, 2023): After I posted this, I continued to encounter some fret buzz issues, so I decided I would go ahead and try different strings. I had a set of D’Addario “half rounds” sitting around that I hadn’t tried out yet, so I put them on. They were better, but the E string was completely dead. Utterly useless… plunky and zero sustain. So I did a bit more research and decided to try DR flats. At least they call them “flatwound” but they seem almost more round than the D’Addario “half rounds”. Anyway, they’re much nicer, and seem to suit the instrument quite well.

Also… here’s that crazy pickguard I mentioned:

2-hour music video project: “Auric Strands”

I’ve gotten on a bit of a roll with my Saturday music video projects lately, and I’m starting to get just the slightest iota of traction on my YouTube channel — mostly because of silly stunts I shamelessly promote in the comments on more popular YouTubers’ videos, but possibly people genuinely being interested in what I’m doing — and I’m sure that some if not most of the, as of today, 46 (!) subscribers I have are people I don’t know personally. (I always find it easier to get people who don’t know you to engage with artistic endeavors.)

Anyway… I wrapped up my last video project, and with holiday season in full swing, I knew I couldn’t devote (counts on fingers) 17 hours to this like I typically do, so this time I managed to pull it off, start-to-finish, in two hours. Here’s how it came together.

I had a couple of inspirations at work in this. First, my ongoing interest in the broad, nebulously-defined “Synthwave” subgenre of electronic music. For me, it just means instrumental electronic music with a steady beat and sounds that are evocative of the early- to mid-1980s. (1984 is the magical year for me, YMMV.) There’s a sub-subgenre called “Outrun” that generally features a more driving beat, whereas some Synthwave music tends towards ambient or at least “moody.” It’s named for Out Run, a popular car racing arcade game released by Sega in 1986. I never really played Out Run much, if at all, because at the time (I was in middle school) my parents bought me a computer instead of the latest video game console, and I didn’t have the endless supply of quarters (or transportation to the mall) that I would’ve needed to spend a lot of time in the arcade.

Now, things are different. For the past couple of months I’ve been playing a lot of retro games on my Anbernic RG353M, and last night, after burning myself out on Mother 3, I decided to give the arcade version of Out Run a try, mainly to pay attention to the music. I found it interesting, with some surprisingly jazzy chords, an unusually complex song structure, and of course the driving beat I expected.

Earlier yesterday, I had restrung my Precision Bass with some new La Bella gold flatwound strings, so this morning I wanted to play the bass, and more specifically, I wanted to record the bass. So I picked it up and just started noodling around to come up with a bass line that used a driving 8th note pulse. I knew I was kind of inventing a chord progression as I went, but at the moment I was just focused on the sound and the shape of the bass line. I knew I needed to play with a pick — something I rarely, but not never, do.

Once the bass line came together, I knew I had something good going. It was just after 10 AM, and I decided to see how much I could accomplish by noon. I wanted to write and record an entire song, and produce a video, but I wasn’t sure I could do it all in 2 hours.

tl;dr I did. (OK, this is already way too late for a tl;dr but… anyway, just keep reading now that you’re this far.)

I retreated to the “padded room” in the basement with my bass, my laptop, and my MIDI controller keyboard. At that point I had mentally sketched out a plan to record the bass first, and then drums in the form of LinnDrum samples, and then I would just see where inspiration took me from there.

After the drums were recorded, I layered on two more MIDI synth parts using Alchemy sounds in Logic (first a pad and next an arpeggiator). And then I switched over to my Yamaha Reface CP keyboard to lay down some melodies. The melody in the A section is played with a Rhodes electric piano sound, and the B section with a Hohner clavinet sound.

And that was it! I wrapped up recording by 11 AM, had the mix done in 20 minutes, and spent about another half hour putting together the video in Final Cut before posting it to YouTube at 12:05 PM, roughly 2 hours after I had first picked up my bass with only the vaguest idea of a song in my head. Here’s the end result:

Let’s talk a bit about the structure of the song, as it’s a bit unusual. The chord progression in the A section is a 6-bar loop. The keyboard part is just alternating between a G major chord and a D major chord, but with the bass changing the root under the chords, the progression is effectively:

Emin7 /// | % | Bmin7 /// | % | GMaj9 /// | D/F# /// :||

This is repeated 5 times at the beginning, and 4 times when it returns, then 2 times (I think… I’m writing this from memory!) at the end. Overall this section is essentially in E natural minor (or E Aeolian mode).

The last time the A section is repeated, transitioning into the B section, the bass line goes up to a B, instead of returning to E. The B section, a 4-bar loop with some syncopated chord changes, shifts the key to B natural minor (B Aeolian), introducing C# in the melody, where the A section used C natural. Here the keyboard is alternating between D major and B minor chords, with the bass playing A, F# and B, making the chord progression:

Bmin /// | % | D/A // D/F# | //// :||

Once the overall audio-visual production was done, I just needed to add some title screens. Which, of course, meant coming up with a title. My working title was the somewhat literal and boring “Golden Strings,” which got the point across but was a bit uninspired. So I scanned my brain for synonyms. Immediately the word “Auric” popped into my head. As in Auric Goldfinger. Perfect. But then I needed a synonym for “string” as well, and there I resorted to an online thesaurus. Not because I couldn’t think of another word on my own so much as I couldn’t think of a good one fast enough as my noon deadline was fast approaching. There amongst a bunch of real clunkers — twine, cord, ropethong, seriously? — I spotted the perfect choice: “strand.”

“Auric Strands” it is. It wasn’t hard, then, to find a font in my library that fit perfectly. (It’s Big Shoulders Inline Display, if you’re into that sort of thing.) And so the project was done, and just in time!

If you like the song, you can download it on Bandcamp. Thanks for listening! And watching! And reading!

…And another update on Northern Daydream 3: Future Proof Past

My plans for this album project have ping-ponged around wildly in the 2 years since I first started planning Volume 3 of my Northern Daydream series.

Finally midway through 2022 things started to come into focus, with an emphasis on two vitally important but radically different jazz pianists who both hit their creative stride in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett.

But even as I began to see that this album needed to have a “Side H” and a “Side K,” I waffled on exactly which songs I wanted to cover, and how I wanted to approach them.

Finally, with yesterday’s accomplishment of “KJ3M” — a 10-minute suite featuring three distinct Keith Jarrett compositions, stitched together with three brief keyboard improvisations, inspired by Jarrett’s own concert style, the project has reached its conclusion.

I had not planned to record any of these three songs when I laid out the project. I hadn’t even heard any of them at that point, honestly. But once I did hear them, I knew I needed to make them the focal point of the conclusion of the project.

“Mortgage On My Soul” and “Common Mama” are an interesting pair. Both are built over a similar bass ostinato — in the same key, no less — and could actually be ripe for a mashup. But I decided that was not the right treatment. I wanted to show the ways the two are different, not the ways they are alike. (Whereas you might see the result of this project overall as showing the ways Jarrett and Hancock are similar even though on a surface level their styles are very different.)

“The Magician In You” kind of came out of left field. It immediately follows “Common Mama” on Jarrett’s 1972 album Expectations, and I really like the pairing. After spending several minutes in a harmonically static, groove-based mode, it’s very satisfying to bask in the rich harmonic textures of this rock/gospel ballad.

I played up the harmonic structure here in ways I kind of wish the original had done, although I know Keith Jarrett’s style, especially at that time, was to leave listeners with only the slightest hints of the true structure underneath, allowing improvisatory group interplay to constantly pull at the loose threads of more predictable musical forms. I don’t slight him for it at all, and yet the composition is just so good that I want to get absorbed in it and let it carry me away.

And this is part of why I’ve decided to wrap up this project here. I’m ready to take on new challenges, including attempting to create a big band arrangement of “The Magician In You” that builds on the elements I put into this version. So, this probably means I will step away from spending 18+ hours on a Saturday, twice a month, on an epic recording/video production session. For a while, anyway.

Here’s “KJ3M”:

And you can listen to — and watch — the entire album here.

Once I’m satisfied that the mixes for the album are final, I’ll post another update with download links. Stay tuned!