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The Hottest Attenuator: Aracom PRX150-Pro

Looking for the “Doppler on the Dumble” series?

I’ve taken a bit of turn with my approach to writing music as of late, especially with my lyrics. Admittedly, for a long time, I was influenced a lot by producers who were in the music industry, and I’d try to be “clever” with my lyrics. I realized that I’m just not that clever, so now, I just write down what comes to mind and what works – for me.

In any case, I came up with this song this evening. I was in a rather pensive mood, thinking about my marriage and how it has changed over the years, and then a melody came to mind, and then a chord progression. This is a simply song with me singing over a single guitar (my Squier CV Tele). I guess you could call it a love song, but it’s more of a song of understanding where my wife is coming from – at least I think it’s where she’s coming from. :)

If you follow pop, it’s certainly not about music but about persona. Not that pop stars don’t have talent, many actually do, but pop is so much more about the image than it is about the music. Besides, very few of them write any of their music, or if they get any songwriting credit, it’s because they happened to participate in the writing process.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those oldies who wants to return to the “good old days” where music seemed to mean much more. That was another time. There wasn’t the Internet. There wasn’t the technology available where anyone with a laptop and GarageBand or Audacity could lay down decent enough tracks to get their music out there. Back then, you had to rely on the studios. There was no choice.

But it was inevitable that eventually the music business would arrive to the point where everything sounds the same. The studios are businesses. Once they find a successful niche (sound, in this case), they want to ride that wave for as long as they can and profit from it; unfortunately, it means that introducing new material that falls outside the wave has a much harder time getting picked up.

And I’m not one of those bitter artists who you hear about constantly complaining about not getting paid. I’m surely not in it for the money… and I guess that’s the point to my meanderings here. From an artist’s standpoint – not the industry perspective – what really is making it?

For me, I’ve come to the conclusion that I probably will never write anything that has real wide appeal. I certainly couldn’t write stuff that 20-something’s could relate to because I’m 30 years out my 20’s. Believe me, I’ve tried to do it; to research things that appeal to younger people; tried listening to “younger” music like screamo, hardcore, modern pop. Very little of that appealed to me.

But I do like a lot of the Indie stuff from younger artists, particularly guys like Passenger, who’s sole big hit was “Let Her Go.” But if you listen to his other stuff, while it’s catchy, a lot of times, the lyrics are WAY too deep, and you have to listen to the songs and read the lyrics over and over again. A good example of this is “Circles,” probably my favorite Passenger song. It’s about aging, and it’s a truly great song. Don’t think you’d ever hear on the radio, but that’s not the point. That song is good. Here’s a clip from a concert, probably recorded with a phone. It starts out with “Circles,” then Mike moves into “Trouble” then segues into “Let Her Go.” When you watch, you realize just how much he loves what he’s doing.

Speaking of “circles,” I guess I should circle back now to the original question. What really is making it? For me, it’s simple: I’ve always just wanted the ability to share music with as many people as I could, and gig – a lot. I do from 150 to 200 gigs a year, and if I wanted, and also if I didn’t have a family, I could probably support myself on doing music alone. I don’t have any ambitions that somehow I’m going to get discovered and get a contract. At this point in my life, I don’t have the time to do the self-promotion that entails. But I do get to gig, and as of late, I’ve been introducing more and more of my own music into my gigs. Some have caught on with my audience, others… well, I don’t do the ones that don’t really catch on much… :)

But to me, the fact I can gig as much as I do, is enough for me. To me, I’ve “made it” on my own terms, and that’s good enough. Maybe in the future when I have more discretionary income, I’ll put more time into promoting and playing bigger venues, but right now, I’m happy with where I am and how far I’ve come.

I played a private party last night; just a small birthday party for about 40 people; hired by a couple who saw me play at my restaurant gig. I went to the gig fully equipped with my Fishman SA220 SoloAmp packed up, my acoustic board, and Yamaha APX900 and of course, my cord and mic bag.

Much to my pleasant surprise, the couple had a friend who did pro sound, and he had already set up a PA, plus a mic stand where I’d be playing. What a relief! While I love my SA220, being able to plug into a board makes life so much easier.

Originally, he had put out a Shure SM58 stage mic. I hate those, so I was going to pull out my Sennheiser. But as Frank saw me inspecting the mic, he said, “I’ve got a Heil PR35 that you could use if you don’t like the 58.” I must’ve had an expression on my face to prompt him to offer that.

In any case, that got me smiling. I didn’t think that I had used that mic before, but then recalled a studio session where I used a PR35, and remembered how great it sounded with a nice, flat response, and wide dynamic range; perfect for the stuff I was recording at the time.

So I set up my gear, ran the mic into Harmony G XT harmonizer, and we did a sound check. O. M. G.!!! I couldn’t believe how responsive that mic was. It picked up everything. Whereas the SM58, and to a much lesser degree, my Sennheiser E85 have a bit of high cut, the PR35 caught some of the higher-frequency characteristics of my voice. Heck! I wasn’t even warmed up when I did the sound check, and it sounded magnificent.

Then it hit me that I could make my performances that much better by using a better mic. I played for 3 hours. Normally for that amount of time, my voice would be just a tad tired, but I found that I just didn’t have to work as hard with the PR35. It was super-sensitive, which I had to adjust to a bit and back off, but once I found the sweet spot, it was game over. Frankly, I actually thought that I was singing into a condenser mic, but without having to worry about feedback, which is so common with condenser mics.

On top of that, unlike my E85 which provides pretty good side and rear sound protection, though to really ensure that I don’t pick up sounds to the side I have to practically swallow the head, the PR35 has incredibly good side and rear noise protection. That came in handy as a party-goer took a liking to my songs and was singing, laughing and clapping a few feet to my right. I couldn’t hear any of his noise in my monitor!

Now while the PR35 is highly directional – the head should be right in front of your mouth – even a off-axis, you don’t get a loss of highs, which can be a real problem with cheaper stage mics. Of course, the mic doesn’t sound as good when you’re off-axis a bit, but the fact the frequency response remains pretty good even off-axis is pretty awesome.

In a nutshell, I’m going to save my pennies to get one of these. It’s not cheap at around $275 street, but it’s not super expensive like a Neumann or a DPA. And according to the PR35 product page on the Heil web site, I can even use this to record instruments and cabs! I can attest to its high SPL handling. There were some songs where I really got into the mic, and there was no overdrive whatsoever.


Output Connection: 3 pin XLR
Element Type:Dynamic
Frequency Response: 40 Hz – 18 kHz (UP- no filter), 80 Hz – 18 kHz (DOWN- filter on)
Polar Pattern: cardioid
Rear Rejection @ 180 degrees off axis: -35 dB
Impedance: 370 ohms balanced
Output Level:-52.9 dB @ 1 kHz
Weight: 9 oz
Max SPL:140 dB

More expensive mics like a DPA d:facto have -160dB Max SPL, but it would be a stretch for me to ever play in a venue where I exceed 100 dB.

For more information, please see the Heil PR35 product page.

Back in 1980, a girl living on my dorm floor introduced me to Prince. Admittedly, I was a bit taken aback by his androgyny and admitted bisexuality, but his music spoke to me. And as a musician, I respected that the dude could play practically any instrument, but I was most attracted to his guitar work. To this day, I just can’t get over just how damn good he plays.

What prompted me to write this was the movie “Purple Rain,” which happened to play the other night. Weird movie, but who cares. Prince, even back then, could just rip it up on the guitar.

So it got me curious… I thought he was awesome back then, but what about 35 years later? He ROCKS! Don’t believe me? Check out this video: http://www.wat.tv/video/prince-3rd-eye-girl-plectrum-5vnv3_2hztv_.html.

What amazes me is that Prince is rarely mentioned in the guitar press or forums, yet without a doubt not only can he hold his own with established rockers, but he can absolutely steal the show. Check this out (skip to about 3:25 for the start of his solo):

I had never seen this video before, and I was completely blown away. Though he’s the ultimate showman, his technique and especially the feeling he puts into his playing leave me practically speechless. Say what you want about how totally out there he is (the dude’s absolutely weird), there’s no denying how he can make a freakin’ guitar sing!


Last weekend at the restaurant where I play music, during a break, a couple of my “regulars” came by the piano to say hello and chat. The restaurant was particularly busy that night, and one of them remarked, “It’s so busy tonight. It looks like no one is paying attention.” I just smiled, pointed to my tip jar, and with a smirk said, “Well… some people are listening…” We had a good laugh out of that. I explained that over the years I’ve learned that even though people don’t seem to pay attention, my tip jar is my gauge. If I’ve got even just a few bucks in it, I know I’ve reached someone. Plus, and more importantly, I added; I don’t let people’s seeming disinterest affect me. I just keep on playing with all my heart. I learned that from being a waiter.

A little back story first…

Back in 1999, I decided break out on my own and start my own little consulting firm, doing custom programming and QA services. I didn’t have many clients, but the clients I did have were all my little firm needed because they paid so well. Then 9/11 hit and overnight, I went from high-flying, highly-paid consultant to… nothing. I couldn’t find a job. No one was hiring, and the only jobs that seemed to be available in software at the time were pretty low-level, low-paying jobs that required oodles of time for not much pay. Employers knew they had job-searchers by the short hairs, so they low-balled all the offers, figuring they’d eventually get someone qualified who’d bite.

Between 2001 and 2004, I must’ve sent out over 500 resumes, applying at large, medium, small companies, whatever… But as these things go, the job I finally landed was through a connection, proving the adage “it’s who you know” is in many cases, absolutely correct.

But in those three years, to help out the family, my wife convinced me to apply at one of our favorite restaurants where the servers sang. I could make a little money, and also do what I love: Entertain. So I applied, got an audition, and got hired. Little did I know that there wasn’t much time for singing. Despite that, once I figured out the system of serving, I was able to sing between 5 and 10 songs a night. But that’s getting a little besides the point.

A valuable lesson that I learned being a waiter is what we Americans call “growing a thick skin.” You see, as a waiter, you see people both at their best AND their worst. And when you get their worst, you can’t react to it – at least not with negativity back at them. And it’s not so much that you just “take it.” You simply let it pass through you so it doesn’t affect your performance. What you have to realize is that 99% of the time, whatever anger someone is experiencing is not directed at you. What they’re doing is taking out their anger on the person they feel they can take it out on.

Make no mistake: Though we live in a democracy, imperialistic behavior is alive and well. But despite all that negativity, you still have a job to do. So you can choose to engage the customer’s anger, or you can simply let it pass through you and know that it’s not about you.

The same goes for entertaining; at least the kind that I typically do: Restaurants, parties, corporate events, etc. In those cases, I’m not the drawing attraction, nor the focal point. But I still have a job to do, and since I just love to play, I put all my heart into it, no matter where I’m at.

A friend of mine, for whom I got a singing job at the same restaurant I play, once shared with me that it bothered her that people weren’t paying attention. She is a former Broadway singer, having major roles in musicals like “Hair” and “Les Miserables,” so her performance reference was being on stage. But I shared that while we are technically “background,” we’re like the “canvas” for the dining experience. If the canvas is torn or of bad quality, no matter how good the painter is, the ultimate picture will not be as good as it could be. So we provide a canvas on which the servers “paint” on top of, and if we do our jobs right, we’ll be rewarded because people actually care about what’s being played and how it’s being played.

In light of all that, I’ve learned to grow a thick skin. After all, as a performer, it’s all about the music.

Before I get into the actual report, before getting the TubeMeister 18, I never thought I would review a Hughes & Kettner amplifier, let alone own one. To me, they always seemed to be more Prog and NuMetal machines. But once I got mine — and I have to admit I bought it off my friend based upon the DI feature, and about ten minutes of test time — I haven’t been able to stop playing it.

Then looking at the H&K artists page on their site, the fact that one of my all-time favorite guitarists, Davey Johnstone, plays a Hughes & Kettner completely reinforced my decision to hold onto my new amp; admittedly, in the back of my mind I was thinking that if I didn’t like it, I could always flip it.

Based upon the silent recordings I’ve done with the amp thus far, I knew I was going to hold on to it at least for a little while while I write new material that has suddenly made its way into my creative consciousness. But after playing with the amp at a gig yesterday, I’m going to be holding onto this amp for a long time.

Yesterday’s gig was just a simple trio as the “opener” for a memorial ceremony. A former bandmate asked the other members if we’d play the gig. A couple of us could do it, so we got together before the ceremony, picked a list of songs, then the gig was basically a jam session as we were to only play instrumentally. For the gig, I brought my Slash L “Katie May” which was plugged directly into the TubeMeister, which went out to a 1 X 12 with a Jensen Jet Falcon speaker.

Clean or dirty, the TubeMeister just sang. But what was impressive with the lead channel, was the smooth distortion that the amp produces. I’ve been so used to Marshall-style break-up that tends to be open, in-your-face, and super mid-rangy. But the voicing of this amp is such that the tones are a bit deeper, so that distortion is super smooth. Then add the amazing sag and sustain of the amp (and apparently what H&K amps are known for) on top of that, and that’s simply a recipe for inspiration.

It didn’t hurt that I was playing with close close friends with whom I’d played music for over twenty years. We’ve learned to play off each other and it’s very natural, and we all take on our roles automatically. When you have that level of comfort with playing partners, it just frees your mind to be creative.

Probably the most amusing song we did was an instrumental version of “Crazy.” I started playing the lead clean, but after the first go-’round, I switched to the lead channel. I had set up the amp so there’d be very little volume change between the clean and lead channels, and set up my guitar so I could vary the amount of distortion using my volume knob. Then getting out of the blues mode, I went into major-scale, legato runs, and turned the song into a bit of a metal, prog version that made all of us laugh while we were playing. After the song, we laughed out loud, and I said that I couldn’t believe how expressive the amp it.

My mates also remarked how incredible that amp sounded, and I told them, “I daresay that this amp sounds so good, it rivals my beloved Aracom amps.” Mind you, it’s a completely different sound than the vintage-Marshall, snarling dog sound that I love. But this smooth sound is absolutely incredible to me as well.

Needless to say, it’s a keeper!

Sometimes when I’m just messing around, I play something that sticks with me. This song was like that for me. I had the day off from work today, and went into my man-cave to play around. I was thinking of a blues waltz that popped into my head, and wanted to track it so I wouldn’t forget. Surprisingly enough, I started composing the song on the piano. But as I played it more and more on the piano to get the song down for tracking, It just didn’t feel right, so I tracked the rhythm track on guitar. Also, I was originally going to add lyrics. But as I played through the melody I had in mind, it sounded so good with just a finger-picked guitar that I decided to forgo the lyrics altogether. This is the result:

Mind you, I tried the song with three different guitars before I found the one with just the right chime. I thought my Strat would do it, but it sounded a little flat. Then I tried my ’59 Replica because it has a bit brighter voicing, but that didn’t quite sound right to me either. So I took “Katie May” out of her case (she was custom built by Perry Riggs of Slash L Guitars), plugged her in, and smiled. That was the sound I was after!

As far as amps are concerned, I used my Hughes and Kettner TubeMeister 18 using the built-in RedBox DI, and both guitars were recorded silently. This amp just hasn’t ceased to amaze me the more I use it!


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