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Relearning to solder

My solder station at Makelab

For quite a few years now I have wanted to build my my own effects pedals and swap out pickups in a few of my guitars. I have been gathering up several pedal kits, reading books on electronics, reading blogs, watching videos, and acquiring service manukau for pedals I want to try to modify. One thing stopped me from actually doing anything. Soldering.

The irony is that in my younger years I was quite handy with a soldering iron. I probably soldered something at least once a week for ten years or better. I have swapped out countless electronics in guitars from jacks to pickups. I tinned every speaker wire I ever used on any stereo system I ever hooked up. Despite all that experience, I was afraid to move forward and try assembling one of the pedal kits I had. Looking back I think it was all the components that frightened me. As a kid my dad taught me to solder on some old heathkits and we never got one to work. But we were able to successfully change out my 1/4″ jack on my bass, so I guess that's why my soldering never went past wires.

This past October I picked up a copy of Premier Guitar Magazine's “Pedal Issue” and there was an article on how to build your own stomp box. Complete with a step by step PDF and several links for finding the right parts. This lit the fire again. I really wanted to do this. I read the article a few times over, acquired all the parts needed and decided to start practicing how to solder. The first thing I did was assemble a signal tester that I got from Build Your Own Clone (BYOC). It kind of works, but I'm pretty sure I burned up the capacitor. Next, I made a guitar cable. It transmits sound, but it does it poorly. Now it was time to tackle the “confidence booster” kit from BYOC. I started by trying to solder a socket in place. I globed solder all over the board. It was time to stop.

I felt very defeated, but I was unwilling to give up. A coworker had suggested to me a local group called Makelab Charleston that is a collective space for its members to work on projects. He said that they have classes from time to time and was pretty sure someone there could help me solder. He was right. I googled the organization and found out I had just missed an intro to soldering class. I contacted the president of Makelab and asked about future classes. He said there would be some coming and to join the “Meet up” group to be notified of all classes they group would be having. So I did. And then I did the best thing I could have done. I stopped obsessing over the pedals and learning electronics and put it on the shelf.

I stepped away from all that and just focused on playing guitar, working on song ideas and just having fun. Next thing I knew I got an alert from meet up about an upcoming Soldering 101 class at make lab, $30 for non-members. So worth it. I showed up ready up ready to learn. I had my iPad with me for note taking and I was ready. It was a small group, but everyone there was super nice and very low key. The class started with a safety presentation and covered the basic tools. Next, there was a nice diagram on how to solder properly and what a good solder joint looked like. This is where the magic started to happen for me. Finally I could see where I was making a mistake. I was not placing my iron correctly. Next I learned my second problem. My soldering iron at home was not heating the way it should. The iron I used at the class was an old dual wattage Radio Shack iron that I was very familiar with. It worked exactly as I remember, right down to the handle getting super hot.

We opened up our project pacts and began populating the circuit board. All my reading and research paid off. As I looked at the board, it actually made sense. I recognized where components should go and was able to populate my board very quickly. Next up was the soldering. I immediately felt a difference in this iron from the one I have at home. Now was my chance to apply what we were just shown. The first lead I soldered did not cover well, so I adjusted the iron and was able to get better contact with the pad and lead and the solder jumped onto the board. I was surprised how easy this was going. I was sharing the soldering iron with the guy next to me, so it gave me a chance to take a break from soldering and take my time. It was nice to have a partner to bounce things off of. We helped each other through the process. To my surprise I was the first one with a completed project and that meant I got to test mine first. I kept thinking “please turn on, please turn on” the whole time I was putting the batteries in. I through the switch and viola! The lights turned on, the switches worked, and I was smiling ear to ear.

My working project!

I left with a renewed confidence and re-kindled excitement to build a pedal. In a week I am going to visit a friend, and now I am super excited to to go looking for old broken pedals to try to fix and modify. Next stop is Radio Shack to get a new soldering iron and start building those kits!

 

Stop, collaborate, and listen….

Nothing like an early morning walk to get the creativity flowing

I recently had a conversation with a friend about being a better musician. On most points we agreed, but on two we didn’t. Those two points were playing live/with other people and collaboration. My friend is at an interesting point in her life where she is accepting that she is a musician and that other people need to accept that as well. I chose the word “accepting” because she has always know she was a musician. It’s all she wanted to do.

The generation of parents that raised here and I don’t accept that easy as parents would today. Today, everyone wants their kid to be the next just Beiber (except me, I’d rather my kids be a cross between Chuck Berry, Ted Nugent and Henry Rollins), but when my friend and I were growing up, being a musician was viewed as almost as bad an occupational choice as being a garbage man (and their is nothing wrong with that, again things change). I was very fortunate. My parents, even though they are very conservative and wanted traditional things for me, they were forward thinking enough to help me seek out ways to make this choice “viable” and “respectable”. They’re were always worried though until one particular moment I’ll never forget. I needed transportation back from a NAMM show. This show happened to be in Nashville, TN. My parents offered to drive down and pick me up, so I decided to have some fun and get them access to the show (this was before the days of the final show day being a public day). As I took then around the show and introduced them to all the manufacturers I worked with, you could see a change starting. For the first time they understood my draw to the music industry and that there was more than one way to make a living in it.

My friends parents while supportive of her music they are still firmly rooted in the “music is a nice hobby, but you still need a respectable job” mindset. So after years of working jobs she just did not enjoy, she is going to quit and focus 100% on music. The best part is she will succeed because this not some spur of the moment decision. It’s an informed decision backed by years of experience in other fields that can be applied to what she loves.

So as we discussed all this the topic of playing live came up. She was talking about how one of the “consultants” she had spoken with had told her to play live live as much as possible. She thought that was a crazy idea since she did not have any songs written extensively yet (she’s working on her own album with some pretty great sounding starts but nothing complete). I disagreed. I’ve played in band for years and some of my best musical moments have been playing with other people on short notice with very little planning. I believe that practice of technique and scales are paramount to being a great musician, but none of that means anything if you cannot apply it. Playing with other musicians is the best way to apply it. Sure, you can play along with an MP3 or songs on Spotify. But it’s just not the same as playing in a room with other people. If you play to a recording, you know what the recording will do every time. Playing with other musician is spontaneous and can change at any moment. You develop your ear listening for the changes. You develop your sense of timing trying to stay on the same page and make the changes.

I also believe that collaboration is huge when it comes to songwriting. I’ve tried to write stuff on my own, but my best work always comes as a result of working with other people. Finally realizing that I sent some riff ideas to a buddy and we are going to work on them when I go visit him to see Brian Setzer and George Thorogood play at the end of May. He sent me back some tracks and I am super excited about it. Music is such a force of power and spontaneity. It’s like a hurricane followed by the most beautiful sunset you have ever seen. You can’t predict that stuff, so you have to try to capture those moments everyday.

 

Ampoids Micro Guitar Amps

In my last post i wrote about reverb.com. As I mentioned before one of the coolest things about the site is the handmade gear section. I love seeing new takes and tweaks on gear that people come up with. I am also a huge fan of mini-amplifiers. Put those two things together and you get Ampoids.

Back in the 90’s I remember when the “Smoky Amps” came out. They were little amplifiers built into an empty cigarette pack and just had a cool vibe about them. The one down side to them is that being that cigarette packs are flimsy, they were not “built to last” .

Fast forward to now and Ampoids. Ampoids are micro amplifiers built into old “Altoids” tins. It’s a simple circuit, no volume controls, just “on”. And it even has the option of a “tweed” or “blackface” style grill. It’s all very simple, but it’s cool. I like the sound of it. It has a nice overdrive sound. Something else that is really cool is the lid on the tin can act as a manual wah was, or even just to help eq the sound.

Like I stated before, I love stuff like this, and at $30 it’s an inexpensive option for practice to keep in your gig bag or case.

 

Reverb.com – rethinking online music gear shopping

Reverb_Logo_OrangeIf you've read my archives, then you know I love guitar shops. I worked in a small full line shop for years and when I was not in that shop, I was in every other guitar shop in town. The older I get the more I appreciate a small shop with a knowledgeable staff and a nice varied selection. I do shop online for some gear, but most gear sites are lacking in personality. The only site I shop that is more than just a digital catalog is Sweetwater. Sweetwater has always done its best to be more and they never disappoint. But how cool would it be to to find boutique shops, small scale builders and and cool used gear all in one place?

Thanks to reverb.com such a place now exists. Reverb is the brainchild of David Kalt, the owner of Chicago Music Exchange. He purchased Chicago Music Exchange more out of necessity at first. After a successful run as a computer programmer (and I mean crazy successful, he wrote a program for options trading that was bought by Charles Schwab), he sold his company and wanted to get back into music. After buying reverb.com, he realized that is was very difficult to get all the dealerships he wanted and that led to the purchase of Chicago Music Exchange.

I read about David a couple years back in the Music trades (where I learned all this) and did not give the “reverb.com’ site a second thought. Then one day I saw an add for it. On the surface it seemed like another eBay copy or a commercialized “Craig’s List”. But after spending some time on the site I realized he did what no other “auction” site had been able to do. He created a cool online community where musicians can hang out, learn about gear, and easily peddle their own hand built gear.

One of the things that struck me when I read the article in Music trades is that David was not trying to start a chain and compete with the big box guys. Instead he wanted to create a “destination” store. A cool place to hang out with the best selection of the coolest gear. Well, he took that same philosophy and applied it to reverb.com. It’s not like other sale and auction sites. Individuals and shops can set up their own “shops” which users can then follow in their feed. He managed to take the cool parts of twitter, Facebook, eBay and Craig’s list, and eliminated the stuff about those site that annoy me.

If I may suggest try starting on the “Handmade Gear” Section. I love the interesting things I have found there. In fact my next post will feature a recent purchase from that section.

 

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