This is Why My Next Camera is the Canon 5D MkII

If you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time you’ve seen the live shooting I’ve been doing for three years now. In 2006 I was shooting a Canon Rebel 300D, I upgraded to the XTi soon after, and last year I moved to the Canon 450D aka XSi. Each of these moves gave me more features and resolution (of course) while allowing me to maintain my lenses. The XSi also gave me live view, which has been very handy in crowd situations as my 6’1″ body plus my arm gives me about 7 foot of reach, and I was very happy with the pictures I have taken so far. Of course, late last year Canon announced the upgrade to the already-amazing and amazingly-priced Canon 5D. With a full-frame sensor like its big brother 1D and new mind-boggling resolution of 21.1 Megapixel and much-improved low-light abilities provided by the DiGiC 4 CCD and processor it is the next move I’d like to make for all of my shooting needs. The full-frame sensor will help me take full advantage of the lenses I have and really open up some possibilities, I think.

But it is the High Definition video capability that really knocks it out of the park. I don’t have a video camera today– much to the chagrin of anyone who knows me and my gadgets– and I shouldn’t justify buying a $2700 camera by saying I’m going to use it for video, but one look at the video below is enough to make it compelling!

My friend Chad forwarded me this today, and I felt I needed to post on it. This is footage shot on 2/25 in Melbourne, Australia of Nine Inch Nails. NIN might not be everyone’s cup o’ tea, but damn, look at how absolutely GORGEOUS this footage is!


NIN: Burn Live from on stage, Melbourne 2.25.09 [HD] from Nine Inch Nails on Vimeo.

And, in case you’re feeling *very* giving:

B-Sides in the Bins #41 – Wendy & Lisa Interview

Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman– collectively known as Wendy & Lisa are probably best known as the creative songwriting force in Prince’s 80’s backing band The Revolution. It’s my opinion as well as others that it was Wendy & Lisa who were a strong (and necessary) compliment to Prince and that relationship fostered the creative energy of the three that spawned music that was more than the three could have achieved individually. After Prince dissolved The Revolution Wendy & Lisa stuck together and continued to work through the 90’s on their career as a songwriting duo. While the four albums released through 1998 had been received well critically, none of the albums really took off for them– quite a bit of it due to label switching that was outside their control and it was this experience that formed their approach to their new album.

In the ten-plus years since their last album, the pair have stayed together focusing on studio work, songwriting, production and some significant soundtrack scoring for shows like HBO’s “Carnivale,” Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” and NBC’s “Heroes.” At the end of 2008, Wendy & Lisa self-released White Flags of Winter Chimneys which seems to be a new declaration of purpose with a vision towards the next phase of their partnership. It may prove that the long gap between releases is enough for the pair to be judged upon their own merits as artists and musicians rather than continuing in the shadow of their work with Prince.

I had an opportunity to talk to Wendy & Lisa during a short break in their busy schedules last week to talk about their new album, the promise of an upcoming tour, and their unique distribution model. They were very cool to talk to– funny and excited to talk about their new work. They had me on speakerphone and it was a lot of fun talking to them. They are kindred spirits with me in a lot of respects, their tastes in music are as varied as mine and their passion for their work is infectious as I found myself re-energized to focus on this blog!

Me: A lot of bands are looking into a self-distribution model. Yours is unique in that you are selling it from your website first and then moving to other electronic distribution channels– is it going to get regular distribution as well?

Wendy: It will get regular distribution later, yeah. We’re doing this in steps right now because we’re trying to make a little cash so we can get to the next level because we are distributing it ourselves in a little room with our little postage machines and our little weighing machines and our packaging and this-and-that. We bypassed getting a regular distribution deal because a lot of times the artist ends up having to pay back a lot of money to the distributor because the distributors ordered way too much product. So, we opted to not do that and just to do it as it’s being ordered. So, the best way to get a sense of what is being bought is to take it one step at a time. Basically, our manager Renata who is the computer genius in the family came up with this model– that we go ahead and release FLAC digital downloads and 320Kbps mp3’s and offer it at a reasonable price on the website first to get an idea of what was being sold. And, actually, it’s coming back that we are doing quite well on that. So, the little bit of money that has come in from that is being put into packaging now and getting more product out to people. On February 24th when it is on digital download sites like iTunes, Amazon, and Rhapsody–

Lisa: we have to mention TopSpin who has been with us since the very beginning and helped us get this up and going.

Wendy:  That’s right.

Lisa: I think it is important for people to know that what’s been really cool is that we’ve offered all of these different packages– including just single-song downloads– you know– to just the get things going. All we needed was just the first bit of artwork to have some design up on the webpage. So, you can download a single song, you can download the whole record, you can download the record plus order the CD when it becomes available– you can order the beautiful vinyl which we made a limited amount of– this blue-and-white splatter vinyl which is going to be FANTASTIC!

Wendy: Yeah, and the mastering on the record is FANTASTIC– it’s almost sounds better than the CD as far as I’m concerned.

Me: So, can you tell us a bit more about the vinyl pressing and who did the mastering?

Wendy: Yeah, Paul du Gré did the mastering of the vinyl and he’s from North Hollywood. He’s one of those guys who’s just done everything for ages– he’s a classic engineer, mastering and an audiophile kind of guy. You can Google “Paul du Gré” and find all kinds of wonderful things he worked on. The pressing is being done by Pirates Press using GZ Digital Media in the Czech Republic. There was a problem with doing the splatter– we found a plant that could pour the paint by hand instead of using machines. There is a whole environmental consideration and things like that. [It’s important to note, also that this first limited pressing will be in a gatefold sleeve. -ed]

To get people to pre-order these things over the website has allowed to finance getting these things done. I think it is helpful for other musicians to know that are trying to put things out– that you can start lining your ducks up and start selling things and it will help finance things like producing the product.

Lisa: For me, I feel like this is more satisfying than having a record deal.

Wendy: It really is, and more has come from this in satisfaction for us than any record label we’ve ever been signed to– and we’ve been signed to A LOT. And dropped from every one of them… This is so much better and I highly recommend it! Haha!

Me: So, did you create a label for this?

Wendy: Yeah, we just created our own thing.

Me: What is the label called?

Wendy: It’s called “Lisa Coleman/Wendy Melvoin” hehehe. Literally, that is what it is called. We don’t have a label name. It is just “L. Coleman/W. Melvoin”

Wendy: That’s it– we aren’t going to put out anyone else’s records.

Me: Well, yes I suppose you aren’t going to make a “Paisley Park” or something.

Wendy: Nah, it’s not going to happen for us.

Me: Will you be selling the LP without the CD at some point?

Wendy & Lisa: Oh, yes! Absolutely!

Me: It seems that the other part of the equation for working bands is touring and, in some cases the album is promoted by the touring. Do you see the success of this preventing the need to tour? Are you going to tour?

Wendy: We’re going to need to tour. All of this is leading into the two of us hopefully getting out this summer to do some gigs. We have so much work to do before we can even put our eye on that– but our sights are on being able to tour. I’d love us to be able to spend at least three months– six weeks here in the States to do just some key places and six weeks in over in Europe would be fantastic.

Lisa:  Yeah, it’s not a matter of even needing to tour, we really would like to tour.

Wendy: Yeah that’s true…

Lisa: …And play this record out and play these songs and give them a life. But, we don’t have the financing to rehearse a band and pay for hotels and travel and things like that so we’re trying to raise the money first. Maybe find some smart ways of doing it– maybe pairing it with another band or a promoter or something that makes sense.

Wendy: Or what we talked about before is that we have this group of musicians that we have this band with called Edith Funker. It has members of the Roots– ?uestlove on drums, Erykah Badu on vocals, My brother-in-law on guitar Doyle Bramhall [Wendy’s sister Susannah Melvoin is married to Doyle -ed], with [Susannah] doing vocals and guitar, James Poyser on keyboards with Lisa, me on guitar, this really phenomenal record producer-musician named Mike Elizondo on bass. And, we want to go out possibly as each other’s band.

Me: Oh, like a package tour!

Wendy: Yeah, a package tour. So, for like 45 minutes we’re Eryka’s band, and for 45 minutes they’re Wendy & Lisa’s band, and for 45 minutes we’re Doyle’s band– you know what I mean? Kind of do that. We’d love to make that happen.

Me: That would be really great!

Lisa: We think that would be the ideal thing, but you know it would be pretty hard to coordinate. Everybody’s doing their records and tours and things like that. We’re hoping maybe by summertime. Also, that’s when the TV season ends because our day job, of course, is scoring TV.

Wendy: “Nurse Jackie” and “Heroes.”

Lisa: Yeah, so after the TV season is over and everybody kind of gets done doing what they’re doing right now…

Wendy: Which is the end of April…

Lisa: Yeah, we’re going to try aim for late June or something around there to try to get out and do something like that.

Me: Are you going to try to hit the festivals?

Wendy: You know, if we could get that group of people together, I don’t even know that we have to do the festivals. We could probably get a venue on our own and make it a two-and-a-half, three hour event with all of those people– bypassing the festivals.

Me: By the way, I think that White Flags is a brilliant record. You have somehow managed to hit a lot of the buttons I care about in music.

Lisa: Oh wow, Thank you!

Me: I had a pretty tough time describing it while writing the one paragraph I did write for the article talking about the upcoming release. The record either sounds like it’s been a long time coming or– I don’t know. It’s all over the place and it has one sound– a consistent production value. I’m going to call it “shoegazer” because I don’t know what else to call it.

Wendy: Yeah, and I related to your comparisons, I do listen to Lush a little bit and My Bloody Valentine and Radiohead– of course and I feel those things when I hear this record as well.

You know, this has been a long time coming for us, this record.  We needed to start fresh. We didn’t really use anything that we had in the can from ten years ago, but we opted basically to let all that got to define who we are right now. After being in film composing and TV composing for this long and producing for other people and being on a million other records during this time and writing for other people. And, when we got the writer’s strike– for good or for bad– the strike allowed us the opportunity to get in our room, shut the door, turn the red light on and keep everybody out and make this record. We were lucky for the time– really lucky for it because I’m really proud of this record. When my kid’s a teenager, I wouldn’t hesitate handing him this record and say, “here, give this a listen.”

Lisa: It was like opening the flood gates for us, too. After having the responsibility to write music all the time, having the freedom to write music was a totally different experience. The things that came out of us were– and we’re guilty of being all over the place anyway because we love so many different kinds of music– we like to groove and we like to be introspective, we like to trip out and then we like to get really classy or intimate. So, all these things just started pouring out, and when we hit a certain song or a certain place after a month or so of writing we knew we had stumbled upon the sound that could carry through. There was even this Mellotron “voice” sound that I think we used on every song or as a way to segue between songs was the emotional thread through the album– like it was one story.

Wendy: Michael, when you listen to the LP, we actually made this– segued this so it would sound as if you were having the LP experience. It’s been so many years since people have had that mindset and boy do I miss it!

Lisa: To listen to a whole record and to have it be different– so many times I put on a record and then it’s kind of the same song over-and-over again. I’ve never liked that– I like records that have different feels on it, like it takes you on a trip.

Wendy: Yeah, like one of the coveted LP’s that I have is the Bill Evans/Claus Ogerman Symbiosis. Side A is all of the horn arrangements that Claus Ogerman did– Bill isn’t even playing on side A! Symbiosis is this composition where side A is playing at double-time and side B is an orchestra and the Bill Evans Trio playing it at half time. That’s a fucking LP experience to me! That, to me, is a high achievement.

Me: Was that a Prestige title?

Wendy: I think maybe it was.

[Although Evans famously recorded on Prestige, this 1974 release was originally released on the German label MPS. It was re-released on CD in 1995 on Verve Records and is now sadly out-of-print, however you can download mp3’s at Amazon. -ed]

Me: It sounds like I need to find that one– I like Bill Evans.

Wendy: You need to find that. It’s breathtaking. Michael, this LP is BREATHTAKING, it’s so beautiful! Side B– that’s the heartbreak side. Side A is more like the bible of harmonics.

Lisa: It’s almost Supersax, but really um…

Wendy: It’s more Steve Reich-ian meets Supersax.

[I had to stop myself from talking about Reich’s “Different Trains.” I saw the original configuration of Kronos Quartet performing this in Madison, WI in the early 90’s.]

Lisa: Way more sophisticated harmonically. It’s really, really cool.

Albums are so much better when they aren’t just a collection of singles. Even though there is a place for that– you can go buy the “greatest hits.”

Wendy: In defense of a lot of records out there, I think it is just the Pop stuff that is geared towards that. I listen to plenty of CD’s right now that aren’t a collection of singles. It’s too blanket of a statement– it’s just not true.

Lisa: Well, I just think with the failure of the record companies (assumes stuffy documentary voice) “in our historic times”– record labels have completely failed the art and it makes the art difficult to master. When you’re making a record, you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be aiming at. I think that Wendy and I in this situation had the perfect opportunity to not care about that. We had our studio already set up, we had been scoring TV, and the writer’s strike hit and we had nothing to do.

Wendy: It was a perfect storm.

Lisa: Right, exactly, so we were “snowed in,” had all this gear, all this inspiration and nobody to answer to except each other and we just started writing and it was such a gift to be able to do that.

Wendy: Even our engineer kept looking at us and saying “What kind of music is this? What is this?” Just go with it man, just go with it.

Lisa: “Is this supposed to sound like a rock record? Should I make it tight or loose? Should I use echo?” We said, “Just make it sound cool.” He has great taste and great ears and great techniques.

Wendy: We just guided him and said, “Stay there! Don’t move! That’s just where we want to be!”

Me: So, you did this in one sitting, effectively? It’s a bit astounding that you could achieve this record like that.

Lisa: Yeah, it was easy– well I shouldn’t say that and jinx myself! With the exception of “Niagra Falls,” which we re-recorded, yeah. We just have a lot of music in our bones. It just comes out.

Me: I haven’t had this record to listen to that long, but the two songs that stand out for me are “Niagra Falls” and “Sweet Suite.”

Wendy: Yeah, those are the two that a lot of people are gravitating towards.

Me: I have to say that out of the whole Revolution catalog “Sometimes It Snows In April” [from Parade] is probably my favorite song.

Wendy & Lisa (in unison): Wow, thank you!

Me: So, I hear “Sweet Suite” and I kind of hear that in there.

Wendy & Lisa: Yeah, for sure, definitely.

Lisa: “Sometimes It Snows In April” was really the pinnacle of our relationship together [with Prince]. The three of us had kind of a love affair. And when we wrote that song– again– it was just the three of us sitting together in a room. I really loved it, and I had hoped we would follow that trail further, you know? Like make a whole record like that or something. But, that didn’t happen.

Wendy: He opted out.

Me: And there was that B-Side to “Mountains” What was it, “Alexa de…”

Wendy: “Alexa de Paris.”

Me: Yeah..

Lisa: Oh, wow, yeah…

Wendy: That whole Parade record, that was a great time. Parade, and Sign O’ The Times. Actually, the three albums: All Around The World In A Day, Parade, and Sign O’ The Times, those were incredible records to make…

I’ll tell you what my friend– we don’t want to– but, we have to go. We have to deliver thirty minutes of music for “Heroes” for tomorrow morning and we’ve only done one reel out of five! We have a deadline…

Me: I really appreciate the time, ladies, and it was really great talking to you at the beginning of this phase in your career!

Below is a full-album stream of Wendy & Lisa’s new album White Flags of Winter Chimneys:

 

Umphrey’s McGee Mantis Countdown to Release

Mantis Deluxe Boxes

As the rest of the world anxiously counts down to the swearing in of a new President and the promise that brings, a small percentage of the world is also watching the countdown clock to Midnight tonight for the release of Umphrey’s McGee’s new album Mantis— at least the digital version available for download to everyone who pre-ordered it. The download was offered to all who pre-ordered so that even if the US Mail failed to deliver the physical orders, everyone could listen to it tomorrow in some fashion.

The pre-order for Mantis kicked off on October 27th and ran until December 6th at Midnight and– based on the amount of orders received– 9 “Levels” of exclusive bonus content would be made available to everyone who pre-ordered. This is in addition to the bonus material that will be made available using the CD as a key after the release to everyone who buys one!

The pre-order came in two flavors– a Deluxe Boxset and a regular CD order. Both flavors would have access to the pre-order bonus material, but the Deluxe Boxset– which was limited to 500 initially, and expanded to 1000 when the first 500 sold out quickly– was going to include an audiophile 180g pressing of Mantis and a DVD of video content including the 10-year documentary “UM10” the band put together for their NYE 2008 shows, plus some other goodies from their online store and some other things they picked all housed in a box the band signed. The CD was $20, but the Deluxe Box was $50. Frankly, the box is the better deal if only because of the vinyl and the DVD, but the “personal” stuff the band threw in would really make this a collector’s dream. Of course, there were people bemoaning the “devaluation” of their copies with the additional 500. It’s still very rare, so it will be valuable either way, if that is the concern. Whatever, I’m opening mine and playing the record.

From a logistics standpoint getting these packages to everyone who ordered was a feat in itself. The band and their assistance would have had to work backwards from the release date (tomorrow) and take in to consideration where in the world these packages had to go. Adding to that was the fact that today is a government holiday in the US, so no deliveries would happen today.

Mantis Order Shipping

Of course, this caused some folks to get their orders early– which was a source of much consternation on the umphreaks board, but allowed us to hear what goodies were in the boxes! Based on the “I JUST GOT MY MANTIS IN THE MAIL!!!!!” thread on the board (aka “The Bort”) people are getting

  • Mantis CD
  • guitar picks from the band
  • a guitar string that was used at a show from last year that has a tag with the date played.
  • a recipe from a member of the band: so far we’ve seen a Ryan Stasik baked brie, and a smoked rib from Andy Farag. Both sound fantastic, frankly.
  • a “Mantis” poster (folded, sadly– I’ll have to see if I can order a rolled one)
  • “UM10” DVD
  • A letter signed by the band.
  • A photocopy of a set list construction “worksheet.” This is generally handwritten and shows how the band goes through working on their setlists complete with crossing out songs.
  • The 180g vinyl version of Mantis.
  • Two “Mantis” postcards.
  • Tootsie Rolls
  • One set of “Mantis” iPod skins for Nano or Classic (no iPhone or Touch, unfortunately).

Talk about a labor of love! Keep in mind there is also all of the pre-order bonus material and whatever they unlock beyond that!

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gesture this big from a band to its fans. I’ve only been a fan of UM in the last year, and there are a lot of reasons that I like what this band is up to– a lot of it has to do with their approach to their music and the fact that they are as much fans of music as they are musicians. The fact that they have a very good grip on using their fanbase and the Internet as a way to promote what they’re doing and making the extra effort to make something like an album release special, is pretty great, too. Many bands could take a page from this band’s playbook. Of course it helps to have a rabid fanbase that would support this kind of effort.

Bort member Tim Hara had provided some great pictures of the band signing the Deluxe Boxes to the board. He very graciously allowed me to re-post the pictures here.

Umphrey's McGee Signing Mantis Deluxe Boxes

Umphrey's McGee Signs the Mantis Deluxe Boxes

Umphrey's McGee Signs the Mantis Deluxe Boxes

The band also is doing an eBay auction to benefit their favorite charity UStorm. The cover art was designed by Mark Blanchette who surprisingly creates his montage photographs the old school dodge and burn method. There is a very informative posting on the band’s blog here. As a result he is able to control the serialization of his work to ten copies. The eBay auction is for one of those 10 prints framed along with a sheet with the band’s autographs.

I was one of the lucky few who got in on the second 500 Deluxe sets, so I’m anxiously awaiting the deliver of it– to eat the spoils of victory (the Tootsie Rolls) while dropping the needle on the vinyl version of Mantis!

Click Here to view other pictures Tim Hara took of the signing. Thanks Tim!

Stay tuned for “Sexy Unboxing Pictures” of my boxset to come.

New Guitar: Gibson Les Paul Studio “Vintage Mahogany”

Gibson Les Paul Studio Vintage Mahogany

Guitar Center had their regular huge blowout “list” sale last Labor Day Weekend. Since last Christmas I had been contemplating picking up one of the Gibson Les Paul Vintage Mahogany guitars. The sale over Christmas was a good one and this guitar was included in it, so I was hoping that it would be included again for this sale, too. This was a guitar that Sherry said that she liked a lot. This guitar has a “thin” nitrocellulose finish and has a matte finish that Sherry prefers on it rather than a glossy one. I had been struggling with selling my somewhat rare Fender Jaguar Baritone Custom that is the “star” of the most-read article on my blog. The fact of the matter is that I just don’t play it. So, if I can move to a new guitar that might fit my playing better, and it was on sale, I thought I’d better jump on it.

On Friday over lunch I hightailed it over to Guitar Center in Cedar Rapids, and found out that the guitar in question was, in fact, on sale! It was on sale for $200 off! This guitar is part of Gibson’s sub-$1000 line of guitars that includes most of the “Faded” line.

This is a pretty interesting guitar in a lot of ways. It seems that Guitar Center/Musician’s Friend has this guitar manufactured specifically for them. Apparently manufactured in large enough numbers that they can sell them very cheaply. On the surface, it looks just like the regular Gibson Les Paul Studio in what they call “Worn Brown” with Chrome Hardware. It’s their no-frills Les Paul which I prefer– no amber “top hat” volume and tone knobs, no gold hardware, no binding. Mahogany solid-body with chambers. The guitar itself is slightly thinner than other Les Pauls. The combination of the chambers and thinner body adds to the relative lightness of the guitar. A key difference of the Guitar Center version of this guitar, however, comes in the pickups. The regular Studio Les Paul, that Guitar Center sells for between $1100 and $1400 depending on options has 490R and 498T pickups, which are based on the original 1960’s “Patent Applied For” humbuckers. Guitar Center’s version of the Gibson Les Paul Studio has Burstbucker Pro pickups which are hotter.

Guitar Center had three of these left on Friday, and only one of them was still fresh-in-the-box. The other two were showing signs of demo floor abuse. Only pick scratches, but I wanted one that didn’t have any scratches on it. Additionally, there are slight variations in these guitars since they are hand assembled and finished in Nashville alongside the other Made in USA Gibsons. This one had a darker rosewood fretboard that I preferred. The neck was slightly wider than the other two, but not dramatically so. This guitar, like all Gibsons, came with a hard case, which is a really nice touch. [Note: it has been recently confirmed that Guitar Center no longer offers a hardshell case with the Vintage Mahogany Studios, only a gig bag. See the comments for more details]

Since I was selling the Jag, I was going to need a box to ship that in and they kindly let me take the box the Gibson was in which yielded me some interesting information about the guitar with the labelling on the box. Gibson calls this guitar a “Les Paul Studio Limited” and lists the options as “Worn Brown” and “Chrome.” It is given a model number of LPSTWBCH1, which would seem to mean “Les Paul Studio Worn Brown Chrome.”

So, having had this guitar for a number of weeks, I can say that this guitar certainly meets my expectations. In fact, it might surpass my expectations for a guitar that is considered the entry-level for the Gibson Les Paul line. Most of the complaints on Harmony Central surround fit and finish of these guitars. Indeed, Ian the sales assistant at Guitar Center suggested that I look at and play a bunch of these to make sure that I get one that feels and sounds to my satisfaction. I feel like I picked out the best of the three they had in the store. I didn’t experience any of the issues that some of the folks on the review site had experienced. It’s quite possible that Gibson has improved this guitar over time, too. It sounds great. I’m playing it through a homebrew tube amp called a P1 that a friend of mine made for me. The Burstbuckers overdrive the EL84 tube nicely adding to enough crunchy distortion for my tastes. The relative short scale of the Les Paul (24.75″) versus my Fender Strat (25.5″) takes a bit to get used to, but I’m adapting, and I find myself reaching for the LP more frequently. The setup was pretty basic, but the strings are a bit higher than I prefer and two of the strings could stand some tweaking for intonation and I’m going to be working on that in the near future. The vintage-style “green key” kluson tuners seem to do a relatively good job of holding the guitar in tune.

Overall, I would recommend this guitar for someone who wants to get into a Gibson LP for less money and the bonus upgrades on this model make it a steal, indeed. You can always go with an Epiphone, but I think the combination of features and looks makes this guitar an instant favorite for me.

UPDATE: After a strange couple of years of rebranding and an unfortunate 2015 model year it appears that Gibson has brought the Worn Studio series back for 2016– almost exactly the way it was in 2012. This is slightly different than my 2008 as it has a maple cap over the mahogany, otherwise it is very similar. Take a look at models for sale at Reverb.com

Crazy Deals at Rhapsody mp3 Store

It’s pretty clear that Rhapsody/Real is taking this targeting of iTunes seriously. Even in the midst of bugs in their download mechanism they are drawing new members by offering insane discounts! Just in the last week they’ve announced two serious $9.99 downloads– both anthologies in the form of box sets. The first one on July 4th was the Doors Perception boxset which included all 6 Albums– 90 tracks (this deal ended some time today). The next one announced this morning was The Complete Led Zeppelin Collection which included all ten albums, plus the live BBC sessions AND the 2007 Mothership remasters! That was 165 songs for $9.99! This offer is now done as well. I’ll try to keep posting these deals here as I find out about them.

The comments on the slickdeals.net posting where I found this has a bunch of people bitching about the sound quality of these mp3’s. They are supposed to be 256Kbps, but some folks think they can hear the difference between these and 192K rips they did of their own CD’s. I didn’t notice anything in my car when I listened to them, but I haven’t tried these with headphones. Admittedly, I was wondering how they spun all of this content up so quickly unless they could on-the-fly convert their DRM content. At any rate, the Led Zeppelin deal is still a HELL of a good one!

My First Experience With Rhapsody MP3 Store

I found out about Rhapsody’s mp3 store quite accidentally. I was doing some reading about Umphrey’s McGee’s “Jimmy Stewart” performances when I found a link to a Jimmy Stewart collection at Rhapsody which was all mp3. This was news to me. I was familiar with Rhapsody because Coke Rewards was affiliated with them since Sony killed off Connect. Both Connect and Rhapsody were lame as they needed special software and players to support their proprietary DRM media.

I had a collection of points going due to my Coca-Cola habit, and aside from burning points bidding hopelessly on a Canon EOS 5D camera I hadn’t found anything I wanted to buy or didn’t have enough points to buy and they got rid of the ability to convert the points into a BestBuy Gift Card. I was pretty disappointed in the Coke Rewards deal especially since Pepsi’s rewards could get you mp3’s from Amazon. I said as much in an online survery that mycokerewards presented to me recently.

So, as of June 30th, Rhapsody has mp3’s in addition to their DRM content! This is in a BETA mode so caveat emptor. I ran into my first issue with my first attempt to cash in some points. I found that they had Pieta Brown’s pre-One Little Indian catalog and I wanted to get that so I started with In The Cool. I happened to be sitting in an airport waiting to board a plane which was my first mistake. I cashed 225 points to get one album download and proceeded to check out. There are two ways to download the mp3’s: have the album bundled into a .zip file or use their downloader utility. I chose .zip. Well, needless to say they started boarding the airplane and I couldn’t finish it. So, I closed the lid of my laptop thinking that I’d be able to resume it.

Nope. As far as Rhapsody was concerned I downloaded the whole album except two tracks. I did a bit of searching on the ‘Net and found this BetaNews article which effectively describes the same problem. Rhapsody doesn’t allow you to re-download the album once they think you’ve got it.

So, I signed on with their support chat utility which effectively needed to hand me off to second-level support who issued me credits for the 10 tracks I didn’t get. This is a much better situation than described in the BetaNews article where they were out $22! This is the right thing for Rhapsody to do, I think, until they can get their software able to tell whether a download completed successfully.

While its software needs some fixes, it is great to have another source for mp3’s in addition to Amazon and eMusic. I plan to stick around as long as I’m collecting Coke points. One cool thing about Rhapsody is you can purchase albums without signing up for their subscription– unlike eMusic. For the next download I’m going to try to use their utility or at least wait until I have a dedicated connection and enough time to sit through the download.

2005 Fender American Stratocaster Hard Tail (review)

2005 Strat HardTail A couple of weekends ago I was out to lunch with my friend Erik and decided to visit the Cedar Rapids Music-Go-Round to see if they had anything interesting in stock. Over lunch we were discussing the amazing finds that he and our friend Andrew had in that store.

Admittedly Music-Go-Round can be pretty hit-and-miss when it comes to really great finds at a good price. Quite a bit of their stock caters to the beginner or low-budget musicians– the guy who really wants a Gibson Les Paul, but only has the funds for the LTD version of it (a good version for the price, BTW). When we got there they had quite a few Fenders hanging on the wall– a couple of Mexicans– but they had two American Stratocasters as well. One was a 2001 Hot Rod Red with tremolo and rosewood fretboard and the other was the 2005 black and white Hard Tail with maple neck that I ended up purchasing.

The salesman plugged me into a used Fender Blues Junior Combo Amp to try the guitars out. A good choice as the Blues Jr is partially tube and would be fairly well-matched to the classic Strat sound. After playing both guitars and conferring with Erik and calling Andrew on his cell I settled on the Hard Tail for a couple of reasons– one is that I really didn’t want a tremolo even though I could choose to block it (like Eric Clapton!) and the other is that I really like the feel of a maple neck.

The guitar was in immaculate shape and came with all of its swing tags and paperwork as well as the standard-issue plastic case for $549. This guitar lists for $1327.99, but you can get a new one for around $950 at online retailers. So, I feel like I got a pretty good deal.

60th Anniversary Badge

Even though this guitar has a 2005 serial number (starting with “Z5”) it was sold as a 2006 model and has the Fender 60th Anniversary badge on the back of the headstock which is pretty cool. Another unique aspect of this guitar is that Fender discontinued the American Hard Tail in 2006. No new Hard Tails in ’07. I contacted Fender to confirm this as I see that most of the online retailers are still selling them even though the online catalog at fender.com doesn’t list it as current product. According to Fender the only way to get a Hard Tail guitar would be to order the Fender Robert Cray Standard Stratocaster Electric Guitar which is Mexican or to order the Eric Clapton Signature Strat, which has a blocked tremolo. Custom Shop Showmaster guitars come with Hard Tail as well.

This American Stratocaster is one of the post-2000 configurations. According to The Stratocaster Chronicles by Tom Wheeler, in the Summer of 2000 Fender discontinued the “American Standard” which had been in existence for 13 years and replaced it with the current “American Series.” The American Series was a new start to the Stratocaster line pulling together a set of features from the entire history of the Strat to that point making arguably the best Strat yet.

These features included the unanimously-agreed-superior pre-CBS 4-bolt neck, the Micro Tilt adjustment, the advanced shielding from the Standard, the 5-way pickup selector switch that dated back to 1977, “no-load” tone control which at “10” kills the tone pot on the middle pickup making for a vintage Strat tone, “Delta Tone” pickups where the middle pickup is wired in reverse of the other two providing a humbucking effect on certain switch settings, a single string tree on the head adding to tuning stability and improving tone, “rolled” neck edges which adds to the pleasant neck feel, non-veneered “original contour” body based on the 1950’s Strats, staggered pickup polepieces like the 1950’s Strats, and routing to provide the ability to add humbuckers in the neck and bridge positions. This final change eliminated the contraversial “swimming pool” routing where the area behind the pickguard was just a big hole to accomodate different pickup configurations.

Over the 53 years of the Stratocaster’s existence it has been subject to constant change– some of it good, some of it not good. In the American Series we see the benefits of a company looking back on the history of its products to pull a feature set together that I think ultimately makes an instrument that both honors its past, innovates and– most importantly– is great to play.

>pp 246-250, “Chapter 9: The New Millennium,”The Stratocaster Chronicles: Celebrating 50 Years of the Fender Strat, Tom Wheeler, 2004

Fender Musical Instruments Corporation

All Fender product names in this article are trademarks of Fender.

Check out the Fender Hard Tail Stratocasters at reverb.com!

Where’s my Fender Frontline Catalog???

I’ve been collecting the catalog for Fender’s line of guitars and amps for a couple of years now. They are a slick full-color affair and are to date the only way to keep up with the frequent changes to the Fender line and I find them essential when doing research on the products. Since January I’ve been visiting my local guitar stores that carry Fender and asking when the 2007 Frontline catalog is supposed to come out. No one knew! First it was supposed to come out after the February NAMM show, and then people weren’t sure.

I contacted Fender about this and found out that the catalog you could pick up in-store will now be replaced with a mailed catalog to be called “Frontline In Home” and the first one will be mailed in May. There will be an illustrated price list called “Frontline In Store” for the dealers. There will also be some “Frontline” branded online things to come at fender.com that sound really interesting if they accomplish.

To make sure that you get your catalog, click here and fill out your information.

Apple iTunes Introduces “Complete My Album” Feature

From Engadget, Apple announced today the ability to purchase at a discounted price the balance of an album from iTunes when customers have purchased individual tracks. Effectively the customers will be getting a $0.99 credit per song purchased previously against the full album cost. This has been a long-standing peeve with the iTunes Store– so this is good news. The downside of it is that you only have 180 days from the single purchase to get the credits.

Apple iTunes

iPod In My Car

The iPod Car adapter mentioned in this article is listed at eBay!

I’ve owned mp3 players since they were introduced back in 1998 or 1999. I was an early adopter and suffered for it– not enough memory, very expensive. The Rio PMP300 was the first with a whopping 32MB of flash memory. I sold that on eBay and bought the Creative Nomad Zen Xtra, which was supported by Linux, which was the appeal for me at the time. I got my wife a Creative Nomad II, and then later got her a white 20GB Clickwheel iPod which she still has. Earlier this year I broke down and bought a 60GB Video iPod and sold the Zen on eBay. The reason I say “broke down” is that my primary workstation at home runs a Linux distro (these days SuSE 10) and the iPod support is nearly non-existent. So, when I load songs and videos on it, it has to be on Windows. However, I have been fairly impressed with the integration of iTunes and the iPod, so I’m happy.The other reason I moved to the iPod is the connector. The iPod is one of very few digital media players that supports a remote control or base and has Line Out audio connectors. This combination gives the iPod the ability to be connected to a lot of devices including alarm clocks and compact stereo bases, as well as acting as a disc changer/jukebox for a car. It is possible to connect other mp3 players into stereos, but they tend to use the headphone jack and usually use devices like FM broadcasters or cassette adapters. I’ve used those solutions over the years and they work pretty well, but I wanted something that used line out and had some integration with the car stereo head. Why is line out important? Line out gives “line level” signal, which is a consistent audio signal between line connected devices, like an amplifier and a CD player in your home stereo. The headphone jack signal level is determined by the volume control on the device, and is therefore not consistent, and also then modified by the internal amplifier that drives the headphone. I guess it’s picky, but was important to me.

My car is a 2003 VW Passat Wagon with the Monsoon stereo. I had seen on the VW Boards that people have been connecting their iPods with a device called a Blitzsafe. Blitzsafe makes many devices, but are mostly known for connecting mp3 players into factory (OEM) stereo heads via an open or available auxiliary port typically used for CD Changers. This connector also has the ability to charge the device and also can pause the player when either the stereo is shut off, selected to something other than CD, or the car is turned off.

There seems to be two approaches when it comes to having the iPod plugged into the stereo head. Both approaches “tricks” the stereo into thinking it has a disc changer connected to it. One approach is to truly treat the iPod like an isolated jukebox similar to a disc changer, or like the Phatbox or Music Keg– meaning you don’t really interact with it directly. The iPod’s ability to have a remote control via the connector allows the ability to control it from the stereo face controls (skip, forward, back, next disc) as well as showing the ID3 song titles on the face in some cases and allowing you to choose your favorite playlist. While that is very cool, it doesn’t allow you to use the clickwheel if you are like me and have a tendency to skip around the contents. These solutions are also typically more expensive.

The other approach is the one that the Blitzsafe Volkswagen/iPod Interface uses, which is to provide the line out, charging and pause. You control volume from the stereo face or, in my case, also the steering wheel volume controls. I called around the day that I wanted to do this, and found that the only place that carried the Blitzsafe line was Best Buy, and the only Best Buy that had the one for the VW was the Cedar Falls Best Buy. So, I called on a Friday afternoon and got them to hold one for me. I drove up on Saturday and purchased it. I had a 12% coupon so that was cool, too.

Note: I think judging by the general unavailability of these right now, that Blitzsafe is changing their product line to have one “Blitzsafe Car” connector and specific connectors for vehicle applications. The Blitzsafe MLINK1 V1 I got was the connector and the converter part all in one piece. Their website is not helpful right now.

Installation was pretty easy. The Passat Monsoon stereo shipped with the disc changer cable already plugged in. Once I pulled the head out, I unplugged the blue disc changer cable, connected the Blitzsafe into it, and had to find a suitable location to connect the ground wire. I unscrewed one of the philips-head screws on the back of the stereo and connected it. It is important to connect the ground wire! The stereo will not detect the Blitzsafe otherwise and will not let you chose aux. I fished the very ample iPod connector cable around the right side and kept the slack behind the stereo head. I tucked the exposed iPod connector cable between the dash and the carpeting along the transmission hump in the passenger footwell. There was enough cable on the Blitzsafe that I had considered running the cable to the center console and storing the iPod in there, but that wouldn’t give me easy access to the clickwheel or display.

To use the iPod with the stereo, I just hit the “CD” selector twice– first one is to chose single CD, the second press is for the disc changer mode. The display shows “Track 99.” and the iPod is available for use.

The next thing I needed was a dock or mount for it. Conveniently, the B5 style Passats had an area on the dash around the stereo that could be filled with buttons for defrost or the seat heater switches. My car had a “blank” in one of the spots that could take a vehicle mount from a company called ProClip. ProClip has a whole bunch of options for mounting gadgets in vehicles. After I picked the special base, I chose a device holder that would allow me to keep my iPod in it’s case by utilizing the belt clip on the back. This particular holder will also let you hook a screwback case, which my wife has on her iPod.

The installation works great. I do the majority of my music listening in my car and having the iPod tied in to the stereo and charging is perfect, in my opinion.

Update (September 2008): The 3G iPhone– unlike the previous generation iPod’s and iPhone’s– does not charge from the firewire pins (and as such, 12v charging) on the ipod cable, so while I can use the MLINK to connect to the car stereo, it does not charge it, so I get messages on the iPhone that say “this device is not supported for charging.” According to this thread on the Blitzsafe boards, they will be making a new cable that will be available that addresses this issue by providing charging on the USB pins.

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