One of the challenges in playing small bodied instruments is figuring out how best to amplify them in a live gig setting. Different musicians have different takes on this, but my personal view is to simply amplify the natural sound of the instrument in a straightforward manner. This is far easier said than done of course. Many of the standard amps for acoustic instruments makes by Marshall, AER, Fishman etc are “ok” to my ears but really not great sonically. I previously used Schertler amps which were expensive and heavy, but did a good job. The top end Unico Deluxe did the best job.
Then along came Henriksen with The Bud and now The Blu and it was game over. Both these units are so far ahead sonically that there really is no contest. Yes, they are more of a financial investment, but its like night and day sonically. I’m currently exploring a stereo amp setup option with Henriksens and I used the new lighter Blu at the New York gigs to great effect. Both the Henriksen Blu and the Bud are 120w output and can be used as stand alon amps or as monitors with a line out to a PA system. The superb Fire Eye Red preamps are great for boosting signal and of course Mogami cables unsure the best sound connection.
Sound Recording in the Studio
One of the benefits of sitting in on mastering and mixing sessions is that I am able to better understand and appreciate “music production” I have previously blogged about UAD plugins and how these are real game changers for the recording musician. UAD like Henriksen have achieved a new level of sonic quality that previously didn'[t exist and I use UAD in my home studio as well as the big studio for all final recordings.
Creating a great sound is like baking, you need to balance all the ingredients and in this case ensure that playback works equally well on a range of playback systems from a laptop to a really high end system. Having an experienced producer is the difference between an ok album and a great album.
Pet Hates – The Dreaded Reverb done to excess…
My previous pet hate for album production was engineers mastering everything so it was sonically as loud as possible and in this pursuit, really destroyed any subtlety in the music. My current pet hate is excessive reverb on recordings which make the singers sound like they are performing at the bottom of a well. When I hear the phrase “ethereal sounds” all too often this means a wash of reverb that kills any dynamics in the music. Check out any Grace VanderWaal videos and you’ll hear this. Some newer aspiring uke artists have also gone down this max the reverb route and of course many folks love it, but personally I’d rather push bamboo shoots through my fingers than be subjected to such a sonic onslaught.
Great sound engineers knew how to use reverb and even engineers with a reputation for enthusiastically adding reverb such as Daniel Lanois, knew exactly how to make it work with the artist. Lanois’s work with Dylan and Emmylou Harris is outstanding, but he has mad skills when it comes to production and always ensured that the reverb didn’t totally kill the expression in the vocals.
I fully admit that I am not in the majority when it comes to musical taste. These dayes I’d far rather see an act in the small venue playing original material than attending a stadium gig. I love writing with the ukulele, but most ukulele based music is really not great and the quirky cover versions are almost as bad as the excessive use of reverb. That said I applaud anyone creating and performing music even if its not to my personal taste. These days although I still write on the uke, I am far more interested in incorporating other instruments to ensure there is much better sonic range for an audience.
Just back from an amazing trip to New York.During this time I managed to see Bill Frissell twice at The Vanguard as well as Fred Hersh. There really is no better venue for live music with a capacity of 125 attendees and superb acoustics. I was literally a few feet away from the artists. The Bill Frissell Trio with Thomas Morgan and Rudy Royston is quite amazing. These are three artists at the very top of their game and as a band are quite unique. I also saw the superb Ronnie Earl at BB Kings. Ronnie is an exceptional artist and I have been a fan of his music for many years. The two gigs in Harlem went really well and it was a lot of fun to play at Shrine and Silvana. I also saw some amazing musicians on this visit and highly recommend The Red Dog on Monday night for their weekly blues jam.
New York is an extraordinary city and I managed to catch the Bowie exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum. Bowie is a wonderful example of an artist full of creativity and the exhibition was a superb showcase of his work. I grew up with Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust as well as Station to Station. Low and Heroes. Each album was very different and quite brilliant. The event got rave reviews and it was a somewhat surreal experience to be literally immersed in Bowie for over two hours. Every attendee had the opportunity to wear a set of headphones which sychronised with the exhibition material. I was especially fascinated by Bowie’s writing process and looking as many of his handwritten transcripts of lyrics.
I also had the chance to work on “the big project” while there and there will be more news about that later this year. There are many moving parts to this and it will take the best part of a year to organise before the launch. I was massively impressed by the standard of musicianship of all the performers I met there, all of which had an obvious love for music.
Last night I had the opportunity to play Shrine in Harlem with my good friends Doug O Brien on keyboards, Alan Thornton on uke and vocals and Terri Thornton on bass. As “Throckmorton” they wonderfully opened the evening. This was the first time I played material off my solo album “Tales of Dark and Light” and we opened with Dunning Kruger Blues” Later in the set we also did “Grey Skies” which I have yet to record. Both of these tracks are really groove based, think ‘Papa was a rolling stone” coupled with the Doors “Break on Though” The guys did a great job making these tracks really swing and I am looking forward to recording Grey Skies with a cast of many great musicians back in the UK this April.
This was also an opportunity to try out the new Henriksen Blu and it did not disappoint. I ran my ukulele through the fire eye red pre amp straight into the Blu and it sounded great. I have yet to find any amp that works as well as Henriken gear. The Bud and the Blu work perfectly to amplify the natural sound of the instrument. There’s nothing worse that an instrument that doesn’t sound good and with the ukulele its tough to get a really great sound and I’ve been to festivals where the sound its really terrible. The Henriksens have massive EQ options (which you rarely need) and a line out from the amp to a PA is just heaven.
Saturday night we’ll be playing the second gig at Silvana in Harlem. This is like The Cavern in Liverpool and should be a lot of fun. Its a real joy to play with other talented musicians and my wife Sue took some great photos of us in action..
This year has been a fascinating year full of many terrific memories. I have been overseas on nine separate occasions and had the opportunity to play music in the USA and Japan as well as the UK. In Jan 2017 I had a terrific week in New York meeting up with old friends. I also bought an amazing 1920s Martin soprano ukulele from Zeke who was working at Matt Umanov Guitars. This is a truly wonderful instrument and the first Martin I have bought.
I was back in New York in March and caught some amazing shows by Bill Frissell at The Vanguard. Bill is a constant inspiration and quite brilliant player.
In April I was in the studio with the band finalizing tracks for our second album “Lullabies for Cynics” I was delighted to have some really brilliant musicians guest on this release including Laurent Zeller, Phill Doleman and Kev Bishop.
Alan and Terri Thornton came to stay for a week and we talked a great deal about the OUS platform. I also ran an open house for all OUS artists and had the brilliant Victoria Vox and Jack Maher play in my kitchen. They are a shining example of how to really deliver a performance and did a brilliant job. I named them OUS artists of the year.
I also had the chance to see the wonderful Percy Copley in action and we co wrote this track
I continue to meet up with Martin Simpson for 1 – 1 tuition and he has become a big influence on my own work.
In early June I traveled to Vienna and met up with Gregor Nowak and fell in love with one of his instruments that is featured on my forthcoming 2018 EP. Gregor is a superb builder and I’ll be sure to check in with him when I am back in Austria.
In July I headed once again to Japan and met up with my good friend an brilliant builder Shimo. Unsurprisingly I bought another one of his instruments a concert pineapple ukulele, that is quite wonderful.
I also had the chance to visit The Ohana uke store and pick up a wonderful soprano
On the same trip I played a duo set in Nagoya with my good friend Brian Cullen. This was my first opportunity to play in Japan and I loved it. We played some of the SCD material and some old classics
In September I traveled to Austin, Nashville and back to NYC. This was a terrific trip and I ended up buying a great Waterloo acoustic from Hill Country Guitars.
Nashville was fantastic and myself, my wife and my good friends Michael and Liz Ross spent a mindblowing afternoon with Van Fketcher, Jake Shimabokuro’s manager. We heard some unreleased material and let me just say “World watch out, you’ve hear
In October I played my first solo gig at the “We will Overcome” day at The Grove in Leeds. This was the first time I played material from my forthcoming solo project and it was a great evening.
The rest of October was spent preparing for the album launch in November. We decided to make this a “pay as you feel event” so it was affordable for everyone. This was a terrific evening with over 200 tickets grabbed a few weeks before the actual event and more walk ins on the day.
Terrific support from Sleepy Kev, Phil Doleman, Laurent Zeller and Astraluna.
During this week I spent two more days in the studio working on solo material and with Adrian Knowles being unwell, Dave Bowie from UOGB stood in and did a brilliant job. Laurent Zeller continues to maze me with his playing, just extraordinary. His work on my solo project alongside Rich Ferdi and Dave is amazing.
During 2017 the OUS platform grew to over 3000 members on FB and 100+ artists with their own pages on the main site. Despite this I have come to realise that the uke world is far too niche to attract a wider audience and interest in the UK has peaked. After some somewhat bizarre exchanges on social media earlier in the year I decided it was time to focus on a more diverse and expanded project which will be unveiled in 2018.
Plans are already in place for some really exciting events in 2018 and the focus will be on quality of music and great entertainment. I am lucky to have a number of like minds who will be central to this project. Most of December will be working on this as I hibernate for a while with a wonderful new log burning stove at my Leeds home with Bill the cat and my wife.
As well as working to keep Bill in the life he is used to, I also continue to feed what seems like the entire bird population of the UK and those “peckers” get through 20k of sunflower seeds each month
I feel blessed to know so many great folks and to be able to travel around the world sharing a love of music and meeting so many amazing folks.
We have been very busy in the studio recording tracks for “Tales of Dark and Light”, a solo project that I have been working on for some time as a side project to The Small Change Diaries.
At the time of writing we have now completed all four tracks for “Tales of Dark and Light”
Dunning Kruger Blues
He’s shooting blanks
No more street parties
Hear in the silence
The musicians on this project are Adrian Knowles/Dave Bowie Double bass, Laurent Zeller violin, Rich Ferdi percussion, Alice Higgins, Paul Conway piano, myself on vocals and stringed instruments. Carl Rosamond is producing the material.
The music is different to what I have recorded with The Small Change Diaries and as suggested in the title some of the lyrics are pretty dark. This is proving to be a fascinating project and an opportunity to stretch out sonically into some very different territory.
On “He’s shooting blanks” I don’t play any instruments, rather focusing on singing. This is a true murder ballad and one of my favorite tracks to date. “Dunning Kruger Blues” reminds me of Steely Dan, which “Hear in the silence” has a more Indian feel with some extraordinary playing from Laurent Zeller who is key to the main sound on this project. “No more street parties” is possibly the saddest song ever written, a commentary on Brexit.
“No more street parties on this little rock,
Pack away the bunting, brace for the shock”
Many songs were written on the ukulele, but the final recordings to date contain very little uke, rather focusing on other instruments.
I am grateful to have the support of so many superb musicians and remain fascinated by the whole creative process. This material has “more bite” than what I have written and recorded to date and I plan to play this new material live in the UK and USA in 2018. I am also looking at a second EP for the back end of 2018 with different musicians and a different feel to this EP
The Small Change Diaries 2nd album “Lullabies for Cynics” is due for release in 2 week’s time. I’m also working on a solo album “Tales of Dark and Light” This project was initially intended as an EP, but I already have nine potential tracks and one “He’s shooting blanks” already mixed and mastered. Tales of Dark and Light will have some familiar Small Change Diaries musicians, as well as some new folks.
“He’s shooting blanks” has Adrian Knowles on Double bass, Alice Higgins on piano, Laurent Zeller on violin and myself on vocals. Yes you read that correctly, unusually I don’t play any instruments on this track. This may change with additional material, but it certainly won’t be just ukuleles. At present there’s also a possibility of including mandolin and Gregor Novak’s wonderful guitarelle.
I already have a gig scheduled in New York in 2018 and will be exploring other live opportunities. At a recent solo gig at “The Grove Inn” in Leeds I played “Here in the silence” which was well received. The graphics for this project are by Japanese illustrator Junko Hosomo who drew a sketch of me during a solo gig in Nagoya earlier this year which is just fantastic. I’ll be recording more tracks with SCD producer Carl Rosamond in the next few weeks and Laurent Zeller will be playing on the new material. This is an exciting new initiative and in many ways different to the Small Change Diaries material. The track “He’d shooting blanks” is probably the darkest set of lyrics I have penned to date and probably not for the fainthearted.
The release date for this will be the back end of 2018 if all goes to plan.
Now I am back from the USA, I am getting ready for a series of gigs. First up is The Ilkley Literature Festival which has been in existence since 1973. This is a great opportunity to play to a terrific appreciative listening audience. The festival is hugely popular and attracts a genuine cross section of people. This is a full band outing.
Next Saturday I’m doing a solo with friends gig at The Grove for charity. The theme is “We shall overcome” and I’ll be playing some protest songs as well as other originals. This is all unplugged and its unusual for me to be playing in this capacity, but I’m looking forward to it. I have support from my good friend Doug O Brien who is usually a keyboard player and my wife Sue. Its a bit of a jump into the unknown.
Four weeks later the full band and special guests play the album launch. Tickets are cranking for this evening and its almost fully sold out. Support is from Phil Doleman, Astraluna and Sleepy Kev Bishop. This promises to be a terrific night with food for all tastes and a full bar. This is also a beta tester for a bigger project.
Its great to have the opportunity to play to so many different diverse audiences and we already have gigs lined up for March and April, with a big festival gig in May
I just got back from one of the best music stores on planet earth, Hill Country Guitars in Austin Texas. They are a premier Collings dealer and I have done great business with them over the years, buying a walking bass dulcimer and a Collings tenor guitar. The family is now joined by a superb Collings Waterloo guitar.
Hill Country Guitars has an amazing selection of terrific instruments which include some of the best Collings instruments I have ever seen. Its important that such stores are supported by musicians as they are increasingly rare these days.
The Waterloo guitar is really exceptional and it sounds and feels like an old acoustic. I don’t know how Bill Collings managed it, but he has really captured the essence of these classic instruments. This one is definitely going to be used in recordings in the future.
I travel around the world a lot and see all types of stores and I can say that this is definitely one of the very best as they only stock great instruments and the staff are really knowledgeable about what is in the store. Austin is of course an amazing place for music and I love to come and visit here.