bulletproof, schmulletproof

January 26, 2006

Irony: four days after I refer to my 1990s-era GK800RB bass amplifier as “bulletproof,” it dies. On stage. In the middle of a set. In which we were seriously captivating the audience, most of whom didn’t know us and were there to see the opening band or were just walk-ins from the street. It’s not necessarily a reflection of quality, simply a fact of life that if people are there to see their friends, they might stick around for a song or two for the next band, then take off when they think nobody’s looking. Especially if it’s late. But goddamn if people weren’t moving closer to the stage and cheering after every song.

Then halfway through the fifth song, I hear a crack, a few more notes, and silence. A horrible smell–a combination of burnt seaweed, fish, and truffles–emerged from my amp. People near the stage thought the sewer was backing up. The soundguy later told me he thought it smelled like burning plastic.

Anyway, at first I thought it was my bass. It’s an oddball created by a guy in Berkeley, and the battery for the active pickup’s hidden behind the pickguard, meaning you have to unscrew 10 screws before you can replace it. As a result, it doesn’t get replaced much.

Fortunately, the bass player for the other band–the unfortunately named but talented and kind Survey Cez–was kind enough to let me borrow his bass, and, when that didn’t work, his amp. Completed the rest of the set without incident, sold some CDs, and went on to play a freaking party down the street (using a borrowed PA).

Also had great shows (with a rented amp) the next two nights with my other band. An all-ages deal with about 100 kids dancing (they knew the words, too!), and a show in Pioneer Square–next to the football stadium–after the Seahawks won the game that would take them to their first-ever SuperBowl. Almost got my car confiscated by the cops–I blocked the street to ask the doorman where I should unload and came back to a cop in my front seat, asking for the keys. (Talked him out of it, barely.) Exposed body parts and wild costumes were common.

Didn’t make any money from any of these shows, but it felt pretty damn good.

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Gear that sucks

January 17, 2006

Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems that when I used to buy electronic equipment, I could have a reasonable expectation of it lasting for a few years.

I had a cheap-o Sony CD player that lasted about 10 years, and the only reason I replaced it was because it inserted a layer of noise in certain CD-R.s (I think it was some copy-protection scheme, since it didn’t simply refuse to play, but actually added layer of static that rose and fell in volume…and the problem never appeared in other players, such as my car or Bose portable…thanks, Sony!). I have my grandparents’ 27-inch Zenith TV, it’s got to be 15 years old and having no problems. My VCR lasted about 8 years before it started eating tapes. I have a Gallien Krueger 800 RB amplifier for my bass, it’s from the early 1990s and completely bulletproof. My six-year-old desktop PC, which was put together by Hard Drives Northwest (a local whitebox manufacturer) is still running great, despite an OS upgrade, lots of software and hardware installs and uninstalls, and years without antivirus software (I run Firefox and the free level of AdAware for spyware, and scan monthly using the free Trend Micro scanner…the whole AV industry’s a well-orchestrated scam, but that’s another topic).

But most of the stuff I’ve gotten lately has sucked.

1. iPod sucks. I got a 20GB fourth-gen iPod for my birthday in October 2004. One year later, the hard drive is dying–it often lags and has totally frozen a couple of times. I took it into my local Apple store “Genius Bar” and the condescending pretentious long-haired jerk tried to reinstall the system software, failed, and told me “we’ll give you 10% off on a new one.” (I managed to save it that time by reinstalling the software at home, but it’s failing again.)

Wait a second—my (overly generous) parents paid $299 for a cute package containing a hard drive, audio digital signal processor, two-color LCD, and headphones. And it lasted just over one year. Piece of junk.

(Aside: this is the main reason why I’ll never buy another Mac, even though the software’s usually better than its Windows equivalent. Faulty hardware that’s completely non-serviceable. I once had a Classic II whose hard drive died after a few years. Irreplaceable—you need special tools just to get the damn thing open. Apple’s the king of planned obsolescence.)

2. Notebook PCs (still) suck. I should have known better–I’ve been telling people for years that laptop PCs are unreliable, then I have to go and drop four grand on one.

I had been thinking about getting into some multitrack hard drive recording. At the same time, I had simpler needs, like being able to work anywhere in the house and wanting to record my record collection digitally. This required a notebook.

I mulled getting a Powerbook, but they say the G4s aren’t quite up to snuff for serious recording. I thought about an Alienware, but was worried that the company wouldn’t be in business through the life of the warranty, so finally made the safe choice and bought a Dell with a four-year support contract. This is a top of the line machine, the XPS Gen 2, built for gamers. I added a notebook soundcard to go with it, figuring I could start by converting my records. If that worked, I would consider getting a breakout soundcard with FireWire connection, which you need for multitrack recording.

Long story short, every time I jostle the computer or touch the soundcard, or so much as breathe on any part of it while an audio file’s being recorded (that is, if it’s in memory and hasn’t been saved to the hard drive), it bluescreens. Total memory dump, forced restart. The help screen says it’s a driver problem (surprise). I downloaded updated drivers for the soundcard. Problem not fixed. Dell support was completely unhelpful, and frankly I’d rather reboot and suffer than send it back to them since I know the problem arises from non-standard hardware (the soundcard) on a slapped-together system. Yes, even a four-grand notebook from Dell is still a just-in-time mass-produced piece of equipment.

What’s the point of having a mobile recording system if it’s not mobile? Needless to say, I won’t be using it for recording…although I don’t want to buy a Mac either given my experience with Apple. Sigh.

3. Xbox 360 sucks. I’m lucky. I got a free Xbox 360 through work for evaluation purposes. Free games too, including Project Gotham Racing 3, and a free one-year Live subscription. Lucky me.

The games look absolutely beautiful, even on a standard definition 15-year-old 27-inch Zenith. The Live experience is addictive and reasonably easy to set up (although there’s some poor documentation about connecting it to a WEP-enabled wireless network).

Unfortunately, the early stories are true: the box itself is a piece of junk. I got about 10 hours of gameplay, and maybe about six hours of DVD playback before it started failing. Now, I can play a game for about 10 minutes before it blackscreens. Or I can watch a DVD for about 20 minutes before it blackscreens. Xbox support was, unsurprisingly, completely useless (“have you cleaned the connectors?”).

The really sad part is they had previously sent me another unit, but asked me to send it back because they anticipated it would have problems connecting to Xbox Live. In other words, I am 2 for 2 in terms of defective 360 units. And they haven’t bothered to replace the second one yet–I guess the launch is over, I’m done writing my articles and being quoted in the press, so they suddenly have no use for me.

I not only sympathize with the guy who’s suing Microsoft–if I’d spent $600 on all this, I’d be incredibly angry–but I think he might have a case. Why has Microsoft pulled back on their initial sales expectations? Because they can’t ramp up production as quickly as they thought they could. Why’s that? Surely they estimated demand and planned sufficient manufacturing capacity before the launch, didn’t they?

Of course they did. But I bet they’ve uncovered a severe defect in one of the components, or in the way the boxes are designed, and they’re having to do a major reset. (Sound familiar?)

4. GK (now) sucks. For a while I was in three bands, each with its own practice space. Since not all of those bands had bass gear for me to borrow, I needed a small mobile amp for practicing. One of my bandmates had been allowing me to use her GK combo amp and it sounded great, and I love my old GK head, so I bought a GK Backline 110 for a couple hundred bucks. 70 watts, 10-inch speaker, weighs about 15 pounds. Just a little practice amp. Much easier than hauling around a 90-pound speaker.

I played it literally four times before it totally failed. When I took it in to the warranty repair shop, the guy shook his head. “We see these all the time. You know, the old ones used to be really good, but in the last couple years they’ve gone way down in quality.”