vern's verbal vibe

 

Thoughts from Toronto singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Vern Nicholson. I pontificate mostly on music (of course), with a smattering of sports, language and other fun miscellany.

Reaction to the US Election 

After several nail-biting days, the US presidential election has finally been called in favour of Joe Biden. And though the current occupant can spew all the lawsuits and fury he wants, his case that the election was "rigged" has no merit. Zero. It's over, he's fired, and all that's left is for the authorities to drag him from the White House in handcuffs come inauguration day. (Yes, I'm convinced it'll come to that.)

CNN asked its viewers/readership how we felt about Biden's victory, and here's what I wrote:

"On this warm autumn day in downtown Toronto, I look out my front window and see that the house across the street has decorated its front railing in red, white and blue bunting. We're celebrating with you in our understated Canadian way. Your closest neighbours (yes, that's a 'u' in there; trust me, it belongs) are relieved and elated to welcome back the America we once knew: a beacon of freedom, decency and truth. We look forward to working alongside you to create a better, more equitable and sustainable future for all. May God bless, protect and guide Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, elected officials of all stripes, and the American people. Warmest congratulations to the new administration."

Listening to Biden's victory speech, I was struck by his conciliatory tone and how much he sounded like ... a traditional president-elect. How refreshing this is after four years of chaos, childish name-calling and "alternative facts." As CNN commentator Van Jones said in reaction to the speech, "Boring is the new thrilling. Predictable is the new exciting. And normal is the new extraordinary."

Cycling and Staycations 

Like many of you, I've been itching to travel but hesitant to do so, as safe conveyance remains an issue. That's especially true for those of us who rely on public and intercity transport to take us where we're going. Enter the venerable bicycle, which will take a non-athlete like me modest distances and get me some good exercise, too.

I bought a new bike recently, not out of indulgence but necessity. I seem to have reached old age a bit early, because back in May I fell off my old bike while trying to get on it. Lifting my leg that high has always been a challenge, but this was the final blow. Right then I realized I could no longer ride my bike safely and needed a new model with a lower crossbar. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Specialized Crossroads 2.0 Step-Through:

Now, back in the day, we used to call this a women's bike. As a certified male I'm grateful for the modern rebranding of "step-through," because whatever you want to call it, a bike like this is what I needed to keep cycling.

I'm very lucky to have procured mine, and here's why: even though it's a 2020 model, they're already impossible to find. The guy at my bike shop told me I snagged one of the last ones. See, back in the spring when the pandemic made public transport a dicey proposition, everyone took up cycling and mid-range bicycles like this flew off the shelves. From what I was told, it's hard to find any new bike these days for under $1500. In any case, the Specialized Crossroads 2.0 Step-Through has been out of stock on every bike-shop website under the sun since mid-June. There really aren't any left.

I won't bore you with bike-tech details, but here's what sold me on the Crossroads 2.0: (1) the lower crossbar, obviously; (2) 21 speeds, accessed by thumb-operated shifters; (3) mechanical disc brakes; (4) puncture-resistant Armadillo tires; (5) the reasonable price ($749). It's a beauty in appearance, handling and comfort—the perfect bike for recreational and fitness riding.

Now that the days are getting cooler, I'm starting to venture out a bit. Last weekend I had a picnic at Taylor Creek Park, which can be accessed from where I live almost entirely on bike paths. Yesterday's outing took me to The Beaches, again mostly on off-road trails. I'm aiming to bike out to Long Branch next weekend, and this I'm planning as a multi-modal trek, using GO's Lakeshore West train to shorten the ride back. In the coming weeks, weather permitting, I hope to make even more use of the GO train. With careful planning, I can take the train to far-flung places like Barrie and Burlington, tool around there on my bike and ride the rails back.

If you live in the Golden Horseshoe and are interested in active-transportation staycations, check out these helpful pages from GO Transit and the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail. If you're not a cyclist, not a problem. You can skateboard, roller-blade, hike ... whatever suits your fancy. As for me, I aim to squeeze in as many bike trips as I can before autumn's chill sets in.

Woodstock at 51 

As you all know, about a year ago I spent a three and half frenetic days recording XPNStock, WXPN's real-time broadcast of the entire 1969 Woodstock Festival in honour of its 50th anniversary. I'd missed out on the 38-CD box, and this was my one and only chance to grab its treasures—for free, no less. I then spent the better part of August and September painstakingly evaluating almost 36 hours of recorded audio: editing, trimming, patching and polishing it up until it positively sparkled. Problem was, by the time I was finished I was so burnt out that I couldn't bring myself to actually listen to it.

That's what 51st anniversaries are for. I'm a bit early, but I did all of Day 1 today: cranked up the old computer speakers and (finally) got to kick back and enjoy the music. I'm still amazed at how good it sounds, and so grateful to have procured the lot for nothing but dedication and diligence. Takeaways: Richie Havens' opening set was, well, groovy. Sweetwater featured a unique sound and some great jamming, but must work on the harmonies, kids. Bonus points  for the flat-out weirdest song performed at the festival, "My Crystal Spider." Bert Sommer was a top-rank songwriter, and it's a shame his career never took off. His is the great "lost" performance of the festival. Tim Hardin's performance, though wildly uneven, really had its moments. Ravi Shankar? Less talk, more rock. I loved what was played but grew impatient with the musicology class he threatened to turn his set into. Melanie is not my cup of tea at all, but even she had a couple of gems amongst the caterwauling. Arlo Guthrie's performance was by turns ragged, hilarious and inspired, and Joan Baez capped off the day in fine form.

WXPN is reprising XPNStock, but they're playing the sets over a full week, in prime time, in what looks to be a bit of a random order. Had I missed anything last time I'd tune in, but I'm pretty sure I got all there was to get. Now it's time to enjoy. Day 2 coming up ...

Mixing Like It's 1965 

So, I'm recording a cover of "Spanish Harlem Incident" by The Byrds. It's really a cover of a cover, as their version is a rearrangement of a Bob Dylan song. With some covers, I like to give the song a little twist or take it in a new direction. Others are so perfect as they are that my goal is to faithfully reproduce them. For me, "Spanish Harlem Incident" falls into the latter camp.
 
Right off the top I was in a bit of trouble, as I don't own a Rickenbacker 360 electric 12-string, which is what Roger McGuinn plays on this track. I put my Takamine acoustic 12 through a Line 6 Pod to create a facsimile, but it's really not the same. (Until I can summon the 3,645 Canadian pesos it takes to purchase my dream guitar, I'll have to live with the electrified acoustic.) Fortunately, I can replicate pretty much everything else. Michael Clarke, especially in his early years, was a very paint-by-numbers sort of drummer and so am I, so programming his parts was easy. For David Crosby's rhythm guitar, I simply had to think 1965. There were no guitar effects yet, and if you wanted a little crunch you just turned your amp up. Crosby, I think, played a Gretsch of some sort; I used an Epiphone Les Paul. I created a custom preset on my Bass Pod to simulate Chris Hillman's tone: very warm and just a bit fuzzy. Chris's bass of choice was a Guild Starfire, and my Epiphone Jack Casady proved to be a perfect substitute.
 
So far, so good. But to really make it sound like 1965, I wanted to simulate the stereo panning they used, which by today's standards is nutty. McGuinn's guitar is alone, hard left. His vocal, along with Crosby's and Gene Clark's harmonies, is in the middle. Everything else is panned hard right: that would be the entire drum kit, bass, rhythm guitar and tambourine.
 
Why would anyone record (and pan) in this way? Well, consider that four-track machines were barely available in 1965. My guess is that The Byrds and producer Terry Melcher recorded the Mr. Tambourine Man LP on a three-track at Columbia Studios, Hollywood, in early 1965. So, the session for this song may have gone down something like this. For the backing track, McGuinn's guitar was recorded on Track 1 with the rest of the band on Track 2, likely all in the same take. That left only one track, Track 3, for the vocals, which would have been sung simultaneously and mixed on the fly. (And in this case "mixing" probably meant, "David, you're too loud. Can you stand back about six feet? No. Make it four. That's good.")
 
Panning in 1965 was also limited. You had your choice of three fixed positions: left, centre and right. Given all these recording and mixing limitations, the wacky panning scheme actually makes sense. You're stuck with all the instruments save McGuinn's guitar on one track not because you want it that way—there was simply no other way to record the whole band at once and give some prominence to the main instrument, the chiming 12-string.
 
Back here in 2020, I live in a world of 24 tracks, my recording studio is about half the size of a pillow and I can record a whole album in my bedroom. Recording 1965-style doesn't come naturally. For this song, I laid down each piece of the drum kit separately, later overdubbing the tambourine, bass and rhythm guitar. Nevertheless, I'm sticking the lot on the right side like The Byrds did, in a spirit of homage and as a fun mixing challenge. And let me tell you: when you've got kick drum, snare, hi-hat, three cymbals, floor tom, bass guitar, rhythm guitar and tambourine all in your right ear, it's quite difficult to tell what's too loud, too quiet and just right. Try it and you'll gain an appreciation for how brilliant some of these '60s producers and engineers really were.

Finger Issues 

So, it's now been three months since I injured my left ring finger in a cycling accident. Getting proper medical attention in the midst of COVID-19 has been a challenge, but to date I've had one in-person doctor's appointment, an x-ray, an ultrasound and several phone appointments with my doctor. Diagnosis is progressing even if treatment isn't.
 
I still don't have an exact diagnosis—the ultrasound revealed some swelling and inflammation of the tendon, and that's it—but we know what it isn't: there's no fracture, dislocation or break. The next step is an appointment with a plastic surgeon to discuss whether or not I should have surgery, and it may take a good while to schedule said appointment.
 
Medical considerations aside, how is my finger? Well, it's bent and swollen, but it looks worse than it feels. There's no pain, and I can type as if nothing happened. (This is very good indeed, because I type for a living.) I've found no discernible impact on any of my daily activities but one, and it's a big one: playing my stringed instruments. Again, there's no pain. The problem is limited mobility. Certain chords, like F#m and any minor barre chord in that position right up the neck, are impossible to play; others, I can play but it takes several seconds to change to and from them. Sort of a "This finger goes here, and that one goes there, and then this one goes over here" approach. Yes, Gsus4, I'm talking 'bout you.
 
Fortunately, I can still record music and am doing so as we speak. I'm not the greatest guitarist to begin with, so I often stitch parts together on different tracks then bounce them to create a composite whole. The damaged finger only means there's more stitching than usual. I recently pieced together a pretty hot solo that sounds like a fluent guitarist who really knows what he's doing. It's all done with mirrors, and even more so than before. But that's okay. What matters is that the final product sounds good. I've yet to encounter anything I cannot play if I break it down into sufficiently small bits.
 
It's performing I'm increasingly concerned about. As it stands, I can't play several songs in my repertoire, including some of my own. At least not without the "Hey, folks, wait for five seconds till I can find the next chord" thing. Capos and alternate fingerings may yet offer viable workarounds, but still, it's disheartening. On the bright side, I suppose this is as good a time as any to be unable to perform, as most venues remain shuttered.
 
Anyway, until I chat with the surgeon I'm not sure what I'll do. Whatever this is, it doesn't seem to be improving on its own. But surgery brings its own concerns, not the least of which is how long I'll have to be the incredible one-handed typist.

Mastering and Deep Editing, or How to Bake a Cake Through Music 

In the course of mixing and mastering my latest creation, a cover of The Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action," I realized anew that the Zoom R24's mastering presets are woeful, and only deep editing will salvage them. (See February's post for a full critique.)

As I noted back in February, mastering a song is kind of like icing a cake. To further the analogy, you want to apply the right icing—e.g., chocolate icing on a chocolate cake, not strawberry-peach-mint—in the right amount, and whatever you do should enhance the cake's inherent good qualities, not fundamentally alter them. The R24's presets, without exception, fail on all three counts.

Of the unit's 20 presets, 18 are so abysmal as to be useless even as starting points for editing. Two are marginal. Continuing with the cake metaphor, the built-in presets give you way too much strawberry-peach-mint icing on what was supposed to be a chocolate cake and they'll change your cake into cornbread. You're left with a monstrosity that sounds nothing like your original mix.

I've tried editing the marginal presets (14 Clarify and 20 Maximizr, for the record). Unfortunately, I'm groping in the dark. The parameters are named such that it's impossible to set EQ and compression the way you would in a DAW. I can adjust things like "Mix High," "Sense Mid," "Xover Lo" and so on, but don't know what exactly it is I'm cutting or boosting. I have only my ears as a guide. Anyway, I've toned down Maximizr so it's not quite so crazy with the level boost and squashing, but still haven't achieved the desired result, which is a subtle enhancement of my mix.

Initial experiments with Clarify have been more promising. In its original form, Clarify sucks up your bass and low mids and adds a harsh, brittle high end, almost like a transistor radio. In other words—icky kiwi-fruit icing, too much of it, and it changes your chocolate cake into shepherd's pie. I've dialled down a few settings and subtly boosted others, and after A/B'ing my untreated mix with the modified preset, I think I'm close to what I've been after all along: a subtle enhancement. In other words, a dash of high-quality chocolate icing on a chocolate cake, bringing out le gâteau's chocolatey goodness.

If you own a Zoom R24 and want to try this out yourself, here's precisely what I did. My changed values are in bold, in brackets; if a value isn't listed, I left it as is.

Mastering Preset 14 Clarify - Vern's Modification

3Band Comp

Xover Lo: 200 Hz (125 Hz)
Sense Mid: 5 (8)
Sense Low: 4 (9)
Mix Low: -2 (1)

Normalizer
 
Normalizer: 2 (4)

3Band EQ
 
Bass: -1 (1)
Middle: 0 (1)
Treble: 0 (1)

Dimension/Reso

Type: None (Dimension)
Rise1: Off (6)
Rise2: Off (6)

Total
 
Patch Lvl: 25 (20)
ZNR: 10 (Off)

This edit was then saved as a new preset: 22 V Clear. Further tweaking might be necessary, but now I've got a mastering preset that broadly does what it's supposed to—add a level boost, a little brightness and some subtle compression to my mix. And my chocolate cake is still a chocolate cake!

Life Under Lockdown 

Just a quick update on how I'm coping with the current situation. Overall, I consider myself quite fortunate. As a card-carrying introvert, I'm well equipped to handle social isolation, physical distancing and so on. Like it or not, some version of this has been my reality for years anyway, so it's not been that dramatic an adjustment. I don't miss my full social calendar because I've never had one. I spent huge swaths of time alone before the pandemic, and very little has changed but for the fact that there are no social engagements to turn down.

As far as supporting myself goes, my freelance job, which I've not heretofore perceived as terribly stable, has been rock solid. I work in television broadcasting, and my industry has made the Ontario essential workplaces list, both the original and revised versions. Work has been steady and I've been able to transition quite well to working from home. I was concerned at the prospect of having to upgrade my home computer (i.e., buying a new one), but my only financial outlay was a mouse, full keyboard and wrist rest, which totalled under $40. Again, I'm grateful for my good fortune—which is blind luck, really, when I consider how many people with secure, full-time jobs are glumly sitting at home, hoping the CERB will cover their mortgage and car payments.

Of the adjustments I have had to make, some are rather humorous. I was overdue for a haircut and had booked an appointment just before the big shutdown in mid-March which, in a moment of prescience, my stylist cancelled. I'm not a fan of ponytails, and I abhor man buns. So, between repeated playings of CSNY's "Almost Cut My Hair," I've fashioned a homemade headband out of an old bed sheet. I'll look like a true Woodstock warrior until my next haircut, which will be who knows when. (Hey, Paul Kantner and Jack Casady wore headbands at Woodstock: good enough for me.)

On a more serious note, I had a cycling accident in mid-March. Bad timing. No car was involved; I rode headlong into a curb I did not see and went flying, landing on my face. For a day or two I looked like the Elephant Man, but the cuts on my face healed in short order. More worrisome is the ring finger on my left hand. Five weeks on, it's swollen and slightly bent, though not at all painful. After numerous failed attempts to receive medical attention, I finally got an x-ray this afternoon and am waiting to discuss next steps with my doctor.

Despite this I've managed to devote some time to my old standby, home recording. What better time to lay down some tracks in your home studio, right? Thing is, my finger has made playing any of my stringed instruments difficult. I've devised a couple of alternate-fingering workarounds, and compensated by recording my guitar and bass parts in even more pieces than usual. The finger has slowed me down, but I'm progressing with the cover tunes I set out to record in December. Anyway, I'm now on to mixing the latest, and this one has a lot going on so it'll take a good while. I'm hoping my finger will be back to full strength by the time I'm ready to record the next cover.

What else? Well, we've all had to learn how to video-conference in five minutes or less. My Zoom H1 (handy digital recorder) also works as a USB mic, and it's a significant upgrade over my laptop's built-in model, a pinprick in the front console. I also have a decent USB webcam that provides high-quality visuals. The experiment continues, I guess, as long as COVID-19 keeps spreading. Me, I'm happy to live in a country whose guiding principle is "peace, order and good government." In my estimation our leaders, even those whose political stripes don't jibe with mine, have acted prudently and responsibly. Contrast our prime minister, premiers and mayors with that very stable genius to the south who openly ponders the benefits of shooting Lysol at his press briefings.

Baseball and Slow Travel 

You don't need me to tell you that we suddenly find ourselves living in extraordinary, unprecedented times due to the spread of COVID-19. I've certainly never experienced anything like this, and I've been around a while.

A few weeks back, I was basking in my usual spring ritual: listening to the first baseball games of spring training and eagerly awaiting the regular season, which was due to start on March 26. As of March 13, all spring training activity has ceased and MLB rather optimistically says that opening day will be "delayed." As far as I know, this is the first non-labour suspension of baseball since World War II.

For years now, I've been hoping to pull off a week-long visit to Florida for spring training. (I may be the only Canadian who's never been to Florida.) Thank God I didn't have the means to do it this year, or I'd be stuck in the Sunshine State with no games to see and a 14-day quarantine awaiting me upon return. I'm still quite excited about the trip, which has progressed well beyond dreaming into planning, but my enthusiasm is now tempered. Even if I can afford it, who knows if in a year's time anyone will be able to travel anywhere?

Nevertheless, let's envision a world where COVID-19 has done its business, moved on, and a modicum of normalcy has been reestablished. If I could take in spring training, what might that look like?

The Blue Jays train in Dunedin, a small city in the Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater metro area. A flight from Toronto to Tampa would get me there in under three hours, and I'd be all set, right? Yes, but I dislike flying, the biggest reason for my disdain being that it's like teleportation. You don't get to see what's between here and there, and to me that's the whole point of travelling.

I don't drive, but I toyed with the idea of simulating the well-worn trek down I-75 popular with snowbirds on Greyhound. Like the road-tripper brigade, I'd take it slow and stop along the way, roughly at the end of a day's drive. I even mapped out a six-day itinerary: Toronto-Detroit-Cincinnati-Chattanooga-Macon-Orlando-Tampa. And for variety, a different route back over five days: Tampa-Jacksonville-Raleigh-Baltimore-Albany-Toronto. All well and good but for one consideration—safety. Greyhound's bus depots are often in spotty if not outright scary parts of town, and I soon realized that my fantasy of walking several blocks, in the dark, to the nearest hotel could result in a mugging or worse. And even if I made it to said inner-city hotel, it might not be the kind of place where I'd want to bed down for a night.

Plan B, which didn't last long, is the no-bed-required option, a continuous 41-hour trip on three Greyhound buses, again getting there one way (Toronto-New York-Orlando-Tampa) and returning another (Tampa-Tallahassee-Cincinnati-Detroit). The way there wasn't too severe in terms of layovers, but on the return trip a five-hour layover in Cincinnati (9:00 p.m-2:00 a.m.) didn't exactly thrill me. In any case, I've done this before, 20 years ago, when I took the Greyhound to San Francisco and back. That trip was even longer, and when I straggled back home I vowed I'd never again sleep on a bus ... because I can't sleep on a bus.

I've now landed on Plan C: Amtrak, the USA's passenger rail system. This entails one compromise: I'd have to return the same way I came, and checking the Silver Star timetable, the same part of the country (NC, SC, GA) is in darkness both ways. Boo, hiss! Also, a continuous trip from Toronto isn't possible by rail; the schedules simply don't hook up. I'd have to take the Maple Leaf to New York, stay overnight, then board the Silver Star in the morning. On the plus side, I'd have only one sleep on the train which, though not a proper bed, is far better than the bus. And if I had the cash, I could splurge for a roomette.

As for getting around the Tampa area, public transit will do the trick, though I can see from researching schedules that PSTA and HART aren't exactly the TTC. But with careful planning, one can make it from A to B. It's also dirt cheap. And lucky me, I'd have three teams' games to choose from in the metro area, with the Phillies training in Clearwater and the Yankees in Tampa proper.

The rather pokey way I like to get to and visit new places now has a name: slow travel. I'm not sure I subscribe to or follow all its tenets, but in both my preferred transportation modes and sightseeing predilections (offbeat, weird stuff), I qualify. Anyway, once COVID-19 has run its course and I've saved up sufficiently, I look forward to getting to know Amtrak, seeing a bit of Florida, and taking in some spring training baseball—something any serious fan really should do at least once in their lives.

Adventures in Home Recording 

Well, I've had a month and a half to get acquainted with the Zoom R24, and have two covers completed so far. Recording these has enabled me to appreciate the unit's features, come to terms with its quirks and learn a lot in the process. Once I've done about 12 or so covers, I'll post them as a free mp3 album and you can hear the results for yourselves.

First, the pleasant surprises:

  • The R24 allows for unlimited virtual tracks (as many as your memory card can store).
  • Its built-in mics are excellent and very convenient. I've recorded acoustic guitar and mandolin with them so far, and they sound better than my Apex 430 condenser (which admittedly isn't the crème de la crème of condenser microphones).
  • The R24 has separate outs and volume controls for headphones and studio monitors.
  • You can adjust the ratio of click track to song with the turn of a knob ... without having to dive into sub-menus.
  • Files (tracks, loops, entire songs) can be backed up to a USB key: no computer required!
  • The percussion loops included on the USB stick are high-quality samples that can easily be time-stretched to fit your project's tempo. Adjust the tempo, drop them in, and presto: it's like having your own Ray Cooper in your hip pocket. Very, very handy.
  • You can loop any piece of audio and drop it into your song at various points. If, like me, you find it hard enough to play a part in time once, well, you only have to nail it once. And it doesn't matter where in the song you do that: you record your part to the click and it can be dropped in anywhere. Now, in conventional rock music, consider how many instruments play repetitive parts, though they may vary between sections. So far I've looped backing vocals, guitars, bass, individual drums, even a tin whistle. I can't fingerpick to save my life, yet I created two fingerstyle acoustic guitar parts by looping one chord at a time.
  • My sampled Roland TD-11K drum kit sounds great, and by using a simple workaround I can set things up with, e.g., the snare on three adjacent pads for a better playing experience and more realistic feel. Judicious use of the quantize function helps keep my beats on the beat. Also, using the sampled kit instead of the built-in sounds allows for greater control and flexibility. Because each drum is on its own track, levels can be set independently and each piece of the kit can be panned, EQ'd and processed separately.
  • I've not exhaustively auditioned the unit's effects yet, but some of the patches are terrific, and every patch is editable. (Some aren't so terrific ... see below.) Most of the send reverbs are quite good, and the "clean" section has some tasty guitar effects. A few of the mic preamp effects do wonders for vocals and acoustic instruments.
  • The bounce function allows you to use a multitude of pre- and post-effects over the course of a song, and the unlimited virtual track feature means you can keep the dry tracks if you later decide to reprint the effects. Bounce is also great for stitching together composite parts to form a whole, which I do a lot of.
  • Both hours/minutes/seconds/hundredths and bars/beats/ticks are shown on the display, unlike some units that force you to pick one or the other. And the "mark" function enables you to scroll to strategic points in the song, while the "stop/rewind" shortcut quickly gets you back to the start. Navigating through your tune is quick, easy and painless.
  • The manual is surprisingly readable and useful, though the layout is a bit weird. I ended up creating a customized how-to-do-what index to help me find things more efficiently.

Now, some sources of vexation:

  • Editing, trimming and silencing audio on the R24 is difficult and in some cases, impossible. It's easier to trim silence at the start or end of a song than, say, a stutter in your guitar solo two minutes in. There may be a way of doing that, but it's by no means obvious. I've figured out how to erase, e.g., unwanted amp hum before the guitar enters by recording "nothing" in that spot using the auto-punch feature. It works, but it's awfully cumbersome.
  • You can't normalize the level of your mix using the R24. Nor can you measure peak amplitude, see what the overall waveform looks like, and so on. A crude waveform view is available by using, for instance, File->Divide, but all told it's easier and more accurate to import the audio into Audacity and examine it there.
  • Trying to assign the same sample to multiple pads results in an "Already Exist!" error message. I had to "fool" the R24 into placing the same sample onto adjacent pads by creating duplicates and triplicates. So, I now have SNARE.WAV, SNARE1.WAV, SNARE2.WAV in my sample library, all of which are the same sound. It's a doable workaround and indeed, a necessary one; without it, I couldn't really "play" the drums like a real drummer would. But it's a pain to have to go to such lengths.
  • The built-in drum sounds aren't studio quality. A few were barely passable; the rest sounded like my first drum machine from 1982. If you're going for that retro crappola-drum-machine sound, great! There are only 10 (lousy) kits, not customizable, and you can't mix and match. Worse, the drums are assigned to a stereo pair of tracks, and you can only EQ, pan, level and process the entire kit, not individual drums. This again limits their utility.
  • Many effects aren't usable in their current form. The "distortion" section in particular makes your guitar sound like it's turned up not to 11 but 111. If you're some speed-metal shred-head, the distortion effects are your wet dream, I suppose. But for the rest of us who want just a touch of fuzz on our guitars, they're woeful. Deep editing, which I've yet to do, may yet salvage some of them.
  • Some of the effects are gimmicky and fall into the who-would-ever-use-this category, like the vocal preset "Hangul" which the manual says "makes Japanese sound like Korean."
  • If you want to apply simple stomp-box effectsdelay, tremolo, phaser, wah-wah or compressor, for instance—they do exist, but you have to disentangle them from some patch that uses them in combination. It's hard to find them in isolation. Some quite useful effects, like a Leslie speaker emulation, are missing entirely.
  • The mastering presets are disappointing. They're subtle as a sledgehammer, and 90% of them are useless. See, mastering is supposed to do two things: bring the level of your mix to a professional standard and and give it a glossy sheen by sparingly applying EQ and compression, kind of like the icing on a cake. The R24's presets alter the sound of your mix beyond recognition. I've achieved reasonable results by editing the "Maximzr" preset, which in its pure form adds 7,000 tonnes of compression, to saner levels, but even that has been massively frustrating. Sure, you can edit the parameters, but it's complete trial and error because you don't know what you're editing. Case in point: the aforementioned preset has parameters like "Sense Hi" which the manual says "adjusts high-range compressor sensitivity." Meaning what? Threshold? Ratio? Gain? We'll never know, and there's no way to adjust the compressor via these standard parameters. Similarly, that preset's three-band EQ lets me adjust bass, middle and treble. What specific frequencies I'd be adjusting and at what bandwidth, no idea.

My bottom line? With a modicum of additional equipment and a dash of savvy and patience, you can produce high-quality recordings with the Zoom R24. You'll be the judge when I unveil my "covers" album, but two songs in I'm quite happy with the results. And I haven't yet explored integrating the Zoom with a DAW, specifically the included Cubase LE. I'm about to transition to a new computer and am unsure which one I want to install it on, so I've held off on the download for now. Presumably this will further extend the unit's capabilities once I navigate Cubase's learning curve.

Woodstock: Loose End Tied 

Just a quick wrap-up (for now) on my Woodstock obsession. When we last rapped, man, our hero had compiled a nearly complete set of recordings from the Woodstock Festival, thanks to WPXN's radio broadcast over the 50th anniversary weekend, XPNstock.

As you'll recall, two songs were missing from the Jimi Hendrix set. They weren't broadcast by WXPN because they're not on the 38-CD box, and they're not on the box because the Hendrix Estate won't authorize their release. Enter the good folks at "non-label" (i.e., bootleggers) who've put out a double CD of Hendrix's entire Woodstock set. I took the plunge and now have the missing songs: "Mastermind" and "Gypsy Woman/Aware of Love," both sung by rhythm guitarist Larry Lee. Though the official release's booklet dismisses them as "slow, haggard filler" they sound fine to these ears, and it's a treat to hear Hendrix as an accompanist.

The bootleg brought another pleasant surprise: in addition to the Larry Lee songs, it contains 20 minutes of material absent from Live at Woodstock and the 38-CD box. Much of this consists of Lee solos that were inexplicably cut from the official version. Of course, it is a bootleg, so the sound is somewhat muddy and boxy. But if you tune your ears to it, so to speak, it's perfectly acceptable, and I'm grateful to now have every single note played by Hendrix and his band at Woodstock.

So, what am I still missing? What everyone else is, apparently: the one-and-a-half Sha Na Na songs that weren't recorded back in 1969. I wonder if audience tapes exist, or perhaps the fabled mono soundboard reel that was used as backup when things went awry. In any event, I'm sure that geeks greater than me are on the case, and if there's anything floating around out there it'll turn up someday. When it does, I'll be first in line.