Get off my lawn.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Another amp joins the family

...or should I say, "the fleet." Although I only own a couple of guitars of each type (electric, acoustic, bass), I've managed to amass a sizable pile of amplifiers over the past decade, along with another pile of things that merely sound like amplifiers.

So far, the list includes:

  • Tech21 Trademark 60
  • Tech21 Tri-AC
  • Tech21 GT2
  • Tech21 PSA-1
  • Boss GX-700
  • Rocktron Pirhana
  • Vox AC-1

I should get them all together for a picture sometime.

In case you hadn't noticed, I'm kind of a fan of Tech21 gear. Each of the Tech21 products listed above is useful for something, and has a sound of its own. They all sound good on recordings, and are pretty versatile. The Boss GX-700 is good for super-clean or heavily-effected sounds. The Rocktron Pirhana is really well-built, and useful for 1 thing: Smashing walnuts. It's in storage, as I buy my walnuts pre-hulled.

Notice that none of these is a "modeling" amp (except the GX-700, and that's debatable). Modeling amps digitize your guitar's signal and run it through a software simulation of a desirable guitar amp. Then the signal is sent to a power amp, and on to the speakers.

I've never been a fan. First of all, for something as wild and woolly as a guitar amp is supposed to be, the idea of digitizing the signal and sending it through a computer seems cold and clinical. It's about as much fun to play through as it sounds like it is. Modeling amps usually sound pretty credible, but playing through them is nothing like playing through a real guitar amp. It's more like playing a recording of a guitar amp. It's like the difference between being chased by a charging rhino, and watching a guy being chased by a rhino on TV. The former is exciting and motivational, the latter, not so much. I also notice a latency in modeling amps that's pretty annoying. With some, I would swear it's a good 30ms between the time I play a note and when the note comes out of the amp. It's not enough to make it hard to play in time or anything like that, but it's enough to make the amp feel sluggish. You feel like you're always pushing things uphill. Overall, playing through one just isn't a very musical-sounding experience. At best, you can aspire to imitate someone by playing through an amp that sounds like theirs. But it's not the kind of thing that inspires creativity.

It's a total contrast to the way a good tube amp works. Notes jump out of a good tube amp in a startling way. A good tube amp is very responsive. If you play softly, it calms down and sounds clean. If you play hard, it gets more aggressive sounding. Everything you do with your hands has an immediate effect on the sound. So as much as the sound, it's the "feel" of good tube amps that makes them so popular with guitar players, I think. It's inspiring to play through one.

There's something else a good tube amp does that I have noticed, but haven't been able to really describe. It's hard to explain, but under some conditions, it's like the physical sensation of the strings under your fingers changes when you're playing through one. They seem to become kind of rubbery, and playing becomes really easy. Obviously, the strings don't take on new physical properties when a tube amp is involved, but something about the way the notes come out of the amp makes the act of playing those notes feel different than it does when playing through a solid-state amp. It's almost like the amp knows what you're going to play before you play it. Not all tube amps do it, but when you encounter one that does, you'll remember it, and you're basically spoiled for playing through anything else. You just want to keep playing and playing and playing. You feel like you can play better than normal. And to verify that you haven't suddenly turned into a better musician, you can just unplug the guitar and plug it into a solid-state or modeling amp in the same room, and play through it. It will feel as stiff and lifeless as a piece of plywood, most likely. I've tried it.

It seems like a stupid thing, but I know it's not just me. Terms like "sponginess", "push back", "bloom" and other inadequate terms have been invented to try to describe the sensation in numerous articles I've read on the subject. The effect I'm talking about is most pronounced when playing with a really distorted or overdriven sound. Having experienced it, I think I understand why so many rock guitar players grow their hair long and have a weird expression on their face when they play. It's the amp. I can prove that what I'm saying is true simply by referring you to any video featuring Peter Frampton playing an acoustic guitar. In those videos, notice that he looks like just a normal guy playing a guitar. Make a mental note of his facial expression. Now, find a video of him playing a solo on an electric guitar. Notice the change in his expression. His mouth is contorted into all kinds of strange shapes. At first you think, "The poor guy is choking on something, or getting ready to hurl." But those facial expressions are actually what it looks like when Peter Frampton is being pleasured by a guitar amp.

None of my amps do that. Except for the Rocktron Pirhana, they're all solid-state. The Tech21 pieces sound authentic enough. But the feel isn't the same. It's not the mere presence of tubes that makes it happen. Of my amps, the Tech21 pieces most "tube-like" in the way they sound, and in the way that they play. The closest thing to a tube in a piece of Tech21 gear is a MOSFET. My Rocktron generates its distortion through tubes exclusively, but they're preamp tubes, in a preamp. There's nothing there in the way of a tube amp driving a speaker, or a simulation thereof. So the feel is as lifeless and stiff as a crappy solid-state amp from Sears. It doesn't do anything that an $80 stompbox can't do. It's a total bore to play through.

The squishy feeling you get from a tube amp comes in part from the power tubes not being able to keep up with the work they have to do. They're trying to amplify their input signal, and they can't keep up, so the output gets compressed, clipped, distorted, and so on. The speaker's voice coil generates current that feeds back into the amp and causes weird things to happen. All kinds of subtle things go on that have a cool effect on the sound and feel of the amp. One way to make it happen is to turn a tube amp up really loud, which is impractical for most applications. I had a 33-watt tube amp once, and the thing was LOUD. I put a wall of cardboard boxes in front of it once to muffle the sound, and it just knocked them out of the way. Pete Townsend used to play in front of a wall of 100-watt Marshalls. No wonder he's deaf.

So, about the new amp. It's a Vox VT30 Valvetronix. My wife couldn't decide what to get me for Christmas this year. I was in a music store and saw the amp sitting there. I had never played through one, but for some reason, I suggested she get me that. (I still like getting toys for Christmas, even though I'm supposed to be a grown-up.)

It's a modeling amp, with 22 different amp models. There's the obvious selection of Vox amps, including an AC-15, a couple of AC-30s, an AC50, and a "Brian May" amp, which sounds exactly like the guitar sound on "Tie your Mother Down." It also has a couple of Dumble models, 3 or 4 Marshalls, some Fenders, something called "Metal Bull", a Peavey 5150, a Mesa Rectifier, an Engl, and another one modelled on a $25K custom-made amp, called "Express Train." I don't know what amp it's trying to emulate.

Aside from the "amp" knob, it has the standard complement of knobs: Gain, Volume, Treble, Mid, Bass, Reverb, and Master. On the back, it also has a "power level" knob. This is handy, because it lets you control how much power the amp actually sends to the speaker. Full up, it's 30 watts, which is way too loud for my office, but about right when you're jamming with a drummer. All the way down, it's 0.5 watts, which is about as loud as someone whispering.

Somewhere between the output of the modeling section and the power amp, there's a little tube-based power amp running a 12AX7 preamp tube.

It's an ingenious idea, and it's not new. The ADA Ampulator did the same thing 12 years ago. The idea behind using a preamp tube to do a power tube's job is that it doesn't really amplify the signal to a level sufficient to drive a speaker. It stays at line level, suitable for input to a solid-state power amp. The nice thing about this is that you can crank the amp by turning the Master volume knob up, but keep the amp quiet by limiting the power output. So you get some of the same benefits of a cranked amp, without the wall-toppling volume.

So, it's a modeling amp. It generates its sound through a computer. But wow. I am impressed. The models are pretty good. The Dumble ones sound great. The Vox ones sound great. All of them do really, except for the "Express Train" one. If I paid $25K for an amp that sounded like that, I'd feel pretty stupid. (Especially now, knowing I could get the same sound for $200 along with 21 other amps that sound better.)

As far as the feel, I'd have to say it's got at least part of it. There's no latency that I can tell. It's not sluggish. You can get a really distorted sound with the guitar's volume all the way up, then turn it down, and the sound is clean. The distortion isn't harsh-sounding, even on the most aggressive models (5150, Engl, etc). To my knowledge, it hasn't caused my face to contort into something awful to look at, although I am thinking about cancelling my upcoming haircut. It's only a small amp. If I had a wall of them or something, I would have already turned into Dimebag Darrell.

Quality-wise, I don't think I'll be cracking walnuts with it. It seems kind of fragile. When I was in Jr. high, I found a piece of steel grating that I made a speaker grill out of for an amp I had then. My installation more professional than the grill on the front of this amp. The input jack looks like it's probably going to break at some point. But when it poops out, I'll probably buy another one.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Android: Greed update #1

I just put a Greed update up on Android Market. It contains a few new features, and fixes:

Read vs. unread items: Previously, when you selected "unread items" and there were fewer unread items in the feed than would show in the article list, the unread items would be accompanied by read items. These were coming from Google Reader that way, and Greed now filters the read items out of the list for consistency's sake.

Wrapped article titles: Some people didn't like the fact that article titles were single-line items that got truncated if their width went beyond the width of the article list, so now there's an option for allowing them to be wrapped multi-line items.

Mark Feed as Read: You can now mark all of the items in a feed as read. Long-touch a feed, and select "Mark feed as read" from the context menu.

Scrolling: When scrolling through articles in the article viewer with the soft buttons, the previous version would stop once it reached the end of the downloaded articles. This update downloads new articles as you scroll forward, allowing you to read all of a feed's items without leaving the article viewer if you want to.

Flip Orientation: The article viewer now has a "flip orientation" option, so you can read articles in "big-screen TV" mode without popping the keyboard out.

Shared Items: You can now put items in your "Shared" area, either by long-clicking in the article list, or clicking a check box in the article viewer. "Share with note" isn't supported yet, but I might do that soon.

A couple of minor performance improvements.

New layouts for some of the list item views.

That's about it for this update.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Great Google Credentials Controversy

So, I just released Greed, an RSS reader application that integrates with Google Reader. So far, it seems to be getting some decent reviews. I've gotten a lot of good feedback in the form of ideas from people, and most of them are things I was either working on already, or will be soon.

One big item: Google Credentials. In order to connect to Google Reader, Greed has to log into Google Reader. In order to do that, it needs the user's Google credentials. The best way to do this would obviously be to take the pre-existing Google credentials off of the phone (they're already there, somewhere), and use those to log into Google Reader. Problem is, there's nothing I can find anywhere in the API for retrieving those credentials. I've scoured the Android source code looking for clues, I've looked through the API documentation, and I've looked in the Google Android Developer's Group, and found precisely ...nothing.

Google says they're going to release an API at some point that allows developers to get to these credentials, but they haven't yet. They're keeping kind of quiet about it. For good reason, too, I think.

I've seen a lot of comments in the Market saying things like "No way am I giving you my Google credentials." I think that's fair... I'm not here to make people do things they have a moral objection to. If there was some other way to log you into Google Reader, I'd prefer to be doing that. I wonder, though: What is the difference between me getting your credentials from you directly, and me getting your credentials from the hidden place (wherever it is) on your phone? Either way, I would have them. Not only me, but the author of any other application you install. At least this way, you know I need them for some good reason.

As soon as I have a way to get them in a more politically-correct manner, I will do so. Until then, here are the choices:

  • Use Greed, and understand that your credentials are kept as safe and secure as it's possible to keep them; or
  • Don't use Greed.
Having laid it out so explicitly, I wonder if I'll see some sort of huge drop in sales volume now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Android: Greed

I just uploaded another Android app, this one called "Greed."

It's basically an RSS reader that integrates with Google Reader. It started out as a feature in Handstand that grew to immense size and didn't really fit with that application, so I removed it and turned it into its own application. I also fixed a lot of things that were wrong with it when it was part of Handstand.

As a result of this release, there will be a new release of Handstand with that feature removed.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Handstand: Google Reader integration

I've been getting a lot of feedback on Handstand lately, and one thing a lot of people have asked for is the ability to define their own RSS feeds.

It's a feature I wanted too. However, something like an Android-based RSS reader seemed a little too obvious. I'm a frequent Google Reader user, and I thought it might be cool to integrate Handstand with it in some way. That way, you could have all of your feeds in one place, whether you're on the phone or on your desktop.

My first idea was to let someone manage all of their feeds in Google Reader and merely read them in Handstand. I tried that, and it seemed too limiting. It didn't give me the ability I wanted... which is to have full Google Reader access on the phone, and not through a browser. I want to be able to add feeds, edit them, remove them, shuffle them around, mark items read/unread, starred/not-starred, e-mail them, etc.

So, since the last update, I've been banging out code until my knuckles are hot to the touch (and a little sore). And now, Handstand includes all of the above. You can add feeds, edit and remove them, and mark items as read/unread, and add or remove stars from items, and every change is reflected in Google Reader.

There are a few wrinkles at this point, which I'm going to fix in the next couple of days:

Screen flow: Currently, the screen right under "News/My Feeds" in Handstand goes to the article list. If you haven't selected a feed yet, you get the feed selection screen. If you have, the last feed you were reading is the one that pops up. I don't like this, because I'm always hitting the "back" button to back out of the article list and into a feed selector. This is how it's going to work in the next update. I'm also going to add the ability to browse by folder, starred items, and the "reading list", the list of new items Google Reader shows you when you first log into it.

Performance: Some of the feeds I read take a while to load. I think I can make it work faster, or at least appear to. Caching is coming.

Error messages: Oh yes. You'll be seeing some error messages in this release. Things like "Credentials are not set!" and various "Socket timeout" errors. I get these occasionally when I'm sitting on my deck in the no-man's land between my Wi-fi connection, my neighbor's Wi-fi, and the EDGE network. I think I can at least make the error messages less startling... Perhaps a nice picture of some cuddly kittens to go with them. In the meantime, just click "OK" on the error message, and maybe "update", and it will usually right itself. That is, unless you're out in the middle of the desert without network coverage. In which case, you should be using the compass and GPS to get yourself back to someplace with a Wi-fi connection.

Finally, there's the way the Google Reader integration sticks out of Handstand like a... I don't know, thing that's out of place. (My "witty comparison generator" seems to be broken.) Having it there is like the same old Handstand, but with Google Reader tacked on to it. I need to think about this. Either I come up with a better way to integrate it into the app, or I make a separate app out of it now. Until I decide, enjoy this version of Handstand, and let me know what you think.