Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of products, books, cds, concerts

Review – Pyle Pro PDMIC78 Microphone

Having a good microphone around is essential to a performer. While microphones like the AKG Pro Audio C414 XLII Vocal Condenser Microphone, and the Sennheiser MD 421 II Cardioid Dynamic Mic are my main “go to” microphones, one of the most compact and versatile microphones ever made is the Shure SM57-LC Cardioid Dynamic Microphone. At $100, it is a great microphone to just have in your bag “just in case”. Still, the SM57 isn’t exactly cheap. And if say you have a band or some situation where you need to microphone up stuff, using the venerable SM57 can get quite expensive.

Enter the Pyle-Pro PDMIC78 Microphone. This microphone is basically a Shure SM57 clone. Except they wired it strangely (or wrongly). Basically, you need to re-solder two connections and then you have a mic that sounds like a SM57….for $20 rather than $100. In fact, there is slightly more gain and it sounds a little more “crisp” than my SM57. Actually, it sort of sounds almost like a BETA 57. I have all these microphones and will link to a sound shoot out of them.

In all, a great deal if you can handle doing the small bit of soldering required. Amazon sells these guys for $20, though the author in the video below got a bunch of them for something like $10 each.

I have modded 4 of these now. You basically need to take the red (hot) from the capsule to pin 3, take pin 1 to ground, break the bridge they have from pin 1 to 3 to ground (so they have 2 pins going to ground) and run the other wire from the capsule to pin 2. You then get a balanced mic that sounds like a SM57 for 1/4th the price.

Review – Zinn and the Art of Saxophone

There are a TON of books out for saxophone. Go do a search of Amazon.com. Everyone seems to have a book out, be it on jazz improvisation, or perhaps a book just dealing with cool patterns or ways to play over certain types of chords, or using a specific scale in jazz. Lots of books. I know, I own just about every saxophone book known to man.

But while I love the pattern books, the scale books, the improv books, what books can I point to that I can say to anyone, regardless of what style of playing they want to do, as a reference to acquire technique on saxophone? The obvious one that we all know are the three Joseph Voila books Technique of the Saxophone: Scale Studies. Another contender for acquiring technique would be Walt Weiskopf’s book Around The Horn: 21 Modal Scales and Arpeggios Every Jazz Musician Needs To Know

With any one of these books, anyone can acquire some great technique on saxophone. But having a book or set of books isn’t the complete solution. How does one use the books? Once you get through the books, is that it? Is that the end? Did you reach the goal and now you are the master and you don’t need to practice anything anymore? You can acquire a tremendous set of skills if you can play through all the Joseph Viola books. But how do you maintain those skills? Do you start the books over again? Play them backwards?

Saxophonist Dann Zinn has been pondering this issue for over 20 years now. Perhaps longer….it is hard to tell, Dann is a man of few words (other than “go practice”). His new books Zinn and the Art of Saxophone is the culmination of decades of teaching, and thought about saxophone. What skills should one acquire in their pursuit of saxophone? In what order should one acquire the skills? How does one go about acquiring the skills?

Continue reading Review – Zinn and the Art of Saxophone

Wirecutter Names Best Laser Printer

I bought a Brother HL-L2340DW on Black Friday for $80 from Amazon.com. Great little printer. And the Wirecutter likes it as well.

After nearly 250 hours of research and testing over the past few years, we’ve found that the best choice for an affordable laser printer right now is the Brother HL-L2340DW. Among the dozens of laser printers we’ve looked at, the L2340DW is one of the most economical and least frustrating printers you can buy.

Band in a Box 2015 for Mac

After much delay, PG Music released Band in a Box 2015 for Mac last week. Whoohoo! Here are some of the new features:

  1. Audio Recording
  2. 33 More Jazz RealTracks
  3. 36 New Pop/Rock Tracks
  4. Saving a song to video and upload it to YouTube
  5. Read/Write Support for Apple Loops

There were also some enhancements to the GUI, but if you were expecting a more Mac like overhaul, you are going to be sadly disappointed. When they say GUI enhancements, they mean that when you have a track that has a banjo, it shows you where the banjo is rather than lumping it in the string section. Useful, but it should have had this a while ago. Not sure how useful the saving a song to youtube is going to be. They also have a save to soundcloud feature but I’ve never used that.

Another great thing they finally added was that it can now check for updates on it’s own. Not that they need to push out updates to this rock solid piece of software. Still, it is a welcome addition.

Is it worth buying this update? Yes. The real tracks alone are worth it. Love the new real tracks, and wish there were like a 100 of them in each style rather than 33 or 36.

This is still probably the best piece of software a musician can own. Go get it.

Pono Player Review

This was an interesting review of the fabled Neil Young high quality audio player.

“You know how every once in a while you buy the $40 bottle of wine instead of the $8 one, thinking you’re gonna have a special dinner or something?” Senior Reviews Editor Lee Hutchinson wrote over instant message. “And you get home, and you make the salmon or the pasta or whatever and you light the candles? And you pour the wine, swirl it like they do in Sideways so that it looks like you know what you’re doing… you bring it to your lips and after smelling it—it smells like wine—you have a sip? And it’s like… yeah, I guess this tastes good or something, but really it just tastes like wine?

“The Pono Player is kinda like that, but for music.”

Basically, encode your stuff at a high bit-rate, and if you are serious about listening then invest in some high quality preamps and DACs.

Review: Gruv Gear V Solo

There comes a time when you just can’t carry all your stuff to the gig. Your tenor….and soprano…..and flute…..and stands…..and a music stand…..and a microphone stand. It’s a lot of stuff. Then you have to walk a good mile because the parking for the venue sucks balls and you are about a mile from where you want to be.

So, you decide it is time to get a cart. But what sorta cart? There are tons. Something multi-purpose, where it can be a dolly (hand truck), a cart, and maybe something inbetween. Then what you want is a Gruv Gear V Solo. It is a stylish, sturdy (holds 500lbs), and compact cart that can easily hold all your horns. Consider it.
2014-09-20 17.59.19

Band in a Box 2014 Mac

PG Music just released an update to one of the best programs out for Apple using musicians….Band in a Box 2014 for Mac

What is new? Well, they are touting their “GUI has been redesigned” thing. Here is what it looks like: Screen Shot 2014 06 08 at 3 30 07 PMwhile it’s a little better than it was, it still has a LOT of issues. First, you can’t really get rid of any of the unnecessary buttons. Like say you never ever are going to use the Video Help. Or you never want to do StyleMaker. Or the Jukebox mode. You are stuck with them.

More RealTracks. Even some Phil Woods and Gary Smulyan….though the way Band in a Box “puts together” a Phil Woods solo, it sounds strange. Not very Phil like at all for me.

The other “big” thing is that you can start adding your own loops to chords and stuff. “And, if you add an Acid loop that is on a certain root (e.g. F), Band-in-a-Box will instantly allow you to use that as a complete style, by transposing that loop to the current chord of the song in Band-in-a-Box, so that the loop follows your chord progression.” Which is great news.

Gripes….yes, of COURSE there are gripes about the program.

First, besides the cutter and button problems from above, lets talk about their Yellow and Green boxes. Instead of using the Notification center like a good Mac OS X program, it uses these hack-y little green and yellow boxes. They are really addicted to them. So much so they even have a “FlashMessageLog.txt” feature they added to show you a log of the messages. Come on people, if you did it in Notification Center, you wouldn’t need to do that. 

Second, serial numbers. For a long…..long time. Since the beginning……there has NEVER been a serial number to use Band in a Box. Ever. EVER. Even back on the Atari ST days……no serial numbers. Hello 2014……you get a serial number. Not sure if it actually goes anywhere and checks to see if you have used your allocated number of computers (which is generous, 3). But still……serial numbers? That is not going to stop anyone. Even Adobe’s creative cloud stuff is out there for download and fully operational with serial/auth hacks. I guess it is more the “between friends” sharing then? I dunno. Does it check in with something? I guess I will find out, since I technically have 4 macs which I can install this on….so yea….

Third, full screen. They say they have a Full Screen mode, but its not a Mac full screen. Its more a NO TOOLBAR clutter mode.

So, besides the little gripes I have, this is still…..BY FAR……one of the best programs for a musician. Anyone getting this NEEDS to have the FULL thing, with all the RealTracks (or at least the ones you are interested in). It’s yet another refinement of an excellent program. Lets hope next year’s version (2015) comes sporting a 10.10 style redesign.

Tuner vs Tuner

I’ve had an iPhone since week 1. In fact, I actually went to the FedEX center to get it since I missed the FedEX guy when they were trying to deliver it. Anyhow, it’s a life changing device as I know most of you know. It also has REPLACED several musical things for me, the foremost being Tuners.

I have had, over the years, owned many…..many tuners. One of the last “box” tuners I bought was a Peterson VS1 (I think that is what it is called). A Virtual Strobe Tuner. Used it for several years until the iOS version came out, which I still love. Haven’t used the VS1 in a long time, even though I have it stand mounted on my teaching stand and even have the power cable (somewhere).

Well, a couple of weeks ago, IK Multimedia came out with what they call the “UltraTuner: The most precise iOS tuner ever!”. They claim it can provide “precision down to .01 (yes, that’s 1/100th) of a cent”. I think the Peterson one is to 1/10th of a cent.

So, which is better? Well, in general use, I still like the Peterson Strobe Tuner. I don’t see it being replaced by the UltraTuner anytime soon for checking pitch for a gig or whatever. It just seems faster and just “works” for me. Now, the UltraTuner DOES have a couple of neat things that I have been using, the coolest thing being the “Studio Mode” where it sorta does an EKG reading of how your Pitch has been over time. Very cool. In fact, it would be really awesome if there was some way to email yourself a graph or plots of how the pitch was, I think that could be very helpful and interesting.

So, generally, I think the Peterson Strobe is still my favorite and Go to tuner, though the UltraTuner does have some things going for it. And yes, I have used ClearTune and some of the other tuners. Still think the Strobe is better.

Finale 2014

There are two BIG players in the music notation field. Sibelius and Finale. The future of Sibelius is sort of up in the air as they sacked their great development team due to Avid, the parent company, having issues (they also sold off the M-Audio line of products at the same time). Meanwhile, MakeMusic got bought and the new owners pledged to continue making Finale, but not at it’s regular yearly update cycle.

So we went about 2 years with Finale 2012. It works, but it has issues like all software. Now, they have just released Finale 2014. It is REALLY hard to tell what the new stuff is or why you should update to it. Luckily, Jari Williamsson has an excellent review of what is new. I’ll bullet point what I think are interesting features and list some big reasons NOT to update.

New and Interesting Features:

  • Export To Finale 2012 and new File Format (which shouldn’t change in future versions of Finale)
  • Keyless Scores and Instruments
  • Anchored Hairpins and Measure-attached Smartshapes

Those are basically the new/interesting things in Finale 2014. It’s easy to do a keyless score now, and when you do crescendos and stuff, it will smartly adjust the size of them. Finally. And the stupid program can finally….or Finale…..no no, finally…..save to older versions and future versions of Finale won’t have to convert files to the “new” format every time they are opened.

Yes, there are some other “new” features. Supposedly it’s all Cocoa on the Mac, meaning the UI looks more Mac-like now. Supposedly, didn’t really notice when I was using the demo. New sound engine and playback and more Garritan sounds. Ok……now anyone that uses Finale for playback….really? I mean, it’s NEVER worked well for me, and the playback is Cheezy at best. The Garritan sounds, while very great sounding in 2001, are not really that great sounding now. Plus, Finale isn’t 64bit, so you can’t really load up a huge sample orchestra in Finale and have it play.

Oh, and Notemover is back. What? Don’t remember when Finale had Notemover? They killed it off a few versions ago and replaced it with this “universal selector” thing, which I think was actually the way to go (though it has some issues in how it works). Well, Notemover is back…..

Ok, so, what is the BIG issue with Finale 2014 that will prevent me from upgrading. TGTools does not work with it. What is TGTools? It’s a plugin that allows all sorts of things to be done in Finale, and I find it essential in using Finale. For teaching I use the Add Pitch Names tool ALL THE TIME, and I use various alignment tools, and Custom Chord Styles for doing / chords in Finale (like doing a F7/C chord). I have no clue if the author is going to update it or not, as he never “officially” updated it for any version of Finale past 2010 (2011, 2012 worked with it). MakeMusic also seems to have bought or obtained parts of TGTools and has been including them in Finale for a few versions (2009 or 2008 was the first?). But unless this tool is updated, I will have to stick to Finale 2012.

So, what is the verdict? I still think Finale is better than Sibelius. It has way more flexibility in how it works, and you can get your scores to look however you want. And the company seems to be moving forward and has modernized Finale (on the Apple side). I’m not really sure what “new” notation features can be added that people really would go “oooo, now that is a great idea”. I mean, it is sort of like Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6). They had Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) (or rather Finale 2012). It worked great, had a few issues, but generally worked great. What to do next, lets gut a bunch of it and modernize it. Exactly what Apple did with 10.6. Not a lot of new features, but improvements and forward thinking changes (like a stable file format). It’s not fully 64bit….yet, but it’s moving that direction. It still needs a LOT of improvements in the audio playback department, and MakeMusic needs to start moving it towards more DAW-ish like playback.

So….if you are just getting into the notation game, and have to choose between Sibelius and Finale, it’s really close. It has been for a while. They both basically do the same thing, just Finale gives you 10 ways to do it, and Sibelius gives you 4 ways but really wants you to use what it thinks is best. Until Avid shows some commitment to Sibelius, I would say that it is going to languish. It supposedly has issues on the latest Mac OS X (10.9), as does all of Avid’s stuff. Avid has NEVER been known to be fast/timely/quick/responsive to updating their products. As a former ProTools user who waited 8 months for Avid to “certify” ProTools on a new Mac OS (which came with the Mac, and I had no choice but to use), I know Avid. That being said, I’d run away from Sibelius. What if you get a new Windows 8.1 or MacBook Pro, and Sibelius just stops working? And Avid says “it isn’t certified yet”. End of story until it is “certified”. I’ve never had issues with MakeMusic software not working. Every OS it just runs, even Finale 2008 still runs on my Mac. Amazing.

I’d go Finale. It seems to be moving forward, and it pretty much has all the features you could ever want in a notation package.

iTunes Radio

Today, Apple released a BUNCH of stuff, including iTunes 11.1 with iTunes Radio. Now, a lot of you will say “big deal, we have had Spotify and Pandora for years. And that is true, these have been around for years……

But sit down Johnny. Have a juice box. iTunes Radio actually is good. I’ve NEVER liked Pandora’s “jazz” selection. Spending a few hours this morning with iTunes Radio’s stations, there are tons of jazz stations. And they play good stuff. AND it is brain dead simple to buy the song, or even tell it that you LIKE stuff like what is playing. AND there is a great little history thing that tells you what you’ve listened to (completely listened to, which I think should be changed to have everything you’ve listened to and the percentage of the song you listened to…..so maybe you can go back and listen again).

The cost of this? FREE…..plus an occasional ad. Though if you subscribe to iTunes Match ($24 a year) there are NO ads.

Oh, and the Radio stations sync to ALL your Apple Devices (iOS 7 needs to be on them). So if you have 3 Macs, and 3 iOS 7 devices, whatever stations you add show up on them. Pretty cool.

So go download the new iTunes, and try the Radio. It’s really good.

Perfect Reed?…..Hardly

USA 325Checking my daily email, I received this

“Pays for itself in reeds saved and lasts forever
-Get a new dynamic and smashing sound
– Make extremely accurate adjustments
-No guessing where to shave
-Stop throwing reeds
The Perfect Reed kit is a new ground breaking method to condition your reeds to a professional level.
White-curvatures reveal exactly where adjustments are required. Make extremely accurate corrections.
Reed fibers are relaxed to give a precise and simultaneous contact with the left-right rails and tip.
Don’t work for your instrument – Make it work for you – Freeing you to express your talent.
There are four mouthpiece profiles for alto, tenor, soprano and baritone. Work’s for all tip openings.
Your lower registers will have a powerful and dynamic clarity with strong mid and upper tones.”

Then the eyes rolled back into my head. It’s a white piece of plastic and a razor blade….for $30. It’s not even a reed knife. It’s a razor blade. What happens when that “reed knife” gets dull?

Ok, if you really WANT to mess with a reed with a knife, get a Oboe or Bassoon Reed knife. Then get a flat surface. I personally wouldn’t use white as it is harder to see thickness of the wood. Get something dark, or black to work on. Then google or youtube the innumerable articles and videos on how to modify reeds. Your real investment is a good knife, but you need the right sort of knife rather than the wrong sort of knife (these are for pulling off a lot of wood. You won’t need this).

Skip this “product” people.

Band In A Box 2013 Macintosh

NewImage

PG Music has released the latest greatest version of Band in a Box for Macintosh. This is one of my favorite programs, hands down.

Here are some of the new featuresI like:

  • 31 More Jazz RealTracks, 35 Rock-Pop RealTracks.
  • New Song Form feature.
  • Remembers recent RealTracks that you selected
  • Easy Buttons for Transposing (Display only) to Eb, Bb and other clefs/instruments
  • Woodshed Tempo button

They also have some “SuperMidi” things, to make the midi tracks sound better. The main feature for me in this update was the Woodshed Tempo button. Now, Band in a Box has HAD this function for a while, buried in the preferences somewhere. I believe during the 2012.5 Beta test I suggested it would be a good idea to put it in a button and move it out front. PG Music did just that. The Woodshed button works by you giving it a start tempo, say 120, and then tell it how fast to get to (say 240) and in what increments. It’s very very nice to have. I’m hoping that they add the ability to have the Woodshed stuff be able to be dumped into an audio file at some point. They seemed interested when I made that suggestion. I think it would be VERY useful for making practice for students and stuff.

Some of the new Real Tracks are amazing, and at least one (Euro Dance) is crap. PG Music STILL hasn’t fixed/added a feature I think is essential, the ability to have the Open by Title be able to traverse subdirectories. It is a great feature, Open by Title, that shows the song name, key, tempo, and style for all the files in that directory. BUT if you have a subdirectory, it doesn’t open and do those files. That is stupid. It is easy to have upwards for 5,000 band in a box files (I have something like 12,000) if you download all the free fake book changes and what not freely available on the internet. Does PG Music want us to store everything in ONE directory? Yikes!

I still rate Band in a Box is an ESSENTIAL tool for anyone learning Jazz. Or learning music. Or composing. The ability to pick a key, type a chord progression, pick a tempo, and then a style and go is amazing. And the Real Tracks add to the program. Anyone buying this program needs to pony up for the Real Tracks, or at least the Real Tracks they would be using. Once you start using them, the Midi Stuff is just so 1990s.

Les Misérables 2012

I think most people have heard of Les Misérables (or Les Mis as a lot of people call it). It has epic music. In fact, I HATED musicals until I heard Les Mis on PBS on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It happened to be the 10th Anniversary all star performance. Amazing show, if you have not seen it or heard it. You should.

Now, there seems to be a movie coming out Christmas Day. Now, I haven’t seen the movie obviously, but the soundtrack is out. And it is HORRIBLE. Utterly HORRIBLE. Russell Crowe’s singing is terrible. In fact, I’d say a pig being castrated could carry a tune better than him. Anne Hathaway……I know you are pretty, but it does NOT entitle you to butcher songs left and right. Fucking Sacha Baron Cohen…….this guy’s success in Hollywood is beyond me. He’s performance is shitty….and that is being nice. Hugh Jackman is ok…..like a good community theater OK.

Now, as a movie, it seems to be getting awards left and right even though it is not out yet (how does that work?). But it’s essence is the music. That is what makes Les Misérables the great show it is. Imagine Phantom of the Opera with…..wait, they already did that. Ugh….maybe the visuals will distract me from the amateur singing on display….

Band in a Box 2012.5 for Mac

This week has been amazing. First, on Wednesday, we had Apple announce the iPhone 5. On Friday, PG Music unleashed Band in a Box 2012.5 for Mac. I shudder to think what next week will bring (other than actually receiving an iPhone 5 on Friday!).

Like the iPhone 5, Band in a Box 2012.5 is more tweaking of an already great product. I still am surprised that more musicians do not know of this amazing piece of software. Or maybe still dismiss it as this midi tool (which it was back in the 90s) that uses Quicktime to generate cheesy backgrounds. It is not that. These people also probably still believe we didn’t go to the moon.

Band in a Box, if you read this site, I always rave about. For anyone learning jazz, or just music in general, it is an invaluable tool. You simply type in a chord progression, tempo, key (if you want), and then pick a style. There are sooo many styles. There are quite a few midi only tracks that, depending on your setup, can sound very very good. But the program has really shines in it’s use of “RealTracks”. The software pretty much seemlessly takes real performances and will piece them into the song. So, if you wanted your masterpiece in the key of Db in the style of a Pop song with Electric keyboard, fretless bass, drums, and a Smooth sax soloing….it can do this. And it sounds damn good. Every version of the program, like every revision of the iPhone, tweaks and improves upon what they had before.

New things in this version of Band in a Box:

There were some other tweaks to the program to. There is a simplified saving to M4A or AIFF from the File Menu (though I did want this to be a pop up dialog in the beta test so you could easily select say a DropBox folder to save them to rather than the program just dumping it into folder where the source file exists. Last beta still did it that way :-(). The program does load a little faster than the 2012 as well.

There are still some annoyances. I swear every beta test I am involved with, I complain about the “Open Song By Title” thing, which will display the song title, file name, if it has a melody, and the style. Great tool. Except the Windows version will traverse folders in that folder (nested folders), and the Mac version just does the files in the folder. So the 10,000+ Band in a Box files I have would have to be all in ONE folder instead of sort of organized into subfolders.

Another annoyance, or rather, something they need to bring to the fore in the program is the “Woodshed Tempo” thing. It is buried in Preferences 2 in the program. Basically, what it does is that every time you end a loop of a song, say you get done with the 5 choruses of Giant Steps at 160, it will bump up the next loop of the song by a certain number of beats per minute. So you can practice changes to a song, and start it at say 140, and have it bump up every loop by 10 clicks every time. Amazing for practicing. I keep lobbying for them to make a button for this, or at least make it so it’s not buried in the program. It’s a great tool to use…..and few seem to know it’s there.

So, the verdict. Of course it is a BUY. If you are learning music, and specifically, Jazz (or soloing), you need this tool. And you need to splurge and get ALL the real tracks (or AT LEAST the styles you like). The BEST version to get is the Hard Drive version, which PG Music will send you a hard drive that has lots of extra space, and the program and all the styles and real tracks. And it’s portable, so you can take it between home and the studio, or use it on another computer. The program takes something like 65 gigs to install.

Yes, it is expensive to get the whole thing. But like any good tool, it is an investment. And PG Music’s upgrades are very reasonable (usually the upgrades to all the new real tracks and stuff is $129).

Get this program. Or put it on your Christmas list.