Thursday, July 20, 2017

My experience with guitar technology.

When I started playing guitar it was a very archaic time. Sure, there were tons of cool gadgets for guitarists, but if you weren't a touring guitarist you were mostly stuck with a solid state Crate or Peavey buzzing at any volume, AND YOU LOVED IT! Fizzy, shitty, buzzy tone was all the rage in the mid-90's, all thanks to the grunge era where tone didn't matter, tuning your guitar didn't matter, hell knowing how to play didn't matter!

It wasn't until the early 2000's that I really started to seek out something better than my Crate GX-30M. I don't mean a better amp, because to me my Crate combo was the best amp I could have at that time. The GX-30M would remain my baby for many years to come, but eventually I did sell it off and upgrade, at least I think so.

Before I sold the Crate I decided to try and make it sound better, so I bought a Zoom 510 Distortion processor. Originally I wanted a Danelectro Black Coffee mini pedal, but I couldn't find a store that stocked them, and I found the Zoom 510 on ebay for the same price, but it seemingly offered so much more! The Zoom 510 was chock-full of buzzy, fizzy and shitty tones for me to explore, and I absolutely adored it!

Eventually I bought a Boss GE-7 to help shape the tone overall, but the fact remained I was still using a Crate GX-30M with a Zoom 510, there was no way to make it sound any better than it did, or even remotely good. The signal chain was my guitar plugged into the 510, to the GE-7, to the GX-30M, which made me feel like a rock star. I could sound as good or as shitty as I wanted, again mostly shitty.

After having so much fun with the Zoom 510 I decided it was time for me to find another processor to fiddle around with. Would it be a Digitech? Would it be a Zoom 707, which I have always wanted because of the expression pedal, and truth be told I still want one! No, it was a rare blue Zoom 505.

The Zoom 505 was the standard Zoom processor and it offered more than just distortion. I could add chorus, flange, delay and all kinds of goodies to my already horrible tone! HUZZAH! The signal chain now was my 510, for distortion, into the 505 for other effects, into the GE-7 to level it all out and onto the amp. I truly felt like I was a touring guitarist with all this gear, I dared to even call it my rig, which was a bold overstatement.

At this point in my life I had the Crate GX-30M and I had a Crate G600XL head with my brother's Crate 2x12 cabinet. With all the gadgets cluttering up my space I decided it was time to clearance everything and consolidate. This was especially spurred on by the fact that my Zoom 505 was growing ever more finicky and deciding on its own when it wanted to work, which was mostly never.

When he let me borrow his 2x12 cabinet, my brother was been bragging about picking up a Line 6 Flextone 3, which to me sounded like a great option. I too wanted to have all the most popular amp tones of at my finger tips, and be able to quickly and "accurately" switch from a Fender Deluxe to a Soldano SLO-100 all by simply turning a knob. After all, I had just come from a Zoom 510 and 505 setup where I could quickly and easily change my distortion and effects within seconds.

After selling off everything, except the Crate G600XL which I gave away, I went to work on finding out what I could afford and what offered the most bang for my buck. After all was said and done I had narrowed my choices down to the brand new Spider 2 HD. Still reeling from the fact that I didn't get all the cash I expected from the stuff I sold, and heavily regretting selling my Boss GE-7, I walked into Guitar Center on Super Bowl Sunday 2006 and sought out the Spider 2 HDs.

Strangely, both Spider 2 HDs they just pulled out of their boxes, right in front of me, decided neither of them wanted to work, so I was forced to look elsewhere. Behind the counter sat a used Line 6 Flextone 3, like my brother's, which they said just came in and could not be sold for 2 more weeks. My brother tried to persuade them to let me try the amp, but the salesman kept saying no. I think my brother really wanted me to have the same amp as him.

After walking around the store I found a Line 6 Flextone HD that really piqued my interest. With a Jackson Dinky and a Peavey 5150 speaker cabinet I tested the Flextone HD, falling in love with it almost immediately. I wasn't worried about the overall tonality; I more overjoyed with the familiarity of having so many options in one place, and was more so infatuated with the idea of what I could do with this amp. I walked in wanting a Spider HD but walked out with a Flextone HD on layaway.

The following years were filled with happiness, actually. I've had quite a good time with my Flextone HD, even going so far as to buy the long floorboard to unlock more options and a Mesa Boogie 4x12 cabinet so that it sounds the best it possibly can. And even though I didn't get a Flextone 3 like my brother, he did end up buying a Flextone HD like mine. This, however, is not the end of the story, as with technology being ever-changing I've had a few chances to see what the modern age of guitar amps/simulation has to offer.

So far you know I'm perfectly happy with digitally modeled guitar amp simulation, but even though I still love my amp, that's almost 20 years old, modern amp simulation has really taken a hold and become less expensive, far more accurate and easily obtained. My first experience with modern guitar amp simulation is when I found an Amplitube Stealthplug at the Goodwill outlet store. I was quite impressed with the way everything sounded but didn't feel like being nickled and dimed to add a tube screamer or a new amp to my options, so I quickly uninstalled Amplitube and packed the Steathplug away.

Most recently I picked up a Fender Mustang Mini from the outlet store for $8. I knew it was a more modern modeling amp, but I still wasn't completely sure of how it worked. Once I got it home and plugged it into my computer, after having installed the required software, I was completely blown away by what I was experiencing.

Which the aid of an Amplitube style program I was fine tuning the amps from my computer in real time. The Mustang Mini has a 6.5" speaker, so the tones clearly aren't going to be the greatest, but for a practice amp this thing is absolutely amazing to me. I can upload, download and fine tune presets and take the battery powered beast anywhere I want. Fender offers a website for the community to submit all their settings, most of which are horrible but I still find it extremely enjoyable to download and give them a try, before ultimately deleting them and downloading more.

I'm sure I'm still far behind the times in terms of being on the cusp of amp simulation technology, but even so I'm really excited to have what I have. I still enjoy my Flextone HD, but I can only imagine what a Fender Mustang HD would sound like through my Mesa 4x12. Maybe in the future I'll acquire one, but for now I've got a half stack for bedroom jams and the Fender Mustang Mini for everywhere else. These are all I feel I'll ever need, currently. What an amazing time to be a guitar player!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tablet Shootout!

A few years ago my mother gave me her first gen Kindle Fire, after she found a really good deal on an HP tablet. Up to this point I was a PC or laptop person, I had never used a smart phone or a tablet for any extended period of time. I find getting new electronic devices extremely exciting, but since it's a Kindle Fire that excitement was quickly quelled. Perhaps I could say that fire was extinguished? It's my blog and I'll make stupid jokes if I want!

The first things I noticed about the Kindle Fire were that I was locked to their browser, no Firefox or Chrome for me, just some lame, cut-rate browser that worked OK. Secondly I was greeted by the absolutely abysmal app store Amazon offers. Many apps I wanted just weren't available and I'm assuming never would be, without rooting the device.

Not wanting to take a risk and root the damn thing I trudged on with the tablet, hey at least I had one. As the excitement waned I just let the thing sit on its own and didn't touch it for weeks on end. The few apps I had grown attachment to were now abandoned, based solely upon the performance of the device and not the quality of the app itself.

Eventually the Kindle Fire would become a thing of the past, all thanks to a tablet that isn't built anywhere near as well as the Kindle Fire. I present to you the Apex Solo 7i, a tablet that truly feels like it might fall apart in your hands. At least this one is full Android, and not a truncated version controlled by an online shopping website.

The Apex was yet another amazing find at the outlet store, but it didn't come in perfect shape. A few scratched here and there, but overall the tablet is in working order and is actually quite nice. Quickly, even despite it's build quality, the Apex has become my tablet of choice over the Kindle.

The Apex Solo 7i runs Android KitKat, meaning I can access the Google Play store and download any friggin app I want! The screen is quite vibrant but shows how cheap it is when trying to view it from most angles that aren't straight ahead. There are both front and rear facing cameras, although they're such low rez they're absolutely useless, but the option is nice, and the tablet allows for Bluetooth connectivity.

To sum up the Apex's faults I would say the build quality is pretty lacking, the screen isn't great from all angles, the battery seems to be moderate, but not great, and anytime I watch videos on anything above 480p the tablet absolutely craps itself, although so did the Kindle Fire.

Where the Kindle Fire made up in build quality it completely lacks in functionality, usefulness and overall desire to use the damn thing. If you want a tablet strictly for watching videos on the go, or you don't need a large library of games, the Kindle Fire might be worth picking up used, although the newer versions have to be better and they're actually quite cheap these days.

Where the Apex Solo seems like an extremely cheap piece of junk, it's actually quite a good little tablet. Admittedly I've accidentally dropped the thing a few times and it seems more sturdy than I originally thought, although I wouldn't drop it from great heights onto hard surfaces. Since the Apex is running KitKat it's limitations, thus far, are few and far between. There are so many apps, browsers, etc. that I can use it's almost limitless.

Is the Apex Solo 7i better than the first generation Kindle Fire? Simply based on how useful it is, yes! Leaps and bounds yes! The Kindle Fire might have been an amazing little tablet, had it not been restricted so ludicrously by Amazon. Even so, I used the heck out of the Kindle until I realized there was a much larger and better world out there, a world ran by Android.

Monday, May 8, 2017

This Town Ain't Big Enough Fer the Two of Us: Gun vs Red Dead Revolver!

At the height of its popularity Red Dead Redemption was a household name. The idea of mixing GTA and the Wild West was a great idea, but had it been done before Red Dead Redemption? Well, not as well as Redemption, but to a much lesser extent it was attempted at least twice, with Red Dead Revolver and Gun.

Back when Redemption was still on the tongues, minds and consoles of video game fans, I was busy trying to find a copy of Red Dead Revolver. When I did find a copy I was fully expecting to see a GTA San Andreas style Western game; I mean for fuck sake when Red Dead Revolver came out Rockstar already had GTA 3 and Vice City under their belts, with San Andreas just around the corner.

The elation I felt for having a copy of what I thought was going to be an open world thrill ride through the wild west was quickly and painfully dashed, slashed and left out in the sun to rot. With Revolver being cut up into chapters I quickly realized that in the year 2006 (when I bought the game), I had played NES games that were more open world than this game. It was nothing more than mini games setup as missions/chapters, all themed the same and mashed together in some form of coherency.

I gave it a good go, hoping that at some point the game would open up and I would be free to decide whether I was a law abiding citizen, or become a legendary outlaw of the old west. Soon it became painfully obvious that no matter how far I progressed through the game, the only freedom I had was roaming through one town, choosing a mission and being placed within that mission until I succeeded, only to be placed right back into the town to pick another mission. Disappointed I eventually gave up on the game and put it back on the shelf, in hopes it would disappear.

Years went by and I still didn't have Red Dead Redemption, but I was still on the hunt for an Xbox era equivalent. This is when Gun was brought to my attention. I was familiar with the box art and the name, but I hadn't the slightest clue what the game was. After watching a few Let's Plays and reading some reviews, my childlike wonderment was renewed! Gun was the game that was going to send me into the wild, gun-toting west and allow me to decide whether or not I was going to be a law abiding citizen, or a lawless madman with a lust for killing.

For the first few missions of Gun I was sorely disappointed, yet again. The game opens up with the main character and who we assumed to be his father hunting to earn their survival. Suddenly things take a turn for the worse and the game throws you into a mission. Once that mission is over it throws you back into the game, all of which has been a tiny little map. It all felt too much like Red Dead Revolver so far, and I was quickly growing impatient.

Persevering along through a few more missions and I was allowed to ride a horse into a new town. Now this felt like the game was opening up, but still the map wasn't very big, it still felt very small and mission based. Eventually I reached another town, where the whole map was unlocked, after a handful more missions. It's not the Red Dead Redemption feel I was looking for, but this was leaps and bounds more freedom than Revolver ever afforded.

After each mission you are given a screen that tells you what upgrades you've gotten, which still feels too mission driven, but you're, essentially, dropped right back where you were before the mission started, making it feel less like the game is picking you up and dropping you off everywhere you go. Once I got past the painful first few missions of Gun, it truly opened up and made me feel like I could do whatever I wanted. Sure, it's still restrictive, it's nowhere near as free or as good as Redemption (even though I've never played it, I know it's better than Gun), but Gun is a really good western style game that I feel earns the badge of open world game.

Gun didn't exceed my expectations, but it sure as hell beats Red Dead Revolver out of the water. The end boss fight is quite frustrating if you walk into it without being properly prepared, but the overall game is fun. Even after you complete the main story missions there are a handful of things to do, not many but there are some. If this was a wild western showdown I would fully expect Gun to blow Red Dead Revolver away before it could even draw its pistol. No contest, Gun is the winner.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Once Bitten: Snakebyte PS3 Wired Controller Review

As a thrift store shopper I have a fairly unique opportunity to find cheap electronics and give them a thorough testing. Sometimes these electronics are good and sometimes they're bad. In the case of the Snakebyte wired PS3 controller I can't say that it's good, but I wouldn't write it off as being completely bad either. The Snakebyte wired PS3 controller just kind of... exists.

My original intent was to use the controller as a PC controller, which you absolutely can do. I saw it as a wired Dualshock style controller and figured I would give it a chance. The fact that it works on PC is great! It's simply just a plug and play scenario where you plug it in, Windows finds the drivers automatically, and without hassle, then you configure it through whatever game you wish to play. It's truly that simple.

Though I may praise it's simplicity in connectivity to the PC, the Snakebyte isn't without its flaws. All of the action buttons are analog, which I found quite surprising, but the particular nightmare here are the should buttons. Sometimes the weirdly designed L2 and R2 buttons don't register and even though they are analog it's far less sensitive than the official Dualshock 3. Whatever they were thinking when they decided to design them differently from the Dualshock 3 triggers, I don't know, but in either case these L2 and R2 buttons are this controller major downfall.

Another issue you may find with the controller, albeit not as bad as my previous gripe, is the analog sticks. Firstly the texture on them is very shallow and harder than the rubber on the Dualshock 3, making them much more difficult to keep your thumbs on. Secondly is the dead zone which feels like you could fit a complete Dualshock 3 controller in. This makes precision use of the analog sticks nearly impossible.

The overall build quality is decent with a firm and rigid plastic shell. The design takes a slight departure from the standard Dualshock form factor and offers elongated handles that I don't care very much for nor do I find very comfortable, but it's not horrible. The controller also offers customizable turbo functionality, while also including a clear function to undo turbo assignment. Finally the cable seems to be quite a long one; no complaints about having to sit right beside the console while using this controller.

My final verdict on the Snakebyte wired PS3 controller is this: if you need a cheap PC controller I'm sure there are better ones out there, but if you can pick this thing up for a couple bucks on clearance or in good, used condition it may suit what you need. If you need a cheap PS3 controller then you may want to follow the same advice. I'm sure there are cheaper, better PS3 controllers, wired and not, out there.

If I'm playing a game where precision isn't a necessity the Snakebyte controller is useful, otherwise not so much. I've played Fallout and Skyrim with the Snakebyte and I've done just fine, but as far as racing games, where the analog really is required, the controller falls flat. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Making Connections and Persistence Pays Off!

All the way back in the year 2010, yes when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I started my hardcore video game collecting. I had always collected video games on the odd occasion, but it was that year that I decided to make it a full on pastime. Along the journey I made friends at most of the thrift stores, as well as a handful of enemies, all of whom were employees of those stores.

From assistant managers who helped me find games from stock that had just come in, to managers who hated me because they didn't understand why I wanted them to change the price of common NES games from $20 to a more reasonable $3. Many fights were had, but mostly the visits to thrift stores were filled with either overjoyed scores or empty handed defeats, both of which were all part of the hobby.

One such occasion of being nice to store employees paying dividends I walked in on an assistant manager, whom I often spoke with, trying to get a Nintendo Gamecube to work because the lid wouldn't shut. Fearing the console was doomed to be trashed, I threw out the an offered of $5 (to my recollection), which he accepted. For a product he thought was trash his store was now $5 richer, and for about 15 minutes of work I gained a perfectly good Nintendo Gamecube, complete with power and video connectors.

I was also given steep discounts on items that just sat in the store, or display case, for extended periods of time. Eight NES controllers for 80 cents (total for all 8), SNES games at 25 cents each, a shoe box full of Atari 2600 games for $3, the list goes on and on. Sometimes the employees would even try to hold things back for me, and the manager would always put things out behind their backs. Although their efforts were appreciated I wouldn't want to score things this was, I prefer the thrill of finding the items on the shelves myself.

Salvation Army used to have a bric-a-brac section atop all of their clothes racks, which often yielded goodies such as a Gameboy Color for 59 cents, countless N64 games for 39 cents, among many other things. The perk of frequently going to the same places, regardless of finding anything or not, was that the employees saw me and knew I was in there quite often; even if we didn't build up a personal report they knew who I was. This meant when one Salvation Army store was given someone's nearly entire NES collection, I had a bargaining chip to get the games even cheaper.

The year was 2011 and the selection was vast! Someone had taken very good care of their NES games and I would say nearly all of them had their manuals and were kept exceedingly clean inside black Nintendo game sleeves. I knew I couldn't afford all the games I wanted at the price they were asking, which was only $3, so I went to the manager and asked him for a discount. He recognized me, although we had never spoken before, and after explaining that I usually find games for anywhere from 39 cents to $1 he told me that if I bought more than 10 I could get them for $1 each. SCORE!!

I quickly shoveled about 20 NES games off the shelves and into a cart. Back then I didn't have the ability to quickly and easily verify what games were worth what, nor did I have the ability to readily remember which ones I already had, so I had to go on instinct. Along some enjoyable filler titles like Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye, I picked up Ninja Gaiden 3 with its manual as well as Chip n Dale's Rescue Rangers 2, also with its manual. All for $1 each, in mint condition and with a pristine Nintendo game sleeve.

Another case was at another Salvation Army store, where I saw a box with an N64 and PSone console and various video game things inside without any prices on anything within the box. After asking an employee, she quickly called over the manager, and after a short haggle I ended up getting the box full of video game goodness for $10. This would turn out to be my modded PSone, that I had no clue was modded at the time, as well as give me my copy of Mario Kart 64, which I played the hell out of for the following few months,

However, further interactions with that same manager didn't go as smoothly as this occasion. There was a time I asked him about a bare bones SNES console sitting in the electronics section of the store the was priced at $30, which I thought the price of the week made it 50% off. Without even looking at the price tag he wanted to charge me $50! Needless to say I walked out empty handed, laughing that he had raised the price $20 without even looking at the price right on the item itself.

The moral of the story here is to be friendly and build those connections. Of course you're not going to be the only one using this tactic, but stay persistent and eventually you'll have the edge. Nothing is more important than being kind, courteous, persistent and frequenting those places, being seen buying the things you're after and maybe even without your input employees will start to help you find those things as well.

Monday, February 6, 2017

When Two Become One, and the Leftovers Become Something Else.

Recently I found a rather beaten and worn Nintendo DS. The poor thing looks like it's been through a war, and it may have, but the strange thing is that the hinge is still completely intact. Once I got it home I plugged it in and let it sit for a good, long charge. After it was all good to go I immediately noticed that a few things weren't quite right.

The first thing that was wrong was the touch screen; there was a deep gouge running nearly the complete height of the touch screen, which caused the touch screen to not work properly, nor could I calibrate it. Luckily the only thing affected was the touch screen, the actual display screen was in perfect condition. The top screen looked great, until I noticed 2 black lines that only appeared when the back light was on. I turned the back light off and applied light from the front and the lines simply aren't there. I'm going to assume this is repairable as I'm pretty certain this isn't a fault with the screen itself, rather something between the back light and the screen.

So what am I going to do with this poor thing? I'm going to take the best parts from it and another original DS that I bought years ago (which had a broken hinge) and make a decent, working original DS. After taking them both apart and putting the best of the best within the housing with the good hinge, I finally have a working original DS with a working hinge. By the way, the plastic on the original DS has not aged well. On both consoles I found it to be quite brittle, which is sad and makes me not want to use it out of fear of it breaking, but oh well!

Once everything was said and done I had a pile of leftover parts. What am I going to do with them? Well, years ago an article circulated the internet about someone who converted an original DS into a back lit GBA. That's it! That's what I'll do with the spare parts.

The only real issue here is fitting a resistor beside the Start and Select pads, and making sure there is enough clearance for the whole shell to close up again. The resistor is needed so that the system will allow itself to turn on without the top screen being attached. I was too excited to really take any inner photos or do a tutorial on this, but I may in the future as modding the original DS to be a GBA isn't as well documented as the DS Lite mod. I prefer the original because the GBA games fit flush, unlike the DS Lite where the games hang out slightly.

Mine currently doesn't have speakers, but headphones are just as good. I'll figure out where to mount the speakers and get them all wired up sometime, but for now having a working GBA with a decent, but not great, back lit screen is pretty neat.