Keyboardist Wanted

I was talking with Brangien about the move to our not-so-new house and how leaving my old house (somewhat ancient history now that we’re 8 months removed) was surprisingly difficult. I identified with living right in the heart of things—being able to walk most places, live without a car, walk for groceries, and on game days hear the roar of Seahawks stadium from my front porch. All that is good and right about city living surrounded my house on the hill at the NE corner of 18th & E. Marion.  You therefore might think moving a mere 5 minutes by car would be a snap. In retrospect, it likely would have been easier for us to move to New York, or Austin,  or Girdwood. I would have been forced to let go and jump into a new adventure. But this was a lateral Seattle move and I had over-identified with the house and ‘hood I had so carefully chosen 11 years earlier.

The new house is quiet. No roar from the Hawks Nest on game day. I’m less apt to walk to get groceries or coffee, but spend more time walking along Lake Washington. I drive more. Lucky for me, places can change people. After an adjustment period, I now love it. Which led me to tell Brangien about my first band, which I joined when I moved back to Seattle from Anchorage in the early 90s. I moved here with the simple goal of playing in a rock & roll band. I answered an ad for “keyboardist wanted” in the classifieds of the Seattle music rag The Rocket. The ad read something like, “original R&R band looking for keyboardist …” That was an exciting ad to read for a keyboardist fresh off the plane from Alaska. The overwhelming majority of ads were for guitarists, drummers, bassists, singers … anything but keyboardists. I got my nerve up and called the number (this was pre-internet) and quickly learned that the lead singer and guitarist were not only  recent Anchorage transplants (hadn’t I just escaped its icy claw?) but that there was a typo in the Rocket ad. It was meant to read “R&B band”. Damnit! I had my heart set on being in a rock band. It was the early 90s in Seattle (do the math). But there I was talking to Sid, who said, “rehearsal is this Thursday in Renton at our condo community center.” I arrived with my keyboard and amp and my previously unimagined Seattle musical adventures began. That typo sent me on a path that I hadn’t considered. I learned to play in a style that stretched my abilities. I wasn’t great, but I was good enough and I what I learned changed how I played. In future bands I was able to sprinkle my playing with a bit of soul—the result of an R intended as a B.

So, does the musician make the band or the band make the musician? Or for that matter, does the employee make the company or the company, the employee? Do I reside in the new ‘hood, or it in me? For me the answer is simple: if presented with a typo, take it.

The science of silence

I’ve “soundproofed” three rooms since I’ve lived in Seattle. I use quotes because nothing is really ever proofed. Some amount of sound always escapes, so it becomes a question of how far you’re willing to go to bring down the sound levels outside of a room. In the case of our new house, I’ve gone pretty far down the rabbit hole with two primary goals:

1) to make sitting upstairs enjoyable for Brangien when I’m making loud drum, keyboard or guitar noise in the basement

2) not piss off the neighbors

I’m actually confident that #2 will be achieved. In my last house on Capitol Hill I built a rehearsal space that allowed Maktub and other bands to rehearse at full volume. My closest neighbor told me she could hear the kick drum in her living room (about 15 feet from the back studio wall), but not enough to bother her. Someone walking by the side street could hear the muffled sound of a band rehearsing at a low volume as it bounced off the brick wall of Immaculate Conception church. Again, never a complaint … but some amount of sound always finds it’s way out of the sound maze you try to construct as a barrier. In particular, bass guitar and kick drum frequencies are hard to contain. People with subwoofers in the trunk of their car (note: I was once one of those people) don’t realize how loud the boom is a block away. Same goes for subwoofers in home or movie theaters when you hear the intestinal bass tones from the blockbuster next door.

As for #1, I’m not so sure. In my last studio, a person sitting upstairs would hear just about everything downstairs. It wouldn’t be as deafening as the actual studio, but it was not possible to quietly read a book or even consider napping while rehearsal was going on downstairs. A person upstairs was pretty much in attendance by proxy for rehearsals downstairs.

I’m not an expert of any sort but I do have real world experience building, and therefore living with, a studio of my own design for a few years. This has reinforced my understanding of the weakest link concept: soundproofing is only as good as it’s weakest barrier. For example, with the last studio I went to the trouble of insulating, decoupling sheetrock with Z channel, caulking, etc … but there was a big air vent in the studio wall. Sound entered the vent, went up the heating ducts and back out through the vents upstairs. Not good!

Which brings me to the science-ish part. There are two concepts that come up when soundproofing: mass and decoupling. Mass (e.g. a thick cement wall) is required to dissipate sound and there’s no cheating the mass math required to reduce, say, a bass guitar or kick drum. However, decoupling is often overlooked by people like me building studios in their home. Here’s a common progression for sound nerds: band rehearses in garage and it sounds “harsh” so you cover the walls with egg cartons. That seems to soundproof things, but your neighbor complains and you realize that does nothing for containing the sound, it just deadens things inside the room. So you add some mass by insulating and maybe hanging sheetrock. That definitely helps but it doesn’t matter how thick you make the walls, a lot of sound still escapes (particularly bass and kick drum). Next you hear about “decoupling” and you get fancy enough to hang sheetrock on Z channel. That helps some, but the vibrations are still reaching the wall studs and that transfers into the rest of the house turning it into a speaker for those vibrations. If you dig a little deeper you start to understand the science and art of decoupling and mass.

Here’s what I did to reduce sound in my previous rehearsal space:

  • caulked all the gaps in the ceiling and wall framing
  • insulated every wall and ceiling cavity with standard R19 insulation
  • installed Z channel (aka resilient channel) between the framing studs and joists, and the ceiling and wall sheetrock in an attempt to decouple the vibration between sheetrock and the rest of the house
  • installed double-pane tempered glass windows with laminated exterior glass
  • installed sealed storm windows in addition to the double-paned glass
  • installed an exterior grade sliding studio door with a tight seal around the perimeter of the door

What I learned from living with that rehearsal room for 7 years:

  • soundproofing is only as good as the weakest links (in this case: big air vent & Z channel)
  • Z channel is good in concept, but is almost always short-circuited by sheetrock screws during installation (even when pros install it) and it passes along vibrations
  • adding a third pane of glass to the window bays resulted in an amazing decrease in sound levels outside the house (an air chamber separated by a window or door is probably the most awesome sound reduction tool)
  • all-in-all this room worked well for my needs—upstairs in the house the sound of a band rehearsing was loud, but outside the house it was low enough in volume to keep the neighbors happy

In the new house I decided to pull out most the stops and spend the time and money necessary to truly decouple the basement studio from the upstairs. I asked Seattle Sound & Vibration for help in designing and choosing all the sound reduction materials and enlisted the studio construction talent of Brouwer Contracting.

Here’s what I’m doing to reduce sound in the basement studio of our current house:

  • installed double-pane tempered glass windows with laminated exterior glass (if required, I’ll add a third pane)
  • floated the one framed wall in the basement on compressed fiberglass with rubber bushings between the lag bolts and framing
  • installed a spring-suspended ceiling with one layer of 5/8″ plywood followed by two layers of 5/8″ sheetrock
  • used isomax clips for areas where springs weren’t possible
  • sealed the 1/2″ gap around the ceiling membrane with sound foam and acoustic caulking
  • installed 3 heating duct silencers (with rubber clamps) on each air duct run to reduce sound as it enters the air system
  • installed 5 exterior grade solid-core doors with full sound sweeps for all the basement closet doors and an exterior grade solid-core door at the top of the steps and one double-paned exterior grade window door at the base of the stairs
  • installed three layers of sheetrock (2 on the front, 1 inside the closets) on the single framed wall in the room
  • caulked every gap in the door frames
  • packed fire-proof putty in all the gaps and holes of the light switches in the wall to prevent sound leaks
  • installed sconce lighting instead of ceiling cans, to prevent unnecessary holes in the ceiling membrane

I won’t know how well this works for about another week. Mudding and taping is occurring as I type and we’ve still got to do the final caulking seals around the perimeter of the wall, ceiling and windows. Once that’s all done I’ll close the airtight doors, crank up a guitar amp for starters and see how it works.

Before we started this project Brangien and I could have a conversation without raising our voices while she was upstairs and I was below her in the basement. Since the ceiling, walls and doors have gone in we can’t hear the radio downstairs but we can still yell and hear each other. Keeping with the weakest link theory, I have faith that the final seal around the ceiling, windows and doors will reduce the sound even more.

Before:

Cleared the closets and clutter, moved the heating ducts to the crawlspace, sandblasted the floor and walls, acid etched the floor, installed new gas furnace:

Installed three silencers (connected with rubber clamps) in series for each of the two air duct runs:

Framed the walls with walmatt and anchor isolator rubber bushings:

Used rubber isolated ceiling springs and metal channel to hang 3 layer ceiling:

Three layer ceiling consists of 5/8″ plywood and two layers of 5/8″ sheetrock:

Isomax clips for attaching ceiling to furred out section under fireplace:

I’ll add more pictures and report back on how the sound levels behave directly upstairs and outside the house. A couple other nerd things to mention:

I’ll likely add Indow Windows to the inside of the window frames if the outside noise level is too high. In my last studio I was amazed at how much an extra chamber of air reduced sound. The two exterior grade doors (which just means they’re solid-core and thicker than interior doors) with sound sweeps reduce sound traveling up the stairs, and the large air space (in this case the length of the staircase) between the lower door and the upper door helps to reduce noise levels. That air space is where a lot of the sound dies out.

One other great advantage I have to soundproofing this room is that the basement is underground and surrounded by cement walls. Basically, it’s a bunker. Concrete and earth = mass. So I’m focusing my efforts on the suspended ceiling, floating wall, doors and windows. The bunker should take care of the rest of the sound escape routes on its own.

C-SleepyO

I fall asleep at inopportune times. I was hoping a self-diagnosis of narcolepsy was in order, but reading about it makes it clear that what I have isn’t that severe. It’s more like I get uncontrollably sleepy at theaters or in slow meetings. Pretty much 80% of the time I go to a movie, a play or other dark room event I end up falling asleep. I can’t control it. Now that I’m married, Brangien gets to watch me (as happened 2 nights ago) fall asleep in the front row of a friend’s one-person play. David, if you’re reading this I really enjoyed your play … even though I took a series of naps while you were undoubtedly looking at me in the front row.  I nod off at the majority of movies I attend even though I love movies. I once slept through most of Terminator 2.  I have a particularly hard time around the hours of 1pm-3pm and 6pm-11pm. I have twice fallen asleep while a lawyer was talking to me about contracts that very much involved my best interests. I truly can’t control the sleep. It feels like a chemical molasses suddenly entering my veins and there’s no fighting it off no matter how hard I try.

I bring all this up because people notice me sleeping at events and I wanted to throw up a post to say publicly that it’s not a comment on your play, or your musical performance. If I have to sit down and watch a performance, there’s a good chance I’ll take a nap no matter how awesome the show.

Brangien’s uncle Mac graciously described me as “binary” as I fell asleep while he was talking to me in his car. My brother Greg calls me C-3PO based on the scene in Star Wars where Obi-Wan first takes Luke and the droids back to his hideout and C-3PO says, “Sir, if you’ll not be needing me, I’ll close down for awhile”, and then proceeds to instantly power down.

I wish there were a name for this thing as it’s plagued me forever. For now, call me …

Fast forward five months …

I realized the last few weeks that we’ll never be DONE done with the house, so here’s a before/after picture of the kitchen (June 2010 on the left, this morning on the right). Still waiting on the under-counter lights, the crown moulding and a few other details but we’re close to wrapping up the kitchen remodel. In sticking with our budget, we reused most of the old kitchen, including the existing appliances from the early 90s, and focused on finishes: new counters, new cabinet fronts from Kerf, new oak floors to match the rest of the house and a new stainless steel sink and faucet. In the end, we decided to replace the dishwasher and microwave. We’re still tweaking some of the cabinets to open up the wall of doors ‘n drawers and allow easy access to cutting boards and cook books.

In the entire house remodel we removed 3 doors and 2 sections of walls. We subtracted a fair amount of the crap that had been added since 1939 and really only added a master shower (after removing the existing rotted shower and spooky soaking tub). The wall and swinging door between the kitchen and dining room was easy to pull out and resulted in spacial awesomeness.

At the beginning of this remodel there was talk of meticulous documentation of the before/after progress and all the materials and design decisions along the way. Oops. I did take a lot of pictures, but they’re not a perfect before/after flip book. And I’m not this good at documenting material and design choices (nice work Mike). However, these photos are more-or-less in chronological order and give some perspective about how far we’ve come.

The Imposters

Brangien and I have been married about 4 weeks. So far, so great! Yesterday we went to get gym passes together at Seattle U where I get a discounted alumni rate which extends to a spouse. It was exciting to realize our first marital financial gain having just lived through the expense of a wedding and honeymoon. I pulled the paperwork together and filled it out the night before, arranged to pick up Brangien from her busy work week (it’s ship week) and headed to Connolly Center to have our pictures taken and write the check … which is where things got interesting. The girl helping us register asked if we had any proof that we live together. We were a bit stunned. I mean she was polite about it, but being 41 and recent singles we thought it was so obvious. Just look at us. We’re here together at the same time! So, I said something like “we’ve got wedding bands (we quickly flashed the bling) and we’re recently married”. Then we nervously hugged and kissed to prove the point. Crickets.

The girl asked if we had a bill or piece of mail that proved we lived at the same address. Some people, she explained, will bring in a love interest or friend and pose as live-ins or married people just to get the alumni membership (it’s a good deal). Suddenly, at a gym, we were on the defensive and feeling pretty much how you’d imagine two long-time singles, married at 41 might feel. Like imposters! Afterall, we still have separate houses, separate mail addresses, separate bank accounts and separate last names. This must be how terrorists feel when they make it through customs and airport security only to get turned in by the U-Haul clerk who, while renting the truck, catches a suspicious vibe. Ever vigilant.

We left the gym without passes, but did convince the much younger girl that we were indeed married, although in debriefing on our way out we both wondered about her intuition. Did she sense the separate houses, accounts, addresses, last names? I hurriedly dropped Brangien back at work, drove home and back to the gym with our marriage license to prove our point. The girl was very accommodating, had even preemptively made our membership cards, but still asked to make a photocopy of the marriage license (just in case). I suppose we’ll increasingly feel more “married” and I’ll develop some tone of voice that communicates to gym and U-Haul staff that we’re husband and wife, not imposters (or worse).

It would be misleading to leave the story there. We really are living together and married. Today I’m opening a joint account and we’re doing a lot of accommodating which I’m finding to be one of the joys of this first part of marriage. I’m now the proud part-owner of a cat. Brangien’s artwork is slowly filling our walls. We’re remodeling our North house a bit and thinking about changes to our Central house and where we’ll end up. For now (maybe forever?) the last names will remain separate, but that’s about it.

A picture from my walk two days ago: Mushroommates.

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Dan the tan man in the van

eurovan

I’ve owned more vans than any other vehicle type:  three vans in my Seattle years, used mostly for moving musical gear around (I used to transport a Hammond B3, Fender Rhodes and various synthesizers and speaker cabs). I’ve toured a lot in all these vans. But even back in high school people used to call me “Dan the tan man in the van” after I returned to Anchorage from our annual family trip to Maui. I drove my parent’s Dodge van at the time. Toward the end of high school my dad bought the first generation Chrylser mini van. Daniel the vaniel-holic.

Fast forward to 2009 and I find myself working out of my 2003 VW Eurovan, using a small coffe cup power inverter, my laptop and an AT&T mobile internet dongle. Between the Olmstead Parks, Lake Union and a few other favorite spots I’ve stumbled upon an ideal work scenario. I’m able to meet with people and retreat immediately to a working office and living space that I enjoy. I’ve held a few one-on-one meetings in the van and people love it. Work on wheels.

One unexpected nomadic work observation: it’s hard to find free wireless in Seattle. Unless I’m missing all the known spots, coffee house wireless is unreliable or exceptionally slow. A few times I’ve lucked into a nice coffee shop session, but for the most part I haven’t found it to be a reliable way to work online. Between slow or flaky wireless (some places boot you after 30 minutes), unpredictable patrons, interruptions and milking a drink for wireless I decided to take the show on the road. I figured that in a mobile van office it would be easy to find a few go-to places in town where I could jump on an open network. I spent days driving around to parks or areas of town I like and in most cases I found TONS of networks, but all were mostly locked down. Those that weren’t usually had a weak signal or somehow didn’t work. What ever happened to the “future”!

This is a long way of saying I suggest nomadic nerds make the $60/mo investment in mobile wireless from one of the big carries. Not super zippy, but it’s reliable and allows you to go most anywhere in town. We’ll see how well this works when the winter months roll around, but I like touring in the van at the moment. If things work out I can extend my given title to Dan the tan man with a plan or some such thing.

Spare change

Never do I recall having as much change in such a short period of time. I’m getting married, looking for  new work, selling a house, moving into a house and helping out with a couple albums. Oh, and I just changed my blog! Change to spare.

This amp goes to Verellen


I can’t write a review about my new Verellen AC30-style guitar amplifier (spoiler alert: it is AWESOME!) without talking a bit about Ben Verellen. I first met Ben at his home/workspace in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. He was running off to class at UW where he’s finishing a degree in electrical engineering. But before he hit the books, we spent a good deal of time communing on the perfect amp that he would build for me. It was one of those rare meetings where I knew this fellow musician / ampsmith / future electrical engineer thought just like I did about everything that makes a tube guitar amp a modern wonder of vintage science.

The amp I commissioned from Ben is as simple as the best amps get. It does one range of sound but it does that sound very, very well.

Amp Specs

  • 40 watt
  • volume knob
  • on/off switch
  • standby switch
  • low, mid, high EQ
  • 2 Celestion Vintage 30 G12 (8 ohm) speakers

IMG_0742The volume knob is the key  feature of the Verellen amp. With my Telecaster in single-coil bridge position I get a gorgeous full clean tone around 25% volume, warm growl when I’m digging in to the strings at 50% volume, nice chunky classic rock at 75% volume and full-on sustainable single notes at 100% volume with just enough feedback to please but not enough to crash the party. Switching pickup positions and guitars does pretty much what you’d expect – it makes every guitar sound it’s best and reveals it’s most unique tonal qualities. This is an all tube amp, built entirely from the ground up. It has many of the qualities of the classic Vox AC30 but with it’s own signature Verellenian sound. It’s simple, solid, aesthetically pleasing … and it’s completely awesome.

If I were a professional amp reviewer (spoiler alert #2: I’m not) I’d get into the detailed minutiae of gain structures, EQ charts and exactly how this thing works. Instead I’ll try to get at why I love this amp through a story from my past.

The Brown Amp
When I was growing up in Anchorage, Alaska in the 1980s my mom and dad returned from a trip to the exotic land of Los Angeles, California with a 1976 Fender Lead II—my first guitar! A friend gave me their throw-away amp head and I somehow drummed up a free 2×12 cab. The amp was a 70s Fender Bassman head. I knew nothing about guitars or amps so I quickly tore off the tattered silver grill cloth and painted the amp head and speaker cab with the only paint we had in the garage: exterior brown house paint from our very own split level home.

The only sound I knew was that 70s Bassman amp through a 2×12 cabinet with a Fender guitar, more often than not with amp and guitar volumes dialed to ten. It was a pure and awesome sound. With little knowledge of how an electric guitar or amp should sound, I naively assumed that all guitars and amps sounded this great. The  amazingly warm, rounded distortion and growl this amp and guitar produced set me on a lifelong path of tinkering with guitars and amps.
IMG_0748Fast forward to 2008. My new Verellen amp is easily that good and, coincidentally, it’s stained brown walnut. It does what I learned at an early age an amp should do: one sound, but one sound very well. The brown amp is back,  but this time designed and hand-built by ampsmith Ben Verellen of Seattle, Washington. No need to turn it to eleven, this amp already goes to Verellen.

Contact info

Verellen Amplifiers website

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A few more pics

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99-ish Fender strat w/ bondo

I try to pay less than $200 for cheap guitars, but this one was around $220 because it’s a proper American made Fender Stratocaster w/ a fancy pickup and hardware. I think it would retail used for about $700? But this looks like a shop project for the last owner. It appears s/he tried to sand off the finish, got into trouble when they started gouging the wood and then applied some bondo to build it back up. The net result is a fugly guitar with bondo, but in great working condition. Sounds great, though.

I kind of like the messed up bondo job so I’m leaving it as is. I believe it’s of the late 90s or early 00s. Anyone know how to tell?