Amp on fire! Ilana and Laura Moidel Acevedo Nov 29th 2016

4. February 2017

Show me how you handle your feedback and I will tell you who you are…

John and I had borrowed this multi channel amp for our Nov/Dec stay in Hawaii, for rehearsals and to bring with us to jams. This amp was the biggest, meanest, dirtiest amp I had seen in my life, but it worked fine until this particular day, when were invited home to Ilana and Laura Acevedo to do a session with them (If you wonder why I am writing about a quartet session in a Duo project blog, I refer you to this post ) Today’s post is about the session with Ilana and Laura, and about my own personal struggle with volume levels, which came to a very physical manifestation this November day.

We had just met Laura and Ilana the week before at a jam session in Hilo Town Tavern. Like us, they are a couple who also play together. We hit it off right away. They were interested in joining the ”Duos project”, so we decided to meet the week after and play something with «more space».

A presentation of the two of them:

Ilana started with piano lessons as a child, then switched to drums and percussion, playing in different bands for many years, for instance Afro-Cuban music. She studied art at Antioch College, and she mostly sees herself as a painter and visual artist. She calls music «a beautiful distraction». 3 years ago she started taking lessons to develop her music reading and theory. She was then able to fulfill one of her longtime dreams: playing percussion with the Kamuela Philharmonic orchestra, and the highlight has been performing in several professional musical productions in the Big Island. She came to realize that she needs both visual art («alone,all mine») and music («interacting with others for a group purpose»). Ilana is also the owner of ”The Oasis Cafe” in downtown Hilo, which specializes in mediterranean food.

Laura plays the electric guitar, in addition to several other types of stringed instruments, like cello, sitar and Zarongi. Several of these string instruments she has modified herself, including an 18 string cello. She has eclectical musical interests, she studied for instance both jazz and hindustani music, which she investigates how to combine. She also does digital art, for instance through the online virtual world ”Second Life”, and in connection with that, she recently released the book «The Tale of Fauna Jotundottir: An Illustrated Fairy Tale Book Created In Virtual Reality» She is also a mental health therapist who works with different disadvantaged groups.

November 29th John and I arrived with our huge rental van at their bright blue house just north of Hilo. In the driveway – two white Priuses. Their living room was set up as art and rehearsal studio. They had everything set up ready to go, drum set, guitar and bass amp. We carried our stuff into the studio, me with the huge dirty amp. As usual, my preamp and sound card started humming annoyingly when connected to 120 V US electrical power. I turned on the amp, and started adjusting the volume level. I either got feedback or no sound at all. Half embarrased I told the others to start playing, that I would join in as soon as I was done. So while they started, I turned the amp volume down and started over, tweakin volume on the preamp. (Remember your training “First device in the chain should be set high. Last device should have the volume set low”) Then on the computer. Nothing changed. I turned up on the soundcard. A loud bang. I looked at the others. They kept playing (pretended they didnt hear maybe). Now it was back to no sound. I turned up the amp. Still nothing. I tried to adjust the mic, play the trumpet louder. Sweating. Despite all my efforts only a faint feedback came from the amp. Strange. I was out of ideas so i bent over the computer, checked everything, it looked correct.

I was considering whether or not to restart the software when suddenly the music stopped. Someone shouted “Your amp’s on fire!!!” I looked up. Something smelled of burned rubber and grey smoke was drifting from the amp.”Unplug it!!” I ran over, pulled the plug. We looked at each other, stoked. John was the first one to move, he carried the amp outside, and luckily the fire died out quickly. Laura offered me to connect to her guitar amp instead. After this somewhat shocking start, the rest of the jam developed more normally (although my volume level problems never were totally solved).

In a first «music meeting» like this, exchange is a key word. I show you a little of my music, you show me a little of yours, both parties learn something from each other. Laura taught us some of her tunes. John and I talked a little of how we work with free improv. Then we just jammed. At one point Laura was reciting from her book «Fauna Jotundottir», and the rest of us improvising along with the text. We played for hours, and had a great time, stopping only for having lunch.

However my technical problems was influencing my mood in spite of the nice and friendly meeting. Monitoring and sound balance is something I’ve struggled with on many occasions, and especially this day. The trumpet has a strong direct sound. Combined with electronic effects, creating a good balance between direct sound and speaker sound is a challenge. One of the effects I like to use is controlled feedback. And in this particular session, I was struggling with feedback of the uncontrolled kind. Mostly I could not hear myself in the amp. Turning up, adjusting effects. Still not hearing myself and turning it up some more. Until suddenly there are uncontrolled feedback, and I have to turn it down to start the process over again. In the recording of the session, the trumpet electronics was many times barely audible. The balance was hard to adjust once we started.

So I learnt an important lesson from this session: sound equipment setup takes time, and should be allowed to take time. Actually I learnt this lesson before too, but it is amazing how you forget, especially if you are in a seemingly different situation. Sound equipment problems can emerge in the most surprising ways. There is only one way to counter this. What I should have done was take more time to set up and actually have a sound check before the session started. After the fire I should have checked the sound again. Probably the equipment should have been set up more carefully. I should not have been embarrassed about testing and redoing. When thinking about the majority of sound engineers that I know who are really good at their job, they share one characteristic: They are all very calm, and always taking their time.

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