Sunday, December 22, 2019

Idle in Iowa

This is my 4th trip through Iowa in the past 6 months or so, and my second time in Des Moines.  This time I was here for 3 nights and had some downtime.  I checked and while I had perused vinyl in Iowa before, it was a long time ago and not very thorough.  So I knew I'd make time to find something else on this trip.  I started with Marv's.

Marv's unfortunately had about 95% of their inventory as new, sealed vinyl.  Not my bag at all, largely because I don't like that many contemporary artists and I don't want to pay $15-20 for every record.  They did have a small amount of used stuff, but much of it was valuable and priced accordingly.  One of the guys in there gave me a flyer for another shop called 'Vinyl Cup Records' not far away and recommended them, but unfortunately they are only open in the evening so I knew I wouldn't be going.

I ran across a St. V's and swerved to check it out.  Looks like it's been over a year since I checked one out, and that was in Idaho! This is also the 30th time I've documented a visit, I'd guess at least 20 of those posts were for unique locations so nice to hit a good even number.  Not quite as nice to have junk records, but they were all in such good shape that I could just read the spines really quickly and disqualify them as anything I'd be bringing home.

I had great disappointment that I wasted time going to Marv's when Red Rooster was not only closer but clearly was going to be a proper record store where I would actually have something to dig.  I called a little after noon and got no answer, I called again a bit later to make sure they were open and indeed they were.  So I ran out to get a bite to eat and then headed over.  Parking in the area is slim, you can't park on Euclid but I spied a sign showing there was parking out back.  It was a little tight in a big truck but I made it work.  Conveniently there is even a back door so you don't have to walk around front.

The shop keeper was busy going through some vinyl when I walked in, but no other customers were currently in the shop.  I instinctively said 'hey how are you' or something casual of that nature.  He said 'good' but nothing else.  That felt a little terse but I tried to brush it off.  Unfortunately it got worse from there.

I wandered around for a bit as I always do, getting the lay of the land but could not locate the jazz section (if there was one).  He asked what I was looking for and I said 'jazz'.  He replied that he would have to clear that section off, apparently it is sufficiently unpopular so as to cover it with stacks of other random records and even some shopping bags and other stuff.  An awkward moment transpired when I had to ask him to repeat himself as I genuinely did not understand what he said.  I felt like he seemed put out that he had to do this and again my spidey sense was screaming but I brushed it off and thought maybe I'm misunderstanding things.  Turns out if you get this feeling twice in a few minutes, it is probably genuine.  I looked through the new releases in the meantime but didn't find anything.  

Once the jazz records were open, I got up in there.  It is a tight area and the bins were pretty packed, so it was hard to see what I was looking at without bending the jackets to peer down inside.  Luckily, every record is labeled in the upper right hand corner with the artist name and some other notes.  The bins in the back were very hard to see even with the labels, as they were so recessed and so packed with records.

But before long, I found a handful of good vinyl.  I have all the Pat Metheny group albums (plus some on CD and tape) but the only solo album I have is his debut.  Lately I had been streaming New Chautauqua and thought of all the times I came across a copy and let it go.  I was hoping I'd find one and promised myself I'd scoop if it I did.  My wish was granted and for only $6!  Next I found a 5000 series release by Lalo Schifrin I didn't know existed.  It was a few bucks more than I wanted to pay but I was going to grab it anyway.  That was until a few moments later (Apparently the 'S' bin was a lucky one for me) that I found the Shadowfax album just after the one I already own and love.  This was half the price of the Lalo album, so I did a catch and release on that.

At this point I was really satisfied that I came out of there with two good records and prices I definitely liked.  And I had yet to look at the tapes and CDs!  I quickly found a great Jeff Beck album on tape (mint condition, looks like) for $2 and I can't wait to put it on when I get home.  Shortly after that I specifically went on a hunt for PMB CDs (strictly for my truck) and was delighted to find one.  What a score!  But here is where things between me and the gentleman in the store really reached a head.

When I was looking at the tapes I saw a nice stash of 80s and 90s metal bootlegs.  There were a bunch of Slayer live recordings, some of them from the mid 80s.  I must admit, I was almost enticed to grab one.  In an effort to patch things up with this guy who I did not know, but who clearly didn't seem to like me, I said aloud "You've got a nice selection of metal bootlegs over here".

No response.  For the third time, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and thought 'he didn't hear me', though not speaking loud enough isn't something I've ever dealt with in my life.  At this point I was satisfied with my pile of music so I went up to the cluttered counter to check out.  After considering it for a moment, I decided to repeat myself.  Bear in mind, at this point we are about 18" apart.  He actually kind of shrugged his shoulders and said 'So?'.  I didn't even know what to make of this.  I replied 'I didn't mean it in a critical way, just trying to make conversation'.  There was yet another awkward silence so I added 'Did I rub you the wrong way or something?' and he just said 'not at all'.  

At that point I considered just walking out.  I can get the records elsewhere, don't really need them and it would please me NOT to give money to a person who clearly is independently wealthy (or more likely, prideful) enough to shoo customers out of his tiny store with a bad attitude.  Not only was this probably the most awkward situation I've ever had in a record store, but also maybe the most awkward situation in any retail scenario, ever.  This blog is filled with numerous stories or having great discussions about music and life in record stores, so I don't know what this person's problem is. Was he sensitive to the fact that he was selling media of a questionable legality? That was NOT my point. Not a bad place, but not worth that kind of response.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Building my dream system (system #2, DJ setup)

I have been messing with different mixers for a long time now.  I got my system with a very simple Numark.  I recently came across these very early photos of my system back in 2011.

This may be the earliest photo of my system.  That blue cable is a very long (30'?) RCA cable I bought for a different purpose earlier (I still have it, though it is not currently in use).  You can also see I am using a really basic folding table (which I also still have, also not currently in use).

I got the flight case on craigslist, I want to say I paid $50 at the most which was a steal.  I took this photo at the gas station where I made the transaction.

Only a couple days after I got this rig home I made this faceplate to hold the mixer.  It was a really heavy piece of plied wood panel, very heavy.  Notice I used to take the cover of the flight case off totally when I'd use the system.  And again I am using my very old 1st gen iPod.  I replaced the battery in that thing then eventually the CPU crapped out and I had to dump it.  RIP.

At the time, I was not clear that the center compartment of my flight case was designed to hold 19" rackmount gear.  Even if I had, there are few DJ mixers available that fit that footprint.  I even messed with some very simple Realistic mixers for a while.  I eventually decided on a Numark M4.  I decided that I could get an 8U blank panel and cut out an opening with an angle grinder.

I was able to cut the blank panel with some difficulty and got it fairly straight.  I didn't account for some tiny screws on the sides of the mixer so those had to be temporarily removed to get the mixer through the opening.  I taped it off to give myself clear lines to see where to cut.

But the mixer was sold as 'not working'.  So I spent $6.99 on an AC adapter as well and took it apart to try and figure out what was wrong.  I did check the voltage regulators at the inputs and a couple of them seemed to be off.

Eventually I got frustrated and just returned the mixer for a refund.  I ate the cost of the AC adapter but I did keep the blank panel in case one day I try one of these mixers again.  Finally, I stepped my game up and after waiting for a long while, got a Beringer VMX1000USB.  I got it from Amazon Warehouse as a returned item and only paid $110 (at the time of this writing, new units are still over $200) so I got a steal.

There are zero imperfections however, on any side of the unit.  It is mint condition.  But from day one the sound wasn't great.  I first thought it was my stylus so I replaced them.  Didn't help.  So then I went all out and got entirely new headshells.  This didn't help either.  I had been using the #2 output from the mixer as the #1 was XLR.  But I got desperate and tracked down some XLR to RCA cables from a Guitar Center.

At first it seemed like this fixed the problem but now I am not sure.  I am beginning to wonder if someone returned this because they hooked up a line level device to the phono input and damaged them.  So I am still trying to figure this out.

In the meantime I started looking at the extra space in my 'rack'.  I started brainstorming on what type of devices I might be able to add.  I am limited in what is useful but also because the depth is not very great.  So the first thing I got was a rack mount surge protector.  I got this for nothing on ebay, used and pulled from a working studio.

This worked out great.  Mounted well and consolidated some of the countless wires I have running in and out of the flight case, plus I only paid $12.50.  I did have to make a couple modifications.  The turntable plugs are pretty low profile as they do not have a ground pin.  The mixer however had trouble fitting due to the depth issue as it has a pretty large stress boot.  So I chopped it off and installed a right angle plug (I actually stole this from my AC it is November I won't be needing it anytime soon).  But planning for the next unit I have on order (details below), I knew I needed to be able to accommodate a DC power brick.  I was worried that gravity would start to pull it out of its socket because it will be upside down.  Well I have these short little cables for dealing with this exact problem but once again, the damn stress boot would be in the way.  So I cut it off and installed a very slim and low profile lamp plug on the end (as this will be carrying less than 1A).

And as discussed, the last unit is a VU meter.  Why do I need this? I don't - just because it looks pretty! Got this used for $70 w/ shipping.

Last but not least, I got two 1U blanks (from the same guy that sold me the 8U months ago!) to fill up the remaining spaces.  I could have got a 2U blank, but my spaces are separated.  I can't put my mixer any further up because it stresses the wires (I modified the flight case long ago with a hole saw to make an opening for all the cabling).  I could move it down and leave both empty spaces up top but I thought it would look cool to split them up.

Looks beautiful, right? And this should be the end of the post because by my standards, that photo above certainly looks like my definition of a 'dream system'. But that is not the end! Because the phono inputs on this thing sound like trash! I could expound upon that but why bother when I have already publicly sullied Behringer's good name - see below....

i really needed to upgrade my mixer to something with more inputs. individual track and master VU meters also would be a plus so i narrowed it down to a few models and this was one. i made a major mistake by investing in this unit, and only wish i could rewind the clock and make a different decision. not just because of the money i flushed down the toilet but also the immense amount of time i spent giving this unit the benefit of the doubt and trying to attribute the issues i was having to other components in my signal chain. 
i am not a gigging DJ and have not spun in public in years. i have two numark TT1625s with my mixer hooked up to a kenwood reciever and some insignia speakers. i have fun making vinyl mixes for myself and perhaps once in a great while someone else. i also have a yamaha casette deck and an MPC 1000 and i really wanted to be able to connect everything to the mixer instead of some components to the receiver. so i needed at least 4 inputs and at least 3 outputs (one main, one to the yamaha and one to the MPC). i loved the look of this unit and also the VU meters which i already mentioned and i thought beringer was a reuptable brand (never owned any of their gear before though) but it was a little outside my budget. so i waited until a unit came up on amazon warehouse and i found one for about $110. 
now before i go any further let me address the possibility that the problems ive had (which i will describe below) can be attributed to the fact that it was a returned item, and that the previous owner somehow misused/abused the unit. the type of problems i have had i do not believe can be attributed to that but ill let you be the judge.
so i noticed right away that the sound was kind of muddy and tinny and occasionally a little distorted. i never noticed this before, and it was both turntables. but there was no way my shiny new mixer could be the culprit! it had been a while since i replaced my stylus(s) and they do see considerable use. so i got new ones - no help. 
now i got really dramatic and replaced the headshells entirely. I spent $70/ea on two numark CC-1s so I didnt break the bank. Guess what - sounded just as bad.
I tried different inputs on my reciever - no dice. then I went and got some XLR to 1/4" so I could use the main outputs. nope - sounded just as bad. I have to stress that the bad quality was still subtle - it wasnt a glaring issue and sometimes you wouldnt notice so much. but it was always there. i do have a third phono input on channel 3 which i was using as a line level for the MPC. i moved one of the TTs to channel 3 - sounded identically bad.
and now for the other issues:
1) crosstalk. it did not happen for months (though granted in this condition i did not use the system much) but i often get the meters to move on unused channels with the gain and fader at 0. you cant hear it but obviously this is not normal
2) crossfader selector switches. there is some kind of issue with the selectors where they wont work, then they will reverse from what they should be doing, and a power cycle is the only thing to fix it. this is obviously a logic/circuit board issue.
finally i did the most simple test of all and got an RCA extension cable and connected one of the TTs to the reciever directly via the unused phono input - sounded fine.
so now i guess i will try to sell this thing on ebay as a non working unit to be stripped for parts. i called a beringer licensed repair center and after a few emails they told me it 'wasnt worth it' to put any money into it. i could blame them for that but i have to think they are aware of the build quality.
i would definately think twice before buying this piece of junk
So my hunt continued.  But there slim pickings when it comes to rack mountable DJ mixers.  One that came up again and again (and one which I almost purchased instead of the Behringer) is the Numark CM200.  So I started looking until I found one on ebay for about $100 - brand new - with free shipping! I actually had to send the seller an email and confirm what I was puchasing but they assured me it was good to go. So a short time later it arrived, they actually used the original box as the shipping container.  So it was pretty beat up but the foam inside kept the mixer from sustaining any harm.

I set it up and I must admit, this one sounds fairly poor as well.  By extremely manipulating the EQ, I can get it to almost an 'acceptable' level.  Also this is a smaller unit so I had to buy another 1U blank.  And as I type this on a Sunday morning, I am listening to Jimmy Smith and it sounds pretty....OK (you didn't think I'd say 'good', did you?).

So here we are - my 'dream' system, with all its flaws, it will have to do for now...

Saturday, December 14, 2019

New (more) speakers!

So after I painstakingly put together my new stereo system, I say back and enjoyed the fruits of my labor (and bank account).  Day after day, I am astonished that finally at the age of 42 I have a system with fidelity as good as this.  But my work is never done! My reciever has two sets of speaker outputs and alas I was only using one.  Not good enough! So I copped the above set after some ebay-ing and they are great! I do have to turn the mids down to -2 (I keep it flat at 0 with my larger Marantz speakers).  I don't have enough room to set them up in a way that I can use both sets of speakers at the same time.  As it stands right now if I did that, I'd have the stereo image all muddied by not being able to keep the speakers alighned properly with one another.  So I basically use the larger Marantz set if I am sitting on my loveseat (and want the full fidelity experience, and want to crank it up a little bit).  If I am laying on my couch, I use the Technics, usually when I am listening to the FM radio.

But of course I like to tinker and build things, so the TV tray tables I had them on was not acceptable.

So using the design from my MPC stand, I decided to put together a small set of stands for these small speakers.  As usual, 2x6 and 4x4 were the available lumber sizes at hand.  After a day or two of brainstorming, I came up with a variation on the design from my MPC stand using a couple different angles on the feet, and a different mounting method.

After a few hours of assembly, and cutting and recutting some of the pieces as my whims changed, I had my speaker stands! The top is taken from a wooden crate that came in from overseas.  I used a single (long) nail to mount it so that I could rotate it as needed when I got them home.  I cut the flat section 1.5" wider in both directions than the speakers themselves.  The 4x4s I have are all 40" long, so I just cut one in half to get two at 20".  This is a bit shorter than what I'd prefer but there is something about the economy of material use that appeals to me (I do have more 4x4s).

Next up was paint.  I decided to try to do something interesting with the feet to accentuate the different angles.  All the paint I used is old and salvaged from other projects.  Though to be honest, I do not remember what the baby blue was from.

I have never done so much taping on a project before, and that was a bit tedious but I was determined to carry through with the plan I had in my tiny brain.

Finally after a long weekend I took my babies home.  I painted them on a Friday night but had to travel over the weekend and into the next week so they didn't get taken home as quickly as I would have liked.  Which is just as well since the black paint is actually exterior paint so it needs longer to dry so you don't die from breathing in the toxic fumes.  I should have done the baby blue on two surfaces instead of one to better create a 3D experience I think, but you live and learn.  Transporting them was a bit interesting because of the way I Kreg'd the feet on.  Looking back I should have done it differently, it is too difficult to explain but it could have been more robust.  But considering the work they are now doing, it is irrelevant.  But suffice to say, they needed to be transported upright and luckily I had a way to do so, and they weren't too tall.   I was (and am) so pleased with these little speakers that I had to send the seller a quick message to thank him and inquire on the lifetime of these little guys.

So my dream system just got a little more dreamy! It is great to have options on how to listen depending on my mood and my needs at the moment.