Sunday, June 24, 2012

aLaska Fingerpicks & Glass Slides

In March I ordered some fingerpicks to try to improve the clarity of my fingerpicking (since my nails were rather short), and a glass slide.  Specifically, I ordered the aLaska fingerpicks (a mixture of their medium and large for my fingers), and a Dunlop 215 glass slide (20mm inside radius, 69mm length, "Heavy Wall").  I ordered the picks from Eagle Music Shop in the UK, since my local shops didn't have any at the time (currently, however, Hieber-Lindberg stocks some, for anyone living in the Munich area).  As such, I can't really comment on the price, since the exchange rate has fluctuated, and I had to pay shipping.  The slide I had ordered off Thomann for about 5,90€.


To start this review off, I need to mention that I had a stainless steel slide that I bought in Canada at Bud's Music.  As it came with no packaging, I'm not sure what the specifications are, or even what company it was from.  In any case, slides are the sort of thing you need to try on to find the right fit for your hand.  Also, you should decide what finger you'll use it on in advance.  My slide can fit on either my ring finger or my pinky, though the best fit is on my ring finger.  This was intentional (and prompted by Davy Knowles' slide playing).  It allows me to keep my last joint on my ring finger free, giving me a bit of freedom for moving the slide, and keeping it out of the way of my chords.  I'm by no means a slide player, I just tend to dabble.  As such, all my observations on sound are compared directly to the steel slide, in an attempt to reduce the impact of my poor playing on this review.

The steel slide gives you a very tinny, metal-like sound (obviously) when playing.  I think it would be a very pleasing sound when played on a resonator, due to the inherent metal-like sound from those types of guitars.  However, on my jumbo or electric, I couldn't quite warm up to the sound.  The glass slide, however, offers a much warmer sound (to me, at least).  I actually find that the mixture of steel strings/glass slide tends to offer a better approximation of vocal melody than the steel string/steel slide mixture.  For anyone curious for a sound sample, try giving either Derek Trucks a shot (for an SG electric coupled with a glass slide), or Davy Knowles' performance of As The Crow Flies by Rory Gallagher.  Davy has played the song on a PRS acoustic for the Salute Beer Festival, as well as a National Triolian Resonator for the Rory Gallagher Tribute (using the same slide, as far as I can tell).  Definitely something to listen to if you're interested in slide guitar.

aLaska Fingerpicks

The first thing to mention about these is how important it is to get the right size.  In my first order I had to measure and estimate what size I needed, and ended up getting a set of sizes too small.  Sending them back would have cost the same as simply ordering a second batch, so I instead ordered a new set, keeping the first batch as spares.  You could probably adjust and bend them into a better shape/size, but I haven't tried it, so I'm not sure how easy it would be (and how much of an impact it would have on stability/sound).  These fingerpicks sit over your fingernails, and then loop down under the nail in the front, offering a fairly good approximation of playing with your nails.  I find them a lot easier to use than most other fingerpicks I've tried that sit on the pad of your finger.  The sound, as well, is very good for fingerpicks.  Sungha Jung has used these for a number of videos, for anyone looking for a sound sample.  I will note, however, that you do need to have slightly longer nails (not as long as is ideal for playing without picks, but longer than you would usually keep your fretting hand nails).  This is because the picks sit under the tip of the nail, and so you need to have nails for them to sit under.

While these fingerpicks are pretty good for sound, clarity, and the almost natural-feeling to playing "with your nails", I still much prefer playing with my actual nails.  Due to the fact that these fingerpicks require a slightly longer nail than normal anyways, I have simply let the nails grow to the point where it's comfortable to play the guitar with them.  If, however, your nails are too weak for fingerpicking on a steel string, or you simply want to have a set of fingerpicks to use in case your nails get trimmed/broken, I highly recommend these.  The only thing I could recommend doing is getting a normal thumbpick, as opposed to using one of these aLaska fingerpicks on your thumb (it leads to you holding your hand in what I find to be a very uncomfortable position).  Sure, it's the same position you'd hold your hand in to play with your thumbnail, but I tend to play with the side of my thumb (or a thumbpick), instead of that nail.  I find it to be a more natural position.  If you're looking for fingerpicks, definitely give these a shot (and, if you're like me and have a thumbpick, and tend to play with your index, middle, and ring fingers, you'll only need to buy 3).  However, if you play with your pinky too, you'll need a minimum of 4.  I find that these picks are slightly more expensive than normal fingerpicks, so keep that in mind too.

Overall, both of these items (the fingerpicks and the slide) come down to personal preference.  Do you want to play with fingerpicks?  Then definitely look at the aLaska picks.  If you want to have a sound similar to Davy Knowles or Derek Trucks, a glass slide is probably the right choice for you.  However, finding one that fits you (and you can play comfortably with), will be up to you.

Ernie Ball Earthwood/Cobalt Strings

In my last batch of updates (back in March), I mentioned that I was waiting for an order of strings (along with other things, which will get their own post).  That order arrived about a week later, but I haven't had time to write my review on them before now.  For the sake of clarity, the strings I ordered:

Ernie Ball Earthwood Acoustic Medium Light (0.12-0.54)
Ernie Ball Cobale Electric Slinky (0.10-0.46)

I used these to replace my Ernie Ball Coated Acoustic Light (0.11-0.52) and Coated Titanium Regular Slinky (0.10-0.46) strings on my acoustic guitar (an Epiphone Artist Series EJ-200), and my electric (and Epiphone Les Paul Tribute '60).

Acoustic (EJ-200)

The first thing I noticed when using these strings for the first time was the strong textured feel of the strings (compared to the coated ones I was using before).  I actually think these are a little "rougher" feeling than other normal strings I've played - which is by no means negative.  Once I got to strumming the strings, I was blown away by the bright sound of the bronze.  Combined with the jumbo size of my acoustic, it led to quite a powerful sound.  Even though the strings (and guitar) can be loud when played forcefully, they keep their definition of tone.  Also, playing softly results in a perfect volume for intimate acoustic performances, or for practicing in a room without bothering anyone else.  I find that the .12's are still very bendable on the jumbo, and I don't think I'll be using any other gauge on this guitar in the future.

I've experimented a little with recording this setup too, and the sound can be picked up extremely well from various positions.  The microphones I was using didn't manage to cope with the low-ends of the jumbo, so I won't post any sound samples, but I highly recommend these strings if you have a jumbo (the smaller gauges will probably have a similar effect on any dreadnought or folk guitar you try them on).

Besides tone, of course, is the question of durability and price.  The coated strings I was using earlier lasted very well, but were about double the price of the Earthwood strings.  I estimate that the coated strings lasted me about 4 months (I admit, I failed to mark the date on the pack, which I usually do).  So far the Earthwoods have been on my acoustic for a little over 2 months, and, while looking a little worn, still sound extremely pleasing to my ear.  I don't think I'll need to swap these strings out for another few weeks, possibly as late as the first week of July.  And yes, I have played the guitar a lot since putting them on.  I tend to play between 1 and 4 hours of guitar a day (depending on factors like other work I need to do).  Also, since my preferred playing style is fingerstyle guitar, the strings have been in contact with fair amounts of corrosive oils from my hands.  The weather has also been rather hot, putting further wear and tear on the strings.  If the muted color of the bronze doesn't bother you, you'll be more than capable of using them for extended periods of time.  The price, at the time of writing, is 6,90€ = £5.57 = $8.67 at

Electric (Tribute '60)

The first thing you notice about these strings, even before you put them on the guitar, is the dark color of the metal.  I actually find that it looks quite nice, though I have to admit that the guy at the guitar shop asked me if I had ever changed the strings since buying the guitar (I had to take it in to get adjusted, since I just wasn't able to find settings I liked).  If that doesn't bother you, then I think you'll be extremely happy with these strings.  Played on clean settings, these strings offer better tone definition (it's hard to describe exactly what I mean with this - I think the best description is that, regardless of what you're playing over, you'll be able to distinguish the notes fairly well).  I also find that the pickups on my guitar tend to have better output (since iron and cobalt are both ferromagnetic materials).  Ferromagnetic materials are simply materials that can form permanent magnets, or refers to metals that are attracted to magnets.  Since cobalt and iron attract the magnets in the pickups more than titanium, steel, or nickel, it results in a more accurate translation of string vibrations into the amp via the pickups. True to the name, the Regular Slinky pack is, well, slinky.  Bends are easy on the fingers, and the higher tensile strength of cobalt reduces string breakage.  As for how they feel.  I don't find they feel any different than any normal strings I've ever played on an electric.  They do, however, feel a lot more like normal strings than coated strings do (even Ernie Ball coated strings, which are the closest facsimile to non-coated strings I've found).

Due to the high corrosion resistance of the cobalt, these strings should last you a fairly long time (also why Ernie Ball doesn't offer them coated).  I'd be hard-pressed to say the strings look any different than when I first put them on the guitar (about 2 months ago).  It's also possible that I can simply not see the difference, due to the darkness of the cobalt itself.  In any case, the strings sound just as good as they did before.  I admit, I don't play my electric nearly as much as my acoustic, but it has still seen a fair amount of use.  As for price: These strings were a bit cheaper than the coated strings I was using, but not by much.  These days, I think they're priced about the same.  In any case, I find the quality of these a little better than the coated strings, so it's a price I'm more than happy to pay.  (at the time of writing, it's 10,90€ = £8.79 = $13.70 from


If you play guitar, and you want a nice and bright acoustic sound, I highly recommend giving the Earthwood strings a shot.  I certainly wasn't disappointed, and these strings sound great when flatpicked or fingerpicked.

Similarly, if you play an electric, especially with coated strings, consider trying a package of cobalt strings.  The price is the same as the coated strings, but I find these a bit better than the coated strings (with hardly any trade-off on durability).

Monday, March 19, 2012

Zowie Celeritas Mechanical Gaming Keyboard

Over the course of the last week I've been hunting for a new keyboard to replace my slowly failing Logitech G11 keyboard.  I had a few requirements:

  • Good tactile feedback
  • left-hand windows key (for my XMonad keybindings)
  • Media keys (play/pause/forward/back/volume)
  • "Normal" QWERTZ layout (i.e. no shortened keys, or messed up/mangled key configurations).

After a lot of testing and looking, I decided that a mechanical keyboard was most likely to fulfill my most important requirement (feedback).  I looked at things like the Das Keyboard Model S, and Razer Black Widow and the SteelSeries 6vg2.  Each of them had something that was missing (the Das had no media keys, the Razer's build quality seemed to be lower than the others, and the 6vg2 had a few missing/changed keys).  I stumbled upon a guide on geekhack mechanical keyboard guide that included a review of the Zowie Celeritas keyboard (which was also briefly mentioned as good value/quality on a different guide I was reading).  So I figured: "Let's see what it looks like".  The Zowie website had a decent series of pictures of even the German layout keyboard, and I was able to see that the keys were all there and in the correct locations.  To make a long story short, I ordered a "used" (it had been returned) version of the keyboard from amazon for 95€ (the keyboard was sold out/unavailable from most stores I looked at).

A quick list of features of the keyboard:

  • n-key rollover (when using the supplied PS/2 adapter)
  • up to 8x RTR (basically how quickly a held key registers as a repress)
  • a function key (instead of a right-hand windows key) for media buttons (on the F1-F6 keys)
  • Cherry MX Brown switches
  • Standard layout (numpad, home block, arrow keys, etc.)
  • Option to switch the windows key on the left to a second control key (for gaming) via the function key + windows key (though it only seems to work when using the PS/2 adapter).

The Zowie Celeritas

Here are my thoughts on the keyboard:

  1. The tactile feedback is excellent (compared to the G11).  I'm not very experienced with mechanical keyboards, having only bought this one, and having tried out one or two over the course of my life (usually without any idea as to switches within).  My opinion of the Cherry MX Browns are that they are comfortable, and give decent feedback.  I'm still typing more heavily than I need to, but I'm pretty sure I'll get used to the fact that I don't need to depress the keys entirely fairly soon.
  2. Media keys work fine, and don't use any weird keycodes, meaning X can register them as the standard media keys (XF86PLAY, for example).  This means that all my keyboard shortcuts are preserved.
  3. The layout is extremely comfortable, and similar to my G11, meaning I'm not hitting alt when I mean to hit the windows key, etc.
  4. Slippage will be a thing of the past.  They keyboard itself supposedly weighs 1.4kg (if I remember that correctly - I haven't checked this myself).  Also, the four feed on the bottom of the keyboard are some of the most effective I've ever seen on anything.  Pushing against the keyboard takes quite a lot of effort to get it to move, meaning it shouldn't shift as you type, unless you use a lot more force than necessary.
  5. The space bar key does tend to slant a bit before registering as a key press when not hit directly in the center, but it's not much of a difference to the G11, so it doesn't bother me.
  6. the RTR functions (1x, 2x, 4x, 8x) seems like it might be useful for some, but I don't forsee myself using it for any reason.  As such, it doesn't bother me that it seems to not function in Linux.  As far as I read, it should have been done in-hardware, but since it isn't something I'll use, I won't be researching it any further.
  7. Windows/Ctrl switching works fine in both Linux and Windows, for those of you who want to avoid hitting the windows key when gaming.  The Zowie logo is lit, and red means normal windows key functionality, and blue means control key functionality.  Seems to be implemented very well, and it's nice to have the option (as opposed to simply having no windows key on the left).
  8. Comfort:  I find typing on this keyboard is much smoother and more comfortable than typing on my G11, even with a foreshortened palm rest.  I may be raising the keyboard a bit simply to offset the slant caused by my desk chair (my desk is lower than the arm rests of my chair, leading to my hands hovering a bit above the keyboard - same thing happened with the G11).  The keyboard does not have feet, and as such can't be angled.  This isn't an issue (for me at least), because the rows of keys are raised as you move from palm rest to cable, making it very comfortable to type on (and allowing me to reach all the keys as I would usually).  The keys are (logically) a bit louder than my G11, but once you get into the habit of half-pressing keys (which is all that is required on mechanical keys for it to register as a key press) it will get much quieter.  Cherry MX Brown switches have no audible feedback, unlike the Blues, meaning whatever click you hear is simply the key bottoming out.  I haven't found anything uncomfortable (or irritating) about this keyboard, whether I was playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, or typing this blog post.
Conclusion: If you're looking for a nice mechanical keyboard with media keys, and tend to type a lot, I would have no issues recommending this keyboard to anyone.  However, it does seem to be rather difficult to purchase (not sure if they're planning another production run of these or what the reason is for them being unavailable).  If, however, you can find a decent deal on a used one, I'd advise you to give it a shot.  If it's too grimy, you can always switch out the key caps (one of the benefits of a mechanical keyboard).

On a more general note, if you are undecided between a normal membrane keyboard and a mechanical keyboard (this applies mainly to Browns or Blacks, as I've tried both), then I would highly recommend the mechanical one.  As always though, if you're going to buy something without trying it out first, make sure you can return it.  For those of you wondering, the difference between Cherry MX Browns and Cherry MX Blacks is simply that the Blacks lack a tactile cue on half-press.  Basically they tend to show up more on gaming keyboards, and are slightly harder to press, as you bottom them out every time.  The browns are (generally) seen as more comfortable for longer typing.  Having tried the Black Widow out briefly (with Blacks), I'd say that it feels a bit more like a membrane keyboard with a bit more feedback.

For anyone confused about the differences, skip on down to the Appendix section where I (very briefly) discuss a few differences.  I hope anyone who's considering a mechanical keyboard finds this review helpful.  I realize that a review after only a few hours of use is hardly an extensive test, and as such I will update this review in the future, if I find I need to add to (or remove) some part of it.  If you don't see an edit on this post in 6 months time, I've either forgotten, or I have nothing to add to the review!


For those of you who aren't sure of the difference between a mechanical and a membrane keyboard, I'll briefly outline it here (however, the link above to the guide goes more in-depth).

The basic difference is that mechanical ones use switches as opposed to a circuit board with membrane nodes per key (anyone who has yanked a key off a laptop keyboard will know what I mean).  Mechanical keyboard are rated for a rough estimate of 50 million key presses, as opposed to the 5 million membrane ones are rated for.  As such, the mechanical keyboards are generally more expensive, but also last longer.  Another plus point for mechanical keyboards are that they can be repaired easily - you can get new key caps.  I'm not sure about replacing the actual switch mechanism, though I wouldn't be surprised if that were also possible.

A more subjective difference is that mechanical keys cause less fatigue (as they don't require as much force to register, i.e. a half-press) than other keyboards.  As such, they can be more comfortable to work on for longer periods of times.  Of course, if you're using an ergonomic keyboard already, you probably won't find this to be a compelling reason to consider one.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Guitars, Technology, and Life

As is probably evidenced by the 3 articles I posted in quick succession today, I am indeed back to updating my blog. I will probably start documenting some of my more eccentric hacks and configuration files here, simply for future reference for both myself and anyone interested. I may also start reviewing some of the software I use daily (and also get into a review of Star Wars: The Old Republic, which I'm pretty much addicted to at the moment). We shall see what I get done while I'm on semester break.

I do also plan to start documenting useful practices/websites for guitar, as well as a review of aLaska Piks (fingerpicks) once I get my batch. Once I get my hands on some of the new Ernie Ball Cobalt strings (as well as a pack of Earthwood strings), I'll also put a review up, comparing them to my current strings (Ernie Ball Coated Regular Slinky (0.10"), and Ernie Ball Coated Acoustic (0.11")). I've also ordered a glass slide along with the strings (though the Cobalts aren't in stock yet, and are effectively delaying my order until their arrival), which I will compare with my current steel slide. I also hope to find a decent audio recorder at some point, which I will also review (possibly with sound clips - we'll see how it sounds!).

Outside of Guitar & Technology, I also hope to bring some of my Japanese/Mandarin practice to my blog. I'll aim to review/discuss books and software I find useful for practicing those languages, and possibly also write a brief introduction or so to either language. If anyone has any suggestions, feel free to post them in the comment section below.

I sincerely hope this post doesn't become like the last "and I'm back" post, though I can't make any promises. I think I've come up with a fairly varied series of topics, meaning I will probably not run out of stuff to write. Once I figure out a decent method for posting code snippets on blogger (trying out one on my Custom Dates post), I'll also probably move some of my scripts over from pastebin. Basically I'm hoping to turn this into a hub for my technological, musical, and language-oriented knowledge. Once I've cleaned up my github a bit, I'll also be posting a link to it here, since it should offer the most up-to-date scripts and settings.

Custom Dates

In this month's Full Circle Magazine I wrote about some tips and tricks I use (Command & Conquer), but I felt I would share this small script here as well, since others may find it useful.

The idea behind the script is to create a time display in a different locale (in this case, Japanese). I've ignored the "usual" format for dates in Japan, opting instead for the usual display (Day, date, time), and as such I had to format it a bit differently with date. The script is as follows:

LC_ALL="" LC_TIME=ja_JP.UTF-8 date +'%A, %-d日%B%Y年 %H:%M'
This script does require you to generate the ja_JP.UTF-8 locale (or, at least, it was required for my system). Since it varies from distribution to distribution, I'll leave that unexplained for now. I essentially make sure LC_ALL is set to nothing (messes up the custom locale otherwise), and then I set the locale for time to Japanese. Then I print out a formatted date of day, date, month, year, time. I was forced to add in the Kanji for day and year, as it wasn't filled in by date itself (no idea why). However, it results in a nice clock, and offers me a bit of practice in Japanese.

Vim Powerline

I was recently introduced to Powerline, which is an awesome addition to Vim, giving you a more informational status bar, as well as a python script to patch your font for a very fancy unicode symbol. I've written a more detailed article in FCM #59, due out later this month. However, if you're curious what it looks like when used in a prompt, you can check out my most recent screenshot on DeviantArt (here).

This is easily installed into Vim using vundle (links below). Essentially you tell vundle to install Lokaltog/vim-powerline, and then run the patch from ~/.vim/bundle/vim-powerline/fontpatcher/ (as detailed in the README in that folder). Once you've done that you can simply configure Powerline to use the fancy theme, and copy that symbol into your PS1. This would probably also work for tty screens, though you'd need to patch that font separately.

For a more thorough description of the process, please check out Command & Conquer in Full Circle Magazine #59. If you can't wait for FCM to be released, leave a comment below with your questions, and I'll get back to you as quickly as possible.


Xorg tty switching is wrong

I found this issue (literally about 10 minutes ago) on my PC after a recent update. Basically, in any tty screens switching was the normal ctrl+alt+Fx setup, but the moment I tried to do the same from my xserver, I wasn't able to do so. For some reason, the keyboard shortcut from X was shift + Fx, which is a keybinding often used by other programs (Blender, for example). After a bit of looking (and googling, though I didn't find much in the way of concise answers), I found out that it was due to my .Xmodmap file I was using. For whatever reason, the entries for my F1-F12 keys were totally messed up. A bit of trial and error didn't let me figure out the correct entries, so I simply reset my keyboard (setxkbmap de), and then found the entry (xmodmap -pke|grep VT). Turns out that the entries should look as follows:

keycode 67 = F1 F1 F1 F1 F1 F1 XF86Switch_VT_1
I figured I should document this here, in case anyone else has a similar issue (or if I have the issue again...). For anyone too lazy to count, that is 6 F1's, and on the 7th entry, you write XF86Switch_VT_1 (or replace F1 and VT_1 with whatever Fx key you're working on). Once you've updated your .Xmodmap file, simply reload it with xmodmap ~/.Xmodmap (you may need to change the path if you're using a different one).

Audio - Multiple Inputs to one set of speakers

I recently purchased myself a 4-way audio selector (this), and some 3.5mm jack to RCA adapters, allowing me to easily switch audio inputs between my xbox, PC, laptop (or tablet/phone) to my single set of speakers at my desk, making life a lot easier. The alternative was to a) hook my xbox up to the aux input on my speakers (but my xbox is much louder than my PC) and b) constantly switch said aux input. In total I spent about 25€ on this, and that's including all the cables I needed. If anyone is looking to do something similar, I highly recommend something like this.

The box is fairly small and unobtrusive, and has anti-slip tape on the bottom, making it easy to switch channels. Also, there's no popping or crackling when switching inputs, even if audio is already playing on the other input.