Alien Day

For the past few years, each April 26th I have to look up why it’s “Alien Day”. The date is named after the plan­et LV-426, where the xenomorphs are first encoun­tered in the orig­i­nal, 1979 Rid­ley Scott film. Well, I’ve been a fan of the hor­ror-sci­fi fran­chise since I saw the sequel, Aliens. I’ve since watch any film in the series (good and bad) and read a lot of the comics. So, any­way, hap­py Alien Day to my fel­low sci-fi fans.

Aliens
Some comics, graph­ic nov­el col­lec­tions, and my attempt at draw­ing a xenomorph from cir­ca 1996.

D&D in the Age of the Lockdown

I’ve post­ed here before about play­ing Dun­geons & Drag­ons with my kids. We played a few nights togeth­er last Sum­mer, but most of our fam­i­ly game nights in the months since were spent play­ing board games or pok­er. But, as the coro­n­avirus forced us all to stay put far more often than we’d all pre­fer, we need­ed to think of more things to do. For­tu­nate­ly, my friend, Ted, has a son who has got­ten very inter­est­ed in all things D&D as of late. Ted and I had dis­cussed the idea of play­ing table­top games with the kids and I’d always thought it would be inter­est­ing to try a dig­i­tal table­top site.

So, about three weeks ago, we all got togeth­er via speak­er phone1 and on Roll20.net. I end­ed up pur­chas­ing a dig­i­tal pack­age of the same adven­ture my kids had start­ed (they for­tu­nate­ly had­n’t made it too far and you’d be sur­prised at the re-playa­bil­i­ty of an adven­ture with total­ly dif­fer­ent deci­sions). The kids all rolled up char­ac­ters based on what they want­ed to play: a tei­fling fight­er for my daugh­ter, a drag­onborne ranger for my son, and a halfling wiz­ard for Ted’s son. Ted just picked the clas­sic dwar­ven cler­ic out of the pre-gen­er­at­ed char­ac­ters. Don’t wor­ry if half of those words don’t make any sense; just know that this is a fan­ta­sy adven­ture where they’re all play­ing fan­tas­ti­cal races of crea­tures who fight the evil hordes to save a vil­lage and sur­round­ing area.

Roll20 Screenshot of Dads and Kids Game Night
The play­ers fight some orcs in the Roll20 dig­i­tal table­top

My kids are inter­est­ed in play­ing and seem to be enjoy­ing. Ted’s son is real­ly lov­ing D&D and is even run­ning his own game for some if his friends, which is awe­some! But it’s def­i­nite­ly a great way to be able to do some­thing with anoth­er fam­i­ly while still being togeth­er with the kids. All three of the kids have some inter­est­ing nam­ing schemes for their char­ac­ters, to be sure. We’re gen­er­al­ly keep­ing the ses­sions to about 2–1/2 hours each week. This ends being about two encoun­ters (read: fights with mon­sters) and the gen­er­al deci­sion mak­ing and role play­ing that comes along with the game.

As for being a dun­geon mas­ter, I can’t claim it was ever some­thing I was espe­cial­ly great at, but I’m hav­ing a real­ly good time doing it. I’ve learned a lot about 5th edi­tion D&D as well as the Roll20 plat­form (both are pret­ty great, if you ask me). I like to think I’m get­ting bet­ter as we go, too.

I hope it’s some­thing we can keep going, at least for a few weeks longer. Of course, at this point, it’s not at all clear how much longer coro­n­avirus response shel­ter-in-place orders will be in effect here (or any­where, real­ly). Of course, we could always just play in-per­son with our friends down the street should those ever let up. Imag­ine that, play­ing a pen-and-paper RPG togeth­er at the same table!

  1. My kids and I play togeth­er on PCs in our din­ing room while Ted & son play togeth­er in his home office. Though Roll20 has an audio chat fea­ture, it has ter­ri­ble feed­back in gen­er­al when every­one isn’t on head­phones. So, since we’re just con­nect­ing two house­holds, the speak­er­phone seems to work well enough for us. []

Sabbath Drive

This is a post that has been a very long time in the mak­ing. I start­ed this project back in Octo­ber of 2018. Gui­tarPCB had a sale and it looked like their Sab­o­tage Dri­ve would be an inter­est­ing chal­lenge. There were six (!) tran­sis­tors in this cir­cuit. But I want­ed to make this a real­ly fun project so I designed some cus­tom art­work as well, all themed around Black Sab­bath — the inspi­ra­tion of this cir­cuit’s sound. This cir­cuit fur­ther seems to be inspired by Catal­in­bread­’s Sab­bra Cadabra ped­al, anoth­er pre-amp in a box effects that tries to cap­ture Tony Iom­mi’s sound of a Dal­las Range­mas­ter tre­ble boost push­ing a Laney Super­group head1. Or, put it anoth­er way, the sound of doom met­al!

Sabbath Drive Workstation
Sol­der­ing com­po­nents for the Sab­bath Dri­ve project

I did some lay­out in an SVG file for the graph­ics, which you can see above. This is also large­ly where I did the drill hole pat­terns for the enclo­sure, as those go hand-in-hand. My graph­ics incor­po­rat­ed some of the Sab­bath album cov­ers. I was fair­ly proud of the design, if not the actu­al imple­men­ta­tion. I then got to sol­der­ing the cir­cuit com­po­nents. Bar­ry Stein­del of Gui­tarPCB did a great job design­ing this for a rel­a­tive­ly com­plex build, it is a very clean lay­out.

Sabbath Drive PCB Resistors
Resis­tors and tran­sis­tor sock­ets in place

I think I’ve men­tioned this before, but I am in the habit of tap­ing out all the com­po­nents to a parts sheet with labels that cor­re­spond to the PCB silk screen labels. This would­n’t scale up to a large pro­duc­tion, but for one-at-a-time builds, it real­ly takes the stress out of try­ing to find the right com­po­nent for each step.

Sabbath Drive Component Leads
Com­po­nent leads being cut
Sabbath Drive Components
Close-up of the tran­sis­tors being placed in the sock­ets — bend those leads!

Once the com­po­nents were in place, it was time to final­ize the enclo­sure lay­out. The rel­a­tive place­ment of the pots/knobs are fixed since they are sol­dered direct­ly to the PCB. But the place­ment of every­thing else is depen­dent on get­ting it all to fit. I would have loved top-mount­ed jacks as you can see in the orig­i­nal sketch below, but that was­n’t going to hap­pen with this PCB lay­out (in the size of enclo­sure I chose, any­way). I need­ed to for­go that in order to squeeze every­thing in place. Regard­less, no 9v bat­tery in here! I don’t use ’em any­way.

Sabbath Drive Enclosure Layout
“Dry fit­ting” the off board com­po­nents and con­trols for the lay­out

When it comes to drilling the enclo­sure, I use a step bit in my drill press. Anoth­er thing I’ve prob­a­bly men­tioned: I have a small med­i­cine syringe with machine cut­ting flu­id. That way I can use my cen­ter punch to mark the point on my tem­plate and the put 1–2 drops of cut­ting flu­id right at that spot.

Sabbath Drive Drill Press
Drilling the enclo­sure holes

As you can see below, I actu­al­ly test­ed the cir­cuit before I even com­plet­ed drilling all the lay­out holes. I drilled the holes for the pots to get those mount­ed to the PCB in the cor­rect ori­en­ta­tion. I think wired up some leads for sig­nal in/out, the 9v pow­er, and ground to hook up to my test­ing rig.

Sabbath Drive Test Box
Test­ing the effect on the my test­ing rig

Then it was time to fin­ish drilling the holes and wiring up the off board switch, jacks, and LED.

Sabbath Drive Case Layout
Off-board wiring in progress (I don’t recall why there was a third jack!)

It was a bit of a tight fit into the enclo­sure, but part of that was my desire to place the LED near the top of the ped­al I real­ly don’t like LEDs right by the footswitch, where the get cov­ered up by your foot! Sure, they’re a lot eas­i­er to put there, but they don’t make it easy to tell you’ve prop­er­ly engaged the effect.

Sabbath Drive Offboard Wiring
Com­plet­ing the off-board wiring

I tried using our vinyl cut­ting machine to cre­ate paint­ing a paint­ing tem­plate from my SVG file. My first mis­take was using some cheap vinyl which did­n’t stick to the pow­der-coat­ed sur­face well.

Sabbath Drive Vinyl Cutter
Cut­ting the paint tem­plate on our Cri­cut

Then I used acrylic paint which bled under that tem­plate. Also, the tiny let­ter­ing details were just about beyond the scale was which the Cri­cut could suc­cess­ful­ly cut this vinyl. The end result looked about like I’d just hand-paint­ed the whole thing. I was­n’t at all hap­py with the paint job, but know­ing I was­n’t like­ly to improve on it, I went ahead and sealed it with some spray clear coat.

Sabbath Drive Paint Template
Vinyl paint tem­plate trans­ferred to the enclo­sure
Sabbath Drive Painting
Acrylic paint on the tem­plate

So I fin­ished all this Decem­ber of 2018. I nev­er post­ed about it all last year though because I real­ly was­n’t able to get a good sound record­ing of this. My iPhone demos so far have been pret­ty lack­lus­ter. And this effect did­n’t sound as great as I’d liked any­way because it’s real­ly meant to run into a cranked amp. Though I used my pre-amp, pas­sive vol­ume con­trol I could­n’t real­ly push the pow­er amp sec­tion of my tube head. Well, in the past cou­ple of months I got a pow­er atten­u­a­tor and a pret­ty good mic to record some audio with. My ampli­fi­er has a “cab emu­la­tion” out­put, as does the pow­er atten­u­a­tor but both frankly sound pret­ty ter­ri­ble. None of the record­ings with those ever had any of the low end that the amp actu­al­ly pro­duces. But using the atten­u­a­tor with the head vol­ume cranked and the mic into my record­ing inter­face, I’m final­ly hap­py with the sound I can get record­ed.

So here is the full sig­nal chain:

  • My Fend­er Tele­cast­er with a Lace Sen­sor Death­buck­er pick­up in the bridge posi­tion2
  • This runs through a TC Elec­tron­ic P0lytune 3 (I men­tion this because it has a buffer — all oth­er effects are true bypass) and then into the Sab­bath Dri­ve ped­al.
  • The Black­star HT5 Met­al head on the clean chan­nel (cranked to 10) and a TC Elec­tron­ic Hall of Fame 2 reverb ped­al in the effects loop.
  • The head runs through the Bugera PS1 pow­er atten­u­a­tor into the Black­star 1x12” cab­i­net with a Celestion G‑12T speak­er.
  • The cab­i­net is mic’d with a MXR R144 rib­bon mic into the Behringer UMC22 audio inter­face.

I use some of the EQ set­ting in garage band for the gui­tar and the over­all mix. This par­tic­u­lar record­ing was used with one of the “auto” drum­mers in Garage Band. This video is the live record­ing you’re hear­ing; just poor­ly sync’d to the audio. The gui­tar is a sin­gle track.

*cough, cough* Sweet Leaf — Black Sab­bath (with all apolo­gies to Tony Iom­mi)

On the whole, I’m real­ly pleased with the sound of this ped­al. The Range and Pres­ence con­trols give a real­ly wide tonal range. I’ve cranked the dis­tor­tion here (hon­est­ly, not even sure why that knob exists! Just fix it at 10!). The vol­ume is about at noon. I shud­der to think just how loud this ped­al would be with that cranked.

Also, for ref­er­ence, here is a short demo I did of a Sleep song (“The Druid,” only slow­er tem­po) using the cab emu­la­tor from my amp head. The sound is def­i­nite­ly more “fizzy” and flat here.
  1. For the record, even though the old­er Sab­bath records were record­ed using those, it does­n’t appear Tony Iom­mi uses those any more. He has a sig­na­ture Laney head that appears to have the tre­ble boost “built in”. Laney also has a sim­i­lar, sig­na­ture ped­al which claims to box all this up, but appar­ent­ly Iom­mi does­n’t use it at all accord­ing to his site. []
  2. Yes, I need to write an entire post on my gui­tar and the mod­i­fi­ca­tions I’ve made to it. []