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.
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!
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. [↩]
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then it was time to finish drilling the holes and wiring up the off board switch, jacks, and LED.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. [↩]
Yes, I need to write an entire post on my guitar and the modifications I’ve made to it. [↩]
Like most all of America (and the world), I’m staying home these days, hoping to avoid the spread of coronavirus. Of course, I’ve worked from home for over twelve years now, so what’s new? Well, fortunately, my spouse is also able to work from home. We are both gainfully employed for the foreseeable future (which admittedly, isn’t as long as was a month ago). Our kids are old enough to be responsible throughout the day to largely see to themselves. In those ways, we are exceptionally fortunate. May folks are seeing reduced ours, being furloughed, or even laid off of work all together. Many people are weathering this alone. Many more are dealing this while having to care for defendants that need far more attention.
But even for us, it can be tough. So I truly empathize with those who are dealing with far more issues than we are. So to those who read this, do try to take care of yourselves. These are tough times. It’s best to admit that we’re all having to deal with this to some degree. But it’s also good to acknowledge that everyone else is, too. Find somethings to help you keep perspective.
I’ll try to share some photos of some of the highlights of what we’ve been up to soon. I think I should be able to find some time…
It’s the very end of the month (a leap month, no less! I had an extra day!) and I’ve got a couple of projects I want to post about, but they’re still in progress. So, instead of some personal creative or DIY stuff, I wanted to post about something more work-related for me. From the very beginning of my work as a technical writer, I described my approach to how I see my documentation work being used as follows:
Immediate: tool tip, pop-ups, hover info in your IDE.
Quick answer: F1 on what a dialog field values are or a function/method
Long answer: search the docs and poke around until I find my answer
Learning: Intentional reading, in the order presented, if the documentation
Levels 0 & 1 both start in software or code and end there. This has the least and next-to-least interruption to your work. The answer is immediately when you need it or just a click & scroll away.
Level 2 is often back and forth between docs and software. This inherently can feel tedious. Often, this results in not even finding what you need (unless you were looking for frustration). Unfortunately, this is also where a lot of product help leaves you.
Level 3 is solely in the docs. You’re no longer performing your primary goal or job function. This was not so common for new employees or employees who just got a new tool in the workplace at one time. It feels like a rare luxury today, though. Too many workplaces prioritize keeping productive day-to-day over making their employees productive in the longer term.
So, what’s the point? Level 0 & 1 should be the goals, but they require significant more planning and coordination with product developers and UX designers. And, if we’re being honest, making Level 2 work effectively is going to require some of the same. And if you’re writing manuals like anyone has the time for Level 3, you’re shooting yourself in the foot for all of the other cases.
So, if you happened to read my post last month on injuring myself, you’ll recall I did so because I was hoping to make a box joint jig. A box joint, or as it also known: a finger joint, is a series of overlapping “fingers” along a joint. This style of joinery gives lots of glue surface area as well as shear strength to a corner joint. It’s commonly used for the corners of a box, thus the name.
Well, I did manage to make a first attempt at a jig and made a single joint test. I was hoping to use my standard table saw blade with my sled in lieu of purchasing a dado stack1. The jig is a bit too loose in the cuts and it’s possible my table saw sled is a bit too loose in the miter slots, as well. This combined with some cheaper birch plywood (there are lots of voids and a very thin veneer) resulted in the fingers looking more like a boxer who’d just fought Mike Tyson.
Also, the depth of the cuts were a bit too deep (which is easy to adjust, at least). But gluing up the loose joints was a mess.
I had sort of given up on the experiment as a failure, but I did recently go back and sand the fingers down; this time on purpose (yeah, I get the humor after last month’s incident). The joint still doesn’t look great but it wasn’t as “gap‑y” as it seemed before cleanup. What’s more, I can attest that even as poor as this one looks, it is incredibly strong. It’s not especially pretty, but for some utility boxes, it would definitely serve it’s purpose.
So, this wasn’t a total failure and I did learn a lot from the exercise, including the injury. Which, my fingers have completely healed back, nails and all. As a result of “babying” the left index finger, I did develop tendonitis in my left elbow (which is really the forearm muscles and tendon connection). So, that little incident continues to remind me to be safe!
A dado stack is a pair of blades, often with intermediate spacer/chippers in between which cut out a wider section of material in each pass on a table saw. [↩]
A few years ago when I was considering getting into more “fine” woodworking, there was one project that came to mind: recreating the footstools my grandfather, Cicero, used to make. He was a handy woodworker and built a lot of useful projects1 I know we had two or three of these footstools around the house growing up. I assume my aunts and cousins may have had some, as well. They’re perhaps not a master craftsman project, but let’s not over-estimate my abilities. As my mom put it, though, after about a half century, they’re still in use!
So in 2016 I sat down to carefully draw out the pieces. His were all made from 1″ thick solid pine, but I figured I’d use 3/4″ plywood instead. The legs and sides have a roughly 10° slant such that the base tapers up to give a slight lip all around the top footrest. I also decided to add a handhold to the top of mine (some others of his may have this, but the one that sits in our kitchen does not). On my notes and sketches, I also doodled out a logo that read “Cicero Hand Made Crafts. Est. 2016”. I figured he was the “maker” in my family so I’d honor that by labeling made items with his name.
It took me about a year-and-a-half until I actually got around to making my first footstool. I batched out the pieces on the table saw for two footstools from a 2’x4’ project board of 3/4″ maple plywood. Some of the angle cuts using my cut pattern resulted in a color mis-match in the wood, but this could probably be resolved by buying higher quality plywood in the future. The bandsaw was used for all curves, including cutting the arches in the legs at 10° (so they’re actually level when assembled). I used the drill press and a 1 5/8″ forstner bit to hog out material for the handle (which I then cleaned up with a series of rasps, files, and sandpaper). The disc and belt sander were used to clean up all the edges (with care not to remove any more finger nails). My super-simple router table was used to add a 1/4″ round-over to edges. I then used the random orbital sander to clean everything up.
I used made an assembly jig for the first piece and used pocket holes to attach the legs to the top (something my grandfather didn’t have but he seemed like a practical enough person, he’d have used them if he could have). I attached the side runners to the legs with some counter-sunk wood screws (black). I used a light color wood filler for any ply gaps (or other blemishes). Finally, a generous coat of wipe-on polyurethane was applied for a finish.
I assembled the first footstool as a Christmas gift for my older brother last year and then completed the second footstool as a Christmas gift for my mom this year. The process for building both pieces was a learning curve, so I didn’t really take great photos of either build. These are a mix of both projects (which is why the tops look different). I already have planned out making some additional templates to use with a trim router to help improve the process for future builds. This project is so great because it ends up using almost every power tool I have. But just like every project I try, there is always something new to learn even when I’ve already built the same thing before!
One of which was a long shelf for my dad’s hi-fi system; a gift to his new son-in-law. This later became the platform which our G.I.Joe USS Flag aircraft carrier play set lived! [↩]
I got a hard lesson delivered today while starting a project in the garage this afternoon. I’ll lead in with saying that I’m ok (and will heal up fine in a week or so); only a bit rattled. Let me start with where my head was (and shouldn’t have been) that got me here.
I’ve had on my “To Do” list for 2019 to learn how to make box joints. Well, here we are into December and I’ve not even tried it. I had wanted to spend last Saturday working on it, but I let the weekend get away with me with Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations (which are fine and I was glad to get the time I had with all my family). This evening, I had a Cub Scout event with my son in which I was responsible for bring some audio and video equipment (i.e., our home AV receiver, speakers, and disc player). That ended up taking a lot longer than I had anticipated. But I had an hour to spare so I figured I’d at least get a jump start on my box joint jig, knowing all day Sunday (tomorrow) is going to be busy with other things.
And it’s entirely worth underscoring here: this is all arbitrary pressure I’ve put on myself. Absolutely no one else cares if I figure out how to make box joints ever, let alone today or even this year. But I had convinced myself that I needed to rush through the hour to get the table saw jig set up.
I picked out my backing board and was looking for a piece of scrap that approximately the same thickness as my table saw blade kerf (simply put, that’s the width of the cut that the table saw makes and is fractionally wider than the blade itself). My initial plastic piece for the jig ended up a big loose the backing board, so I wanted to quickly try a different approach. Mind you, the piece I’m trying to cut is less than a 1/4″ thick. So I figured, why not start with a thin off cut and just sand it down to the necessary thickness?
My power sander is a combination of a belt sander and 6″ disc sander. The disc of course will put a twist on any object pushed into it, so a firm grip and just being mindful of one side lifting and the other pushing down is important. I grabbed a long thing piece of scrap and tried sanding it on the disc, not thinking about where my hands would go if (when) it slipped out of my grip. I also failed to put on gloves. You certainly do not wear gloves with some power tools (anything with a circular spinning blade), but they are a good idea with a sander.
Within less than a second of me pushing the wood into the disc, it knocked it right out of my hand and left me pushing my fingers into the sanding disc. Now, in all the power tools I have, if I had to pick one that I was going to injure myself on, it would probably be the power sander. Blades, as you can imagine, can quickly cut into flesh and cause serious injury or death. I cannot imagine sustaining a life-threating injury on a small power sander like mine (though I’m not saying it’s impossible). But at 3600 rpm, 120 grit sandpaper can remove skin and nails quite rapidly. Certainly faster than my reaction time. Before I knew it, my unnecessary rush and lack of thinking about what I was doing caused me to injure my index and middle fingers on my left hand. My middle finger got the skin scraped badly but my index nail is about 1/4″ too short now. And boy howdy is that sensitive skin under there!
Again, it’s nothing serious. I was able to turn off the machine and immediately go treat it myself. My fingers are sore but the nail should grow back. Honestly, it’s the lesson I needed to learn. Power tools are not anything to be in a rush around. Every action with one requires complete focus and attention. I need to always think about how the tool could injure me based on the action the tool makes. Given that I was also using my band saw and table saw today (which, I do take less for granted, to be fair to myself), I’m fortunate that this is the injury I ended up with.
As my kids join me in the shop more, I’ve had to teach them lessons about safety. I’ve even had to warn my son about touching that very sanding disc until it comes to a complete stop (he thought he should stop it spinning one day after I’d killed the power). I even recently watched James Hamilton’s (aka, Stumpy Nubs) video on injuring himself with an angle grinder and remarked on the need to pay attention when I’m working. I firmly believe that the number one most important piece of safety equipment is your brain. Too bad I failed to put that and my gloves on this afternoon. I’ll do my best to take that lesson to heart from now on.
The Pro Co Rat is a, if not the, classic distortion guitar effect1. It’s still around though “vintage” effects can go for hundreds of dollars. There are many variants and, like any classic guitar effect, there are many clones. It’s also one of those pedals that many of the mods and clones have improved upon the original.
I got a complete pedal kit from Aion effects — the Helios Vintage Distortion. I have built one of their effects using just a PCB before, and the instructions are top-notch. The kit was equally well done, with quality components. The Helios is basically a Rat clone that uses an OP07 chip (instead of the hard to find LM308N and most folks who seem to know say they sound the same, anyway). The Helios also includes a couple of very common modifications to the Rat: an additional “sweep” control and a clipping diode selection. The former adds an additional EQ control to the pedal where as the latter adds the ability to select different clipping diodes that decide the characteristics of the distortion.
I’m not sure if I’ve really mentioned this in any posts of effects building, but I prefer to tape down all of the components for each build onto paper along each of their descriptions. This is sort of analogous to “knolling” a LEGO kit, I suppose (though taping them down makes the components easier to identify later!).
As I mentioned, the Aion kit comes with what all seem to be high quality components. I have to admit, the all red resistors had me confused. They were clearly labeled with text as to each value (which is much better than trying to read color bands!). They appear to be 1/4W 1% metal film resistors with a coating and printed value is all.
The kit comes with literally everything you need, including pot isolation covers. The fit-up of the top-mount audio and power jacks is very precise, so I did have to re-work the solder joints on one of the jacks. But the resulting finish of the enclosure is that much nicer.
The wiring in the pedal is done using headers and small ribbon cables. If you really hate off-board wiring (I don’t mind it so much), this is really nice. Here you can see the custom dressing nut used over the stomp switch (there’s a similar custom nut for the clipping switch!), which gives the pedal a very high-end made feel.
I do have a few complaints about the kit, though. First is that the PCB just refused to lay flat on the selector switch and pots. I could have fiddled with it more, but it seemed like things just didn’t want to line up. Even though Aion states the 3PDT footswitch is a premium switch, with longer life, I’m not a fan of the feel of it (I guess I’m just so used to either a relay or the Taiwan blue switch!). Lastly, and this is something I absolutely plan to change on this pedal: the LED is insanely bright! I mean, it hurts to look at and is actually distracting, even when you’re not looking directly at the pedal! I’m going to swap out the LED resistor to dim it down. A lot!
But these are great kits and this is an amazing pedal for less than $75 (on sale, regularly $82). The assembly took me about 2 hours or so (that includes taking a few minutes to put my son to bed). Of course, your mileage may vary. Some of their pedals are sold fully assembled on Reverb or you can also reach out to a builder to see about pricing an assembled pedal. Even at that price, it’s a good deal! With the clipping options, it can cover ground from almost a transparent boost all the way to a medium gain distortion pedal (I mean, it’s no Boss Metal Zone…). It’s honestly cheaper than you could purchase a used Rat pedal and mod it, and already modded Rat pedals go for much more.
Now, none of this matters if it doesn’t sound good, of course. Once again, I’ve managed to build a pedal and write a blog post without bothering to record any audio. Part of that is because I don’t yet have a mic and I’m not pleased with the cabinet simulator on my amp head. But mostly, it’s because I’m lazy and not really a great guitar player! I’ll try to get some audio posted soon, though.
Now, when I say “distortion effect”, I’m not referring to fuzz pedals or distorted amplifiers, I really do just mean distortion effects pedals. Hendrix never played one of these! [↩]