Saturday, May 30, 2015

Hello, 2015.

I don't even know where to start.

I was going to write a post, but I may have encountered a huge writer's block.. As usual.

I've been trying to get back into music, but I can't seem to bring myself to it for some reason.
I need this sanctuary where I can get myself up and running again.

Guess I'm going through this phase where I'm trying ensure I've got a job secured.. And it's pretty obvious that I put in quite a bit of effort in doing so.

I'm listening to a little something I'd like to announce in a few more weeks after I get a hold of a friend of mine and discuss further details around a few things.

I'm listening to a few things that I'd like to call.. magic.
It's a natural talent to some. Unfortunately, for me, I've always had issues trying to make it natural (hence, it's a natural talent to some, right?). I'm listening to a couple of sessions I worked over last year, and I'm pretty happy with the results. No such things as "further improvements". Sounds right as it is right now.

I wish I can get some of that enthusiasm back, and work further on it.
I get very frustrated with myself when I'm inactive around songwriting.. It used to happen like nobody's business over a few months, and now I'm slacking off in a very unproductive matter.. However, I find it surprising that I'm not the only one like this.

I know I used to treat it as work when I got into some serious recording phase in 2011-2012.
Now all that stopped for some reason - ever since I had to move to New South Wales and face the city life, getting a job, and planning for the future.

In short, I guess I'm growing up.

I can go on about the above, but let's see what else has happened.

I found a new source of inspiration.
Or new sort of music. Not that it was written around this era.
It's the Dixie Dregs.
Steve Morse to be more specific.

Steve Morse happens to be one of the most versatile guitarists of this era. I've never heard a virtuoso that plays in all styles whenever they feel like it. Jordan Rudess falls under this category as well.

I picked up a couple of things by listening to a lot of Steve Morse (like the same way I force fed myself with Dream Theater music to understand how odd measures work), and artificial harmonics would be one of the key learnings I've picked up from Steve.

It's not a new trick, just that Steve presents it in a very unique manner that has his signature written all over it. Like the violin effect.

Right now, I'm listening to a track that I'd never imagine I'd help out with.. And thanks to months of practice (I've gotten better ever since then!), I've implemented artificial harmonics to a rhythm track. A rather strange technique, but it does have the right feel.

I'm confident enough that if I were ever asked to play live for the parts I recorded, I'm pretty sure I'll nail it at one go.. Unlike the earlier days, I remembered I recorded chord by chord (I was going to with the note-by-note approach).. And it wasn't a pleasant experience after you listen to the playback.

It's perfect, yes. But as a guitar player, it disgusted me somehow.
Thank goodness that moment's gone.

Also, it's not old news that BB King recently left us from the music world.
It's a bit sad that the world is losing guitar players that invented really good sounding music..

I mean, the next thing we know, we find Satch or Vai .. gone.

I'll probably be in tears by then.

Most of us grew up listening to these guys.

Life's too short to complain about things we hate or dislike.
Sometimes I wish I heard less of this when I'm out and about.

Then again, who am I to make a change?


That's when we come back to the whole point of not sharing personal thoughts..
As we grow older, critics tend to be louder too..

Perhaps it's the quality of life we have in this era.
Maybe that's the problem.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

1.25 Years into Aztec and..

Has it been a roller coaster.

When I first joined last year, I admitted to my director that I felt I was getting nowhere. He just smiled and told me how things worked in layman's terms in our department.

"Imagine a dark room. You spend about 3 months searching for the light switch, and whenever you do, you think you know everything. Whenever you feel like you do, in front of you lies another door that leads to another bigger, darker room.. and the cycle goes on."

The interesting thing about these "rooms" is that they're always full of interesting knowledge and skills to learn.

And he's right. Up to date, I still have questions why rainbow shoots out from our Job-Runners occasionally.

The fascinating thing is that the job consists of a minimal set of Access SQLs. For whatever reasons, I will not state why we need them.

But the other thing I'd like to talk about is my adventure in writing stuff like this at work..

Sub test()

  MsgBox prompt:="Welcome, " & Application.Username & "!"

End Sub

And then, you embed that procedure into a button for a user to click in Excel, and a message pops up:

We're talking about VBA.

Now for those who knows me before I started working in Aztec (or right now, but you probably think I'm around and about rocking my brains out with my guitar), I'm not a programmer or any sort, and trust me, I'm still not!

Because of being exposed to what I do at work, and a little bit of Excel, I started off with building "prototype" templates that made things work a little bit easier for me.

Automation, turned into a form of art and beauty for me.

Where a user clicks on a dropdown menu, and whenever the value is selected, it determines particular cells in a workbook to change values to suit the reference.

Now that's all child's play, for some reason.

When I first saw, what I called then, the hacker's screen, which the world knows as Visual Basic for Applications, I didn't know what I gotten myself into. Something like the above turned into..

Sub test()

Dim Msg As String
Dim UserInput as String

  Msg = "Welcome! Please provide your name."
  UserInput = InputBox(prompt:= Msg, Title:= "I need your name!")

  If UserInput = "" Then Exit Sub

  MsgBox prompt:="Welcome, " & UserInput & "!"

End Sub

I'm like.

Holy shit. I just made one of those cool boxes that tells me that.. it requests for my name, and .. It just greeted me!

Like seriously.

Diarrhoea or holiness.

For the past 3 weeks, I've embarked on a journey that sort of made my "dream" come true. Sharing my knowledge and capabilities with others. I've done it with music - if you ever had a personal chat with me - and I never thought I was able capable of making a tool that sticks into your Excel application (If it's Office 2010), and you're able to use the same functions that I use on a daily basis within the department.

Now, it wasn't as easy as I thought. Because if I were to explain how I used the Circle of Fifths and a Modern Dorian mode to write the last section of a song to make it sound majestic, or the Pitch Axis Theory to write a song that doesn't have a fixed key to the common passer-by, they would be, well, a passer-by.

But if you demonstrate it in a context where they have knowledge in, which is to play for them, then they'll pay attention.

I didn't realise that designing my first public-release Add-In at work required so much resources from myself. I was my own:

  1. VBA Programmer
  2. Designer
  3. UAT Team (User Access Testing)
  4. Troubleshooter
  5. Project Director
.. And then I had to study a little bit of XML to make stuff work particularly in Excel 2010.

The idea I had in mind when I was driving this minor project of mine, was an iPad.

Now now, before any anti-Apple people get on my tail about a product that's rubbish, you must understand one thing about it.

You don't need an instruction manual to operate an iPad. Let's have a look at the product design.

  1. The iPad has only 4 buttons and a I/O switch (for muting the device or screen orientation lock.
  2. It's got a screen.
This means that it won't take you long to figure out which is the button to bring the magical chunk of technology to life.

And whenever you do, you only use one button to navigate around the entire device. Which is to return you from your applications to your Home screen.

That button is placed in a manner where you know you'll always access it.

The interesting thing about this product (or similar greatly designed products) is that you need no instructions for it, and the learning curve is not steep either. I remember reading this in an article, but this seems to be a little bit more interesting if you want to talk about product design.

Now, the Add-In I made, was a test. There was one that I released to a set of people on another department within the company (and a few friends), it has no instructions, but it sort of reinvented how the wheel works.

For months of VBA programming, I've been retrieving a list of existing worksheets that exists within a workbook for my own use and report building.

And not long ago, I discovered how to make a UserForm usable in Excel. Designing how it works, however, was a pain, because it was brand new to me, and I suck in visual design. It's just as bad as my cooking, where I've set more oven mittens on fire than getting something edible out of the kitchen to be served.

When it hit me I had a little bit of control over UserForms, I could use a UserForm to report to the end-user to show the list of worksheets that exists within the workbook.

Holy shit. What the hell am I thinking of?

So. Imagine a pop-up window that appears in your face, and shows you the list of worksheets you have in your current workbook (hidden or unhidden), and you have a choice to select multiple worksheets you wish to hide or unhide.

Stop. And read again: you have a choice to select multiple worksheets to unhide. And this is Excel we are talking about.

Excel has a limitation - which is when it has multiple hidden worksheets, it only unhides one at a time, based on user selection.

I've seen how reports are built in the company. And sometimes, they have 50 hidden data sheets.

Think about the time you can passionately spend with Excel to unhide 50 hidden sheets when you need to find out what went wrong somewhere.

Not cool at all.

Moreover, if you're a data nazi, you'd like to have everything to be consistent. So selecting 50 worksheets that end with the same keyword alone, can be quite frustrating - especially if you accidentally selected a wrong worksheet.

The toughest part was to let it sit in a normal user's hands. Sure, I'd understand how the code works, but that doesn't matter at all when it comes to the user. Nobody cares about how much effort Apple puts into their electronics design, and majority of the market what matters is that the product is light, convenient, and easy to use.

Don't get upset with me when I mention the above. Try explaining how great Apple is by making their electronic components microscopic to build a thin table to a child, and take note of the time when the child loses his/her attention in your lecture and starts using the device itself.

I had to go with the same direction. I had to allow the user to not let the user spend too much time to adapt to it.

I didn't need to explain much when I sent it to them, and they find this Add-In very easy to use.

And because they can, now, unhide 500 worksheets at once (as opposed to Excel's limitations), they find it very useful.

That's just one of them. The other that the people in my department doesn't know is that, there's a button where when they find an ID and wishes to identify it without going through an application, all they need to do is to click that button and..

(This idea came from my director, and we both worked on it.. Was like a dream come true as I look up to him when it comes to these things.)

  1. The workbook creates a connection to one of the SQL servers in the backend.
  2. It retrieves the ID, and dumps it into a string.
  3. And then it sends the query to the SQL server to retrieve the information in a nice manner where they don't have to strain their eyes to see the attributes of the ID that they want to be identified.

This was my first ad-hoc product that I designed for the department, and I'm happy that I've dumbed things down in plenty of details so that users of most levels of users can use it.

It has been an interesting experience. The codes, the designing of buttons, troubleshooting it, testing it, criticising it, it all fell into place at the same time..

Now the only problem is, like the words of Jony Ive of Apple:

"The thing is, it's very easy to be different. But it's very difficult to be better."

That's when we strive on to be better than where we stand now.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Picky about.. Picks.


So, what's one of a guitarist's worst fears in their entire guitar journey? A bad power supply unit for their pedalboard? A snapped string while on performing on stage? An amputated finger? Insufficient funds for a new guitar? A broken neck? Broken electronics?

Or.. Like me, using a specific pick for the past 9 years, finding out that your local supplier doesn't supply that specific pick anymore?

I'm telling you, that's the end of the world for me.

.. Along with whatever that has been mentioned above.

For 9 years, I've never failed to switch out from my pink/purple Ibanez Steve Vai signature series pick, because of its size and feel. Sadly, I had to look for an alternative that won't phase out in the next, what, 5000 years to be safe.

 (Although I have about 40+ spare for the Ibanez picks, but it's always good to restock..)

Anyhow, with the kind souls and service of one of the few guitar shops I (used to) go to in Hobart, Tasmania (Hobart Music Center), they informed me of this..sad news..

.. But in return, they gave me two sample picks to try out and give me time to make up my mind about what's next on the list - A Jim Dunlop John Petrucci Signature Series pick (Ultex), and an Ibanez Paul Gilbert Signature Series pick.

I'm pretty aware that Paul switched over to Tortex by Jim Dunlop, though.

And besides that, I had to get my hands on a pack of Jim Dunlop Jazz III XL's as recommended by my good friend, and a fantastic guitarist, Kelvyn Yeang.

So, time for a switch. But I want to make it a different switch. I want something that'll last rather that it losing its bits and pieces within 8 hours of guitar works.

Or worse still, I'd rather have a pick that doesn't break.

So, here comes the painful transition - from a normal sized plastic pick to a really ridiculously small sized (it's small to me.) pick.

And preferably that it's made out of nylon.

And on paper, I dislike the John Petrucci pick already - because it has a thickness of 1.5mm .. And I can't usually play anything that's more than 1.0mm.

To accommodate the above mentioned picks, I have added some photos to show what they are.. Although, they're pretty self explanatory, really.

From left to right:
  • Ibanez Steve Vai pick - 1mm thickness (made out of some plastic-y material)
  • Jim Dunlop Jazz III XL - 1mm thickness; nylon
  • Jim Dunlop John Petrucci - 1.5mm thickness; nylon; ultex design
  • Ibanez Paul Gilbert pick - feels like it's 1mm thickness - and uses the same material - and feels that there's less mass to it - than the Steve Vai pick.
So, before testing these picks, I had to cut my fingernails to show how serious I could be.

At this point, I should probably make this clear - I picked the Steve Vai pick because I felt comfortable with it back then. And back then, meaning when I was 16 years old. I knew nuts about finger tone, and tonight, I see what sort of materials would affect your tone.

Round 1: The Ibanez Paul Gilbert Pick
When I picked up the Paul Gilbert pick (I knew this was going to be scratched off my list, anyway, so might as well get it over and done with), I see what's the point of smaller sized picks. I felt a little bit closer to the strings (mainly because of the size), which means I had lesser picking motions that disallowed me to completely ruin my guitar playing by simply picking with a larger pick - always assuming that I'd hit a note 150% of the time.

Truth is, the smaller picks created a great discipline for me to be particular of what I play. There was a slight difference compared to the Steve Vai pick, but at this point, I still preferred the "grittiness" and the bite that the Steve Vai pick produced. I played this pick along with some of my own songs (Home, Debra and Losing Memories), it didn't sound right one bit (and I'm using the same patches as I did in the recording sessions).

Also, I didn't really play much with this pick. The plus point about this pick is that it has a paint coating on it. Which made me identify why I don't want this pick to be my next choice for the next few years. It was already shredding itself as it couldn't accommodate my picking style. I'm an extremely hard picker.

Goodbye, Ibanez picks.

Round 2: Jim Dunlop Jazz III XL
Because I didn't like the idea of the John Petrucci pick being a 1.5mm, I decided to not even jump into the pick. I wasn't even hyped about it. I like Dream Theater, I like his guitars with all sorts of options - including the rocket launchers and nuclear missiles, but my brain refused to comply with its 1.5mm thickness.

I noticed that the Jazz III XL are nylon picks, and the sides are edged. Whatever sorcery this is, I loved the idea of the edges. It doesn't stick onto the string much, really, and I could feel the pick. It's bigger than the Ibanez Paul Gilbert pick I tried out, so the size was something I could get used to.

The tone, on the other hand, sounds warmer (compared to both the Ibanez picks I use/test). It's a little bit easier to control, and it's missing of the bite I usually have. Like the case of the Paul Gilbert pick, I felt closer to the strings because of the drastic change in size. It's really hard to get used to, because I can't seem to slam my entire wrist and pick on the string on some parts when it's supposed to feel so good.

.. Which is a good thing, because I wanted to improve on my playing to have more discipline on it.

I tried this pick on one of the few songs I find tough - Neil Zaza's King of the World. It's not your generic in-your-face instrumental rock song, but expressing what Neil's songwriting requires a different approach, mindset and technique. It passed in terms of sustaining a good amount of dynamics. It was missing of the bite that I usually get out from the Steve Vai pick.

But it's something I could get used to.

Of course, the night didn't end there..

Round 3: Jim Dunlop John Petrucci

That's the only thing I had issues with. The pick's thickness. I get nightmares whenever I think about the thickness because I could imagine the tone associated with that thickness.

Good thing I tested this is the very last pick I tested, because I fell in love after playing a quick lick.

This is, indeed, a shredder's pick without a doubt. Surprised? I bet not. After all, this pick was designed by John Petrucci.

If you noticed from the pictures above, it has a different colour to it on the edge. But don't let this fool you if you think it's cosmetic. It's science, actually. It's based on the size of the Jim Dunlop Jazz III picks, and the whole "Ultex" bit of picks. Ultex, apparently, is a type of picks that Jim Dunlop produces as well. From what I understand, Ultex is an additional feature on picks that has edges on the side of the pick - so it's able to slide off strings if you pick really quickly.

And Mr. Petrucci wanted more of that glide.

I found the concept interesting, and I'm telling you, it feels good.

Playing with the John Petrucci pick, apparently, is like training for runs with ankle weights. When you play with this pick, it feels like the ankle weights have been taken off.

It's unbelievably quick. And because of the smoothness of the pick, it contributes towards the tone of the guitar - in which the horrific tone provided by the 1.5mm thickness diminished by how the pick was designed. It sounds warmer to the Jazz III XL's (surprisingly)

I tested this on some shred licks, and it felt good. The effort I put into speed picking was very minimal.

Mr. Petrucci definitely knows his stuff. At that level, of course he knows his stuff. And I'm glad I understand a little bit of his madness.

And to be honest, I couldn't pick a winner between both the Jazz III and the JP. They both felt good, sounded distinctive and are easy to get used to.

But if you ask me about which felt like home, that isn't the point. I was particular about how the picks sounded, and the JP wins my heart this time.

Not to say that I'll never use the Jazz III XL's, or the remaining 23 - to be honest, I'll end up switching in between the JP's and the Jazz III's in and out of recording sessions depending on .. tone.

.. And to think that I was able to fit in a MGS 3 session after the pick-testing sessions, but I guess I was wrong - just like I was wrong about how bad the John Petrucci picks were going to be.

Moreover, I'm surprised at how technical they can be when it comes to producing picks. I'm happy that they paid really close details, because it really pays off for guitarists.

Friday, January 25, 2013

January 2013 Update.

It's been quite a while that I wrote something. Not that I haven't found the time to write anything at all, but I haven't found anything interesting to write about that captures attention (including my own).

But, a few updates..

- The project with my good friend and mentor in many subjects, is beginning to sound good. So far I refuse to disclose any information with regards to the album - besides the fact that we had 2 drummers on the records, quite a lot of guitars from his side (thanks to everybody who loaned us these beautiful guitars for tone's sake), and my faithful Fender Stratocaster and Ibanez Fireman. I'm looking at the release to be somewhere in April or May if all goes well - an iTunes album release will support that as well.

- Been really busy with the day job. Nothing much there.

-  Getting really intimidate with music, but due to certain aspects, it's beginning to stress me out when I tend to treat it like a job. Which might lead the next solo record to sound a little bit different with additional effort. Something I'm looking forward to, after I get a lot of things sorted out on my side.

Other than that, nothing much has changed.

You gotta keep your eyes on this space if you're interested in the new record. The new record with Kelvyn will feature both physical and digital copies. It's our first time collaborating with each other in releasing art.

It's all beginning to make sense now.

Till then,
Rock and roll.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Reboot: Reflections .. And Other Things!

In February 2012, it came clear to me that if I were to spend a lot of time in front of the computer with the guitar, constantly writing, recording, arranging, producing and enjoy the sonic results of stuff, I would be able to release a personal playlist consisting of songs.

But greediness isn't what life is all about.

After 10 years of guitar playing, I found the joy of songwriting, and I wrote a few tracks, which were available on YouTube for the likes of everybody to check out!

I guess I decided to take it up a level, and to release a solo album.

Ah ha! The links are towards the right. Only 100 physical copies were home made, and spread amongst fans, friends, family and new faces so far.

I hope you enjoy this record as much as I did producing it.

On another note, I recently returned to Malaysia to visit friends and family - but also to distribute this album, and to gather MIDI information from a drummer I truly respect, and had the honour to work with. The reason why, is because that this record was sparked by the idea of a local guitarist by the name of Kelvyn Yeang. The underlying materials that we've worked so far, would be a surprise. It's totally different to what Ocean of Fire fans would listen to, really.

Since he's taking up on the lead guitars (obviously), what would my role be?

As an arranger/producer. So this ought to be interesting. I'll contribute very little amounts of guitar works, but the main objective of this record would be very challenging. To make instrumental music enjoyable. It took me quite a bit to realise that instrumental music - without lyrics - is probably the ultimate language to ensure that everybody understands what you're trying to communicate.

I don't need to understand Japanese to listen to Nobuo Uematsu's compositions for the Final Fantasy series, if that makes sense.

Anyhow, the links are on the right - check them if you wish!

I'm in the midst of moving places as we speak. My brother and I will get the keys to the new place, and I'm looking forward in setting up my "mobile" studio there. Will be an interesting change!

'Till then,

Rock n roll!

- JL

Friday, August 31, 2012


Ah, David Gilmour. What a genius you are. A guitarist who's noted to crazily abuse space and melodies.

The Blue is currently playing on my playlist, and .. My word, it's beautiful.

Anyway! My good friends & guitar mentor, Kelvyn Yeang, sent me a message on Facebook while I was reviewing one of my songs (actually, two, but they're two songs merged into 1 - which is about 9mins and 17sec long!) .. They're titled:

Pt. I: Onwards!
Pt. II: Forgotten

Played together, back to back, would be titled as "Onwards, then Forgotten." .. Music's all about putting all sorts of ideas together, and when it comes to this, you're limited by your creativity, and for my case, I'm limited by both creativity and technique.

But back to the whole message on Facebook, he mentioned something about getting 10 songs done - to get some ideas and arrangements done. I remember he once told me something about "not being too precise" in his recordings to make it sound organic. Surprisingly, he's going back to his 2004-2005 roots where he's really on the dot.

And he pointed out that he had a chat with some dudes on his side to understand that playing with live drummers, they'll never be "on the spot". I don't blame them.. And I think live drummers are great to work with! But let's face the fact. If you really want to hit ON the spot, either you have to nudge their recorded hits to a certain time frame on the session - which will be a complete headache to the audio engineer as he has to splice most of the tracks apart, drag everything into place..

.. And if the kit's mics bleed into each other, that's when the cursing and tantrum begins.

.. And you can't cheat the room, overhead and ambient mics in the recording studio.

So, for the drums, I'm required to study the people he has worked with before, which will be interesting (for my drum programming toolbox).

He also suggested that I should study his bassist .. but if it were to be the 4 and 6 stringed instruments we work with, I automatically assumed that he wanted me to record the bass as well.

.. Surprisingly, he wanted me to work around MIDI basses .. And sad to say, I do not have any proper MIDI samples to imitate a rock bassist. The best way (for me) to get a bass guitar that's being played by a bassist IS to record the instrument itself.

Plus, honestly, I dislike MIDI bass patches unless if it's a non-rock track, then I'd actually programme bass lines rather than to record it.

But.. Oh man! This slight project is going to be an interesting one! I hope I have the time for him and his ideas.

And he mentioned something about to "orchestrate".. which I hope he isn't serious, and he accidentally meant "to arrange with extra instruments"..

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Story to Tell.


Something I've always accused myself in. The truth is, I don't think I have failed drastically.

Not yet, at least. And I don't intend to.

Plus, for those who failed, turned out to be the world's greatest leaders in their own industry.

What say you?