Daily Archives: Monday, 5th May 2014

Blackstar ID:Core Stereo 10 Guitar Amplifier

Since I got my basic cheap guitar earlier this year, and carrying on with the Strat, I’ve been playing through headphones plugged into an effects unit[1]. This is actually quite a good arrangement, as it’s allowed me to fiddle around with different sounds and have a bit of fun without disturbing anyone. But the time comes with an electric guitar when you really do need to, well, Make Some Noise. And so, I was in the market for a small practice amplifier. It didn’t need to be very big, and it certainly didn’t need to be all that loud, but it needed to be good enough for me to stick with it and not want to start looking for something else shortly afterwards.

Now in the mumble years since I last tried to learn to play the guitar, technology has moved on. It’s not just that little matter of the internet providing tons of lessons, and making it easy to get hold of whatever kit you want, either. You see, while your actual serious musicians going out to play in front of people still often prefer the sound of valves (“tubes” to Americans), it’s now possible to emulate the sound of such things using modern electronics. The upshot is that you can have one little box that imitates the sounds of several different, and often much more expensive boxes, which is quite attractive. It’s also possible for these things to make a wide variety of sounds, including the kind of distortion that used to require a lot of volume, at the kind of level that won’t upset the neighbours, which is always worth thinking about.

There are lots of these devices, but I was attracted to this new range from Blackstar. They’re relatively cheap (list price of the entry-level 10 Watt model is £89) and also quite small, so they won’t get in the way too much.

Having watched a load of YouTube demos, and read an actual review, I was convinced that one of these would do the job, and once they were actually in stock, I ordered one from Guitar Guitar. On they day in question, I didn’t really have time to go shopping at lunchtime, so I ordered it from the website, with free next day delivery.

It arrived as promised, and once I got it home, I set it up and started to play around. And yes, it pretty much does what it says on the tin. You can use the preset patches, which offer six different sounds to appeal to different tastes, or play around with the settings (gain, Blackstar’s own setting that they like to call ISF, and a selection of effects which can be used in combination). So far, I like what I’ve been hearing. There’s a useful headphone socket if you need some silent practice, and the sound through that is pretty nice too.

You can install Blackstar’s Insider software on your Windows or Mac computer. This allows editing and saving of patches, and links to their web-based community where customers share patches they’ve created.

Unfortunately, at the present time, the Mac version is ever-so-slightly flaky on OS X 10.9. Like a number of people in the forums, I’ve found that while the OS, and other software such as Garageband, can see the amp just fine, Insider totally fails to connect to it. The source of the problem is the curious decision[2] to base the OS X software not only on Microsoft’s more or less abandoned Silverlight, but also on the Mono framework, an open source attempt to make .Net work on platforms other than Windows. Putting my IT professional hat on, I have to say that this is not a sensible way of writing apps for OS X.

For software in most areas, I’d let it go, but given the popularity of Macs with musicians, this does seem a wee bit silly. It’ll probably be fixed at some point, but for now bear in mind that if you get a Blackstar amp and want to edit patches, you’ll need a Windows computer (or possibly a virtual machine, which might work). Though some reports suggest that the software doesn’t work on all Windows configurations either.

UPDATE: Blackstar have updated the software to the shiny new v1.5, which works as expected on OS X. There’s new code for the USB connection which detects the amp without having to delve into package contents, and I no longer get the annoying Silverlight crash when the app exits.  :bouncy: 

If you can live with the restriction of not being able to edit patches in software (you can save them directly on the amp, so you’re not stuck with the defaults), This is a rather nice little practice amp with some extra bits and bobs for the price.

Full details from Blackstar.

The bigger models (20 Watt and 40 Watt) can switch between more patches with an optional footswitch, which may be useful for some. I decided to stay with the smallest model…

[1] Another thing that’s due for a post…
[2] I’m working on being polite.

Fujifilm X-E2 – Firmware update

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate since switching from Canon to Fujifilm is that Fuji are generally much nicer to their existing customers. What’s that? Do they buy us drinks and have pizza sent round? Well, no. Not so far, anyway. But they do something that might just be better. You know how it’s supposed to work with digital cameras (and indeed other technology). You buy a shiny new toy and it’s lovely. You really enjoy using it and then, in the usual way of things, The New Model comes out. It might just be a moderate improvement on what you have, but it’s better, and unless you can persuade yourself that you really must have it, and that you really need to have a second[1] camera body, and that you’ve paid for the last one anyway[2], you’re stuck with a camera that isn’t quite as lovely as it was before those fiends announced a new model.

Well, Fuji don’t seem to know that it’s supposed to work like that. They have this strange idea that if it’s possible for a feature from a new model to be added to the previous one by a firmware update[3], then they’ll try to do it. Oh, and try to add some features that customers have been asking for. To their existing cameras. Instead of telling them to just buy the new one. Very strange.

A case in point. Fuji recently launched a new X camera – the X-T1. This isn’t the expected successor to the X-Pro 1, and it’s not a new version of the X-Ex series. No, it’s a different beast altogether. It’s got the sensor from the X-E2 with enhanced processing power, and a much improved electronic viewfinder, which apart from being significantly bigger is also much faster – the lag between what the viewfinder shows and what’s really out there has been reduced to, well, not quite nil, but near enough for all but the most demanding work. The camera also has even more nicely clicky dials for settings than the X-E2 (menus? how last year!), and is styled to look more like a DSLR than the usual X-series imitation rangefinder vibe.

All very nice, and I have to admit to having been tempted. I even went to far as to get quotes for trading in my X-E1 and X-E2, but decided against it. I’ve got to the point with the X-E2 where I’m as comfortable with the controls as I was with the Canon 5D Mk III, and I don’t really want to have to learn some new ones right now, so I’ll be sticking with it. The X-E1, following recent price cuts, now has such a small resale value that my plan of keeping it as a backup is now definite. There will probably be another X-camera in my future, but not just yet.

And it seems my loyalty to my X-E2 has been rewarded. Fuji have released shiny new firmware which adds value to the camera. Now they couldn’t actually enlarge the viewfinder with firmware (though it would be a really good trick if they could), but they have managed to improve its speed – lag is much reduced (noticeable in the delay between pressing the shutter and seeing the live view again having been reduced to the blink of an eye). And the manual focus aid known as peaking has had its most-requested feature added – users can now set a different colour for this, which can make it easier to see, depending on conditions. They’ve also added a few extra options for function button assignment.

Rumour has it that more features will be added in another update to follow at a time known as “when it’s ready”, which is pretty cool.

If you’re a Fujifilm X-E2 user and you haven’t got your update yet, head over to the official site and get it. Make sure you follow the instructions (mainly about using a fully charged battery) to ensure you end up with an updated camera and not an expensive paperweight:

Fujifilm X-E2 Firmware

[1] Or third, or nth
[2] Or nearly, or near enough…
[3] Some features are sufficiently dependent on specific hardware that this won’t be an option, of course

Weight and Stuff Report – 5 May 2014

Oh good, down again today.

Having stayed in yesterday, I decided to get out for at least a short time on this bank holiday Monday. I didn’t have enough motivation to go anywhere particularly exciting, but I did want to do a bit of shopping. I had an idea of getting some variety of jacket. I didn’t really know what I wanted, so I planned to have a good look and see if anything took my fancy.

Well, I saw something in Marks & Spencer that looked about right – lots of suitably large pockets (looked like holding the X100S in one of them wouldn’t be a problem, a not unappealing colour[1], acceptable price. It was even in stock in what looked to be the right size. But. Aaargh. It’s coated in some “high tech” substance (that’s what the label says), which gives it a unique look and feel. Well, the look was fine – sort of pleasantly crinkly. But the feel was just wrong. It felt like it was slightly greasy (though it wasn’t). Like you’d need to wipe your hands every time you touched it. Well, maybe that’s just me, but it was enough to put me off. So I ended up not buying a jacket after all.

But I did get my Strat a present – which I’ll talk about in another post, when tuits allow.

Today’s photo is another look at the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge. This was taken using the Samyang 8mm fisheye lens on the Fujifilm X-E2, and has been cropped and tweaked a bit, but not straightened, because I like the curvy look, so there.

Transporter Bridge

Transporter Bridge

Camera: X-E2
Aperture: ƒ/1
Shutter speed: 1/80s
Focal length: 8mm
ISO: 400
Taken: 3 May, 2014

[1] Vaguely light brownish. Probably has a name on a colour chart somewhere.