Demystifying Metal styles, how to make fingerstyle playing heard in Metal
Over the years I've seen a lot of posts asking questions regarding the tone, technique and all out speed exhibited by some of Metal and Death Metal's more prominent bassists. Most of them are questions I myself had asked years ago when I first started playing aggressive music. I've thought for a long time that I should take the time to put down here at TB what little I've learned on the topic over the years, and hopefully answer the more common questions, at least insofar as my experience goes.
First off, lets all acknowledge that a great deal of the music community, players or not, consider Metal, Death Metal particularly, and most of its sub-genres to be utter crap, devoid of musicianship and flavor. This is very frustrating for those of us who ARE players, because we have come to know that many of these players are amazingly talented and skilled musicians, and some of them are equaled only by the jazz and fusion greats like Pattitucci and Wooten when it comes to sheer speed, accuracy, technique and innovation. My advice for those who are desperate for our peers to understand that our idols and influences are talented and then for example, try to show our rock drummer cousin a clip of Flo Mournier blasting out blistering measure and proclaim "LISTEN!!! Its a standard jazz feel beat!! Played at 280BPM!! ISN'T THAT INCREDIBLE!!".... my advice is: save it. Even though you're right, they will likely dismiss it as noise. Very likely if you digitally removed the guitar and vocals and played it back for your jazz snob cousin a second time, he would be floored, desperate to find out, "who is this drum-kit maniac?!?"..... but nonetheless we are relegated to being mostly alone in our knowledge of some of these amazing musicians, and over the years I have come to take comfort in that secret enjoyment, driving home after a 6 hour funk and R&B session listening to Suffocation........
Now, lets talk about some of the more prominent BASS PLAYERS in these genres.... although there are many many players who deserve recognition here, I'm going to stick to the ones that seem to get the most attention and questions asked here at Talkbass; Alex Webster, Eric Langlois, Derek Boyer, Sean Malone, Stefan Fimmers, and Steve Digiorgio. All of these players are absolute masters of their instrument, and most have done at least some work outside of Death Metal, most notably Sean Malone, who's amazing work with Gordian Knot, Aghora and others is definitely worth a listen from anyone who enjoys technical bass playing. Some of the most common questions seem to center around two basic topics: A) How do some of the fingerstyle players get that heavy tone without using a pick? B) How do they play so incredibly fast with just two or three fingers?
I've been playing Metal, Death Metal, Thrash, Speed, Black, Punk and Screamo bands for 10 years, and playing bass for 17 years. I now have my own Metal band, but I also do session and studio work for R&B artists, Jazz and fusion artists, do stand-ins for cover bands and play in an experimental live drum & bass project. I play all fingerstyle, use 3 fingers, and I can sustain fingerpicking open or fretted in 4/4 at around 240 BPM for a few minutes at a time. This isn't a "toot my own horn" sort of thing, just so that you have an understanding of where I am, the better to explain how I got there..... You can see this kind of playing in action from guys like Alex Webster ( who actually uses only 3 fingers the vast majority of the time ), Derek Boyer, Stefan Fimmers and many others in the "Death" community, as well as many many players in the jazz and fusion community.
Choosing to play fingerstyle as opposed to using a pick is a difficult choice when you're playing in these styles, as the speed and technicality is more easily accomplished with a plectrum, however more and more people every day have come to feel that playing fingerstyle affords more expression, control and creates a natural, round fundamental that often is not present in pickstyle playing and must be EQ'ed in artificially. Playing fingerstyle at these speeds is incredibly challenging, but its entirely do-able, and there's plenty of room for anyone to develop their own unique voice and play musically at these speeds. So, for those of you here who's posts I've reads and are ready to give up.... stick with it. Like any other technique all it takes is time and practice, and you are literally capable of anything.
Let me tell you a short story: One of the very first Death Metal bands I got into was Cannibal Corpse. I saw "Ace Venture Pet Detective" in the theater with my Pops, and when I saw the scene in the film when Jim Carrey was on stage with CC, and Alex was playing fingerstyle, I audibly blurted out " BULL ****!!!" I thought, there was no way he could 1) play THAT fast with his fingers and 2) get that heavy pickstyle attack I hear on the albums..... he must have put the pick down for the filming to try and LOOK impressive, as these things were clearly out of the realm of human ability. Well, that summer I saw them in concert, and was just blown away. Yes, he was actually doing it. I resolved that day that I would learn to play that fast, and play accurately and musically at that speed as well. Its important to understand there are many many more fingerstyle players in these genre's who choose not to play at those speed and just play root notes in half or more often quarter time without actually following the guitars on the fast tremolo. Examples would be Bart Williams (The Black Dahlia Murder), Brandon Giffin (The Faceless). One might be tempted to say that these players are simply "fakers" and lack the skill to play at the 64th notes in the fastest passages, but thats usually not the case. Usually the individual players and the band as a whole have found that this strong, supportive style of playing is more musical and better compliments their vision for the song. It is however the case in some rare instances that the player is actually unable to play at those speeds. I resolved the day of that Cannibal Corpse show that I would never be the one to have to sit out the fast parts.
Now these were days LONG before Pro-Tools, Reason, home recording consoles and the like, plus I was only 15 or so with nothing but a paper route for finance, so my technique involved gathering together the fastest albums, picking the fastest songs, and since these were all TAPES, playing and replaying the blinding fast parts until I thought I had an ear for the notes or progression, and then playing along... doing my best to keep up..... stopping the tape, rewinding and doing it all over again. I did this for two hours a day, every day for about 6 months. Its should never take any of you wanting to learn this style that long, I'm just a particularly poor learner, and don't recommend you go about it in this way..... :p Thats the story of how I decided to be a Death Metal bassist extraordinaire.....
Everyone has their own ideas about how to build speed and accuracy, and there are so many schools of thought on the subject that I'm not going to go into that here, but at least I've given you a nice example of the WRONG way to learn a new technique....My best advice is to A) Read the forums and B) Get an instructor and take lessons I will share with you one method to get yourself up to speed, a method I still use in my practice regimen today. If you have a drum machine or program, set up a straight 4/4 kick drum beat, with maybe a cymbal or snare every 8 or 16 beats. After warming up, set the program at 160bpm. This should should be very manageable. Pluck alternately with all 3 fingers, matching every kick drum hit. Play until you can match every hit for 60 seconds without missing any. Now take a 2 minute break. Set it the program to 180 and repeat. If you miss a hit or two. Stop, rest a second and start over. After playing without missing any hits for a full minute stop, raise the tempo by 20bpm each time and see how high you can get. If you apply this method every other day for an hour or so, you'll see clear and impressive improvements within the first week.
Even with all this hard work, I continued to play my instrument incorrectly right up until 2004. I'll explain how in just a moment. One of the biggest mysteries of my young life was, HOW DO THEY GET THAT SOUND??? Many of the bassist in this genre such as Steve Digiorgio, Sean Malone and others, kept a very traditional fingerstyle tone.... even Jazz'ing it up a bit with a little reverb and bridge pickup plucking, Jaco-Style. To me this style was less attractive at the time, because Metal bassists seemed so often to be completely buried in the mix, and I though the more attack I could get the better. What good was all this hard work writing musically accurate melody lines and fun fills if no one could hear it??? (I later discovered that bass tracks getting lost in the mix in Metal music was mostly the fault of the bass players themselves... but more on that later). It was easy enough to discover how to apply the technique, but getting it to sound right was a journey that lasted almost 7 years. The technique involves playing towards the neck, and striking the string hard enough that it bounces off the fretboard with each stroke, much the same way each note is created when playing "Slap" style.... by bouncing the string off the fretboard, only here you're using your fingertips alternately instead of your thumb. You can see tons of people on the Cannibal Corpse website asking the same question: HOW DO YOU GET THAT TONE. Although Alex Webster was by far not the first bass player to employ this technique, he was certainly one of the first players to bring it to the forefront in the Death Metal genre. The technique, mostly due to Webster, is now commonplace and even in some cases the standard in the genre.
To explore the roots of the style, you have to look at the people who influenced these young players in the 1980's. Two names will be heard more often than any others; Steve Harris, John Entwistle. Both of these players employed this technique, although to say one or the other "Invented" it would be incorrect, as it was also used by Geezer Butler during the same years. Each of these players had their own unique take on the style. John Entwistle brought the strings on his bass so low that they were practically laying flat on the fretboard. This allowed greater ease when playing since the strings has less distance to travel, requiring less finger effort. The inevitable fret buzz, when filtered through the overdrive / distortion John used, combined to create John's signature sound, and was quite musical. Steve Harris used far less overdrive / distortion, and used flatwound strings to reduce the amount of fret "clank" and keep the fundamental in the forefront. These players were the pioneers of rock and metal bass playing in the 60's and 70's, so its no surprise to see these techniques employed by some of the heaviest bands in existence in the late 80's and early 90's. The style offers the bassist a way to retain all the attack needed to cut through heavy guitar, without sacrificing the natural low end you loose when using a pick. There are however, a ton of problems with this technique. Firstly, it requires more effort that you may at first think when compared to normal fingerpicking. Using heavy gauge strings, having a medium to medium high setup, and instruments with poor fretwork all can make a stressful technique even more difficult.
The first thing that you can do to understand using this technique is realize that most of the players using it do not employ standard tuning. Almost all use some kind of down tuning; on a four string players may be tuned DADG or "Drop D", DGCF or "D standard", many players even go further than that and tune to Drop C, C standard, and the Nu-Metal bands go way down even to A and G standard, although usually on a 5 or 6 string. This downtuning allows a great deal of looseness in the strings, and an increased ease in playing in this style, since it takes less effort to get the string to sound off the fretboard. The side effect of this technique is clank and fret buzz. For me, it was a never ending battle between setting the strings as low as possible, and keeping fret buzz to a minimum. Set the strings too high and you wont be able to play uniformly at speed, with every couple of notes not striking the board and therefor sounding weak and uneven........set them too low and you have buzz and fret noise. This battle cannot be won. Trust me. Its a compromise. Here are a few pointers from my experience; 1) Use a good bass. Sounds silly, but the measure of a quality instrument is as much in its fretwork and neck playability as in its wood and electronics, and an even quality fretjob is imperative in this style 2) Use lighter gauge strings. The closer you are to standard tuning, the lighter your strings should be, and vice versa. 3) Set your neck to zero relief. That is, as close to flat as possible. There are many schools of thought on this, and recently more people have come to prefer zero relief when playing. This will allow you to make all your other setup adjustments uniformly. 3) A little fret buzz is OK. Bear in mind that most fret buzz occurs between 1.5khz and 2.5khz. In Metal and even more so in Death Metal, this is section of the frequency spectrum that is completely filled up by the guitar in the mix. Anything outside of VERY severe fret buzz cannot be heard in the mix, all that will come through is your attack, and your fundamental. Set your action low enough so that its easy for you to play very fast without "missing" any notes, with each note striking off the board, and not have so much fret buzz that your fretted notes are indistinct and lack sustain. 4) Turn off your tweeter. Reducing frequencies above 3khz will reduce the amount of clank and unpleasant artifacts produced by this technique.
I played in this style completely ignoring #3 and #4 for years until I attended a clinic with Michael Manring. Surprisingly, He was actually acquainted with the players and the style, and asked me what the problem was. I told him that the fret buzz was so severe that I sounded awful, so I kept my strings set medium high, but as a result I was so exhausted that I often "faked it" through the last song in the set, and was often prone to cramping. He walked over to my rig, turned my tweeter off saying "...there's a reason all these players use that Ampeg 810.... no tweeter..." He then turned the "Treble" knob on my amp down a touch from flat and told me that at my next rehearsal to try these settings, set my bass as low as it would go, stand closer to the guitar player during the set, and see if I could hear the fret buzz. He went on to say: "no matter how fast you're playing, or for how long, if you're technique is correct you shouldn't experience much fatigue..." Well, of course he was right, and to this day I still repeat those words.
These days I rarely use this technique, and with the exception of a little distortion here or there, I pretty much employ roughly the same tone for almost everything I do, except when I'm tracking for someone else in the studio and they have a specific sound or tone they'd like to hear to complete their vision. My tone today is very similar to what you'd hear from Steve Digiorgio or Stefan Fimmers or Sean Malone. Straight fingerstyle, no aggressive attack, played towards the bridge. You see for years I had always wanted my instrument to be as present in the mix as possible when playing in these type of bands. Half the reason I liked Cannibal Corpse so much is that your could actually HEAR what the bass was doing, unlike so many other bands in that genre. It was playing in Jazz clubs, doing studio work for progressive rock bands, and most especially playing with better gear ..........that I realized why so many bass players in Rock or Metal are all but inaudible. Whats worse is, its their own fault!! Fingerstyle players who don't use the heavy attack style we've been talking about often pull their hair out because they cant hear themselves.... in rehearsal, live or when tracked. This is almost always because they have a tendency to "Scoop" their sound. That is, boost the bass and treble, while cutting out all the midrange. Fingerstyle and pickstyle alike, this lends an awesome, heavy tone to any player's sound when played solo, but when you add the rest of the band, its gets lost.... completely lost except for the 80hz - 100hz thump heard underneath everything else..... and the player is in tears because all of his slick melody runs, his syncopated lines and tricky stops go unheard by the listener!! I cant express enough how much you damage your intelligibility when playing in a band by setting your tone an EQ controls while playing SOLO.... set your tine controls while your bandmates are playing!!
You must understand that in music, live and recorded there is only a finite amount of sonic "space". In other words, from the lowest frequencies to the highest, there is only so much room for each instrument to be heard clearly. If you have 3 tuba players, all playing a variation on "D".... if a fourth tuba player jumps in and does a quick minor melody it will go completely unheard because the human ear can only interpret so much sound in a given bandwidth. Thats why so many death metal bands sound sloppy, loose and muffled. The guitarsist and the bassist all scoop out their midrange and boost their bass..... so every instrument in the band is struggling to be heard between 20hz - 300hz. Metal and Death Metal bass players who scoop out their sound are basically emphasizing the frequencies that are already taken up almost completely by the kick drum and the guitar... the very lowest frequencies 20hz - 60hz and the lower treble frequencies 3khz - 7khz, and removing all the bandwidth that is relatively open, the midrange; 200hz - 1khz. This causes a muffled sloppy sound, since no one instrument can be heard clearly. Any good studio engineer who records a lot of metal will tell you that, when recording fingerstyle bass, he will begin cutting the lowest frequencies out of the bass signal at around 70hz..... this is to make room for the kick drum, which if heard clearly below everything else, will keep the music sounding tight and the bass sounding clear. He will also likely tell you not turn your midrange down all the way, and he may even emphasize some midrange frequencies later on when mixing to bring the bass forward. If you play in an aggressive metal band and want to be heard, boost your bass only slightly, leave your treble alone, and perhaps even boost your midrange slightly around 200hz or 800hz. Switch back and forth and try to find your own sound that pleases you, but remember to listen to how your new settings sound IN THE MIX while playing with your band. Your new settings may sound somewhat nasal or honky to you after scooping for so long, but once you start playing and you can actually hear yourself, and enjoy what you hear, you will never turn back.
Well, I hope this shed some light on the questions I see being asked by younger players, and hopefully was a help to some and an enjoyable read........
Very good read. I'm not much of a Metal fan, but recently I've been giving it another chance and this really helps me understand a few things. Thanks for posting! :D
Bravo good sir. I'm gonna try your tips to get rid of my clank from now on. I'm always trying to get that round midsy tone that Steve Digorgio displays, and this has given me a fresh view on trying to obtain it.
Very informative. I've actually been using the heaviest gauge Roto swing bass strings I can find but my band only drops half a step down so I'm gonna try a lighter gauge next time I replace my strings.
I've been trying to get a biting tone that also cuts through the mix for a while and I'm getting it pretty well with my peavey probass 500. It has a pretty elaborate eq with bass and treble shelving controls and a 3 band parametric mid control. I keep the bass and treble completely flat, set the low mid fairly low in the frequency curve and boost it about a quarter turn with a wide bandwidth. I very slightly boost the middle mid control and keep the band width narrow then boost the high mid just short of a quarter turn with a slightly narrow bandwidth.
This get my tone real sharp and biting but cuts through effortlessly.
My strings are pretty light on the bottom and very light on the top (BEAD, 125-45 — yes, that's 24 lbs of tension up top).
I haven't had a chance to try this with metal yet, but my intuition is that it will work out well.
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Thanks for the good read! On my amp, I have a "contour" switch, and I usually leave that on and set all other EQ's flat. Live, I'd need that and about 1000 more watts, but in my own practice, I've found that to be a cutting sound, even on fretless basses which I exclusively play.
Here, on Talkbass, people have even argued to the last stand that Cannibal Corpse speeds up all their music and videos, which is pathetic. As I say, nobody said you have to like the genre, but to dismiss the whole genre completely as lacking talent is indicative of a lack of listening homework completed on said debater's part. Like any genre, there's the good, and there's the bad. You, the listener, have to figure out which is which.
Awsome post there mate. Ive been only playing bass for 6 years, with two of which playing metal. Ive been playing with 3 finger technique since that time and can completely agreee with what youve said. I think it should be noted that Steve Digiorgio plays at the neck as well, but seeing as he doesnt have frets, that sound you were describing wont be created. One thing thats interesting is that fretless basses dont tend to get buried as much as fretted ones, that mid range bump from the wood seems to make it poke through a little bit more.
I'm not a fan of the genre but that's an awesome post, bravo!
So, what's the problem with picking? Seriously, you don't loose your low end, you just get more of an emphasis on high end. Also, you say that bass players not being heard in metal recordings is the fault of the bass player. That's really only half true, bass can be very audible, but most producers mix the bass away like they've been doing with most metal recordings since the 70's. Not to knock what you're saying, you've obviously got a lot of experience in this field, but I think that you're overlooking those two things.
i really wanna read all that but its burning out my mind. i'll come back to it tomorrow...
looks good though!
Great thread. Thanks!
Actually, it's pretty much the story of my life (because you're not really alive until you pick up bass!).
My main influences were Steve Harris and Alex Webster, I guess it's no surprise that I (without knowing it) developed a style that involves striking the string onto the frets, getting that "clack" that cuts through alot. I call it the "clickity clack" after what my ex-band mates would call it. After less the 2 years on bass I switched to 4 finger plucking because I thought that would help with speed.
First of all, you're SO right about how difficult it is to get a consistent sound out of this technique. I always refused to turn my highs down (actually my preferred EQ at the time was everything flat with trebs boosted a little), because I thought this would just be hiding my mistakes, making it harder to correct them.
I, unlike you, DID give up on that style, but only because I've decided to restructure my technique starting from the very basics of my playing. Honestly, I could reach really high tempos, but there was always those few missed notes you speak of, even at slower tempos. No amount of practice seemed to fix it - but I didn't play with string gauges like you suggest, and I tune standard. Did figure out the neck relief thing pretty early on, but that wasn't enough.
Now, when I can get normal playing down well, I'll try to adapt the clacking style into it, so I can do both, but for now I don't care about it. I'm not permanently in a band right now (just subbing for one), so it will be alot easier to develop this, I hope. It is taking forever as I keep incorporating new elements in my technique, thus starting everything over :(
But yeah I think it should take much longer than 6 months to master that style of playing. To get the clacks consistent is near impossible because as very slight variation in force makes a huge variation in sound.
Just out of curiosity, what EQ'ing would be required to cut through in a metal band if you're NOT using the clacking technique?
The clacking technique has some other huge disadvantages:
-Loss of dynamics: if you need to hit the string with enough force for it to hit the frets, there's only so much less hard you can play before missing notes. So rather than have regular notes soft and accents hard, you need regular notes hard and accents ... really hard.
-More force is needed to get the string to hit the frets the higher up the neck you are fretting. (especially for high strings)
-Hammer on and pull-off notes not audible: Since your plucked notes are made much louder/more audible by your striking the string against the fretboard, hammers and pull-offs will not sound out as much. Really frustrating, and something I never found a solution for except for just plucking every note individually.
One thing I did notice, for the record, Steve Harris actually uses an extremely light touch, and gets that trebly sound with the use of his fingernails, NOT with fret clank. That's not to suggest fret clank is an inherently bad technique; it's just to keep the facts sorted.
Obviously John Entwistle's career wasn't too much of a failure using fret clank. ;)
Secondly, bear and mind that when you hear this style of playing on a CD, the bass signal has in almost every case been put through a COMPRESSOR. This removes the "peaks & valleys" or holes in your sound. It wont fill in the notes you failed to sound off the fretboard, but it will make each not sound equal in volume and width. When you record, your engineer will help you with settings to achieve this, however you have to start from good technique. From what you describe your biggest problem is your treble. If the Treble control on your bass or amp is centered above 3khz, turn them both down about halfway and turn your tweeter attenuator on your speaker cabinet all the way down. Now, if you have any midrange controls, try to boost your signal around 1khz - 1.5khz. This will give you that top end attack without the annoying clank that is so good at revealing your mistakes...... You may also want to get a compressor pedal..... EBS, Aphex and EH make great ones.
As far as needing more effort the higher you go up the fretboard, it sounds like you definitely have your action set way too high. For example, I have my Warwick Streamer 4 set up for this style of playing, and you would struggle to slip a credit card between the strings and frets at the 12 fret. A good setup and perhaps a fretjob will make a low setup be virtually buzz free on almost any decent quality bass. As I said above, having a good bass really does make a huge difference in this technique. Again, with the right setup, hammer-ons and pull-offs will sound out effortlessly. Also, a compressor will improve the sound. Remember, you have probably NEVER heard a bassist playing in this style, who's signal was not heavily compressed.... either live or on CD.....
Well, no matter what bass I'm using, I play towards the bridge and set my Pickup Blend knob about halfway in favor of the bridge pickup. Lets use my Lakland 55-02, an amazing bass for metal, and my Ampeg SVP-Pro preamp and Bergantino NV610. The 610 is sealed and has no tweeter, much the same as the Ampeg 810 that is so popular in this genre, so I don't have to EQ out all the harsh treble frequencies when I am using the "clank" style. But supposing I'm not, and I'm going for a cleaner tone as you suggest, after setting my pickup blend, I turn the "Drive" knob up to about noon. This will increase some of the upper midrange harmonics without introducing any real overdrive. Then I set the bass knob around 3 o'clock, set the midrange to position 2 ( 400hz ) and cut it back to about 10 O'clock, and leave the treble flat. This way, Ive emphasized my bass and lower midrange, cut the midrange only slightly and boosted my upper midrange to get that fingerstyle "Snarl". You can adjust your "Bass" settings to taste, but the more you turn your bass up, the more you should cut out some of the th Low-Mids around 400hz. This will add punch without "scooping" the tone.
Having said that, there are alot of things that I haven't learned since, and your post (or the origianl post) answers much of it. An example is the fret buzz thing. I used to think even the tinyest (boy can I spell!) fret buzz was bad and did my set up and string height accordingly, whilst trying to keep strings low as possible. As for string gauge I happened to be using Elixirs at the time, which only come in light gauge in my city.
If I'm incompetent as a bassist in any way (actually I am in many but we'll not get into that), it's in my lack of knowledge about gear. I've always plugged straight into the amp. I used to fall into the school that "gear should never make up for mistakes" and refused to use something like a compressor. I now see that this is wrong but haven't bothered get one. At this point I have more important things to work on anyway.
But I'll admit, I'm one of the musicians out there who isn't a huge fan of Death Metal. Far too many metal players in general place all emphasis of talent and musical ability purely on how fast they can play. It doesn't matter what or how they're playing, or how the song is structured, just as long as the can play a million notes a minute. Which is great, but those who play like that tend to all blur together, as all the music ends up being a bunch of random notes played at neckbreak speed while someone screams the lyrics.
But every now and then I'll hear a metal band who actually knows what they're doing. They're just not hitting millions of notes, but doing it with forethought and planning. When a metal band seeks to actually make songs, and not just show off how fast they can play, then I'm impressed. But they seem to be a rare breed, as most buy into the "you can play fast, therefore your band rocks" motto.
I blame MTV.
Great read man,
Cool of you to share your experience with us. I have been working on this technique for some while now and do not plan on stooping. Metal is alive and well and will always be
because METAL IS FOREVER
and ya people can say what they want, but in the end it all comes down to personal taste and open mindedness because what people don't realize is how GOOD metal is like all other styles thrown into a blender. and they also don't realize the musicicanship and the fact that alot of metal players actually dig other styles and players.
but oh well, to each his own. they say it sucks, i say their loss:p
Anyways, great thread. I've recently learned Hammer smashed face by cannibal corpse, and have been working on my technique and such to play it in a more Alex Websterish way. This is very helpful.
When Losers Say It's Over With You Know That It's A Lie. The Gods Made Heavy Metal And It's Never Gonna Die! :bassist:
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