Friday, August 17, 2012

In pursuit of tone

In preparing for recording my next album, I decided I'd better get up to speed on what kinds of sounds are being produced by the different pedals and amps on the market in mid-2012. I've been out of the retail music store gig scene for quite a few years now, and only recently have I decided to start assembling sounds for use on my latest recording project.

This is a common-type layout for a modern, versatile studio/live guitarist in the 2010's. It involves distortion, modulation, delay, reverb, equalization, and compression elements, and usually your amp plays a larger-than-you'd-expect role in tone shaping. In the studio nowadays, no holds are barred, and cost is no object in that quest for tone. It can easily spend you broke, and make your search for the best combinations lengthy and arduous, as one might suspect. Time and time again the consensus is that the ultimate amp is the best thing to base your tone on (based on the less-is-more theory and the maxim that the shortest signal path is the cleanest), but, like everyone, I like a bit of variation and some different, unusual, unique elements. Nothing too extreme, mind you.

The best distortion effects tend to have architecture much like an amp itself, with channel switching capabilities (2- or 3-channel settings) so that in some cases they can be used directly inserted into the input of a recording console instead of in conjunction with a mic'd amp. A minimum of two switchable settings seem to be the optimum for obtaining a solid rhythm sound (on which your overall song sound is based), and a separate lead option (with that extra bit of grease to give you a subtle dynamic change, and/or a boosted level to set your solos apart).

Modulation is the wiggly-sounding part of the signal that emulates the tremolo circuit on a vintage Fender tube amp, or the machine gun-like stutter of a solid-state Vox Super Beatle. It is like a repeater that can be set to fade the sound in and out at an adjustable rate, speedwise. Intensity can turn it from a slight wobble to a more pointilist, staccato effect.

Delay gives you an echo effect, with repeats (usually labeled and controlled by the amount of feedback) or a slapback 50's style tone. back then, when it was first developed, it was tape-based, and was physically built into amps. It can be set to run away into the night or, alternately, to add a bit of added presence depending on how it's used. It's good to have a little bit on all the time to widen the tone, so that it's not really thin (unless narrow/thin's what the song calls for. That's the mandate, what the song demands).

Reverb is that guitar-amp-in-a-cave sound that diffuses the tone and gives it a sense of time and space. It can start as a room sound and expand both in size, and in amount of time before the sound travels from its source to its destination, your ears. It can be dark, bright, soft, harsh, or any variation or combination of those elements. Its components include attack, delay, sustain, and release. It, like all outboard instrument effects, can come in a pedal, an amp or at the FOH from the sound man to influence the overall house mix.

Any effect for that matter can be triggered either/and/or at the vocal mic via pedals and switchers by the artist, by the instrument tech behind the amps onstage, or by the live sound engineer through the house sound system for live applications. Some artists prefer to adjust various predetermined parameters (morphing two effects, changing delay time, reverb size, wet/dry levels as examples) via expresssion pedal.

A (tracking) recording engineer generally won't trigger effects as he records individual/live tracks, but a remix engineer can and usually does as he performs a proper remix. The artist isn't the only one getting in on all the switching, but it's usually at his direction that the switching takes place, often as one portion of the function of his/her artistic vision.

The live sound engineer usually requests the artist send a direct signal (with varying degrees of effects, as requested by the LSE) via direct box to the PA so he can flavor it with compression, reverb and delay for the entire audience, especially if he chooses to have some artistic say over his domain. The guitarist's settings may differ significantly from the sound man's, especially when the FOH guy is a house sound guy. The sound guy that travels with the band can usually trust the artist to send him an effected signal that's compatible with his overall sound design, since they've worked together extensively prior to the performance in rehearsal. A house sound guy might/probably will have a different (read jaded) view, not being intimately aware (or even interested) of or in all the artist's specific cues! Needless to say, rehearsal aids the smooth operation of everything related to a well-thought-out performance, and it's usually not logistically possible in one-nighter situations. It always pays for a band to carry their own guy (who knows the cues in advance), but it's not always affordable/feasible/possible to do that....

Equalization is bass, midrange and treble, and there are a couple ways it can be controlled (graphically, parametrically, or manually by wah wah pedal by the artist). Compression reduces dynamic range of an individual instrument or overall mix so that multiple tracks can occupy the same amount of overall gain space and not exceed what's known as unity gain, but (for this article) we're not going to make this any more difficult by expanding our discussion on that topic. We'd be getting into describing the various aspects of gain structure, which would be best saved for a more technically-oriented session.

These are only a start, as many instrumentalists have MANY layers (to say the least!) of these devices that also make their tones individual, as well as the amps (tube or solid state), instruments (down to the kinds of wood used) and the pickup configurations themselves play a huge role. It can be as easy as plugging a guitar, instrument or mic into the right amp, or as difficult as a lifelong quest for tone and the perfect combination of effects, instrument and amp. These types of devices are not necessarily exclousive to guitarists. They can be employed with any instrument that carries an eletrical pickup and is accessed by the jack used on the pedal or device, whether it's either of the common unbalanced 1/4" cable or TRS (mic) balanced cable.

This is meant to simply be an overview, it can easily become very complicated, especially in figuring out what order in which to place the effects. This too has an influence on how the amp hears the effects, and whether or not the effects actually change the inherant amp tone (which can be viewed as an effect in itself) instead of just being a tonal additive to that amp sound. The amp itesf can be (most often IS) a discrete tonal choice on its own!

Effects can be placed before the input of an amp, into the effects loop of the amp, or directly into a channel strip of a mixer if recording. All these variations produce a slightly different, desireable (or not; one's trash is another's tonal heaven) tone. It's not cut and dried, but there are some tried-and-true orderings that can make the job of tone perfection easier in some cases. It's really as hard or as easy as one makes it, as nothing (well, almost nothing, you absolutely need electricity!) is set in stone.

Following some rules goes a long way, but remember, as guitar tone specifically originates in the hands, two people can sound completely different playing through the exact same configuration of instrument, effects and amp. The human element is the factor that will never be replaced as the most criticial, most potentially gamechanging part of the equation. Optimum musical articulation still originates in the brain no matter what you're plugged into.

We'll tackle other aspects of music production as it applies to recording and performing live (it's always a production, even when singing a capella!) another day. Till then, keep your tubes hot and your antenna up! See you then!

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