How Well Do You Know Your Gear?

I recently watched a video of Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks showing off their home studio. As you can imagine it’s pretty swanky. You could say it’s in a shed at the end of their garden, and that would be true except that their shed is nicer than most people’s houses and it is packed full of lovely instruments and recording gear.

Susan is interviewed and asked why they have mostly vintage gear. The instruments are mostly older; the console is a Neve but they record to a DAW of some kind. The standard answer would be some waffle about vibe and/or mojo. She doesn’t go that way though. Her response is that people know how to use the older gear well. It has finished developing and you can learn its tricks while modern gear is changing fast (particularly in the realm of software) so keeping up is hard.

This resonated with me as I am in the process of switching to a new DAW and it is driving me bonkers. There are lots of great new things to excite me, but they also distract me as I spend hours playing with the new gegaws. There are also moments of desolation as I find that a feature I relied on is no longer available to me. Perhaps the worst aspect is the change to my workflows. This is something that I didn’t think about that much before switching but this has had the biggest impact on my work by far.

Specific Knowledge of Specific Gear

There is real value in specific knowledge of specific gear. This is a reason that electric guitarists are often associated with specific instruments. Jeff Beck can make most guitars sound good, but his facility on a Strat set up for him is prodigious. Peter Green’s grasp of his Les Paul allowed him to get stunning tones from his unusual version of the guitar, whether his guitar was that way by design or accident.

It is much harder to master a gamut of gear. I wonder how this will affect the Axe-Fx generation? The gear is amazing and it really suits some players. I have seen Annie Clark put on a stonking show using it and Dweezil Zappa relies on it for his Zappa Plays Zappa project. There is a rabbit hole there though. Choices can be dangerous.

This applies to recording too. I have heard recordings of drum kits done with a pile of SM57s that sound great (despite the mics being better hammers than mics) and recording where the full glory of a mic cupboard has been deployed sound like warm diarrhea. The differentiating factor is knowledge of the tools employed. If you know what you are doing with an SM57 you can accomplish great results. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

Once you get into the realm of consoles and outboard things get even more convoluted. This is a big problem in a decently equipped studio and in the virtual world of DAWs it is overwhelming. What preamp, what EQ, what compressor how to route the signal, what busses to route through and so on. With a screen full of menu options for each choice where do you begin and how do you cope with the inevitable doubt that just around the corner could be the perfect gizmo for the task?

Squeezing Your Instrument Dry

Any instrument you spend hours playing on a daily basis can lull you into thinking you know what it has to offer. I think for most of us, and certainly for me, we find a way we like to set our instrument and then we just leave it. It is great to have a standard tone and to know that well, but you might be missing out.

When I was in secondary school we were taken on camping trips in state parks in the US. These were big spaces with lots of possibility to roam. One lesson we were taught was when finding a camping spot for the night always spend five minutes more exploring the area just in case there is a better spot just around the corner.

This holds true for instruments too. Perhaps backing off your tone pot a touch will give you something interesting. Perhaps picking closer to the fingerboard will allow you to play a particular phrase more dynamically. Even a change in posture while playing can open up previously unseen pathways.

These are all small adjustments that are very easy to make. What if you look a little further? In terms of fretted instruments, what if you play a passage in a different position that normal? What other scale shapes or even just range of notes are now available? What about playing louder than normal? Does that open up possibilities? Or quieter? Can you hear new things?

Extended techniques are out there too. Look at what a player like Jim Campilongo can do with a Telecaster and a Princeton amp. He has a very inventive approach to his playing and he has developed a powerful and unique voice. In part he has been able to do this by focusing deeply on a limited set of tools (one kind of guitar and one kind of amp).

Just for one practice session why not try to find the outer limits of your instrument’s tone. I am using electric guitar/bass as my model but the mindset could apply to any instrument I think.

If you are a Strat player have you spent much time playing on the middle pickup by itself? What kind of tones can you get from it? The second tone knob only effects the middle pickup. What happens if you roll it all the way off and then switch to the neck pickup with the tone open? How do the tones compare? Can you come up with a line that uses switching between the two tones?

Even if you are a P-bass player can you get some different tones from your bass and amp? What do the extremes of your amp’s tone stack do? How bright can you go? Does that open up possibilities with harmonics? If you normally play with a mid-scooped sound what about trying a dramatic low-mid boost?

I haven’t even mentioned pedals yet.

The point is there are lots of options we don’t normally think about. We find a decent looking campsite and we live there forever. What if Shangri-La is right around the corner? If not that there might be five other equally good campsites that would be nice to visit depending on mood or who is coming to dinner.

Recording for Result

Old farts like myself tend to go on about the old days when all we had were recording studios made of physical bits and bobs. The ones I used to work at usually had a limited amount of mics, pre-amps, compressors and even console channels. There was seldom any choice. Just having a tool was a plus.

This isn’t a diatribe at younger people intended to make you feel guilty about the tools available to you. The modern world of audio technology is brilliant. One of the best things it has to offer is choice. It is a dangerous gift though.

I can spend far too long wondering which EQ to use on whatever track. In the end the difference in result they will give me is minimal. The differences converge on interface more often than not. There are occasions where something specialized will be useful, needing really tight Q on a notch filter for instance. When that is the case the choices are often simple. Having a go to tool and knowing it backwards is a great thing for you and whomever you are recording.

Methods and Workflows

Steve Albini reportedly said, “If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody’s fucking up.”

He’s talking about an album. 50 minutes or so of recorded sound mixed and ready for mastering. This is in the context of recording in a commercial studio that you are paying for. The idea holds for working in your home studio too. Spending too long on any work too often sucks all the joy and creativity out of a project. If it takes too long to reach the end you can forget why you started the journey in the first place.

It helps greatly to have a standard method for each stage of the song/album making process. Deviations from the path are fine. If you have a path you at least have a frame of reference for your excursions and you can return to the path if you find yourself mired in shit.

I think this approach has benefits even if you like being immersed in merry chaos. Sometimes the chaos becomes less merry. It is good to have a route out. Also working from some set methods can free you up to put your creativity into more fun things than trying to find those audio files or figuring out which mic is connected to which input.

In practice in the world of DAWs much of this is about setting your preferences and creating some template files to work from. This goes back to the earlier point about knowing what all the possibilities of your instrument are. In the same way it is good to know what all those settings in the preferences of your DAW mean. Some of them might be useful for you.

If there are things you find yourself doing every time you open a new project, you really should see if you can deal with them in preferences or at least in a template file. Some folks always change their rulers or counters. You can set things up so projects open with everything how you want it. This just makes life easier.

Templates are great too. You can set up different ones for whatever types of project are common for you. Perhaps things like,

  • Songwriting
    • One channel for a mic, one for an electric guitar (or a softsynth piano) and a drum machine
  • Sound design
    • A selection of mono and stereo audio tracks with rulers set for time (rather than bars/beats)
  • Band recording
    • Channels set for drums, bass, guitars and vocals with a reverb and delay bus

There might be other things you use most of the time too like metering and or compression on the master bus. Why not have that there every time you open a project?

Methods not Madness

Methods are more ephemeral but boil down to, find a way to do something that works and try that first. Every time. If it’s a good method, it will work most of the time and if it doesn’t work you at least have a reference point to judge your excursions from.

For instance, if you are trying to get a good bass drum sound and your standard compressor and EQ setup isn’t working you have a (wrong) thing to judge. With a tangible thing that is failing you can evaluate why it is failing. Perhaps the compressor can’t attack fast enough or doesn’t have the knee to sound smooth enough. You can then go to an alternative that can do those things better. In my experience working this way gets me to a good result faster than creating everything from a blank sheet.

The same applies to recording something. If you have a few mics you could use go with one that works most of the time first. If it works great. If it doesn’t think about why it doesn’t and you can make an informed choice on which one to try next. It is great if you can have some other tools in your box. Being able to whip plans B through G out quickly is a great way to save even more time.

Knowing what your tools can do will make your life (and your results) much better. Different pulgin effects can have very different interfaces. Knowing what each control does and how they interact is very helpful indeed. That sidechain section of your compressor you never use, perhaps it might be good to have a look at that and see what it can do. If you always use a low-pass filter in your EQ to control the low end perhaps having a go with a low shelf would work better in some situations.

Separate Experimentation from Work

Build your palette of methods separately from making your music as much as possible. I find giving myself an hour or two now and again to play with my gear and see what I can do really useful. Doing this while I am making my music distracts from the goal of the process. I just lose my way.

Ways that can be useful to experiment are,

  • A/B different plugins for the same task
  • A/B different setting on the same plugin
  • Mix up the order of the signal chain
  • Experiment with bussing and parallel processing
  • Enlist someone to help you do some blind testing of results

If you latch on to something that works save the settings (with a descriptive name) and/or make notes about what you did and why.

Slow Down

In the digital world of huge possibilities, it is all too easy to get caught endlessly chasing perfection. A solid good enough will do most of the time. I have found that the biggest benefits come from better performance and writing rather than signal chains and processing. Spend your time, or let the person you are recording spend their time, where you can get the greatest benefit.

Musicians have been trained to be voracious consumers of stuff. New stuff is exciting. Like Susan Tedesci says though, knowing how to use an old tool really well is more useful than having more tools you don’t really understand.

Digital gear is not tactile, but in my mind I can see wear marks on the EQ knobs of some of my favorite plugins. I know what they do, I know where I can find good results (most of the time) and I can spend my time making more useful decisions that have a bigger impact on my output.

In the end it is all about the sound that goes into someone’s ears. The tools you use are just part of a whole sea of choices. The commercial world of DAW and plugin development will keep presenting us with newness. If you keep up with them you will never really know your gear. Perhaps it’s time to stop updating?

Is Jazz Better Than Rock?

Value judgements about music genres are complex. I recently got into a discussion about the relative virtues of bassists in jazz as compared to rock. The premise put forward was, broadly, that jazz players are more skilled and that the genre as a whole is more demanding to work in. This intersects with several prejudices about music that are interesting and perhaps useful to look at.

Is complexity a virtue?

There is a tendency to view complex things as more challenging and therefore more valuable musically. This may not be completely wrong, but there is value in simplicity too. The pro-jazz prejudice can run that only using three chords is easy compared to the harmonic subtlety of a tune like ‘Round Midnight.

The value of complexity depends completely on context and execution. A great tune like ‘Round Midnight uses harmony deftly to shade the subtleties of a beautiful melody. It highlights shifts between major and minor voices and modal relationships elegantly and cleverly. Most rock songs are much more simple harmonically, but this shifts the focus to different areas of the work.

Removing some of the density of information in a work greatly increases the impact. It provides a focus. Whole Lotta Love is not harmonically complex in the least. It is a tune with a great deal of impact, in part because of this. With little (to no) harmonic movement the focus of the listener is placed firmly on the rhythm and drive of the main riff. This is driven into the listener over and over with great force and enthusiasm.

I am definitely not comparing like with like here. These are not even apples and oranges but apples and lobster thermidor. My point is exactly that. These examples are trying to do completely different things so to try to compare them directly is difficult at best.

What about technical skill?

It is possible to make fairly objective judgments of technical ability. Can you play fast? Can you use extended techniques? Can you make your instrument dance like Fred Astaire?

Having technical skill as a musician is useful. The skill itself is only potential. Etudes are not concert pieces. Pure demonstrations of skill are not very interesting to listen to. They have to be put in to practice in context to have real value. It doesn’t matter that you can switch between 16th notes and sextuplets at 210 bpm if you can’t use any of those notes to make people feel something.

There is an easy bias as a musician to value technique very highly. We spend most of our time developing these arcane skills. If it’s not important why am I spending all this time sitting in a room with a metronome?

The debate around technique crosses genre boundaries. Interestingly in rock there is a prevalent reverse prejudice, that virtuoso players are somehow stunting other areas of their music. Steve Vai gets this particularly strongly.

Vai is derided in some circles for not having “soul”. This is interesting as he has played some great songs with a lot of feeling. The most apparent of these are often not his own compositions. His duet with Nell Furtado on her song I’m Like a Bird is very sensitive and musical. Even his hair-metal work with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake is full of humour and joy. Much of his solo composition is based around his formidable technique and this seems to create an emotional distance for many people.

Who is the music for?

While in pop/rock technique is viewed with suspicion in jazz it can be lauded sometimes beyond reason. It is complicated in this context. Charlie Parker lit the jazz world on fire playing fast solos, extending harmonies and stretching the boundaries of what music could be. The same things in the hands of other musicians becomes dry and lifeless.

There is a bragging culture in some areas of jazz. Bop and its variants are particularly prone to this. It becomes very similar to rap rivalries in some ways. Musicians end up speaking to the other musicians in the audience or even in the same band.

There may well be cultural value to this approach. While the music may not be of wide appeal the effect it has on other musicians may well drive them to assimilate the techniques in ways that are more musically accessible. I think you can make this argument about the value of rock musicians like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. While lots of folks don’t like their music a generation of guitarists have grown up listening to (or at least aware of) what they do. This frames musical possibility. Even if you don’t ape what they play the gravity of it pulls your playing into a new shape.

Tallying the scores

In thinking about this I find myself, currently, in the cultural relativist camp. Music needs to be evaluated in context. You can say that jazz tends to be more complex than rock. You can even stretch to generalising that jazz demands a higher level of technique than rock. Neither of these claims come close to establishing an objective hierarchy of the genres.

I love lots of music that fits into both camps. I have spent time playing both. They are both useful, exciting and entertaining in different contexts for me. Thankfully art is not a competition and there is no Hunger Games of genres so I can continue to enjoy both musics as my whim leads me.

The dichotomy of popularity and credibility is deeply limiting to musicians in all genres. It is useful to have huge reservoirs of facility and technique but it is not a requirement. More popular is not better either. There are many wonderful musicians who are obscure just as there are wealthy hacks. Don’t judge yourself just play.

Join the Low End: Some Tips for Those Thinking of Learning Bass Guitar

These are some personal opinions on getting started learning bass (and music in general). This is definitely not the only approach. If anyone reads this and disagrees or feels I have made an omission please let me know so I can improve this missive.

First off, do it!

Bass is a wonderful instrument to play. It has a crucial role in many genres of music. You can have immense positive influence on your fellow musicians and be the coolest cat on stage.

Bass guitar by Feliciano Guimarães, source Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
Bass guitar by Feliciano Guimarães, source Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Is it easier than guitar?

Bass is more than two-thirds of a guitar. It is a very different instrument, requiring a different mindset and performing different functions. It is very difficult to make comparisons about how easy an instrument is to learn. I think that you can be a very useful bass player if you become skilled at some simple things. The learning curves are different. Bass has a shallower slope to start but it just keeps rising where guitar has a steeper start and becomes shallower. Continue reading Join the Low End: Some Tips for Those Thinking of Learning Bass Guitar