Losing Sight of Sound

It’s been about a year since I started playing guitar again. It’s been quite an effort, but a very enjoyable one. I’ve re-learned how to play, and I’ve learned lots of new things to play in the process. I’m pleased with my progress, though there is always room for improvement. But, despite all that I’ve achieved in this time, I felt that something was missing — something which was stopping me from getting full benefit of playing guitar again — and I’ve only just worked out what it is: it’s how the amplified guitar sounds.

The Noisewarp, Mk. I
Ping-pong cassette and Noisewarp (mk. I): featuring Booster, Swell, Sustain, Overdrive, Fuzz, Phaser, Wah/Volume pedal, and tape echo.

In the 80s, I was very much into tinkering with music gear. I had a soldering iron, and I wasn’t afraid to use it. I read practical magazines about electronic music, which gave me plenty of ideas for experimentation. I modified the electronics in my guitar, I made effects boxes, and I built a demo recording set-up. When I had consolidated all the best bits, and got tired of wiring it all up at rehearsals, I made an all-in-one unit, which I called the Noisewarp.

Live at Darwen AFC

Any shortcomings in my “reasonably-priced” electric guitar were more than made up for in the sonic box-of-tricks I’d created. You’d rarely hear the guitar played clean. More often than not, two or three effects would be running at any time. Experimenting with a large palette of delicious sounds proved to be inspirational for writing and recording music. Discovery was a catalyst for creativity. And the more gadgets I collected, the more ideas they generated.

1970s JHS Guitar Combo
A 50W JHS combo, like the one I lost in the 80s.

Years later, when the equipment had become neglected, I sold Noisewarp’s various components. As I’d lost my guitar combo some years earlier and was no longer gigging, I played unplugged, or through the stereo. Missing the Noisewarp, I bought a used multi-effects box with the basic pedals. But it didn’t sound great, and the guitar playing continued to wane.

Boss BE5 Multi-effects
Boss analogue multi-effects pedal, with compressor, noise gate, chorus, overdrive and echo.

When I made electronic music, I bought a combo for gigging — a Roland KC-350. Billed as a keyboard amp, at 120W, it was powerful enough for a full ensemble of weird and wonderful sounds from a DAW and midi controllers.

Roland KC-350 keyboard combo
Roland KC-350 120W ‘keyboard’ amp combo.

In the years to come, I tried to jump start my guitar playing with new guitars and gadgets. I swapped my basic effects box for a super-duper digital multi-effects box. But while there were lots of new sounds to play with, it didn’t seem to inspire any experimentation.

Boss ME-70 multi-effects box
Boss ME-70 digital multi-effects processor, with effects too numerous to list.

In 2019, the penny finally dropped about amps. By accident, I read about the “Rec Out / Phones” socket on the Boss ME-70 effects box. I learned that it was designed to recreate the sound of a guitar amp cabinet, and that this modified sound was duplicated on the output jack.

Suddenly, the sterile fizzing sound was gone, and it sounded much more like it was supposed to all along. It turns out that the Roland is what’s known as an FRFR Amp (full range, flat response), and, like your stereo, it doesn’t sound great with an electric guitar or pedals. You need an actual guitar amp, which has a very un-flat frequency response. There was a cartoon light bulb moment, and I felt a proper Charlie.

I traded in the ME-70 for the updated ME-80, offering better quality sound, even more effects, and enabling presets to be edited and organised on a computer. But, I was still finding it tricky to get good tones from my gear. It was all a bit hit-and-miss.

Boss ME-80 Multi-effects
Boss ME-80 digital multi-effects processor, a more refined, sophisticated and ergonomically superior successor to the ME-70.

I read a couple of interesting articles by sound engineers on getting the best from your amplification, instead of swapping it for something else. The articles planted the seed that it was possible to make dramatic improvements to the character and quality of your sound by thoughtful use of your amp’s basic tone controls.

Then I compared a premium valve combo with the corresponding simulation (playing the ME-80 through the Roland). The valve combo easily won, sounding clean, warm, smooth, and full of character. I attempted to recreate the tone of the valve combo, using just the EQs on the Roland and ME-80’s amp modeller. Half an hour later, I was there. In a blind A/B comparison, the Boss/Roland might have even sounded slightly better! The improvement was striking.

So, there is a massive difference between different types of combo and amplifier/cabinet, which dramatically changes the character of the sound. And it seems that I can’t take EQ for granted. I need to learn how to analyse tone, listen to how EQ affects the sound, and not be afraid to experiment. I may actually find that I already have really good gear, if only I knew how to set it up well.

To be continued…