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Lockdown Learnings

I’m aware that I have been very quiet on this blog since the arrival of Coronavirus in the UK. It’s not directly a result of the virus or the lockdown. I’ve been working on a few things. Call it a period of incubation…

Yours truly in quarantine

Music Outside Sheds

When it became clear that the British government was unable to do the right thing, many national and local institutions took matters into their own hands and self-imposed lockdown. Music in Sheds was no different. Our last session was on 11th March, and we are on hiatus until the Coronavirus situation permits us to restart.

Half Gauges

I tried half gauges last year. As I was brushing up on my rusty guitar playing, I went through 9s, 9.5s and settled on 10s. 10s were strong enough to resist my iron grip, which was causing some of my chords to play out of tune.

I put 10s on my SG too. Having a shorter scale, the strings are a bit easier to bend. I liked this so much, I recently decided to revisit the gauges on my Strat, and lowered the plain strings’ gauges a half step. Who knew! It’s worth reviewing your gauges occasionally, especially if you’re still learning. (And, let’s face it, when do we ever stop?)

Wireless Wanderings

Under pressure to suggest a reasonably-priced birthday present, I thought, “what does a guitarist not really need, but would like?” I looked into Wireless, and found that it was neither complicated or expensive. So, a couple of weeks later, I was prancing around the house, seeing how far I could go before the sound stopped. (Not that far, it turns out.)

Nonetheless, the freedom you get from a wireless guitar is a minor revelation. I’m not sure I could go back to cables now — although no doubt I will have to at some stage, when I forget to recharge the batteries. (A charge doesn’t last that long, it turns out.)

Helix

My love affair with Boss effects ended in March. Despite a multitude of options at my fingertips, the ME-80 just wasn’t providing the sounds I wanted as easily as I’d have liked. It was time to move on.

Helix LT

I took the plunge, bought a Line 6 Helix amp/effect modelling processor from PMT in Salford, and stuck the Boss on Reverb. It worked out to be a smart move. The Helix both sounds amazing and is pretty straightforward to use (once you get the hang of it). It’s not so much a multi-effects pedalboard as a floor DAW with footswitches.

The amp modelling is very impressive. I quickly created 8 presets with popular amps and a Swiss army knife array of standard effects pedals. 60s sound? Switch to Vox AC30. Hard rock? Fire up a Marshall stack. West Coast flower power? Where’s my Fender Twin? Much cheaper (and lighter) than 62 valve amps!

Reverb.com

Since I’ve got back on the guitar-playing horse, I’ve become aware of a website called Reverb.com. It’s like eBay for music gear. I’ve bought a couple of things off it, but the disposal of my Boss effects box seemed like a good opportunity to try it as a seller. Besides, my last few experiences with eBay had been increasingly unrewarding.

Reverb doesn’t do auctions. You work out a reasonable price for your gear and add a bit of haggle room on top, slap on a description and a few photos, and wait. Within a couple of weeks, I had one guy taking the piss, and one reasonable offer. Very civilised. Reverb doesn’t take 10% like eBay either. It takes a more reasonable 3.5%.

Orion and Live

I stopped recording around 15 years ago. At the time, I was using Orion and Live on Windows XP, with an M-Audio sound card! Recently, I’d started to entertain the possibility of writing and recording again. But what would I use?

Orion DAW

I opted not to reinvent the wheel, and dug out my old backups. An hour later, I was running all my old software on Windows 10 with my old sound card. I even restored my old samples, VST instruments, VST effects and song files. It all worked perfectly, with the added bonus that my computer had seen a couple of major hardware upgrades in the interim. All I need now is musical inspiration.

Adam Audio

The last time I recorded on a computer, I ran a couple of long cables to my stereo, which was used throughout the whole writing, mixing, and mastering process. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this course of action, but it worked pretty well for me at the time. The only minor problem I found was that my final mix was a little muddy and bass-heavy.

This time around, the stereo is at the other end of the house to the computer — not exactly ideal for monitoring! So the credit card came out again, and Andertons supplied me with a couple of Adam Audio nearfield monitors — hilariously sold as single speakers. Wow! They are certainly a step up from the £5 Asda PC speakers I was using.

If you are tempted to splash out on some nearfield monitors, whatever you do, please buy stands too. These are often supplied with monitor pairs as bundles. Do it.

Home Studio

I have this tendency to get carried away with projects. This time, the room over the garage was the casualty. My music gear was taking over different parts of the house, so it seemed sensible to consolidate my work stuff with the studio and music gear, in one room.

the new studio

After a bit of sweat and toil, and a few unpleasant surprises underneath well-established furniture, my new office/studio/rehearsal space was assembled. All it needs now is a cheap carpet to absorb all the echoes.

Strap length

I’ll end this meandering monologue with an epiphany I experienced this weekend… Last year I swapped a few guitar straps around. As I did this, it occurred to me that I never really understood what determined the correct length for a guitar strap. A trip to the font of all knowledge (YouTube) gave several alternative philosophies, including:

  • The guitar should hide your groin
  • The guitar should be the same height standing as when you are seated
  • Your fretting hand’s thumb should end up on the back of the neck

In my past life as a guitarist, I always liked to have the guitar high up, John Lennon style. These new suggestions all had their merits, but none seemed particularly definitive.

When I was playing rhythm guitar at the weekend, strapping on the SG, I noticed that it was a higher than I was comfortable with, and I was fluffing the low notes in barre chords. Then the penny dropped: my forefinger barre was at the wrong angle. I dropped the guitar height a few inches, kept the neck up, and my barre chords were fixed.

Not so much groin as belly button, in my case.

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General

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…

Categories
General

Staircase Theory

I still remember what it was like to learn guitar in my teens, back in the late 70s. It was bloody hard work. I recently read that Fender had done some research, and worked out that 45% of their guitars were sold to beginners, and that 90% of those beginners gave up within a year.

That’s pretty shocking news to me, but understandable. Even now I’m playing again, it often feels like learning the guitar is like climbing a mountain. But it was always this way, and I’m sure it always will be. But, it’s not all bad news…

Keith's first guitar, a spanish-style acoustic

Back in the 70s, I would spend hours with a guitar, trying desperately to persuade my fingers to do what was shown in my library books about songs and chords. They would tangle and fall over each other, miss the frets, snag the strings and usually arrive late. It was very frustrating.

After a few months of banging my head against a wall, I found that things had suddenly become easier overnight. My hands obeyed my commands. It was like I’d been given a new body, better at playing the guitar. But, a few weeks later, it was back to climbing the mountain, and I forgot all about that strange day when everything got easier. Until…

Keith playing the Kasuga at home

…another few months later, it happened again. This wasn’t just a one-off thing. It appeared that learning guitar was more like climbing a big staircase than a mountain. I would struggle for weeks to absorb new techniques and songs. Then, after a protracted period of struggle, it would all fall into place very quickly.

There must be a very good reason for this phenomenon, but I’ve never heard an explanation. Maybe it’s something to do with muscle memory. It certainly still happens to me, 40 years after starting. And this time around, the gains were greater: the stuff I learned when I was young was still there, and just needed a bit of exercise. I was back to where I was when I stopped playing (comparatively) very quickly.

So, now I’m back on the horse, I’m also back to climbing the big staircase. That first step was a easy one. I wonder what the next one will bring.