During lockdown, I traded in my old effects box for a Helix LT effects processor, from PMT in Salford. As I got to grips with it, I copied a couple of well known song parts, and I found myself creating new riffs on the guitar.
I recorded myself using my phone, but the quality was only good enough to share with friends. So, I gathered together my music software and gear, and acquired a pair of studio monitors in anticipation of some new writing and recording.
When it was all set up, I had to test that I could still work the software. So I recorded a short riff and melody I’d knocked up recently. It all came back to me after a while, and I was pretty pleased with the result, although it was a very short piece of unfinished music.
After showing some friends what I’d done, I was sent a couple of pieces of unfinished music. Firstly, I was asked to add a guitar part to a jazzy bass and backing track. I went full-Santana over it. Then, I was sent a short free-played acoustic guitar piece, with no brief. I was a bit more ambitious with this, adding full drum/bass backing, 12-string electric, and two lead guitar tracks.
None of this is finished quality work, but I wanted to share it anyway — just to show what can be accomplished with minimal practice and 20 year old software.
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…
Music Outside Sheds
When it became clear that the British government was unable to do the right thing, many national and Greater Manchester institutions took matters into their own hands and self-imposed lockdown. Stockport Music in Sheds was no different. Our last Heaton Moor session was on 11th March, and we are on hiatus until the Coronavirus situation permits us to restart.
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?)
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.)
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.
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 83 valve amps!
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% 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 barre finger was at the wrong angle. I dropped the guitar height a few inches, kept the neck up, and my barre chords were fixed.
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, found fellow musicians in South Manchester to play with, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 modelling, 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 quickly. It was all a bit hit-and-miss.
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.