Archive for October, 2011

October 15, 2011

“…the power of inducing fantastic images.”

by George

One area we’ve ventured towards in previous postings but never really entered into is the impact of effect units on electric musicians and the music they create.  Since the first fuzz boxes & treble boosters of the 50s & 60s through the monolithic rack units of the 80s to the analog renaissance/guitar processor era of today, musicians have been using effects to tailor their sounds and elevate them above the physical constraints of wood, pickups and vacuum tubes and into sounds that had never been heard before.  The growth and expansion of these effects in all forms of music has led to the formation of an army of electronic (and a few adventurous acoustic) musicians seeking new tones and stepping through new gateways into worlds unknown.  For theirs is a wonderland of sonic exploration; a world where the impossible is possible.  Sounds great, huh?  Well it is…for those adventurous enough to open their mind and step out into the brave new world before them.

Inserting one of these devices between your sound source (be it a guitar, bass, synthesizer) and amplifier, adjusting a series of controls, knobs, sliders, buttons then stomping on a bypass button unleashes the power contained by the circuit/chip within.  In a way, it’s like stepping on the accelerator of a majestic transport that travels to the depths of your creative mind.  It can have all the impact of a black hole collapsing, sucking you in to the epicenter of the sonic transformation.  While some nuances are revealed, others are dampened.  When things go awry it’s as though Pandora’s Box has been opened, that ancient seal that held back terrifying evils broken.  Effects units (pedals, processors, whatever the device) transform the sound of an instrument into something beyond it’s natural form, restraints and capabilities and give the player a new perspective on the sonic potential.

In most instances, these effect pedals are attempts to instantly recreate certain physical or mechanical manipulations of sound or recorded audio.  A flange unit emulates the effect of slowing down and speeding up a recording tape head that, when played in unison with a second identical recording playing back at standard speed, conjures up the mighty rumble and whoosh of a 747 jet engine passing over head (flange was actually created by a studio engineer during the recording of a Beatles record and named by John Lennon).  Even the first fuzz box was designed to simulate a ripped and torn speaker, one push well beyond it’s limits until it could not physically withstand sound.  With a reverb unit, you can trick the listener into thinking that you’re a mighty sorcerer; one able to magically transported yourself from a small room to the Grand Canyon, then to the far depths of space and back, all while not missing a note of your melody.  Some devices extend the range of the instrument (pitchshifters, octavers) turning a single guitar into an wall of polyphonic might, while others increase it’s output to prodigious size and imbue it with aggressive harmonic overtones (distortions, overdrives, fuzzes).  Some are capable of distorting the fabric of time, creating fantastic and cosmic sounds from the far reaches of the universe (delays, echo units and choruses) while others still have the power of reducing and separating and recombining certain frequencies from the sonic spectrum, controlling sound in ways not possible without electronic wizardry (phasers, filters, envelopes).  Using more than one of these simultaneously can have a hypnotic effect, entrancing the listener with otherworldly sounds own heard in their mind’s ear.

Amid the vast myriad of these devices there can be seen two distinct classifications, regardless of the effect type, analog and digital, and many players have a strong preference for one or the other.  Analog devices are named as such because, to quote the great Bob Moog, “the way the electricity vibrates in the circuit is analogous to the way sound vibrates in an acoustic instrument.”  He goes on to compare analog electronics to light, saying “When we look at sunlight or the light from and incandescent bulb, we get a continuous spectrum of colors and, to our eyes, this seems very natural”, something that most would agree with, especially when compared to a fluorescent bulb. And because each has a unique mix and arrangement of individual components within, no two pedals (even of the same brand) are identical.  Human error and imperfection in the manufacturing defines these devices and analog fans can swear that the NOS germanium transistors in their fuzz pedals or the bucket-brigade devices in their delays have magical, almost god-like, properties.  This can be especially evident on reissues of classic fuzzes, etc. from decades past, as manufacturing processes have become far more regulated and consistent in recent years.  Although an old schematic may say that a 500 Mohm resistor was used, the actual value of the component put in place in 1972 may have been +/- 15%.

Digital devices sample the electrical waveform that would pass through a similar analog circuit, taking measurements and describing that waveform along certain points and at a certain rate, then adding them up to form a model resembling the original electrical signal.  The more samples, the more ‘realistic’ the sound and the lines between real and digital get blurred more and more with all the advances in computer processors and their use in audio applications.  Digital systems not only offer lower production costs vs. analog gear, they are also far more reliable (more resistant to changes in temperature than analog components) but they are also capable of being almost identical across multiple production batches.  Digital devices live or die based on the robustness of their sacred code, or algorithm, that is ‘taught’ to them before they leave the digital nursery.  These algorithm-driven megamachines allow us to process sound in ways not even possible through the use of analog circuitry, transcending the known and carrying the sonic explorer into another dimension.

Some players stand firmly on the warm, natural analog side, while others pledge their allegiance to the efficient and versatile digital contingent.  The smartest sonic architects have the wisdom and experience to know when each variant is best suited to their particular challenge or work.  Only experimentation and a willingness to extend out into the unknown can yield this knowledge.

The question (or argument) then becomes, does the creative potential lie within the hardware or the human?  Are these powerful tools the creative source or just the catalyst?  Could a painter create a masterpiece with only 2 colors?  A carpenter build a barrister bookcase with a pocket knife?  Or a driver win Le Mans with a Prius?  It’s true that having more options enables greater possibilities and opens up options that weren’t there before.  But at the same time, I could not accomplish either of these feats even if given a palette of unlimited colors, a workshop of tools or the most nimble sports car.  These powerful and unique tools are only utilized to their full potential in the hands of an experienced master.

pedalboard of J. Mascis

Pedal board of the great J. Mascis
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