Archive for ‘Transcendentalism’

July 29, 2012

Beyond the Infinite – A review of the Moog Guitar

by George

Infinite.  The definition of this word is one we all know, but how can we possibly understand it.  Nothing we’ve ever known or experienced in our lives has been never-ending. Until now…

Behold…the Moog Guitar.  Moog?  Guitar?

Known for their massively influential (and sometimes monolithic) synthesizers, Moog have been at the forefront of sonic exploration for decades.  In addition to creating the most imitated and desirable monophonic synthesizer of all time, the Minimoog, one of Bob Moog’s greatest achievements was the creation of the Ladder Filter.  You’ll see why this is important in a minute but for more info on what this nifty circuit does read this.  Needless to say, when Moog announced plans for a guitar, many people were interested.

That was in 2008.  Now, four years later, not much more is known about this elusive instrument and they’re rare (if not impossible) to find in most music shops.  Most musicians I talk with aren’t even aware of it’s existence, let alone know exactly how it’s capable of being used.  With that, we begin our tour of this other-worldly instrument.

By appearance alone, there’s not much to indicate that this instrument possesses any magical powers beyond those of a standard electric guitar.  A ‘super Strat’ style body dressed up nicely with a flamed maple top on a swamp ash body, the only thing that strikes you as odd are the cluster of knobs and switches that dominate the lower curve of the body.  Two pickups, set neck construction, a Fender-style dive-only tremolo bridge, locking tuning machines and a clean, inlay-free (save the cryptic, circular logo at the 12th fret) rosewood fretboard…all features found on a number of guitars today.  Then the paths diverge; where you would expect to find a standard 1/4″ output jack is an XLR output, a connection commonly found on microphones, not guitars.  Curiouser and curiouser.  Following this cable leads to a junction with an expression pedal and on the opposite side of the pedal is the 1/4″ output you were expecting.  From here you feed out to the amplifier and things are starting to feel sane again.  Plugged in, you turn the amp off of Standby.

At first listen, it sounds like a standard electric guitar.  The proprietary pickups are akin to a fat single coil, or perhaps a P-90.  Not the most powerful or clear pickups, but they hold a decent amount of harmonic content.  Running through the pickup selector yields some interesting tonal variations; neck, in phase, out of phase and bridge only.  The 5th position in the selector engages the piezo pickups housed in the bridge saddles; percussive, chimey and bright, the sound brings to mind an amplified acoustic guitar.  A control on the guitar allows for a continuous blend of the piezo and magnetic pickups letting you mix the clarity of the piezos with the warmth of the magnetic pickups.

But below the pickup selector is a second three-way switch.  You didn’t really notice it yet because it’s function is coupled with the gold knob below the master volume knob and it’s turned down.  Turn it all the way up and suddenly the guitar is crackling with electricity; it comes alive!  The strings begin vibrating…on their own.  The entire guitar is steadily vibrating but you haven’t even touched pick or fingers to string.  What separates this guitar from a standard electric suddenly becomes clear even though you aren’t quite sure what is happening.  Those proprietary pickups have the ability of controlling a magnetic field that envelops and dictates the amount and type or vibration of the strings.  That gold knob controls the intensity of the magnetic field and the three-way controls the mode of control.

That first mode is Full Sustain, meaning that all six strings are being simultaneously driven by the magnetic fields and vibrate as if being played by some unseen force.  You hit a chord, it swells to an almost overbearing volume and the feeling is completely intoxicating.  As you hold the chord, it sustains and morphs, naturally, shifting overtones and harmonics.  This can be controlled with the expression pedal; heel to toe, the control moves from the bridge to neck pickup creating a pointed, aggressive harmonic crown that blends into a deep, airy and open halo centered around the notes being played.  Polyphonic sustain that is completely natural (i.e. the strings are physically being moved without end) and yet feels anything but.  Adjusting the amount of sustain allows for chords that have a volume pedal swell effect.   Using the tremolo bar to quickly dive before each chord change supplies enough vibration for amplification and the breath-like pulse from chord to chord leaves you baffled.  Techniques you had never even considered before allow you passage to harmonic destinations previously unknown.

The second position of the three-way is Controlled Sustain.  Not only are these pickups powerful enough to physically move the strings, but they’re intelligent enough to simultaneously mute strings that aren’t being played.  Infinite legato is literally at your fingertips and single-note runs take on a pedal steel feel, swelling into each note before growing to epic proportions only to dissolve gracefully once the next note is played and the cycle begins again.  With a nice delay effect unit you can manifest sounds and progressions that bring to mind the majestic ballad of a migrating whale or a spacious, repeated message to the heavens…a cosmic psalm.

You slide the three-way to the final position and something is drastically different.  All the power you held beneath your fingers is gone.  Not only has your new found power of sustain vanished, but it’s been reversed.  This is Mute Mode and it’s Biblical; where before the guitar giveth sustain it now taketh away.  The same forces that kept the strings vibrating in the previous two modes now are used to stop any string played from vibrating for more than a few seconds.  The sound…synthesizer? No.  Mandolin?  Not really.  Banjo? Kinda.  Sitar?  Sure.  More than the sound, the feeling is incredible.  If you pay attention, you can feel the string vibration die, again, as if guided by a supernatural force.  Finger-picked arpeggios and quick chord comping play to this mode’s strengths.

But that’s just half the story.  Dial back the gold knob controlling the magnetic mayhem and there’s still that 3-pole switch.  It’s been in the bottom position, where it functions like a regular tone knob on a guitar, the whole time but you flick it up to the middle.  Even before you play you hear something like a hiss.  Rocking the expression pedal and you hear this hiss build until it’s gone.

What you were hearing is the built-in Ladder Filter sweeping across it’s frequency range.  Yes, the same low pass filter made famous in the synthesizers of the 70s is an integral part of this guitar.  In this mode, the Articulated Filter mode, the envelope cutoff frequency of the filter is set by the position of the expression pedal and triggered by the on-board envelope.  The filter envelope is directly proportional to the signal output of the guitar meaning that the harder you pick, the further the filter “opens”.  The result is a low-pass, wah-like tonal accent that brings to mind the Mutron-inflected lead tones of Jerry Garcia or Frank Zappa.

The last postion of the 3-pole switch is a manual Ladder Filter mode where the expression pedal controls the sweep of the cutoff.  It operates even more like a wah, but sounds like something far more futuristic and covers a much wider range of frequencies.  Where a wah is a moving bandpass filter (meaning that it accents a set range of frequencies ‘up and down’ the spectrum) the low pass filter, at it’s heel setting, allows only low frequencies through.  As you rock the pedal forward, more frequencies are allowed through until, at its fullest, the full spectrum of frequencies coming out of the guitar can be heard.  It’s a sound that has much more sonic content to it and, as a result, feels much more alive and far less honky.

After all this, you don’t really know how to explain what just happened.  Your mind accelerates as you create mental notes about what you now may be capable of…the promise of the unknown.  You’re not sure what to do with this guitar but you’re thrilled by the possibilities.

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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