Fighting the Distraction Engine

What should otherwise seem simple–mostly minimal, experimental, ambient guitar work–has become quite complicated to keep track of.

Some of this has been the result of trying to push the guitar to sound like a massive polyphonic synth, or even an entire ensemble. Those pursuits have forced me to come up with some interesting approaches to the guitar, and guitar effects, but lately I’ve grown concerned that it has instead manifested into what is essentially a massive distraction engine–one that has made it increasingly more difficult to hone in on quality compositions and guitar work.

The nature of “experimental music,” I think, is often something quite undefined, and thus not committed to arriving at any one destination. While this itself is nothing to discourage–no, in fact wonderful, exotic landscapes of sound can be discovered in this way–the unpredictable nature of it isn’t always satisfactory. Experimental, or even Cage-style aleatoric music, can end up being an endless spectrum of uncertainty and distraction. Chance-based, or process-based music, always has the chance to be amazing–but it also has the chance to be, well, not. And while I love to wander, I sometimes, and often, am in pursuit of a specific destination.

Ambient music, even when it’s not necessarily experimental, bizarre, or weird, runs the risk of this too. The sound of crickets chirping, slowed down and then set to periodic, simple arpeggios on a piano can be an ambient piece. Many, including myself, have mic’d up all kinds of sounds and instruments, bending them with electronic tools to get the most out of the original sound. Like I said in regards to experimental music, this too can be that endless spectrum of distraction.

The point of what I’m getting at here is that, at least for the remainder of 2019, I’m going to focus on releases that are much more narrow and defined in scope. And when I say narrow and defined, I literally mean recordings that are made of up of as few tracks as possible. I’m aiming to build out compositions with only a single guitar track–with maybe the oddball drone or underlying sound via a looping pedal.

I’ve tried to make my music more self-contained, as I did with is this what remains? But even with that project, I took advantage of what’s currently available on my pedalboard and created stacks of loops fed through a series of delays. Performing these live has given me the realization of just how complex it is to reproduce these exactly as the recordings were made. What has happened on the stage has been a wonderful combination of conceptual musical sequences, improvised on the guitar and through a series of effects pedals. No two performances have been the same–even when I was technically playing the same pieces. This has been wonderful, but I’m desiring more control and precision moving forward.

Relying on the loops and stacks of delay has also held me back in strengthening my voice on the instrument. I find myself relying too much on smearing the sounds captured on loop through delays to create complex and ethereal landscapes, and in the process losing my voice and vision as a guitar player. And when I speak of the “distraction engine,” I also realize that my obsession with more complex, multi-track pieces, have themselves been distraction engines. I want to shut that off to just hear and focus on the guitar, at least for the remainder of the year.

I anticipate live performances to go the same as they have, though; I love the live space for really stretching tone and sound, but at home, in the “studio” space, I want to build greater control and command over the instrument and the compositions. Over time I see these sets as becoming more dynamic and interesting when these more focused pieces take their place on a set list.

I’m often drawn to these two improvised demos. The first one is entirely one track, unplugged, while the second uses a looper for an underlying drone and some simple sound manipulation via loop speed toward the end.

I like these as basic conceptual models for recording projects moving forward. I see myself using different instruments, and different arrays of effects, all decided on intentionally, focused on making very clear and specific musical statements.

I will still, of course, experiment wildly with both guitars and electronics, and will regularly write about and post the results on this site as I’ve done. But those will, for now, be fun diversions, ways for me not to let the distraction engine take over. Sometimes I get wild ideas in my head about how to utilize electronic instruments in interesting ways, or I want to just layer a ton of guitar loops and delays to see what comes out. I will continue to write about and create these things, but I expect them to recede from primary compositions I’ll be shifting focus on.

Ambient Guitar | Sound Design Sessions 3

Less talk, more audio. In a lot of ways, I’ll admit that previous “releases” of mine may have been better put to use as personal, or shared, demos that illustrate specific techniques and approaches. I’m trying my best to get those out in a more productive way to make way for deeper, more engaging recording projects in the future.

Two guitar loops run through a series of delays using flange and phase for modulation.

All sounds created with guitars:

Ebow Techniques on Fretless Guitar

The Ebow Player’s guide advises the following:

The EBow is usually played close to the bass pickup using the basic grip.

The standard thought is that, through some magnetic voodoo, the neck/bass pickup of the guitar and the ebow work together to excite the string so much that it emulates amp feedback. As the manual advises, and as most ebow users are familiar, you often have to dial back the volume and tone on the guitar (the tone in fact is nearly rolled all the way off) in order to get a usable sound.

While you can position the device over the bridge pickup, the higher tension of the string in this location makes it harder for the ebow to drive it. In either case, however, I’ve always found the sound the ebow creates when it’s positioned over any pickup is often so hot, it loses a lot of nuance and usability–and if you’re using active electronics or single coil pickups, it’s an even greater challenge; it becomes, at best, a one-trick pony. It creates that “ebow sound.”

Given the fretless guitar’s challenge with sustain, ebows and sustainers are standard tools of the trade. I’ve personally avoided sustainer pickups because I wanted to focus on developing techniques for more “natural” sustain, and because I find the ebow to be a nice alternative to the pick; it’s a different “mode” of engaging a string, as opposed to the sustainer pickup existing with the pick and blending the two together in a way that can, I believe, create a crutch for the player.

Over the years I realized that positioning it directly over the pickups wasn’t cutting it from my perspective of alternative to the pick (and fingers). The signal was not only too hot, but when I started playing ambient and drone music, I was usually frustrated that sustained open strings often made the note jump to a harmonic node. I’d want a D sustained for a significant period of time, and it would jump or flip to an A or an octave above the fundamental–a cool effect, no doubt, when you want to emulate amp feedback, but frustrating when you’re trying to just generate a tone. This happened regardless of whether I was on the normal or harmonic modes of the device.

I found that I could cut down on this by positioning the ebow closer to the actual node it was jumping too. In my head, I felt that exciting the string in this area would keep it from “locking in,” so to speak. Play a 12th fret harmonic on the lowest string of any stringed instrument you have and you’ll observe that the string essentially vibrates in two sections, with that harmonic location standing still.

This worked 90% of the time. The string remained on the fundamental more often (though it would sometimes jump to the third harmonic). There was another effect of this. By positioning the ebow farther away from the pickups and closer to the nut (positioning it over the finger/fretboard, nearly in the middle of the string’s length) the sound was significantly more mellow and malleable through additional effects processing and fretting/fingering. The result was a sound that sometimes sounded like a horn or wind instrument, or even a bowed string instrument like a cello or violin.

I could also leave the volume and tone controls open a lot more, and active electronics became more usable with the device. Furthermore, the “grip” of the ebow in this position allowed me to use my thumb to pluck the lower strings, providing a drone to sit underneath the lead tone. The softer tone of the ebow sound and of the nature of striking a string in the middle of its length makes these two blend together. I can even finger/fret bass lines on these and have them come through even with the sustaining ebow. It also leaves room to manipulate the string near the pickups, using a slide or steel to change the pitch from the bridge, as opposed to the finger/fretboard.

The signal is still quite hot and is always a challenge to deal with, as you’ll hear in the example below. There are some changes to the fundamental design of the ebow I would love to see to make it a more flexible device, but for now, it makes for a significantly more flexible tone on fretless and fretted guitars a like. I personally find it to be more evocative on the fretless since it can transform the sound into something way beyond what the guitar can normally do.

There’s an accompanying synth drone underneath the guitar in this demo. This allows the droning sound of the guitar to appear to “emerge” from the background, not indicating where it’s starting or ending point it is. I’ll admit it gets a little heavy on the eq side of things, especially with the 4 second delay time on the guitar itself, but it’s an interesting experiment none-the-less. It will be fun to try and get this down to a more exact science in future recording projects.

Bending Reason: Microtones in the Virtual Realm

The problem with microtones and electronic instruments, as I understand it, is that these instruments are still being created in a cultural context where 12 notes per octave is the standard. Their design matches the implementation in mind, the social construction of harmony and tonality. Hardware reflects this most clearly, but software can have just as many, if not more, restrictions if its coded and designed with this 12-tone goal in mind.

My attempts at getting Reason to be more flexible with its pitch have been somewhat difficult. From the start, this software is only ever meant to construct musical sequences and phrases with 12 notes in mind–a serious problem for those devising systems with more than that. I’ve held off doing a lot of microtonal stuff with this software because of this, but I’m starting to work with some creative ways to “hack” existing automation features within Reason to aim for some in between notes. I had devised this approach early on, but it is quite labor intensive, so I’ve always held off and pursued the easier route of using 12 tone in order to access more of what the software has to offer.

Since I enjoy working in the 12 tone ultra plus system, my personal approach to microtonality and just intonation starts in 12 tone equal temperament, but looks at what existing notes can be “tweaked” to fit a just ratio, both to provide more harmonic tuning and expand the tonal palette. The major and minor third intervals are obvious: flatten an E relative to C by 14 or so cents to arrive at the 5/4 ratio. To my ears, 12 tone equal temperament does fine with the melodic essence of the third and fifth harmonic, so I don’t often bother with those as much, but it obviously doesn’t incorporate the 7th, 11th or 13th harmonics; these primes offer melodic and harmonic options that really don’t exist in traditional Western music; I will concede that 7 sometimes pokes its head in the mix, and I would argue that many people reach for a minor 7th interval with the 7th harmonic in mind, but aren’t aware of it. By altering existing 7th, 4th and 6th intervals in 12 tone, you can achieve those primes relative to your originating pitch–which is what I’m doing in this example.

Essentially, the approach was to take the maximum bend value of the pitch wheel and divide that number (when set to a half-step range) by percentage values taken from just intonation cent tables. From here I knew what value the wheel should be in order to bend the note just right to hit the right pitch, all I had to do was program in the automation to trigger this as it matched the note I wanted to bend in the sequencer. It would seem that some of the newer Reason instruments use percentage values for the pitch range, so this makes things much easier.

I kept it simple for this example. There are three synthesizer loops all using Reason’s “subtractor” synth (pad, bass, lead) accompanied by some recordings of loons in Yellowstone National Park and that weird sound that was coming out of my amp last week. The problem is that performing and improvising with these instruments is very difficult given what has to be done in order to get them to play microtonal sequences and melodies. What this is forcing me to do, however, is explore more ways I can use the non-audio parts of the instruments to create more unique sounds since it’s a lot simpler to use basic melodic patterns and sequences.

There are likely a few other ways to achieve this effect, but this makes the most sense to me and allows me to use a single VST at a time.

It’s very basic for now, but I think I’m on to something with this approach. It will be interesting to see how I can combine this with some guitar layers, or perhaps build out an entire electronic project. And if it sounds weird….well…that’s the point…

Finding the “Complete” Guitar

I have somewhat of a problem. I’m perpetually dissatisfied with the guitar. The range, no matter the strings or the scale, is never enough for what I want to do; sustain is never enough and on top of all that, I really hate picks. Yes, for years I’ve used what’s otherwise known as “hybrid” or “chicken” picking, but it doesn’t solve some of my fundamental complaints about it. I’ve never been comfortable with any method of gripping the pick and during extended periods of time (especially when playing heavier music) the strings will start to wear away at the nail of my index finger, turning the tip into this brittle, flaky mess which can expose some of the nail bed underneath. It sucks.

Over the years, I’ve realized that part of the way I conceptualize music is counterintuitive to the nature of the guitar. The guitar, regardless of whatever genre it may find itself in, is fundamentally a folk instrument: of the people. It’s a cultural instrument which shifts and reshapes itself depending on the cultural context. My experience with the guitar was more personal, private. This is part of why I was so drawn to “shred” guitar in the past, but it also means that I don’t always approach the instrument with that kind of culturally expressive mindset (to whatever degree one can actually do that). My approach is almost always technical and procedural. I tend to conceive of musical concepts and attempt to carry them out on the guitar; I can’t, at least not authentically, just jump into a pentatonic scale and “express” myself that way.

This, I’ve come to learn, is what holds me back when it comes to improvisation. Now, it may be somewhat ironic to say this given that my live sets tend to be very improvised, but the difference there is that I’m usually improvising with a concept. Sometimes the concept is purely hardware specific–running loops in certain ways through certain effects–while other times it is more musical (taking a two-chord progression and making it last for 12 minutes). I also enjoy taking certain melodic sequences and playing around with them through various effects or by taking odd numbered patterns and playing them with an even rhythm, and so on and so forth.

So when I think of the guitar, I’m hardly thinking of the instrument as many tend to, essentially a cultural icon. It’s a tool, and in my music, it’s a tool like any of the stomp boxes or effects processors I use are. When I say “guitar as oscillator,” I am being somewhat literal. The guitar is a part of the puzzle I’m trying to put together, and it’s increasingly frustrating when the nature of the instrument doesn’t allow me to execute certain musical goals.

It’s part of why I’ve always been on the lookout for the “complete” guitar; and the more I studied music, the more complex that “complete” definition became. The search has led me through 7 strings, 8 strings, fifths-tuning, (note: DADGAD tuning, for me, has actually been a move in the opposite direction, searching for a more simple, non-complete guitar in order to be given a creative restriction) fretless guitars, just intonation fretted guitars, etc etc etc etc.

I could talk about any of those, but the 7 string is what’s interesting right now. A 7, tuned in standard with 12 frets per octave is a standard of “complete” I’m happy to embrace. As far as temperament and tuning is concerned, its complete within its own system–so make that complete*.

My first 7 was an Ibanez RG7621. I still have it; it’s a little beat up and it at one time lived an alternative life with a microtonal neck; but after enough issues with that neck, I restored the instrument to what it was before. It’s got its dings and dents and someday I’d really love to refinish the body and neck to give it a fresh, new life, but it’s still a great instrument. Is it complete? Well, the moment I knew I had to have this instrument was a genuine feeling of completion like I never experienced before.

I was playing in a metal band at the time, toying around with a number of different tunings. I ended up settling on a 6 string tuned to B standard. It growled; it was menacing. Perfect. Problem was, all my scale patterns weren’t what I was used to with standard tuning. I have a lot of issues with standard tuning, but it remains the tuning I grew up learning and still will always be a kind of “home” for me because of this. A 6 string tuned B to B got the riffs done, but I was missing my other chords, scales and techniques and concepts I had previously come up with on a standard tuned guitar.

The 7 string immediately met the desire of merging these two worlds. It was kind of surreal, a true feeling of completion; all of the riff material was there on the lower strings, but when it came time to solo or play something more melodic, I was instantly transported back to the guitar as I grew up with it. I could simultaneously navigate these different worlds without needing to change guitars.

Several years later, I acquired a second main 7 string (I say “main” because there have been a couple of 7s that have come and gone for me). An Ibanez yet again, this one has a fanned fret system, allowing me access to a baritone scale length and a standard 25.5. Once again, this provides me with the ability to traverse different musical modes and worlds all on the same instrument and it currently interfaces well with my setup both in terms of “genre” and the pedals I’m using.

It’s enabled me to appreciate 12 tone equal temperament a little more, and a more traditional guitar setup. I’ve come to accept that there will never be a “complete” guitar, but these 7s go a long way for a specific, wide-ranging sound, which I think is the crux of what I’m speaking of here. The essence of “completion” is about knowing whether or not these instruments fit the needs I have; they are always “complete” in context. There are a couple of things I’d change; both could use a new set of pickups (the fanned fret one is a pain in this regard since it has two active 8 string pickups to compensate for the string spread). Otherwise, when I use one of these guitars, it is complete in doing what it has to do, and in the musical realms where it can’t travel, there’s another “complete” guitar.

Though I often say that I contemplate moving away from the guitar in the future, thinking of these instruments in this way seems to keep them around. It becomes a challenge to find musical applications where these instruments fit a specific need in a satisfactory way and making each one “complete” is about considering what the musical application will be and how it will be processed via effects.

This is why I can’t just be satisfied with blues boxes.

Truths in Shredding

The term “shredding” doesn’t appeal to me. It immediately puts me in a mental space that sounds and feels like the floor of a Guitar Center…and if you’re not familiar with what that sounds like, I envy you.

In my teenage years, though, shredding was everything. As a kid who never really played sports, or so goes my rationale, I had no outlet for what we might otherwise refer to as competition. Now, I’m quite critical of the existence of competition as some kind of natural or healthy construct, but it would still seem to be the case that many physical activities human beings engage in often fall under this umbrella term of “competition,” if not with others, then at least with one’s self on a path toward building strengths in specific categories.

That was one of the appealing things to me about learning techniques and practice methods for developing speed on the instrument (it also sounded really cool…). Music was hard to quantify; what did it mean to be “good” at it? To my mind, especially in my youth, the emotional side of music was up to a number of factors that I could never rely on. Sure, learning certain chords, scales, and how to use them, gave me greater control of accessing certain emotional colors, but it was still an enigma to me. A lot of what moves someone in an artistic piece is abstracted essence of a constellation of very specific social and cultural (and economic…gender…race…) functions and apparatuses, but what it all boils down to is the following: either someone has an emotional response, or they don’t.

Music from Final Fantasy VII pushes me to tears–and not just the songs, but the original midi tracks as they appeared on the PlayStation release really do it for me. Why? A youth spent in a broken home where Cloud was the only person I could relate to in some twisted way ought to do the trick–and it also helps that the compositions are stellar.

So, given that I always understood, at some level, that I was never in control over the previous and existing circumstances that alter the phenomenon of conditioned arising that we refer to as a perceptive response to an artistic mechanism, it made sense to me to focus on the one area that was, it would appear, under my control: Technique. It also gave me a degree of accomplishment, some control over the haphazard conditions of my young life. And, boy, did that go to my head.

The truth in shredding is that it does breed some undesirable behaviors–but to pretend that undesirable, toxic, behaviors don’t manifest in other areas of music and art is, frankly, foolish.

But why the arrogance in shredding? I have my suspicions that there may in fact be some kind of classist underpinning to this–especially when you consider the proximity of shredding and “progressive” metal music and classical music. I mean, it’s right there for everyone to see, really. The cultural signs at work here often find themselves deployed in a hierarchy that seeks to establish a “real” art that always seems to be the product of white, European men.

There is a more defensible position, however, and it came to me when I reflected on Steve Vai’s Passion and Warfare. On returning to it, I realized I probably hadn’t fully listened to it in almost 15-20 years, and in that time forgot how much I loved the songs.

The thing with Vai, in any of his music really, is that he’s not the fastest guitarist out there. There are a handful of crazy techniques and approaches that only he does, but what really defines him is his phrasing on the instrument. That’s what I was loving on revisiting Passion and Warfare, the songs were just a joy to listen to, and his playing was a joy to listen to.

But it isn’t a joy that everyone understands. You, pretty much, have to be a guitarist to get it. You have to spend enough time with the instrument, to the point where it feels like a natural, corporeal extension of your own self, that you can really listen to certain types of guitar music and appreciate what’s going on. I think the shock of this, for some, is what breeds arrogance and anger when love of certain, focused and privatized music isn’t shared. There’s a specific constellation of socio-cultural forces that shape someone into being open to this kind of music.

The solution to this, I think, is to become more aware of the socio-cultural essence of the music we listen to–to, if we can’t fully map it out, at least understand the existence of the constellation that builds our respective backgrounds. But where it concerns “shredding,” and this is very important, we need to examine and be vigilant against toxic behaviors that manifest around it–the arrogance, the elitism. I’ve been down those roads and it sucked; left me friendless and eventually led me to hate certain kinds of music.

This is part of the reason why I cringe somewhat when I hear that “shred” word. I get concerned that it’s creating too many privatized spaces while also building out a hierarchy of who “can” and “cannot” shred.

This post is somewhat wandering. I have a lot of loose-knit thoughts on this which I’ll probably put together in a better way in the future.

The Problem with New Gear

A couple weeks ago I waded through the epic sea of other gear heads over at the Brooklyn Stomp Exhibit. It was an intense event with hardly any room to move, let alone enough room and silence to really hear the effects I got to try out.

Despite all the mania, I did get to try out one incredible delay pedal, the Thermae from Chase Bliss Audio. This thing was insane–really, that’s how enthused I am that I have to say that. While the disorientation I was experiencing from the event made it tough to really zone in on what was going on with this device, the layers it was able to generate was incredible–and the expandability through midi and CV audio–make it just what I’ve been looking for out of a guitar pedal that’s more forward thinking in its application. Interfacing something like that with the Helix or my other delay pedals would not only allow me to explore some of my existing sounds in new ways, but would open some new approaches to performance and composition.

But I can’t get it yet! Sure, the price is part of that, but mostly because I know that this device would radically change my approach right now and I’m not yet sure I’m ready for that. My current setup really works well, and I’m not yet done exploring all I can do with that. I’m not necessarily referring to the limitless capabilities of the Helix, but I’m referring to how the Helix is working with everything else.

I’ve got a groove; I know where I want the sound to go eventually, but I’m not ready to shake things up. It’s a lesson I’ve learned to not only be content with the gear I have, but to recognize what I can already do with the existing equipment at my disposal–allowing me to expand mindfully and where it’s necessary, ready for all the challenges and changes that come with adding a new component to the arsenal.

Never Let Sound Go to Waste

My Hughes & Kettner solid state amp is getting up there in its years. It’s still working, but every now and then, it likes to do some admittedly strange stuff.

Following my rule of always trying to capture strange sounds, here’s a demo of some directions I’d like to take this sound and possibly make something out of. A lot of the effects techniques I’m doing here mirrors what I tend to do with guitar loops; it’s always interesting to feed something less musical through to see what arrives at the other end.

Embracing the Simple

My first guitar was a strat. Simple. Lake placid blue, white pickguard, three single coils and a tremolo system with a locking system behind the nut.

I still have this axe. It was handed down to me by my father and has drifted in and out of regular play for years now. It’s a bit beat up in some areas, and that tremolo, while it has its advantageous, sometimes makes me wish it was a straightforward Fender unit–even one of the old ones with six screws.

It currently hangs around, tuned in DADGAD tuning. I break it out every now and fall in love with the sound every time I do; I’m constantly on the fence about dedicating an entire project to just this guitar. (Guess what’s likely to happen?)

But as wonderful as it sounds, and as much as I’ve grown to love open, sus4 tunings, the reality is that it’s a very limited guitar–even more so given this tuning.

Nothing sounds like a strat–and that’s part of the problem. It immediately draws attention as the “strat sound,” almost regardless of what I do to it in terms of effects and processing. The open tuning also locks me into a specific sound and despite being more versatile than one my likely expect of an open tuning, I none-the-less gravitate toward very specific voicings and, perhaps most troubling, the same key. Standard tuning, of course, has the same pitfalls, but since it’s the “normal” tuning, we tend not to think of it as locking a player into a specific set of voicings, patterns and keys.

But it has become such a specific instrument that it defines itself in a way totally dissimilar to some of my other guitars. The 7 strings, the fretless and microtonal guitars, and the miscellaneous other guitars hanging around the place all have a greater degree of flexibility–they can do way more and can act as chameleons, shifting into new forms where they need to. The strat is nothing more than the strat strung up in an open tuning; it refuses to listen to my demands of flexibility and versatility and simply asks to be played.

I’m going to have to give into that demand to create an entire project for it sooner or later.

Duo Lumière Performance on 7/25

I will be performing on 7/25 at the LetLove Inn as Duo Lumière with Robert Kennedy of the Flushing Remonstrance.

This one has been awhile in the making, so I’m thrilled it’s finally happening. Experimental films + live experimental accompaniment.

RSVP on Facebook.

Join us for an evening of mind-bending experimental films with live accompaniment by Duo Lumière.

Duo Lumière are Robert Kennedy from The Flushing Remonstrance on keyboards and electronics, and Eric Jackson on guitar and electronics, combining to create atmospheres and soundscapes to accompany a program of classic and visually dazzling short films.

Free admission, with donations appreciated. Presented by Cinema Under the Influence.