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.

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.

Let it Ring

As I wrote about earlier, pushing the guitar into a sound space it doesn’t occupy natively (that is, the essence of strings pressed against a surface and amplified acoustically or electrically) has pushed me to find more creative ways to achieve not just ambience, but dynamic ambience of the kind we tend to expect from electronic instruments that use a variety of sequencers and other automated processes that allow the musician to operate between the boundaries of composition, experimentation and performance (and no, I’m not just referring to improvisation).

This has been one of those discoveries: letting the ebow rest on the strings (lapsteels are best) and running the sound through a variety of effects that either create unique sounds over time (delays, and stacks of delays, for example) or ones that can be manipulated; plus, when your hands are free, you can more directly adjust and manipulate effects without needing to keep the strings wringing with a pick or your fingers.

This is also a fantastic way to burn through 9 volt batteries on the ebow.

Milking a Loop for All it’s Worth

The challenge, which really is the best word for it, of solo ambient guitar music is making the most sound come out of one person. Sure, that seems obvious, but other instruments really have an easier time with this–especially of the electronic variety. Since the ambient genre is firmly connected to the electronic genre, we can never really talk about one without the other. This is what’s forced me to consider the techniques electronic musicians employ to get the most out of looped sequences and apply it to the guitar: taking a loop, or two (or three) and running it through a variety of effects (once that effect pitch and time are the best) seems to be a great way to get the most mileage out of a simple loop–a musical sequence.

Tone down the volume on something like this and play some guitar solos over it: challenge met!

…oh, and I promise to avoid filming things in portrait mode.

New Release – Constituent


After some disastrous issues with my audio hardware, including an interface which seemed to enjoy sending power spikes into my computer and a failed attempt to solder a new USB socket onto the board (a project I may try again pending a new soldering iron), I finally had the equipment and time necessary to finish a new piece.

Constituent is the product of new equipment, a new DAW, some more focused approaches to ambient/minimalist concepts I previously worked on, a slightly different approach to Just Intonation, and some personal experiences represented in the overall feel and title of the piece.

I could yammer on and on about the new equipment, and while it does factor into my experience of making this piece–but knowing the overall realm of “audio” it will likely spark conversation that I find rather distracting and, frankly, very annoying. That’s all I’ll say on the matter.

There is truly no end to the amount of musicians, regardless of genre, who prefer to flee from any mention of musical “theory.” Sucks to be them. Ultimately music theory is, for me, an informed and educated approach to understanding and creating music. When I began writing ambient music, I simultaneously tackled two musical theories: Ambient music theory on its own, and Just Intonation. I had the fortune of studying with Jon Catler, as well as resources such as Harry Partch’s A Genesis of a Music to work with when it came to Just Intonation. For ambient music theory, I spent a great deal of time reading interviews and other material from the likes of Brian Eno, Steve Roach and Robert Rich, to name a few. WNYC’s New Sounds program also played a critical role.

I saw ambient music, however, as a way to create a malleable sonic environment, one that I was free to create my own terms and theories for. One of the first was the concept of the “dynamic drone.” While I’m by no means the first person to do such a thing, this was my terminology and desire for a drone that would shift in some way in its environment.

Constituent utilizes a very basic “dynamic drone.” After playing around with a few different loops for a while, I settled on a single string being plucked on the lap steel. This note was then slowed own by half and reversed. The result is the deep swell that rises to a thick stop as the loop brings the note back to its origin point. This note was coated in a few different modulations and two different FX-heavy reverb patches.

This process created a new effect for me: It introduced silence. While it may seem like I’d be no stranger to silence, looking back on my previous ambient works, very little is actually used. There is a tendency to fill the aural spectrum with sound, albeit in a minimalist way. Additionally, the use of delays, reverbs and devices such as eBows tend to create a sort of never-ending field of sound. Having this reverse effect on the single note created for a moment a pause of silence before the swell would loop back around again. I thought about leaving this alone, but felt inspired to play with it a little bit further. I wanted to improvise with silence in a way that one would with chord progressions–respecting the gaps of sound as best as I could.

My approach to Just Intonation is to gather a small number of powerful notes and utilize them to the best of their harmonic capabilities. Many people often here of Harry Partch’s 43-tone scale and similar adventures into Just Intonation and come to believe that epic scales are the only suitable approach. While it is true that to create a sonic fabric that allows for many different chords and potential key change, you will in fact need a large amount of notes, the structure of most of my pieces allow me to settle on a small grouping of notes. In the past this has been as small as four to six different notes; for Constituent, I chose to work with eight notes.

While I by no means neglect the sometimes-troubled Undertone series, I tend to view Just Intonation from an Overtone perspective, as most probably do. Simply put: It’s easier. Overtones are a bit easier to conceptualize and, I’ve found, drastically easier to hear–even in the higher primes. Because of this I often resort to the Overtone series with a limit on the 13th partial in almost all my music. There are even a few pieces on the upcoming IKILLYA album that make use of a few microtones. While I specifically tuned my guitars to hit these notes exactly in the studio, I usually bend and nail these notes by ear live (I also throw them in all over the place on older IKILLYA songs as well.)

Undertones, sadly, were always something “I’d get to.” Initially I thought about writing a new Dust piece solely with Undertone pitches both as a way to continue what I started with the first installment, and also for myself to create a piece that would sort of serve as a study piece for the harmonic nature of the Undertone series. While this may indeed happen in the future, I decided to use Constituent as an opportunity to start making more use of Undertones.

Though Constituent may not have distinct movements, it does have certain sections to it. After the dynamic drone swells in a few times, I begin what I refer to as a “harmonic improvisation” over the drone. Taking the 8-tone Undertone scale, I explored the harmonic effects these pitches had on the overall piece. Over time these notes begin to bleed through the silence–the same way a jazz or blues piece would grab those “blue-notes” that don’t exactly fit the key. Toward the end of the piece I engage in what I refer to as a “melodic improvisation.” Being somewhat unhappy with a piece that just sort of improvises to no real end, I improvised a melody and stuck with it: making small shifts in volume and cadence. The piece ends on this melody that came to me in the middle of the song. It’s not very distinct, and is perhaps best understood in retrospect.

I should note that even though I strove for accuracy in representing the Undertone pitches, it is more than likely that I’m off by a few cents here and there (perhaps more). Not only is it a bit harder to trust my ear when it comes to the Undertone series, the nature of the lap steel, which was both picked and played with an eBow on Constituent, creates somewhat unstable ground. Pressure, as well as the wide surface area of the steel itself makes it difficult to be precise. Ultimately, if one wishes to play with perfect intonation, be it in Just Intonation or Equal Temperament, they’d have to utilize completely computerized instruments–something I’m not terribly interested in.

The title Constituent itself is the result of several specific dreams I’ve had over the course of my life. I envision the strange resonance these dreams have in the waking world as being very similar to the mood Constituent sets. I’m not going to elaborate on this any further.

Constituent is currently available on my Bandcamp page. At some point I’ll upload this and other pieces to other streaming/download services.


New Release – Dust: One


_3 years ago I finished the two tracks that would end up being featured as Complex Silence 31. Earlier that year I had released three other works (Apparitions, Turbulent Serenity & The Distant).

These projects were all a part of a new musical direction I had discovered. Though it was a radical departure from the shred-based metal and rock music I had done previously, I can see hints of this form in some of my earliest music.

Complex Silence 31 came about right when I hit a few serious changes in my life—some more difficult than others. As a result, I took a break from publishing music—though I never stopped writing music. I explored some new areas of sound, wrote and recorded a few things, but never found the ability to commit to a finalized project. Toward the end of 2013 I also rejoined IKILLYA and started playing metal again, touring the United States and a few other countries.

While working on the new IKILLYA album, I realized that I owed it to myself to pick up where I left off 3 years ago: Exploring ambient soundscapes, drones, noise and music theory through just intonation.

This return comes in the form of Dust: One, a drone piece based on a single justly intonated chord, mixing both sine waves and sustained strings on lap steel guitar. Dust comes out of several writing sessions I’ve had over the past couple of months, and my decision to release this piece of music first was intentional.

If I was going back to this realm of ambience, of utilizing sound as a means of occupying space and time, it had to be a drone. Though it’s not something that everyone can relate to, drones have a powerful amount of art and philosophy inherent in their structure. It’s a form with ancient and primitive origins alongside spiritual implications.

I took a chord that I was working with for another piece, one that I found particular interesting, and used this to set the scene for Dust: One. Previous works of mine did maintain a singular focus on a chord, harmony or slight melodic movement, but with Dust I wanted to only focus on this chord—I wanted no variation in pitch from the origin. Filters and modulations I ended up using do blur the lines a bit, but they are tethered to the tones of this four-note chord.

While my work shares a lot in common with electronic music, I make very little use of electronic instruments. Previous works have used some synths, but these have never been the focus. This is due to a couple of reasons: Firstly, my native instrument, for better or for worse, is the guitar, and secondly, I’ve dedicated this area of musical life to solely using Just Intonation. Finding tunable synths can be a bit of a challenge, and it’s much easier for me to use a fretless guitar, lap steel guitar or specially fretted guitar to achieve this. Even with tunable synths, however, you are largely committed to using a traditional keyboard or piano scroll, which heavily favors equal temperament in terms of how its layout.

While I make use of Custom Scale Editor in order to generate reliable reference pitches, dealing with physical instruments, even ones specifically designed for Just Intonation, create margins of error you just have to accept. Even using an ebow on an open string can result in small discrepancies in pitch. The world of electronic music, however, has the capability to overcome this issue with mathematical precision.

For Dust, given its concept, I knew I had to have something a bit more reliable than what I used in the past. In order to do this, I generated a few sine waves tuned to the specific frequencies of the chord that makes up One. I did this twice, taking up two different octaves. I also added a bit of static to thicken everything up and give the notes something to breathe through. I added a number of filters and modulations that I felt best suited the nature of the chord, and each tone within the chord. The result is some slight variance, but one that is firmly rooted in pure tonality.

I wasn’t satisfied with a purely digital experience, however; that’s not who I am as a musician. Using my lap steel and an ebow, I recorded drones of each note, added some processing and blended this in with the sine waves and static. The droning strings actually start and end the piece with about a 15 second lead in and fade out time respectively.

In the past I chose song titles based on words and phrases I thought sounded interesting, or loosely described the process by which a piece was created.

With Dust there’s some similarity here. The title represents “what’s left over,” after you remove meter, melody, arrangement, composition, and all structural elements. As such, this piece is musical “dust.” It is what is left over, what has degraded—by natural forces. Also, during my 3-year hiatus from ambient music, I intended to start a number of experimental projects, most of which fell through for a number of reasons. Dust is an echo of these dead projects (some of which may be rebuilt). It is not a sign of defeat, or even loss: It stands as the resonance of musical passion and love.

Dust: One can be thought of as a mediation of all that could’ve been, but in an indifferent, cosmic way. It stands as a remnant.

Drone music is a versatile music. It can be listened to in the background of daily life—similar to how Brian Eno once described the purpose and function of the ambient genre—but it can also be active. Dust is what I like to refer to as a “compound drone,” as there are a number of different elements that go into its structure—though they are all oriented in the same direction. Because of this, listening to it over a period of time can create different experiences. While mixing and reviewing this piece, there are several distinct emotions and sounds that would surface. This occurs at the very point where internal consciousness meets external stimulation: How much of my experience was illusory, or the actual objective experience of these tones occupying physical space through sound waves? There’s no answer to this. It’s an endless question, but one that can only be experienced through this form of music.


Dust: One is currently available on my Bandcamp page, and will be uploaded to my Soundcloud shortly.