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. . . to a blog about all the things you can do with — or to — a guitar. Topics: DIY, instruments, amps, effects, recording, software, technique, music history, music heresy.

Heaviest. Stompbox. Ever.

I’ve been breathlessly awaiting one of these since I saw this. It’s Korg’s Miku Stomp, a spinoff from the company’s Vocaloid voice synthesizer. It tracks your pitch as you play and responds with a synthetic voice that forms various syllables and phrases.

There’s some cheating here: The effect’s latency is quite severe, so I had to slide the Miku track back in time while mixing. Its triggering is also inconsistent, so I replaced a few notes. Miku tracks best when playing melodies on a single string, hence my awkward, position-jumping fingering. (Actually, it tracks pretty well when you play slow melodies full of sustained notes. But steady eighth-notes at 155 BPM as heard here is a major challenge.)

One of the pedal’s most interesting aspects is the way it interprets slurs. When there’s no break between notes, Miku sings a sort of pseudo diphthong. Detached notes get a syllable with a clear transient.

IMHO, the inescapable facts that Miku is silly and doesn’t work terribly well doesn’t diminish her total awesomeness. No doubt about it: heaviest stompbox ever.

The tune, of course, is “Georgy Girl,” which I’ve loved since forever. It was a blast recording the backing tracks with classical guitar, ukulele, ukulele bass, 12-string, toy piano, M-Tron Pro, and a mix of live and sampled percussion. And of course, gobs of my favorite reverb effect: Universal Audio’s EMT140 plate simulation. Yum.

Ultimate Lipstick-Tube Guitar (with experimental tone control & onboard overdrive)

Okay, it’s not the ultimate lipstick-tube guitar for everybody, but it probably is for me. It’s my third lipstick-tube pickup experiment — and definitely my favorite.

You may have heard some of these parts before: I used the neck for all my Mongrel Strat projects, and the Strat-sized Seymour Duncan pickups appeared in my previous lipstick-tube experiments. (I love Duncan’s lipstick-tubes. To my ear, they sound way better than the ones in new-school Danelectros.) The new body is Warmoth’s Hybrid Tele model, in purple with butterfly stickers. It’s très macho. (Better not use if for gigs in Indiana and Arkansas.)

My previous lipstick tube experiments used a MIM Strat body, but I wanted something a little more distinctive, and with a built-in battery compartment (because nothing is a bigger pain than changing batteries in a traditional Strat control cavity). Also, I like how the design evokes both Strat and Tele, since the guitar has three-Strat sized pickups and a whammy, but is wired more like a Tele.

About that wiring: The 3-way pickup selector chooses neck, bridge or both pickups, like on a Tele. Meanwhile, a SPDT switch toggles the middle pickup on and off regardless of the pickup selector, so you get six settings: neck, bridge, neck + bridge, neck + middle, bridge + middle, and all at once. It’s a pragmatic variation on “Nashville Tele” wiring with a switch rather than a pot. That means you can’t dial in varying amounts of middle pickup—it’s all or nothing. But on the plus side, I can jump instantly to an out-of-phase sound from any pickup-selector setting, and it freed up space for the other weird crap I put in this guitar. (Yo, electrical engineers: Don’t bother telling me that combined-pickup settings aren’t really out-of-phase True, they’re not out-of-phase electronically, but they are acoustically, and the distinctive “hollow” sound of combined settings is precisely the result of phase cancellation from two pickups at different positions.)

The weirdest detail is what I call a “cap-fade” tone control. It’s an idea I speculated about back in January, and to which many of you contributed cool perspectives. I pretty much followed the scheme in the original diagram:

cap-fade tone control

The idea again: Instead of sending varying amounts of signal to ground via a tone cap, the pot here fades between a small-value cap (which defines the minimum cut when the control is engaged) and a larger one (defining the frequency of the maximum cut). In other words, instead of sending varying amounts of signal to ground, this circuit always sends everything above the cutoff frequency to ground, with the pot determining the frequency.

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In Search of Ancient Ambience

Screenshot 2015-03-31 10.29.54

Premier Guitar just posted my latest Recording Guitarist column. The subject: Capturing the haunting reverbs of Southwestern ruins via impulse-response reverbs.

Many years ago I marveled at the eerie reflections within the stone-walled ball court at Wupatki, an hour north of Flagstaff, Arizona. On this visit, I attempted to clone the tone. I did the same at the Wildrose charcoal kilns in a remote, mountainous corner of Death Valley. The article includes audio clips, tech notes, and a download link for the impulse responses, suitable for use in any IR reverb program (or in the Logidy EPSi stompbox).

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The 1870s charcoal kilns of Death Valley generate a spooky,, flange-like reverb.

Like a dope, I’d forgotten to bring the relatively high-quality recorder I’d intended to use, so I worked with noisy, lo-fi recordings from my iPhone 6’s Voice Memos app. After some digital cleanup (detailed in the article), the results were cool and compelling, though not a completely accurate audio snapshot due to various types of distortion.

(Actually, I had an earlier experience capturing quick-and-dirty reverbs when I visited the Neolithic caves of France and Spain last year. It wasn’t my idea—I just happened to wind up on a tour group with composer Craig Safan, who was conceptualizing a piece inspired by those evocative spaces. He’d packed a proper Zoom mobile recorder, and we made ad hoc impulse responses by clacking small stones together. Craig has since completed the work, Rough Magic, and he tells me his mixing engineer wound up using our IRs a great deal. I’ve heard the piece, and it’s awesome. It’s not public yet, but I’ll tell you when it is.)

Since writing this Premier Guitar piece, I’ve been pondering whether damaged/distorted impulse response files might be an interesting avenue for sonic exploration. Generating cool sounds via weird IRs isn’t a new idea—the Space Designer plug-in in Apple’s Logic Pro includes a little-known IR preset folder titled “Warped,” which uses unusual sources like synth tones and noise bursts to generate reverbs not found in nature. But my interests are reverbs that are both familiar and surreal—the echoes of distorted reality.

And coincidentally, just as I was writing this post, a friend sent this wonderful video: an old Teletubbies clip, processed through a smeary, distorted black-and-white filter and paired with Joy Division’s “Atmosphere.”

I’m pretty much talking about an audio equivalent to that video processing. Has anyone else thought about or explored this idea?

Croque-Monsieur

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So much for demoing my new-fangled guitar and its new-fangled tone circuit this week.

Pro tip: Just because your cheese grater looks like a Flying V and is called “The Shredder” doesn’t make it any less dangerous! However, the croque-monsieur was delicious (once I’d scraped away the blood and bits of flesh).

The “Multitrack Masters”: Lessons & Legality

rock_band_kitty

Premier Guitar just posted my latest recording column. It focuses on the “Multitrack Masters” recordings and other illicitly leaked audio files that deconstruct classic rock recordings into separate tracks with each instrument isolated.

This essential listening is thought-provoking for many reasons. The two that fascinate me most are a) what secrets these recordings reveal about the craft behind great rock records, and b) how they highlight some of the back-assward notions that underlie our laws governing copyright and intellectual property. I think it’s fascinating stuff, and I hope you agree!

Have you guys investigated any of this material? What are your observations?

Magic Fairy Dust: The Veillette Avante Gryphon

I recently reviewed the gorgeous little Veillette Avante Gryphon for Premier Guitar and liked it so much that I bought one. This was my first opportunity to record it in my studio.

The Avante Gryphon is a relatively low-cost version of Woodstock luthier Joe Veillette’s Gryphon, an 18.5″-scale 12-string designed to be tuned a minor seventh (an octave minus two frets) above standard. But while 12-string guitars feature octave-tuned string pairs, here all six courses are unisons, as on a mandolin. In fact, the Avante Gryphon sounds a lot like a mandolin, but with a wider range and guitar-like tuning. And unlike the couple of janky plywood mandolins I own, it plays gloriously in tune. It’s made (very nicely!) by Korean CNC robots and sells for $1,400, as opposed to $4K+ for Veillette’s hand-built models.

For years I’ve been looking for the right upscale mandolin, but now I’m happy I found this instead. My original motivation was a high-tuned soprano instrument for multi-guitar arrangements, or for magic-fairy-dust studio overdubs. But the thing is so fun — and sounds so darn pretty — that I can’t stop playing it solo. This Bach prelude, for example:

I won’t recap my review here—check it out if you’re curious. Instead, let’s yak about Johann Sebastian!

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Not About Music: Marvin Gore [1923-2015]

Marvin Gore, 1940

Marvin Gore, 1940

If my blog and video posts have seemed fewer and less fun in recent months, it’s not your imagination. I’ve been shuttling between San Francisco and my childhood home in the LA suburbs, spending as much time as possible with my dad in the wake of a back-to-back broken hip and terminal cancer diagnosis. He passed away on January 28th — my late mother’s birthday.

Dad was many things: an engineer, a thinker, a WWII vet, a rocket scientist, a college dean, a loving husband and father, a passionate progressive, a sci-fi/horror geek, and a world traveler who visited all seven continents.

But there’s one thing he definitely was not: a musician.

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A New Tone Control Concept — or Is It?

Hey, smart people — let me get your take on this. I’ve been playing with a new tone control idea that’s so simple, I can’t believe no one’s done it before. (Chances are someone has.)

Here’s the idea: Conventional electric guitar tone controls employ a single pot and single capacitor connected to ground. As you turn the pot, more signal goes to ground for a darker sound. The capacitor value determines the cutoff frequency — the larger the cap, the lower the cutoff frequency and the darker the sound. In other words, the cutoff frequency is fixed, but the percentage of signal that gets cut off changes as you move the pot.

Meanwhile, the Gibson Vari-Tone circuit uses a rotary switch rather than a pot, and a set of capacitors of ascending size. The small caps have a brighter tone, and the large ones sound darker. But once a cap is engaged, it’s engaged all the way. In other words, the cutoff frequency varies as you move the switch, but not the percentage of affected signal—it’s always 100%.  (The Stellartone ToneStyler employs the same concept, with as many as 16 caps arranged around a rotary switch.)

But do you really need all those caps? Why not use the tone pot to fade between a small cap and a large one, like so:

double cap

Here, the brighter/lower-value cap is engaged when the pot’s all the way up. As you roll it back, the larger cap is introduced, producing greater capacitance and a deeper treble cut. When you arrange caps in parallel, their total capacitance is the sum of their values. For example, I tried a .0047µF cap and a .047µF, so the minimum value is .0047µF (a very modest cut) and the maximum is approximately .052µF (a very dark tone).

So far I’ve only tried this on breadboard, though I plan to deploy it in a new “parts” guitar I’m assembling. So far it sounds … really good. A lot like a ToneStyler, actually, but with fewer parts and handpicked values. The only tricky thing was finding a good pot value where all the action wasn’t bunched up at one end of the knob’s range. A reverse-log pot worked best for me—I got nice results with both a C500K and C1M.

I often use similar wiring to alter the value of the input cap on distortion pedals. (High values filter our more bass for a brighter/cleaner sound.) But I’m not aware of anyone having tried this on a guitar tone control.

Another issue is the fact that, in this circuit, the tone pot always has a cap engaged. You could use a really tiny value for the smaller cap so there’s little perceptible cut at the minimum setting, but that can make a substantial part of the pot’s range a little too subtle. So my plan is to combine this with a Ned Steinberger-designed JackPot as the volume control. This part has an “off” setting that bypasses the tone circuit entirely for a maximum-bright sound. That way, I’d choose for the smaller cap a value that provides the minimum treble cut I’m likely to want. (I suspect I’ll wind up with something between .0022µF and .0047µF.)

Have any of you seen or heard of such a guitar circuit? If so, any observations or advice?

 

Frets in Flight, 2015

Here are the new U.S. Department of Transportation rules on flying with musical instruments. Sounds like carriers are required to check instruments.

The key passage, per the DOT site:

The rule requires that each U.S. carrier subject to this regulation allow a passenger to carry into the cabin and stow a small musical instrument, such as a violin or a guitar, in a suitable baggage compartment, such as the overhead bin or a closet, or under the seats, in accordance with FAA safety regulations and the carrier’s FAA-approved carry-on baggage program.

Carriers must allow passengers to stow their small musical instruments in an approved stowage area in the cabin if at the time the passenger boards the aircraft such stowage space is available. Under the rule, musical instruments as carry-on items are treated no differently from other carry-on items and the stowage space should be made available for all carry-on items on a “first come, first served” basis. Carriers are not required to give musical instruments priority over other carry-on baggage, therefore passengers traveling with musical instruments may want to buy the pre-boarding option offered by many carriers to ensure that space will be available for them to safely stow their instruments in the cabin.

Maybe we should do like my pal Shelley Doty recommends and carry a copy of this every time we check in for a flight.

kitty_plane

Happy Holidays, Dear Readers!

Lookit what Elvis got for Chanukah!

Lookit what Elvis got for Chanukah!

I hope everyone’s holidays are splendid. And remember — even if you don’t have one of those families that you need to take a break from every 15 minutes, you can still slip into the other room, fire up Photoshop (and other stuff, if need be), and make funny pictures.