Archive for January, 2007

‘Tonewood’ – Not Just a Dirty Word!

Sunday, January 21st, 2007

Has anyone ever asked you what your guitar was made out of? Did you consider what it was made out of when you bought it? Many players, especially those gleefully wanking away on their first axes don’t realize what their babies are made of, or how it contributes to their sound. Today, I’d like to take a look at some of the most common tonewoods used in the construction of guitars, both acoustic and electric.

So what exactly is a tonewood?

“Tonewood. Tone-wood.. Tone Wood… Is it when you hear a trigger sound and your…”

No! No, that’s certainly not it! Tonewood is actually a deceptive name. All woods are tonewoods. That is, they all have certain properties that effect the manner in which they resonate and transfer that resonation. The more common tonewoods have properties that make them attractive choices for use in instrument building.

This article will provide a primer on the physical and tonal properties of the most common tonewoods, as well as an idea of which ones common guitars are built out of. I’ll also throw in my unwanted opinions too, just to make things more scandalous. So without any further gabber, on to the show!

Alder

Alder is the not-so-secret weapon of many electric guitar manufacturers, especially those in the USA. Physically, it is a light (both color and weight), tight-grained wood that takes stains, dyes, and finish very evenly. It has a very acoustic natural resonation, and is used extensively in solid body electric guitars for its emphasis on bright, punchy sound. Alder isn’t extremely hard, and you can very easy put marks in it if you aren’t careful. I personally love the look of a worn out alder guitar thats finish has stripped, allowing sweat to soak into the unprotected wood-grain. But then, I’ve been told that I’m sadistic.

So who builds with alder? Are you kidding? You can find alder guitars in the line-ups of Jackson, Fender, Yamaha, and Squire. Among others. Many, MANY others.


Alder’s a classic

Ash

If alder is the hottest, most shallow drunk chick at the party, ash is her best friend. You know, the one taking a footing behind her friend, not wanting to cause such large ripples. The one with her own intellectual quirks that drive you wild. Ash can vary widely in properties, and for this reason it’s usually divided into two separate species. I guess that would make the girl in the analogy a skitzo, wouldn’t it? Swamp ash is slightly heavier than alder and generally exhibits patterns of dark brown streaking. Tonally, it is similar to alder with a noticeable increase in upper-midrange frequencies. The second, less common species of ash is heavier yet, and exhibits a brighter, more ringing tone.

Swamp Ash was the tonal champion of Fender all through the 50s. It was commonly used on all of their guitars. Today, the stereotypical ash guitar is the Telecaster. It is also highly prevalent among Japanese made guitars, especially through Fender’s Japanese era, due to its availability in Asia.


Ash, beautiful with nothing on

Poplar

Poplar is used in the construction of guitars for one very good reason. It’s cheap. Physically, it’s a tight-grained wood that weighs slightly more than alder. It takes finish very well, and finish it you should. Without some kind of color, it looks like watered-down green/yellow puke. Tonally, poplar exhibits similar properties to that of alder. It lacks the elements that give alder its cutting edge, however.

You can find poplar guitars with many names on them. Perhaps the best way to illustrate what role poplar has been designated as a tonewood is this: Squire


Puke.. err. Poplar

Basswood

A good cut of basswood is extremely light and nearly white. A bad cut is full of dark streaks that don’t seem to hide very well behind any kind of finish. And speaking of finish, you better have lots if you want to finish a piece of basswood because it will absorb it faster than a kid juiced up on Redbull will try to jump off the bookshelf! Don’t expect to take a basswood guitar with you to your grave either if you’re as abusive of your axe as most are. Basswood will mark just by tapping on it. Of course, it has some favorable tonal properties. It tends to have an almost hollow reverberation while resonating, and gives off a deep, smooth tone.

Basswood is an application specific tonewood. It’s fairly inexpensive, making it a common appearance in Squire’s lineup, but its tonal properties also win it use in the more rhythm-oriented offerings from Ibanez.


Fragile basswood

Mahogany

My favorite wood of all time, and not only for its tonal characteristics, mahogany is one of the market mainstays today. The most common species used is Honduran mahogany. Physically, it’s a relatively light-weight hardwood with a rich red or brown coloring. It’s open grain often leads to thin black speckles that create a sense of depth. It takes finish, but you need to prepare it more extensively than other woods. As a tonewood, mahogany provides for as rich a sound as it does a smell. Mids and lows are accentuated, and the wood vibrates in a way that reminds me of a tender encounter with true love.

Mahogany is used almost as extensively as alder. Perhaps the most prevalent manufacturer using mahogany is Gibson, but Paul Reed Smith, Ibanez, Yamaha, Epiphone, and many others are on the same boat. Incidentally, the wood is used both for electric guitars and acoustic guitars to similar effect.


Mahogany! My love!

Maple

Maple is the almighty balance in the universe. It’s an extremely heavy wood, and playing a guitar made entirely out of maple is like asking your chiropractor to cause back-pain. It can vary greatly in appearance, exhibiting remarkable cross-grain patterns that resemble flames, tiger’s stripes, bird’s eyes, or ripples in water. Maple is also very hard. Getting hit by a maple pole resembles getting hit by a steel pole in many ways. Yes, I have firsthand experience on this matter. Tonally, maple is very bright, almost shrill. Maple fingerboards and necks tend to brighten up a guitar’s sound.

Very few guitars are made exclusively from Maple, largely due to its weight and tonal properties. Cost is also a major factor, as this wood doesn’t come cheap. Gibson’s Les Paul uses a slab of carved (and often beautifully figured) maple as a soundboard, to bring balance to a mahogany back. ESP follows a similar principle with their guitars, as does Paul Reed Smith. Maple fingerboards and necks are used by many manufacturers, including Fender.


Sweet tiger maple!

Korina

Korina is all the rage in the guitar building community. It can come very light, with a nicely streaked off-white color that suits natural finishes very well. This is good, because its waxy surface makes it hard to dye. Where its real power shows is in its tone. It exhibits tonal properties much like that of Mahogany. For aging Les Paul players who don’t want to dislocate their shoulders with eleven pound guitars, korina is an interesting idea.

Korina is used by many independent builders, but is largely shunned from mass production. Some major names produce lines of basses built from Korina.


Korina, like a forest

Spruce

Spruce is an extremely light softwood with a long straight grain pattern. It often exhibits knotholes, which either need to be worked around, patched, or used as character. Tonally, spruce is bright and punchy with plenty of volume when used as an acoustic guitar’s soundboard.

Most builders of acoustic guitars have some models with spruce (usually Canadian Sitka Spruce) soundboards. These include Martin, Taylor, Cort and Yamaha.


Spruce.. or, sand?

Cedar

Cedar shares many physical properties with spruce. It can range in color from a deep red all the way to white. Cedar tends to produce a warmer, more whole bodied sound when used as an acoustic soundboard.

Classical guitars like those made by Almanza, Yamaha, or Jasmine (By Takamine) make extensive use of cedar as a soundboard material. Some larger guitars take advantage of the overall loudness of cedar, including the concert jumbo class guitars from Cort.


Rich red cedar

Bubinga

Bubinga is often called African rosewood, but it’s from an entirely different species. It is very heavy, somewhat waxy, and usually has a purple tinge to it. Its figuring can be breathtaking. I have a 2″ board of bubinga sitting downstairs just waiting for me to get a larger bandsaw so that it can be resawn and made into my new coffee table! Tonally, bubinga exhibits many of the characteristics that rosewood does.

Bubinga is nowhere near as commonly used for guitar bodies as rosewood, but it is a common sight on cheaper guitars that claim to have a rosewood fingerboard.


Plain-Jane bubinga

Indian Rosewood

Indian rosewood is what most people refer to when they say rosewood. It is a dark wood with a mix of browns, reds, and purples, and can display intricate grain patterns. It is very heavy. Like many exotic woods, its waxy surface makes it difficult to finish. Tonally, rosewood is warm and rich with an unusual amount of bite.

While you’re more likely to find rosewood on a guitar’s fingerboard, it is also used as a body wood by builders like Fender. Their rosewood telecaster rocketed to instant fame due to its ties to George Harrison and the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Indian rosewood is also a common sight on acoustic guitars, which take advantage of its properties to provide much more bite and cutting tone than Mahogany gives.


I love India for the rosewood

Brazilian Rosewood

Brazilian rosewood is the thing of legends. It’s the holy grail of guitar tonewoods. It is physically very similar to Indian rosewood with an even more elaborate grain pattern and a wider range of colors that combine to make true beauty. It is also very waxy, and hard to finish. All the warmth of Indian rosewood is there, with new frequencies that cut through like no other.

While Indian rosewood is occasionally used for guitar bodies, Brazilian rosewood is not. It is extremely expensive, and illegal to forest or export from Brazil. This is strictly a fingerboard wood. And is it ever. I have had the pleasure of playing 3 guitars sporting Brazilian rosewood so far, and I must say that its a pleasure to play on. That said, I reside myself to accepting that I will never own a guitar like that. In the not too distant future, Brazilian rosewood fingerboards will join ivory nuts as extinct guitar legends.


Brazilian rosewood, exotic

Ebony

Ebony is a very hard, very black wood that screams “too cool for school” when you see it on a guitar. It’s very heavy, and nearly pointless to finish. If getting hit by a maple bat is like getting hit by a steel poll, an ebony bat is like a front-end loader! Tonally, ebony is very bright and can contribute to making a guitar shrill sounding if its not built for tonal balance.

Ebony is highly used as a fingerboard material by such manufacturers as Gibson. It’s rarely (ever?) used for bodies because, well, you try holding thirty pounds on a one-inch leather strap over your shoulder for four hours!


Black magic, ebony

Make It Work For You

There are many other tonewoods that I’d be happy to discuss, but even some that I presented here push the border between common and obscure. Does any of this mean that your guitar from Walmart made out of the famous tonewood “Godknowswhat” sounds any worse than other guitars? No. Every part of a guitar contributes to its tone, but what oozes out of your fingers is you! The way you play will make your tone, no matter what your instrument is made out of.

Wow, that was long, wasn’t it? Why don’t we take it easy next time. I think I’d like to take a little trip to a place called “Acoustic Land” where we’ll look at all of the different kind of strings available, and how they’ll affect your playing.

Have anything you’d like to add? This article is open for discussion at the Studio-Central Forums:

Discussion

Total Control, Myth and Reality

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

Total Control, Myth and Reality
The Curse

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Mackie Control and Novation Remote 37 SL

“Tweak, I have a problem, can you help?”

“Umm maybe, I’ll try”

“She left me, Tweak, how do i get her back? (sobs)

Recently there was a knock on the door of the TweakLab. It was one of our members, Master Control. We’ll just call him Control for short. ‘Cause I like to save as much time typing as possible. No matter how old or young you are, there is less time than you think. Why waste it typing? Believe me, I would not if I didn’t have a story to tell.

You see, Master Control has a serious problem. It’s on the order of life or death for his music. You can dig that, right? Stay with me now, yes, we are going out there. OK, it has been said that people that get seriously involved in recording studios tend to have a strong need to control things. That’s right, as one’s rig grows, our need for control becomes more evident, and for many of us, it becomes an obsession in the purest form. Lets put it on the operating table and dissect it, analyse and quantify it like the true control freaks we are. We know we need to control this controlling tendency itself if we want to see the Goddess of Inspiration again .

Who is this this Goddess? Sigh, Read on. It always starts out simple enough. You simply want to make and record some music. You learn to play (control) a musical instrument and manage to make it sound halfway decent. You get a tape recorder and make a song. As you play it back over and over, a small voice starts speaking to you, hey, if you could just add bass and drums, “You’d sound like a band!”. There she is in all her glory, the beautiful Lady of Our Inspiration just winked at you. She holds the key to the realization of your most beautiful music. Ah, the key, dangling from her necklace, mesmerizing your eyes into hypnotic fixation. When she winks and smiles suddenly you think you are hearing bits of thousands of melodies, which can all be turned into a thousand pieces of musical art. That is what has awakened your need –to control.

circe_offering_the_cup_to_odysseus1

Circe offering the_cup to Odysseus: Mythology has it that Circe once hosted a feast at her mansion for Odysses. After everyone ate she turned them all into pigs.

So you buy a multi-track recorder and a synth so you can add drums, bass, strings, pianos and other cool stuff. Each of these instruments has a learning curve, a set of ke1y1.thumbnail[1].jpgknowledges you need to know to get them to sound right. The trouble being, however, that you are at the bottom of this learning curve. But there is hope, The Goddess whispers, in the form of a MIDI/Audio music production system, yes, a sequencer. You follow, and your ability to Control has just taken a quantum leap. You can control the notes, the timing, their length, loudness and can move them around on a grid like bricks for a house. The Goddess smiles. Yet under the surface Control has had to learn the language of MIDI and sequencers, figure out elaborate chains of inputs and outputs of not only the physical cables connecting your gear but the hundreds of virtual pathways for your signal in the software domain. If it hasn’t happened already, your psyche splits in two, between your artistic side, which simply wants to create beauty and art, and your controlling side, deeply immersed in the intricacies of your expanding virtual world of wires and connections, data formats and bit depths, equalization curves and compressor settings.

But its all cool, she says, because you are growing. Now if you could just get things to sound more professional, she says, smiling coyly, rolling the Key around in her hand, you might get somehere with her. She puts the key to her lips, kisses it softly and whispers “You do want me don’t you?”

goddess

Master Control broods. Yes, I need to control effects and you add them to the arsenal of my tweakage. Yea, reverb, decay times, early reflections, damping, liveliness, delay, feedback, cross modulation, busses, sends, returns, plugins, VST, VST2,3, CPU load, but don’t add too much! It has to be so you barely know its there. Months later it dawns on you you have invested in a steep learning curve to allow you to produce a shade and shadow that people only recognize subliminally. Yet when you sit back and listen you hear the improvement. Next to you, the Goddess whispers in your ear “You make me feel sooo beautiful”. Then she squeezes your arm tenderly “You want to go all the way, don’t you?”

Of course you do. She has you hooked. Mixer automation, muses Control, might do the trick. Ah there is nothing like a good mix to bring out the potential of a piece of music. Master Control now immerses himself in a crash course in controller codes, for all his synthesizers so now every parameter can be controlled directly from the computer screen and recorded and edited with lines and curves. Samplers and more synths and a learning curve for each takes our hero into oscillators, envelopes, filters, file slicers and mappers. And libraries, those used by the rich and famous appear until every instrument in the world is now 5 mouse clicks away. The a library for the libraries and a controller surface for multitude of controls. Multitude? Hah, now there are millions, yes millions! of controls available. Master Control grimaces in fear, shuts himself off in a room with no windows are learns the mysterious formulae for making a pitch shifter sound natural, for bringing up perceived loudness without increasing level, making the kick not fight with the bass, for making a song shimmer, shine and pump.

But the Goddess is not smiling. In fact, you took so long learning the last 20 learning curves you forgot to pay attention to her. “Its not about control!“, she cries. “Its not about you, don’t you get it!, Its all about Me!” “Just wait a minute, chickie, shouts Control” I have to upgrade my preamps, converters, clock, and room sonics and then we can spend some time together again. Control researches a month and finally wires it all up. “It’s complete”, he shouts out. Now I can make music! Goddess, babe, where are ya? But no one answers. The Goddess is not to be found.

Days and nights pass till Master Control, infuriated with the absence of the Goddess, knocks on my door.

“So where is she Tweak?! She’s not here now, is she”? Tweak looks down, “uh well…, i’m kinda busy you know, the forums and all, maybe you can come back… No! Master Control barges past Tweak’s door and his eyes dart furtively in all directions like an addict looking for a fix. There, in a corner of the TweakLab the Goddess is smiling, sprawled on top of the empty boxes of Tweak’s new preamps, giggling and toying with the key to the TweakLab.

To be continued~~

To linkback to discussion for this article is here:
http://studio-central.com/phpbb/viewtopic.php?p=262443#262443

Tighter Coupling? I’m Not That Kind of Bridge!

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

Today we’re going to get our hands dirty and explore two very interesting variations on the traditional set-up of an electric guitar’s bridge and tailpiece. Why would anyone want to screw around with tried and true pieces of hardware such as those? Believe it or not, there are people who are just as obsessed with getting as much tone out of their guitars as you are with getting the most out of your DAW. Both of these variations require nothing more than common around-the-house supplies and a little bit of motivation. For you Gibson readers, the first variation is commonly known as the “Tailpiece Wrap”. For the second variation, we’ll be jumping to a different kind of bridge entirely, and blocking a Fender style Tremolo. The primary goal of both of these is to increase the coupling between the bridge, tailpiece, and guitar body.

Coupling

Coupling is a concept dealing with the level of connection between any two tone-bearing parts of a guitar. As the tone is generated by the strings, the first two points of coupling are the points where the string touches the guitar. These are the fret-wire of the played note, and the bridge saddle. The bridge saddle transfers vibrations into the bridge, which transfers into the guitar’s body. On a guitar with a tailpiece, sympathetic notes are generated on the sections of string that extends beyond the bridge toward the tailpiece, and the process is repeated here. Guitar audiophiles painstakingly try to maximize coupling at all points.

The Tailpiece Wrap

On Gibson’s ABR-1 and Nashville style bridges, there’s not much room for good coupling. The bridge is dropped into place on top of two studs that are mounted in the body. These are the only contact points between the body and the bridge. The bridge cannot be lowered enough to come into direct contact with the body of the guitar. To increase coupling on these guitars, the only avenue available is the tailpiece. Its job is to anchor the ends of the strings in place and create a suitable followthrough angle for the strings after they clear the bridge, so as to produce enough string tension. The short length of strings between the bridge and tailpiece ring at sympathetic frequencies to their longer counterparts, and so coupling the tailpiece becomes important. In most cases, you can’t simply screw the tailpiece down against the body of the guitar. This will generally put too much tension on the bridge, and cause it to collapse. A collapsed bridge is not the end of the world, but it does mean a trip to your luthier or your trusty shop-vice. If you want to screw the tailpiece down all the way, you’ll need to find a way to reduce the angle at which the strings fall away from the bridge.

Angle

The angle at which the strings leave the bridge is important. Too great an angle, and you run the risk of collapsing your bridge. If the angle is too shallow (as demonstrated here) you run the risk of unsetting the low E string whenever you strike it hard.

The solution to this problem is the Tailpiece Wrap. By feeding your strings through the tailpiece backwards, and wrapping them around the top toward the bridge, you can screw the tailpiece all the way to the body of the guitar and reduce the overall tension on the bridge.

Tailpiece Wrap
The tailpiece wrap is accomplished by inserting the strings backwards through the tailpiece, and running them over the top. Make sure to screw the tailpiece down flat against the body of the guitar.

As with anything, there are a couple of pitfalls to the Tailpiece Wrap. The most serious is when the grooves in your saddles aren’t entirely formed yet. They come filed with a small dimple from the factory that grows as your guitar ages. If you only have the small dimple, the reduced tension from the strings could result in their slipping out of place on the saddle. In some cases, they could even slide right off of the saddle. You can “expedite” the groove-setting process with a small file if you wish, but any change you make will require you to reset the guitar’s intonation. The other major consequence of the Tail Wrap is a matter of preference. Your strings will feel slinkier as you play due to the decreased tension. It might be just what you need to bump up to the next gauge of string though.

Pitfall

This is what you can expect if you have your bridge set for very low action and havn’t worn deep enough grooves into your bridge saddles. You can attempt to file the grooves deeper, but you’ll need to reset your intonation.

Blocking Your Tremolo

There are many manufacturers of tremolo bridges today. The comments I make here refer specifically to Fender’s classic and modern style tremolo bridges, but can be translated to most. Pictures will become available the next time I work on someone’s Strat, I sold my last one a few months ago.

A Strat is a guitar tweaker’s delight. They’re pieced together from several completely different parts, in a manner that makes the tightly integrated guitars of Gibson look like solid marble statues. It’s no wonder that they have a characteristic sound that’s nothing like more solidly built guitars, but wonderful in it’s own right. Their tremolo bridges allow for some creative pitch-bending, but can be a big hassle if you don’t use them! Ideally, the bridge will be lifted off of the face of the guitar a fair amount. In order to sustain the string’s vibration, there’s a solid metal block bolted to the back of the bridge plate where the strings are anchored. Not only does this make for bad coupling, it causes problems with tuning. Whenever you change the tension on one string, all of the others will change as a result of the floating bridge. Break a string and you’ll go hideously out of tune. To solve both of these problems, we’re going to put a Strat on the operating table.

To block the tremolo bridge of a strat, lower the tension on all of the strings evenly until the bridge lies entirely flat against the face of the guitar. Open up the back compartment by removing all of the screws on the vinyl plate and take a look inside. Some people like to make this a natural reverb chamber by installing all five of their tremolo springs and screwing the claw as far up as it will go. This isn’t necessary in order to block the tremolo. You’ll need a solid, shapable block. A piece of hardwood works wonderfully here. You’ll need to shape it to fit between the metal block behind the tremolo, and the guitar’s body at the bottom of the tremolo cavity. Sand it so that it fits very tightly in this space. This will provide solid coupling between the bridge’s sustain block and the body of the guitar. It will also prevent the bridge from shifting when the string tension changes. It’s common practice to drill a pilot hole in the block so that you can insert a screw that can be pulled with a pair of pliers if you ever decide to remove the block.

What do you lose by blocking your tremolo? Well, you can’t do any more dive-bombs, and porno music is out of the picture! If those aren’t your things, it’s not hurting you much and it can always be removed.

Make It Work For You

So does all of this coupling mumbo-jumbo mean anything to you? Even if you don’t buy it, both of these bridge variations are worth a try. They’re easily reversible and don’t require any unusual materials. I personally don’t like the looser feel of the strings when wrapped around the tailpiece, and I play 11s. To me, the shorter Gibson scale length loosens the strings enough. I do wholeheartedly encourage the use of a blocked tremolo if you don’t use it on the other hand. At the end of the day, both are just ways to tailor the feel and flavor of your axe. Find what’s right for you.

Next time, I’d like to venture into the world of guitar tonewoods. It’s sure to be exotic!

Have something You’d like to add? This article is open for discussion on the Studio Central forums:

Discussion

Further Reading:

Dan Erlewine’s How to Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great,
ISBN:10 – 0879306017
Dan Erlewine’s Guitar Player Repair Guide,
ISBN:10 – 0879302917

Money Shot This is nothing more than a self-satisfying moneyshot of my beauty and the star of this article. Again, I promise to get Strat pictures up as soon as I work on someone’s strat.

My Mission

Monday, January 15th, 2007

Well, I figured I’d make a blog here sinse I could, and should not just lurk in the shadows on this. Hopefully writing about what I want to do with music won’t bore you too much!

To start it off, my name is Joel and I graduated high school in 06. Over the summer my band tracked our first album on a bad bad bad behringer mixer into a Dell laptops soundcard line in. I try to forget the sounds it made, it brings nightmares to my sleep! After this small experiance, I became addicted to recording. Started with my podxt live’s line out into my computers line in using Audacity. I couldn’t get enough of this! It was just too fun. (I just realized how dorky it is, we have fun recording stuff. Tihehe) I then decided that I’d really want to start recording, and specializing in the area of tracking. Its just too much fun for me. Shortly thereafter, I started googling my butt off and found Studio-Central. Read Tweaks guide at least twice a day. After a while I joined the forums so I could ask the best n00b questions ever. A few months went buy and I found myself making my first purchases, a PreSonus Firepod and some mics. The more I played with everything, the more I wanted. The more I wanted the more I realized I would love to open a small budget studio for the local bands. To be able to give out close to professional quality recordings at a lower price, and much more friendly. I wouldn’t care if I did it for free for a while, its something I quite enjoy.

Eventually I expanded my gear with another Firepod and some more mics, and I was broke through all of December because of it. (Its so worth having 2 SM81’s, trust me!) This brought me to re tracking my bands drum and keyboard parts while they were down from college. My first true tracking experience. I realized just how little I knew when I thought I knew enough. It was a blast none the less, even getting the perfect XY with the overheads which took me about an hour and a half, stil great fun. This has pushed me to wanting to ask and learn as much as I could. I have a set budget the next few years to build up my gear supply so I can get a small project studio launched and off the ground. Even if it fails, I would not mind so much, I would just have one awesome toy to play with my own bands. :)

Well enough rambling on, wish me luck, because I’m probably going against the wind on this one!

- joelpilling

The Home Studio

Monday, January 15th, 2007

Hi.
My name’s Erik.  I run a small studio from a basement in Windsor, Ontario.  I have learned everything I know from self-taught methods and online research.  I’ like to start my blogging by simply discussing what a guy like me goes through, what drives me, and what I deal with on a daily basis in my relatively simple home studio.  I work a day job that pays my bills and for my equipment, but this is what I love to do.

I don’t really work on music to make money.  I do make some cash when a local band or artist needs a demo and isn’t willing to pay $60/hr at a professional facility.  I mostly do this for myself because I love it.  A lot of people online ask, “Man, don’t you think you are ripping off the professionals in your area?”.  I say a firm NO!!! everytime.  Why?  Because the places in town rule the market with an iron fist and really take bands for a ride.  A band I am fairly close with went to another basement studio that charges 3x as much as I do and spent over a year on their project.  A full-length 15 song rock cd.  I went to this guy’s studio and discovered why.  He had a rack with a wicked nice preamp, Pro Tools, a few standard mics, horrible monitors, untreated weird-shaped basement, mixed in the corner, bad sounding drum room.  Oh yea, and a proudly-displayed diploma on his was from the College he got his engineer’s degree from.

Point is, my material surpasses that of this ’studied’ engineers, with lesser equipment than him because I work my arse off to know what makes a song tick.  I charge less because I know where I stand.  I am in a darn basement with Sonar 6 PE, running a Delta 1010, RNP, and a Mackie VLZ mixer!  I don’t hold a gun to a band’s head and force them to record with me.  I am firm and up front with the bands I work with about what I do and what they can expect.  Those that choose to come to me simply do not want to deal with the cost and pressure in a professional place in my town that will basically hand them something not worth the money or dick them around in the process, depending where you go.

I know, I’ve been there.

I started off in a band that needed a demo done.  We didn’t have a lot of money so I went out and bought a mixer, a $300 Echo Mia soundcard, and Cool Edit 2.0.  Yea, I spent the money and the band didn’t but it was just a taste of what was to come.

So a few years later and a ton of projects and reading/experimenting later, I’m where I am now.  I’ve spent a ton of cash on items I’d only need to upgrade later on.  But I’ve finally come to a point where I’m happy with my equipment list, what I’m about, and I know I’m not dealing a duff hand to anyone who walks through my door.

As a home studio where you are by yoursel doing the producing job for the love of it and not much more, you have to know where you stand.  You also can’t lie to clients or you will be called out and figured out REAL fast.  You could easily get some bands into your studio by pulling out a lit-up piece of gear or two and show them your automated control-surface.  However, when you are nearing completion and a popular band in town is asking about the crap coming from your speakers, what are you gonna do?  Give them their money back?  Thank god this has never happened to me, and I take care in making sure it never will.

Another point that really drives me is the need to constantly learn more.  I am still trying to get the perfect rock tone from every amp I can get my hands on.  The perfect snare sound is getting closer by the project.  A new mic here, a new micing concept there.  You can easily get lost in everything.  Midi work, audio stretching, tuning vocals, and learning my new pieces of gear have all been on my mind lately.  I then go online and start to read about something new, which leads to more and more.  I need to keep my perspective about where I am constantly.  Keep priorities and remind myself of them or I will never achieve whatever goals I had in mind.

I guess this can all sound like a rant, but talking about running a small studio in a town full of rip off artists and salesmen can sometimes sound like that.  I hope someone enjoyed reading this and can relate.

Magnetic Guitar Pickups, ‘How’d They Do That?’

Monday, January 15th, 2007

With the SC community beginning to expand into new horizons, it’s my honor to bring you this, the first installment in a series of articles focussed on the technical aspects of guitars. I have grand plans for articles covering electronics, tonewoods, getting the most out of a guitar, set ups, and even elements of guitar construction. You can expect both light reading acticles like today’s, as well as in depth detailed information with photographic support.I thought I’d start our journey with a nice light historical article on a topic that I’ve always found fascinating. Guitar pickups have revolutionized the way that we make music. While most of us weren’t around to witness the catalyst of this change, we’ve all seen first hand how music has evolved as a result. I’d like to shed a little light onto their history, how these wonderful inventions work, and offer some advise on how to go about getting YOUR sound out of them.

Development

While there are many different types of pickups available today, the passive magnetic pickup is undeniably the industry mainstay. They are the driving force in everything from jazz, to rock, to NUmetal (uggh). The first known magnetic pickup was created by George Beauchamp and Paul Barth in 1931 for Rickenbacker, and was used in an aluminum guitar! It operated on a very simple principle, induction. Cutting through the finery, you take a magnet (or magnets) and wrap it thousands of times over with a thin copper wire. The strings of the guitar (made from a magnetic alloy) move and vibrate inside of the magnet’s field creating electric current in the wire at the same frequency as the vibrating strings. This signal is fed to your amp, and hey! Bob’s your uncle!

Field Diagram

Magnetic pickups have a near infinite variety! Lipstick tubes, soapbar P90s, dogear P90s, single coils, humbuckers, mini humbuckers, the list goes on. All have their own characteristic sounds that are influenced by the differences in their constructions, but they all fall into two categories. Single coils and humbuckers.

Lipstick TubeLipstick Tube Single Coil

Single Coils

A single coil pickup is not much different than the general description that I provided earlier. Most Fender style single coil pickups actually have six separate magnets, (1 under each string) where a P90 has 1 long magnet and a shorter bobbin. The bobbin is the piece of plastic around the magnet. A taller bobbin places the copper wire closer to the magnet, creating a brighter sound. Single coil pickups tend to provide a lower output than a humbucker, and a clearer, stronger representation of the higher frequencies. Since they are basically glorified antennae, they are highly susceptible to RF interference, especially 60Hz hum from fluorescent lights or electrical lines.

Strat SinglesFender Strat Single Coils

Humbuckers

The humbucker was invented by a scientist working for Gibson in 1956. His name was Seth Lover, and his creation first adorned Gibson’s 1957 line of guitars. He flipped the magnet in a pickup and wired it backwards to a normal single coil. The result was a reinforced signal with greatly reduced electrical interference! By wiring the pickups together backwards, he had two near-identical electrical signals (with interference) combining out of phase and canceling each other off. By flipping the magnet, he reversed the polarity of the induced current on the second pickup so that it was in phase with the first. Since the interference exists in the copper wire, not in the string’s vibration, his humbucker generated a strong signal without the noise.

Humbuckers tend to produce a very powerful, dark signal. With today’s demand for more powerful pickups, wax potting has become a common practice in humbucker design. The copper wire is covered in wax to reduce the microphonic qualities of the pickup, qualities that can easily lead to squeal and feedback if not controlled.

Patent
The patent filed by Seth Lover for the first humbucker

Make It Work For You

Because a pickup is a magnet, it can have an effect on the vibration of your strings. Many intonation problems, or the sudden loss of sustain can be solved by backing the pickups away from the strings. This is usually accomplished by turning two screws on either side of the pickup. Experiment a little bit here, there’s not much you can harm. See just how high you like your pickups. The closer you get to the strings, the stronger the signal will be. You will also notice the magnetic effect of the pickup on the strings more. Humbuckers can generally be positioned much closer to the strings than single coil pickups. If you have adjustable pole pieces, you can experiment even further. The most common practice is to adjust them to follow the heights of your strings, but you can custom tailor your sound this way. Remember, there’s a 1:6,900,000,000 chance that you aren’t Jimmy Page. The pickups are just a tool for your creativity, you have to find your sound.

Next week, I’d like to take a step away from both electronics and the history lesson, and bring you some great tips on how to get the most out of your bridge/saddles, and (if applicable) tailpiece! And if that wasn’t enough, you’ll get to see pics as I illustrate it all on my Les Paul.

Have something you’d like to add or explore further? This topic is open for discussion at the Studio Central forums:

Discussion

Further Reading:

Donald Brosnac’s Guitar Electronics for Musicians, ISBN:10 0711902321

FL Vs. Ableton Live 6

Sunday, January 14th, 2007

Posted from: Metro-Sonus.com

As an avid user of FL studio for round abouts 10 years, I’ve recently purchased Ableton Live 6 rather than stick with the FL franchise. I know allot of people use FL, and I’ve answered allot of FL related questions, so I’ve decided to document why I’ve decided to switch brands after 10 years in hopes that others will get some sort of insight into things.

** Disclaimer.. When it comes down to it, there’s no right or wrong answer here; just what works best for you and the way that you work. My answers aren’t going to be the same as yours or anyone else’s. I hope that by writing this stream of conciousness, you can have just one more point of view in helping you make your decisions.

Ok down to the good stuff. I used FL when it was called Fruity loops and was a drum machine only, way back around ‘94. Since then it’s grown into a complete VSTi hosting, multi channel sequencer, with built in effects and a virtual mixer. Since that time way back in ‘94 my technical skills have grown as well. In recent years, I’ve felt something was missing. I’ve mastered all the functions of FL, yet I felt like I couldn’t push the envelope and squeeze out that extra bit that pushed it to 11. To demonstrate why, let’s consider the FL main screen:

This should look pretty familiar if you’ve used FL. This is version 5, mind you, when I stopped using it. For those that don’t know, what you see in the upper left is the main step sequencer, the mixer on the right, several XY controllers, and several effects. The first thing I want to explain is the step sequencer. What you see are the various samples and VSTi running down the left hand side that make up the pattern, which is the collection of “dots” in the right hand column. What you’re looking at is a fairly typical 1 bar, 4 on the floor sort of setup. This is the advantage of FL, being able to quickly knock out patterns in seconds. But, let me ask you, if I wanted to bring in the hats first and the kicks second, how would I do that? The answer is I would have to create a new pattern, one for each separate part, along with one for each chord change or other variation. No tell me how I know which pattern I’m on? After buying Live, I went back and looked at allot of my old songs in FL. Funny thing was, almost all of my songs never made it past the screen you’re looking at. After creating a dense pattern, I loathed having to go back and chop it all into separate patterns to make a song out of it. FL does have a song mode, which is analogous to a song or chain mode on a groove box. Essentially, you’re able to create patterns by sequencing individual patterns together. You do get the nice advantage of being able to name each pattern in song mode, but again, how you do you know which is which? I found too often I’d have to bring the step sequencer up, scroll through each pattern until I could remember if that E minor progression was pattern 8 or 15. This was about 90% of my frustration. I found that not being able to keep my patterns in a workable order slowed me down.

The other 9% of my problems came down to the rest of the screen. Take another look, can you tell which XY controller goes with which VSTi? Or effect? No, and neither could I half the time, unless I only had one or two on the screen at a time. Imagine trying to record a manual filter sweep with the XY pad, having to stop the sequencer, minimizing the XY pad, flipping through the effects channel to find the second XY pad or effect, bringing that up then recording that down.. Ack! Total buzz kill… !! Watch those guys demo the Korg EMX1 on youtube.com, nothing slows them down. They flip patterns, record sweeps and leads all without stopping. Wouldn’t it be great if FL worked that like? I thought so too…

So, maybe you’ve noticed I’ve discussed 99% of my problems so far. What about the other 1%? Well, in short, Fl doesn’t have a live performance mode; I want that. Fl has been slower than quik set concrete through a goose to implement features that have been standard on other sequencers for about 5 years; comprehensive MIDI control, supporting multiple controllers, sustain pedal and other features I can’t live without since I’m almost exclusively software. Yes, in ver. 6, they’ve changed all that. But it’s too little too late in my opinion. To give a counter point of view, I admit I’m not privy to Image Lines business model. They may have intended a low cost, easy to use, small learning curve product and in that regard, it’s been phenomenal. And one more tiny thing… In the step sequencer, I liked to arrange my drum kit first, in the upper left part of the screen. What would happen if I wanted to add an additional percussion part was that I would have to insert a new sample at the bottom, yes after all the other VSTis and all. Given FLs interface, I couldn’t move it back up with it’s other percussive brothers (and sisters). Yes, FL does have a sort of collapse or fold feature where you can group the instruments you want and their patterns together. But that’s one more thing to keep you several clicks away from the important stuff, thusly killing your workflow.

Now lets consider Live. Live puts the sequencer at a right angle to FL, eliminating my problems with FL.

What you’re seeing is each VSTi channel running across the top, from left to right. Each colored bar underneath each channel, is an individual pattern. Each pattern can be named, as well as given an individual color. On the bottom, each VSTi channel gets its own XY pad and each effect for that channel is listed in the order of the chain, from left to right. Each active channel (the one your are currently viewing) is shown by the title bar being highlighted and that can also be renamed as well.

Hopefully now the advantage of Live is becoming clear. Let me extend that by discussing how songs are written. Live can be played like an instrument, allowing you to play your patterns like a performance. Or for those that chose it, a more traditional sequencer. Each colored pattern can be assigned to just about anything; a number or letter from your computer’s keyboard or any key, pad or button from a keyboard controller or other form of interface. You can either choose to play each clip separately in a Dj style performance, or you can activate all the clips in the same row by clicking the arrow for that row under the Master column on the far right. You could then easily write an intro, verse, chorus and bridge and then trigger them as part of a live performance from a controller keyboard.

Clicking each pattern brings up the piano roll editor for that pattern in the window below. Double click the next pattern down for an empty one, or right click and select “duplicate” to have another copy to create a variation. It should be easy to visualize how fast it is to build songs out of patterns by this point.

What if you, like me, prefer FL’s XOX style sequencer? Not a problem.. Simple enter the notes you want to work with for that pattern, say CEG for a simple chord, then hit the fold button at the top of the piano roll.

There you go.. fast melodies and basslines. I should also note that at the bottom of each channel is the mixer controls for that channel as well.

Live started out as a Dj program, and you can still Dj by loading entire wav or MP3 files into patterns and then triggering them as part of a mix, or by recording and processing external audio.

Over all, Live is organized, fast and easy to use and it’s let me push it much further than 11!

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