Bass Clarity part 1

One of the most commonly heard complaints from bass players is “I can’t hear myself.”

Unfortunately, due to the type of sound bass produces (low), it can be very difficult for the bass player to have any sort of clarity and definition in the band room/on stage.

Why is it hard to hear the bass?

Often, the main reason that you can’t hear bass is because it’s competing with guitar (or possibly keyboard). Because guitar takes up so much sonic space (it produces a huge range of frequencies from very low to very high) it is a competition that the bass (which produces largely low frequencies) is
probably going to lose.

Also, guitar being the traditional instrumental focus of the rock band, there’s a good chance that your guitarist will have strong opinions on which instrument should be loudest. No matter how you attempt to compete by turning your amp up, guitar has all those mid and high frequencies to work with and you will need a much larger amplifier than your guitarist to have any chance of competing outright with them.

And at the end of your rehearsal you will all be deaf.

There are solutions to this problem.
Keep in mind that recording situations (and situations where you have a sympathetic sound engineer) will be different.

  1. Buy a monstrously large amp.

  2. Consider playing with a pick. (I
    personally don’t but let’s consider it).

  3. Make sure your songs are well
    arranged.

  4. Politely ask the rest of your band
    to get the out of your way. (And get friendly with your sound
    man/woman).

  5. Go low. Lower. Lower…

1. Buy a monstrously large amplifier.

If you can buy a big amp, it’s important to use it effectively.

For some genres (and some bands) you can go to town with your tone. But with a bright clangy upper mid/top end and a tight punchy, growly middle, however sexy it might sound by itself, you are going to be eaten alive by a loud, distorted guitar strumming an open G chord. And your sound person is then going to EQ the hell out of your sound to make it fit in their mix and ruin your lovely tone anyway. (For more info on this look to point 4 and 5).

The most effective way to use a big amp is turn it up really loud. Really loud. Now get plenty of bottom end in your sound. Don’t touch tone sculpting and slap EQ buttons. Also banned are mid and treble knobs. But go for it with your bass knob (and maybe lower-mids). We’re not going to compete with the guitar, we’re going where it can’t… LOW….

Play the strings firmly, but not hard.
The softer you play the strings, the less harmonics the string will produce, and the more bass you will get (relatively). The more bass, the better chance you have of getting under the guitar. Give it a go, you may be pleasantly surprised at the clarity.

Naturally, always trust your ears and not me.

Points 2, 3, 4 and 5 next time…

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

Record Yourself ALL The Time

Why you should record yourself all the time.

As performers and writers of music there is an important question that we need to constantly ask ourselves – “Is what I am doing really any good?”

Is the song that you have just written a good song?

Is that groove really as funky as you think?

And now I’ve got this great riff, when I play it, does it sound as good as it could?…

How can you tell what you’re doing is any good?

A great solution is to record yourself.
Record everything. Record all your rehearsals, all your gigs, all your demos, all your song ideas, everything.

Something happens when you put things on tape. We can all listen to the radio and say “That’s crap” or “That’s great”. We’ve had lots of practise listening to and judging music we hear. But when we play our own music, our eyes (and ears) glaze over with dreams of rock superstardom (or whatever) and our brain can’t hear what we’re really playing. Putting it on tape allows you to listen with that critical part of the brain that you’ve used all your life to choose music you really like.

Once you’ve recorded your song or idea, you can listen back and hear that the instrumental section takes away the impact of the chorus, the guitar part is fun but destroys the mood of the song, the busy bass part is distracting or that ‘lose’ and ‘obtuse’ really don’t rhyme. (Listen for good ideas that you may have missed too – musical accidents have made hit songs).

Then listen to your actual playing.
You’ll hear where the drummer is slowing down, how the bass and drums are out, how the riffs lack impact because they’re sloppy or how the singer can’t reach that note…

This requires a lot of honesty with your band mates and with yourself. If you’re convinced that your material and playing can’t be improved, compare it to a recording by an established artist. Don’t make excuses or settle for near enough.

And every time you play on tape (which should be every time you play) imagine that you’re keeping it forever and make it good.

You have a lot of choices for gear to record with. Make it simple to use, portable and quick to set up.

Simple to use because you don’t want to have to think about it – you’re busy being creative, portable because it has to go where you go and quick to set up because when inspiration strikes you have to be ready.

I use ProTools LE (with an Mbox) and a very cheap laptop. The laptop won’t even run the ProTools demo but it meets all my other needs (and I’ve used it for tracking commercial recordings).

There are lots of options available like hard disc recorders and even hand held mP3 recorders. Even a cassette 4-track is something!

Take the plunge and then use it all the time – it will be one of the best career
investments you make.

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

Songwriting Tips part 2

Some more song writing thoughts for you…

Communicate

Songwriters use music and lyrics to communicate with their audience.

Imagine that you’re speaking at a rally (protest, political whatever).

Do you use big words? Take ages to get the point? Use long complicated sentences?

Probably not… unless for some reason you want the crowd to be confused and bored?

Song writing is similar. You need to revise how successfully your songs communicate. Record them and listen back to them…

Do you need the long instrumental section with the weird time signature? Does it help communicate you’re in love/angry/whatever? If you lose it, who cares? Even if you like it – if it’s not needed, lose it. If you like it that much, keep it for another song.

Is it confusing if your album/set list has a pop song followed by a reggae song, then punk then pop again?
Probably. Don’t stop yourself writing songs outside of the genres you work in, but you can’t be elusive if you want to communicate.

There are famous artists (eg The Beatles) whose music covers a lot of genres. But their careers nearly always began with one genre, which established an audience, then grew from there.

Don’t let your songs be too similar though – you’ll sound boring and then you’re still not communicating…

Write Within Your Means

The Ramones were never going to write Satriani’s Surfing With The Alien. They probably didn’t want to and they probably couldn’t play it even if they did want to… which they didn’t.

The Ramones wrote what they could play and they were fantastic at it.

Practise hard to improve your playing/singing. You may also aspire to playing more challenging music – but don’t write songs that you can’t play or sing.
They’ll just sound like crap and you won’t communicate anything.

Don’t write songs that you think will sound great with an orchestra or with three guitarists. You don’t have an orchestra or probably even three guitarists and those songs will never sound any good when you play minus the orchestra. Write for what you have.

Write within your means.

Ruthless Refinement.

Once your songs are written you have to be really harsh about how good they are. (This is what you pay Producers for).

Is that verse too long? Is that keyboard part too busy? Could that lyric be better? Maybe the song has a slap bass part that just sounds messy and confusing. Could you simplify that instrumental section so it has more impact? Why is there no chorus for the first 5 minutes? Why is it longer than 5 minutes?

At every stage of writing/recording/performing you have to be cruel and ruthless and uncompromising. If it doesn’t work, throw it out or fix it. If it could be better, make it better.

Refine, refine, refine.

These rules don’t exclude artists who write weird songs for years before they get any success. That struggling artist might be you, but you still must refine what you write until it’s so perfect that people can’t deny what an
extraordinary thing it is you’ve written.

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

Songwriting Tips Part 1

Your ability to write a song, a memorable melody or beat, can make or break your career. There are lots of jobs for people who can’t write; session player, engineer, roadie, boy band member etc, but if you want to be on stage in front of adoring thousands and communicating through your music, song writing is where you need to shine.

If you write a good song, it doesn’t matter if you can’t play (Ramones), record your first album on a walkman at a camp fire (Michelle Shocked), can’t sing (Bob Dylan), sing funny (Tom Waits, Björk), rarely sing (Joe Satriani) or don’t sing at all (Moby).

(Read on Dylan, Ramones, Björk and Waits fans before you get too stroppy…)

This article won’t cover the technical aspects of song writing (lyric and chord theory etc) but instead will cover the common “process” mistakes that I see my Clients make. I’m personally familiar with these mistakes because I made all of them, which is why I’m writing in this blog now instead of
being interviewed for one…

BTW – an excellent book on the technical aspects of song writing is Jimmy Webb – Tunesmith. Every book on technical song writing I have ever read was rubbish… except it.

Why your songs suck.

If your songs are communicating to your audience they will return to your gigs again and again, growing in numbers and hysteria each time, shouting song requests by name and dragging along their record industry friends. If not, it’s because your songs aren’t good enough.

Yes the front of house sound was bad, maybe the drummer kept dropping beats and probably your guitar would sound better with new strings, but it’s amazing how a great song cuts through all that crap.

You have to own up that your songs should be better. All of them.

If you are playing a style of music that is outside mainstream and industry tastes, you need to make your songs so good they can’t be ignored, just like Tom Waits or Joe Satriani.

Your songs suck. Make them amazing so they cannot be ignored.

Respect the journey.

Don’t try to write the greatest album ever right now. You’ll just get frustrated.

Ask every Dark Side Of The Moon owner to name at least 5 earlier Pink Floyd albums – I would be surprised if the majority can. I have read that John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote 900ish songs together before the first Beatles album was recorded (which was half covers anyway). Judging by One After 909, a song from that period resurrected for the Let It Be album, pretty
much all those 900 songs sucked.

You have to respect the journey. You can’t write twelve songs, whack them on an album and expect anyone to care. If you were to write 100 songs, or more realistically, 300 songs, tour them relentlessly and choose twelve out of those that audiences consistently adored, then maybe you could complain if no one cared.

Respect the journey. Write a lot of songs. Finish them, record them (in an affordable way, like with Pro-Tools or even a 4-track) and throw them away. Write some more.
Don’t worry if they suck. Finish them, record them and throw them away. Write some more.

Next month we’ll talk about communication, writing within your means and ruthless refinement.

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

Amp Emulators

I think amp emulators are the great invention of our time for guitarists. Not just for performance, but also for practise. I know a lot of guitarists will think I’m overstating things here but I’m going to explain what I think is so wonderful about them and hopefully change your minds.

Bad Rap:

Amp emulators have gotchn a bad rap and think this has happened for a number of reasons.

  1. In the past, they’ve sounded terrible and deserved the reputation that they gained.

I’ve owned various pieces of emulating equipment over the years that have claimed to sound just like a real valve-amp. A lot of these failed to sound like a decent solid state, never mind a nice tube rig. Pulling a tone from these beasts has been challenging and ultimately really good practise for being able to get a half-decent tone out of just about any piece of equipment. Until fairly recently though there’s been no point in using them in a professional context at all.

  1. People aren’t very skilled at using them and thus can’t get tone out of them.

Like anything, pulling a good tone requires practise. Just plugging in and hoping for the best is not going to cut it. You can tweak these devices endlessly and learn a hell of a lot about tone in the process.

  1. We enjoy the mystique of the vacuum tube.

I’ve got a beautiful valve amp as well as my PodXT. I still think that the valve amp sounds slightly better, but I’ve used my Pod much more often in recordings lately. Why? Well..

Multiple Amps:

I worked as a session guitarist for many years. By the end of my session days, I would arrive at the studio with only a guitar. Most of us can’t afford to have 20 classic vintage amps, so having the next best thing in one box save a lot of money and lugging.

Practise Your Tone:

Being able to practise your tone is a great boon to a guitarist. It doesn’t matter how well you play, if your sound sucks no one will appreciate anything that you have to ‘say’. I remember it being said of one of Australia’s top sessions players that “he practises his tones, like other guitarists practise their scales”.

Imitating the sound of your favourite guitarist can be painstaking at first, but its a beneficial exercise. Record yourself on a multi-track playing along with your favourite guitar sound. Then listen back. If the sound of your guitar doesn’t disappear into the recorded track, go back and try again.

Consistency:

There are so many variables in pulling a nice tone that it makes it hard to reproduce that great sound that you had yesterday, never mind the last time you recorded. So being able to recall a ‘patch’ and do another take a week or two later, or to improve your tone as your ears get better over time is a lifesaver.

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

 

Choosing the Best Gear to Practice On

Or hard disk or DAT or whatever. The best thing that you can do for both your personal and band practise is to record it. You’ll often hear things that you missed during the rehearsal. Its like a sports team watching videos of their game after a match.

Archiving the recording is good too. You’ll be able to hear your playing and sound improve over time. Sometimes you’ll find some magic moments that ‘just happen’ in rehearsal. You’ll be able to incorporate these back into your songs or playing and this will help define your playing style.

Practise against a Metronome or Drum machine is essential. Everyone needs to be responsible for their own time keeping, not ‘leaning’ on the drummer.

Practise playing accurately first, then work on feel and groove. This may take some time. Until you can play in time and with feel by yourself in the practise-room, you’re not ‘doing your bit’ as a band member.

Play along with albums that you love and record the sound of you and the album together. When you can ‘blend into’ the album that you’re playing with, you’re starting to pick up the groove of the players that you like.

The equipment that you practice on needs to be as responsive to your playing as your gig gear. If its not, you’ll be suddenly surprised when you get on-stage.

Some practise amps have a very limited dynamic range and won’t respond to the nuances of your playing. You won’t notice until its too late that you’ve been striking the instrument inconsistently. You’ll end up playing on some gig equipment and producing nasty tone and wildly varying output volume.

Practice in headphones. The human brain has a preference for reflected over direct sound. When you practice in headphones you isolate all reflected sound and hear only the direct. You’ll hear exactly what you’re playing without the sound be altered by its echoing in the room. In-ear monitors a re great at gigs if you can organise them too.

Rehearse the band in headphones. Either mic up the amps or use amp simulators direct into a console with a metronome. Try playing everything at half speed (with the drummer) and you’ll be able to hear how everyone is phrasing and you’ll tighten up the band dramatically. Then play without the metronome at full speed.

Quiet rehearsals are great because they allow you to hear what everyone else is doing without going deaf. Rehearsing at gig volume a couple of times before a gig is very important. You’ll be able to pick up any noise issues that you gear is having, listen for feedback problems (sometimes caused by microphonic pick-ups on a guitar) and get a real feel for the the way your instrument will sound and feel at the gig.

 

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

Amplifiers and Tone – part two

 

The
continuing saga of getting a good tone out of your guitar and amp,
this time we talk about doing it without bleeding eardrums.

Power Amp
distortion:

Ever played
a vintage amp with no pre-amp gain control (nothing marked gain or
distortion). How did players get overdrive/ distortion out of these
old beasties. Well, the old fashion way, with power amp distortion.
What is it? Its when the power amp part of your amp is overloaded so
much that it starts to clip or distort. How do we achieve it? Simply
by cranking the amp to 10, this usually pushes the power amplifiers
circuit beyond its limits and brings about distortion. Many argue
that this is the sweetest kind of distortion. Unfortunately with a
100w amplifier, this can be a painful experience and unless you’re on
a very big stage, or very well soundproofed studio, your sound
engineer probably won’t appreciate it much. So, what alternatives are
there?

Power Soaks
/ Breaks / Attenuators:

Power Soaks
(they come under a lot of different names) are devices that attach
between your poweramp and your speaker box. These handy tools reduce
the amount of volume coming out of your amp while its running at full
tilt. This way you get that great cranked sound without the hearing
damage.

Amp Mods:

There are
various ways that your friendly valve amp repairer can modify your
precious valve amp to be quieter without loosing its tone. Most of
the amps that you hear live or on album have been mod’ed in some way
or another, so its worth talking to someone who knows to see what
they can do for your amp.

Output
Ratings:

This may
sound obvious, but, getting a smaller amp is a great solution. You
can buy vintage style, high quality amplifiers that have very low
output ratings. Some have an output as low as ¼ of a watt, yet still
will drive a 2×12” or 4×12” speaker cabinet. These amps can be
easily cranked without any danger of breaking your ears. I’ve seen it
argued that in a studio situation, these amps can end up sounding a
lot nicer as the mics that your using will be operating at a much
less distressing SPL (sound pressure level), thus allowing the mic to
sound its best.

Speaker
Simulators:

You can plug
your amp directly into a speaker simulator and then straight into the
mixing console. This way there is no sound coming out of your amp at
all. Volume can be controlled by the engineer and everyone is happy
(as long as you’ve got some foldback to hear what you’re doing).

Amp
Simulators:

These solid
state devices (like the line 6 pod for example) do a great job of
emulating (modelling) real amplifiers. They’re incredibly convenient,
inexpensive and the volume is really easy to control. One of the best
live mixes I ever heard was when the band was all D.I’ed via some of
these devices.

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

 

Amplifiers and Tone – part one

This is the first part of a two part article on amplifiers and tone. There’s just too much going on here to fit it into one article, so here goes part one:

Always use as little distortion as possible. This will give you punch and clarity. Too much distortion makes your tone sound mushy, and sometimes scratchy and nasty. If you’ve got a screaming legato style lead solo to do, then of course you’ll need a lot more gain than when you’re playing a rhythm part.

Listen to recordings of your favourite artist and try to hear how little distortion they use. You’ll often find that its a lot less than you thought at first. In a recording situation, the heavier guitar tones are often beefed up by doubling, or quadrupling etc. the guitar part in the recording.

Guitarists often set their amplifier EQ in what we call the ‘smiley face’ setting. Scooping all of the mid-range frequencies out and boosting the bass and the treble. This sounds good in the bedroom, or when you’re playing by yourself. When you put this sort of EQ setting into a live or recording situation, the guitar will often sound mushy and will make the whole mix messy unclear. Players often try to combat this by pushing more high frequencies into the sound, unfortunately this just hurts your ears and doesn’t do a great deal for clarity.

Getting rid of the mid-frequencies also gives us a false sense of security, in that it ‘covers’ our playing mistakes to some extent and allows us to not pay attention to the other factors that make up our tone (how we strike the string etc.).

Try setting your amp with all of the controls set flat (no boost or cut, this is usually around ’12 o’clock’ on most amps), and adjust the way that you strike the strings, the way your volume and tone controls are set on the guitar and play around with leads and effects units in between the guitar and the amp. Then subtly alter your EQ to change any problems that you hear.

Guitarists often forget that they’re not bass players, and boost the bass frequencies to give them a ‘fat’ sound. What we hear on record is often the combination of a guitar and a bass guitar being played together. Don’t try to replicate this sound by yourself (unless you have no bass player in your band / recording). Lose us much bass frequency as you can stand, and that way you won’t interfere with the bass player’s part of the frequency spectrum. You’ll find that your bands sound is much clearer and has much more impact if you’re all giving each other a clear slice of the frequency spectrum to operate in.

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

Guitar Tone – Everything in Between

So you’ve sorted out your technique, got your guitar set up to produce a good tone and still your tone sucks. What’s going wrong? Well, its probably everything in between you your guitar and your amplifier. What can we do about it? Well lets see what things get in the road of our tone as it heads towards your amplifier.

Guitar Leads: A lead is a lead, right? Wrong! The first thing you should do is get yourself into a quiet room with your amp, get some leads and A/B them. Plug in one lead, play a phrase, and then plug in another and repeat the phrase. Switch between the two. Can you hear the difference?

Different length leads will give you different tones. I’ve found that longer leads reduce the amount of top-end in your sound. You can reduce the impact of a long lead run by using a ‘line driver’ which changes the impedance of your guitar signal. A ‘line driver’ will allow you to have long lead runs without loss of signal quality. Lead quality is also a big deal when it comes to tone. Just buy good quality leads.

Try experimenting with leads that use varied jack plug materials. Chrome ends are brighter in sound than brass ends, which give a rounder sound. Also, try a curly lead (like what you see Hendrix using). The curly lead produces a darker tone compared to its straight cousin.

Stomp Boxes: So, you’ve noticed the difference between different leads, Lets plug in some stomp-boxes. Now that you’re listening closely, you’ll probably notice that your tone is different with a stomp-box in the signal path compared to how it was without the pedal, even without the pedal switched on.

Effects pedals add metres of cable length to your signal chain. Your tone has to travel through the entire length of the printed circuit board of your pedal unit. This can be a long way, and this is why your tone suffers when a stomp box is added to your setup. This problem is compounded as you add more effects to the chain. To add to this, stomp-boxes are relatively inexpensive devices and the components in them often aren’t the best quality. Have a listen to your sound with the effect turned on and off and see how much the frequency response of your sound suffers. If you notice a lot of treble or bass frequency loss, then your pedal probably hasn’t got the best of components in it.

What can we do to solve these problems? Well, a line driver will fix the length of line problems. The cheap component issue can be fixed by sending your unit off to the various places advertised on the web who do component upgrades / mods. Also, try not to run too many effects units in a chain at once. Think carefully about what effects you really need and cut down to just that.

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

Your Guitar and Tone

This post we’ll be talking about your guitar in relation to tone, and what role your guitar plays in your overall sound.

Body Timber:

Strangely, people often consider timber an unimportant factor when choosing an electric guitar. Listen to the guitar with the volume turned completely off to get a good idea of what the guitar really sounds like. At least if it has good tone acoustically, and not so good when its amplified, you’ll know that its not the guitar itself. Replacing the pickups should give you a better tone. Common woods are Ash, Swamp Ash, Alder and Mahogony. Try to play as many guitars as possible with varied body wood. This will give you a feel for what the different timbers sound like.

Fingerboard Material:

Fingerboard material plays a big role in the make-up of your sound. The two most common types of fingerboard materials are rosewood and maple. Rosewood tends to be darker in tone. Maple needs to be lacquered to stop it from absorbing moisture. This layer of lacquer, in combination with the timbers natural sound gives the maple fingerboard a much brighter sound compared with rosewood.

Strings:

Thin strings tend to give you a thin sound. The thicker the gauge of string, the rounder your tone will be. Keep in mind that you’ll get less ‘bite’ out of really thick strings, so try to find a set that gives you enough treble as well as being thick enough to give you body to your tone. You can choose steel or nickel strings. Nickel tends to produce a more mellow tone than steel strings. Steel will give you a higher out put volume and a brighter sound in comparison.

Scale Length:

The distance between the nut and the bridge is called the ‘scale length’. Aside from having an effect on feel (and thus how you vibrato on the instrument), a shorter scale length will produce a darker sound than a longer scale length guitar. Scale lengths of full size guitars vary from 24” to 25.5”.

Pickup Height:

Getting out a screw driver and having a fiddle with the screws that control pickup height can be a really rewarding exercise. As the pickups get closer to the strings, not only will they produce more output, but also your tone will get brighter.

Volume Control:

The volume control does more than just effect your volume. As you back your volume away from maximum towards zero, you’ll find that the top-end (treble) is reduced. This is a handy trick for getting different tones with only a subtle adjustment.

Obviously there are many more variables in getting a good tone from your guitar. When time permits, I’ll get back to these articles and flesh them out a little more.

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.