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July 6, 2005

Filed under: music»recording»production

Music Boxes

I have just spent an hour or so playing with new audio toys. Krystal is a lot of fun, and it actually runs VST plugins (a sore spot with Audacity). This means I can have access to virtual synths and filters that I could never justify buying in hardware. Ditto for the Jesusonic, the blasphemously-named but incredibly versatile multi-effects simulator from the same guys who created Winamp. I haven't had a chance to really get down and experiment with it, but it basically gives you fine access to the equivalent of a pedalboard, complete with custom-built stompboxes, assuming you're willing to do some automation work and hook a laptop into your signal chain. That idea got me playing around again with Hammerhead, the great freeware drum machine.

I don't intend to exploit any of these tools to their full potential.

Earlier today I wrote about how empowering it is to have such powerful studio tools for practically free. As a writer and a bit of a technophiliac, the thought makes me giddy--a part of me can't wait to hook the bass up to a whole set of midi-controlled filters and start playing "In The Hall Of The Mountain King." The catch to all that power is that it can be a distraction. I've owned hardware multieffects units before, and it's possible to spend weeks just twiddling with the parameters of a few patches, never really being satisfied.

My current philosophy of music says that the fewer options I have, the better I can exploit them. I want the maximum level of flexibility with the least amount of complexity. I formed a lot of this mindset when I was playing live--I had a multieffects unit, which I then replaced with an ingenious but complex pedalboard. Both were too complicated onstage, and there was too strong a possibility that A) something would go hideously wrong and kill the whole signal chain, or B) a mistake would throw the whole thing into confusion, and I'd end up using a clean tone for everything anyway. Singing and playing bass is hard enough without doing a tap-dance to try to fix the result of a badly-aimed kick.

Nowadays, I use only two pedals. One is a 3-channel preamp, which does my clean/thick/distorted sounds. The other is my looper, incorporating a whole set of its own headaches. I miss the other sonic possibilities from my pedal collection (chorus and envelope are most tempting), but keeping it simple has forced me to be a better player. For example, where you play on a bass can have a dramatic effect on the sound. Playing back by the bridge with a little bit of a bend in the note can mimic an envelope for my purposes, and the sound is in my hands instead of on the floor. Moving up on the neck or palm-muting achieves the opposite--a thick, bassier tone with less growl. Combining greater control of my technique with a simpler range of effects (albeit ones that I know inside and out) lets me intuitively build my sonic palette, and I never have to stop the performance to turn a knob or press a button--very useful when building, layering, or exiting loops.

This is not to say that I'm against technology in music. I have unlimited respect for people who have learned to play a studio, as it were. The things a clever engineer can do amaze me, as my admiration for Trent Reznor and Rick Rubin shows. I'm also fascinated by bands like Muse that have incredibly complicated effect racks controlled by midi boards--but they have lots of money and people to figure those connections out for them. They make different music than I do. My vision as an experimental bassist is the equivalent of an electric blues guitarist--dirty, chunky Rock produced by one person. I shouldn't need more than some overdrive and a little EQ to pull that off, and I like the challenge that comes with restriction.

I certainly plan to use the tools I've got. If it records as well as it looks, Krystal will replace Audacity as my default studio. I may mess with Jesusonic for overdubs of sounds I can't create in analog. Just as the Ministry fans have hoped, I'm already thinking of ways to use Hammerhead live, converting the looper back to a delay and creating drum patterns instead of sampling my bass percussion. But these are just added compositional tools, and if they conflict with my vision or my comfort zone I'll toss them right back out. Music should be about the songs, not about the process.

Besides, if I take the time to sit down and worry about my tone again, I'll never get anything written. I'd rather be a musician with an armful of clumsy originals than a technician with a flawless orchestration applied to nothing in particular.

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