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February 16, 2010

Filed under: music»tools»effects

Recombinant

You may have heard that there was a blizzard last week, trapping the entire East coast indoors for about five days straight. Walking the dog in the morning after a big snowfall was like stepping into an apocalyptic movie cliche: howling wind, half-buried automobiles and buildings, and no sign of other life to be found. Even for a misanthrope like me, it was a little creepy. Belle started to go stir-crazy around day 2. I lasted a bit longer, but by Wednesday I needed something to do that wasn't beamed through an LCD screen, so I broke out my bass and pedals for the first time in a while, and started rearranging things.

For the serious pedal-head, it's possible to enter a kind of trance-like feedback loop while searching for new sounds: you shift between playing a lick, twiddling a few knobs, and listening intently to determine whether the new sound has moved closer to the ideal in your head. Play, adjust, listen, rinse and repeat. And there's no better way to trigger this kind of behavior than to scramble the order for your pedals and randomly activate a few of them--it creates a totally new sound, acts like a mental reset button. My drug of choice, of course, is distortion, and my current favorite is the Z. Vex Woolly Mammoth that replaced an MXR M-80 Bass DI+. Since picking up the Mammoth, I'd put the MXR on a shelf temporarily, but addled by the snow and the confines of the apartment I decided to put the two of them in series and see what kind of overdrive I could get.

The Mammoth doesn't like hot input from a preamp of any kind, pedal or bass, so the first experiment with the M-80 first in the signal chain didn't work out. And running the Mammoth into the M-80 with the usual distortion settings on both was interesting--it triggered a kind of overcompression effect--but the distortion from the MXR (which was once semi-accurately described to me as "bees in a tin can") was washing out the low-end from the Z. Vex. But when I kicked off the distortion and just tried the SVT-emulating clean channel on the M-80--wow. The preamp took the Mammoth's fuzz, thickened it and tamed some of the high-end. It was monstrous, and very cool, and I played with it for probably an hour and a half until I had it tweaked perfectly and my fretting fingers were sore.

The lesson here is not that I've got a new bass distortion that can level continents, although that's a nice bonus. It's the process of serendipity that got me there: being able to rewire or adjust my pedals in possibly stupid or odd ways, just to see what would happen. A good toolkit gives you that kind of freedom. That's one of the reasons I'm so keen on single-purpose effects boxes: multi-effects are just now reaching the level of sophistication that allows something as simple as shuffling the order of the signal chain, and they rarely make it fast or easy. A multi-effects unit is good if you already know what you want, but it's murder on creativity.

When I think about it, this is true for most of the tools I like to use. Javascript and PHP are ungainly, hackish languages, but the flexibility of loose typing and hash-based objects makes it easy to throw data around and see what sticks. Pro Tools is a mess from the perspective of plugin APIs and efficient resource use, but its flexible routing mixer is unmatched for patching audio around in a project. I remember first falling in love with word processing when I realized that you could move paragraphs around instantly--no more endless recopying drafts (and how I hated teachers in grade school who required handwritten reports). And we won't even get started on my unhealthy MacGyver obsession.

The Make crowd tends to say that you don't own a tool unless you can hack it. I think it's also a question of convenience--how easily can you surprise yourself when patching something together? When Mark Pilgrim wrote Tinkerer's Sunset, reminiscing about how he got started on an Apple IIe, the gateway was BASIC. And while computer scientists hate BASIC for the bad habits it spawned in a generation, it had one thing going for it: it's really easy to read and understand, as the programming equivalent of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. The only modern language with an equivalent level of ubiquity and cost is Javascript, and even it is much more difficult for a newcomer to grasp. It's harder to rewire it, harder still to find a serendipitous solution.

Or take electronics: when I was a kid, which was not that long ago, you could still take apart a stereo or a TV and see all the wires and bits inside. You could still blow a circuit breaker poking around in there, even if you never did understand what everything was (I speak from experience). Nowadays, it's all disposable system-on-a-chip engineering, even in an industry as low-tech as music. Those analog pedals of mine are a dying breed, and while I'm as big a fan of digital as you'll find, I hope there's room for both. The Z. Vex Inventobox and the Arduino are responses to the rise of black-box hardware, but they're also tacit admissions: that we have to special-order creative tools, separate from those designed for media consumption and ease-of-use.

I hope we don't lose the idea that it's possible to combine the two. You can have tools that are easy to use and easy to hack, even if we're told by designers that it has to be one or the other--that letting people open up the box would make it too complicated for the average user. Maybe it just takes a new model. If so, I nominate the humble, patchable, routable effects pedal. Because hey, if guitarists can learn to use them for boundless creativity, anyone can.

Future - Present - Past