Digital Doo-Dads

June 23, 2009

Every time I listen to a digital gadget at the local music store, I am overwhelmed by the mushiness of the patches. Or, maybe a better way to put it is that I am underwhelmed with the usefulness of the gadget. If you assume that the factory patches are the best that it can sound, you probably won’t buy it. Be assured that these factory patches aren’t representative, and are probably almost the worst that it can sound.

Plug a guitar into the latest whiz-bang modeler, select any of the factory patches, and you will assaulted by the combination of every effect known to mankind. All at once. With NO dynamics. How can the people who make these things go to all the trouble to “model” all of those vintage effects pedals and amps, and then have NO CLUE as to what they should sound like when you use them?

This holds true on the guitar modelers as well as digital synthesizers. I’m not saying that they CAN’T sound good. Some of them are capable of sounding very good indeed. It’s just that, if you expect to unpack the thing, select a factory preset, and have it sound good in your band’s mix, you are in for a big disappointment.

There are examples of this in all of them, but one standard factory preset on guitar modelers that seems to transcend brand name is the heavily distorted AND highly compressed patch, with a ton of fizzy distortion, always a lot of chorus, some reverb, and a really scooped EQ. It might sound fun in a music store through some little transistor amp played at 60dB, but it’s not going to work through a 4×12 cabinet, crunched tube amp, played at 110dB, and it’s CERTAINLY not going to fit in the mix. Because of all of the extra compression and time-based effects such as chorus and flanging they always add, there will be NO articulation and dynamics.

But, if you build your own patches from scratch, you can come up with some good sounds. Don’t expect them to sound exactly like your guitar through a cranked Marshall with a pair of 4×12 cabinets, for example, but you can create some patches that sound good in their own right, are quite useful, and will sit well in a mix.

The same holds true for digital synthesizers. You sit down in the local music store to try one out, and every factory patch sounds lush, rich, and full. And almost totally useless in a band setting.

However, if you take the time to learn how to build your own patches, you will probably find that the raw samples and waveforms are pretty usable, and some very good sounding patches can be built from scratch, which are extremely good, are more realistic, and will work well in a mix.

There is something else to consider in the synthesizer patches that claim to be realistic samples of real instruments – and that is that they almost always far less high end and upper midrange than in the real instrument. This adds to the difficulty of getting your instrument to fit in the mix. There are other limitations which, in my mind, are design flaws. One of these is the stubborn refusal by synthesizer makers to put effects in a logical place in the signal chain. A great example of this, and the one that is a huge limitation on Roland synthesizers such as the JV-1080 and XP-50, is Roland’s insistence that a Leslie is an “effect” rather than a “speaker.” As anyone who has ever played a Hammond Organ knows, a Leslie is a SPEAKER, and is therefore the last thing in the audio chain – AFTER the amplifier. The Roland Leslie simulator is not too bad, but by putting it so early in the chain, they’ve made it almost useless. It is such things that make building good patches a real challenge sometimes.

While you can get some patches that will, in a mix, sound “kind of like” another instrument, such as, say, a trumpet; there are some instruments which you will never get close to, no matter how much time you spend creating a patch. A great example of this would be, of course, guitar.

So, know the limitations of the technology and your equipment, take the time to build your own patches, and you will get some very usable patches. Don’t expect to fool anyone into thinking that they are listening to a real vintage synth, a real orchestra, or a real guitar. Just get sounds that will accomplish the same purpose, and that sound good in the mix.

After all, the mix is what’s important. Nobody cares what an instrument sounds like soloed, because nobody but you can solo it. Everyone else in the world will only hear it in the mix.

Social Commentary in Music

April 22, 2009

I’ve been an avid listener to music since I was about 10 years old. My parents listened to Big Band music (Glenn Miller, Dorsey Brothers, etc) a lot when I was young, so it’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember, but when I listened to my favorite type of music as a teenager, I quickly noticed something: there was almost always ‘social commentary.’ I don’t mean ‘teenage angst’ or love songs, or party songs – those things were present in the Big Band music of my parents (they didn’t listen to Cab Calloway).

I liked rock music. Specifically, what we called “hard rock.” A good portion of that music talked about government oppression, but even more devoted itself solely to the war (Vietnam, for you youngsters out there), or to the draft, racial and gender discrimination, unjust laws, unjust taxation, an out of control federal government, and a host of other societal problems. In many of the songs, there was anger. In fact, in many of the songs, there was a LOT of anger. But it was focused. There were also protests – a lot of them. They weren’t usually polite affairs, with proper government-issued ‘permits.’ In fact, if you had suggested that they ask the government for permission to protest, you would have been laughed out of the room.

And things changed. People came to see the war in Vietnam as the injustice it was. Gender and racial discrimination were tackled. The draft was eliminated. When the war and the draft were no longer an issue, most of the people in that generation basked in a brief glow of satisfaction, and then immediately went on to other things, like having a life, raising a family, a real job, etc.

Fast forward several decades, and now we once again have a war on foreign soil (two fronts this time), there is talk of mandatory ‘national service’ ( a draft, by any other name is just as repressive, and this one will be gender-blind), global narco-wars, fueled by the enormous profits created mostly by US drug laws, which has made it so profitable that entire countries have been corrupted simply by the huge profits to be had in the growing, manufacturing, transportation, and selling of the stuff.

Where is the social commentary? I see a lot of young white guys driving BMWs blaring rap “music,” and singing along about how bad it is to be a poverty-striken black youth in the inner city. Of course, the white guys in the BMWs are usually pulling up in front of a GAP store to get a new pair of $200 jeans, but the irony never seems to sink in. I see teenage white girls singing rap lyrics about how thrilled they are to be a young black drug dealer who shoots other black guys for fun before raping his girlfriend.

What I DON’T hear is music expressing anger against the war in Iraq, or the war in Afghanistan. I don’t even hear music expressing outrage over 9/11. Why? I wish I knew.

My band did a “protest song” a couple of years ago. I don’t want to think that only a bunch of guys over 50 are pissed off enough to write protest songs.

Preachers and Smoking

March 5, 2009

Our liberty-impaired state legislators are considering a state-wide ban on smoking in “the workplace.” Our county government, who is equally unfamiliar with freedom, passed such a ban over a year ago, but it exempted bars. The pending state-wide ban would have no such exemption. There can be no “smoking” and “non-smoking” sections as have been typical for the past 20 years or so.  There is just to be “no smoking” in any building used for business.

The hypocrisy is glaring – that those who impose their will upon us want us to be able to go to a bar and drink as much alcohol as we like before we drive home, but we aren’t allowed to smoke while ruining our liver and impairing our judgment before getting in our car.  You can wipe out a family of five because you drive after a few drinks, but you can’t offend anyone in a bar by smoking.

As if it’s the government’s place to decide for us what to do with our bodies in the first place! They claim “it’s for our own good.” Who gave them the authority to decide what is for our own good? The government couldn’t care less about our health, except as it potentially affects our ability to pay them tithes in the form of taxes. It’s not about our health, it’s about power: the power one group of people wants to exert over another group.

To make matters even more ridiculous, a group of local ministers is now lobbying FOR the ban. As is typical of those who must pander to keep their coveted 501(c)-3 exempt status, they will lick the master’s hand and agree with whatever Big Brother wants. After all, that tax exempt status is worth literally MILLIONS of dollars to churches, and is what allows them to gather riches that bank execs can only dream about. So, if the government wants something, there will be a group of ministers who are eager to demand that the government do that, and will hold a media event to show how pious and subservient they are.  For a church to be critical of the government means that it may have its tax exempt status “reviewed” by that same government. Besides, religions have an even longer history of wanting to control citizens than our government does. This is no doubt the very same group of ministers who routinely demand that the government impose draconian gun control measures.

It’s not about safety. It’s not about our health. It’s about imposing their will on everyone else. It’s about control. That’s why the government loves them so. In most matter, the religions fall right in lock-step (or should that be goose step) with the government when there appears to be an opportunity to control citizens.

Sometimes I Just Don’t Get it

February 22, 2009

There are a lot of things I write in my blog that I expect to create controversy; to make people think. I know that there are some that won’t agree with some (or any) of what I say, and that’s fine. Most of the comments I get are positive, some say they don’t understand (which means either I didn’t do a very good job of writing my opinions, or maybe they just don’t want to understand). I’ve only gotten one nasty comment – and it wasn’t even about any of my political posts!

I got a comment which said “this post is bullshit” in response to something I had written, so I went to the post in question, and guess what it was:

How Loud Do You Want To Be?” was the target of this person’s anger. This post is about the most NON-controversial thing I’ve ever written, and yet someone felt strongly enough about it to take the time to express their displeasure.

For those of you who aren’t into pro-audio, or music, that post basically boils down to “make the music as loud as is appropriate for the type of music and the crowd” and gives some tips on how to deal with musicians (and drummers, too).

Oh well. I guess I can write that “politicians are a bunch of thieving liars and tyrants, who are only concerned with their own power, wealth, and importance” and that’s alright. But if I say “Don’t mix too loudly or quietly,” then it’s ‘bullshit.’

As I said: sometimes I just don’t get it.