Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - Is Your Guitar Sound This Image?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Is Your Guitar Sound This Image?

 Pretty frightening, isn't it?

I'm often asked "what amp should I get?", "how do I get What's-His-Face's sound?", etc.

Which momentarily paralyzes me with the Old-Gregian mental intonation of "MAKE AN ASSESSMENT".  Because, I have to on the spot temper my explanation based on what I think the person I'm speaking to knows about both terminology and literal experience with sound.

Both of those things are very limiting factors.  With the visual arts, one doesn't presume it naturally easy to explain - in a sentence or two - what makes a great painting "great".

"All you need to get that Monet poppy-field effect is the application of Le Bete Personne brand alizarin crimson!".  Kind of like saying "go buy This Special Pedal and plug it in, you'd done!".   It's not that simple, and it's not that simple to communicate why it's not that simple.

 So, I'm going to pursue the metaphorical comparison of "What is Wrong With That Image?" as a stand-in for "guitar sound".

 For starters, let's say you've got a really fantastically great basic sound.  By that I mean, like with the above painting, someone can go into a room, and "there it is!" - greatness.

 With the Mona Lisa, it is said you can admire it from different locations in the room, and her eyes appear to follow you.  That's a neat thing, it also seems to manage to somehow translate through pictures as well.  Which is a bit of super-genius geometry trickery by Leo, but let's say you've magically got the equivalent guitar sound coming out of your amp.

 Fine, but of course not everyone can have the Mona Lisa hanging on their wall.  They can, however, have a rendition of it, a photograph. Just as 99.9% of every guitar sound ends up translated through the audio equivalent in the form of "a recording".

 The photographer has to decide on the perfect angle to point his camera at said painting.  One might say this is akin to a microphone.  If the angle is altered relative to the subject, distortion results.

 More fundamental is the quality of said camera.  The greatness of the painting will have a chance of being portrayed better to the end viewer if the camera lens is of an appropriate quality.  Which isn't to say just anything that is good or expensive will work.  The best wide angle lens isn't going to work great, nor is a Red video camera.  Or the most expensive microphone.

 A hidden variable here is the lighting.  The ambient light affects what is being captured by the lens.  The ambient sound of a room affects what is being captured by the mic.  Both can immediately impose their quality on the subject at hand.  Cheap light has a "look and feel" just as parallel sheet rock garage walls.  Capturing both along with the subject affects the end result.

 Then there is how said capture makes it to the "medium".  The above picture was taken with my camera phone of my computer monitor.   A digitization of a digitization.  Did you guitar signal go through a digital pedal at some point?  It doesn't matter how good your camera or microphone preamp is, that property is imposed.  "But it looks like the Mona Lisa!" most will say.  Mostly.

 The camera/mic preamp captures it to a medium, these days digital.  In both cases, maybe a lossy one in the end.  Information will be thrown away.  Before that happens, look at the above picture:
it's obviously a picture of a digital source, since you can see the mouse pointer.   A more pressing problem is the curious composition of said picture, it's crooked and unbalanced with extra negative space and information.  The portion of the image taken up by the actual painting is smaller than what is being added by the process of translating the image.

 The end sound of a recording of a guitar amp usually isn't a documentary-representation of the sound, but the guitarist has likely gone through various effects, which add non-correlated information in the form of delay or maybe reverb.  If you are evaluating the image, maybe it's not the negative space you like so much?  Maybe you don't need the delay pedal, maybe you need to make the "painting" as good as possible first?  Then, get the "balance" the same as the image you're referencing, not the wacked-out rendition pictured above?

 The camera and microphone doesn't care if you get the balance wrong.  Or the composition, the wrong angle.  But once captured, there are plenty of fun things one can do to "improve" the original image.

 The above travesty has been "improved" by the liberal application of "filters", color "correction" and "equalization".  Furthermore, "glow" has been added - a subjective modification of Mr. DaVinci's creative muse.

 When you hear a guitar recording, in addition to the capturing of the sound of the amp in the room, the recording engineer has likely added things, made adjustments.  Whether this agrees with the original is subjective.  Regardless, it affects what the end user sees/hears.

 Then there is the vintage trend, which is to say the use of old things to impart character.  The above image has the questionably cool film border surrounding it, thereby "improving" the conveyance of Mr. DaVinci's work.  Likewise, many guitar sounds are similarly "improved" by being distorted by old gear that adds harmonic information and dynamic character that wasn't there originally.

 "How do I get that guitar sound?": I have to consider does the person saying this see/hear past the above manipulation?  Maybe a person actually likes the above picture because Lisa looks like an alien, and that's what is really liked despite the original painting being fantastic.  Or the added glow.  Maybe the punk anti-Golden Rule geometrical composition?  Possibly, maybe another portrait could be substituted and the vintage film border conveys The Feels the viewer likes.

 So, do I tell them "paint the Mona Lisa first"?  Maybe the "Mona Lisa" is a vintage Marshall plexi and a '58 LesPaul through Celestion greenbacks? They only have one part.  Maybe they paint the Mona Lisa successfully.

 They go out and buy said setup, but then record it with their phone's microphone, or they add the "glow" filter in the form of smashing the recording with a brickwall limiter.  Maybe they decide to "improve" the sound by equalizing it in some haphazard fashion.  They record it in their garage, stuck in a corner, with the microphone pointed sideways 5 feet away, and "it doesn't sound like Dimebag's sound!".  In the end, they're not happy, because it doesn't sound like the recording.

 To get the audience/end use to get the best effect of "Mona Lisa" you not only have to HAVE the Mona Lisa in the first place, you also have to not mess up any part of the process in between.  If one sees a nice print of the Mona Lisa, they're not actually seeing it in a literal sense.  They're seeing it lit under near perfect conditions, probably through a multi-thousand dollar camera, to a very high resolution medium, reduced under calibrated conditions by someone experienced in making judgement calls about how to best render a reduction of said source medium to the end user's medium (the print itself).

 Buying the same amp/guitar setup is not enough.  It's also about the speakers, the room sound, the microphone, the mic preamp, the mixing board eq, the person doing the engineering.

 In this sense, amp modelling is relatively successful in the respect that just as you can't portray the exact likeness of the DaVinci painting in a reproduction, it's pretty easy/cheap to yield a conventionally-acceptable rendition.  It doesn't mean your phone's camera shot at the Louvre is literally the Mona Lisa, but these days it's a pretty good representation (provided you don't decide to go Instagram filter crazy).  Guitar amp modelling software doesn't do a good job of creating the source sound IMO, but when it comes to a quick and easy rendition - it's pretty good.

 But if you're trying to get there from the start, you've got to be able to paint the Mona Lisa in the first place.

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