Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - February 2018

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Why I'm Not Making Music at This Moment and Why It's Pro Tools' Fault

 As I sit here on an over cast Tuesday morning, I'm waiting for a new water heater to arrive. 

 Yesterday evening I thought "hey, I think I'm going to get to sleep before 1 a.m. tonight, and there is nothing scheduled for tomorrow morning, so I should be able to do music!".  That was theory, of course: last night I discovered the hot water heater was leaking on the floor, so zzzzzotttt!  So much for today.

 "But Chip, why aren't you doing music right now instead of writing this blog post?"

 I'll tell you why....

 "Because I hate Pro Tools".

 Another Curiously Non-linear Chip Statement.

 Pro Tools as a recording medium became dominant as Alesis ADAT recording studio fell, what, around 2003-ish?  With the demise of the ADAT based recording studio, the demise of the Traditional Music Recording Process occurred.

 Until that moment, an aspect of "making music" stayed the same.  Because the recording gear was still fairly expensive (unlike now, when literally everyone has a way of making a decent recording) it was also in turn exclusive to Special Places called "studios" that required booking and preparation as a personal event. 

 This meant "Recording Music" was a special event.  This lent a particular gravitas to what you were doing, and in turn there is an inherent respect for it.  This is no longer the case as there is no "special event" related to making music anymore.

 Another aspect: the process itself was still akin to the traditional manner of using a multitrack tape machine.  Meaning,

1) tape still had to be rewound.  This meant there were gaps, breaks in time during the tracking process.

2) you didn't have infinite tracks.

3) you didn't have infinite takes, exactly.  You still had to go between 2 tracks, or continue to record over what you just did.

 Pro Tools changed all of that.  Plus, it added an additional aspect:

 The ability to streamline, reduce and strip down the process to it's fastest, most business-like reduction.

 Business like.  A skilled Pro Tools operator does things in a flash with short cuts that would have taken hours to do with ADATs or tape.  There is no waiting around.  Boom boom boom, record record record.  Time is of the essence!  "Music is a business!".

 When I ran a recording studio it was based on tape, so I have not a lot of experience running a commercial operation based on a DAW. But it's a wholly different enterprise. It's all about speed and practicality.

 Music is not about speed and practicality.

 My personal beef with Pro Tools is that it is an out growth of a program that was never meant to do what Pro Tools became, and it inherited a lot of peculiar, software-bureaucratic workarounds.  In the DAW world I prefer Reaper because of this; once you have it set up to your liking you're done.  Pro Tools does not allow any customization, and furthermore requires you to jump through all sorts of arcane hoops to do things.

 Mostly, things involving key stroke shortcuts.  I never had a Mac until recently, and I admit I mistakenly presumed the World of Apple, being so "user centric", meant the GUI was king and the mouse was the main I/O device.

 Yeah, that's funny.  It made sense to me.  I now know that ironically, Apple people LOVE key commands.  Which I despise, because... wait for it..



 Key commands require 2 hands, or an oddball splaying of fingers.

  It's a kinesthetic activity.  When I'm working on music, I have my guitar in my lap, and probably at least my left hand on the neck. 

 In the old days, I'd have to hit a button to arm the track.  Hit another button, RECORD. A button for rewind. Etc...

 A mouse is a little more complicated, but you're still clicking one thing, not a Rubik's Cube Solution or a Pac Man level pattern.  One thing.  Click RECORD. 

 Yes, you can do that in Pro Tools. But if you get too far into the menus short cuts almost become necessary.  In Reaper you just click once on the track panel, and a new track appears.  In Pro Tools - maybe it's different now, but you have to click on the menu, select this, that, this other thing.  The Pro Tools Operator does it with short cuts, quickly. 

 But I don't want to have to do that.  Because...

 My mindset is on the guitar as, literally, a proxy for what's in my mind.  I am "there", the guitar.  I am "thinking on the guitar".  If I have to take my left hand away from it, that illusion goes away.  Worse, if I have to change my posture to lean to get to the keyboard with both hands - I'm literally no longer "feeling it".  I'm out of my game, between two worlds.

 Yes, I can make music that way.  And, it would appear, that means nothing to 99% of the musicians on the planet.  But it's a different mindset, a more clinical and non-art based thought process.

 Even when I'm not with my guitar, and I'm mixing something or arranging something on the computer, I want to be in that Art Mindset. Complete focus on what I'm doing, so I have the greatest ability to model what I'm hearing mentally, muse on it with a clear mind that is only concerned with "how does this strike me?".

 I can't do that if I'm thinking about the guitar slipping off my lap as I reach for the keyboard.  Or if I've got to keep my consciousness divided between what I'm hearing musically and the Guy Delivering the Hot Water Heater.  Knowing I could be interrupted at any moment, and will have to come out of my creative, artsy mindset back into Harsh Expensive and Oppressive Reality. 

 It's not art at that point.  I don't care what anyone says, what you do might end up being "art" but you're not *doing* art.  You're not fully committed.  It makes a difference. 

 Music today is so refined to being Perfectly Acceptable that yes, you can make "that" without the mindset I'm talking about.  I would argue that it's a bit reverse to the Pre-ADAT era; and that music today is different because of that mindset being gone. 

 Not just because of Pro Tools, it's mostly the "this is a business, kid, don't mess around!".  That has always been floating about, but it is NOT the origin of pop music.  The bad thing is that in today's shark-capitalism competitive environment, Pro Tools is an enabler.  Combined those things work against art.  You can make music that sounds Perfectly Acceptable so quickly these days, but that shouldn't be the reason for the process!  Art is, in itself, the process.  Not JUST process, but if the only aspect of the music making process is "how fast we can make something that sounds perfect" that's glossing over the lack of artistic muse.  

 So no... I'm sitting here writing this, because I can do "this" and the end result is not going to drastically be affected by part of my awareness being stuck on "do I hear the truck pulling up outside?".  Or any of the other negative hassles.  This is why studios in the Grand Old Days were so resplendent and luxurious; the music industry back then realized you don't create great music when your brain is occupied by toil and tedium. It doesn't mean that situation automatically creates great music (and what a stupid thing I've had to write there, that reflexive attitude of today's mindset is another problem...), but as decadent as some of those days were in retrospect, one has to consider what truly great art was made and ask oneself "are we hearing the equivalent being made today?". 

 Sorry, I don't think so.  I could very easily make Yet Another Perfectly Normal recording project, and I still might - but I prefer not to.  I'm really, really tired of hearing that, or making myself try to listen to something "new" in order to glean a little morsel of something special or different.  Everything sounds perfect now, doesn't it? 

 Holy frak the dog is barking her head off, that must be the water heater being delivered outside...


Friday, February 9, 2018

Laugh At This Guitar Teacher's Influenza Guard!

Mark I Peasant Flu Guard

Good, I got you to look.

 WAIT!  Before you go away...

 1) There is a right and a wrong way to cover your face/mouth/nose when you sneeze/cough: use the crook of your elbow.  Period. 

 Not just your hand!

 I've seen people do the old "fist in front of the mouth" routine - that doesn't work.  You're still blowing aerosolized influenza into the air, waiting to float around into my nose or eyes.  Thanks for nothing.

 I've had almost everyone in my present student roster call out sick with the flu in the past month.  I thought I was coming down with it yesterday evening, but luckily it passed (I think).  Never the less, I consider that a close call.  Too close.

 I had a "flu like sickness out of season" during the swine flu epidemic a few years back.  It nearly killed me.  There is the following situations in your life:

A time when you think "I could have died";  A time when you think "I'm dying".

 You really don't want to experience the later.  It changes your life, not for the better as some might suggest.  For all I know I may have gained some immunity from that, at the expense of having my DNA scrambled by some alien-machina looking virion that may cause a problem later in life.

 I should have been more wary.  As I am now.

 In addition to being a hand sanitizer fiend (up your nose with a rubber hose, people who subscribe to the utterly-non-scientific "you need to strengthen your immune system through exposure"; you're wrong.  It doesn't work that way), I've come up with my Amazing $5 Mart of Wal Influenza Guard.

 Yeah, it's funny, and I'm paranoid.  It doesn't mean I'm wrong.  I don't care if you laugh at me.  I don't want the H1N2, and for all you know I might have it and you don't want to get it from me, either.  Which brings me to another point, if I still have an audience at this juncture:

 2) You don't know if you're contagious based on how you feel or how symptoms present themselves.

 About half the people I've had cancel on me because of the flu told me the previous week "no, I'm not sick, it's just (sinuses, allergies, cold).  

 Well, you don't really know that for certain.

 Another thing

3)  just because you're no longer symptomatic doesn't mean you're not still contagious!




I said, 



  Feel free to look this info up and say I'm wrong, but remember to cite your sources.  I'm not giving you any sources, so you should look it up yourself! 

 So in closing, remember to check your tuning to +/- .1 of a cent and 

 Cover your face with the crook of your elbow when you sneeze/cough!!!!  

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Audio Terminology Etiology, and Why Modeling Amps Are Popular For the Wrong Reasons

 I've been putting this post off for awhile, but here goes.

 I tried to get an "official" decree on this by some Big Shot Big Name Engineers and Producers on a couple of different pro audio message boards, but to no avail.

 It occurs to me now in the 21st century that "Chip, this isn't something anyone really has bothered to think into much".  Literally.  Which is odd, and problematic for me as someone that needs to communicate to other people; the audio engineer does not.  In a sense, he is internalized the way a guitar player/musician should be: he/she knows what something sounds like and can manipulate it mentally without regard for the "official" label.

 No problem, except for me.

 "Chip, what do you think about (Famous Guitar Player)'s "tone"?"
"Chip, how can I get Famous Guitar Player's sound?"

 I get this fairly frequently.  It causes some consternation, because there are hidden variables the person asking the question is not aware of (that I go into in my book, _Experiencing Guitar_ available for Kindle or hardcopy on Amazon... ahem).

 Those variables aside - the speakers, microphones, studio devices - the big issue in discussing said topic boils down to effectively nobody differentiating the following 2 terms -


.. and their use in describing things at two points in time.  TWO points in time!  This is critical, something people completely miss:

When the sound was recorded IN THE ROOM, in front of the guitar player;
When you the listener is hearing if AFTER having been recorded.

 Those are 2 radically different things, with radical differences.

 Everyone - yes, everyone - refers to Particular Guitar Players without qualifying these things, and in reality it's almost pointless to think your really "discussing" what a Particular Guitar Player does on a Famous Recording without doing so!

 You can make vague generalizations - "that's a single coil pickup he's using" - sometimes.  "Sounds like a Fender amp" - sometimes.  But to get more specific, if the discussion is qualified with the above it's going to go off the rails, and is really a waste of time.


 Is the innate quality of what you hear in the room that identifies it.

 "This is a small body steel string acoustic".
"This is a Les Paul humbucker guitar through a cranked Marshall"
"This is a 26" kick drum with no muffling"


"This is a *bright* acoustic guitar".
"This is a dark, bassy Les Paul"
"This is a bright, cracky sounding kick drum".

 Those still use loose terms BUT - there is a distinction being made.

That also applies to the RECORDED sound.  A sound might be bright, dark, "thin", "thick", whatever imprecise adjective on the recording, but... here's the important part...



 The SOUND of a recording has *additional aspects that are not part of THE SOUND THAT WAS HEARD IN THE ROOM.


 When you're talking about a player's sound - you have to consider which aspect of the above you like, or all of them.

 For instance, Billy Gibbons is famous for having a "great tone". Is it just one "great tone"?

 Except for the later era Z.Z. Top recordings that used the Scholz Rockman device, his *recorded* sound varies a good bit.  

 Sometimes it's brighter, sometimes duller.  Sometimes there is a room sound on it, sometimes it's very dry.  That is the tone of the *recorded sound*.

 But the recorded sounds are captures of different things:

Single coil-based guitar sound;
Humbucker-based guitar sound;
Fender amps? Marshalls?  "El-Diablo Whatever Oddball Amp" sound?
Fuzz distortion? Amp distortion? Preamp distortion?

 Many variables in the *innate SOUND*.

  He's actually had a number of slightly different "sounds".  As opposed to the Young brothers in AC/DC - it probably has been their same respective guitars and amps, the differences in RECORDED SOUND being the audio engineering.


 I can say "I like the SOUND of Billy Gibbons on "Just Got Paid" - and the TONE/TIMBRE of both the recorded end result, and probably the original, innate sound.  The recording is a little bit dark, which is fine, but I'm sure the innate TONE in the room was NOT dark.  For me - the important thing is the sound of the distance of the mic from the speaker!  This is as important for the end result as anything else, and yet nobody talks about that.

 "Jesus Just Left Chicago" - that's not a Les Paul, is it?  I like the sounds of the recording, and probably what it sounded like in the room.  BUT  - I can say that the TONE in the room when recorded was probably brighter than on "Just Got Paid".  And the end result TONE on the recording is fairly bright.

 One can prefer the brighter SOUND that was recorded but maybe the darker *recorded* TONE of these two different things.

 In turn, you can't talk about "Billy Gibbon's "tone" without addressing the specific song, AND whether you're addressing the recorded sound and tone, or the original, in the room sound and tone.

 The question as a generalization is very vexing, because if these things haven't been thought out it's a moving target.  There are recorded sounds I like that I probably wouldn't have liked the sound of in the room, and vice-versa.  There are definitely RECORDED TONES that I hate, where the sound in the room was probably something I would have liked.

 "Yes, I generally like the sound of a Les Paul through a vintage plexi Marshall turned up loud.  Or a Strat.  Or through a 59 Bassman.  Or, or or....".  That doesn't mean I like all RECORDED sounds using that combination, or tones.  Some of my favorite guitar player's TONE in reality, not the recordings, I actually find too bright, and in one case too dark.  Some of my favorite guitar player's SOUNDS on recordings I might not like - a lot, actually - but I can separate that from what they were probably hearing in the room.

 One particular guitar player I can think of has such a massively bright, Tube Screamer cranked up fizzy TONE in reality, that his recordings are a massive improvement tonally.  Hearing this person's guitar being line-checked at a concert was ... almost surreal.  His tone on his recordings are "baseline normal" for his genre; you'd never really know just how insanely bright his actual TONE was based on the recorded TONE.

 Another Famous Guitar Player is known for his "tone" when in reality it's his recorded SOUND that is so popular.  In essence, this person's real TONE is so dark that a lot of people think there is something wrong with his setup when they hear it live for the first time.  The recorded TONE is made brighter; the resulting SOUND requires his particular setup AND a particular recording environment.

"Ok Chip, what does this have to do with modeling amps...?"

  For the first time Everyday Guitar Players can get not just an approximation of the SOUND a Famous Guitar Player might get in a room - a Les Paul and an old Marshall - but also the RECORDED sound.

 Which then makes the process of dialing in the TONE of the "non-recorded (amp)" sound easier and more satisfying.  In turn the end result - a recording - can also be dialed in to a more satisfying result.

 For decades, the recording process - the microphone, the room sound, the studio effects - were incorporated into a diffuse cloud of "this is what My Favorite Guitar Player's Sound Is", without detaching what was making the SOUND in the room of said recording.

 In reality, it's fairly easy to get anyone's SOUND.  You can easily buy approximations of what any Famous Guitar Player uses.  People get off track, though, when it doesn't "sound" "just like the record".  Well - it doesn't, but that doesn't mean your 100 watt plexi Marshall with a humbucker hooked to a Variac at 98 volts through 25 watt Greenbacks was wrong in trying to get "Eddie's "sound"", it's that you left out the part about the SM57, the room bleed into Alex VanHalen's overhead mics, and even Michael Anthony's cabinet mic. Hard L/R panning with a plate reverb and delay. Then, you left out Don Landee or Ted Templeman's eq choice on the mixing console.

 Literally almost half the sound is the recording process.

 People are hearing recording-process effects now, and responding to it.