Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - Audio Terminology Etiology, and Why Modeling Amps Are Popular For the Wrong Reasons

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.  


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