Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - December 2018

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Problem With DAW Plugins Not Officially Discovered: Scurrilous Experiments and Non-scientific Conclusions - PART ONE

 I've spent... wasted... thousands of hours tinkering with variations on setting up processing chains in DAWs. 

 I know "in theory" things are Perfect, and "digital sound" is a myth.

 Except, I've never been happy with recorded sound, my own or with others in the post-digital age.  It's always been a nebulous thing, and it's always been something that has been attempted to be quantified by the usual parameters:

  • Time domain;
  • Spectral;
  • Bit rate/depth
  • Digital timing (jitter).

 These things have all been sorted out in the year 2018 to a very fine degree.  In theory, it's not only perfect - it's beyond perfect, because there is more theoretical digital dynamic range than there is in physical reality.

 ... but still I'm left unsatisfied.  Particularly by guitar sounds, but pretty much everything.  It occurred to me last year I was "chasing the dragon": after thinking about it - I kind of don't like most recorded guitar sound.  Even the Most Famous ones.  Even the ones of my favorite players.

 Furthermore, I think post-digital the aspect I don't like has been exaggerated.

 At first I thought I was hearing simply a spectral response I didn't like.  This is a way of thinking that I believe 99.9% of the musicians on the planet think like in regards to sound.  It's not a wrong way, but it's not comprehensive in 2 ways that not heard or read anybody discuss.

  •  The dynamic linearity of "effect simulations" are non-linear to reality.
  •  By default of the necessity for serialization in FIFO digital processing, phase relationships of non-Fourier transform processing has a "sound" when trying to mimic "near signal truncation" effects (distortion) - possibly leading to comb-filtering noticeable across time.


 This is a very, very subtle thing and I'm quite sure very few people can consciously perceive what I'm going to describe, but it's real:

  Software emulations of analog gear usually consists of a means of reproducing a spectral response or balance over time.  Meaning one expects (excuse my ham fisted notation)  x(fn1+x*x1),(fn*x2) to yield a frequency distribution that is the same as an analog device.

 The acceptable result is not expected to be perfect.  The analog devices are not perfectly linear, and the math is expected to be a "close approximation", which it usually, remarkably, is.  The functions yield a nice approximation of an instantaneous spectral response that sounds like The Thing Being Emulated.

 For my first Perhaps Imaginary Gripe I think that there is a substantial temporal difference in the math in the box versus the analog realm.  Mainly, in the timing of the non-linearity of the decay of the harmonic distortion spread dynamically.


 Ok, what that means is that say for a classic "overdriven tube amp distortion" on a single note that is struck hard, as the note dies out in the first few ms there is a balance of low to high frequency content.  You hear a brash noisy "csryshhhh" on the attack and THEN you hear the lower harmonics, and as the note fades across the initial 100 ms the harmonic "blend" dies out at differing rates.

 What I "think" I'm hearing is this discrepancy:  with the digital simulations,

  •  The high frequency square wave upper harmonics last too long;
  •  As the note fades, the high harmonics fade at the same rate as the lower;
  •  This rate doesn't not change when you change how hard you play.

 With a real analog sound, those three things are reversed.

 So there is an Uncanny Valley (look up the term if you don't know what that means) wherein the mind hears a blend of harmonics - in the single "time slice" of awareness - that sounds almost exactly like the Real Thing.

 What the mind *doesn't* perceive precisely is that the way it's decaying doesn't match the real world.  But it's my pet theory that we can only internalize the examination of our internal "audio buffer" in single instantaneous time slices.  It's hard, or impossible, to really quantify the nature of how it falls out.


 I also will theorize that this is due to evolutionary survival requirements.  The way things decay harmonically is also implicit in the way nature sounds at a distance.  The rustling of leaves, for instance: that has a particular decay characteristic, which is different than the sound of A Large Threatening Predator Brushing Against a Bush.

 The aggravating pedantic arguments placed by people wanting to assert themselves that humans are strictly limited to *acting on* information consciously testable is proven to be a fallacy in this example.  You can test 1,000 people by playing them the sound of an animal walking among nature, trampling on the ground, and while the auditory cues are only milliseconds in duration they'll all be able to say "sounds like an animal walking around".

 Play them one 100 ms example, and they won't have a clue.  Yet, across a large sample set (10 seconds), those tiny little sounds that only last a fraction of a second subconsciously conveys a very specific story: "large animal walking around behind you to the right, 20 feet away".

 So no - I'm not impressed by arguments of "the ear can only hear 20-20, 44.1/16bits captures all the information we can perceive", because it's based on primitively testing the instantaneous awareness of untrained people on test tones.  Your mind, as in the example above, makes an assessment across time of what it's hearing.  It's not *consciously* analyzing the frequency response, decay characteristics, phase relationships, etc. - your subconscious mind is doing the heavy lifting and returning a result that says

"something isn't real about this "amplifier" you're hearing".

 Comparing one single time slice to the victim amp doesn't mean it's identical temporally 100%.  That the technology gets very close is baffling, but I claim your cerebellum does tricky processing *across a sample set* that defies quantifying by instantaneous measurement parameters (frequency/level).



 So you hear the simulated amp, and it reminds you of the real thing on an instantaneous basis.  But as you play it, you become less and less convinced.  You can't really put your finger on it...

.. but I claim the way the note dies out, the way the spectral balance changes, and the way that responds linear to your touch is giving your cerebellum a picture that only it is privvy to computationally.



Saturday, December 22, 2018

Penance For Suburban Band Practice and a Lowered Bar

 The kid next door is trying to put a band together:

The Literal Shed in Which Rock Music Is Trying To Happen....

 I can hear them in their shed next door, a sub-sonic thump that's fighting my "Brad Mehldau - No Chaff" Spotify playlist I'm listening to at my desk.  The room I'm in is at the back of my house, adjacent to the shed in the backyard of the neighbor's house.

 I can't complain.  


 Well... he or one of his buddies threw a Miller Lite can over the fence apparently last week, they'd better not do that again.  

When I first started playing guitar at 15, I found myself jamming with every drummer and bass player I could find, to little avail at first.  I was extremely precocious and admittedly didn't suffer the less than adequate, or anyone less than actually completely motivated by art in music. 

 See, at first there are 2 basic categories:

  • the nascent musician that really wants to play music and accomplish something
  • the person that just wants an excuse to hang out.  

Actually, a musician can get very far under that second category just by being in the right place and sticking with it, but that type tends to annoy me.  I have wasted much time with stealthed versions of this type, I advise the reader not to do the same.

 Regardless, while I was running through the local musician offerings, one by one, we made a large audible racket in many a suburban locale.  In the 80's everyone wanted to be in a band, there wasn't really a shortage of drummers and bass players, despite the guitar player ratio being about 30:1.  I found myself jamming in every residential neighborhood in Augusta Georgia, near Augusta, and some non-residential areas in and out of town. One time I found myself  in the middle of a literal corn field, in a shack that some guys had built out of pallets and ran extension cords to from somewhere beyond the field I couldn't even see.  Their friends would crawl up on the outside and look in, ala _Mad Max Thunderdome_.... 

 That was the first year I played guitar.  I had been telling people I'd only been playing guitar for a year, which was a mistake as I found out later. You can't get with experienced musicians that way.

 Many inadvertent audiences were made in many adjacent houses.  It's worth noting that in the rich neighborhoods the houses are much farther apart and better insulated.  In poor neighborhoods, the walls have no insulation and often are mere feet away from a neighbor.  This creates interesting life lessons in diplomacy.

 At the end of that first year of playing I found myself invited to watch a band practice by an upper classman at my high school, the drum major in the music program.  He played drums in a band with some older guys that actually had some experience, and of course I was probably expected to be Another Audience Member hanging out at band practice.

 I was invited to jam with them on guitar during one of their breaks, and unfortunately for the guitar player I was in the band soon thereafter.  I was fortunate, because I found myself playing with guys that not only could play entire songs, but actually had some musical panache and experience.


 A lot of people heard us in the neighborhood.  I was using the drummer's Fender Bassman at practice; later we'd end up rehearsing in my parent's garage and I'd managed to get a 120 watt Peavey Hertage tube amp from a paper route.  Then a 50 watt Marshall JMP 2x12 tube amp combo I'd run in stereo with the Peavey.

 Our bass player used a variety of amps, a Yamaha bass amp in conjunction with sometimes a tube guitar head of some sort, in a biamp setup, with a pair of 2x15 cabinets, one of which had JBLs.   A very, very potent setup.  Sometimes there were other bass players.  Pictures fell off the wall in my parent's living room.  My parents being accommodating in my pursuit of music I will be forever grateful for.

  Sometimes the police would show up.  Generally it ended up with them hanging out and listening, which is a good sign.  We usually didn't practice later than 10 or so, which in reality is Not So Bad. Particularly these days not a big deal, but back then it was Very Rebellious, but ...

 But back to These Days:

 The guys next door do their thing one night on the weekends. Sometimes Saturday night, sometimes Sunday night.   I don't know them, and I wouldn't tell them this, but...

.... that's not enough.

  I was lucky.  In the above mentioned band I was the youngest, still in school, but we still practiced at least twice a week.  Often times more, sometimes 4 times a week.  We were maintaining about 40+ songs, the standard metal/rock club fare at the time, but also some left-field technical-instrumental things.  I was lucky.  In theory once you're Good Enough you can get by with what the guys next door are doing, rehearsing once a week or less.  You're just going through the motions, you should already know the songs, then go to the gig.

 But when you're starting out, being able to play with a group multiple times during a week is educational in a way I can't deliver as a guitar teacher.  Playing with other musicians is not the same skill set as playing to the recording - which is also completely necessary, of course.  Learning to listen to the other members of the band is critical, and something that people don't do anymore . It's now a matter of the guys that stick it out long enough that they CAN play in a band, that they finally get with other musicians, and they cobble through things by default.

 That's not the same thing as putting your time in with other musicians.

 The guys I played with initially were really into music for music's sake, and we had no problem playing the same songs over and over because it was FUN.  When you play the same song with a band 20 times it's a very different thing afterwards than just scratching through and going "that's good, we've got it, see you at the gig".  You learn to own it.

 It's a shame that Darn Kids Today don't use their time getting experience playing music with live humans when they still have the time.  It's invaluable.  I never had a problem playing with other people, since I'd been doing it literally since day one routinely every week; and I was "extremely precocious".  But that lack of human playing experience is completely evident in most novice musicians I hear today, and even a lot of so-called "experienced" musicians.  Guys and gals that have chops and are "professional" - but only when everything is a certain way with the rest of the band.

 Yes, I'm complaining in that respect, but I'm hoping someone reading this will take it to heart: playing music in a band is fun.  There is a reason I just got a text from one of my first students - who I taught all the way back from when I was 16 - of pictures of his band playing a recent gig in N.C..  There's a reason most guys that played 30 years ago are still going at it. 
 At least the guys next door are actually playing as a band, it seems These Days it's a rarity.  Outside of playing at church, I don't have any students at the moment that play in a band, but I have a few that, if it were 20 years ago, they'd have already been in multiple bands by now.  30 years ago I would have immaturely laughed at the guys next door; now I'm thinking

"geez, that's a relief to hear someone starting out TRYING to play MUSIC with other HUMANS".

 It's really very pathetic it's come to this.  Something went wrong in the mid 2000's, and the impetus to form bands and play music in front of an audience evaporated, only leaving the praise bands and some die hards on the periphery that find themselves with a fair amount of gigs with the dearth of bands present now.

 I don't find the drummer's kick drum particularly annoying because of the above, despite being able to tell he's probably got his pedal tension wrong.  It's really almost not noticeable in the house (all of those nattering nay-bobs that called the police on my bands were probably just old-school stick in the mud anti-rock music pro-Establishment conservative knobs), and they don't actually play a lot, actually.  I'm afraid it's a Fun Hang Out situation for them, and they'll probably get bored with it in a few months like the half pipe skateboard ramp that ended up rotting on the other side of the fence.

 Which is sad, and sad for me, because I look at both hopefully - "maybe kids, other people are going to get back into playing music in bands?", but I know it's far removed from the Good 'Ol Days.  The tendency is to look at the guys in Greta Van Fleet and go "yeah, but... hey, they're playing together as a band!"; like that somehow is enough these days.  A novelty: humans playing rock music as a group.  For fun.

 And it IS FUN.  1,000 x more fun than a video game, and more rewarding.  How that notion has been sucked out of the thought process of society is scary.

 (....just walked outside to listen to what they were doing...)

Earlier it was _Back in _Black.  The guitar player sounded like he was having tuning problems, tried to tune, stopped... he was tuning as I walked back outside.  Sounds like they're  now trying to do some Neil Young.   The drummer is in the throes of what I call "kinestheticlly-hyper shuffle beat syndrome"; an affliction that attacks novice drummers, sometimes for many years.  Yes, you can sort of play a shuffle over just about anything, but, uhmm.... yeah.

 Well, they're still at it.   It doesn't bother me, I hope nobody calls the cops on them.  Maybe one of them will want to take it seriously, and maybe go "hey, maybe we should get together more often and practice more...?".   But if not, at least they can tell friends, 

 "I'm IN A BAND...".




Friday, December 14, 2018

The "Clean" Sound that Really Isn't?

"Fender clean".

 This is something you're hear/read about.  It's pretty elusive, yes.  Because it's very easy to get on most Fender amps turned up a bit, and nearly impossible otherwise.

 It is NOT a completely "clean", undistorted sound.  It's actually a bit compressed above 1k, and when you play hard the low end distorts.  Which is the trick. 

 Check out Mark Agnesi demonstrating this (ridiculous) strat.  He's going through a Deluxe turned up a bit:

 Note that the chords at first a little bit distorted, the low end is getting saturated.  But then notice the single note lines are not "distorted" per se.

 You can sort of do this on other amps, and on sims.  Kinda.  You have to sort of really moderate your pick attack, and even then you can't really be as expressive on the single string things because the difference between the "soft and chimey" sound and the "aggressive/bitey/distorted" accented sound comes on suddenly. 

 It's also usually the same timbre as well. 

 Effectively speaking it's the quintessential "play soft and it's clean, hit it hard and it's dirty".  But what's really going on is that there is always distortion above 1k, compression, that keeps the treble sounding up front while the low end is make more "present" by adding harmonic distortion when you give it more voltage.  It's not "clean" in reality; if you ran music through it you'd hear bright garble for the most part. 

 The beauty of the sound is that it's very expressive.  There are differences in sound as you play, it's never "perfect"; it's not homogenized.  Which is almost the opposite of digital sims, which can mimic the frequency spectrum perfectly *at one level*, but not across levels.  It sounds "identical" but it doesn't respond identical.  You can practice to try to get the same effect - but that's defeating the purpose, and time is short. 

 If you want that kind of sound, you get the right amp.  The reason I'm writing this is that I've sold off the vintage versions of amps that did this; my Gibson GA-40, and a '65 Deluxe reissue - and now I've got to figure out how to get that back in a more affordable manner, so I've got "Fender "clean"" on the mind.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Vintage That Needs to Go Away: Fender, FIX THE STRAT OUTPUT JACK!

 At least once every 2 weeks or so, I have to give a little speech about how a student needs to make sure they keep the nut tightened on the output jack of their Fender What-ever-Caster.

Pure Evil!

 They put a flat washer under the nut, which is useless and obviously does not work.  For the uninitiated:

 The nut works it's way loose as you plug the cable in/out, and move it around.  I'd guess that after 2 months of  use is when they start to loosen, at which point depending how much and how aggressive you plug the cable into and out of your guitar, the two wires soldered to the jack under the jack plate twist around and around..

 Until one breaks, and the guitar stops working.  Sometimes one is near a music store that can repair it.  Sometimes it's maybe only $35 or so to fix, but closer to a standard bench repair fee of $75 is possible.   At least a week will be lost, maybe more.

 That's presuming the student/Stratocaster owner even knows this has happened and CAN be repaired.  How many people just stopped playing guitar because this happened to their Squire Stratocaster after a few months?  What impact does this have to Fender and other brands for people that end up never staying with it and buying more gear?

 This has been a scourge forever.  The "phono jack" is a design left over from literally 1948 or so, and really can be traced to about 1877.  It's primitive, inelegant, and failure prone.

 I can think of a few better ways of doing it, but I don't have money to patent and manufacture such a thing.  Fender, though - there's no excuses.  Why they continue to use this idiotic part is beyond me, aside from it's sheer cheapness.

 They could easily improve it a lot: simply use a serrated washer, or put a dab of Loctite on the nut.  Or both.  Either nobody at Fender has thought of this as an issue and a fix, or they just don't care.

 Until then, I'll continue to have to waste a student's lesson time explaining they need to keep the stupid nut tight, and that the shorting-noise they're hearing is the result of the jack being loose, and that when it fails they've got to get it fixed.  Ridiculous.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

How Much Should I Practice This Chord?

Normally I can't specifically answer the "how long will it take?" kind of questions, but I suppose this isn't exactly one of those.

This student is doing it wrong.

  •  Let's say you've got to play a hypothetical song, and it's a slow one: a tempo of 60 beats per minute.
  •  Let's also say that you've got to play a chord every quarter note.  So in other words, 60 chords a minute.  A chord every second.
  •  Let's say the average length of a "song" is AT LEAST 3 minutes long.

 You've got to be able to play a chord 180 times in a row, at a pace of 1 a second.  Sure, most songs aren't based on 1 chord over and over, but you're still squeezing, releasing that many times at least.

 This is presuming a very slow tempo, mind you.  So conservatively, in reality - you need to be able to do twice that, in order to have a little bit of lee way in your ability to be able to say "yes, I can play this song".

 360 times, at a pace of once a second would be a nice target.

 "Man, Chip, that's a lot!"

 That's only 3 minutes.  99.9% of the people reading this won't bother to do this I realize, but I'm just throwing that out there: you NEED to be able to do this, AT LEAST.

 Maybe you press/strum/release a chord 50 times.  That's half what's really baseline.  A "nice workout" might be all of the open chords (G,C,D, Dm,A,Am, E, Em), 50 times every day.  Then there are the bar chord variations...

 The point being, to play an Average Pop Song you've got to get your musculature to the point where you're in that ball park figure.  So there you go: practice Said Chord 50x a day, at least, and aim for 180 as the goal.  360 to conquer it.  In reality, though - this is why you want to make playing along to recordings of songs your goal: you're "getting your exercise" by doing so, in a more interesting and entertaining way.