Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - April 2019

Thursday, April 18, 2019

You Are As Fast As You Are Patient.

"That's Impossible!!!!"

 I realize that there are a lot of things a budding guitar player sees other people do that seem, effectively, humanly impossible.  In the sense that "most people" do not realize how straightforward it is to develop muscle memory to accomplish a kinesthetically complex task.

 I will explain more later, but first I'd like to present the following video.  One should watch it with the understanding that the complexity of this kid's movements are not that much different than what is required mechanically to play guitar.  He has been able to get to the skill level he's at because he has a very limited set of movements to execute, and in turn has spent a lot of effort working very specifically on the repetition of those movements:

 I think the viewer will agree visually it looks almost fake; he's at the limit of human reflexes, our brain tells us "that's outside 99.9% of our experience".  

 What is actually outside of 99.9% is the number of people with OCD enough to pursue something repetitively with complete precision.  That kid doesn't just want the record for stacking cups, he has a need to be precise. It is the satisfaction of executing a movement with precision that made him end up fast, not trying to be fast.

 The person that is innately careful, but initially slow, will automatically end up being "fast".  I've seen it very often.  That is not to say the person that is overly cautious, or careful to a fault, but the person that is measured and weighted towards a moderate speed  instead of towards their limit.  

 I say this often: being kinesthetically fast is as easy as being patient. 



Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Digital Knobs = Bad Sound?

 How's that Madonna song go, "we live in a digital world"?  Oh, no wait, that's not it.  Kraftwerk got it right in the 70's: Computer World.

 Serendipity: I was making a joke and brought up Kraftwerk, and have now decided to completely go in a different tangent than I had thought I was going to do when starting this post.  But it still relates (and this is a great example of improvising; when you step into something that involves chaotic math a totally unexpected outcome can result).

 Kraftwerk invented techno music - in the 60's.  They exploited synthesizers to produce music that was influenced by their classical training (many people don't realize that), but was other-worldly and "futuristic" sounding.

 Ironically by today's standards, what they used back then in the 60's and 70's was super primitive.  Effectively all non-analog, non-digital.  How this relates to the title is as follows:

 Analog gear was controlled either by button pushes/switches, or potentiometers.  Which meant you had the following decision making going on:

"I want this to be on/off"
"I want this to be "just so"" (via a knob turn)

 In the analog world a potentiometer - a variable resistor, it changes the "potential" of a circuit - could be one of 2 varieties: linear or algorithmic taper.  Meaning, as you turned the knob, the resistance would either increase linearly or exponentially.

 That's fine, that is akin to controls in the digital world.  The difference is this: analog gear itself tended to have non-linear scaling.  It also had limitations not found in the digital world.  Physics acted upon them, in that there was a built-in limit to how much energy one had available and one could put into a device.  The device itself did not react perfectly linearly.

 In a nutshell: when you turned a knob on an amplifier, a synthesizer, an effects pedal, it was restricted by physics, not software.  In turn (pun intended) there was an ergonomic relationship to how much you turned the knob to what you got/heard.

 The Marshall Super Lead "plexi" amp is a great example of this: basically, every combination of knob settings on this amp has been used and "claimed" by iconic guitar players through history.  Mainly because just about any way you set the knobs it still produces a "good" sound.

 Contrast that with the Average Digital Amp today.  It is difficult to get something to sound "good", and pretty easy to get into trouble with something that sounds like Martin Brundle's dog's breakfast.  Partially because you have under one knob often times the power to do something that would have taken $2,000 worth of gear to do 35 years ago, but also because....

 .... there is no obviously clear "sweet spot" as you turn the knob.  It will give you too much; and it doesn't care when in the travel of the knob that happens.

 People in the 21st century now have two situations facing them: if they're the person that doesn't like to think about things much they may turn knobs and end up on something approximating something they like.

 Or, the more discerning persona may tweak and tweak and tweak and never get there.  That doesn't mean "there" isn't there; it is that it is too easy to zoom right past it, and too hard to eliminate one of the nth variables that wouldn't have been there 35 years ago.

 In turn in music today we again face the tyranny of juvenile extremism.  Wacked out, primitive and non-nuanced sounds predominate.  Overshooting the right setting with a digital control is so easy it's very much factored against the user to get a "good" sound.  What was the sweet spot on a Marshall plexi - almost the entire range of the control - is condensed into a very small portion of its software representation, and may be linear in scaling.   You hit the sweet spot, but it's not obvious as it is surrounded by "bad".  It blends out on the high and low end of the scale, and within the sweet spot it may not actually be 1:1 with the intended result.

 Because one knob/fader/control in software often does more than one thing, OR does something that has no equivalent in the real world, the sweet spot can be divided up into many components.  For instance, the way an equalizer gain:bandwidth:q:curve might respond on an analog eq is automatic and intuitive to twisting one knob labeled "midrange", on the software equivalent you might need 3 hands + 3 mouses/mice to operate all of them at once.

 Which brings me to my last point:

 Some software houses produce not necessarily particularly good effects/products, but have done a good job at replicating the natural feel of the knob turning experience.  This is in contrast to the real world - in which I think there are famous examples of long-lasting gear that has earned their reps based on how ergonomic and quickly one can achieve "a sound" on them.

 The microphone/equalizer equivalent to a Marshall plexi, the Neve 1073 eq, is touted as an "easy" and "quick" solution to getting a sound on many instruments.  The travel of the knobs versus what they do results in a good result almost all the time.   These have been emulated in software many times, and while one can produce white papers on how accurate they are, they all respond differently when you turn the "knobs" on screen.  That experience is not linear, or there is an aspect to the sound that is non-linear to the real thing at different locations in the settings.

 On the other hand, there are now "classic" software that tends to give useful results relative to the operation of their controls.  I think the company Waves has earned their rep not on just being the first to produce outboard-DAW VST software effects, but for getting the operating experience right.  I prefer to use their now "ancient" Renaissance compressor not for the sound, but because the threshold and ratio controls are big long sliders that seem to work intuitively.  The result will sound better, or rather I will get a result I like faster.

 As opposed to many free alternatives that could sound identical, or maybe better, but whose controls are super finicky.  Additionally in the digital domain there are many, many, MANY ways of shooting yourself in the foot without realizing it, as well as being redundant in operation.

 Eventually I think this will shake out.  People will realize a certain make of a certain digital effect is popular because of its workflow and ergonomics, and that will become the default.