Michael Manring, ‘The Enormous Room’.

So there is at least one human being capable of this:

Daang.

I’ve been aware of Michael Manring for a while now;  I find his solo piece Selene to be one of the most gorgeous pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and in general I think it’s fair to say that his Hyperbass has been a gloriously worthwhile investment.  Manring is, for me, firmly in the short list of bassists who have done things that (far as I can tell) nobody did before;  he is so far beyond the “best of the Jaco clones” reputation that launched his early career, that he can no longer be dismissed as derivative.  If Jaco was the Hendrix of the fretless bass, and Percy Jones something between its Robert Fripp and Fred Frith, then Manring might arguably be something between the Michael Hedges and the John McLaughlin.  (To use, you know, comically simplistic analogies.  🙂

Ain’t nobody sounds like him.  For that, alone, he earns my respect.

But it’s not that, alone.  Just listen to what he does with it!  Even watching his hands in real time, it’s still hard to believe, sometimes, that one man with one bass can do that.

Bookmarked!

The ambient signal chain.

A few notes here, about my nascent interest in understanding the proper signal chain for doing the sort of ambient soundscapes that Chords of Orion has introduced to me.  For anyone who either happens across this post or who got sent here by me (upon threat of being made to work in the squirrels’ nut mines):  I would welcome constructive or enlightening comments to advance my understanding of what is a new area, but one of great interest, to me as a player.

So, the basic signal chain seems to be, in this order:

First, instrument.  Most commonly this would be a solidbody electric guitar with magnetic pickups, but I am also interested in what can be done with acoustic instruments, either miked or with 1/4″ direct outs available on some combination of magnetic, undersaddle, or internal microphone pickup.  I would imagine that something like the Godin Multiac Spectrum, with its magnetic pickup (nice for ebow, too!) in addition to the usual undersaddle piezo, would be one way to cover a lot of possible territory.

Second, baseline guitar tone effects.  It seems like this would be achievable in a dizzying variety of ways;  any number of multi-effect units could be used to design one or more patches comprising the baseline tone you’d want.  The recommended baseline is for compression and overdrive (and now I understand a bit more about why), but I know that for me, I would want access to, at a minimum, a few different baselines, including a sparkling clean electric tone, acoustic tones for both steel and nylon (and theoretically my steel/nylon hybrids), and one or more dirty tones.

Third, volume pedal.  I am starting to understand how important this piece is, because of the heavy use of swells.  A multi-effects unit like the Zoom G3Xn or the G5n might well be able to do soundscaping from end to end on its own, but I suspect a dedicated volume pedal might be a better option, and perhaps ideally, a stereo volume pedal, in case the “before-loop” effect chain produces a stereo output.

Fourth, the long-delay / short-loop.  This is actually what produces the evolving soundscape as we speak of it.  The critical points are that the loop/delay needs to be about or more than 4 full seconds (and not all delays do that), have an adjustable decay setting;  and that the footswitch needs to operate in REC/DUB/PLAY mode, rather than REC/PLAY/DUB mode like most looper pedals do.  (I am starting to seriously wonder sort of “software loopers” might be available–I suspect the answer might blow me away…)

Fifth, any post-loop effects.  In order to create the spacey sound that most people associate with soundscapes, there should be some sort of effect chain following the decaying soundscape loop.  Here again it would seem that there are lots of possible solutions available here, between the creative use of washy, heavy reverb and other effects like ping-pong delay.  Lots of multi-effect units can do this, but in one way it seems almost silly to have to have two multi-effect units in the chain.  (Still working on this.)

Now, how to create this most efficiently?

This would seem to be a good question;  I’m still chewing on it with some interest.  What could I do that would be the most modular, pluggable solution with the minimum amount of gear and cabling?

The sticking point would seem to be the volume pedal and however many stomps one might reasonably need, since these are inherently physical things.  I would not have guessed, before my first tests, that I would have made such use of not only the delay stomp to set the soundscape loop, but all three of the other ones on the ME-70 (compression, distortion, and modulation).  And I used them arbitrarily–because it’s what seemed to make sense at the time.  On one hand I could argue that the entire pre-volume-pedal chain could be abstracted into a single patch–ditto for the post-looper chain–and thus stomps could be reduced to one “pre” and one “post” footswitch that simply turns those patches on and off, or perhaps cycles between presets.

Aside from the volume pedal and any necessary stomp switches, arguably the whole thing could be done from the computer, virtually.  But…  (Here’s where I’d really love to take advice from people with more stage experience than I have.)

And of course I’m envisioning the sort of thing where I’d be doing a few ambient parts, but then doing a lot of more traditional things over the top, instead, or alongside.  That Ditto X4  has a little dipswitch that takes you between the REC/PLAY/DUB and REC/DUB/PLAY modes…switching it during a performance might get iffy, and I don’t know enough about live looping yet to know how frustrating it might be to have to deal with REC/DUB/PLAY when not playing soundscapes!

And of course at the moment I can’t afford anything new anyway, so I will do my diligence by planning out well in advance–like always–so that when the time comes I can at least spend most wisely.  (And in the meantime–love you, Dave!–the ME-70 should prove to be a useful tutor.)

This landscape would seem to hold a future that is worth that sort of investment.  🙂

 

Dipping the toe in ambient.

Okay, so based on the ideas I picked up from the first few clips of the Ambient Guitar series at Chords of Orion, I went and tried to see if I could, using the very limited amount of gear I have, create a signal chain that would let me approach the same landscape.

In short:  it works!

Man, I learned a lot.  (For all the things I’ve picked up about technique, theory, and lots of other things in general, I consider myself a complete noob to electronics and signal processing.  Okay, maybe not a complete noob, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that I’d know something really stinkin’ obvious within that landscape, because I may well not!)  And the irony is that what made this possible in the first place is a single piece of gear I have on long-term borrow from Dave C in Colorado.  That, and playing through it with an instrument I tried, unsuccessfully, to sell.

For each of the last two nights, I simply experimented with what I had, using those YouTube clips as my framework.  Did I mention I learned a lot?  The upshot is that holy cow, this really is possible, basically right now.

So, I used a Mexican Fender “fat Strat” and my tube-pickup steel-string SoloEtte as my two test guitars.  Dave’s loaned Boss ME-70 multi-effects unit did all the rest;  what I’ve got is not perfect by any means, but it is a valid proof of concept, and enough to get me really churning on what a preferred or idealized signal chain might consist of.

I really was starting from scratch, so I did a factory reset on the ME-70, and spent a little time finding a basic guitar tone.  For the Fender (strung with light gauge flatwounds and tuned to Guitar Craft standard tuning CGDAEG), using the bridge humbucker pickup (which is noticeably hotter than either of the single-coils), tone and volume knobs all set to “5”, I went through all the amp models and can hear things to like in each one, but in the end I settled on the Clean amp at about 50% gain, since I wanted a “home base” of a really clean sound.  Next I played with the compressor until I got something that seemed to sustain noticeably past the guitar’s natural sound, but didn’t affect the tone all that much, and then adjusted the output level so that the effected and un-effected volumes were about the same.  After that, I found I had the same problem with the distortion settings that I did with the amp models:  I just don’t know what I would want in a distortion sound, at least yet.  In the end I kept close to the recommendation and used higher gain on the overdrive setting (as opposed to the ME-70’s dirtier distortions), and it was good enough to make the point.  For the modulation stomp, I settled first on a short, quick-decaying delay, and then (when I didn’t wind up using it much) I tried a bit of the phaser, usually for “lead” lines over the main loop.  (I found I could “stomp out” of the delay for a short bit and play a “lead” over the long-decaying loop, with enough time to stomp back in to the long-delay and rejuvenate or change it.)  That comprised the main guitar tone:  a clean baseline with stomps for adding compression, distortion, and modulation (in any combination), and the volume pedal at the end of that sub-chain.

Luckily for me (meaning: critical to this proof of concept), the ME-70 has its delay stomp after the volume pedal in the internal signal chain.  So, I could send effected, volume-swelled notes from the volume pedal into the delay stomp, which includes the option for a long delay of up to six seconds, with adjustable decay!  (The ME-70 does have a phrase looper option, also under the delay stomp, but I don’t yet know if it has an adjustable decay setting, and at any rate it doesn’t have the REC/DUB/PLAY option like the Ditto X4 does.  At any rate, it doesn’t need to do that through the looper, since the long-delay interval is long enough!

Unfortunately, what the ME-70 does not have available after the delay stomp is the option for further effects, other than reverb.  Now, its “Hall” reverb setting, maxed out, is pretty spacey, and again it does well enough that the point is made pretty clearly, but it would be nice if the chain had a few more configuration options in it.

So, with that set up, I did my first toe dip into the world of ambient soundscapes.  And…yeah, I think I’m going to enjoy more of this.  It’s essentially improvisation against yourself.  And as Robert described it years ago now, it’s hazardous:  you can easily get yourself into a place that is hard to get out of, and mistakes stay with the loop until they decay out! Nonetheless, I heard myself responding to this new world in pretty short order, and I intend to see where it might take me.

Interestingly, I tried the SoloEtte the same way.  Its basic tone settings wound up similar to the Strat’s, but not exactly the same.  (My SoloEtte has the original “tube” pickup which acts as the saddle as well, and I have the guitar strung with three flat-wound steel strings on the bass side, and three clear nylon strings on the treble side – current tuning is CGDGBE.  In general, I rather like the sound of the SoloEtte here, but I will certainly need to play a bit with the noise gate and the compressor to eke out some better sustain from those nylon trebles.  The bass strings (which are also steel) seem to sustain noticeably better…in short, there’s work to do.

But did I mention I learned a lot?  What I wound up doing with the SoloEtte, repeatedly, was setting the soundscape with compressor and distortion on (and decay set to be long), then stomping out of the delay (it keeps playing and decaying;  you’re simply not adding more input) and the distortion, and playing clean leads over the dirtier soundscape.  It sounded pretty good!  And as things started to fade out a bit, I could stomp back in on distortion and the delay, add a bit more to the background, and rinse and repeat.

The solid-body, magnetic-pickup Fender, by contrast, was much more forgiving in terms of picking up unintentional noise, than the hollow tube pickup of the “acoustic” sounding SoloEtte.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I found ways to deliberately include string noise, bridge thumps, etc., but that will take a bit of learning and management, both to figure out the optimum settings, and also to figure out how to respond as a player.  (Like I said, I’m new to electronics, and unused to the idea of running something like the SoloEtte at deliberately higher gain levels.)

Still to try out, then, would be to try using the Fender with neck and middle pickups…tweaking the noise gate and compressor to get the best nuance out of nylon strings, and to a lesser extent plain (unwound) steel strings)…trying slides, eBow, and partial capos…

…and then there is the question of how any of this might be adapted to work with acoustic instruments picked up with an SM57 microphone…

Monster in the making?  I guess we’ll see…  🙂

Ambient guitar resource.

Bookmarking here what looks to be a major-caliber resource, at least for someone as new to electronics as I am, for approaching the live-looping-delaying universe first called “Frippertronics” and later “Soundscapes”.

So there’s this YouTube channel Chords of Orion, which has this fairly substantial series on the -fu of “ambient guitar”.  Installment #1 is here:

I’ve made it up to about #10 in the series thus far, and will be reviewing more soon enough.  This fella seems pretty well thought out, and the landscape this suggests is starting to poke at my hindbrain a little more insistently.

What drew me to the series was this installment, which isn’t actually part of the series, but is absolutely an adjunct to it.

If I’m understanding him correctly, then the essence of the quintessential Frippertronic ambient soundscape, expressed in terms of the signal chain using modern gear, is the use of prepared guitar sounds (e.g., distorted, modulated, short-delayed, volume-swelled sounds) sent into a long (4-16 second) delay loop with adjustable decay, with secondary effects (e.g., wash delay, reverb) downstream of the loop.  (As the narrator says in the looper review, it’s delaying the loop, not looping the delay.)  He certainly seems to have the sound right!

What makes the TC Electronic Ditto X4 interesting, here, is that it can be configured to behave differently than almost all other loopers in its basic click sequence of the footswitch.  The usual looper behavior is that the first click of the footswitch initiates recording;  the second click terminates recording and immediately begins playback;  a third click begins overdubbing.  This is written on my old JamMan looper as “REC/PLAY/DUB”.  The X4, though, has a dipswitch that will instead make the sequence go “REC/DUB/PLAY”, instead:  at the second click, the loop begins anew with overdub open.  It’s critical in this case because that is essentially the exact same thing that the long-delay does:  in effect it created a “short loop” out of a “long delay”, with overdubbing continually open.  The X4 also has a “decay” knob that allows you to set the rate of decay of successive overdubs in the loop as it plays–which is useful both for adjusting the rate at which a live soundscape would evolve (i.e., “old” overdubs drop off as “new” ones are added on), and also for speeding up termination on demand.    One thing the looper can do that many delays can’t, is to set the loop length with the foot, which would seem to be a nice point of control.

Anyway, this all has me thinking about signal chains now, and I’m going to have to process on it a bit.  But man, the idea of having relatively simple access to the landscape of the soundscape?  Count me in!  🙂

 

Later….

Oh looky, here’s another YouTube playlist on ambient playing, from Andy Othling’s channel.  Bookmarked for homework!

Ralph Towner, ‘Solitary Woman’.

The studio recording of this tune still gives me the chills every time I hear it.  Ralph Towner is usually described with words like “enigmatic” and “quirky”, and from the first time I heard him with the group Oregon I could hear that.  (I was drawn to Oregon for other reasons at the time;  Paul McCandless had just floored me with his musical persona while touring with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and I was mostly listening for reeds.)  It was the trio record with drummer Bill Bruford and bassist Eddie Gomez, If Summer Had Its Ghosts, where I first really heard Towner’s voice as the understated powerhouse it is.

Many years later, it was Pandora that introduced me to the haunting 12-string brood that is “Solitary Woman”.  From first listen I was hooked, and the more I hear it now, the more I like the piece.

Of course, I then wanted to see if I could find a clip of Towner playing it live.  And I have to say, I was surprised.  I have seen two, both relatively recent, and both of them left me asking, “What happened?”

It’s not that I’m expecting him to play it the same way he does on the record–in fact I rather like it when artists re-interpret their own work, and in the “jazz” idiom, it’s nearly expected anyway.  But something just doesn’t seem right.  At the risk of trivializing it, there are big, obvious clams–as in “lost his way” sort of clams.  (And not intentional ones, either;  those have a very different sound.)  The sort of mistakes you’d expect someone like me to make.  It doesn’t fit what (little, admittedly) I know of Towner.

But the biggest thing, for me, is that in the live recordings he seems so…rushed.  One of the giant hallmarks of the studio piece is its simmering patience, especially in the rising-dyad theme that so beautifully frames that giant leading tone.  Both the dynamics and the timing are deliciously infuriating, and I would say it all seems to rise out of a position of resigned, moody patience.  I’d go so far as to say it nearly defines the piece on its own, and I would naturally expect to see Towner go through all sorts of variations and improvisation within that framework.  That’s not in evidence for either of the two recent live clips I’ve seen, and I must conclude that something else may be at work here.

The piece itself, though…man, what a lovely, haunting brood.  Bookmarked!

Ewan Dobson, ‘Paganini’s Hip’.

I actually can’t quite remember how I first ran across Canadian guitarist Ewan Dobson–whether it was that he got a play on Pandora, or if I stumbled across him on YouTube at one point.  Little matter in the end;  I find a great deal of interest in what I’ve seen of him so far.

The fella has an enigmatic sense of humor that lends a lot to his credibility.  Just check out these three clips from a “method” video of his, in which he explains some of his influences.  (“Sauron must be praised!”)  In his YouTube presence in general, he’s known for goofy garb and backgrounds.  One certainly does not get the sense that he takes himself too seriously, which I find endearing.

And yet I find some of his stuff really compelling.  The one which inspired this post, “Paganini’s Hip”, is a piece I intend to study further:

Then there is this enigma “Acoustimetallus Plectrus”, which runs really hard up against the “too many ideas in one sitting” criticism, but which I find insistently interesting nevertheless:

And this tune “Marli”, as a completely different example, is just lovely.  (And, of course, makes me want a friggin’ twelve-string all over again!)

LATER:  Went in search of a six-string presentation of “Marli”.  Found one.

Still a lovely tune, but this thing seems made for octaves.  🙂