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…  🙂

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Kevin Wilmeth

Professional geek. Amateur human. Credible threat to musical instruments anywhere. (I can't help it. Ideas just invade my brain...)

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