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.  🙂


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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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