So far we have looked at how to find the instrument that is right for you and what kind of amplification configuration will help you hone your sound closer to what you are looking for. In this final installment we will examine my personal favorite part of shaping one’s tone…effects! Whether it’s the epic fuzz tones of Jimmy Hendrix, the lush flanger sounds of The Cure or the signature sound of a wah pedal, effects are what makes a sound turn from just a sound into something distinct. Let’s use this analogy: if your guitar is your voice and your amp is your mouth, your effects would be the character with which you sing. In other words, they are there to compliment the art you are already making.
I love playing guitar, bass, drums, synths…heck anything really. Music is my life. But talk to me for but a few minutes or take a look at my studio and you can see that it does not take long for my true love to come out: effects. They are my musical obsession. Personally, effects always fascinated me more than instruments; when it came to recorded music, my fascination with them not only lead to my use of them as an integral part of my own music but to pursue a career as a live audio engineer. I can remember my first effect like it was yesterday. It was a Boss bass reverb CEB-3. I had decided in a fairly common sense manner to take up the bass because, well all my friends played guitar, the odds of a jam are a bit better when someone has a complimentary instrument. I was barely able to play the intro of Money and The Joker — and son I was ready to step out. I tried a distortion and decided rapidly I was nowhere near good enough to make that sound good. Then I put my eyes toward a wah pedal, but jeez I could barely tap my feet and play, much less drive that thing. But then I plugged into a chorus pedal and there was something about it. It was quite lush and smooth and made things kind of “shimmer” on the edges. I was sold, I walked out of my local guitar store $90 lighter and an official addict! Seriously, I was hooked I could not get enough effected sound. It rapidly grew and before I knew it I had a rack of gear and a floor of pedals.
Effects are what can make music fun, but they must be chosen carefully and used tastefully or they can be downright obtrusive. Just because you add an effect does not mean that a poorly played part will sound good — not one bit. It takes a careful balance: the tone of one’s instrument, the playing of said instrument, the effects chosen to augment your sound, even the order of effects chosen can affect your sound in ways you cannot believe. For example, a distorted wah sounds different than a wahed distortion.
We’ll focus on a few types of effects in this article that are key components to general tonal shaping. From there your imagination can run wild with delays, flangers, phasers, wah and modulators galore. Heck, we’ll even be discussing quite a few of these options and their uses in future articles. In this edition, however, we will focus in particular on three basic effects: Reverb, Gain effects and Compression.
Reverb is a classic sound that is an option available on most amplifiers. Basically reverb is an effect that is meant to replicate the natural resonance of reflected sound. A perfect example of this effect is when you clap your hands in a large room and hear the immediate reflection of sound, or “bounce back”. This effect can either be achieved in the realm of good old analog with what is called a spring reverb or, of course, achieved digitally. Spring reverb is achieved with what is called a “reverb tank”. This “tank” is a metal box in which are suspended springs, on one side of these springs is a transducer that acts as a speaker vibrating the wires and on the opposite side is a transducer that acts as a microphone. As the sound is passed from your amplifier through the first transducer, the rise in voltage caused by the increase sound volume causes the wires to vibrate fast, thereby giving more of a sympathetically vibrating sound to the end result picked up by the microphonic transducer on the opposite end…simple right? Believe it or not, it’s even a mouthful for someone who lives and breathes tech. An easy example would be if you make a tin can phone, but instead of using string you used a long spring. The spring would vibrate creating a twangy addition to the sound already traveling from can to can. Spring reverb was a common component of much of vintage rock and roll and made particularly popular in the sounds of surf music, jazz, western swing and Rock-a-Billy, just to name a few. Spring reverb is mainly an analog effect due to the requirement of actual springs, but to the discriminating ear there are a few good digital spring simulators out there.
Spring Reverb Tank Transducer that amplifies springs
Yet another type of analog reverb would be a plate reverb. Actual analog plate reverbs are quite expensive and require great care to keep properly. These are usually found in the studio environment and in rack form. The basic principle of operation is the same as spring reverb except applied to two sheets of metal instead of to lengthened coils under tension (a.k.a. a spring). With the options of digital reverbs come the sounds of halls, concert halls, small and large rooms, and even tiled rooms. Depending on the style of music and desired ambience of the track, these various settings can provide a myriad of ways to add dimension and greatly alter the overall tone of your sound.
The Classic Boss RV-3
Next we step into the realm of Gain effects or, for lack of a better term, “distortion”. Technically this category includes everything from clean boosts to overdrives, distortions, fuzzes and octave drivers. The circuits are meant to emulate the sound of the gain stage of a tube amplifier adding extra “warm”, “dirty” and “fuzzy” sounds by compressing the peaks of an electric musical instrument’s sound wave and adding overtones to the original sound. In fact, many analog versions of these pedals such as the classic and popular Ibanez Tube Screamer and G.K Butler actually use a vacuum tube to achieve their signature sound. Other effects such as the vintage Fuzz Face pedals use a smaller form of what replaced the vacuum tube, called a transistor. Many other mainline distortion pedals such as the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver and Big Muff use diodes to achieve their sound. All of these elements vary in their tonal capabilities and the response they have to the incoming sound. Which sound you use really comes down to a matter of style and personal taste. Many vintage rockers such as Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmore and Pete Townsend used a lot more fuzz sounds, while modern and heavy metal rockers like Dimebag Darrel, Kurt Cobain and Kirk Hammet use distortion pedal. Distortion tends to be slightly thinner and more percussive sounding while fuzz, on the other hand, tends to have a lot more octave generation and sustain to the sound. In the realm of jazz playing and general solo work comes the overdrive and clean boost pedal. This is made to do just as it says, add an audible decibel boost to allow the sound to cut through. Overdrive pedals add a slight amount of distortion to the signal to allow the tones to break up, but these as a whole are used to fill out the sound of a guitar to provide a blanket of warm sound upon which to rock.
The Linear Power Booster by Electro-Harmonix
~ model pictured modded by Austin Hot Mods ~
Finally, in the realm of general tone-shaping effects is the world of compression & sustain. Basically what compression does is allow the player to set a minimum threshold of sound coming into the circuit and a maximum ceiling of sound, thereby making all of the player’s notes fit within a certain decibel range. This allows minor mistakes to not be heard and notes that may be incidentally played too hard to be brought under control. This overall “tightens” the tonal qualities of the sound you are producing and provides for a more consistent sound, especially when playing lead guitar. In addition to compression is sustain: this setting allows the player to increase the amount of time harmonic notes are held in suspension thereby allowing the note to continue on or “sustain” beyond its normal. Most pedal or rack units will have a knob for both of these settings, but many vintage and even throw back boutique-style are one knob compressors…simply on, up and rock! The one downfall and frequent complaint I have heard over the years, however, is the complaint of additional noise in the line with a compressor during tacet moments on the strings. This is a side result of the fact that you have set a minimum threshold. This can be easily avoided through the old trick of simply riding the volume control of your instrument or even using a volume pedal. The other option, of course, is to just never stop rocking. But hey, even the best us can get winded after a 23 minute long solo, right?
DOD FX-82 Bass Compressor
So there it is a brief introduction to the wonderful world of effects. Again, these are just some of the many options that are available. In the near future we will explore the uses and applications of many other wonderful exciting sounds such as delays, flangers, ring modulators and more. So until time, may your strings always be wound tight and your tubes always warm.