David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: human nature, preferences, set-up, @musings info

Aural fatigue and dialing in your rig

I'm all for having a sound that makes me comfortable as a player. Gawd knows I've been through a lot of gear that hasn't supported my musical goals. It took me a while to find the combination of playing style and -- to perhaps invent a term -- "tonal style" that is right for me. I said "tonal style" rather than "gear" because it's the the tone that's important; I've learned that I can get "my tone" from lots of different kinds of gear, now that I understand what "my tone" is in audible terms rather than gear terms.

I didn't realize how important this was until this past weekend. I had dialed in my new rig without any comparison to the tube amp/pedal rig I'd been using for the previous four years. Whether I'm playing guitar by myself or in a jam situation, my rig sounds "right" to me because it meets my expectations and supports my musical style and taste.

I'm almost certain that I could not have made this new rig work for me five years ago. At that time I had not developed an understanding of how to get the sonic results that make me happy. I was still "searching for my sound"...

I think the problem that a lot of people run into with any gear -- not just modelers -- is that they still don't understand how to get the sounds they seek. It's not a matter of copying your guitar hero's rig, and it's most certainly not a matter of buying a swiss-army-knife amp or processor and searching randomly (or exhaustively) through the settings for something that catches your fancy.

Aural fatigue is an insidious problem. What you hear right now affects how you hear what comes next. It's like playing pin the tail on the donkey: you know what the goal is, but you're not sure about where you're starting from. When it comes to dialing in a new rig, the less time it takes you to get as close as possible - given the rig - to the tone you expect to hear, the better your chances of coming back to that rig the next day and still being happy with the way it's dialed in.

I experienced this exact problem as a former Mesa/Boogie owner. When I was less familiar with the amp I spent a lot of time with the knobs and the toggles and the modes and the pull-switches and the tube choices and the channels trying to figure out how each of them affects the sound. Over the course of an hour or so of tweaking I "arrived" at something that sounded good. Then I came back the next day after my ears had recovered and the amp sounded "wrong".

A lot of Mesa/Boogie owners experience this same thing and blame the amp. If you stick with the amp for a while, you'll eventually learn how to get to "your" tone - from any given starting point - in under a minute. Then when you come back to the same settings at a later date, the amp still sounds the way you expect.

All of that has nothing to do with Mesa/Boogie amps and everything to do with aural fatigue. I eventually stopped playing Mesa/Boogies not because they were difficult to adjust - I got to the point where I could walk up to any Mesa/Boogie amp and set it for the tone I wanted to hear in under thirty seconds. What eventually killed my interest in Mesa/Boogie amps is that the tone I really wanted to hear was outside of the range of the "architecture" or "design philosophy" that applied to the entire family of Mesa/Boogie products. In short, Randall Smith and I expect to hear guitars in very different ways. That's not to say that I'm right and Randall's wrong -- Mesa/Boogie amps have produced some legendary tones over the years. They're just not the tones that I expect to hear when I play my guitar.

If you're approaching a modeling rig for the first time, the problem of aural fatigue is compounded by the fact that you're wrestling with unfamiliar controls, so it takes longer to make every change. This gives your ear more time to adapt to the sounds that you don't want to hear, which makes it that much harder to correctly recognize the sound that you do want to hear.

How should you deal with that problem? Take small steps. Don't expect to learn the controls and find your grail tone all in the same session. Be prepared to go back to the gear over and over again until you understand how to quickly minimize the difference between what you hear and what you want to hear.

Whether you like it or not, accept the fact that there are no shortcuts. You have to trust your ears, and to do that you must not abuse them. Give your ears frequent breaks. The less time you spend on one session, the more likely it is that your perceptions will be the same when you return later.

Use your eyes, but believe your ears.

April 04 2007 04:05:05 GMT