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, set-up, sound engineering, @musings info

The guitarist's dilemma

The guitarist's dilemma? In a word: "sound".

You know how guitarists tend to be: we "hear" with our ears. You immediately "recognize" the "mojo" in a nice vintage amp and guitar, or the sonic perfection of a Les Paul played through the latest four-channel fire-breather.

If you stick with it for a while, you may begin to admit to yourself that the guy playing a Danelectro guitar through a Boss MFX into a Peavy SS amp sounds pretty darned good, too. That stings for a while because it goes against all of the "conventional wisdom" (which is actually neither) that you may have picked up from the internet.

Next you run into the guy with $9,000 worth of guitar, amp and effects who makes you wish your auditory canal had a sphincter that you could clamp shut. You write that off as a bad night until you see the guy in the next band bring the house down with a MIM Telecaster, a couple of battle-scarred plastic pedals, and some amp that looks like it might have been bought at K-Mart.

Then you realize: You do need the appropriate sound(s) for your genre, but the technology doesn't matter nearly as much as how you apply your tools.

Yes, "tone is in the fingers"... I'm sure we're all tired of that old saw. I know I am. This pithy little expression is really meant, I think, as a conversation-stopper to end fruitless discussions about gear. "Tone is in the fingers" ignores the fact that our gear really does shape and contribute to the sounds we seek. "Tone is in the fingers" only when all other things are equal. Which they're not.

You ponder what you've learned from listening to other players. You set up up your rig - crafted from thoughtfully-chosen, carefully-assembled and lovingly-tuned bits of gear - to give you a great tone - the "tone in your head". Maybe you've nailed the sounds on your favorite recordings; maybe you've come up with a sound that's as unique as your fingerprint. The point is: you've put a lot of effort into making your gear sound exactly the way you want.

And then you bring in the rest of the band...

Suddenly you realize that all of your work was in vain. The tone that sounded great in isolation gets lost in the mix, or sounds too thin, or has no presence, or any of a million other maladies. It's back to the drawing board...

Eventually you get it right, again. Your sound is perfect with the band. It took you a lot of trial-and-error and probably tried the patience of your band-mates (whether they said so or not), but you reached your goal. Hurrah!

Everything goes along well for a while, until one of your band-mates (almost certainly another guitarist - don't ask me how I guessed that ) changes something in his rig and suddenly your rig doesn't sound so great any more.

What you do next is critical. You might assume that the other player's gear change "raised the bar" on great tone, and try to reproduce his "magic" recipe, or turn up so you're no longer "lost in the mix", or try to find a way to get the other guy to turn down, or apply lots of other tactics that have nothing to do with the real problem.

The real problem is that someone needs to pay attention to the band's sound. Someone needs to be in charge of making all the instruments "fit" in the mix.

If you have a big space and a big PA and a big budget, you might hire someone to make those decisions for you. That guy is a called a "sound guy", and he will make you rue the day you met him if you think he'll let you get away with having the final say on the way your instrument sounds.

The entire premise of hiring a sound guy to make you sound good is that he makes all of the judgment calls and leaves you free to play your instrument. Unfortunately, he is constrained by the laws of physics. For the sound guy to mix and EQ such that your audience hears your band the way you always wished your band would sound, everything that the audience hears has to come through the mains.

If your stage volume competes with the mains, the sound guy always does the same two things. First, he'll tell you to turn down your guitar. If you're like most guitarists, you'll comply for just long enough to make the sound guy stop bothering you about your stage volume. When (not if) your volume creeps back up, the sound guy exercises his second option: he cuts you out of the mix and leaves you to fend for yourself. And that, my friend, is bad news. With the rest of the band members cooperating with the sound guy, your audience hears the rest of the band just fine while your guitar sounds awesome on stage and about twenty feet out onto the floor. Oops...

Now that's not a universal problem. If you're playing really big venues, you get a bit more leeway regarding stage volume because everything's more spread out. If you're playing the club circuit - especially if you're in an aspiring band playing original material - you're going to be at the mercy of the club's sound guy no matter what. In that case, it still makes the most sense to make the sound guy's job easy in order for him to stand a chance of making you sound as good as possible elsewhere in the room other than the exact spot in which you happen to be standing.

When the band is on its own - in the rehearsal room or in a small room where no one else is in charge of the sound (regardless of whether there's a PA and, if so, whether or not the instruments run through the PA) - you still need to think in terms of the band's overall sound.

This puts the band members in the uncomfortable (and usually unfamiliar) position of compromising about the details of each player's sound. You all have to think in terms of the musical production values; not just about how awesome your particular part sounds.

You've heard the expression: "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." That's normally understood with a positive connotation to represent the synergy of disparate contributions. When it comes to sound, though, the application is counter-intuitive.

You'd think that combining each player's ultimate best sound would result in the band sounding amazing. This is the approach that most inexperienced bands take, and their sound is... not awesome. Instead you hear a muddy jumble in which no part is clearly distinguishable from any other.

In order for the band to sound good as a whole, the sonic quality of the "parts" needs to be compromised. Yes, I mean exactly what I wrote: For the band to sound good, you will probably have to compromise your best sound. These compromises vary widely from genre to genre, but I can offer a few examples as a starting point: Using a lot of distortion on a guitar creates high-frequencies that compete with cymbal wash. Too much low-end in your guitar tone puts your sound into an overlapping range with the bass player, making both of your parts less likely to be heard. Lots of compression or distortion on your guitar tone "flattens" the note attack that's essential to giving the notes the definition they need, particularly in faster runs. Not enough midrange causes your guitar to disappear behind the bass and cymbals. Too much midrange masks the frequencies necessary for your vocalist to be heard.

You get the gist, I'm sure. None of this should be new to you.

What may be new to you is the notion that the problem is not yours alone to solve. Unless you have your own sound guy (or a producer), everyone in the band needs to pay attention to production values. In addition to working on your chops and your writing and learning the tunes and all of your FX cues and everything else you're already juggling, you also need to pay attention to how the band sounds, learn how to identify the sonic challenges, and discover how to solve the band's sound problems.

That's a tall order. When you're playing - especially as you're attempting to master new material as a band - you tend to assume that everyone else is taking care of business, leaving you to attain your personal best. It's difficult at first to hear the entire band with ears that are not listening only to how you fit in. It's even more difficult to figure out how to fix the problems, once you can identify them.

My advice: Spend some of your time lurking on recording and live-sound forums. Guitar forums are fun, granted. Unless you're playing solely for your own enjoyment, though, you need to understand how to work with sound in an ensemble.

The challenges aren't entirely technical, either. Just as learning a bit of music theory won't interfere with your musical intuitions but may offer some pointers to underdeveloped aspects of your personal musical vocabulary, learning a bit about arrangement and orchestration can give you some understanding of how parts can fit together in a musical ensemble.

Finally, learn how your rig really works. Don't stop at dialing in what you want to hear. Go beyond your comfort zone to explore the tones that don't tickle your fancy today; that may help when you discover that you need to make a quick adjustment for the sake of the band's overall sound.

November 29 2010 06:20:42 GMT