Why Can’t I Hear How Awful I Sound? Reckoning with tone

Franz von Stuck - Pyragraph

Image by Franz von Stuck.

If you’re anything like me you probably did not get into playing music because of an unquenchable desire to decipher the intricate mysteries of electronic engineering and acoustic dynamics. It’s unlikely that as a teenager you heard some great band and thought, “Wow, I wonder what speakers they’re using?” or “Is that A class or B class amplification? EL34 or 6L6?” You probably did not dream of using phrases like, “scooped-mid range,” “lots of headroom” or “my two 1×12 combos are out of phase.”

Maybe, like me, you do think about and say shit like this now, but way back then (and to a great degree still now) you didn’t think really at all, you just heard—the words and the music and the feeling the music gave you and how you reacted to it. The song, the story that moves you, the power of the singer’s voice is what compels the attention of your ear and heart. Perhaps you’re not even consciously analyzing the interplay between musicians, their tonal choices, the melodic or lyrical positions they take.

So how bad would it suck if all that hard work, fine playing, sweet music and creativity could not be heard?

What is overdrive? How does volume differ from gain? This was all stuff I thought I understood.

What I’m talking about is what every musician, particularly those employing electronic or amplified instruments, sooner or later must reckon with: tone.

I know, it’s a scary word. What does it mean actually? Where does it come from? Too subjective? You like what you like, I like what I like? Fuck off and let me express myself. All valid reactions which I have employed over the years.

But how many times have I gone to see a live band and observed the audience standing around perplexed as band members jump around like monkeys on a hotplate, as the oozing volcanic swells from the stage surround everyone with indecipherable howl of pure rock fury? How many solos, lead lines, or any number of other frequencies vanished into the ether because of shitty mixes, bad pedals, or somebody who doesn’t know the difference between gain and volume? How many inspired and honed vocal performances have been squeezed out of existence by the misuse of a microphone or band members unable to hear each other?

There are so many factors to a live sound. The room, the speakers, the arrangement of the band’s equipment onstage, the indifferent sound guy, the indifferent audience; what the band hears as opposed to what the audience hears. The neverending search for tone is truly a bottomless hole of subjective opinion and technical info-jibber-jabber that only a few electric wizards profess to truly understand and know how to wield. I’m no wizard, especially not when it comes to electronics, but I have learned over the years through humbling, head-scratching frustration, a few tricks that please me. So I will focus on my experience.

Neither am I a drummer and despite a few times pretending, real bass players would cringe at me calling myself one of their own. I started out singing. My goal was nothing less than becoming Wilson Pickett. For a 20-year-old white dude in 1999, this was a rather Quixotic goal to say the least, some might even say borderline delusional. Once I had confirmed that such a reality would never be achieved, yet still naively optimistic on the strength of such glowing reviews from family members and close friends as, ‘”Yeah, you got a pretty good voice,” I never gave up hope of rock superstardom.

I then set out to narrow my efforts toward emulating the plethora of pretentious R&B/blues thieves/imitators such as Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon and more recently Jack White. The actual musicians I began collaborating with were amused by my seeming obliviousness to the fact that it was not 1969 and that most of the music I was “discovering” or inspired by, they had mastered at band camp in sixth grade.

Anyway, somewhere along the line I figured that it would be just a whole lot simpler getting guitar players to understand what I was saying if I spoke the strange and foreign language they did. So I borrowed a series of guitars and picked up a few tricks from various buddies, some Zeppelin here, some Neil Young there, the opening chords to a few songs everyone knew, gradually piecing together what it was exactly that makes a guitar sound like a bloodthirsty rock machine. Fortunately I was gifted with an obsessive quality that allowed many hours of uninterrupted practice, along with simple live recordings by the Velvet Underground to play along to.

I think the thing that happens in bands sometimes, is that few people want to tell somebody else, “Man, you sound like shit.” I know this because for a long time, I didn’t know I sounded like shit. I just fiddled around with knobs and cranked the gain until I thought what I was playing sounded like Jimmy Page or Josh Homme. Which was part of the problem, see, cuz I was listening only to me, isolated from the rest of the factors contributing to the sound of a band.

I was also fortunate because in the first two real steady gigging/writing/recording bands I was in they both had world-class rhythm players. The first was a 20-year veteran of punk rock who explained less with words and more with playing about things I’d never heard of like rhythm, time, beats, and dynamics; concepts integral to bands, but foreign to most bedroom guitarists with dreams of lead-man glory. I thought you just got up there and howled like a rooster. From the bass player, a jazz trained NYU grad who happened to love Guns’N’Roses, I picked up far-out musical concepts like melody, practice, time signatures and patience. I don’t know if it was simply my ability to show up for rehearsal on a fairly consistent basis without being drunk or strung-out or my purely innocent willingness to learn that allowed me to hang with these guys, but it is as they say: If you want to get better then play with the best.

Guitar players in particular love telling you all about how one-of-a-kind their rig is.

Without getting too technical (of which there is no danger, I assure you), it appears to break down like this: Sound is built up of different frequencies. There’s low, mid or high frequencies, and every miniscule division of those three basic distinctions as you can imagine. Just take a gander at the control panel on any amplifier or mixing board; sometimes there are more options, sometimes fewer. But the tricky part is that those three frequencies have only a limited space in which to cohabitate. It took me a very long time to learn that I couldn’t just crank everything up to eleven and sound good, because depending on the guitar, pick-ups, speakers, room tone etc., different frequencies react and sound differently (and lets not even get started on what happens when you step on a pedal, pushing all those delicately honed EQs into a different range at the flip of a switch). So if I’m increasing lows then I’m losing mids and high, and so on and on.

And that’s just the amp and the guitar by itself. What if I’m playing with a drummer or a bass player? They have their own territory too, their own region of low, mid and high to cover. If done well, if there is actual listening and communication going on, if the musicians can hear each other and adjust accordingly on the fly, then it sounds like one organism moving together instead of Friday afternoon at Guitar Center on payday.

If all this sounds like basic, remedial stuff then great, you’ve already got it figured out. It’s taken me years of listening and scrutinizing what my equipment and playing was actually doing, how it was reacting to the rooms and other musicians, and a whole lot of time asking questions to figure out how to navigate the narrow stream of sound in a band.

Here are a few basic things to remember that has made it possible for me to hear and enjoy being in band.

Play quiet.

You can always get louder.

Find out how things work.

What is amplification? What is overdrive? How does volume differ from gain? This was all stuff I thought I understood just from fooling around with my amp at home. I was wrong.

Get to know the room.

Unless you live on a farm or have very forgiving neighbors, you can’t play as loud at home as you do in practice or at a gig. Amps, especially tube (or valves as the Brits call them) react way differently at higher volumes once they start warming up. Did you know tube amps needed to warm up? I didn’t. I didn’t even know there was a difference between tube and solid-state amps. Maybe the difference doesn’t even matter to you. I don’t know. Try shit out, see what you like. See what sounds better. Maybe some things sound better at low volume in your granny’s basement that won’t sound good on the stage at your local hipster bar or vice-versa.

Do some research.

Ask older musicians. Just because you ask somebody and they tell you something doesn’t mean it’s gospel or that it will work for you. But if you’re hanging at some bar, checking out the Baby-Boomer Blues Jam and the tone is particularly pleasant then ask them how they got that sound. People love talking about themselves, and musicians—guitar players in particular—love telling you all about how one-of-a-kind their rig is, and would relish the opportunity to wow you with the epic narrative of their journey through the Land of Righteous Tone (much like I am doing now).

If you hear somebody’s playing and it sounds like a cat in a blender, ask them how they created that awful racket so you know what to avoid.

The internet is crazy.

There is a lot of information on the internet, a lot of opinions, and salesmen, and bogus demos, reviews, etc. Just Google any piece of equipment you have and in milliseconds you can find 20 different people showing you the best way to use something or what it does. Like much of the internet, you need to take certain content with a healthy dose of salt because it’s probably shot on an iPhone with the stock microphone and they’re out of tune or it just sounds god-awful for a million different reasons. But the internet has been a great way for me to learn from everyone from music professionals to sound tech experts all the way to some downright creepy, basement dwelling non-experts what to try, and what to avoid.

Listen.

Probably the most important part of this whole thing. Probably the most important skill a musician needs to master and in my experience a helluva lot harder than it sounds (pun accident). Listen to yourself, listen to your bandmates, the room, your instruments, listen to all those songs you’re singing along to; what really is making that awesome guitar sound, chances are it’s not some axe slinger alone in his bedroom. More likely it’s a combination of a musician playing the right notes at the right time with the right amount of touch, sustain and volume to achieve an overall sound.

I’m a million miles away from being a sound engineer. And I won’t be starting my own boutique amplifier or pedal line any time soon. Maybe someday I will try and build my own Telecaster out of 100-year-old pine harvested from a tree struck by lightning. In any case, I have found a great deal of joy and satisfaction expressing myself with electric guitar. And to do that with as much efficiency, professionalism, and confidence as possible I’ve had to step outside my “pure creative” zone of comfort and really sink my head into some basic technical facts of using electronic and amplified instrumentation. I like what I hear a lot more now. Now that I can actually hear it more often.

About Ben L. Zeigler

Ben L. Ziegler was born in Idaho, raised in Louisiana, and lives in Albuquerque. He writes film reaction here. He’s in a band, writes fiction, and does some acting too.

He prefers to wear black polo shirts exclusively.

1 Comment

  1. Tommy Archuleta on October 6, 2016 at 7:51 pm

    well put across, my friend. pitty not all axe handlers become tone hounds. i’m grateful Diego is. presently he’s playing through an archaic Ampeg 100 watt tube head and matching 4×12 cab loaded with equally archaic Celestion speakers. this rig is brothered by his standby 1990 high gain Marshall JCM. thing is, i thought i might miss my nipples tremendously, but since this set up of his blew them off a while back, i’ve realized that one can live a fairly fulfilling life without’em.

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