Archive for February 28th, 2012

Mics as filters, and whether having too much gear is a distraction

Since the end of the NAMM show a few weeks ago, I’ve had the opportunity to do a number of microphone comparisons on a variety of subjects (vocals, acoustic guitars, drums, amps, reeds, electronics, percussion), and I’m continually reminded that mics are, in fact, filters. In other words, transducers provide a seemingly endless way to alter sound (when you want them to, of course).

Last night’s session involved solo acoustic guitar—a Recording King RNJ-16—miked up with a Cloud JRS34 active ribbon mic, an Electro-Voice RE320 dynamic, an SE 2200a II large-diaphragm condenser, and a Grundig GDSM 200 stereo dynamic mic from the ‘60s. Much of it was sent through a Universal Audio 4-710d preamp/converter, which offers the ability to dial-in a mix of solid-state and tube preamp sounds for each channel. This setup offered seemingly endless tonal variety, which I would’ve explored if it weren’t for the time limits in getting the job done!

While I go into a bit more detail about the subject of mics-as-filters in the upcoming print version of the Robair Report in Mix magazine, I wanted to point you towards a few online examples worth considering.

First is a quintessential Led Zeppelin track, “Houses of the Holy,” which showcases a couple of unique guitar tones captured by Jimmy Page. You don’t have to be a fan to notice that the intro is one of the strangest guitar timbres ever recorded.

Is this the sound he reportedly recorded by lowering a mic into a bucket? I keep hearing that anecdote but I can’t find the source. Anyone know for sure?

The other link I want to share is of the American Mavericks interview with composer Pauline Oliveros, whose imaginative uses of sound in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s extended to mics as well as electronic music generators. Here she discusses how she used cardboard tubes with mics to filter sound, as well as using her bathtub to generate ambience.

I have yet to hear an impulse response of a bathtub, but I imagine someone has created one.

10,000 hours vs. 15 minutes

These days, with so many reverb and delay plug-ins available, adding ambience to your music is trivial. In fact, there is so much low-cost music-related gear, that it’s hard to find the time to really exploit it all. Meanwhile, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so in the software realm: As we’re forced to upgrade our platforms more frequently (annually for Apple users), some part of our system will become legacyware with each OS upgrade, whether it’s because a DAW or plug-in developer isn’t able to offer an update or because it has gone out of business.

So, there’s a lot of fun stuff to explore, but less time to do so. For example, iOS apps are often so inexpensive that it’s almost impossible to avoid downloading them. But is having access to an enormous amount of inexpensive stuff a distraction from actual music making? How many people do you know who buy new gear on a regular basis—soft synths, hardware processors, whatever—but don’t put in the 10,000 hours required for virtuosity on any of them? Is that model even viable anymore?

It wasn’t that long ago that pro-quality gear was prohibitively priced for non-professionals. Consequently, budding engineers and musicians built their own equipment or found creative ways to explore sound without spending much money (hence Oliveros’s method of filtering and obtaining reverberation). You designed or reworked something to fit your aesthetics, rather than purchased something built around someone else’s tastes, which you might share to some degree. Today, much of the DIY craze is a result of a market that is saturated with predictable and bland sound devices. And simply putting a chain of stomp boxes after a ROMpler or SM57 is not enough to create a unique sound. Circuit bending or hacking into the hardware, however, gives you a fighting chance to find something of your own.

Now imagine building an instrument from the ground up that sounds exactly the way you want it to and fully serves your musical imagination—for decades. How many guitarists can you think of that have played the same homemade instrument their entire career?

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