Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Truth is Way Out There

A recent Newsweek cover blared: “In Search of ALIENS.” I have a suggestion where to look.

Let me preface this by saying I’ve known (and know) a number of engineers, and though they’re brilliant, funny people, they tend to be rather linear. Metaphors don’t work that well when building suspension bridges.

That said, I also know a bunch of lighting and sound designers, who are also brilliant, funny people, but they often have an abstracted, opaque air about them, as though they’re existing on a very slightly different reality plane than the rest of us. During a group discussion, for instance, they’ll sit quietly while all the extroverts blather and fulminate, and then they’ll ask a question that no one has an answer to because it’s never occurred to them before. And everything stops.

Somewhere between these poles live stompbox designers.

For those not versed in flangers and pitch-shifters, stompboxes are little electronic gizmos that you plug your guitar into. They get their name from their foot activation buttons; when one steps upon one of these, your guitar tone stretches out wide, buzzes, twists, echoes, trembles, or turns into multiple copies of itself so it sounds like two or more guitars are playing. They are, in short, serious fun and thoroughly addictive. Which is why last night, I could blow off a very long day by playing a overdriven minor pentatonic scale with cascading echoes-es-es and jet airplane whooooooshes and other psychedelic nonsense that sounded really, really cool when I slid notes.

*pause to reflect*

Here’s the thing though: to build these suckers, you have to understand sine waves and how electronics shape them, which involves complicated schematic drawings and soldering things together, and you have to know how the humbucker on a Les Paul sounds really bitchin’ when run through an overdriven tube amp, man.

How many types of heads are involved here? Who are these people? Where did they come from?

I mean, I’m glad they’re here, and they cook up some delicious sounds, but…what are they?


Ian W. Hill said...

Recording engineer Geoff Emerick's book on creating The Beatles' records is a good insight into the exact midset you're talking about, as he was basically creating, on the fly, many of the systems that have been simplified into stompboxes today.

It's a mindset that can take a musician saying, "I want to sound like a Tibetan lama chanting from a hilltop to thousands of monks below" and, with a moment's thought, translate that into a jury-rigged system of speakers, wires, and microphones that get something like that idea across.

Behind most of those stompboxes somewhere is a musician who had a crazy idea or did something accidental -- shoved a pencil through the horn of his guitar amp to create distortion or whatever -- and then someone else figured out how to replicate it without destroying things.

xtine said...


fucking fantabulous!
thank god for the whacked motherfuckers!