Monday, March 12, 2012

Volume Pedals and Guitarists

My little spiel about volume pedals -

In my opinion, the best overdriven guitar tones possible come from running a guitar straight into a good tube amp. Many of us can agree with this. One thing that really bothers me - and it happens more than I ever realized - I don't understand why players looking for this "holy grail amp" tone out of their pedals put a volume pedal after their drives.

I don't mean to burst anyone's bubble, but it doesn't sound right. I don't want to offend anyone here, I just want you to TRY this out. Give it a spin, give it some real thought. I know it's really hard to take the volume pedal off the board because of all the freaking velcro...but try it, haha.

First of all, the human ear is pretty good at noticing when things sound unreal. In technical terms, putting a volume pedal post distortion and expecting it to sound like a cranked amp is illogical. That'd be the equivalent of consistently turning up and down the master on your amp for different sections of the song. Which sounds terrible. You don't need to have that sort of automation. It doesn't sound real - when you get quieter, your guitar should have less distortion, not the same amount! That's how tube amps work!

Second, some guitarists say "well I want it for swells." Okay, so why can't you do that pregain? In my experience, not only does it sound much more exciting and grabbing when the swell slowly increases in drive as it increases in volume, it also allows for more subtle swelling. If you have distortion on and your volume pedal is post distortion, even pushing up the pedal a little bit will have that much distortion, which sounds really lame. It's impossible for you to have that much gain at that low of a volume....unless it's a pedal. Generally speaking we don't want our pedals to sound like pedals, we want them to sound like different varieties of amp-like drive. Try putting the pedal pregain and listening to how much cooler and how much more exciting swells sound, and how much more control you have over the swell intensity.

Similarly, guitarists say "I use it for fade outs!" Well, if you want the actual sound of a fade out, why not just let the guitar ring out? Do you really have that much distortion on or that much guitar sustain where it's not going to fade naturally? I find that the true nature of the "fade out" is that of ringing out the chord. That means the gain decreases as the volume decreases. Not "gain stays full blast" and volume decreases. That doesn't sound natural at all. If you put your volume pedal pre gain, you can slowly back down the gain until your tone is silent.

To me, it makes much more sense to use the volume pedal like the volume pot on your guitar, adding more gain as you dig in and less as you back it off. It's my contention that the only reason you need a volume pedal post distortion is to silence your rig, which can be done with a $15 mute pedal (easy to make).

Then guitarists say "what about when I need to kick on a higher volume for lead and lower for rhythm?" First, I could make the argument that a good arrangement and a good band will let you have plenty of room to solo without boosting your volume by double. HOWEVER, If you need separate volumes for rhythm and lead, here are a few solutions.

1. Use two different drives, set your amp to lead volume (let's say pedal B), and then set the other pedal to rhythm volume (pedal A). This is a good solution because unless you have a super high headroom amp, boost pedals don't add volume, they just add gain. Anything under about 30 watts (depending on the circuit) will just drive more as you push more into it, and rightfully so, that's how they are designed! However, for leads, we don't usually want this. So, set your amp to your lead tone, (if you must, leave your boost on while doing this) and then turn the boost off for rhythm.

2. If you don't have two drives, or if you like the sound of your drives individually and don't want to have one for lead and one for rhythm, it makes much more sense to build or buy a passive attenuator pedal. I started making these for guitarists and friends I knew for about $50. Basically the idea is that it's a single pedal with a volume knob on it. When you flip the pedal on, it turns you down. That way, you have the exact same tone for rhythm that you have for lead, just quieter. No difference in gain. No difference in tone, totally passive and true bypass, and it's in a small ZVEX size box that fits on any board at the last of the chain.

Sure, if you have the patience to use your volume pedal as post gain and your volume knob on the guitar is pregain, go for it. This is fine! I'm not saying that this is bad, I am saying that when you leave your guitar knob full blast and never touch it, and use the volume pedal for section by section dynamics, or swells, or whatever, it doesn't sound right. I've recorded hundreds of guitar players and tried it all different ways. It always sounds better pregain.

I challenge you to TRY it with the volume pedal pregain. You might hate it, but if you don't, what you may realize is how much more natural it sounds, how much more freeing it is, and how much more you have to focus on your playing, that is, play quieter for quieter sections, don't just turn down the volume--that's lazy! It really helps train your ear to start dynamic playing at the strings, not at the feet.

Don't just take it from me - take it from the greatest guitarists of our time, who didn't need pedals, they just needed good playing, good guitars, and good amps. More gain? Turn up your volume knob. Less gain? You get the picture. Most of the best guitarists I've ever heard use two amps, one clean, one distorted, with an ABY box to use clean, dirty, or both.

Like I said, this is just my opinion.

Just one more day in the pursuit of tone.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Josh's List

This is a list made by my session drummer Josh for great studio playing:

1. Honest Servitude (No Ego)
2. Taste Before Show (Always)
3. Power By Finesse (Less is More!)
4. Space with Grace (Play only when Needed!)
5. Sustained Dynamics (Play Evenly!)
6. Hasten Your Listen (LISTEN to the Band!)

100% agree