An Electric Guitar, a Tube Amp, a Hymn, and the Dream of an Electric Guitar Orchestra

The idea of having an electric guitar is nothing new. It’s been done before in the studio by the likes of Brian May and in live situations by somebody like Glenn Branca. However, that does not stop me from being fascinated by it. As a matter of fact, I still dream of establishing a purely electric guitar orchestra in the Philippines. I don’t know if that idea has already been implemented in this godforsaken country where I live but I hope to turn that idea into reality.

Anyway, as I was going through and studying the hymns that will be sung at the UCCP-MCCD on Sunday, I ended playing our benediction hymn (“The Lord Bless You and Keep You”) on the piano. The idea then came to me to create a test recording of my electric guitar plugged into a tiny tube amp,  a Bugera BC15 (a hybrid actually with a tube preamp and solid state power section). Okay, I know some snobbish gearhead somewhere in cyberspace would have their negative impressions of it but who cares anyway? As long as it can do what I need, I’m happy. Guess what the piece I used for the test recording. It’s the benediction hymn. Not much of a puzzle at all, right?

So, I plugged my guitar into the amp, mic’ed up my amp with my trusty old condenser mic, took the hymnal from the piano and into the other piano (where my recording equipment is located), and I began reading through all the parts while recording. Since it’s SATB, I recorded each part into four different tracks, mixed everything, performed some post-production processing, and ended up with this:

 

So, on face value it seems like I’m trying to channel a cheap Brian May impression. Brian May is, after all, Brian May, and nobody could match what he could do. The point here really is not imitating Brian May (although it somewhat sounds like it), but experimenting and figuring out how a tiny amp and an electric guitar would sound like as an ensemble instrument. It’s kind of like an electric rondalla ensemble, the kind of thing I’m dreaming about. For my ears, it sounds nice although opinions by others may vary. I’m happy that I could realize something like an electric guitar orchestra in a studio setting.

This got me into thinking: I suppose it really is possible for me to organize an electric guitar orchestra here in the Philippines. The thing required to turn this into reality is to get around 12 note-reading guitarists equipped with their electric guitars and tiny amps (with overdrive). This, however, is fraught with certain problems:

1. In a performance situation, having at least 12 guitar amps would be difficult to control. No matter how tiny they can be, each amp can be really loud. This leads us to problem number 2:

2. There are lead guitarists that have an inflated sense of ego. They would complain they are not loud enough, so they would turn up their volume. Eventually everybody starts competing for volume. It can be a big headache.

3. Financing such a project can be expensive. To sum it up, I cannot afford it and the future of an electric guitar orchestra being financially compensated for what it’s worth seems nil.

Possible solutions include:

1. Hooking up each amp into a mixing board. However, the entire point of an electric guitar orchestra is to simulate an acoustic one i.e. I will treat an electric guitar and an amp as a single instrument. Positioning each amplifier in different sections of the performance hall is essential in how I perceive an electric guitar orchestra should sound like. Hooking up each amp to a mixing board with the output ultimately coming from PA loudspeakers would completely destroy the ambient effect I am looking for.

2. Hiring for attitude, training for skill. I should try to employ humble and open-minded guitarists willing to learn how to read notation. I should avoid those who try to be extra special with egos bigger than Yngwie Malmsteen.

3. Getting a grant and looking for sponsors. Perhaps I should turn this into a proposal for a local arts society or foundation and see if they would finance me. Are there local foundations out there who would give a rat’s ass about a project like this? I don’t know. I could try finding if I got the time. Perhaps there might be a couple of rich people out there who have the money for such.

I wonder if this electric guitar orchestra dream of mine could become a reality here in the Philippines. Maybe somebody out there would support it.

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Steve Stine’s Songfire Now Available

Songfire

GuitarZoom, one of my long-term employers, has another very useful course for anybody who’s interested in learning new songs on the guitar in a fast and intelligent way. This new course is called Songfire. Written by GuitarZoom’s guitarist-in-residence and professor of modern guitar at North Dakota State University, Steve Stine, This new course offers a no-nonsense approach that could enable any guitar beginner into hearing how most songs work and then eventually learn them in the process.

Now, for those who think they can become instant virtuoso players with this course, you are mistaken. This course is NOT about gaining virtuoso technique in an instant (it takes years of hard work and practice to gain that). This course is more about being able to play many of the songs you hear and enjoy on your guitar in a fast way. This course is not about being able to play your favorite songs note by note, but it is more about being able to understand the underlying harmonic structure (chord progressions, etc.) based on what you hear. Upon finishing the course, you’d be able to listen actively to many pop and rock songs and be able to play through its chord progression in a matter of minutes.

Okay, maybe some will be disappointed that virtuoso guitarist Steve Stine released a non-virtuoso course. Well, that is not the point of Songfire. Songfire’s intent is to give learners the ability to hear music as a whole and be able to at least play a semblance of it, following along the chord progression WITHOUT reading notation or tab. B ear in mind that seemingly simple, sort of entry-level topics like those in Songfire could easily lead any beginning guitarist to be stimulated into getting deeper into the workings of music, eventually figuring out what most of us would consider virtuoso technique. The positive and pleasurable effects of being to successfully learn a new song can always lead to bigger things, musically speaking.

If you want to get access to the course, just click on the Songfire image above. As usual, sheet music and text by none other than yours truly.

Answering the Call

It’s was the first Saturday of the year that I had formally worked with both the choir and worship band of UCCP-Makati Church of Christ Disciples. It was tough and challenging yet at the same very fulfilling. I have seen the logistical challenges that I would face should I try to unite both choir and worship band. The task seems daunting but I hope for the best. I am really hoping that I’m being of any help to that rather small community of believers.

Just this morning was the time that I would call testing the waters. Although I had played with the worship band a couple of times, it was the first time I would be at my most active. I was directing the band while playing lead guitar. I played with the church’s regular pianist and choir conductor through a number of songs. I was trying very hard to demonstrate that there need not be a divide between a traditional piano-and-choir-group and a contemporary worship band. In my mind it should just be a single worship group that is engaged throughout the worship service. Next Saturday I will be hauling again a number of items from my home studio to the church, teach music theory and instrument technique in the afternoon, rehearse with both choir and worship band.

As things go at this time, it seems that the worship band isn’t ready yet for the rather technical aspects of playing the kind of music featured in the anthem section of the worship service. I aspire to be able to pass down whatever skills I have to the band and the choir so that every musical aspect of the service could be covered by both as a single unit. It doesn’t have to matter whether they are singing traditional hymns or covering the kind of stuff that Don Moen and Ron Kenoly would play. I am optimistic that this will happen given training and patience.

Like my studio persona, I am a teacher, equipment technician, musician, and music director rolled into one package. It’s tough work where I do not expect any remuneration of sort. What lies ahead of me are more challenges from both a personal and professional perspective. Why would I be crazy enough to put out such effort every week? It’s because I am answering the call of The Lord. I have no other justification for it. God has called me to use my skills for his purpose. I will abide by what I believe is my calling and purpose in life. So it has begun, my life as a volunteer music worker.

Testing Acoustic Guitars and Jamming at Lazer Music SM Bicutan

IMG_0490

The crazy staff at Lazer Music SM Bicutan: Allan (left) and Mark (right)

Because of the affordable high quality gear and friendly people, the Lazer Music store at SM Bicutan has become one of my favorite places. It’s this particular shop where I usually spend time looking at stuff, talking to the staff, testing a lot of stuff, and jamming with the staff and other customers while my son is sweating it out at a nearby Wushu class by White Tiger Wushu Zhan. It’s also the shop where I purchased one of my electric guitars (the red one with humbuckers). Last March, when I visited Lazer, I was (as usual) acting like a kid at a candy shop and looking at all those guitars with amazement and wonder. I then had fixed my eyes on this particular guitar:

IMG_0596

The nice, shiny all-solid wood Greg Bennett by Samick dreadnought between the classical guitar and the black dreadnought with cutaway. I want one of those!

I tried out this guitar in a variety of tunings and brought out my Zoom H4n recorder. Allan (the manager I believe) brought out another guitar and we started jamming on whatever came into our minds. Occasionally, Mark (a staff member) would sit on the drum kit and play some simple rhythms. If my memory is serving me accurately, I was playing the guitar in an open C tuning while Allan was playing standard. And so, ladies and gentlemen, here’s the kind of mess we had made out of those guitars (The guitar I’m playing is primarily at the left channel of these recordings):

For only around Php 7,000 (about 175 USD), it’s a rather cheap all-solid-wood guitar that sounds amazing. We admit we were making a mess out of that entire jam, but it was all just for fun. We had a blast thus the objective has been met. I was unable to buy the guitar though but what the hey. I’ll find another one like that should I get the budget for that.

Tuning and Piano Maintenance

I own a number of keyboard instruments, one of these is a beloved old, locally made upright piano left to my care by my mom. She bought it for my sister around 1987 and it has been in a state of deterioration until 2012 when I had decided to have the piano reconditioned. After having it reconditioned, it became our keyboard practice instrument. From October to April, the piano’s tuning drifted to a about 50 cents lower than what it should be. My good friend, Kuya Cesar Wycoco, recommended that I call and hire master piano technician, Leonardo Wayan a.k.a. Kuya Nards, to get it into shape.

In contrast to the somewhat reserved and sophisticated Kuya Cesar, Kuya Nards had an air of flamboyance and an astounding level of confidence surrounding him. This is because he really knew his stuff well. He was loud but very entertaining while he worked. He had warned me that given the quality of the upright piano I have (which is somewhat mediocre given its built and post-flooded state), that it would be a challenge getting it to equal temperament at A = 440 Hz. However, he had managed to get it to that tuning, and so the piano sounded wonderful afterwards.

The good thing about hiring Mr. Wayan was that he really knew pianos. He did not mince his words when he said that he was surprised that the piano was already reconditioned when he first saw it. Believe me, it was far worse before he had touched the piano. At the very least, the money I spent last 2012 for piano repairs had at least turned the piano into something workable. Mr. Wayan, being seasoned piano technician for many hotels around the metro, claimed he could have done a much better job at reconditioning the piano than the people I had previously hired.

I got more than a bang for my buck by hiring Kuya Nards. He was a thousand pesos cheaper than the guys who worked on my piano before, he offered me amazing piano tips, was very honest in his dealings, and he even went on to provide a tuning wrench for free.

As part of a self-maintenance plan, he left me a 6-mm square socket wrench and some “Shoes Glue” so that I can perform tuning myself. This morning, I found myself tuning the piano because the upper register had drifted to a few cents lower. My suspicions were confirmed when I measured the tuning of A4 against a chromatic tuner and it registered around 432 Hz. I decided then to tune the piano to A = 442 Hz to solve the problem.

I used the socket wrench that Kuya Nards gave me to do most of the work. Because I didn’t have any rubber mutes, I used a thumb pick fixed to my right index finger to pluck each individual string as I tuned. I started out with A4 and then tuned A5 based on my 442-Hz A4, and then tuned an octave’s worth of keys based on the sound of 4ths and 5ths. Afterwards I tuned the rest of the keys.

I am quite happy with what I was able to accomplish. Maybe in a few more weeks of hammering away at the keys, it’s gonna drift lower again, so I expect to tune the piano again myself about two weeks from now. Maybe I might ask Kuya Nards to take me in as an apprentice. Hmm, now that’s a thought worth considering. Maybe afterwards I might offer a piano tuning service. But perhaps not at this time. If I gain more experience tuning pianos, then I might consider doing that professionally. Kuya Nards said that typically hotels would commission guys like him to get a piano tuned every week, so I’m not at all surprised that I had to tune the piano myself today.

If you’d like to get in touch with Kuya Nards to get your piano back into shape, leave a message in the comments section, and I’ll send you a private message regarding his contact details.

 

Using the Five Most Important Synthesizer Modules

Good day. This is Mark Galang with another post about music production in compliance with the requirements for the Berklee College of Music course called “Introduction to Music Production”, hosted for free by Coursera. In this post, I will discuss how to use the five most important synthesizer modules. These are your oscillator, filter, amplifier, envelope, and low frequency oscillator or LFO. For this tutorial, I will be using three kinds of software synthesizers namely RGC Audio’s Z3ta +1, MinimogueVA, and Mothman 1966. We can also consider this tutorial as a sort of crash course into subtractive synthesis.

1. Oscillator

In any synthesizer (even those that play back samples), the oscillator is the sound source. It produces the waveform/s that you need to shape to produce the desired sound. The most basic parameter we get to control in an oscillator is the waveform selection. We usually have a number of waveforms to choose from including sine (fundamental frequency only), pulse waves such as square and triangle (fundamental frequency + odd harmonics), and sawtooth waves (fundamental + odd and even harmonics).

In the Mothman 1966, three waveforms are available called diamond (triangle), 8-bit saw (sawtooth), and wind (sine):

01a - Mothman 1966 Osc

The MinimogueVA (obviously modeled after the Minimoog) has a couple more parameters other than standard waveform selection. You can adjust the tuning and the register of the oscillator as well as apply an overdrive (distortion) effect.

01b - MinimogueVA Osc

The Z3ta is the most complex of these softsynths. Its oscillator section has more choices for waveforms along with more parameters to shape them. There is even an option available for users to draw their own custom waveforms.

01c - Z3ta Osc

2. Voltage Controlled Filter (VCF)

More complex waveforms such as sawtooth can often sound harsh, and this is why a filter (more properly called voltage controlled filter or VCF) is present in all synthesizers. The filter functions much like an EQ except that in synthesizers, we can expect its parameters to change over a short period of time. The most common kind of filter in a synthesizer is a low-pass filter, the rationale being it is the best filter for cutting out brightness or harshness in the fastest way possible. In a synthesizer, the cutoff parameter is probably the most important. In a typical low-pass filter, raising the knob or slider for cutoff will raise the cutoff frequency meaning that you cut off less of the high frequencies and make the sound brighter. Lowering the cutoff knob will cut more high frequencies, making the sound of your oscillator darker.

One of the fun things about using these synthesizers is when you are modulating the filter’s cutoff, either manually or through an LFO. Sometimes you may want the realtime use of the filter cutoff to be more obvious. This is where the resonance parameter can be very useful. Increasing the resonance will make your use of the filter more pronounced. When the resonance parameter is up to a particular level, some of the high frequencies seep through as you turn the cutoff knob or slider to either direction.

The Mothman’s VCF features the basic control parameters:

02a - Mothman 1966 VCF

In the MinimogueVA, the filter’s resonance is aptly called emphasis. Contour Amount adjusts the Q of the filter and velocity adjusts how fast the cutoff knob responds:

02b - MinimogueVA VCF

The Z3ta’s filter can be changed from the standard low-pass to others such as notch, band pass, and high pass:

02c - Z3ta VCF

3. Amplifier

The synthesizer’s amplifier works by raising the amplitude of the signal coming from the oscillator after it passes through the filter. The most basic control over the amplifier is the master volume section of the synthesizer as shown in all three featured synthesizers:

03b - Mothman 1966 VCA

03a - MinimogueVA VCA

03c - Z3ta VCA

However, we can also have more specific control over the amplifier, allowing us to shape how each note is articulated. This is where we make use of the…

4. Envelope

The envelope is one component of the amplifier that adjusts the amplitude of the sound at certain points over a very short amount of time. The amplifier’s envelope has four parameters:

Attack Time – The amount of time it takes for the signal to reach peak amplitude after a note on command (i.e. pressing a key).

Decay Time – The amount of time it takes for the signal to reach the designated sustain level.

Sustain Level – A designated amplitude level during the main sequence of the sound’s duration. The level of the sound after decay time has passed.

Release Time – The amount of time it takes for the sound to go from sustain level to zero after a note off command.

These parameters spell out conveniently as the acronym ADSR.

By adjusting these parameters, we can emulate the responses of various instruments such as the organ, violin, brass, piano, etc. For example, the organ has a “switch” type of envelope, and so we would set attack to 0, decay to 0, sustain level to any amount desired, and release to 0. If we want the synthesizer to have a piano-like response where the note dies off slowly after pressing a key, we set attack to 0, have a long decay time of about a few seconds, and then set sustain level and release time to 0. If we want the sound to “swell”, we set the attack time above 0.

The amplitude envelope generator is pretty much standard in all three featured synths, although the MinimogueVA has got envelope controls for filter as well and the Z3ta has additional parameters beyond the traditional ADSR:

04a - Mothman 1966 Envelope

04b - MinimogueVA Envelope

04c - Z3ta Envelope

5. Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO)

Other than willfully adjusting all the parameters of our synthesizers with our hands, you can assign an LFO to do this for you in a cyclical manner. An LFO typically operates at a frequency below the threshold of hearing, typically at a repetitive pattern determined by the kind of waveform used and the rate at which the LFO operates.

We can use the LFO to have control over the oscillator for vibrato effects, the amplifier for tremolo effects, and the filter for automatic filter sweeps.

The Mothman’s LFO can be assigned to the oscillator or filter. You can select the waveform as well as adjust its speed.

05a - Mothman 1966 LFO

For the MinimogueVA, the third oscillator (OSC3) can be used as an LFO and can be assigned to various parameters:

05b - MinimogueVA LFO

As for the Z3ta, we can make use of the modulation matrix to route the LFO to control the other components of the synth ranging from the oscillator to the main volume control:

05c - Z3ta LFO

And so this ends a rather lengthy discussion about the five most important modules of any synthesizer.

It took me quite a while to write this tutorial but I think I could improve on this tutorial through video and audio examples. As of this time, I’m not capable of capturing video for a demonstration. If time permits, I will record some audio examples that demonstrate the functions of each synthesizer module.

“Trolling” the Trolls 2: One Suggestion on How to Overpower the Trolls

If you have read my previous post, Trolling the Trolls, you may then define troll as a critic who has the objective of putting someone down with words yet has no capability of demonstrating skill necessary for improvement. One way of dealing with such lowlifes is to overpower them. We all know that the troll’s only objective is to make themselves feel better by bashing other people’s accomplishments (especially when they have nothing of worth to show). Here’s another way of dealing with them.

Now, I don’t advocate impulsively bashing the troll back since the troll would get the kind of attention he/she wants. Since a troll is a fool, it is best to either ignore them or answer their opinions in a logical fashion that will destroy their arguments. However, Mike Johnston has another idea.

Mike Johnston has posted what he calls “The Most Important Video I have Ever Uploaded”. It probably is one of the best suggestions out there to overpower the negative impact of trolls:

Even musicians can be guilty of being trolls. If you’re one of them, please stop. Your not helping anybody. Why don’t you offer positive comments or constructive criticism instead?