How To Play Your Pedals

You may have noticed that I tend to split my pedal board between the floor and the top of my rackcase. You may also wonder why I still have so many analog pedals when I also have the MOD Duo (written about here) which sound so incredible. So let’s have a look at what pedals offer.

I’ve said many times that I don’t think of my instrument as being a bass and all the rest of the stuff as being a way of processing the sound of the bass. My instrument starts at my fingertips and ends at the speakers. if I was being even more picky, I’d suggest that the acoustics in the room we’re in were part of it too. But I certainly view the entirety of my musical equipment as an instrument, comprised of many working parts. In the same way that a pianist doesn’t think of themselves as playing keys while the hammers are just an effect that changes the sound of the strings, with the wooden body being an amplifier, I don’t see any of the stuff that goes into making the sound as any more or less significant to the overall picture.

Which means that when it comes to thinking about the range of possibilities for an improvised performance, I want to be able to access as many possible combinations of sound from my instrument as possible. So I like to keep a bunch of my pedals at hand height in order to have all of the possible settings available to me, and also have the option to use them to change sounds as they are happening – hitting a sustained note and turning one of the many controls on the Pigtronix Mothership 2 synth pedal will offer all manner of bizarre and beautiful evolving, morphing sounds.

The MOD Duo is an absolutely exquisite sounding device, but the specific interface of each pedal reflects its performance possibilities – even down to how tricky it is to reach certain controls, or how sensitive they are. It would be possible to set up a bunch of that stuff as MIDI control on the Duo – and I have got LOADS of real time control over it, with the ability to stack multiple parameters on each of the two knobs, but having all those knobs AND all the controls on each pedal gives me a far far greater range of performance possibilities, and allows me to react to things in a more instantaneous and serendipitous way.

The degree to which I ‘learn’ what any pedal does depends on what I’m asking from it – when I have either the Aguilar Filter Twin, or MXR Bass Envelope Filter at hand height, I tend to have quite specific settings in mind, and move between those sounds I know to be what I’m looking for. Whereas the aforementioned Mothership 2, or the Subdecay Virtuvian MOD ring modulator are both pedals I can just set to random combinations and see what craziness happens. I was talking to Tim LeFebvre about the Mothership 2 recently, and he mentioned that he always turns the ‘glide’ control up – that’s a portamento function that makes the pitch of everything really slidey and imprecise. Which is exactly what a pedal like this does so well – the temporary ceding of some control to the whims of the pedal mean that your instrument becomes a partner that you’re now negotiating with over what the hell is going to happen next. This stuff isn’t just a tool box that you’re using, it’s a hostage situation and you’re trying to sweet talk your way out of the whole world of sounds caving in on you. 🙂

The number of pedals I have at hand height changes from month to month – at the moment I’m in a fairly settled phase with the Mothership 2, Vitruvian MOD, TC Electronic Flashback and then a Kaoss Pad mini KP… which is ALL about hand control. the touch interface is where all the magic happens, and the fact that the mini version allows very limited save and recall functions again makes it all the more interactive. I quite often just spin the dial and see what comes out, responding to whatever sound I land on and finding something new in it.

But there’s another great advantage to having pedals at hand height – the need to stop playing. There’s an age-old conversation that goes on between horn players and guitarists – the horn players are constantly trying to learn how to do long continuous melodic phrases like the guitar players, but learning circular breathing techniques, and the guitarists often end up on a journey towards learning to phrase lines in a way that breathes, that has natural pauses.

The interaction with pedals by hand leads you to such interesting and unexpected compromises between how to play the notes you want to have happen and how to make the sounds change and evolve in the you want. I’ve learned various quite specific techniques for combining sustained notes with altered pedal control, and I also use delays to set up extended phrases that I can then manipulate with whatever is downstream. Sometimes I have a looper right at the front of my signal chain so I can just focus on the pedal manipulation (and I have a 2nd mini Kaoss Pad after the aux out on my Looperlative looper so I can send anything that’s looped in there through the KP and manipulate that too, often at the same time as I’m trying to play bass, and percussion via the Quneo…)

All of these interactions are how I try  to circumvent the possibility of mundane, predictable things happening. They give me a massive range of sonic choices, but also set up an enhanced likelihood of random, unexpected semi-chaotic music happenings that I’m then called on to rationalise and put in a context that makes sense of them. It’s that back and forth with my own playing that makes any performance a collaboration between the actual and the expected, between what’s there and what I imagine it can become… The whole thing is about the unfolding rather than just the execution of a preordained, precomposed thing. There is no ‘ideal’ version, no external reference for what is and isn’t the ‘right’ thing to do. There is only what’s happen and the range of possibilities for what can happen next, and manipulating pedals is a huge huge part of the expanded range of possibilities in the moment.

So, if you’re a musician who uses any kind of signal processing, have a think about how best to interact with it all, how you can make it do interesting things. Have a watch of the video for an older tune of mine, Vertigo, below and see if you can see exactly what’s happening with the Kaoss Pad and the pedals…

Fun With Field Recordings And Found Sound

The latest addition to my music making set-up has been the inclusion of field recordings that can be triggered to play under (or over) whatever else I’ve got going on. I have them assigned to pads on the Quneo – my MPC grid-style MIDI controller – so I can trigger them in amongst the rest of the drums and found sounds that I use for percussion tracks.

So far I’m mostly drawn to sounds recorded in forests, to water and to gentle urban soundtracks. I’ve not really experimented with playing over the hustle and bustle of cities, but that’s next, I guess 🙂

I’ve been using field recordings from a Bandcamp account called “Free To Use Sounds“, run by a bloke called Marcel who travels around the world recording cool sounds and making them available to buy and use on Bandcamp. Awesome, eh?

I’ve also been using them a lot when teaching – for improvisors, a field recording soundtrack can really help to give you something to play TO without having to work with an ensemble or loop pedal. Interpreting the vibe of a recording in a forest, or a street scene, or a bunch of monkeys or whatever helps you compare and contrast the relationship between your musical choices and the context for those choices. It’s had some magical results with my bass students, for sure!

The latest track I’ve just uploaded for subscribers uses a recording of a street scene as the backdrop for an improvisation on my Rick Turner Renaissance 5 string fretless – it’s such a beautiful bass and I don’t use it anywhere near enough, so expect to see and hear it more over the next while 🙂

If you’re a subscriber, the new track has been added to the album Stepping Stones. If you’re not a subscriber yet, what are you waiting for? 🙂

If you need more convincing, this is the title track from the my last live subscriber only solo album, The Field Of Strategic Possibilities, and it includes a field recording of a skate park, part of which gets caught in one of the drum grooves, adding a back-peddling bicycle to the sound in a super-cool way:

Along side the field recordings from Free To Use Sounds, I’m a big fan of many of the found sound percussion kits from Mode Audio – I use their samples of toys, kitchen implements and glitched-out drums. Some of them are used in ways where you can tell something of its provenance (like the rattles from the toy set!) but other sounds are layered in complex ways to make beautiful and strangely unfamiliar percussion sounds. I never trigger whole loops for percussion – I just arrange the sounds as single hits in Drum Rack in Ableton Live and play them all via the Quneo, so every time I play new things occur. Check out the latest bunch of subscriber recordings for an insight into how those sounds are developing…

How I Use The MOD Duo Pedal

Having posted a new gear page the other day, I’ve been thinking how best to represent the complexity of how I use my whole set up. The plan is to blog about different aspects of it that deserve expansion, and then link to the these blog posts from the gear page. Hopefully it’ll shed a little more light on how some of this stuff works.

I will say that the fullest exploration of my pedal set-up so far is in two of the courses that I’ve filmed for – the looping one and the pedals and effects one. If you’re a member there, make sure you watch those lessons!

So our first post here is going to be about the MOD Devices Duo. For almost 20 years, my main effects processor was a Lexicon MPX-G2 – despite all the leaps forward in processing power and modelling technology, until I came across the Duo, I hadn’t found anything that felt like a significant step forward from that. What I love the most about the Duo is that the signal path is configurable in any imaginable routing combination. Here’s my main pedalboard: 

If you click on it and have a look at how the signal flows through it, you’ll see a couple of interesting things – firstly the octaver runs parallel to all the overdrive, envelope filtering and modulation – so the sub octave remains clean no matter what is happening to the normal octave signal. There are definitely times when running an octaver into an overdrive can sound really cool, and I have the MXR Sub Octave Bass Fuzz on my pedal board before the Duo to deal with that. Here, I have an amazing clean sub bass signal available no matter what level of craziness is happening on top.

Then, you can see that the Shiro shimmer reverb – bottom right, pale blue – is in another side chain, with a switch before it to turn the signal going to it on and off, but not to cut off the reverb. It’s set to 60 seconds of decay, so if I send a signal into it, then cut it off, the reverb continues to sound for a whole minute before disappearing. This means I can use it to set up big synth-like chords and then play melodies or chords against it, without having to loop the whole ambient part first. I can have it evolve over time, making for much more complex interaction – I can send individual notes from whatever else I’m playing into the 60 second shimmer verb, becoming part of the harmony of that ambient pad.

The only pedal after the Duo in my pedal set up is the MXR Reverb, which I actually use in a similar way to the Shimmer verb – I have it set up in ‘buffered bypass’ mode, so that when I turn it off, any reverb tail that’s current sounding will continue to play and gradually fade, and I can continue to play without affecting that. It’s like it has a parallel path within it, and I can switch the signal to go through it or past it. A very very useful setting that exists on a number of time-based effects pedals though not all.

I have other patches that use this process in far more complex ways, which maybe I’ll write about and screengrab in the future, but for now, hopefully that gives some clue as to what’s going on. The Duo offers so many possibilities, with its library of several hundred pedals that can be inserted into any board that all come free with it (there are a handful of paid pedals, many of which I’ve bought and are incredible, but the vast majority are free). combining them, and even being able to have synths in the same patch as direct signal processing, makes the Duo easily my favourite multi-FX unit I’ve ever used.

I control it with the Keith McMillen Softstep 2 foot controller, and have 8 buttons that I can assign to turn things on and off, as well as one continuous controller pedal for wah, volume and reverb level… (the Softstep is also controlling the Looperlative, and could also control any other MIDI think I might add to the set-up!) I’ve also got my old phone set up as a MIDI-over-USB controller, but haven’t got that hooked up at the moment! There are only so many things I can think about at one time!

I hope that’s a useful explanation. If you want to hear this board in action, check out my video for the track Divinity DT & Daniel  which uses this exact board, or the one for The Field Of Strategic Possibilities which uses it for the first 7 mins, before I switch to a different pedal board (you can see where that happens in the video 🙂 ) – both of these tunes, and 47 (FORTY SEVEN!) other albums are available from my Bandcamp subscription the moment you sign up… There’s an awful lot of applied signal processing to explore there 🙂

New Video – The Strangest Of Things

Here’s a thing I haven’t posted in a while – a new video up on YouTube, called the Strangest Of Things (for reasons that may become apparent when you hear it.)

The other day, I got a new pedal – it’s one I’ve been wanting to try for a LOOOONG time, so I was excited to sit down and get some experimenting time in with the Pigtronix Mothership 2 Analog Synth. Those of you who’ve been following things here fro a while will know that I view pedals and processing as part of my instrument – change a pedal and it fundamentally changes what my instrument is. I don’t view it as processing a bass guitar, but building an instrument that makes a range of sounds in a number of ways. So sticking something as radically sound-altering as a synth pedal in there has all manner of amazing possibilities.

As you can maybe see from the pic, there’s a TON of control over the sound – meaning you can either get a very specific sound you want and leave it (the other video I posted yesterday to Instagram was more of that kind of approach, trying to get Bernie Worrell’s keyboard bass sound from Flashlight…) or you can have it at hand-height and tweak it the way you would a modular synth.

So, here’s the video:

I’m running my Elrick Gold Series SLC signature fretless 6 into a signal path that includes the Aguilar Tone Hammer, Pigtronix Philosopher compressor, Jule Monique tube preamp, MOD Duo running a wide stereo chorus, EQ and a cab sim, and then the MXR Reverb for those trapped chords in the middle. The fretless seems like the perfect instrument for experimenting with synth, as it gives you a second way to control the portamento on the notes – the Mothership 2 has a ‘glide control’ – you can hear that towards the end, where the notes start swooping up and down in insane ways – but I can control that glide as well on the fretless just by sliding 🙂

The cut-up effect at the beginning is all done in the Looperlative LP1 – the effect is ‘quantise replace’, and I’m swapping out 1/16th of the loop each time, sometimes with a block that’s an octave higher (by changing the speed of the replaced bit) and sometimes it’s pitch-shifted (but slowing down the loop by a particular fraction while the replace is happening) – it starts chaotic, and suddenly this amazing glitchy beautiful ostinato emerges! The filter at the end is the Kaoss Pad Mini – the drums and the glitch-line are on different tracks in the LP1, so I can route that synth part to the aux out which has the KP Mini after it.

The glitchy drum sounds are a sample set I assembled from various sources in FL Studio played in on the Quneo. The whole thing is improvised live and unedited.

I love this stage of getting ideas together with new parts to my instrument – it’s slightly Jackson Pollock-esque in that you get to throw ideas at the canvas and see what happens. How well defined the canvas is depends on how cavalier you are with the rest of the parameters. Here, I’m pretty familiar with that quantise replace function on the Looperlative, though as this is a completely redesigned version of the software (running on the first of the new hardware boxes! yay!) it does actually respond slightly differently… But it’s in 4/4, and it wasn’t to hard to work out what the key centre was once the glitchy line was running (though I can’t fully predict what the notes will be with the pitch shifted replace function! I mean, I could work it out, but I like the madness of it 😉 ) – so this is experimental stage 0.1 – definitely in Beta mode. Some of the synth stuff has wonky squirrelly pitch, though that does feel more like a 70s thing, given how unpredictable the original voltage controlled synths were…

More soon!!

The Evolution of Sound

‘This is a journey into sound…’ – thus sampled Eric B and Rakim. That’s pretty much the definition of my musical journey thus far. Perhaps because I’ve always been drawn to texture as much as to harmony and melody in music, it was inevitable that I’d end up pursuing an approach to music that put the sonic palette on an equal – or often superior – footing to the notes… The development of my technique was always primarily about tone rather than dexterity. Switching to playing melodies on my fretless bass with the side of my thumb slowed me down a LOT, but gave me the sound I was looking for, so it stuck as my dominant technique. Using the Ebow and the slide, while quirky-looking on stage, result in music that is generally more languid and moved my music further away from the muscular fusion many expected from a solo bassist back in the late 90s.

As a result, my gear choices have also been mostly governed by the possibility to broaden, deepen and enrich that same palette of sounds. To give me a broader base of colours to paint with, a greater range of contrasting textures with which to create the layers in my looped improvisations and compositions. Indeed, the very definition of a ‘composition’ for many of my solo pieces was ‘key plus set sequence of sounds’ – they were improvisations as far as the specific notes were concerned, but the sequence of sounds to be layered was way more consistent.

The 20 year (thus far) journey into that particular set of priorities has lead to a few interesting outcomes – I’ve mostly had wonderful relationships with the companies whose equipment I use, and have been able to have useful practical input into the development of quite a few unique products and product developments over the years. It has also meant – in combination with the platform my journalistic work gives me – that I punch WAY above my weight in terms of the influence I have over other people’s perceptions of music gear. That’s a responsibility I take very seriously, given the potential for someone to invest an awful lot of money in gear at least partially directed by my own choices.

For that reason, I tend to only change my gear when the sound dictates that it be the wisest choice. I’ve avoided paid jobs as ‘the demo guy’ – partly because it’s just not a job I want, but also because they’ve never been offered for the gear I really believe in. I’ve had long standing relationships with a small number of companies that I work with. The one area of my rig that HAS changed the most over the years – and even then only when the music demanded it – is amplification.

It’s also, not coincidentally, one of the areas of music gear development that has changed most in the last 15 years. The advent of super light, efficient, powerful, full spectrum bass cabinets, and REALLY great sounding lightweight power amps was a long time coming, but we’re definitely in that age now.

I’ve always been fascinated by the conversation about amps, and was for a time pre-occupied with the notion of things being ‘flat’ – I wanted uncoloured sound, just my sound back through a loud lightweight amp. With that in mind, I switched to a high-end pro audio PA set up about 7 years ago, leaving ‘bass’ amps behind for a couple of years.

The need for more volume – and the advent of the Markbass combos that I’ve been using for the last few years – brought me back to bass amps, and a sound that was definitely not ‘flat’ but was ‘full range’ and has a tonal imprint I liked.

Freed from the tyranny of spec sheets and response graphs, I was able to explore the notion of ‘good’ sound without the interference of notions of ‘correct’ sound. That was helpful.

If you’ve seen any of the pictures I’ve posted of late of my rig, or seen me live over the last month or so, you’ll see that I’m now using an Aguilar amp set-up… ‘dude, I thought you really dug the Markbass combos??’ said lots of bass players. And I do. They haven’t suddenly stopped sounding good. They’re cool amps that definitely did the job.

So how did the Aguilar thing come about?

Dave and Justin at Aguilar have been friends of mine for over 15 years. we go back to my very first NAMM show in 1999 – they are great friends that I care about a great deal and hang with as much as possible. As a clear testimony to their integrity, neither of them over the years tried to get me to switch amps, but after using an Aguilar house rig at the jam night at this years London Bass Guitar Show, I was interested to find out what they would sound like for my solo stuff – it’s one thing having an amp that sounds great for ‘normal’ bass playing, it’s quite another to be able to handle the huge array of sounds I make, and to deal with all the other instruments that go through any system I use on collaborative gigs (including electronic drums, and vocalists!)

So I arranged to try a rig out – the SL112 cabinets and Tone Hammer 350 heads that I now have. A stereo rig, the same as I’ve had since 2003.

I set them up to A/B them with my existing set-up, and was absolutely blown away. I had NO idea they’d sound the way they did. Clear, full, warm, present… just amazing. Exactly what I was looking for. It was very much a case of not knowing that I wanted to change – I hadn’t really felt unhappy with my other system, but on a straight A/B, the suitability for my music was clearly with the Aguilar rig. I ran iTunes through it, to hear what it was like for full-range playback. Added a very slight EQ in my MOTU Ultralight and found that it sounded richer and clearer than even my (admittedly rather cheap) studio monitors. Like a high end 70s Wharfedale hifi. Properly jaw-dropping stuff.

This experience was confirmed again and again as friends and colleagues and students got to experience the sound. Wide eyes and big smiles were the unanimous reaction.

So I found myself changing amps for the first time in a lot of years. I’ve never been a fan of changing gear for the sake of it, I’ve never tried to deal with frustrations in my playing by getting new toys. It’s only when a clear and obvious choice to move to something that better represents the sound I hear in my head is presented that I’m left having to shift.

I’m deeply grateful to Markbass and Markaudio for the many years of great bass sounds (and am still utterly reliant on their MiniDIST overdrive pedal every single time I play), but if you see me playing shows from now on, you’ll perhaps be able to hear why I made the switch to the greatest sounding bass amp I’ve ever played through.