PROJECT LOG: S/LAY W/ME SOUNDTRACK
1. Fuzz and Such
I thought it would be cool to talk about some of the techniques I'm using on the SWM soundtrack. Let's talk about that mainstay of early metal and psychedelia, fuzz.
Before effects pedals existed, people used to do all kinds of crazy shit to get weird sounds out of their instruments. For instance, flanging (a weird effect that makes the recording go kind of wheeeeEEEEEOooooeEEEEE) was accomplished by physically deforming the actual tape that something was recorded on.
Fuzz was first accomplished by damaging the speakers. Legend has it that Link Wray, frustrated with the too-clean sound he was getting, slashed his speakers with his pocketknife (or stabbed them with a pencil, depending on who's telling the story) in a fit of rage. Lo and behold, there was the sound he was looking for.
Later, the pre-amp fuzz technique was discovered. This consists of passing the guitar signal through another device that wasn't meant to accomadate a guitar signal, either between the guitar and the amplifier or between the amplifier and the speakers (depending on what you're using, the difference between those could be negligible or massive). Many musicians (including Keith Richards) used a portable tape recorder; I'm using a cheap mixing board (which really ought to be able to accommodate a guitar signal, but isn't. It's pretty useless as a mixing board). Being digital, the mixing board's fuckery is smoother than what people wrenched out of their primitive electronics back in the day, but it's not nearly as smooth as modern sources of fuzz (such as pedals and VST plugins).
What happens here is that the signal gets clipped and/or compressed (depending on how you futz with the dials). Those are recording jargon terms which here mean "the shit gets pretty fucked up." Messing around with the settings of the guitar, amplifier, and intermediary device allows you to customize the amount of fuzz from slight to extreme, which is what makes it a better choice than slashing your speakers. That, and, y'know, the way it doesn't require you to slash your speakers.
2. The Bassman and I
The compression that I'm able to get out of my mixing board is also instrumental in mimicking the sound of a Bassman amplifier. See, the tech of the Bassman was so primitive that it compressed most of the bass signal, which gave it a distinct sound but also made it kind of limited unless you had a really good ear and were really good at subtly tweaking the sound. Most bass players actually hated it, because most bass players at the time were relegated to playing bass because they were the least good in the band at playing guitar -- so they were also mostly not good at using it to its full potential (don't get me wrong, there's plenty of exceptions, like Gary Marker and Larry Taylor). The Bassman was the only game in town for a long time, so people grudgingly stuck with it. When more advanced technology came along that was more easily able to use the full range of frequencies found in a bass guitar signal, folks dropped the Bassman like hot handful of poop; people who had learned to work around its shortcomings stuck it out for a while, but eventually put it out to pasture in favor of amps with greater versatility. Which is a shame, because it had such a unique sound that would pretty much never be heard again. In the late 70s and early 80s, Fender continued to put out new models of the Bassman that addressed many of its problems, but they never really caught on, and the Bassman line was discontinued.
When we were in high school, my brother (who played bass) owned a Bassman. It was high maintenance and finicky, but I loved the crap out of that thing. I played on it several times (once I had to fill in for my brother in the talent show; I had like thirty minutes to learn the bass line to System of a Down's "Aerials" so I could play it with folks I hadn't rehearsed with. Good times), and got to hear it plenty of the time otherwise when my brother was practicing. I tell you this so that you know that when I talk about the Bassman, I'm talking from experience just as much as from analysis of old music.
The Bassman amp was usually paired with either the Fender Precision or the Fender Jazz electric bass. I'm a really big fan of the P-Bass (as we call the former in the biz), and consider it superior to everything except the Rickenbacker basses probably made most famous by Geddy Lee of Rush* (and more recently by Scott Pilgrim). I'm playing the Jazz bass that I bought from my brother after wrist conditions forced him to quit playing. He had sold the Bassman years ago on account of it being so high-maintenance, so I'm using a Crate amp.
The biggest difference between the J-Bass and the P-Bass is the pickups. The P-Bass (originally) used single-coil pickups, which sound very trashy and constricted sorta, and are my favorite kind. The J-Bass uses proprietary J-pickups, which are bi-pole (each string is "picked up," as it were, by two magnetic poles, as opposed to a single pole per string as per the standard). These have some measure of noise-canceling capability, and also result in a richer timbre, especially in the mid-ranges.
The specific J-Bass I'm using is a custom job, however, with advanced electronics, including I-don't-even-know-what-the-fuck-they-are fancy-pants space-age pickups and a tiny pre-amp. It also seems to have the ability to use only half of a pickup, making it virtually the same as a single-coil, so I'm able to mimic the P-Bass pretty well.
*Lots of people played Ricks in the 60s too, but it was Lee's athletic bass riffs (which were _the_ great thing about Rush), accentuated by the striking profile that the bass cut with Lee's sitting-while-playing-so-he-could-play-Moog-pedals-at-the-same-time, that really brought attention to the Rick.
Pictures! Here is a P-Bass
with one of the 50s models of the Bassman.
This is the closest thing I could find to my brother's Bassman, though I remember it being upholstered with tweed rather than black tolex (it might have been custom-upholstered).
3. Let Me Tell You about My Wurlitzer
The Wurlitzer electric piano was introduced in the 50s and discontinued in the 80s. It saw the most use in the R&B/Soul milieu (Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye used one on "What'd I Say" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" frex) but also saw some use in jazz and rock.
Fun fact: it's technically not a piano! Here's the breakdown of pianoid instruments: claviers strike their strings with a metal plate; harpsichords pluck their strings; pianos strike their strings with padded hammers. The Wurlitzer, although using a miniaturized version of a grand piano's hammers, doesn't have strings. It has little strips of metal instead. This means that it's properly classified as a percussion instrument, and the closest thing to it (aside from the Fender Rhodes, which was almost the same thing*) is the vibraphone, of all things.
Now, I didn't just take the cover off so that you could see the guts of the thing [Note: this was originally posted on G+, and the pictures are there. Search the hashtags #slaywme and #dreamandshadow and you'll find them quickly]. That's actually how I have to play it. For one, I've lost the knobs, so if I want to adjust the dials at all then I have to remove the cover just to reach them. But mostly, it's because this particular Wurlitzer is fucked up. The electronics and action are screwed from frequent use and travel (it was given to me by my grandfather, who is a minister, evangelist, and Southern Gospel singer/songwriter, so it's seen extensive travel and wear & tear) in the first place. On top of that, there are two blown fuses that I have bridged with paperclips, because that's how I roll. The result is that it has a lot of limitations (if I try to play chords, really weird shit happens), it sounds absolutely hellish, and on multiple occasions it has shot sparks at me.
I just used it on a SwM soundtrack song called "Hunting Bat Shadow." It is the most fucked up song I have ever done.
*Actually the Rhodes (played frequently by Stevie Wonder, and the bass version of it used by the Doors in lieu of a bass guitar) was more advanced. Instead of little metal strips, it had composite "tone bars" that produced a tone along with resonant undertones at the same time, giving it a much richer and prettier sound. But, if you've been following these you can probably tell, I'll take trashy and edgy sounding electric instruments over rich and pretty any day.
Home - Store - Dream & Shadow - Games - About - Contact
Copyright 2013 D. Marshall Burns