Tag Archives: 12-string guitars

Experiment, part 4 – Conclusions

I undertook this experiment to see what level of fidelity a Portastudio was capable of, if used by someone with a bit of knowledge about tracking, which I definitely wasn’t when I was using a four-track recorder regularly between 2000 and 2006 (strange to think I’ve been recording digitally longer than my analogue period lasted).

I should clarify at the start that I am not particularly ‘pro’ digital or ‘anti’ digital, and neither am I ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ analogue. There are a few things I have observed in relation to the debate and that for me are truths:

1) Modern records do not, speaking generally, sound very good to my ears.

2) The problems I hear are not necessarily related to the fact that the songs were recorded to hard disk rather than tape. They have more to do with persistent and unmusical use of tools such as compression, EQ, pitch correction and quantisation in a manner that would be close to impossible in the analogue domain.

3) Continued use of 16 bit/44.1 as the digital standard in this day and age strikes me as daft. Ditto MP3s. As hard drives get bigger and bigger, lossless files could easily replace MP3s (they could have done already). The sticking point seems to be the replacement for many people of the dedicated MP3 player with multi-purpose smartphones, with smaller hard drives and more kinds of media content competing for the limited space. I don’t know the size of the hard drive in my Samsung Galaxy, but it sure ain’t the 120GB in my iPod Classic (a form of iPod that Apple now seems to consider entirely obsolete, damn them), which allows me to carry around a significant percentage of music in WAV format.

4) Most of my favourite records sonically were recorded to tape. But not all. I can think of many digitally recorded albums/songs I think sound very good, some of them going back to the Soundstream days (my beloved Tusk).

5) I recognise the flaws digital has as a long-term data-storage solution (the main point Steve Albini makes against digital nowadays – it’s a point well made).

6) My attraction to lo-fi when I was younger had (I now think) a definite self-conscious, purist aspect to it, but also grew genuinely out of a conviction that simple presentations allow the song to shine through.

So to specifics, then. Funnily enough, the thing I’m least satisfied with about the four-track version of Find Out In Time is the 12-string acoustic sound. The drums do their job well enough. The snare drum doesn’t have the focused crack I look for at the front of the stroke, but that’s probably to be expected since there was no close snare mic. The floor tom gets lost a little bit but it’s only hit during one fill – the placement of the kit mic at the front and middle of the drum set, pointing at the snare, was always one that would lead to compromises. I made the choices I thought best given the part I intended to play. Overall the drums sound decent enough.

The bass (Fender Jazz through Laney amp), is OK, although boy would I have liked a little bit of compression on the track. The vocal’s mixed too low, as is my habit when mixing my own songs, but it sounds OK – listened to in solo, everything’s audible and the vocal sits way above the noise floor without getting into crunchy territory (accomplished by recording the verses first, then resetting the gain levels and doing the choruses separately).

But the guitar? It sounds kind of warbly and has an unpleasant hardness to it in the upper mids that really doesn’t sound like my guitar sounds normally do. The mic, the instrument, the room and the player were the same as I would normally use – the only different element was the Portastudio. I’m not saying that those unpleasant qualities are definitely from the four-track, and if they are, with practice I’m sure I could develop techniques to get around them and find a way to get something closer to ‘my’ acoustic sound, but of all the elements on this recording, the acoustic guitar is definitely my least favourite.

Of course, tastes vary. Some people might hear this and prefer it to the digital version I made last year. While that version’s sure not as good as it could have been (I recorded it in D after trying and failing to hit the harmonies satisfactorily in E. In retrospect, I wish I’d stayed in E and either persevered with the high harmonies or found someone else to sing them), it better captures what I want the song to be than the four-track version does.

I don’t know whether I was expecting to find the Portastudio capable of greater or lower fidelity than I encountered during this experiment. I think it unlikely, though, that I’ll be recording much on analogue tape again until such time as I can work on some real-deal gear.

soundstream

This is the Soundstream digital recorder, invented by Thomas Stockham in, would you believe, the late seventies. Stockham also played a crucial role in bringing down Nixon. Good dude (Stockham, that is. Not Nixon).

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Experiment, part 2.1

48 hours later, I’m back where I was on Thursday night. A tolerable drum part and guitar part. Not that I’ve been slaving over this all day, but still progress could be quicker.

Bass next. Wonder if I could hire Lee Sklar?

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Leland Sklar. Bass ‘n’ beard.

Things to do with a twelve-string guitar, part one

OK, so you’ve got yourself a twelve-string guitar, so you’re obviously willing to suffer for art. That’s a good starting point. But what if you’re actually a crazy masochist and want to go beyond strumming chords in standard tuning?

Here’s a couple of tuning ideas for you.

One, CGDEAD

This is my favourite tuning. In fact, it’s my de-facto standard tuning. My main six-string acoustic is left in this all the time, pretty much, and has been set up specifically to accommodate heavy-gauge strings and a low C. But it sounds great on a twelve-string too. One problem with twelves is that in standard tuning the high G string is prone to snapping, because it’s just a top E, tuned a minor third higher. This tuning gets round that by tuning the G string down to E and extends the overall range of the guitar downwards, by tuning the low E to C.

For a taste of what you can do with this, play this shape: x 0 0 3 2 0, low to high. That’s a G major. Now this shape: 0 0 2 3 3 2. That’s C major. You getting it?

Two, CGCDGC

Now we go lower. This is a less all-purpose tuning than the previous one. There are things that you can’t sensibly play in this tuning and it really only makes sense in C, A minor and maybe F. But you can get very droning and modal in this tuning if the mood takes you – I’ve used it to play Lady Margaret with my folk-rock band Carterhaugh: six minutes or so without any chord changes can be quite daunting, but this tuning lends itself very well to noodly modal explorations around a theme.

A chord shape or two? All right. Try this (C): 0 0 0 2 0 0. Or this less droney C major shape: 0 0 4 5 5 4. Here’s an A minor: x 2 0 2 0 0. Here’s an Fadd9: 5 5 0 3 0 0. And slide that up two frets for a G: 7 7 0 5 0 0.

More tuning madness tomorrow!

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Be bold with your tunings. You’ve nothing to lose but the skin on your fingers and hours you’ll never get back.

Some Sunday-evening thoughlets

After a week where I’d written two RIP pieces, I really wanted to quickly bash out something upbeat and positive about some life-affirming music. However, it’s now late on Sunday evening after another long day of work (that’s the problem with freelancing – sometimes you’ve got to take the work and worry later about how you’re going to find the time to do it all) and I’m way too fried to think of anything coherent to say about anything over the course of several paragraphs.

But I want to be enthusiastic about something, damn it! So here are a few unconnected thoughtlets; some stuff I’ve been digging lately, some stuff I’ve been revisiting, some thoughts that won’t leave me alone, that kind of stuff.

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Football. Yes, I follow football. Tottenham Hotspur, to be precise. Tough period coming up between now and the end of the season, especially without Gareth Bale and Jermain Defoe for a couple of matches, but I remain positive. Too many Spurs fans exhibit a wearying kneejerk pessimism, and I refuse to give in to it.

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I’m really excited by Nino Rota’s soundtrack for Fellini’s Il Casanova at the moment. I love how inventive the score is, the variety of instruments used: electric piano, harpsichord, bass guitar, untuned piano and what sounds like glass harmonica and music boxes, as well as orchestra and choir and solo vocalists. Any recommendations for any more playful, sinister, vaguely surreal, lullaby-gone-askew soundtracks in this vein would be gratefully received. I want more!

In fact, that space between the lulling and the nightmarish is fertile territory in other forms of music too (bear with me on that one: later in the week I’ll talk about a long-time favourite record that plays almost exclusively in this space. Too much work to do today to give it the time it deserves, I’m afraid).

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I had a listen to the second side of The Band the other day while out running. The good stuff (and that is most of it) sounded just as wonderful as it ever has, and after a couple of years of not listening to that many live recordings from the late 1960s, the ‘liveness’ of the songs recorded in Sammy Davis Jr’s poolhouse – the amount of space and the unruly bleed – was shocking, in a really refreshing way. However, I found listening to The Unfaithful Servant a real slog. It was never my favourite song on the record, but I found the politics of it pretty indefensible this time out. Yes, Robertson’s solo is fine, and yes, the mournful brass at the end (by Garth Hudson and producer John Simon, playing soprano sax and tuba) is lovely, but what used to sound intriguingly politically incorrect now just sounds callous and reactionary. Maybe that’s just the result of listening to it in a more callous and reactionary world, but to me it sounded like the rot setting in: the earliest example of Robertson’s sentimental nostalgia for a world that he had never even known overcoming his good sense, his compassion and his originality. By the time of Cahoots, writing a historical song with the grace and wisdom of Rocking Chair would be quite beyond him (which is not to say that Northern Lights Southern Cross isn’t a great album, but its songs are all, with the possible exceptions of Hobo Jungle and Ophelia, set in the present.)

Actually that last bit veered into the negative: just to be clear, I love the Band (not unconditionally, obviously) and The Band is one of my favourite records of all time (it’s not flawless though).

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I’ve been thinking about guitar sounds lately, trying to establish in my own mind what it is I like about certain sounds, and maybe hit on upon ideas for how I can improve my own in so doing.

With regard to acoustic guitars, I’m of the school that says a really large amount of the tone comes down to the player, for fingerpickers especially: the amount of nail on the right hand, the angle at which the thumb or finger makes contact with the string, how close the right hand is to the bridge, the fluidity of the picking movements, the way the left hand addresses the fretboard, the way the player holds the guitar – all these things make a difference. If someone else plays one of my guitars (and I’ve played the same two acoustic guitars since 1999 and 2001 so I know them pretty well by now), it won’t sound like me. The difference to my ears is obvious and immediately discernible.

So it’s not just a case of going out and buying the ‘best’ guitar, since so much of the tone is in the player’s technique. It’s about the marriage of the instrument and player, and then capturing that in the right acoustic space with the right microphone, the latter two of which are, of course, subjective and case-dependent. For me, the two acoustic guitars I play are so fundamental a part of who I am as a musician, the idea of replacing them is close to unthinkable. I might one day want a different one to create a different tone, but it would be an ‘as well as’ guitar, not an ‘instead of’. As for how to improve my own sound, that’s more a mission to find the right place to put the right microphone, since I am happy with the sound that happens when I play either my 12- or 6-string acoustic.

Since I’m on the subject, though, I will just mention a few favourite acoustic sounds. John Wood did wonderful work in the 1960s and 1970s, and he made some of my favourite records ever (with producer Joe Boyd and without). I’m a huge fan of the guitar sounds on the records he made with Nick Drake and John Martyn, and particularly Martyn. There’s a perception that big-bodied acoustic guitars like dreadnoughts are for flatpick strummers, playing country or pop or rock where you want volume and projection. John Martyn’s acoustic fingerpicking tone (think of the ballads from Solid Air or the sparer songs on Inside Out, not the stuff with pickups and amps and Echoplexes) is beautiful – deep and rich, clear and sonorous, sweet and powerful. Everything I’ve always wanted my tone to be, in fact. And to my knowledge, he never played anything but big old Martin dreadnoughts, the complete opposite to the tiny Guild parlour that Drake played.

In completely the opposite direction, I do really like the midrange honk of David Rawlings, too. It sits brilliantly with Gillian Welch’s guitar – you can always discern his part within the blend of the two. Now there’s a sound that is unarguably about the marriage between instrument and player! I’m not sure I can imagine any other guitarist getting Rawlings’ guitar – a 1930s small-bodied Epiphone archtop – to sound anywhere near that good. I’ll go into bat, too, for the acoustic guitar sounds on After the Goldrush, particularly the bone-dry tones on the songs recorded in Neil Young’s basement studio (Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Don’t Let it Bring You Down and so on). Great sounds, big and full, right in your face.

Electric guitar sound is a complicated beast. It’s another one I’ll get back to soon.

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Softly Through the Darkness – Cyrus Faryar

So maybe you’re a fan of folky, acoustic guitar/piano-playing singer-songwriters, but you’re already familiar with the top-division names: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Paul Simon, Carole King, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Van Morrison and so on. You know them all, and you’ve formed your opinions as to their worth. And maybe you’re well up on your cult songwriters too: Tim Buckley, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro, Tim Hardin, Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Gram Parsons, Janis Ian – you’ve heard them all, you’ve judged them all. Maybe you’re down with the likes of Fred Neil, Judee Sill and Evie Sands too, and you don’t do the more mainstream likes of John Denver, Don McLean and Dan Fogelberg.

Where can you go? Who to listen to for more of that good stuff?

This is going to be one of this blog’s recurring themes, actually. Because if you’re asking yourself that question, you’d be where I am, fifteen years or so after first beginning to work back through the big names of sixties and seventies singer-songwriterdom. I’m not putting myself forward as any kind of expert in these matters, by the way. I’m just stumbling around in the dark and sharing some of what I blunder into.

A year or so back, shortly before my hospitalisation and diagnosis, I came across mentions of Cyrus Faryar’s solo records on the internet. Not being a Modern Folk Quartet fan, Iranian-American Faryar was previously known to me as a Fred Neil sideman, a dude who played guitar on Fred Neil and Sessions and whose other work was therefore automatically of interest to me. So I downloaded a couple of tracks, one off each of his two records, Cyrus and Islands, to see what Cyrus did on his own.

He didn’t actually move very far from that sound: his is a more pop-minded and carefully arranged take on Neil’s 12-string folk-jazzery, but the similarities are clear. Faryar has a strong, light baritone, not as deep and rich as Neil’s, perhaps more agile and more adaptable, but without as much of that unmistakable charisma. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought so if I hadn’t heard Neil first, but when Faryar hits that low note on the word ‘depart’, it’s impossible not to think of Neil and the many occasions he pulled off the same trick. It’s a good trick, though: if I had the kind of voice to pull it off, I’d do it too.

Perhaps it’s unfair to keep working the Fred Neil angle here (maybe there are elements to Faryar’s music that he inherited from the MFQ, but having only heard their Phil Spector record, I can’t claim familiarity with their real sound – to me, I’m afraid, Henry Diltz is a photographer and Jerry Yester is Tim Buckley’s producer) – but perhaps if he hadn’t slipped into semi-retirement after Sessions, Neil might have taken his music down a similar road to this: drums, (that is, slightly bigger rock drums than those present on Fred Neil), tabla (Colin Walcott?), double bass, organ, strings, woodwinds, choirs – it’s a great sound.

Softly Through the Darkness is a really fine song, too. It is a slow-burner; it begins the album Cyrus (1971), and it feels like it was specifically written to start a record, taking four minutes to unwind and slowly build to its full arrangement, resolving on a wordless chorus of massed voices. Unfortunately on the album it’s immediately undercut by a pretty terrible version of Randy Newman’s I Think He’s Hiding, taken too fast, stomping inelegantly over the tempo and feel changes of the original and with a vocal conveying none of the subtle mockery of Newman’s performance. I understand why a singer might have wanted to take on a song like this, but someone should have nixed it early in the session and suggested he do I Think It’s Going to Rain Today instead.

So Cyrus (the album) isn’t a classic; there’s a couple too many missteps. But there’s four or five strong songs on it (follow-up Islands, produced by John Simon, has a mighty-good version of Neil classic The Dolphins, too) with Darkness being the pick of them, and anyone interested in Fred Neil or this kind of music should check the Faryar’s solo work out – Fred Neil original recordings are, after all, in distressingly short supply.

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The back cover of Cyrus