Understanding Effects: Delay

Delay is an effect that is generally used to create a sense of “space” for a guitar sound by imitating a sound reflecting off of a wall. This is not to be confused with its more complex cousin, reverb. It’s a pretty straightforward effect: have the original signal duplicated but delayed by a defined interval of time, usually measured in milliseconds. It’s a fairly easy effect to use so I’d like to focus a little more on the parameters and the different categories of delays that can be used.

Delay Time

The most important adjustable parameter is the delay time. The delay time is often sorted into four categories: doubling, slapback, echo, and loop. Doubling is the shortest amount of time, between 30-50ms. When delay times are this short, the delay signal is actually perceived as a single sound but with a sense of stereo separation (if it’s panned left and right); similar to a unison performance.  Slapback is a a very short delay between 75-250ms, and creates a sound that’s reminiscent of a tiled room. This is a defining feature of Nashville recordings from a certain era, where vocals were often thickened with this type of delay. The echo effect, where it begins to sound like you’re playing into a mountain valley or cavern, is around 250ms-800ms. It creates a large and almost surreal sense of space, finding frequent uses in psychedelic styled music. Some artists set the echo time to a rhythmic unit of a song (the Edge from U2 likes to use a dotted eighth note value) to achieve an effect reminiscent of an arpeggiator. Once we get into delay times in the range of seconds, we enter the realm of looping. Looping is used to repeat and layer musical ideas to create a one-man orchestra performance. Outside of these typical uses, guitarists like Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) have made novel sounds by changing the delay time as he is playing.

Feedback

The feedback control adjusts the amount of a delay signal that gets fed back into the delay signal path. The result is that you are able to control how many “echoes” you can hear against the original sound. It’s a good idea to keep the feedback amount very low, and even more so when there are longer delay times. This is because if many echoes are lasting a long time, they will begin to layer on top of each other, eventually obscuring the music. To simplify, you can think of feedback and delay time having an inverse relationship. That being said, there are creative ways of using infinite echoes, as this is not something that happens in nature and can create a psychedelic touch to your music.

Levels

The next important parameter is the level, or mix parameter. The delay signal is usually set at a lower level than the original signal, to imitate the energy loss of sound reflecting off of a wall. You can also create greater separation between the two sounds by applying a bass cut or treble cut on the delay signals. This is a useful trick if you’re having trouble achieving clarity of sound when using heavy amounts of delay.

Once you get a handle on the more common uses of this effect, you can experiment with some tricks. One well known trick is to set a delay pedal to the value of a dotted eighth note in whatever piece of music you’re playing, but play a constant eighth note line. This is a trick that is used by The Edge from U2.

Analog vs. Digital

Digital delays are characterized by a clean and pristine delay of the original audio. Analog delays have more “character” to them, because analog equipment naturally introduces noise to the audio signal. What is interesting is when the delay feedback increases and the signal is fed repeatedly through an analog delay, the quality of each delay degrades progressively. This is a characteristic sound of the “dub” style of music that is popular in Jamaica.

I hope you got some useful ideas from this! Until next time.

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Understanding Effects: Distortion

I notice a lot of guitar players tend to be, through no fault of their own, groping in the dark when it comes to using effects pedals. I find that a big problem is that manuals only delve into quick-and-easy type settings that doesn’t explain much about what is actually happening to the sound. I’m going to try and demystify some of this so that you can learn how to get the exact sound you are going for.

To begin the series, I’d like to talk about a fundamental guitar effect, that’s become so ubiquitous that it comes built in to most amplifiers: distortion.

We all know the sound – a screaming guitar solo or a thunderous riff are products of distortion that have become the hallmark of the rock guitar sound. So what is happening to the sound that causes this change? To put it simply, it does exactly what it’s named – it “distorts” the actual sound waves that are coming from you guitar. Imagine a sine wave with its nice flowing curves when it’s visualized. Distortion occurs when this signal is boosted past the limit of the maximum volume. The wave literally hits a ceiling, visually chopping off the top/bottom curve to produce a flat part in the wave. This is what we hear as distortion. Different types of distortion are available, but they are generally categorized as saturation/overdrive (mildly distorted) and distortion (greatly distorted sound). When these deformities in the sound waves happen, they also create harmonics/overtones that we perceive as adding a richness to the sound.

The controls that we have over this effect are generally: level/volume, and the amount of distortion (sometimes there’s a bit of EQ as well). It’s easy to hear the difference each of those controls make, but there are some traps that you will want to watch out for. Distortion is a dynamics based effect, meaning it affects our perception of volume. If you’re switching between a clean and distorted sound, it’s important that the volume level transitions smoothly. This is more difficult than it sounds, because if a distorted signal and a clean signal were to have the same amount of energy, the distorted sound will be perceived as being louder. Secondly, when you’re using heavily distorted guitars against the drums, there can be a lot of overlapping high frequencies between the cymbals (and crowd noise, if you’re in a venue) and guitar sound. You can avoid this by using and equalizer to get the guitar to sit in an less occupied part of the frequency spectrum. Many distortion stomp boxes will have a built in tone control to deal with this issue.

Overdrive is a type of distortion that is often associated with driving the power amp to distort. This is distinct from (heavy) distortion which is done in the pre-amp stage. Power amp distortion is generally described as a “crunch” tone. Historically, this is how all early forms of distortion were achieved, before amps came with the effect built-in. That means if you want a vintage blues/rock type of sound, you should go for this type of distortion by cranking that tube amp up.

Now for a few tips and tricks. When it comes to distortion, I want to emphasize that less is more. Even heavily distorted genres like metal can benefit from this mindset. Dynamic range is lost as more distortion is used and eventually you will end up with little difference between the loud and soft parts of your playing. If we were to take this idea (less is more) to the extreme, we get to the territory of saturation. This is a type of distortion that is most often associated with analogue gear that is powered by tubes. By using an almost imperceptible amount of distortion that retains most of the original sound, you’re able to add a subtle layer of overtones to the signal.

The Tone Knob

How many of you out there can explain EXACTLY what a tone knob does and how it’s affecting the sound of your guitar? Some of you may say that it is used to reduce the high frequencies of an electric guitar, but that’s really only half the story. It does explain the change in sound, but let’s take a closer look at what’s really going on.

The tone knob on most electric guitars operates as a low pass filter. A low pass filter operates like it is named. It is a filter for your sound that allows frequencies lower than the set limit of your signal to pass through; IE it filters out all of the frequencies above whatever frequency you choose to set as the threshold. The frequencies are often reduced at a rate of -12dB per octave and sometimes -24dB per octave.

Now that we understand what’s really going on, we can understand the most logical use for the tone knob: to set a high frequency limit to where a guitar sits in a mix. In a rock band type setting, this means avoiding mix conflicts with other high frequency instruments such as cymbals and vocal sibilance (the “ssss” sound). There is a balance to be struck here, however, as the guitar pick attack (which is the most important part of a guitarists’ tone) can get lost if you go too far. What I recommend is to slowly turn the tone knob down until you just start to hear it affects your pick attack, and then back off. Once you find the sweet spot, you generally won’t need to adjust it too much over the course of a performance.

There are other ways of using the tone knob. In the jazz guitar world there are players who have used the tone control to the extreme, most notably Jim Hall. He was known to roll the tone knob down all the way down in order to achieve a dark and warm tone that became his sonic signature. Note that this was a stylistic choice in the context of the right musical setting, however, and that a similar guitar tone would likely not work in a metal band. Speaking of rock bands, Eric Clapton, and his signature “woman tone” was a result of turning his tone knob all the way down while playing with distortion. The reason this works is because the distortion effect creates overtones that allow the guitar to still retain some high frequency information in the tone, thus allowing it to cut through a loud band easier than a clean tone would.

The Metronome

The metronome is an essential but often overlooked tool for practicing and improving  your time feel. Rhythm is arguably the most important component of music so it’s important to have a strong understanding of it.

Some of you may have already attempted to use a metronome in your practice. Good! However, if you’re relatively new to using it, it’s almost certain that you’ve experienced a lot of error and frustration in attempting to play along to the click. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Many students give up at this point and never use it again, exclaiming “I can play with perfect time without it, why do I need to use it?” The difficult truth is that you just suck at playing in time with the metronome, and avoiding it isn’t going to improve your time at all.

Like with all difficult tasks in life, it’s important we break things down into more manageable segments so that we can start to make even the smallest improvements. What is the simplest way to use a metronome? Don’t start with scales, or arpeggios, or anything else that’s fancy. I get my students to start with only one note and to play exactly at the same time with the click, IE quarter notes. Most people will be able to lock in with the metronome after a few tries, sometimes drifting away in time and then quite often fluctuating back into time. The important part is to lock in so tight that the metronome click “disappears” into the note you’re playing. If quarter notes are too difficult, try half notes or even whole notes.

Once you get used to this, your internal time keeping (IE, without the metronome) will vastly improve. Now it’s time to start to introduce different subdivisions of the beat. The most logical step after quarter notes would be eighth notes. Then eighth note triplets, then sixteenth notes. Now you’ve covered the most common subdivisions you will encounter in music. Always start slow (about 60bpm) and increase in small increments. Remember, the goal is precision and accuracy, not speed.

Now that you have the basic subdivision, what can you do? Well, having strong fundamentals will open many doors for you. The next step I recommend is to get the classic book “Syncopation for the Modern Drummer” by Ted Reed. It’s a book that contains most of the possible permutations of rhythmic figures based around quarter, eighth, triplet, and sixteenth notes. Again, start slow and play each figure perfectly with the metronome. If you can get through the whole book, you will be prepared for so many different musical situations.

What to do after the Ted Reed book becomes easy for you? Now we can start to think about interpreting the metronome clicks on different parts of the meter. One common way to do this is to play the metronome at half the speed you are intending to play and interpret the clicks on beats 2 and 4. This mimics a snare drum which is often placed on beats 2 and 4 in most popular forms of music today. Some other options for the placement of the click include: only on beat 4, only on the “+” of beat 4, only on the off beats (kind of like a reggae rhythm guitar), only on beat 1, etc.

One thing to remind yourself in the journey to improve your time, is that it’s not about becoming as accurate as a metronome. Music and rhythm can breathe and flex and be imperfect yet beautiful at the same time. That’s the end goal, to create beautiful music. Remember to keep some of that “human” element and that even if you mess up once in a while, it’s what makes music all the more interesting!

Understanding Modes

The modes of the major scale are a great source of musical material for compositions and improvisations, but are often confusing for those who are just beginning to approach this topic. I’m going to try and lay this out as simply as possible.

First of all, you need to understand the major scale and how it’s built. Let’s take the C major scale as an example. The notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Now imagine this same group of notes, but change the “tonic” or starting note to each of the different notes in the scale. What you get is something like this (name of each mode is given at the start):

  1. (Ionian/major) C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. (Dorian) D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D
  3. (Phrygian) E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E
  4. (Lydian) F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F
  5. (Mixolydian) G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  6. (Aeolian/natural minor) A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
  7. (Locrian) B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Notice that because there are seven different notes in a major scale, there are seven possible modes of the major scale. When naming them, you name it from the appropriate new tonic of each mode, e.g. G Mixolydian or E Phyrigian.

Now let’s take a look at the interval pattern of these modes. An interval is the distance between two notes that are measured in units of tones. A tone is the equivalent of a two fret spacing on the guitar. For example, the interval between the notes C and D are a tone, while the interval between E and F are a half-tone.

  1. Ionian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5
  2. Dorian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  3. Phrygian: 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  4. Lydian: 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5
  5. Mixolydian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  6. Aeolian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  7. Locrian: 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1

Where we start to learn the characteristics of each mode is when we start to apply these interval patterns from the same tonic note (C).

  1. C Ionian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. C Dorian: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C
  3. C Phrygian: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  4. C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C
  5. C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C
  6. C Aeolian: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  7. C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C

Now you can clearly see which notes are the same or different in comparison to the major scale. From here you can categorize the modes as either major or minor modes, which is defined by the the presence of a major 3rd or a minor 3rd. Major modes are: Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian. Minor modes are: Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

If I were to vaguely define the overall feel of each these modes, I would describe them like this:

  1. Ionian: bright, happy, stable
  2. Dorian: a minor scale with a bit of brightness, common in jazz and pop
  3. Phrygian: a darker minor scale reminiscent of Flamenco and Spanish music
  4. Lydian: a brighter major scale with mystical qualities
  5. Mixolydian: bluesy
  6. Aeolian: minor scale reminiscent of classical music
  7. Locrian: weird sound, rarely used outside of jazz

Don’t be too concerned if it still doesn’t make sense to you. At the very least, play the modes in the third list provided and you will immediately HEAR the difference even if you don’t understand why. Try using them in your compositions and improvisations, and let the theory make sense later on!

Pomodoro Technique for Practicing

The Pomodoro technique is a useful time management tool that can make your practice more focused and effective. This is a tool that has many applications and we will take a look at how we can use this technique to improve our music practice.

The concept is simple: work in short but focused bursts of uninterrupted productivity. The name pomodoro comes from the Italian word for tomato, because the inventor of the method used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato.

Traditionally, the pomodoro technique uses 25 minute intervals of work followed by a short break of three to five minutes, but there is no reason to be attached to these numbers. I’ve used the technique to practice in shorter intervals when the practice material took shorter to complete than that, or were particularly mentally demanding. I find the interval lengths should have an inverse relationship with the amount of energy and focus being used: IE shorter lengths with high intensity, longer lengths with low intensity. My breaks were generally around the 5 minute mark.

The full method goes a little bit beyond just breaking up work into chunks. The complete process goes like this:

  1. Plan out what the practice item is
  2. Set the timer
  3. Uninterrupted work until the timer goes off
  4. Record the completion of this interval
  5. If you’ve completed less than 4 intervals, take a short break (3-5 min is suggested)
  6. If you’ve completed 4 intervals, take a longer break and reset this count

We all have about a million things that we can improve on, so prioritization is going to be an important part of the planning stage. It’s fairly simple: practice the most difficult items first.

The greatest benefit to this method is the sense of achievement you will feel as you cross off completed tasks from your list. As a part of using this method you will also have a record of your tasks completed which adds to this feeling. It will motivate you to complete even more tasks!

My Teaching Style

One of the most important factors in determining your success as a student guitarist is finding the right teacher for you, and many prospective students rightly prioritize this. I want to talk a bit about how I approach guitar lessons, where I might differ from other teachers, and how I might be the right teacher for you. For those of you reading who are teachers, I want to share some tips on what I find works best for improving your students’ abilities.

My philosophy and approach can be described as a coaching style. In other words, I like to incorporate a lot of doing in my lessons. Music is kind of like sports, where we train our body to make precise and accurate movements, and it’s important not to get too caught up in the theory before you can actually play something. I firmly believe that the main barrier between your musical conception and execution is your technique. If your technique is sound, then it is only a matter of time and practice to execute any piece of music. In a one hour lesson, this might mean I spend up to 45 minutes of actual practicing and playing. What we do in a lesson is how I want a student to practice at home.

Another role I find myself in, is the role of the problem solver. Every student will have unique obstacles that need to be overcome. If they’re common problems, they are easy to solve. Unique ones will take experience and a keen sense of observation to understand and solve the problems that a student may encounter. I will also get my students to try and solve problems on their own, with my guidance. My goal is to have students eventually become their own teachers, so that they may continue on their musical journey long after we’ve parted ways.

The greatest gratification I get from teaching is when I see a student’s face light up with excitement and joy from overcoming a challenge they work so hard at. It’s only then when I feel like I’ve actually contributed something meaningful to someone’s life, which is my core motivation. With the right mindset, music can be an endlessly challenging and rewarding experience throughout your entire life. The cycle I try to establish is something like: identifying the challenge – overcoming the obstacle – enjoy a sense of accomplishment – get motivated to take on more challenges. I want to destroy a student’s preconceived notions about what they believe they are capable of, in order to achieve things they wouldn’t have even thought of.

If these are points that resonate with you, feel free to inquire about lessons in the Toronto area. Hopefully we’ll be a good match!