Last week, I promised to write about the process of creating the album Islandia and I’ve done just that. In fact, this is probably one of the most anorak series of paragraphs I’ve ever strung together, so reader beware: here be dragons — albeit dragons that look remarkably like a balding man who is freaking out about electronic equipment.
From the outset, I knew Islandia would fuse the electric guitar with the chamber orchestra. While this is in part a sentimental doff of the hat to my journey through performing and listening to music, it is also because, with careful attention to detail, the electric guitar can be an impressive and expressive voice within the concert hall. I’m not talking about the distorted sound often associated with the instrument through works such as Murail’s Vampyr!, or the genres of rock and metal; I’m referring to a clean, pure tone that can blend with an acoustic ensemble. Some composers, such as Glenn Branca and Steve Reich, have employed the instrument’s clean tones to great effect in their compositions, yet, for the majority of people, the electric guitar is still something of an enigma when it comes to classical music.
The electric guitar features in four out of the five compositions that form Islandia and each piece requires the use of a classical fingerstyle technique combined with the manipulation of signal processors (delay and reverb) via foot pedals. While there is a world of technology out there that can adjust the instrument’s timbre to an infinite degree, I adopted the mantra that, throughout all of my tinkering and experimentation, I should preserve the natural tone of the instrument whilst allowing the music to access the extended performance techniques that are only made available through signal processing (namely time-based manipulation of the signal, i.e. creating infinite sustain; or alterations of the natural attack, decay, sustain and release of the instrument).
The first step on my journey was restoring my old Fender Telecaster, an instrument that lends itself very well to the production of clean tones. Again, sentimentality was involved, which explains the reason for using this beloved instrument and not a hollow-body guitar, which I suspect would work equally as well — if not better — alongside a chamber orchestra. The restoration involved installing a bone nut to improve the instrument’s sustain; adjusting the neck, frets and bridge to accept gauge 13 strings for a tone with more depth and body; the installation of some natural and warm-sounding pickups from wiring guru Lindy Fralin; and the addition of some audiophile-grade tone and volume pots, courtesy of the inimitable Dirk at Singlecoil; all of this was lovingly implemented by the careful hands, eyes and ears of Gareth Lewis in Cardiff.
With the guitar set up to provide a clean tone that responds well to a fingerstyle technique, the next stage was to find an amplifier that did the instrument justice. After a lot of searching, I found a Romany Plus by Cornell, which delivered the tone I was looking for within the first few dials of the tone pots — I’m not endorsed by any person, organisation or manufacturer, but Denis Cornell is a genius; the Romany is an amplifier for anyone serious about musicality and tone, and creates a sound that is fine enough for a concert performance. Finally, the sacrilegious addition of a digital reverb and delay to allow the manipulation of time-based parameters. Before you throw your wig in the bin, it took a lot of shopping around to find something that preserved the long-fought-for tone. After days of blind testing a host of pedals, the Big Sky and Time Line by Strymon were hands down the most natural-sounding by a long shot; even when dialling in tones that were obviously “out there”, there was a warmth and depth that let the guitar blend wonderfully with members of the string ensemble during early workshops.
For all this gratuitous description, there is a serious point: the implementation of electroacoustic instruments is something often suggested, but rarely is there the time or inclination to pursue electroacoustic tone with the degree of consideration required for a “classical” performance. Too often have I heard orchestras that have been reinforced with microphones to balance the electronics, which often yields a thin, brittle and artificial sound; and it’s very easy to find concerts in which the electroacoustics sound like disparate instruments that have little consideration for the other sounds around them. There are an infinite number of variables that can affect an electronic signal outside of the space in which a tone or timbre was conceived. Unlike an acoustic instrument, an electroacoustic instrument — by its very nature — will be required to interact with one or more of these variables in order to produce a sound within the performance space; that is unless enough time, patience and consideration is devoted to nullifying these variables in the pursuit of a musical and expressive instrument quality.
Alright, I’ve nerded-out enough for one week. Next up: the wonderful world of ribbon and tube microphones.