The Gear behind Modular Glitchtar Soundscapes Vol.1
Since the Modular Glitchar Soundscapes Vol.1 record will soon be completed and available in its entirety (including bonus tracks and a limited 2xCDR edition), I thought some of you might be interested to know more about what gear I used to record those improvisations and how I used it.
So let’s start to get this straight: Every tracks were improvised and recorded live in my home-studio, using a lapsteel guitar (electric or Dobro), effect pedals and live-looping devices. Everything, guitar playing, effects tweaking, live-looping and mixing, was done live. The resulting stereo masters were shortened, then mastered. No other instruments or samples were used and no other post-production tweaking.
There are 2 exceptions to this:
- “Lullaby” (Tr.10) was composed and recorded track-by-track. I did the beats using sounds coming from a guitar and the bass line with a modular synth.
- The piano and voice you can hear at the end of “Just for one day” (Tr.04) comes from a song playing from my phone through the guitar pickups.
All the rest is Lapsteel + Effect pedals + Live-looping. (Did I say that already ?)
I must add that every part of the chain is crucial to the music on this record. This was the core idea behind using the word “Modular”: the whole setup that I’m about to describe IS the instrument. I didn’t only play a guitar, with added effects and recorded it with loopers, I played the whole setup.
Now here we go for the details !
THE (LAP-STEEL) GUITARS:
- Gretsch Boxcar Resonator
This is a squareneck Dobro equipped with a Spider cone.
It came with a Fishman piezo bridge amplifying the sound of the cone and is meant to be used with the Fishman Jerry Douglas Preamp pedal (see the Effects section) for a more realistic tone.
I modified it by adding a Gold Foil type electric pickup (made by Mojo pickups) and a miniswitch so I can chose to use the electric pickup, or the Dobro pickup or both. The output jack that originally comes with the guitar is a stereo one but only one “side” is used. I just had to use the originaly unused side to wire the output of the GoldFoil.
One very important feature is that I used a stereo cable that splits to 2 mono cables, allowing the dobro sound and the Electric sound to go through their own effect lines. This is the reason behind those momentts when you think there are 2 guitars playing at the same time on some of the tracks. More details about this in the effect section.
- Fouke Industrial Aluminum Lap Steel Guitar Pro Model Rail Long Scale
As the long name suggests, it’s an aluminum electric lapsteel built by Christopher Fouke of Fouke Industrial Guitars. I put a Lollar El Rayo pickup in it, an amazing humucker which tone is close to a P90 (much clearer than your average humbucker). The nuances possible with this pickup associated with the resonance of aluminum gives huge possibilities for textures, as you can hear in “And the moon turned red“.
- Squier Stratocaster converted for Lapsteel playing
Stock corean made Squier Stratocaster converted into a lapsteel thanks to a nut raiser.
Its cheap and garagey tone actually suits slide playing very well.
This guitar was used on track 7.
- HotRod UFO Steel bodied Resonator Guitar
This one is a biscuit-type cone, the sound is fuller and more agressive. Unfortunately, there’s an electric pickup but nothing to amplify the acoustic sound. The only way to record it is to put a microphone in front of it, which makes it tricky, if not impossible, to use with live-looping. (All the sounds in the room would be looped on top of each other alongside the guitar sound).
This is why it was only used on Track 10.
The guitars then go through my pedalboard which is directly plugged into my audio-interface. My “Amp” is a Tech21 “Blonde” Character series pedal, which emulates Fender-like amps. I actually recorded the first tracks with the Deluxe version that you’ll see in the effects galery below).
This is a pretty straightforward setup when I’m using the electric lapsteel, but there’s a trick when I’m using the Dobro.
In the guitar section, I explained that the Dobro has a magnetic pickup and an acoustic guitar pickup. Both signals go through the same cable but separate again at the end of the cable, allowing me to plug each pickup through a different set of pedals.
Here is a schematic (click on the picture to see the full size):
As you can see, the acoustic sound goes in an acoustic Dobro preamp pedal (a Fishman Aura Jerry Douglas signature), the electric sound goes though other effects and the Tech21 Blonde pedal, then those signals are regrouped and go through delay and reverb pedals.
I’m a big user of the POG2 by Electro-Harmonix, and especially the “swell” feature which slowly raises the volume of the sound and allow to make violin-like sound. I used it a lot on the electric side alongside the bare acoustic side. This is what gives the impression that there are 2 guitars playing together: When I’m playing a note, you immediatly hear it with the dobro sound, but as I keep this note, the electric sound slowly rises and sustain as the Dobro sound fades away.
On top of this, the magnetic sound can be heavily effected: it can be 1 or 2 octaves higher or lower, it can have overdrive or distortion or whatever effect etc… You can have 2 very distinct guitar sounds, with different behaviors but still playing the same notes.
If you listen carefully to the tracks played with the Dobro, you will hear this quite a lot.
All those improvisations were recorded over the span of a year so the pedals I used changed quite a lot. A detailed description of every pedals would be quite boring so here is a gallery and a list of them. You can easily find more infos about them if you want to.
DIY Split Box / Fishman Aura Jerry Douglas Signature / Tech21 Blonde & Blonde Deluxe SansAmp Character Series / Electro Harmonix POG2 / Electro Harmonix Cathedral Reverb / Electro Harmonix Stereo Memory Man with Hazarai Delay / Red Panda Partcle Delay / Wampler Ego Compressor / Line 6 M5 / Zoom G3 / Okko Diablo Gain+ / Moog MF Drive / Pigtronix Echolution 2 / Blackout Effectors Blunderbuss Fuzz.
THE LIVE-LOOPING SETUP:
My Live-looping setup is Ableton Live + one or several control surfaces.
Ableton Live setup:
The Live set I use consists of 1 Guitar input track with some effects and utilities, several tracks hosting the loopers, an auxiliary track with a reverb and a empty track used to record what’s going out of the Master track (so I can have an audio file at the end).
Here is what the Guitar Input track looks like (Click it to see full size):
It’s pretty much self-explanatory: a Utility rack with Volume, Pan and basic Gate and Compressor controls, a Beat-Repeat effect, An Auto-Pan effect, A rack with different Delays and another with several types of Reverbs (Mainly used when I didn’t have those in pedal format).
I use 2 types of Loopers: The one that comes with Ableton and a Plugin by ExpertSleepers called Augustus Loop which is a full featured Tape emulation plugin. Both have their advantages and drawbacks so I tend to go back and forth between those two or use a combiantion of both.
For this record I used 2 sets: one with 4 instances of the Ableton Looper and another one with 2 instances of the Ableton Loopers + 2 instances of AugustusLoop.
The following picture shows my Template which features 4 Ableton Loopers and 2 AugustusLoop. I just have to delete the un-needed ones before starting.
You also can see the effect I’m using inside each looper’s track: an EQ use only to remove frequencies under 30Hz, a little bit of compression, an “Offset Panner” that turns a mono track into pseudo-stereo, a limiter for when it gets too crazy and added volume for balancing the levels.
Those Clips you see in the loopers tracks are “dummy” clips: clips that contain automation information in them (and no audio). They are used to automate functions in the set. In this context, I use them to control when a looper is recording, overdubbing or playing.
The ones in the pictures are very basic: they “say” to the looper in the track to record for 4 bars and they switch to play mode for example. I actually didn’t use those a lot.
I have other dummy clips with much more complicated informations: For example: “overdub on the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 8th beat for half-a-beat with Feedback=0”. The result is everything I play while the looper is overdubbing is actually replacing what was there before (It’s sometimes called “Quantized Replace”).
Such dummy clips allow to sample very short periods of time in a quite random way (especially when the dummy clip is programmed on an uneven numbers of bars: 3, 5 or 7). This way Ableton Live have kind of a life of his own: I never know what I’ll get when I launch one of these dummy clips and I have to react to it. it’s a great way to be surprised, just like if I’m improvising with another human being.
There’s a lot of this technique on the record: everytime new short notes are showing up while I’m playing something else, that’s it ! Those notes are actually fragments of what I played a few bars ago.
They of course allow me to control stuff (huh) inside Ableton Live without using the trackpad: recording, overdubbing, volume, pan, effects and so on.
I used 2 different setups:
a Midifighter 3D and a MidiFighter Twister by DJ Techtools.
The 1st is a Matrix of 4×4 buttons x4 banks and the 2nd one is a Matrix of 4×4 knobs x4 banks.
They look like this:
Later on, I switched to the iPad Lemur app which allow to build your own interface from scratch exactly like you want it to be. My interface looks like this:
I can’t really say that one setup is better than the other. It’s great to be able to have a customized interface, including labels, thanks to the Lemur but tactile technology can be tricky and feels less natural than physical knobs and buttons.. The immediacy of the MidiFighters is quite hard to beat (and they are still very much customizable). The choice often depends on the context and the goal I want to achieve.
That’s it ! I hope it cleared things up and that it’ll help you get inside the music when listening to the record.
It’s here by the way: