Thursday, September 06, 2018

Lost Landscapes | Pedalboards & Processing

Part 2 of a 3 article series, discussing the creation of the playback mechanism that was used to create the album Lost Landscapes.

The processing capabilities available to me during improvisation allow for the spontaneous dynamic ebb and flow of effervescent guitar clouds and cascading waves of delay. What begins as a single note, a chord, or physical interaction can then be modified through the series of effects pedal accoutrements and realtime property manipulation. As a specialist in interactive audio, I’m all too familiar with the opportunity to parameterize the properties of DSP at runtime in games and virtual reality, which has fed-back into building an effects processing rig that allows me to leverage the dynamics possibilities of improvisation in the making of the album Lost Landscapes.

Simply-put: A pedalboard is a group of effect pedals that takes in a signal and modifies it any number of ways. The two pedalboard configuration for Lost Landscapes was arranged in a Mono/ Stereo signal chain that branches and weaves in and out of various effect possabilities. During the spontaneous composition of the resulting albums-worth of material, different effects were turned on and off, properties were changed and/ or modified while simultaneously playing the guitar, and sound was borne in response. This first part will be an overview of the signal chain from guitar to speaker cabinets that aims to illustrate the options that were available when recording.

From the output of a golden Vox SDC 55 guitar into the mono pedalboard, the electronic dream of a thousand falling stars then branches: one path leads to a 50 watt Silvertone 1484 plugged into a Marshall 4X12 and the other goes to a series of stereo effects pedals and rack-mount processors that are output to a customized stereo Silvertone 1474 running 50 watts per-channel, and then branched into two Silvertone 2X12 cabinets. The goal of this amplifier configuration is to allow for the ability to control the following aspects of the final output: the blend between the mono and stereo outputs, discreet stereo effect processing, and to increase the width of the stereo signals towards a broad soundstage.

While the mono pedalboard holds-down most of the overdrive, distortion, fuzz, wah, chorus, phasor, and octave-dividing duties, the stereo branch is focused on Reverbs, delays, and stereo panning. The mix between the mono and the stereo pedalboard helps retain the definition and edge of the guitar from the mono rig, while letting the stereo rig reverberate and support the clarity of guitar playing with fluffy-clouds of noise. It’s simply an attempt at the layering of multiple amplifier outputs towards a fully balanced representation of the guitars expression.

Mono Pedalboard and Vox SDC-55

Mono Pedalboard Alternate Configuration


The guitar signal starts out on the lower shelf of the two-tiered mono pedalboard with the Boss OC-2 Octaver, which doubles the guitar signal one and two octaves below the original played note. It’s used in the middle section on Contents/ Weightless to add low end during a solo section and fills in the low-frequencies like a pillow of butter; supportive, yet smooth. From there the signal flows into an Electro Harmonix Big Muff from the Russian/ Sovtek era. This distortion is at the heart of my pedalboard and can be traced back to early days of gear acquisition; it sounds like a pack of angry bees stuffed into the mouth of a limestone cave opening exhaling the cool dank from within. There are a few more distortions further down the line I can use to push things further towards maximum saturation, but the Big Muff is usually in there somewhere. I like to keep the Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Wah early in the flow, after the Big Muff but before other distortions, to allow for it’s expression to get picked up by effects downstream from it like at the end of ‘Squall’ and towards the beginning of ‘This Could Be The End’. Things jump back into a triple-threat of distortion-stacking opportunity with the Boss DF-2 Super Distortion & Feedbacker (modded by Quint Hankel), ProCo Rat, and re-housed DOD FX56 American Metal. Different colors or flavors, the DF-2 is a full-frequency blanket, the Rat tears the roof off of high end, and the American Metal decimates everything in its path with a scooped-mid low frequency impact that pushes your hair back and can be heard front-and-center on ‘Everything Is Heavy’ and in the searing background lead of ‘Squall’.

Boss Octaver OC-2
Re-Housed DOD FX56 American Metal

Things get pretty modulated from here. The Boss CE-2B Bass Chorus is is buried in the dirt section between the ProCo RAT and American Metal. The old argument of whether to put modulation before or after distortion is solved by allowing for both options! After dirt, we head into a re-housed Ibanez CS5 Soundtank Chorus. What’s cool about this box is that it was one of my first re-houses where I discovered a couple of extra trim-pots on the circuit board that I externalized with knobs that were accessible from outside of the enclosure. These trims were meant to be a set-it-and-forget-it tuning for the chorus but allowed for a wider range of tonality: from crystalline to syrupy. You can hear its almost leslie-like tonality at the end of ‘Let’s Fold Space’ and, while I’ve since abandoned both chorus and flange as part of my new rig, it always remains within arms reach as a magic box of glowing vibration. The Mu-tron Phasor II that follows is one of the best around, with a character and sound that cannot be beat and is usually set to a slow phase with plenty of Feedback, undulating into a roiling sea of lysergic syrup. Something about the extremes that it reaches or the subtle distortion and boost it lends to certain frequencies makes it indispensable and coveted.

The upper shelf picks up with the Boss TR-2 Tremolo and the vibrations it lends come in handy at this point in the signal flow in-order to apply a tremolo to the entire signal, all the way down through the signal chain. Things get kicked sideways from here into the Boss AW-2 Auto Wah, usually set to a fast and bubbling deep-wobble used for lead runs. At this point, just in-case things need a high-frequency boost, the AW-2 is followed by an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer set to a barely-there crunch that brings a lift that pushes things into clarity. For all of the delay that will follow, the Ibanez DML Digital Modulation Delay is the first stop for elevating things into the far-out reaches of outer space. Nothing fancy here, just a nicely disorienting (max) 512ms of delay repeats w/ the occasional modulation for extra weirdness. The time knob also holds up well for realtime tweaking and can set off some deep-dive swells that hit the spot. The DOD FX75-B Stereo Flanger provides all of the darksider-influenced jet-engine takeoff modulation and, because you can never have enough phasers, the Boss PH-2 Super Phaser comes next. With the controls set to a fast and warbly syncopation, the signal quickly becomes bathed in even more bubbly goodness. Remember when I said that Green Russian Big Muff was one of my favorites? Well, why not have two?! The second Big Muff in the signal chain means that I can choose where the blanket of mud is applied in the chain and is especially nice when choosing to run it in either a before-wah or after-wah configuration.

From here things start to get (more) interesting. The mono pedalboard branches at this point using a Morley ABY Selector/ Combiner with one output routed to the stereo pedalboard and the other routed into a Line 6 DL4. The DL4 allows for the ability to throw some kind of wild delay or modulation on the signal routed ONLY to the 60W Silvertone 1484 running in mono to the Marshall 4X12. Whether that’s with a long delay or by whipping things in reverse on the fly, this flexibility to modify only the mono branch of the rig comes in super handy when I just want to push sound from the mono amplifier into someplace weird. The DL4 has had it’s spring-loaded pcb-mounted switches replaced with real soft switches and the loop mode mod has made the looping functionality accessible with a footswitch.

The entirety of the mono and stereo pedalboard effect pedals are powered by a trio of Juice Box Pedalboard Power Supplies: 1 for each tier of the mono pedalboard and 1 for the stereo pedalboard. The isolated outputs are used to feed a junction box housed in an old wooden box that used to hold Dominos. Wiring from the Dominos boxes run to each individual pedal. Each of the ends has been fitted with a trimmed-down 3.5mm plug oriented at a 90 degree angle insuring the tightest fit possible. There have been a ton of advancements with solderless plugs that would be fun to investigate, but for now this DIY solution is serving me pretty well.

Stereo Pedalboard

Living in Stereo

After signal leaves the mono pedalboard it gets folded out into stereo using a Boss CH-1 Super Chorus and then into a couple of One Control Black Loop dual effect loop pedals for a total of two stereo effect loops. During the recording of Lost Landscapes these boxes were separate and required 4 footswitches in order to switch on and off the stereo effect loops. I’ve since frankenstein-ed an interface that allows allows for the switching of a stereo effects loop with a single footswitch. The first processor in the stereo effects loop chain is the Digitech DSP128. This is a processor that goes back to my teenage years kicking-out-the-jams in my parents garage and throughout my time with the Minneapolis band February (Carrot Top/ Saint Marie Records). This is a standard multi-effects unit from the late 80’s with all of the algorithms you expect: long & multi-tap delays, reverse reverb, and the densest wall of gigantic unrealistic reverberation that can be imagined. For the kinds of sounds I’m reaching for, the concept of reality is heavily malleable. I’m happy to say that Digitech hadn’t quite sorted out representing the real world digitally in the best possible way, back when this box was in production. It’s become one of the foundations of my sound and (as you’ll see) I found a way to love it even more later in the signal chain.

Rack Processors
Dual-Stereo Effect Loops

The next piece of the stereo effects loop chain is a pair of Ibanez DM1000 Digital Delay processors....which is partially incorrect, as I’ve replaced the delay board in each of them with delay boards from the fancier Ibanez DM1100 Digital Delay and further extended the delay range capability. With up to 3600ms of delay at normal operation, these boxes come packed with modulation and feedback controls that can lift-off the spaceship with no problem...but then I got to snooping around inside. I’d had a DM1000 since leveraging it to tremendous effect of the lead track off Lost Chocolate Lab | The Butterfly’s View and found myself inside the unit for some reason when I spotted a couple of small trim-pots (potentiometers)...basically knobs....on the circuit board for setting the feedback range and clock speed of the DSP chip. The clock speed can be used to tune the balance between delay time and “fidelity”, which is to say, you can push the delay time much further than 3600ms if you’re willing to sacrifice the fidelity of the repeats. This was all I needed to embark on a serious adventure of modification.

Ibanez DM1000 Internal Trim Pots

I started by externalizing these controls on the front panel of the unit by removing the duplicate output jacks and replacing them with knobs for the controls. This escalated quickly to the point where I added a second DM1000, swapped out the delay boards from a couple of DM1100, and then wired those clock speed knobs up to a couple of hijacked Dunlop Cry Baby GCB 95s so I could control each side independently at my feet. This allows for the bending of time and space in realtime as heard at the beginning of the track “Let’s Fold Space”. When this ability is coupled with the another unique feature of the DM series; The Hold Button, things can get pretty wild. The Hold button essentially grabs whatever audio is in the delay line and loops it. Not quite the same as all those fancy looper pedals out there, this is a little more like the sample and hold functionality often found on old analog synthesizers. When coupled with a momentary and latching footswitch on the ground this technique results in the time-bending illustrated on the track ‘Let’s Fold Space’. One thing to note is that the delay output of the two Ibanez DM units are removed from the stereo signal path at this point and output to one of the stereo channels on the Silvertone 1474. The clean channel is passed back to the rest of the stereo path that follows, while the delay output is removed from further travels through the stereo pedalboard.

Ibanez DM1000 w/ Externalized Clock Speed and Feedback Controls
Modified Dunlop Crybaby (Dual Expression Pedal)

After leaving the dual-stereo effects loops, the signal winds its way into the TC Electronic Flashback X4 for long delays and reverse-playback trickery. This is yet another flavor and opportunity to make choices about delay and special effects at a later-stage in the processing chain. One thing that stands out about the Flashback X4 is their Tone Print technology. Initially Tone Prints could be seen as a gimmicky way to capitalize on the star power of custom presets and the adoption of a sound-alike mindset but, once you peek under the hood and see the possibilities the technology unlocks, there’s no doubt that it enables some incredibly creative control. I’ve swapped out the circuit board mounted footswitches for sturdier soft-switches on both the Flashback X4 and Line 6 DL4 and there are a couple other mods I’d like to undertake someday as well.

TC Electronic Flashback X4 Soft-Switches Before Replacement 

From there it goes back into the rack for a final helping of gigantic Reverbs courtesy of the Digitech DSP 128+. While I’ve had the DSP128 for years, the DSP 128+ makes up for losing some of the output flexibility of its predecessor with the edition of, what they call, ‘Ultimate Reverb’. This algorithm which takes the insanity of the previous iteration and drives it even further into another dimension of spaced-out reverberation. Additionally, certain settings allow for a new footswitchable ‘Hold’ function which (you guessed it) grabs what’s in the delay buffer and repeats it infinitely. From the outputs of the DSP 128+ signal winds its way back into a Boss PN-2 Stereo Tremolo/ Pan where the resulting cloud of Reverb and delay can be bounced between left and right channels in a mind-melting illustration of stereophonics (Illustrated to great effect during the song “Shall We Start Over”). The final leg of the journey takes us back to the rack into Symetrix 525 Dual Gated Compressor/ Limiter to reign-in the cloud of atmospherics and bring some additional volume and sustain to the Reverb tails. The compressor outputs to a 60W Silvertone 1474 modified to run in stereo.

Stereo Silvertone Sidebar

I used to work in a rock and roll repair shop in St. Paul, Minnesota called The Good Guys (no affiliation with the California electronics franchise). I held the non-glamorous job of interfacing with high-strung gigging musicians and their precious cargo while shepharding them through the proposed repair process; soldering jammed input jacks, intermittent connections shaken loose by rock and roll vibrations, etc. On one of the many trips back and forth between the cramped intake room, through the shelved hallway, and into the back room where the electronics repair magic happened there happened to be pieces of gear that went unclaimed, unfixed, or otherwise neglected and forgotten (aka the stuff that dreams are made of). Among the dead Oberheim OBXa, the parted-out Yamaha DX7, and sad looking Peavy was a tuxedo-black mint condition Silvertone 1474 (This really is a story that dreams are made of!). It’s hard to remember exactly what happened next, or how the conversation evolved (It surely had something to do with the Silvertone 1484 I was already gigging with in the Minneapolis band February) but over the next years I would unleash that beautiful amplifier to rock the wide open dimensional-plains with a maelstrom of guitar noise. But before that could happen, it had to be resurrected from its slumber.

By this point in my guitar playing, I had already decided upon a stereo setup leveraging the Digitech DSP 128, even going so far as to employ a Samson Power Amp and a couple if giant 15” & horn PA speakers for maximum stereo separation. Somewhere in the course of discussing the resurrection of the 1474, technician Quint Hankel mentioned that the amp could easily be converted to operate as a stereo amp and set to work making this dream come true. With the 4 6L6 tubes now splitting duty across a left and right output, each routed to one of the internal speakers in the 2X12 cabinet, this customized monster of tone became part of a stack of Silvertones that was the backbone of my live rig in February and in the early days of Lost Chocolate Lab.

Stereo Silvertone 1474 and Mono Silvertone 1484
Stereo Silvertone 1474

After years of use, Don Mills of Seattle’s Golden Phi Amplification Engineering took a second pass at the amp, swapped out two of the output transformers, and cleaned up some parasitic noise that had crept into one of the channels. Meanwhile, in order to keep things flexible, I build a speaker junction breakout box that allows me to route sound in stereo to either; the two internal speakers or by leveraging both speakers in the cabinet as one side of the stereo amplification while leveraging another cabinet for the other side. With the flip of a switch and some cable manipulation the amplifier can wide in a two cabinet configuration or stay compact as a stereo combo amp. There are 2 channels of inputs allowing for a mix of two individual stereo signals, used to great effect during the recording of Lost Landscapes to handle the stereo output of the Digitech DSP128 as well as both of the Ibanez DM1100s. The resulting tone is heavily colored, very forward sounding, with more than a little bit of that milkshake-thick grit that Silvertones are known for.

Stereo Operation (2 Cabinet)
Mono Operation (Internal Cabinet)

For the recording of Lost Landscapes, there are a total of 3 distinct outputs:

  1. Mono Pedalboard to Silvertone 1484
  2. Stereo output of the Ibanez Delays into Channel 1 of the modified Stereo Silvertone 1474
  3. Stereo Output of the Symetrix Compressor into Channel 2 of the modified Stereo Silvertone 1474

These 3 signals are then blended to taste in the room with an ear towards allowing the mono pedalboard to give definition to the cloud-formations emanating from the stereo Silvertone amplifier.

Master Control Program

Recording Rundown

Armed with a trusty Goldtop Vox SDC-55 through the aforementioned pedalboards, the mono branch runs into a 60W Silvertone 1484 connected to a Marshall 4X12 with 2 mics on it (SM58 & Sennheiser MKH 416). The stereo pedalboard runs into a Silvertone 1474 modified to run stereo into 2X 2X12 (the 1474 & 1484) cabinets, mic'd with a matched pair of AKG 414's running directly into an RME Fireface connected to a Mac Laptop and then into the Reaper DAW.

The recording took place during the week of December 26th 2016 in 3 sessions. The first was a 2 hour fully improvised set. The second session, after some tuning and recording confirmation, was spontaneously composed the same day. These two takes comprised the basic tracks for Lost Landscapes. The next day I performed live overdubs across a handful of sections that had a vibe or semblance that resonated when I listened back. I added some markers to the timeline for rough in/out transitions but otherwise improvised alongside the first pass wearing headphones.

Rough mixes were bounced of the sections that held together across repeat listening and the long process of sculpting and mixing began. With a total of 4 tracks for each of the 2 passes, I was juggling the balance between 8 simultaneous tracks for each song. Working with sound as my day job, and already having applied a healthy-dose of DSP during recording via effect pedals, I didn’t want to spend time doing a lot of post-processing on the final tracks with additional plugins. Ultimately, I did some noise reduction using Izotope RX, employed plenty of equalization and dynamic EQ with just a touch of compression. Mixing was done in Ableton Live with the final sequencing ending-up back in Reaper.

While I did a fair amount of auditioning across multiple studio environments, I knew that I didn’t have the best frequency balance after working the EQ of each track aggressively over the year of micro-tweaking. I called on the artistic services of Heba Kadry at Timeless Mastering in New York to help restore balance to the frequencies across the entire 80 minute album. I saw Heba speak at the 2017 Audio Engineering Society New York Conference on a panel entitled “Mastering 201: Beyond the Basics” where she discussed the art of “sonic sculpting”. The words she used to describe her process resonated and when the time came, months later, to master the project it seemed like a good fit. I learned a lot through the process and her work helped clear away some sound-cobwebs and reduce some fatiguing frequencies that had built-up as a part of the equalization that I’d done.

Video Landscapes

The other piece of the puzzle that came together during the mixing of the album were the 80 minutes of videos that would accompany each track. Hours of landscape footage recorded during my commute to work between the University District of Seattle and South Bellevue became the source material forming the basis for the Lost Landscapes video companion. The hour plus commute served as the perfect backdrop for the sound of instrumental-soundscape guitar atmospherics. Staring out the window reviewing tracks and watching the Washington landscapes pass-by in an endless succession of (equal parts) monotony and beauty seemed like the perfect way to frame the visual aspects, or at least establish a baseline of content that would serve as the raw materials to create visuals that I felt fit the expression of sound.

Video footage was captured using an old Sony handheld digital video camera and then transferred onto a Microsoft Surface for processing and editing in Adobe After Effects. New to the whole AE suite of tools, I felt my way along with different effects and editing techniques, like: mirror, opacity, saturation, and echo until something interesting started rendering. Sometimes I was happy to let the content speak for itself, other times I happily pushed it into a level of abstraction that felt fitting for the music.

The aerial footage for Squall was provided by friend and fellow game audio colleague Jesse Rope. I knew he went pretty deep into nature and found creative ways to capture his adventures. I asked if he had anything that might go well as a visual accompaniment with some weird noise and searing guitar sonics. The video edits he supplied were inspiring and easily comprise one of the most epic visual unfoldings of time and space set to the tone of caterwauling guitars.

The videos were teased over several months on Instagram in advance of the first single release. Small 1 minute edits of each song and video were cropped out of the final videos and bumpered with transparent text that allowed a peek into the world behind the black screen overlay. The first single off of Lost Landscapes: Squall (Radio Edit) was launched and became the preview track for the Lost Album Pre-Release on Bandcamp, corresponding with the availability of Lost Chocolate Lab Logo Stickers and Patches. The album is set to be Released on August 31st with live set of solo guitar atmospheric improvisations weaving threads of the album set against a projected backdrop of visuals created to accompany the release and performance.

Lost Chocolate Lab plays Lost Landscapes in Seattle at The Chapel on September 14th 2018 at 8pm

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