Tune Up, Boot Up, Play

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FIG. 1: Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset (left), who plays with Jon Hassel among others, incorporates a laptop into his live rig for looping and effects processing.

As a musician who primarily plays electric guitar, I have always been concerned with getting the best sound out of my rig—be it the ideal overdrive for blues or the proper twang for country. Performing pop music has led me to a larger world of effects and an attempt to re-create pop''s multiple guitar overdubs by looping additional parts. This interest in sound and loops eventually pointed me toward electronica, with its virtually limitless world of textures and noises, and Ableton Live, an intuitive software application that inspired me to compose and perform electronic music while playing guitar through a laptop.

Plugging my Fender Stratocaster into a Mac computer opened up a world of guitar processing and control. Much of this new sonic manipulation was unfeasible in hardware form with my budget and portability constraints, and some—like spectral (see Web Clip 1) and granular effects—are flat-out impossible to achieve without the power of a dual-core computer.

I soon found myself onstage at Warper Parties, which are sort of like open mics for electronic musicians, running my Fender Stratocaster through a MacBook Pro, using amp-modeling software such as IK Multimedia AmpliTube, Native Instruments Guitar Rig, and Overloud TH1, while at the same time employing Live for its sound-mangling plug-ins and ability to trigger various accompaniment loops. I used a Native Instruments Audio Kontrol interface to send the output of this setup to the mixing board.

My preoccupation with guitar tone instigated a search for a rig that would retain the sonic character and physical responsiveness that impelled me to play guitar in the first place while pushing the limits of noises that a guitar can make.

In this article, I''ll discuss the evolution of my laptop-equipped rig and talk with a number of like-minded guitarists about their live laptop experiences. Among those are Leo Abrahams, who often uses a laptop in his work with Brian Eno and Bryan Ferry. He accurately describes melding the physicality of the guitar with the abstract ambiences available with plug-ins. “When I use very complex chains of effects, I love the feeling of the guitar being a kind of super-sensitive analog controller of sound, a kind of tone generator,” he says. “It''s a tactile sort of synthesis, and electric guitar seems uniquely suited to this hybrid approach.”

As enjoyable as the Warper performances are, the majority of my playing involves backing singer/songwriters. In those situations, using a laptop with a guitar presents some issues. For starters, as good as amplifier and effect modeling has become, I find it, as yet, unable to provide a certain analog warmth and “bloom.” Slightly broken-up amplifier sounds and mild overdrive effects remain difficult to achieve digitally.

This is not normally a drawback in the recording studio, where everything is ultimately compressed and mastered, and modeled guitar sounds can often slot right into the mix. Nor is it an issue when performing electronica, where the sound is most often morphed into something unrecognizable as a guitar anyway. But in the intimate setting of a duo or trio accompanying a singer/songwriter, a drier, more natural sound is often required. In short, I missed the tone and feel of a responsive guitar, through cool pedals, into a harmonically rich amp.

This attitude is echoed by other laptop guitarists. “Pedal and amp software-modeling simply aren''t as good,” Abrahams says. “In my view, software is best used for things that would only be possible with that software. Using it to ‘pretend'' to be something else seems like a waste and a misapplication of technology. I still use pedals and an amp with the laptop most of the time because I like the contrasts in tone. There is an excitement and immediacy to hardware, which influences my playing in a certain way. Having both feels like a sort of schizophrenic luxury.”

Whether performing and recording with avant-trumpeters Jon Hassell and Nils Petter Molvær, or as a solo artist, Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset (see Fig. 1) mixes magnificent analog amp and pedal tones with hardware modulation and eerie, laptop-modulated loops. He, too, prefers real pedals to software emulations. “I feel that there is more energy and more contact with the sound,” he says. “I worked with pedals for a very long time, so I would be uncomfortable without them.”

Given the huge range of increasingly exotic boutique pedals, why do these performers add a laptop at all? “Software opens up access to many more frequencies and allows long chains of effects that are simply too esoteric or complex for hardware,” Abrahams says.

When not performing his own computer-enhanced music, Seattle-based Vance Galloway helps other laptop guitarists put together these complex chains. “The ability to change settings or patching between devices allows a level of flexibility that was formerly available only in custom patching guitar rigs costing $10,000 or more [custom Bradshaw pedalboards, for example],” he says. “Computers also offer effects that deal with time and audio buffering that are very difficult or impossible to create using pedals or even rack effects, like granulation, stuttering, shuffling, complex reverbs, or even multiple delay lines. Then there are effects such as spectral delays and other spectral- or convolution-based processing that don''t really exist in pedal form.

“There are pedals that loop, but how many do you know that can do 16 20-minute loops, four playing backward and three playing at double-speed—this is easy for a computer,” Galloway says.

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FIG. 2: The new Keith McMillen SoftStep pedal offers foot-control features such as multitouch pads and silent switching, which are ideal for guitar/laptop live setups.

Galloway is also familiar with the wide range of control possibilities that set laptop effects apart from traditional guitar effects. “Stompbox pedals have the advantage of a physical knob or switch pre-assigned to a parameter on the effect,” he says, “The laptop user has to purchase a separate physical controller [a MIDI fader box, MIDI footswitch, or toucscreen controller]. But once the controller has been selected, a single physical controller—a pedal, for example—can be assigned to control several parameters simultaneously: i.e., turn up a reverb send, change a filter setting, and increase delay time. More importantly, the guitarist is not stuck with someone else''s concept of which parameters are most crucial to control or which physical controller type to use for any given parameter—a MIDI footpedal sends out the same information as a fader.”

For experimental improviser Guillame Girard, the computer removes the need for any physical control over some parameters. “The computer made it possible for me to create random effect variations, for example: fluctuating the delay feedback while morphing the modulation of a flanger,” he says (see Web Clip 2). “Thanks to this technology, I don''t have to manage this and can play freely with my guitar.”

My personal controller odyssey traveled in something of a circle. For electronica performances, I began by using Guitar Rig with Rig Kontrol, its combination footcontroller and audio interface. This was fine until I realized that I needed my hands free to play guitar while still being able to trigger accompaniment loops. Rig Kontrol could not trigger Live loops because it is not a MIDI controller.

I then switched to Overloud''s TH1 modeling software, turning its effects on and off by track pad while using X-Tempo''s Pok footcontroller to trigger clips and scenes. Small, light, and rugged, Pok employs a USB wireless receiver to send keyboard commands from your feet to your computer.

I soon felt the need to do some real-time controlling of effects with my feet, as well, such as turning TH1''s virtual stompboxes on and off (the Overloud software doesn''t receive keyboard commands, so Pok wouldn''t work), and adjusting Live''s volume and filtering plug-in with expression pedals.

I had also added a Korg NanoKontrol, which let me easily modify up to 144 parameters without having to use the trackpad or a mouse, but with only two USB ports, I had to use a USB hub to accommodate the NanoKontrol, Pok, and the USB interface I was using at the time—more stuff than I wanted to carry.

I discovered Line 6''s FBV Shortboard controller, which had just become MIDI-compatible. It easily linked to Live and fits in a carry-on suitcase. With an onboard expression pedal, an external expression input, and 13 switches, it let me control a wide range of parameters—including Live 8''s new looper. At that point, I left the NanoKontrol at home and was back to two USB devices, a footcontroller and an audio interface, removing the need for the hub.

In an effort to further reduce my load—and because I am now using more hardware pedals with their own switches—I have come full-circle, back to just hand controllers. I returned to the NanoKontrol, using the sliders to control computer levels, buttons to turn effects on and off, and knobs to adjust parameters. Using a FireWire audio interface has freed up my laptop''s other USB input for a Korg nanoPad, which controls Live''s looper. If I ever need to do time-based looping, with some care I could actually manipulate the pads with my feet. For ambient looping, my hands work fine.

I share Italian laptop guitarist Luca Formenti''s concern with footcontroller designers who “don''t see the point in making noiseless switches so you can use the pedal board when playing and recording with acoustic instruments.” I too work with acoustic instruments, and one reason I had to abandon the FBV Shortboard was the noise of its mechanical switching. At press time, I have only had a short time to work with the new Keith McMillen Instruments SoftStep MIDI pedal, but with its small size, silent switching, and the multi-axis sensitivity of its footpads, it appears to have enormous potential (see Fig. 2).

If many of the aforementioned decisions seem based on portability rather than ultimate performance, they are. It is the compactness of a laptop that attracts many guitarists. Aarset, who often flies to his gigs, enjoys the fact that using a laptop “means much lighter luggage than when using an effects rack.” He has been able to eliminate rack processors from his load by substituting Sound Toys plug-ins and the Live looper.

Dutch guitarist Bram Stadhouders uses computer-housed soft synths to create his soundscapes instead of floor- or rack-based modules. “If I needed a pedal for every effect or synthesizer that I use on my laptop, I''d fill the whole stage and there wouldn''t be space for the other bandmembers,” he says.

I was also attracted to this benefit of using a laptop. Stage space is always an issue when playing in New York City clubs, and a laptop on a chair replaces many stomp boxes on the floor.

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FIG. 3: The author''s setup, when using an amp with an effects loop, allows for the output from the guitar and pedals to go straight into the amp for maximum tone, while the laptop and audio interface are connected through the amp''s effects loop.

Illustration: Chuck Dahmer

I run the laptop through a guitar amplifier for a number of reasons that I will soon explain, but I found that the artists I interviewed preferred sending the laptop''s output to the P.A., even if, like Abrahams and Aarset, they also use an amplifier.

“There is a clarity to the way the sound is reproduced once an amp is taken out of the setup,” Abrahams says. “Software like the Michael Norris Spectral suite opens up access to many more frequencies; amps are very directional and quite restricted in terms of bandwidth. I''ve found playing through computers straight into the P.A. [to be] very useful, not only for electronic music, but also when playing with classical ensembles. It becomes possible to blend much more sensitively with acoustic instruments. The soundman blends the laptop and the amp, but I make it so that certain sounds are in equal volume, then he doesn''t touch the faders.”

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FIG. 4: The green pedal in the foreground is the Pigtronix Keymaster, which provides a pair of effects loops, allowing integration of the laptop with an amp that has no effects loop.

Photo: Michael Ross

Stadhouders uses only a computer as he wants his sound unsullied. “I always go [straight] to the P.A.,” he says. “I like to keep my sound as natural as possible; I don''t want it to be affected by certain brands [of amps].”

Though I see their points, it was just this sullying that I sought. Running the digital plug-ins from the computer into a tube amplifier added considerable warmth, helping them blend with the sounds from my pedals. I was also dealing with unique monitoring issues. Playing with a singer and other accompanists, I need to hear them and they need to hear me. Unlike Aarset and Abrahams, who play with name artists on big stages where they are afforded long soundchecks, I often find myself in “no-soundcheck” situations where the chances of getting a balanced monitor and house mix—equally suited to my cohorts and me—are slim. Introducing the idea of a laptop onstage can be problematic to more traditional artists; seeing a combo amp helps allay their anxiety.

Latency is another concern for laptop-based guitarists, but my Intel chip-equipped MacBook offers enough processing power to make that a non-issue. On an older machine you still might be able to perform ambient music, but rhythmic synchronization could prove problematic. The problem that I did encounter was, while the computer effects sounded great, the dry guitar sound lacked the depth and harmonic complexity, even though I was using a quality guitar and amp. While I might have been able to live with the clean tone, the sound of subtle overdrive pedals going through the computer was unacceptable.

Eventually, I surmised that part of the problem was the old computer bugaboo: GIGO—garbage in, garbage out. When dealing with digital audio, it is all about the conversion from analog to digital and back. I found that switching from inexpensive USB audio interfaces to higher-quality FireWire interfaces such as Apogee''s Duet and MOTU''s UltraLite Hybrid went a long way toward improving the sound coming out of the amp. At this point, I was running a chain that went guitar > Electro-Harmonix Big Muff with Tone Wicker > Vox Cry Baby Wah > Electro Harmonix Ring Thing > Maxon OD-9 overdrive > Boss Volume pedal > Apogee or MOTU interface > guitar amplifier.

While the sound was vastly improved, something about the feel was still missing. The way an amp reacts to the direct input of a guitar or pedal is a complex thing that makes a subtle but important difference in the way it sounds and the way it responds to pick attack and volume pedal swells.

Placing the audio interface in the series-effects send loop of an Egnater Rebel 30 head overcame this last hurdle (see Fig. 3). Now my pedals were going into the front of an amp and not the interface, which created the critical response to my playing, while the buffered effects loop made the plug-ins sound amazing.

Unfortunately, expedience reared its ugly head: For a subway-riding guitarist, hauling an amp head and separate bottom is not an option. Most often I am carrying a ZT Lunchbox amp or playing through a club-provided backline—in either case, an effects loop is usually not an option.

The ultimate key to my solution turned out to be the aptly named Pigtronix Keymaster (see Fig. 4), a solid-metal pedal housing a pair of true bypass effects loops that can be run in series or parallel. I place the audio interface in Loop A, while running my pedals into the input of the Keymaster and its output into the Lunchbox or house amp. The device''s impedance matching ensures that my guitar pedals see the appropriate input impedance while the amp receives the proper signal impedance.

At last, this is the sound that had started me on my quest: the warmth, character, and monitoring ease of pedals into an amp, combined with the compactness, flexibility, and unique tones available with a computer. It was a long haul, but well worth it for the looks on the faces of audience and bandmembers as they hear alternately familiar and unearthly sounds emanating from my guitar.

Michael Ross is a New York City-based guitarist and music journalist.