Monday, November 10, 2003

In search of the ugliest guitar sound

(most of this is taken from a email conversation that occurred about a year ago)

Although I rarely if ever play electric guitar anymore, I've lately decided that it would be cool to be able to faithfully emulate the sound of a guitar plugged directly into the microphone jack of a Tascam PortaStudio analog cassette 4-track.

Anyone who has ever fooled around with this kind of equipment - which means most amateur or semi-pro musicians - would instantly recognize the sound. The distortion is so utterly unlike either tube distortion or 60s-germanium-tranistor-fuzz that it seems unlikely that even the cheapest commercial distortion pedal sounds as ugly and mid-range-y.

Literally, this is a sound that in the guitar world, everybody gets but nobody wants. Because everybody associates it with people too cheap or lazy to use a real "direct box" or mic up an amp, it sounds like incompetence. Or at least it did. In the digital age, this sound will be something that future generations will have to emulate, the same way that kids in the 80s bought distortion pedals to try to sound like an old tube amp!

You might be able to get a similar sound by using an analog pre-amp that was intended for microphones rather than guitars. Or just use a real 4-track, since they're pretty small and portable (hence that name "PortaStudio"). However, it would be more fun to have a special purpose effect pedal just for this! If I had time I would build one. Its probably just some op-amp circuits. I think I'd call it the Powercow. Anybody out there with enough time on your hands to try and hack together one of these?

I've also noticed something else from listening to my old mixes. The Tascam Porta02 has no built-in equalizer, but EQ can obviously be added during the mixdown stage by a separate mixing console. However, almost anything you do with the EQ tends to de-emphasize the rawness of the sound. For the real deal you need to lay off the EQ and let all the strange overtones created by the distortion show through in the mix.

Songs of my own which used the PortaSound as a distortion source:

Ain't Got a Woman
The City Is Dead
At Your Mercy (electric guitar panned hard left)
Friendly Martians, Julie (lead guitar on final fadeout solo, flanger added during mixdown)
Powercow (extreme distortion, but somewhat mitigated by EQ)
I Might Be a Nerd (lead guitar, mitigated by EQ)