Issue # 405 April 2016
…the universally accepted shorthand for ‘effects’. You can often find these letters scribbled on a mixing console, or typed into a channel or 3 in the DAW environment. Before tackling any particular family of FX, let’s look back into their history, and their relationships with our guitars.
The earliest forms of ‘effect’ that you can trace back in recording history would be reverb and echo. No pedals in those days – the ‘effects’ were dialled in through the control room console – for reverb, there would be a separate isolated room where a sound (guitar) would be fed into a speaker; at the other end of the room was a microphone, capturing the ambience of the space. The larger the room and the further back the mic, the more reverb depth.
Then some clever folks figured out that this sound could be emulated (and rather beautifully) by using large metal plates. Then around the beginning of the ’60s, reverb was achieved through a set of springs – which gave us our onboard amp reverbs. Echo, on the other hand, was achieved using an extra tape recorder to play back the delayed sound. In the simplest terms:
Reverb = decay. Echo = delay.
I remember with much delight, my first amp with built-in reverb. Surf time! And you could jar or shake the amp to get an awesome ‘thunder’ sound.
The first echo units available ran on continuous loops of tape – and sounded heavenly. They do to this day. I still use one on occasion; it never disappoints. Then came the mighty fuzz-tone / distortion pedal, and wah-wah pedal. So many possibilities – and good ones, provided they’re not over-used. Flanging is also a concept with deep roots. The first commercially huge recording was Toni Fisher’s “The Big Hurt” in 1959. “Itchycoo Park” by the Small Faces (1967) featured some spectacular flanging on the drum fills – an unforgettable sound. When I recorded my first album (“Randall’s Island”), my co-producer Eddie Kramer used it rather effectively – as he had plenty of experience using this effect with Jimi. It wasn’t a pedal – it was achieved by running the signal from the guitar into a second tape machine and putting the heel of your hand across the top flange of the reel of tape, slowing it down and letting it speed it up again continuously, So that’s where the term “flanger” comes from.
By the late ’60s, as guitarists were looking for more interesting additions to our sound palettes, some very clever design engineers realised that many more effects could be mounted into relatively small ‘stomp boxes’ so that we could carry a small arsenal of these cool sounds with us – and they caught on like wildfire. Who could forget the original Mu-Tron III – the first commercially available stand-alone envelope follower? Before Mike Beigel invented that box, you could only find them as sections of analog synthesisers. Beigel was a protégé of Bob Moog. ‘Nuff said.
The early ’70s was the beginning of the plethora of pedals we see today. The biggest, most popular brands then were Electro-Harmonix, MXR, Roland/Boss, TC, Korg, and a few others. But it grew and grew. Then there were hundreds – now there are tens of thousands of choices from manufacturers worldwide. Some of these boxes are of the cheap and cheerful variety, some just plain cheap, and others are really expensive boutique pedals, many claiming to use superior parts, wiring, (and should have much longer guarantees).
But you know, many of these boxes are simulating sounds – imitating, if you will. An echo box is merely re-creating what it would sound like if you hollerred into a big canyon then heard the repeat of ‘hello’ bouncing back from afar. Electronic reverb imitates the effect you would get yelling ‘hello’ into a cave, or a big ol’ church. Here’s a marvellous piece of info I picked up from Wikipedia (on their page called “Flanging”):
…The original tape-flanging effect sounds a little different from electronic and software recreations. Not only is the tape-flanging signal time-delayed, but response characteristics at different frequencies of the tape and tape heads introduced phase shifts into the signals as well. Thus, while the peaks and troughs of the comb filter are more or less in a linear harmonic series, there is a significant non-linear behaviour too, causing the timbre of tape-flanging to sound more like a combination of what came to be known as flanging and phasing.
Shall we move to the early ’80s? OK, let’s. I lived in Los Angeles in those days. By this time, many major pedal manufacturers were also putting their electronics into 19 ½ rack-mount boxes. Some were sonically superior, and others just had the same circuit board mounted into a bigger box. The LA studio ‘scene’ couldn’t have been hotter! Producers paid top dollar for the in-demand players to show up at sessions, and ‘show’ is an operative word here. No longer could you bring in a bag of pedals and cables. We were expected to have big racks, delivered by ‘cartage trucks’. The racks were filled with all sorts of FX kit, and with loads of flashing coloured lights which undoubtedly made our sounds better, right?
In my next installment, we come to the birth of the pedal board, I’ll talk about a really wild effect I applied to Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn The Beat Around”, and we’ll conclude the FX line of thought with computer-based ‘Amp Simulators’.
TwanG for now…