Guitar Gigging, Recording & Composing


The combination of modeling and offshore manufacturing has recently brought to market many professional caliber electric guitars and basses that are well under $1000.  When you own other wonderful high-value instruments worth many thousands of dollars, it is not always safe to bring them out for performing, especially in places where large variations in temperature and humidity can be extremely hostile musical instrument environments.   In addition to being vulnerable, strictly acoustical instruments are hard to play softly enough to play in the middle of the night without disturbing others unless you have the means to have a soundproof studio.  These all contribute to the popularity of electric guitars which are a lot easier to record, signal process, compose with, carry on your back and perform by yourself compared to most other musical instruments most of which can only play one note at a time. This means if you want to earn living you are going to have to be part of an ensemble unless you play the guitar or a keyboard. And yes singing helps employability too. Additionally, practice time is always at a premium and $100 headphones sound a lot better than $100 speakers which is why people now listen to music a lot more through headphones than speakers.

Economies of scale have the most impact on the world of electronics, especially digital electronics which is where the next giant leap in musicians’ footprint occurs.  And remember the larger the musical footprint the easier it is to earn a living.

Digital systems can now sound as good as analog systems and have become energy efficient enough to be battery-powered. This means an under $100 and under six-ounce USB rechargeable device that can easily fit in your pocket is now far more sonically powerful, portable and self-contained than a million-dollar computer was when I was in graduate school.  There are not too many situations in one’s life where the price-performance ratio improves by 10,000 but music is one of them.

This is why I lost most of the day today escaping into music technology in discovering exactly what a device called the Mighty Plug could do and imagining what its soon-to-be-released replacement the Mighty Plug Pro will be doing in two weeks.

Now the challenge is how to squeeze 100 pages of learning into two or three hundred words. 

In order to do this, I have to leave out how it does it and even why it does it and save these for another day.

Let’s take it one step at a time.  First, this tiny device plugs directly into an electric guitar without any additional cables. It also has a place to plug in headphones, this is called a headphone jack. If you are picky you can bring your expensive and accurate full bandwidth experience producing over-the-ear (circumaural) headphones and then be bathed in terrific personal sound that disturbs no one making it possible to play for hours more per day.

So, far the setup takes under a minute – plug the device into your guitar and your headphones into the drive and you are ready to play. And you have fun for at least an hour just doing this. And the device has several different settings to choose from that sound like different amplifiers and since you play more than one style of music this is welcome and keeps you busy for at least another hour. 

And then you get a phone call which you have to take and so reluctantly stop playing and hey you did need a break by then. By the way, these seven different sounding amplifiers each weigh between say 40 and 200 pounds. Good thing you did not have to carry them with you.

Now as you are taking the call, you remember wait doesn’t this device have some sort of Bluetooth player connection, whereby you could stream whatever music you could listen to from your phone into the device and then play along with it? So, you dial up some favorite tunes that you would like to play along with and realize wait a minute I do not need to listen to other people’s stuff, I have a lot of my own original material on this phone from last week’s performance and I also have several works in progress which could use some refinement and perfecting because you have another performance coming up win a few days.

Well, another hour or more later you are feeling like wow this is so flexible and easy, why have I not been doing this for years? Oh, the device did not exist yet you say? But you have had it for eighteen months and were too busy to mess with it as it was not a priority and you thought this would be a distraction or an escape.

After congratulating yourself for having had the delayed gratification discipline to not enjoy the powerful device you have just been playing with for half a day, because hey you were right you did just lose half a day. And just for good balance then you take a turn beating yourself up for having the wisdom to acquire a very useful piece of gear but then not using it for the last year, I know you can not win right? And while you were giving yourself a had time for the two opposing reasons you realize that you have to leave for a lunch appointment for a couple of hours, and while driving there, you are remembering hmm I think there is a cross-platform smartphone app this company makes that significantly increases what this device can do.

In fact, you may have even downloaded it but of course, that was on a different phone and after lunch when you go to fire it up you discover of course there is a new rev of the app. And after dutifully downloading and installing the app, you get the message that the firmware on your device needs to be upgraded to be compatible with the app.

Ah two more hours later when the version of the app and the version of the firmware are all installed and synched up, you fire this thing up and go whoa, this does a lot of other things and in fact, I am not even sure what all of them are. Of course, being a pro I have an inkling but am not totally sure. But I am sure I want to play more than I want to read the documentation, so I start clicking my way around the app and try to break everything as I usually find this to be the fastest way to learn something.

And then I discover there are settings for the as-yet-unreleased version of this thing called the Mighty Plug Pro, but wait I have not even figured out what the current version does and fortunately for me the new device is not shipping for another couple of weeks because I have not yet figured out all the one I already done does.

And I also want to be able to explain to you my creative outlier curious tool users what is going on here. So, here we go through what I found out.

Now let’s say your guitar has single pickups and there are overhead fluorescents or something else electrical creating some noise and you would like to get rid of this unwelcome disturbing sound. And say you are an audio engineer, you know what to do, you need a noise gate to cut out all of the annoying noises when you are not playing. Well, this mighty plug has an effective built-in noise gate which you can turn on and off. Sweet!

Okay now say you would like to beef up your tone with a fatter sound and go poking around and see those seven different amplifier models you messed with a few hours ago are all actually editable and you can save the edited versions. So another hour goes by. And you are not even halfway through the options. And yes I know this has to be sped up at some because you are all not guitar nerds but wait this is not for SVII this is for me and others like me, right?

Okay, so the device also has the ability to emulate many different types of effects from the always-needed reverbs, to the sometimes needed delays, and to the not so often needed modulation effect like chorusing. Just like the amplifier choices, each of these has a lot of different editable things to try and yes this would have required an entire rack of gear or a pedal board and some multiprocessors too. We are talking about another thousand dollars worth of gear that would require another trip or more from the car. And more setup and debugging time too.

We are getting closer to the end but there is a ways to go.

So, we have a laboratory full of effects and amplifiers and an infinite library full of music that could be played along with. What else? Well, this is another large concept called Impulse Responses – in engineering terms, these are transfer functions that characterize systems or parts of systems. Two significant parts of systems are represented here. The speaker cabinets that the rest of the electronics are plugged into ranging from giant enclosures full of giant speakers all of the way down to much smaller and very different sounding more portable speaker systems.  Yes, these can change the way an instrument sounds quite a bit. So we now find ourselves able to impact spectral, spatial and dynamic aspects of the sound with a studio full of tools in a six-ounce $70 Mighty Plug being controlled by the brains of a several hundred dollar smartphone. This could keep you occupied for not just hours but probably months. Oh, and these impulse response transfer functions can not only make our headphones sound like many different speaker cabinets but can also transform your electric guitar into other guitar models and even to some degree from electric to acoustic guitar sounding. This too is pretty awesome and did I mention this all sounds very good because all of the electronics are better than CD quality. They are 24-bit, not 16 bit and they sample at higher rates as well. Basically, there is a better signal-to-noise ratio and dynamic range. Marvelous.

But wait, there is more!  Apparently, there are rhythm tracks of digital drumming styles which also sound very high quality and the zeroth-order version which is a metronome. This took another hour to work my way through trying them all.  And then it turns out there are built-in backing tracks of chord progressions you can play lead along with. 

And coming in for a landing here, I could not resist scraping the web for more information about the pro model which ships in two weeks and will likely still be in the slightly under $100 range. And since I have been a product designer they have apparently anticipated almost everything I would have requested. I am never happy just saying this is what something is, I have to also ask what it could be or should be.

They have increased the 13 different stored Impulse models to 36 and made them user up-loadable, so there is (or rather will be) the ability to take advantage of hundreds if not thousands of third-party impulse responses now called by the industry, IRs. And they created an editor and other software tools to develop your own. This too could keep you busy for years. And they will be replacing the ten built-in drum patterns with 70 built-in patterns divided into categories which can also be replaced by user up-loadable alternates. They are also going to permit backing track uploads as well.

And while they were at it they added more reverbs, a compressor and more of everything.

And did I mention this also operates as a digital interface to your computer and soon your phone or tablet in the next rev in two weeks, so you can record what you are doing directly with the same high-quality audio specifications?

This simple to use but very powerful tool with deep customization capabilities is a game-changer and there will certainly be more and more devices like this almost immediately. And for $100? That is astounding. When combined with a professional-caliber but readably priced guitar and a battery-powered sound system for gigging and headphones for rehearsing, practicing and composing you have a one-trip from the car $1000 setup that is professionally powerful and sounds really excellent.

I will be blowing a lot of minds beginning this weekend when performing.

Guess this has to be broken into smaller pieces but this double-edged power of escapist tangents and fairly infinite power is just too important to ignore any longer.