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Jon Chappell

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About Jon Chappell

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  1. Creating Environmentally Unfriendly Effects   By Jon Chappell   Too often we think of ambience as a set-and-forget parameter. You choose an acoustical environment (large room, concert hall, etc.) for your music, blend the wet/dry ratio to get it just right, and then you don't think about it any more. But there are many situations where you can use reverb effectively as a sort of "post-note" event - one where you don't try to simulate ambience so much as give the listener an added dimension to the sound that comes after they hear the normal acoustic envelope (attack, sustain, decay/release). This can be particularly effective on notes that stop short - ones that have space after them. In that situation, you'll hear some interesting additional activity after the principal note, chord, or sound decays naturally. For an example of how this occurs naturally, think of a piano: Even after you release the keys and damp the strings, there's still some ringing from the soundboard. A similar phenomenon happens with hollow-body electric guitars, acoustic guitars, dobros, and the short decay that happens after notes finish sounding in extremely small acoustical spaces.   GETTING STARTED To start experimenting with this kind of reverb effect, try dialing up a familiar sound and then playing with it - one option is to start with large rooms and halls, then try some simple EQ tricks. One of my favorites involves "band processing," where only certain reverb frequency ranges get the tweaks. For example, to emulate a harsh spring reverb, select a high-pass filter and boost that treble content even further, even to unnatural emphasis. (To improve the "spring" accuracy, also reduce any diffusion control if present.) Remember, you're not using reverb to simulate the environment, so distortion and non-realism are okay here. A good way to tune any frequency-specific reverb is to turn the mix to 100\% wet and set the room size to large. That way you hear only the affected frequencies and hear them in an exaggerated fashion. In the case of our high-pass/treble boosted reverb, we might hear a tinny sound, but sometimes the tinnier the better if you're going to be mixing this with a full-range dry signal. Another possibility is creating a super-short reverb - a small room with a really short decay time (Fig. 1). Again, start with a larger room and longer decay so you can hear the effect well, then shorten the times to tighten everything down. [attachment=139395:name] Fig. 1: You can even make a quality reverb like Universal Audio's Dreamverb sound weird if you set the parameters the way designers probably never intended you to set them. This settings gives a really short reverb with a prominent high end. Once you've decided on your basic sound, you may want to add it only selectively--as in applying it to certain notes but not others. To do this smoothly, route the "weird verb" to its own track and then bring the volume up and down at selected times, but do this with write-automation enabled so the results are almost like an instrument would play - regular, fast, and rhythmic - at least when compared to "normal" mixer fader moves (which seem to favor more gradual and graceful introductions and exits). What can be even easier, as well as more precise, is to automate the on/off status of the effect itself. If the plug-in effect doesn't have a bypass switch, no worries; simply route the reverb-only signal (i.e., 100\% wet signal) to an adjacent track, write-enable the automation, and turn the track's mute switch on and off as appropriate. Because you hear reverb on the note's tail end, and because the effect's entrance is usually masked by the note itself, the "hard switch" approach of a mute button works just as well as a fader move. In fact, in some cases, it works better, such as when you turn the switch on and off in rhythm, creating "ghostly subdivisions." It reminds me of when Eddie Van Halen used to flick his guitar's pickup switch back and forth in rhythm, where one pickup's volume was completely rolled off and the other was wide open. Unfortunately, though, doing it with a DAW looks a lot less cool!   [attachment=139396:name]Jon Chappell is a guitarist and Associate Editor at Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children,  and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of  The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).
  2. Follow these steps to protect your wooden instruments from the low-humidity conditions that prevail during the winter months by Jon Chappell     [attachment=140721:name] The "pain points" of a guitar that are most susceptible to changes in relative humidity. Diagram courtesy Taylor Guitars.   The winter months usually spell wet misery for many of us in the northern hemisphere, except if you're indoors, where the problem is excessive dryness. That’s because our climate control systems counteract the cold mushy weather outside by cranking up the dry heat, which more often than not sucks moisture out of the air. Dry air is bad for musical instruments. Anything made of wood usually likes to see a relative humidity index of between 45–55 percent. But forced air heat, without any other compensation, can drop the RH to 30 percent of even lower. That risks shrinkage in the wood parts of your instrument, which can cause glue joints to fail, the wood-to-wood-joined parts to separate, the finish to crack (called "checking"), and the frets to stick out of their slots on the fretboard. None of this is good for the guitar, nor the tone and tuning of the music coming from it.  Here are the seven things to check for on your guitar to see if your guitar is suffering the effects of low humidity. This checklist was borrowed from Taylor Guitars' very helpful technical document on checking your instrument for dryness.   Dry Guitar Checkist   1. Low action. Strings are very close to the fretboard. With everything on your guitar shrinking because moisture is being sucked out of the wood, you'll often experience a change in playability. Everyone likes low action, but not at the expense of the wood contracting to the point that the strings are laying practically flat on the fingerboard.  2. Hump on fretboard where neck joins body.Because the neck is more stable where it joins the body, you'll often see the neck area before it meets the body change, causing the most radical difference between the open part of the neck (from the headstock to the 14th fret).  3. On Taylor NT necks, a slight gap around the fretboard extension. This applies only to Taylor guitars, but because of their NT construction, an additional checkpoint exists where the fingerboard extends beyond the neck mass. If there is any separation between the fingerboard extension itself and the rest of the neck, chances are a dryness condition contributed to this.  4. Sunken top across the soundboard between the bridge and fingerboard. The area in front of the bridge (under the strings) is particularly vulnerable to change because no bracing is underneath to counteract any movement caused by shrinkage. If you see this area collapsed or sunken, in relation to the area behind the bridge and even further out to the sides of the narrowest part of the waist, you're experiencing wood contraction.  5. Back of guitar looks very flat when it is dried out. The back of the guitar, under normal conditions, is not completely dead flat, but slightly bowed outward at the center. When the back of the guitar shrinks due to lack of proper humidity, the back "sucks in" to the braces, almost like a vacu-form process, and gives the appearance of being even flatter.  6. Sharp fret ends extend beyond the edge of fretboard. When the fingerboard and the neck under it shrinks, the ends of the metal fret wires will stick out at the sides. There's also the possibility that the frets will get pushed up out of their slots, causing buzzing, action, and intonation problems as well. Often, you will feel the protruding metal fret ends on your fingers before you see them. Try running your left-hand thumb along the 6th-string side of the neck, and your fingertips along the 1st-string side of the neck, along the binding to see if you can detect any change in position between the side of the neck and the fretwire ends.  7. The plane of the neck angle on a dry guitar hits above the top of the bridge. Use the edge of a yardstick or metal straightedge to help you determine if the "plane of the neck angle" (the slope of the neck as it progresses from the first fret to the saddle) falls below or above the top of the bridge. As a guitar shrinks from lack of proper moisture content in the wood, it doesn't do so uniformly. The shrinkage in the top, which is much less fixed, will be more dramatic. Consequently, the top will sink, and measuring the neck angle now reveals that a straight edge will end above the bridge, or with a gap between the straightedge and the top of the bridge.   MACHINE CONTROL To prevent dryness mayhem, you must maintain a steady level of relative humidity in the environment where the guitars live. The best way to control the humidity is to employ a room humidifier and an inexpensive digital hygrometer, available from the local hardware store. These gadgets give the RH as a percentage (e.g., 50\\\%), and often do double-duty as thermometers. It's worth noting that as heat goes up, the RH goes down. In practical terms that means if you like the room on the warm side, you'll have to take extra steps to maintain the RH at the desired level.  A room humidifier isn't that expensive, and if you can place the device in the room where both humans and instruments wil be, you can justify the expense for both. Often this means moving instruments into the living room for the times when the home-heating system is running at its highest.   LOW-TECH SOLUTIONS If you can’t afford the appliance version of the humidifier, consider the low-tech sponge-type devices made by Planet Waves and Damp-It. These are essentially rubber-encased sponges that don't have any external monitoring or control. They just releases their water into the atmosphere through natural evaporation. But along with a hygrometer, you can achieve the proper balance just by moving the sponge around, and, if necessary, adding more of them to the mix.  The biggest concern with a sponge is an obvious one: don't let it drip water inside your instrument or case. That means you must dunk the device in water, squeeze out the excess, and wipe dry before inserting inside the soundhole of a guitar. Throw your hygrometer into the case, and check often to make sure your reading are within the 45-55\\\% range. It's better to re-wet the sponge than to oversaturate and risk drippage. Often, you can use two, or even three (two in the soundhole, one up by the headstock), if you're in really dry and hot conditions. Keeping the guitar in its case helps to seal in the moisture generated by the sponges, so keep the lids closed (and at least on buckle engaged--more for security than as a sealing aid) whenever the guitar is not being played.   CONCLUSIONS Whether you employ the more expensive AC-powered humidifier or go the sponge route, and outfit each case individually, you should take steps to ensure that your instruments are safe from the fluctuations of relative humidity due to the changing seasons. Keep in mind that by taking such RH-control measures, you're not just preserving the playability of your instrument and ensuring a buzz-free sound. You're actually reducing the stress on the instrument itself and prolonging its life.   [attachment=139710:name]Jon Chappell is a guitarist and Associate Editor at Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children,  and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of  The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).
  3. Strap-On Tools for Your Fingers Increase Picking Power   By Jon Chappell     As a multi-style guitarist, I face an immediate dilemma whenever I pick up the guitar: pick or fingers? That is, do I play rhythm and lead gripping my trusty heavy-gauge plastic triangle between my right-hand thumb and forefinger? Or do I approach the strings with my unadorned right-hand fingers to play classical, Travis picking, and arpeggio stuff? To guitarists who play both with fingers and a pick, it seems like having two jobs. You have to keep two totally different techniques constantly up to snuff. But having fingerstyle chops as well as flatpicking ones is the best way to stay employed, enjoy and experience the most guitar-based music possible, and open up musical avenues for your own creativity.  If you decide to cultivate your fingerstyle technique, you should be aware that there’s yet a “third job” to contend with, especially if you’re considering taking up certain fretted instruments as a double (a great way to increase your employability), such as banjo, pedal steel, or Dobro, or to explore additional tonal colors: playing with fingerpicks. Following are some tips on why you should know how to use these metal and plastic bits of “finger jewelry” and how to approach them for minimum frustration. Because before I became proficient with fingerpicks, it was like putting on boxing gloves and trying to pick up a needle. Fortunately, that feeling quickly passes.   All Thumbs [attachment=139696:name]Many non-fingerstyle players use just their fingers (such as Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler, Freddie King) and manage to do fine in the rock guitar world. Playing with just your fingers for electric guitar styles is fine, but if that’s the only way you play, you should consider donning a thumbpick. That’s the first step in learning to play with something on your fingers other than your wedding ring. A thumbpick is a white, black, or clear plastic band that surrounds your picking-hand thumb over the nail. (Metal ones exist, but they're not as commonly used as the plastic ones.) A point sticks out at a 90-degree angle from the underside of the thumb (the palm side), and that’s what strikes the strings. Though you can’t use a thumbpick to alternate-pick lead lines the way a flatpicker could do, you can still get a few notes in a row pretty fast and use slurs (hammers, pulls, slides, taps) to get the rest of the notes in a passage. The thumbpick gives electric players a way to really dig in to the strings for lead and rhythm. If you already play with a flatpick, you don’t have to relearn your electric guitar technique with a thumbpick. Instead, focus your thumbpick efforts toward conventional fingerstyle playing, like you find in folk songs and acoustic music. There are many advantages to this approach. The reason so many fingerstyle players use thumbpicks is that if you look at the way the thumb strikes the strings, it’s more of a glancing blow, rather than a full-on, perpendicular attitude — the way the fingers hit the strings. A thumbpick creates a sharp, precise point of contact between thumb and string, and that point is at the end of a long lever. That’s why fingerstyle players from Chet Atkins to Merle Travis to Tommy Emmanuel use thumbpicks. It gives them increased authority, speed, and volume.   Fingerpicks for Dummies Slipping on the metal fingerpicks is where the wheels come off the wagon for most players. For one, they’re not even sure how they should be worn. The fingerpicks slip on so that they scoop up from the underside of the finger, as shown in the photos below. Once you can play comfortably with picks, you find they have certain advantages for guitar playing. The most obvious one is volume. You can play a lot louder with picks on than with them off. Or consider the flip side to that: you can play at the same volume without nearly as much right-hand effort. This is not only less tiring, especially over time, but you keep your fingernails intact longer this way. In fact, many players turn to fingerpicks in the first place for “nail preservation” alone. The less-effort factor could also come in handy if you injure your hand. (I speak from experience here: I once jammed my thumb in a softball game, and using it to pluck a guitar string was painful. But wearing a thumbpick allowed me to get acceptable volume with a minimum of effort while my hand healed.) Think of it this way: picks are like any hand tool — a hammer, a wrench, a crow-bar. They allow you to get greater leverage than you could get with your naked hand (or finger, as the case may be). But consider that there’s a tonal difference as well. A metal fingerpick dragged across a string produces a brassier, more metallic effect. This can be desirable, for example, in capturing a grittier blues sound. The one thing you have to watch for is the metal fingerpick across a wound string (the 4th, 5th, and 6th strings). This sometimes creates a “skritchy,” grating effect that can be distracting (especially in a recording environment). With a little practice, though, you can minimize the effect of the metal edge of the fingerpick catching on the windings of the string. The best way to get acclimated to fingerpicks is to put them on and use them a little bit each day, practicing pieces, patterns, and licks you already play with your fingers. Do this until you can keep time, get a good, non-scraping tone, and avoid “getting snagged” in the string windings. Before long, you’ll be playing as well with fingerpicks as without, and you then you’ll have accomplished two things: a mastery of tools that now allow you to play the banjo, pedal steel or Dobro; and additional tonal colors to bring to your existing acoustic guitar playing.   [attachment=139697:name]Jon Chappell is a guitarist and Associate Editor at Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children,  and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of  The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).
  4.   Re-Examining a Critical Process   By Jon Chappell   I never really had a cohesive computer backup strategy plan until recently. I decided to get serious once a friend had a catastrophic hard disk failure (actually both of his internal disks failed irretrievably due to a lightning strike and power surge), and had to spend hundreds of dollars at a specialized facility to get only part of his valuable data back. And even with many of his documents retrieved, he still faced weeks of reconstruction work ahead of him.   “We Can Rebuild It, We Have the Technology”—Sure, at a Price It was the “reconstruction” part that got to me. I always thought of the truly valuable stuff as the documents I created with my applications, not the applications themselves nor the look and structure of the hard disk. Once my friend got the data back, I witnessed weeks of work, anxiety, and delay as he tried to “reinstall his life,” as he put it. My thinking had always been, “I can reinstall the applications from my binder of installation disks. The truly irreplaceable things were the documents created from the apps.” In my “document centric” approach, I created a master folder of documents, inside of which were directories broken out by activity or media (family photos, work DAW and doc files, etc.). Even with all these different file types, the master folder was fairly small, storage-wise. So to back up all the documents was just a simple drag-and-drop action to another, usually external, FireWire or USB drive. But being in on a painful resuscitation of a computing environment made me realize how naïve that notion is, especially when you have to rebuild everything, including an operating system install. (And if you have an OEM computer, like a Dell, you may not even have OS install disks.) So I looked into a bona fide software-supported backup strategy. The best solution for me was disk imaging, and the best program was Acronis True Image.   A Disk in My Own Image The main advantage of disk imaging over other types of backup is that you clone your entire hard disk, including applications, operating system, settings, and of course, documents. So while there are specific backup program that don’t do disk imaging—and disk imaging isn’t just limited to backup—you can use disk imaging as a backup solution, and it works flawlessly. And as a dedicated backup program, True Image is quite versatile in its options. For example you can choose incremental backup vs. a differential backup; the installation CD can function as a boot disk, and will run a full restore on a damaged or corrupted hard drive. The kicker is, Acronis True Image costs about $39. So even if it took me three full work days to restore my computer from installation disks rather than a disk image (and that would be highly optimistic), it means that I would have saved $39 over three days—making my time worth about $1.65 an hour. See how shortsighted I was?   [attachment=139955:name] Fig. 1: Acronis True Image is a disk imaging program, which means it makes an exact clone of your hard drive—including the operating system and all settings and configurations.   Scatter the Data, It’s a RAID Once you understand how your particular program works (Norton Ghost is another popular disk imaging program), you must choose what to back up to. Conventional wisdom dictates that you back up to a drive you can remove from the immediate area, in case the “mechanical failure” your hard disk incurs is the result of a house fire, flood, earthquake, or theft. So imaging to an external drive is a good idea, followed up by removal of the drive to an off-site location. But I’m always worried that the backup disk will fail, too, and for folks like me there’s something called RAID. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks, and in this case, “redundant” is a good thing. RAID scatters data over different physical drives, either for speedy retrieval or data security or both. RAID has several modes (there’s an excellent tutorial on the subject in Wikipedia), but the best one for small studios and home users is RAID 1. It’s where two disks are used to store data, and that data can be retrieved from either disk, should the other one fail. In a RAID system, it’s best to use two disks of the same size and type, so I opted for a PCI-to-ESATA (external SATA) card that breaks out into two SATA drive ports (cost: $25). Keep in mind, a RAID system won’t protect you from a virus, because it will corrupt both disks. But as a measure for mechanical redundancy, RAID 1 is the way to go.   [attachment=139957:name] Fig. 2. This PCI-to-ESATA card allows you to hook up two ESATA drives—ideal for hard disk backup and disk imaging.   Using a PCI card allows me to put in two removable eSATA drives, which is much faster than FireWire or USB 2.0. Plus, should I ever have to boot from a drive other than my internal one, it’s much easier to swap out my original SATA boot drive with another SATA disk. As an alternative, you can always use an eSATA to USB connection. There are many possible solutions, including the lowly bus-powered USB external drive. Anything is better than nothing, though if your boot drive gets damaged (and that’s why you’re having to do a restore in the first place), you might consider backing up to a bootable drive platform. [attachment=139959:name] Fig. 3. You can always use an ESATA dock, which connects a hard drive to your computer via a USB port.   Verstehen Sie WinDirStat? When you get into the habit of doing regular backups, you realize that it’s possible to back up all your data all the time. But you find that you end up wasting hours, electrons, and bandwidth for stuff you don’t need. So how do you cull the biggest culprits? Before backing up, I try to rid my drives of sector-hogging files with WinDirStat, a wonderful little utility that indexes your hard drive and organizes the files by size. The great thing about WinDirStat is that it has a graphic interface that correlates with the hierarchical directory-tree display. You’re presented with a colorful “checkerboard” with different-sized squares, and the colors and patterns help you quickly distinguish the separate squares. The size of the squares represent the amount of data. Clicking on a square causes the menu tree to jump to the appropriate file or folder. Clicking on a folder in the top pane puts a white frame around the corresponding square in the graphic display below. The squares represent additional folders and files. “Textured” squares are actually folders comprised of individual squares (files).   [attachment=139961:name] Fig. 4. Drilling down to a single file by selecting squares (indicated with white border) containing more folders and even more files. “Textured” squares are folders made up of files (individual squares).   Drilling down the menu tree also selects the corresponding square, indicated with a white frame. When on the hunt for deletion-worthy files, I use the checkerboard—it’s much faster and more intuitive than drilling down through the menus, though of course you don’t know what the squares are in advance. But it works quickly.   Restore Complete So my three tools for backup are as follows: 1) Acronis True Image, a disk imaging program; 2) external drives in a RAID 1 configuration; and 3) WinDirStat to regularly inspect my discs for large files that can be jettisoned. It should go without saying that I regularly employ two utilities built right into windows: Disk Cleanup and Defragmentation. But I’ve found with backup and computer maintenance, you can’t really assume anything as “goes without saying.” Many times it has to be said. Even for people who should know better.   [attachment=139962:name]Jon Chappell is a guitarist and Associate Editor at Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children,  and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of  The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).
  5. The external power supplies known affectionately as “wall warts” are a necessary evil of modern gadget life. Sometimes these strip dwellers are generic little blocks with no helpful writing on them. So you can make your life a whole lot easier by doing something very simple the minute you unpack one from the box: label it. [attachment=139633:name]Use masking tape and a Sharpie, a label maker, or even a wax pencil, but write the name of the gear it powers in big letters, right on the side. I even list the polarity for all my DC units (AC doesn’t have polarity, or, more correctly, it alternates @60 times per second), in case I need to swap one out. Because the specs are sometimes listed in one place only (the power supply, the back panel, the manual) and nowhere else, it’s best to do this as soon as the gear arrives. -Jon Chappell
  6. When the weather turns warm, most studio and rehearsal rats (and other semi-humans) feel the urge to get outdoors and soak in the nice weather. A great outdoor activity is playing your instrument, but you need to take extra precautions when moving a musical device (either acoustic or electronic) from a climate-controlled environment to an uncontrolled one.   [attachment=139614:name]                     If your instrument came with a case, make sure the case comes along for the ride. A case not only protects the instrument from bumps and knocks, but can shield your axe from spills, or even sunshine and rain – neither of which are very kind to wood finishes. Whenever you use a case, always make sure that at least one of the clasps is fastened. For example, simply closing the lid of an acoustic guitar case will not prevent the instrument from spilling out, should someone unknowingly grab the handle to transport the guitar from point A to point B. Unless the conditions outside are in the extreme (such as ultra-high humidity or precipitation), most instruments, plugged and unplugged alike, can function normally andoptimally. Of course, avoid playing in direct sunlight if at all possible, and keep your instruments and cases (especially if they contain the instrument) shielded from the sun’s rays. Outdoor playing greatly benefits from a variety of accessories, like keyboard and amp stands, music stands, guitar stands, stools and small tables, extension cords and power strips. Keep food and beverages in a separate place, and be extra careful when either people or instruments are in motion to avoid an unforeseen collision. Finally, when you bring your instrument back into a climate-controlled environment, let the instrument acclimate to its new setting slowly by leaving it in the case for a half hour to an hour. This ensures that the interior conditions match the room's. Playing outside is not only healthy for you and impact-neutral on most instruments, it’s good training for all the outdoor gigs that warm weather inevitably brings. So, have hot fun in the summertime!
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