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Recording Mythology, Pt. 44 / Why I Never Use The Presets


My guitar effects are utilitarian…and digital. That’s right, I said it.

To be honest, I’m not one of those ‘analogue or death’ junkies. I’m not averse to using digital processors when it comes to cleaning up my signal, and old analogue effects were as noisy as a first grade classroom.

Starting out, I had a collection of DOD effects pedals and a Dunlop Crybaby during the seventies and into the eighties when I’d installed a Bill Lawrance pickup in the soundhole of my Yamaha acoustic. I’d use the wah as a notch filter and coax all kinds of noises out of my poor old Yamaha. Once, I’d removed the strings from the guitar and had it sitting on a stool. The pickup was still plugged inline, and eventually the monitors achieved feedback. Wow.

“How can I possibly use this?” I wondered.

Well, I had a Radio Shack ‘Realistic’ stereo reverb unit that I’d patched into the loop somehow. I discovered that when I’d crank the depth, then plunge the delay at resonance, the monitors would walk around on the desk. The effect sounded haunting. I recorded a piece with that setup before I fried the tweeter crossovers.

Then came the ‘all-in-one’ units. I resisted for a few years until they’d worked the bugs out.

So now I’ve gone digital, but my effects bank is already vintage. Actually, I still use one of the first generation digital pedal boards that Boss produced. As was almost always the case, Boss got it right the first time out. At $689.99 in 1994, their Expandable Multiple Effects unit, or ME-X as it was called, kicked serious ass, and is their most flexible unit in my opinion. Other individuals must concur with my assessment; when you can find one, the ME-X still commands a respectable price.

What made the ME-X so cool, is that the user could augment the digital effects – delay, flanging, chorus, and echo (all stereo) – with three other analogue effects of their choice in the form of stomp boxes. Boss units, of course. The conclusion was a logical one: everybody knows that digital overdrive and distortion sounds lame and lousy, and the Boss team realised that at the outset, so why not allow the user to tailor their grind, coarse to fine? Excellent idea.

But then, there are the presets. As a matter of fact, all of the presets on any multiple effects processor end up sounding corny and dated, and those on the ME-X are no exception. They make me want to don makeup and Lycra. Talk about wet to the point of saturation. One even makes the guitar sound like a Koto. I reckon the folks at Boss Nippon had a sense of humour.

Still, I always wondered why the manufacturers ever went to the trouble of building presets into these units, anyhow. Maybe some people needed a ‘jumping off’ point, but I can’t imagine why. If they’d ever used an effect with knobs (and in ’94, most everyone had) effects started out at clean and ‘turned up’ to extreme. On digital units, the parameters began at zero and went up to some value of effect, so the same logic could be applied with the same results.

Using the presets on an effects unit to record with will always come back to haunt you. I don’t care how cool they sound, they’re always modeled after some hot-shot guitar slinger of the manufacture era, and God only knows how history will later regard the fool. You don’t want a poor recording decision following you around like a lost dog ten years from now.

I swear though, I believe that in the beginning,  some folks thought that the presets sounded so cool, that they actually used them, even some of the ‘professionals’. Don’t believe it? Just listen to a Bryan Adams album. If he wasn’t using the Walking Hammers preset on the Zoom 4010 when he recorded several of his tunes, I’ll be dashed. Their ‘brand’ of drive (or distortion) along with the mids curve on that preset was an obvious clone, and so, uh…’Zoomy’.

I suppose that I might have a better ear for tone than music, because although I will never be the musician I aspire to be, I I can run through banks of presets and name nearly every weasel whose ‘tone’ the presets are designed to approximate. A players sound is like his fingerprint. And tone or no tone, using another players tone is tantamount to plagerism, because if you are not in posession of that player’s fingers, you ain’t gonna sound like them, regardless what you buy.

My advice to the aspiring artist is – since there’s already one of somebody else – why try being number two? Be yourself. Open your ears and your mind, and break into those presets. Start developing your own tones and you’ll create your own sound. Therein lies the reward.


About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

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