Paper Towel Trick

On Friday afternoon I thought the guitar sounded just a tiny bit dull and figured it was either because I hadn’t played a Negra for a long time — Negras have rosewood sides and back (dark) and produce more overtones and a slightly darker tone than Blancas, which have Cedar sides and back — or perhaps because the strings were new. So I played it Friday evening and Saturday morning and did the performance with Kaz yesterday evening.

This morning I was getting ready to practice when I noticed a piece of paper towel inside the guitar. I pulled it out, shook the guitar and saw another paper towel inside. I was able to reach it through the strings and pulled it out.

I played a chord and now the guitar sounded exactly as I remembered.

I figured the paper towels were placed inside the guitar to soak up glue drops that might fall during the repair. I messaged my friend and he replied that at least it wasn’t like leaving a scalpel inside a patient after surgery, that he thought the guitar sounded nice with the paper towels, too, and that I could keep the supplies… :-)

Rain by M. Callahan


This is Matt’s own experiment, combining a still image with a video of water. He used a photo he took of me a few years ago and video of rain on glass. Very cool.
GIF version:

Capturing the Guitar

I have written about my guitar sound before. Here is a post from 2010 and here is a post from 2019. This will be a more comprehensive post with more photos.

The microphone’s position has not changed in over twenty years. Tape marks where the chair needs to be, should it be accidentally moved.

The microphone is a Neumann M-149, which I have used since 1999 – following the loss of the previous Neumann. As you can see I tend to stick with something I like. I don’t feel the need to experiment and am rather loyal to things that work. I own only two Flamenco guitars, which is very unusual, and have only used one of those two for the last five years. I generally prefer depth over variety. I would rather be very intimately familiar with one guitar than be vaguely familiar with a hundred.

One photo shows the back of the M-149 which shows that the bass roll-off is set to 40Hz. There is also a photo that shows the mic pattern setting on the front of the microphone. 

From the microphone the analog signal travels to a Martech MSS-10 microphone pre-amp. Sadly Martinsound no longer makes the MSS-10, but luckily I have two in case something happens to one of them. In 1999 we rated a number of mic pre-amps and I wrote about that test here. The MSS-10 is by far the nicest mic pre-amp for the flamenco guitar that I have ever heard. When we listened to it the three of us – Jon, engineer Gary, and I – immediately preferred it over all others tested. From the MSS-10 the analog signal travels to the Digidesign 192 HD Interface that converts the analog signal to a digital one. I use the DigiDesign Reverb One plugin on the guitar, preferring a dark, but longer reverb. I put an EQ on the reverb, removing much of the lower frequencies of the reverb as they muddy the waters in my opinion. The guitar EQ is a GML (George Massenburg Labs) software plugin. I use it to dip out a frequency of my guitar that sounds boxy and to add a very small amount of presence. 

That’s it. The analog equipment – microphone and mic pre-amp – is expensive, but the digital side is not. I just looked up the Reverb One plugin and it retails for $300. The GML software EQ is no longer available. 

When considering a guitar sound one should not forget the guitar itself, the type of strings, the player’s way of holding the guitar – some players choke their guitar by holding it too tight – and, of course, the nail treatment and how the strings are struck. There are so many variables that it is good to go step by step.


Today, Saturday, I added four screenshots to the viewer. The first screenshot shows the EQ setting for my Blanca guitar when playing a melody. The second shows the EQ setting for my Negra when playing rhythm. I start with two EQ settings for each guitar:
There is a setting for playing rhythm – anything that’s not the main melody. This setting only removes a low frequency that every guitar has when one places the microphone relatively close. This becomes a problem when playing multiple rhythm guitars because that low-end builds up. A second setting, for the melody, removes a little less of the lower frequencey and adds a little bit of a high frequency. I look for a sweet spot where I can add a little bit of treble that sounds smooth and silky. Over time I collect more EQ settings for each guitar because the guitar can subtly change according to string wear or humidity.

The next screenshot shows one of the EQs for reverb that filters out much of the sound below 150 hertz. The last screenshot shows the One Reverb setting I prefer for all of my guitars. It is called “Dark Concert Hall” and I have used it for two decades.

The Sea Between

Here is the last minute of the version of “The Sea Between” I recorded for “Bare Wood 2”.

The guitar melody that starts after the chorus ends came from an improvisation. I liked the vibe of the improv but the strings had been on the guitar for too long and one of them was clearly out of tune. I tried to get used to it, hoping that the mood of the playing might outweigh the handful of notes that were out of tune, telling myself that most listeners might not hear what I was hearing, but I could not. This week I learned the phrases and re-played the melody. It was interesting to learn the notes and spaces of an improv and turning them into a prescribed melody. I rarely if ever do that, often preferring a slightly strange sound, as from a piece of nail-glue that is coming loose for example, to trying to recreate the vibe.

It turned out alright though and I am happy with the feeling of it. I added an octave below for the start of the melody and like how that grabs the attention.

This is the first version of the piece, from my post on 24. December

I always find it fascinating how a song changes when I can use several guitars rather than a solo guitar performance. Of course, adding Jon’s upright made a huge diff as well. :-)

Thursday

In the morning I worked with the Ableton/Live Bouncy Ball generator, using a guitar sample I had made. I couldn’t figure out how to use multiple samples for a more realistic sound, which is why it sounds like something from the Eighties when samplers were new and digital storage was precious and puny. The result is hella random sounding.

In the afternoon I played guitar and recorded this little improvisation.

Fingernails

I remember reading an interview with a classical guitarist a long time ago. She said that one has to file one’s nails a little bit every day. At the time I figured that the statement was hyperbole, but eventually I figured out that she was right. Nail care is the most underrated aspect of a nylon string guitar player, whether they play classical or flamenco guitar.

In places where the humidity is high nails grow faster, as does hair. When playing in Florida I may have to file my nails every single day, but in a dry climate like New Mexico or Arizona that’s not necessary.

It amazes me how differently guitar players file their nails. There are many different ways people do the filing itself, and also many different shapes that they give their nails. Some guitarists file only in one direction, others file back and forth, some go for flat nails and others for slightly pointy ones. But no matter what, it’s something a guitarist has to deal with all of the time.

It is not good when one walks onto a stage, excited to perform, and then discovers that the nails grew a little too much… and suddenly one gets stuck on strings. A fraction of a millimeter is all it takes to throw the guitarist off and too long is as bad as too short…

I sometimes wonder whether one can observe how people open doors and cupboards and know immediately whether they are guitar players. As a teenager I trained myself to open everything with my left hand, so I would not chance breaking a nail.

There are two reasons to fortify one’s nails: to prevent ripping part of the nail off accidentally during the hours of the day that one doesn’t play guitar, and to enable the player to create a stronger tone. The latter is especially important when one performs with a drummer. Being able to play a little louder makes the sound engineer’s job a lot easier.

Recently I did some research into different ways to protect my nails. In the late Eighties I used a few layers of superglue. In the Nineties I added baking soda. This created a much stronger nail, but was frayed with danger. Adding too much baking soda to the superglue created so much heat that I could develop a blister underneath my nail, a terrible experience. In the late Nineties I switched to acrylic powder with superglue.

Last year I experimented with a bunch of different nail polishes. I figured that since nail polish is a billion dollar industry a lot of research must go into improving it.

I discovered that good nail polish is not actually very hard, and certainly not as hard as superglue with acrylic powder, but it is flexible. That’s how chipping is prevented, and the polish appears to self-repair. And that doesn’t work for guitar playing because it ruins the attack. The nail polish seems to absorb the guitar string rather than to bounce it back.

So now I am back to using acrylic powder and super glue. I did notice that it makes a big difference when I remove the natural oils from my nails by putting a little nail polish remover onto a cotton pad and wiping the nails before brushing on the superglue. And, because it is nice to try something new, I will start using a black acrylic powder I recently found.