Building from the sound up.
Had a wonderful conversation the other evening with a man deep into signal chain clarity; think of him as a rocket scientist of sonic fidelity. Though I couldn’t speak his language fluently with its science and numbers, I could grasp what he was working on and his descriptions of the sources and forces of the problems.
During the conversation I offered the truth of my process, the north star I always navigate by in my R&D, and thought it’d be interesting here. “My truth is what comes out of the speaker.” In other words not what Leo Fender did, what anybody else’s recipes are, what the label on a part says it is “for”, or what anybody claims makes a difference or can be done or not. My truth is what comes out of the speaker.
Well, like anything, what speakers where when and to whose ears in what environment? Changes in these have far more tone shaping input in the moment if they change than, say, the difference between walnut and mahogany in a solid body electric instrument. FAR more. But much like in a test kitchen if you make everything else in the recipe the same and ONLY change that one seasoning, then it is heard there. And then it becomes one ingredient. Then you add other ingredients that work with that seasoning. Eventually you have a recipe that tastes great if they’re all balanced and working together – one that defies the casually observed basic parts’ roles and amounts of impact. In my case, a short scale bass that sounds and resonates like a much bigger bass.
This is a combination of many things – design of the structure, pickups and position, and yes – ingredients like wood and bridge metal. And of course the execution of all of this to where it all fits – and thus works – together harmoniously, without ingredient A cancelling out B which directly works against C… that’s where the life and overtones go away. My job is to put them back in, and my truth is what comes out of the speaker.
The Cortobass was a palette of voices I knew would be useful in a working instrument – not copies, but voices of families – something round and half upright, something more punchy and aggressive, something huge and slightly scooped. I’ll put any shaped or spec’d chunk of magnet & wire (pickup) in any position on anything and mount and wire it up and in however I want if I think it will add or subtract what I want to hear from that position on that instrument. It either sounds good and stays or isn’t what I’m going for and out it comes.
Why not just go with a Pbass pickup? Because I don’t build Pbasses. I have a bass that has a version of a P pickup in it and sounds amazingly like one, but given the big differences in Birdsong scale and Fender scale – one fundamental thing that affects the tension and response you get out of a vibrating string – it took a certain version arranged a certain way in a different position and an instrument of different materials to add up to that tone I wanted to hear out of the speaker. A Pbass merely shrunken does not sound like a Pbass anymore. You can’t change fundamental things about how this recipe works and then proceed as if it’ll sound the same if it’s made the same in every other way.
The Birdsong Cbass was the speaker-as-truth principle applied to a specific voice I wanted to copy. Where “specs as truth” don’t give results, I look to the results and spec backwards from there. I had a great vintage P bass and wanted to offer that sound in a smaller, lighter, shorter, better balanced form. So I started with the form of the Cortobass and worked the ingredients until the speakers couldn’t tell the difference.
There is the “How to get this resonating more” side and the “What known tonal seasonings will add back in what is different” side – related, but I pursue building from the sound up. Tone first. My truth is what comes out of the speaker. Sometimes, like with our 5 strings, there are those who say it can’t be. It’s impossible. No, it’s really not – you take what first comes out of the speaker, judge what needs fixing, and adjust your recipe to take out a bit of what isn’t good and accentuate what is, and put more in of what will result in what you want to hear more of. What’s missing? There are other ways of putting that back in the soup. This gets you close, and then you can pull a few tricks on the physics in the instrument – stuff you can’t explain but can be heard every time you do it. So, you do it. Or you listen instead to peripheral voices neither where you are nor doing what you’re doing – and don’t. I listen to the speaker.
And I listen to the same speakers so they’ve become invisible to me. Birdsong in its 14 year history has had a total of two test amps. Both very humble and both run with their EQ completely flat. When I’m dialing in a recipe be it a rough concept test bass or pickup height on a bass that’s finished, and say I’m looking for a little more bottom end, I’m working on getting that out of the bass not the amp. This amp is a consistent and I’ve heard hundreds of similar basses through it – which subtleties do you think I hear, a changing amp and room, and different string sets (I use only two) OR given that those don’t change, the subtle differences in the instruments themselves? Exactly.
So I might live in a world of inductance and resistance and peaks & valleys in a frequency spectrum, and swim in those waters, but I don’t design or build by the science and the numbers. It’s more of an organic tonal alchemy. If that last bit of smoothness in the upper mids in my experience is brass vs. aluminum, or that depth says another two millimeters of pickup positioning, or that clarity of notes ringing in a chord some… I don’t know, eye of newt in the pickup wiring itself, well then in it goes! My truth is what comes out of the speaker. It’s all fun in here but I’d drive you batshit crazy with a wall of Telecasters in a Guitar Center and you’d never listen to them with your eyes again.
Listening to: Jazz – Bill Evans, Count Basie and lots of Yusef Lateef.