Friday, September 9, 2011

Covert Chops

Long time - no blog. But that's to be expected. My blog fu is not strong.

Today's topic is COVERT CHOPS.

To a musician/singer, chops is a term used to indicate a high skill level, I.E, 'did you hear that guitar solo! that dude has CHOPS!'

Urban definition:
Ability to play a musical instrument. From the slang term "chops" for jaw, it originally referred to singers and perhaps wind instrumentalists. It eventually grew to include any type of instrument, though it is mostly used for instruments in more popular styles. (That is, you're more likely to hear about Eddie van Halen's chops than Yo-Yo Ma's.)

But what I want to blog about are 'Covert Chops'. The chops that most people don't notice.
The stuff that in my not-always-as-humble-as-i-should-be opinion is the most important.

Covert Chop #1 - TIMING
A lot of musicians have a high level of technique, immense scale knowledge, etc, but lack a very basic ability - playing in time. 
Matthew 5:37 says 'Let your 'Yes' be Yes, and let your 'No' be No. 
With that same bluntness, I say this: let your 1's fall on the 1's. Let your 2's fall on the 2's. 
Let your accented, anticipated 3-and be, well, a beautifully accented, anticipated 3-and.

I've seen everyone from beginners, to intermediate, to expert, degree level players and singers make the mistake of being lazy with timing. It's not cool. 

How to improve? 
Practice with a metronome. (And actually practice) You can't know exactly where a 2-E-and-A is with out listen and counting carefully at a wide range of tempos.
And listen critically to your own playing. Ideally, record your own playing. 
Often we just get used to our slack playing, and will have a tendency to ignore our timing issues.

Covert Chop #2 - JUST SHUT UP, WILL YOU!

'Silence is the secret to sanity.'
Astrid Alauda

Billions and billions of musicians just don't know when to shut up. They fill every single fleeting shaft of light that even closely resembles a gap with their little riffs/fills/vibrato/runs/slides/wah pedals (wait, that's only Metallica) and goodness knows what else.

It's really, really important to let the music breathe. Step back for a verse. By simply shutting up, you might learn that your bassist is doing something really cool and clever. And by shutting up, you just made space for that cool clever little thing to be the star for a verse.

There's shutting up for a verse, but even more important is shutting up within parts. Check out this song:

This song has a unbelievable keyboard part - and everyone else carefully makes space. 
The drummer doesn't do a fill or any extra color until the first chorus. 
The bass is playing a single notes on the 1's with an tiny bit more on 3. 
Guitar one is playing a single strum on 1 with a wah. 
Guitar 2 playing the chords, but sparsely.
And then in slides a svelte, well dressed, dirty little minx of a keyboard riff with such confidence and groove it takes my breath away. Nice work, and great Covert Chops, Stereophonics.

Covert Chop #3 - Tuning

A simple one, but important nonetheless.
You don't want to be this guy:

Or these idiots:

Anyway, I think thats enough for tonight - I need to go to bed. 

I'll leave you with a final tip. Spend as much time on Covert Chops as you do on technique, and you'll be a flipping excellent musician in no time.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

ben's guitar tone primer

I remembered that I've never done a post on guitar tone. 

Clearly, this must be remedied, ASAP.

We've all heard guitarists who we would rather not hear. Guitarists who have a guitar sound that is almost physically painful to listen to. Here's a few of my tips based on nearly 11 years of playing guitar on how to develop your own guitar sound, (and a guitar sound which other people can stand)

1. Less = More:

Say I had $2000 to build a pedalboard. I could use that money to purchase approximately 33 Behringer pedals. I could use that money to buy around 12 Boss pedals or I could use that money to buy 2-3 high end pedals from Empress, or Strymon, or Eventide, or any other flash brand.

Option a would get me a huge pile of different sounds. But they would be unreliable, noisy and many of them would actually sound pretty bad. Also, with 33 pedals at your feet, it would be ghastly to find the right sound in time. And they are ugly. and ghetto as. 

Option b would get me a large pile of different sounds, and Boss pedals are well made, so they would be reliable. But still, not every pedal would truly sound incredible. Might also be noisy.

Option c is more my cup of tea. I would hand pick just a few pedals, all of which have amazing sounds. They would be quiet, reliable and easy to use. I could hang on to these pedals for 20 years, as they're made to last.

2. Buy a tuner pedal.

It's not complicated. An in-tune guitar sounds significantly better than a out-of-tune one.
And if you buy a tuner pedal, it's easy, quick and silent to tune your guitar. No excuses. Bassists too. go buy one.
I recommend:
Korg PitchBlack or Boss TU3. Both around $150 kiwi pesos

3. Distortion works best in stages:

Lots of guitarists seem to have two sounds. Clean, and nuclear disaster. Best to have an in between level as well. And dial back the nuclear disaster to a simple bogan beating, please.
So: Clean. Overdriven. Distortion.

This allows you to build the energy of your guitar sound, as the song's energy builds.

4. Chose your tone with ears close to the speaker:

When you mic a guitar amp, where does the microphone go? Right up close to the speaker.
But when we set our tone, we tend to stand on the other side of the room, often meters away. Up close, it sounds brighter, harsher, and more aggressive. And that is what us dumb guitar players feed to the sound tech. The sound tech feeds that to the congregation/audience. Nasty. So set your EQ and distortion levels while sitting close to the speaker. You will sound better in the PA. Guaranteed. 

5. Figure out what you really need:

I play mostly modern praise and worship music. This means I need an overdrive, a delay with tap tempo for those U2/Hillsong delay sounds, and a higher gain overdrive for solos, lead lines and bridges.
There's no point in spending hundreds of bucks for a Univibe if I don't need it.
In the same way, if you play in a Bon Jovi cover band, you won't need a delay, and you will need a talkbox.

6. Get your guitar fixed up:

Any half-decent guitar technician can fix up your guitar so that it sounds in tune, and it is easy to play. Get it done once a year. In Wellington I use Kenny Duncan 021 235 7000, on Manners Mall.

7. Don't spend all your money on pedals:

At the end of the day effects pedals are just that - something that effects the sound. Before you go crazy on pedals and toys, make sure your guitar, and your amp sound tasty. You don't need to spend a fortune, but you really need your guitar+amp combination to sound GREAT. If your amp and guitar sounds bad, adding pedals is like rolling a turd in glitter. Sure, it may look better, but it's still poo.

8. Don't skimp on the boring bits:

So you could spend $200 on a set of high quality cables OR spend it on a new flash whosameewhatsit pedal that does some crazy weird noise. The pedal is more exciting. The cables will make your rig sound better and be more reliable. Get the cables. You need to know your rig will always work. In the same way, buy a good power supply. I used to find my rig was noisy on some days, or certain stages, or in certain rooms. I splurged significant bucks on a Voodoo Labs PedalPower 2+ and have never had the slightest issue with hum or noise since. 
(reminds me, I really need to buy another good power supply for my acoustic pedalboard.)

and that's all that comes to mind right now. Hope that helps someone.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

ex·cel·lence      [ˈɛksələns]
1. the state or quality of excelling or being exceptionally good; extreme merit; superiority
2. an action, characteristic, feature, etc., in which a person excels
au·then·tic·i·ty  (ôthn-ts-t)
1. the quality or condition of being authentic, trustworthy, or genuine.
We in the western church seem to spend plenty of time talking about excellence. 
Especially in regards to worship. 
But I reckon that on it's own, excellence is not much use. 
These two concepts, excellence and authenticity, are very much like espresso and gently frothed milk, 
I.E, absolutely made for each other. 
Or if you don't drink coffee, try this comparison, mint sauce and roast lamb. mmm.
Or maybe a better example is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. They couldn't live without each other. 
The thing is this. excellence is easily measured. how do you measure authenticity?
But it's authenticity that the church needs most.
authentic love for others
authentic grace in forgiving others
authentic worship
authentic lives that are full of God's life-light, all week long, not just on Sundays
I believe authentic, Godly love in people's lives is the number one thing that attracts people to God. 
John 4:23-24 says; 
'It's who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That's the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him. God is sheer being itself - Spirit. 
Those who worship him must do it of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.'
I still have no idea how to measure authenticity. But that verse of scripture is a pretty good checklist to check yourself against.
But what of excellence?
Imagine you're an architect. You have a genuine relationship with Jesus. You love church, reach out to your neighbors, read the Word. But you are a terrible architect. You are lazy at work, don't get on with your colleagues, are late on every deadline, and when you finally do design something, it's the hideously ugly New Zealand Supreme Court:

Maybe you have an authentic love and relationship with Jesus. But do your friends see that? Does your boss see that? or are you just a frustration? Your lack of excellence has damaged your authenticity.
2 Peter 1.5 says:
'So don't lose a minute in building on what you've been given, 
complementing your basic faith with 
good character, 
spiritual understanding, 
alert discipline, 
passionate patience, 
reverent wonder, 
warm friendliness, 
and generous love
each dimension fitting into and developing the others. 
With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus.
be excellent. but not for yourself, or for glory, or recognition, or money, or reputation. 
Do it out of an authentic love for our God, maker of heaven and earth, creator of all things.
if excellence and authenticity walk hand in hand in your life, you will be living your best possible life, the life God always planned for you to lead.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

how did i become a yuppie?

I've always been anti yuppie, but sadly I think I need to change my stance on yuppie hood.

You see, today, I have realized I am a yuppie. How this happened I have no idea. But it has.

Tight V-neck T-shirt - Check
Extremely tight skinny jeans - Check
Cell phone in pocket- Check
Cell Phone in pocket on contract - Check
Thinks a smartphone would be useful - Check
iMac at work - Check
MacBook at home - Check
Start getting nervous when I haven't checked my email/facebook/txt's for more than 7 minutes - Check

So there you have it.

Ben, the yuppie.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

december roster

just posting this online for the team:

on my mind - Old VS New, Young VS. Old-er.

Everyone has heard the classic complaint:

'I just couldn't worship, it was like a concert! What has happen to the old way where everyone sings together? Now the music is too loud. The lights are too flashy. I don't like the worship leader's skinny jeans. It's not even worship anymore . . . ' ect, ect, repeat, repeat, repeat.

I reckon we are stuck at an interesting point in the timeline of worship music and style.

It seems to me like this - once, we worshiped from a set of hymns. 

We came together, sang the words of old favorites out of hymnals, while Mrs Jones, the local music teacher played the piano. Sometimes, when old Mrs Jones' knee was playing up, Mrs Davis would play instead, on her ancient Yamaha Electone electric organ.

No one minded. They took what they could get. It wasn't creative, but it was comfortable, and it worked.

At the youth camps, one hip young leader would bring his guitar, and they'd all sit around the campfire singing choruses and having a grand old time larking about dipping cubes of bread into the cheese fondue, before heading off for a nice cup of cocoa and bed.
Rock music was dangerous, and in church, was downright sinful.
This was how my parents grew up. Not that long ago, really. Only 40 years or so.
(According to, a generation is around 30 years)

Then, change was in the air.

With the advent of MTV, tapes and the Sony Walkman taking over from record players, more and more bands putting out more and more music, home stereos and VCR's getting cheaper, and more radio shows playing new music, the atmosphere changed.

People were spoiled for choice. There was so much good stuff out there rather than just taking what they could get, people got picky. They could now carefully sort through and choose exactly what they like. There became a higher demand for quality, for creativity and most of all, for personal expression.

So into church came the guitars. After much conversation (actually, probably violent argument and impassioned debate) with church eldership and leaders, in came the drums. Modern music with guitars and drums needs a more sophisticated sound system, so after much penny pinching, that came in too.

Now, it was wonderful. Each church choose it's own songs. They were creatively expressing themselves through music! Because now there was worship bands, not just Mrs Jones and Mrs Davis, whole piles of musicians and singers got a chance to express themselves in worship.

But it didn't end there. Enter, the digital revolution! 

The CD. The Mp3. The iPod. Fast internet downloads.
Hundreds of new bands exploding into our computers and out through our speakers into our thirsty eardrums. No longer were we listeners of music - we became true consumers.
Eating through huge piles of music, and spitting it out at the other end, never really appreciating the art and effort that had gone into it.
With Protools, Sonar, and Logic, we could turn our home computer into a recording studio.
With MySpace, we could put our music online and have it available to the entire universe in just seconds.

So if went even further. Music had become such a vital and important part of people's lives, that they chose churches by what music they played. They couldn't even go for a jog with out taking 30 gigs of their favourite tunes with them. It became so ungainly running worship bands and building huge worship teams that every church had to hire a music pastor, just to keep it all running.

The sound systems got even bigger and fancier, to handle more complexity. The bands got better. Songs were written by the millions. Worship leaders became millionare rockstar types, as they sold thousands and thousands of records, toured whole countries and gathered fans like mad.
Concert style lighting became the norm, as people demanded better production standards, and a more engaging experience. Churches began to stream live on the internet, so that Alaskan Eskimos can choose to attend Texas' Lakewood church and hear Israel Houghton lead worship this sunday, if they so desire.

All that, in my parents lifetime alone. Crazy. Utterly mental.

So, back to the beginning. The complaint. 'Is it even worship anymore?'

Yes. I think it is.

Yes, it's true, hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe millions of people miss the point, and that's a great pity.

But all of the worship teams I know are led by a genuine heart to WORSHIP GOD. Sure, we have a lot to focus on, weekly arranging and writing songs, defining our churches' style, managing budgets, managing and inspiring huge teams, trying to remain current and professional in our production standard, but at the heart of it is a hunger to get CLOSER TO GOD.

If we lose that hunger, and if we start slipping into the nightmare of the production and the music being the most important thing, then we are done for. Sadly, this happens all too often.

But we need to keep pressing forward on this journey of exploration, in the western world at least.
We have to meet people WHERE THEY ARE. An 18 year old kid is going to laugh at Mrs Jones, and the old church singing hymns. He's going to laugh at our 90's worship songs and bad hair.
But if he walks into a church, and is hit with a wall of passionate sound, a great atmosphere, well written, well played, interesting music, and a room full of friendly people passionate about God in 2010, he might stick around to ask a few questions. He might accept the invite to a life group that week.

And so if I was to summerize (probably not how you are meant to spell that), I would say this:
The Christian church worships the same God, now, yesterday, tomorrow, in 1963, 1930, 1980 and so on. The style doesn't matter. The heart does.

If you are a one who doesn't like the 'new' style, talk to your pastor and worship leaders. Let them know you concerns. But don't criticize them just because you don't like that style. After all, there are dozen of churches to choose from. Why attend one you don't like? But take the time to understand the heart of the leaders. Take the time to hear from them what they are all about. You may hate the music, but love the leader's heart. You can support them, even if you have to wear earplugs to church.
We do this stuff to try and reach our city with Gods' message of hope, love and grace.

and that is a thinking type thought that i have been thinking of with my thinking brain thing.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In-Ear Monitors

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, IEM's (In Ear Monitors) are a whole new approach for live sound monitoring.

So the old school way works like this: 

I'm standing, on stage, next to a drumkit, blasting away at full volume.

I'm playing electric guitar, and of course, the electric guitar makes no sound at all without an amplifier.
So I put my amp on a stand to get it up close to my ears, then I crank it up to an equal volume level as the drum kit, so I can hear it.

To complicate things more, I'm singing.
Obviously, next to a drum kit blasting away, and my guitar amp being a noisy noisy loud thing, I cannot hear myself sing, at all. So I need yet another sound source, a monitor speaker on the stage in front of me, with my voice fed to it, cranked up to an equal level as the drums.

It gets worse. For one song, I'm singing, but not playing guitar at all. For that song, I am singing solo with just backing from a keyboard.

I need to hear the keyboard, so I can sing (A) in tune and (B) in time, so that is fed into my monitor, and cranked up to an equal volume as my vocals. That all adds up to a lot of sound coming at me.

I've just painted a fairly bleak picture, but it gets even worse. On any standard Sunday, we have 8+ singers and musicians on stage, all with the same problems, all with blaring loud amps and stage monitors.

So what we have is a bunch of noise on stage. Everything has to be turned up LOUD, just so I can hear the bare minimum things that I need to hear to get my job as a worship leader done.

This is a thing we techos call (not very cleverly) 'Stage Volume' or 'Stage Wash'.

Now, stage volume doesn't sound good. The congregation hears it, but not directly, as the monitor speakers are pointing away from them.
By the time it gets to their ears, it's bounced off the roof and walls.
It sounds bassy, muddy, flat and just plain nasty. But still LOUD.

Now we introduce another element, our friend the FOH mixer or sound man/lady.
They have to create a mix for the congregation to hear clearly, but GLORY BE! the room is already filled with muddy, nasty stage sound bouncing around.

So they do the only thing they can do - turn the house sound up LOUDER. That way, the nice clear direct house sound covers up or masks the muddy stage sound. It sounds OK out front - but it is louder than it needs to be. This creates complaints from some people. And if you bring the volume down, it just sounds terrible. The vocals become soo muddy, you can't even tell what the words are half the time.
Just what we want in church, right?

WOW, you say. 'Ben, that is depressing. Is that really what you have to deal with as a sound tech?'

Yes. At. Every. Single. Gig. I've. Ever. Done.

But, thankfully, technology moves on. Enter, our savior, the IEM system!

The IEM system has three parts.

1) Transmitter. This bad boy takes a feed from the sound desk and converts it into radio waves
2) Receiver. This is a pack-of-cards sized, battery powered bodypack that you wear on your belt. It receives the radio signal from the transmitter
3) Ear Buds. These are tiny speakers that plug into your bodypack to play the music.
You can use cheap iPod headphones, good quality ones, or even have custom earpieces made up.

So that's how it works. Imagine everyone on stage has their own system. Now there are no monitor speakers or amplifiers on stage at all. If guitarists still want to use an amp, it can be side stage in a sound proofed box. All the musicians and singers can hear themselves in total clarity.

Because their is no speakers on stage, the stage noise is reduced to drums, vocals and acoustic guitar. Electric guitar, bass and keyboards, are all silent - except for in the muso's IEM.

Now the FOH soundie can breathe a sigh of relief - he/she no longer has to worry about all the mud and sloppy stage noise. They can build a nice simple, clean audio mix, at a MUCH LOWER volume, and everyone is happy. Heck, the congregation can even hear themselves sing over the ruckus now!

But there are other benefits as well.

So, returning back to my first illustration - let's take a look at those sound levels, shall we?

Standing next to a drumkit?  Approx 76 dB

+ loud guitar amp = Approx 82 dB

+ loud vocal microphone = Approx  88 dB

+ loud keyboard = Approx 94 dB

According to, 94dB can cause permanent hearing damage in an astonishing 60 minutes.
These audio levels are very normal on stages playing amplified church music. And we do hours on end!
Rock concerts can easily break 110 dB. So can a really loud ipod.
Yes, we are murdering our hearing week after week, hour after hour.

With IEM, the earbuds give you physical hearing protection against all the ambient noise, and you can have just what you need at a lower volume, right in your ears. You can easily get the noise down to 80ish dB - or even less.

I've noticed my hearing getting worse recently - I have to get people to repeat themselves occasionally. 
I'm hearing a constant high pitched ring in bed or very quiet places. 
After a full Sunday, playing 3 services + 2 rehearsals = total of 6ish hours of amplified music, my ears are sore, and the ringing is noticeable.

I've been playing amplified rock-style church music now for 10 years. 
I've been careful with my hearing, often wearing good quality earplugs, but clearly not careful enough. 
I'm 24 years old, an musician and sound engineer, and I'm already suffering hearing loss!

So I shelled out for a IEM system, on my own buck. Man, it has made a difference! 
After a full day of worship services on IEM, my ears don't feel trashed. They aren't ringing anywhere near as badly as they were before. And I've never heard my voice so loud and clear before. 
I'm singing more in tune, and I'm feeling more connected with the music while playing as well.
(The unit I brought is a Sennheiser IEM300 G2, if your interested) 

So, my mission is to share my knowledge. If you are gigging, please use hearing protection. 
If you can possibly afford IEM for yourself, do it. You won't regret it. 

And worship team family, you'll be glad to know, I'm working on a proposal for us here at EIC that will get the band on IEM, ASAP.