personalized expeditions in music from a musician who doesn't matter

Boopaleep my McNothing

Posted by admin on June 27, 2012

What does this dumb little ambient instrumental, from the recently “reissued” Aprosody full-length of 2000, have in common with U2’s billions and billions of dollars?

No, the answer is not “insider trading before the Facebook IPO.” The answer is the Korg SDD3000. It’s a simple little rack delay (more broadly, an effects processor) which, at least in terms of its specs and original purpose, would be considered hopelessly basic and outdated by any modern standard of effects processing.

(more on the joys of exploring abusing vintage effects vs. the current Preset Culture after the break)

The Edge has used an SDD3000 in his rig, or so is my understanding, as a characteristic component of his guitar tone since ca. 1985. This is pretty well-known amongst U2-loving douchebags, and it has kept the value of the SDD3000 very high even as similar devices from its era– including just about every similar device that Korg made in the same period– can be had for pennies.

I bought my SDD3000 for $100 ca. 1999, totally unaware of the Edge association, and the music store I bought it from probably thought they were charging too much (so did I, but it looked too intriguing to pass up). I quickly found some cool uses for it, like the Aprosody song above, and a nutty live experimental thing I would do in the local club from time to time (with a rig far too large and complex for any one solo musician to reasonably carry up the club stairs, but hey).

When I discovered the SDD3000s were a U2-fetishist’s dream and worth a whopping $600-700 on the ‘Bayz round about 2001, I just couldn’t resist the profit potential and sold it. With so many old rack delays out there, I figured I’d have no problem finding another device that could do what it does.

I was totally wrong. I’ve been searching for years, and I’ve yet to find it. And the particular stuff that the SDD3000 does that I find very cool– the stuff other devices from past to present cannot do– is not the stuff that the Edge uses in his own tone at all.

There’s not very much to the track linked above, and it was done very quickly. Mostly, if I’m recalling correctly, it’s about three or four layers of live guitar and guitar manipulations, with a main guitar ostinato and an improvised piano solo holding it down against increasingly angry layers of noise. Just a quick experiment.

The noise layers, again, were mostly created live, feeding the SDD3000 occasional live input from a guitar and manipulating the shit out of its onboard controls on the fly as the “tape” ran. Though the SDD3000 is a digital unit, the onboard controls on the SDD3000 are mostly analog switches and knobs which allow for instant manipulation of this or that.

That’s it. A basic guitar track, a piano solo, and a whole lot of knob-twiddling making all the angry sounds out of some very dumb single-note parts.

Every musician knows that knobs are where it’s at when it comes to stuff like this and synthesizers. Again, from what I can tell by listening to U2 records, the Edge never touches the knobs on his SDD3000… although I’m sure Bono touches his knobs plenty, but maybe I should just leave that joke in the garbage where I found it.

The 3000 was meant not just for guitar, but for studio use in general. And it has some onboard modulation capabilities which are meant to do things like fake vocal doubling from a single track. Those capabilities are common in studio delay units of the 3000’s era. But the 3000’s modulation capabilities are truly extreme and capable of serious sonic mangling of input, to the point where one wonders how Korg thought equipping the device with such strange abilities would ever be useful. It wasn’t like glitch was super-in in the mid-1980s.

Fast-forward to now. Digital effects have come a long, long way since the SDD3000’s time, since they are based on processing and memory, and we have Moore’s Law, and yadda yadda yadda.

Effects are critical to electric guitarists. It’s long been possible to go into Guitar Center, spend $50, and get a box that gives you All The Sounds Ever Used By Every Guitarist Ever– or so the advertising goes. A single cheap box gives you hundreds of different effects combinations to play with, imitating dozens of classic analog effects pedals used on countless records in the established rock canon. You can even use multiple effects from these “classics” at the same time for your $50.

Yet, simultaneously, the analog guitar pedal has hardly died. Instead, the available choices in this field are greater, and also far more expensive, than ever– although there are an awful lot of clones of those same classic pedals your $50 all-in-one digital box seeks to imitate.

An analog guitar effects pedal costs anywhere from $30-500+. Buy one, and it usually only gives you one basic effect.

I have met many guitarists who have whole analog pedalboards worth many times the cost of their guitar and amp. They may have no digital devices, opting instead for dozens of discrete analog devices spread out before them.

Is this vinyl-sounds-better-style analog hipsterism for hipsterism’s sake? Yes and no. The analog pedals do tend to sound better for some things, like distortion, than the all-in-one digital wonders. But a more important concern is effects routing. If you want a wild new sound, the routing is everything. Three analog pedals chained up A-B-C will give a very different sounding result in many cases than the chain C-B-A, all other variables being equivalent.

The $50 all-in-one digital toys– heck, their overgrown $400-500 “pro” equivalents– do not give you the power to reverse a chain of effects A-B-C to C-B-A. If you want a fake distortion pedal within that digital box, it can go in only one place in the signal chain. This severely limits your options for interesting noise-making despite the apparent dozens of different effects on tap.

Put it another way, the all-in-one toys are mostly for people who want established, conventional sounds fast, and/or beginners who don’t know how their favorite sounds on electric guitar are made. There’s no reason why these devices couldn’t offer a lot more flexibility– except that it would confuse the heck out of most of us dumb guitarists if that power was made available inside the box.

Not as much to get confused about with the discrete stompboxes as there is in rearranging a bunch of digital, “imaginary” ones. Unplug this, plug this in here, done, new sound.

The SDD3000 only gives you one fixed way to process sound, but lots of wide-ranging parameters with which to do it. When multieffects started coming out– the precursor to the $50 all-in-one boxes of today– it was often possible to virtually rearrange signal chains between those multiple effects. Now, you can’t. Not unless you spend a whole shit-ton of money on a very-seriously-pro-grade rack processor (and even then…!)… or if you decide to do the same thing inside your computer, chaining virtual effects plugins and arranging them as you need.

I have tried dozens of hardware processors– heck, I’ve tried dozens of expensive computer effects plugins, even combinations thereof– and I have yet to find one that enables the modulation tricks that the SDD3000 could do. The closest I’ve been able to come was a Csound algorithm I coded myself shortly after selling the SDD3000, and that’s not very useful for plugging the thing into an amp and making a ton of wacky pitch-bent noise on the fly with it.

Recently I’ve also discovered that part of Kevin Shields’ rig on the seminal Loveless was a rack effect device called the Yamaha SPX90. On seeing Youtube demos, it’s not hard to come to an understanding of how vital the SPX90 was to his sound.

You’re not going to find any $50 modern-day miracle digital box that can come close to the diverse, gorgeous sounds that Shields generated from his guitar, because the people buying the $50 miracle box just want something approximating Korn when they plug in, no knob-turning, no nothin’.

Getting Shields’ sound– or more personal variants thereupon– requires flexibility, deep configurability, frequent realtime manipulation, tweaking. The ancient SPX90 has these abilities– once you take the time to understand what it can do, once you program it right. Good luck spending even a couple grand on a new effects processor and coming even close. They’ve taken great pains to take that same depth of configurability out of the machine, because this stuff is for pros and pros these days are under pressure to make everything instantly sound the same as everything else.

This tragic situation– more DSP muscle than ever before, far fewer ways to actually use it– is just another symptom of our culture’s current failure in everything ever. We have willingly given up programmability, tweakability, customization, artistic individuality for instant gratification, for a cheap just-turn-it-on imitation of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone in a box for people who can’t play anything like him. Our intensely shitty, boring music reflects the intensely shitty, boring same-ness of the whiz-bang, ankle-deep tools currently being pushed to musicians.

And while Shields’ SPX90s are relatively cheap used, good luck finding an SDD3000 now for anything less than a grand on eBay. There are way too many mega-douchebags who only want to make sure they can sound Just Like The Edge at all costs. Never mind that he has never used even a tenth of the wild creative possibilities that particular box contains, and you could get the same sound from a $150 analog booster pedal and a $50 all-in-one digital wonder.

So I guess I’m gonna have to learn to code VST plugins in C++ to really get my SDD3000 back. …Quick, somebody teach me C++.

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