Author: Campbell, Bruce

Keep It Simple, Son

Chuck Poling’s recent article on the perils (and temptations) of pickups for acoustic instruments brought to mind one of the bizarre paradoxes in bluegrass music: How technology has insinuated itself into an art form that celebrates simplicity.

At its core, bluegrass and old-time are for front porch pickin’ and singin’. That’s where the roots of the music lie, and it’s the aesthetic we try to invoke when we play it. This is reinforced when you see circles of pickers around a festival, pickin’ in lawn chairs, or standing around a lantern and a bottle (after dark). It’s the ultimate simple pleasure, really. So, when and where does technology rear its ugly head?

Here’s a hint: Look at the headstocks of all those instruments and notice the little green and amber glows of tuners. Don’t get me wrong – I love tuners. I do not miss the days when one person in the circle had a tuning fork, used it to tune one string and then tuned the others in relation to that first one. Then, the rest of the folks in the circle would try and tune to the guy with the tuning fork. 6 different sets of ears – what was the result? Well, sometimes it was fine. But as often as not, the whole group sounded a bit off, and everyone assumed it was the other guy who was out of tune. No, I’m ready to forgive the advent of cheap, pretty reliable tuners, even if some folks trust them more than their own ears.

One of the reasons I got into bluegrass was I was tired of hauling amps around, and dealing with all the possible points of failure. Bad cord?Dead battery? Blown fuse? Bad tubes? Bad solder joint in a stomp box? Better throw a voltmeter and a soldering iron in the gig bag – sooner or you later, you’ll need ‘em! And in the 70’s amps were huge – my setup included a massive cabinet with four 15” speakers, atop which I would perch a dual 12” speaker cabinet. I could barely reach the knobs on the amplifier. I enjoyed the thrill of playing loud, but at some point, every chance to play was really an ordeal. Not only that, where you can rehearse when your band starts out at 120dB? It was time to go “natural”!

So, we went the acoustic route. What a relief! Music at its simplest. Just pure voices, and the sounds of wires and wood – how real, how genuine! Then it became time to do some gigs, and what do you know? It turns out no one can hear the guitar and mandolin if there’s even a few people in the room. No problem, just put a mic on those two instruments.

Hmm, now the bass and even the banjo seem a little quiet, so better mic those too. But now the vocals are drowned out by the instruments, so better sing into some more microphones. Now we’ve got 10 mics plugged in, each competing for sonic space. Add in the tiny bar stage and the low flat ceiling and what do you get? You’re chasing feedback like a Whack-a-Mole! How about getting back to the basics? Yeah, singing into a single mic like Flatt and Scruggs on the Grand OlOprey – much simpler, right? Well, it turns out that a mic that’ll pick up 5 people with instruments around it also picks up all the bar noise! Where does it end?

It never ends, folks, because Campbell’s Law of Technical Escalation states that everything seeks the level of complexity at which the system fails. And bluegrass is not immune to the law. It’s a good thing I like gear...

Posted:  1/25/2012

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