journalist, musician, guitar geek

Posts tagged “post-rock

Marshall Echohead Review

That there are so many different delay pedals on the market demonstrates not only the effect’s popularity, but also its supreme influence on modern music. With such a wealth of options available to guitarists it’s easy to overlook any number of underrated gems, something that is certainly the case with the Echohead, one of the standout products in Marshall Amplication’s most recent foray into the stompbox arena. First released in 2002, the Echohead has never achieved the same kind of fanfare that has greeted similar offerings from Boss and Digitech, although it has been developing a steady following thanks to its low price, particularly on the used market. Faced with an unending deluge of new delay units, can the Echohead still hold its head above an ocean of competitors?

On The Surface

Whatever you think of Marshall’s pedal design, there’s no denying its sleekness. In fact, most everything about the Echohead screams quality; whether it’s the unit’s comforting weight, the sturdy metal jacks or the recessed metal knobs, the pedal’s build quality belies its Chinese origin. And while the on-off switch feels suspiciously light to the touch, it still gives a satisfying click upon operation. In fact, if there are any complaints to be had, they lie with the robust, yet much-maligned, control knobs, as their thin black setting markers fail to show up under harsh lighting. Indeed, Marshall would be advised to cut back on the shine factor as users may end up feeling their way if their live set requires a lot of delay tweaks.

Feature-wise, there’s a lot on offer: external tap tempo, up to 2 seconds of delay time and six usable, and not so usable, delay modes (hifi, analogue, tape echo, multi tap, reverse and mod filter). In fact, this advanced feature set may account for the pedal’s fairly high current draw (80mA), so try to avoid using batteries: they’re unlikely to last more than an hour or two.

The Echohead still has plenty more tricks hidden beneath that space-age exterior. For one, it not only works in stereo but also provides two options for mono outputs: a passive bypass or a high-quality buffered bypass with trails. The former doesn’t offer the much sought-after “true bypass” but is a useful option if your ‘board is already overrun with buffers or if you simply don’t want your delay to continue when you turn the pedal off, as is the case with the buffered trails option. The pedal also features a true analogue signal path, ensuring that both your delayed and non-delayed tone will remain the same, without the audio path crumbling under the weight of those evil digital converters. Sure, there may be no looper function or stereo inputs but for a digital delay of this build quality at this price point and with external tap tempo, their exclusion is understandable.

Sounds

As an obvious starting point, the Echohead’s default digital setting, or “hifi” as it’s labelled on the pedal, is faithful to the original input signal but without the harshness associated with, say, Boss’ recent efforts. In this respect, it melds well with the guitar’s tone, ensuring that the effect is present but without ever dominating what the guitar is actually playing. Indeed, anyone looking for a delay to mask their mistakes might want to look elsewhere, although the Echohead makes a good job of texture-thickening on spacious riffs.

In terms of retro appeal, the analogue setting (note the uncompromisingly British spelling) further supports the Echohead’s claim as a background effect. While it may not be quite as faithful as other compact digital offerings, it works well to add a subtle ambience without muddying a distorted tone. Similarly, the tape echo mode adds a pleasing “flutter” and degradation to its repeats and is capable of anything from slapback to psychedelica. Looking back, it’s a shame Marshall never expanded upon this pedal range because, with a few extra controls, the Echohead’s tape mode could have been a real force to be reckoned with in the modern tape echo simulation stakes.

The pedal’s last three settings are where things start to get a little weird. The reverse mode, in particular, is probably the least usable of all, but the same can be said about its inclusion in the majority of other delays. In a time of need reversing a melody can serve as an impetus for songwriting but don’t expect to use it too often. Similarly, mod filter may be a bit too wacky for some tastes as it adds a uni-vibe-esque swirl to the repeats, something which can be a tad overbearing in more subtle moments; more usable would have been a chorus or vibrato effect setting, along the lines of the Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man.

More usable is the multi tap setting, which allows for some interesting rhythmic interplay ala The Edge or for more subtle cascading delays, as seen in Joe Satriani’s staggered delay use in live settings. Again, this isn’t likely to form your bread-and-butter, all-purpose setting but it’s always fun to have additional options, particularly when recording. Another interesting quirk is that the Echohead will repeat forever when the feedback is set to full and, if the trails output is used, the pedal will repeat indefinitely when off. While this can be useful for songwriting, it also means that the pedal won’t self-oscillate so if you’re an aspiring spaceship pilot, this may not be the delay for you.

Overall

Even in today’s oversaturated delay market, the Marshall Echohead can still fight its corner. The sheer quality of the sounds on offer, as well as the construction of the unit itself, means that, at least as a basic external-tap-tempo-equipped delay (one of very few at this price point), the Echohead is an option to be considered. However, some of the mode choices are a tad overambitious and more controllable parameters are required to make them truly useful in an everyday setting; a few tweaks here and there and Marshall would have an unquestionable winner on their hands, particularly if they include a looping function to compete with some of delay’s big boys. Still, any quibbles about functionality are easily dispelled by the Echohead’s ease of use and pristine sound quality, making this an ideal entry-level or secondary delay on your pedalboard.

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How to Make Instrumental Rock Work

We’ve all been there: you’ve found yourself a killer bassist, a raucous drummer and, perhaps, a fellow guitarist wingman or keyboard wizard. At this point there arises the inevitable question of a singer, soon followed by an ill-fated series of personal ads, band equivalents of online dating and a few misguided attempts from the drummer, all of which can all prove fruitless and disheartening.

Still, there’s no reason to stop recording and gigging just because no-one’s opening their mouth onstage. A whole host of successful acts function just fine without a vocalist and, in many cases, sound all the better for it. Without a singer getting in the way there’s more room for riffs, melodies and rhythms from each and every band member, plus there’s no risk of cancelling a gig just because one of you has a cold.

With the recent surge of UK and US instrumental talent, not to mention resurgence of a number of decades-old acts, it seems timely to provide a guide on how to make instrumental rock work for both the listener and the musician. Some of these tips require equipment, some need specific skills, while others just offer a new way of looking at existing approaches. With each nugget of wisdom comes a recommended track from well-established and upcoming instrumental acts, providing a demonstration of the advice in context and allowing you to learn how to best use it in your own music.

So, here are ten ways to make instrumental rock work…

 

Dynamics

Dynamics are, in short, the most important aspect of instrumental music. Try dropping instruments in and out, developing the parts other members are playing and judging when to quieten down and for how long, if, of course, you can get the drummer to ease off on the crash cymbal. An essential part of instrumental dynamics is being able to easily switch from a clean, or lightly-overdriven, tone to full-on distortion, whether this is achieved through a channel-switching amp or standalone distortion pedals. It’s these sharp dynamic contrasts which make it possible for a single riff to last as long as twenty minutes, as seen in a number of recordings from instrumental pioneers Mogwai.

Recommended listening: Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan

 

Tremolo picking

Following from the previous step is tremolo picking, one of the trademarks of “post-rock” and its almost orchestral take on guitar music. Limber up your picking hand because considerable stamina is required in order to perform the rapid-speed octave melodies which typify the genre. You’ll soon find that tremolo picking a guitar line can bring a certain raw, physical intensity that can’t quite be captured by simply sustaining notes.

Recommended listening: Explosions in the Sky – The Birth and Death of the Day

 

Atmospherics

Along with distortion, delay and reverb comprise the two most important weapons in the instrumental guitarist’s arsenal. Without a singer to pad out the mix, delay and reverb can help to thicken textures and create a sense of atmosphere akin to the ways in which a film score heightens the calm or chaos on-screen. Delay is particularly effectively in both quiet, clean picking sections as well as all-out tremolo picking destruction. Be careful with reverb in live settings however as, in combination with the venue’s natural reverb, it can result in a muddy, indistinct guitar tone.

Recommended listening: Mogwai – New Paths to Helicon Pt. I

 

Open string hammer-ons and pull-offs

While it may not be one of the most recognisable aspects of “post-rock” or its accompanying genres, this technique has been put to great use in a number of compositions by Northern Irish instrumentalists And So I Watch You From Afar. Alternating between higher frets and their respective open strings helps to expand a band’s live sound, especially if you’re the lone guitarist in the group, as you’re able to cover both the mids and the highs almost simultaneously.

Recommended listening: And So I Watch You From Afar – Gang (Starting Never Stopping)

 

Octave pedals

Another, less technique-orientated, method of orchestrating your sound is to make use of octavers and pitch-shifting pedals. These can help to make one guitar sound like several guitars, while octave-up shifts can help to occupy the space where the audience might expect to hear a singer or additional harmonies.

Recommended listening: And So I Watch You From Afar – Search:Party:Animal

 

Tapping

Again, if you’re looking to create a multi-layered, almost polyphonic wall of sound from a single guitar, tapping is another way to achieve this. We aren’t talking Van Halen-esque solos here though; instead, ease off on the distortion and try fretting a chord with your left hand while tapping a melody with your right (don’t forget to reverse these instructions if you’re a leftie). A compressor may be required in order for every note to sound clean and even but, with practise, this technique creates an intricate, almost percussive, feel.

Recommended listening: Talons – In the Shadows of Our Stilted Homes

 

Looping/samples

If you’re worried about the live performance of your studio masterpiece and how to replicate all those synths, horns and string quartets, consider the use of samples or, if you’ve indulged in a number of guitar overdubs, looping. As long as the drummer’s working to a click track, there’s no risk of going out of time and your audience gets to experience the track as it was intended, with the added bonus of the band rocking out onstage. Even if you didn’t feature any additional instruments, why not find some appropriate samples to add a human element to proceedings? Leicester four-piece Maybeshewill often feature speeches from their favourite movies, as well as synth overdubs, at their live gigs, further developing their already epic sound.

Recommended listening: Maybeshewill – Not For Want Of Trying

 

Slow it down

You’ve got a killer riff and the rhythm section’s locked in but your song still doesn’t quite convey the feeling you intended. Never be afraid to slow it down. While this can sometimes border on ambient styles (a line many instrumental acts often tread), the apocalyptic sensations it instils in the audience will more than make up for an extended running time. Try combining with reverb and delay to create a colossal, unending wall of sound.

Recommended listening: This Will Destroy You – Communal Blood

 

Timing

If your band’s tighter than a pair of Topman skinny jeans, consider some off-the-wall and unpredictable timing shifts. Not only will it display your technical expertise and musical know-how but also give the impression of a band who is dangerous and unhinged, ready to break free of its musical confines at any moment. Either that or you’ll come across as a bit nerdy: there’s a genre called “math rock” for a reason! When writing, try to imagine where to take the song next and sing the rhythm and melody lines before attempting to transpose to the guitar.

Recommended listening: Three Trapped Tigers – Cramm

 

Song titles

The best part about having no lyrics is that there are no boundaries when it comes to song titles, so use your imagination. You want to write about that hilarious incident that happened to your drunken friend last week? Do it! Seen a catchy slogan or found two random words which just sound right together? Make good use of them. Scottish quintet Mogwai took a number of song titles for second album Come On Die Young from National Enquirer headlines so the sky’s the limit!

Recommended listening: Mogwai – You’re Lionel Richie