Traditional wisdom says that if you’re moving out of a rental, you throw the loudest, craziest, lawn-chairs-tossed-in-the-pool-type of party as possible. That is, unless the daily noise generated from your wall of guitar gear is the reason you’ve been evicted in the first place.
As Dan & Mick are on the market for a new space and expect an imminent move, they took the high road and didn’t blast through the walls with their arsenal of amplifiers. Rather, they took the opportunity to say a silent farewell to the neighbors on the other side of the wall with a show on playing direct. Gentlemen, while many of us wouldn’t have that same restraint, we salute you!
The Headphone Realities of an Ampless Environment
The experience of playing your gear at volume is inspiring. It’s that unexplainable moment where the boundary between you and your gear dissolves. Your guitar, pedals, and amp are moving the air in the room and you’re lost in the space and sound. The challenge, however, is that this isn’t always possible. In fact, as Dan & Mick noted, strapping a set of headphones on has become a reality for many players these days. Whether you’re playing in a confined space and close quarters or recording tracks direct, you won’t always have that wall of sound to fall back on.
As Dan & Mick cycled through different gear, they quickly came to the crux of the situation. As Mick noted, “It doesn’t sound bad through the headphones, it sounds perfectly usable…but I really struggle to play and connect, unless there’s volume.” For Dan, this all came back to the all-important creation and interaction with a feedback loop. This loop starts with you as a player, channels through your guitar and pedals, and then cycles back to you via your amp. It’s a movement, a relationship, and something that you’ll most often notice when it’s not happening.
The challenge here, then, is not in terms of tone or frequency—it’s about feel. In this way, Mick reminded us, playing guitar is a sensory experience and a big part of that experience is not about audio but the impact of those soundwaves on you as a real, live, embodied human being.
Speaker Cabinet Simulator for Live Sounds
One of the fundamental elements of gear for playing direct is a speaker cabinet simulator. While these won’t provide the physical movement of air and feel of an actual cabinet, they approximate the sound of one in a recording. The advantage here is that most speaker cabinet simulators have multiple options for different sizes, eras, and manufacturers of cabinets.
While the jury was still out for Dan & Mick on the best ways to deploy these when playing silently, they highlighted their advantage in some live situations. If you have a favorite amp, particularly of tiny wattage, running the amplifier external out into a cabinet simulator and then into the mixing board can add a bit of body to the overall sound. But what about that all important feel?
As Mick noted, even when playing with in-ear monitors on stage, while you might not have the sound of your guitar amp bouncing directly off you, there are other elements in the room creating a physical sound. There’s the caged in drummer, the PA, resonance of room reverb, the roaring crowd, etc. “The [sound] out front is going to be loud and you’re going to be feeling some of that.” Sure, it’s not exactly the same as the feedback loop created between you and your gear, but it’s a physical vibe that helps cultivate comfort and creativity.
Some Open Questions for a Future Exploration
The episode this week quite clearly pointed the way forward for a future exploration. As Dan & Mick looked to the terrain ahead, they offered some important reflections.
How we experience our gear matters, particularly when it comes to pedals. After feeling a bit defeated at the sounds of some otherwise excellent gear on the pedalboard, Mick asked, “Imagine if your experience with any of these pedals was via [direct only playing] and you thought that’s what they sounded and felt like?” The point here is not that headphone sounds will never be able to capture the sound of a pedal. Rather, the question recognizes that a good pedal sounds even better when it is set in the context of other gear that is reacting and responding to its sonic structure. Hear your gear in context, and you’re good to go.
When it came to guitars, don’t overlook the importance of your electric guitar’s acoustic character. As Dan & Mick experimented with different combinations of gear and guitars via headphones, often the sounds they felt best with were from guitars that had a distinct, resonant quality. That is, it was axes that put out a physical vibe that made the headphone sounds feel a tad better. Dan was still unhappy, Mick slightly more diplomatic, but in the end, if the only thing making a noise in the room is your guitar, you’d better connect with it!
So whether you’re in need of a wall of 4×12 cabinets to feel the tone or a set of headphones to ensure your playing doesn’t evict you from home, be sure to connect with us over at Riff City for all your gear needs!
TPS Rig Rundown:
Guitars: Fender ’60s Reverse Headstock Stratocaster, Fender Custom Shop 1963 Telecaster, Gibson Memphis 1958 ES-335, Collings I-30LC.
Amps: Marshall 1987x head, Fryette Power Station, BluGuitar AMP1.