(Note: this is an older post, and I now record with recording gear, and load the mp3′s onto iPhone’s. Most of the description in this post is still correct, and I added a new video, but this page is a little more current: Ambient Pads.)
Download ‘Bridge: Ambient Pads: III‘ for free
Download ‘Water: Music for Meditation (Ambient Pads II)‘ for free
After the last Guitar for Worship Workshop, I got a ton of questions on how I run the ‘ambient pad’ that goes along underneath what my guitar is doing. Yep, that was in March. And yes, it’s June now. In short, I suck. But, here it is!
The idea started from playing in band after band and worship team after worship team without keyboardists. And that wonderful bed the keyboards make for the other instruments to lie on was sorely missing. So I started doing it with my guitar on intros and low parts and such. Throw on some delays and a volume pedal and there ya go. But then I realized I needed to play guitar, too. (Novel thought. Sometimes I can get off in my own little ambient world pretending I’m Sigur Ros and totally miss every downbeat for about 5 minutes. And please note, that this is not a good thing, unless you are Sigur Ros.) And I realized that when I’m doing pad stuff, I’m ‘doing’ very little. Too much gets out of control fast. And honestly, if you ever want to give yourself a lesson in tastefulness, play ambient for a while. You’ll find just how far one note can go, and just how bad the ‘sort of okay’ note lasts. In a quick run, ya, the 4th can work over that chord, I guess. But when you’re creating space, suddenly the choice of notes becomes very, very crucial.
So I decided to record the pad, in every different key. I bought a little Fostex multi-track, specifically an older model that had no bells and whistles, so as to record the signal as purely as possible, and to make playback and switching tracks as quick of a process as possible. And then I recorded about 7 minutes of my guitar doing ambient swells in each key as a different song on the Fostex, and then set the loop points so that it’ll just go on forever. And then run it into a tube amp with decent clean headroom to give it back some of the warmth it’s losing in the digital recording. And since there’s no way to control it per se, I just run it into a passive volume pedal. (Is it bad that Britney Spears just came on my itunes? Come on now, some of her stuff is really catchy, even if she didn’t write it and it’s the pitch correction software singing.)
(*good photo of Britney Spears not found*)
And it’s worked very nicely for the last few years to start songs, end songs, meld between songs, and just generally create a nice bed underneath what the band is doing, or what my guitar is doing if I’m playing solo. The keyboardists like it, too, because in general, most of them play pad because they know it helps the song……but it’s not the most particularly fun thing to play. (Most of them just hit a chord and then hold the sustain pedal with their foot, and then make a big show about using their hands to eat coffee and donuts or something. hehe) So when they hear what I have running, they usually get excited that they can play more piano. And those who want to play pad and actually have it worked out to where they can create space and pad is ‘their thing’, it actually melds nicely with that, too. Part of the reason for that is that it is a guitar recording…and I’ve worked hard to make my guitar ambience sound more like an analog synth. There’s no digital synthesizers or anything. And this helps it sit in the mix much better. It tends to ‘appear’ when the music is thin, and disappear when the music is heavy. Plus, I’ve got it on a volume pedal as well, so I’m very ‘hands on’ with bringing it up and down when needed.
Now, there are some cautions to using this, but I’ll go over that after the video demo:
(hehe And yes, that was me ripping off Desperation Band, who ripped off U2′s ‘Streets’, who probably ripped off some classical composer or something. Nope. Every chord progression U2 has ever had is completely original. I believe it with all my heart. Even With or Without You. But I used those two worship songs in the video specifically to show how the pad will work during a worship set.)
And here is a new video, about four years later, showing how I use the pads in a different context, and a context I think worship music is moving towards:
So that’s a little bit of what it does and how it sounds. However, you will notice that it is exactly what I recorded. And it’s kind of ‘set and forget.’ So, that’s the reason for recording a warmer, less digital guitar signal into it, and for running it through a tube amp…so it sits in the mix better. And by ‘better’, I am meaning less pronounced. And, of course, this works nicely with modern music and worship music, where we tend to stay in the key almost exclusively. But it’s not changing chords! It can background fill around the I, IV, V, vi, and every once in a while, the ii. But start doing some Larry Carlton, or Yes, or anything jazzy, progressive, or classical, and you need to shut it off. This is crucial. You NEED to shut it off. hehe It can get ugly quick. Also, when you’re recording it, you need to prepare yourself to be bored for 7 minutes. My first batch of recordings, I would start to get bored of the simple chord swells and triads at about the 3 minute mark. And then the next 4 minutes would be me doing a bunch of other stuff. All stuff that sounds cool if you’re controlling when it happens; but once recorded, it now shows up randomly. So anything but the triads, some suspensions, and a few major 7ths, is completely out of the question. This pad is meant as a basis for everything to play, not for it to necessarily ‘play.’ And lastly, this is a tool; just like another instrument. If it for whatever reason happens not to work in a particular song, even though logically, it technically ‘should’ work, shut it off.
But even though there’s a lot of cautions to running this, and admittedly it might be more headache than it’s worth, it has been invaluable for me. It can start sets, end sets, give ambience while changing guitars, allow me to play less during the songs, fills up the dead space in the songs, and allows me to play less (did I say that already? hehe). And you’ll know you’re running it right when you don’t necessarily notice when it’s there, but you notice when it’s gone. There’s been two times over the last few years when it has gone out during a set: once, the amp died; and the other time the adapter for the Fostex died. And wow, immediate difference. I’m going, ‘Why is the set so empty today?’ And then afterwards I realized there was no sound from the pad.
So that’s the lowdown (that’s homie talk, from the streets, for those of you who didn’t grow up in as rough of a middle class suburb as I did…one time I saw a cop…I know, crazy stuff) on the pad. And apologies to those of you who saw this post and went, ‘Well that’s a lot of work for like, no payoff. Give me another pedal demo!’ I understand that this one is a lot more time, effort, and thought in its implementation. But I did get a lot of requests for this post, and it has been 3 months since those requests, so I figured it was about due. And I’m trying to think of something clever, memorable, and just generally spectacular to say at the end of this, but nothing is coming. Deal. (Again, the rough neighborhood…sorry, I try to hide it, but it comes out sometimes.)