Unpopular Opinion

There is one thing that all great, high achieving musicians have in common. They all, without exception, torture themselves a little about their tone. It doesn’t matter what instrument they play. They go through a highly personalized process to find their own unique sound. Not all of what is involved in this process has to do with the actual notes and rhythmic phrases they play. A lot of this tone development process comes from the musicians gear.

Brownman Ali has had his trumpet modified a few times and he has experimented for years with different mouthpieces. In the last year or so Brown phased in an extremely large mouthpiece into his regular setup. The large mouthpiece makes it very hard to play (you need to blow much more air through the instrument to make a sound, compared to the smaller mouthpieces that help focus your air flow through the trumpet). Brown had to build up to the mouthpiece switch. When he first started using it he could only play one to three tunes a night before needing to switch back to a smaller more conventional mouthpiece. Why would he make life so hard on himself? Because of the tone. Like all great artists Brownman is a little obsessive about his tone (listen to one of his records or live show to hear the magic of what I’m talking about). Once Brown heard the darkness and warmth of tone through the large mouthpiece it was a no-brainer.

A similar process continues with all of the other gear used to capture his trumpet (mics, press, eqs, comps, also Brown’s pedal board of effects etc.). He takes his time and moves around the mic during sound check finding the sweet spots. Once he is happy with the sound, we track. After tracking Brown likes to be involved with how his trumpet is processed. He tells the engineer how to eq his sound, how much verb and compression to add. His knowledge and decisiveness about his tone is pretty unprecedented. I think it is no coincidence that the musician who’s talents I admire most in this country (who I get to collaborate with regularly) also is the most knowledgeable and involved in the process of treating his sound. I mean how many musicians are hip enough to know how to eq their instrument? Most rely on sound engineers to do that.

There are many so called musicians who walk into Long & McQuade, buy an instrument(s), plug it in and accept that as their sound. Sorry man but that is not a real musician. A real musician is engaged in a perpetual search for the ultimate tone. They will never achieved it perfectly. That is not what is important. What is important is that there is an ongoing tone search/experimentation process in place at all times.

Guitarists and bassists swapping out pickups, upgrading pots, dressing frets, changing string gauges. Not to mention all the mods and reconfigurations of amps and effects pedals. Drummers experimenting with drums made of different woods with different varieties of drum heads. They will have precision wood workers re-cut the bearing edges of the drums to improve their tone. They mess around endlessly with their hardware, constantly add in new pieces (and subtract old pieces that no longer cut it) to their set-up.

Singers, even though they don’t use as much gear, still go through a process that has them experimenting with all of the different resonant areas where you can focus the voice (the head, chest, nose). With enough work in this area a singer like Nicole Faye can dial up a specific vocal tone almost as if they had an effects rack with presets. Keyboardists, at least the great ones, are insanely geeky about their setup, libraries of sounds, hardware and software accessories, memory in their computers, organizing banks of sounds and making adjustments so the levels are consistent when switching between them. I can go on and on, but I think by now you get the point. No matter what instrument you play, how you actually sound (not just how you play) is of extreme importance. In my ears having a great and personal sound is the difference between a real musician and a tourist.

I would love to hear about the process you go through to get your sound together. What crazy stuff do you do for tone?

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