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Friday, October 5, 2012

Selection strategy

Knobs courtesy Derek Jensen (Tysto) WikiMedia Commons
A lot of digital gear comes with hundreds of preset patches or at least hundreds of spaces for you to record your own patches. For live playing, this is overwhelming; at best you can remember a handful of your favorites. One way to deal is to simplify and memorize a just a small bunch at at time. But you need a way to call these up quickly, and that's where things get interesting, how to map the list to a control device. I think the best schemes provide an analogy (visual or mental), and simplify (reduce) the number of choices.

I've heard that there are 128 pickup combinations on a Strat (pickup(s) chosen, series wiring, parallel wiring, phasing) yet the original Strat wiring simplified by provided just 3 with a lever switch. The switch pretty much pointed at the pickup that was being selected, providing the analogy. That's since been expanded to 5, and uses the same position analogy. But even if you only consider the parallel wiring that's so commonly used, there are 7 combinations, so some simplification is still happening.

In trying to get at more of the possibilities, I wired in a 3 position mode selector to one Strat that ups the combinations to 10. The 5 position selector switch is still the same, but the mode switch changes what 5 pickup combinations you get. This makes it a lot easier for me, since I only need to remember 5 things at a time, and the position of the switch tip uses the traditional analogy to sort of point at the pickups being selected. There is still some simplification going on, as this setup can theoretically have 15 selections, but wiring limitations lower that number. Also the groupings are meant to be functional not exhaustive. The modes group pickup selections into usable groups. Mode 1 is the stock wiring, so you don't need to remember anything new. Mode 2 gets at the missing 2 combinations--neck+bridge, and all 3 pickups on. The 4th and 5th positions are rewired, but positions 1-3 still give you the stock combinations. I think of mode 3 as a 2 pickup humbucker guitar. It's louder, and has only 3 pickup combinations.

Some people choose to implement pickup wiring with a set of 3 or more switches to individually control the pickups. This doesn't work for me, there's no visual or mental analogy that I can lock into. It also isn't simple, it takes several switch throws to select a pickup combination. A compromise is to provide a switch that just turns on the bridge pickup so it can be added to any combination selected by the pickup selector. I tried this for a while, and didn't like it because selecting pickups is still a 2 step operation--use the lever switch and check or throw the bridge pickup switch.

Another example came up with a Marshall JMP1 preamp. This has 100 patches. On its front panel, these are laid out linearly using a knob to sequentially scroll through them. I originally started out using a MIDI foot controller that allowed me to access any patch. I noticed however that I never used more than 5 patches in any situation. I think Marshall realized this too, because in addition to MIDI switching, they have a footswitch connection that puts just 4 patches at your disposal (simplification). You can map the 4 buttons on the footswitch to any patch. I made a footswitch for it and laid out the switches with the idea that the cleanest patch  was at the left side, and the highest gain at the right. This mental analogy, like the visual image on the Strat pickup selector switch, helps me keep things straight.

There's another way to remember patches that works for me, and that's a table layout. Patches are arranged in banks, with the patches in a bank being a variation on the theme of the bank. Way back when, I set up my Zoom 9002 that way. There is a distortion bank, a time based bank (chorus, flange), a weirdness bank (envelope follower, arpeggio generator), and a harmony bank (added octaves, fifths). The patches in a bank use other effects like distortion, reverb, and compression, but the main flavor of the patch was what got it added to a particular bank. Doing this, I was able to remember a 4x4 array, or 16 patches.

The MIDI controller for the JMP1 also used table layout. However remembering the large array needed for 100 patches (10x10?) misses the  idea of simplifying. Still this layout has the advantage of making it quicker to get at patches at different ends of the spectrum. On the JMP1 itself, going from patch 1 to patch 50 involves scrolling through 49 patches (still, it's fairly quick with Marshall's spin knob). With the MIDI foot controller, you step on the bank switch to get to the correct bank, then select the patch in that bank.

I think the inability to hold all the possibilities in our heads is what contributed to the decline in popularity of rack effects processors in live guitar rigs, and the return to stomp boxes with analog style controls. The stomp box provides the simplicity of a few knobs to control parameters, and a visual indication of where those parameters are set. This has extended into audio recording software where there is often an optional interface for effects plug ins that looks like a stompbox. Somewhere along the way the technology parted ways with the way we think and we went back to the tried and true.

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