But is it still live music?

July 23, 2009 | By | 9 Replies More

Back when I was in high school and college, I played the guitar and sang backup for my band. We called ourselves “Ego,” and described ourselves as a “jazz-rock” band. There were eight of us, including a brass section–this splits the take rather painfully–but it was intensely satisfying for 18 and 19-year-olds to earn paychecks playing tunes by Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears. I only sang a couple songs lead—I hid behind two incredibly talented singers who did most of the vocal work.  The  attached photo is Ego performing back in 1974.  ego Since then, we’ve all gone on to pursue careers as such things as an engineer, teacher, letter carrier and lawyer (though our percussionist/lead singer, Charles Glenn, continues to make a living as a singer in the St. Louis area).

Fast forward to 2009. I would love to play music with other musicians again, but I have a day job and a family (and a blog). It would be extremely difficult to arrange for rehearsals that didn’t interfere with my many other obligations. I’ve recently started picking up my guitar to play and sing. It’s not sounding all that bad, and I’m starting to consider performing for others again. [BTW–I had a scary episode where my left hand became numb cause by a pinched nerve in my neck. After surgery, the feeling in my hand is returning nicely, which probably explains my renewed interest in playing music again.]

I’ve never thought of myself as a singer, but I thought that I would have a much better chance of getting a solo gig if I learned to sing rather than just playing the guitar. Therefore, I recently took a singing lesson from Leslie Sanazaro, from whom I learned that my breathing was all wrong, a condition that can reportedly be remedied by doing exercises that would look and sound rather silly to anyone other than a singing teacher.

Leslie advised me that my pitch is okay but that I need to get out there and get some confidence. She said that the best way to get confidence is to go out and sing in public, over and over. That’s easy to say, of course. If you are not enamored with your voice, though, it is a daunting task. It brings back memories when, in the second grade, every student was required to stand up in front of the class and sing a song (my voice trembled and my knees knocked as I sang “Ooey Gooey Was a Worm“). And even when I am able to sing a couple short songs that sound half-decent, I’ve noticed that in extended sessions, my voice grates on me. The fears that I’m experiencing are common, according to Leslie. She sent me this caveat by email: “Don’t get too burned out on your own voice, it’s the only one there is!”

My quest is thus to go out with a guitar and sing songs. It’s something that I intend to do within the next month or two at an open mic session at a local bar or coffee shop. Not a big deal, perhaps. But my voice and my guitar make for such a tiny band, nothing like that eight-piece jazz rock ensemble that I surrounded myself with when I was a young musician. Are there other ways to spruce up my little band without collaborating with other musicians? Yes, indeed, there are many reasonably-priced options, but these options raise issues about the authenticity of one’s “live” performance.

For purists, there is no substitute for an acoustic guitar and an un-amplified voice. That’s how I often practice at home. Over the years, however, various devices have been offered to musicians which make performances less pure, acoustically speaking. We are all now familiar with electronic amplifiers for voices and guitars. Those of us who like the acoustic sound can amplify it by sticking high-tech pickups into our acoustic guitars. I use a Fishman brand “Blend” pickup in my guitar, which combines a piezo microphone with a tiny acoustic microphone, giving you impressive control over the sound. Even when it is amplified substantially, the guitar still sounds “acoustic.”

So what else can you do to enhance the sound of a guitarist/singer? The next obvious addition would be to process the sound through the use of a digital sound processor, allowing a wide range of effects including reverbs, delays, chorus, flange and other specialized effects. I have several methods of processing both my guitar playing and my voice and they really do a great job of enhancing the sound. These modestly-priced effects boxes are commonly used almost anywhere you hear musicians performing, but using them is nonetheless another noticeable step from the purist form of performing (I use a box made by Lexicon).

What if you want to increase the number of musicians in your “band” without hiring additional musicians? For instance, maybe you want to have a drum machine cranking out a rhythm behind your guitar playing. If you’re not careful, drum machines sound robotic, they lock down your rhythm and keep your music from sounding free and expressive. On the other hand, if you take the time to carefully program a drum machine, you can somewhat “humanize” the rhythms and enhance your (solo) performance. But is that still “live” music, to play along with a computerized rhythm module? Whatever your opinion, many small groups currently use drum machines in live performances, and many of them use these rhythm machines impressively.

But what if you crave the sound of a full band? Twenty years ago, musicians with day jobs could pony up $1000 to buy a four-track cassette tape recorder in order to create four separate tracks of music. This was a huge step up from the two-track reel to reel recorder that I had when I was 15. Having any kind of recording equipment allowed me to create a rhythm track and then to improvise on top of it. Much of my practicing consisted of improvising to my own rhythm tracks, because it was convenient. When you’re a teenager, it is sometimes difficult to gather together with other teenagers to jam. This was especially true because the best time for jamming was late at night and all of us still lived with our parents, who did not appreciate late-night jam sessions.

Musical recording technology has exploded over the past 30 years. In my own case, that revolution has given me access to a small digital recorder made by Boss, the BR-600.

Image of BR-600 by EV

Image of BR-600 by EV

You can buy it for less than $350, and it comes with the ability to create eight separate tracks that you can mix down into your own musical CDs. It also comes with a built in drum machine, along with hundreds of options for processing your sound, including programs that will make your guitar sound like an old tube amp, or you can generate a heavy metal sound. There are even programs that will turn a six-string acoustic guitar into something that sounds a lot like a bass guitar. But there’s more. The unit comes with built-in stereo microphones, which are usable, though prefer to record through my instrument pickups and standard voice mics. The BR-600 weighs about a pound and can run on battery power for extended periods. All of your music is recorded onto a small compact flash memory chip. Consider the possibilities: you can take your guitar, your headphones and this little battery-powered unit (it’s no bigger than a book) out to a park and create a tune consisting of a “drummer,” a “bass player” a rhythm guitar, a lead guitar and three-part harmony. And it’s all CD-quality sound. I also have a digital keyboard, which allows me (when I’m back at home) to create my own jazz quartet (or quintet. . .) at home. If you are willing to spend the necessary time to bounce your tracks around on the unit, you could create an entire orchestra. Truly amazing technology.

So here’s the question: what if you want to enhance your guitar/voice performance with a drum track and a couple of instrument tracks using a digital recorder like the BR-600? Is that still a “live” performance? After all, you’re still playing an instrument and singing? I asked some experienced musicians about this, and I was told that it is not uncommon to hear “live” musicians backing themselves up with digital recordings. It’s not like you are simply playing along with a prerecorded CD by another music group. All of the music would be by you. You’ve merely time-shifted yourself. Nonetheless, the proportion of the “live” that is live is shrinking as you bring in more of the gadgets.


Image of Vocalist Live 2 by EV

Here’s an additional way to push the “live music” envelope. It’s Digitech’s Vocalist Live 2, a specialized sound processor that costs less than $300. You plug your rhythm instrument (typically your guitar) into a jack and that signal goes right through the unit. The guitar’s sound is unaffected, but the unit analyzes what chords you are playing. It instantly knows whether you’re playing G-minor or Bb7. Impressive. You also plug your voice microphone into a second jack, and the unit adds various harmonies to your voice and these vocal doppelgangers are really impressive . There are many options for layering your lead vocals with upper and lower thirds and fifths. I just purchased this unit at couple days ago and I am amazed at how good it sounds. If you are strumming a D major chord, Vocalist Live 2 detects that it is a D chord and that it is a major chord. If you have programmed it (ahead of time) to provide thirds, it knows to add an F-sharp as the third. By simply changing your chord to D minor, Vocalist Live 2 “hears” this change and immediately shifts the F-sharp to F-natural (the minor third of the D scale). I’ve even played complex jazz chords while singing along, and the unit quite often comes up with something serviceable, if not impressive.

Using the Vocalist Live 2 is addictive because it makes your voice sound like a roomful of people (there are more expensive versions of this product to provide four harmonies — my cheaper version provides two harmonies). The unit sounds so good that I’m often tempted to just leave it on while I play and sing, although I am absolutely certain that it would get annoying if I did that during a performance. Therefore, I’m planning on using Vocalist Live 2 on choruses, singing “solo” on verses. And I’m not planning to use it on every song I sing. Listeners will need to have regular breaks from these heavenly harmonies.

But once again, is it fair to characterize the use of digitally-produced harmonies as “live” music when so much of it is processed or not produced in real time? Imagine using all of the above gadgets together. In other words, your equipment consists of your voice, your guitar, your sound processors, your digital recorder, your amplifier and your voice processor. You know damned well that if you’re a crappy musician, none of this gadgetry is going to make you sound interesting to anyone. I think that I have highly discriminating ears, though, and I prefer the gadget-enhanced music by far.

On the other hand, using the gadgets is a long way from the purest version of an un-amplified guitar/voice. To the audience, it sounds like an entire rhythm section (a drummer, bass player, keyboard and or rhythm guitar) backing you up. Is it as good as a full live band of accomplished musicians? Of course not. But used sparingly and carefully, there is no doubt that using these gadgets can enhance and vary the sound of a solo musician who is playing solo for an extended period of time.

I recently discussed this issue with Jimmy Gravity, who runs J Gravity Strings, a musical instrument sales and repair shop near downtown St. Louis. Jimmy has constant contact with many musicians, including the high-profile musicians who tour through St. Louis. He told me that it is common for performing musicians to extensively enhance their “live” performances, and that audiences generally do not think anything of it these days. His advice was to go out and have fun playing your music however you want, because modern audiences expect that you’ll be using electronics to enhance your sound.

I guess I’ll find out what the audience thinks when I get the courage to actually get out there, with more or less equipment, and actually start playing and singing music. It’s been a long layoff for me. With sporadic exceptions (involving a coffeehouses and weddings here and there), I haven’t performed played live guitar for about 30 years. And I’ve never before presented myself as a singer. My electronic gadgets and I are looking forward to this opportunity.


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Category: Art, music, Technology

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. The magic and the power of music | Dangerous Intersection | March 31, 2010
  1. Ben says:

    Quick and easy suggestion:

    Get a harmonica and one of those harmonica holster things that goes around your neck. You don't even have to play it (nobody actually likes hearing the harmonica).It will help you achieve the illusion of a one-man-band. 🙂

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    Dude, you rocked the house!

    I think I remember that gig from the photo as being a "Battle of the Bands" at the now defunct Northland Shopping Center. You guys finished second, the band that won did a Tower of Power bit, and the judge was wearing a Tower of Power t-shirt.

    You fought the Power even then and keep on!

    I think everyone has music in their souls, some just are unknowing or too timid to let it out. That's why I sung my kids to sleep every night for their first five years (sometimes via long distance when I traveled!).

    My daughter sings in a children's chorus she has to audition for each year. My song has a beautiful sporano voice that when he's not thinking about what he's doing sounds angelic. My wife has finally caught on, she has a low alto, almost tenor voice that is catchy. I still make up songs as I drive, used to make them up as I traveled by hitchhiking around the country, and dream of writing for some of my favorite perfomers.

    Erich, you can do this, it just requires you to apply the same will you have to making yourself who you are for your family and friends, and the dedication you've show in so many other aspects of your life. Do it!

    Now, when's that first gig, eh?

  3. Hank says:

    I'm sure you'll whip it good out there Erich! I've heard your improvised soloing and you clearly have the ear required to sing well. Now, as Leslie told you, the best thing to do is sing a lot and get used to how you sound. I hated how I sounded when I started singing at 15, but you have to think around that and push on. I didn't really like how I sounded until I was past 20! Your vocal chords and all associated musculature are like any other muscle (and your brain) in that they strengthen, loosen up and improve with usage, so get out there and hit it. Hopefully Tim can sneak some video for us …

    As far as the gadgets go, well, they definitely have their place. My band is a four-piece – drums, bass, guitar, vocals. We have a much larger sound than that though, thanks to our guitar player programming synthesized strings, horns, keyboard lines and electro drum loops that we play along to (our drummer has his own headphone channel from our robot with a click track so we stay in time). On our album, we had all those strings and horns and many synth/key parts recorded by live players and we now use those masters in our live show. It really adds to the drama and scale of the music we're trying to put out there and people seem to really respond to it. At our core we're still a tight little four-piece rock band, but we have this swirling sonic backdrop which enhances the live sound and goes some way to reproducing the recorded sound. We don't consider it cheating though and neither do many of the biggest bands in the world (eg Muse – they use sequences even they though could afford full orchestras every night). Besides, it would be impractical for us to have six horn players and a string quartet plus a keyboard player and up to three backing vocalists at each show.

    There are caveats, though. I would never sing along to prerecorded or real-time electronically generated vocal harmonies. I've seen bands that do that and it really turns me off – it seems lazy, especially when there are three or four other musos up there who could be doing those harmonies! Plus if the singer's flat or just not having a good night, the pre-recorded harmonies will expose that very quickly. If there's only one person with a mic in his face you should only hear one voice. None of my band sing live generally and it definitely puts more pressure on me to sing well, but I like that pressure and I like the control & ownership that it gives me. In the studio you have the luxury of recording multiple takes, harmonies and backing lines and then being able to edit the best bits together (like putting together a film) so you can take your time. On stage you've got one chance to nail it (like theatre) so you have to be prepared. Noone expects a carbon copy of the seemingly perfect recorded vocals but any singer worth his salt should be able to convey the same mood as his recording and with a comparable level of skill.

    Ditto guitars – guitar solos should be live, always. Second guitar parts during solos should only be there if your band has a second guitarist. Essentially I think sequenced or pre-recorded tracks should be an enhancement to your band's live sound and not be a featured or lead instrument. Any instrument or voice being used on stage really shouldn't need a sequenced counterpart.

    Having said that though, playing a one or two-man show at an open mic night or afternoon cafe session is on a completely different pitch to playing loud bar shows on crowded Friday or Saturday nights. For each different kind of show there are different expectations from each corresponding audience and venue.

    Erich, I will say this though: most punters (non-musically literate music-lovers) don't actually care, if they even notice at all, if a band or solo performer uses a lot of sequenced material as long as the players and singers are good at what they do, so go for your life 🙂 We in FTA only care because we're purists! We're actually getting some horn players and backup singers in for a few songs at our official album launch gig next Friday – I'm looking forward to it, but I'm not sure where they're all going to stand…fingers crossed the video and live sound mix turn out ok!

  4. Tony Coyle says:

    Erich: good luck with your gig

    I'll echo Hank's comment — just get out and sing. Practice doesn't make perfect, but it does make for far more comfort!

    One thing I recall reading… some people who think they have a "bad voice" have never really heard themselves as others hear them. They only ever hear their voice through bone-conduction and reverberation through the sinus passages. It's like listening to music on a 60's cassette player, turned up to the max, whilst muffled buy a pillow. You get no sense of the actual harmonics that deliver the tone. All you get is mud.

    So try recording yourself. Just belt it out, singing only for yourself. There are many DAW applications available for use that let you add effects (like reverb) so you can hear what you might sound like through a PA in a real room…

    Honestly — I thought I had a great voice… until I heard myself on a recording (pretty much in tune, but I sound like a basso-profundo version of the proclaimers)

    Having said that — I've always had fun at open mikes… it's fun doing songs everyone knows… but in a weird accent! (hounddog, as sung by a scottish version of barry white, imitating a nawrleans accent, badly)

    If you're worried that your voice is weak – ask the sound guy to add a little reverb, or to boost the mids & lows. You'll be surprised what that can do to fill out even a weak delivery.

  5. Tony Coyle says:


    Maybe I should have read the entire post [blush]

    I don't like auto-harmonizers… overused you can end up with the 'autotune' sound (cher comes to mind!).

    That said — if your music is enhanced by simple harmonies, go ahead. Used sparingly (as you plan) I don't see any problem — audiences are a little more used to electronic assistance these days.

    And with regards to using 'effects' to beef up your sound — there are very few singers who don't use some form of reinforcement, equalization, or compression to ensure their voice stands out in the mix (even against a single guitar).

    Enjoy your gig… I'm jealously thinking about you!

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Loopers are great gadgets for thickening your sound as a solo artist. Check out this performance of Amazing Grace by "one" guitar:

    <object width="560" height="349"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/pgltlKavMdk?version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/pgltlKavMdk?version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0&quot; type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="560" height="349" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></embed></object>

  7. Ben says:

    Meet Reggie Watts!

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