Sunday, January 1, 2012

Tone Design

Wherein I connect running RPGs with playing the guitar.

No, seriously.

Stop laughing, you insensitive bastards!

No, I am not cross-classing as a bard

My guitar, pictured with coach

I do things beside playing (and talking about) RPGs. This should have been evident from the hiatus I'd taken from writing here. Or I was waiting for inspiration to strike, and it finally did.

Either way, or whatever. Go with whichever makes me sound less like a feeb.

One of those things which has been leaning a little more heavily on my time? Well, playing other games. And music. At the same time: the game is Rocksmith, which uses a guitar as a controller. Not just a stick of plastic with buttons on its neck; the only part of that which rocks is the bar-switch on the body where most people would do their strumming. No, this is an actual freakin' guitar, with actual freakin' strings and frets and pick-ups and knobs and teeny tiny adjustment screws and calluses on the tips of my fingers.

Pardon me while I try to make a long story shorter

I could launch into a history of the music rhythm game, and how up-and-coming musicians had tracks adapted to them—suffice it to say that Freezepop would require more than a casual mention in that timeline. I can't do that; it'd take too long. What I do need to say for purposes of this narrative: It was all about mashing the right buttons in time with a music track.

I could also launch into the "modern" history of the music rhythm game, starting with several successful iterations of Guitar Hero and Rock Band (unlinked because I just just don't give a damn), custom controllers, and how they tried to evolve the genre. The only thing I need to say here is that it was still about mashing the right buttons in time with a music track. The big difference was how much more expensive and generally useless the controller was.

And then I could launch into a description of Rocksmith, how it uses tone detection and an actual guitar, and how it was the excuse I needed to get the guitar. And truth be told, the latter is all I really need to say about that.

Now leaving story compression mode; please assume crash positions and prepare for relevance

Here's where I could launch into my own tirade about the music software I have on my laptop, how I can produce all manner of sounds and do many things to them. I don't want to get into this as much, but we're coming close.

Over the years, I've accumulated a few different software packages. I have synthesizers and samplers which can make sounds themselves, effects which change the sounds coming into them in some predefined way, and workstations which orchestrate the incoming sound and data, run it through whatever synths, samplers, and effects, and hold it for future editing, further changes, etc. If you haven't been following the music industry, it's really amazing how much is being done with computers, up to and including replacing physical devices. Among those things that have soft replacements: Guitar amplifiers, cabinets, and effect pedals.

I had a fairly significant guitar stack simulator on my computer long before I had a guitar to plug into it: This is why I felt the need for the guitar. And this is where I officially drop the needle, so to speak.

The Making of a Revelation

The title on this piece, "Tone Design," refers to the process of combining amplifier, speaker cabinet, and effects to create a distinctive tone, often for a particular style of play or mood of song. And with the right frame of mind, tone design can even be considered sort of Yes, I think that's the right word.

This time, though, I was slowly becoming frustrated with how tones I'd created before sounded very differently than I remembered. Then I considered why that could be: Between the guitar and the speakers I play through, there are at least four volume knobs, so the feature within the stack that auto-sets the volume on various devices is unfortunately necessary. There are also tone knobs on the guitar, which makes the settings on the tone knobs on every device in the stack kind of a dodgy proposition.

And then consider that no two models of guitar sound completely alike, because each may have a differently shaped body, different gauges of string, different pick-ups, the players will have different intonation (how they hold their fingers on the strings at the neck), etc. And it kind of made tone design sound silly.

And then, for absolutely no reason I can fathom, my mind made the leap between the predesigned guitar stack preset and the pre-written RPG adventure.

I don't believe in "one size fits all"

Predesigned tone packs are great if you want to start with tone editing somewhere close to where you ultimately want to end up. They likely will not fit your intended use perfectly, so some finagling and editing will be needed.

The same goes with the pre-written adventure. It makes assumptions about the players and the characters they'll be playing. The more you deviate from those assumptions (and pretty much the only way you'll hit all those assumptions perfectly is if you're the author of the adventure), the more you'll have to change the opposition, challenges, and cues in the adventure to fit the group that you'll be playing with.

And that's for a start

After that first revelation, there were several other points which the activities of running an RPG and playing the guitar have in common:

  • Remember that there is an audience; be ready to tailor your performance to fit their desires.
  • Be aware of how long you're playing. Some may want a set with only one or two plays, others will want a string of encores. And this may not just be your doing; some people could listen to "Freebird" all damn day.
  • If you haven't done it before, then you're not likely to sound your best the first time you do it.
  • There must be a first time. You cannot skip the first time and simply expect to be good.
  • If you haven't done it for a long while, you will also not likely perform at your best.
  • In either case, if you want to get better, you're going to have to practice. The best way to practice is to sit down and do it.
  • With practice, it gets easier, whether through "muscle memory" in remembering where you stick your fingers, or through "psychology" in remembering where to stick your hints.
  • You don't need a highly elaborate setup to make it work. Don't be afraid to play with "cheap" gear as long as you know you can make people (yourself included) happy with it.

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