A reader commented on an earlier post that our perception of sound changes with volume, challenging my claim that high-end attenuators are the most transparent of the lot of attenuators on the market. As opposed to getting all worked up about this apparent heresy, that statement instead got me thinking; I suppose in this case, wisdom prevailed. 🙂
Perhaps my idea of “transparency” has been flawed; perhaps everyone’s perspective of transparency is flawed because if you think about it, anything that you add to your signal chain beyond your guitar and amp will change your sound, be it volume, be it tone via modulation effects, be it overdrive or distortion. So really, what are we talking about when we say something’s transparent?
From a strict audio perspective, …if the noise and distortion from an audio device is too soft to hear at normal volumes, and the frequency response is flat enough to not notice a difference between engaged and bypassed, then that device can be considered audibly transparent (From “Defining Audio Fidelity” at SonicScoop.com). Looking at transparency that way from a guitar gear standpoint, nothing is transparent but a booster or volume pedal; but then again, if the booster pushes your amp into overdrive, then is that really transparent?
After thinking about it though – for actually several weeks at this point – perhaps my idea of transparency has to do with expectation; that is, when I engage an effect or place a passive device like an attenuator in my signal chain, do I still sound like me? Is what I expect my fundamental tone still present? Are the dynamics I’m used to without that device still there?
In the case of an attenuator, what I’m looking for is no change in my expected dynamics and little to no loss of highs, which happens a lot with other attenuators, perception of sound at the lower volume aside.
But what about transparent overdrives? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, there’s no such thing. Overdrives add clipping, albeit soft-clipping, but clipping just the same. Clipping is NOT transparent. Maybe the manufacturers mean that they keep your EQ response flat at neutral EQ settings on the pedal, then add clipping. That’s transparent from an EQ perspective, but even still, I don’t know of any overdrive pedal where I don’t mess with the EQ in response to the grit I’ve just added.
Furthermore, almost all overdrives add varying levels of compression and sustain. This makes for a more expansive “bigger” sound, which most people will describe as having “more” of your sound present when the pedal’s switched on. Case in point: With my new EHX Soul Food overdrive, even with no gain added and at unity volume and flat EQ, while I don’t detect any changes to the EQ, there is definitely a bit more sustain. Add a bit of gain and enough volume to push my pre-amp into breakup, mix in a little treble boost, and suddenly my tone comes alive!
What’s happening when I switch on the Soul Food is not at all transparent. But it sounds so damn good to me, who the hell cares? And I guess that’s the rub of all this transparency business. Perhaps it all boils down to our expectation of a device not taking away from our tone. With respect to the Soul Food, it doesn’t take anything away, but it actually adds to my tone. When I had my amp up at gig volumes, what it added were noticeable overtones and harmonics that created a gorgeous shimmer to my tone. I still sounded like me, but there were other dimensions to my sound that were suddenly present when I had the Soul Food on.
Thanks for sticking with me thus far… The kicker to all this is that unlike other articles where I discuss a particular issue, I’m not going to take a stand on transparency, but rather share that I now have my doubts about exactly what “transparency” means. It would be interesting to get other perspectives…