Tone Confession I: The First Ambient Pads Used a Distortion Pedal as a Mic Preamp

I kind of dropped off the face of the earth for a while there, or at least the face of the music scene. Which may pretty much be the earth to us. I heard a famous musician (famous as in, not me) referred to as having nomadic tendencies. I liked it. So I use it to describe myself and my long absences. Makes it sound like I was off on a pilgrimage in Tibet pondering life’s dichotomies and calculating ambient delay echoes off of mountain walls. Which I wasn’t, but if you’d like to think I was, I have no problem with that.

I’ve decided, upon my re-arrival onto the music scene, to kick things off by giving away my tone secrets. Not just more delay here, less treble there, but the deep, dark secrets. The ones that no one knows, and that tone snobs would be horrified to learn. I’ve used a lot of unorthodox methods in my musical career, because I think they sound fantastic and better than some of our current methods. When I first started into my music career in my early twenties, I mentioned some of these methods and was promptly laughed out of the amp isolation room. I was told you can’t do that, and that those will never work, and that your ears are no match for what The Gear Page experts told me to do. So I did them anyway; curious to know if anyone would notice. And a few years later, after 15,000 album downloads and songs on the big screen and on television, I’m excited and humbled to say that it looks like, if people did notice, they noticed in a good way.

All of these confessions are for unorthodox methods, and inexpensive gear alternatives. I didn’t want to share these until I was sure they had been successful. If you share them upfront, it can sometimes color the way people hear the sounds and they’ll dislike something based on the power of suggestion, and not on what their ears are actually hearing. If you wait until people already dig it, and then tell them it was recorded with a Boss DS-1 (don’t worry, it wasn’t), suddenly Boss DS-1’s become sought after collector’s items with the only thing that nails THAT tone. (Silver screw versions, only, of course. Tone is definitely in the color of the screws.) But now that the response to my music has been largely positive, I’m super excited to share some of these so that any other aspiring musicians out there can be encouraged that you don’t need Guitar Center’s $10k home recording studio package to get a song in a movie.

So, confession number one: my first ambient pads album, creatively titled ‘Ambient Pads’, was recorded using a distortion pedal as a mic preamp. The Damage Control Liquid Blues distortion pedal to be exact. Yep.

I came up with the idea for ambient pads way back in the mid-2000’s, while playing with one of my first bands. We just couldn’t find a keyboardist whose style we dug, so I came up with this pad idea. At the time, laptop recording was still fairly infantile, so the very first ambient pads were recorded on a Fostex 4-track hard drive recorder that I literally lugged around with me to every gig, and I played the pads straight from the Fostex. I remember how almost inconceivably fast I became at cycling through those dimly lit digital menus to change the keys of the pads. Oh ya. I got skilled at that thing. Made me miss a couple actual guitar intro’s, but those pads were on, man. (Winky face. I’m winking. Look at my eye.) Eventually, circa 2009, people started asking for the pads. Lot of folks wanted to use them, and that’s what sent me into the recording world. Laptop technology had caught up, and I found myself recording brand new pads. Without any money. I had tons of pedals, but no recording gear. And it takes a little recording gear to…you know…record. So I borrowed a mic, grabbed an XLR-to-1/4″ adapter, and my overdrive pedal with the most headroom. And no one has ever said a word.

Personally, I think I hear it a little. It’s what gives those first pads that wonderfully lo-fi feel, whereas Water and Bridge, both albums expounding upon the idea of pads, are more hi-fi and traditionally recorded. Although I do try to give all my records a warmer, more real sound than much of what is currently produced. But I continue to have people specifically request the sound of those original pads, recorded with a jerry-rigged, radio-shack-adapted, Damage Control Liquid Blues overdrive pedal in place of a microphone preamp.

Oh, and what was even more awesome is that the Liquid Blues was on the fritz at the time, so the power cable had to sit in it just right or it would cut out and I would have to start the take all over again. I like to roll on the professional side of things.


5 comments for “Tone Confession I: The First Ambient Pads Used a Distortion Pedal as a Mic Preamp

  1. Larry
    April 28, 2015 at 4:00 am

    Oh. I am so in love with you right now.

    And Damage Control. Yum.

    • Karl
      April 28, 2015 at 4:32 am

      haha Ya, if you’re gonna use a distortion pedal…may as well use the Liquid Blues.

      Man, the 50% of the time that those things actually worked? It was golden. 😉

  2. Jackson
    May 7, 2015 at 4:22 am

    Very encouraging. Thanks for this!

  3. Kel
    April 23, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    Karl! Are you doing that nomad thing again? Come back to us!

    • Karl
      May 5, 2016 at 11:35 pm

      Yes. Sorry. Soon!

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