Flattening the Curve

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Hi everyone!

I’d like to first say that I hope everyone is staying safe out there in these crazy times.  I’m sure that life for everyone has been turned upside down a little as I know mine has.  I was doing the math and realized that this is the longest span of being off the road since 1992.  I think my longest stretch off the road has been around 6 weeks since Lonestar (Texassee) started playing bars in ’92.  That being said, with everything going on in the world and everything being so unsettled, there have been some positive things to come from it.  I have been self isolating for the past few weeks and all of my time that would normally be spent shuttling kids to and from school and appointments and extracurriculars is now spent at home.  And I have had time to actually work on projects that I’ve either been too busy to tackle or have been putting off.

In February, Lonestar was in the studio working on a new/old project and I’ve been able to work on my guitar parts for that at home.  Also, I’ve been working with Eminence Speakers to create IRs of their line of speakers and those should be available in the near future.  Things are a bit on hold until things settle down as companies are cutting back a bit.  I’m also working with Joe Morgan on some “official” Morgan profiles and those should be finished in the near future as well, once I get the last couple of amps profiled.

I have also been working on a new pack of profiles that I hope to have out in the next week or so.  I have profiled so many amps over the years and it’s getting a bit harder to find amps that get me excited but I’ve spent the last couple of years since my last pack trying to find the best of the best, at least for my taste in music and tone.  The new 2020 Pack could well be one of my best packs.  There are some amazing amps and profiles in this new pack.  I will be working on the demo video in the next couple of days and I will try to do some live social media stuff too.  I also added a FAQ section on my web page that I will continue to update as I think of more pertinent questions.  If you have any general questions, please let me know at mike@mbrittprofiles.com

So all of that being said, I have been working hard at home and trying to be productive, even though it may appear that I’ve been a bit off the grid.  I’ve also been like everyone else, checking out guitar players online and browsing message boards and such.  Lots of new buzz about the Kemper Kone, which I have yet to fully try out.  I’m not sure I will get one, but I’d like to test and compare at some point.  I just find that my Valvetrain does everything I need it to do, plus I try to limit options and variables as a rule and having to worry about adding a power amp to my unpowered Kempers or choosing which imprint to use with which rig, etc.  I tend to err on the side of less options.  The one knob on the Valvetrain works great for me.

And this brings me to the concept of FRFR.  What is flat response?  And is it really the desired goal?  If anyone has every listened to a direct profile without a cab portion of the profile, you know that it’s extremely hard to listen to because of the extreme high frequencies that sound almost like paper tearing.  In a traditional guitar amp, those frequencies would be attenuated by the speaker, which tends to start dropping off drastically somewhere around 4-5kHz.  Guitar speakers also start dropping off around 100Hz, so the main focus of guitar speakers is between 100Hz and 5kHz.  Many consumer headphones are made to “hype” current recorded music, not live instruments.  This means that they have “extended bass” or “super bass” as well as extra peaks in the high end, which results in an audible “scooping” of the mids in comparison to the highs and lows being louder.  Add to this the fact that most speakers can’t handle all of those frequencies evenly, so multiple drivers must be used and crossovers have to be used to separate those speakers so they only get the frequencies they need to amplify.  These crossover points create everything from frequency dips/dropouts, phasing, crosstalk, comb filtering, and summing.  Some frequencies drop out while others are doubled in volume, creating strangely uneven (to our ears) frequency curves.

Now I’m not engineer, but I have been training my ears for years to listen closely for such things and while my ears are not perfect, things like phasing and comb filtering and dropouts drive my ears crazy.  This is all to say that as great as the Kemper is, it is still at the mercy of what people use to monitor it.  Some profiles may sound great on some monitoring solutions and others may sound great on others.  There are just so many variables that it would drive me absolutely crazy if I tried to make profiles that sound good on every solution.  And here’s why:

These are just a couple of common consumer headphones’ frequency response graphs.  As you can see, they are not “flat” by any stretch of the imagination.  That is not to say they sound bad.  They may sound fantastic for recorded music.  Also, the human ear has the amazing ability to adjust and self-filter out harsh frequencies so that in a couple of minutes, those high end spikes in the curves get softened by your own ears.  But it does mean that those headphones color the sound of the Kemper.  Whether that coloring is appealing to you or if it means that your Kemper sounds bad is totally subjective.  Keeping in mind that perceived loudness doubles every 6-10dB, so some of those peaks mean that those frequencies are twice as loud as those 10dB lower.

So, what do I do? How do I tweak my profiles so that if they sound good to me, they will sound at least okay to most users?  First, I don’t use consumer headphones because I just can’t trust them.  I could eq and tweak profiles to sound good on them but they probably wouldn’t translate to other brands of headphones.  I could try to tweak to FRFR type cabinets, but I find that they are very volume dependent and as soon as I start turning up to play with a band, the horns (which are more efficient by design) begin to shift the balance so that the highs seem to get louder faster.  Plus there is the whole thing with crossover points, which make some profiles sound okay and others sound awful.  This brings me to a sheer stroke of luck.  Years ago when Lonestar first started using in-ear monitors (iems) I got what were at that time the top-of-the-line ear molds: Ultimate Ears UE7’s.  I still have those molds going on 15 years and with just a couple of service visits, they are still going strong.  I ended up getting a second pair for home use as it was getting hard to remember getting them to and from the bus for shows and it’s not much fun doing a show with no ear monitors when you forget them at home.

So, ever since I started making profiles I have been using those same UE7’s, because I figured if I made them sound good on those then they would translate to me using those same profiles onstage with good results.  On a whim, in response to answering an email about headphones this past week, I looked up the above frequency graphs (you can also look them up here: https://crinacle.com/graphs/ ) and looked up the graph of my own UE7’s.  Here is what I found:

So, just by sheer luck, I’ve been using some pretty darn flat response ear monitors for tweaking.  They have been the only thing I trust for final tweaking before releasing a pack or using profiles live and now I think I see why.  None of the peaks are more than 3dB apart and it even does me the favor of filtering out much of the super high frequencies above 10kHz that can get fatiguing.  So flatter is better?  Maybe.  I think we should seek flatter rather than highly hyped curves to play our Kempers through.

I’m bringing all of this up to just highlight that not only do everyones’ ears perceive sound differently, they may be listening on devices that color the sounds differently.  Thus, someone else may be hearing the profiles very differently than I hear them and vice versa.  One person’s crap may indeed be another person’s treasure.  If you are using headphones at home, and you want to flatten them out, you can look up the curve on your headphones and then insert a parametric eq on the Kemper and set up some points that counteract the inherent peaks and valleys in those curves.  You can always just disable the eq block if you’re running into foh but use it for using headphones.  Or, you may use this as a guide to do more research before buying headphones or speakers, if they have frequency response graphs available.

As for getting the “amp in the room” sound, I’ve tried many of the FRFR type speakers and even tried to make what I wanted but there has always been some sort of compromise, which is just the nature of having a “finished product,” in that the Kemper already produces the sound of a mic’d speaker.  When I started using the Valvetrain, it felt more like a real amp in the room because 1) it is tube driven and tubes amplify less linearly than a solid state amp, so it feels as if there is a perceived “push” to the output 2) it doesn’t have a horn/high frequency driver, etc. so it has no crossover point to cause weird eq curves 3) it is fairly flat but doesn’t extend to the super high frequencies, so there isn’t the constant hiss that I hear from my CLR or Headrush 108, which can be fatiguing and 4) I can leave the Kemper cabs on (or off) even with the guitar speaker loaded, with only minor monitor eq changing.  This is the most natural sounding amp in the room tone I’ve found.  But I still keep a couple of other options around to test and use in different environments.

These are just the reasons I use what I use.  Because they work for me.  You just have to find what works for you, but knowing what’s going on with the speakers and the overlapping curves is very useful.  These tools are applicable with IRs as well, since IRs simulate the frequency response graphs of speakers.

So, to conclude, everyone do what you can to flatten the curve so that this virus can start to go away and we can all get back to our normal lives and all of my musician friends can get back on the road soon.  And in the meantime, stay safe and healthy at home and play more guitar!