Sunday, 10 May 2009

Dynamic Control

While writing the previous post, I began to think about dynamics in general and how we can control them on our instrument. This is a really simple exercise but often overlooked.

The first thing to think about is how loud/soft our instrument can go. And by this I don't mean how loud your amplifier or preamp can go, I mean how loud or soft we can make the bass purely by how we play. For this exercise, you may want to plug your bass in. Personally, I nearly always practice unplugged but this will mean possibly not hearing the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum.

Start by fretting a G at the third fret of your low E string. Now pluck it as gently as you can. You should hear a very quiet note. Now progressively increase how hard you pluck the string. Pay careful attention to how hard your fretting hand is holding the note down. Our body's natural instinct is to say "one hand is using more energy, better make sure the other one does too" and, as a result, as we pluck harder we tend to grip harder. Concentrate on keeping the fretting pressure the same no matter how hard you pluck the string. It's surprising how little effort it actually takes to hold a note down.

Keep plucking harder until the note begins to "clank" on the frets. How loud you can get before this point will depend on the setup of your bass. If you have a low action, you'll reach this point much earlier than if you have a high action. I keep my action reasonably high so that I can have a wide dynamic range before I start to hear that Stanley Clarke/Marcus Miller style clank. I can still get that sound by digging in but I like it to be by choice, not the only option.

Once you've reached the maximum volume without fret noise, progressively pluck softer until you can barely hear the note. You've now worked through the full dynamic range on that one note.

Now try taking a simple pattern, or maybe a scale, and try playing it as softly and then as loudly as possible ( using purely your hands - don't just turn the amp up!). Now try repeating the pattern - starting off playing as softly you can and slowly increasing the volume up to full volume and then slowly back down again.

In doing this, we're not only training our hands ( both in terms of picking technique and in being conscious of how hard we're fretting) but also our ears and brain as they recognise the different dynamic possibilities.

If someone plays at the same dynamic all the time, your ear soon tunes them out but if there is a good range of loud and soft it really makes their playing much more interesting and musical. Try it on your next solo - drop the volume level right down and slowly build it up ( or maybe have sudden unexpected accents before dropping back down). Or try taking a repeated pattern and playing with the dynamics - maybe fade it right down and back up will keeping the same pattern going.

As always, the aim is to play something musically interesting and have the music be the deciding factor in what you do, not your ability on the instrument.

Comments welcomed :-)

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