Utter trombonisms

Interview with Christopher Bill

Trombonist and arranger Christopher Bill is perhaps best known for his all-trombone arrangements of popular songs. He records all the parts himself, in front of a camera, using loops, hand claps, and other effects. As I post this Christopher has over 35 000 subscribers to his YouTube channel. His cover of Happy is one of the more popular ones. He also just released his first album, Breakthroughwhich could be considered a greatest hits collection.

I asked Christopher a few questions regarding his use of effects and electronics.

1. In what context do you use effects?

I use very basic effects when recording myself. I want it to sound as much like me as possible and too many effects distorts the original perception.


2. What are some of your favorite effects? Do you play the horn differently when using these effects in order to achieve special sounds?

I use effects to create the ambiance of the style of music I’m playing. If I’m playing a classical piece I’d like it to sound like I’m in a big concert hall, or a pop song should be a crystal clear tone driving right to the center of sound. Jazz might be in between if I’m going for a bar/club feel. This changes how I compress and reverb my recorded audio.


3. What are some of the discoveries you’ve made using effects? 

The way I arrange the songs is really what makes the trombone accessible to a wider audience. It is not a pop song played on trombone, it is a melody sung through another instrument. The overdubbing effects give me the opportunity to have full control over my arrangements.


4. What are some of the pitfalls you’ve discovered? 

The main pitfall is that nobody else is doing what I do, so when I have to buy new gear, there’s no place to research “the best amps for looping trombone” and the people working at most audio places don’t have much to say about it either. As far as live issues, I think that’s part of the experience. I make sure my videos are perfect by the time I upload them, but the inconsistencies of a live performance is what makes that exciting!


5. Do you use computer software? Which one(s)? How do you incorporate them into your music? Do you use them live?

I used Ableton Live for a long time with the “looper” plugin. I’ve moved on and now use my Electro-Harmonix 45000 for live looping. They’re just tools to create more interesting music by myself.


6. What would be your number one tip to someone who is interested in starting playing around with effects but doesn’t know where to start?

Decide what you want something to sound like and don’t stop until you’ve achieved that sound. I was lucky to have friends who knew the effects inside and out. I could describe a sound and they’d tell me how to achieve it. Have knowledgeable friends?

Pedals pt. V: general setup (mic, DI, BOSS Line Selector)

When I got my first few pedals I used a regular dynamic mic, such as the SM 58, to pick up my signal. It worked. Sort of. In order for the pedals to react to the signal I had to get on the mic very close, which of course muddled my natural sound. Also any movement of the horn distance wise, would alter how the pedal responded. Not ideal. So the solution is a clip on mic. I ended up with the Audix 20i due to an endorsement of the band I was in at the time. I like the Audix. I have stuck with it for almost 10 years now. There are better mics out there but they also cost a great deal more. Certain Sennheisers and DPA sound great on the trombone. All these mics are condenser mics, which means they need phantom power. I use a battery pack since I can’t get phantom power from the board since all the effect pedals are in the way. I run my mic into the BOSS Line Selector which allows me to have control over the volume of my signal.

image

Some pedals amplify the signal quite a bit (especially the Qtron and distortion) so it is nice to be able to turn down the volume a bit if you know you’re about to use those effects. That way you won’t blow any speakers, wake up any snoozing audience member or get angry looks from the sound guy. The Line Selector comes with A and B lines and a bypass. I have my A line go through all my pedals:

Whammy – Crybaby – Qtron – Distortion – Phaser – Delay – DI

The B line only goes to the delay pedal. This way I can get a really clean signal out. With the Line Selector you can also combine the two lines, or just bypass all of them. It’s a great pedal that gives you a piece of mind in all the chaos that pedals can cause.

image

I bought a used DI for $20 and included it on my pedal board. It can be good to have in case the venue doesn’t have a DI. The DI gives you a XLR output as well as ¼ inch to run you into the mixing board/PA and can get rid of ground hum/buzz.

image

Pedals pt. IV: DOD Distortion and Hard Rock Distortion

The distortion effect is a fun one to experiment with. As brass players we spend so much time on our sound and make it sound as good as possible. It all goes through the window when using a distortion pedal, which opens up new possibilities. Many sound effects such as half buzzing into the mouthpiece, play with your teeth closed, screaming into your horn, all create some interesting sounds when going through this effect. The biggest drawback to be careful about is feedback, especially if you are using a monitor right in front of you. You can also use this to your advantage by positioning your horn a bit away from the monitor and then play with the feedback by sticking your horn a bit closer to the monitor when you’re not playing. On most distortion pedals you get to set the gain/volume level and the amount of distortion added to the signal. This gives you some control over the feedback issue and also how aggressive you want to sound. The DOD hard rock pedal gives you a few more options.

 image

image

Although the distortion can be cool by itself, it can of course be combined with other effects. On Light Persists I use it in combination with the Crybaby Wah pedal. This is a studio recording so I opted for no natural trombone sound in addition to the wet (effect) signal.

This song is from my first album “Home” and features some clips of Ghandi.

Oscar Utterstrom Quintet live at Vanderbilt University

Oscar Utterstrom - electric trombone
BlackCat Sylvester - turntables
Paul Horton - keys
Russell Wright - bass
Justin Amaral - drums
feat:
Adam Agati - guitar

Pedals pt. III: Cry Baby Wah

As opposed to the auto wah, the crybaby lets you be in charge of how you want the wah to happen, much like the “analog” plunger. In fact my approach to the crybaby is very similar to how I use the plunger:

Speed – length of the wah, several wahs on the same note

Up or down – compare to going from closed plunger to open and vice versa creating either a “wah” or “awh” sound.

 image

This particular model of the crybaby is the basic model so there are no other perimeters to set. As with the auto wah, the crybaby lends itself very well to be combined with a harmonizer. I particularly like the octave down, as can be heard on Ego. On this tune I play the bass line and let the actual bass take the melody. 

Pedals pt. II: Danelectro Phaser

I’ve tried many different pedals, borrowing left and right from my bass and guitar playing friends. Since we are dealing with a mic as a pick up rather than a line in, it can be challenging to make the pedal do what it is designed to do. For instance I don’t feel the chorus pedal adds much to the trombone. The phaser, however, can give a nice effect on longer notes. Depending on your settings it can be subtle or more up front. I use it on Rain since the melody consists of longer note values and phrases. It adds and interesting sweeping effect to the notes. As with the auto-wah, Danelectro gives you some small perimeters to tweak. Again, it’s all about finding that sweet spot that works for you and your horn.

image

Some people might think that some effects are too much and cover up the trombone sound. Remember, that depending on your set up, PA /amp volume, room size, there will be natural horn sound mixed in with the effected sound coming from your rig. You can of course also mix in your dry signal (no effects) into your output as well. I tend not to that since I feel the natural sound in the room is plenty. On certain effects I don’t necessarily want any natural trombone sound at all. On those occasions I usually try to point my bell to the ground. My general philosophy is that if it fits the tune it doesn’t matter if it sounds like a trombone or not. The overall sound picture is what’s important.

Pedals pt. I: Auto Wah - Danelectro’s “French Fries”

I often get asked what pedals I use and how to begin exploring all the different options that are out there. Using effect pedals on horns is nothing new. Eddie Harris, Miles Davis, Urbie Green and Robin Eubanks, just to name a few, have all made recordings using effects. I first became aware of it hearing the Swedish trombonist Nils Landgren play some wah on his Live in Montreux album (Compared to What). Therefore one of the first pedals I acquired was the Danelectro auto wah. It’s a relatively cheap pedal ($40 new) and extremely easy to use. It’s called auto wah because it produces a wah sound for every attack/note you produce.

The challenge with all pedals is to find a sweet spot where your instrument gets picked up the best. Since most pedals are meant to be used by an instrument that you plug straight into, i.e. line in, it can be tricky to make it pick up noise from a microphone. More about microphones in a later blog. By tweaking the resonance and range knobs I managed to find a good sound. Here is a picture of the auto wah with my preferred settings:

Range - high

Resonance - around 2 o’clock.

Danelectro Auto Wah

I have been very happy with my Danelectro. I used it on 4th Avenue off of my album Home, and I’ve been using it a lot in live settings. Wahs always sound good (at least to me) with the combination of harmonizers. On this track I combine the wah with the Boss Super Shifter. I figured out a way to make it add 4ths to my origianl melody. More on the Super Shifter in later blog as well.

Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions!