Chops: Secrets of the Sonic Trumpet

Trumpeters Rob Mazurek and Cuong Vu share their insight into electronics

RobMazurek_AntonioRossa

Rob Mazurek (photo by Antonio Rossa)

You could credit a kind of musical peer pressure for the earliest electronic experiments of trumpeter-cornetist Rob Mazurek and trumpeter Cuong Vu. Mazurek, renowned for his work with experimental groups from Chicago and Brazil, was a member of Isotope 217°, a spin-off of the post-rock group Tortoise; Vu, a celebrated avant-jazz bandleader and an alum of the Pat Metheny Group, was playing in a college fusion band. Both discovered that their raw horn sound didn’t allow them to blend with the range of timbres available to their guitar, synth and electronics-playing cohorts.

“I was trying to figure out a way to broaden the sound spectrum with an instrument that can only play one note at a time,” Mazurek says, while Vu simply shrugs, “I just didn’t feel like my sound fit very well.” As it happens, both took their first steps into effects by plugging their microphones into a BOSS delay pedal, and both recall remarkably similar reactions.

“I plugged in and thought, ‘Wow, this is super cool,’” Mazurek remembers. Vu echoes the sentiment, in a slightly more reflective way: “It sounded pretty cool to me back then.”

Photo of Cuong Vu (photo by Adam Hogan)
Cuong Vu (photo by Adam Hogan c/o DXArts, Univers)

Sounding “cool” may be a natural first step on the road to working with effects, but it’s not enough to sustain a musical voice, as Vu points out. “It’s really easy to sound good when you put on some delay,” he says. “It’s almost like watching a strongman competition: When somebody lifts something really heavy you get impressed, but after about 10 minutes of watching you realize there’s no substance to it. People have to be really careful not to get too sucked into the way things sound and be more aware of the context, of the things that make music more resonant than just the effects.”

To get to that point, Mazurek advises, a trumpet player who is serious about crafting a personal sonic palette must rethink their attack on the acoustic instrument so that it complements and interacts with the pedals, synths or programs. “I don’t think of it as being something that is ‘affected,’” he says. “You want to get to the point where it just sounds like one instrument, not like something being done to something else. You want it to sound like one strange entity moving through the air.”

Adjusting technique shouldn’t be unfamiliar to trumpeters who already use a variety of approaches to manipulate the acoustic sound of their instrument. “You definitely have to create a technique with these machines,” Mazurek says, “just like you have to build a technique when you put a mute in the horn. The horn plays a lot differently when you use a Harmon mute versus a cup mute, for instance.”

As for common pitfalls, Mazurek says there are plenty, but that it’s best not to avoid them. “I’m a big fan of mistakes,” he explains. “I would say make as many mistakes as you can, because you’re going to find interesting stuff in there—maybe even more interesting stuff when things go wrong at first than the other way around. From those mistakes that you like you can build a vocabulary.”

The vast array of technology now available can be daunting, not to mention wallet-draining, but getting started can be as simple as borrowing a guitarist friend’s stompboxes, toying around with your sound in a program like GarageBand or tweaking an amplifier or PA. “You can learn different techniques on how to use feedback to your advantage from putting the bell of the horn close to the microphone,” Mazurek suggests. “Once you can control that, controlling other parameters can be easier because you’re understanding what the sound is doing while careening through something.”

Even after you’ve gained that understanding, though, translating it for studio and venue sound engineers can be a struggle. “Until you start playing with really exceptional sound people, who are pretty rare, sometimes you have to be OK with the sound not being great,” Vu says. “It’s best to have your domain in complete control; the less they have to do outside of balancing you with the band, the better. I always kept my acoustic sound and the effects sound integrated so the sound man couldn’t mess it up.”

“In the end it’s all just sound, so [electronics] shouldn’t be approached as some strange thing or novelty, but as a way to sculpt sound in an interesting way,” Mazurek adds. “But you have to have your monitor set up in such a way that it’s going to be listenable and pleasant for the other musicians. I like extremes—extreme noise as well as super-quiet, spatial things—so trying to find a balance in the monitors so everyone can hear what you’re doing can be a challenge.”

Whether you’re striving to achieve a specific imagined sound or diving into the sonic deep end to experiment, both can be effective strategies, Vu says, and that philosophy extends beyond electronics. “Even if you’re not dealing with effects, somebody can get OCD with what scale to play over what chord instead of focusing on the now, making decisions and following your intuition. I never think about any goal except for trying to make good music, and the end result will be guided by that.”

Gearbox

Rob Mazurek uses electronics by Industrial Music Electronics (The Harvestman), including their Tyme Sefari Mark II 16-Bit Loop Sampler Module (with official expander, A Sound of Thunder) and Piston Honda MKII Wavetable Oscillator; Make Noise, including their Maths, Phonogene and Echophone (soundhack) units; and Doepfer, including their A-124 VCF5 Wasp Filter Eurorack Module and A-100 Analog Standard Systems.

Cuong Vu’s rig includes the Audio-Technica ATM35 Cardioid Condenser Clip-on mic, Danelectro DJ14 Fish and Chips 7-Band EQ Pedal, Lexicon MPX100 Effects Processor, BOSS DD-20 Digital Delay and DigiTech Echo Plus 8 PDS 8000.