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The Hottest Attenuator: Aracom PRX150-Pro

Looking for the “Doppler on the Dumble” series?

Back in 1980, a girl living on my dorm floor introduced me to Prince. Admittedly, I was a bit taken aback by his androgyny and admitted bisexuality, but his music spoke to me. And as a musician, I respected that the dude could play practically any instrument, but I was most attracted to his guitar work. To this day, I just can’t get over just how damn good he plays.

What prompted me to write this was the movie “Purple Rain,” which happened to play the other night. Weird movie, but who cares. Prince, even back then, could just rip it up on the guitar.

So it got me curious… I thought he was awesome back then, but what about 35 years later? He ROCKS! Don’t believe me? Check out this video: http://www.wat.tv/video/prince-3rd-eye-girl-plectrum-5vnv3_2hztv_.html.

What amazes me is that Prince is rarely mentioned in the guitar press or forums, yet without a doubt not only can he hold his own with established rockers, but he can absolutely steal the show. Check this out (skip to about 3:25 for the start of his solo):

I had never seen this video before, and I was completely blown away. Though he’s the ultimate showman, his technique and especially the feeling he puts into his playing leave me practically speechless. Say what you want about how totally out there he is (the dude’s absolutely weird), there’s no denying how he can make a freakin’ guitar sing!

 

Last weekend at the restaurant where I play music, during a break, a couple of my “regulars” came by the piano to say hello and chat. The restaurant was particularly busy that night, and one of them remarked, “It’s so busy tonight. It looks like no one is paying attention.” I just smiled, pointed to my tip jar, and with a smirk said, “Well… some people are listening…” We had a good laugh out of that. I explained that over the years I’ve learned that even though people don’t seem to pay attention, my tip jar is my gauge. If I’ve got even just a few bucks in it, I know I’ve reached someone. Plus, and more importantly, I added; I don’t let people’s seeming disinterest affect me. I just keep on playing with all my heart. I learned that from being a waiter.

A little back story first…

Back in 1999, I decided break out on my own and start my own little consulting firm, doing custom programming and QA services. I didn’t have many clients, but the clients I did have were all my little firm needed because they paid so well. Then 9/11 hit and overnight, I went from high-flying, highly-paid consultant to… nothing. I couldn’t find a job. No one was hiring, and the only jobs that seemed to be available in software at the time were pretty low-level, low-paying jobs that required oodles of time for not much pay. Employers knew they had job-searchers by the short hairs, so they low-balled all the offers, figuring they’d eventually get someone qualified who’d bite.

Between 2001 and 2004, I must’ve sent out over 500 resumes, applying at large, medium, small companies, whatever… But as these things go, the job I finally landed was through a connection, proving the adage “it’s who you know” is in many cases, absolutely correct.

But in those three years, to help out the family, my wife convinced me to apply at one of our favorite restaurants where the servers sang. I could make a little money, and also do what I love: Entertain. So I applied, got an audition, and got hired. Little did I know that there wasn’t much time for singing. Despite that, once I figured out the system of serving, I was able to sing between 5 and 10 songs a night. But that’s getting a little besides the point.

A valuable lesson that I learned being a waiter is what we Americans call “growing a thick skin.” You see, as a waiter, you see people both at their best AND their worst. And when you get their worst, you can’t react to it – at least not with negativity back at them. And it’s not so much that you just “take it.” You simply let it pass through you so it doesn’t affect your performance. What you have to realize is that 99% of the time, whatever anger someone is experiencing is not directed at you. What they’re doing is taking out their anger on the person they feel they can take it out on.

Make no mistake: Though we live in a democracy, imperialistic behavior is alive and well. But despite all that negativity, you still have a job to do. So you can choose to engage the customer’s anger, or you can simply let it pass through you and know that it’s not about you.

The same goes for entertaining; at least the kind that I typically do: Restaurants, parties, corporate events, etc. In those cases, I’m not the drawing attraction, nor the focal point. But I still have a job to do, and since I just love to play, I put all my heart into it, no matter where I’m at.

A friend of mine, for whom I got a singing job at the same restaurant I play, once shared with me that it bothered her that people weren’t paying attention. She is a former Broadway singer, having major roles in musicals like “Hair” and “Les Miserables,” so her performance reference was being on stage. But I shared that while we are technically “background,” we’re like the “canvas” for the dining experience. If the canvas is torn or of bad quality, no matter how good the painter is, the ultimate picture will not be as good as it could be. So we provide a canvas on which the servers “paint” on top of, and if we do our jobs right, we’ll be rewarded because people actually care about what’s being played and how it’s being played.

In light of all that, I’ve learned to grow a thick skin. After all, as a performer, it’s all about the music.

Before I get into the actual report, before getting the TubeMeister 18, I never thought I would review a Hughes & Kettner amplifier, let alone own one. To me, they always seemed to be more Prog and NuMetal machines. But once I got mine — and I have to admit I bought it off my friend based upon the DI feature, and about ten minutes of test time — I haven’t been able to stop playing it.

Then looking at the H&K artists page on their site, the fact that one of my all-time favorite guitarists, Davey Johnstone, plays a Hughes & Kettner completely reinforced my decision to hold onto my new amp; admittedly, in the back of my mind I was thinking that if I didn’t like it, I could always flip it.

Based upon the silent recordings I’ve done with the amp thus far, I knew I was going to hold on to it at least for a little while while I write new material that has suddenly made its way into my creative consciousness. But after playing with the amp at a gig yesterday, I’m going to be holding onto this amp for a long time.

Yesterday’s gig was just a simple trio as the “opener” for a memorial ceremony. A former bandmate asked the other members if we’d play the gig. A couple of us could do it, so we got together before the ceremony, picked a list of songs, then the gig was basically a jam session as we were to only play instrumentally. For the gig, I brought my Slash L “Katie May” which was plugged directly into the TubeMeister, which went out to a 1 X 12 with a Jensen Jet Falcon speaker.

Clean or dirty, the TubeMeister just sang. But what was impressive with the lead channel, was the smooth distortion that the amp produces. I’ve been so used to Marshall-style break-up that tends to be open, in-your-face, and super mid-rangy. But the voicing of this amp is such that the tones are a bit deeper, so that distortion is super smooth. Then add the amazing sag and sustain of the amp (and apparently what H&K amps are known for) on top of that, and that’s simply a recipe for inspiration.

It didn’t hurt that I was playing with close close friends with whom I’d played music for over twenty years. We’ve learned to play off each other and it’s very natural, and we all take on our roles automatically. When you have that level of comfort with playing partners, it just frees your mind to be creative.

Probably the most amusing song we did was an instrumental version of “Crazy.” I started playing the lead clean, but after the first go-’round, I switched to the lead channel. I had set up the amp so there’d be very little volume change between the clean and lead channels, and set up my guitar so I could vary the amount of distortion using my volume knob. Then getting out of the blues mode, I went into major-scale, legato runs, and turned the song into a bit of a metal, prog version that made all of us laugh while we were playing. After the song, we laughed out loud, and I said that I couldn’t believe how expressive the amp it.

My mates also remarked how incredible that amp sounded, and I told them, “I daresay that this amp sounds so good, it rivals my beloved Aracom amps.” Mind you, it’s a completely different sound than the vintage-Marshall, snarling dog sound that I love. But this smooth sound is absolutely incredible to me as well.

Needless to say, it’s a keeper!

Sometimes when I’m just messing around, I play something that sticks with me. This song was like that for me. I had the day off from work today, and went into my man-cave to play around. I was thinking of a blues waltz that popped into my head, and wanted to track it so I wouldn’t forget. Surprisingly enough, I started composing the song on the piano. But as I played it more and more on the piano to get the song down for tracking, It just didn’t feel right, so I tracked the rhythm track on guitar. Also, I was originally going to add lyrics. But as I played through the melody I had in mind, it sounded so good with just a finger-picked guitar that I decided to forgo the lyrics altogether. This is the result:

Mind you, I tried the song with three different guitars before I found the one with just the right chime. I thought my Strat would do it, but it sounded a little flat. Then I tried my ’59 Replica because it has a bit brighter voicing, but that didn’t quite sound right to me either. So I took “Katie May” out of her case (she was custom built by Perry Riggs of Slash L Guitars), plugged her in, and smiled. That was the sound I was after!

As far as amps are concerned, I used my Hughes and Kettner TubeMeister 18 using the built-in RedBox DI, and both guitars were recorded silently. This amp just hasn’t ceased to amaze me the more I use it!

When I got my Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister 18, I immediately thought to myself, “I need another amp like I need a hole in the freakin’ head.” But in the back of my head, I was thinking this was going to be a good purchase. I was counting on the RedBox DI solving a lot of my recording issues; especially with respect to ambient noise. In my home studio, which is my garage, I share the room with my water heater, and not having much sound padding other than a carpet, my mics pick up a lot of ambient noise. It’s especially challenging to record clean guitar. So I was hoping that the TubeMeister’s DI would solve a major sound problem for me.

Well, it has. The amp is billed as being able to do silent recording, and after playing around with it for the last week, I can confidently say that it lives up to the billing – in a big way.

I came up with a song idea this morning, and after just quickly laying down a rhythm and test solo track, I’m SO loving this amp. Check this out…

The guitar I’m playing is Katie May, my Slash L Guitars custom by Perry Riggs. For the rhythm track, I’m playing in single coil mode in the neck position, and the lead is played in humbucker mode in the bridge position. For the clean, I’m playing with the clean channel with the Master cranked and Gain about 9am so the signal is absolutely clean. For the lead, I’m playing the lead channel, with the Master at 10 am, and the Gain at 3pm.

Kind of weird settings from what I’m normally used to. What I found with this amp is that it breaks up pretty early. It’s not a bad thing, but I’ve had to kind of rethink my amp settings. But in spite of that, once I figured out how to set up the amp, I can’t believe the gorgeous tones it produces. And imagine that these tracks were recorded with the DI!!! OMG! It’s amazing!

Waxing Philosophically

Gear is a lot like life and the things we have or accumulate. Sometimes you’re in abundance, sometimes you’re not. With gear, sometimes you need a lot of it to make your “tone,” sometimes you’re just happy plugging straight into your amp.

Up until a couple of years ago, I used to use a lot of gear at my gigs. My pedalboard had a tuner, two overdrives, a distortion, a wah, chorus, delay, overdrive, reverb and booster. But as of late, I’ll use a single overdrive, a wah, chorus and delay. And sometimes, I just use the overdrive and wah, or just the wah by itself, and let my amp do all the overdrive sounds for me (really depends on the amp).

I think what has happened is that I’ve become comfortable with my sound after playing so many years that I don’t feel the need to adorn it with a lot of pedals. It’s not that I didn’t trust my sound all these years. What it boils down to is that no matter what guitar or amp I’m playing through; no matter what pedals I bring, I still sound like me. More stuff isn’t going to change that.

Granted, there’s nothing like the sound of a liquid chorus with a touch of slap-back delay. I dig that tone, and use it A LOT in my acoustic rig. In fact, my very warm Homebrew Electronics THC chorus smooths out the harsh highs that my acoustic can produce at times, so it’s always on, as is my Hardwire Reverb. For acoustic, it’s all about shaping a natural tone to compensate for the dryness of being plugged directly into a PA. I also add about 2.5 to 3 to 1 compression to fatten the tone so it carries in the room I play (which has very high ceilings).

But for electric, I’m down to a pretty barebones setup. My latest board is a my little PedalTrain Nano board. I don’t even use a tuner pedal any longer, having gone to a clip-on. So I hook up my chorus, delay and reverb, stick those in my effects loop, then run my wah into the front of my amp. Sometimes I use my Timmy or Soul Food in place or in front of my wah.

Is it laziness? I don’t know. But then again, as I mentioned above, I’m comfortable with my sound, no matter what I’m plugged into, and hey! Less gear to lug to a gig is always good.

But looking back on all the gear I’ve acquired got me thinking – do I need all of this? Maybe. Maybe not. But there may come a time, where I want to do some major tone-shaping, and it’s good to have that gear on hand. I don’t think I’d ever get as obsessive about my rig as someone like The Edge, but there may come a time when I want to hook everything back up. Like life, you just never know…

5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister 18 Head

Summary: This amp is truly a tone chameleon, capable of delivering vintage to modern tones in one 18 Watt package. I daresay that it is pretty much the most versatile amp I’ve ever owned; not only from a tone standpoint, but also from a power standpoint. 18 Watts too loud in your space? Bring it down to 5W or 1W or even 0W! The on-board RedBox DI is absolutely killer, and provides for truly silent recording, which is a huge for late-night recording when the kids are asleep (or roommates, etc.).  Super-responsive EQ makes for tons of tone shaping possibilities.

Pros:Where do I begin? This amp has it all for me; especially in the recording department.

Cons: This is a very minor nit, but even with a Strat, the lead channel can really compress at high gain settings.

Price: $599 Street ($50 for the optional footswitch)

Features:

  • Channels: Clean, Lead + Lead Boost
  • Power Soak: 5W, 1W, Silent
  • Preamp: 2 X 12AX7
  • Power Amp: 2 X EL84
  • Effects Loop (Serial)
  • Speaker Output: 8 & 16 Ohm (will automatically detect – no switch)
  • Tube Safety Control (TSC) – keeps power tubes biased properly for optimal performance.
  • Padded, protective cover included
  • Optional channel switching footswitch.

Tone Bone Rating: 5.00 ~ I have to admit, I really lucked out with this amp. I bought it used from a good buddy who had only gigged with it once, and to be honest, didn’t know too much about it. But after I researched it, what originally attracted me to the amp was the on-board RedBox DI. But after playing with it for several hours since I picked it up, I simply love all the tones I can get from this amp – and I’ve only played one guitar through it! It’s a winner!

I’m such a gear slut. When I got this amp, my buddy, who’s also a fellow gear slut chuckled and said, “As if you need another amp…” I also laughed, and almost got buyer’s remorse. BUT what I didn’t have was an amp that had an on-board DI. But the RedBox is a special DI in that it has speaker simulation, which means you’re going to get the reactance of an amp connected to a speaker. It’s one thing to DI into a DAW, but it sounds like an amp plugged directly into a speaker. Add speaker simulation and there’s something special that happens when you add reactance into the mix. You get the dynamics you expect when plugged into a cabinet.

Fit and Finish

This amp is built like a tank. I’m sure H&K had the gigging musician in mind when they built the amp because it’s very solid. The only nit I’d have with respect to it’s physical appearance is that the level dots on the knobs can be a bit difficult to see from certain angles because of the chrome finish. It’s a small nit, and when I gig with the amp, I’ll probably either paint dark lines or stick some thin pieces of colored tape to the top of the knobs so I know where I’m setting things.

Also, when switched on, that blue LED glow is pretty cool. To be honest, I don’t really care about how the thing looks and focus much more on the sounds it can produce. But hey! If it sounds good and looks great in the process, I’m not going to complain.

How It Sounds

To start off, whether plugged into a cab or outputting directly from the DI into an audio interface, this amp is dead quiet when idle, except at high gain settings where the power amp will hum just a tiny bit. But that humming also has a lot to do with my Strat’s single coils. Haven’t tried it with any of my Les Pauls just yet, and I’m anticipating that they’d be quieter. But any amp fully cranked is going to make some noise.

Now to be completely honest, none of the clips I’m supplying here are with the amp hooked up to a cabinet and me miking the cab. My focus was on using the DI to capture my guitar sounds to see if I could get a usable recording that I could then tweak in production. Circling back a little with the DI, one thing that having a speaker simulation is that you get the subtle overtones and dynamics in the signal that you wouldn’t get with a direct signal. It’s typically a little dead when using a regular DI with no speaker simulation, thus no reactance. Truth be told, it’s not perfect, and it doesn’t sound nearly as good as the amp plugged into a cabinet. But it’s close. Real close, and though it doesn’t sound as good as a speaker moving air, it doesn’t suck tone. Dynamics are all retained. My thought behind getting this amp was to get a usable signal that I could then process in Logic and add the texturing there. So without further ado, let’s take a look (BTW, for these clips, I used my Strat plugged directly into the amp, with an XLR going direct to my MBox 2):

Raw signal, clean

My first test was to record a simple clean clip raw to see how it sounded. This clip has absolutely no plug-ins employed in neither the guitar tracks nor the output track.

When I finished the “rhythm” track for this, I immediately smiled. Not only did I have a usable signal, it sounded like my amp was plugged into a cabinet because the dynamics that I was expecting were all there, but with the added plus of no ambient room noise.

Clean, slightly processed

Since I had a usable signal, I wanted to fatten it up a bit and add some reverb to give the sound more space. Here’s the same clip as above, but slight processed (Note: I didn’t do any EQ on the either track).

After doing just those simple tweaks, I knew I had a winner with respect to a recording amp.

Dirty

I wasn’t going to originally include this clip because if there’s one nit I had with the amp while recording this last night, was that at real cranked up settings, the signal compresses – a lot. I guess I’m used to using vintage-style amps that never get that far. But with this amp, I have to be careful about cranking the amp too high. It’s a little hard to hear in the clip itself, but while playing, I noticed a reduction in note separation. But granted, I had the Master wide open, and the gain knob at 3pm. I’ve learned to set the Gain to around 10am, and I still get plenty of sustain, but much less compression.

Sustain test

Finally, I wanted to experience that noted H & K tube sag, and see how well the amp would sustain my guitar signal. In a nutshell, it sustains incredibly well.

The most impressive thing about this clip was at the end where the amp is picking up the overtones of the guitar. OMG! I couldn’t believe that when I was playing last night!

Final Impression

I don’t know what it is, but I’m running across a lot of game-changers for me. While I love my vintage-style amps, and will continue to gig with them, I have a feeling that I’ll be getting a of mileage from the TubeMeister 18. As a bonus, check out this video review from Guitar World. Paul’s a killer player, and he really brings out the gorgeous tones the TubeMeister 18 can produce. There are actually two videos, and the second video where he starts playing the lead channel, had me swooning over the gorgeous overdrive this amp can produce.

 

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