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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!

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Circus Freak Tattooed Lady Overdrive
Summary: Whether you’re looking for a reactive overdrive or an amp-in-a-box, this pedal delivers! Combine that with great tone, and at least for me, there’s nothing to dislike about this pedal.

Pros: Superb dynamic response, with lots of volume and gain on tap.

Cons: None.

Price: $149.00 Street

Features:

  • Volume and Gain controls (volume has lots of output gain)
  • Independent Active Bass and Treble EQ controls
  • Amp-like dynamic response
  • Incredibly touch sensitive
  • Voice Toggle (up = flat response, down = slight treble boost for thicker-sounding guitars)
  • True Bypass
  • Can take up to 18v input power

Tone Bone Rating: 5.0 ~ I don’t give these out lightly; especially to brand-new gear manufacturers, but after playing with this pedal for past few weeks, I just can’t find anything NOT to like. I’ve thrown it in front of four different amps used it with three different guitars, and love its tone with every combination!

I’ll admit it. I find chicks with tattoos incredibly sexy. Not too fond of “tramp stamps” but tats on the rest of the body are a turn-on for me. So I suppose I had a predisposition for liking the Tattooed Lady Overdrive by Circus Freak Music. :) But truth be told, I certainly did have an underlying excitement prior to receiving the pedal for review after having an introductory conversation with its creators back in mid-December. I felt that for the first time in a long time, a new player to the guitar gear market “got it,” bringing not only great technology but solid business acumen to the table. The guys at Reason Amps certainly got it when they came to market, and my very good friend, Jeff Aragaki with Aracom Amps gets it for sure. Lots of boutique guys are nice guys who make gear as a hobby and go into business after building up a local following, but lots of time, they get kind of lost in the background noise of all the outfits that come to market each year.

tl_bottomSo what sets Circus Freak apart from other pedal manufacturers? Frankly, they have a vision which ties their current lineup of products with their future ones. For instance, it’s one thing to say you’re eschewing the typical Hammond box for a custom box. Lots of folks do this. But it’s obvious that the customizations aren’t just to be different. They’re functional. For instance, the bottom of the custom box (shown at right) has been purpose-built for mounting on some sort of rail system – there’s definitely a pedal board on tap, even though they haven’t released one yet!

Who’s to say if a business will be successful or not. People have to like and buy your products. But having been a poster-child for startup companies in my career as a software engineer, I can tell you that having a unifying vision and executing on that vision – while not necessarily guarantees to success – certainly provide a foundation for success, and that’s what excites me about Circus Freak Music.

But I digress… let’s talk about the pedal, shall we?

Fit and Finish

DSC_0338Part of the vision that Shannon and AJ of Circus Freak shared with me was that they wanted their products to be likened to sideshow performers of old. One thing about sideshow performers is that they’re memorable, so it was important to the guys to create a visual package that people wouldn’t easily forget. Not only is the enclosure unique, as I mentioned above, but each pedal comes in a velvet bag, and boxed with a  box that has some incredible graphics! These guys put a lot of thought into their image, and their execution reflects the depth of thought. Of course, time will only tell how that will work for them, but they certainly have made a great start!

How It Sounds

As they say, “the proof is in the pudding,” and as far as performance is concerned, the Tattooed Lady provides the proof of operation and tone that back up their packaging. For the first couple of weeks that I had the pedal, I had it hooked up to my little VHT Special 6 combo. That amp has lots of clean headroom, so I really got a feel for how the pedal stood on its own. As an “amp-in-a-box,” I was totally blown away! I set the pedal to unity volume, which is just past 9am on the volume knob, and set the gain to about 3pm. At that setting, I could control the breakup of the pedal purely through attack and guitar volume changes.

The distortion that the pedal produces is nice and open. There’s a very slight compression, but it never gets squishy, even when I have my guitar volume all dimed. That’s very amp-like in nature! Because of time constraints (I’ve got lots of gear that I’m reviewing right now), I only have a single clip, but it’s a clip that really captures the dynamic range of the pedal. I first start out playing a simple  arpeggio chord progression with the pedal disengaged, and my Les Paul volumes both at under halfway. I then switch on the pedal. One thing you’ll notice is a sudden increase in definition with just a touch of volume increase. At this point, the guitar’s set the same way, and I’m still picking pretty lightly. Then I get into strummed chords and crack my bridge volume to play a Townshend-like chord progression. What totally amazes me is that even with fully-strummed chords, the note separation is maintained! Finally, I back down the volume back to where it was, and the tone completely cleans up.

Here’s the clip:


What turns me on about the open distortion this pedal produces is that it’s UGLY – in a good way. It’s got that edgy, snarling-dog quality to it, and with the church music I write and play, that provides a contrast to the much softer message in my songs. :) I love the juxtaposition!

Mind you, this pedal is also very loud, and though I did test it to slam my pre-amp to break it up, and it does a fantastic job with that, I’ve relegated that duty to my trusty Timmy which I use as my transparent overdrive/booster. To me at least, where the Tattooed Lady totally shines is as an amp in a box. YMMV, of course… And don’t mistake my use of it as a pure distortion pedal. That’s a completely different animal and is square-wave. There’s a big difference between that and a soft-clipping device like an overdrive.

Overall Impression

I’m not returning this pedal. Sure, I’ll pay for it, but I’m not returning it – ever. How’s that for an overall impression? I’ve been looking for an amp-in-a-box overdrive for a long time, and this is the first pedal in that long line of pedals that completely fits my tastes. Sure, there are others out there like the Caitlinbread Dirty Little Secret or the GeekMacDaddy British Ball Breaker, but those are specifically full-strack Marshall-esque type pedals. I’ve been looking for an overdrive that was brand-agnostic. Honestly, I don’t know if it was ever meant to be used like this considering all the volume on tap, but that’s how I’m going to be using it – so there! :)

ROCK ON!

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tl_pedal_bagtl_boxWhen I first made contact with Circus Freak Effects in mid-December, I came away from the meeting with the feeling that these guys mean business. It wasn’t enough just to create great pedals, the whole presentation was important from the enclosure all the way to the packaging, then to top it off, the pricing had to be such that the products would be accessible to a wide range of players.

Having been in various startups over the course of my career as a software engineer, this approach is something that has always reverberated with me. In the last few years, I’ve been in one successful startup and am currently in one that I believe will also be quite successful. With either of those companies, it hasn’t just been about the technology, but the whole package. The overshadowing philosophy is simple: Not only does our product have to be good, it has to look good and be priced competitively as well.

The guys at Circus Freak get that. When I opened the shipping box yesterday and remove wrapping from the Tatooed Lady box, I was blown away by the quality of the packaging. Sliding the cover off the box revealed a velvet-like bag that contained the pedal itself. Taking the pedal out of the bag, I was greeted by an enclosure the likes of which I’d never seen before. This wasn’t your typical Hammond pedal enclosure. This was a fully custom enclosure with a bottom that is obviously meant for something other than just sitting on a standard pedal board (in fact, Circus Freak is working on a board for mounting their pedals). tl_bottomFinally, included in the box was a small Ziploc bag with rubber strips for the bottom and a special Allen wrench-like tool for opening the enclosure (all Circus Freak effects will be tweakable). The point to all this is that the attention to detail that has gone in to every aspect of delivering a product to the customer is evident. Circus Freak means business, and they’re not going to settle on being a pedal company that looks as if it’s run in the garage of one of the guys’ houses. Here’s the kicker: The Tatooed Lady Overdrive is only $149! The packaging alone implies a much higher value, but to have it at that low price point makes it immediately attractive!

But of course, we’re talking about an effect pedal so not only does it have to deliver on appearance, it has to sound good as well. On that front, all I can say is, “WOW!”

That kind of reaction doesn’t happen to me very often. It’s actually unusual that I dig a pedal’s tone when I have everything set to 12 o’clock, but I totally dug this tone. For me, the first thing that I look for in an overdrive pedal is that my sound should “feel” bigger; that it’s my same tone, just more of it, and not necessarily volume. That’s what the Tatooed Lady does; it gives you more of your tone. But that “bigger” feeling is also attributed to what’s obviously a bit of compression being added to the signal. In some overdrives, the compression isn’t quite as evident. But with this pedal, it’s pretty obvious. But that is not at all a bad thing as my fundamental tone doesn’t change with the pedal.

For my initial audition, I plugged the pedal straight into my VHT Special 6. I was in my living room, so I didn’t really need much volume. But the VHT also has a lot of clean headroom on top of using a 10″ Jensen Jet Electric Lightning which gives the amp a lot of bottom end; making it sound A LOT bigger than its 6 Watts would suggest. The clean headroom would let me test the pedal’s drive on its own, and not rely on amp breakup. After playing around with it like that, this pedal could easily stand on its own as a clipping device!

In the time that I spent with it this morning, I found that I loved using the pedal purely as a breakup device. I set the volume at just past unity, cranked up the Gain knob on the pedal almost all the way, then set the Bass and Treble knobs to about 11 am and 1 pm respectively. At that setting, I could get this gorgeous, searing, but open overdrive with my guitar volume dimed, but I could also back off the volume on my guitar and the pedal would “calm down.” The dynamics are incredible, though I would fall short of calling them tube-amp-like dynamics. Suffice it to say that the pedal is very responsive to attack and volume knob adjustments.

The pedal also has some awesome sustain. I was absolutely digging playing long notes because the sustain of the pedal ensured that I’d get lots of overtones and subtle harmonics. Playing those long sustained notes what driving my little dog nuts as she started to howl whenever I played a high, bent note. :)

In my initial conversation with the Circus Freak guys, one thing that they kept on telling me was that they wanted to make sure that their pedals had LOTS of volume. They weren’t kidding. This pedal has lots of volume on tap, so whether you want to use the pedal as a standalone clipping device at unity volume, or use it as a booster to slam the front end of your amp, you have that choice. With the volume that this pedal is capable of, you can really get your pre-amp saturated quickly.

On a final note, I was very impressed with how quiet the pedal was when engaged; no line noise whatsoever, which made me think right away that I will probably be using this pedal for recording in my upcoming session.

Initial verdict? I love everything about this pedal so far: The way it looks and the way it sounds. I’ll be using it at my church gig this afternoon, so I’ll be writing up a gig report on it later. I’m so excited to try this out in a real live situation!

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Yesterday, I finished the last gig of a five-day run of gigs – mostly solo – and after I finished the last one, I was driving in the car and thought about the different gear I used for each gig. For the last couple, I used a bare bones rig: Just my guitar plugged into my VoiceLive GTX vocal processor plugged into my Fishman SoloAmp. I didn’t want to bother with lugging my pedal board, so I just loaded a few cords, my VoiceLive GTX and my mic in a bag. I didn’t even use my gig seat – just used a couple of regular chairs to sit on.

The thought that struck me last night was that I have all this gear to have the freedom to add or subtract what I need from gig to gig. When I’m playing with my church band, my rig can change drastically from week to week. Sometimes I bring a combo, sometimes a head and cab; sometimes I bring multiple guitars. The idea to give myself choices. :) He he… sounds a lot like I’m figuring out a way to justify to the wifey why our garage is half-full of my gear. But that’s not really the case. I like having the choices I have so I can adapt to whatever venue I might play. I use practically all my gear throughout the year (I’m bound to with a 100+ gigs a year).

But in my ruminating over my gear, it also got me thinking about several people I’ve encountered over the years who hoard gear but never gig. Hey man, if that’s your thing, that’s fine with me. But I don’t see the point of getting performance gear and not using it to perform. There was one guy I know of who had a bunch of high-end gear. He died tragically a couple of years ago, but my buddy bought all his gear from his wife – it took up two big, enclosed car trailers! I asked my buddy if the dude gigged, but he said never. He just bought up a bunch of gear, and played it at home. Included were several high-end amps from VOX, Marshall, HiWatt, /13, and others. There were several Strats, a couple of Les Pauls, and a nice collection of Gretsch guitars. I just couldn’t believe how much stuff there was, and that didn’t include all the pedals and accessories! I thought I was a gear slut! This dude’s collection made me look like a freakin’ prude!

I personally can’t fathom not gigging my gear. I have a lot, but pretty much everything gets used at least three or four times a year. I have my “go-to” amps and axes for sure; especially now that I feel that I’ve got my sound. But still, from time to time, I break out a little-used guitar or amp. For instance, my guitar of choice is a Les Paul. But there are some sounds that a Les Paul just can’t do; which is why I have a couple of Strats and a Gretsch and other guitars when I need certain tones. Same goes for pedals. Baseline I always have a chorus, a delay and a reverb. But sometimes I need a vibe. For front-of-amp stuff, I always have a Timmy and my EWS Little Brute Drive distortion, plus my Big Bad Wah. But I’ll add other drive pedals, or even change out my wah for “something else.”

I suppose I just can’t justify buying gear if I don’t use it. I don’t have a lot of disposable income, so when I do buy something it’s with the intention of gigging. But that’s just me…

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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!

Wegen "The Fatone"

Click to enlarge

Wegen’s Picks – The Fatone (Fat Tone)

Summary: This is now my new favorite pick! I had misplaced my Wegen GP 250 and wanted to get another GP 250. The store that I bought the last one at was out of GP 250′s so I dug in the Wegen pick box and found this beauty! The grip is awesome!

Pros: Beefy (5mm) pick that is amazingly accurate despite its thickness. Despite its thickness, this is tonally versatile pick!

Cons: Though it doesn’t take anything away from the rating, my only nit about my pick is that it’s black. Black gets lost easily on a dark stage. But Wegen makes them in white, so I’ll probably order a few of the white ones.

Price: $15.00 ea

Specs:

  • 5 millimeters thick
  • Hand-made
  • Perfect bevel that makes your strings really ring!
  • Don’t know the material, but it’s a VERY hard plastic that does not scratch. You will never need to buff or resharpen Wegen picks!

Tone Bone Rating: 5.0 ~ Though I still love my V-Picks Snake (pointed), this pick is now my primary. It’s the perfect pick!

I’ve been searching for the perfect fat pick for a long time; or perhaps I should say that I’ve been looking for a pick that I could use for both acoustic and electric, but I never could. So I used a V-Picks Snake for electric and a Wegen GP 250 and a Red Bear Gypsy Jazz for acoustic. But all that changed when I got the Wegen “The Fatone.”

Admittedly, I discovered this pick not because I was looking to add to my collection of picks, but because I lost my GP 250, which had served me well for the last couple of years. I simply wanted to replace it. Unfortunately – or fortunately – the shop that I bought my GP 250 at was all out of them. So I looked through the case to see if I could find an alternate. That alternate was the Fatone. I knew from the first moment I held it that I was onto something with that pick. Then when I strummed it on a guitar in the shop, I was completely sold! Playing it at my solo acoustic gig an hour after that sealed the deal for me. I’ll be hard-pressed to use another pick.

This is a FAT pick at 5mm. But the inset, thumb-side grip, combined with the beveled tip make this pick feel so much thinner. It’s truly a joy to play.

What is it about fat picks for me? Well, having used them for a few years now, the most significant effect they’ve had on my playing besides tone is how they make my right hand relax. The way that works is that in order to make the pick glide over the strings effectively you have to hold the pick a lot looser in your fingers. That looser grip affects the whole hand. Granted, it took a little while to get used to, but once I was comfortable with a fat pick, going back to my old nylon picks seemed absolutely foreign to me. But relaxation made my playing much more fluid, and I was actually able to play a lot faster because my hand was so relaxed. In any case, I’m hooked on fat picks, and I’ll never go back to conventional picks.

Now I know that I normally do a “How It Sounds” section, but I’m actually on the road right now, writing while my son is driving the car (I’m taking him to college). But also, I don’t know how useful that section would be in this case. All I can say is that the fat pick produces a big sound, but in the case of the Fatone, because of the nice pointy bevel, it produces a nice, bright ring in addition to the deeper tone. It’s a bit hard to describe. It “feels” so much more full than other picks. For instance, though I love the sound my V-Picks Snake makes, it’s definitely a lot more mid-rangy than the Fatone.

One thing that is significant about the Wegen pick material is that it has a texture that feels softer than tortoise, but it’s actually a VERY hard material. The cool thing is that it’s a lot more damp on the strings than either acrylic or tortoise (or natural material). But it doesn’t produce a damper sound. It’s a feel thing. :) In any case, I’m hooked on this pick. Also, tonally, this is a VERY versatile pick. By simply changing the angle and depth of attack, I can get thick, warm tones to nice bright tones. That’s extremely cool!

Overall Impression

As I mentioned above, I now have a new favorite pick. Not sure what else I can say about it. I won’t be getting rid of this one any time soon!

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Ovation 2006 Collector’s 2006-FKOA

Summary: One of Ovation’s popular collector’s series, the 2006-FKOA sports a solid Koa top over a deep contour body. Unlike other Ovations that can have bright, “tinny” tone, this guitar has a much deeper voice, but has that signature Ovation projection.

Pros: VIP (Virtual Image Processing) pre-amp with 5 different microphone images is the bomb! The Koa top is absolutely beautiful and adds so much warmth to the natural tone of the guitar.

Cons: Using an image is an absolute must for plugging in. The raw preamp sounds pretty bad.

Price: $1000 – $1500 (if you can find one for sale)

Features:

  • Deep contour body
  • Solid figured koa top
  • LX scalloped bracing
  • 25 3/4″ scale length
  • Deluxe grade ebony fretboard
  • Ebony bridge
  • Inlaid flame maple epaulet
  • Tortoise shell-like bracing on the body

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 ~ What a fantastic guitar! I’m borrowing this guitar from a friend for my recording sessions. It has an absolutely killer tone! I don’t like the raw pre-amp tone (as you’ll see below), but the various microphone images completely compensate for that.

Well, it’s back to the studio again, but this time instead of my “man cave” home studio, I’m in a real studio. I borrowed this guitar from a buddy of mine who’s also playing in the sessions. He’s playing his Collings Dreadnought which has a completely different sound, so I figured that this would be a good contrast and I asked him bring to the Ovation along to the sessions. He’s letting me borrow it until we’re done with the project, so I’m going to have lots of time with this guitar.

We’re mostly recording the natural tone of the guitar with a couple different mics, but we’re also plugging in for an even richer sound. Thank heaven this guitar has the VIP pre-amp system because I’d be trashing the plugged in track. The sound that it produces is the classic twangy, honky, lifeless sound that you’d expect out of a cheap pickup system. My Yamaha APX900′s plugged in tone beats this guitar hands-down! Well, that is a testament to how good Yamaha pickup technology is… But I have to say that with the VIP system, Ovation did real good.

Fit and Finish

Talk about an easy guitar to play! Well, I’ve played a couple of Ovations over the years, and I’ve always loved the necks on Ovations. They’re immediately comfortable to me, and I felt right at home playing this guitar. My previous guitar before my Yamaha APX900, was an Ovation thin-body, and the neck on that was very similar to this one, though if memory serves, the 2006-FKOA’s neck is just a tad beefier, but I like that because it’s like my Les Paul R8, so I have a tactile cue to work with.

This is also a gorgeous guitar. I love the figured Koa top, and the flame maple epaulet adds a nice touch to the overall appearance of the guitar. The deep contour body is actually quite comfortable. I was a bit concerned that it might be a bit wide (especially with my extra girth around the middle), but it works even with a big boy like me. I also gigged with it today, and it was absolutely comfortable.

As expected, the build quality is superb. I haven’t played or evaluated an Ovation guitar that wasn’t rock-solid in build quality. There are no uneven seems, no extra lacquer bumps. It’s clean and tight, and that’s always a good thing. :)

How It Sounds

The VIP-5 sports 5 different mic images. As Ovation explains it:

…the VIP-5 preamp replicates the sound of high-end microphones used in professional recording studios. Using spectrographic analysis, the VIP-5 compares a guitar’s saddle pickup output to stored audio “images” of a guitar recorded with a studio condenser microphone. The pickup signal is then processed using approximately 1,000 filters and shaped to match the recorded sound image…

The question you might have is “But does it work?” I can emphatically say yes; and it works quite well. Compared to the raw pre-amp with no filtering (which you get by turning down the Image mix all the way), it’s like night and day, and the tone sounds like a guitar being mic’d. Ovation doesn’t specify which high-end studio condenser mics they modeled, but it doesn’t matter. You pick the one you like and go with it.

I’ve got some sample clips to share with you. All of the clips are with the guitar plugged directly into my pre-amp going into my DAW. I’ve got all filtering and compression and EQ turned off in Logic, so what you’ll be hearing is the direct sound. I recorded the individual images with the image mix cranked all the way up.

Reference Tone (raw, image mix turned all the way off)


Image Setting 1


Image Setting 2


Image Setting 3


Image Setting 4


Image Setting 5


The images completely transform the plugged in tone. The reference track was quacky and honky. Blech! But with the images, it’s a completely different animal. I love it! I used Image Settings 3 and 4 in my sessions this weekend. They seemed to fit well with the songs I was recording. And I think that that is the point of the images, and that is to choose an image that works with your rig. I’m going to gig with this in my solo acoustic gig. Who knows what will work with my SA-220 SoloAmp? I’ll just have to find out…

I also recorded a couple of clips with the guitar miked as well to give you an idea of the natural sound the guitar makes:

Comparison Clip to Clips Above


The mic was placed about a foot away from the guitar to allow its tones to develop.

Fingerstyle Clip


This is definitely where this guitar absolutely shines. The natural brightness of the Ovation is offset by the deep contour body which produces a gorgeous scooped tone that really comes out when playing fingerstyle.

Overall Impression

I’m thoroughly impressed with this guitar. Thought I was done with Ovations, but this is one that I have to have eventually. They’re pretty rare, but from what I can tell, people have been selling them for pretty affordable prices; far less than the original $3k+ street price.

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TC Helicon VoiceLive Play GTX

Summary: Great vocal processing PLUS great guitar processing all in one convenient box.

Pros: Superb vocal processing giving the singer powerful processing tools and very natural harmony voices. Guitar processing is top-notch. Output is super-quiet with no line noise whatsoever.

Cons: With such excellent sound quality, my only con is that there aren’t more harmony voices. Though of lower quality, the DigiTech Vocalist Live 4 has four voices of harmony, which opens up lots of possibilities. But note that this is just a nit, and definitely not a deal-breaker for me.

Price: $349.00 Street

Features:

  • 200+ song & artist inspired presets for vocals & guitar
  • Dedicated guitar effects processing from TC Electronic. No amp required
  • Key for harmonies and pitch correction set automatically from guitar input
  • Plug in your MP3 player to the AUX input and sing along using Vocal Cancel feature
  • Built like a tank
  • Fine control over parameters for both voice and guitar
  • Output: Stereo, Mono, Dual Mono

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 ~ Used this unit all weekend long, and despite my minor misgivings about having only two harmony voices max, the sound quality of this unit beats the crap out of my DigiTech Vocalist Live 4.

I’m tired. Three gigs in three days, and some coin in my pocket, and I’m a pretty happy man as well. But I didn’t realize I was as tired as I was until I sat down for a little dinner and started writing this article. Part of me not noticing my exhaustion is due to the inspiration I got from using the fantastic TC Helicon VoiceLive Play GTX. It’s amazing what good sound quality can do for sparking inspiration. For the first time in the hundreds of solo gigs I’ve done over the years, I was completely satisfied with my sound.

Guitar-wise, I was already covered, but vocally, I always knew my rig was lacking. But it was usually good enough, and I knew that the real solution was to simply add some other gear like adding a side-chain to my PA and insert vocal processing units. But being a solo artist, the thought of lugging more gear around just didn’t appeal to me, so I did my best with what I’ve had for several years, hoping that someday I could get a unit that had all the vocal processing I needed in a box. That someday arrived on my doorstep last Wednesday.

I didn’t get a chance to start playing with it until last Thursday night, and I spent a couple of hours dialing in a few presets that I would use for my gig on Friday. And after my gig, though I knew I had to make a couple of tweaks to the presets, I was completely sold on the unit. One of the servers at the restaurant that I work at on Fridays is also a professional singer, and she commented that my sound was “different” than usual. When I queried what she meant by that, she said, “It sounds so much better. So clear and present. It’s gorgeous.” That was all the affirmation I needed!

The first thing I noticed when I started my gig was the three-dimensional quality to my sound. I use a Fishman SA200 SoloAmp as my PA and acoustic guitar amp. It’s a six-speaker array that has great sound dispersal. But Friday night was the first time I felt that it was being used to its full effect. As I mentioned, there was a three-dimensional quality to my sound. I didn’t have to even turn up very loud. The sound was being dispersed as it should be. I think a lot of that had to do with the compressor in the unit. With effective compression, the “tighter” sound seems to project much more, and that is exactly what was happening as my signal issued from the SoloAmp. I didn’t even have a lot of compression dialed in; only 2.7 to 1, which is pretty light, but it was enough to squeeze my sound just enough to make my sound much more full and rich.

Fit and Finish

The VoiceLive Play GTX is a really small unit, measuring about 8″ X 6″ X 2.” It’s uncanny how much power this unit packs with such a diminutive footprint. But I absolutely DIG that it’s so small because it fits in my cord bag! This means that unlike my DigiTech Vocalist Live4, I don’t need a separate gig bag to transport it! On top of that, the metal housing is absolutely rugged, so this unit is totally gig-worthy, and for the amount of gigs that I do per year – I do over 100 gigs a year – I have no doubt that the unit will stand the test of time and the rigors of gigging.

The switches are top quality, and they’re extremely smooth; maybe a bit too smooth. I wish that the toggles had just a little snap. The problem that I have with smooth switches is that it’s easy to press the switch and not know that you’re pressing it. I had a similar issue with my previous unit. But I can understand the reasoning behind it in that in a quiet environment, a the click of a toggle might be a bit distracting.

The LCD screen is very easy to read, though as with any LCD, it can be a bit difficult to read in direct sunlight.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Presets

One thing the manufacturers tout with their vocal processing units – and TC Helicon is no exception – is the number of “artist-inspired” presets. My DigiTech Vocalist Live 4 had 50 factory presets and 50 user presets, which were essentially copies of the factory presets but were editable. To me, that was fine because it gave me enough examples to use a reference points for editing. The VoiceLive has 235 presets, and the demonstrators do a great job of showing what the presets can do. But frankly, I don’t give a crap about the presets. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, I’ve got great amps and I know what I want out of them. The amp models in the VoiceLive are actually quite good, but I personally would never use them. Same goes for guitar effects. There are some very nice guitar effects in the unit, but I have some incredible pedals like my Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay that simply kick ass over onboard effects.

As far as the vocal settings are concerned, being experienced at recording, every singer requires different settings to optimize the qualities of their voice. For instance, I’m a second tenor/baritone, so while I can sing fairly high notes, my tonal color is darker than a full tenor. From a mixing standpoint, I almost always have to have the lows rolled off slightly and require less compression. Presets rarely, if ever, work for me because they’re set for an average. So given all of that, I end up editing a few presets, and use just those in my performances. Such was the case with the VoiceLive Play.

Ease of Use

From my perspective, ease of parameter editing is the “secret sauce” of the VoiceLive Play GTX. TC Helicon must be so confident of this that the only documentation they include in the box is a connection diagram. The user manual and preset list can be downloaded from the TC Helicon site, but for basic setup, you don’t need a manual. The only thing I used the manual for was finding out how to get to the fine controls for the effects, and that just takes pressing the Effects “soft” button twice. Other than that, the editing interface is easy. The LCD screen layout is below:

To access an editing screen, you simply press one of the six buttons, called “soft buttons” on either side of the screen. That will bring up the screen associated with the soft key. Most screens have multiple pages which you can scroll through using the arrow keys. Parameters are adjusted with the control knob in the center. Once in a parameter editing screen, you enter edit mode for the parameter by pressing the soft key next to the parameter. Parameters show up as labeled rectangles on either side of the screen. What absolutely cool though is that the soft keys will light for only the parameters you can edit, providing a great visual cue that indicates what’s editable and what’s not.

Sound Quality

As if making it incredibly easy to set up and dial in, the sound quality of the unit incredible! I already described the three-dimensional nature of the sound, but on top of that, there are no errant artifacts or line noise that issue from the unit. It’s dead quiet. But to protect against that, the unit also has a little ground lift switch on the back to protect from ground loops or differing ground references in power sources. Here are a few example clips I recorded direct into my DAW:

Eagles: Peaceful Easy Feelin’


Beatles: In My Life


James Taylor: You’ve Got a Friend


If you do hear any noise, it’s from my microphone pickup ambient noise, but there is no line noise whatsoever. Note that in all the clips, it is the raw sound of the unit. No processing occurred in my production software at all. In the last clip, I noticed that it sounded a little processed. That was fixed at my gig on Friday by removing the chorus effect on the vocals.

I’ve evaluated several vocal processing units, and occasionally sounding like chipmunks with the high harmonies is unavoidable, but I found that the VoiceLive does a much better job of blending vocals than other units I’ve used in the past and generally has a much more natural sound to the harmony voices.

Overall Impression

Save for only have two harmony voices, which I also said wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, this unit ROCKS THE HOUSE! I’m simply blown away by sound quality, but also from the fine control over all aspects of the presets. This unit is going to go on my list of game changers for sure!

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TC Electronic MojoMojo OverdriveSummary: This is a no-frills dirt pedal, and that’s a good thing. With toggle-switchable voicing and very responsive EQ controls, dialing in the pedal to work with your amp is a cinch! This overdrive will add an ever-so-slight dark coloring to your tone when active, but that’s a good thing as well.

Pros: Amp-like dynamic response. Works great as a dirt enhancer, and was obviously made for stacking. Nice, open distortion, and sags nicely at higher gain settings with minimal compression.

Cons: Can sound a bit compressed and mushy if EQ is not dialed in correctly, and finding the sweet spot can take a bit of time.

Price: $129.00 Street

Features:

  • Active Bass and Treble EQ controls
  • Drive and Level controls
  • Voice Toggle (up = flat response, down = slight treble boost for thicker-sounding guitars)
  • True Bypass

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 ~ Yet another winner from the TC Electronic compact pedal line! As sort of a “mainstream” kind of overdrive, I really didn’t want to like this pedal. But after I got it dialed in with my amp and guitar, I found that I REALLY like this pedal!

Maintaining my objectivity is the hallmark of this blog. And when manufacturers send me gear, I am extremely careful to be honest with my reviews; not just in my writing but also honest with my tests; always doing my best to give the gear a fair shot. I want to exhaust all possibilities before I render a verdict – especially if I don’t like something, though that is certainly not the case with the TC Electronic MojoMojo Overdrive. As I mentioned above, I REALLY like this pedal and am impressed with it for a variety of reasons. Here are a few:

  • First off, this pedal is absolutely no-frills. One of the slogans that TC Electronic has used in the past is “No frills with a sound that kills.” That’s a very apt description of the MojoMojo. With this pedal, you set the voicing and EQ to match your guitar and amp, then set the level and drive where you want, and well… play.
  • Also, unlike a high-end overdrive like the Keeley Luna Overdrive that I recently reviewed that employs a fairly sophisticated Baxandall EQ that can drastically affect the voicing of the pedal to produce different overdrive sounds, the MojoMojo produces one type of overdrive. Once you dial in the EQ, you just adjust the drive and level to how much you need at a particular time.
  • I found that treating the pedal as if it was another gain stage in front of my amp worked best, as the pedal was designed explicitly to act with tube amp-like dynamics. Like high-end pedals, it’s super-responsive to pick attack and volume knob adjustments just like you’d expect with a tube amp. Very nice.
  • Though relatively inexpensive compared to other TC Electronic pedals – it’s $100 less than the Nova Drive – the quality that obviously went into the pedal from both a tonal and mechanical perspective is apparent. Tone-wise, the overdrive is open and smooth, with great note separation. Physically, the pedal is simply very well made. The knobs move smoothly but with good tension, and the on/off switch seems rock-solid. This is the type of quality that I’ve come to expect out of TC products.

I’ve known about this pedal for over year, and have read feedback on forums. From what I was able to gather, it’s a split-decision with how people feel about this. The people who like it, love it; there wasn’t much negative feedback that I found, but more tepid responses along the lines of “I couldn’t dial in a good sound with this pedal.” That actually puzzled me because even though I recorded playing through my DV Mark Little 40, I tested the pedal with four different amps and was able to get a great sound out of all of them.

What I came to realize is that more than any other pedal I’ve tested and reviewed, overdrive pedals are the most challenging to get to work in a rig. Dialing in EQ is usually pretty easy for me  (there are exceptions, like the Keeley’s Baxandall tone stack that took me awhile to dial in because that was unfamiliar territory, EQ-wise). Where overdrives are challenging is balancing the distortion and level gain to fit with the amp. This is where I take a lot of time because I have to make a decision: Where do I want the distortion to come from? With some pedals, it’s better to get most or even all of the distortion from the pedal, with level set to unity gain. With others, I might want just a touch of distortion from the pedal, and add more level gain so that my pre-amp tubes do most of the work. Still, with others both amp and pedal may share equal duty.

With each different amp I tried the pedal with this evening, I had to go through the process of finding where I wanted the distortion to come from. With my DV Mark Little 40 (with 6L6′s), I found the best result was to let the pedal do a lot of the heavy lifting, and I set the level to just past unity gain so I could get a little volume boost, plus push my pre-amp tubes just over the edge to slightly break them up. Then I could vary the amount of drive to my heart’s content. On the other hand, with my Aracom VRX22, it was a more balanced affair, with the amp and pedal taking equal responsibility for the overdrive.

I think this is where a lot of people who didn’t really like the pedal – many claiming the tones to be too thick and harsh – may have strayed a bit in their evaluations. Quite simply, dialing in overdrive takes time because not only are you dealing with a clipping section, you’re also dealing with level gain. Add getting EQ dialed in, and it can get a bit hairy. Looking back, I’ve perhaps panned a lot of overdrives simply because I didn’t take enough time.

As for the MojoMojo, getting the pedal dialed in took less than a 1/2 hour. At first, I had everything at noon, but at that setting with my Les Paul and my DV Mark that outputs into a speaker that has a pretty big bottom end, the tone was a little muffled. Thank goodness for the voicing switch on the pedal. That cleared things up a bit almost immediately, then rolling off the Bass to about 11 o’clock and boosting up the Treble to about 2 o’clock added all sorts of clarity. With the EQ set, I was able to vary the Drive and Level, and maintain clarity, no matter where I set those controls.

How It Sounds

To me, the MojoMojo sounds killer. It’s mostly transparent, but it does have a bit of a darker color to it. There’s lots of midrange on tap, but apparently TC Electronic designed the pedal to retain lows. What has really sold me on the pedal though is its amp-like dynamics, which are superb. Here are some clips that I did:

The first clip, I wanted to demonstrate the response to volume knob adjustments. The first part is my amp with my Les Paul in the middle position with both volume knobs at 5. In the second part, I switch on the pedal, and you can hear how well the pedal’s breakup blends with the amp breakup. In the final part, I do a simple lead line with the pedal engaged, then crank up my bridge pickup. The pedal really responds!


In the next clip, I cover more dynamics; basically following the same pattern as the first: Amp only, guitar volumes at 5, then pedal enaged, then bridge pickup cranked:


The thing that’s very noticeable in the clips above is that the pedal loves a lot of input gain, and like a tube amp, with more input gain, reveals more sonic content in the form of harmonics and overtones. By the way, the pedal was set in both clips with Level at just above unity, and Drive at about 2 o’clock.

Finally, I thought that I’d try it out within the context of an actual song. In this clip, it’s the bridge section from a song that’s going to be on my next album that’s actually played underneath the vocals, which I muted here. For this, I had the Level at about 3 o’clock and the Drive at 11 o’clock, which slams the front end of my amp, plus adds a healthy amount of distortion. The result is a very touch-sensitve, singing overdrive distortion.


The original track is actually a bit on the brighter side. But what I love about this particular track is the darkness of the tone. I feels so much richer, and though there’s a LOT of gain with the combination of the pedal and amp overdriving, there is a distinct smoothness to the tone. To me, it’s very magical.

Overall Impression

It shouldn’t be too hard to deduce that I dig this pedal! I’m a huge fan of open-sounding overdrives, of which the MojoMojo produces. But that slight darkness is absolutely killer! I think this is a pedal that I intend to keep for awhile. Can’t wait to bring it to a gig!

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Keeley Luna Overdrive

Summary: Two-and-a-half years in the making and combining what Robert Keeley feels are the best in overdrive pedals, tube amps, and tone stacks. The Luna overdrive is the result. This pedal covers a wide range of overdrive possibilities, from light grit to fuzz-like, square-wave distortion.

Pros: The Baxandall tone stack is KILLER and totally sells me on the pedal. On top of that though, the pedal reacts to attack and guitar volume adjustments just like a tube amp, so you’ll be right at home.

Cons: It’s pricey for one, and the tight interplay between the EQ, Drive and Master controls makes it difficult to dial in just the right amount of overdrive. But these aren’t big enough cons to give it a lower score.

Features:

  • Hand-made in the USA
  • Op-amp clipping and JFET gain stages
  • Baxandall tone stack
  • Drive and Master controls
  • Classic and Modded overdrive modes

Price: ~$219 Street

Tone Bone Score: 4.75 ~ This is a great pedal. I’d give it a 5 on tone alone, but I knocked off just a bit for making it difficult to get a decent tone out of my amp. I suppose that’s part of the fun in playing around and discovering what a pedal can do, but I have to be fair. It got a little frustrating as the Drive knob is pretty sensitive.

After my beloved Timmy pedal, I thought I was done with overdrive pedals! :) I should know better because I’ve been a slut for overdrive pedals, and I guess there’s really no cure for that. Playing around with the Keeley Luna Overdrive has been a joy, though I will admit I did briefly get frustrated while trying to dial in the pedal. It simply took a bit of time to get used to the active Baxandall EQ. Unlike other EQ’s, it’s not a cut type of EQ, where the EQ knobs turned all the way up give you flat response. With a Baxandall EQ, the 12 o’clock position is flat response. Turn up an EQ knob and you get a boost, turn it down, and you get a cut. But the midrange is left alone. That means that if you turn both knobs fully counter-clockwise, you get a midrange hump; fully clockwise, and you get a scooped tone.

This is a totally different animal from other EQ’s, and it takes awhile getting used to. However, despite the learning curve, this type of EQ provides a much better way of dialing in your tone to fit your guitar, amp, and cabinet. For instance, for my test, I played the pedal in front of my DV Mark Little 40, which goes out to a 1 X 12 cabinet that has a Jensen Jet Falcon speaker, which has a pretty big bottom end. Putting the pedal in flat response made my tone sound really muffled because of the lows (I had my amp’s EQ completely flat). But after playing around, I found that placing the bass at 11 o’clock and the treble at 1 o’clock brightened up the tone just the right amount, then it was all about getting the Master and Drive knobs set.

About the Drive knob… it’s super-sensitive, and you’ll start getting breakup as soon as you start turning the knob clockwise from its minimum position, which is about 7-8 o’clock. I found that the sweet spot for me was the Drive just past 9 o’clock and the Master set between 2 and 3 o’clock. With my amp set at just the edge of breakup, the boost from the Master got the tubes overdriving, and the combination of distortion from both the pedal and the amp was quite pleasing to my ears.

How It Sounds

In my First Impressions article that I wrote earlier today, I said that the pedal adds some color. I’m going to retract that now because depending upon where you set the EQ’s, you can have a transparent tone, or add as much color as you want. I like to err on the side of transparency with most overdrives, and when it came down to it, this pedal was no different. I originally had a nice treble boost, but when I did some test recordings, found that I didn’t like how I had set the EQ’s because of the color. Here are a couple of test clips. Note that both of these were done in the Classic mode, and I was using my Gibson Les Paul ’58 Historic Reissue.

In the first clip, I do a quick clean rhythm riff with an almost imperceptible grit, then do the same riff with the pedal to add some dirt.


With the next clip, I decided to do a dark rhythm track then play a lead alongside it. In both rhythm and lead, the pedal was set the same way, and I vary the amount of overdrive simply by adding more guitar volume or hitting my strings harder. This clip was made purely to demonstrate the pedal’s dynamic response. I also added just a touch of reverb to grease the sound a bit,.


I absolutely love the tone of the lead track. I started out with my LP in the middle position, with the neck pickup at 5 and the bridge pickup at 6. Then when I started driving it harder, I switched to the bridge pickup entirely and dimed it. From there I just closed my eyes. The sonic content that the pedal produces is amazing. There are lots of little harmonics and overtones in the signal, and the note separation is awesome. The note separation takes a little getting used to as well. But this is a good thing because this pedal does not produce mush – even at high gain settings.

In this third clip, I just do a few seconds of a Journey riff. here the tone is scooped with both the EQ knobs at about 2 pm, the Master cranked wide open and the Drive at about 10 o’oclock. Unfortunately, my mic didn’t pick up all the little harmonics and overtones, but the point to this one was that even pushing my amp hard, and with much more gain, the note separation is still maintained.


I know, I only have a couple of clips, but admittedly, I’m still playing around with the pedal. I want to try it front of one my Plexi-style amps to see how it performs.

I did take it through its paces with the Modded mode, and that mode with my amp just past the edge of breakup created some real aggressive overdrive; not over the top, but I have to play around more with this mode and cranking up the gain to experience the upper limits of the pedal.

Overall Impression

As I said above, this is a great pedal. It’s a little steep in price at $219; Keeley pedals have never come cheap. But that said, I’d totally add this to my board to stack with my Timmy (hmm… going to have to try that out). It has been a long time since I’ve been jazzed about an overdrive, and I’m really jazzed about this one.

Interestingly enough, besides a few video reviews out there (that do nothing but blues licks), and one that I saw done by Musicians Friend staff member, there’s not much in the way of reviews, which is surprising. Some of the feedback I saw on a couple of forums said it didn’t work well with people’s amps. I think that has more to do with not playing around with the pedal enough. That Baxandall EQ takes some getting used to, but once you “get it,” this pedal rocks!

For more information, visit Keeley Luna Overdrive product page!

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I’m one of those people that believe that tone is in your hands. I’ve been playing long enough now where no matter what guitar I pick up, I’ll sound like me – quirks and all. I saw Slash perform on HDNet last week and he switched between playing a Gibson Explorer and a Les Paul, and he still sounded like himself. Of course, the actual sound that he was making was different with the different guitars he played, but the style and execution were singularly Slash.

All this led me to realize that there are two types of tone: The actual mechanical sound your rig makes separate from a song, and the expressive tone that comes from making music. Some might argue that they’re one and the same thing, but I’m not so sure any longer. Along these lines, I’ll argue that the mechanical “tone” forms the foundation of your expressive tone. Get this right, and it’ll open up all sorts of creative doors, and this is where context plays a huge role.

Don’t know how many times and how much money I’ve spent on gear that sounded great on its own, when I tested it or listened to clips online, only to be a huge fail once I put it in my signal chain. That’s happened more with pedals than other gear, thank gawd, but I still have a milk crate with lots of very nice pedals that just don’t work with my overall rig. They sound great on their own, but within the context of my signal chain, they just don’t work.

And that’s why context is important. You never really know how well something works until you make a sound with it within the context of your signal chain. I say “make a sound” because you want to check the mechanical sound and see if it’s acceptable. Before I started doing simple mechanical tests on gears, I used to just try stuff out (playing licks and progressions and such), get excited by the sound of the gear on its own, buy it, then get slammed back down to earth when I put it in my chain. It’s probably a reason I have so many drive pedals that I just don’t use. But having learned that lesson, my initial test of gear involves putting it in my chain first, then doing simple, expressionless things like strumming a chord or playing a single note. If it sounds harsh or muddy with this simple stuff, then it just won’t work, and I’ll return the gear or sell it.

Admittedly, you can’t do that with everything. I took a big chance on my Timmy overdrive, but I spent many, many months listening to clips and reading posts and speaking with Paul Cochrane before I pulled the trigger to order one. But though I did take a chance, it was a fairly educated chance, so when I finally got it, I was pretty confident that it would work. Of course, there was a slim chance that it wouldn’t work with my rig, but it turned out to work fantastically well with all my pedals, amps and guitars; so much so that it’ll never leave my board.

All that said, if you just like to collect a lot of gear irrespective of its context within your signal chain, more power to you. But be forewarned that you may look upon your expanse of gear and realize, “Holy crap! I’ve got a lot of stuff that’s collecting dust.” For myself, I tend to be a lot more careful and measured about my gear purchases. I still get bad GAS, but mechanical testing helps manage that.

Didn’t Gibson just release a new Les Paul Standard? :)

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I’ve known about this pedal ever since it came out last year, and unlike many other overdrives out there, it uses a tube for distortion, and not a clipping diode. This pedal is like putting another gain stage in front of your amp. It comes with Master and Gain and the tone controls are all independent with no overlapping frequencies, so tone shaping is pretty incredible. And being that it’s a Maxon pedal, you’re pretty much guaranteed high-reliability and fantastic build quality.

So if I’ve known about this so long, and I love all its features and pedigree, why haven’t I written about it? Well, for one, life was pretty busy at that time last year, as time went on, I got my Timmy and Little Brute Drive, and finally, and probably most importantly, I just couldn’t see paying $385 for a pedal. Hell! My VHT Special 6 cost $199 when I got it, but you can get it now for only $179, and that’s a tube amp – and a great one at that! Same thing goes for a Fender Champ 600 at $149…

Okay, okay, I know that we’re kind of talking apples and oranges, but the point is that $385 is a rather steep price to pay. Based upon the clips I’ve heard and videos I’ve watched on this pedal, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s killer. I guess for me, though it does sound incredible, it doesn’t move me enough to fork out that kind of cash.

Not that I wouldn’t pay a steep price for a pedal if it totally moved me. I paid $275 for my Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay. It hurt a bit, but it’s a pedal that I simply can’t live without now.

In any case, what got me thinking about the RTO700 was the Pigtronix Fat Drive. When I was watching videos of that pedal, I ran across references to the RTO700. I thought to myself at the time that I would get it over the Fat Drive; that is, until I saw the price tag. Then the Fat Drive seemed a hell of a lot more attractive to me. :)

In closing, having owned Maxon products in the past, I know how killer they are. Maxon isn’t a cheap proposition, but if you can swing it, you’ll be happy.

For more information on the pedal, check out the RTO700 product page!

 

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