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Archive for September, 2007

If you’re an avid musician – and I don’t necessarily mean “pro” or anything like that – a good piece of your free time is spent playing your instrument. Like, every day. But sometimes you just need to take a break and do something else to get your perspective back.

A couple of weeks ago, I had to go out of town on a family emergency. Usually, when I go out of town, I have my trusty acoustic guitar with me to fill up my free time. But because I had to leave and hop on a plane at pretty much a moment’s notice, I didn’t have time take my guitar. Up to that point, I had been busy in my home studio, writing and recording songs for a few weeks, and I found that I was hitting a state of emotional and mental block. It was taking me longer and longer to motivate myself to set up my gear and play as the days wore on.  Then this emergency came up (it wasn’t anyone sick or hurt, but it did require my presence), and that was probably one of the best things that happened to me with respect to playing guitar.

On the return leg of my trip, as I was sitting in my seat on the airplane, I really looked forward to playing. But by the time, I got home, I realized that I just wanted to sit at home with my wife and kids and just enjoy being with my family. And I did that for the rest of the week!

The net effect was that by the time I picked up my guitar, I had a renewed verve and appreciation for playing. I got just a tad bit rusty, but 10-15 minutes of warm-up exercises got me right back into the groove.

So if you’re feeling blocked with your music, take a break and do something else entirely. You’ll be surprise at your renewed strength!

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Maxon CP-9 Pro+ CompressorThe last review I wrote was on the Demeter Opto Compulator, a great compressor that I had the chance to A/B a couple of weeks ago. In the review, I said that that was the comp I was going to buy, but that was until I did a side-by-side comparison with the Maxon CP-9 Pro+ today. Now it looks like the winner of my search for a good, transparent compressor is the Maxon CP-9 Pro+. But I’ll have to admit, I’m very torn between the two.

When I heard Buford play through the Demeter, I loved its transparency. The compression is so subtle, you hardly notice that it’s there. But my side-by-side comparison with the CP-9 really got me hooked on it instead of the Demeter – for now (I’ll explain in a bit). Let’s look at the features, shall we?

Like the Demeter, the Maxon CP-9 Pro Plus is fairly straight-forward to use. It has three knobs to the Demeter’s two, adding a threshold knob to the ratio and makeup gain knobs, and this is what got me hooked on this pedal. I really liked having that threshold knob to control when the compressor kicked in – that made this pedal much more versatile in my eyes. I set it to about 10-11 o’clock, set about 2.5 to 1 ratio, then set the gain to match the uncompressed signal volume as closely as possible. What this pedal did for the Strat’s sound that I was playing was very sweet. The tone stayed the same, it was just fatter. And for low-volume applications, this is EXACTLY the effect I was looking for. It’s not as subtle as the Demeter, but it’s still transparent as all get out.

Since the shop I tried the CP-9 at also had a Demeter as well, I decided to try out the Compulator for myself, since I didn’t get to play Buford’s guitar that night at the casino. So here’s my feedback. The Demeter is incredibly subtle in its compression. It squeezes your signal just right, but in the quiet environment where I was testing, I noticed a distinct, but very pleasing high-end shimmer that was produced by the Compulator that I couldn’t hear in the crowded environment in which I first heard the Compulator. Talk about ear candy! Unfortunately, what I’ve been looking for is a compressor that doesn’t add any artifacts. It just squeezes. So I was faced with a bit of a dilemma: Go with the Maxon’s versatility, or go with the Demeter’s subtlety and beautiful high-end shimmer. I’ve decided to go with versatility for now.

Mind you, these two compressors are very different beasts. The Demeter employs an optical circuit for compression, while the CP-9 uses a Voltage Controlled Amplifier (VCA) and a RMS sensor. Click here for a great article covering that various electronic approaches to compression. The reason I mention this is because the different approaches yield different sonic results. Optical comps tend to be the most subtle of the compressors, while the VCA type compressors offer the most versatility and highest attack response. That said, it’s possible to use different types of compressors to achieve specific types of tone. Oy Vay!

I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the Demeter, though it will always remain in the back of my mind. And even though I was totally blown away by that high-end shimmer, my practical side made me err on the side of versatility.

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Demeter Opto CompulatorI was at a casino last weekend, sitting in a bar with a couple of friends and listening to this great duo play classic rock hits. During one of their breaks between sets, I went to the stage to talk to the guitarist (he had a cool name: Buford) and checked out his gear. He had a fairly simple setup: Just two effect boxes going into a Vox amp modeler that then went straight into his mixing console. What caught my eye though were his two effect pedals, both by Demeter (pronounced Deh’ meh tur) Amplification. One was Demeter’s FUZ-1 Fuzzulator drive box, and the other was the Opto Compulator. I knew a bit about the Fuzzulator, but I wanted to know more about the Compulator, as I’ve been considering purchasing a compression pedal for some time. So I asked him a few questions about the box. Here’s how the conversation went:

What’s your main application for the compressor?
Even though this is a pretty small stage, we’re playing in a fairly open environment at low volume. When I need to play distorted, I’ve got to fatten up my signal a bit, so I can cut through the crowd noise. Distortion always thins out your tone a bit, so this helps me compensate for that.

Doesn’t a compressor affect your overall tone?
In general, yeah. But this has got to be the most transparent compressor I’ve ever used. With this box, I maintain my tone, but just give it a slightly fatter delivery. And like I said before, in this environment, I need a fatter signal to cut through the crowd noise. I’ve played with a bunch, and this one is the absolute best I’ve ever had.

So what’s so special about the Compulator?
Like I said, it’s really transparent, and the compression effect is so subtle, most people wouldn’t even notice – I hardly notice it myself, but I know when it’s not on. And maybe there’s a bit of me being used to the sound. Other than that, it’s real easy to use. You have two knobs: The left-hand knob controls the amount of compression you want to dial in, and the other knob controls the gain. You also have a little trim dial on the side that you can adjust with a small screwdriver to trim the volume up or down – but I’ve never had to use it.

Can I do an A/B comparison from a slight distance away?
Sure thing. Step back about 20 feet, and I’ll show ya.

So I stepped back, and he played some chords and riffs with it on, and with it off. I’ll be damned! He was right. His tone was the same, but had just a tad fatter quality! Now that’s transparency! And that demonstration convinced me on the spot that the Compulator is the box I’m going to buy.

About compression…

For a good article discussing the general concepts of audio compression, click here. It doesn’t go into into the heavy technical details of compression, but it definitely helps to demystify how it works. For a more comprehensive and technical discussion, click here.

COMP-1 Opto Compulator Features

  • Compress Knob – controls amount of gain reduction up to 30dB.
  • Volume Knob – increases/decreases the output volume (aka “makeup gain”).
  • Trim Pot – very nice feature to adjust the unit’s preamp gain. If you plug a hot instrument into the unit, you could get distortion. You can knock down the input gain to avoid that.
  • Powered by a 9 volt battery, but also has a standard 9V jack.
  • Street Price: Generally around $199.00 (do a Google search)

My prospective usage

I normally play in very small, low-ceiling venues, so compression has not been a big issue for me. However, when I play with my band at my church, I have to play at fairly low volumes, which makes playing in distortion a huge challenge, because in order to hear the effect, I have to turn up my volume. That usually makes me stomp on the mix. With a fatter signal, I should be able to punch through the mix much more effectively without having to pump up my volume too much (or as much as I have been 🙂 ).

After hearing this unit, I’m convinced this is the right pedal. And getting input directly from a guy who swears by it and was willing to demonstrate how it worked had me sold.

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My blog buddy, IG over at igblog always compels me to really think about playing. It’s uncanny. Thanks, IG. Anyway, in one of his latest installments entitled “You gotta fight your guitar a little…” he talked about how different guitarists actually “fight” with their guitar; overcoming bad setups or dead spots to really push them to be more expressive. That got me to thinking about my own experience in “fighting” with my guitars.
As far as dead spots and bad setups are concerned, I’m fortunate that my guitars are set up really well (a touch of luthier work here and there). But I do have a quirk that has actually served to push my expressiveness on the guitar. I don’t change my strings that often; in fact, I’ll have my strings on for months and months at a time, though it’s not out of laziness. I actually like the “duller” sound of worn strings. But there’s actually more to it than that.

Several years ago, I didn’t make much money – just about enough to support my family and have a bit left over to have some fun with. Unfortunately, that didn’t include guitar gear. And even though I played often, spending money on gear just wasn’t in the stars for me then. So I didn’t regularly change my strings. If one broke, I’d replace it, but generally, they’d stay on for a long time. I now have the means to buy strings and gear when I “need” to, but I still keep my strings on my guitars for a long time without replacing them. First, for the reason I mentioned above, but secondly because of a more important thing: Those dull strings push me to eek out as much sound from my guitars as possible.

When I didn’t have the means to buy gear very often, I actually had to learn how to do things with my guitar that I don’t think I otherwise would’ve done. You see, worn strings don’t have all that much sustain, so you have to do other things to sort of “fill in the spaces” like strum a chord then play an arpeggio, or sneak in a palm mute right before a chord to add some rhythm, not to mention strategically placed hammer-ons and pull-offs. I learned all these things not because they were cool to do (they were and still are), but more out of a drive to compensate for my dull-sounding strings.

To this day, I keep worn strings on my guitars. It creates a tension that pushes me to explore tonal areas that I probably wouldn’t go to otherwise.

Thanks to IG for jogging my memory!

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Presonus TUBEPre

Why use a pre-amp? Quite simply, a pre-amp greatly aids in either bolstering the signal of either a mic or line-level device, but it also can add some very helpful signal conditioning that will add “warmth” to the tone a device produces. I use the Presonus TUBEPre not only for microphone applications, but also for adding a touch of warmth to the signal of my acoustic guitar. The difference that it makes in the overall tonal quality that my guitar produces while plugged into an amp is so immense that it has become an essential piece of hardware when I gig or record.

Among the “lower cost,” sub-$100 pre-amps on the market, I believe that the TUBEPre offers the best value. With its standard features, it surpasses many tube-based pre-amps in this price range. Most tube pre-amps just provide drive and gain knobs and perhaps a phantom power switch, but the TUBEPre also includes four extra features that definitely add to its value.

As the name implies, the Presonus TUBEPre is a vacuum tube-driven device. Specifically, the tube used is a fairly standard 12AX7 tube. Here are the extra features that accompany the pre-amp:

  • Phase Inverter Switch – I’ve never had to use this, but pressing this switch reverse the polarity of the XLR connection to avoid phase cancellation when two mics operate in close proximity.
  • -20db Pad – This is incredibly useful when mic’ing a high output device like an amp so you don’t drive the input signal into distortion.
  • 80Hz Rumble Filter – This is very nice feature that will eliminate low frequency background noise such as wind or air conditioners. Since I use mine in my garage, it’s great for filtering out the low frequency drone of my freezer.
  • +48V Phantom Power – For those devices that require a constant power source, such as a condenser mic, getting enough power is just a button press away.

Gripes

I only have one gripe about the TUBEPre, and that is that the meter is completely useless. In my case, once I hit about 9 o’clock on the gain (with Drive set to 11-12 o’clock), the meter becomes incredibly erratic, and tends to peak way too easily. So I tend to rely on my ears, and the clipping alert LED between the drive and gain knobs (which works). Other than this single gripe, it’s all good, and really it’s about the sound anyway.

How it sounds…

Out of the box, the TUBEPre sounds great, adding a very pleasing warmth to your tone, but it sounds even better with a different 12AX7 tube than the cheapo stock tube that comes with the unit. I replaced my 12AX7 with a Mesa Boogie 12AX7 tube, and the already great sound that came out of the TUBEPre sounded even better!

I use the TUBEPre for both microphone and for warming up the signal from my acoustic/electric. In both cases, the resultant sound is very warm and full of texture. My vocals are very clear-sounding, especially when I’m using a heavy-duty cardioid mic, which tends to project a lot of bottom end and at times sound a bit muddy. With that mic hooked up to the TUBEPre, I get a rich, full tone that brings out the subtleties in my voice (though it does pick up those little vocal mistakes 🙂 ). With my acoustic/electric hooked up to the TUBEPre, it actually helps to brighten out the sound of my guitar, and gives the output much more dynamic range. The net result is that my performance can be a lot more expressive.

As far as driving the tube into clipping, that’s not something that I use it for, but I have done it, and it creates a very interesting effect. The sound is very much pre-amp distortion, but it’s a bit thinner. But as I said, this is not something that I’d do with this unit in any case. Driving the tube into clipping too often and for too long will reduce its life. Tubes ain’t cheap, so I tend to baby this unit as much as possible…

To sum it up, the Presonus TUBEPre is a great addition to your gear if you’re looking to warm up your tone.

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Dr. Z Air Brake

About six months ago, I wrote a little ditty about the Dr. Z Air Brake, but I thought I’d revisit this essential piece of equipment once again. The Air Brake is a power attenuator; in other words, it reduces the amount of signal from your amp that reaches the speaker, thus reducing your audible output. Before I go any further, the big question is: Why would you want to reduce the amount of signal going to your speaker from your amp. There’s actually a very good reason: Overdrive.

With tube amps, especially those with multiple-stage gain, you can’t achieve that warm clipping (read: creamy distortion) without upping the drive to your power tubes. Unfortunately, that also means you have to crank your amp, as achieving those nice distortion characteristics is a function of both drive and gain. The net result in turn can shatter your eardrums in an enclosed space, or worse yet, have your family or neighbors scream at you for playing too loud in your garage. A power attenuator allows you to drive your power tubes into clipping but do so at a significantly reduced volume. For home studio enthusiasts like myself that usually record late into the night, this means you can work on recording projects without the fear of waking up my family or pissing off the next door neighbors (which I have done many times).

There’s a good FAQ about power attenuators and how they work here. I won’t go into the technical details, but suffice it to say that with a power attenuator, you can play at acceptable volume levels while still being able to drive your amp. With that let’s get into the Dr. Z Air Brake features.

The Dr. Z Air Brake is incredibly easy to use, though in addition to the unit, you’ll need a couple of good-quality audio cables with 1/4″ plugs. If your amp’s output goes straight to your speaker and is then soldered to the speaker leads, you’ll have to do some splicing and soldering, though most tube amps today use a 1/4″ output jack. Once you’ve got the unit hooked up, you have five levels of attenuation: 0 through 4 and Bedroom. The “0” setting is total bypass, while the 1-4 settings impose approximately -2.5dB attenuation with each position by default. If you open the unit up, you can actually increase or decrease the amount of attenuation at each position by moving the leads along the resistors (this is explained in the accompanying manual – it’s a single sheet of paper). The “Bedroom” setting is what sold me on the unit. When you have the Attenuator knob set to “Bedroom,” the “Bedroom Level” knob comes into play. This provides variable signal attenuation down to 1 Watt (for sub-100 Watt amps) at the maximum level, though at this amount of attenuation, your tone really changes because the speaker cone doesn’t move enough air, thus producing a VERY thin (read: ugly) tone. I usually set my Bedroom Level knob to about 10-11 o’clock, the play with my drive and volume knobs on my amp until I’ve dialed in a good tone. Frankly, it doesn’t get much easier than this.

In addition to the variable bedroom level control, I chose the Dr. Z Air Brake after evaluating and reading various reviews, and speaking with other folks who have one. The most popular attenuator at the time I was reviewing attenuators was the THD Hot Plate. I tried one out at a shop, but didn’t like the sound that came out of it all. It literally changed my tone. The Dr. Z Air Brake, on the other hand is much more transparent, even at bedroom levels. As far as gigging is concerned, since I play a lot of small venues, it’s a real helpful piece of equipment because it allows me to drive my amp when I play with my band without stepping on the band’s overall output.

CAVEAT EMPTOR

Many people buy attenuators thinking that once they’ve attenuated their signal, they can drive their power tubes to their highest levels. It’s true, you can do this. But you’ll also burn through your tubes pretty quickly, or worse yet, you’ll damage your amp’s electronics. I’ve heard about this happening especially with resistive attenuators. People crank their drive, and after a few minutes start smelling something burning as their amp’s internal electronics fry. Also, driving your power tubes into super saturation doesn’t do anything but cause a lot of ugly distortion. When you drive your power tubes, the tone you should expect is a smooth distortion, as the intermixing sound waves weave together beautifully. Adding even more power creates a much larger contrast between the peaks and valleys of the distorted wave, and what you end up getting is a very “dirty” sounding distortion that is not in any way pleasing to the ears. So beware if you’re in the market for an attenuator!

In closing, if you’re like me, and play in a variety of small- to medium-sized venues, a power attenuator can be your friend. For me, mine is always hooked up. It has saved me from a lot of headaches and eliminated complaints!

ROCK ON!

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Ibanez TS808 Tube ScreamerSince I recently did a review on the Fulltone OCD, I thought that I’d do a review on the much-revered TS808. As many in the know, this is the pedal that defined Stevie Ray Vaughn’s sound. But it’s not the reason why this pedal is so special. The Tube Screamer has a unique, transparent tone; the keyword being “transparent.” Want to add drive and breakup to your tone – just switch it on. What you’ll get is a warm-sounding overdrive that is like candy for the ears.

Like the OCD, this is not a distortion box. It’s an overdrive box. The difference between overdrive and distortion are important, because they involve different approaches to the electronics. Click here for a good discussion. Overdrive boxes are known as “soft clipping” devices where gain is inversely proportional to input signal. Usually the boost is in the midrange with the high and low ends slightly cut off. The Tube Screamer is a pure midrange booster, and produces a beautiful, warm tone. The OCD on the other hand also boosts in the middle, but has added electronics that add sustain and boost harmonics and overtones. With the OCD, you can get a FAT, almost compressed tone. With the TS, you just get a boost – but that’s not a failing in the least!

As with the previous review, neither pedal is better than the other. They both have their uses. When I want lots of sustain – especially with solos – I’ll use the OCD. But for general broken-up rhythm, I’ll use the TS, but that’s not necessarily a de facto standard…  In any case, let’s discuss some features…

Note to metal players: This is not the pedal for you, if you’re looking for a real hairy kind of distortion. Think of this box as a driver to achieve pre-amp distortion. That tends to be on the brighter side. This box will not produce a fat tone, so buyer beware!

But if you’re looking for warm type of pre-amp breakup, this box is for you! It couldn’t be easier to use, either. Just three knobs: Overdrive, Tone, and Level. To get the tone you like, just fiddle with the knobs until it sounds right to you. Generally, I set the tone knob to 12 o’clock, which is pretty neutral (though the tone knob really doesn’t have that much dynamic range), set the overdrive to 10 – 12 o’clock, then set the level to slightly louder than the volume of my amp with the box switched off.

As far as build quality is concerned, it’s an all-metal casing. I gig with this box a lot so its hefty weight and solid build is a boon to gigging. And unlike the normal toggle switch you find on most boxes, the TS is (de)activated with a square switch. It’s not only aesthetically pleasing, it’s also really functional. The only beef I have with the box is that the light source of the LED is set kind of deep, so you have to be practically right over the box to see if it’s switched on or off.

Finally, the Tube Screamer is not cheap. A “Re-issue” like mine will set you back ~$169.00, while vintage boxes run up to $450.00. All I can say is that the money you spend is entirely worth it!

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