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Archive for December, 2008

Celestion GreenbackMy good friend Phil of Phil ‘N The Blanks has been bugging me to write about speakers for the last couple of weeks. I’d talk about this speaker or that in some amp or cab, and he’d say, “There’s your next article, dude. You gotta write about speakers.” Admittedly, I’ve been a bit reticent about the subject because of all guitar parts, what makes a speaker sound good is purely a subjective thing; that is, someone’s assessment of a speaker’s tonal quality is entirely personal.

Oh yeah, you can argue the case of alnico vs. ceramic. You can argue vintage vs. modern voicing. You can argue about the materials used in a particular speaker. But in the end, none of that matters unless it sounds good to… well… you.

Phil has been trying to get me to write about certain speakers, but that’s something I just won’t do because again, it’s personal preference. For instance, Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps came over to my house today and we talked at length about his RoxBox 18 Watt Combo. I love the amp, but really wasn’t moved by the Eminence Red Coat Red Fang, which uses an alnico driver. On the other hand, I love the RoxBox head plugged into the Reason SM25 speaker cabinet that sports a Red Coat “The Governor,” which uses a ceramic driver. To me, it has a deeper sound. I kind of lean towards the “woman tone,” and “The Governor” is voiced a lot like a Celestion Greenback, which is known for its rich tones. Combined with my Strat I can get that tone. It just wasn’t happening for me with the Red Fang, though for really heavy rock stuff, the Red Fang really shines when it’s pumped up, as it compresses very nicely at high gain output. But that’s not the style I play, so it was hard for me to truly appreciate its virtues.

That said, Jeff mentioned another guitarist who just loves that setup. He’s more of a pure rock player, and loves the warmth and brightness that the Red Fang produces. See what I mean? To talk about this speaker or that is akin to starting a holy war. And you can’t tell anyone a particular speaker is bad or good because that’s just an opinion.

So here’s my advice if you want to switch to a different speaker: Go to a place where you can try speakers out and pick the one YOU like. Use reviews and sound bites as guides only. They’ll generally get you into the ballpark of the tone you want to achieve. And don’t be surprised if you get a speaker for cheap. Remember, as far as gear is concerned, something that costs more a lot of times just costs more – it may not sound any better to you. A good comparison to make is with the speakers I mentioned above. The Red Fang costs about $129, while The Governor costs $89. But I like the sound The Governor produces. If the prices were switched, I’d still go with The Governor.

So don’t be fooled by any marketing mumbo-jumbo. Go out and test for yourself! 🙂

There Phil, I wrote an article about speakers…

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Red Bear Trading CompanyRunning a blog like mine is always rewarding; not just because of all the gear I get to play with but because of the incredible people I get to meet. Among them is Dave Skowron, maker of Red Bear picks and co-owner (with his wife) of Red Bear Trading company. If you read the previous article I posted today, you’d know I’m truly excited about these picks! They look and feel great, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d swear they’re natural tortoise shell. In fact, when Dave made his first prototypes for some friends in Nashville, they all said he was full of it when he told them they were made from a polymer made of animal protein that looks and feels just like tortoise shell. I’ve never had a tortoise shell pick, but I have felt antique stuff made of natural tortoise shell, and this stuff is close – damn close!

But whatever it’s made of, who cares? These picks are special. You wouldn’t think a guitar pick could make a difference in how you’d sound and play, but you’d be wrong. I know I was because I’m now a convert. But I’m also not any big name, so let me drop one: Dweezil Zappa swears by these picks! He shared a story with Dave about how he spent seven days a week for a year and a half woodshedding to learn his father’s songs in preparation for the “Zappa Plays Zappa” tour. He related to Dave that if he’d had been using Red Bear picks, he would’ve learned them in a few months. The point is that these picks not only make you sound better, they make you play better. I can personally attest to that! Whether you play acoustic or electric or both, you can’t go wrong with one of these picks. In fact, you can use the same pick for both types of guitars! I do.

In my excitement about Dave’s picks, I gave him a call to interview him. Funny thing, I really didn’t have to ask many questions, as Dave is a garralous and talkative guy, who’s got no problem speaking his mind. It was a real joy speaking with him. Here’s a transcript (a lot of it paraphrased) of my conversation with him:

So Dave, what’s your story? How did you get started with making picks?

I was a programmer by trade, specializing in Oracle DBA stuff, but I was also really into playing guitar. One thing led to another and I started building guitar. I made a couple, then started getting into building parts for guitar. I was hanging out on the Vintage Guitar forum before it closed, and met a bunch of other guys who were into building guitars. When that forum closed down, I started the 13th Fret web site. One of the guys that hung out there was a luthier who was looking for some tortoise shell-like material for making pick guards, and he came up with a compound that looked just like it, and he made some picks from it. The problem was that it worked great as a material pick guard, but horribly sucked as pick material. So he searched and found a company that made tortoise shell-like material that was great for picks, but horrible for pick guards, and asked if I could shape some.

It took a long time to refine my technique, but I was able to get some good results. So I sent some out to some friends I knew in Nashville for them to give them a try. They called back asking for more, and telling me I was full of shit that these picks weren’t made out of tortoise shell. I swore to ’em that they were made of a polymer made from animal protein. But the end result is Red Bear Trading Company.

How’d you come up with the name?

My dog’s name is Bear, and he has red hair, so “Red Bear.” [And here, I was thinking it was some Native American relationship!]

Without giving away your secret sauce, how are your picks constructed?

I get sheets of the material and use special laser cutters to cut the shapes, then use some precision sanding to get them to size and polish them up.

Sounds pretty involved.

Yeah. The stuff’s not easy to work with, which is why we charge the price we charge. In fact, some guy complained that the picks were way too expensive, so I sent him some of the material and told him to go ahead and try to fashion picks out of it, then tell me how much I should charge. <chuckle> He never did get any picks made…

[That really cracked me up!]

Did you have any idea that your picks would be such a hit, and that you’d get such a glowing endorsement from someone like Dweezil Zappa?

I never even thought we’d get that kind of response! It has been awesome! When we first started, as a bluegrass guy, I was really focused on the acoustic guitar flatpickers. I didn’t even think about the electric guitar community. But they found their way into that community. Mostly, it was the Nashville guys. These were players who were awesome guitarists in their own right, but they played for big names, so when you’d drop their name, people would say, “Who’s that?” I’d have to say that he played in so-and-so’s band. Then the light would go off, and they’d know who I was talking about. But when one of my picks found its way into Dweezil’s hands, and then he called me to get some more (which I didn’t believe at first when my wife said he was on the line), I knew we had made it. We’re so thankful to have his endorsement. He mentions our picks all the time. It is very cool.

——-

Very cool indeed. Our conversation actually went on for a long time. But I thought I’d just include the best parts. Like I said, it was a joy to speak with Dave. He’s the kind of guy that you could shoot the breeze with all day and talk about pretty much anything. He’s immediately personable and warm, and isn’t afraid of cussing when necessary – in other words, he’s real people.

This kind of stuff – the relationships I get to form with folks out there is what makes me keep on going with this blog! Cheers!

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Red Bear Style B Heavy with Speed Bevel

Red Bear Style B Heavy with Speed Bevel

Does a pick really make a difference? For years, I’ve read about guitarists using custom picks made from tortoise shell or other special materials, seen all the ads from handmade pick manufacturers, and eschewed even the thought of getting one of them because I just couldn’t justify spending up to $40 for a freakin’ guitar pick! For instance, when I’d see an ad for one of these, I’d ask myself, Who in their right f’-in mind would get one of these? It’s just a gimmick – it’s all bull! It don’t make a damn bit of difference.

I couldn’t be more wrong. Playing with a great, handmade pick makes a difference; a HUGE difference in how you play and how you sound.

For the last 30 years, I’ve been using medium Dunlop Tortex picks – the orange ones. They’re cheap, and they get the job done. They’re strewn all over my studio, in my pockets, in my laundry – all over the place. And I don’t care if they break, scratch or if I lose them. They’re replaceable and of little consequence. Not any longer. Once I started playing with a Red Bear pick, I’m never going back to cheap picks unless it’s absolutely necessary (for instance, if I happen to break a good pick and need to get another).

So what’s the story? A good friend of mine was so very kind, and gave me a gift certificate for Christmas to a great guitar store in Palo Alto, CA called Gryphon Stringed Instruments. It’s a shop that specializes in acoustic guitars, but has all sorts of stuff, like parts. It just so happened that I needed to replace the pickup selector switch on my Epiphone Explorer, and as luck would have it, Gryphon had the switch in stock – what better way to spend at least part of my gift certificate?!! So I drove down to Gryphon, got the switch, then started looking at other stuff to spend on my gift certificate.

I got a few packs of strings for both electric and acoustic, and started looking at picks. It then occurred to me that they might have handmade picks. So I asked the fellow behind the counter if they had any, and he said they carried Red Bear picks. Then I asked the operative question, “I’ve read about handmade picks in the guitar rags, but like most people, don’t see what’s so special about them. So what’s so special?” He simply replied, “Once you play with a great pick, you won’t want to play with the cheap ones any longer. It’s hard to explain. They feel so much better, and you just play better with a great pick.”

Folks, that wasn’t a selling job. The look on the guy’s face said it all. But still, I was a bit incredulous, and he must’ve seen the look of disbelief on my face, so he said, “You’re welcome to try one out on any of our guitars. You’ll see the difference.” So I picked out a shape and bevel that I liked, grabbed mid-range Martin off the rack, sat down on a stool, and went through an instant transformation to complete and utter bliss! The pick felt so great in my fingers, and it glided smoothly over the strings. The sound that was produced was so milky smooth, I couldn’t believe my ears!

I thought it had a lot to do with the guitar – it was a nice one. But, being the good guitar gear tester and gear freakomaniac, I always have picks in my pocket, so I did an A/B test. With my standard Tortex, the guitar still sounded good, but not nearly as good with the Red Bear striking its strings. It was uncanny, to say the least! I was dumbfounded, and completely awestruck that a pick – a pick, for God’s sake – could make a guitar sound so good! I must’ve been grinning when I returned to the counter because the guy just said, “See what I mean?” I replied, “Oh yeah… I knew this was something special when strummed with the pick the first time. And doing those lead riffs was effortless.” The sales guy just grinned…

Needless to say, I had to have one, so I bought two, at $20 apiece. It was so well worth it! I had a gig last night and was able to use my new Red Bear, and was in heaven ALL NIGHT LONG! I was so enamored with how my acoustic sounded, that I played as many songs as I could with the pick, and played with the pick on songs I’d normally fingerpick.

So let me attempt to describe what it’s like to play with a great pick. First of all, it just feels great. It doesn’t slip. Next, handmade picks are thick. They don’t flex at all, but they glide over the strings so easily that it makes it easy to play – almost too easy. And because of their thickness, they force you to hold them lightly, and the expression you can get in your playing dynamics by holding the pick looser or tighter is nothing short of amazing. A great pick also makes the strings ring much better.

But the most important thing is that all those things together make it inspiring to play, bringing you into that other-worldly state of pure expression. It’s amazing that a pick can do that, but I’m now a believer. I won’t be going back to cheap picks – EVER.

Check out the Red Bear site for more information!

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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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!

Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire Overdrive/Distortion Pedal

Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire Overdrive/Distortion Pedal

Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire Overdrive/Distortion


Summary: Overdrive and Distortion and tons of gain in one box that will NOT alter your tone. Has built-in wave shaping that responds to attack and input gain that simulates overdriving the front end of an amp.

Pros: Possible to achieve all sorts of clipping from swampy grind to searing distortion rife with harmonics, overtones and feedback, and it can do all this at ANY volume – freakin’ amazing!

Cons: Operationally, none. But its circuitry is so special that it requires a special 48V DC adapter – it will not run from a standard 9V or 18V power supply like Dunlop DC Brick. But for what it brings to the table, that’s a small price to pay.

Price: $195 direct

Knobs:

– “G” Gain
– “O” Overdrive – Soft clipping circuit – has built-in wave-shaping to react to input gain much like the front-end of a tube amp. Higher levels evoke increased wave-shaping ensuring even distortion throughout the EQ spectrum.
– “D” Distortion – Square wave form distortion
– Hi-cut (variable sweep hi-cut, fully open gives you all the tone, dialed back scales back the hi-freqs)

Tone Bone Rating: 5 This stuff is magic.

The guys at Creation Audio Labs must be wizards – or at least half wizard – because they’ve created what I consider to be the only overdrive/distortion pedal that does what it’s supposed to do, and doesn’t alter the tone of your amp! Mind you, there are times when you want that. For instance, to me, the classic overdriven mid-range hump of a Tube Screamer is an incomparable sound, and something I will always have on my board because I like the way it changes my tone. But in a lot of other circumstances, all I want is grind or all out distortion, and I don’t want my tone changed. That’s where the Holy Fire overdrive/distortion comes into play.

This is truly a magical pedal. Not only does it look awesome with that brushed metal exterior, and glowing red “Holy Fire” letters, it kicks the freakin’ pants off pretty much anything that’s out there that claims tone transparency in my opinion. And I don’t say this lightly. Remember, if you’re a regular reader of this column, I’ve got a real penchant for overdrive and distortion boxes – especially overdrive boxes. So when I say a pedal totally kicks ass, I mean it! You might not see too many reviews on them here, only because I only take the time to write about gear I love and would put in my chain. This is a pedal that will be taking up space on my board! And at $195 direct from Creation Audio Labs, this is a must-have box!

What’s so special about it? Actually, the question should be: What’s not to like? You get the best of both worlds here: Completely transparent overdrive or beautifully compressed distortion. Playing just with the overdrive and the distortion completely rolled off, you can get that classic, mildly crunchy, gritty grind to rip-roaring rattle that’ll make you think your amp’s bottles will shake off. Conversely with the overdrive turned all the way down and sweeping the Distortion knob, you can go from sweet and mild distortion, to heavily compressed gut-wrenching distortion replete with harmonics and overtones that’ll make you feel you’re getting scalped! But the best settings combine certain amounts of both. When you find your sweet spot, it’s epiphany time!

Imagine all this in one little stomp box! And the kicker is that your amp will still sound like your amp! Mind you, I didn’t read any reviews of this pedal before I got one for review. I didn’t want to taint my assessment of the pedal. The VERY first thing I noticed as I twiddled with the knobs is that my test amps never lost their voicing (I used three amps: An Aracom RoxBox combo, a Reason SM25, and my trusty Fender Hot Rod Deluxe). In all cases, the amp I was playing still sounded like my amp except it had grind and/or distortion. And no matter what output volume I had, the pedal operated the SAME WAY!!! So imagine the versatility this pedal brings to the table! I’m going to do a test later on with my Fender Champ 600, and see what wonders the Holy Fire will conjure when I lay down some tracks. It should be interesting as well as rewarding. So whether you’re on stage or in the studio. If you need breakup in your sound, this pedal will do it.

But wait there’s more!

On top of all I discussed, the pedal is sensitive to input gain, and has what’s called “wave shaping” that responds to higher input gain and acts like you’re overdriving the front-end of a tube amp. When you hit the pedal hard with either a booster or diming your guitar’s volume, or just picking hard, the pedal’s LED changes to a yellow color indicating that you’re overdriving the pedal. The magic behind this is that wave shaping evenly distorts the input signal across the EQ spectrum, so all your input tone is completely retained. The damn thing works too! It ain’t no marketing gimmick! So just as you’d expect when you do the same things with an amp, the Holy Fire will do it as well. Like I said, it’s magic.

I should make mention to a very cool effect that happens when you turn the distortion knob past 2 o’clock. The circuit actually starts compressing the signal, so you lose a little volume, but you get a very fat signal. In my opinion, that’s where the magic occurs with the distortion. After playing around with lots of combinations, I ended up just diming the distortion knob altogether, then just layering in varying amounts of overdrive and gain. Truly candy for the ears here, folks. With that, I’m going to post a couple of YouTube vids here so you can see and hear for yourself.

January 12, 2009

I’ve written a follow-up on this pedal. In a nutshell, I got my first chance gig with the Holy Fire this past weekend, and it was a true revelation. Talk about being on cloud nine while playing the guitar! Read the follow-up here.

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Home Studio There are different schools of thought around this subject, but I thought I’d throw in some of my own thoughts, since I’ve been at it awhile. Note that I won’t be talking about techniques necessarily, though I will include some tips and tricks… So without further ado…

First, let’s establish something here: You don’t need to buy super-expensive gear to sound good, and you don’t need a lot of equipment. I’ve found that in a lot of cases, while more expensive gear will afford you convenience features, and a better sound quality, for the home studio enthusiast, a lot of times this gear is overkill. I’ll go into some details below, but in my opinion, recording technique is far more important. So with that said, let’s start talking about what I think are essential pieces of equipment:

Computer Equipment/Software

You probably already have a computer, but it should be configured to handle digital recording. While drive speed is important, it isn’t necessarily critical. My MacBook Pro’s hard drive spins at 5400 rpm, and I have no problems recording stuff. But what you do need is space. I’d recommend getting two hard drives: one for programs, and the other dedicated to saving data. It’s just a cleanliness thing. Also, get as much RAM as your machine can handle. I’ve got 4GB on my machine. That’s even more important than a hard drive. You don’t need a super-poweful machine either, but dual-core machines really work well.

Okay, Mac or PC? Go with what you’re comfortable with. There are lots of programs out there; among them is a neat little program that works great on both PC and Mac called Audacity – it’s free! Todd Rundgren recorded a lot of his latest album using Audacity, so it’s definitely doable.

What about ProTools?

I’ve got it. It’s great. But the learning curve is super steep. In fact, when I first started recording, I spent more time learning how to use the damn software than getting my ideas down and that just frustrated me to no end; so much so, that I lost my taste for recording for several months – I just didn’t want to mess around with the software! I just wanted to get my freakin’ ideas down! I’m not saying it’s bad, but it’s complicated, and you’ll have to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of the program. With the home studio, what you’re after is getting your ideas down with reasonable quality – and fast. That, at least, is my opinion. In light of that, I use GarageBand to get all my ideas down. It has built-in rhythm loops so I don’t have to use a click track, and there are lots of add-ons, both free and affordable, that you can use in GB. The sound quality is excellent, and it even has some mastering presets that work amazingly well!

Digital Interface

There are lots out there. I happen to use the DigiDesign MBox 2, which has two analog inputs, MIDI, and a couple of others I don’t use. Very handy little box. But there are lots of solutions out there in the $300-$400 range. Most use USB, though FireWire is probably the optimum – it also costs more.

Microphones

Now this is just my opinion, but you’ll need at least two mics: One ribbon mic, and one dynamic mic. I have a Nady RSM-200 ribbon that cost me less than $200, and it works superbly! I also swear by my trusty Sennheiser 835 stage mic, which is a workhorse similar to the Shure SM-58, but I think it’s warmer and has a much flatter EQ response than the SM-58 which can get kind of boomy.

MIDI Controller

Being also a piano player – not nearly as good on this as I am on guitar – having a keyboard to trigger MIDI and add MIDI-based instruments is another essential. You can go the small route (2 octave) or go the full-size keyboard route. I use an M-Audio full-size stage keyboard myself only because it doubles as my MIDI controller as well as my gigging keyboard. It was also cheap at $300 new. Nice.

From my standpoint, this is all you need as far as essential equipment for recording. Now let’s get into some techniques and some nice-to-haves:

  1. Always record acoustic guitar using mics – and use two of ’em. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? I’ve tried going direct into my computer, and the sound is horrible. But using two mics works great. I usually place my ribbon mic about six inches from the sound hole, then place my dynamic mic pointed at a 45 degree angle at about the 3rd fret to capture sounds coming off the neck. Also, to take advantage of the ribbon mic’s rear pickup, I have a board, or hard, reflective surface placed about two to three feet in front of me to reflect sound back. It gives just a sligh reverb effect that really fills out the recorded tone.
  2. If you can swing it, get a couple of low-wattage amps. In particular, I use a Fender Champ 600, which is a 5 Watt amp with an 8″ speaker. Another one I’ve used, but don’t own is the Epiphone Valve Jr.. What a nice little amp! Since you’re recording at bedroom levels, a small amp that puts out less volume works wonders. Now here’s the trick I’ve found to recording with these small amps. You can make that sucker sound HUGE by close-mic’ing the amp. I use a dynamic mic pointed at an angle along the cone of the speaker, and place it no more than 2″ away from the grille cloth. Then I use a variety of overdrive and distortion pedals to get grind or searing distortion, then in my software boost the low frequencies. The end result is that it sounds like I’ve just recorded a full-size stack! You have to play with your settings, but it’s definitely achievable. The other nice thing about using a small amp for recording is that the naturally bright voicing really works well in a digital recording environment.
  3. For vocals, always use a pop filter. I’m an experienced singer, and even though I have great mic technique, nothing is worse on a recording than picking up those oral transients that your mouth makes when making consonant sounds. Pop filters cost less than $20 and believe me they’re a life saver.
  4. While we’re on the subject of vocals… Avoid using a compressor on vocals as much as possible. When you’re singing a louder phrase, move away from the mic. It’s that simple. Compression is good to a point, but there’s a lot to be said about having volume dynamics in your vocals. You get a lot more emotion coming through when you have it. If volume is pretty much the same throughout a song, it’s well… boring in my opinion, no matter how good a singer you are.
  5. Avoid EQ as much as you can. Dial in the EQ on your instruments before you record, then only do wholesale volume adjustments later to make mix corrections. What you’re trying to do is capture the natural sound the instrument makes as closely as possible. The only exception I make to this is when I’m recording a low-wattage amp and want to boost the lows. Otherwise, I just do volume adjustments for the mix.

These are just a few things I’ve learned over the last few years of doing this. I’m sure I’ve missed some stuff, so if anyone else wants to add to this, please feel free!

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What? Less gear? I must be speaking blasphemy, especially considering I’m such a gear freak – especially with my proclivity for pedals. But there’s also a practical side to this, as I am also a gigging musician. And especially when I do solo gigs, having less gear means less trips to the car. So as much as I can consolidate, I do. I was thinking about this because Christmas time through the New Year is usually a very busy time for me as far as gigs are concerned. For the past month, I’ve had at least three gigs each weekend, playing parties and other events. So you can see that I’m fairly sensitive to lugging gear.

So here I am in a coffee shop this morning, having put the finishing touches on my latest gear review on Aracom Amps RoxBox. In the article I mentioned that Channel 2 suffered from being flat at lower volumes, and that I ultimately solved the problem by running the amp through an attenuator between he power amp and speaker. I’ve had to do that practically every tube amp I’ve tested, so it got me to thinking: Why don’t more manufacturers just add these to their amps? I suppose production cost has a lot to do with it, but amp makers such as Faustine Amps have a -18db reactive attenuator built into their Harlequin line of amps and the Fender Princeton Studio also has a built-in attenuator as well. It’s a cool feature, and one that will allow you to get power tube saturation at lower output volumes.

Let me explain what I mean by way of a diagram:

Output attenuator

As you can see, the traditional master volume circuit contains an attenuator between the pre-amp and the power amp. This means that you can crank the pre-amp and get pre-amp distortion, while limiting power to the power amp; thus limiting output volume. But it also means that in many cases, you won’t get power amp distortion unless you crank the master, which tends to be too loud, especially in small clubs and restaurants. But in the second illustration, with a second attenuator between the power amp and the speaker, it is now possible to crank the master volume to get power tube saturation while limiting overall output. I currently do this with the use of a Dr. Z Air Brake. But going back to the topic of this article, it’s just another piece of gear that I have to bring with me to a gig. Ugh!

In addition to production cost, there is a danger of possibly burning out the power tubes if you really overdrive them. I’ve done it to my Fender Hot Rod, by turning the attenuator to maximum attenuation, and diming the Drive knob for too long a time. Not good.

As I mentioned above, Faustine does this with their Harlequin line of amps (not sure about the others), and while -18db of attenuation may seem like a lot, it’s actually not that much – it takes the edge off. There must be a happy medium, say -24db or maybe -30db? Who knows? But whatever… this is a case where less gear is much better!

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4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite. Still way above average!

Aracom Amps RoxBox 18 Watt Combo Amp

Aracom Amps RoxBox 18 Watt Combo Amp

Aracom Amps RoxBox 18 Watt Combo

Summary: The RoxBox is an ideal small to medium size venue amp. Don’t let it’s diminutive size fool you. This amp is LOUD, and packs a real punch. Oodles of clean headroom in Channel 1 and capable of super-sinister drive in Channel 2 due to the “hidden” extra gain stage. Very pedal friendly.

Pros: Crystal-clear clean tone in either channel, though the second will break up earlier. Switchable from 18 Watts down to 9 Watts, so you can use this on stage and in the bedroom. Master volume kicks ass, and acts very similar to an effects loop attenuator. At 18 Watts, it’s loud enough to blow your ears off! Very pedal friendly.

Cons: Only a nit, but I wish this thing had a spring reverb. Also, overdrive can be a bit harsh at lower volumes, especially with single coils, though it’s gorgeous at louder volumes and moderate volumes using hubuckers.

Price: $895 direct

Specs:

– (2) EL84 Power Tubes
– (2) 12AX7 & (1) 12AT7 Preamp Tubes
– S.S. Rectifier with “sag” circuit
– Hi/Low B+ voltage switch (18/9 watts)
– On/Off Switch
– Indicator Lamp
– Custom Heavy Duty Aluminum Chassis
– Custom Wound Transformers
– 4, 8, 16 ohm Speaker Jacks
– Custom Handcrafted
Turret Board
– Handwired
– Weight: ~35 lbs

Combo Cabinets
Standard Tolex: Navy Blue Levant (as tested)
– Dimensions
1×10 Combo: 18″w x 19h x 10″d
1×12 Combo: 18″w x 19h x 10″d
– Weight
1×10 Combo: 36 lbs
1×12 Combo: 39 lbs

Tone Bone Score: 4.75 On value alone, this would get a 5, but the mildly harsh breakup at lower volumes gives it just a slight mark off. Still, it’s a great amp!

Jeff Aragaki, the owner and designer/builder of Aracom Amps is on a mission to transition from his telecommunications business entirely into his amp building business. I’d say that based upon playing just this one amp (both the head and combo versions), and having a look at a couple of other amps in his line (which I will probably review in time), he’s well on his way to successfully completing that mission. And Jeff’s not alone in this quest. A few folks I know here in the Silicon Valley have preceded Jeff, moving from their high-tech careers into the music equipment business; and while they may not have become super-wealthy off these new endeavors, they’re certainly living their dreams.

It’s like that in the Silicon Valley which, for decades has been a hotbed of innovation and dream-chasing. And while its star has faded somewhat as the global technology leader and the market has opened up allowing more players to the tech scene (China and India, for instance), the spirit of innovation and going after your dreams upon which “The Valley” was built remains alive and well, as evidenced by guys like Jeff. And true to Silicon Valley form, what these guys produce is quality stuff, and Aracom amps definitely follows suit!

When Jeff and I first hooked up, I was really excited about his 18 Watt RoxBox. First of all, I just dig the EL-84 tone, and secondly, I was amazed that he could offer this amp for less than a grand, and it’s a hand-wired amp, for goodness sake! I knew I had to check it out. And lucky for me, the city where Jeff lives is a half-hour away (if the traffic’s good), so two days after I first spoke with him, he personally delivered a head and a combo. I’ve been playing with both since (though I was so excited, I let my buddy borrow the head for a couple of days to see how he likes it). I’ve tested both amps in the studio as well as at gigs, but I’m writing this review about the combo. If you want to hear how the head sounds, check out this clip:

My Tests

For my tests, I used my Strat, my PRS SE Soapbar II with P-90’s, and a Saint Baritone Messenger that I’m also testing. The amp performed excellently with all three guitars, but was especially responsive to the baritone which has active humbuckers in Channel 2. But before I get ahead of myself, let first me go over the amp’s features apart from its technical specs.

Controls and Equipment

The RoxBox features two independently voiced channels, each equipped with a volume and tone knob. The Tone control functions similarly to a high-freq sweep. It also has a Master volume which is available to both channels. The Master volume is very cool as it functions as an attenuator between the pre-amps and the power tubes, so you can slam the front of the amp with tons of input gain to get that sweet, mid-rangy pre-amp distortion while keeping the output volume at bedroom levels. Great for edgy blues and classic rock tones. The combo I tested also sports an Eminence Red Fang Red Coat 12″ speaker. Operating at 30W, this sucker has a lot of balls! As expected, the sound was a little harsh when I first tried it out, but after several hours of playing, it’s starting to break in and the tone is starting to become a lot more smooth. Now with that out of the way, let’s get into some details.

Channels

Channel 1 would be considered a normal channel, while Channel 2 is a drive channel that will break up a lot earlier. But with Channel 1, the name of the game is “clean.” With my Strat plugged in, this channel has so much clean headroom that I had to really dig into the strings to produce even a slight amount of grind. My PRS with P-90’s and the Saint Messenger could only produce moderate amounts of grind when the volume was dimed. That’s pretty impressive, and definitely not what I expected. With so much clean headroom, Channel 1 is VERY pedal friendly.

Channel 2 on the other hand definitely breaks up early and is voiced just a tad brighter than Channel 1. But it also has a lot of clean headroom as well. With my Strat, I had to turn the volume knob past 7 to get some decent grind, and had to peg my guitar volume. Believe me, that’s not a bad thing either. On the other hand, My PRS SE Soapbar II and the Saint Messenger had no problems producing grind. I could get breakup at around 4 with the Messenger, and around 5 with the PRS.

To get earlier breakup, Channel 2 actually has a third “hidden” pre-amp gain stage in series behind the pre-amp you plug into with fixed settings. It’s voiced a bit hot, and as Jeff puts it, it’s like having a built in tube overdrive. The end result is you get breakup a lot earlier. I have to say that while I like Channel 1’s tone, for pure versatility, Channel 2 really does it for me, as it is lively and responsive to changes in attack and guitar volume. And putting a booster in front of this Channel really brings on the growl that this channel is capable of producing.

How It Sounds

Tonally, this is definitely an EL-84 amp. It’s bright and chimey, and with the Red Fang, it also has lots of balls. For sweet, clean tones, Channel 1 produces a lush clean tone, and my Strat in the Neck/Middle position sounds gorgeous through this channel. As I mentioned, it’s a bit brighter than Channel 1, which made me tweak my guitar tone knobs a bit, but not so much so that it’s unusable. And where this amp really shines in the tone department is when it’s moving lots of air. Plugged into Channel 2 with the volume turned up around 12-2 o’clock, and the Master past three, the amp simply sings its heart out, though at those volume levels in an enclosed space like a home studio, the assault on your eardrums can get a bit uncomfortable.

And while I don’t want to say anything negative because I truly dig this amp, I have to say that at lower to moderate volumes with a Strat, a driven Channel 2 (Volume around 8, Master around 2) seems a little flat sounding. At this level, the pre-amps are distorting with little contribution from the power tubes. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not bad sounding, it’s just a bit uninspiring. But turn the master up so that the second gain stage starts clipping and the power tubes start getting hit, and the world is made right again. I did, however, find a couple of workarounds to this. The first was easy: Just engage my Tube Screamer to add to the grind produced by the pre-amps at lower volumes; instant sweetness. Also, slamming the front-end with input gain from my booster worked wonders as well. The best solution I found that will also engage the power tubes was to use my Dr. Z Air Brake Attenuator. The world definitely became right with that in the signal path.

Versatility

The RoxBox is very versatile and is comfortable on both the stage n in the studio. I really dig the master volume on this because that’s really what makes this amp so versatile. And one feature that is mentioned in the specs but something I’ve found incredibly useful is that the amp is switchable from 18 Watts to 9 Watts with the flick of a toggle switch underneath the amp chassis. For home studio use, this is a godsend as the lower wattage allows the tubes to saturate earlier, which means you can get grind at lower volume levels. Some people think this means lower volume – it doesn’t – for any variable wattage amp. All it means is that the amp breaks up earlier. But having this capability means that you can gig with it at 18 Watts, then bring it into your home studio and get some great tube distortion without keeping the neighbors up late at night while you’re wailing on your guitar.

Also, as opposed to having a single output jack for external speakers, the RoxBox sports three, for 4, 8, and 16 ohm extension cabs.

Overall Comments

This is an amp that I’ll definitely be considering to add to my arsenal because of its tonal similarity to the classic Vox AC15, plus its gorgeous and plentiful clean headroom in Channel 1, but also for its value. At $995 for the combo the tonal versatility you get for the price is well worth the expense. If I had a nit, it would be the same nit I have with the Reason SM25, and that is the absence of a nice spring reverb. But that is just a nit because both amps sound great without it – it would just be icing on the cake.

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