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Archive for December, 2009

There are two things you should consider doing before you decide to get rid of it. I’ve done this on two amps, and have ended up keeping them both.

1. Change your speaker(s)

Let’s state the obvious: An amp’s speaker produces the sound, but it is amazing how many people I’ve come across who don’t look at replacing this vital component first when they’re not happy with their tone. I know, evaluating speakers is tough, and a lot of the time, you can only rely on people’s words and frequency response charts. I actually find frequency response charts useful in making a decision on a new speaker. If I want more mid-range and presence, I’ll look at speakers whose frequency response charts are big in the mids and high-mids, with a much more smooth bass response curve, like the Jensen P12N. If I’m looking for more bottom end, and a slightly scooped tone, I’ll look for a speaker that has those kinds of characteristics, such as the Fane Medusa 150. Of course, you have to hear the speakers in the end to decide if they work for you, but the frequency response chart is a good place to start.

2. Change your pre-amp tubes

I’m a NOS tube fanatic. To me, there’s nothing like the build and tonal quality of a good NOS tube. The ones I’ve chosen tend to have a bit less gain than newer tubes, and they break up so much more smoothly. But that’s just me. I want a smoother overdrive tone, whereas someone else may want a harsher tone. To each their own on this. However, changing tubes – especially pre-amp tubes – can have a profound effect on your tone. Like speakers, you have to try several before you find ones that fit your tastes, but it’s worth it once you do. And note, with respect to tubes, you get the most bang for your buck by replacing the pre-amp tubes as opposed to the power tubes. I use JJ power tubes for practically all my amps, and you know what? I’ve never replaced any of them because I just haven’t seen that much tone improvement by replacing them.

Where I have seen LOTS of improvements is in replacing the pre-amp tubes, as you’ll see below…

As I stated above, I saved two of my amps from the chopping block. Yeah, I had to spend a bit of money to save them, but save them I did. My most recent “save” experience was with my Aracom PLX18 BB. This amp is based upon the classic Marshall 18 Watt Plexi “Bluesbreaker.” When I first got it, I loved it, but one thing that I didn’t quite bond with was the fizz that the amp naturally produced. I really dug the mild distorted tone of the amp, but there was just something that wasn’t quite “right” when I’d crank the amp all the way.

So the first thing I did to bleed off some of the highs was to replace the stock speaker. The Red Coat Red Fang is a nice, bright speaker, but brand new, it’s pretty harsh, and I didn’t want spend a lot of time breaking it in. But even still, the amp was naturally bright, and with a bright speaker, I just didn’t feel it was a good fit. As luck would have it, I had another speaker on hand, a Fane Medusa 150. The thing about this speaker is that it has a real strong, tight bass response. Once I had it installed, I couldn’t believe my ears! It really balanced out the brightness of the amp, and curbed a lot of the fizz.

But there was still some fizz left. Knowing that there were JJ’s in the pre-amps, which have a lot of gain, my thought was that they were throwing a lot of gain at the EL84 power tubes, which can get fizzy when driven hard. So I swapped them out for a set of NOS circa 1959 GE and RCA long plate 12AX7’s, which are oh-so-smooth and a have a bit less gain than the JJ’s. The result was simply magnificent!

That clip was recorded with the Aracom PLX18 BB, and using my LP copy Prestige Heritage Elite. Sorry, I don’t have a “before” clip, but before I did those two simple modifications, the amp produced a ton of fizz that I just couldn’t connect with, even though I loved the dynamics when it was fully cranked. Now, I can crank that puppy up, and get those rich tones with no fizz.

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Here’s a solution…

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Just how important is the technical design of an amp or a guitar?

If you read incredibly captivating (read: time eater) threads like this: http://www.thegearpage.net/board/showthread.php?p=7264585 on The Gear Page you might think the science and technology that goes into a product is all-important, as the original poster laments about the lost art of amp design, and how amps today just aren’t made like they used to be made because people don’t understand the science. In a project with his son, he claims to have rediscovered the science and is now using that amp as a prototype to perhaps launch a new line of Trainwreck clones. That’s a new one. Wow!

As for me, with respect to the techno stuff, I’m kind of on the fence about it.

After all, how many times have we consumers chosen a product not based upon technology, but for completely different reasons? Can you say BetaMax vs. VHS? Back in the 70’s Sony’s BetaMax video technology was clearly better than VHS. But BetaMax players were more expensive and media producers were slow to adopt the format. Needless to say, it died a quiet death. Just an aside: Some say the porn industry had a lot to do with it as well as they adopted the cheaper VHS to get their tapes out to market more cost-effectively.

Anyway, with respect to guitar gear, let’s look at the Aracom PRX150-Pro attenuator. I’ve had several in-depth discussions with Jeff about the technology behind this attenuator, and how it differs from the traditional L-Pad and resistor networks that also throw a load across the speaker. Jeff’s doesn’t. I’m no expert in electronics, but I am an engineer by trade, and the scientific and engineering principles that Jeff employed to arrive at his solution make it significantly different in approach than the traditional-style attenuators. But this isn’t an article on attenuators.

The point to my bringing up the PRX150-Pro is that despite the technology it’s built upon, that’s not what compels people to buy it. The primary reason they buy it is because it is the most transparent attenuator on the market today (not to mention that it’s less expensive and you can get one in a lot less time than its nearest competitor – and you don’t have to put a down-payment on it). Yes, it is its technology that enables that transparency. But I would venture most people don’t really care or only have a nominal interest in the technology. As for me, my gearhead nature loves the tech stuff, but I’m frankly more interested in the end product.

So what’s the point? No matter what kind of product, manufacturers can talk all they want about their technology and claim how their product is better than the rest. But in the end, a consumer’s choice will be based upon how that product moves them. Tech may play a role, but it’s minor compared to performance.

So to the original poster of that thread: Brother, you may have some great technology on your hands, but I gotta like  how it sounds.

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I walked into my garage/studio this morning and looked over to my gear – there’s a lot (though probably not as much as I’ve seen from other gear sluts’ pictures). Peering over my collection, the thought struck me: What if I could only have one of each type of gear… What would I choose? What would be the basis for my decision?

After ruminating on this subject over breakfast and coffee, I decided that I’d choose the gear that gives me the most versatility with respect to tone and usability given the various types of music I play. So based upon that here are my choices:

  • Squier Classic Vibe Tele 50’s
  • Aracom VRX22 with 1 X 12 Cab
  • BOSS TU-2 Tuner
  • Aracom PRX150-Pro Attenuator

Those four things will get me through any gig or recording session. Not to say that they’re my favorite pieces of gear, but that combination will give me the most versatility with respect to versatility and usability.

What? No Goldie? Man, I love that guitar, don’t get me wrong. But that guitar is so heavy, I don’t gig with it unless I’m at a place where I have to sit down. The Tele, on the other hand, is super-light, and with its pine body, it’s very resonant, so I can get thick, almost humbucker-type sounds to nice trebly tones. Goldie offers that up and more, but she loses on usability in a variety of venues due to her weight.

The Aracom VRX22 happens to be my favorite amp in any case, but it’s my favorite because of its versatility. Once I had Jeff do the footswitch mod so I could switch between channels, and remove the clean channel from the master volume, there’s nary a tone – except for super heavy, high gain – that I can’t produce with that amp.

With respect to my TU-2 tuner, yeah, I know, there are much better ones out there, but it’s what I’ve got. But despite that, I’d rather be in tune than to have a cool effect, so that pedal would stay.

Finally, the Aracom PRX150-Pro attenuator will always be a part of any rig I put together because it allows me to set limits to my max volume in any venue. Since I play mostly small to medium venues, this box is essential for dialing in just the right amount of volume for the house. And even if I have to play at super low volumes where the Fletcher-Munson effect comes into play, I can rest assured that when my amp is miked, I’ll get my true tone.

I was actually surprised by my own choice of guitar primarily because Goldie is such a tone machine. But for as much as I move around when performing, lugging a heavy guitar is definitely not my cup of tea; especially if it makes me throw out my back, which I did a couple of weeks back. But it also says loads about that Squier Tele. I’ve got some great guitars, but that little $329 wonder creates such awesome tones and it plays so great, that it’s a clear winner. I might’ve gotten lucky with my particular guitar because I’ve read some user reviews that their tone is inconsistent. I’ll play a few more to see how that holds up.

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O thou with such dirty little minds! I’m not talking about some Red Hot Chili Peppers-style playing with a tube sock around my member. I’m talking about playing with zero effects! So there!

For the past few weeks, I’ve recorded and gigged several times with no effects at all, and the only pedal I use is my trusty BOSS TU-2. The first time I did it, I was being lazy and didn’t want to break down my rig from my studio – especially since I was in the middle of laying down some tracks and didn’t want to lose my settings. But that first time turned into a second, then a third, and so on.

I’ve found it to be refreshing on a number of fronts; not the least of which is the much lighter load I have to lug around. But more importantly, I think it has really helped my playing as I can’t rely on pedals to fill in the gaps. For instance, I’m a lot more aware of how I’m sustaining notes, and trying to hold them as long as possible before I have to move on.

I know of lots of players who don’t use pedals at all, and for quite awhile, I couldn’t imagine life without pedals. But “playing naked” has really helped me to not rely on them. I used to always use overdrive pedals as my main source of drive, but I now use them as accents. I used to slather on the reverb but now, I rarely use it, except in the studio and even there, I use it sparingly.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to put my board away. There are times when I need a pedal for a particular song, but for the most part, I can do without them, or just use them to provide tonal accents. In a way, I feel liberated…

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When I first talked to a guy at a shop about this guitar (it’s someone whose word I’ve learned to trust over the years) about the Squier Classic Vibe Tele, one of the first things he said was, “For the guys who know tone, this is one of the best kept secrets in the industry.” That, from a guy who pedals high-end Fender custom shop axes. His only nit about the guitar was the same as mine: The frets seemed a little small. But other than that, the guitar was a player in his opinion; and so it was with my own estimation of this wonderful little guitar.

Squier is supposed to be the budget line for Fender, and traditionally have been tagged as beginner guitars. But the way this guitar looks, feels, plays and sounds, there’s nothing beginner or budget about it. The build quality is excellent. There are no split or jagged joints or uneven painting. This guitar looks and feels solid. And it’s light, weighing no more than 7 pounds with its pine body and maple neck.

I was excited about this guitar when I first played it, as evidenced by the high marks it got on my original review. I couldn’t believe that a guitar with a street price of $349 could actually be this good. But the one thing that struck me about it was not just its looks, but its tone. This ain’t your typical, thin Tele twang machine. This guitar has balls. The pine body resonates – a lot – and that adds a fatness to the tone that is completely unexpected! Even in the bridge pickup that really brings out the twang, the Classic Vibe Tele sounds like a bridge humbucker with just a touch of twang!

Since I was able to bring one into my studio, I decided to record a couple of clips to demonstrate how fat this guitar sounds…

The first clip features the Tele clean in the neck pickup for both rhythm and lead, though I dirtied up the lead part just a tad.

This next clip demonstrates how the guitar sounds through a fully cranked up amp (Aracom VRX22 with 6V6’s). The three parts feature the neck, middle, and bridge positions of the same chord progression, respectively:

Finally, here’s my new song Strutter again with the Tele played in the bridge position through my Aracom VRX22:

As you can tell from the clips, “thin” is just not part of this guitar’s modus operandi. It’s actually unsettling at first because when I’ve played Tele’s in the past, they were pretty bright and thin. But this guitar just sings and resonates all day long! Must be the pine body. But who cares! It’s a player, and for the money, you just can’t go wrong.

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Click for full size view

What do you get when you have a group of product development consultants who are avid guitar players who want to find a way to stop “workin’ for the man,” but not create a bunch of “me too” products? You get StageTrix Products. These guys are brand-new, and from what I can gather, their approach to creating guitar gear centers around what you might call convenience products for guitar players.

Take, for instance, their pedal risers that I reviewed back in October. These gadgets that raise the back row of your pedal board may not make music, but they sure make the making of music a helluva lot easier. Here’s proof: The solo part of my latest song, Strutter, was recorded in a single take, with one punch-in at the very end of the song after I was done. In between sections, I was activating/deactivating effect pedals on the fly – something I’ve never done in a recording. I usually stop the recording, activate the pedals, then continue on. Granted, I had enough time between sections to do the switch on the fly, but I will submit that I couldn’t have done without the back row of my board being raised; in other words, how my board used to be. The point here is that that little convenience made a world of difference for me in my recording.

Enter the Pedal Fasteners. For $9.99, you get a pack of three, pre-cut hook-and-loop strips that are dimensioned to fit standard-size pedals. You might say, “So what? I can just get some Velcro from my local crafts store and be done with it.” You certainly can, but my experience with that stuff is that the glue used with these cannot withstand higher temperatures. They get all gooey, and once the glue has melted, the glue must change chemically, because its sticking power is lost. You ever get that stuff on your hands? I rest my case… 🙂 Pedal Fasteners, on the other hand, have a glue that can withstand up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit; more than enough for even a hot car interior, and the mere fact that you don’t have to cut them to size is killer!

I recently replaced the velcro strips on all the pedals on the front-row on my board with Pedal Fasteners. No cutting, (except for the center section (which you could conceivably push out, but I wanted clean edges and didn’t want to risk tearing, so I used a sharp utility knife). They work great, and even stick to rubber! I’d recommend removing the rubber though… I’ve had mixed results with that, but I did it to test it out – it’s sticking just fine so far.

So if you’re tired of having to cut fasteners to size, and even more tired of that messy goo once the glue has melted, you owe it to yourself to get a couple of pack of these!

For more information, please visit the StageTrix Products site!

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