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Archive for June, 2010

If you read this blog with regularity, you know that I love NOS tubes. Who knows? Maybe I’m being a cork-sniffer, but the significant impact NOS tubes have had on my amps has led me to preferring them over new production tubes. Unfortunately, NOS tubes are getting scarcer and scarcer, so I suppose that eventually I’ll  have to get new production tubes.

Now a company that I’ve tended to steer away from is Groove Tubes, mainly because they’re just re-labeler of various OEM tubes. They just measure voltage, match ’em up, relabel them and sell them as their brand. Nothing wrong with that, but I haven’t met a Groove Tubes tube that I’ve liked, until I discovered the Groove Tubes GT-6L6GE Re-issues.

Before I go on, I should clarify that I’m not talking about the current production 6L6GE’s, which are assembled overseas. The tubes I’m talking about were made in the USA up until about 2003, as far as I can tell.

What makes these tubes special is that they’re constructed of NOS materials (except the glass), and to the same specs as the original GE 6L6’s of old. Plus they were constructed in Southern California, so the quality is incredible. These tubes rock! To be honest, I’m not sure of all the details of their production, but I got the information from Brent Jesse @ audiotubes.com who recommended them to me.

I bought two sets so I could have a spare set, and have been in tonal heaven with my Hot Rod Deluxe! The cleans are lush and deep, and the overdrive is creamy smooth. I have other GE power tubes, and I’ve gotten used to their smooth distortion. These GT-6L6GE’s are no exception! In addition to their smooth breakup, they also don’t compress much, which is another thing I just dig. I prefer a more open distortion.

I compared these to both JJ’s and regular Groove Tube 6L6GT’s, and these just blow them away. The JJ’s and GT’s have nice, clear cleans, but forget about their tone when cranked up. The tone is harsh and gritty, even if I bias them a little hotter than spec; whereas the 6L6GE’s remind me of the breakup I get from my Plexi clone – without hot biasing! Amazing!

As these are no longer in production (don’t confuse these with the new 6L6GE’s), they’re a bit more expensive than the new production 6L6GE’s; $80 per pair as opposed to $55-$58 a pair. And because they have the same labeling as the new ones, it’s hard to tell them apart. So I recommend that if you want to get a pair, get them from a source you trust. As I mentioned, I get them from Brent Jesse Recording and Audio, and having purchased several tubes from him, I trust him implicitly.

All that said, I will be getting a set of the new production tubes to make a comparison, as they are also made with NOS materials, though assembled overseas. Who knows? They may just sound killer as well!

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Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Fishman SA220 Solo Amp

Summary: Compact and weighing in at just 25 lbs., the SA220 Solo Amp is an ideal PA solution for the solo acoustic guitarist/vocalist, but it’s versatile and loud enough to be used as a PA for a band (if you have a couple of them).

Pros: It may not have the Bose name, but I’d put this up against the L1 Compact system any day. With built-in, independent, 3-way EQ, and a variety of other features, if you’re a solo acoustic artist, you owe it to yourself to check this unit out! I got it set up in less than a minute!

Cons: None

Features:

  • Drivers
  • – Six 4″ mid-woofers, patented dual gap, high excursion design, neodymium magnets (200W)
    – One 1″ neodymium soft dome tweeter with level control (20W)

  • Auxiliary Stereo Input with Level control
  • Four Digital Reverb effects with master level
  • Balanced XLR D.I. outputs for both channels and main mix
  • Independent effect loops for Channel 1 and Channel 2 (OMG!!!)
  • Unique Monitor I/O for improved on-stage ensemble monitoring
  • Mute with remote footswitch input
  • Tuner Output
  • Ships with Stand and padded Carry Bag (w/ wheels)
  • Dimensions: 41.5″ H x 5.6″ W x 6.6″ D
  • *Weight: 25 lbs without Stand, 35lbs with Bag and Stand

Price: $999 Street

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ Talk about ease of use! As I mentioned above, I got the SA220 set up in less than a minute! And my Yamaha APX900 sounds absolutely killer through this, not to mention the great clarity of the vocals. This is a winner, folks!

Year over year, I play between 100 to 150 gigs a year, with about half of them as a solo acoustic act. My solo gigs have consisted mainly of my weekly restaurant gig, but I do lots of weddings and special events throughout the year as well. Of late, the restaurant I gig at moved my act outside in a public patio area as the weather is gorgeous.

To make a long story short, even though the restaurant has a decent PA system, I ended up bringing my own PA last week, which was the first week we did the outdoor show. That worked pretty well, and my PA has a great sound. But it also made me realize that the old mixing board, and big 300 Watt speakers was just too much gear to haul around. Even if I ended up using the restaurant’s PA, which is a nice one, I’d still have to lug the board and speakers and stands down from the office upstairs. Enter the Fishman SA220 Solo Amp.

Plug It In and Go!

I finally received my SA220 today after having to wait for a couple of weeks for it to arrive (had to be ordered). So when I got home, I knew I had to try it out to see how it sets up, and of course, to work out kinks before I gig with it. There’s nothing worse than fighting your rig or sound DURING a gig – especially when you’re solo.

The guys at the shop assured me that Fishman’s claims of easy setup were true. I am now a believer! I had the SA220 set up in exactly 42 seconds!!! That didn’t include hooking up my pedal board, guitar, and microphone, but I had the system on its tripod stand and plugged into power, ready to go, in that short amount of time. That just blew me away! Plus, everything you need to get up and running fits into a single carrying unit that consists of two bags: One for the array/PA, and one for the tripod that buckles to the main bag. Talk about convenience! Fishman really had the solo artist in mind when they built this!

How It Sounds

For my audition, I just plugged my guitar into the SA220 directly, and hooked up my microphone. All I can say is that the sound is spectacular! I was actually concerned about the bass response of the unit, but apparently Fishman distributes the bass response among the six main mid-woofers. It may not get boomy with the bass, but the sound is absolutely rich, and vocals are clear and full. Normally, I use a DI to go into a board – and will probably do the same with this unit, but my guitar sounded clear and natural and full plugged in directly without those annoying high-end transients and flattened tone that is so annoying with plugged in acoustics. Admittedly, the ART system in my Yamaha APX900 has quite a bit to do with that, but Fishman really knows how to condition sound.

At first, I had a bit of a problem with feedback, but setting the phase switch and tweaking the anti-feedback knob (it’s a variable frequency notch filter designed to subdue a resonant peak – just turn it to where the feedback gets reduced or eliminated – very cool), and attaching the rubber sound hole cover on my guitar took care of the feedback problem.

Luckily no one was home when I tested the SA220. I set it up outside so I could see how it performed. Damn! Even with just 220 Watts, the SA220 is LOUD!!! I had the Master volume set at around 10 am, and that will be enough to fill the large patio space I’ll be playing in tomorrow! It’s not a stretch to say that the SA220 can cover a lot of venues.

As far as listening angle is concerned, the SA220 disperses the sound incredibly well! Even at extreme angles, where I was almost even with the array, the sound was clear with good volume. Of course, narrower angles are better, but this unit will have no problem playing in the open space I’ll be playing.

Talk About Bang for the Buck!

The sound is great, but I have to tell you, I was ready to get the Bose L1 Compact, which is a great unit, but the mere fact that if I wanted more EQ control and other features, I’d have to spend another $499 really soured my taste for the unit. On the other hand, Fishman has packed all sorts of features into the SA220 that make it hands-down the better value. Independent 3-band EQ for each channel, phase and anti-feedback control, 4 types of digital reverb, a mute switch (that is REALLY handy!), independent balanced XLR outs to go into a board, and my favorite feature: independent effects loop for each channel! You just can’t argue about with what comes built-in on this unit!

Overall Impression

It’s hopefully obvious that I love this unit! For me as a solo artist, it’s a true game changer! It’s light and versatile, and the sound is spectacular. What more could I ask for?

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Having played with a 1 X 12 for quite some time, which has served me incredibly well for both studio and stage, I had as of late been wanting a bit more bottom end response, especially live, but without sacrificing my ability to naturally cut through the mix when the band is going all out; that is, cut through by virtue of EQ as opposed to volume. I suppose I had just been after a bigger, richer sound.

So I called my close friend Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps – actually several times – to talk about what might work well my Aracom Amps. He’s been testing several different speakers and speaker combinations lately, and who better to strategize with than the manufacturer of my amps? Lately he’s been really big into the Celestion line, and as he knew I love that classic alnico magnet sound, our conversations started turning towards the virtues of the Celestion Gold and Celestion Blue speakers.

I myself had never heard either of those speakers before – well, except for a brief time at a guitar shop through a 65 Amps 2 X 12 – but Jeff has been raving about them, and as he and I like the same kinds of tones, I broke my own rule of auditioning gear before I buy it, and asked Jeff if he could put a cabinet together. He said he could construct a custom one for me but that would take some time, or he had a few Aracom re-labeled Avatar cabs in his workshop and he could load a pair of speakers into one of them. From the title of this article, it’s obvious I went with the latter alternative.

For those unfamiliar, Avatar Speakers has been around for quite some time, and the company is fairly well-established in the guitar and bass community. I used to think they’re a manufacturer, but they’re actually a distributor of cabs as opposed to being a direct manufacturer, so they buy in bulk and have insanely great prices on cabinets, and they’re all great quality.

The G212H Custom is a fantastic cabinet, measuring 21″ H x 28.5″ W x 12 ” D, and made of 18mm 13-ply Baltic Birch. It’s not a small cabinet, but that’s a good thing as its size provides a resonance chamber that really brings out the bottom end – even in a semi-open-back configuration like mine, as shown in the photo of the back of the cabinet to the right.

The build quality of the G212H is excellent. The corners have nickel-plated protectors, and the cab itself is extremely sturdy. The grille cloth is actually screwed in, as opposed to being attached with velcro, and that will eliminate buzzing that can happen with velcro-attached grille cloth.

The only pain that I anticipate with this cab would be swapping out speakers, which I probably won’t do often. But the speakers are front-loaded, which many players prefer, but in order to swap, you have to remove at least two of the corner protectors so you can remove the grille cloth frame from the front of the cab. That’s not really too difficult, but it’s a lot more involved than just unscrewing the speakers like you would from a rear-loading configuration.

As far as speakers are concerned, I’ve had the cabinet configured with a Celestion Gold and a Celestion Blue. The Blue has a nice, smooth, early breakup while the Gold provides a bit more bite on the top-end and a really nice bottom-end response. What a combination! The end result is a slightly scooped tone, and that roomy cab creates an almost reverb-like effect. I’ll have sound clips in the next few days.

Overall, I’m just loving the sound that this cabinet produces. I got my wish for a big, smooth sound for sure!

The Avatar G212H Custom gets a 4.75 only because speaker swapping is a bit of a pain. But from a pure performance standpoint, it gets a 5.0.

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So you want to get a tube amp, but there are literally hundreds of manufacturers, not to mention, amps on the market. That can make for a rather harrowing experience in making a choice; especially if you’re new to tube amps. Plus, there are so many amp features to contend with as well. But have no fear. It’s not as hard as it may seem on the surface as long as you take some things into account.

1. Tone is king!

The most important thing to keep in mind in your search for a tube amp is that YOUR opinion of the tone of an amp is the most important opinion of all. By all means, listen to the input of others to help guide you, but in the end, you need to make your decision based upon how good an amp sounds to YOU. To formulate an opinion, you have to play several. And for goodness sake, don’t buy anything unless you’ve heard it in person.

2. Sound clips don’t tell the whole story…

Bear in mind that sound clips are great as an initial reference, but that’s all they should be. And make sure to listen to clips that have been recorded with the raw sound of the amp; that is, the plugged straight into the amp, and no EQ on the recording medium. Be especially wary of clips of fully arranged songs where a particular amp was used because more likely than not, even if the amp was recorded straight with no pedals in the chain, the other instruments and the EQ of the song can interfere with potentially negative aspects. Nothing beats listening to an amp live or raw.

3. Higher cost doesn’t mean better

Sometimes higher cost is well, just higher cost, and it doesn’t necessarily buy you much. I’ve played some pretty expensive amps that to me sound like crap, so don’t be lured into buying an amp by its price. Also, bear in mind that some amps simply have a higher price because a well-known guitarist actually uses one.

4. Don’t jump onto the boutique wagon right away!

In your search, you’ll come across people who’ll recommend all sorts of boutique amps. Don’t jump there immediately. I recommend this mainly because a boutique amp will fix you into a certain tone or range of tones. That’s NOT a bad thing at all. It just means that they serve up a certain flavor of tone and they’re good at that; not wanting be so versatile. For instance, my Aracom PLX18-BB Trem is a great example of a fairly focused tone with its abundance of mid-range, and smooth and creamy breakup. This amp was built based upon the classic 18-Watt Marshall Plexi, which has distinctive tone and dynamics. It’s not muscular at all, and was never meant to be. Contrast that to my Aracom VRX22 which, while based upon a Marshall Plexi design is A LOT more “ballsy” with a fatter bottom end, and slightly compressed overdrive. As a foot-switchable 2-channel amp, it is much more versatile and is my “go-to” amp for gigging.

In addition to the focused tonal characteristics, boutique amps in general cost significantly more than their mainstream counterparts; let’s face it: They’re investments. But like any investment, you should choose wisely, and go more generic starting out to get an idea of what tone you’re after. A good place to start is a low-cost tube amp, and there are several mainstream tube amps on the market that cost under $500. Some of them, like the Peavey Windsor Studio or Egnater Tweaker will allow you to change power tubes to change tone and dynamics. For instance, a 6L6-based amp will sound quite different than an EL34-based amp or even a high-gain 6V6. Amps like this let you play a bit. Here’s an example list.

VOX Night Train $499
Blackstar HT-5H  $399
333 Amp JCA20H  $333
Epiphone Valve Jr. $129
Egnater Tweaker  $399
Blackheart Little Giant  $199
Fender Blues Jr. $499
Fender Champion 600 $149
Peavey Windsor Studio $399

I started out with a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe myself. I got it before Fender did their price hike last year, so I got it for a great price. It’s a great starter tube amp, and really an unsung hero among amps. But with the right tubes and a replacement speaker, that amp can keep up with many of the boutique amps out there. It’s more pricey than what I listed here, but you can find used ones for around $500. It’s also loud as hell, which makes it viable for doing lots of different venues.

5. Don’t rush… Try learning how a tube amp operates…

The worse thing you can do in making your first tube amp purchase is rushing into it. As I mentioned above, try out several before making your decision. The best advice I ever got was from Noel over at Tone Merchants in Orange, CA. I told him I wanted to get a tube amp, but he insisted that I take my time, and in the meantime get a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe because it was tweakable. That turned out to be the absolutely best advice I had gotten from anyone, and it saved me thousands of dollars. Buying that amp gave me time to learn about how tube amps operate and form an opinion on what I’d like different.

6. Use the buddy system to evaluate an amp

By all means, play through the amps that you are evaluating, but something I’ve found very useful in evaluating amp settings is to have someone else play while I tweak. When I did the Dumble amp video series, I had the fortune of the great Doug Doppler playing so I could REALLY get how it sounded. That’s sort of rare, but even when I’m in a Guitar Center, I’ll sometimes walk up to some dude playing an amp I’d like to evaluate, and ask him if I could tweak while he plays. It’s a great way of quickly evaluating an amp’s capabilities.

So… Not rocket science by any stretch of the imagination, but useful, practical advice that you can hopefully use to your advantage.

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I’ve always had an appreciation for vintage gear, though the most “vintage” that I’ve ever gone is purchasing several sets of NOS tubes over the years. And quite frankly, though I’ve appreciated vintage gear in general, I’ve never been compelled to be a vintage gear collector as I’m an active musician who uses his stuff all the time.

But despite that, I have wanted to get an 50’s tweed Champ for quite awhile. I love small, low-powered amps, and the tweed Champ from the 50’s has been on my list to get for quite some time. After all, that little amp has been used in studios around the world for recording hundreds, if not thousands of Rock ‘N Roll songs.

My only problem with ever getting a tweed Champ was that I didn’t want to spend upwards of $1500 for a mint-condition unit, which is what these puppies go for. And since I’d use it as a player, I’d have to make modifications to it as soon as I got it to make it safe and usable with different cabinets; thus immediately reducing its value.

But luckily there are tweed Champs out there that aren’t in pristine shape, and they’re low enough in cost to warrant consideration. My criteria was that the amp had to work. Period. As long as it did, I wouldn’t have to do too much once I got it. So I found a ’58 Tweed Champ on eBay for a decent price that was missing the back plate, but was still in great working condition, so I purchased it, knowing I’d have to do some mods to make it safe, plus add some longevity to it.

Right now, it’s on transit here, and should arrive tomorrow – I’m so excited! But I will not plug it in until I have a few things done to it, that my good friend Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps will be doing:

  1. First of all, it still has the original two-prong plug. Jeff will install a three-prong grounded plug in it – I’m probably going to go with medical grade on this just to be extra-safe.
  2. It was clear from the pictures that a couple of the original capacitors had leaked a little, so they will be replaced with Sprague caps.
  3. The speaker is also hard-soldered to the amp output, so I’m having Jeff install a 1/4″ female jack so I can use different cabinets with the amp.
  4. Finally, Jeff will create a simple backplate to provide some protection to the electronic components.

All of these “mods” will be reversible, so at least I can retain some value in the amp should I ever sell it. However, I probably will keep this amp forever. I don’t even have it yet, and it still holds some nostalgic value for me. Can’t wait until it arrives!

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I broke the guide post on one of the 6L6 tubes in my trust Fender Hot Rod Deluxe awhile back, and even though the tube still worked just fine, I used it as an excuse to get a new set of power tubes. So after doing a search around the Internet for a new set of 6L6’s, I found myself on Brent Jesse Recording’s (audiotubes.com) site, looking for some NOS replacements for the JJ’s I had in there.

Not knowing what to purchase, I called Brent up, and asked for his recommendation. Surprisingly enough, he recommended a set of Groove Tubes. I said, “Groove Tubes? I can’t stand ’em.” But Brent explained that these particular Groove Tubes were not the imported, relabeled stuff from Russia or China. They’re re-issues of RCA and GE black plates made from NOS materials and constructed here in the US. Intriguing. I’ve purchase a few sets of tubes from Brent in the past, and he has never steered me wrong, so I decided to take a chance and get a pair.

The tubes arrived yesterday so of course, I just had to install them. What’s the verdict? They sound absolutely KILLER! The big test for me – especially with NOS tubes – is to run them full out to see how they break up. The problem I’ve had with late model power tubes in general (but especially with 6L6’s) is that they feel stiff and the breakup can be a bit harsh.

To me, NOS tubes have always felt much more smooth and dynamic. These Groove Tubes tubes are a huge exception to late model tubes. I can’t believe just how nicely these re-issues break up! The distortion is creamy smooth and slightly compressed with nice bloom and sustain without being too squishy – just how I like it! Caveat: They’re not cheap. These tubes are $80 for a matched pair, but they’re worth every penny! I just ordered a second set for spares since these tubes are limited quantity. They may not necessarily be NOS tubes, but as they’re made with NOS materials, there is definitely a limit. So if you’re looking for new production tubes that sound absolutely fantastic, you gotta check these out!

A word on the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe

It’s my contention that the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe is one of the most underrated amps on the market. Okay, I admit it: Stock it doesn’t sound all that good. But with the right tubes and the right speaker, it can sound incredible! Granted, a year or two ago, I wouldn’t have even considered buying this amp because of the huge price hike. I got mine on special for something like $550 in a blowout sale a few years ago. But the prices aren’t all that bad now. They’ve come down significantly from their nearly $900 price tag, and you can find them for around $649. Admittedly, it’ll probably cost $300-$400 more in tubes and replacement speaker, but what you get is an AWESOME amp. I’ll have clips in a few days.

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…for your guitar playing actually has nothing to do with technique or scales or chords. It’s simply – live a healthy life. As I’ve gotten to middle age, I’ve started to have episodes of different ailments; reaping the fruits of ignoring my health. The latest incident was a recent case of diverticulitis, which is both painful and physically debilitating. But as a result of having this, I’ve been forced to completely change my lifestyle, and it has been great. Because of the condition, I’ve been forced to lay off the booze, eat less red meat, eat tons of veggies and fruits, and exercise regularly.

The net result is that even though I’m still on the mend, I’ve felt better physically than I have in years, and have also been sleeping much more soundly, which is also a good thing.

For many people, that healthy lifestyle is a no-brainer. But for others like myself who live the double-life of working stiff during the day and musician at night, it’s easy to go the fast and simple route as far as health is concerned; that is, not really paying attention, and being too busy to work out and eat right. All I can say to that is even if you’ve been lucky with avoiding health pitfalls thus far, start living healthy now! Don’t wait!

With music being such an integral part of my life, not being able to play would be devastating. So even though I had turned a new leaf last year with my health, it obviously wasn’t enough. I’ve learned my lesson.

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