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Archive for October, 2011

I recently received an interesting article from the folks over at AmplifiedParts.com entitled, “Describing Tone.” It takes both a scientific (quantitative) look at tone as well as presenting more qualitative ways of describing it. The qualitative section seems geared to describing tone within the context of selling gear, but if you think about it, when we’re talking about tone, we’re doing a selling job. The author, Kurt Prange makes an interesting statement in the article: “If someone told you that a particular speaker sounds ‘rich and creamy with buttery mids and crisp highs,’ they might as well have said, ‘it sounds great, trust me.'” I’ll speak more to that in a little bit. But without further ado, here’s the article:

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The Audible Frequency Range and Describing Tone

by Kurt Prange

 

As guitarists, most of us sooner or later find ourselves in pursuit of tone. A talented guitarist can find a way to make anything sound good, but there should be no doubt that our equipment and the tone it provides can inspire and help fuel our creativity. In pursuit of tonal inspiration, we need to develop a vocabulary to help us find what we’re looking for in our sound.

 

The Audible Frequency Range

Most guitarists start out by learning the names of the musical notes corresponding to a particular string and fret number, but they are not initially aware that these notes also correspond to the fundamental frequency of the vibrating string. For example, the sixth string played at the 5th fret (low A) in standard tuning has a fundamental frequency of 110 Hz. Any doubling or halving of a frequency is an octave, so the next octave up from 110 Hz would be 220 Hz. In order to develop a vocabulary for tone, we have to think in terms of frequencies as opposed to musical notes.

The audible frequency range for us human beings is about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz (20 kHz). For descriptive purposes, it’s common to divide this range into at least three parts: lows, mids and highs. The specific border frequencies where, for example, lows end and mids begin are not definite. Look at a guitar speaker’s frequency response chart and you’ll see three commonly accepted ranges: lows from 20 to 200 Hz, mids from 200 Hz to 2 kHz and highs from 2 kHz to 20 kHz. With respect to these divisions, the fundamental guitar frequencies are all low to mid range; however, the sound we hear from each note we play also consists of harmonic frequencies in addition to the fundamental. To get an idea of what the fundamental would sound like on its own, just play a note and turn the guitar’s tone control all the way down. You’ve just “rolled-off the highs.”

If you play through an amp with treble, middle and bass controls, you can experiment with the extremes of each control setting to get a feel for how the relative level of each frequency range shapes the overall sound. “Scoop the mids” by turning the middle control down. “Roll-off the lows” and “thin-out” the tone by turning down the bass control. Now, “Fatten-up” the tone by turning the bass control back up.

Describing Tone

Using words to describe how something sounds is not always easy, but in the pursuit of tone it is often necessary. Browse through websites and ads for guitars, pickups, effects, amps, tubes, speakers, etc. and you’ll see a plethora of tonal verbiage that would probably seem like nonsense to the non-musician. When reading through this jargon, you can usually separate the adjectives into at least two groups to get a better perspective of the big picture.

First, there are the basic tonal adjectives that stand on their own. Most guitarists would understand their meaning without the need for much clarification. The words in this group stand on their own because they are closely related to common control settings. Describing tone is simplified considerably when a comparison can be made and most of the adjectives in this group can be paired with a clear opposite. For example, you might compare bright vs. dark for highs, full vs. scooped for mids, fat vs. thin for lows or some other variation to express more or less of a particular attribute. You could say, ‘I’m using Acme brand 12AX7 tubes in my amp and they sound too muddy, I need something that will brighten up the highs and give me more gain.’

Second, there are the ambiguous adjectives that leave you with some doubt as to what they really mean. They serve as a kind of garnish to add personality and make a tonal description sound more appealing or marketable. For example, the highs might be crisp or bell like with sparkle or chime, the mids might be buttery or woody, there might be mid-range honk, the tone could be warm, rich or creamy. This is good stuff if you don’t take it too seriously, but these words don’t really mean much on their own. If someone told you that a particular speaker sounds ‘rich and creamy with buttery mids and crisp highs,’ they might as well have said, ‘it sounds great, trust me.’ Another aspect of this group of adjectives is that they can allow you to identify a target audience that the product was designed to reach. For example, you probably wouldn’t target the death metal crowd with a ‘warm, vintage-voiced pickup with rich fat lows and top-end sparkle to express the subtleties of your playing style in fine detail.’ You’d be more likely to describe ‘fat, thunderous lows with upper mid-range sizzle and crisp highs for brutal rhythm and scorching leads.’

When communicating with other people to get suggestions for which product might get you closer to the sound you’re looking for, it’s usually best to make comparisons, while using mostly adjectives from the first group and going light on those from the second. Of course, the best way to know if something is right for your sound is to play through it yourself and set up an A/B comparison, but that’s just not always possible. So as we journey along in our pursuit of tone, we have to develop a vocabulary to help ourselves and others find the way.

Kurt Prange (BSEE) is the Sales Engineer for Amplified Parts (www.amplifiedparts.com) in Tempe, Arizona, United States. Kurt began playing guitar at the age of nine in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is a guitar DIY’er and tube amp designer who enjoys helping other musicians along in the endless pursuit of tone.

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Addressing the “ambiguous adjectives” paragraph, I tend to agree with what Mr. Prange has to say for the most part, but I do think that ambiguous adjectives play a key role in describing tone; so long as you make the distinction between the unabiguous and ambiguous. I agree that on their own, ambiguous adjectives do very little to inform me, though they are certainly effective at raising hype – something that happens a lot on forums like The Gear Page. So as a bit of a follow-on to Mr. Prange’s words of wisdom, be very wary of those who do nothing but use unambiguous adjectives to describe the tone of their gear; especially if they’re trying to sell it to you.

The problem with unambiguous adjectives is that they are purely subjective. What might seem “muddy” to one person may be perfectly acceptable to another. To me, I find most Fender amps to be muddy, with really booming lows, but those people who dig that tone, would call them “smooth.” Get the picture?

And then of course, I totally agree with Kurt Prange in that the only way to really see if some gear fits you and your style of playing is to play it yourself. Ultimately, you’re the best judge of great tone. Don’t defer that to anyone else.

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The Rock Lock

Summary: After a year-long wait, the Rock Lock has finally hit the market! What started out as an ingenious idea to provide some gig security for your guitar is not finally a reality.

Pros: Rubberized (or what appears to be rubberized) material around an obviously sturdy, metal locking “C” and attached to a 1/4″ steel braid rope, provide ample security for when you’re gigging, or even in a studio where you want to provide a level of deterrence as well as security.

Cons: None

Features (from the web site):

-Core Constructed from Cutting Edge Metal Replacement Technology

-Heavy-Duty Braided Steel Cable

-1 Year Full Warranty with Registration

-2 Keys Included, with optional Key Registration

-Fits almost all standard 6 string Guitars.
This excludes: 12 String Instuments, Flamenco/Spanish Guitars, and Bass Guitars.

Price: $49.95

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ I’ve been waiting for this to come out since Chris Goulet originally contacted me a year ago. For the gigging musician, this is a must-have.

To me, having a Rock Lock is like putting strap-locks on your guitar. The funny thing about strap locks is that you never think you need them until your guitar comes off your strap button and crashes unceremoniously to the floor. Once that happens, you heed the warnings. But it shouldn’t take having your guitar stolen at a gig to make you buy a Rock Lock. At least for me, even the prospect of having my guitar stolen is enough to make sure I always have good security  for my axes at gigs. But I almost had to learn the hard way.

From late spring to early fall, I play on the patio area outside of the restaurant where I do my Friday gigs. Where I play is a major thoroughfare into the shopping center, so it gets lots of traffic – it’s a great way for me to entertain lots of folks. But the high traffic also presents a much greater danger of my gear being tampered with or stolen. While there are plenty of staff and customers at hand to watch my gear when I take breaks, the position of the “stage” is such that if someone wanted to make a running grab at my guitar, they could do it and get away pretty easily.

Last summer, there was a kid who was watching me play. He was what you might call an “emo,” with long hair swept across his face and a brooding expression underneath. He paid me a couple of compliments on my playing which was pretty cool, then after awhile, he asked if he could play my guitar while I was on break. I nicely told him no as I didn’t have a backup guitar with me, and he walked away, though I saw him a few times walk by eying my guitar. About an hour later, I took a break, and left my guitar out. Lo and behold, there was the kid. He was just about to grab my guitar!

I rushed over and said, “What part of ‘No you can’t play my guitar while I’m on break did you not understand?'”

“I thought it would be cool with you, dude,” he responded.

I said, “No. It’s not cool. Please leave.”

He did, and didn’t return. But in hindsight, if he took my guitar, it would’ve been my fault for not making it secure. And while I assumed that my gear would be safe because so much staff and people were around, the mere fact that that kid could just walk up to my guitar and pick it up made me think that I needed some sort of security.

For awhile after that, I resorted to packing my guitar during breaks and putting it my car or in the restaurant. But either of those options was a bit of a pain. However, with the Rock Lock, I no longer have to do that. I just lock up my guitar and it’s safe!

So how does it work? Well, it works very much like a computer laptop tether in that it has a loop at the end of the metal rope that you use to secure to a fixed object. The other end of the rope has a metal stud that gets inserted into the locking mechanism that is essentially a “C” clamp that goes around the neck of your guitar. The locking mechanism has one of those unpickable cylindrical keys. So talk about security! Look at the picture sequence below:

1. First, attach the cable to a fixed object like a pole:

2. Next, attach the cable to the locking mechanism (the stud end slides into an opening at the joint of the lock:

3. Finally, lock your guitar:

How much easier can it be? As I said, this is a must-have like strap locks for security-conscious guitar player. I’ll probably be getting a couple of more of these pretty soon!

For more information on the Rock Lock and to purchase one, visit The Rock Lock Company!

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New Song: Everyday

I actually wrote this song a few years ago, and never got around to recording it, but as I was thinking about tunes to put on my new album, this was one of the first ones that I wanted to put on it.

The song was written in dedication to a service for a close friend who was celebrating 30 years as a nun, and since we were doing her celebratory Mass, I got inspired to write a song. This is a song about service and letting God’s loving hand guide us.

As far as instrumentation goes, both guitar tracks feature my Gibson ’58 Historic Les Paul running through my Aracom PLX18-BB Trem totally cranked up. The guitar parts were recorded at normal conversation levels, as I used my Aracon PRX150-Pro attenuator. I played my Ibanez bass for the bass part direct into my DAW, then used a Bassman model to get the sound I wanted.

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I mentioned the DV Mark Little 40 at the end of my previous post yesterday, which was a review on the DV Mark Galileo 15. That Galileo is a great little amp, but the DV Mark Little 40 is what I’m really taking a serious look at right now. If you want more information and specs on this great little amp, then read the product page on it. But what I’m going to discuss here goes beyond just the plain old facts and talk about why I think this amp deserves such a serious look.

What about the title? Well, it’s something that I brought over from my web engineering background, and that is that the best web sites aren’t the ones that are the prettiest or the most technically robust. They’re the ones that are so obvious to use, you don’t have to think about it. With the Little 40, DV Mark has lived up to “Don’t Make Me Think” in a variety of ways.

First off, while DV Mark offers the amp in L34 and L6 models (for EL34 and 6L6), the amp can take either, and will even do 6V6’s (though I think it may have to be JJ 6V6’s that’ll take a higher plate voltage – but I’d have to confirm that). But here’s the kicker: With the Little 40, you’ll never have to bias tubes again! The Little 40 sports smart circuitry that will auto-bias AND match your power tubes (so long as they’re within 20% of each other). How convenient is that? I don’t have the equipment to bias tubes myself – frankly I’m scared to death of working on electrical stuff – so every time I get new power tubes, I have to have someone bias them for me. With the Little 40, I just need to get reasonably matched tubes, and the amp will bias them to their optimal settings. Damn!

In addition to automagically biasing the tubes, there’s a switch on the rear panel that lets you set Low or High bias settings, which means you have even more tonal capabilities at the flick of a switch. This is a really huge thing in my opinion because again, instead of having to do this by hand, you need only toggle a switch to find the right bias setting for what you’re playing.

Also, the Little 40 is absolutely versatile, with its patent-pending Continuous Power Control that allows you to vary the output power of the tubes – not just for volume, but to break up the power tubes early. Full out to 40 Watts, you’ll get maximum clean headroom. But you can dial down the power to 1 Watt, and get breakup a lot earlier. Plus, you can switch between pentode and triode tube operation to get different tones on top of bringing the power down. Then on top of all that, you have a 0/6dB pad to compensate for passive and active pickups.

Finally, at $799, which is only $200 more than the Galileo, getting this amp is absolute no-brainer! And mind  you, these amps are all hand assembled in Italy. How DV Mark is able to sell them so inexpensively is beyond me, but we players can definitely reap the benefits. This is my next amp!

Here’s a nice demo video of the DV Mark Little 40:

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DV Mark Amps Galileo 15
Summary: From the folks that brought us the big sound in a small package of Markbass bass amps, comes the DV Mark guitar amp line.Pros: Unbelievably rich tone with lots of clean headroom for a low-wattage amp. But you can dirty it up just fine by adding more pre-amp gain. Super-responsive dynamics as well, and the dirty tone cleans up nicely with volume knob or lightening up pick attack.

Cons: None.

Features (from the web site):

All hand-wired and hand-assembled in Italy

Power output:15W

Preamp tubes: 2x ECC83
Power tubes: 2 x EL84, 1 x ECC83
Channels: one
Controls:
> Gain
> Master
> Boost (6dB)
EQ controls: Low – Mid – High (passive)
Speaker outputs:
> One 4 ohm
> One 8 ohm
Optional 1 X 12 and 2 X 12 cabs available (I played the 1 X 12)

Price: $127.97 direct

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ I was already impressed with Markbass amps for bass (the bassist in my church band swears by his Little Mark II), and with the recent introduction of a guitar amp line, I’m VERY impressed with what DV Mark is offering!

I met my good buddy Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps at our local Guitar Center today, and the first place we went to was their high-end guitar room where they always have nice guitars. Being Les Paul guys, we of course were ogling the historic re-issues. 🙂 But as we turned to go out of the room, we noticed a display of all-black amps with cool, metal mesh housings, and a brand we’d never seen before: DV Mark. Jeff exclaimed he’d never heard of this brand. I agreed that I hadn’t heard of it either, but the “Mark” in the name made me think that it was associated with the Italian manufacturer who makes Markbass bass amps.

Fit and Finish

The amp has a real modern look to it with its metal housing, and chrome bumpers to protect the knobs, but has an almost old-school feel with the cream-colored chicken head knobs. The logo lettering is “Mesa-ish,” and out of the corner of my eye, as I walked in the room, I actually mistaked the amps for Mesa amps, so I dismissed them. It wasn’t until I looked at the amps directly did I see that it was a different logo.

The amp does have a strap, but it’s unlike other straps I’ve seen. As opposed to being attached to the top, the strap is instead attached to the sides of the amp and run over the top (you can see this if you click on the picture above to enlarge it).

This thing is light, weighing in at just over 10 lbs. The accompanying C112 1 X 12 cabinet weighs about 15 lbs., so lugging the head/cab around to gigs or rehearsals is not a problem. This light weight points back to the Markbass bass amps which are known for small size and weight but a big sound; and does this amp have a big sound.

How It Sounds

So after making a visual inspection of the amp, curious about how it sounded, I went out to the main showroom to fetch a Les Paul from the rack – it was a nice Standard Traditional with the coil-tapping volume knobs (by the way, I want one of these, though I’m leaning towards the Standard Traditional Pro). I plugged in the guitar, and Jeff started twiddling knobs while I played.

We first started with the Master dimed and added very little pre-amp, to test out the cleans. As expected, the completely cranked Master volume produced a bit of hum, though turning a bit, I was able to reduce it significantly. So that wasn’t a negative at all. But despite that, the clean tone was fantastic. We were both impressed by the amount of clean headroom that amp has! The cleans aren’t as deep as Fender cleans by any stretch, but they’re still thick, with perhaps a bit of midrange hump. I scooped the EQ and was rewarded with a beautiful, deep clean that I could play with for hours.

One thing that immediately stuck out with the amp was how loud it was. That alone was impressive because right away, I knew this amp could cut through a mix quite nicely. The 1 X 12 cabinet houses a custom B&C neodymium speaker rated at 150 Watts. I imagine that the speaker is voiced with a fairly robust bottom end, which is probably why the amp sounds so huge. But the cabinet also seems to project and dissipate sound really well because even at lower volumes, the single speaker really filled the space.

As far as dirty tones were concerned, the Galileo 15, powered by EL84 tubes reeks with Marshall-esque tone, but with a slightly more robust bottom end. As such, the Les Paul growled quite nicely. There did seem to be an ever-so-slight filtering of the highs, but I believe that gives the amp’s tone its unique character. It’s voiced similarly to a classic Marshall 18 Watt Plexi, but its slightly darker tone gives it a much smoother output. Needless to say, I dug it.

Overall Impression

The Tone Bones score says it all. This is a great little amp, and one I wouldn’t mind having. However, I will say that it’s not the DV Mark amp that I would buy myself. I rated the Galileo purely on its merit, but I already have amps at 18 and 22 Watts that cover this territory. So if I were to get a DV Mark, the one I’m really hot on is the Little 40, which I’ll discuss in an upcoming entry. But real quick, what has me going about the Little 40 are a couple of unique features that I think are game changers.

First of all, with the Little 40, you’ll never need to bias tubes again because the amp sports special circuitry that will not only bias the power tubes to their optimal operating values, it’ll also match the tubes if they’re within 20% of each other. That is a HUGE feature! Furthermore, the amp sports what DV Mark calls a “Continuous Power Control” which allows you to control the ouput of the power tubes. Similar to power scaling, I presume, it allows you to go down to low wattages, not just for volume, but to overdrive the power tubes earlier. Wide open, the amp has TONS of clean headroom, but dial the CPC back, and you can have nice crunch at reasonable volumes.

Here’s a nice demo from PremierGuitar:

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This actually isn’t an article on Steve Jobs specifically. But after reading a Time Magazine article on Steve this morning, it struck me just how important Apple and especially the Mac have been at least to this author.

For years, I had been doing home recording with a variety of systems; starting with dedicated recording systems such as my hand-me-down Roland 880EX. Frustrated by the unintuitiveness of that and similar units, I turned to the PC since it was a device of which I knew intimately. So I assembled my own PC with the latest hardware, super-fast graphics processor, Dolby 7.1 surround system (I was also into gaming), and got a DigiDesign MBox2 that came with ProTools. That system was incredible! Unlike other Windows-based machines I’d had in the past, this monster booted up in less then 30 seconds; graphics displayed in dizzying high-resolution with – at least to me – 30+ frames per second consistently; sound quality was mesmerizing with my surround-sound system; and even doing complex programming operations were blindingly fast. It was became practically useless to me as a recording system.

The reason for my frustration with the machine as a recording system wasn’t because of the machine itself. It was ProTools. ProTools these days seems to be the standard in professional recording. Even the base configuration with the default plug-ins provides you with a plethora of tools and recording capability. But that’s the problem. I got into PC-based recording because I was tired of sifting through the confusion of menus of a 3 X 2 LCD screen. With ProTools, I now had confusion once again – but on a larger visual scale.

Mind you, this isn’t a knock on ProTools. Almost all recording studios use it, and for good reason: It is amazingly powerful. But you really need to be a sound engineer to take advantage of all the features it has to offer. My frustration lay in that the fact that I was spending more time learning how to properly operate ProTools than doing what I needed to do most: Get my song ideas down. So I gave up home recording for awhile, and went back to writing up lyrics and chord charts and banking on my memory to regurgitate the melodies – fat chance. I knew how to use ProTools at a rudimentary level, but I was so disenchanted with the whole process that I just said, “Screw it.”

Then in 2007, I got an iMac and a Macbook Pro for work and discovered GarageBand. When I first opened it up, I thought GarageBand was just a little toy after my ordeal with ProTools. But I hooked up my MBox 2 and my Mac luckily recognized it, then started playing around. After a couple of hours, I had recorded an entire song, with all the instrumentation I wanted. Granted, the sound quality wasn’t nearly as good as what I could achieve out of ProTools. But I knew then and there that GarageBand would change my life forever!

It wasn’t supposed to be this easy. But it was. I had to practically pinch myself to prove that taking the musical ideas in my head were actually becoming reality. I was cranking out songs like nobody’s business! I finally had a way to not only put my songs down, I could create demos for my church band so they could understand my vision behind how a particular song should be performed. It also helped with this blog that I started about the same time I got my Macbook Pro. I could provide demos of the stuff I was testing.

Circling back to the crux of this entry, that kind of usability is Steve Jobs’ legacy. Call him what you will, but his keen sense of how things should work are undeniable and reflected in the products that Apple has produced during his reign. He wasn’t an inventor. He was a super-innovator. And if you look at Apple products – both hardware and software – there seems to always be this recurring theme: “We need to make people continually exclaim, ‘It’s not supposed to be this easy!'”

But it is, people. It really is…

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If you read this blog regularly, you know that I wasn’t too excited about Fender’s ’57 Champ re-issue. But in a collaboration with Eric Clapton, the Fender custom shop has come out with three new tweed amps that I think are worth a good look. Here the verbiage from the site:

In a historic collaboration, Fender introduces its first artist signature amplifiers—EC Series amps bearing the name of legendary guitarist Eric Clapton. Built to the exacting specifications of Clapton himself, the three amps—the EC Twinolux™, EC Tremolux™ and EC Vibro-Champ®—are fascinating variations on their original ’50s-era ancestors (the ’57 Twin™, ’57 Deluxe™ and ’57 Champ®, respectively), and are our answer to his call for special models with distinctive features.

Handmade in the United States, all three amp models feature ’50s—era output tube bias tremolo (which produces a more throbbing pulse than later Fender tremolo circuits) and a switchable power attenuator (reduces speaker output), in addition to other premium features. In a historic career now in its sixth decade, Eric Clapton has long been known as one of the world’s foremost exponents of classic Fender tweed amp tone, and the three new amps bearing his imprint present the pinnacle of personally inspired amp tone for stage and studio alike. Each is a must for Clapton fans and guitarists who want the ultimate in tweed tube amp performance.

I dig that each has a built-in attenuator, and each has tube tremolo, which I totally dig. I have a tube tremolo on one of my Aracom amps, and it is suh-weet!

For more information, check out the Fender site!

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