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Archive for November, 2012

replica…as long you have a guitar to play. I could end this post right there but chatty as I am, I won’t. 🙂

Taking a cue from Slash, I always have a couple of guitars sitting around the house so that on a whim I can pick it up and start playing. For instance, I “store” my ’59 Les Paul replica in my bedroom, and I pick it up to play at least once a day. This morning, not wanting to brave the absolutely crappy weather to go into work – it’s raining heavily in the Silly-con Valley – I decided to psych myself up by playing guitar. So I picked up my ’59 replica, tuned ‘er up, then started strumming out a 7-4-1 chord progression; specifically, D-A-E7b5. I like that progression because it means if I get lost while I’m playing a lead, I can quickly switch to an E-minor pentatonic, or bend a D note. 🙂 In any case, I noodled for about half an hour, got my fill of guitar, and I was ready to start the day.

On the way to work, I had to stop to get some gas, and while I was filling my tank and absolutely hating the persistent drip-drip-drip of raindrops hitting my nose, I went back in time to my childhood, and reminisced on how bored I would get not being able to go outside and play. Fast-forward to the present, and the thought struck me that as an adult, I’m rarely bored purely because I almost always have a guitar immediately at my disposal. Gotta tell ya, that put a big smile on my face…

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Evaluating an Overdrive Pedal

I was reading through some earlier reviews of overdrive pedals such as the Keeley Luna Overdrive and the TC Electronic MojoMojo Overdrive, and in one review I wrote, “…I came to realize [is] that more than any other pedal I’ve tested and reviewed, overdrive pedals are the most challenging to get to work in a rig…”

I got to thinking on why that is, and looking back on how I evaluate overdrives, I came to the conclusion that overdrives are challenging to evaluate because like tube amps, they all respond a little differently to what you throw in front of and in back of them.

And it’s not just the TubeScreamer vs. non-TubeScreamer distinction that makes them different. Builders use different tone stacks or purpose-build their pedals to mimic the tone and response of classic amps or amplify the voltage – all sorts of things! All these differences make me a nut for overdrives. Whenever I get a chance to play a new one, I jump at it because I never know what I’ll get!

In light of these differences, I’ve come up with a fairly uniform system to evaluate overdrives that helps me find an OD’s sweet spot that I’ll share here.

Dialing In EQ

More than anything, getting EQ dialed in is ultra-important, as that determines the color – if any – that the pedal adds. Some pedals, like the Tim and Timmy, are built as transparent overdrives, but in some cases you have to add a bit of EQ color to make them sound good. So here’s how I dial in EQ:

  1. First, set the amp clean, to maximum headroom. Pedal disengaged.
  2. Set the amp’s EQ’s to flat response. Note that that doesn’t mean that you turn everything to noon. It means you set the EQ’s to where you have as close to an even distribution of lows, mids and highs for the gear that you’re using. For my standard rig, that means cutting the bass and mids a bit and adding some highs.
  3. On the pedal, set gain/drive to 0, volume to unity, and tone controls to manufacturer-specified flat response.
  4. Engage the pedal. What did that do to the sound? Is it brighter? Muffled? This gives you an idea where in the EQ spectrum the pedal sits. Some pedals are on the brighter side, others darker.
  5. Make adjustments to where the tone is pleasing to you. For me, I usually like a bit of brightness when I have an overdrive engaged to get a bit of a treble boost.
  6. Now, progressively add gain/drive to the point where the pedal gets to the edge of breakup; that is, if you play lightly, the tone cleans up, but if you attack the strings, you’ll get distortion. How does that sound? Adjust EQ accordingly. This step is typically where I’ve found that adding a bit more highs works best for my rig because when I set my amp to where I like it for a gig, the highs of the pedal will offset the bottom end of my speaker and give me a more scooped tone.

Don’t be concerned if you spend an hour or so getting it right. EQ is tough.

Now The Fun Starts…

Now that you have EQ dialed in, it’s time to have some fun with volume and drive. But before you start twiddling volume and gain knobs, you have to consider how you’re going to use the overdrive. Remember, an overdrive isn’t just a soft-clipping device. It’s also a booster which can boost the input gain on your amp to where your pre-amp tubes break up. Furthermore, as I mentioned above some overdrives are meant to specifically mimic classic amps in tone and dynamics. You have to consider these things when playing with volume and gain. I think the reason some people don’t like particular overdrives is because they may not have considered what the builder’s intent was with the pedal – if any – and tried to set it up the way they’ve “normally” set up an overdrive. For instance, I tried out an overdrive from a builder who created a pedal to mimic a Marshall stack. But I tried to use it as a gain stage. Didn’t work at all. I had a converse issue at first with my Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire trying to use it as a simulated amp stack, but it’s better used an extra gain stage. The point to this is that some pedals work better as pure overdrivers, while some pedals work great as standalone clipping devices.

Standalone Overdrive

This is the easiest thing to test. Just set your amp up to maximum clean headroom, set the volume on the pedal to around unity gain or slightly above, then crank the gain/drive, slowly dialing it back until you’ve got the right amount of dirt or crunch. This is also the most boring to me, and frankly, there have been few pedals that I’ve tested that actually work well this way – at least that sound pleasing to me.

The Hybrid Solution

My favorite way of using an overdrive – even it was meant to be an amp stack – is to use it in a “hybrid” way. That is, making it push my pre-amp into saturation and thus overdrive. Here’s how I set it up:

  1. First, I get the EQ dialed in, then I set the amp to where it’s just at the edge of breakup (with the pedal off), where rolling on volume (with my volume knob set in the middle) or attacking harder will cause my amp to break up.
  2. Next, I’ll switch the overdrive on and set the the volume to a bit past unity gain, so I get a volume boost, plus it’ll make my amp break up a bit.
  3. Then I add gain to get more crunch. I might have to back off the volume a tad as gain also adds a bit of boost.

What that gives me is a great lead tone plus a solo boost, and it’s how I use my Timmy pedal to great effect. But with the Timmy, I use a bit more boost to completely saturate my pre-amp, so I get some power tube breakup as well (typically, my master volume is dimed). Granted, this is quite loud which is why it’s such a blessing to have a great attenuator like my Aracom PRX150-Pro to keep the output volume down. Note that with the hybrid solution you have twiddle knobs to find the right balance between pedal distortion and amp distortion. Some pedals are better at adding just a touch of distortion to the signal like my Timmy, whereas others, like the TC Electronic MojoMojo are better at providing most of the distortion with just a little gain boost. You have to play…

We’re Not Finished Just Yet…

Doing a one-to-one eval against your amp is one thing, but invariably, you’re going to use an overdrive with other pedals, specifically modulation pedals. For years, I used to have all my pedals in front of my amp. I was playing a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe whose dirty tone was UGLY, so even though I had a loop, I just put all the pedals in front of the amp because I just played the amp clean. Accordingly at the time, I used OD pedals that worked well as standalone clipping devices, and it wasn’t an issue running my modulation pedals right after my overdrives. But then I started using amps that had great tube distortion, and the game changed. I was now putting modulation pedals in my effects loop and overdrive and distortion pedals in front of my amp. That called for different types of overdrives.

But especially within the context of using overdrives with modulation pedals. Once you’ve dialed in the overdrive on a one-to-on basis, you may have to make further adjustments once you introduce modulation pedals. For instance, I normally add a touch of spring reverb to my signal, plus a little slap-back analog delay. Doing that has a tendency to darken my tone a bit, so I adjust EQ on the amp, and also adjust EQ on my overdrive pedals in response.

This is sort of the tedious part of adding new gear to your chain: Every new addition changes your signal and you have to make appropriate adjustments – I’ve found especially with drive pedals – to accommodate the other pedals.

What I’ve presented here is NOT hard and fast by any means, but it should provide you a good backdrop for testing out overdrive pedals in the future.

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Click to enlarge

From the brand-spankin’-new Circus Freak Music is their latest pedal release, the Bearded Lady Fuzz. Give it a listen…

Personally, I’ve never been much of a fuzz guy myself, but at 2.04 in the clip, that tone was something that I’ve never been able to get. I just love that percussive type of tone! But I was also digging that totally squishy tone, and started thinking that I could use squished, square-wave sounds like that as background. Really need to check this out… 🙂

Anyway, as mentioned in my previous article, look for a release time of early-December; specifically, the first week of December.

Now one thing I didn’t mention about my conversation with the Circus Freak guys was on the topic of the name of the company. The explanation they gave was very cool: Just like a real circus freak, they wanted their pedals to be memorable; not just from the perspective of tone, but of looks as well. Look at that enclosure! The graphics are distinct, but the shape of the box is totally memorable! They also fabricate their own knobs! A LOT of thought went into creating this pedals, and I totally applaud what they’re doing!

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Back in 2011, Gibson got raided – twice – by the government for allegedly violating the Lacey Act, and in August of this year settled with the government for $350,000 so it could continue to import woods from India and Madagascar. There are lots of arguments on either side of what transpired, and I’ve done a lot of reading on the issue since it happened. Despite Gibson’s claim of innocence – and there are some circumstances surrounding the investigations that Gibson may not be as culpable as proponents may think – and the government’s seeming zeal in pursuing this case, I’m a bit on the fence on the whole situation. Here’s a great blog post that I found that has some lively and mostly intelligent discussion on the issue.

No matter the events of the Gibson case, I’m mostly in support of the spirit of the law, though I have commented that the Lacey Act can be a bit ambiguous when it comes to the transportation of exotic woods (I’ve read the law), for the most part, I think it does a good job to help ensure that manufacturers of products that use exotic woods are getting them from legal sources. Where the law gets murky is that it is quite possible that end-users can get prosecuted if they attempt to transport an instrument made of exotic woods and the wood sources are not documented. Can you imagine if you owned a rare, antique guitar and it was confiscated by customs because it didn’t have documentation of its wood sources? Granted, that’s extreme, and it’s highly unlikely that a single person would be prosecuted, but the possibility exists; it’s also a reason that the law is regularly reviewed and amendments have been made. But despite that murkiness, I do not agree that the law should be repealed as some representatives in Congress are proposing. To me, the solution to the issues in the law isn’t to abolish it, but provide due process to amend the law so that it’s fair to all.

No doubt, this issue is complex, not only from the manufacturers’ standpoint, but from the buyers’ perspective as well. There are those folks who refuse to purchase anything that isn’t made of exotic wood. Me? My answer is “it depends…” The reason I say that is simply this: If it sounds great, and I can express myself with the guitar, I really don’t much care about what it’s made out of. But then again, I’m not really a collector, so trade value is far less important to me than someone who knows they’ll sell eventually sell a guitar.

 

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In the U.S.,  we pride ourselves on the term “American ingenuity” which points to the adventurous spirit of the people in our country. Of course, that’s an over-generalized statement… Internationally, I’ve witnessed first-hand the conceit that that statement brings with it. But we won’t go there. But in any country, there are those who dare to risk and those who dare not. Being somewhat of a risk-taker myself, I have a sublime appreciation for those who dare, and the brand-new-not-yet-even-officially-released outfit of Circus Freak Music has definitely piqued my interest.

I was first introduced to the company with a product demo announcement email of their “Lion Tamer Compressor,” no pics, no write-up, just a link to sound clip. I was impressed; especially with the clean demo. I dug the subtlety of the effect, which to me is what a compressor should be. It’s one of those pedals that you don’t really know that it was there until you switch it off, and this compressor did exactly what I was expecting. Very cool. I replied to the email and asked for a bit more information, and even checked out their web site (which is only a single splash page right now). No reply, but I did get a new correspondence which was another product demo of their Tatooed Lady Overdrive.

I listened to that, and liked what I heard, but I was more interested in a comment made during the clip that the overdrive wasn’t a “typical” TubeScreamer type of overdrive in that it was more rounded and could do things you can’t do with a TubeScreamer. Look, I’ve heard lots of snake oil since starting this blog, but there was something about the sincerity of the statement and the clips that made me think. Besides, if you read this blog with any regularity, you know how much I love overdrive pedals, and despite there being lots of snake oil, when I see a new overdrive on the market, I look. 🙂 So I replied to that email with a bunch of questions on the overdrive, and this time I got a reply and an invitation to have a conference call with the company’s founders.

Now THAT really piqued my interest because I realized that Circus Freak wasn’t just one guy in a garage making these effects. It pointed to a real company; something you don’t see every day. Of course I accepted the invitation and we met yesterday on Black Friday – I don’t think any of wanted to brave the nutsy shopping crowds. 🙂

Prior to the meeting, they asked that I send along some questions that I would ask so they could be prepared. The meeting wasn’t so much an interview as it was an open discussion of what Circus Freak Music was all about and of course, philosophies on gear and playing guitar. So I won’t post the interview here, but I will give you a gist of our conversation.

One of my biggest curiosities – perhaps my biggest curiosity – was why the heck would someone start a pedal company and release fairly common pedals at that during an economy like this? Not that I’m saying it’s a bad thing to do, but I was a little skeptical. For all I knew – and as I mentioned previously – this could just be a garage operation. And releasing new stuff is not an inexpensive affair. But we riffed on this for several minutes, and I can safely say that these guys are the real deal.

Circus Freak isn’t just a few hobbyists getting together to create some pedals. Shannon “Shan” (CEO) is a successful businessman whose background is in electronics and production, and AJ Dunning (President) is a pro guitarist with bands like “The Verve Pipe.” Jeff (marketing) is a successful media man. They’re all guitarists. But it’s not just credentials. They have the know-how and even more importantly, the production facilities to produce their pedals in volume; speaking of which, these aren’t just kit pedals with circuitry thrown into a standard Hammond box. The enclosures are custom-fabricated. The pedals are a mix of NOS and modern components, and according to them, have been bench and gig tested over that last few years. Their intent with the company is to build a full line of pedals that are “boutique” in quality and craftsmanship, but at a price-point that’s more mainstream. While I didn’t get any exact pricing, the overdrive will probably come in at a range of $160-$180. That’s right smack-dab in TubeScreamer pricing.

It’s the business side of things that has gotten me VERY interested in Circus Freak products. They’re taking a big risk starting a new company, but I think they’re doing it the right way, and trying to get beyond the grass roots from the get-go, which unfortunately, many small operations never get out of. I’m looking to some big things from these guys.

In any case, I’m rambling on as usual… 🙂 But let me take some time to give you some highlights of our conversation:

  • One thing we talked a lot about is approach. They’re not just building on classic designs, they’re both inventing and innovating with their designs.
  • Some of the pedals we talked about (which I can’t talk about specifically – yet) are REALLY different approaches to some classic utility pedals. For instance, the features of their upcoming analog delay will make me give that pedal a SERIOUS look. In fact, I practically started salivating when I heard what they were doing.
  • They have plans for ultimately a 20-pedal product line.
  • All pedals carry a lifetime warranty. If something goes wrong, they will fix YOUR pedal. That’s pretty cool to me.
  • Most pedals will be tweakable; not only that, Circus Freak will provide instructions on how to “hot rod” their pedals, if you want to take it beyond the stock configuration.
  • On top of tweaking, they will be creating a community where you can share your tweaks with other “Circus Freaks.” VERY COOL. For myself, I’d probably never do it because I’m deathly afraid of messing with electronics, but I know of LOTS of tweakers that would love this!
  • One thing they’re building into their “front-of-amp” pedals such as compressor, OD, fuzz, etc. is lots of output volume. I especially like that feature with the compressor and OD because it allows me to slam my pre-amp, which is especially how I like to use overdrive.
  • Almost all pedals use NOS components at their core. For example, their next pedal, which is called “The Bearded Lady Fuzz” uses NOS germanium chips.
  • All pedals have all jacks positioned on the back of the pedal, which is a HUGE thing for board real estate. You don’t realize just how much horizontal space you lose when jacks are side-mounted.

All in all, lots of thought has gone into the creation of Circus Freak Music. While only time will tell of their success, they’re off to a great start. Look for an early-December launch time! In the meantime, here are some useful links to keep up with what they’re doing:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Circusfreakmusic

Web Site: http://www.circusfreakmusic.com/

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Have a Happy Thanksgiving Day!

For the folks in the United States, I want to wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving!

This morning when I woke up, I thought about what I’m thankful for. And I took this day as a day of introspection on all the things and people that have made and make a difference in my life.

Of course I’m thankful for my family, both immediate and extended. They’re the foundation in my life, and especially with my own wife and kids, they define who I am as a man. I’m very thankful for my beautiful wife who, despite us struggling at times, has stuck by me for 20 years.

I’m also thankful that even though I may not be living my dream of playing music fulltime, I have a career (software architecture and engineering) that allows me to enjoy my family and be able to gig – a LOT.

Speaking of gigging, last week, I made a record low in tips at my weekly restaurant gig. Usually, I bring home $80 to $100, but last week, I pulled in less than $20. But there’s one thing I’ve always told myself with respect to tips: It’s money I didn’t have before, so I’m thankful for ANY money I get. Besides, I get a decently hourly wage, so tips are simply icing on the cake.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. But I will end with this: Life may be difficult at times, but there’s always something for which to be thankful.

Oh! Before I get, I’m thankful for all the people who’ve taken the time to make GuitarGear.org what it is today, and wish you and yours my most sincere regards! Happy Thanksgiving!

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Are New Overdrives Irrelevant?

Over the years, I’ve tested and played and owned several overdrive pedals, from TubeScreamer types to transparent, to amp “simulator” types of overdrives. Not knowing the exact number of overdrive pedals on the market, I’d venture to guess that are probably at least a couple of hundred overdrives from different builders from which to choose that are available to guitarists today. And new overdrives continue to hit the market each year; granted, the rate at which they’re popping up seems to have slowed over the last couple of years, but people are still building them.

But given the literal glut of overdrives available to us guitarists, I continually ask myself if the new overdrives arriving on the market are relevant; or are they just a “copy cat” effort meant to capitalize on the success of previous products?

To answer that question, I’ve had to look at the landscape, as it were, of the overdrives out there (mind you, we’re talking overdrive as in “soft clipping,” not distortion or fuzz). In general, to me, overdrives fall into two camps: TubeScreamer-type overdrives, and non-TubeScreamer-type overdrives. This has more to do with history than anything else. Back in the early- to mid-70’s, Maxon came out with the OD-808, which was then picked up by Ibanez and eventually called the TubeScreamer (it was simply called Overdrive and Overdrive II before that), though early versions had the TubeScreamer brand, but the “Overdrive Pro” designation. All that aside, that original pedal, which used the JRC4558D OpAmp chip, created the foundation for several follow-on variants; but the “style” was marked by the mid-range hump that the JRC4558D chip produced. On the market today, you have several TubeScreamer variants from all sorts of builders including Danelectro and DigiTech for mainstream builders, to boutique builders such as Doodad Guitars and Tone Freak Effects.

In non-TubeScreamer land, it’s almost impossible to name builders purely because there are so many that offer so many different approaches. Some, such as Creation Audio Labs and Paul Cochrane or even TC Electronic go for transparency; other builders such as GeekMacDaddy build overdrives to simulate amp stacks; still others build pedals based upon entirely different vintage circuit topologies from the TubeScreamer such as the ColorSound Overdriver. Still others try to push the limit by combining an overdrive circuit with something else (Pigtronix comes to mind here).

Now given that, I think I’ve answered my own question. I believe that despite the shear numbers of overdrive pedals on the market, new overdrives are always relevant purely based upon their variability. Moreover, not all overdrives work well with some rigs. The reason I have so many overdrives in my possession is that depending upon the amp I’m using, some pedals just work better than others, though I do have to say my Timmy pedal works with everything I have; even my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, which is actually a pretty finicky amp.

The only problem with having so many overdrives available kind of boils down to the classic fable: You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince (or princess). That doesn’t reduce the relevance of new overdrives, but it does make it harder to find the right one for your rig.

ROCK ON!

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