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Archive for April, 2014

A reader commented on an earlier post that our perception of sound changes with volume, challenging my claim that high-end attenuators are the most transparent of the lot of attenuators on the market. As opposed to getting all worked up about this apparent heresy, that statement instead got me thinking; I suppose in this case, wisdom prevailed. 🙂

Perhaps my idea of “transparency” has been flawed; perhaps everyone’s perspective of transparency is flawed because if you think about it, anything that you add to your signal chain beyond your guitar and amp will change your sound, be it volume, be it tone via modulation effects, be it overdrive or distortion. So really, what are we talking about when we say something’s transparent?

From a strict audio perspective, if the noise and distortion from an audio device is too soft to hear at normal volumes, and the frequency response is flat enough to not notice a difference between engaged and bypassed, then that device can be considered audibly transparent (From “Defining Audio Fidelity” at SonicScoop.com). Looking at transparency that way from a guitar gear standpoint, nothing is transparent but a booster or volume pedal; but then again, if the booster pushes your amp into overdrive, then is that really transparent?

After thinking about it though – for actually several weeks at this point – perhaps my idea of transparency has to do with expectation; that is, when I engage an effect or place a passive device like an attenuator in my signal chain, do I still sound like me? Is what I expect my fundamental tone still present? Are the dynamics I’m used to without that device still there?

In the case of an attenuator, what I’m looking for is no change in my expected dynamics and little to no loss of highs, which happens a lot with other attenuators, perception of sound at the lower volume aside.

But what about transparent overdrives? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, there’s no such thing. Overdrives add clipping, albeit soft-clipping, but clipping just the same. Clipping is NOT transparent. Maybe the manufacturers mean that they keep your EQ response flat at neutral EQ settings on the pedal, then add clipping. That’s transparent from an EQ perspective, but even still, I don’t know of any overdrive pedal where I don’t mess with the EQ in response to the grit I’ve just added.

Furthermore, almost all overdrives add varying levels of compression and sustain. This makes for a more expansive “bigger” sound, which most people will describe as having “more” of your sound present when the pedal’s switched on. Case in point: With my new EHX Soul Food overdrive, even with no gain added and at unity volume and flat EQ, while I don’t detect any changes to the EQ, there is definitely a bit more sustain. Add a bit of gain and enough volume to push my pre-amp into breakup, mix in a little treble boost, and suddenly my tone comes alive!

What’s happening when I switch on the Soul Food is not at all transparent. But it sounds so damn good to me, who the hell cares? And I guess that’s the rub of all this transparency business. Perhaps it all boils down to our expectation of a device not taking away from our tone. With respect to the Soul Food, it doesn’t take anything away, but it actually adds to my tone. When I had my amp up at gig volumes, what it added were noticeable overtones and harmonics that created a gorgeous shimmer to my tone. I still sounded like me, but there were other dimensions to my sound that were suddenly present when I had the Soul Food on.

Thanks for sticking with me thus far… The kicker to all this is that unlike other articles where I discuss a particular issue, I’m not going to take a stand on transparency, but rather share that I now have my doubts about exactly what “transparency” means. It would be interesting to get other perspectives…

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In 1978, I was sixteen years old, a sophomore in high school, really getting into rock and roll, like Peter Frampton, Santana, Journey, and even heavier stuff like Deep Purple (and no, not just because of “Smoke on the Water”). One day at school, a buddy of mine, Jim Morello were talking about what bands we were into at the time, and he mentioned that he totally dug “Mahogany Rush,” and he handed me a cassette of “Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush – Live” and told me to give it a listen.

I took it home, popped it into my portable stereo, and was immediately HOOKED! Here was a dude that didn’t sing in a tenor like most everyone at the time (you can blame Steve Perry, Lou Gramm, and Brad Delp for that), and could play guitar like no one’s business! He voice immediately reminded me of Jimi Hendrix. But his guitar playing was completely different, and nothing like I’d heard at the time. I completely wore out that tape, and when that wore out, I bought the vinyl, and played that – a lot. It even went to college with me.

Now fast-forward 36 years to the present day, and for some reason that conversation with Jim all those years ago popped into my head. Curious to see if I could listen to that beloved album, I went on Spotify, and sure enough, it was there. I listened to it three times!

Frank Marino was compared to Jimi Hendrix in his heyday. But his style and tone were completely different. He certainly was a huge fan of Jimi’s and he covered his songs, but Frank Marino had a sound all his own.

I found a recording of a concert he did in 1979. Before you watch/listen from the beginning, I’d ask you to skip to the 22:00 minute mark. Here he starts a jazz/rock song that exemplifies his phrasing. In that song, he doesn’t do anything technically sophisticated, but the ease of which he bounces between Phrygian, Lydian and Aeolian modes then adds in some minor Pentatonic is amazing to me. Talk about mastery over pitch axis! I doubt he’s even thinking about modes. His command of his SG is awesome!

Frank Marino is still around and playing. To me, he is one of the best rock guitarists of our time; yet like Ronnie Montrose, never received the accolades other guitarists received. In any case, if you have Spotify, look for Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush Live. It’s the only album I could find of his on Spotify, and really the only recording that’s decent.

 

 

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

ElectroHarmonix Soul Food Overdrive

Summary: Billed as a clone of a Klon Centaur (or “klone” as some put it), this overdrive purports to offer the same tone capabilities as that pedal but at five times less the original cost, and twenty times less than what they’re going for on eBay.

Pros: The Soul Food falls into my “ideal” category of overdrives: Pushing my front-end, but enhancing my tone. Super-usable Treble Boost; very touch-sensitive and expressive. Lots of boost on tap.

Cons: None.

Price: ~$62.00 – $65.00 Street

Features (from EHX site):

  • Transparent overdrive
  • Boosted power rails for extended headroom and definition
  • Super responsive
  • Compact, rugged design
  • Selectable true bypass or buffered bypass modes
  • 9.6DC-200 power supply included. Also runs on 9 Volt battery

Tone Bone Rating: 5.0 ~ Some people have billed this as a one-trick-pony in that it is best used to boost the front end of an amp at the edge of breakup, then add just a bit of grind. To be honest, that really is the pedal’s sweet spot. But what it does to my tone with just that makes it highly expansive with respect to sustain, overtones, and harmonics, giving me an enhanced palate of drive and nuance. That’s no one-trick-pony to me.

I’m going to just get this out of the way right now: The Soul Food is NOT a transparent overdrive, no matter how it’s touted. As an aside, I think this whole transparency thing in the gear world is a little overblown. Yeah, I know, I’ve been on the transparency wagon for a long time, but I’ve started reconsidering my whole notion of transparency. I’ve been working on an article that discusses this that I’ll release some time. But everything you add to your signal chain is going to alter your tone in some way. Granted, if you ONLY use the pedal as a boost, with neutral EQ, and zero gain, then I suppose you could call it transparent. But let’s be realistic; I don’t know of any overdrive pedal that I’d use where I didn’t adjust the EQ to fit the gear I’m playing and also add varying levels of grit. With respect to the Soul Food, it may not be transparent, but WHO CARES? 🙂

I’ll also say this: This pedal is the shit! I’ve never played a Klon, but if this pedal does anything near what the Klon does, then I’m not surprised why people are paying upwards of $1000 to $1500 for that pedal, but I’ll pay $62 all day! But that said, don’t mistake my enthusiasm for getting great tone for so cheap. I’m excited about the tone, period! If this pedal cost $200, I’d buy it for its wonderful sound.

I realize there are folks who say this sounds nothing like a Klon. I’ve viewed and listened to several demos head-to-head demos, and yes, there are differences; though I have to admit that the differences I observed were fairly subtle, at least recorded. But to me, based upon playing it for several hours over the last couple of days, I couldn’t care less how close or far away it is from a Klon. This pedal stands on its own as a great overdrive pedal.

EHX Is Classy

I mentioned this in my first impressions article, but EHX definitely went the extra mile with the Soul Food. Not only do you get the pedal, they include a 9V power supply as well! You might say ho-hum but to me it says a lot that a company would be willing to throw in some extra stuff for such an inexpensive pedal.

How It Sounds

In a word, awesome! I’m not excited about this pedal just because it cost me less than $70. That’s certainly something to be excited about. But to get the tone and performance that the Soul Food delivers at this price-point just blows me away. EHX has totally hit the ball out of the park with this pedal irrespective of it being a “klone.” Plain and simple, this is just a great overdrive pedal! Ancestry aside, the Soul Food stands on its own.

I’ve created some clips, but as opposed to saving the discussion till after, I’ll discuss it now. When I first hooked up the pedal, I did the usual thing I do with overdrives and set the volume to unity gain (about 10am), zeroed out the drive, and placed the treble boost at neutral (noon) – all through a totally clean amp. The first thing I noticed when I switched it on was how the Soul Food brought out subtle harmonics and overtones. My tone was also a little fatter, but with the high-frequency artifacts, also had a little more top-end sparkle. That alone was simply yummy to me and it got even sweeter when I upped the gain on my amp to the edge of breakup, then added a bit of treble boost and drive to the pedal.

When I found the sweet spot of the Soul Food, the skies parted and a chorus of angelic host sang out in joy. Not really. But lots of great things happened. What you get is more sustain, great touch-sensitivity, incredible response to both attack and volume knob changes, wonderful grind, all while maintaining note separation. One would think that with the extra sustain the tone would be muddy and feel squished, but not so with the Soul Food. Again, if this comes close to a Klon, I can see why that pedal is so highly coveted. There’s definitely some tonal magic that’s happening with the Soul Food.

When I first get overdrive pedals, I try to be as skeptical as possible about them. They have to prove to me that they’re worth the money I’ve spent or if they live up to the hype. Within the first few minutes of getting the pedal, the Soul Food proved definitely its worth, and then some. The cool thing though was that it wasn’t EHX that was creating the hype. It was bloggers such as myself who were testing it out and writing positive reviews of the pedal. It just simply kicks ass!

I realize that there are those who pooh-pooh the Soul Food as a cheap imitation. But as I said above, this pedal can stand on its own, regardless of its supposed ancestry. For me, I’ve never had the opportunity to play a Klon, so I really don’t know for certain what it can do. If it does what the Soul Food does, but just better. That’s awesome. But I’m absolutely digging what the Soul Food is doing for my tone right now!

Okay… Time for clips!

This first clip is very short and demonstrates the sustain you get when the pedal is switch on. I’m playing my 59 Les Paul replica with the “woman tone” (volume cranked, tone to zero).

This next two clips demonstrate the clarity and definition that the Soul Food provides when switched on, making your sound just come alive. I suppose you could say that this is a demo of what the Treble Boost can do. Here I’ve got it set at 2pm. My replica is in the middle pickup position, with both volumes at about 6, and tones all the way up.

Did I mention that the Soul Food is incredibly responsive? In this clip, I’m just noodling. I start out with little blues riff in E major with the pedal off, then I switch it on and go from a light touch to greater attack. The pedal responds beautifully!

Finally, here clips from First Impressions article (I’ve just taken the whole excerpt so I don’t have to re-explain everything). All clips below were played on R8 Les Paul:

Testing the Treble Boost, from 0 to all the up

In this one, I have the drive set to noon, and the volume set to unity, so all the grit is coming from the pedal. Not really my favorite setting. But apparently, it’s the same with the Klon. It was best used with predominant boost against an amp on the edge of breakup, then add gain to taste.

This next one is with the pedal in its sweet spot for my R8: Volume at 12, gain at around 10am, and EQ at about 2pm.

Finally, I did a quick lead in the lead break of a song I wrote.

Overall Impression

Notice I didn’t do a “Fit and Finish” section as I normally do. EHX pedals are very well-constructed. I’ve never had a problem with one dying on me because of structural issues. Frankly though, the Soul Food isn’t going to win any beauty contests. It’s just a Hammond box with a sticker placed on the top. But who cares? It’s job isn’t to look good; it’s to sound good, and it does that in spades!

I always say that I’m done with overdrive pedals. And to be honest, once I got my Timmy, it was pretty much game over. The Timmy is truly what I’d consider a transparent overdrive. The Soul Food isn’t all that transparent, but it will surely be a great addition to my board, and I’m hoping a great stacker (haven’t played with that yet).

I’ll say it one last time: The Soul Food stands on its own as a great overdrive pedal. I don’t bandy about 5 Tone Bone ratings. There’s a reason this got my highest score: It sounds so good that it’s gone directly to my board and staying there!

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After a short wait for a couple of weeks for stocks to be replenished, I finally got my EHX Soul Food delivered today. I just finished playing it for a couple of hours straight, and I will say this: I am NOT surprised why this pedal is so popular. It’s touch-sensitive and extremely expressive, and I simply couldn’t be happier with this pedal than I am right now.

Also, I will say this right off the bat: I know that the Soul Food is supposed to be a part-for-part clone of the Klon Centaur, but I actually don’t really care about whether it sounds like a Klon or not. I’ve never seen or played a Klon in person, so I have no reference point. In spite of that, to me the Soul Food can stand entirely on its own as a great overdrive pedal; “klone” or not. If it indeed is at least similar to a Klon, then I understand why the Klon is so coveted.

This overdrive has sent me into absolute overdrive bliss! Unlike my Timmy – which will always be on my board – the Soul Food adds a bit of color, but in such a wonderful way that I will daresay that I will probably be keeping this overdrive on my board next to my Timmy.

Within the first few minutes of plugging in the pedal, I noticed that the Soul Food performed a little magic with my tone by boosting the harmonics in my signal. Even in the neck pickup of my R8, which can sound a bit muffled at times, the sparkle was spectacular, and I felt as if the tone in my neck pickup suddenly came to life.

The other thing I noticed right away was the usable EQ. One complaint I have about a lot of overdrive pedals is that the EQ’s are weak. There’s just not that much difference when you move the EQ knobs around. But the single EQ – which is really a treble boost/cut – on the Soul Food is incredibly useful. Set at noon, it’s neutral, then you boost or cut treble by turning the knob right or left respectively. The sweet spot for my R8 was between 1pm and 2pm. That just made the tone of my guitar, no matter what pickup I was using – just jump out. Quite lovely!

Here’s a thing to consider if you’re not sure about an overdrive pedal: Play around with the EQ settings before you get rid of the pedal. You might be pleasantly surprised. Personally, I’ve never liked an overdrive where the EQ’s were set at neutral. I’ve found you have to set them for each different guitar that you use. With my R8, just adding a bit of treble boost really helped the naturally deep tone of that guitar. I imagine I’ll do a little cut with my 59 replica.

Anyway, here are some clips I recorded while tooling around (the first three are with my R8’s neck pickup, the last is played with the bridge pickup)…

Testing the EQ

In this one, I have the drive set to noon, and the volume set to unity, so all the grit is coming from the pedal. Not really my favorite setting. But apparently, it’s the same with the Klon. It was best used with predominant boost against an amp on the edge of breakup, then add gain to taste.

This next one is with the pedal in its sweet spot for my R8: Volume at 12, gain at around 10am, and EQ at about 2pm.

Finally, I did a quick lead in the lead break of a song I wrote.

As I said, I’m in overdrive bliss. I love how this pedal sounds!

ROCK ON!

Update

Totally forgot to mention that for a pedal that costs less than $70, EHX could’ve just packaged up the pedal in a box and leave it at that, letting the pedal speak for itself. But not only do you get the pedal, EHX included a 9V power supply as well! That’s just so cool to me, and so very classy of EHX to go the extra mile for its customers.

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I love the anticipation of getting new gear delivered; when I check the shipper’s site and the delivery status says, “Out for Delivery.” Puts a smile on my face every single time. 🙂

Today I will be receiving a much-anticipated pedal: The EHX Soul Food. After seeing videos and hearing sound clips of the pedal, this is a pedal that I knew I had to try; even if I ultimately didn’t like it. But at the price I paid ($66 +shipping), I wouldn’t be cryin’ a river if it didn’t work out. But something tells me that it will, especially as mostly a booster, which is something I’ve been wanting to add to my chain to stack with my Timmy.

Yes, I have a booster pedal: The incredible Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23. But I use that AFTER my pre-amp to boost my power tubes. It doesn’t provide a big boost of volume, but it certainly gets them saturated. It’s a VERY cool effect that I learned from Mean Gene Baker.

In any case, I’ve been searching for a soft- to medium-overdrive with lots of volume, and after listening to the Soul Food clips and videos, I’m sincerely hoping it’ll do the job. Only time will tell. 🙂

But for now, I’m waiting with bated breath!

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My choice of strings has evolved over time. I’ve played with everything from pure nickel to nickel-plated steel to pure steel, to most recently cobalt-wound steel. I loved the warmth of pure nickel for clean to mildly gritty tunes, but they just didn’t seem to cut it when I started getting into more straight-up rock. I wanted more bite and aggressive attack that nickel strings just couldn’t give me.

So within the past year, I moved to Ernie Ball Cobalt and RPS Super Slinky strings. Talk about an awakening! The “pop” and “snap” that I had envisioned in my head was suddenly… there. I’ve been an Ernie Ball convert since!

Recently, Ernie Ball came out with a new line of strings, the “M-Steel” line which they claimed to be their highest-output strings to date. I of course had to try them, so I contacted the company – which is something I don’t do very often – to see if I could get a review set. They sent me set of .11-.48 which is a heavier gauge than the 10’s I normally play. But no matter, I strung up my guitar, made mild adjustments to my neck and intonation, and played for a little while to break them in.

I didn’t actually play with them for very long because I wanted the strings to settle for a day, but I gave them some earnest time this evening. I was a little nervous about the heavier gauge of the strings; they certainly had a heavier feel to them. But as I played, I realized that I wasn’t really pressing any harder than I normally press, and then just went about the business of playing. After about two hours straight of noodling, jamming, and riffing (I’ll have some clips later), I have to say that I’m pretty impressed with these strings! I’m looking forward to using them this weekend!

How they feel…

When I first strung up my guitar, the strings felt coated with some sort of powder, much like Wyres strings have that plastic polymer coating on them. But that feeling goes away after playing for awhile. In any case, once that coating wears into the strings, they’re certainly slinky. Moving around the fretboard with these strings is like butter. Even for 11’s, they bend nicely – really nicely. I could’ve played all night, but I had to be conscientious of my neighbors. 🙂 I love how they feel!

How they sound…

As they say, the proof is in the pudding, and once these strings got broken in a bit, they sounded freakin’ awesome! The higher gauge really brings out the low end, but you don’t lose that top-end sparkle. One thing I immediately noticed with these strings was the SUSTAIN!!! It’s insane. I did the “woman tone” thing on my neck pickup (crank the volume, turn the tone all the way down), and my guitar seemed to howl with this haunting, hollow tone. Quite lovely!

As I mentioned above, I’ll have some clips pretty soon. They’re actually finished, but I was too tired to bounce them.

Anyway, here’s the product description from the Ernie Ball site:

The loudest, most expressive strings ever created. Provides increased output, frequency response, and strength.

M-Steel, short for Maraging Steel, is a superalloy used in high stress applications for the aerospace and defense industries.  The wound strings are comprised of a patented Super Cobalt alloy wrapped around a Maraging steel hex core wire, producing a richer and fuller tone with powerful low end response.  M-Steel plain strings are comprised of a specially tempered steel for maximum fatigue resistance.  A patented winding of steel around the ball end of the plain strings reduces slippage, breakage and stays in tune better than conventional plain strings.

Check ’em out!

Update

I played my R8 once again this morning before going to work, trying to find a better description of how the strings sound with my guitar. After a bit of playing, I realized that my guitar didn’t sound different, but the tone was markedly more beefy; not to be mistaken with warmer. There just seemed to be MORE of it. My R8 naturally has a deeper, more woody tone than my 59 Replica, so hearing it sing like that in sort of a lower register is pretty awesome. 🙂 And funny thing, I’m going to stick with 11’s on that guitar from now on. I love the feel of ’em.

Based upon my playing this morning, I’m going to get a set of 10’s for my 59 Replica. These are simply awesome strings.

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So I got this email from the Fender PR department telling me about their new guitar configurator called “Design Your Own.” So I went down to the Fender site and designed my dream Strat. Pretty cool stuff! I guess Fender figured if car manufacturers could do this (I designed my 2014 C7 Corvette), they could do it too. And why not? It’s totally cool to be able to spec out and also see what you’re going to buy (or at least plan or dream about buying).

You know me, I’m not too much into gimmicks, and on the surface, this might seem like one, but it’s actually pretty cool. Check it out!

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