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Archive for December, 2014

4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite

play_electric

TC-Helicon Play Electric

Summary: Sporting the fantastic TC Helicon vocal engine and upgraded guitar pedal effects, including several TonePrint patches – Corona Chorus, Hall of Fame Reverb, Flashback Delay – plus a very nice compressor. Play Electric adds amp emulation from its big brother, the Voicelive 3, and with the right tweaks, it’s entirely possible to plug this right into a PA and leave the amp at home.

Cons: The only little nit that I have is that the loop length is extremely short – around 15 seconds. That’s enough to capture a few bars to solo over, but there are times when you want to loop an entire verse or chorus. For that, you’ll have to use another looper. A bit of a bummer, but not enough to dismiss the power behind this unit.

Price: $349.00 Street

Features (from web site):

  • Professional Vocal Effects and Tone with natural sounding Vocal Harmonies guided by your guitar  and/or Room Sense which captures the ambient sound and can be used with piano.
  • Guitar FX styles from TC Electronic’s award-winning range of TonePrint pedals
  • Powerful amp emulations from VoiceLive 3 with a dedicated guitar output
  • User-friendly design with per-preset Vocal and Guitar FX combinations for easy performance control

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 ~ If it weren’t for the short loop length, I’d be giving this unit a 5. I got a Switch-3 switch box to control the looping, and if you’re going to use the looper, this is a must-have.

I’ve had this unit a few months, but actually didn’t start using it until a couple of weeks ago when I had holiday gigs at various venues where space was at a premium, and lugging my pedal board along with my PA was impractical. I wish I had started using it sooner… the on-board modulation effects combined with amp simulation provide a super-rich tone; equivalent to the quality of tone that I’ve come to expect. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

The first holiday gig I had was for the staff party at an assisted living facility. To get to the place I was to play, I’d have to park my car in a loading zone then carry my stuff through a couple of halls. Now normally, my load out would take two trips, but this wasn’t really an option. Conceivably, I could take my entire rig (pedalboard, gig bag, cord bag, and SoloAmp PA) in one trip, but the stuff is a bit unwieldy, and I’ve dropped my pedal board, actually ruining a couple of pedals once. So a single trip was in order.

While I was trying to figure out how to configure my rig, I remembered that I had the Play Electric unit that had everything that I needed on board. So the morning of the gig, I did a quick tweak of the guitar settings (setting them to global so they’d be the same for every vocal patch, which is a godsend of a feature, by the way), packed up my cord bag with the cords I needed plus the Play Electric, and set off to my gig.

I didn’t use the looping feature at that gig because after seeing another dude play with a VoiceLive 2 and the Switch-3 switching unit, I knew that was the way to go, and besides, I didn’t have the Switch-3 yet. But that was okay. It was only a two-hour gig, and I could do all my songs – even the ones where I normally loop – without a looper.

Setup was an absolutely breeze. I had the VoiceLive 2, so setting up wasn’t anything new. Once I was all set up, I remembered the RoomSense feature, which is an on-board mic that picks up the ambient sound in a room, and can be used to harmonize for instruments that don’t plug in; like a piano for instance…. The facility where I played had a beautiful Kawai baby grand, so I upped the sensitivity of the RoomSense mic, and tested it out. OMG!!!!! I wish I had used that with my VoiceLive 2 when I had it. I could’ve been doing harmony while playing piano all this time! Oh well… lesson learned, and where there was a piano at my holiday gigs, which was everywhere except for two places, I used the RoomSense to harmonize while playing piano.

Note that since the unit uses the same vocal processing algorithms found in all the high-end TC Helicon vocal processors, I won’t be covering harmony here, just the guitar stuff.

Packed with Features

I thought the VoiceLive 2 had tons of stuff packed into it, but the Play Electric has so much more. Here are the amp models that are offered in the unit:

Clean Brit, Cali Clean, UK Clean, Deep Clean, Bright Switch, Warm, Little Thing, Chicken Picker, Brit OD, AC Crunch, Chunky Brit, Lil Champion, Chime Drive, 2×12 Combo, 4×12 Crunch, Swamptone, Nasaltone, Brown, Scooped, Metallic, TC Electronic Dark Matter Pedal, OD Pedal, Dark OD Pedal, Distortion Pedal, Acoustic (Flat), Acoustic (Shaped/BodyRez)

On top of that, you have full EQ control in the unit to adjust the EQ settings for what every guitar you’re playing. One nice feature of the EQ is that you can “move” the midpoint frequency of the mids. This is something that you typically find on good PA boards, but I can see the sense in including a feature like that with the Play Electric. You could move it higher for a naturally warm-sounding guitar, or lower to take the edge off a bright guitar, then adjust the high, mid and low around the midpoint. Very cool feature.

On top of that, the same algorithms that power the TonePrint pedals are also in the unit. I use two of the pedals on my electric board: the Corona Chorus and Hall of Fame reverb. These are mainstays on my pedal board, and to have those pedals in the Play Electric is awesome. The delay and compression models are also quite nice. I totally dig the compressor, and even though it’s fairly simplistic, it’s adjustable enough to achieve a very rich tone.

How It Sounds

Sorry, I don’t have any sound clips to share at this time, but after using it several times, I can confidently say that both the vocal and guitar tones are awesome. But as with anything, it takes spending a bit of time dialing in the settings. Luckily this is not at all difficult with the Play Electric. The brightly lit LCD screen is super-easy to read, and frankly, you can adjust practically everything without having to refer to the manual (though admittedly, I had to refer to the manual to adjust amp EQ settings).

As far as guitar tone is concerned, though I probably should’ve tested this with an electric guitar, the plain fact of the matter is that I would use this almost exclusively in my acoustic gigs (I’m actually in between bands right now). And for that, this unit produces incredible sound; so incredible, in fact, that I will be leaving my pedal board at home going forward. Here’s a little more discussion on the pedal models:

Though the unit includes TonePrint models, it’s not exclusively limited to those. Each model includes several other non-TonePrint models that you can use (I believe these are the same found on the VoiceLive 2), which have been traditionally pretty high-quality. Personally, I didn’t use them when I had the VoiceLive 2 because I had dedicated pedals that were much better than the on-board models. But with the TonePrint models, as these are my pedals of choice for modulation effects (specifically, chorus and reverb), using them is another no-brainer.

Corona Chorus

This is not nearly as adjustable as the standalone pedal; actually none of the models are, but it’s very easy to dial in the right level and speed to get a subtle (which I prefer) to a super-wet, drippy chorus tone.

Hall of Fame Reverb

When I got this pedal a couple of years back, it soon became my go-to reverb. The spring reverb is magnificent, but it’s the plate and hall reverbs where this pedal shines. I use the hall reverb to add a subtle expanse to my guitar tone without it sounding like I’m in a simulated all. It’s just a touch to “grease” as Doug Doppler says.

Delay

I don’t know if the Flashback model is used here, but the delay is quite nice on this unit. Again, I use it very subtly to provide just a touch of slapback, with a low mix level.

Compressor

This is actually my favorite “pedal” in the unit. There are five presets available that provide either more attack, sustain, pop or pump, and you can adjust the amount and makeup gain as necessary. I use the Subtle Sustain setting, and it works great with my acoustic.

Looping

As I mentioned, my only nit about the Play Electric is the short loop length, but after playing through several of the songs I play with looping, I found that for the most part, I can live with the short loop length because the sound that the Play Electric produces completely meets my needs; moreover, the prospect of carrying one less bag makes using this an absolute no-brainer.

Wrapping It Up

Getting to the point, I dig Play Electric. I wish it had longer looping, but to get that, plus a finer control over the guitar and vocal settings, I’d have to go to the VoiceLive 3 which is more than twice the price of this unit. Could it be worth it? Possibly… probably… but it’s not expense that I can make right now (especially since I’m saving up for a Gretsch Brian Setzer) 🙂 But for what the Play Electric provides besides looping, it’s a unit that will serve me well for a long time.

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I played acoustic guitar almost exclusively for almost 30 years before made the switch to electric. Honestly though, I didn’t really make a “switch.” I added electric guitar as a regular tool in my inventory of tone. What drove me to add electric was the style of music that I was starting to explore at the time; plus, my church worship group was turning into a regular band, and though the contemporary Christian music we were playing worked fine with acoustic, frankly, many of them just sounded better with electric.

At that time, I actually did have a couple of electric guitars. But they were guitars that my little brother had lent to me, and they were in various states of disrepair, or when I could get them working, I wasn’t really playing music that needed an electric. And the only amp that I had was a 25 Watt Roland solid state amp that worked pretty well, but I also knew at the time, that I would have to get something with a bit more oomph (but that’s another story). In any case, suffice it to say that prevailing circumstances drove me towards the purchase of a new electric guitar, and thus began a journey into the wilderness of “TONE” that hasn’t stopped, even to this day.

Looking back on my experience, I thought I’d share some insights on what I’ve learned over the years. No, I won’t be telling you anything about a specific brand of guitar that you should purchase; rather, I’m going to simply provide some practical points you should consider when purchasing your first electric guitar.

1. You first have to come to terms with the fact that this will probably not be your last electric guitar.

Budgets notwithstanding, most people I know who have electric guitars almost invariably have more than one. There might be several reasons for this, but different brands and different guitar/amp configurations produce different sounds. For some, one is all they want or need. But for the majority of folks I know, once they got one, they eventually purchased another, then another, then another. I have my theories as to why this happens, but it certainly does happen.

2. You’ll never sound like Eddie Van Halen.

Or anyone else for that matter. You’ll sound like YOU. You can get pretty close to your idol, but understand that just because you get the same equipment as your favorite artist is not a guarantee that you’ll sound like them. Besides, being a copy cat is boring.

3. You can’t just buy an electric guitar. You will need an amp.

The most important point I can make with respect to an amp is that – budget notwithstanding – buy an amp that will fill the space that you will most like play. If it’s on stage, then you’ll need a bit of horsepower; especially if you won’t be miking the amp. But if you’re going to mostly play in your living space, a smaller amp will suffice.

As far as solid state vs. tubes are concerned… That’s a tough one. My personal inclination would be to go with a solid state amp like a Roland Cube or a hybrid like Line 6 DT series amp that runs on tubes but has modeling. These will get you “flavors” of the major tube amps, and that’s the important thing to note about tube amps. Each different major line: Fender, Marshall, Vox, and Mesa have specific tonal characteristics, and you need to test each individual kind to find which one you like. With a good modeling amp such as the ones I mentioned, you can get a feel for what you like before you lay out the cash to buy a traditional tube amp. Truth be told, I gigged with my Roland Cube 60 for a few years, even though I had already purchased Fender Hot Rod (which, I will say is a great tube amp to start out with).

What about boutique amps? Well, truth be told, most boutique amps are modeled after vintage models of most major brands. Victoria amps based upon traditional Fender designs. Aracom (which I play) are based upon vintage Marshall designs. Two Rock and Ceriatone are built upon mystical Dumble amp specs (these were originally Fender, if I remember). In many cases, the boutique amps correct certain design flaws and inefficiencies in the original specs, or perhaps outright copies, but they maintain the basic tonal characteristics of the designs upon which they’re based. So you still have to play several before you make a decision. So a modeling amp will buy you time to discover what characteristics appeal to you.

4. Buy what sounds good to YOU

Lots of folks you talk to about recommendations for guitars will make lots of recommendations on what to buy. The prevailing advice I hear is to get a Strat first. That’s not necessarily a bad idea. Strats are great guitars. Hell! I have three, and I also started out with a Strat based upon a recommendation from a friend. At the time, it was a great choice because I was playing almost all clean. But if I had to do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I don’t think I’d start with a Strat. I’d probably start with a Les Paul or some other humbucker-equipped guitar. I just prefer the fatter tone of humbuckers – always have. Irrespective of that, I would take a lot more time in making my choice to discover what’s appealing to me. Sure, I’d welcome the advice of others, but I’d ultimate make a decision based upon my own investigations.

5. Good tone can be achieved at any price…

Or, worded more directly. Just because you pay a higher price doesn’t guarantee that it sounds good. I’ve played lots of different guitars; some that reach into the 5-figures in cost. But that doesn’t mean the high-priced stuff sounded good to me. In fact, I have a few guitars that I paid well under $1000 that are absolute tone monsters! Case in point: My Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster that I got for $250 brand new on sale. It’s a total rocker, and one of my favorite guitars to play and gig. It has a pine body and maple neck. The prevailing wisdom would be that it shouldn’t sound that good that cheap. But it’s one of the truly great guitars in my collection. And hell, if I ever mess it up, it won’t be difficult to replace.

On the flip side, I have other guitars, like my Les Pauls, that you just can’t get cheaply. From that perspective, for that tone, I’d be willing to pay the higher price.

The point to this is that good tone is good tone. Sometimes you have to pay a high price for it, sometimes you don’t. But know this: High price doesn’t equate to good tone.

6. What about pedals?

Most likely you’ll probably want to get some pedals after you’ve purchased your guitar and amp. But if this is your first one, don’t get roped into buying pedals – yet. That said, with a modeling amp like the Line 6 or Roland Cube, you can use the on-board effects to buy yourself some time to play with pedals. But in spite of that, choosing pedals is a touchy subject because there are literally THOUSANDS of pedals out there. Again, I’m not going to recommend specific brands (though a good starter brand is BOSS), but I will recommend that you start with modulation effects first such as reverb, delay, and perhaps chorus or vibe.

Overdrive and distortion pedals are really tough to decide upon because there are tons of them out there, each providing different characteristics. And especially with overdrive pedals, you have to play lots of them. Personally, because I’ve found my fundamental tone, I tend to go with transparent overdrives like my Timmy and my new love the EHX Soul Food. But it’ll take a bit of time to find what you really like.

7. Ignore the jargon and don’t drink the Kool-Aid

This kind of points back to item 4 above about getting what sounds good to you. But it’s easy to get hot and bothered by a good sales pitch, especially if the salesperson puts on a great demonstration. Remember, you can only sound like you, so my advice when you’re testing out a guitar at a shop is to find a place to plug in and play, and forget about the demo. For all you know, the neck might not feel very good in your hands or once you start playing, the tone isn’t quite what you were expecting.

This advice extends to online demos as well. You can use the online demos as a means to get a tonal “feel” for the guitar, but in the end you will not know how a guitar performs – or any gear for that matter – until you play it yourself.

8. Build materials… er… wood

I was going to avoid talking about this, but lots of people will talk about it when you discuss guitars that I thought I should at least make some mention of it. Many people you speak to about woods will sometimes try to make you think that the woods make all the difference in the world with respect to tone. But several recent studies on this subject indicate that the type of wood has no effect whatsoever on tone, only on decay.

Personally, I’m not sure what side of the fence I fall on as each of my guitars sound different, and while my Les Pauls sound completely different from each other, they have a fairly distinct “Les Paul” tone. Same goes for all of my Strats; they all sound like Strats to me. Is this due to the wood? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I only buy what I like to play and what I like to hear, and my decision really doesn’t have much to do with woods.

For instance, when I got “Katie May” from Perry Riggs at Slash L Guitars for review, I knew wouldn’t be returning it. It felt and sounded like it was made for me! I didn’t find out what it was made of until I was ready to write a review of her, and by that time, it didn’t matter if it was made of mahogany and hard-rock maple with a rosewood fretboard. It just played and sounded incredible.

As for that research, here’s an interesting video explaining the physics behind tone:

I probably could’ve just said, “Look, if you want to get an electric guitar, go and play a bunch and figure out what you like.” But I wanted to discuss some of the “edge cases” associated with buying a guitar that could contribute to you possibly making a choice you regret later that you could avoid if you were aware of some of the gotchas.

ROCK ON!

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4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite

NineBuzz Software: Modal BuddySummary: Whether you’re a rank beginner who wants to learn about modes or a seasoned player looking for a quick refresher and reference tool, Modal Buddy provides a fresh, easy-to-understand reference that demystifies much of the hub-bub behind modes.Pros: Made for the iPhone, but easily viewable on the iPad (which is what I have the app on). Clear, step-by-step method of introducing modes. Touches on the fundamental theory behind modes, but doesn’t get bogged down in all the intricacies. Also has great backing tracks to practice.

Cons: My only nit with product is that it would be helpful to have examples of all the modes so users can hear what all the modes sound like. I suppose it’s easy enough to just discover that while playing against one of the backing tracks. But it would be a nice touch to hear an example to know what to expect.

Price: $4.99

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 ~ As simple and straight-forward as this app is, over the months that I’ve had it, I’ve returned to it several times to brush up. I’m definitely not an academic as far as playing guitar is concerned, and Modal Buddy is a great way to both learn and practice the fundamentals of modes without having to do a deep-dive into theory.

UPDATE: The app is made for the iPhone, but I run Modal Buddy on my iPad. According to Ron at NineBuzz, Modal Buddy does include example solos of all the modes. So please base my rating on running the app on an iPad.

For the better part of my performing career, I’ve played solos purely by feel. And in the past, I’ve done some leads where I ask myself, “Where the hell did I pull that out from?” What I didn’t know at those times was that unconsciously, I was applying a mode over the chord progression. But being as busy as I have been over the last several years, I didn’t – or perhaps couldn’t – take the time to investigate and analyze what I had done.

But a couple of years ago during the holiday season, I was coming up with a more contemporary arrangement of the carol, “Do You See What I See.” In the middle of tooling around with the arrangement, which I recorded so that my church band could get a feel for the arrangement, I started playing a lead that really intrigued me. I figured it was a mode, so I stopped what I was doing, then went to YouTube to find some instructional videos and possibly find out about what I was playing.

The very first video I found pretty much changed everything for me with respect to improvisation. This was by Rob “Chappers” Chapman, and I often return to it to review modes (plus Chappers is pretty funny). From that video, I realized that I was playing an F Lydian mode over a C-Bb chord progression, which gave it this really cool sustained feel. From that point on, I started investigating and learning about modes in earnest.

But to be totally honest, once you figure out how modes work; especially from such clear explanations such as those that Chappers gives, they’re really not all that mystical. But as with anything, you have to practice, and especially for someone like me who has never really taken an academic approach to music, what you need are good references. This is where Modal Buddy has become a extremely handy for me.

I took the advice of Joe Satriani in a video he did on modes and learned just a couple of modes at first; specifically, Dorian and Lyrdian. I don’t recall Joe specifically mentioning these on the video, but those were the two that made sense to me to start out with; especially Dorian because it was so easy to get to – at least for me – from a tonic, and I could easily combine it with minor pentatonic in the relative major for a minor chord progression. For me, that was totally cool to discover because for a chord progression in Am as the root chord, I could do a G Dorian, then switch to the minor pentatonic in C if I got lost, and believe me, I got lost a lot at first. 🙂 But I still use that combination just because it sounds great to me!

Sorry for the minor detour, but with respect to Modal Buddy, having a reference for the modes (it focuses on the key of G), has been invaluable for me because as opposed to going into all the deep theory (especially interval spelling, which I hate), Modal Buddy presents a mode in such a way that it’s easy to just pick up.

Granted, my only nit is that Modal Buddy only provides an example lead for the Dorian mode, and I’d like to be able to hear all of them. But with the practice tool, you can play the G scale yourself over the backing tracks. Come to think of it, that’s probably what the intent was in the first place: Rather than provide audio examples, they make you practice. Oh well… 🙂 And here’s an important point about modes that the practice tool gives you: You learn to hear what a mode sounds like given a particular chord sequence. To me, being able to hear the mode is far more important than having the intellectual knowledge of it. When you can hear a mode, you can play it. That doesn’t necessarily apply when you just learn the theory.

Now some people who get the app may say, “There’s really not much to it.” But that’s the beauty of Modal Buddy. It gives you a quick reference on modes and doesn’t bog you down in the deep theory. If you want that, you can read a book, or go on YouTube for that stuff. For me, having the most important fundamentals of modes available to me is a lot more important than having an academic understanding. After all, I gig 3-4 times a week, and I just don’t have the time to spend studying.

Modal Buddy is by no means the do-all and end-all to modes. But as the name implies, it’s a great companion app to have around when you need to quickly brush up.

ROCK ON!

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