Archive for October, 2016

Quality Gear Matters

I’ve gotten the recording bug again. But it’s different this time because I’ve had to do a necessary upgrade to my recording equipment, as my old audio interface just doesn’t work with my new computer. So I recently purchased an M-Audio M-Track 2X2M and I love it! It has the features that I need for my simple uses, and the best thing is that it’s relatively compact compared to my old MBox2.

But more importantly, the sound quality of this unit versus the MBox2 is worlds apart better! I first noticed it in my studio headphones, the venerable AKG K240. I couldn’t believe that they could sound this good. Then tonight, since it is Halloween, and my son had a bunch of friends over, I went into my man cave to do some mastering.

I hooked up my trusty Roland DS-5 reference monitors, and just couldn’t believe my ears! The bass response was absolutely crisp and clear. With my old MBox2, the bass response was really muddy. But I could actually make out the note separation for the first time since I go those speakers over ten years ago!

The point to all this is that as the title says, quality gear matters. Sometimes it’s more expensive, but a lot of times, it’s affordable. If I had to do it all over again, I probably would’ve invested in a slightly more expensive audio interface instead of my MBox2. But I was just starting out back then and didn’t know any better. Sure, hindsight is 20/20 but I do believe a slightly larger investment back then would’ve yielded me MUCH higher quality recordings.

And frankly, in the case of the M-Track, though I could’ve gotten a nice Focusrite 6i6, it was more than I needed. Plus, I saw a GREAT video demo of the M-Track and that convinced me that it would give me the sound quality that I needed. And hey! At $149, if it breaks, I can just get another (I did spend the $23 for a 2-year replacement warranty, so I’m good for a couple of years).

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I’m at my happiest when I’m making music; either gigging or writing and recording songs. And for recording music, I’ve been using some pretty antiquated software and hardware that has served me well these past 10 years. But I knew these past few months that I would have to eventually upgrade as the Macbook that I was using was dying a slow death and rather than get it repaired, which would cost more than what the machine is now worth, I decided to move over to my newer Macbook that I keep up to date with the latest stuff. But moving also meant that I could no longer use my trusty MBox 2 which was made for a much older version of OSX was going to be unusable.

As fate would have it, my old Macbook finally died, and to make matters worse, I had come up with a new song for which I wanted to lay down tracks so I wouldn’t forget it.

I sort of solved the problem, at least musically, by recording my guitars into GarageBand on my new Macbook using an IK Multimedia StealthPlug. And though I knew my sound quality would suffer, I knew it would have to serve while I searched out different audio interface solutions.

After spending the next few days reading reviews and coming to terms with my allowable budget for a new unit, I narrowed it down to three units: Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6, Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 (2nd Gen), and the M-Audio M-Track 2X2M. I REALLY liked the Focusrite, but it was just at the very edge of my comfort zone with respect to price and I have learned to be disciplined in that department after having wasted thousands on gear in the past. I then set my sights on the Komplete Audio 6, and that was a very cool machine. It was close to the price of the Focusrite – about 30 bucks less expensive – but far enough below my threshold that I was okay with the price, and I was all set to get it. Then I saw a video review on the M-Track 2X2M and was very impressed with its features and its price of only $149.

My needs for recording are actually pretty simple: I’m not in the business of creating production-quality recordings; I just want good enough quality to achieve reasonably-sounding demos. I need two inputs so I can record acoustic and vocal simultaneously if I want, but I also need MIDI. As long as a unit had those things, and had reasonable sound quality, I’d be fine. And after seeing that review, going for the M-Track was a pretty easy decision. It had everything that I needed plus I’ve got some M-Audio gear, and have always been satisfied with their quality. On top of that, M-Audio gear is notoriously compatible with Macs; you never need a special driver. I didn’t know if the other units required a special driver, but I knew that the M-Track would work with my Mac right out of the box. So I got the unit.

Once I hooked it up, which involved nothing more than connecting the included USB cable, I was up and running. When I opened up GarageBand, it automatically detected that I had hooked up a new audio interface and asked me if I wanted to use it. Simple as that!

As far as the unit itself, I DIG IT! It is a lesson in simplicity. There are gain control knobs for the inputs, a USB/Direct mix level knob to adjust how much you hear from your DAW and how much from your instrument and finally, a headphones volume. The big knob in the center is to control your monitor output. I record with headphones when I’m in the house, so I haven’t used that feature yet. But I will when I record amps in my home studio.

As far as sound quality is concerned. I don’t think I have sensitive enough ears to be able to tell the difference between this and a more expensive unit, but I can say that the sound quality of this unit versus my old MBox2 is drastically better. With my MBox 2, I had to do a lot of tweaking in my DAW to get decent sounds, and I always felt my raw recordings of instruments were a little dry. But the M-Track’s clarity is lightyears beyond the MBox 2. Though I couldn’t do a side-by-side comparison, after years of having to deal with the MBox 2 sound quality, just being able to get great recordings and not have to tweak them except for adding effects and adding “normal” dynamics like compression was simply a godsend!

Finally, I couldn’t detect ANY latency with this unit whatsoever. That’s always a concern with audio interfaces. But I have a late-model MacBook so it’s fast all-around. It also helps that I was using a decent DAW. What, you don’t think GarageBand is up to snuff because it comes free with OSX? If it was an older version, I’d tend to agree with you on that. But GarageBand’s audio engine is built from the same core as Logic, so it’s essentially a dummy’s version of Logic. The sound quality from that is pretty good. Here’s the new song I recorded last night that proves it.

Is it production-quality? Probably not because Logic is infinitely more tweakable than GarageBand. But for my purposes, it creates stupendous sound!

A Quick Word on GarageBand

This program has come so far since I began using it, especially in the drum loops department. For years, I pieced together drum loops to create my drum tracks. It was so obvious that I was using loops because there are only so many fills and tweaks you could make on an audio loop, thus it was very limiting. But at least with this version of GarageBand, there’s Smart Drums, and I have to say that I’m completely blown away by this. On the surface, it’s just like dropping in a regular audio loop. But what you can do with that loop is incredible! Smart Drums allows you change the complexity and attack, change the toms and cymbals, and add some background percussion as well. Then on top of that, by twiddling a virtual knob, you can adjust the loop to have fills in the loop itself!

To be honest, I discovered this feature a bit accidentally. But after I started playing with it, I was hooked! I finally could get decent drum tracks and not have to pore over an endless succession of loops to get the right mix. It made the work of getting a decent-sounding drum track incredibly fast. For instance, for “Loved” above, once I finally worked on the drum track, which I always do last because it has been such a pain in the ass, I couldn’t believe that I finished in about 15 minutes! It normally would take me an hour or more.

As far as other stuff is concerned, the one thing GarageBand has for it is incredible simplicity. But all that is relative. Coming from the Logic world, even though Logic is much more complex, GarageBand follows the same UI paradigm, so where I’d expect things to be in Logic are in similar places in GarageBand. If I start using the included Cubase LE that came with the M-Track, it will be a different story.

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Image courtesy of Mike & Mike's Guitar Bar

Over the years, I’ve probably spent in the tens of thousands of dollars on gear; from guitars to amps and effects, to cords and power strips, to microphones and recording/PA equipment, to chairs and stands. Looking back, that stuff adds up! On top of that, when I started going on a gear-buying binge back in the early 2000’s then started writing about the gear I’d buy or potentially buy, I started to gain a keen insight on evaluating gear, so I thought I’d share how I evaluate gear for purchase.

This isn’t intended to include stuff like music/gear stands or cords or other common things like that (I know, some may argue about some cords not being common, but I’m not going to go there). It also doesn’t include things like recording hardware and software or microphones and what-not. What I want to focus on is gear that actually directly produces or affects your tone in some way, shape, or form; specifically, guitars, amps, and effects. So here goes…

The Seven Steps to Gear Nirvana

  1. Check its visual appeal
    1. Does it look good? If so, move on…
  2. Plug it in and play as is
  3. Tweak it to dial in volume and EQ (if necessary)
  4. Play it again.
    1. Play chord progressions and little solos.
    2. NOTE: Be honest, and play it how you’d normally play it. For instance, don’t try to see it does metal if you’re a blues player. That’s a distraction.
  5. Repeat 3 and 4 until you get a feel for it in all its playable range from both a sound and touch perspective. At this point, you might say it’s crap. But if you like it after playing it, move on.
  6. Check it for construction quality:
    1. Are there any loose knobs?
    2. Are there any obvious flaws?
    3. Are there open seams that you don’t expect to be there?
    4. Is it sturdy enough to withstand your intended use for it.
      1. For instance, if it’s plastic, but you’re just going to use it in your bedroom, chances are it’ll be okay.
  7. This is a late addition and a great suggestion by a reader: Check the weight.
    1. Think about what you’re lugging on stage. I gig – a lot – and it’s an issue.
  8. Finally, check your wallet.
    1. Everyone has a different budget, so what you’re willing to pay is entirely up to you.

Some might question item 1. But more often than not, I hear people say, “This thing LOOKS SO COOL!” So, visual appeal is a factor to consider. For me, I can’t stand the look of pre-worn guitars, no matter how good they might sound or play (though I did make an exception with my pre-worn ’59 Les Paul Replica). If my guitar shows scratches, dings, or wear marks, I want to be the one who does all that. But that’s me. Frankly, I prefer a nice, shiny guitar. Or take, for instance, my Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay. For goodness sake, it’s a pedal! But that blue power coat finish and the bright blue LED just look killer on my board! 🙂

At first blush, this process seems almost too simplistic. But I developed this process from reviewing gear for this blog. After all, I’d only review gear that I would consider buying. But also, since I have a regular day job and review time was at a premium, I had to find a simple, repeatable way to evaluate gear, and it had to be simple enough so that I could easily remember what I did. Turns out, I could use this process not matter where I was, and on any kind of gear.

In any case, try it out when you evaluate your next set of gear!

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20161017_102120First, a little history…

My very first tube amp was a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. I got it based on a conversation I’d had with Noel at Tone Merchants in Orange, CA back in 2007; soon after I created this blog. In fact, my Hot Rod Deluxe was the reason I created this blog in the first place! It started making me think about gear combinations, and thus GuitarGear.org was born in January of 2007.

I remember the conversation. It was sometime around November 2006. At the time, I was playing an earlier model Line 6 and a Roland Cube 60. Both amps served me well for playing with my church band, and from 2001 through 2006, I just played those two amps (also, I’d occasionally use a Roland JC120).

But as I started getting the gear bug (I had already started to acquire a few guitars and a bunch of pedals), I realized that where I was lacking was in the amp department. So I started going on the gear boards, and I saw a reference to Tone Merchants and gave them a call. Noel answered the phone, and we must’ve chatted for at least a half-hour. He explained how tube amps worked and how they respond to various inputs and how different types of tube configurations produce different sounds. I remember telling him that my head was spinning.

He laughed and said that the trick with tube amps is that you have to play a bunch until you find the right sound for you. This is where he made the distinction between Marshall and Fender tones, and until I knew what I liked, he recommended I don’t buy a boutique amp right away. Instead, he said that I should get a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. It was a great platform with which to start out. I could learn about swapping tubes and replacing speakers. And then once I’d gotten the hang of a tube amp, I could start looking at other amps. So I got a Hot Rod Deluxe II. Then over the next few years acquired a bunch more amps, all in search of that elusive unicorn of tone.

Now I’ve come full circle. I’m back in a band that plays mostly 60’s – 70’s classic rock, but I’ve also made a foray into writing and playing reggae. Clean is the name of the game with almost everything I’m playing right now, and if I need some dirt, I just switch on an overdrive or distortion pedal. And since I’m gigging with the band, I’ve been wanting to use a simpler combo as opposed to my separate heads and cabs. Those give me a lot of versatility, but the fewer pieces to lug, the better.

Fixing my amp

With respect to the Hot Rod, it worked for a long time and though I didn’t use as much, I still played it. But about a year ago, I was recording a new reggae song, and it just started cutting out after a few minutes. And being in a rush to lay down a track, I just switched amps, not wanting to deal with my failed amp. So I covered up the Hot Rod and put it back on its shelf, where it stayed until this morning.

I recently wrote a blog post about the Fender Ultra Chorus and said I wanted to get one. But I thought to myself this morning that rather than getting yet another amp, let me see if all that was wrong with the Hot Rod was a bad power tube. Luckily I had a matched set of spare JJ 6L6GCs in my tube drawer.

So I pulled my amp off the shelf, I plugged the power tubes in, and let the amp run for several minutes in standby mode. Then I started playing and found absolutely nothing wrong. Damn! There was that Fender clean tone! And with the scooped tone of the Eminence Red Coat “The Governor” speaker that I installed years ago, it was simply audio honey!

I love it when a fix goes this easy! Especially for me, deathly afraid of electronics, swapping out tubes is about the most I will do. But more importantly, I now my gigging amp! I never thought I’d use my Hot Rod Deluxe again, but as they say, needs must.

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Yesterday, I had band rehearsal. But since I had a gig immediately after, I just brought my little ’58 Champ in a custom 1 X 10 cabinet to keep things simple. When I arrived, our drummer, whose house we use for practice, told me to take our lead singer’s normal spot as he was out of town. And sitting there was a Fender amp. I immediately said, “Since there’s already an amp there, I’ll just plug into that instead of setting up my rig, since it’ll be faster to get set up and strike down.”

At first, at a distance, I thought it was a Twin, but when I could see it closer, I saw that it was an Ultra Chorus. I had actually never heard of an Ultra Chorus and figured it was one of the cheaper solid state Fender amps. But I thought, Whatever. We’re just practicing and it’ll do…

So I just set up my EWS Little Brute Drive, plugged in my guitar and ran a cord to the amp, and flipped the amp’s switch to the “On” position. Immediately, I got a scratching sound because I was moving my hand on the fretboard. I forgot that with a solid state amp, you get sound – now. 🙂 But it also gave me pause because even though the volume knob was set to 4, the amp was loud; too loud even for practice and a full band, so I turned it down to 1.

I just started twiddling to get warmed up, and I just couldn’t help but notice just how good the amp sounded. I played it purely clean with a little reverb and a touch of chorus mixed into the sound. I was floored at the tone! My Les Paul sounded so deep and pure. I just closed my eyes and started playing some clean runs and chord progressions. The tone was dropping me into the zone!

Not really thinking about it, I started playing the opening riff to “Dock of the Bay,” just vamping on the G, then our bassist joined in, then the drummer picked it up. Our keyboard player took notice and she started playing, and then I just started going off with a clean solo for an intro, nodded to our singer, and she just opened up.

Throughout practice, I was doing runs and fills or playing under our singer, or adding little touches when I was singing. I was so inspired by the tone, I just went off. After finishing Duffy’s “Warwick Avenue,” our keyboard player commented that that was the best rendition we’d played, and then our drummer said he liked the guitar work. I immediately said, “You know, when I’m feeling inspired, I just get lost in the sound, and play my ass off. This amp totally reinforces why I want to get a Fender Twin. I’m tellin’ ya, I’m loving this sound right now.” That was met with simple smiles of agreement.

So… this amp is solid state! The tube amp purist in me says that it shouldn’t sound this good. But the realist in me believes in what Duke Ellington once said: If it sounds good, it IS good. Hell! I play through a solid state amp with my acoustic rig, and it sounds freakin’ killer! This is no different. This little gem of an amp is a cheap amp. In fact, you can pick one up for $200 online. I’m going to get one. Maybe today.

I’m still going to get the Twin Reverb – eventually. But for playing clean, and just putting an overdrive or distortion box in front of the amp, this’ll do. And before anyone scrunches up their nose about a solid state amp, consider this: A great guitarist that I know, Vinnie Smith, owner of V-Picks, gigs with an old Roland Cube 30 that he mics on stage! In fact, when he does demos, you never see the amp, but he plays through his Cube 30! So like I said, if it sounds good, it IS good!

About the amp

From what I could gather, this amp was made from 1992-1994. By 1995, Fender re-dubbed it the “Ultimate Chorus.” This is a 2 X 65W solid state amp. It has two foot-switchable channels, with built-in reverb and, of course, chorus, and two input jacks. You can play it stereo at 65W, or mono at 130W.

As I said, this amp is LOUD. For the entire practice, I didn’t play over 1 1/2! Granted, our drummer was playing with rods, and we had our practice volume pretty far down. But even at gig volumes, I doubt I’d put it over 4. Or, if I do get one, I’ll see if I could swap the pot out for something that has a bit smoother taper.

As far as the distortion is concerned, playing around, I set up the 2nd channel for distortion, but it gave me pretty much what I was expecting: A pretty compressed distortion sound that was not at all pleasing to my ears, not matter how much I twiddle the EQ knobs. But clean, this amp oozes that “Fender-clean” goodness. Add a little reverb grease, and a touch of chorus, and it’s a nice smooth sound.

Apparently, the amp is my bandmate’s son’s amp. He had the EQ set up scooped, and I kept it set like that for the most part, though I did turn the bass down a bit because my Les Paul has a naturally deep sound; especially with the neck pickup.

Sourcing the amp…

Finding one isn’t going to be easy. And even after that, it’s not going to be easy finding one that’s in good working condition. There are a couple of them on E-Bay for $300+. But they’re only rated in “good” condition and sold as-is. That’s a crap shoot. Guitar Center has one for $200 but the face plate is bent up on the left side, exposing a sharp corner that could cut. Not sure where that amp is located, but I might be able to get them to ship it to my local GC so I could inspect it.

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