Archive for February, 2019

Let Me Say This One More Time…

More expensive doesn’t mean better.

I was having a conversation with a fellow guitarist and gear slut who shared a story of how he first bought an Epiphone Les Paul then later purchased a Gibson Les Paul. He said to me that the difference in sound was like night and day. “I agree,” I replied, “But not for the reason you might think.”

I went on to explain that I’ve played a number of Epiphone Les Pauls over the years that were actually really killer. But even though they were named “Les Paul,” at least to me, they had a different sound than a Gibson Les Paul which, frankly, is the standard. But different, at least in this case, doesn’t mean bad. I went on to say that I’ve known several players who actually prefer an Epiphone Les Paul over a Gibson Les Paul and not because of price. They actually prefer the sound.

He chided me in owning a Custom Shop Les Paul and played devil’s advocate with me suggesting that I might think it sounds better because I paid so much for it. 🙂 But I said I didn’t pay full market value for it at the time, and I wanted the standard Les Paul sound.

Then recently, someone I know said he suggested to another that he check out the BOSS Katana 50. But that person said that he’d rather get a tube amp because the Katana was so cheap and it couldn’t be that high of quality. Of course, I laughed at that statement and immediately reminded me of a scene from Men in Black when Will Smith puts on the “last suit he’ll ever need.”

An experienced player can make anything sound decent; that is unless that thing really does suck and no one could ever hope to salvage a good tone out of it.

But here’s the thing: The Katana simply ROCKS! I’m continually blown away by the sound this amp produces. Sure, it’s an inexpensive amp. But it’s not cheap-sounding. I just used it this morning at an annual event that I play at a local high school. I used my acoustic through it, and just adored the sound!

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve been extolling the Katana’s virtues for quite a while, but it is the epitome of “quality rules.” With any gear, the sound that it produces trumps the price every time. And quality can be had at ANY price; so can shite… I’ve played amps that cost thousands of dollars and have come away scratching my head after giving them a thorough – and fair – rundown, asking myself, Why the hell does this cost so much?

On the flip side, I’ve paid LOTS for some gear that I think is much better than everything else to which I compared it. Case in point, my hand-wired Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay. I paid $325 for it at the time, and it has never left my board. People have suggested lots of different analog delays and I’ve tried many. But I haven’t found anything to date that floats my boat like that pedal does.

So the point to all this is to get the gear that inspires you. Sometimes you might pay a lot for it; sometimes, you may not. And if you think I’m full of it, here’s my attitude (from Forgetting Sarah Marshall):

So… Les Paul, Stratocaster, Flying V, Explorer, Telecaster, Mustang, huma-huma nuka-nuka a’poo’a’a – Ye-a Bitch!

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Your Tone Sucks, Just Sayin’

No, not really.

But since I returned to participating in online guitar forums, as I experienced in the past, there’s always that one in the crowd that let’s just say is much less conciliatory with their evaluation of others’ tone. On the one hand, lots of people enjoy the audaciousness of people who do this and use it as their entrance into the discussion to pile on; on the other hand, it makes me and, perhaps, others like me, cringe at the rudeness.

Personally, my first thought when I read comments like this is what makes this person think they know what’s good tone and what’s not? And if the comment is particularly rude, I’ll look at that person’s profile or do a search on them to see if they’ve got the stones to back up their audacity. What I find is a mixed bag. Some are skilled and active musicians; others are just “bedroom” players. But they do have one thing in common: To me at least, they come off as real a-holes.

But personality evaluations aside, the title of the article points to the spurious nature of “good tone.” You see, the problem with tone is that its measure is purely subjective. What sounds good to one may sound terrible to others. It’s also such a nebulous subject that it’s virtually impossible to provide a definitive list of what the characteristics of good tone actually are.

You’ll read or hear people mention terms like musical or lush or three-dimensional. Most people are implicitly aware of what those terms mean, but those adjectives are just as ambiguous as tone. I’m not here to tell you what good tone is but after years and years of playing I’ve come to an understanding that could help clarify things.

The Two Sides of Tone

There are in fact, two sides to this tone thing. The first is what we as the musicians consider to be good tone and the second is what others think of it.

Fundamentally, the most important judges of our tone are ourselves. In chasing that unicorn of good tone, what we’re searching for is what pleases us. So we pore over magazines, both physical and virtual; participate in online forums; watch and listen to countless demos of gear in our quest to find our sound. After all, at least for many, our sound inspires us to make music.

Note that I wasn’t all-inclusive by saying “at least for many” above. This is because I’ve known many gear sluts who just buy gear because it sounds cool or has some nostalgia or whatever attached to it and don’t pay much attention to the context in which they apply it. I have a good friend who used to play with me who put a ProCo Rat in his signal chain. That’s fine, but he would try to use it with an acoustic guitar. It sounded absolutely horrible to me and the rest of the band. And that’s a perfect segue into the other side of the tone equation.

The tricky thing about tone is that while I will stand by what I said that we’re the most important judges of our tone, especially if you gig, you have to realize that it’s important to sound good to your audience. I have to admit that it’s a bit of a pride-swallowing experience to get negative feedback from others on the tone you’ve worked so hard to achieve, but nevertheless, it’s important to listen.

Years ago, I was playing in a band, and during a break, a bandmate told me during a break, “Dude, I’m sure you’re ripping it up, but I can barely hear you.” I told him I was plenty loud and the amp I was playing had a fairly deep voicing. But he persisted and said, “Yeah, maybe so, but I can’t hear you and you’re the lead guitarist.”

At first, I was a little miffed because I had worked out and dialed in my tone for the gig. But I realized that if my bandmate was standing 15 feet away from me, and he couldn’t make out my tone, I was probably getting lost in the mix. So I went back to my amp at the back of the stage, added more mids and highs without turning up my volume, then suddenly, I was cutting through!

That brighter and slightly biting tone did not really please me at first; not that it was a bad tone. It’s just that I was so conditioned to playing with a smoother and deeper tone that I wasn’t really used to it. But from then on, when it was time for me to solo, I just hit my booster for a few dB of gain, and my sound punched right through the mix! That made everyone smile – including me. For goodness sake! I was playing a Les Paul through a Marshall! It was supposed to be midrange punchy, and I dialed it back! 🙂

Since then, I’ve come to love that tone, but it took getting, and more importantly, accepting that feedback that helped me break through. And after that gig, a fellow guitarist I knew who was attending the event approached me and said, “I don’t know what you did to your rig in your second set, but you sounded killer!” So… lesson learned.

So in light of all that was discussed, remember that first and foremost, develop the tone that pleases YOU. But be open to what others might have to say. It’s that compromise that will get you on your way to good tone.

The fallout of this is that for most people, it will slow the rate of their gear acquisitions. At least for me, once I found my sound and got some positive feedback on it, I’ve been extremely careful in my gear choices. Anything I get now has to be able to strike the balance between what I like and how it may sound to my audience.

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Last night I was fiddling about with the different IRs I purchased from OwnHammer yesterday running different amp models in GarageBand through various IRs. What I came to realize is that while the amp models are okay and actually very nice for clean tones, their overdrive tones actually suck pretty bad with the IRs, and I wanted to do some recording this evening.

So this morning, I got a wild hair and hooked up one of my amps – an Aracom VRX18 which is based on the classic Plexi 18 circuit – and ran it through my Aracom DRX attenuator which can act as a load box, then ran a line out into my audio interface.

Then I opened up GarageBand, added a generic audio track, chose an IR and even though there was a lot of line noise (I was able to filter out a lot of it eventually), what I heard in my headphones was my amp – the way it should sound!

So like I said in the title, IRs are game changers for recording! Check out a comparison:

The first track uses a GarageBand British amp model going into a GarageBand British 1 X 12. The clean tone really isn’t all that bad if a little bright (which could be EQ’d), but I wanted to capture the raw, dry tone. The second track is my Aracom VRX18 amp into an OwnHammer IR. Damn! The difference is literally night and day; especially with the overdrive tones!

That’s it! I’m going to be using this technique for recording from now on!

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If you’re doing home recording, like me, you don’t have a lot of money to spend on expensive recording equipment or even just gear like amps and cabinets and especially, microphones. You need to find economical ways to lay down your sound. Well, I recently discovered Impulse Responses, which are digital profiles of real cabinets that you can use with GarageBand, either using the amp models or, using your own amp running into a load box (if it’s a tube amp) and using the IR as your virtual cabinet.

But to use them in GarageBand, I had to do a little digging. There were tutorials out there, but some skipped over some important information or the posts were so old that they were literally missing content. So I had to figure out a lot of stuff on my own, and once I did, I decided to do a tutorial myself.

First, you need a convolver plugin

A convolver is software that convolves an audio stream with an impulse response. To put it simply, this plugin allows you to load IRs for use in GarageBand. There’s no real magic here other than the great sound that the IRs provide. IRs are WAV files; though they’re actually special WAV files. If you tried to listen to them, they sound like clicks. The convolver plugin takes that WAV file and makes it usable in GarageBand as a speaker cabinet.

The one that I use – and seems to be the one that is most recommended (probably because it’s free) – is called LA Convolver by Lernvall Audio. You can download it here. It’s a ZIP file, so you’ll have to decompress it. Once you’ve done that, then you need to follow some discrete steps:

Copy or Move the LAConvolver.component file to the [Macintosh HD]/Library/Audio/Plug-Ins/Components folder.

Other tutorials said to open up GarageBand and you’ll see LAConvolver as an Audio Units plug-in. But that didn’t work for me until I restarted my Macbook. So I recommend that you restart or shut down and restart before you open up GarageBand.

Once you open GarageBand, LA Convolver will be available as an Audio Units plug-in under Lernvall Audio as shown below:

If you still don’t see it, then it’s possible that GarageBand was set up under your user profile on your Mac. For that, you’ll need to place the LAConvolver.component file into [Macintosh HD]/Users/<your user name>/Library/Audio/Plug-Ins/Components. This is what I had to do.

If LAConvolver was successfully added, then when you select the LA Convolver menu item, you should see the following plug-in dialog box:

We’ll get into loading IRs a little later. But first…

Next, you need to get some IRs

I’m a big fan of Pete Thorn, and he recommends using OwnHammer IRs. They have a free set that you can experiment with, but I just pulled the trigger on the Core Tone Bundle that consists of IR models of Fender, Vox, Marshall and Mesa cabinets.

Once you download your IRs (they come as Zip files from OwnHammer – not sure of other producers), I recommend that you move the Zip files to a convenient place. I put mine under a folder I created under the Music folder on my computer: [Macintosh HD]/Music/IRs:

Once you get the Zip files to a convenient location, you need to unzip them. With OwnHammer zips, they decompress to an OwnHammer folder. As you can see in the image above, I renamed the uncompressed folders to the cabinets so when I decompress another Zip file, it won’t overwrite my other IRs.

Understanding the IR Files

At least with the OwnHammer IR files, you might get confused by the sheer number of them as shown below for the Fender Deluxe Reverb (click on the image for a larger view):

The reason why there are so many is that the IR’s come in different flavors. For the files numbered 0 to 10, these represent mic placement on the cone; 0 being dead-center to 10 being at the edge. These are the predominant file types. There are also a couple of others such as “FRED” that set the mic on the edge and angle it 45-degrees, and ROOM, where the mic is set at a distance and you get some room reflection (I love this, by the way). In the image above, I’m showing the “Mics” folder which includes IR files for individual microphones, while the “Mixes” folder includes a combination of a couple of mics.

According to OwnHammer, the numbers don’t represent a specific distance from the center as the numbers increase. They’re rough positions, so if you chose “OH 112 DVRB FN-AXA 57-05.wav,” you’d choose an SM57 positioned roughly between the center cone and the edge. The graphic below illustrates this:

As you’d expect, the further away from the center a microphone is positioned, the warmer the sound gets; in other words, you lose highs.

Now it’s time to choose an IR to use in GarageBand

There are a couple of ways to set up your guitar sound. The first is to input your amp directly, using a load box whose line out runs into your audio interface. Then you can just add the LAConvolver plug-in to your track, choose the IR you want to use, and you can start recording away!

But if you’re like me and are often pressed for time, using the Amp Designer plug-in in combination with LAConvolver is very easy. This will give you a complete software-based signal chain. Of course, the weakness here is that you can’t use pedals, but if you just need basic sounds, this will work nicely. So here goes:

First, create a new, blank track. Select “Record using a microphone…” option. You don’t want to use the canned guitar/bass option because once you disable the cab and use the IR, I found that it messes up the signal and your track volume goes WAY down. Once you set up the amp and IR though, feel free to add other plug-ins.

Next, add the Amp Designer plug-in to the track. Choose the amp model you want to use.

Set the cabinet choice to “Direct.” This is extremely important because you want to bypass the cabinet completely and use the IR as your cabinet.

Now, add the LAConvolver plug-in by going to the Audio Units menu and selecting “LA Convolver.” Once you do this, you’ll get the LAConvolver plug-in dialog:

Next, choose your IR. Click on one of the channel rows, then click on the “Choose” button. You’ll then get a File Chooser dialog. Navigate to where you stored the uncompressed IRs and select an IR. For me, I chose the following:

You’ll see that there IRs for Atomic, Fractal, Kemper and Line 6, plus generic Wav-200ms and Wav-500ms. Not sure what the difference is as of yet, but I just chose the Wav-200ms at 44.1 kHz, 112 DVRB, FN-AXA, Mixes, and the OH 112 DVRB FN-AXA 57-05 IR file, which uses two mics position between the center cone and edge.

Note that each IR has two channels in LA Convolver. This is actually pretty cool because you can choose an IR for one channel, and another for the other channel. But for my setup, I used the same file on each channel.

Once you’ve chosen your IR files, the dialog should be filled in like so:

I haven’t played much with the Wet Gain other than just testing out the output volume which could be useful if the gain is too high and starts clipping the track.

So that’s it! Record your tracks! Granted, you’ll have to do quite a bit of testing to find just the right IR. I spent about an hour trying out different ones until

If there’s anything I’ve missed, please let me know and I’ll add it!

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Like many, I don’t have a lot of money to spend on studio time, so I’m left to recording on my own. I’ve gotten better over the years with mixing and equalizing and in general, my production quality has gone up significantly. But one area where I haven’t been that satisfied is with guitars.

My “normal” way of recording guitars has been through close-miking my amps. But in the recent past, I’ve been using a lot of software sims for amps – they just make it easier. For instance, the amp models in the Amp Designer in GarageBand 10 (which is based on the Logic engine) are pretty damn good now. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have touched them because they were very dry-sounding and lifeless. But they’re so responsive and dynamic now that it’s just easier to use the models for recording.

Up until recently, I’ve just been using the default cabinets that are supplied with GarageBand, and admittedly, they’re just okay. They get the job done. And I’ve been able to EQ the guitar parts to liven them up.

But a few months ago, I discovered Impulse Responses (IRs), which are digitized profiles of speaker cabinets that were said to be extremely realistic. Companies like OwnHammer have huge libraries of cab/speaker sounds. I had heard recordings of IRs and was completely blown away by how good they sounded.

So today, I finally pulled the trigger and got the Core Library from OwnHammer to use in GarageBand. It took just a little while to get all the software configured and usable in GarageBand and once I had it set up, wow! What a difference in sound!

Below are clips that I made using a Silverface amp model totally clean, with the spring reverb set to 5. I used the default EQ settings on the amp model with no EQ in GarageBand.

Both clips actually sound pretty good. But the clip using the Impulse Response has a lot more definition – at least to my ears. 🙂

The GarageBand cabinet was the default for the Silverface 2 X 12 amp model. It is supposed to simulate the cabinet being miked with a Royer 121 ribbon. The IR I used was a profile of a 1 X 12 cabinet from a Deluxe Reverb and uses a combination of Shure SM57 and Royer 121 mics. I chose the IR file that positioned the mics roughly between the center and the edge of the speaker cone. You can’t do that with the default cabs in GarageBand!

With Impulse Responses, many are set up with different microphones PLUS positioning on the speaker cone. This is incredible because it allows you go really fine-tune the cabinet sound.

I’m looking forward to playing with this even more!

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Ever since I got my BOSS Katana 50, I’ve gotten a sudden, renewed interest in modeling amps. My first modeling amp was a Line 6 Flextone III. That was a great amp, but modeling technology was still a bit immature at the time. The sound was actually great, but the feel just seemed a bit off. So I sold the amp believing that eventually, digital technology would improve.

Well, digital technology has improved, and in a big way. Even with software. For instance, the following Soundcloud track was recorded entirely with GarageBand amp models for the electric guitars.

When I recorded the song, I was all set to mic a couple of different amps. But to prep for the song, I just used some amp models. After listening to a couple of takes, I thought that the guitars sounded great, so I just went with the models.

Now, that said, if the song was much more focused on guitar, I would have used a regular amp, but since I was just adding little highlights, the digital models worked just fine. But this is where I started thinking that there are modelers out there that are now so super-high-quality, you’d be hard-pressed to tell whether or not an amp sound is digital or natural.

That damn Pete Thorn! 🙂 He’s a real Line 6 Helix lover, and I made the mistake of watching his videos of the Helix and HX Stomp, and I’m seriously gassing. Check out the Helix demo:

When I saw that video, and more importantly, listened to the sound, I was blown away. And I can attest to the dynamics of digital models: They respond much as you’d expect. Hit your string harder or turn up your volume knob on your guitar, and the amp responds to the gain. Years ago, that wasn’t the case, but manufacturers of digital models have totally figured it out.

Other notable amps are the Kemper Profiling Amp and the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx lines. These are apparently even better-sounding than the Helix, BUT I love that Line 6 made the Helix line as floorboard units (there is a 3U rack version as well). The other two are also more expensive than the Helix, and none of the others have floor models, though they have remote floor switches.

You can probably tell I’m leaning towards the Helix line. I was VERY close to pulling the trigger on an HX Stomp, but I’ve learned to hold back my GAS. It is so very tempting. However, because I’m still doing a lot of recording, I’m very interested in the Helix Native plug-in. It has all the models and cabs and effects as the physical units but in a convenient plug-in that I can use in GarageBand.

But who knows, maybe I’ll break down… GAS sucks…

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Last weekend I finally had the chance to gig with my Godin Artisan ST-V. It performed incredibly well, but it’s clear that I have a bit more work to do in dialing in my signal chain to get the best sound out of the guitar.

How do I describe the natural tone of this guitar? It is very much like a Telecaster tone, but with balls, if you catch my drift – like a super-Tele. I started out setting the amp at flat EQ to see where the guitar’s natural tone sits. Not a bad sound at all, but a little more midrange than I prefer. So I turned down the mids to compensate, but the guitar also creates a pretty fat bottom; not flabby, mind you, but it required that I dialed down the bass just a smidgen. That fixed the tone, and the result was a crisp and rich sound out of my Katana 50.

The other challenge that I had was using my drive pedal. When I got the Katana 50, it was going to be used expressly as a clean headroom platform. In that respect, it performs incredibly well. With all my other guitars, I use my trusty Tone Freak Abunai 2 for dirt. But it didn’t sound “right” with this guitar for some reason. I think it has to do with the fact that the Abunai 2 adds a bit of darkness, even with the diode lift setting (it acts as a traditional overdrive in this setting). With the natural fat bottom that the guitar produces, it was a bit much.

So I’m going to have to go back to the drawing board as far as overdrive is concerned. I’m going to have to try my TubeScreamer (TS-808), but I’m thinking that my Timmy pedal will work great with this as it is a really transparent overdrive.

As far as cleans are concerned, oh man! The cleans that absolutely love in a Tele are present in this guitar. Add to that the fat bottom-end and when played with an analog delay, the sound is pretty haunting. I love it!

As I said, I’ve got a bit more experimentation to do with this guitar. It has a unique and unexpected tone that I have not had in a guitar ever. This one for sure will be staying with me for years.

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