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Archive for the ‘guitar reviews’ Category

stagetrix-pedalfastener

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I wrote about StageTrix Pedal Risers awhile ago, and how they elevate the back row of your board to make your pedals more accessible. I’ve been using them since, and they really are a godsend! I did mention that they already came with the fastener already installed, so all you have to do is place the riser.

I really like the fastener they’re using. For one, the material is thinner than most kinds you buy at a store, which means it shapes well to contours. Another thing – and more importantly, in fact – is that the glue StageTrix uses on the fastener can withstand up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the best thing. We’ve all had the experience of getting velcro glue on our fingers. It’s a gooey mess! Well, that’s solved with the Pedal Fasteners.

For $9.95, you get a pack of three (click on the picture to get a full size view). You can install a fastener with the middle, or you can remove the middle part, and only use the fastener on the edge of  your pedal. Very cool stuff!

For more information, check out the StageTrix Products site!

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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!

cb_tele

Squier By Fender Classic Vibe Telecaster 50’s

Summary: Finally! An inexpensive guitar that isn’t just a pretty face like many cheapo guitars. This guitar backs up its great looks with great sound and playability!

Pros: Spectacular, lush cleans from the neck pickup. Nothing twangy about this guitar. The bridge pickup is nicely “trebly,” but not piercing at all! The thin, 50’s-style C-shape neck is to die for!

Cons: This is just a minor nit, and nothing to give points off, but the frets are a little small, and with heavy use, they’ll wear down. But hell! At this price, you can buy two and be way ahead of the game!

Features:

  • Body: Pine (very cool)
  • Neck: 9.5″ Radius, Solid Maple
  • 21 Frets
  • Pickups: 2 Custom-Style Vintage Tele Pickups with Alnico 3 magnets
  • Controls: Volume and Tone
  • Tuners: Vintage-style tuners

Price: ~$349 street

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 – Not sure if I’ve ever rated a Fender product my highest rating, but that’s how good this guitar is!

Being the eternal optimist, I’m always looking for ways to turn a negative into a positive. As I’ve gotten older, my back has started to get a bit sensitive, and gigging with heavy guitars can sometimes be – literally – a real pain!  So I’ve been looking for a lighter alternative that would give me a good range of sounds, from great cleans to hot grind when I need it, and something that I could comfortably gig with and not worry about throwing out my back. I’ve found the guitar: It’s the Squier Classic Vibe Tele! If you don’t look at the headstock, you could swear you’re playing a regular Fender Tele! But this one has a great sound all its own. After last year’s price hike, I had lost hope that Fender would be able to produce anything that was inexpensive that had decent quality and sound, but I stand completely corrected, especially after the price drop of the Champ 600 down to $149, and now, this little secret, the Squier Classic Vibe Tele.

Fit and Finish

The guitar I played today was so well-made, I could’ve sworn that it was an American Tele. The blonde, vintage finish was luscious, and the 9.5″ radius vintage C-shape neck, with its gloss finish was perfect. No air bubbles, no uneven finish. The frets were well-dressed, if a little small, and I could detect nary a burr or sharp edge. It was obvious that despite this being a “bargain” brand, great care was put into building this instrument. Of course, only time will tell how well this instrument holds up, but from what I can tell from this brand-new specimen, it appears it’ll be be a long-lived instrument.

I also love that black pick guard that provides a very cool contrast to the blonde body finish! Nice!

How It Sounds

I’ve played a lot of guitars – especially “budget” guitars, but one thing that seems to be a common theme among the bargain guitars is that lots of them look great, but plug them in, and they’re less than – ahem – inspiring. This is where the Classic Vibe Tele stands head and shoulder above the rest. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this was an American Tele based upon the quality of tones it produces. But unlike its American cousin, this Classic Vibe Tele has a slightly different tone, and that is not a bad thing at all. A lot of this can probably be attributed to the solid pine body. It’s very resonant, and it is not a bright-sounding wood, which probably accounts for the lack of “Tele” twang. It’s there, but it is definitely not as pronounced as I was expecting. Granted, I was playing through a Fender Hot Rod DeVille 2 X 12, which is known for its ample bottom, so that probably could account for the lack of twang. But hey! That is definitely not a bad thing at all!

The neck pickup, when played clean, has a very Strat-like neck pickup vibe. I love that! It’s smooth, and deep, and when slathered with some gorgeous Fender reverb, has a gorgeous, almost ethereal quality where the notes seem to just hang in the air. The bridge pickup adds top-end sparkle, as expected but surprisingly not so much that it sounds thin and tinny. It’s a slightly brighter version of the neck, which makes sense since the two pickups are the same. But quite frankly, I liked playing in the middle selector position where both pickups are engaged. The tone and gain balance between the two pickups in that position is fantastic.

“Balance” is a great way to describe the tone of the Classic Vibe Tele. It sounds and feels balanced; not bright, not deep. Balanced. And the sustain is absolutely breathtaking! I played a song where I comp chords up and down the fretboard with lots of sliding, bending and vibrato, and the sustain and ring that the guitar produced just made me close my eyes and smile. The guitar guy at the store even chided me with, “Aw Brendan, you play so sweetly!” That got a laugh out of me, but luckily he followed it up with, “That sounds so awesome. That guitar… for guys who are in the know with tone, is the one they’re getting. It’s a great guitar at any price” I’ve known this guy for years, and for him to say something like that is pretty profound.

I didn’t get a chance to really get into high gain, as I was in a store and wanted to be considerate of the other customers, but getting into the Drive channel of the DeVille was a real treat, especially with the bridge pickup engaged. I could tell that this guitar, even though it has that vintage vibe, would produce some singing overdrive. Even with the preponderance of pre-amp overdrive I was using, this guitar was a winner for me!

Overall Impressions

It is absolutely no surprise to me why Guitar Player Magazine gave this guitar an Editor’s Pick in this month’s issue. I first played the guitar at the GP offices a couple of weeks ago, and they told me it had gotten an Editor’s Pick. I didn’t get a chance to really play with it then, but based upon that conversation, I had to try one out. Looks like I’m GAS-ing again, dammit! This is one great guitar! Don’t let the price fool you; instead, let the price guide you. This is truly one of the deals of the century!

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bambinoSome amps were just meant to be used with a certain kind of guitar. The Reason Bambino is one such amp. Mind you, it sounds great with any guitar, and I play it with a wide variety of guitars. But considering the amp designer, Obeid Kahn, and his love of vintage Strats, it’s no small wonder that the Bambino sound absolutely gorgeous with a Strat.

When I play a Strat, I like to play mostly clean with just a little bit of grit, and the Bambino does this oh-so-well! Here’s a clip of a song I’m working on that demonstrates the Bambino’s gorgeous voice with my MIM Strat with ’57 Tex Mex re-issue pups:

You may have already heard a version of this clip when I demonstrated the KASHA Overdrive pedal, but I thought I’d try the lead plugged straight into the Bambino, and adding just a bit of reverb during production. At least for my Strat in the Bambino, pedals? We don’t need no stinkin’ pedals!

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I love my Strat. It’s a cheapo MIM version, but it has a great sound. But ever since I started using it with the KASHA Overdrive pedal, it sounds even more like a Strat to me! I know, that sounds a little cuckoo, but that Classic channel on the KASHA Overdrive really brings out that jangly tone that defines the Strat tone; that’s to my ears, at least…

The other day, I was messing around with a dominant seventh ditty in A as I was trying to pick up some improv techniques from Chuck D’Aloia’s Blues with Brains video. I originally just recorded my Strat running through a reverb, then into my amp. It sounded pretty good, but I wanted to get a bit more top-end bite, but not a lot of drive. So I switched my KASHA Overdrive on and my jaw dropped! Here’s what I came up with…

That pedal just brings out the best in a Strat. I swear, now that I’ve been using it with my Strat for the last couple of days, I think it’ll always be on when I perform with my Strat. It really sounds great!

BTW, both rhythm and lead parts were played with the Kasha overdrive pedal. For the rhythm part, I was in the Classic channel to get that jangly Strat sound from position 2, while I was in the Hot channel for the lead in the neck pickup. So sweet sounding!

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To date, this is the most popular article on this site, having held the top hits spot for the past several years now. My feeling is that it addresses the murkiness of the debate between overdrive vs. distortion. And despite many people like myself who constantly say they’re two, mutually exclusive things, it remains a subject that needs clarification. I’m glad this has been a -hopefully good – resource for people! 

Remember: Distortion Is What You Hear! Overdrive Produces It!

I had an interesting conversation with a friend today regarding the difference between overdrive and distortion. Talk about two terms that are bandied about interchangeably in the guitar world! If you ask ten different guitarists the difference between them you’ll get ten different answers. But a common theme you’ll hear is what each sounds like; in other words, you’ll get a much more qualitative description as opposed to a quantitative description. What I’ve been after is a much more objective, quantitative description of each, but not necessarily too technical. So after talking about one versus the other, I decided to write down what we discussed, and throw my two-cents into the mix.

First, let’s look at the two terms, but from the perspective of an amplifier. The simplest explanation I could come up with is that overdrive, or in audiophile terms, over-powering, occurs when input gain exceeds the capacity of a device to handle the amount of gain thrown at it; in our case, a tube. What happens is that the smooth waveform that goes into the device gets “clipped” because the device’s input capacity is less than what is being thrown at it. Sonically, we perceive the result of this clipping as distortion. The higher the amplitude of the wave, the greater amount of distortion we hear.

But what about pedals? I’ll get to that in a bit, but I wanted to take the time to clarify these terms. There’s been a lot of confusion about these two terms because they’re used so loosely, and oftentimes interchangeably. For me, I’ll stick with the audiophile’s perspective of overdrive in that distortion is the result of overdrive or over-powering an amplification device. A way to think about overdrive vs. distortion is that overdrive happens in the front-end (what you put in), while distortion happens on the back-end (what you hear).


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But here’s where we get into a bit of murky territory, especially with pedals. Strictly speaking, if we’re talking about overdrive as simply overpowering the front-end of an amp to make the tubes clip, the only pedal that is technically an overdrive is a boost pedal that takes your guitar’s signal and ups its voltage. But lots of manufacturers call their pedals overdrive pedals. In reality, all of those are distortion pedals as they include an internal clipping circuit which is overdriven into distortion – this includes the venerable Tube Screamer. OMG! Sacrilege!

So how do you tell the difference? That’s why I said we get into murky territory with respect to pedals. But as a rule of thumb, a distortion pedal will create a distorted sound irrespective of the amp. In other words, it’ll clip on its own. Put it front of the clean channel of an amp, switch it on, and it’ll create distortion. However, many, if not most, “distortion” pedals also provide a bit of gain boost to overdrive an amp. That’s where it gets murky, as most of the pedals termed “overdrive pedal” function as a combination of both overdrive AND distortion.

There are no real hard and fast rules, but in general, pedals that are commonly known as overdrive pedals (Tube Screamer, etc.) employ what’s called a “soft-clipping” circuit or transistor, where only a small portion of the input signal is clipped. Most distortion pedals employ a “hard-clipping” device to severely clip the input signal to get that “square wave” tone. But as I said, there are no hard and fast rules. Here’s an image that nicely describes the differences in the waveforms between soft-clipping and hard-clipping devices:

Picture courtesy of GM Arts

Sonic Differences Between Overdrive and Distortion Pedals

Many people have asked me over the years if there is a sonic difference between overdrive and distortion pedals. Having tested several of these pedals over the years, I hate to sound ambiguous, but from a practical standpoint, in some cases, it’s simply too hard to tell. For instance, if I crank up my Timmy’s gain then add a bunch of volume to slam the front-end of my amp, I get a lot of crunchy distortion out of my speaker as the signal squares off. Moreover, I get a bit of compression and sustain and it “feels” like I’m playing through a distortion box. On the other hand, if I take my EWS Little Brute Drive and turn the gain knob to about 10 am, I get a similar sounding distortion with a similar feel – even though it’s a hard clipping device! They’re tonally a little different as the EWS adds a bit of low-end punch, but nevertheless, sonically and feel-wise, they’re extremely close.

But there does exist a difference, and that is in output volume. When I do what I do with my Timmy to get that hard distortion sound, I have to use an attenuator because all the input gain creates A LOT of volume, so I attenuate the output so I can keep the volume at a manageable level. But with my EWS Little Brute Drive, because it’s a distortion pedal, it will clip irrespective of the amp, plus I set its output volume to unity. I can set my amp to any volume, then switch the pedal on to get my overdrive-like sound.  I actually do this with the Little Brute Drive a lot when I don’t want to lug my attenuator to a gig.

So yes, you can set up an overdrive or a distortion pedal to make it difficult to tell the difference, but in general terms, with a hard-clipping device, you’ll experience a lot more compression than with a soft-clipping device. The tone will feel “squishy” with very little dynamics. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, because sometimes that’s what you want. Overdrive pedals, on the other hand, because they don’t produce a square wave, will feel a lot more “open” and dynamic. There will be a bit of compression at higher gain levels, but rarely will you get to the order of compression that a distortion box will make.

Gain vs. Volume

Image courtesy of Sweetwater.com

Unfortunately, this is yet another area where we get into murky territory, and where a lot of people confuse the two. So to start out, let’s just put it simply: Gain is input; volume is output.

To provide a bit more clarity, think about the function of an amp as a two-stage device. The first stage takes the relatively weak signal from your instrument, then passes it on to the second stage and amplifies the signal to produce the sound.

The first stage of an amp is called the preamp. The signal passed through the preamp is called Gain. The level of gain will have a direct effect on the volume of your amp. Typically, the more gain you introduce, the higher your volume. BUT, that said, higher and higher levels of gain will have a lesser and lesser effect on volume, as the pre-amp reaches its capacity to handle the amount of signal passed to it (commonly called saturation) and will max out sending all it can handle to the second stage or power amp.

Think of the power amp as the stage that controls the output strength of your sound, or volume, if you will. It works similarly to the pre-amp in that the more signal you throw at it, the louder your volume. Some amps come with a Master Volume. Think of it as a valve mechanism that controls the amount of signal that is allowed to pass into the power amp. When it’s wide open, all the preamp signal will pass through to the power amp. For amps without a master volume, the amount of preamp signal allowed to pass to the power amp is set by the builder.

So what does this have to do with pedals? If you look at the picture above, whether labeled or not, all come equipped with both a Gain (or Drive) and a Volume (or Level) knob. These work pretty much the same way as Gain and Master knobs on an amp. The Volume knob controls how much pedal signal will be sent to your amp’s preamp. That could be enough signal to saturate your preamp which will overdrive it into clipping and create distortion. Combined with a distorted sound from the pedal, this could – and in many cases does – create a very pleasing mix of distortion sounds.

So which kind of pedal to choose?

The pat answer is it depends on what you’re after with respect to your distorted tone. I know that this is a rather ambiguous statement, but again, there are no hard and fast rules. In the end, you should choose a pedal based on what sounds good to you. But here are a couple of guidelines:

  • If you have a tube amp and just want distortion purely from overdriving the tubes, then a booster makes sense. There are several kinds of boosters. Some boost only a certain frequency range, like a Fat boost that boosts the lower frequencies. I personally prefer a clean, transparent boost that has a flat frequency response so that the distortion that occurs is my amp’s tone. I typically use a booster in conjunction with my amp set just at the edge of breakup, so when I switch it on, not only will I get a volume boost, I’ll overdrive the pre-amp tubes; and depending on how much gain I throw at the amp, I’ll get the power tubes working as well. Here’s a trick to try: If you have an effects loop, place the booster as the last pedal in your effects loop. When switched on, it will boost the gain going into your power tubes to saturate them. You don’t get a huge volume boost, especially if the power tubes are close to saturation, but you do get a bit of a kick. I learned that from Gene Baker, who does that in his rig.
  • If you want to add a bit of color and overdrive your amp, then a soft-clipping pedal like a Tube Screamer works quite well. Tube Screamer-type pedals typically give you a mid-range boost that results in a much warmer and smoother distortion. Many also add sustain and a bit of compression to simulate power tube saturation at any volume. My Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2 is exceptional in this department. Then there are others, like the EHX Soul Food that add a bit color but interact well with the front-end of an amp. But that said, there are some like my beloved Timmy Overdrive that are transparent. They’ll give you the gain and boost but will not color your sound (Note: that you’ll still have to set up the pedal’s EQ). I will add though, that in general, an overdrive pedal sounds and performs best when the amp is already clipping a bit. The mixture of the two creates a more complex signal that is quite pleasing to the ears.
  • If you want to get a distorted tone at any volume, then a distortion pedal is the way to go. There are lots of these on the market. My personal favorite (and the one I own) is the EWS Little Brute Drive. It’s a half-size pedal with a single knob, but it will give you TONS of distortion at any volume. I normally use it for leads, as it gives just a few dB of gain, but gives me all the distortion I need to get a great screaming tone! It also colors with a fat bottom end which makes leads sound beefy. Typically, you’ll use a distortion pedal against a clean amp. But then again, there are no hard and fast rules.
  • Then if a distortion pedal still doesn’t provide enough gain for you and you need to get a hard-clipped, super-squishy, compressed distortion, then the fuzz will get you there. I call fuzz “ugly dog” distortion. To me it’s like an ugly dog that you look at and say, “holy s$%t,” but it has personality, so you can’t help but love it. Can’t say I’ve ever been into fuzz, but I’ve spoken to lots of players who use it all the time, and they love it!

You can also chain overdrive and distortion effects to great success (aka “stacking”). I do this quite a bit because you get colors that you can’t get with just your amp. One thing that I do regularly is to use an overdrive pedal to push my amp hard, then when I want to get more tube compression and sustain, I slam the front-end with a booster (which is the last pedal in my chain). This doesn’t result in a volume boost because the tubes are already saturated, but you do get much more high-gain sound, and that can really work with solos.

Again, there are no hard and fast rules. You have to play a lot of them to find your sweet spot. But that’s half the fun of it!

More Overdrive Murkiness…

I referred to my Timmy above as a “transparent” overdrive. There’s a lot of debate about transparency, but suffice it to say that while technically distortion is color, transparent overdrives are those that once their EQ is set up to match the EQ setting on your amp, they will not add any other “color” than distortion. On the other hand, once you set up a non-transparent pedal’s EQ, it will still add its own tonal characteristics to color your tone. In practical terms though, transparent overdrives fall more into the booster arena, but it’s the EQ and internal soft-clipping circuits that still define it as an overdrive.

But further exacerbating the overdrive murkiness is that many overdrive pedals are actually purpose-built to mimic the sound of a specific overdriven amplifier. These are meant to be played through a clean channel with lots of headroom. A good example of this is the Caitlinbread Dirty Little Secret that produces classic Marshall Plexi to Super Lead tones. With a pedal like that, you just set your clean channel to purely clean and let the pedal do the overdrive work.

Note: Several articles I’ve read on this topic use the generic “overdriven amp” explanation to describe all overdrive pedals. It would be okay if they described them with respect to how the pedal responds, but more often than not, they use the term to describe the sound. Unfortunately, they completely miss the pedals that are built to be transparent. I’m not saying they’re entirely wrong, but just a little narrow in scope when you consider the overall landscape of overdrive pedals available.

Now… let’s add even more murkiness to the overdrive issue, shall we? There are some overdrives like the EHX Soul Food, which is a Klon Centaur clone, that at first blush, fall into the transparent overdrive category. So one would think that you’d set your amp at the edge of breakup, then use the pedal to push it over the edge and add its own clipping. This is a common way of using an overdrive, and it’s exactly how I use my Timmy. But even though the Soul Food wasn’t purpose-built to mimic a particular amp, I use it almost exclusively as a standalone soft-clipping device played through a clean channel. Its distortion sound is so damn sweet that I don’t want to taint it by adding clipping from my amp.

So… what you choose will be wholly dependent upon what pleases you.

Update: November 26, 2012

I ended the article three years ago with the statement that you have to play a lot of pedals for find your sweet spot. Three years later, that statement remains true. You see, in a recent article where I asked if new overdrives are relevant with so many on the market, there are some pedals that work with certain rig configurations, and some that just do not. There are also some rig configurations that work great on stage that sound absolutely horrible in the studio. I’ve been in the studio for the last few weeks (grabbing studio time where I can), and when we worked on a song where I needed some high-gain sounds, my rig just did not work! I was using my trusty DV Mark Little 40 clean, with my Timmy and the Little Brute Drive for distortion. Sounded like crap when recorded. I ended up bringing in my VHT Special 6, cranking it up all the way, and slamming it with a booster! Worked like a charm, with all the high-gain character that I wanted out of that tone. So I learned a valuable lesson there.

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PRX-front-543Ever since I started this blog, I’ve talked about attenuators, and how they’ve enabled me to get tones out of my amp at reasonable volume levels that I could only previously get at super-high volumes. But before I get into the discussion part of this article, take a listen to this clip (it’s the same clip I recorded with my previous article on the Mullard ECC83):

Here are some details about the recording:

  • I plugged directly into my Aracom VRX22, which then fed into my Aracom PRX150-Pro, then out to a custom 1 X 12 with a Jensen P12N
  • The amp was in the drive channel with master at 6, volume (gain) at 6, and tone at 6 (the tone on this amp adds a little gain as well as an edge)
  • The PRX150-Pro was set at maximum attenuation
  • Volume-wise, this was talking conversation level!!!
  • No EQ was applied to the guitar – what you’re hearing is the raw tone.

With respect to “maximum attenuation,” I was in variable mode with the variable sweep pot all the way to its left extent. I shared my amp and PRX settings with Jeff Aragaki this morning, and he estimated that the output power was approximately 0.04 Watt!

Many people are apt to talk about how the speaker needs to move air, and that an attenuator doesn’t allow that to happen. But that clip simply demonstrates that with the right combination of equipment – and in my case, also a great set of tubes – you don’t necessarily need that speaker cone breakup to get great tone for recording purposes. Yes, SPL’s do play a big role in your overall tone, but to be able to achieve the kind of tone I was able to get at that very low volume level is nothing short of amazing!

So what about an attenuator being life-changing?

Maybe that’s a bit strong of a phrase, but ever since I’ve been using attenuators, and especially since I’ve gotten my Aracom PRX150-Pro, I’ve been able to explore tonal territory that I could previously only achieve using pedals – and only simulating at that! Take overdrive pedals for instance. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m crazy about them. I probably will still be nuts about overdrive pedals, but there’s one thing an overdrive pedal can’t do that an attenuator allows me to do, and that’s to get the thick, natural overdrive tone of my amp. Don’t get me wrong, I still use them, but I use them now more for tonal accents to my drive tone rather than giving me my drive tone. That’s very profound; especially for an overdrive pedal freak like me!

Here’s a good example that I just recorded. This clip is part of a new song idea I’ve been playing around with. Setup is pretty much the same as above, but for the rhythm, I’m running Strat into my Kasha overdrive pedal to get a jangly, crisp tone. The lead is Goldie plugged straight into my VRX22. I did mix and do a simple master on the recording, but the guitars were all recorded raw, with no EQ. In my DAW, I added some reverb to both parts and a touch of delay to the lead, but that’s it.

Speaking of pedals, since I’ve started using a high-end attenuator (there are others such as Alex’s and the Faustine Phantom), I’ve actually started using pedals in general much less. I’ve really relying on the natural tone and sustain of my amp. For instance, I’ve found that I’ve only been using reverb in the studio. When I play out, I just don’t bother. In fact, for the last few weeks, I’ve only been taking two pedals to gigs with me: My BOSS TU-2 Tuner and my VRX22’s channel switcher. Same goes with my Reason Bambino.

Life-changing? Probably not, but definitely approach-changing. I may personally endorse the PRX150-Pro, but there are others out there. If you really want to hear what your amp has to offer when it’s fully cranked with the power tubes glowing, then you owe it to yourself to get a good attenuator!

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4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quitevoxac4tv VOX AC4TV Amplifier

 

Summary: For what it brings to the table, this is a great little amp. While it’s mainly touted as a practice amp, you can easily gig with this at small venues, or attach an external cab to it, and you could easily keep up with a drummer!

Pros: Classic VOX ACx cleans, and nice, warm overdrive via the Class A EL4 power section.

Cons: 1/4 Watt setting really narrows the bandwidth. The amp sounds pretty lifeless at this level, but that’s why I have a great attenuator. I would play this at 4 Watts all the time. No need to ever use the built-in attenuator.

Features:

  • Controls: Tone, Volume, OP Level (4W, 1W, ¼ W)
  • In/Out Jacks: Input, External Speaker Jack (¼’)
  • Output: 4 Watt RMS 16-Ohm
  • Speakers: AC4TV – 1 x 10″ 16-Ohm Celestion VX10 custom speaker;
  • Valve/Tube Complement: 1 x 12AX7 (pre) / 1 x EL84 (power)
  • AC4TV Dimensions: 13.78″ (W) x 8.46″ (D) x 14.76″ (H);
  • AC4TV Weight: 19.84 lbs.;
  • Power cable included

Price: ~$249 street

Tone Bone Score: 4.75 – I was very surprised by this little amp. The 10″ Celestion speaker really packs a nice punch, and the controls are dead simple. I would easily add this to my growing stable of amps!

I’ve been on this low wattage amp craze for awhile, and it’s wonderful to see all these great low wattage amps entering the market! Orange has the Tiny Terror, and VOX also has the Night Train. Those amps just mentioned are all pretty much modern styling, but I should qualify my craze. I love the old vintage styled low wattage amps.

It all started out with the Fender Champ 600, which I reviewed awhile ago here. I was looking for a low wattage tube amp that I could get some serious overdrive tone from without making my ears bleed. I immediately fell in love with that amp, and since I’ve had it have only made some minor changes, like putting in NOS tubes. But other than that, this amp has served me quite well, both in the studio and even in small venue gigs (using a 1 X 12 of course).

So it was a very nice surprise to encounter the VOX AC4TV in a store yesterday. This is a sweet looking little amp, with the classic TV type of box harkening back to yesteryear. The blonde vinyl is a very nice touch!

How it sounds…

The AC4TV is little tone monster. This single-ended amp packs quite a punch, despite its diminutive size and 10″ speaker. Surprisingly great tones are to be had with this amp, from your classic VOX EL84 cleans to some very nice crunch and grind when you push it. As a single-ended amp, it’s simple as expected, just a volume and tone knob, plus a selector switch for choosing 4, 1 and 1/4 watt output.

At 4 Watts, the amp puts out a great clean tone. With a Strat it starts mildly breaking up at about noon on the volume knob, and at about 10 o’clock with a humbucker – for that, I used a gorgeous sunburst finish Gibby ES-335 – damn I wish I hadn’t sold mine! Cleans with the ES-335 were incredibly lush as expected from that semi-hollowbody, yet they were also very chimey due to the natural character of the EL84 power tubes. It was a very good combination!

Going into grind, you get that classic EL84 crunch, but it’s obvious VOX must’ve installed a filter cap to prevent the power tubes from over-saturating and creating a compressed, squishy mush. The overdrive remains nice and open, with great dynamics and touch sensitivity.

At 1 Watt, the amp still retains a very nice tone, though the tone bandwidth is slightly narrowed. It’s not bad at all, and at this power setting you can crank the amp up (but keep in mind that sonically, 1 Watt is still pretty loud), but the volume will be fairly reasonable.

The 1/4 Watt setting was not really pleasing at all, though in a pinch, if you really have to be quiet, it’ll do as a reference point for practicing. At this setting, the tone gets muddy and the dynamics are abysmal. Were I to get one of these, I’d get the head and cabinet version so I could use a proper attenuator with this, and keep the amp in its 4 Watt mode to get all the gorgeous tones that the full power setting has to offer.

I any case folks, this is classic VOX tone. The EL84 are bright and chimey as expected, and when pushed, the amp doesn’t produce over-the-top overdrive. It’s nicely controlled and surprisingly smooth.

Overall Impressions

The rating says it all. I love the tones that this amp produces, and I love that classic blonde look. At a street price of $249, it’s a very nicely priced amp to boot! You can use this for practice or, with an external cab, there’s no reason it will not fit right in at a small venue gig. The custom power transformer has a lot to do with the power handling here, and it helps the amp produce a big voice for such a small package. Definitely a thumbs up for the VOX AC4TV!

Here’s a great demo video of the AC4TV from VOX:

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4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite

stratacoustic

Fender Stratacoustic Deluxe

Summary: An extremely pleasant surprise from Fender with both electric and acoustic properties. Shaped like a Strat and a sporting a Strat neck, for any Strat player, it’s immediately familiar!

Pros: Amazing tones. First electric acoustic I’ve played through an amp that didn’t sound like an acoustic guitar plugged into an amp. Very natural acoustic tones, and Strat-like electric tones.

Cons: This guitar was obviously designed to be plugged in. Unplugged, it really doesn’t sound all that good. But that’s okay, because my particular application of this guitar is always plugged in.

Features:

  • Body Style: Stratocaster
  • Top: Spruce
  • Back: Solid Mahogany
  • Sides: Laminated mahogany
  • Neck: Maple
  • Fingerboard: Rosewood
  • No. of frets: 21
  • Scale Length: 25-1/2″ (647.7 mm)
  • Bridge: Rosewood
  • Inlays:
  • Finish: Gloss
  • Electronics: Fishman Classic IV MT (with tuner and blend controls) and Fender Mexico Telecaster pickup
  • Controls: Volume, Bass, Mid, Treble, Blend, Tuner on/off
  • Machine Heads: Vintage Fender style

Price: ~$629 street

Tone Bone Score: 4.75 – Talk about versatility! If the Stratacoustic sounded good unplugged, it would get a 5.0.

Sometimes It Takes an Accident…

As I shared in a previous article, my Ovation Celebrity had a bit of an accident that made me look for a new acoustic in a hurry. What I ended up with was a guitar that simply blew me away! The moment I plugged it in, I was completely sold. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It sounded like a miked acoustic! Now granted, I was playing through an acoustic amplifier when I was evaluating the guitar. But nothing would prepare me for the same, natural tone through a regular tube amp! I’ll have a clip in a little bit, but let me tell you, it’s nothing short of amazing. First I’ll talk about the guitar.

Fit and Finish

For Strat players, this guitar will be instantly familiar. The Stratacoustic has a bolt-on maple Strat neck with rosewood fretboard. The body is shaped like a Strat, though of course, with a wider body for the resonance chamber. I’ve got the black model as shown in the picture above. This is a gorgeous guitar! One would think that as it is made in China, the build quality might not be very good. But amazingly enough, this is a really well-made and well-constructed guitar. If I only had one complaint, it would be the 2nd string’s saddle peg, which turned out to be a little loose on my guitar, and required really pressing it in. That could be problematic later on, but I could probably rectify, so it’s just a little nit.

The neck on this guitar is absolutely perfect – at least to me. It’s a classic Strat C-shaped neck in all its maple glory. I love it! And the cool thing is that even though this guitar is technically an acoustic guitar, it takes electric strings, so not only is the neck a Strat neck, with the electric strings, it plays EXACTLY like a Strat, with a nice, low action.

The tuners are totally cool! They’re vintage-style Fender tuners, where you measure and cut the string first, then insert the tip into a hole on the top of the tuner. You bend the string down into the slot then start winding. The result is a nice, smooth finish, with no string stubs that can poke you. They also look cool with their slightly relicked, tarnished chrome finish. It’s a nice retro touch!

Did I mention that this guitar is light? I haven’t weighed the guitar, but it can’t weight much more than seven pounds! I gigged with it twice over the weekend, and it is absolutely comfortable to play! It’s a winner!

How It Sounds

This is the really special part of the guitar. It features a Fishman Classic IV MT acoustic pickup under the saddle and a Fender Mexico Tele single coil at the base of the neck. The Fishman comes with a tuner with individual controls for bass, mids, and treble, and a blend control to blend the Tele and Fishman. In full acoustic, the guitar sounds just like a miked acoustic guitar. With the Tele pickup isolated, the guitar sounds just like a Strat, but with a slightly hollow, acoustic tone. It’s gorgeous! When I play it for acoustic voicing, I’ve actually never gone fully acoustic. In fact, I lean more towards the Tele pickup. The reason is that the Tele pickup adds a nice chime and top-end shimmer to the tone with subtle harmonics and overtones. But don’t take my word for it, here’s a short song that demonstrates what this guitar is capable of:

The song was recorded with three overlayed parts. The base rhythm track is played fingerstyle with the guitar set dead center in the blend, and the tone controls centered as well. The strummed rhythm leans just a bit towards the Tele side, and I bled off a little of the base. The result was that strummed chords sounded like a piano! Very cool! The lead track was recorded with the blend at about 90% Tele, and just a tad bit of the Fishman. For the lead, I also ran it through my wonderful KASHA Overdrive pedal. The result was a gorgeous, dirty Strat tone!

I almost forgot to mention. All the parts were played through my trusty Aracom VRX22! It’s an electric guitar amp, for goodness’ sake! Acoustic amp? We don’t need no stinkin’ acoustic amp.

Overall Impressions

As you can tell, I love this guitar! It is so incredibly versatile, giving me acoustic and electric tones with a touch of a slider. Interestingly enough, I wouldn’t call this a hybrid guitar, though it is technically a hybrid. I’ve played several hybrids, and this guitar really has a voice all its own. It really is an electric acoustic, and for the most part, it sounds like an acoustic. But it’s easy to configure it to sound just like an electric as the song above proves out.

But despite being able to configure it as an electric guitar, the most amazing thing about the Stratacoustic is how natural and organic – acoustic – it sounds when plugged in! Unlike a lot of acoustic guitars I’ve played and heard plugged into an amp, which isn’t at all very pleasing, the Stratacoustic sounds like it’s supposed to; like an acoustic guitar. I have a feeling that the body has a lot to do with this. Yeah, it doesn’t sound all that good unplugged, but it’s evident that the designer had this guitar pegged for being plugged in and was willing to sacrifice its unplugged tone for simply gorgeous plugged in tone.

Before I got it, I had actually never heard of the Stratacoustic. I just saw it on the rack, thought it was cool, and picked it out as one of the guitars I was evaluating. As soon as I plugged it in, I was sold. It’s quite simply a great guitar. It’s funny that the unplugged tone is really uninspiring, and it might turn away lots of players. But once you plug it in, it’s a completely different story. I thought I was done with buying Fender equipment, especially after they upped their prices significantly a few months ago – I just didn’t see the value. But this guitar sells at a great price. I got it for a deal, but at $629, it’s still a great value. I highly recommend this guitar!

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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!
fenderstudio
IK Multimedia Amplitube Fender Studio

Summary: Need a quick, portable way to get your guitar ideas down on track, with an incredibly easy-to-use USB interface for performing live through software models? Look no further. Amplitube Fender Studio will get you rocking in minutes!

Pros: The inclusion of Fender Studio SE, RiffWorks T4 and Amplitube X-Gear, provide you with a full-featured experience to develop and track your song ideas, and are well worth the price of admission!

Cons: None.

Amplitube Fender Studio Package:

StealthPlug Features:

  • 9’/2,5m length cable with integrated audio interface
  • 1/4” jack connector MONO IN
  • 1/8” mini-jack Headphone STEREO OUT (suitable also for Amp/Powered Speaker OUT)
  • USB 1.0/2.0 connector
  • Activity LED
  • Volume UP/DOWN buttons
  • USB bus powered
  • 16 bit A/D -D/A converter
  • 44KHz/48KHz Sampling Frequency
  • Ultra-low latency ASIO and Core Audio Drivers
  • Hi-Z direct Guitar and Bass-IN (suitable for any instrument with line out also)

Price: $99.99 (street)

Tone Bone Score: 5.0. Being constantly on the go as I am it can get frustrating having to wait all day to get a riff or song idea down. With the Amplitube Fender Studio, I can quickly hook up my axe, switch on my laptop, and get an idea down before I lose it!

I’ve been getting some pretty cool gear and software from IK Multimedia as of late, and so far, I’ve been nothing short of impressed with what I’ve evaluated. I totally dug AmpliTube Fender, and the StealthPedal blew me away with its high-fidelity signal processing. So it was with great anticipation that I’d do a review of Amplitube Fender Studio with the StealthPlug. I wasn’t disappointed in the least!

Amplitube Fender Studio: Be Anywhere, Record Your Axe Anywhere

I received AmpliTube Fender Studio with the included StealthPlug a few days ago (it’s always nice to come home to find a delivery box), immediately opened the box, plugged the StealthPlug into the USB port of my laptop, plugged my headset into the StealthPlug, fired up AmpliTube X-Gear, chose an amp, and started to play. Just as I expected, the device worked as advertised; and also as I expected, it worked with practically no latency. I immediately thought, “Man, I could gig with this…” But I’m jumping ahead… As fortune would have it, I could only spend a few minutes playing as I had to leave, so I unhooked everything and placed the StealthPlug in the pocket of my gig bag.

This morning, I loaded up my axe into my car, wanting to practice a little at lunchtime, as my work has kept me from playing regularly for the last several days. As I was driving into work, just letting my mind wander as I traveled down the freeway, out of nowhere I got a song idea. I played it over in my head for a few minutes, then anguished a bit because like many song ideas I’ve had in the past, I would have to wait until I got home to get the idea tracked; more often than not, by the time I got home, I’d lose the idea. Then I remembered that I had put the StealthPlug in my gig bag!

I immediately exited at the next exit and found a good place to park. I jumped out of the car, with laptop in hand, opened up my rear hatch, pulled my axe and the StealthPlug out of my gig bag, hooked up to my laptop, opened up GarageBand, created a new track, and hit record. I had the song idea down in less than five minutes. Sorry, I’m still working on the song, so I don’t have a clip. But the point of this is that the StealthPlug enabled me to get my song idea down soon after I got the idea. It meant that the idea didn’t get relegated to another “one that got away.”

Performance

I needn’t go into any diatribe of the StealthPlug’s fit and finish nor how it sounds. How it sounds is based upon what amp and effect models you apply in your software. But here’s one thing I did notice, and it’s a huge thing: I could barely detect any latency at all while I played through the StealthPlug, even when recording in GarageBand, which can be a real resource pig. That kind of instantaneous response is absolutely to die for! I suppose the near-zero latency of the StealthPlug probably has a lot to do with the simplicity of the signal route. It’s a USB cable, for goodness’ sake! But that bodes well for using the StealthPlug in a live situation. I’ve often wanted to use my computer in a live situation using nothing but software models for amps; especially in my church gig where controlling output volume is essential. The only thing that has kept me from doing this is latency. Even tiny amounts of latency can throw you off while you’re playing. But with the StealthPlug’s near-zero latency, I think I’m going to have to give it a go.

Funny thing, I perused the web for other reviews, and all seemed to have a much more tepid response to this wonderful piece of gear; especially with respect to latency. Mind you, I have 4 GB RAM in my Mac, so that probably has a lot to do with my lack of latency, since the computer rarely has to go to the hard drive once things are loaded.

Another thing I tried with the StealthPlug was running it from my pedal board, to see how it would react, and see how the amp models I have on my laptop would react. After tweaking some levels, I was amazed at how well it worked! Admittedly, the tone produced seemed a little thin in the highs, but a little EQ to boost the highs remedied that right quick. But there are other ways to employ the StealthPlug. Here a few ways you can use it.

Amplitube Fender Studio: It Simply KICKS ASS!

So I’ve established that I dig the StealthPlug… On a standalone basis, I’d give it a 5.0 Tone Bone score by itself because of the effect it had on my songwriting, but used within the context of the included Fender Studio software well, the whole package gets a 5.0! And it’s due to a little software package called Riffworks T4 that’s included with Fender Studio. I had heard of Riffworks by following Todd Rundgren who recorded his latest “Arena” album using the full version of this software.

Basically, Riffworks, as the name implies, is a software where you can create layered riff loops. Unlike programs like GarageBand or Ableton or the like, you construct songs in Riffworks by linking together riff loops that you can create. I won’t go into a lot of detail about it here, but I will say that it makes songwriting very very easy. For those of you familiar with digital recording, riffs are built using a “loop recording” methodology; that is, a phrase is played over and over again with a new “layer” added with each iteration of the loop. It’Add to the fact that Fender Studio and X-Gear or whatever amp plug-in you have on your computer is readily available in the software, and creating music is absolute freakin’ breeze. Here’s a clip that I recorded just a few minutes ago using Riffworks with Fender Studio:

For the rhythm part, I used ’59 Bassman model, then applied a Riffworks Filter and Shaper to it to give it that “vibey” sound. For the lead, I used driven ’57 Deluxe model. But for this, I ran my guitar into my pedalboard first, then into the StealthPlug. I only used a single pedal, and that’s my beloved Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2 to add some slightly compressed and sustaining overdrive to the signal. The result was magnificent!

Once I was done with recording in RiffWorks, I outputted the clip to a WAV file, then imported it into GarageBand, so I could add a bassline. If I had a bass handy, I could’ve done everything in RiffWorks, but alas, I can only use MIDI for now. But here’s the cool thing: The StealthPlug was my only audio interface into my computer! How incredible is that? And I just had my headphone attached to the StealthPlug, and it all worked amazingly well. Talk about having a portable studio! All I need is a couple of guitars, the StealthPlug and my laptop! Save the guitars, all I need will fit into my laptop bag. Granted, I wouldn’t have access to my pedalboard if I was on the road, but adding effect plug-ins to Amplitube if I need them is not a problem.

Overall Impressions

Amazingly enough, response to the StealthPlug has been just okay… Not sure what that’s all about. But for me, I have a recording solution wherever I go. I don’t need to bring amps, just my laptop and a couple of guitars when I want to get away for a remote songwriting adventure. And RiffWorks plus Amplitube gives me everything I need!

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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!
stroborack
Peterson VS-R StroboRack

Summary: Super-accurate, super-sophisticated, yet super-easy-to-use. With point-one cent accuracy and built-in temperament and sweeteners, plus a huge display, accurate tuning is a breeze with this unit!

Pros: The big display makes tuning extremely easy, and the built-in sweeteners (I’ll get into that in a bit) ensure that once you’re tuned you sound great.

Cons: None, at least from the standpoint of features and capabilities. But as I’m not really a rackmount guy, lugging this around would mean having to get an enclosure. But in the studio, IT IS THE BOMB!!!

Features:

  • 0.1 Cent Accuracy
  • Large, Backlit Virtual Strobe™ Display
  • Exclusive Sweetened™ Tunings For Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Bass, Dobro®, Baritone, Steel Guitar, Electric Violin- total of 34
  • Buzz Feiten Tuning System® Presets
  • 8 User-Programmable Sweeteners
  • 25 Presets
  • Built-In Mic
  • Mute Button & Remote Jack
  • Tone Out Jack
  • All Metal Construction
  • Neutrik® Jacks
  • 12V BNC Output For Gooseneck Light (not included)
  • Built-In Power Supply (No Wall Wart.)

Price: $359 (street)

Tone Bone Score: 5.0. I’ve used a lot of tuners, and this by far is the most accurate I’ve ever used. Despite it being a rackmount, my use of it in the studio has proven

I used to never be into rackmount gear, let alone sophisticated tuning equipment. But the Peterson StroboRack has me reconsidering both those things, especially in my workshop/studio where tuning accuracy is incredibly important.

I received the StroboRack a few days ago, and since I set it up (which required all of two minutes to plug in the cords), I can see why so many people love these tuners. It’s a completely different way to tune an instrument. Instead of lining up a needle or LED, or even using the “strobe” effect on a TU-2, you tune by making the “checkerboard” pattern on the LCD stop moving. If it moves the left, you’re flat. If it moves to the right, you’re sharp.

Tuning with one of these things does take a little getting used to. First off, I had to really lighten my touch with the tuning keys, and also had to make sure I didn’t put any pressure on the neck. At .1 cent accuracy, even a slight pressure throws off the tuning. But once I got used to it, tuning was a breeze!

Do you take sugar with that?

The StroboRack includes what are called “sweeteners” for specific types of instruments. I’m not sure I understand this idea completely, but it has to do with setting the right intervals between notes – compensating for the type of instrument – so that the tuned instrument doesn’t just sound great tuned up, but when you actually chords, the chords are much more tonally accurate. Apparently a lot of math goes into calculating these sweeteners.

All I can say is that my guitars tuned up with the StroboRack, actually sound better than when tuned up with my little TU-2. It probably has a lot to do with the high degree of accuracy, but I have a feeling it has a lot to do with the “GTR” sweetener. For instance, I did an A/B comparison of tuning with the StroboRack vs. my TU-2. I took my time to get the most accurate tuning I could with both tuners. When I struck an E chord after tuning up with my TU-2, I had to make a couple of minor adjustments to my G and B strings – it wasn’t that the chord sounded bad, it just seemed to sound a bit “off.”

On the other hand, the E chord struck after tuning with the StroboRack with the GTR sweetener engaged sounded absolutely right on!

Fit and Finish

The StroboRack is encased in a nice, heavy-duty aluminum casing. It is really built like a tank, so I have no doubts that it could survive the rigors of the road. But I do advise getting an enclosure for it. It’s still a precision instrument, and should be handled with some care.

Overall Impressions

To say The Dawg digs this unit is an absolute understatement! Last night, I used it to set the intonation on a new guitar I got, and I have to tell you, the big display and scrolling checkerboard really made it easy. I know, a lot of folks would say, “But it’s just a tuner.” Well yeah… but the accuracy it affords you – especially you tone freaks out there – just can’t be beat. This is a unit that I will definitely be adding to my rig!

At $359 street, it’s not a cheap proposition by any means, but hell! We gear sluts spend tons of money each year on gadgets to make us sound better. One would think that sounding better also means being in tune. Of course, Peterson has several other tuners, like the StroboStomp that doesn’t have all the features of the rack unit, but it uses the same “Virtual Strobe Technology” as the StroboRack, so you know you’ll get the accuracy you need.

Mind you, I didn’t try out all the other features like outputting to two outputs, which is pretty cool, or using the XLR jack to go into a board. Those are great features, but frankly, they’re secondary to what’s important with this unit: Accurate tuning.

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