Archive for the ‘guitar tone’ Category

VHT Special 6 Combo
Summary: This is a hand-wired, solidly built tone machine that packs great features for an unbelievable price. The value proposition alone is enough to turn heads, but add superb tone to the equation and you have a winner!

Cons: None.

Features (as tested):

  • 6 Watts
  • One 6V6 Output Tube
  • One 12AX7 Preamp Tube
  • Volume and Tone Controls
  • Footswitchable Boost Mode
  • High/Low Power Switch (Pentode/Triode)
  • 10” VHT High-Sensitivity Speaker
  • 4, 8, and 16 Ohm Speaker Jacks
  • Mod-Friendly Eyelet-Type Board
  • Hand-wired In China

Price: $199 Street / $179 Street for Head

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ Clean or dirty, this amp delivers the goods! The tone sweep is absolutely excellent giving you gorgeous, warm jazz cleans, to classic rock bite! Add the Hi/Lo power switch, and Push-Pull volume knob boost (also includes a footswitch), and you’ve got an amp that can live in a variety of musical genres.

About a week ago, I extolled virtues of the Marshall Class 5, and raved about how great it sounds. It’s a fantastic little amp, and I haven’t changed my opinion of it. But along came the VHT Special 6 and the game has completely changed. VHT raised the bar with Chinese-manufactured, low-cost, low-wattage amps by offering a hand-wired, super-well-built amp with fantastic features that can easily change the amp’s character for under $200 for a 1 X 10 combo.

I think the arrangements many gear manufacturers have made with overseas assemblers is great. Egnater is another example of a manufacturer doing it with great success. Design the gear here in the US, then partner with an overseas manufacturer to take advantage of their cheaper parts and labor, ensure that they meet a high standard of quality, then give the savings back to the customer. The top-of-the-line stuff can be saved for domestic production, but the stuff you want to get out to the masses can certainly be made elsewhere, and in much higher volumes and production rates. It’s a good model that many manufacturers have been following for years. I realize that I’m going to piss off some of the ultra-patriotic that will only buy stuff made in the USA; I myself prefer to buy US-made stuff, but it’s tough to argue with getting great tone for a great price, and that is EXACTLY what the VHT Special 6 and lots of other gear assembled overseas provide.

But enough toeing the political line. Let’s get into discussing the Special 6, shall we?

Fit and Finish and Features

The first thing I noticed when I first looked at the amp is how solid it looked. Picking it up revealed an amp that is no lightweight. I don’t know the exact weight, but the Special 6 is not lacking in heft. The cabinet is made of birch ply, and from what I could tell, fairly large transformers were used with the amp and those are heavy. Note that I’ve actually heard some conflicting information about the cabinet wood. Some say MDF, others say Baltic birch ply. Actually, it just doesn’t matter. The cabinet’s solid, and it works well as a resonance chamber for the speaker.

As far as cosmetics are concerned, the amp is covered in tolex with white piping around the front grille. The rear panel sports a partially open back that, like the Marshall Class 5, has a thin metal screen covering the opening. That’s a nice touch.

The control panel is super simple. You’ve got two chickenhead knobs for tone and volume, on/off switch, a three-way Hi/Lo Power / Standby switch (I dig that), and two input jacks for Lo and Hi input. The volume knob is a push-pull knob that when out, adds boost (sorry, not sure about the amount of boost). You can surmise just by these features that you can do a lot of tone shaping with this little beast. 🙂 The back panel has jacks for 4, 8, and 16 ohm speaker outs, plus a jack for switching between normal and boost.

Sound and Dynamics

Even with a 10″ speaker, the amp is capable of producing a variety of tones, from lush, Fender cleans, to ringing, AC15-like overdrive to gorgeous, smooth Plexi overdrive. I’m not kidding about this! Depending upon the pickup you’re using and where you set the tone knob, and other amp settings such as hi/lo input, pentode/triode mode, you can cover a wide range of tones! This is what is so SICK about this amp! It’s so damn versatile!

I played around with it in my studio this afternoon, getting ready to record some clips (which I’ll have in an upcoming article), and just for kicks, I unplugged the stock speaker and ran the amp out to my 2 X 12. Granted, there is a HUGE difference between a 2 X 12 and a little 10″ speaker, but in my experience, many low wattage amps still sound a little on the thin side even when going into a bigger cab; not so with the Special 6. It sounded big and ballsy; much more “big-amp-ish” than it’s diminutive power. That really came as a surprise, much like my surprise when I plugged the Reason Bambino into a big cab. It’s clear that just like the Reason guys, VHT didn’t want to just build a low-wattage amp. They wanted to build a great amp, period.

I also gigged with the amp in my weekly church gig yesterday afternoon, and it worked absolutely stellar! I kept the amp in high power mode, plugged into the high power input, set the tone and volume at 3pm each, then pulled the boost knob to activate the normal/boost footswitch. I didn’t use any effects at all as I just wanted the raw amp tones. I even tuned with my Peterson StroboClip so my signal from my guitar to the amp was completely direct. Note that even with a 10″ speaker, I still had to use an attenuator, and my trusty Aracom PRX150-Pro worked stellar with the amp.

During the gig, I mostly used the volume knob on my guitar to vary gain, whether in normal or boost mode. The amp responded so well to volume knob and pick attack. Even if I didn’t reduce the volume, and picked very lightly, I could clean up the sound. So sweet!

The only time I made any adjustments to the amp was when we did a song that I needed absolutely clean tones. I simply reduced the volume to around 11 am, then bypassed the attenuator. And the cleans were simply fantastic!

Made to Mod

Despite the fact that VHT says this amp is highly modifiable, I doubt that most people will do no more than swap tubes. I’ve seen some forum posts where people have made a couple of changes, but I’d say the majority of folks just won’t see a need to do that. But curious, for shits and giggles, I swapped out the stock 6V6 with a couple of different 50’s-era 6V6’s (GE and RCA). They each sounded beautiful as I expected, but quite frankly, they were just too smooth. The Chinese tube seems to be “hotter” and produces lots of harmonics; something my NOS tubes didn’t do. In my opinion, the Special 6 is meant to be a mini-rock machine. It won’t do really heavy stuff, but for 70’s and 80’s classic rock, it sits right in the sweet spot.

Overall Impression

I am thoroughly impressed with the VHT Special 6. Hand-wired, immensely versatile, plus fantastic tone for under $200? That’s tough to beat! And unlike other small, low-wattage amps that have only a volume and tone knob, the combination of inputs, low/hi power modes and boost make this an amp that can be used in a variety of ways. Big thumbs up, and 5 Tone Bones!

I’ll have clips in an upcoming article. Stay tuned!

Update: January 2, 2013

It has been awhile since I wrote the original article, and amazingly enough, I’m still using the Special 6. I did finally swap out tubes to 50’s era NOS for both pre-amp and power tubes, and I also swapped out the stock speaker and put in a Jensen Jet Electric Lightning. I use this amp frequently at my church gig where I don’t need a lot of volume since mic the amp and use the PA, and it is perfectly suited for that venue.

Even after all this time, I do have to say that I’m still thoroughly impressed with the tone of this little amp. When it’s cranked, and especially with the Electric Lightning speaker, the amp sounds SO much bigger than what its diminutive 6 watts would suggest. A lot of that has to do with how the speaker projects, but when cranked, that amp absolutely sings with tones of sustain and really sweet overtones. I love playing this amp with a Les Paul. The clean tones are gorgeous as well, and when I don’t hook it up to an attenuator, I just use pedals to get my distortion. From that perspective, the amp takes to pedals real well.

Finally, even with a simple, single EQ knob, the EQ works fantastically well with the amp. It’s kind of bright out of the box, so I normally just set the tone control to about 10 am. On some amps I’ve played, that muddies the tone a bit; but not with the Special 6. It simply makes the lower range stand out a bit more.

I’ve even been using the amp in the studio, over my DV Mark Little 4o and Aracom VRX’s (except where I need a heavier sound). It’s perfect for the studio.

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If you read this blog with regularity, you know that I love NOS tubes. Who knows? Maybe I’m being a cork-sniffer, but the significant impact NOS tubes have had on my amps has led me to preferring them over new production tubes. Unfortunately, NOS tubes are getting scarcer and scarcer, so I suppose that eventually I’ll  have to get new production tubes.

Now a company that I’ve tended to steer away from is Groove Tubes, mainly because they’re just re-labeler of various OEM tubes. They just measure voltage, match ’em up, relabel them and sell them as their brand. Nothing wrong with that, but I haven’t met a Groove Tubes tube that I’ve liked, until I discovered the Groove Tubes GT-6L6GE Re-issues.

Before I go on, I should clarify that I’m not talking about the current production 6L6GE’s, which are assembled overseas. The tubes I’m talking about were made in the USA up until about 2003, as far as I can tell.

What makes these tubes special is that they’re constructed of NOS materials (except the glass), and to the same specs as the original GE 6L6’s of old. Plus they were constructed in Southern California, so the quality is incredible. These tubes rock! To be honest, I’m not sure of all the details of their production, but I got the information from Brent Jesse @ audiotubes.com who recommended them to me.

I bought two sets so I could have a spare set, and have been in tonal heaven with my Hot Rod Deluxe! The cleans are lush and deep, and the overdrive is creamy smooth. I have other GE power tubes, and I’ve gotten used to their smooth distortion. These GT-6L6GE’s are no exception! In addition to their smooth breakup, they also don’t compress much, which is another thing I just dig. I prefer a more open distortion.

I compared these to both JJ’s and regular Groove Tube 6L6GT’s, and these just blow them away. The JJ’s and GT’s have nice, clear cleans, but forget about their tone when cranked up. The tone is harsh and gritty, even if I bias them a little hotter than spec; whereas the 6L6GE’s remind me of the breakup I get from my Plexi clone – without hot biasing! Amazing!

As these are no longer in production (don’t confuse these with the new 6L6GE’s), they’re a bit more expensive than the new production 6L6GE’s; $80 per pair as opposed to $55-$58 a pair. And because they have the same labeling as the new ones, it’s hard to tell them apart. So I recommend that if you want to get a pair, get them from a source you trust. As I mentioned, I get them from Brent Jesse Recording and Audio, and having purchased several tubes from him, I trust him implicitly.

All that said, I will be getting a set of the new production tubes to make a comparison, as they are also made with NOS materials, though assembled overseas. Who knows? They may just sound killer as well!

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Some people may scoff at the diminutive Fender Champ 600. After all, it’s only 5 Watts and has a tiny 6″ speaker. But those naysayers may be missing the point about the Champ or any super-low wattage speaker for that matter. It’s not meant to be a performance amp; though you can certainly hook it up to an extension cabinet, and it’ll do just fine in a small venue – hey! I do that A LOT. But the secret behind the beauty of this little $149 wonder isn’t on the stage, it’s in the studio.

I’ve heard feedback from various people that they get frustrated with this amp because it’s missing certain features. Let’s face it folks, with a single volume knob, no tone control, and not much gain on tap, it would be easy to dismiss this amp as nothing more than a toy. But it’s no mistake that its venerable sibling, the Champ, has been a mainstay in professional studios for decades. It’s all in how you make use of what it has to offer.

First off, let’s establish what I think is the most important thing when recording this amp: The Champ is really good at creating your base tone, and that’s all that it should be used for. It’s up to you to shape it. Keep that in mind, and you’ll get more than a lot of mileage out of it. So let’s look at some key factors when recording with the Champ:

  • The Champ is naturally bright because of its small speaker. So microphone placement is absolutely critical. If you want to get a bright, twangy sound with lots of treble content, place your mic head on in the center of the cone, or just off center to avoid getting those treble “pops.” If you want less treble response, move the mic off-center, nearer to the edge of the speaker cone. I’ve found that the richest sound comes from angling the mic at about the same angle as the speaker cone, placed right at the outer ring about an inch off the grille cloth. The EQ response is a lot flatter there, and makes it easy to dial in your EQ in your DAW.
  • Even cranked in the high input, and even with humbuckers, the most breakup you’ll get is about “dirty blues” overdrive. But that’s why we have overdrive and distortion pedals, right? I’ve found that Tube Screamer and TS-type overdrive pedals work great with the Champ, though my Holy Fire distortion can make the Champ serve up some whoop-ass if dialed in just right.
  • Looking for Fender cleans? The Champ does raw Fender cleans – and quite well. Again, it’s all about mic placement when recording cleans with the Champ. My favorite is angled as I described above.
  • Do yourself a favor and replace the stock tubes with NOS tubes. I’ve never been a big fan of Groove Tubes (though I know some people like them). But with a great NOS pre-amp tube (I’ve got a ’59 GE long plate), and a solid NOS 6V6 (mine is a ’53 GE 6V6), you’ll immediately tame the harshness of the amp. In fact, I’ve never seen a need to replace the power transformer or the speaker because of this $50 investment.

So with those points in mind, go and record. What you’ll get after you’ve played around a bit is a great, raw guitar tone. But your work isn’t done yet – or it could be if you’re satisfied with the raw tone. Personally, I like to add filters and effects in production to make the recording sound like it’s coming from a much bigger amp. Yes, boys and girls, you can make it sound MUCH bigger!

A Word on Amp Modeling

One thing that I have also done with the Champ is to record a purely clean rhythm tone, then run it through IK Multimedia’s Amplitube plug-in to essentially “re-amp” my guitar. You can get some amazing guitar tones with the Champ when it’s re-amped through this software.

My Champ 600 Recording Process

A couple of people have asked me how to record the amp, so I thought I’d share the process I employ:

  1. First, it starts with the guitar. Am I looking for a single-coil or humbucker tone. The cool thing about the Champ 600 is that what you hear when you play through it is your raw guitar tone. There’s no EQ so you have to establish that on your guitar. Simple enough.
  2. Then I’ll determine whether or not I want to track with effects. Usually, I’ll only track with overdrive or distortion. I leave all the modulation effects to production.
  3. Next, I place my mic head, dead-center on the speaker, then record a chord progression and perhaps some quick lead licks.
  4. Then I’ll move the mic off-center and repeat the same thing I played with the mic centered.
  5. Finally, I’ll angle the mic as described above and repeat the same progression. More likely than not, I’ll use this position because I like it the best, but different guitars actually sound better with the mic positioned dead-center.
  6. Once I decide what mic position I’ll use, then I’ll record the track.
  7. Once I’m finished, it’s time to apply EQ, filters and modulation effects. I like to use a hi-pass filter on most recordings with Champ to “tame” its natural edginess.

Here are some clips that I put together based upon the process above (I skipped recording head-on, off center):

Clean (Squier Classic Vibe Tele 50’s)

1. Mic head-on, dead-center

2. Mic angled along speaker cone, 1″ off the grille cloth.

Recording #2 with Graphic EQ, Chorus, Parametric EQ, Delay, Reverb, and Hi-pass filter applied

Overdriven with Tube Screamer for Extra Drive (Gibson Nighthawk 2009)

1. Mic head-on, dead-center

2. Mic angled along speaker cone, 1″ off the grille cloth.

Recording #2 with Graphic EQ, Flange, Delay, Reverb, and Hi-pass filter applied

It’s amazing what EQ, filters and effects can do to the recording! And it really didn’t take that much work to dial in the final version of what I wanted to ultimately print!

Finally, here’s a song I wrote and record awhile back (sorry for the over-abundance of bass). If I remember correctly, I used four guitars in six parts in that song (Epiphone Explorer, Gibson ES-335, MIM Strat, PRS SE Soapbar II), all recorded with the Champ – and with the stock speaker no less!

Rock on!!!

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This is a hotly debated topic, and there are great arguments for or against using one. I’m of the former group and have used attenuators to great success over the years. To demonstrate how useful an attenuator can be, I put together a quick video. Here you go:

I wanted to be as non-technical about the usage of an attenuator because there are so many attenuator designs on the market. So I kept this video at a fairly high level. I’ll get into more detail in the next video when I discuss the Aracom PRX150-Pro.

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I know, I know… I talk about this pedal A LOT, and I’ve already reviewed it a few times… (here’s the original) But I keep on discovering so many great things about this pedal that makes me want to talk about it. Just when I think I’ve got it dialed in, I find yet another thing that it does that just completely turns me on!

Tonight, I was screwing around with my song Strutter yet again. I’m done writing it, but I wanted to practice, and that song is really fun to practice to; I just mute the lead tracks and have at it. Mind you, all I wanted to do was practice and play “Blondie,” my Squier CV Tele – I didn’t have anything else in mind.

So I hooked up my Aracom PLX18 BB and started playing over the rhythm track. Folks, this amp just oozes classic Marshall “Bluesbreaker” tone as is, but just for shits and giggles, I decided to switch on my KASHA Overdrive to add a little flavor to my tone because I was working on a new song recently where I loved what this pedal did – especially with the PLX18 BB! For that song (which I’m still writing) I didn’t want to add too much gain. All I wanted to do was add some texture. So I thought it might just sound good while I practiced over Strutter. Man, was that a good call!

Here’s an A/B clip of sorts of the first two verses of the song. In verse 1, I’m playing the PLX18BB with nothing added – just a touch of room reverb as an insert in the mix. In the second verse, I switch on the KASHA overdrive (still with some reverb in the mix). The pedal is in the “Hot” channel, and I set the gain knob at 12 o’clock, which just provides a bit of a gain boost (it’s capable of adding up to 15dB of boost in this channel), but this channel also sustains for days, adding a touch of high-end sparkle. Here’s the clip:

Please excuse the little playing mistakes I made… 🙂 It’s nothing really egregious. In any case, when you compare the two verses, the difference in tone is actually subtle, at least to my ears. But from a playing standpoint, the amount of touch-sensitivity and sustain that was added made the second verse so much more musical and so much more inspiring to play. And speaking of subtlety, I think that is yet another mark of a great overdrive pedal. To me, overdrives should be transparent, they should never alter your tone – that’s what fuzz and distortion are for. At the most, they should simply add EQ emphasis, and that’s it. And that’s why I love the overdrives I play through: Tone Freak Abunai 2, GeekMacDaddy Geek Driver, Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire, the KASHA overdrive, TubeScreamer, and believe it or not, a Bad Monkey. They all bring to the table their own little voicings, but none of these alter your basic tone.

Great gear evokes a sense of inspiration – at least in me – that makes me want to keep playing and playing and playing. I just can’t say enough about this pedal. At around $200, it is worth every penny I paid for it. Thanks, John Kasha for coming up with such a fantastic pedal! Now back to playing!

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Sennheiser e609 Silver Instrument Microphone

Summary: Need a great mic to close-mic your amp? Look no further! The e609 delivers on all fronts, able to withstand high SPL’s, and still accurately reproduce your tone.

Pros: Flat-face design makes placing the mic a breeze, but more importantly, placed correctly (as you should with any mic), it’ll capture your tone beautifully!

Cons: None

Features (from the web site):

  • Hum compensating coil reduces electrical interference (I can attest to this – it’s super quiet)
  • Neodynum ferrous magnet with boron keeps mic stable regardless of climate
  • Metal construction—rugged and reliable
  • Super-cardioid pick-up pattern provides isolation from other on-stage signals

Price: ~$95 streetTone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ Going back to my “using the right tool for the job,” I don’t know why I didn’t pick up one of these earlier. I have some good mics, but now that I’ve got the e609 that was made explicitly for micking instruments, I kicking myself a bit. Lesson learned yet again!

I told myself that all I would get was a speaker cable for my cab when I walked into my local Guitar Center today. Unfortunately for me, the cables were located in the Pro Audio area where GC has a big case of very nice mics. And, gear slut that I am, I couldn’t resist a look. Granted, most of those mics were completely out of the ballpark for me, costing several hundreds of dollars. But it did get me thinking that I really should be using a dedicated instrument mic for my home studio when recording my clips and songs.

Fortunately, they didn’t have any instrument mics in the case, but silly me, I just had to ask the guy behind the counter if he had an e609 (I had researched this and other instrument mics several months ago). “Oh yeah,” said another sales clerk, “We got those. They rock, and they’re cheap.” Damn! Words that a gear slut should never hear in one sentence: ROCK and CHEAP! That will instantly elicit a fidgety, twitchy response as the pragmatic half of the psyche wrestles with the GAS half. And usually the GAS half wins, as it did today.

So now I am the very proud owner of a Sennheiser e609. And I do have to say that it does rock, and it costs far less than what one would normally expect to pay for a great mic. At less than $100, how can you argue with that?

How It Sounds

I recorded a little blues solo over a standard GarageBand backing track to demonstrate. Give it a listen:

For the solo, I used “Blondie” my Squier Classic Vibe Tele, the insane-sounding Aracom VRX18 amp (it’s customized with an EZ81 rectifier), and my custom Aracom 1 X 12 cab with a Jensen P12N speaker. The e609 was placed about halfway between the dome and the speaker edge about an inch away from the grille cloth.

I added a touch of reverb to the dry clip in GarageBand, but that’s it. No EQ (I don’t like to EQ my guitar parts anyway). What you hear on the clip is what I heard in my studio. Freakin’ amazing! Like I mentioned above, after recording this clip, I should’ve gotten one of these a long time ago. It’s a great mic!

Mixed Reviews

I re-read some reviews today, and interestingly enough, they come back mixed. Harmony Central user reviews rate it at about 7.5 on average. People other love it or hate it. But in reply to the negative experiences, I have to call into question mic placement. If it’s one thing I’ve learned from years of home studio recording, placing your mic correctly is critical to getting a good tone. Maybe they weren’t experimenting enough with mic placement. Who knows?

With the e609, I first went with the recommended placement in the user manual (yes, I am one of those anal people who do indeed RTFM), then moved it maybe half an inch more towards the speaker edge to reduce the highs just a tad. That made all the difference in the world because my amp is pretty bright micked up close, and I didn’t want that to dominate the recording, especially since the mic was only an inch away from the grille cloth.

Overall Impressions

The Tone Bones score says it all. I’m hooked! Frankly, it didn’t take me long at all to dial this puppy in. It’s a truly great mic!

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A couple of months ago, I wrote an article entitled, “Where DOES TONE Really Reside?” where I discussed the equipment vs. fingers religious debate that seems to rage on the forums now and again. I meant to follow up on that article much earlier, but well, life happens and it’s easy to get sidetracked, so here’s my follow-up:

Tone is NOTHING without music.

Music gives tone a context. Here’s a good test of this statement:

  1. Set your rig up to your sweet spot; that is, where you think it just sings to you, no matter what you play.
  2. Start plucking out random notes, not trying to be musical at all. Could be some dissonant scale of some sort, or just randomly plucked notes. Do some bends and such. Ugly, right?
  3. Now, without changing your settings, make music with that tone. You could comp some chords, or do some melodic lead.

For example, here’s a clip I quickly recorded that demonstrates the steps. In the clip, I’m playing my Strat through a Hardwire reverb, into a Reason Bambino on the Normal channel, at just the edge of breakup. The tone that this produces is silky smooth, but responds to attack and volume increases with just bit of grind. I’ve been using this setting quite a bit lately. It creates a very three-dimensional sound.

The first part – thankfully – is very short, and is just random plucking of notes. Without touching anything on my guitar or amp, in the second part, I do a little chord comping and create some music.

The point to that little exercise is that in both parts, the tone I’m producing – at least to my ears – is gorgeous. But flat-out tone with no context well… it just plain sucks!

So put everything together, where does tone reside? As I stated in the first article, it’s in both your gear and your fingers, but ultimately, you have to give it context, and that’s applying that tone to music. But keep in mind that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. What is considered “great tone” is a purely subjective thing.


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