Archive for the ‘Home Studio’ Category

4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite
Amplitube Fender Edition
IK Multimedia Amplitube Fender Edition

Summary: Modeling 12 of the most famous Fender Amps, Amplitube Fender is pretty amazing. It’s scary how close to the real thing this software gets!

Pros: Super-easy to install, and super-convenient to use in your DAW software. The package comes with TONS of presets that require very little tweaking.

Cons: This is just a little nit because it sounds so good, and I don’t want to take that away from this excellent piece of software. But it doesn’t quite respond like a real amp.

Price: $229 Full Version / $139 Studio Version

Specs (from the IK Multimedia site):

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 overall, but for a recording plug-in, it gets a 5.0

Being a snobbish purist about “real” gear, 🙂 I’m not easily impressed by emulation software. But when I heard clips of the Fender Edition of Amplitube, I knew I had to check this software out. A million thanks go to the folks at IK Multimedia to letting me evaluate this software because I am definitely impressed by Amplitube Fender! It’s not everyday that you have access to 12 awesome Fender amps, and to have them literally a mouse-click away is just insane! I don’t think amp software will ever replace a real amp, but this software comes so close to sounding like the real thing that especially for recording, I’d be hard-pressed to NOT use it for recording lots of guitar parts!

I used an earlier version of AmpliTube a few years ago, and was not at all impressed by how it sounded. But being in the software development world, with time, software gets better, and I have to say that this software is absolutely incredible!

Now and then, I go off for a weekend alone, and I lug a couple of guitars, a couple of mics, an amp or two, and my MacBook, along with my MBox 2 interface to just do some writing and recording. With Amplitube Fender, I don’t need to lug my amps! I can just load my laptop and MBox an a couple of cords and a mic, and I’m home free! Hey! Not having to lug any extra gear is HUGE! I’m sold on using this software! Not only do I have my four real amps, I now have 12 other amps to choose from when I record! It’s really exciting!

How It Sounds

Imagine that! No need to write a section on fit and finish! 🙂

In a word, it sounds AWESOME! Right after I installed the software, I plugged my Strat into the DI jack of my MBox 2, opened up GarageBand, started a new project, added a new track, and selected “Amplitube Fender” from a plug-in drop down. It was literally that easy! I randomly picked a ’57 Deluxe Dual Mic, then started to strum this little ditty in Am. Before I knew it, I was adding drum and bass tracks, to record the riff.

I’ve played through a ’57 Deluxe in the past, and I was amazed at how the software emulated that warm, bright and crisp sound that that amp is known for! I kept on thinking to myself, “This couldn’t be software – it sounds to friggin’ good!” After I recorded that rhythm track, I took out the Goldtop to play a lead. I ended up playing for over an hour this evening just tooling around with different amps. In the end, I wanted to get a sample out, so I chose a ’59 Bassman with a Fender Fuzz-Wah plug-in to get some fuzz, then recorded the following sound bite:

I don’t know about you, but I really can’t tell the difference between the real thing and software. Maybe because I’m starting to lose my hearing and my ability to discern audio fidelity is kind of going south. No matter, I think this software ROCKS!

Overall Impressions

Amplitube Fender does a fantastic job of amp emulation – there’s no arguing that at all. But there’s a certain “mojo” about a real amp that just can’t be captured with software, no matter how close to the real thing that software sounds. That said, however, even one as snobbish as myself, and other gear freaks I know would be hard-pressed not to seriously consider adding this to their arsenal of recording plug-ins!

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4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite

Blackheart BH5-112 Little Giant 5 Watt Combo

Blackheart BH5-112 Little Giant 5 Watt Combo

Blackheart BH5-112 Little Giant 5Watt Combo

Summary: Nice, simple, and versatile studio/practice/small venue amp with sporting happening EL-84 tones.

Pros: Sweet and chimey EL-84 tones with Class A circuitry; simple and straightforward to use. Switchable between 5Watts and 3Watts, ensuring usability in just about any smaller venue. 3W mode kicks ass for getting power tube saturation at a reasonable volume.

Cons: I wish it had a Master Volume, but that’s just a nit.

Price: $349 street (used to be $249 when it first came out! Damn! Shoulda gotten one then.)


• Single-ended Class A circuit
• All tube signal path
• One 12AX7/ECC83 dual-triode preamp tube and one EL84/6BQ5 pentode output tube
• Pentode (5W rms) Triode (3W rms) switch
• Solid-state rectifier
• DC filament power supply for all tubes
• 3-band EQ
• 16-gauge (1.5 mm) thick, folded and spot welded steel chassis
• Double-sided custom color PCB with 2 oz. copper
• 15-ply, 18 mm thick, void-free birch plywood construction
• Custom-designed 12″ Eminence Blackheart speaker
• 16 ohm, 8 ohm, and 4 ohm speaker outputs

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 – Very musical and expressive amp. Nice cleans, with a decent amount of headroom.

I first heard about Blackheart amps back in 2007. They were so new that very few people knew about them. And while a local shop was listed as a dealer, only the owner knew about the amps, and they didn’t carry them in stock! Blackheart Engineering is sort of an overseas spinoff from Crate which produces cool, yet affordable tube amps. As a home studio enthusiast, I keep my ear to the ground about low-cost, low-wattage combo amps. When I first heard about the BH5-112, I was excited. I thought it was a bold move for Crate, and a smart one, considering Crate is a huge manufacturer with huge lineup of gear; adding even something cool like the Blackheart line would just get lost in the mix. But Blackheart was pretty low-key. No ads, spotty coverage on the Internet.

So it was a very pleasant surprise to see a few Blackhearts at a local shop yesterday, and among them, the Little Giant. I was actually there to play that G & L Tribute Comanche I wrote about last week; the last time I was at the shop, they didn’t have any Blackhearts, so I wasn’t expecting to see them at all. But with them there, I naturally had to try one out, and luckily they had the Little Giant.

Fit and Finish

This little amp has a real cool vibe going on. I really like the cabinet that Blackheart uses. It’s a closed back cab, and for an amp made overseas, it’s appears to be very well constructed. There were no apparent flaws in the tolex layering, and Blackheart logo on the front is killer. I dig the white vinyl trim used on the front around the grille cloth. Real boutique styling at a pretty affordable price!

The control layout is simple: An input jack on the left, volume and three-band eq knobs, an indicator light and an on/off switch, making it simple to plug in, dial in your tone, and start rockin’.

How It Sounds

I’ve really come to love the EL-84 tones, especially when they’re saturated, and the Little Giant doesn’t disappoint when delivering its sound. With the EQ knobs at 12 o’clock, the natural tone of the amp leans toward a slightly scooped tone with a bright voicing. Even with the specially-made Eminence 1 X 12, it’s bright, but it does retain a taut low-end that really smooths out the tone. Quite pleasing. I only tested the amp with that Tribute Comanche, but it didn’t matter. When I test an amp, I play it clean for a lot of my tests to see if it will deliver the natural tonal character of the guitar, and the Blackheart Little Giant fulfills its mission.

The amp is very responsive to volume knob and pick attack. With the volume set at about halfway, and cranking the guitar volume, I was able to get that AC30-like response: Clean and shimmery, with just the slightest bit of breakup when you dig in. Very pleasing to the ears.

Amazingly enough, even though its power rating is a minuscule 5 Watts, with the 12″ speaker, this amp can put out some volume! Hence its name “Little Giant.” It probably couldn’t keep up with a drum set and a band going all out, but it can pack a good enough punch to work well in a small venue where lower volume is critical, and it definitely could be put to great use in a studio!

Overall Impressions

What can I say? I dig this amp, much like I dig the Fender Champ 600. But unlike its Fender cousin, the 12″ speaker really lets the amp breath. And speaking of volume, I was quite impressed with the volume control. Unlike many amps that practically max out by 6, the sweep covered by the Little Giant’s volume knob is nice, even and more importantly, wide. Two thumbs up!s

Here’s a video (excuse the dude’s misinformation about Class A amps – damn! That’s even worse than my faux pas about modes 🙂

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Home Studio There are different schools of thought around this subject, but I thought I’d throw in some of my own thoughts, since I’ve been at it awhile. Note that I won’t be talking about techniques necessarily, though I will include some tips and tricks… So without further ado…

First, let’s establish something here: You don’t need to buy super-expensive gear to sound good, and you don’t need a lot of equipment. I’ve found that in a lot of cases, while more expensive gear will afford you convenience features, and a better sound quality, for the home studio enthusiast, a lot of times this gear is overkill. I’ll go into some details below, but in my opinion, recording technique is far more important. So with that said, let’s start talking about what I think are essential pieces of equipment:

Computer Equipment/Software

You probably already have a computer, but it should be configured to handle digital recording. While drive speed is important, it isn’t necessarily critical. My MacBook Pro’s hard drive spins at 5400 rpm, and I have no problems recording stuff. But what you do need is space. I’d recommend getting two hard drives: one for programs, and the other dedicated to saving data. It’s just a cleanliness thing. Also, get as much RAM as your machine can handle. I’ve got 4GB on my machine. That’s even more important than a hard drive. You don’t need a super-poweful machine either, but dual-core machines really work well.

Okay, Mac or PC? Go with what you’re comfortable with. There are lots of programs out there; among them is a neat little program that works great on both PC and Mac called Audacity – it’s free! Todd Rundgren recorded a lot of his latest album using Audacity, so it’s definitely doable.

What about ProTools?

I’ve got it. It’s great. But the learning curve is super steep. In fact, when I first started recording, I spent more time learning how to use the damn software than getting my ideas down and that just frustrated me to no end; so much so, that I lost my taste for recording for several months – I just didn’t want to mess around with the software! I just wanted to get my freakin’ ideas down! I’m not saying it’s bad, but it’s complicated, and you’ll have to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of the program. With the home studio, what you’re after is getting your ideas down with reasonable quality – and fast. That, at least, is my opinion. In light of that, I use GarageBand to get all my ideas down. It has built-in rhythm loops so I don’t have to use a click track, and there are lots of add-ons, both free and affordable, that you can use in GB. The sound quality is excellent, and it even has some mastering presets that work amazingly well!

Digital Interface

There are lots out there. I happen to use the DigiDesign MBox 2, which has two analog inputs, MIDI, and a couple of others I don’t use. Very handy little box. But there are lots of solutions out there in the $300-$400 range. Most use USB, though FireWire is probably the optimum – it also costs more.


Now this is just my opinion, but you’ll need at least two mics: One ribbon mic, and one dynamic mic. I have a Nady RSM-200 ribbon that cost me less than $200, and it works superbly! I also swear by my trusty Sennheiser 835 stage mic, which is a workhorse similar to the Shure SM-58, but I think it’s warmer and has a much flatter EQ response than the SM-58 which can get kind of boomy.

MIDI Controller

Being also a piano player – not nearly as good on this as I am on guitar – having a keyboard to trigger MIDI and add MIDI-based instruments is another essential. You can go the small route (2 octave) or go the full-size keyboard route. I use an M-Audio full-size stage keyboard myself only because it doubles as my MIDI controller as well as my gigging keyboard. It was also cheap at $300 new. Nice.

From my standpoint, this is all you need as far as essential equipment for recording. Now let’s get into some techniques and some nice-to-haves:

  1. Always record acoustic guitar using mics – and use two of ’em. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? I’ve tried going direct into my computer, and the sound is horrible. But using two mics works great. I usually place my ribbon mic about six inches from the sound hole, then place my dynamic mic pointed at a 45 degree angle at about the 3rd fret to capture sounds coming off the neck. Also, to take advantage of the ribbon mic’s rear pickup, I have a board, or hard, reflective surface placed about two to three feet in front of me to reflect sound back. It gives just a sligh reverb effect that really fills out the recorded tone.
  2. If you can swing it, get a couple of low-wattage amps. In particular, I use a Fender Champ 600, which is a 5 Watt amp with an 8″ speaker. Another one I’ve used, but don’t own is the Epiphone Valve Jr.. What a nice little amp! Since you’re recording at bedroom levels, a small amp that puts out less volume works wonders. Now here’s the trick I’ve found to recording with these small amps. You can make that sucker sound HUGE by close-mic’ing the amp. I use a dynamic mic pointed at an angle along the cone of the speaker, and place it no more than 2″ away from the grille cloth. Then I use a variety of overdrive and distortion pedals to get grind or searing distortion, then in my software boost the low frequencies. The end result is that it sounds like I’ve just recorded a full-size stack! You have to play with your settings, but it’s definitely achievable. The other nice thing about using a small amp for recording is that the naturally bright voicing really works well in a digital recording environment.
  3. For vocals, always use a pop filter. I’m an experienced singer, and even though I have great mic technique, nothing is worse on a recording than picking up those oral transients that your mouth makes when making consonant sounds. Pop filters cost less than $20 and believe me they’re a life saver.
  4. While we’re on the subject of vocals… Avoid using a compressor on vocals as much as possible. When you’re singing a louder phrase, move away from the mic. It’s that simple. Compression is good to a point, but there’s a lot to be said about having volume dynamics in your vocals. You get a lot more emotion coming through when you have it. If volume is pretty much the same throughout a song, it’s well… boring in my opinion, no matter how good a singer you are.
  5. Avoid EQ as much as you can. Dial in the EQ on your instruments before you record, then only do wholesale volume adjustments later to make mix corrections. What you’re trying to do is capture the natural sound the instrument makes as closely as possible. The only exception I make to this is when I’m recording a low-wattage amp and want to boost the lows. Otherwise, I just do volume adjustments for the mix.

These are just a few things I’ve learned over the last few years of doing this. I’m sure I’ve missed some stuff, so if anyone else wants to add to this, please feel free!

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