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I love overdrive pedals. I have a bunch of them. But I realized that part of why I have so many has a lot to do with not really understanding how to set them up properly. I’d get an overdrive pedal because a demo I heard sounded great, or I loved how it was voiced. But when I’d get it home, it just wouldn’t sound quite right, so I’d put it in my “storage” area.

But as I got more experienced with setting up my amps, I similarly got to understand how to set up my overdrive pedals. And now that I have a bunch, I’ve got a variety of pedals to choose from to get the sound I want depending on my sets or my mood – okay, I admit it: It’s mostly due to my mood. 🙂

Admittedly, I did a lot of forum lurking as well to gain insights on setting up an overdrive, so a lot of what I’ll be sharing here comes from the things I’ve learned from others in addition to the stuff I’ve learned on my own.

What actually motivated me to write this was a conversation that I had with a friend. I asked him what he thought of a particular overdrive pedal, and he said he didn’t like the way it sounded. I looked at him a little puzzled and said, “Maybe you didn’t set it up right.” And that led me to say that not all overdrives are created equal, and you have to set them up according to how they work best. Truth be told, I haven’t spoken to him since that conversation, so I have no idea if he tried what I suggested. But in light of that, I decided to share my thoughts.


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Types of Overdrives – Not Necessarily What You Might Think

Before we get into the actual setup of an overdrive, I thought I’d go into a discussion about types of overdrives because how you set up an overdrive has a lot to do with the type of overdrive it is. No, this isn’t a discussion about circuit types or transparency. I suppose this could be related to the circuit type on which an overdrive is based, but I’m not that electrically savvy, so I’ll discuss this in more practical terms.

From my experience with having played several overdrives, I’ve found that they fall into roughly two different categories (mind you, these are my own terms): Interactive and Standalone. Interactive overdrives are meant to interact with the preamp of your amp, and together they produce the overdrive sound.

Standalone overdrives are typically purpose-built to mimic an amplifier, and though they can certainly be set up to be interactive, they can function just fine on their own in front of a clean amp.

Notice that I haven’t named any specific overdrive models. The reason why is that overdrives sound different with different amps. For instance, the EHX Soul Food sounds great as a standalone overdrive in front of my Fender amp. But it doesn’t sound nearly as good as a standalone overdrive in front of my Plexi-style amps, so I set it up as an interactive overdrive for those amps.

So the idea behind interactive vs. standalone has little to do with a specific type or model of overdrive; rather, it has to do with how the overdrive sounds with your amp.

Setting Up an Overdrive

I have two processes that I go through to set up an overdrive. At this point, I know all my pedals and whether they’re standalone or interactive, but I still follow the same processes for my different pedals when I set them up on my board. Also, if I come across or get a new overdrive, I first assume that it can be a standalone overdrive, then if I find it doesn’t work well that way, I’ll then set it up to be interactive. Here are the step-by-step processes I follow:

Setting Up a Standalone Overdrive

  1. Set up the amp:
    1. Clean
    2. Set EQ to work with your guitar
  2. Set guitar volume to the middle
  3. Guitar EQ where you want it
  4. Set overdrive with all knobs to the middle.
  5. Engage the overdrive and get it to unity gain (so that when you engage it, your volume doesn’t change), or to just get a small volume bump when the pedal’s engaged.
  6. Set the EQ on the overdrive
  7. Adjust the overdrive/gain knob to get your desired amount of distortion from the pedal.
    1. You will probably have to make adjustments to the level knob to maintain unity gain.
  8. Evaluate the sound and feel by playing around with chord progressions and licks.
    1. All the while, raise and lower your guitar volume to see how the pedal responds.
  9. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you dial in the right volume/sound/feel.
    1. If the volume, sound, and feel are fine for you, then you’re all set and ready to gig and the overdrive pedal will work fine as a standalone device.
    2. If the sound doesn’t feel “right,” chances are you’ll have to do some interaction with the preamp of your amp, so continue to the next section.

Setting Up an Interactive Overdrive

  1. Set up the amp
    1. Set Gain/Volume so the amp is at the edge of breakup.
      1. You’ll know it’s there when you turn up the guitar’s volume and the amp begins to distort, then cleans up when you turn it down. Also, if the guitar’s volume is set to the middle, if you strum hard it will break up.
    2. Set EQ on the amp
  2. Set your guitar volume to the middle
  3. Set guitar EQ when you like it
  4. Set overdrive with all knobs at their middle positions
  5. Engage the overdrive
    1. More likely than not, you’ll get a big volume boost when you engage at this level, so you’ll have to adjust both the overdrive’s level and amp’s volume/master knobs to get to the right volume.
      1. If you don’t have a master volume, turn down the overdrive’s volume/level knob to get to a management volume.
    2. Because you want to get both overdrive AND amp distortion, you’ll want to get a small volume bump when you engage the pedal as you want the amp to go over the edge of breakup.
  6. Now, play around.
    1. See how the combination responds to volume swells on your guitar.
    2. Make adjustments to the overdrive gain to get the right combination of pedal and amp distortion.

The Importance of EQ

Notice that I mention setting EQ on the amp, guitar, and overdrive pedal. Setting EQ is extremely important because it can be the difference-maker in your overall tone. There’s no “ideal” EQ setting. But for me as a rule of thumb, I want to get a rich, slightly bright tone that sits well in the mix and isn’t so warm that compared to the other instruments, won’t get washed out when we’re all playing together.

Also, for live gigs, I usually don’t touch my amp or pedal EQ once I get them set up. I use my guitar’s tone knob to adjust how warm or bright my sound to be.

Amp/Pedal Combinations

All that said, if you’ve followed the steps for setting up an interactive overdrive, and it still doesn’t sound right no matter what you do, then the pedal sucks. Just kidding. 🙂 Truth be told, I’ve found some overdrives work better with different amps. If you have another amp, then try the pedal out in front of it.

For instance, Paul Cochrane of “Tim” and “Timmy” pedal fame recommends not using the pedal in front of a Fender Blackface amp. I don’t have a blackface amp, so I had to take him at his word, but the Timmy works great in front of all my amps. For me, I will not use my venerable Ibanez TS-808 TubeScreamer in front of my vintage Marshall-style amps. It just doesn’t sound good to me, no matter how I set it up.

I think it’s because the TS produces a big midrange bump when engaged, and my amps are voiced bright, so it ends up sounding piercing like little ice picks on my eardrums. Even EQ adjustments don’t work for me. But in front of my Fender Hot Rod, the TS truly screams! My Hot Rod has the classic Fender “scooped” tone, so the predominant midrange of the TS fills in the mids.

What About Stacking Overdrives?

That gets a bit more complicated, but I’d follow the basic procedures above, treating the trailing pedal as the amp. In this case, I’d tend to set up the amp as clean and have the trailing pedal always on. There lots of ways to approach this as well. I know one guitarist that uses three at once to get his “sound.” More power to him! 🙂

But truth be told, I hate to dance on my board, so even though I will use a couple of overdrives, I only use one at a time depending on the kind of voicing I want. I also, don’t like complicate my sound finding the right balance of multiple overdrives. I just want to play. Granted, I could do a lot of pre-gig work to get that, but for me, employing the KISS theory works best.

Many people like to stack, and that’s great. Stevie Ray Vaughan used to use two TubeScreamers stacked together; one as an overdrive and one as a booster.

Wah-wah and Overdrive

If you don’t use a wah-wah pedal, then you can ignore this section. But I thought it would be important to add this to the mix, mainly because I’ve found that certain overdrives work better depending on where the wah-wah pedal is placed. Admittedly, my personal preference is to place the wah pedal after my overdrives. But there are a few boutique overdrive pedals that I have that work much better when the wah pedal is in front of them. Not sure why this is. Luckily, I only have a couple of pedals that act this way, so I know not to use a wah pedal with them if I have it set up after my overdrives.

Exploration

To close this out, I have to admit that I’m a bit of an overdrive junkie. I may not buy every single one that piques my interest, but I do check out new overdrives when I run across them. The great thing about overdrives is that they really are all different, even the knock-offs, so I’ll continue to explore overdrives. I never know what I might find. 🙂

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bren-thumbs-upYesterday, I wrote an article about how my beloved Hardwire RV-7 Reverb had finally gone on the fritz, and I was going to try out the TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb, which I’ve had now for a few years, but hadn’t put on my pedal board. This wasn’t because I didn’t think it was good; in fact, I gave it pretty high marks in my original review back in 2013. But that was a studio test.

Testing in a controlled environment is one thing, but for me, gear doesn’t really reveal its true nature until I’ve used it live. The conditions are completely different than in a studio, and oftentimes I’ve found that something might sound great in the studio, but in a live performance situation, just doesn’t perform all that well, no matter how it is adjusted.

But as you can tell by the meme, that is definitely not the case with the Hall of Fame. In fact, it performed so well that it’s not leaving my acoustic board. Ever. Yeah, yeah, I know that there are awesome boutique reverbs out there. But when you dial in a great sound, irrespective of the pedal, you don’t mess with it. It’s like the saying in baseball: You don’t f$%k with a streak. If it works, you go with it.

Truth be told, I found a “magic” setting for the pedal, and not only did it meet the capability I expected it to have – that is, at least equivalent to my old RV-7 – it far exceeded my expectations. That setting didn’t make a lot of sense to me at first because I normally like to run a reverb at about 50-50 wet/dry with a short decay, and that’s how I initially set it up. And as opposed to using a spring setting, I’ve turned to using a Hall reverb. I had gotten used the natural subtlety of the RV-7, but the Hall of Fame Hall reverb is much wetter at the 50-50 level setting than the RV-7. It’s also slightly brighter in tone.

So here’s how I set it for my acoustic rig, which goes directly into the board: Hall effect; Tone at 11 am; FX Level at 10 am; Decay at 2:30-3 pm, which is about 70-75% of the sweep; and Pre-Delay set to short. That setting is a little unintuitive to me because of the long decay. But with the level kicked back, what it does is provide a nice tail in between notes, but with the lower FX Level, I retain my note clarity. The result is a subtle, expansive, and deep and rich tone. And though set to Hall, which you would expect to be super ambient, again, the lower FX Level ensures that I can hear all my notes up front, while the tails due to the Decay provide the lingering of the notes. It’s beautiful.

What was an even more pleasant surprise was how well it played with my other modulation pedals. I expected it to play nice with my Corona Chorus as that is another TC Electronic product. But I didn’t quite know how well it would play with my Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay. It played nice. Very nice. For some reason, my old RV-7 sat better in my chain in front of my delay (I know), but the Hall of Fame definitely belonged at the back, as the last pedal before my looper.

That I’ve had this pedal for almost four years and haven’t gigged with it is an absolute shame. I was so blown away by how it performed last night, and I even got several comments from both staff and patrons commenting on how good my guitar sounded. The Hall of Fame has definitely found a home!

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…and a few others to consider

I know, I know… A lot of people wouldn’t ever think about doing this, but I’ve used them for years, and actually got the inspiration from one of the greatest acoustic guitarists – in my humble opinion – who ever walked planet Earth: Michael Hedges. While he mainly used a chorus pedal, it gave me the idea that I could take advantage of the interesting sonic layers I could add to my sound. Note that these aren’t hard and fast rules, but for me, I don’t go to a gig without them. And also note that this assumes you’re plugging your guitar into a board or an amp of sorts.

Reverb

A lot of acoustic amps have onboard reverb, but I’ve found that they’re not quite as good as a dedicated pedal that I can tweak. My favorite reverb pedals that I use are the DigiTech Hardwire RV-7 Reverb and the TC Electronics Hall of Fame Reverb. The RV-7 is no longer in production and I’ve had it for several years, but it’s awesome. Apparently, the DigiTech Polara builds on DigiTech’s use of Lexicon reverb models. Lexicon reverbs are the tops, and I’ve used them on pedals and sound boards for years. As far as the Hall of Fame reverb, it’s an absolutely solid reverb pedal, though admittedly, it sits on my electric board. This pedal is cool because it has TC Electronic’s TonePrint capability that allows you to download saved tweaks from their site. I’ve used it, but I tend to like where I set my reverb, so I don’t use it too much.

Chorus

Frankly, I couldn’t live without this in my live gigs. I never use it really heavy – even for electric guitar – but it can add depth and shimmer to your plugged-in tone. Frankly, you have to play a lot of these to find the right kind of sound for you. But my go-to chorus pedals are as follows (in order of use): TC Electronic Corona Chorus, BOSS CE-2 Chorus (vintage MIJ black-label – and I only use it in my home studio now because it’s so rare), Homebrew Electronics THC (discontinued, but the warmest, most liquid chorus I’ve ever heard). The Corona is my workhorse chorus pedal that I use for both acoustic and electric. There’s really something about this particular pedal that I just dig. It’s actually a very subtle chorus, and that suits me just fine because I don’t ever want a pedal to dominate my sound. I usually just set it in the standard setting. I keep it at about 10 o’clock for level; I set “speed” at about the same, and depth about 2pm. Then depending on where I’m plugged in, I’ll adjust the tone to where I perceive it to be balanced with the rest of my signal chain.

I actually also have a BOSS  CE-5, but that sits in my spares drawer just in case one goes down. It’s decent, but it’s not a CE-2, which is a pretty special sound. You can still get CE-2’s used. But you’ll want to get one in excellent to mint condition.

Analog Delay

I’m making an important distinction here mainly because I’ve never been able to get a satisfactory sound with a digital delay with my acoustic. And to tell the truth, while I’ve had several digital delays in the past, I now only use my Vox Time Machine for digital delay. But even that doesn’t get used much. Instead, I have two mainstays that I use pretty regularly. First is my Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay (hand-wired). Whew! I paid a pretty penny for that (USD $325 new) but there’s a less-expensive PCB board version that sounds incredibly good as well. In any case, I use this pedal mainly for acoustic. To me, it has this other-worldly sound that I just can’t get enough of when I’m playing my acoustic through it. It works great with my electric rig as well, but I tend to prefer my MXR Carbon Copy for that. For some reason, the Carbon Copy has an awesome mojo in my electric signal chain. I just love it. It doesn’t have the depth of the Deep Blue, but that’s not really what I’m after when I’m playing electric guitar. I just like to add some ambiance to my solos. Got that from Tommy Shaw of Stix.

Other Pedals To Consider

I use the following pedals depending upon the venue I’m playing.

Compressor/Sustainer – My go-to is the Maxon CP101 Compressor. I usually use this if the venue I’m playing doesn’t have an onboard compressor and/or the venue has really high ceilings, and I need my band to be pretty narrow to cut through the ambient noise.

Acoustic Enhancer – I use the BBE Sonic Stomp, and again, I use it mainly for wide-open areas. This is particularly useful for when I’m playing with other acoustic guitars and am doing a lot of solos. I typically use it to add some high-end shimmer – but sparingly, otherwise I risk sounding “tinny.”

Vibe – I know what you might be saying, “Really?!!!” For me, this is a “mood” type of pedal. I don’t use it much, but when I want to get a pulsating, modulated tone, there’s nothing but vibe that’ll do. And for me, my vibe of choice is the Voodoo Labs MicroVibe.

Of course, you don’t really “need” any of these. And if I were to choose just one, I’d probably go with a good reverb pedal first. There’s nothing like adding a little “grease” to your sound than with some subtle reverb. The next would be delay, then chorus. But I should say that in my solo acoustic gigs, my chorus pedal is always on. I have a very subtle setting that I use that really pleases me, so I just keep it on all the time. But in its absence, I’d choose a delay over that.

And as I mentioned above, there are no hard and fast rules, but having literally played thousands of gigs over the last 35 years, I’m banking on my experience to at least get you started.

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I get lots of press releases, but there are some that compel me to share. This is one of them:

Pigtronix announces release of the Class A Boost – Elegance In Tone

Pigtronix Class A Boost is the final word in high performance guitar preamps. This pedal’s elegant exterior and single knob layout cloth an ingenious “Class A” J-FET design that will fatten up the sound of any instrument or sound source.

Featuring discreet transistor topology (no opamps) this device can boost passive or active pickups and even line level signals up to 20db without ever clipping. Perfectly flat frequency response from 20Hz to 20kHz ensures that your instrument’s tone and expressive character remain intact as signal power is increased.

The Class A Boost’s noise free performance allows you to put the effect anywhere in your pedal chain. It adds punch and extra output when placed after a classic overdrive or will happily push your gain pedals into new levels of saturation. The Class A Boost is also ideal for hitting the front end of a tube amp to achieve an added layer of sweetness and fat tone without unwanted clipping or noise.

The Class A Boost runs fine on a standard 9-volt supply, but ships with a Pigtronix 18-volt adapter in order to achieve superior headroom and maximum punch. Make your sound 1 louder with this handsomely dressed, J-FET masterpiece from Pigtronix.

“Pigtronix Class A Boost is crucial to my sound because it makes my guitar tone clearer and louder, without adding distortion.”  – Eric Krasno (Soulive)

Pigtronix Class A Boost carries a list price of $149 and is available now at Pigtronix dealers everywhere.  Check out the Class A Boost and the whole line of 2011 Pigtronix effects at http://www.pigtronix.com.

I’m a big proponent of boost pedals, especially when used to slam the front end of a tube amp to push it into full-on overdrive. What’s attractive about this particular pedal is that it is Class A – at least from an audiophile’s perspective – which means that it will not clip throughout its operating range. Don’t confuse this with the definition of Class A for an amplifier. They’re two different things. Here’s a great explanation of Class A operation with respect to amps.

In any case, this could be a VERY cool pedal to have…

For more information, visit the Pigtronix Class A Boost page!

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I’ve never been much of a distortion box kind of guy; at least until recently when I got my EWS Little Brute Drive. I didn’t think I’d be using it all that much, but I have to admit, it is quickly becoming an indispensable addition to my pedal board. It’s as transparent as my Timmy, which is a HUGE plus in its favor, but the gain and distortion goes way beyond what the Timmy can do. But at the same time, it behaves insanely well with the Timmy. For instance, at my church gig yesterday, I was playing a song and had the Timmy engaged to give me some mild overdrive. There was a lead break in the middle of the song where I had to do a short 8-bar solo. But instead of switching the Timmy off, I just activated the LBD. OMG!!! I was immediately rewarded with tons of sustain, and singing, sweet distortion that was not at all over the top (I had the single gain knob set at about 11 am)

Amazing that all this comes from this little pedal that’s about 1 1/2 times longer than a 9 volt battery!

One thing though is that both the Timmy and the LBD are making me rethink how I approach my overdrive tone. Since getting them, I haven’t been cranking my amps near as much as I used to. I still love that saturated power tube sound, but tend to put my amps on just below the edge of breakup, then use my Timmy, the LBD, or a boost to push it over the edge. Mind you, I still have the Master volume up there. It’s just full out like it used to be.

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AH! HA-HA-HA HAHAHA! <manic laughter>

I guess my love affair with overdrive pedals hasn’t waned one bit – even with getting my Timmy. Don’t get me wrong, my Timmy will NEVER leave my board, but this totally cool, ultra-compact “Little Brute Drive” from EWS Japan is nothing short of amazing to me. Lots of overdrive/distortion on tap, right out of the box! And look at the bottom of the picture to the left: It ain’t much bigger than a freakin’ 9V battery! Amazing!

The way I envision using this particular pedal is for when I need heavier distortion than my Timmy, which is a light- to medium-gain device. The Little Brute has a much wider range of distortion; from fairly light to searing. And like the Timmy, the distortion is fairly open and uncompressed from what I could tell from clips. But even more important is that like the Timmy, it’s fairly transparent. I couldn’t detect much tone alteration from the clips I heard. So awesome!

You can fine-tune the output level and tone from inside the box – see the two blue adjustment screws in the picture? But from what I could tell, the factory settings are perfect.

Here are a couple of video clips:

Cost? $129, which is as much as a Timmy, but unlike the Timmy, you can get this online. Here’s a link where you can buy the pedal.

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How can anyone complain about a great-sounding boutique pedal at mainstream prices? Taking its design cues from industry-veteran Gary Hoey who wanted to ensure a great-sounding, built-for-the-road but affordable pedal, HBE has created just that. This is a simple, road-worthy standalone overdrive that costs just $99. Nice!

Not much media on this pedal yet since it’s so new, and I’ve only seen one video of this so far, which was okay, but the demonstrator only used a single guitar, and only made a few adjustments; frankly, to me not enough to give a good representation of the pedal’s capabilities. But based upon what I heard in that video, this pedal is more standalone distortion than overdrive, but really a better test will determine that.

In any case, you can find a bit more information at ProGuitarShop.com. Andy hasn’t done a demo video of it yet, but since he praises it, I’m sure he’ll produce something soon.

Myself, I think this pedal is going to be worth a serious look just based upon the principle of it being so affordable. Damn! I’m GAS-ing again! 🙂

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