Posts Tagged ‘recording’

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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I’ve been an avid GarageBand user for quite some time, having shied away from moving to a more sophisticated recording solution because of how easy GarageBand makes it to record the demo songs and sound clips I produce. Geez! How easy could it get? To create a sound clip, it’s as easy as opening the app, setting the song’s tempo, choosing a drum loop to play to, creating a new track to capture my guitar, and recording.

Of course, GarageBand comes with its own shortcoming, not the least of which is the ability to change tempo mid-song, editing the timing and tempo of an audio region, and doing more sophisticated fader automation. For years, these shortcomings were okay for me. I was able to produce an entire album with GarageBand – even with its shortcomings. But admittedly, a lot of my best songs didn’t make it to the album because GarageBand couldn’t do things I needed for those songs; especially varying the tempo mid-song, which I’ve written into several of my pieces for dramatic effect.

My wife has been bugging me for a long time to record some of her favorite pieces that I’ve written for church service. One in particular is based upon the second movement in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. While that song is not structurally complex, it requires three different tempo changes. Moving from 52 bps for the intro (the original tempo), to 58 bps for the verses, then 62 bps for the refrain, back down to 58 bps, then back down to 52 for the outro. I tried recording the song in GarageBand several times, but just couldn’t get it down.

Enter Logic Express 9. With its tempo and wave editing features, I can now record my songs the way they were meant to be recorded. I can’t even begin to tell you how incredible that is to me! I’ve the application less than 24 hours – and only used it for a couple of hours – but I can already tell that it’s going to be a HUGE boon to my music production. I’m really excited. I’ve already played around with the tempo changing features, but there is just so much to this application that I have yet to discover; not the least of which is the mix-down capability and throwing tracks onto different busses to apply different effects.

No, it’s not a full-blown recording solution like ProTools or it’s bigger sibling Logic Pro. But for the home studio recording enthusiast like myself, it has everything I need to create great recordings. At $199, it’s a real bargain. Besides that, if I ever need to upgrade to the Pro version, it’s a $99 upgrade. Not bad. Not bad at all.

If you’re currently using GarageBand, and want to expand your recording capabilities, I highly recommend Logic Express! I will say this: it’s not a simple slam-dunk to move from GarageBand to Logic Express. Yes, there are similarities, but the mix-down and mastering stuff that GarageBand does for you by default you now have to do yourself. However, one thing I tried was creating a project in GarageBand, applying mastering, then importing the song into Logic Express. Lo and behold, the Master got imported with all the buss settings – which you then can edit. Nice.

For more information on the feature set, please visit the Logic Express site!

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I was noodling around the other day, and came up with a riff. The riff turned into a jam track, then the jam track turned into a full song. I’m still working on the song, but thought I’d post it for folks to give it a listen. Here it is:

Here’s what I used:

  • Rhythm Part: Clean Strat in Neck/Middle position. My Aracom VRX22 in the Clean channel, with the Master cranked and volume at halfway. Used a Red Bear Trading Tuff-Tone pick to get that percussive sound out of the chords.
  • Part 1 Solo: Strat in Neck Position into my MicroVibe and the same amp settings. Also, used the Tuff-Tone pick to get a more percussive attack to the notes.
  • Part 2 Solo: Strat in Bridge Position into MicroVibe. Amp was set on Channel 2 with the Master dimed and volume at 6 for some nice, but not over-the-top breakup. I love that 6V6 breakup! Here I used my V-Picks Psycho to smoothen out the attack and give the bright bridge pickup a bit of extra oomph.
  • Part 3 Solo: Strat in Neck position, nixed the Vibe, into the clean channel with Master and Volume fully dimed. Used the Psycho here as well, but used a percussive attack.

In order to get those kind of high power settings from the amp, I used a soon-to-be-released Aracom attenuator that’s like NOTHING I’ve played through before! This thing is completely transparent because it maintains reactance between the amp and speaker; something that a lot of attenuators have a problem with (please don’t get me started on the UA, which I think is the biggest bunch of hype I’ve ever run across as far as attenuators go).

Another word about the VRX22. When the Master is fully open, and the power tubes are getting lots of juice, this amp just oozes all sorts of tone. And as the rectifier circuit kicks in, this amp feels as if it has built in reverb! As you can tell, I love this amp! Check it out at: http://www.aracom-amps.com.

I know that you might think I’m a bit nutso for using different picks; obviously in a live situation I’d probably only use one. But the in the studio where I can do pretty much anything I want, using different picks to affect my tone is totally cool. Check out Tuff-Tone picks at http://www.redbeartrading.com and the Psycho pick at http://www.v-picks.com. I swear by these two brands, and while I don’t work for either of these companies, like the Aracom Amps, they’ll always be part of my “rig.”

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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!

IK Multimedia Stealth Pedal

IK Multimedia Stealth Pedal

Summary: It’s official, IK Multimedia’s StealthPedal has just been released! The new StealthPedal is a lesson in packaging up familiar components to produce something totally unique. This is the first of its kind: A USB-powered guitar audio interface/software controller that you can use for recording or playing live as well as controlling any “Powered By Amplitube” software (or any MIDI-controllable software). With the StealthPedal, IK Multimedia completes the picture in providing an end-to-end computer-based guitar performance and recording solution.

Pros: Truly plug and play, it is automatically recognized by “Powered By Amplitube” software, and requires very little configuration.

Cons: None

Price: $199 Standard Bundle / $399 Deluxe Bundle


• USB powered audio interface and pedal controller
• 2 balanced / unbalanced audio inputs (hi-Z or line level)
• 24 bit A/D and D/A conversion
• 44.1/48 kHz operation
• 2 balanced audio outputs
• Headphones output
• Volume control
• Built-in expression pedal and MIDI foot-switch
• Multiple LEDs can operate as Tuner or Level indicators with AmpliTube
• External double switch and expression pedal inputs
• Classic, rugged metal Wah-style construction
• High-quality, low-noise input stage (109dBA /104dB RMS S/N ratio)
• Control all “Powered by AmpliTube” software/plug-ins

• Control any MIDI controllable software/plug-ins

• Standard Bundle includes AmpliTube 2 Live standalone and plug-in, AmpliTube X-GEAR, Ampeg® SVX UNO standalone and plug-in, Sonoma WireWorks Riffworks™ T4, and AmpliGrooves Loops by Sonic Reality
• Deluxe Bundle: AmpliTube 2, Ampeg SVX, AmpliTube X-GEAR, Sonoma WireWorks RiffWorks t4, AmpliGrooves
• Compatible with all the most popular DAW software supporting ASIO and Core Audio drivers on PC and Mac
• Endless software expandability with AmpliTube modules

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 – I love enabling technologies that make anything that I do easier, but also add a ton of value. That can definitely be said of the new StealthPedal from IK Multimedia. A quick glance at picture of the unit, and you may think: Okay, just another pedal-style software controller. It is that, but it is also so very much more!

The StealthPedal is also an extremely easy-to-use, full-functioning analog-digital audio interface that you can use for recording or running modeling software live through your computer. And with 24-bit analog-digital, digital-analog conversion, and 44.1/48 kHz operation, you can count on the SteathPedal to produce high-fidelity sound in the studio an on the stage.

The StealthPedal looks just like a mere expression pedal from the top view. But look at the sides and the input and output jacks belie its humble appearance. On the left side of the pedal are ¼” jacks for right and left output, an 1/8” for headphones, another ¼” jack for a dual-switch external switching unit (extra), and the USB jack. On the right side of the pedal are ¼” jacks for inputs, a volume control knob, and a ¼” jack for plugging in another expression pedal. In other words, this “pedal” packs a punch and is so much more than what it appears!

Wah, wah, wah

It took me awhile to figure out that I had too early versions of X-Gear / Amplitube Fender to be automatically recognized the StealthPedal. My bad entirely. But once I had the right versions installed, adding software stomp effects and controlling them via the StealthPedal was a total breeze! The software automatically assigns the StealthPedal to control the first effect with some default behavior. For instance, with a wah effect plugin, the foot pedal is assigned to the wah effect and the switch is assigned to bypass. But you can change behavior simply by clicking the “setup” button at the top-right of the application window. It can’t get much simpler than that!

In the Studio

But before I even tried using it to control the included Amplitube software, I wanted to see how it performed as an audio interface. In this usage, I was totally blown away! Whereas other audio units such as those from DigiDesign require a software driver to operate (yes, even on the Mac), at least on the Mac, the StealthPedal follows Apple’s lead in design: Plug it in and it just works! So in a very real way the StealthPedal is aptly named as it just does what it does without you knowing how – or having to know how it works! Note that you do need a driver for Windows. But on my Mac, the process to be up and running took less than 5 minutes! That’s incredible!

Launching GarageBand, I just went into the preferences, and selected the StealthPedal as my input and output devices. I ran an unbalanced line from my mic pre-amp into the first input jack of the StealthPedal, added and setup a new track, hit record and started jamming on my guitar that was plugged into my amp. The StealthPedal worked as expected – actually a lot better than I expected because I was expecting only “okay” signal quality, considering the price point of this unit. Boy, was I wrong. The recorded signal was just as clean as my MBox 2, with no apparent shading of any kind. That put a smile on my face. And another thing that really blew me away was that lag was virtually non-existent. There was tiny bit, but nowhere in the realm of the lag that I normally get with my MBox 2. Amazing!

Then plugging my guitar directly into the StealthPedal, I fired up the Amplitube Fender plug-in, selected an amp, and started playing. This was truly the first time I could switch on track monitoring and not get thrown off from the lag!

What’s Not Obvious Is Usually Where the True Power Lays

Think about this carefully because it’s important: The real impact of the StealthPedal is not necessarily in its features, but in what it provides as a solution. As I mentioned above, the StealthPedal completes the picture for IK Multimedia to provide an end-to-end computer-based guitar performance and recording solution. I don’t say this lightly. Not only do they have totally kickass amp and effects modeling, with the StealthPedal, they now have a high-quality, high-fidelity guitar audio interface and software controller! Add to the fact that the StealthPedal requires ZERO setup to use (Mac only, sorry folks), and you’ve got a complete solution for all your computer-based guitar audio. And because the StealthPedal was built to work specifically for “Powered By Amplitube” products, you never have to worry about compatibility problems! I don’t know about you, but that’s just incredible to me. But wait there’s more!

Because it is a MIDI controller, the StealthPedal can also be used with other amp sim software via MIDI. So this just isn’t a solution for the AmpliTube user, it can be used by virtually all recording guitarists, and other musicians as well!

Overall Impressions

What can I say? I dig the StealthPedal! In the next couple of weeks, I’m going on a trip. Guess what’s coming with me? A guitar, the StealthPedal, a mic pre-amp, a mic, and a couple of cords. That’ll be enough to record any song, and besides the guitar, all that will fit into my computer bag!

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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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Soft/Hard Knee Compression

I’ve actually been thinking about writing this article for almost a year and a half. The back story behind it is that I was having a discussion with my eldest son about why I didn’t like the music he listened to. He was arguing that if I make the claim that I like all kinds of music, I shouldn’t contradict myself by saying I didn’t like his kind of (he was really into hardcore punk at the time). My response was that I actually liked the songs, but hated the vomit screaming vocals, and hated the total lack of regard for dynamic range in the music – it was all one volume from start to finish! I shared with him that I didn’t believe it was a function of the song, but a function of the mastering, and an endemic problem in music being produced these days.

To demonstrate, I grabbed an old Cars CD from my collection, and played a couple of songs for him. There were perceptibly distinct swells and dips in volume in all the songs – very dynamic. Then we put on one of his CD’s and listened to a couple of songs. After we finished, my son couldn’t believe the difference in recording technique used 20 years ago. Even he said the performances on my old CD seemed so much more alive, where the songs from his CD didn’t have nearly the amount of dynamicism, and they seemed almost muffled compared to the clarity of the Cars’ recordings.

I told him that it was due to the heavy compression that producers are using these days, and gave him a simple explanation of what a compressor does. I also shared that I believed that producers were just being lazy and using compression as a shortcut so they didn’t have to teach their musicians and singers proper mic and recording control. Heavy compression and limiting means you don’t have to fix the recordings as much, saving studio time, and thus getting a production out faster. I did say that compression is not bad, but it is overused. Correctly and judiciously applied, compression can really have a positive effect on a production.

But despite that, I didn’t write the article. I can’t explain why… Looking back, I suppose it may have been in large part due to wanting to focus more on getting gear reviews out, and focusing a lot on my own recordings. But I recently read an article in the new issue of Guitar World that covered compression: What it is, what it’s used for, and how to apply compression to vocals and various instruments. It was very instructive. As I eluded above, compression can be a very useful tool in the studio to tame wide swings in volume in a vocal or an instrument, and can add presence, and because of how it works, in many cases, a compressor is used to add sustain. At its most basic level, a compressor reduces the amount of dynamic range by reducing sounds that exceed a predetermined volume threshold; but because this also reduces the overall volume of the signal, makeup gain is added to bring up the volume of the quieter sounds. The end result is that you get a “fatter” signal.

I’m not going to go into any technical detail about compression. For that you can read this excellent reference. In fact, I’m going to assume you already know a bit about compression.

And while compression is very useful, as with anything you can have too much of a good thing. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t use it, but I am going to make an appeal: Don’t get sucked into the trend of creating a less dynamic recording. I can understand the need for compression over radio, but this trend is simply making for much lower audio quality and less dynamically expressive recordings.

Good Mic Technique

I was once speaking with this old timer named Patrick who, at 72, is still gigging and recording. I was talking to him about recording, and he said that young people don’t know good mic technique, and complained about the overuse of compression. His words, “Boy, back in the day, we didn’t have compression. So when a singer like Sinatra got to a phrase where he needed to pick up his volume, he just moved away from the mic. It ain’t goddamn rocket science. But compression made people lazy.”

Wow! What a statement, and it really is easy to do for a singer. But what about guitars? This is a bit tougher, but at least what I strive for is to make sure I’ve got a lot of dynamic range in my recordings by either tweaking the input or output gain so my waveforms have as much vertical travel variation on the track as possible. I will sacrifice volume for dynamics. After the fact, I may add a touch of compression, but only very limited, and to keep true to the natural output of the amp, use fairly short release times. This is approach can be a lot of work because it requires that I play fairly consistently, but that’s also good training. It’s also a lot of work to get a good mix, but in the end it’s totally worth it!

I believe if you just start with good mic technique, and use compression sparingly, your recordings will come alive.

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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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Reason Amps SM25 25 Watt Combo Amp

Reason Amps SM25 25 Watt Combo Amp

Reason SM25 25 Watt Combo Amp

Summary: Incredibly expressive and versatile amp that can deliver a wide range of tones from glassy, sparkly cleans, to lewd, rude, and crude distortion, all in a single cabinet!

Pros: Killer tones in all channels. Amp is voiced bright by design, which makes it great to use in the studio. StackModeTM is the best thing since sliced bread, and is THE secret sauce that makes Reason Amps stand out from the rest.

Cons: No effects loop, which would be handy for placing reverb and other modulation effects after the amplified signal. Just a nit.

Price: $2395

• Output: 25 watts RMS @ 5% THD
• 1 X 12 Eminence Red Coat Driver
• (2) 6V6 output tubes, in Class AB Fixed Biased configuration
• (4) 12ax7 preamp tubes
• GZ34 Rectifier tube
• 3 way Stack switch – Normal, Stack, Bright
• Normal channel – Volume, Treble, Middle, Bass
• Bright channel – Volume, Tone
• StackMode™ – Bright & Normal channel controls are active, Stack Volume & Hi-Cut
• Oversized extra capacity power supply
• Power Switch
• Standby Switch
• Independent output jacks for 4,8, 16-Ohm operation
• Footswitch access to all three channels/modes

When I discovered the Reason Amplifier company a few weeks ago, I was so intrigued by what they had to offer that I immediately contacted them. I had the fortune of getting in touch with Anthony Bonadio, one of the founders of Reason to talk to him about his exciting new company and his new line of amps. That conversation led to him sending me an SM25 25 Watt combo to review; and since I’ve had it, I haven’t gotten much sleep from playing with it late into the night. Now you might say that I’m just excited about playing a new amp. Yes, that certainly has a lot to do with it. But what Reason has come up with in their amplifiers is so incredibly brilliant and unique that I’ve been spending all my free time trying to discover the subtle intricacies of this tone machine. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get started!

“Dahr-ling, you look mahvelous!”

The Reason founders, Anthony Bonadio and Obeid Kahn, are both vintage gear freak-o-maniacs, and the retro styling of the entire Reason amp line is a testament to that passion. The SM25 sports a black tolex cabinet with light brown trim around the grille cloth, and a thick leather handle with what appears to be brass accoutrements. Between the control surface and grill cloth is a prominent tolex-covered cross board sporting the Reason logo which, by the way, is very cool, very retro as well. The control board looks like burnished brass with black, bold lettering for labels. And to add to that retro vibe, chicken head knobs are used for all the controls. This amp, and all Reason amps for that matter, just ooze vintage mojo. Just looking at the amp, I can’t help but grin that grin you get when you see something so far-out COOL!

It’a hard to discern the actual size of the amp from just a picture. So make no mistake about its size: This is not a diminutive 25 Watt amp. In fact, it’s about as big as a Fender Twin, though not as deep. The shipping weight said 32 pounds, but from feel and comparison to my Fender Hot Rod, it weighs almost as much. But that’s not a bad thing. A beefy cabinet creates a lot of resonance if done correctly, and believe me, it’s done correctly with this amp.

How It Sounds

All Reason amps, including the SM25 are voiced bright. You don’t get beefy lows out of this, and that’s by design. Now before you dismiss that, on stage and in the studio, that bright voicing will ensure your guitar cuts through the mix. I recently played it at one of my regular gigs, and where my amp oftentimes gets lost in the mix, forcing me to pump up my volume, I had no problem cutting through, and mind you, I barely had to push my volume. The bright voicing let my guitar tone sit in the mids and highs. My sound guy even commented on how well he could hear my guitar without me pushing the volume like I usually do during a solo break; though admittedly, like any lead guitarist, I usually don’t mind being louder than everyone else. 🙂

In the studio, using the amp for recording is like being in heaven. The bright voicing combined with the rich tones the amp produces is simply candy for the ears. From a practical perspective, brightly voiced amps also record much better. For home recording I’ve had to stop using my big amp because it’s just too boomy, no matter how I set the EQ. I’ve had to use smaller, brighter amps because they cut through a mix much better. But since I’ve had the SM25, I’ve recorded two songs with it, and like I said, I’m in heaven. I now have a bright voice to cut through the mix, but rich tones as well. It’s the best of both worlds!

The SM25 is also incredibly touch-sensitive and responsive to the subtlest manipulations I made on my guitar. In fact, when I first started playing with it, I was a bit embarrassed by how I sounded. For my all my tests, I played along to some jam tracks I’ve produced for practicing different styles, and recorded what I played through the amp. When I played back what I had recorded, I was appalled at how crappy I sounded! All my mistakes came through! I couldn’t hide whatever bad habits or bad technique I had behind effects, like I normally would. In short, this amp has forced me to play better because it’s so unforgiving when you make a mistake. But hey! It’s never a bad thing to be shown your weaknesses. That’s how you grow and improve!

Multiple channels, lots of tone shaping possibilities…

The SM25 comes with two channels: Normal and Bright. But it also sports a third “channel” called StackModeTM that’s essentially the Normal and Bright channels run in a series with an extra gain stage, while retaining volume and tonal control over the Normal and Bright channels. To me, StackMode is Reason’s secret sauce, but I’ll get into that in a bit. I’ll first describe the independent channels.

The Normal channel sports a volume knob and a three-band EQ. The volume knob is also a push-pull knob, and pulling it out adds some extra high-freq boost to bring out the super high frequencies. The effect is that once you set up your EQ, pulling out the knob adds some extra high-freq shimmer and sparkle. It’s subtle, but absolutely delicious. Comparatively speaking, the Normal channel sounds like your classic, jangly American clean tone, but with the high-freq boost, you get a bit of the sharpness of the British clean – nice.

The Bright channel is well, bright. It too has a push-pull volume knob for extra high-freq boost, and it has a single tone knob to back off some of the brightness. The Bright channel is also the more “ballsy” of the two, and really kicks in some pretty high gain. It’s quite lovely, in my opinion, and it’s perfect for doing the traditional solo break that will cut right through a mix with ease.

Channels? We don’t need no stickin’ channels!

But for me, the real attraction of this amp, and actually any amp from Reason for that matter, is StackModeTM. In all my years of playing, I’ve never come across anything quite like it. On the surface, you might think this is just another channel on a multichannel amp. It is in a way, because of its independent gain stage. But that’s about as close a comparison that you can make to other multichannel amps. Unlike other multichannel amps where all the channels are independent, StackModeTM input doesn’t come directly from the guitar. The guitar’s signal is routed through the Normal and Bright channels first, then fed into the StackMode channel. And the volume and EQ settings on the Normal and Bright channels are still active!

Because volume and EQ are retained in the Normal and Bright channels in StackModeTM, the tone shaping possiblities are incredible. What you adjust in Normal or Bright affects the final output. You can crank up the volumes on the first two channels and achieve uber gain, with thick, rich distortion. Or you can dial it back a bit and take a more balanced approach. The point is that you can do a lot of tone shaping to your needs while in StackModeTM. And here’s the kicker: The amp still retains its touch and guitar volume sensitivity in StackModeTM.

What does this mean? Well, I soon discovered that StackModeTM was the only channel I’d probably ever use, unless I had to go super clean, whereas I’d just switch to the Normal channel. The amp in StackModeTM is so responsive to picking attack and volume knob levels that I found I just didn’t need to do any channel switching at all once I dialed in my settings for the Normal and Bright channels. It’s that good!

One other thing, the volume knob on the StackModeTM channel is a very good Master volume. When I’m playing late at night, I can turn the volume down on the StackModeTM channel, and still retain the characteristics of the settings I made in the first two channels. It’s just softer. How cool is that? So that’s why entitled this section, “Channels? We don’t need no stinkin’ channels.” Once you have your settings dialed into StackModeTM, you’ll never want to get out of it! So for me, the SM25 is effectively a single channel amp with adjustable stages.

My Tests

In any case, for my tests, I used four different guitars: A Strat, a PRS SE Soapbar II with P-90’s, an Epiphone Korina Explorer and a Saint Guitars Benchmark, both with humbuckers. I’ll talk about how each guitar sounds separately below.

Fender Strat

Obeid Kahn is known in the industry as a “Strat man,” and this amp really sounds great with a Strat. I’ve got the vintage re-issue Tex Mex pickups in mine, and slathering on reverb, you can get some awesome Dick Dale-like tones. But it doesn’t necessarily sound like a Fender amp. In fact, the clean tone is like a cross between a Fender and a Marshall. It’s creamy smooth, but bright and sparkly at the same time. The big cabinet adds to the resonance, and the ever so slight voltage sag that you get from the rectifier adds to the sustain and resonance. This is boon when you’re playing with a Strat because they do not sustain well at all. I could get country twang to hard-driving distortion with uber sustain with my Strat.

PRS SE Soapbar II

P-90’s are hot pickups by nature, and it doesn’t take much to push any amp into overdrive, and when it does this, it’s a preamp overdrive lover’s wet dream! With the SM25, the 12AX7’s just sing with sweet, smooth overdrive goodness. There’s nothing harsh about the sound this produces in the SM25, but one thing I did notice with the tone was that unlike other amps I’ve played with my SE Soapbar II, even though the amp is bright, the sound the amp produces with it is big and bold, without being boomy. It’s crystal clear, and doesn’t wash out the higher notes in a barre chord, which often happens with more boomy amps. All in all, I just dug that halfway between single coils and humbucker sound my P-90’s produced with the SM25.

Epiphone Korina Explorer

This is a real rock guitar, with a warm ballsy tone. Plugged into the SM25, I was amazed at how the amp responded to this guitar, and I was able to spew out some thick distortion and singing sustain with the volume knobs on the amp dimed to the hilt. I’m not a metal player, and technically, with the bright voicing of the Reason amps one wouldn’t think they’d be suitable for metal, but the lewd, rude, and crude drive I could produce with the Explorer plugged into the SM25 was scary! But in a good way. And when I scooped the EQ, yikes!

Saint Guitars Benchmark

Of all the guitars I used for testing the SM25, the amp seemed to love the Benchmark the most. This guitar was spec’d with Blues and Classic Rock in mind, and through the SM25, I’ve never heard it sing like this. I could go from deep, dreamy clean to rabid dog distortion, and the whole time, the SM25 maintained a tonal clarity and character; never muddying or washing out. It was other-worldly, to say the least.

Made for the Road and the Studio

Anthony Bonadio cautioned me during a previous conversation that he didn’t want to alienate people from buying the amps when he said, “Our amps are really intended for the gigging and session musician.” In other words, Reason amps aren’t really meant for the bedroom musician. These amps want to move air, and that’s no exception with the SM25. In fact, when cranked, it’s a hell of a lot louder than my 40 Watt Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, and that’s a loud amp! It just wants to project its voice. Premier Guitar even gave its bigger brother, the SM50, its “Loud as Hell” award. But in my opinion, the real test of an amp is how good it sounds throughout its entire range of volume. That’s a mark of versatility, and in spite of what Anthony claims is the focus of Reason’s line of amps, you actually can play these amps at bedroom levels and still produce kick-ass tone!

A lot of amps don’t sound good unless they’re cranked, but at lower volumes they just peter out and lose their character. But at least with my experience with the SM25, it sounds great at ANY volume. Considering that all Reason amps are built around the exact same circuitry, I can safely say that this probably applies to the entire line. So don’t be fooled by the “loud as hell” moniker. These amps are incredibly versatile amps that are comfortable be played in lots of different venues under a variety of conditions.

My Overall Take

I think you can guess that I just love the SM25. For a musician like me who plays small to medium venues, and whose studio is located in a carpeted garage, this amp is a dream come true. It’s expressive with all my guitars, and it’s so versatile that I can use it wherever I play.

As I shared with Anthony recently, StackModeTM is it for me. It’s the secret sauce that sets Reason amplifiers apart from the competition! For more information, go to the Reason Amps web site. And if your local dealer has some in stock, I encourage you to go there and play around with one. You will not be disappointed; in fact, you’ll be blown away!

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I love getting those intense spurts of creativity when I’m using awesome equipment. I just happened to have a couple of review pieces on hand: A Saint Guitars Benchmark and a Reason SM25 combo amp. This song started out as a simple riff this morning, and grew from there. It’s called Lookin’ for the Good Life. Let me know that you think.

The song showcases the incredible tones the Benchmark and SM25 make together. Just love it!

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I was reading several interesting threads about technique and improv the other day. I have to admit that I was quietly embarassed by the fact that I don’t have a large library of techniques that I can tap into while I read the posts and articles. There are so many things to learn with respect to technique out there that it’s daunting!

But after reading those articles, I realized that a lot of the technique I have developed – especially over the past couple of years – has come from stumbling upon how to play a certain phrase through experimentation. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a disciplined improv dude that can instantly tap into a library of patterns and apply them. I’ve never taken guitar to that intellectual level. My approach to soloing tends to be fairly experimental; primarily because I don’t have a lot of techniques on which to fall back. But that doesn’t mean the process of experimentation isn’t cool in an of itself.

In fact, that process, at least for me, has been absolutely rewarding, and after I’m done with an “experimentation” session and play back the different takes, I often say to myself, “Did I actually play that?” It’s mildly amusing, but it’s also a bit scary because I’ll eventually have to play that or at least something similar to that when I play the song live. But that gets me to practice the technique until I have it down.

For instance, early on when I started my experimentation, I stumbled upon the minor pentatonic scale just by playing what fit. At the time, I didn’t know that it was the minor pentatonic scale. I just know that what I played fit with the song. I’ve since learned the other patterns of the minor pentatonic, and it’s something I tap into regularly. In another instance a few years ago, I was playing a solo, and one of the other musicians in my band asked, “Hey man, did you just do that in Mixolydian mode?” I replied, “Mixo-what? I don’t know, I just thought that it would be cool to start the lead a fifth above the root and play within that relative area.” Mind you, I still don’t know all the modes by heart – I think I stick to Dorian and Mixolydian a lot, or often start playing a minor pentatonic in the relative minor of the root chord (if it’s a major chord).

The point is that I don’t go out to specifically learn and practice a technique or mode or scale. Admittedly, that has probably slowed my technical advancement to a large degree, and I’ll have to admit that for the more organized and discplined among us, that approach is probably unacceptable, but it works for me, and I’ve learned a lot of things that I was later able to identify as formal techniques.

I know that there thousands of guitar players who are a whole lot better than me, but here’s a glimpse into my experimentation process:

  • GarageBand or some other package where you can easily set up loops and record rhythm parts is kind of essential. Having this is akin to having a basic chemistry set to mix chemicals.
  • Once you come up with a loop, play it continuously and jam to it to see what falls out of your experimentation. Never mind trying to be intellectual – just let it flow.

I’ve literally spent hours at a time practicing using this method, and a lot of these progressions have turned into songs.

To get you started, here’s a Jam Track that you can use. It’s a simple, 3 minute track in the key of A. I laid it down because I wanted to practice chord soloing… er… actually to see if I could do it. 🙂 In any case, have a go!

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