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Posts Tagged ‘Tone’

Honeytone_aqua_lg. Over the years, people have – for better or for worse – tried to talk about where tone comes from. Many players say it comes from your fingers. They are then quickly dispatched by obnoxious gear freaks who say tone comes from your gear. So who’s right?

The answer is… both and neither. How’s that for not taking sides? πŸ™‚

Actually, my opinion is that either of these views together are only a small part of what I call Tone – with a capital “T.” From my perspective, there are two types of “tone:” The first, “tone” with a little “t,” is the natural sound produced by your guitar(s), effect box(es) (if any), and amp(s). In other words, “tone” is the sound of what’s in your rig.

The second, what I call “Tone” with a capital “T” is the sound of your gear, combined with your – for lack of a better word – heart; that is, the emotion and passion that travels from the center of your being to your fingers, onto your strings and fretboard, down through your rig, and out your amp. Tone is the music you express through your gear that is uniquely you.

In that light, I tend to gravitate to the “tone is in your fingers” camp, in that what you “feel” while you’re playing is transmitted to your fingers which in turn manipulate your guitar. And I think that’s where the important distinction must be made from those who say your tone is simply your gear. Of course, the quality of your gear and the purity of the signal are certainly important factors to consider. But music played with no passion and feeling just sounds flat and uninteresting, even through great gear.

On the other hand, even what could be considered cheap or crappy gear played by someone who can truly express themselves will sound great – and they will sound like themselves, no matter what gear they play. I was watching a video recently of a guy down in LA who is session musician that uses a Squire Strat and a Sears Silvertone amp, and he’s on a lot of big-name groups’ albums.

To add to that, around the middle of last year, I was listening to an interview with Ronnie Montrose, and he recounted a story from his early days where he was sitting at a table with Carlos Santana, taking a break from a recording session. Apparently Carlos had a new guitar and amp that he was showing everyone. Ronnie picked up the guitar started playing, and everyone was amazed that even with Carlos’ gear, he sounded like himself!

So to sum up, yes, tone comes from your gear; yes, tone comes from your fingers. But Tone – your sound – comes from your heart.

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PRX-front-543You ever have an itch you can’t scratch? Well, it has been like that keeping my mouth shut about the Power Rox PRX150-Pro. Ever since I played with the early prototypes, I’ve been completely blown away by this attenuator! This is a totally new take on attenuator technology, folks, and I’m hoping it takes the industry by storm. Why? Simply because what we’re talking about with the Power Rox is true transparency in tone when this is in your signal chain; not “almost” transparent, but truly transparent.

Check out the Power Rox PRX150-Pro page at Aracom Amps!

Most comparisons between attenuators revolve around what’s the “most transparent” attenuator, indicating that really none of them are transparent, so people pick the best of the lot. And frankly, I’ve tested out several attenuators and ended up with the Dr. Z Airbrake, as I felt it was the most transparent out of the ones I tested. But nothing could have prepared me for the transparency of the Power Rox.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. In fact, I had already written a significant amount of text, but decided to just point you in the right direction. Go to the product page. Read through the product description, but more importantly, read the supplementary documentation behind the links at the bottom of the page. Jeff Aragaki has graciously provided some very in-depth articles on how attenuators work, and also provides a high-level explanation of the technology behind the PRX150-Pro.

Other manufacturers may brag about the safety and transparency of their attenuators, but none is willing to back up their claims with the engineering behind their attenuators (and if you knew what some were doing, believe me, if you care about your tone and the safety of your amp, you’d get worried). If you’re interested in or even use an attenuator, you owe it to yourself – and your tone – to check this unit out!

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perplexed Visit any online forum and you’ll see countless topics in the form of, “How can I get this sound?” or “Tell me what I need to sound just like ______________.” These are quite popular threads as people will chime in with their knowledge; however complete or incomplete, with the gear that a particular guitarist used. The discussions sometimes get quite lively as some personalities collide in an ego-fed frenzy. Okay, I’m exaggerating… πŸ™‚ But they do get quite lively. I read through those threads both for pure amusement, but also to get educated about others’ approaches to achieving a particular kind of tone. It’s amazing the gear that I’ve discovered just because of these kinds of threads.

One of the most amusing topics I’ve run across in the recent past is people asking how they can sound like The Edge from U2. Let’s face it: The Edge’s rig has got to be one of the most complex arrangements of gear around. No one really knows what his complete signal chain is except his techs who set all his gear up, yet so many people chime in (albeit in an effort to assist, and that’s a great thing) with their suggestions. Unfortunately, all they can really produce is a fraction of the picture, and considering The Edge’s rig, probably a minute fraction at best. For instance, I once read he runs something like a 40 foot cable between some devices so there is a built-in lag. Damn!

Mind you, I’m not trying to put anyone down, but to me, discussions about how to faithfully, flawlessly reproduce a particular tone is almost futile; and as much I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, and as much as someone would like to produce a tone exactly as they’ve heard, they may get close – real close – but they’ll never get there 100%. Why? Because there are lots of factors that contribute to tone; not the least of which is the guitarist who originally created the tone in the first place! On top of that, you’d have to have the same guitar, with the same strings, with the same amp, with the same pedals (if applicable), the same pick; not to mention the exact same cables that were used. Then you’d have to try to produce live what was a recorded sound, and you can bet that guitar signal went through quite a bit of audio processing to produce the recorded tone. Get the picture?

Like I said, I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade, and perhaps these questions asked on the boards are purely out of curiosity, but I’m of the mind that if you truly aspire to be a great musician, let alone a great guitarist, you need to find the tone that pleases you. You may end up sounding similar to someone, but I think the best guitarists out there – no matter what their technical level is – are the ones that sound like themselves.

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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!

Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2

Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2 Overdrive Pedal

Summary: In Japanese, “abunai” means dangerous, and this pedal’s overdrive tones are indeed dangerous – at least to your other overdrive pedals. With three switchable clipping configurations, you can dial in a myriad of overdrive characteristics that’ll suit any situation, be it live or in the studio.

Pros: The magic’s in the three-way clipping configuration switch. Super simple to use, and very easy to dial in the kind of overdrive character you want.

Cons: None

Price: $199 (through dealers – check out the Tone Freak Effect Contact Page)

Specs:

  • Controls: Drive, Tone, Level
  • 3 clipping configurations
  • True Bypass
  • Neutrik jacks
  • Teflon coated, silver stranded wire
  • Mil-spec PCB
  • Metal film resistors
  • Metal film capacitors
  • Hand assembled

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 – As I shared with Dereck Tabata (maker of Tone Freak pedals), with the amount of gear that I run across, I’m rarely blown away by pedals. But I was completely blown away by the Abunai 2. Step aside Tube Screamer, there’s a new sherriff in town.

One rainy friday night several months ago, I was sitting in an Armadillo Willy’s eating my dinner and surfing the web, while waiting for my son’s hockey practice at the rink across the parking lot to end. I was doing what Internet geeks like myself occasionally do: Search for available domain names, and reserve them, just in case I want to build a site or point them to this blog. In this case, I did a google search on “tone freak.” The first listing was for Tone Freak Effects; an effects manufacturer I had not even heard of at that point.

Being the gear slut that I am, I just had to mosey on over to the Tone Freak site, and check out what they had to offer. And much to my extreme pleasure, they had a bunch of overdrive pedals, my favorite kind of effect! I immediately reached over to my laptop bag and pulled out my ear buds so I could listen to clips. The first set of clips I listened to were recorded with the Abunai 2. From the very first clip, I felt that this pedal was something special. It wasn’t a Tube Screamer tone – it was something altogether different. It had a much “ballsier” sound than a Tube Screamer, but seemed to clip very similarly – at least in the middle position.

Well I got one in for review just yesterday, and from the moment I hooked it up to my board and started noodling, I was in love!!! And by 2am this morning, I was spent, which accounts for why I’m doing a review of the Abunai 2 the very next day. I just couldn’t stop playing (though after the first hour I did stop to take a break and write a First Impressions article)! So today I’m a bit fuzzy and a little worse for wear, but grinning from ear-to-ear because I just spent the previous evening in absolute overdrive bliss! I know some gear is good when it can consume my attention for hours on end. This is the perfect overdrive pedal!

Features and Ease-of-Use

The features are listed in the summary section above, but the most special feature of this pedal is the three-way mini-toggle set between the drive and volume knobs. This controls the variable clipping section which gives you symmetrical, asymmetrical, and no clipping to open up lots of different overdrive tones. As far as ease-of-use is concerned, this pedal’s easy to use. Select the clipping configuration you want, adjust level, gain, and tone, and you’re off to the races!

Interestingly enough, I wanted to get some background information on the pedal before I received it, so I had a nice conversation with Rob at Tone Merchants about the Abunai 2. He indicated that I’d have to spend a lot of time dialing in just the right overdrive tone I wanted, but once I got it, I’d be totally happy. Call me lucky, but I set everything in the middle position to start with, spent maybe 20 seconds twiddling the knobs, and found a sweet spot. I suppose it also all depends on how discerning or nit-picky you are… I’ll just call it luck for my experience. πŸ™‚

How It Sounds

Many words come to mind with respect to how the Abunai 2 sounds: Killer, Inspirational, Ballsy, F-in’ Incredible! All of the above. To date, this is the best-sounding overdrive pedal I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot. You know how taken I was with the OCD, but even that lost out to the Holy Fire, which is yet another killer overdrive/distortion that will never leave my board – actually I shouldn’t say “never” because that’s exactly what I said about my Tube Screamer. It’s not transparent – at least not nearly as transparent as the Holy Fire – but the tone it produces is so damn sweet, who the hell cares about transparency? But that said, the tone of your amp doesn’t really change a lot. It just takes on a slightly different character, and that difference is simply wonderful

No matter what toggle position you go with, the Abunai 2 serves up lots of sustain that gives the resultant tone a very 3-dimensional quality. It’s in your face, but at the same time it’s very spacious – even when it’s simulating tube compression!

In caseΒ  you missed the previous article where I described how each position sounds, let me rehash it here. Note that I’m not going to try to identify which position refers to symmetrical, asymmetrical or no-clipping; only what it sounds like to my ears.

Middle

The middle position sounds much like a classic overdrive tone. It’s an open type of distortion tone with a nice grind that’s never harsh. This could be the closest you get to a Tube Screamer tone, but it’s significantly different from that tone. This is a great toggle position for playing dirty rhythm parts.

Left

To my ears, this position sounds much like the tone you get as your power tubes start to saturate. You get a bit more voltage sag, resulting in more sustain and compression, but the overdrive tone still remains fairly open. And like an amp whose power tubes are starting to saturate, you get a slight volume drop. So far, this has been my favorite toggle position for leads.

Right

This position simulates fully saturated power tubes adding tons of compression, tons of sustain, and the expected drop in volume as a result -it’s spongy. I compensated for this by adding some clean boost to get the volume back to unity gain. But despite that, notes are clear, and the dynamics are still incredible.

Here’s a sound clip I recorded at around 1am this morning. I played both parts using my Prestige Heritage Elite. For the rhythm part, I set the toggle in the middle position, rolled off the drive to about 10 am, set the gain to unity, and placed the tone dead-center. I had both my ‘buckers engaged for this part. For the lead, I used the left toggle position, upped volume to about 2pm, set the Tone wide open, and set the Drive to about 1pm. The lead was played through my bridge pickup.

I tracked the rhythm part in a single take, and then loop recorded the lead so I could just jam. I’m not sure what iteration the loop was in when I finally stopped. All I know was that it was about 2am, and I took the last “take” and exported the clip to an MP3.

Overall Impressions

As I mentioned above, my head’s fuzzy, I’m a little worse for wear, plus my fingertips hurt from playing so long last night. But what the hell! I was in complete tonal bliss! The Abunai 2 is an absolute dream come true in overdrive tone! This is a pedal that you just have to check out if you’re in the market!

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Aracom Amps VRX22 - First in the series

Aracom Amps VRX22 and Aracom 1 X 12 Mini-cab

I know, I know… I’ve been singing the praises of this amp and cab for the last couple of months since I got them. But folks, what Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps has put together in the VRX22 is simply magic. I just can’t say enough about how much I love this amp. It doesn’t matter what guitar I plug into it, the VRX22 delivers the goods.

A New Option for the VRX22

I have the standard production model, the first in the series. In its stock mode, I wouldn’t change a thing. But I know there are some vintage gear and tube amp buffs out there that would frown upon the fact that the VRX series in stock configuration has a solid state rectifier. For me, it makes not a bit of difference; I just love the tone.

But for those that require a tube rectifier, Jeff also offers an option of a GZ34 or 5AR4 tube rectifier in place of the solid state rectifier. An A/B test didn’t reveal a tonal difference, but for the purists out there (and by no means do I mean this derisively), this is certainly an option, and a reason why you should consider this amp in your amp evaluations. And here’s another consideration: All Aracom Amps are hand-wired, and cost FAR LESS than equivalent amps. For instance,Β the VRX line in stock configuration costs $895! That’s unheard of in the boutique market!

Have a Cab, Will Travel

But on top of all that, the 1 X 12 mini-cab that Jeff custom built for me is simply magical as well. Jeff went against the common wisdom of not using a cube shape and porting and such, and built a simple cube shape with a width that exactly matches the width of the amp (about 19″ wide). Amazingly, this cabinet is incredibly resonant. The reason for this is that instead of using 3/4″ board, Jeff opted with 1/2″ board. This resonates a lot more with the speaker, and provides a bass response that adds depth to the output. Granted, I also have an absolutely kick-ass Jensen P12N Alnico speaker, but that cabinet even sounds good with just about any speaker you put in it. Like I said, amazing.

To further demonstrate the versatility of the VRX22 and the Aracom 1 X 12 mini-cab, I recorded a short blues clip using three different guitars, all running straight into the VRX22 with no effects. There are to overlapping rhythm parts panned left and right, and a solo in the middle. For the left pan, I used my gorgeous Prestige Heritage Elite (“Sugar”) plugged into the VRX22. For the right pan, I used my Strat (“Pearl”) plugged into my Fender Champ 600 and ran the speaker out into the 1 X 12 (I didn’t think the Champ could sound this good wow!). For the lead, I used “Sharkie,” my PRS SE II Soapbar with P-90’s in the bridge position straight into the VRX22.

Sorry for the slight mistake in the solo; or as my buddy Phil calls it, a “clam.” But overall, I was just amazed how good Sharkie sounded on that clip. I added a touch of reverb to that track, but made no modifications to the guitar signal at all. It was the guitar plugged straight into the amp.

As I’ve said in the past, I’m not affiliated at all with Aracom. I’m just a faithful customer, and just can’t sing the praises enough for the job Jeff has done!

For more information, visit the Aracom Amps web site!

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I admit it: I’m an incurable GEAR SLUT! I jones for vintage and vintage style gear, as the music I play leans toward the blues and classic rock. And to satisfy that never-ending craving, I pore over the Internet and various magazines in search of all sorts of gear; hence, the existence of GuitarGear.org where I share with you, dear reader, the things that I come across.

Now in my search for gear, I occasionally buy things. They tend to be vintage-style modern gear because I just don’t have the money to buy real vintage gear; and that usually means I gravitate towards boutique gear; but not just any boutique gear. Remember, I don’t usually have all that much money to afford the real high-end stuff, so I spend a lot of my scouring my information resources to find boutique gear that I can afford. That’s what gravitated me towards Aracom Amps.

When I saw the price of a VRX series amp, my jaw dropped! Here was a hand-wired, vintage-style tube amp for $895!!! When I finally hooked up with Jeff Aragaki (founder of Aracom), and got a chance to play the VRX18, he shared that one of the ways he was able to keep the cost down was by using a solid-state sag simulating rectifier circuit. When I heard the words “solid-state,” the purist in me started reeling a bit. But then that amp sounded so freakin’ good that I didn’t give a flying you-know-what about the rectifier!

And that’s the point of this article. When you’re looking for and buying gear, don’t let yourself be swayed by an instrument’s or equipment’s pedigree or “all-tubeness” or lack thereof. LISTEN to the fuckin’ thing, and see if it turns you on! If it sounds good, and it works for YOU, then that’s all that matters, in my not so humble opinion on the subject. πŸ™‚ If I had let the purist in me take over, I would’ve never ended up with my VRX22! And for the record, I’ve listened to many, many, many amps, with and without tube rectifiers, and the circuit that Jeff Aragaki employs in the VRX series simulates the sag of a rectifier tube so well, I can’t tell the difference. And if there is one, it’s probably so minute that it doesn’t matter anyway. I’ll put that amp up against any other boutique amp in the same wattage range, and it’ll sound just as good, if not better. And I paid less than half the price of a similarly configured amp!

Give the following clip a listen. I’m playing my Strat plugged straight into the clean channel of the VRX22. In some sections you could swear that the amp has a reverb, but that’s the solid-state rectifier simulating the sag of a tube rectifier. Also, this is the raw recording of the amp: No EQ, no filtering. The master volume was flat out, with the gain control around midway. My mic was about about 10″ away pointed directly at the center of the speaker cone.

I originally recorded that clip with my Prestige Heritage Elite. But that guitar has so much inherent sustain, it would’ve been cheating. πŸ™‚ A Strat on the other hand doesn’t have that much sustain, so it brings out the sustaining quality of the amp much better. The result is just amazing.

And as to the tube vs. solid state rectifier issue, at least in the Aracom VRX series, it doesn’t make one whit of difference, especially when you’re playing live at gig levels. When I’m gigging, I almost never use reverb unless it’s a song where I can really isolate my guitar. Sag gives the effect of reverb, but at loud gig levels, you’ll never hear it.

Another great example of buying what sounds good to you is my friend Vinni Smith of V-Picks. That dude is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever known, and he gigs all the time! You know what he plays through? A freakin’ Roland Cube 30 cranked all the way up and miked into the PA. When he told me that, I almost flipped. Here was a true pro guitarist,Β  playing through a $200 amp!

So don’t be taken in by pedigree. Buy what sounds good to you, and what you can make sound good. After all, 90% of your tone is in your hands.

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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!

Aracom Amps VRX18 18 Watt Head

Aracom Amps VRX18 18 Watt Head

Aracom Amps VRX18 Watt Head

Summary: Based on the original “RoxBox” (no longer available), the VRX18 sports an improved master volume inherited from the VRX22, and a reworked, smoother overdrive profile.

Pros: As dynamic and expressive as its 22 Watt sibling, the VRX22, but oozing that bright, chimey EL84 goodness. When driven, produces a nice, tight overdrive.

Cons: None.

Price: $895 direct

Specs:

– (2) EL84 Power Tubes
– (2) 12AX7 & (1) 12AT7 Preamp Tubes
– S.S. Rectifier with “sag” circuit
– Hi/Low B+ voltage switch (18/9 watts)
– On/Off Switch
– Indicator Lamp
– Custom Heavy Duty Aluminum Chassis
– Custom Wound Transformers
– 4, 8, 16 ohm Speaker Jacks
– Custom Handcrafted
Turret Board
– Handwired
– Weight: ~35 lbs

Head Cabinet
Standard Tolex: Black Levant. See options below for other colors.
– Dimensions: 19″w x 8″h x 8.25″d
– Weight: 23 lbs

Also available in 1 X12 and 1 X 10 combos (or Jeff can custom build one to your liking)

Tone Bone Score: 5.0. When I can swing it, I’ll be getting this amp to complete the VRX Series!

Jeff Aragaki, founder and builder of Aracom Amps, always chuckles when I tell him that he’s onto something with his VRX (short for Vintage Rox) series amps. With the VRX22, he seemed to have stumbled onto a sweet spot that produced an amp that has an incredible and beautfully balanced tone that bring out the best tonal aspects of the 6V6 tube. He’s done it yet again with the updated RoxBox 18, now renamed the VRX18, but incorporating many of the same features he built into the VRX22.

I just purchased the VRX22, having fallen in love with the tone that it produces, and I’ve fallen love yet again, but now with the VRX18. I’m like a hopeless romantic that loves two women for their individual virtues, but in this case, the women don’t mind – they can co-exist with each other. Okay, bad analogy… πŸ™‚

I originally reviewed the RoxBox 18 back in December. At the time, I totally dug its tone, but took marks off because of the mildly harsh breakup at lower volumes. There’s nothing harsh about the tone of this amp now – at any volume! It’s a great amp to play, and as expected, it’s pedal friendly, and responds really well to overdrive pedals. Also, I played four guitars through it, and it sounded incredible with all of them!

I won’t go into a lot of detail, since I already covered pretty much all the descriptive information I needed to in the original review, so I’m going to cover some important things I’ve learned about the VRX 18 and the VRX series in general. But first, as opposed to doing this last, here’s a short clip featuring the VRX18 to show you how kick-ass it sounds:

For this clip, I used a Strat with just the middle pickup, plugged directly into the VRX18. I just dig that EL84 grind! I had the Channel 2 volume dimed, and the master volume at halfway in full-power mode. It was very loud, much to the chagrin of my wife. πŸ™‚ But I needed to capture at least some of that EL84 compression.

What’s cool about the EL84 is that it compresses nicely when pushed, but still seems to retain a certain openness in its overdrive. This is unlike something like a KT-66 that compresses so much when pushed you lose volume.

The Best Master Volume in the Business

I don’t say this lightly when I say Jeff has the best master volume in the business. I’ve played many amps. But when Jeff created the VRX22, he did something with the master volume that is pure magic. It has a nice, even volume sweep that seems to act independently of the channel volume. This means you can crank the channel volume to get some serious grind, but control the output via the master, and it won’t suck your tone! I’ve found this to be a real problem with other amps. That master volume is incorporated into the VRX18.

The Best Half-Power Switch in the Business

A lot of manufacturers use a pentode/triode switch to achieve half-power settings in their amps. I’ve played several amps with this feature. But in half power mode with the pentode/triode configuration, I’ve noticed a distinct tonal difference between the two modes in amps configured this way. It’s not that the tone is bad. In fact, many I’ve played around with sound great in half-power mode. But it’s like two different amps.

Jeff Aragaki takes a different approach and instead adjusts the B+ voltage to maintain the usage of all pins in the power tubes. I’m not an electrician, and can’t even begin to explain this technically, so I’ll just say it this way: When you switch to half-power mode in any Aracom Amp, the amp doesn’t change its tonal characteristics. It sounds and plays the same!

The Difference Between Old and New

In addition to the great master volume Jeff incorporated into the VRX18, the first thing I noticed was that it was nowhere near as easy to get this amp to overdrive in channel 2 as it was with the original RoxBox 18. This is not a negative thing at all because as I mentioned in my original review, the overdrive was pretty harsh at lower volume levels. I spoke to Jeff about this, and he said that based upon my original tests and review, he decided to mellow out the extra gain stage in the VRX18 so you could get a nice overdrive tone at any volume level.

You won’t get over-the-top gain with the VRX18. But for that, I have a simple fix-all: Get a great booster pedal like a Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 (again, the best booster on the planet), and SLAM the front-end of the amp. πŸ™‚

But all that said, if you’re in a venue where you can dime both master and channel volumes, you will be rewarded with gorgeous harmonics and overtones and luscious feedback!

Overall Impressions

Like I said, this is my next amp… It just rocks the house! And at $895 for the head, you could get both the VRX22 and VRX18 for under the price of a single boutique amp! This isn’t a sales pitch. The value proposition of the VRX series is something that should be seriously considered. You’re not getting a production line amp that’s built overseas. With the VRX series of amps, you’re getting a US-made, handwired amp for under a grand!!!

Admittedly, I was a little skeptical when I first ran across Aracom Amps. But I’m now a believer, and a faithful customer!

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Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 Boost

Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 Boost

If you read this blog with any regularity, you’d know that I have this thing about overdrive and distortion pedals. Not that I’m a shredder or let alone a virtuoso at guitar. I just love tone, and there’s something about overdrive that never fails to bring a smile to my face. But ever since I started playing with some great amps, and now that I’ve got a great new speaker in my Hot Rod, I’ve been relying less on overdrive for my grind tone, and much more on the natural breakup of my amps. Enter the Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23, what I consider to be the best clean boost on the planet.

A lot of pedal manufacturers claim to have transparent boosters, and I’ve tried several that come close, but the Mk.4.23 totally delivers true transparency. You get the natural tone of your guitar and amp – just a lot more input gain that will send your pre-amp tubes into saturation. Mm-mm-good! I already wrote a review of this pedal, but thought I’d do a follow-up on how I’ve been using it over the past few months.

I’ve been using the Mk.4.23 in a few different ways (in order of how much I apply it):

  1. First, I use it by itself with the volume dimed on the pedal into my drive channel to slam the front-end of the amp, and seriously overdrive it. In this mode, I usually don’t use any other effect in front of it, though I might use a compressor with my Strat to fatten up the tone. That way I know that I’m getting my guitar’s and amp’s true tone.
  2. Then I use it by itself to boost my clean channel when I need just a bit more volume when I’m doing a clean lead break to get over the band. In this mode, the volume’s set just past unity gain. I also set the volume knob on my guitar to about it’s midpoint so I can fine-tune the volume via my guitar.
  3. Finally, I use it in conjunction with one or more overdrive/distortion pedals to add even more gain to what the other pedals have to offer. Using it this way doesn’t really add any appreciable volume, but the effect is that the overdrive tone gets super thick and raunchy. It’s not all the pretty when playing chords, but single notes absolutely scream!

For such a simple pedal, the Mk.4.23 has really changed the way I approach achieving different tones. For more information, check out Creation Audio Labs’ web site!

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Aracom Amps VRX22 - First in the series

Aracom Amps VRX22 - First in the series

You ever play some gear that from the moment you start playing, you feel like you’ve died and gone to tone heaven? In the last few years, and especially in the last couple since I started writing this blog, I’ve literally played hundreds of different types of gear, covering the spectrum of all things guitar, from guitars to effects to amps. I don’t have enough time to write about all the things I’ve played, but to keep my content fresh, and to satisfy my overwhelming curiosity about different types of gear, I’m constantly trying stuff out.

And in all that time, and through all that gear, I’ve only had some gear totally slay me once: That was when I played the very first prototype of the Aracom VRX22. The back story is pretty cool, so I’ll share it with you…

Several months back, Jeff Aragaki contacted me on my blog asking if he could buy ad space. I replied that I didn’t want to commercialize my site, but if he’d be willing to send me an amp to review I’d put his logo on my “The Dawg Digs” area if I really loved his product. Fortunately for both him and me, he only lives about 40 minutes away, so he delivered what was once called the “RoxBox,” an 18 Watt, EL84-based amp. I had this thing about EL84-based amps for awhile, and was really excited to try a non-brand-name amp; not to mention that I was entirely intrigued by the fact that that hand-wired head cost only $895! That evaluation turned into testing and reviewing several of Jeff’s amps over the next few months from heads to combos with different configurations. Talk about feeling lucky to have so much gear to play with!

Jeff and I have become fast friends. We’re contemporaries not only from our obsession with vintage gear (or any kind of gear for that matter), but we’re almost the same age, and are both local boys from the Silicon Valley. Jeff’s a great guy, and someone I really enjoy spending time with; plus he’s super smart, and I like to be around smart people. πŸ™‚

Anyway, a couple of months ago, Jeff called me up and said, “Hey Brendan, I’ve been working on an experiment with the RoxBox, and popped a couple of 6V6’s in the amp to see what it would sound like.”

“Oh?” I replied, “That sounds quite interesting. I dig 6V6’s a lot. They have a sweet, open distortion when they’re saturated.”

“Yeah, they do,” said Jeff, “Anyway, I was wondering if you’d like to test it out.”

I immediately replied, “Need you ask? Bring it on over!”

A couple of days later, Jeff brought the amp over to the messy garage I call my home studio. We plugged it in, I hooked up my Strat, and Jeff switched on the amp. I took one test strum in the clean channel, stopped and asked, “What did you do? This f-in thing sounds incredible! Let me play a few licks…”

Jeff didn’t say anything. He just smiled, and let me play for awhile. After a few minutes he said, “Okay, try out channel 2, so you can hear the overdrive,” at which point he plugged me into the second channel, then cranked the volume.

The amp literally sang with this beautifully smooth overdrive tone, chock full of overtones and harmonics. The tone was on the bright side, similar to the Reason SM25 that I was testing, but was rich and thick, and ballsy. I just closed my eyes and smiled, luxuriating in pure tonal heaven!

When I came out of my trance, I looked at Jeff and said, “Dude, I think you’re onto something really special here. You know I’ve played tons of different amps, but this one’s special. It’s the best-sounding amp I’ve played of yours to date; and ranks very high on my overall list. Are you thinking of putting it into production?”

“Maybe. I wanted to get your feedback. I still have some stuff to do on it, but I’m really liking the tone of this amp,” Jeff replied.

“Yeah… You’ve just piqued my curiosity.”

Fast-forward a week and I get another call from Jeff. “Hey Brendan! I worked out the power handling of the amp. The one you tested wasn’t outputting at the full 22 Watts, so I made some adjustments and now it’s running at full power. To me, it sounds even better. Anyway, I’m going away on a business trip for a couple of weeks, and I’ll leave it with you to test.”

So Jeff dropped it off a couple of days later, and test it I did. I took it to gigs, recorded some clips with it, and fell in love with it even more. Jeff was right, the power handling adjustments he made turned that amp into a pure tone machine.

When Jeff got back from his trip, we met for lunch, so I could give the amp back, and give him feedback. He asked, “So how did you like the amp?”

I replied, “Uh… the word is love. I’ll keep on testing your other amps, but this is the amp I want to buy. Everything about it is perfect. The clean channel has oodles of clean headroom, and the sag you’ve built into the simulator makes it sound like the amp has a reverb. The drive channel is like nothing I’ve played before. Quite simply, Jeff, this is the perfect amp!”

Jeff just chuckled, and said a very understated, “Glad you like it.”

Since then, I’ve purchased the amp – I got the very first in the series! And while I realize that my excitement about this amp is purely subjective, other people who’ve played this amp – WAY, WAY better guitar players than me – have been just as blown away by its tone. The other day, Jeff asked me to meet him over at Gelb Music in Redwood City to show Jordan, the guitar department manager, my VRX22 (Gelb carries Aracom Amps on consignment – for now πŸ™‚ ). I just chuckled when he plugged a guitar into the drive channel, cranked it up, and let it rip. He didn’t play more than 30 seconds before he said, “This amp rocks! It’s real ballsy and has tons of harmonics. Wow!”

Jordan had to help customers on the floor, so he gave the guitar over to another customer named Chris with whom Jeff and I had been chatting while waiting for Jordan. Chris sat down, and started to rip it up! He played with this hybrid picking technique that was just amazing to observe, and he made the VRX22 absolutely sing! I knew it sounded good, but in the hands of a truly gifted player like Chris, it was other-worldly!

Jordan returned a few minutes later to listen to Chris play. Mind you, it was loud. Chris was plugged into a 65 Amps 2 X12 cabinet and had the amp cranked. Jordan turned to me, and with a quizzical look on his face asked, “This is YOUR amp?”

I just laughed because I knew what he was thinking – he was hoping that it was an inventory amp so he could buy it himself. I said, “Yup. You thinking about getting one for yourself?”

Jordan just smiled and nodded his affirmative. We finally had to turn down the amp, and Jeff and I had to go, and as we were leaving, Jordan asked Jeff, “So what’s the turnaround time for when we order?”

Jeff said, “Between two to four weeks.”

“Cool. That’s just about right. Hey! Thanks for bringing the amp over, guys! Man that thing has f$ckin balls…” with a huge grin on his face, “That’s all we ask…” and he laughed.

I laughed with him. Jordan is a real bad-ass player himself, and when he has this type of reaction, I know he thinks it’s special. I told Jeff he better build two: One for the store, and one for Jordan.

Folks, I realize you might think I’m full of it when I say that the VRX22 is the perfect amp. But Jeff is really onto something with this amp. I’d put it head to head against a Dr. Z MAZ or a Buddha any day. I actually played a Dr. MAZ the other day. It’s a great amp. But guess what? The VRX22 is only $895 for the head! That’s almost half of what other hand-wired, boutique amps cost! Yeah, it doesn’t have a tube rectifier – the VRX22 is designed with a solid state rectifier for extra punch and it has a sag circuit to provide the vintage vibe. And in case you’re concerned that a solid-state rectifier means lower quality, I just have one thing to say: So what? Lots of vintage amps such as classic Marshall Plexi’s and many Fender amps use solid-state rectifiers. Besides, it’s the tone that matters, and compared to the MAZ, which is really nice, expressive amp, the VRX22 has a much bigger sound.

Fantastic sound for an unbelievable price? SOLD!

Disclaimer: I want to make it absolutely clear. Jeff doesn’t pay me to do reviews or pay me to give nothing but positive feedback. He calls me up to say he’s got some gear for me to test, and I test it, then write a review. To date, I haven’t received any bad gear from him, so I haven’t given his gear a less than stellar review. You might think this from the rave reviews I’m giving the VRX22, but just to alleviate any concerns about me having an affiliation with Jeff other than being a friend, remember that I clearly stated that I bought the amp. What I’m sharing is my excitement. And showing it to the folks at Gelb? That was purely a favor. I simply had the fortune of being able to play with the prototypes. It is truly a magical amp!

Click here for more information on the VRX22 and other excellent Aracom amps!

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Just got home from my weekly gig at the restaurant where I was really able to put the Tuff-Tone Tri-Tip through its paces. I’ve never played with a Tri-Tip shaped pick, let alone gigged with a Tuff-Tone, so it promised to be interesting – especially if I didn’t like the pick – because like a dummy, I forgot to bring a spare! Fortunately, I didn’t need a spare. The Tuff-Tone worked out great!

Admittedly, I was a little nervous, not because of the Tuff-Tone material itself but because it’s a lot thinner than what I’m used to playing. If you’ve been following my blog, you’d know I’ve been using a V-Picks Snake and also a super-thick prototype Red Bear Tortis as of late. The Snake is 4.1 mm thick and the Red Bear is 4 mm. I believe the Tuff-Tones are only 1.75 mm thick. I really didn’t know if I could make a clean adjustment. All my nervousness was washed away within a few bars of the first song I played. The pick felt so natural in my fingers, I just played without thinking. Whew! That was a relief!

So how did it perform? Practically flawlessly. The Tuff-Tones feel a lot more rigid and dense than their Tortis counterparts, but the material seems to weigh much lighter. That perception could be due to having played with thick, weighty picks. But to be perfectly honest, I really loved playing with this Tuff-Tone. As I mentioned above, it felt very natural in my fingers, and all the accuracy that I’ve come to expect from rigid picks was there from the get go.

Dave mentioned that in blind tests there was no difference between the tones of the Tuff-Tones and Tortis picks produce. But I noticed a definite difference. The Tuff-Tone produces a much brighter, jangly tone than the Tortis picks. Tortis picks, on the other hand, produce a smoother, more evenly balanced tone. Neither is better than the other; they’re just different. For me, when I want a brighter tone, I’ll use a Tuff-Tone. But when I want a fatter tone, I’ll use a Tortis.

I played all sorts of tunes tonight, ranging from full-on strum songs to songs that combined strummed chords and single note runs. I could be as expressive as I wanted with this pick, and that’s really the test. Lighten up your grip and let the pick glide, and the tone it produces is marvelously bright and ringy. Dig in and be greeted with a nice snappy tone. Want to do some quick alternate picking runs? No sweat!

This is a great pick, people, and a pick I highly recommend trying out and adding to your arsenal! I know that kind of goes against the common thought of using one pick for everything, but I’ve come to realize that using different picks will produce different kinds of tones, and different “moods.” It’s kind of hard to explain, but I’m now a multi-pick player.

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