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Posts Tagged ‘transparent tone’

A friend of mine asked me to recommend a pedal that would push his amp into overdrive so it would just be his amp distorting. Naturally, I recommended a transparent clean boost that would slam the front-end of his amp and make his pre-amp tubes clip. So I lent him my Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 clean boost (best I’ve ever used, btw). He hooked it up, turned on his amp, slung his axe, strummed a chord, immediately muted and turned to me saying, “Dude, this doesn’t sound right.”

“What do you mean?” I replied,  “It sounds fine to me.”

“It’s too bright!” he exclaimed.

“Dude,” I replied, “That’s how your amp sounds when you overdrive the tubes. Actually, that sounds killer. Lemme try…”

So I took his guitar, and did a couple of riffs, and bent and held a note to get some feedback. The tone was rockin’!

“That was cool, dude, but it’s still really bright,” he said.

“Oh brother, bleed off some highs from your tone knob, for chrissake,” I said, obviously getting a little exasperated.

He did, I played a bit more, then gave the guitar back to him.

“That was better,” he said, “but it doesn’t sound quite right.”

“Ha! That’s because you’ve been using a Tube Screamer for so f$&kin’ long for your overdrive sound, that you’ve never really known what your amp really sounds like when it’s overdriving without any help,” I quipped.

“You know, you’re probably right,” he said, “but it’s what I like, so I think I’ll stick with it. Sorry dude…”

“Hey! Not a problem, you just gave me the material for my next article! Thanks!” I exclaimed.

The point of that story is that for some, transparency isn’t pleasing to them at all. With my friend above, he was used to the Tube Screamer’s mid-range hump, and when he heard his amp overdriving with the full spectrum of the EQ, he didn’t like it all. I also met a dude who uses a compressor that’s always on to fatten his tone and punch through the crowd noise when he’s playing (he plays a lot of open, public spaces). In either of these cases, it’s all good because as the old saying goes, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

The reason why I brought this is up is because there’s a lot of talk among gear freaks about transparency; that is, the natural sound of our guitar(s) and amp(s) without any coloration. By convention, transparent tone sets the baseline for our sound, which we then color with effect pedals. That seems to be the convention. For some however, that baseline includes some coloration; like my friend who always has his Tube Screamer on. Again, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

Admittedly, for myself, before I started using attenuators to get the natural cranked tone of my amps, I was someone who used a Tube Screamer or OCD to get my grind. Once I started using attenuators, it actually took me awhile to get used to not only the transparent, natural, cranked sound of my amp but also the dynamics as the pedals I used added sustain and compression. But now, and for the last few years, transparency is where it’s at for me, and it has really opened up a whole world of tone for me. More importantly, it has helped me understand how different types of amps, especially tube amps, sound in their natural states.

Please don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using pedals to form your baseline at all! But if you do turn on a dime, as it were, and decide to go for transparency, be prepared for a little surprise. When you suddenly experience the full spectrum of EQ from your gear – especially with the case of a great attenuator like the Aracom PRX150-Pro that enables you to get the cranked tone of your amp at reasonable volume levels, you may not like it as your ears are used to the altered tone from your pedals or other devices you’ve had in your signal chain to achieve your baseline tone.

But I will say this: I do argue for creating your baseline tone as transparent as possible. As celebrity chef Emeril Legacie says about cooking, “It’s very easy to add ingredients, but it’s a lot more difficult to take them away.” With respect to your rig, if you build on a good base of transparent tone, it’ll have some very good effects on how you approach your tone. I’ll share with you a few points of what I discovered:

  • I’ve come to appreciate the natural character of my amps. I use four amps (though I normally gig with only two of them). These are all based on different power tubes: 6L6, 6V6, EL84, and 6AQ5. These all have different characters when cranked. When I’m recording, I can pick an amp that fits the type of response I’m after.
  • A fallout of the the first point is that I’ve found that I’m using effect pedals a lot less; especially overdrives, which I still love, but I use only to provide a different character. For instance, while I totally dig the sound of my main gigging amps, Aracom VRX22 and VRX18, the drive channels are on the  bright side when pushed. But if I want a little low-end oomph for some rhythms, I switch to the rich clean channels of these amps, and get my grind from one of my overdrives, like my Tone Freak Effects Abunai2, that has a clipping circuit, plus adds both compression and sustain (this pedal rocks, by the way).
  • Going more barebones in my approach has also made me a better player – especially with respect to sustain and vibrato. Where I used lean on my pedals as a bit of crutch to get sustain, I’ve had to learn how to eek out as much sustain from my guitar using just my fingers. Once I started getting that down, it was a whole new ballgame for me.

Whew! I didn’t mean to write an entire treatise! 🙂 But to close this out, if you’ve never really experienced the natural tone of your gear, I encourage you to do so. It might just blow you away. Then again, you might not like what you hear, and that may give you pause to research getting another amp – that’s never a bad thing…

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