Tag Archives: amp

I wish I’d had a camera

 

What follows is a true story.

In 2002ish, I was in a band called Gwendolyn Speaks, with some friends who were superb musicians and singers. We were booked to play the Columbus Arts Festival that summer.

Festival performances are a mixed bag. Organizers want live music all day long, but most people are only interested in seeing live music starting approximately at sunset, when the stage lights are on, and the alcohol is starting to flow. As the bigger names get the later slots, this means that you have to be pretty well known to play an evening set. Otherwise, your crowd looks like this:

Woot!

Well, Gwendolyn Speaks was not a big name in Cincinnati, much less in Columbus, so our set time was something like 1pm on a Sunday. Predictably, the area in front of the stage was pretty empty. There was a steady stream of, say, moms with kids, who would stroll by, listen for a few minutes, and then move on. But there were two guys who “looked like musicians,” sitting and watching our set. One was in black jeans, a black sleeveless shirt and black skullcap. The other had a Hawaiian shirt and very tall hair. I figured maybe they were playing on the same stage later.

On that same date, there was a guitar show scheduled on the opposite side of Columbus (these happen twice a year). Now, knowing that not many people were going to be present at our show, I was mostly hoping to finish the set and leave quickly, so I could find a cool bargain at that show.

It was also at this time that I was using a pretty complicated rig, though I may have been actively simplifyng it. In any case, I was almost certainly using two UK-made Vox AC15 amplifiers, running in stereo.

Image result for 2 vox ac15

[Two things: (1.) I believe I may have been a front-runner in the Cincinnati area for using AC15's. They weren't being used by many people. Then I got mine, and suddenly everyone started getting them. (2.) Yes, I know these aren't AC15's. ]

At the conclusion of our set, I went straight to work, tearing-down my gear, and loading it out to my car, which was conveniently parked right near the stage. As I was heading back to the stage for another armload of gear, our bassist said something like “Billy Bob Thornton is over there, and he wants to meet you.” I laughed, because, come to think of it, the guy in black DID look a lot like BBT. It was a good joke from Pete the Bassist, who was usually clever and understated like that. So I walked up to the stage front to meet the guy.

It was actually Billy Bob Thornton. The actor. The real guy.

I shook his hand and said hello. He had a tattoo on his right bicep that said “Angelina.” As you may remember, he and Angelina Jolie were married there for a bit. This meeting was like a month before they split up.

Anyway, turns ut that BBT is a musician (a drummer – make your own jokes), and he and his band were actually performing later, though on a different stage.

If you were a man, it was easy to watch a Gwendolyn Speaks set, because our two lady singers, Tara and Carrie, were quite lovely. And Pete and Scott and I were all music geeks, so we tended to infuse the catchy pop songs with some nice flourishes.

So, not surprisingly, BBT loved the show, and he and his guitarist (Hawaiian shirt guy) said they loved my tone and playing, and wanted to ask some questions about what I used. So, long before there were YouTube videos and guitar sites devoted to this sort of thing, I gave a “Rig Rundown” to Billy Bob Thornton and his guitarist.
Image result for billy bob thornton band[Note the amplifiers behind these guys]

After a pleasant chat, we all went our separate ways. I headed off to the guitar show, where nothing memorable happened. For the remainder of the day, several of us just called each other and screamed into the phone; “Aaaagh! Billy Bob Thornton! Aaaagh!

“Aaaagh!”

This was back when cell phones did NOT come with cameras. So of course no one took pictures. Who takes pictures at a Sunday afternoon gig? Well, the next day, I stopped at a gas station and bought a disposable camera to keep in the car, just in case. For you youngsters, a disposable camera cost a few dollars. You would take a bunch of pictures with it, then take the whole camera in to a place (say, a pharmacy or grocery store) to get the pictures developed. They would discard or recycle the camera, and you would get your pictures. I am surprised to learn that they are still around.

Also at this time, my wife had a tendency to steal whatever camera I owned, take photos with it, use up all the film, and then lose/ruin/misplace the camera. So a disposable camera seemed like a great idea for me. I kept one in my car until she found it, stole it, took a bunch of photos, and left me with no camera. This happened several times.

Thus, despite my best efforts, here’s another “big fish” story:

A year or two later I would find myself on stage with The Pointer Sisters.

Image result for the pointer sisters

Yes, really.
Of course I had no camera. Of course.

 

REVIEW – Avid Eleven Rack

 

Guitarists, I have good news, and I have bad news,,,

Image result for good new bad news

 

In early March of 2018, I bought an Avid Eleven Rack for my studio. I had been using my POD Pro 2.0 for quite some time, with results that fell mostly into the “I suppose that is OK” category, and I spent a lot of time processing tracks (EQ, etc) to get them there.

Image result for frustrated studio engineer

I was headed into ankle-reconstruction surgery, and wanted something to inspire me back into music creation while I recovered (experimenting with new gear always helps). Yes, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to walk for a long time, but I was unprepared for how much NOT sitting upright I would be able to do (had to keep my foot elevated). I’ve done far less recording than I had planned to do this year, but I HAVE done some, and solely with the Eleven Rack (henceforth “11R” for brevity).

Image result for eleven rack

The good news is that this has been a fantastic experience.

The first evidence I’d like to share is three songs I recorded for my friend Todd Gilbert in the Flint, Michigan area, for an album of covers. This seemed like a perfect test for the 11R- sending the product off to a collaborator., and comparing them to known, published works.

The three songs I recorded were Huey Lewis’ “Bad Is Bad,” Billy Joel’s “Laura,” and Hall & Oates’ “Out Of Touch.”

BAD IS BAD

“Bad Is Bad” was the first one I recorded. The original recording is an 80′s nod to a 50′s vibe, and the production (while pleasantly nostalgic) does not stand up well. So I built the whole thing around a swaggering Telecaster riff. The 11R transmitted my sound with both girth and clarity- clarity I always found lacking in the POD Pro. Through the whole song I recorded a lot of solo ad-libs on an old Electra Invicta, allowing Todd to pick and choose which of these he wanted to keep. Then, I recorded my Jazzmaster throught a Leslie patch I either found or edited-together on the 11R. It sounded as good as (if not better than) most good Leslie simulations I have heard. Finally, I played a slide solo with the Telecaster. Usually I reach for my old Marshall JCM800 combo for this task, but the 11R did the job exceptionally well.

 

LAURA

“Laura” is a pretty close approximation of the original arrangement. I’m not sure what was really used on the recording of the original solo to give it that sound… but I just double-tracked it. All those electric guitar licks are my Telecaster. Since Billy Joel was clearly channeling The Beatles, I donned my George Harrison cap, and played the chord-changes with an electric 12-string (a mid-2000′s Fender Stratocaster XII). All of this was done with the 11R, straight in to my interface, with one exception- there is a swirly modulation phrase at the end of the solo, where I ran out of the 11R through my old Quadraverb.

 

OUT OF TOUCH

Finally, “Out Of Touch” came across my desk. Todd had envisioned a straight-ahead rocker, so I played an 8th-note chugging rhythm on the Invicta, and then added a double-tracked arrangement of the Telecaster playing some Alex Lifeson type arpeggios and minor 7 stabs. I dialed-in an obvious Van Halen inspired patch for the solo (complete with phaser) and recorded that on the Invicta, as well as a double-tracked slide part (without phaser). Then to give it all some more growl, I added a fuzz track from my Jazzmaster.

The bad news is that I might not need all these amplifiers anymore.

Summary:

The 11R is a great comprehensive tool for guitarists in a studio setting. you can choose from a variety of classic amplifiers and speaker cabinets, a decent array of effects pedals, and even a small but respectable batch of standard top-shelf studio microphones. Each piece of the signal chain distinctively interacts with the next, and then responds accordingly. Once you understand the editing navigation, it is easy to bounce through settings and dial in a tone. It’s not the sort of thing I would use live (ask me again in a few years), so I cannot speak to that application.

I found it a little noisy, to my surprise. This may have something to do with how it’s connected to my rack, but then my POD Pro is comparably dead silent. To be fair, the noise is no more than the line noise of an old amplifier, but this may affect certain quiet passages of recordings. I was able to filter it out well enough with some standard DAW plugins.

Now that the 11R price has dropped to $299, it’s a safe and sensible investment. ProTools users can use it as a virtual instrument, record guitar tracks direct, and process them through the 11R afterward. I use Reaper, and I suppose there’s a way to do this, but it isn’t really how I like to work.

It has quickly become an easy go-to choice for me. I’m pleased with the purchase, nearly six months later, as well as with the end results of the handful of recordings it’s been featured on. Would definitely recommend it. Calling this one a strong 8/10, with the only complaints being noise (admittedly could be due to ignorance), and an interface that required reading the manual to be able to operate.

 

 

Don’t Buy Gear For A Gig You Don’t Have

There you are, dear guitarist. You’re sitting at home with your guitar. It’s not the best guitar, but it’s pretty good. Could it be “better?” Maybe, but then what’s the definition of “better?” That’s another topic.
Image result for guitarist at home

 

I joined my first working band when I was about eighteen. My guitars were an Electra Phoenix, a Westone Spectrum FX, and an Ovation Custom Balladeer. My Electra looked just like this… until I added EMG pickups, and a Kahler tremolo.

Image result for electra phoenix guitar natural x-140

The Westone was snazzier, and the Ovation was the envy of my peers.

westone  Image result for ovation custom balladeer sunburst

Chick magnets!

My only amplifier was a Crate 20w solid-state combo that I had gotten when I was about fourteen. It didn’t sound very good, so my bassist (who was really a guitarist) let me use his Gallien Krueger 250ML amp. We ran it directly into the PA system via the microphone cable output on the back. Combined with the handful of cranky old effects pedals I had picked up, it sounded enormous. The Crate amp got used for my acoustic.

Image result for Crate CR-112   Image result for gallien krueger 250ml

It would be several more years before I would discover what a real tube amp could do.

Before the gig, I spent about $30 on three guitar stands, reasoning that a real gigging guitarist needed stands for his guitars. That way they would be within reach on stage, without lying on the floor (bad idea), leaning against something (risky), or sitting in their cases (inconvenient). I’ll never forget how cool my side of the stage looked with my three guitars on stands, plus two (dorky little solid-state) amps stacked one atop the other. Thus began my process of buying gear for gigs. THAT purchase was sensible. Subsequent purchases might not have been so practical.

Image result for guitar stand chromeImage result for guitar stand chromeImage result for guitar stand chrome

Somewhere along the way, the allure of expensive solutions appeared. A few years passed. Now I had a great Stratocaster… but it wasn’t American. Now I had a great amp… but it wasn’t vintage. I got great sounds from my modern effects processor, but… it lacked vibe. So I got a vintage amp and some vibey pedals. By dumb luck (really- the singer was my friend’s little sister. Some other friends started producing an album with her, and I recorded some guitar tracks as a favor), I ended up in a band that got a lot of attention. As a result, “tapers” came to our shows and recorded our performances. Today, I have a small collection of those recordings, and, in listening back, I honestly cannot tell you what gear I was using.

Image result for clueless shrug

At the time, I reached the conclusion that I needed “pro gear” to be considered a pro; and if I was considered a pro, THEN surely I would get more pro gigs. This led me to a lot of bad purchase decisions, basically in an attempt to buy my fame and fortune, one gadget at a time. I observe this trend running rampant today.

Image result for too much music gear

Two things: (1.) This guy should get some stands. (2.) I may or may not have a room that looks like this.

I haven’t played a “real” gig in a while. I work for a church with an approximately 3000-person congregation, and find myself on stage there pretty consistently. Between that and my own studio work, I am pretty content. Nonetheless, I think about booking a live gig here or there, but to do that, I imagine all sorts of needs: I surely NEED a high end vocal mic. Definitely, I will NEED expensive pickup solutions and preamps for my acoustic guitars. I have a small PA, but I will NEED monitors for it. Even though my 1941 Epiphone archtop has traveled in a gig bag since I bought it in 1997, I’m going to NEED a hard case for it.

I haven’t booked a single gig yet, and already I’m buying a microphone, pickups and preamps, monitors, and a case. See how that works?

Image result for crazy shopper

A few weeks ago, I was gear-porning on Sweetwater.com, looking at studio mics, upgrades for my pedalboard, some VST plugins, and even a couple of instruments. I got up to get a drink, and when I came back to my computer, the lust-spell had been broken. I closed each shiny browser tab, saying “Nope,” “Nope,” “Nope.” “I don’t need this yet.” That’s when the wisdom landed in my lap.

“Don’t buy gear for a gig you don’t have.”

Have you ever imagined a need for a piece of music gear? Was it an instrument, amplifier or another gadget? Did you buy it? If so, did it really solve your problems? How about real solutions? Have you ever bought something that was a perfect solution? What was it?

Share your thoughts!

Product Review: Wampler Dual Fusion

My pedalboard used to be a real source of contentment for me. I’d open it up, play a gig, and glorious sounds would pour forth.

This is approximately what my guitar-playing experience felt like, if I had been empty-handed, outdoors, and female.

—————————————————————

Somewhere along the line, the two gain stages I was using started to dislike each other. For several years I have been swapping out different gain pedals (overdrive and/or distortion). Presently, I’m pretty attached to a pair of custom pedals which were made by two different friends of mine, but I would like to simplify, and use a single pedal if possible. I checked out the Wampler Dual Fusion, and put it through its paces.

I recorded and made a video of the whole process, which you can see here: https://youtu.be/aqgg4Xv8ct4

The pedal is visually gorgeous. Mine is the maroon/brown (mahogany?) metal-flake version. It’s housed in a sturdy 3½” x 4½” enclosure.

LAYOUT- The Dual Fusion has two inputs and two outputs, and a switch that lets you choose which order the gain stages will go.

  • Channel 1 (left side, blue LED) is “Vintage.”
  • Channel 2 (right side, red LED) is “Modern.”

Signal path order is selected via switch, either 1 → 2, or 2 → 1, or Separate***. The pedal features two sets of input/output jacks which correspond to this switch setting, so you’ll need to plug cables in correctly for your desired channel order to work. ***You can also run the gain stages independently, but I have no interest in doing this. Basically, the Dual Fusion has a voicing switch on each channel, plus standard Gain, Tone, and Volume controls. It uses those big white knobs that are usually found on boutique-type pedals. The controls are very responsive, but these knobs are why I don’t like using Fulltone pedals live—  They turn too easily on accident.

  • Channel 1 / Vintage / Right / Blue:  features a voicing switch to let you choose between “smooth” and “fat.”
  • Channel 2 / Modern / Left / Red:  features a voicing switch to select either “throaty” or natural.”

LED’s for each channel are very bright, which can be great for playing outdoor stages on sunny daytime stages, but for dark rooms and dynamic performances with strategic lighting, it could be distracting. Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine.

This is not what I want to see at my feet.

—————————————————————————————

Overall layout pros: Makes perfect sense, once you look at it. Easy to use. Overall layout cons:

  • Having to switch cable jacks to change circuit order is a pain.
  • Big knobs on responsive controls can mean trouble, live.
  • Compact layout is nice, but footswitches are dangerously close together.

Digging in: I plugged the Dual Fusion into my early-90′s UK reissue Vox AC15. This is an amp that does clean sounds extremely well, and has a good midrange voice when overdriven. Setting it to a big clean bright sound, I went to work dialing-in tones on the Dual Fusion.

SOUNDS- On the Vintage/Right/Blue channel… “Fat” boosts the mids in a way not unlike a classic Tube Screamer, and I found this was very flattering to my Fenders without sounding like yet another Tube Screamer copy. I REALLY liked this for rhythms. The “smooth” setting, being more transparent, worked nicely with my Les Paul. Both settings were good with my Telecaster. Gain levels cleaned up nicely in response to guitar volume. Looking at the recorded waveforms, both settings are very compressed. It pushes the guitar’s sound forward in the mix, which is a nice end-result, but might not be as “transparent” (this term seems to mean a lot of things) as one would expect. Listen with your ears. In my experience, a Tube Screamer loses a lot of the articulate treble (which can be appealing when using single coils). The Dual Fusion lets all that come through. It’s nice for chunky rhythm work, but increased gain meant more high-end noise, and some biting pick-attack.

On any given day, “transparent” seems to mean anything from a clean boost, to an overdrive with no EQ changes, to a blend of gain and unaffected signal, to a lack of any gain-induced compression; or combinations of any/all of the above. I tend to use the term to describe the EQ, but recognize that this is subjective.

The Modern/Left/Red channel features a voicing switch that allows one to choose between “throaty” and “natural.” The “throaty” setting through the AC15, was very nice. Near as I can figure, it is boosting lows and highs (or scooping-out mids) and boosting volume noticeably. Again, with the warm midrangey humbuckers on my Les Paul, this was nice. I preferred the “natural” setting on single coils. On all settings, the Dual Fusion produces (or allows) a LOT of bass frequencies through. This sounds great when playing alone in a room, but could be a mess for a live sound man, or a recording engineer. I ended up cutting my amps’ bass significantly to record the demo tracks. In the room, I heard some pretty harsh trebly tones, but what came out on the recording was very nice. For the record, I was sitting pretty close to the amps, with their speaker cones at about the level of my belt. The best recorded sounds, strangely, came from pointing the microphone RIGHT AT the speaker cone.

A lot of guitarists have lamented the loss of bass frequencies from certain pedals (the Tube Screamers, for example), and favor exaggerated bass response. I’m not one of them. Being a producer/engineer in addition to a guitarist, I spend a lot of time removing unnecessary bass-frequencies from guitar tracks. You can be sure that any sound engineer, live or studio, is doing the same. Why muck up the headroom of your amp with messy bass that needs to be removed anyway, for the clarity of the mix?

The pedal mated well with both my AC15 and my JCM-800 4010. The JCM-800 has no switches or loops or anything, and basically exists as a (small) 50w 1×12 rock machine. Pushing it’s natural distortion into harmonic bliss is always easy with any gain source, and the Dual Fusion was no exception. It is probably more than a user of this amp would ever need, though. The pedal’s responsive tone controls allowed me to get more gain out of the amp while taming its tendency to get piercing high end (no lack of treble in Marshall amps!), so that was positive. However, high gain settings from the pedal were noisy on both amps.

Ideally, I can get 4 gain stages out of two stacked gain circuits:

  1. Totally clean (all off)
  2. Overdrive (one on)
  3. Distortion (the other one on)
  4. SCREAMING (all on).

What I expected was to want to run 2 → 1, that is, the “Modern” (let’s just call it “distortion”) channel into the “Vintage” (let’s just call it “overdrive”). This is how I have had the greatest success in the past. The overdrive fattens up when hit with the distortion, and the combined gain (when compatible) creates a fantastic singing solo sound. On the Dual Fusion, this worked well, and setting the overdrive (Vintage) gain hotter, made the mids jump out more when hit with the distortion (Modern). Fantastic. However, I also liked (and maybe preferred) running 1 → 2, for more tonal consistency from gain stage to stage to combined stage. There were a lot of tonal variables to explore.

Sound pros:

  • Extremely versatile, engaging tones.
  • There’s probably something for everyone here.

Sound cons:

  • Treble transparency = noise, especially on high gain settings.
  • Bass-frequencies are loud, and can make a mess.

SUMMARY- The Dual Fusion is well-made, well-voiced and well-appointed, with useful features and LOTS of options on how to use them. In short, I really like it, especially for mid-level gain and rhythm on single coil guitars. I’m not crazy about the lack of midrange response/boost, and I find it noisier than I expected. Having to unplug/re-plug when switching circuit order makes this feature unusable on the fly, if it’s fastened to a crowded pedalboard. Pros-

  1. Versatility- Users can choose gain stage order and voicing, opting to flatter different types of native guitar tones (single coils versus humbuckers), or dial in something that works well for both.
  2. Sounds great everywhere from low-gain blues/Americana to hard rock.
  3. Compact size, solid construction.
  4. Concise, sensible layout; easy-to-use.

Cons-

  1. Requires unplugging and re-plugging cables to change gain-stage order.
  2. Can be too bassy, treble can be too bright (admittedly subjective).
  3. Treble can cause hiss from the amp, especially at high gain settings.
  4. Bright LED’s plus close footswitches means tall guys with big feet might not stomp the footswitch(es) they intend.

Conclusion: I ended up NOT keeping the Dual Fusion after I made the demo. It isn’t for me, but it came pretty close to being the new pedal on my board! Maybe it will work better for your playing style. Any questions” Feel free to ask. And if you’ve used the Dual Fusion with great results I’d love to hear about them. Also, if you have another dual pedal that you think is worth a review/demo, let me know.

Tonal Identity: What’s the guitar that best transmits YOUR sound?

I grew up with an unapologetic worship of Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin, and as such, was dead-set on becoming a Gibson Les Paul / Humbuckers / Marshall guy.

The shred-era exploded while I was high school, and “super-strats” with pointy headstocks ruled the day. I got a non-pointy, affordable model with a locking tremolo, and contented myself with whatever amp I could use at the time. Even back then, Les Pauls were hard to afford, and seeing them with tremolo just looked weird.

King’s X invaded my world in the late 80′s, and I heard Ty Tabor getting incredibly heavy, yet articulate tones out of his Strat. While I had already landed on doing volume-swells with a volume pedal, I really appreciated how he was doing them all with the Strat’s volume knob.

Somewhere around then, I also really started to crave the classic sound of a Strat. I knew nothing about them, really. I bought one in complete ignorance, brand new off the shelf, and got VERY lucky to have gotten one that sounded so good (it’s a Mexican model). To this day, it’s the guitar with which I have been seen (and photographed) the most. It took a while to adjust my playing style to single coils, but no matter what other guitar I try, that Strat is what works best for me on stage.

My studio go-to guitars are a Mexican Telecaster and an Electra Invicta from about 1980. I even have a real Gibson Les Paul that I tried to use live for years, and I finally got a Jazzmaster about 2 years ago (wanted one for years, but that’s another story). For me, on stage, it’s almost always a Strat that makes it happen.

I put together this dorky little video to illustrate a bunch of types of sounds I might pull from a Strat, using only an original POD Pro. Check it out here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5YUrhHtlUY

What guitar works best for YOU? What fits your playing style/vibe/etc, and why? Forget hero-worship and brand identity. What do YOU get the best results from?