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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Review: MXR Phase 90

I love phasing! It is such a classic-sounding effect, at the same time more subtle but yet more dramatic than chorus or flanger. I don’t normally get compliments on my sound, but when I bought my first phaser, I did. My drummer called it the “prog pedal” and even certain pedal-phobic people I sometimes play with gushed over it. However, I somehow managed to break a Boss pedal, which set in motion two processes at once: its replacement and, more vitally, its replacement by anything other than a Boss.

Therefore, I arranged a minor phaser shootout with the three pedals that the store happened to have on hand at the moment. I tried the Ibanez AP7, the Boss PH-3 (just to give it a fair chance) and finally the MXR Phase 90. Just to avoid any misunderstandings, this is the new, non-signature Phase 90, not the EVH model or the ’74 reissue.

The results hit me squarely between the eyes. The instant I switched on the ’90, I knew I had a winner. The Boss sounded all right, but it felt like I never could dial in the sound I had in my head. It was exactly the same way with the Ibanez – also a perfectly flexible and well-sounding phaser pedal. I would recommend any of these to anyone. It’ s just that the Phase 90 sounds better than both, and does so without the fuss. I belatedly realized that I was after the MXR sound all along, I had simply been struggling to make the Boss and the Ibanez sound like the ’90. This could be a self-confirming bias, since the recordings that sold me on the phaser effect were indeed made with… the Phase 90.

The MXR Phase 90 is about as simple as pedals come. It has one knob, Rate, and a switch that turns the effect on and off. It does not have to be more complicated than this so long as the effect is properly voiced from the get-go. It works just as well spicing up a clean sound as it does putting a bit of a swirl on a crunch sound, even when placed before the gain section. You get usable sounds throughout the entire rate range, even though I tend to leave it set to about 9 o’clock and don’t bother with the rubber sleeve that you can put on the knob to enable tweaking with your foot.

I especially like the sturdy construction and the small form factor. I’ll be damned if I’m going to kill two phasers in a row! About the only negative thing is that I now have developed a bit of an addiction to small pedals in general and MXR products in particular!

 
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Posted by on 22 April, 2013 in gear, review

 

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The Curious Case of the Clean Floor

The perfect gig is the one where I don’t have to sing and where I can play the entire set with a clean floor – no effects pedals or switches whatsoever.

My most flexible setup in this regard is my Fender Telecaster into the OD channel of my 20-watt Blackstar amp, with the gain set at about 9 or 10 o’clock. I can get a whole range of rock tones using nothing but the pickup selector. On the bridge pickup (a DiMarzio Super Distortion T), I get a searing, penetrating lead sound, whereas the bridge + neck combination backs off on both gain and treble for a very smooth rhythm sound. The neck pickup alone (DiMarzio Area T) is more focused, but obviously not as distorted or toppy as the bridge pickup. If I introduce the volume control on the guitar into the equation, there’s even more flexibility. The aforementioned middle position, but with the volume at about half, gives me a clean sound that works very well for basically anything but the funkiest and twangiest stuff.

With a Gibson, which typically has individual volume controls for the two pickups, I get even more flexibility. I can basically preset one pickup, usually the bridge, to a distorted tone and then use the neck pickup on half volume as an ersatz clean tone. Then I just use the pickup selector to flick between clean and crunch. Still, I tend to use my Fenders, primarily the Telecaster, simply because the Fender sound just fits the cover bands better.

This practice of mine has drawn a bit of criticism from audio purists around me. Their argument being that adjusting the guitar volume on the fly is an arbitrary and imprecise method, that I will never be able to be consistent, that for instance two verses will not have exactly the same settings and sound. Like that matters! As if rock n roll was ever supposed to be exact and scientific! I’d gladly give up that precision for the luxury of being undistracted by searching for pedals and switches on the floor. It’s a lot less gear to carry, fewer cables to trip on, one power outlet less to worry about. I don’t have to glance down, I can maintain eye contact with my band members and the audience. Ultimately it means a better performance, and that’s what it’s supposed to be about, not audio perfection. I’ll bet that at the end of the show, people are not going to come up to you and tell you that one of the guitars dropped out during a verse here and a bridge there.

Sticking to one amp setting and playing without effects is a major challenge. I have to be at my very best to coax every possible tone and nuance out of my instrument. It is at the end of the day a more stimulating challenge than having one pedal for each sound. I am forced to play my instrument and not just touch the strings.

This method works really well for my session work: gigs, rehearsals and recordings with cover bands. In my more serious metal band Namlar, it is sadly not an option. I use way more distortion and volume, which means that I have to use the channel selector – backing off on the guitar volume doesn’t clean the tone up enough. More gain also necessitates a noise gate, and if I have one pedal and one switch on the floor, I might as well use a pedal tuner. It quickly snowballs from there, and that is how I entered the current phase of expanding my pedal board.

 
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Posted by on 21 April, 2013 in editorial, gear

 

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Review: Korg Pitchclip

The Joyo JT-12B demonstrated the basic validity of the clip-on tuner concept. But, as I pointed out in that review, that tuner is a little too versatile for its own good.

The Korg Pitchclip addresses all of those issues. This is the simplest device you could imagine. There is nothing to configure and consequently no wrong settings. It has one button, ON/OFF, and one pitch standard: 440 Hz. It shows two things: the note name and whether or not you’re in tune. The only feature available is that when you hold the on/off button down, the display is activated upside-down. This is actually more useful than I first imagined!

My only beef with the Pitchclip is that it only comes in funky neon colors. There is no black, so I selected the next best thing: a dark blue. But, as the guy told me when he sold it to me, at least no one is going to steal that pink Pitchclip from you!

On the whole, a simple but purposeful product that is wholeheartedly recommended!

 
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Posted by on 20 April, 2013 in gear, review

 

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Review: Joyo JT-12B tuner

The Joyo JT-12B is a clip-on tuner. You clip it onto the headstock of your instrument, strike a note, and the vibrations will travel through the guitar and be picked up by the device. It is a brilliant concept that goes to show that we have come a long way since those dreadful Boss boxes that worked all right but were as sensitive as military sonar.

The JT-12B does exactly what it’s supposed to. It has a bright and intuitive display that you can see in any light, and it is in perfect agreement with my more elaborate (and expensive!) Korg DT-10. It can be used with electrics as well as acoustics and it can be had for not much money. All of this taken together adds up to a good buy.

But.

I just don’t like electronic gadgets that try to do too much and be too much and consequently are so flexible and helpful that they get in your way all the time. The JT-12B is a good guitar tuner, but it annoys me because it is also a bass tuner and violin tuner and ukulele tuner, and… You catch my drift. Furthermore, you can calibrate it to 440 Hz, or 441, or 442, or… well, simile.

All of this marvellous functionality is operated using two buttons only, and that’s my beef with this gadget. The on/off switch doubles as the instrument selection switch and is way too close to the reference tone selection button. Thus, when you have five seconds between songs and want to do a quick tune-up, you hit the ON button in the wrong way, and all of a sudden, the Joyo thinks you want to tune a ukulele at 442 Hz.

If you are a multi-instrumentalist and regularly gig with ensembles that use different pitch standards, then this device is for you. For us working guitarists who just want a quick and easy way to tune up between songs, it is simply too much, and I don’t care that it is affordable.

 
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Posted by on 20 April, 2013 in gear, review

 

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Review: Warwick Rockcase pedalboard

The Warwick Rockcase is a large-format, small-capacity pedalboard. You pay less than for other brands, and barely get what you pay for.

Pedalboards are no fun. They are not gadgets and they add nothing to my sound. They are simply necessary, for organization and protection purposes. Therefore, a good pedalboard should be able to perform the following tasks: 1) protect my pedals during transport, 2) allow me to fill the board from edge to edge with pedals, and 3) act as a solid platform on which to operate the pedals.

The Rockcase failed at all three, which I will now show:

1. The Velcro on the bottom of the pedals came undone and when I opened the case at the destination, all my pedals were in a big pile at the bottom. I could attribute this to the summer heat, since it did happen only once. Still, it was annoying.

2. Even though it’s a fairly large pedalboard, you can’t actually use its entire surface to mount pedals. The edges (or lips, or whatever you call them) are too tall. If you place a pedal too close to the edge, the cable sticking out of the jack will hit the edge (or lip), making it impossible to mount the pedal flush to the surface of the board. Angled plugs get you closer, but not all the way. There is no way around that the effective mounting area is way smaller than the apparent dimensions of the board. You’re basically just carrying and stowing lots of air.

3. The surface of the board gives when you push on pedals, especially when activating a wah pedal. I don’t know if this stresses the material badly enough for long-term problems, but it sure is distracting and hardly the mark of quality.

To close out the review, let me tell you about the build quality. I hadn’t even left the rehearsal room before one of the little rubber feet on the bottom had come off. After subjecting the board to the torturous test of three gigs in eight months, one of the metal corners had disappeared. I cannot even begin to imagine what the rigors of regular rigging would do with this board, let alone touring.

The Warwick is therefore not recommended for any level of musician. Steer clear and spend a little bit more money on something that actually works.

 
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Posted by on 19 April, 2013 in gear, review

 

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Review: Blackstar HT Studio 20 head

The Blackstar Studio 20 is a tube amplifier that comes in two versions: a small form-factor head and a 1 x 12 combo. The subject of this review is the head, which I bought new in early 2011.

This is a very bare-bones amplifier. You get two channels, clean and OD, with a little foot controller that switches between the channels, an effects loop and a digital reverb (that cannot be selected via the footswitch). The clean channel has only two controls (volume and tone), but the OD channel has the full range of gain, volume, 3-band EQ and the customary Infinite Shape Feature, a knob that that gradually revoices the EQ from American to British tones. There are no little switches or buttons tucked away between the knobs or on the back of the chassis.

Some might feel underwhelmed by the single tone control on the clean channel, but it is voiced pretty well, with a slight American bias. By the time you reach 9 or 10, it starts to break up, but never achieves crunch, for which you would need an overdrive pedal of some kind. It is a good clean sound that can be round and jazzy or bright and twangy.

The OD channel is considerably more versatile. It does everything from mild breakup to completely over-the-top monster distortion. With the ISF control, I have yet to imagine a crunch sound that I haven’t been able to dial in. It does blues and classic rock very well, and has no problem with more extreme metal tones. Using the not particularly powerful PAF-36 humbuckers in my Les Paul, I get thrashy tones with the gain at noon, and to get a more conventional rock sound, I am forced to back off until about 9 o’clock. Most importantly, it is very responsive to playing dynamics and the control settings on the guitar. On all but the most saturated settings, you ought to be able to clean the dirty sound right up just by backing off on the guitar volume. This might be the ticket for players who feel constricted by the clean channel. About the only sound you can’t get via that method is a spanky clean with lots of headroom.

I was initially apprehensive about the 20-watt EL34 power section. Would it really be enough? As luck would have it, not long after my purchase, my good friend Viktor brought its big brother, the Blackstar HT Stage 100 head, to our rehearsal room and allowed me to perform an A/B test through the same 4 x 12 cabinet. The only difference in favor of the 100 watt was that it did have a bottom end that can’t be achieved at lower power levels. With the 20-watt, you get a whole shitload of volume (half the power of a 200-watt amp!), but you just don’t get that iron fist reaching up through the ground to pound your rib cage. I, however, immediately decided that I could live without that. In our band, the bass player supplies the bottom end and I happily exist in the middle. The benefits of the 20 are so much greater. First of all, the 20 has better tone: more womanly shaped, not as shrill and harsh as the 100. Second, I can push it much harder, which in itself adds lots of overtones and sustain. Any qualms about lack of power were squashed at the very first gig I did with the Studio 20. At the soundcheck, I was asked to turn down, turn down and then turn down some more. For small stages, and when you mike everything, it is actually overpowered.

The Studio 20 has been able to perform every job I’ve thrown at it for two years, and with flying colors. It might not have four channels (each with three modes), twin effects loops, solo level or assignable 5-band EQ, but it all comes down to what sort of player you are. Some players prefer to have all their tones ready to rock at the push of a pedal. In that case, the Studio 20 might not be for you. If you’re like me, then manipulation of the controls of the electric guitar is part and parcel of playing the instrument. In that case you will find this a wonderfully flexible tone machine almost irrespective of style and genre. It punches way above its weight class. And price tag.

On a more personal and less objective note, I have to admit that there are few times indeed during one’s career when one tries out a piece of equipment and it just changes one’s perception of everything. I cannot speak highly enough of this amplifier. It beat out some serious competitors to become my weapon of choice. I had my mind set on a Marshall JVM 410 or a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier, and then a guy plugged me into this little amp and I was completely blown away.

Part of my buyer’s remorse had a little to do with the gnawing fear that I had let my wallet dictate terms to me. This amp was inexpensive, but would it prove to be too cheap? No, or at least: not yet. I have played this thing for over two years, and still get tremendous enjoyment out of the thing. I have tempted fate by trying out more Marshalls and Boogies, but nothing has been able to tickle my fancy. Quite the reverse, actually: I’ve been taken aback by the fact that amplifiers of such venerable brands and with such hefty price tags do not offer me anything other than flexibility that I ultimately have no need for. The Studio 20 has made me reevaluate how I think of tone, and above all: made me reconsider just what I need in a guitar amplifier. How I wish that these guys had started up just a few years before they did! Then I might not have gone down the blind alley that was the Marshall JMP-1: the MIDI setup that never was.

To summarize, it is a weird but very pleasant situation to be this satisfied. I grew up under the impression that there is always a better amp. Now I’m not so sure.

 
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Posted by on 18 April, 2013 in gear, review

 

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Review: Blackstar ID:30 TVP

The minute Blackstar announced the ID:15 and ID:30 True Valve Power amplifiers, I posted a rhetorical question on Twitter about whether this would be the perfect solution to my session amp woes. I love the sound of glowing tubes, but I’ve been led to realize that even my 20-watt amp turned out to be way overpowered for the kind of gig I normally do. At least a solid-state amp doesn’t lose its punch and oomph when you turn it down the way I’m forced to.

I am not wild about the insane amount of time that passed between the announcement of the ID series and the first delivery to stores. For a while, I was convinced the ID amps were going to be vaporware. That would have been a crying shame, seeing as I had quickly developed a high regard for the Blackstar brand.

But finally, they did arrive, and during the course of the waiting period, my Fender broke and my priorities changed. I had been convinced that I was going to have to invest in a Line6 Pod HD for home recording and a 5-watt Blackstar combo for session stuff. But I found that whereas the Fender worked fine for recording via the line out, I sorely missed having a small practice amp around. When the buzz finally started, and delivery of the ID:s seemed imminent, I got the notion that maybe one small Blackstar solid-state combo could perform in all three roles.

This is a tall order even for an expensive amp, and now that I’ve finally put it through its paces in all three settings, let’s have a look at how it’s fared:

As a practice amp, the ID:30 just rocks. The heavier crunch sounds are especially impressive, the sound just jumps out of the speaker and you can get a full, juicy, fluid lead tone at any volume setting. We have come a long way since the early Valvestate combos. I have come to expect good distorted tones from contemporary solid-state amps, but the ID:30 provides what I can only describe as a dimension beyond that. There is something with the tone that feels like it’s feeding back into my fingers – very much like the way tubes behave when they’re given a good workout. The strings feel thicker and meatier for some strange reason, but at the same time, the extreme fluidity of the tone makes it easier to play fast. But it isn’t just the character and response of the tone, it is also the shape of the tone. It feels like they’ve been able to squeeze the thunderous bass response of a 4 x 12″ cabinet into a 1 x 12″ combo. Metal rhythms have a very pleasing booming quality to them, and when messing about with clean sounds, you don’t get that small, tinny combo sound but a big, round combo sound. Think: a good silverface Twin. Lastly, I particularly like that they have been able to create good crunch sounds. No longer are you forced to choose between ultra clean and ultra gain simply because those are the only settings that the amp can do convincingly. The ID:30 covers the middle of the gain range quite well.

The ID:30 is actually not a modeling amplifier per se. Unlike most other amps and effects units that model, it doesn’t have cleverly named amp sims like “blackface”, “British blues”, “Rectifier” or “British jangle”. You have six gain stages that define the range of the gain knob: everything from sparkly clean to heavy distortion. Then there is the three-band EQ and Blackstar’s patented Infinite Shape Feature that revoices the EQ bands between the US and the UK. Last but not least, there is the TVP (True Valve Power) section, that emulates six different output tube configurations. True Valve Power incidentally means that it’s supposed to put out as much power as a tube amp of the same rating – something that has never been the case until now.

Taken together, these features add up to some serious flexibility. It is also creatively stimulating, because you don’t have to settle for the same old amp sims that have been done ad nauseam. If you know what you’re doing, you can approximate the classic amps (the ID:30 out-Fenders Fender – it does a better blackface sound than Fender’s own G-DEC!), but you also get loads of other potential settings to experiment with.

The effects section has four modulation effects (phaser, flanger, chorus, tremolo), four delay types and four reverbs. One of each can be active at any one time, so you cannot experiment with gated flanger sounds or the like. I have never understood flanger, but I like the other three effects even though it is a bit of an adjustment tapping the tempo on the provided button rather than dialing it in. The only way to get stomp box-like control is to connect the amp to your computer via USB and use the free Blackstar Insider software to twist the virtual knobs.

For recording purposes, the ID:30 has a speaker-emulated headphone jack that doubles as a line out. The output is determined not by the master volume but by the channel volume. I like this feature, since you would likely save your favorite sounds as patches anyway, and then you have the possibility to record completely silently, through studio monitors, or use the amp for monitoring (or screaming feedback!). On (virtual) tape, it sounds as good as it does in the room: big and solid.

On stage, I was struck by how much air the 12-inch speaker could set into motion. To be brutally honest, when you put the ID:30 in a rehearsal/stage situation, there is just no way you’re going to fool me it’s a tube amplifier. It doesn’t have the natural punch and roar. Still, it is surprisingly powerful for 30 solid-state watts and the tone is still awesome. I played an entire gig with the master volume at about 3.5 and I didn’t hear the slightest sign of a struggle. The clean sounds remain clean and there is no flabbiness. The one thing it doesn’t do well is heavy metal riffing at high volume. The speaker cone came awfully close to embedding itself in our drummer’s face when I tried the OD2 channel with the master volume at 5. But to be fair: that’s not why I bought the ID:30. I’m also fairly certain that no serious metal player would consider anything less than 100 watts and at least 4 12-inch speakers to do the job properly.

There is a lot to like with the ID:30, especially for the price. However, it is not a flawless piece of design and engineering. If you want full control over the shape of your sound, you have to go via the Insider software. The 15 and 30-watt combos do not have a midrange control on the chassis; that parameter is only accessible through software. I have not yet experimented enough to see if and how the midrange values are saved between sessions and when going in and out of patch mode. If this is a dealbreaker for you, you have to pony up the cash for the 60-watt combo or any of the two heads.

The hugeness of the sound ultimately comes off as a bit of a double-edged sword. It is all right for playing, less so for recording. A sound that works fine with open chords and single-string lines comes uncomfortably close to clipping the signal in my recording software when I palm-mute. There is some weird resonance that overloads the input of my recording software. But since I haven’t logged that much experimentation time with the ISF and EQ, let’s just say that the jury’s still out on that one.

Blackstar has released a dedicated 4-way footswitch for the ID series. I had one on order, but didn’t get it in time before the gig. However, I was grateful to note that my old single-switch controller (from my Studio 20) is perfectly compatible with the ID:30. It only switches between patches 1 and 2 in the active bank, but in a pinch, that’s enough for my purposes. All I really need is a good clean sound and a good drive sound – everything else is a bonus. (This is incidentally why I’m comparatively silent on the effects section: I don’t have enough stick time with them!)

The problem is that the switching isn’t instantaneous. There is a noticeable lag after you step on the switch and the sounds seem to fade into each other in a weird way. It isn’t unacceptable, but if split-second timing is critical for your playing, be advised and learn how to work around it – or find a more suitable amp. I will likely not be buying the 4-way switch after all, but that has more to do with the sad fact that I play live so seldom and the single footswitch is quite enough when I do.

After putting the amp through its paces using two Fenders and two Gibsons, I have a lingering suspicion that this amp series was designed with metal-oriented players and guitars in mind. It sounds fantastic with my Gibsons and with the Super Distortion-equipped Telecaster. It is less impressive with the Stratocaster, but it isn’t a tone issue so much as the noise gate seems to have an awfully high threshold. My Stratocaster can barely keep the gate open, there is a noticeable swelling effect as it almost reluctantly disengages to sound the note.

So what’s the bottom line? It took only a few minutes in the store for me to decide on buying this amplifier. The purchase was based on its qualities as a practice amp and everything else would be a bonus. You don’t need 30 watts at home, but I spent the extra few hundred crowns on doubling the wattage in case it would turn out to perform passably at rehearsals and gigs. It really does, and the sound alone makes me twice as determined to fix that little resonance wrinkle during recording. This amp is definitely recommended!

 
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Posted by on 16 April, 2013 in gear, review

 

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