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Monthly Archives: November 2014

Review: Toontrack EZdrummer sample plugin

It is very difficult to review the EZdrummer drum sampler from Toontrack properly. This is because I just can’t get over how fascinating the technology is. I’m completely distracted by the fact that you can just draw MIDI commands in an editor, add a plugin and have them sound like a real drumkit played by a real drummer! I grew up in the 80s and am too well aware of how obvious (and boring) drum machines can be, and for many years, the difficulty of getting a good live drum sound on a home recording has been one of the dealbreakers for me. Not any longer!

EZdrummer has a built-in humanizer function, and if that isn’t enough in itself, you can probably access something similar in your recording software. (I have a humanizing feature in Reaper.) I have found that the plugin works well for regular drum patterns, but if you have long sections with even eighth-notes on the hi-hats or ride, you should probably randomize the dynamics quite a bit to make it sound less mechanical. Same thing to fatten up metal-style tom-and-kick fills. The coolest thing is that the plugin triggers different samples depending on the MIDI velocity, so if your virtual drummer holds back, it will not sound like a drumkit mixed lower, but like a real guy or gal playing softly on real drums. If you don’t want to bother with constructing your own drum patterns, there are hundreds available in the accompanying software, and you can just click-and-drag to your recording software for instant drumming.

The vanilla EZdrummer 2 comes with two kits: modern and vintage. If you want to experiment, there are additional drums and cymbals in the package along with ready-made profiles with gating, EQ and compression, for instance if you want to make the drums ring more for 70s style rock, or if you want something tighter and clickier for modern metal. This is a quite welcome change from the rather dull-sounding kit of EZdrummer 1. (Which, on the other hand, made for quite a nostalgia trip since it sounds just like the kind of drumkit you would find in the music room of an average Swedish high school.)

There is less incentive to get an expansion in EZdrummer 2 than it was in 1, but you will probably want to check out the expansions, and soon. These come in many flavors: everything from electronic drums via Latin percussion to big, heavy rock drums and tight metal kits. I obviously prefer the ones with “metal” and “rock” in the titles, but I also recommend the Latin Percussion expansion for a very varied sample palette.

If you’re already running version 1 of EZD and are debating whether or not to upgrade: do it. Go for it! I’d say the sample loading times alone are worth the upgrade cost. In EZD1, if you had two or three kits in a project, it could take upwards of five minutes to get each and every sample loaded. Now, I’d say everything is up and running in about 20 seconds for really heavy projects, and in 5 seconds for one-kit projects. But that’s not all. Another great selling-point of EZD2 is that you can mix and match parts from many kits. If you’re satisfied with e.g. Drumkit from Hell as a whole, but you would want a bigger bass drum, let’s say the one from Rock Solid, just load the Rock Solid kick into DFH! Is it too loud – turn down the volume! You can even re-pitch drums to make a five-tom kit out of three basic samples.

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Posted by on 16 November, 2014 in review, software

 

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Review: Reaper recording software

I was surprised to find that Cockos’ Reaper is actually an acronym. It stands for Rapid Environment for Audio Production, Engineering and Recording. People in the know refer to such a program as a DAW, for Digital Audio Workstation. Myself, I call it a recording program.

Can Reaper do everything that Cubase, Logic or Pro Tools can? Honestly, I don’t know. Without extensive fact-checking, I can only assume that you get what you pay for. But for my purposes, I don’t see what the big, established, big-name applications could offer that I don’t already get in Reaper. I repeat: for my purposes. The sounds I record are those coming from my guitar and bass, and the MIDI capability I use for drum programming. Sometimes, I add vocals to the former and keyboard sounds to the latter. Reaper is more than enough for this sort of thing. It does exactly what I need it to do. It doesn’t come stuffed to the brim with synthesizers, but you can find free VST plugins easily enough through a simple Google search. And the built-in effects were more than enough to enable me to produce an entire album of instrumental guitar rock.

The amazing part is that you get all of this in a sub-10-megabyte download, and with a post-installation footprint that doesn’t even top 50 megabytes. It is a fast, agile and mostly stable program, it has an uncluttered interface that even made it possible for someone like me to get going and produce a finished song in one evening. Reaper is updated frequently – it seems as if though there is an upgrade available just about every other time I use the software, and the upgrades always seem to address any issues I might have with stability and/or usability. The best part is that the non-professional license costs 60 dollars, allowing you to spend your recording budget on other things. But even the evaluation version is quite usable. All you get is a nag screen that counts down for five seconds, and there are no limitations to session time or save cycles.

 
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Posted by on 15 November, 2014 in review, software

 

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Review: The Gibson SG

My Gibson SG is a black 2005 Standard that I bought used in 2012. It was in pretty bad shape when I got it: the intonation appeared to have been set according to rough description rather than listening to actual pitches, the fretboard was caked with grime and the body all dusty. It required such little effort to talk it down from the listed price that it occurs to me that maybe I should have gone for 500 crowns more. Well, for some people, the haggling is the thing, whereas for me, I prefer looking at it as getting a good deal, and I really did.

The really annoying thing was only evident after a week or so, namely that this was the second Gibson in a row where the backs of the tuners were coming off. On my Les Paul, I had to get a new set of tuners. This time, some superglue seems to have sufficed. But what are they doing in Nashville? Or is it the dry Swedish winter that does the guitars in?

As far as I know, the SG originated in an attempt to rejuvenate the Les Paul model and/or take up direct competition with the Fender Stratocaster. In the latter case, I think that it is quite disappointing that it has never occurred to Gibson to pimp their SG:s in more interesting colors. It seems like you can always get them in black and some form of brown. Sometimes a splash of white. Maybe I’ve seen a blue one. But wouldn’t it be cool with red or green metallic?

But okay, let’s put away the negative waves for a moment and instead concentrate on the positive ones. For there are many! I like to think of the SG as the younger ballet-dancing cousin of the Les Paul. The family resemblance is right there, it has most of the attitude of the Les Paul but in a thinner, nimbler package that is a hell of a lot easier to throw around on stage. The ergonomics are simply fantastic. Not Stratocaster-class, but pretty darned close. All the controls are right next to the picking hand and there is even a top-mounted jack socket. About the only thing that knocks it down from full marks is that the neck pickup tone control is a bit too close to the jack socket, but that’s it. It is a light body that is a delight to strap on, almost to the point where it gets neck-heavy, but never uncomfortable. Still, it is surprisingly resonant: mine just booms right across the room even when it’s not even close to being plugged in. Some of this might be the neck, which is thick and almost club-like. It is a considerable adjustment from my other guitars, but I haven’t played enough SG:s to tell whether it is a design feature or something unique to my guitar or the 2005 Standard.

However, the main selling point of the SG for me is the unparalleled access to all frets across all strings. Seriously, they could easily have extended the 22-fret fretboard to 24 without compromising access in any way. (They actually did on the 50th anniversary model!) I had to reprogram my muscle memory when I got my SG, because I had got used to jamming my hand into the cutaways of my three other electrics and then reaching a bit for the 22nd fret. On the SG, I can easily reach it without even being close to the cutaway. This guitar is built for shred, and has the sound for it as well. You get the same drive and crunch as with a Les Paul. The difference is that the tone just isn’t as fat, and doesn’t have the hour-long sustain. But I can live without that. The neck humbucker has an almost single coil-like transparency that contrasts nicely with the force of the bridge pickup. It is also very nice to have the standard Gibson wiring where you can set the volume and tone of the two pickups separately. Clean and crunch, or lead and woman tone.

The only really sad part is that I bought this guitar more than two years ago, and I have yet to use it on stage.

 
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Posted by on 12 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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Review: Zoom H1 digital recorder

In the old days, state of the art home recording was a 4-track cassette portastudio. I suppose they were all right, so long as you had somebody along who could actually use one, and didn’t expect pristine sound quality. In my old band, it was out of the question, since no one could afford one. When we recorded ourselves, we did so with with a cheap boombox on the floor. Mixing was done by physically moving the device closer to (or further from) an amp or the drums. If the input level was too high, we simply put a towel over the microphone aperture.

The Zoom H1 is the very same tool, but adapted for the 21st century and miniaturized until it’s just about pocketable. It records digital sound in stereo onto an SD Micro card, in either MP3 or WAV format, and with full control of input volume. It is not just for musicians, these devices are also sold in photo stores for pro video use, and I imagine that they can also be used by journalists or even compulsive note-takers. In my opinion, this is a wonderful tool for musical note-taking and rudimentary demoing. If I want to capture something quickly, I don’t have to fire up my sound card, plug in a microphone and start up Reaper. I can just switch this little thing on, and off I go. Same thing in the rehearsal room: write something and record it immediately. Even a small 2 gigabyte card (do they even sell those anymore?) is good for more than 3 hours of CD-quality uncompressed audio.

The big drawback is that the H1 just eats batteries, and will chew through an AA in 24 hours no matter if you use the recorder or not. That doesn’t mean I don’t recommend it, but be aware of this, stock up on rechargeable AA:s and keep them topped up.

 
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Posted by on 11 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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Review: Marshall MG15CFX amplifier

The Marshall MG15CFX is a 15-watt solid-state combo amp with built-in digital effects. It has four channels (more properly: four gain stages), two reverbs (studio and spring) and five effects: chorus, flanger, phaser, delay (with tap tempo!) and octaver. Naturally it has a line in for jamming along to an MP3 player or the like, and there is also a headphone output for silent practicing. There is no USB port, so you cannot control it via software, this is an old-school amp with new-school accouterments.

The MG15CFX has few controls, but utilize them well. The channels/presets are accessed via two buttons: one switches between clean and crunch, the other between OD1 and OD2. It remembers the last setting, so you can switch back and forth between, say, crunch and OD2 without having to click excessively. There is also a footswitch jack for when your hands are otherwise engaged. A button switches the amp between manual mode (the sound reflects the current amp settings) and preset mode (one saved preset per gain stage, including gain, volume, EQ settings, reverb and effect). There are no real surprises with the controls: gain, volume, 3-band EQ and master volume work as they would on any other amp. The reverb and effects controls are a combination of effect selector and intensity adjustment. (No effect – twist – some chorus – twist – more chorus – twist – some phaser, etc.) This also means that you can only combine reverb and effect – no chorus and delay combination, for instance.

The dry sounds are standard fare for Marshall amps: a solid clean tone, good crunch sounds and a nice, fluid lead tone. With judicious use of the channel selector, gain knob and EQ, you can dial in anything from ballad clean to death metal, from the Bluesbreakers to Iron Maiden. As I’ve remarked in another review of another amp from another British manufacturer, it’s very nice to see (hear?) that solid state amps nowadays can also make some pretty convincing crunch-type sounds, it’s not just clean and full-on distortion. It’s just a pity that the unit doesn’t come with a noise gate, because you get quite a bit of annoying hiss on the OD channels. The effects are good enough for home practice and simple demoing, but I’d probably look elsewhere for delays and phasers.

It is difficult to make a proper recommendation of this unit, since it so much depends on your point of view. If you’re a Marshall aficionado and want something that sounds good at very low volume levels, where even a 1-watt tube amp would be too much, it is an obvious choice. Whether you would want this amp or its simpler sisters (the CFR comes with spring reverb only, the CF is sans effects) comes down to a matter of budget and applicability. If you are a traditionalist and/or prefer adding effects in post when recording, then obviously you’ll want the bone-dry CF. Comparing it to other brands at the same price point inevitably brings up the apples-versus-apples debate. This Marshall only ever strives to sound like a Marshall. Fenders, Voxes, Line6:s, Blackstars – all those model other amp types as well. If it were me, I’d spend the extra cash on a Blackstar ID:15, just for the flexibility and the extra power and control (via the software).

 
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Posted by on 10 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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Review: Ernie Ball Polypro strap

Many years ago, one of the music stores in town used to have a rack full of Ernie Ball Polypro straps in every color. Above the rack was a picture of Eric Clapton with his trademark Stratocaster and a Polypro. The caption read: “If it’s good enough for Eric, it’s good enough for you. 59 crowns including tax.” I would tend to agree. On a more philosophical note, it is simple and unadorned enough that it doesn’t distract from the guitar, instead it recedes into the background and keeps your instrument and what your hands are doing with it in the foreground. On a more practical note, it is a guitar strap, period. It does what it should do and does so at a bargain-basement price.

I used Polypros for a couple of years, mostly because they were long enough back when DiMarzio’s straps weren’t. It doesn’t have so much to do with trying to look cool as the simple fact that I am 200 cm (6’7″) tall and straps are made for guitar players of average height. I loved the feel and the simplicity of the design. I still enjoy the straps greatly, but since I got back to the ClipLocks, my Polypros live with my acoustic guitars. For me personally, that just works better. There is nothing wrong the Polypro per se, it was just that I got tired about worrying about them in a live setting. I used those little twisty strap locks, but they started popping off during shows and I had to go hunt for them during the breaks. (I kept forgetting to bring spares.) On a Fender, you get a bit of extra security because of the way the strap wraps around the top horn. On a Les Paul, the tension pulls away from the strap lug, which is a recipe for… unexpected things.

 
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Posted by on 9 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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Review: DiMarzio ClipLock strap

The tie has always been the standard, classic gift for guys. For guitar players, the equivalent has to be the shoulder strap. It is funny in a way that I am about as uninterested in straps as I am in ties. The difference is that in the latter case, it is something that I do for the hell of it, tolerate a few hours of discomfort to look good at the annual company Christmas party. And in the former, it’s because I know what I like and what works and nothing else has ever worked equally well. So for you people out there, if you want to get me a birthday or Christmas gift, get me something other than a strap, because if it isn’t a DiMarzio ClipLock, I simply will not use it.

I’ve used DiMarzio Cliplock straps almost exclusively since the beginning of the 90s: one white but mostly black. I only stopped using them for a few years because my old one wasn’t long enough to put my Les Paul into a comfortable enough position, and went straight back as soon as DiMarzio started making them longer. In my experience, they take the strap completely out of the equation. You may still worry about breaking strings, frying a tube, having a wild and wooly party-goer bump into your mike stand, giving you a fat lip in the process. But you never have to worry about the strap coming off in the middle of a song. It’s just there, all the time, so you can concentrate on other things. I also particularly like the feel of theĀ seatbelt-type nylon. It is slippery enough that the strap doesn’t get stuck on your shoulder, but not to the degree that it slides all over the place.

I have four complete assemblies, one for each of my electric guitars. I do know that DiMarzio supplies the end pieces separately, so you can save a few bucks by buying one complete assembly and one end piece set for every other guitar, and then switching the strap between the guitars. It wasn’t a huge expense, so I didn’t bother with that solution. I basically have to have four different lengths anyway to keep all my guitars at the same height. The straps live on the guitars constantly, even at home, which has the added advantage that the little end piece doesn’t flop around when I sit down on the couch to practice or record.

The one and only problem I’ve encountered with the Cliplock is affixing it to the guitar in the first place. The screws seem to be a little bigger than the standard strap button screws, which is all and well, but they’re also longer. On one or two of my guitars, the DiMarzio screw hit the bottom of the pre-drilled hole in the guitar, so I had to unscrew the darned thing and add a washer or two between the strap end and the guitar body before retrying.

 
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Posted by on 8 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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