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Monthly Archives: October 2017

Distortion pedals

It’s been ages since I owned a proper distortion pedal. Other than a one-night stand with the Vox Satchurator about 10 years ago, I think you have to go back all the way to 1997, when I sold my Boss Metal Zone. During the years, I’ve owned several overdrives, but that’s not the same thing. When I say distortion, I’m talking about a pedal that has enough dirt that you can put it on top of a really clean tone and get a chugging heavy metal-type rhythm sound. An overdrive for me is something you put over a tone that is already distorted, either just to add more filth and sustain, or to change the EQ curve somewhat, or maybe a little bit of both. For many years, I’ve been sticking to the principle that the best clean sounds are actually a tiny bit distorted, so maybe I’ll stretch my definition of an overdrive to something that can help a clean tone acquire some glow, compression and sustain. The gist of the matter is that when I want a distorted tone for metal rhythm and leads, no pedal comes close to the sound of an amp. It is a pity, because I totally see the utility of a distortion pedal. Indeed, that was actually why I bought the Metal Zone all the way back in 1994. I had a series of sessions coming up, and I knew it was not going to be a practical option to schlep my Marshall stack all over town. I wanted a pedal where I could get my sound no matter what I plugged into. Another advantage with a distortion pedal is that it can simplify your signal chain. When I had my Marshall rack between 2006 and 2011, there were six long cables littering the floor underneath my feet: amp channel selector, guitar to pedalboard, pedalboard to amp, effects send to pedalboard, pedalboard to effects return and finally the AC cable for my pedal power supply. If there were a distortion unit that could have replaced the amp distortion, I could have done away with two of those cables straight away, since I would have put my chorus and delay directly after the distortion pedal. But the Satchurator never worked in my rig, quite likely because it was made to juice up a tube amp and not my transistor-based setup, so back it went on the next day. I was set on the Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion on the strength of a number of impressive demo videos and sound clips, and would probably have bought one had Guitar Center in Tonawanda kept one in stock. But when I got back to Sweden, I had the opportunity to try one, and it failed the critical A/B test against the amp I ran it through. It is a good distortion pedal, but it couldn’t even best a Peavey!

The Boss MT-2 Metal Zone has an undeservedly bad reputation. Of course everyone is entitled to an opinion, but I get the feeling that what everyone is sneering at isn’t necessarily the sound of the pedal, but the way other people use it. Granted, it is possible to dial in some really sick and completely unusable sounds on the thing, and I’ll be first in line to admit that I’ve also been there and done that. But when its knobs are twiddled in moderation, it is actually a fairly good distortion pedal. I’ve even used it on a recording with my old pop/punk band, I seem to remember running it through one of those old Music Man combos, and got a fairly mellow crunch sound. I did a big Boss distortion pedal shootout back in 2008 or 2009 at a Guitar Center, where they have one of those big boards with every current Boss pedal, and the Metal Zone was easily the best of the bunch. There is just something with that smooth, fine-grained distortion that appeals to me, it comes closest to my ideal guitar tone. I didn’t have the opportunity to compare it to the DS-2 since they didn’t have one at all (it came up as discontinued in their computer system), but I gravitated toward the DS-2 mostly because I had already owned an MT-2 and besides I liked the idea of a footswitchable boost on the DS-2. Even now I find myself drawn to the Metal Zone, I’ll probably pick up a used one in the foreseeable future, for fun and nostalgia and to prove to myself that you actually can get usable tones out of if you’re careful.

I’m currently GAS-ing over a whole bunch of distortion pedals, and I owe myself a long session at various music stores to actually try them out through various amps. I want to compare the JHS Angry Charlie and Charlie Brown, toss in a Fulltone OCD, I am curious about the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver, not to mention the Angry Driver. I want to bring along my collection of fuzzes and overdrives, because I want to know how either distortion pedal reacts to my Mini Tube Screamer, Spark Booster and Soul Food, and while I’m at it, I want to find an amp that not only takes all these pedals well, but also gives me usable tones with my Fuzz Face and Nano Big Muff. This is a solution without a problem, because for my only real band, Namlar, I have an amp that I love to death, and for my home studio, I have a cornucopia of modelling amps, pedals and even plugins. What I find myself worrying and fussing over is what to get to play covers and sessions, which simply is not an issue anymore. I quit the party band four years ago and haven’t got the slightest inclination to rejoin. I haven’t played a session since before that, and if I recall correctly, I used my Blackstar ID:30 for that session with great results. When I analyze the situation I realize that this is in fact a manifestation of my constant itch to get back on the stage, and of course I would by lying if I didn’t also admit that I just love buying gear.

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Posted by on 22 October, 2017 in editorial, gear

 

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PRS SE 277 Baritone

For a good long while there, it seemed as if 2017 was going to be yet another Gibson year for me. The 2017 Les Paul range included the Tribute models, which sported a most delectable goldtop with humbuckers for a quite reasonable price. I fantasized about that guitar for weeks. Then it hit me: I already have a Les Paul with humbuckers. I even have a Les Paul with single-coils now! However much I’d like a laundry list of various Les Pauls and Stratocasters, even a couple more Telecasters and possibly even a second SG, neither is likely to give me a new sound. One idea that actually has been kicking around for quite a while now is to add a seven-string to my collection. Seven-strings are always such a good idea on paper, sitting and reading about them on the bus, or when thinking about them at home. But when I play one, I find myself utterly confused and bewildered by that extra string. I once heard a theory that your success in adapting to a seven-string is dependent on whether you visualize the fretboard high-to-low or the other way around. If there is truth to that, which I don’t have any reason to doubt, I am very likely a low-to-high player.

I have always been very impressed with Paul Reed Smith guitars. The ones I’ve played have been wonderfully smooth, resonant not to mention exquisitely beautiful. But all of that comes at a price, which has been the primary reason I’ve kept my PRS exposure to a minimum. Overseas-made PRS SE guitars have never been an option for me. Until now, that is. Now that I’m old and wise enough to know that good enough is actually good enough. It’s what you do with it that counts. It was therefore fortuitous that my store had recently started stocking PRS:es, they were deep on SE models and had a few oddballs. In the latter category, I immediately gravitated towards a seven-string Custom 24. I was exactly as lost as I imagined that I would be, and I said so to the sales guy when he came around to check up on me. Instead, he suggested a PRS baritone guitar, semi-acoustic, with single-coil pickups. I must have given him a look, since he immediately backed down and said something like, okay so maybe that wasn’t at all what you were looking for. I was honest: no, it was definitely not at all what I was looking for. But neither, apparently, was the seven-string. So I plugged the baritone in, hardly expecting that I would be as blown away as I was. I couldn’t put the guitar down. I even walked around the store to try some other axes, but I kept coming back to the baritone. I would have bought it on the spot had I not managed to convince myself to sleep on it. An even that turned out to be a mere formality, because that guitar was all I could think about for the rest of the weekend.

It never occurred to me to try a baritone because I supposed that a baritone guitar is just a regular guitar but a little bigger, optimized for downtuning to, say, B or even A, and I don’t downtune. What I didn’t realize was that it is actually its own instrument with its own sound. I actually just wrote the operative word: optimized. The PRS SE 277 has a 27,7-inch scale length (thence the model name, I would assume), and comes from the factory strung with .014 to .068 strings with a wound third string. (By the way, is that the G string or the D string?) It has perfect tension and resistance, comparable to my Fenders, and the sound is perfectly slotted between a guitar and a bass. It is noticeably beefier with distortion and quite muscular with a clean tone. There is none of the flubbiness others have reported with shorter-scale seven-strings. When the idea of a lower-tuned six-string first came up, I assumed that the top of the range would be something I’d miss. This is actually something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. I’ve said multiple times that I don’t like vintage Fenders because they don’t have 22-fret necks, and I have had issues with certain other guitars I’ve tried at the store because I don’t have proper access above the 17th or 19th fret or whatever. Upon further reflection, I have come to the conclusion that it is only a problem when I’m practicing, and not when I’m recording or playing live. I listened through the solos on the latest Namlar album, and the times I stray above the 17th fret are few and far between. The 17th fret on a standard electric is a high A, which is the same note as that on the 22nd fret on the 277. And sure enough, I haven’t been missing the upper range. That doesn’t mean that a baritone doesn’t confuse me. I still haven’t figured out exactly why, but I think it has something to do with the fact that even when I’m just noodling, I am always very aware of which key or mode I’m in, and after years of practice, I have developed a certain kind of key/finger coordination. It feels odd to think F sharp minor and then use fingerings for B minor.

That the guitar has single-coil pickups is a non-issue. I’ve already gushed over the sound of P90s in two previous posts, and I specifically wanted a seven-string (or baritone) to get new sounds with a clean or slightly overdriven tone, not just to chug on the B string with maximum distortion. The pickups are noisy as f**k, I could have sworn that when I plugged it into my stack, the noise was actually louder than when I played. But in similar fashion to my Les Paul (or the 2+4 positions on a Stratocaster) the pickups are wired out of phase, so the middle position becomes hum-cancelling. I do, however, miss the separate volume control for the neck pickup, since when I play clean I tend to use both at the same time, and a neck-mounted P90 can easily overpower the bridge pickup, especially since the 277 has a longer scale length and consequently more contrast between the pickups. The f-hole is a nice decorative detail, it adds a certain amount of classiness to an already beautiful instrument. I was lucky enough to get a hold of a limited edition with a deeply figured ebony top that is just stunning. I wouldn’t call it a semi-acoustic, since the pickups and electronics are clearly mounted in solid wood, so I assume that the guitar has been routed to lighten the load a bit, like on a modern Les Paul or a 70s Telecaster.

Ever since I got the guitar back in May, I have experimented with different tunings off and on. I have tried C, B flat and A standard in addition to drop-A. C works almost better than B feel-wise, but it feels almost a waste to tune the guitar like that, like it’s not enough difference to my regular guitars. Below B and things start to turn to mush pretty quickly. B flat works okay, but in A I notice that chords no longer sound good, it is simply too low for the overtones to mesh properly. I have yet to find an issue with the longer scale length. I find myself overbending on the unwound strings, like I would have been better served with .015 strings, but that might be a psychological thing. Maybe I expect it to be tougher to play than it really is. I have no problem whatsoever with the scale length. It fits my big hands perfectly. If anything, it is better to practice on the baritone, since it’s a little bit like running with weighted shoes. In some ways, I find it suits me better than a regular guitar, since my right hand can get pretty violent when playing heavy muted rhythm with distortion, and the heavier strings can take the punishment no sweat. All in all, I’m extremely satisfied with my purchase, it has been a little bit of a revelation, and I have now developed a serious appetite for PRS:es. I always imagined my next guitar would be a shred-type axe, like a Jackson with 24 frets and a Floyd Rose. Now, I’m definitely leaning towards a PRS SE Custom 24!

 
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Posted by on 21 October, 2017 in gear, review

 

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MXR Carbon Copy, continued

I purchased the MXR Carbon Copy in August, 2013. Regretfully, I have not had as much use for it as I would have wished. I’ve recorded two albums since buying the thing and it has gone completely unused. Delay pedals for me have always been the kind of pedals that other players can get great sounds out of, but whenever I try to use one, I just can’t dial it in. Either I don’t hear the effect at all, or the sound is completely washed out in delay repeats, no apparent middle ground. Just like multi-effects units, they are fun to play around with at music shows, in the store or when goofing off at home, but creative use for them is another kettle of fish. After several tries to get the Carbon Copy to work into the amp (i.e. before distortion), I have come to the conclusion that delay before distortion just doesn’t work for me at all, so maybe I’m not a delay person. The most use I’ve had with it is to set the feedback above noon and hit it until it self-oscillates, and then turn the delay time down for some hippy-trippy shit. Fun, yes. Creative, not especially.

Until now. In a recent post, I made a big shout-out to the guys at That Pedal Show on YouTube, and also referred to their take on the Carbon Copy. I was able to apply most of which the show has taught me on that very pedal. The first thing I did was to pop the back off the thing, pull out a screwdriver and switch on the modulation function. Then, I played, and I listened, and I tweaked, and I played some more, lather, rinse and repeat, et cetera, until I happened upon a level of modulation that actually sounded musical and usable. This, in combination with the fact that I’ve given up on distortion and delay (at least until further purchases eliminate the need for long cable runs), has given the pedal a second wind. Nay, a renaissance! Actually, the train of thought started with the pedal I bought at the same time as the Carbon Copy, namely the TC Electronic Shaker Vibrato. I bought a vibrato specifically so I wouldn’t have to buy a chorus. Then a year later or so, I bought a flanger in order to avoid getting that chorus. Last year, I finally gave in and bought the chorus (my fourth one, following a Boss CE-2 and two (!) CH-1:s!). But it still wasn’t happening! Thus, enter modulated delay. The analog nature of the Carbon Copy is what makes it work so well with the modulation. The repeats are gradually softened until there is only a wishy-washy veil of sound trailing behind my playing. It doesn’t drench my tone in chorus, it doesn’t smooth over my dynamics the way many chorus pedals do, but it attaches a dreamy edge to clean passages. It’s been a very long time since an effects pedal has inspired me to just sit around and play and play and play! In the space of just a few days, it went from “damn, why the hell did I buy that thing” to “I can’t live without it!” I’m very much looking forward to laying down clean guitar on the upcoming Namlar album with it.

 
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Posted by on 20 October, 2017 in gear, review

 

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Welcome to That Pedal Show

There is a lot of great content on YouTube. I can easily spend an entire lunch break watching various people demonstrate, review, analyze and abuse guitar gear. At home, I tend to consciously avoid the Tube, simply because once I start down that path, I don’t let go until it’s way past my bedtime. That Pedal Show is the most interesting discovery I’ve made on the site in recent years. I can’t remember how I stumbled upon them, probably a Google search about something pedal-oriented that led to one of their clips, most likely the one about Uni-Vibe “before or after distortion”. Anyway, I was instantly hooked by the excellent guitar playing of Dan and Mick, the wonderful tones they are able to coax out of just about any combination of guitar, pedal and amp, and their humor and on-screen chemistry. There are many great guitar players out there, but not everyone can combine that with TPS’s warm, informal conversational style and encyclopedic knowledge of all things Pedal. Some play well but the talk is very stilted and scripted, still others also play well, but try so hard to be funny they just wind up looking pathetic. What I find so great with TPS is how much I get out of the show and on so many levels. On one level it’s two great guitar players. On another, it’s good entertainment. But above all, it is massively educational. Guitar technology is one of those areas where the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know anything about it. I’ve learned a ton since I started watching TPS, and every time, it inspires me to pick up my guitar the minute I come home from work.

More to the point, Those Pedal Guys have made me think of my own effects collection in a whole new way. For gearheads like us guitar players, there is a surprisingly big need to feel validated. I suppose it is an essential part of marketing to associate a big name with a product to drive sales, and that is especially true in the guitar world with its plethora of signature equipment. And when you do invest your hard-earned money into something, you want others to feel the same way you do about it, alleviate any buyer’s remorse or simply compliment your good taste. You don’t want to hear that your new delay pedal is a tone-sucker, on the contrary you want Mr. Star Player #1 to endorse it, like it suddenly sounds no good unless a name player has affixed his seal of approval. I’m no different. I like the fact that TPS seems to rate the MXR Carbon Copy highly, since that’s my delay pedal of choice. But I am aware of this shortcoming of mine and try to work around it. With that in mind, it was even more instructive to hear all the other delay pedals with the same guitars and amps, recorded using the same mics and pre’s during the same session. Then I could actually make up my own mind about what I heard. I don’t know how much of the verdict is due to confirmation bias, but I really did think that the Carbon Copy was the best of the bunch. Although the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man came a close second!

One of the deeper truths that TPS has made me realize is that no pedal has its own sound. It all depends on what sort of guitar you put into it, and what sort of amp everything comes out of. This is perhaps less important with modulation and delay pedals, but essential for drives and boosts. Damn, there is going to be a lot to think about the next time I buy an amp or a dirt pedal! But on a less profound level, I’ve learned a whole bunch about how to test pedals and what to listen for. You would not believe the level of ignorance I’ve been on, so I’ll go right ahead and tell all. When I was a kid, I used to set all knobs on 10 and switch the pedal on. If it made a wild effect, it was a good pedal, if it was more subtle or even inaudible to my non-discerning ears, I didn’t like it. Thankfully, I’ve picked up a thing or two since then. But I am not known for my patience with tone-sculpting. I plug in and play, and decide immediately whether I like something or not. I generally do not sit down and tweak and test and tweak again. TPS has shown me that you do need to force yourself to be patient. Make small adjustments, and more often than not, even the tiniest nudge of a knob can make an audible difference. That’s how I learned to dial in my compressor, and that’s how I learned how to play with delay. (More on that in reviews to come, by the way.)

What I don’t like about That Pedal Show is that they’ve made me GAS something terribly for boutique amps and vintage pedals! I might not (yet) be at the level where I can tell the difference between an original Klon and Electro-Harmonix’s knockoff, at least not enough to decide that the original is worth 2500 dollars on Ebay. But when Dan dusts off his original Boss CE-1 chorus, man, that’s the sound I’m always looking for in a chorus pedal! I have been lusting for a JHS Angry Charlie basically since I started following the show, and for some reason, I’ve developed this very weird fuzz addiction. Not to mention that I’ve started to persuade myself that I need a pedal loop switcher. And I especially don’t like that Mick has a Sonic Blue Stratocaster whereas I have not.

 
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Posted by on 19 October, 2017 in review

 

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The Pedalboard, continued

I’ve only belatedly realized that setting up a pedalboard is not just a craft, it also consists of equal parts art and science. Here is a runthrough of my journey so far:

I have been on and off with pedals ever since I got into electric guitar playing in the late 80s. It seems that every cycle starts with needing a pedal, then adding a few that I want, and then some annoying stuff happens, I develop an aversion to the darned things and sell them off. Then we’re back right at the beginning. I’ve spent more time off pedals than on. This is the longest “on phase” ever, possibly due to the fact that I haven’t played a gig since April, 2013, and this pedal-buying frenzy started four months after that. It is telling that that gig was done with a clean floor, just my guitar straight into an amp. It is always logistical issues related to stage performance that bring about a decline.

However, I do think that if I were to do a gig right now, I would be just about as prepared as I ever was. It’s been a long journey lined with frustration and misguided purchases, but I’ve picked up a bit or two of wisdom along the way. First and foremost, I simply had to get a proper pedalboard, not that Rockcase piece of crap. The Pedaltrain PT-2 turned out to be just the thing for me. One of the things that sold me on Pedaltrain was not just that they seemed to make good, solid metal boards. I was also amazed by their Pedalboard Planner site. You basically load an image of one of their pedalboards, on top of which you can add small JPG images of pedals (obviously to scale) and slide them around until you have the arrangement you want. Before I was aware of the brand or the site, I arranged all my pedals on our dining room table, attached the cables properly and measured the collective footprint. It turned out that my pedals would fit the PT-1 rather handily, and then I stepped up one size just to have some room to grow, and verified the entire deal as far as I could using Pedalboard Planner. The drawback with the Planner is that you have to take patch cables into account, which is harder than it sounds. Those pesky plugs are always thicker than you’d imagine! And the patch cables themselves are never long enough, or they’re too long.

When I finally got everything mounted, connected and powered and started using the board, it turned out to be just about the opposite of the Rockcase. Because of the open construction, you can mount pedals right up to the edges, and thanks to the metal build, you basically have to have an elephant stomp on your wah to make the board sag like the Rockcase did. I like that it’s angled, mostly because it’s more ergonomical, but also because that provides space underneath for your power supply. Which brings me onto the next part in my Pedalboard Journey:

I would never have bought a power supply unit like the Cioks Big John unless it was absolutely dealbreakingly necessary. It’s no fun at all to buy guitar stuff that doesn’t have buttons or LED:s and doesn’t make a sound of its own. However, without a proper power supply, none of the blinky lights will come on, so you have to have one. The Big John came highly recommended, but I didn’t know what to expect from it and I didn’t know how to evaluate it once I plugged it in. It’s a power supply, it supplies power, what more can you ask of it? One big advantage was that I was able to get away from that big, bulky Boss wall wart which always seemed to rattle loose from the socket when I least wanted it. The Big John is a box, with an AC cable with a sleek little plug, and seven outlets for 9V DC power. It worked well enough when I had a tuner, a noise gate and perhaps an overdrive. It was only when I started mounting it on pedalboards that I realized that it just didn’t work for me. No matter how I did, either the AC cable or the DC outlets were at the wrong end of the thing, and when I got the PT-2, there was no obvious way to mount the Big John underneath it. I will come clean straight away: I am not a tinkerer. I want things to work out of the box, and if they don’t, I will not use them, and in good time I will get rid of them. A more handy person would probably have seen all this as a challenge to be overcome, not an insurmountable obstacle like I did. I sacrificed a pedal to make room for the Big John on top of the board until I could get around to buying the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus, which fit the brackets that were included with the PT-2.

By that time I had realized another thing. A pedalboard is big, rather unwieldy and surprisingly heavy once you have 8-9 pedals and a power supply in place along with all the associated cables. The novelty of it quickly wore off, which is quite frankly not surprising given the fact that I’ve actually spent a bigger part of my playing career off pedals than on them. Whenever we had a combined songwriting/jamming/recording session, I found myself carrying a gig bag, a big pedalboard, a laptop case as well as a fourth bag with my sound card, microphones and studio paraphernalia. Something had to go, and to lose the pedalboard was the natural solution for someone like me. But I had got used to having the pedals around, I liked coloring clean passages with phaser or vibrato, or boosting my lead tone with the TC Electronic Spark. Then it hit me that I could set up a smaller travel board, so that’s how I came to buy the Pedaltrain Nano+. This is a straight, i.e. non-angled, board. It has (just about) room for five of my MXR- or TC pedals as well as the Ibanez Mini Tube Screamer, but I wouldn’t want to gig it like that. I’d likely keep the overdrive and ditch either the phaser or the Uni-Vibe. I haven’t tried it with Boss pedals since I no longer own any, but you could quite likely put four on there, maybe five if you have thin enough plugs. Just to be sure, I bought four EBS flat patch cables, which turned out to be really great. To solve the power issue, I decided to try Pedaltrain’s own Volto. The Volto is a rechargeable litium-ion 2000 mAh power supply that powers up to six 9-volt center-negative pedals with the attached power cords. It is specifically designed to be mounted underneath Pedaltrain’s mini boards, and is a snug but perfect fit under my Nano+. You charge it for a few hours and then you have enough juice to power your pedals at least for a gig, maybe more, although I would probably make sure that I charged the thing right up until lights out. I think it’s a fabulous little contraption, it eliminates a cable and it charges using a USB cable either into a computer or the supplied wall wart. It is basically a smartphone battery, or more properly a powerbank, but adapted for guitar pedals. Li-ion batteries have a finite lifespan and only last so many charging cycles, but I figure that by the time this one gives up the ghost, I will have moved on to another solution, or perhaps entered another one of my no-pedal phases!

Now that I finally have a workable pedalboard, I find that there is nothing constant about it save for a select few must-have effects. I once had a starry-eyed idealistic notion that with eight pedals (nine with the Dunlop volume pedal, which is passive and doesn’t count towards my energy budget), I would be able to do anything that might occur to me. But I was cured of that when I realized that I cannot go from 60s covers via modern covers to progressive rock to thrash metal with just eight pedals. Maybe if I daisy-chained both my boards!

 
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Posted by on 18 October, 2017 in editorial, gear

 

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