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Tuners

In retrospect, I find it absolutely fascinating that I managed to play the guitar for 14 years before I bought my first electronic tuner. How the hell did I do it? Well, for starters, most of the time I played by myself, so absolute pitch was definitely secondary to relative pitch. It was only when I started playing in bands that it came to close to being an issue. And even then, most of the time someone would hit the open E string and everyone else would tune from that. For more precision, I used reference tones. So long as we tuned to standard pitch, the dial tone on your average phone was a perfect reference: 440 Hz, or middle A. When we dropped down to D, I would either tune my B string to the phone, or put on Hangar 18 by Megadeth, which has a long intro, all on a D pedal tone. Then I would tune all the other strings after the top string and when I got to the rehearsal space, the other guys would tune after me. I didn’t get a tuner until I started Nox in 1999. I can’t even remember which make it was, but it was black and it didn’t like our E flat tuning, so back to the shop it went after the first rehearsal. Instead I got what I considered to be the gold standard, namely the Boss TU-12H. The Boss was not a bad tuner. It was accurate enough, and it worked with both electrics and acoustics. The problem was that whenever you plugged in an electric, the mike was invariably left on, so that it basically had to be all quiet in the room, or the darned thing wouldn’t do its job. If only I had been aware of the Boss TU-2 pedal tuner when we first started out, it would have saved me lots of grief! But I had committed to the TU-12H, I was too cheap to get a second tuner, and I didn’t want to go through the hassle of trying to sell it during the pre-online classifieds era, so I was forced to soldier on. Improvise, adapt, overcome.

When I finally broke down and bought the Korg DT-10 pedal tuner in 2007, it was a revelation. After eight years of having to shush my fellow musicians to be able to tune up, I could just plug in, hit the switch and tune away, even though a nuclear war might be going on around me. It was such a paradigm change that I could hardly wrap my head around it. The thing with a pedal tuner is that it not only takes up real estate on your pedalboard, it also consumes one DC power outlet and n amount of milliamps of your current budget. That’s why I found a clip-on such a welcome change of pace. Pedal tuners in all honor, but they fall kind of flat when introduced to something that is referred to as an acoustic guitar. A clip-on works with any guitar or even bass. I have reviewed two different flavors of clip-on tuner: the do-too-much Joyo and the just-about-perfect Korg Pitchclip. However, I have found that I am not too fond of them in live use. There is just too much vibration going on with the bass, rhythm guitar, drums and PA system, the little things get confused, on top of which you get a fair bit of user error, since I am usually in a hurry to get set up before the next song. Especially if I want to reset from drop-D to standard-E between two songs, which isn’t exactly rare.

I can’t remember exactly when TC Electronic introduced the Polytune, but it was between five and ten years ago. First, it felt a bit like black magic. Like, how the hell can a piece of software be able to show me the tuning of six strings at once? It turns out that I am considerably less impressed with it in actual use. I happened upon the clip-on version in our rehearsal room and borrowed it for a quick tune-up, out of plain curiosity. It agreed with the Korg all right. But the Poly mode did not agree with the single-string mode! Even my ears did not agree with the Poly mode, it was audibly out of tune. So much for “Strum. Tune. Rock.” I do realize that there could be user error here as well, but I would assume that such a system would be intuitive! Truth be told, I finally went ahead and bought myself a Polytune Clip, just last year. I got a good deal for one at my music store, and lots of people had expressed satisfaction with theirs, so I thought what the heck and got one for myself. If you press and hold one of the buttons for 5 seconds, it goes into Bass mode, which disables the Polytune function and only lets you tune one string at a time, and when I do that, it is actually a damn fine tuner! It just feels more accurate than my old Korg, more solid. I like the utility of it, but if I were to find myself on a stage again, I would definitely spend the cash and sacrifice a spot on my pedalboard for a small pedal tuner.

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Posted by on 26 November, 2017 in gear, review

 

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Overdrive and boost

One of the greatest guitar tones I’ve ever achieved was my Stratocaster through my dad’s rig: a Boss OD-2 Turbo Overdrive and a late-70s Marshall 2203. My dad usually set it up for a clean tone and used the overdrive sparingly for the odd lead here and there, but whenever I had a play with it, I always maxed out the pre-amp volume. With my single-coils, it had a rock/blues sort of sound, crunchy but not overly so. When I stepped on the overdrive, I was immediately floored. I didn’t know that I could play that well! It just flowed, it was like the guitar was playing itself and I was just there to guide it along. We jammed and wrote a song on the spot! This was my first proper introduction to the concept of gain stacking. If only I had learned something from it! But then I realize that this was during a time of pedal aversion, and if I could save myself the money and the hassle, I would. It wasn’t until I bought my Fender G-DEC that I started getting into the concept of gain stacking for real. That amp had a number of different amp models, a whole bunch of modulation and ambiance effects, but most importantly, it allowed you to simulate an overdrive or boost pedal in front of the digital gain stage. I immediately found that it felt so much more natural to choose a lower-gain amp model and then add the distortion back in via an overdrive sim. It gave me a lot more fluidity and definitely more sustain.

I have always been a big fan of the Eric Clapton signature Fender Stratocaster. It has a 25 dB active mid-boost that sort of allows you to approximate the sound of humbucking pickups. I was very inspired when I first saw the Cream 2005 reunion DVD, I just couldn’t believe how many cool tones Eric was able to get out of his signature guitar straight into an overdriven tweed Fender. With the mid-boost off, he gets that nice pushed Stratocaster blues sound, and when he dials it back in, it breaks up so sweetly. I was very taken by the idea of playing with a totally clean floor, handling all the tone selection from the guitar. Many times, I have considered buying one of those mid-boost kits and installing it in my Stratocaster, but I always chicken out since I am very much not a tinkerer and I would probably only end up messing up both my guitar and the mid-boost kit. That’s when the idea hit me to find a pedal that could do the job, and the minute that occurred to me, TC Electronic released the Spark Booster. Unfortunately, by that time, I was on my way out of the cover band, and therefore I never got to use the boost pedal the way I had originally envisioned it. It was a fixture on my pedalboard for a little while, but it got phased out when I started adding more modulation pedals. I figured that with the volume levels I regularly play at in my metal band, there is simply no need for more distortion or sustain, and it’s not that I have a lot of sound to punch through. It was a lot more fun having a flanger to accentuate certain parts, or the vibrato to spice up my clean sound.

I have always liked the Ibanez Tube Screamer. I borrowed a TS10 once from a teacher at our old high school, and I enjoyed the more mainstream rock tone, which was a world apart from the scooped Marshall sound that I was used to. It worked well enough set up as a mild distortion pedal, but when I finally bought one myself, this one a TS7 Tonelok, it was mostly to get over-the-top quasi-feedback when playing through digital amp sims, as well as a solo boost here and there. It never occurred to me to have a boost or an overdrive as part and parcel of my main distorted tone, and it definitely never occurred to me to use an overdrive pedal as a boost, until very recently. This was another piece of wisdom I learned from That Pedal Show. Damn those guys, they have made me spend thousands of crowns on new pedals! Anyway, I was intrigued by the sound of the Mini Tube Screamer, and I noticed that I kept reading about metal players using Tube Screamers as boosters. Even on a Peavey 5150, which isn’t exactly a gain-poor amp to start with. Since I didn’t want to record a third Namlar disc with the exact same tone, I figured that it was time to start exploring new territories, and why not start off with some classic gain-stacking? So I went to the store and bought myself two overdrive pedals: the aforementioned Mini Tube Screamer and the Electro-Harmonix Soul Food. The latter is supposed to be an affordable clone of the legendary Klon Centaur. I’ve obviously never played through a Klon, and the Soul Food didn’t really nail the sound when TPS did their shootout, but it was close enough, had a fine sound in its own right, and was still different enough from the Tube Screamer that I felt it was worth it to give it a shot. I was amazed when I ran them through my regular recording setup. Naturally, I couldn’t put the Tube Screamer on top of my usual heavy sound, that would have been a tad too extreme. Instead, I set up a sound that eased off on the bass control, added a bit more mids and above all backed off on the gain. Then it was just a matter of twisting the knobs on the ‘Screamer until I found the “a-ha”, which turned out to reside with the tone at noon, the gain at 9 o’clock and the level at about 3. How strange that I managed to discover such an awesome metal tone by pushing the mids rather than scooping them! I am all for mini pedals. In a way, I’m kind of bummed that TC Electronic and MXR have released mini versions of my favorites, since I am sorely tempted to buy the smaller versions to save space on my big board, or to be able to fit six pedals comfortably on the small board. The only thing I don’t like about the Mini-TS is that the level and tone controls are hard to see down there. I basically have to set them by feel. The Soul Food worked similar magic: focus in the lower register, but with more pronounced upper mids for a more biting lead sound. I read somewhere that the main difference between a cheap overdrive pedal and a more expensive one is how usable the tone control is, and there appears to be a bit of truth to that. The Soul Food works best with the tone control at noon or just before; push it further and it gets unduly harsh. It does look rather cheap with its unpainted aluminium enclosure and tacked-on label, but hey: it’s a pedal. You’re supposed to step on it and get a sound out of it, not sit around and look at it. If that’s what it takes to be able to make effects pedals in the heart of New York and still sell them at non-boutique prices, I’m all for it. At first, I was a bit bummed that the knobs were a bit slick and had a bit of resistance to them, it sure takes some deliberate action to dial a sound. But upon further reflection, I realized that that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not very likely that one of the controls is going to get nudged out of position by accident!

After a couple of months with the Tube Screamer and the Soul Food, I realized that I just wasn’t using the Spark Booster any more. I’m not the sort of player who wants to have unused gear just lying around. Use it or lose it, has always been my philosophy, especially with effects pedals. But then it hit me that I could try to work the pedal to see whether I could get new sounds of it. And I did! As far back as last year, I set the Spark to its clean setting (i.e. not “fat” or “mid” boost), dialed in some grit on the Gain control and added a touch of volume. That worked wonders on my Fender silverface tone, and if you listen to Temptation from Namlar’s Winter album, you’ll hear that pedal during the main riff. There is a cleanish guitar shadowing the distorted melody guitar for a rather neat effect. Not that long ago, I discovered that using the Fat boost setting, setting the Gain between 7 and 9 o’clock, the Level at 1-ish and adding some bass really fattens up a regular British-style crunch tone. It is surprisingly versatile and I have found that under the right circumstances, it is the closest candidate to an always-on pedal in my entire rig.

And, finally, this just in: today I took delivery of a TC Electronic Mojomojo overdrive pedal. They’ve been around for years and years, and a while back, they cut the price in half, seemingly just to get rid of them. But recently, I’ve heard more and more people talk about them, and my curiosity was sufficiently aroused that I figured I would get one and try it out. If nothing else then for the fact that soon enough, a star player is going to gush over the Mojomojo and TC will raise the price from 500 to 1800 crowns. I like what I hear so far, but I’d have to give it a bit more stick time.

 
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Posted by on 25 November, 2017 in gear, review

 

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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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Marshall Code 25 – nine months later

In August of 2016, I bought the first Marshall Code 25 combo that landed in my regular music store. The initial impression was very positive. How has it held up?

The upside is that the Code 25 is a compact little amp that takes up hardly any space, and I haven’t been inspired to tweak new sounds since a handful of the built-in patches are just fantastic. I have drifted away from my original favorite patches (41 Bluesbreaker, 51 JCM 800 and 67 Silver Jubilee) in favor of 44, 52 and 68, which are basically identical except for the added reverb. Sometimes I do a bit of tweaking on the fly just for variety’s sake, mostly it’s about rolling off the bass, but sometimes I’ll add some chorus when I feel like channeling Mr. Lifeson, and whenever I use it with one of my Fenders, I add a bit more gain. Patch #44, Bluesbreaker with Reverb, with a Fender and the gain at 7 or 8, is a very inspirational sound indeed!

What I don’t like is that the speaker still appears to be underpowered, it just can’t handle the bass frequencies whenever I play with less distortion. It farts out in a very unmusical way. Hence the rolling off of the bass that I mentioned above. I can also report that I still haven’t been tempted to track anything in Reaper with the Marshall. It might edge out the Blackstar ID:30 as an out-of-the-box practice and home shredding amp, but it just can’t do the big, boomy Fender sounds that the Blackstar can, and it doesn’t sound as organic when going from the line out into my sound card. And I do get tired of that classic Marshall master volume taper: inaudible – [scratch] – LOUD AS HELL.

Having said all that, I still think I got my money’s worth and I haven’t regretted my purchase in the slightest. I would recommend this amp to anyone looking for a compact, affordable practice amp. Just don’t expect it to do it all, and if you prefer American sounds, look elsewhere.

 
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Posted by on 22 May, 2017 in gear, review

 

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Review: Marshall Code 25 combo

I grew up on Marshalls and played them off and on for the first 20 years of my career. It was only when someone forcibly plugged me into a Blackstar that I realized that there even were other brands. Previously it had always been about Marshall, and the only other option would have been Mesa/Boogie. But after this epiphany, I actually started seeing Marshall in a new and not altogether flattering light. As soon as the wool fell from my eyes, they started to appear a bit fuddy-duddy, seemingly too preoccupied with their own excellence, too absorbed by their pedigree and traditions to attempt any sort of innovation. I did try a number of new Marshall products in 2011 and 2012: the Class 5 combo, the first three 50th anniversary 1-watt amps. All of these were fine amps that put a big smile on my face. But as a control measure, I made sure to plug into some form of Blackstar immediately afterwards, and it never failed to amaze me how much more clarity and flexibility I could get out of them for a fraction of the price of the Marshall. My image of Marshall did not improve when they started releasing headphones, hi-fi amplifiers and smartphones. But when they announced the Code range of digital modelling amplifiers, developed with my countrymen from Softube, my curiosity was piqued. It got even more intense when the first sample videos started appearing on Youtube, the buzz got going, and to me, the most important indicator was that the Code amps were impossible to get a hold of for months. I asked my regular music store if they could get one for me and they agreed. This was in April, and the amp arrived in August. During those four months, I went from “I can’t wait to try this amp” to “I gotta have it NOW” on the strength of one glowing review after another. I tried very hard to not want the Code 25. After all, I have been extremely satisfied with my Blackstar ID:30 for three years, and if it ain’t broke, etc. But then it hit me that I didn’t really need the ID:30 either, since between 2010 and 2013 I was perfectly happy with my Fender G-DEC 3 Fifteen. I suddenly recalled what some guy in the store said to me years ago about the second-hand value of digital amps: they’re like computers in that a new model comes out and then you can’t even sell the old one for coffee money. During the long wait for the Code 25, and the constant debate about whether or not to actually buy it, I realized that three years is a long time in this digital era. Last year I bought a fairly recent digital camera and was floored by the technological improvements made since my old model was released in 2005. The Blackstar was a significant improvement over the Fender. So the Marshall should run rings around the Blackstar. Right? Well, let’s have a look:

First of all, a few words in general about the Code range: three combos: 25, 50 and 100 watts, and a 100-watt head. The 25-watt combo has a 10-inch speaker, the 50-watt a 12-inch speaker and the 100-watt combo two 12-inch speakers. All amps have the same software and the same controls, the only difference between them is that the Code 25 has a smaller LCD. I like this setup because if there’s one thing that bothers me with the Blackstar ID:30, it’s the lack of a midrange control. One thing that definitely sold me on the Code range was the aggressive pricing. The Code 25 is almost half the price of the ID:30 when I expected the reverse to be true. Diving into the actual digital contents, you select between a full range of Marshall preamps, and what I can only imagine are simulations of Fender, Vox and Mesa. There are four different power-tube selections and a number of speaker simulations, everything from a 1 x 12 to a full 4 x 12. If you have a smartphone, you can download the Marshall Gateway app and have full control over the amp via Bluetooth, which is kind of nifty. Another great selling point, something I missed sorely from the Fender G-DEC 3, was the ability to insert effects before the preamp. For some reason, I prefer dialing back the gain a little for my lead tone and boosting it back up with a clean boost or overdrive pedal, and I like having a bit of compression on my clean tone before it hits virtual tape. This Marshall lets me do both without having to plug in my pedalboard! The effects block consists of the usual fare: chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo, delays, reverbs, a pretty cheesy pitch-shifter. About the only real surprise is the Uni-Vibe setting on the phaser, which is actually pretty good! I’m not going to go on and on about the effects, because 1) I haven’t spent that much time figuring them out, possibly related to the fact that 2) I didn’t buy this amp for the effects but for the British overdrive tones.

There are quite a few sweet sounds among the 100 factory presets. I am not wild about factory presets in general, since they tend to be a bit exaggerated, which is understandable, since the manufacturer obviously wants to show off the entire range of the product and they can’t predict the whims of every user. But there are a few zingers in the list. Six weeks after buying the amp, I have actually yet to get around to fine-tuning the thing, because some of these sounds are so damn good. I find myself scrolling between three sounds in particular: nos. 41, 51 and 67, or, a Bluesbreaker sim, a JCM800 sim and a Silver Jubilee sim. No 13 is positively shredtastic: a JCM800 with an overdrive in front and everything on 10! It is quite likely a bit too over the top for recording, but for practicing and general couch shredding it is not far from a dream tone. About the only Marshall tone that doesn’t work is the DSL sim. I have simply no idea what they were thinking when they dialed that one in. And the American sounds are not convincing at all; my Blackstar does one hell of a better job with the blackface Twin sound. Someone commented that the Code series is a good way to try out different Marshall amps and combinations with tubes and cabs to see what works for you. I don’t know about that. Of course I’d like that to be true, but I couldn’t tell, since I simply don’t have enough stick time with any of the models that the Code is supposed to simulate. All I know is that the JCM800 model comes pretty damn close to the proverbial good British metal tone. One thing with the Code 25 that manages to be heartwarmingly charming and amazingly annoying at the same time is the master volume knob, which works just like an old tube Marshall: either too soft or too loud. The one thing that I absolutely do not like with the Code 25 is the speaker. I don’t know if this particular speaker is bad, or if there’s just something about 10-inch speakers, but it farts out if you look at it funny. Single notes can work fine, but chords and dyads on the bass strings and the thing just makes weird noises. Thankfully, the direct signal from the headphone socket sounds fine, and that was the main point behind getting the amp anyway. This is not something I intend to mike up or put behind me on a stage.

The Marshall Code 25 is not going to supplant my Blackstar ID:30, but it complements it very well, and it has given Marshall a bit of a comeback from my perspective. I might very well write a second review when I’ve logged some more hours on it, especially in the studio.

 
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Posted by on 2 October, 2016 in gear, review

 

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