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Gear Acquisition Syndrome

I have put all musical purchases on hold pending a proper review of what’s going on in my brain. I have a theory: the ongoing pandemic is triggering the need for retail therapy that aggravates my natural gear acquisition syndrome. The other month, I almost bought a Line6 Helix Stomp multi-effect, since I felt that I could use a more inspirational lead tone when recording at home. The week after that, I almost closed the deal on an MXR Carbon Copy Mini delay pedal, just because I miss having mine around at home. Both times, something gave me cold feet at the last moment. In the case of the Helix, I instead decided to devote a couple of free hours during the weekend to see if maybe there was some way to utilize a combination of my existing home amps and boost pedals to give me the tones I wanted. It turns out there was, when I set my mind to it. The Carbon Copy thing turned out to be a complete non-issue. The pedal weighs a few hundred grams. After rehearsal, there are two cables to undo and I can toss it into the front pocket of my gigbag and go. Since I first tried that a month ago or so, I have used the pedal exactly once at home.

Even without the COVID-19 stuff, there’s plenty of confusion to go around. I am not used to being this satisfied with my sound and my gear. For 30-odd years, there’s always been something to covet, it’s like my neural pathways have been permanently set in such a fashion that I’m still lusting after stuff even though I am perfectly satisfied when I put my mind to it. All of a sudden, there are no more deficiencies, and therefore my mind seems to be making them up!

One of the biggest steps towards peace of mind in the gear department has actually been deleting my in-case-of-lottery-win wish list. Dreaming is good, ambition is nice, but I could never truly get past the feeling that the said list was more of a distraction than an inspiration. It was like this constant subliminal message that my current guitars and amps weren’t good enough. And sure enough, after getting rid of it, I find myself considerably less disappointed every week when I don’t win the lottery.

I’ve also completely redone the more realistic section of my wish list: the stuff I’m actually planning to get. It took a lot of time and effort to get there, and it involved questioning precisely everything. What a forceful factor habit can be! My most recent gig was in 2013, my latest session in 2014, but I found myself still fussing over which small tube amp, 5 watts or thereabouts, to get for such occasions. Out of sheer habit!

Getting to this point has required being completely honest with myself about what I actually do musically. Only then can I determine whether the stuff I own will be able to do the job properly. So what do I do? I play hard rock and metal with certain psychedelic and progressive overtones, in two different power trios. We have a rehearsal space for jamming, we don’t do gigs (yet!) and I tend to record all stuff using my digital stuff at home. So let’s do a rig rundown and check for any weak spots:

On the amplification side, I have never been happier. I have had my Blackstar Studio 20 head (from the original HT Venue series, the “Mark I” if you will) for over nine years now, and it continues to inspire and amaze me. There have absolutely been days when I’ve thought that it sounds like absolute shit. On such occasions, I have still been able to convince myself that I do this so seldom that getting a “proper” amp would be overkill, plain and simple. Now that I do use it frequently, its off days are few and far between. I used to spend quite a lot of time checking new stuff out. It used to be a mixed pleasure. For so many years, it was depressingly likely that whatever I plugged into, it would sound way better than what I had. Recently, it’s been a lot more of the exact opposite, and that is taking some time to get used to. I find myself checking out fine amps from reputable brands and becoming increasingly disappointed and disillusioned by the process. I can definitely find stuff that I like. It’s just that it is not that much better that I feel it’s worth it. That I linger on the issue and can’t seem to let it go is probably more my GAS talking. It’s like something in the back of mind is telling me that now that I’ve had this thing for almost a decade, maybe it’s time for an upgrade, just because I deserve it. But my conscious self cannot see the logic of it. How much better can it reasonably become? I prefer to think that it’s just my GAS pushing buttons within me so that I can satisfy whatever part of me demands constant consumption.

At home, there’s been considerably more turnover in my amp collection, mainly because amp simulation technology has improved in leaps and bounds during the same period of time. My current two home amps achieve what I want. The only issue I have is that the minimalist in me is annoyed that I can’t get everything out of just one of them.

On the guitar side of things, it’s pretty much the same thing. I have never owned this many guitars, but more importantly, for the first time ever, I am one hundred per cent satisfied with all of them. And where it fails to reach that 100, it’s something that is easily fixable with some spare parts, a setup job, etc. That’s what you’ll find on my current guitar wish list: set up the PRS baritone, new pickup rings for the black Les Paul, noiseless pickups for the blue Stratocaster. Everything else has been put on the backburner. There is not a single guitar in my collection that makes me think, “no, I don’t like playing that one”. I don’t want to go so far as to say that I don’t have the time to play all of them, because I go out of my way to make sure that I do just that. I do, however, admit that I don’t spend enough time with my acoustics, and that is a shame. On the other hand, it validates my decision to not go for broke and get something US-built, and it serves as a healthy reminder that a more expensive steel-string needs to stay off my to-buy list. The Taylor 214 was about ten times as nice as my old one, and it hasn’t made me want to play it ten times as often as I did on the old one. A 317 or an 810 will likely not increase that playing time.

Guitars and amps are almost never the issue when I question my musical purchasing decisions. The last time I sold an amp was in 2011, the last time I got rid of a guitar was two years after that. I tend to buy the stuff I need or at least want and then hold onto it. That’s mostly because guitars and amps are significant outlays. I don’t buy a new guitar on a whim; that decision is preceded by a whole lot of deliberation. With effects pedals, it’s quite a different matter. Pedals satisfy a lot of my GAS-related urges, yet they’re usually inexpensive enough that I don’t have to think too much before buying them. That way, I end up getting a whole bunch of them and then selling them off en masse a couple of years later. So when I found myself GAS-ing over a whole bunch of expensive pedals, it was time to go through my rig and be honest: do I have the best pedal in every possible category, and what do I actually need?

I keep eight pedals on my board since I can: there is ample space on the Pedaltrain PT-2 and my Voodoo Labs Pedal Power 2+ has eight 9-volt outlets. Some time in March or so, I started paying more attention to which ones I was actually using. It turns out that there is a core trio of pedals that sees about 95 per cent of the action. The MXR Carbon Copy takes care of all my modulation needs, with the Phase 90 as a vintage-flavored alternative, and the Boss SD-1 has turned out to be the missing ingredient for my lead tone. (It’s really a quartet, since there’s the TC Polytune 3 as well, but that’s a utility pedal that doesn’t really count.) I cannot imagine pedals that sound better for what I do than these three. There is nothing I would change, other than that it’s a pity that the Phase 95 doesn’t come in a bigger enclosure, since I do like the flexibility. As for the other four, I find it hard to nail down a consistent configuration. It feels like I’m constantly swapping them around. I’m not using the Uni-Vibe as much as I think, or as I wanted to when I bought it. Nor am I much for using chorus or flanger.  There is one pedal that I find myself missing when I don’t have it around, but remove immediately after putting it on the board, and that is the TC Vibraclone. I guess that the older I get, the more I want to go back to the classic guitar tones. And the Vibraclone, while good, especially for the money, just doesn’t do what I want. It colors my sound in a way that I’m not too keen on and I find myself missing the means to change the rotary speed using a footswitch.

This tells me several things. I could very likely reduce my rig to the five pedals that fit onto my small board, the Nano+, and not miss a thing ever. I should shelve all plans to test choruses, flangers, the Boss DC-2w or whatever, and instead concentrate everything on saving up for the Neo Instruments Micro Vent 122. It’s the only Leslie simulator I’ve heard that comes close to the real thing. I am not particularly pleased that this entire train of thought, all the talk about not buying more stuff, has led me to the conclusion that there is something that I need to get. But I find this a process that is a lot more palatable: thinking things through instead of just buying shit on impulse to satisfy some urge.

 
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Posted by on 12 June, 2020 in editorial, gear

 

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Editorial: The Pedalboard

In other news: my Pedaltrain 2 has arrived, along with my new Dunlop DVP-1 volume pedal. So, the pieces of my pedalboard are lying around. All that remains is to put it all together into a configuration. Other than the Pedaltrain and the power supply, the components are, in no particular order:

  • Korg DT-10 tuner
  • TC Electronic Spark Booster
  • MXR Phase 90 (block logo)
  • Dunlop Crybaby wah (limited edition white painted)
  • Dunlop DVP-1 volume pedal
  • TC Electronic Shaker Vibrato
  • MXR Carbon Copy analog delay

The vibrato and delay will go into the effects loop of the amp, the other five before the input. Cable cornucopia! The tuner will likely be connected to the tuner out of the volume pedal, unless I prefer the sound of its buffered input. More than that, I haven’t really figured out exactly in which order to put the pedals. The one thing I know is that I want to keep the phaser before the amp input, because I’ve yet to hear a phaser that sounds good after distortion. (Edit 16 March: accidentally wrote BEFORE distortion. Oops!) The vibrato does sound pretty cool before distortion, but the delay sure as hell doesn’t. Keep the regeneration and mix above 9 o’clock and it immediately turns to mush.

One thing that strikes me is that this pedalboard is not that different from what Hendrix would have used. That is entirely intentional. Listen back to those albums from 1967 and onwards, how the great players experimented with tones. Other than the really saturated modern metal tone, all the basic rock tones were already discovered before 1972. Before flangers, before choruses. In those days, there were Leslies, wahs and phasers, which are effects that simply feel more organic to me. Believe me, I have an incredible itch for a proper fuzz and a Uni-Vibe!

 
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Posted by on 15 March, 2014 in editorial, gear

 

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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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The Tale of the Lunchbox

We guitar players are living in exciting times. I am talking about the lunchbox amplifier: a small form factor head that packs a full set of tubes (or valves) and is rated between 1 and 20 watts.

For not much money, you can get a tube amplifier that you can crank to your heart’s content and both your eardrums and your rental contract will be intact afterwards. Moreover, you don’t have to break your back to bring one onto a small stage, and when it gets there, it doesn’t completely obliterate the rest of the band.

It started with the smaller, upstart companies, and now, five, six years down the line, even the high-wattage giants Marshall and Mesa/Boogie have jumped on the bandwagon and issued lunchboxes of their own.

I think this is a wonderful development. Tube amplification has all of a sudden become a realistic option for us home recording people who happen to live in apartments. As well as for amateur musicians who take to stages that are no more than dimly lit corners of restaurants. Even though the sound quality of solid-state equipment has been steadily improving in the past 20 years, there is just something about tubes that we don’t want to abandon.

This is all well, but it does beg one question. Did it take that many years for the industry to realize just how overpowered a 50 or 100 watt stack really is? Or has it been a form of confirmation bias: amp manufacturers have only ever offered 50 and 100 watts, thus people have not been able to buy anything else, confirming back to the manufacturer the correctness of their offerings?

 
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Posted by on 17 March, 2013 in editorial, gear

 

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