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Mini Pedals

My two pedalboards have worked perfectly for the three, four, five years that I’ve owned them. But I realize that only recently have I had the opportunity to test them under realistic circumstances. One thing that has become clear since I started jamming with my new band is that studio and live are two different applications that place very different demands on the equipment. I have been extremely intrigued by the mini pedals that have started coming out in the past few years. The Xotic SL Drive blew me away when I first heard it, and a few years later, I couldn’t resist buying the Tube Screamer Mini. Soon after that, I added the MXR Phase 95, and just the other day, I bought a Korg Pitchblack Mini pedal tuner. When TC Electronic brought out their mini Toneprint pedals, I immediately got the idea to trade in my regular-size TC pedals for their baby brothers and sisters. How fortunate I am, that such a wild scheme never became reality!

I enjoy the mini pedals. The Phase 95 is great and I will probably write it up any year now. The Tube Screamer Mini sounds awesome, especially when I use it as a boost for a distorted sound. The tuner works perfectly, I am seriously considering a TC Electronic Flashback Mini, and so on. It’s just that I wouldn’t want to bring any of these pedals to a rehearsal, let alone onto a proper stage! The small form-factor brings its particular set of advantages and drawbacks to the table. Of course, you can fit more pedals onto your board. But they’re going to be squeezed together a lot closer, meaning that it’s going to require a lot more precision when you step on them, something that you can’t always count on in the heat of the moment. The first time I stepped on the Phase 95 during our first jam session, I accidentally nudged the Rate knob from half past nine to half past eleven, just because the knob is too darn close to the footswitch! So you have to spread the baby pedals out on the board, which kind of defeats the purpose. I can see them working in concert with a loop-switching system, which is anyway a road that I’m not going to be taking any time soon. Then there is the stability issue. Most of these micro pedals are taller than they are wide, which puts the center of gravity pretty close to where the action happens. I’ve felt them wobble underneath even light foot pressure, even though they are always secured with Velcro. The new tuner won’t even sit flat against the board, it doesn’t have enough mass to allow gravity to perform its natural work. I don’t even want to know what happens when I start moving around on a stage and the cable starts pulling on the pedal. One solution is to get better Velcro, but I don’t want to rip it all off my Pedaltrains and start afresh. Therefore, I have decided that the best solution is to get a bigger tuner to put on my big board, and let the baby tuner live on my mini board, which has kind of become my home and studio board. 

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Posted by on 8 April, 2019 in editorial, gear

 

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New and Old Gear

My new, unnamed rock band has led to a complete reevaluation of my gear requirements. Around Christmas, I fired up my 20-watt Blackstar head for the first time in six or seven months, and I didn’t like what I heard one little bit. It felt underpowered and sounded brittle and cheap. For a while there, it felt like a 50- or 100-watt tube head was at the top of my to-buy list. Then we started rehearsing once or twice a week, and it seemed like the little fellow shook off the cobwebs or something, because it just sounded better and better the more I played on it. Again, the HT-20 has just come through and defied all my expectations! It is just powerful enough, and it has the sweetest tone! To provide a contrast to Namlar, I have dialed in a woodier, British-type sound with lots of mids and just a touch of bottom end, and if I keep the gain at about 3.5-4, I get a wonderfully dynamic sound where I don’t have to dig in to get full crunch tone, but if I back off, it cleans up very nicely.

My pedalboard has gone through a massive metamorphosis during the past two months. I’ll come clean and admit that I got bitten by the pedal bug (again!) around 2013, and after that, the lack of a clear musical direction made me want to buy all sorts of different pedals, as if I wanted to be ready for anything. Well, now that we’re here, it turns out that I will find no use whatsoever for my fuzz pedals, I still haven’t truly figured out how (or even why) to play with a wah-wah, et cetera. To the consternation of my bass player and drummer, I have been testing various configurations, one rehearsal different from the next, until I have (seemingly) arrived at a suitable configuration. Currently, it is tuner, phaser, boost, tremolo, Uni-Vibe, chorus, flanger and modulated analog delay. I will let the compressor, reverb, vibrato, Vibraclone, Tube Screamer, DS-1 and the Phase 95 live on the small board I keep at home. The TC Electronic Eyemaster is going into strategic reserve, ready to be pulled out for… special occasions.

So far, I’ve brought five of my six electric guitars to our jam sessions: both Fenders and all three Gibsons, but not the PRS baritone. I have used the SG as my main rehearsal guitar since the store tech worked wonders with it back in 2016, so it was a nice diversion to use something else for once. It is so evident that whenever I plug in the black Les Paul, everything just clicks. I enjoy the lightness and attitude of the SG, but the tone and sustain of the Les Paul are simply unbeatable! What surprised me was that the best sound actually came out of my Telecaster. This is not surprising, since it has the nicest unplugged tone of all my electrics, but I didn’t hear it as clearly during the rehearsal as I did on the tapes. There is an attack to it that I suppose comes from the combination of the crisp high end and the single-coil pickups. I will probably soldier on with the two black Gibsons (with humbuckers), but I am definitely going to give P-90:s a second chance, and the Telecaster will wind up in the rehearsal room again. To be quite honest, each of the guitars that I have tested has brought something new to the table, each has managed to unlock something special and different in my playing, and none of them has made me say never again.

 
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Posted by on 7 April, 2019 in editorial, gear

 

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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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Review: MXR Uni-Vibe

The MXR Uni-Vibe is, as far as I know, the third generation of the legendary rotary effect. The original, made by Shin-ei and immortalized by Jimi Hendrix on “Machine Gun” and David Gilmour on “Breathe”, was a big honking unit, typewriter-sized and with a separate expression pedal to control the speed. The later Dunlop reissue was in a boutique-style chassis with regular stompbox controls and two footswitches: on/off and chorus/vibrato (“chorus” mixes the clean signal in with the effected signal, “vibrato” is effect only). This third generation packs all of that into a standard MXR mini enclosure with three knobs, an on/off footswitch and a small VIBE pushbutton. It is pedalboard-friendly and built to the usual MXR standards, i.e. like a Sherman tank.

In a sense, I’m a little bit bummed that I bought this only after getting the TC Shaker and the MXR Phase 90 and Micro Flanger. It is not really a phaser, not really a vibrato and not really a chorus (and definitely not a flanger), but a little of everything. The most important thing is that it totally nails the classic Uni-Vibe tone. Maybe not waveform for waveform, but close enough that I can put a Stratocaster through my Blackstar and pretend I’m Jimi or Dave for a moment and wear a huge smile on my face. It might be a bit of an exaggeration to claim that it will replace anything on my pedalboard, but it is a very nice addition to my arsenal, especially for late-60s/early-70s covers or a general psychedelic vibe. (Nothing can make me give up my Phase 90!)

I am not particularly bothered by the fact that you have to reach down to set the speed, or switch between the two effects manually. As I’ve already mentioned, I have several coloration pedals, so if a song really needs two different effects, I could probably make do with the flanger or the vibrato. If anything, the vibrato setting is a tad subtle, it needs some speed to really make itself heard. And the level control doesn’t work the way a level control usually does on a pedal of this kind: it raises the general output of the pedal. Handy if you’re looking for a bit of boost to your Fender sound, but use with care if you want to balance clean and effected sound.

 
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Posted by on 4 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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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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Review: Mad Professor Ruby Red Booster

I have been shopping for a boost pedal for quite some time, and found the TC Electronic Spark Booster to be a worthy candidate. But if there is anything that experience has taught me, it’s not to zero in on any particular brand, but to check out as many options as you can and pick the best one. Therefore, I set up an A/B test with the Spark Booster, the new MXR Micro Amp+, two boutique pedals whose names I cannot even recall (just about the impression that they made, by the way) and last but not least the subject of this review: the Mad Professor Ruby Red Booster.

“Ruby” is a combination of a clean booster, overdrive and treble booster. There is a whopping 40 dB of boost in this unit. That is a lot! It can easily drive just about any amp into crunch. On the clean channel of the Blackstar, it produced some serious grit and compression (not to mention a big, big smile), and when switching to the crunch channel, keeping the gain control at about 9 o’clock for my signature rock sound, the booster kicked the overtones and sustain into the stratosphere. Even bigger smile! It has an amazing warmth and attitude, which is perhaps hardly surprising given its all-analog nature.

What I didn’t particularly like was the treble booster. It doesn’t provide a proper treble boost as I’m used to hearing it, instead producing a notched sound not dissimilar to a wah pedal that’s been pressed down a bit. It is a cool tone if you don’t have a wah pedal and want some form of coloration effect for the odd part here and there. It is not what I would want for every solo, let alone in an always-on pedal. Use with care!

The final verdict is quite likely a surprising conclusion: the Ruby Red Booster was the best pure booster pedal, but I wound up buying the TC Electronic Spark Booster instead. The analog Ruby trounced the digital Spark on sound, but not by much, definitely not enough to compensate for the greater general flexibility of the Spark. Another factor that was never far from my mind when weighing the options was the price. I have yet to find a boutique pedal that has been worth the premium, and the Ruby Red Booster is no exception. Maybe if I abused my pedals on stage every week I would spring for the more expensive option, but at this stage, I have to concede that for once, good enough actually is good enough.

 
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Posted by on 24 February, 2014 in gear, review

 

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Review: MXR “Carbon Copy” analog delay

The MXR Carbon Copy is an analog delay pedal with up to 600 milliseconds of delay time and a selectable modulation feature. The pedal comes in MXR’s usual small form-factor, World War III-ready chassis, has three dials, a button and the obvious footswitch. There is no tap tempo feature whatsoever, but if you open up the back of the thing, there are two screws for adjusting the depth and width of the modulation.

It is not often that I try a pedal and just go, “wow”. But I did this time. This pedal just shines when you use it the way I’m forced to: before an amplifier, before distortion. (Well, I do have an effects loop, but that’s another story for another time). The TC Electronic Flashback sounded very nice, but I could never get it to balance clean and distorted sounds; I would have needed two of them. The Carbon Copy just nails the sound I want out of a delay pedal. It sounds warm and organic and just fantastic. It is also remarkably fun just to play around with! Set the regen parameter to maximum and it self-oscillates and you can go all Yngwie Malmsteen with the delay time knob. The modulation feature is a little hot right out of the box, but I am personally not planning to use it any time soon, so I don’t worry about it. As I said previously, it can be adjusted with a minimum of fuss.

One of the nicest things with the Carbon Copy is that MXR have been rather generous with the delay time. Traditionally, analog delays have had fairly short delay times, the classic Boss analog unit has 300 ms and some recent copies don’t fare much better. Double that, like with this pedal, and you get true flexibility: everything from slapback to Gilmour-like soundscapes.

One thing that might discourage the casual user is the price tag. It is a lot of money. And you don’t get the bells and whistles: no looping feature, no tap tempo, no 6 seconds of delay time. But you do get a damn well-sounding delay pedal that just works no matter how you use it. I personally prefer the slightly dirtier, warmer sound of analog to the pristine, clean digital stuff, and would rather pony up the extra cash for something that can live on my pedalboard long-term instead of being sold off within the year. Yes, and I just bought one.

 
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Posted by on 24 August, 2013 in gear, review

 

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