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Monday, April 20, 2015

Guitar Neck Radius Guide

The radius of a guitar fretboard refers to the curvature of the board and contributes greatly to the playability of a guitar. A small radius, like that found on a vintage Fender, feels great in the first couple of positions but notes tend to fret out when bending at higher positions. Many classical guitars have either flat or nearly flat fretboards (along with wide necks) that can feel cumbersome to players accustomed to most electric guitars. Most players seem to like something in between (e.g., 10" or 12").

Below you will find a reference guide to common fretboard radii -- I'll try to keep updating this over time. You'll notice that some companies like to use the same radius on most of their guitars (e.g., Fender) whereas others use a wide variety (e.g., Guild). Some companies offer custom builds with a variety of radius options (e.g., Carvin offers 12, 14, 16, and 20). The best of both worlds, perhaps, are compound radius fretboards from companies such as Parker.

Also interesting is that people buy relic Fender guitars with the vintage-correct 7.25" radius but don't realize that a 50 year old Strat or Tele that has been re-fretted a few times will have had its radius enlarged due to the sanding of the fretboard during the re-fret process. So, after a couple of these re-frets the actual radius of an old Fender is more like 10" or 12" (this is why the Eric Johnson signature model has a flatter, 12" fretboard radius).

7.25       Vintage Fender

9.45        Guild M-75 Aristocrat

9.50        Modern Fender; Guild X-175 Manhattan

10.0        PRS; Ibanez Joe Satriani; Guild X-500

11.5         PRS Santana

12.0         Gretsch White Penguin; most G&L; vintage Gibson Les Paul;

                Guild S-100 Polara;

                Fender Eric Johnson;

14.0          Suhr Modern Satin; Carvin DC-400

16.0          Jackson; Martin; Guild acoustics

16.5          Heartfield EX1 and EX2

16.92        Ibanez RG

20.0          Carvin Alan Holdsworth model

Flat           classical nylon string guitars; Vigier Excalibur Shawn Lane model

Compound or Conical Radius

9-12      Suhr Classic

10-13    Parker NiteFly

10-14     Suhr Modern

10-16     Warmoth; some recent Gibson Les Paul models

12-16     Charvel Guthrie Govan

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Easiest Guitar to Play

I've owned about 40 guitars since the early 80s (the brands and models you've heard of and likely some you haven't) and while many were tremendous players they fell short in some area or another. One thing keepers have in common is ease of playability.

A lot of factors determine the playability of a guitar including technique, neck geometry, fret profile and material, fretboard material, neck finish, scale length, string-spacing at the nut and bridge, nut height, string gauge, string material, and bridge style. And while there are some steps one can take to improve the playability of a guitar, sometimes a guitar is just the wrong one.

You want a guitar with a comfortable neck geometry and finish: the neck carve or profile should be neither too wide (greater than 1 and 11/16ths) or too narrow (less than 1 and 5/8ths)  and the depth of the neck should not be too deep nor too thin. Too tight a radius (e.g., vintage 7.5") makes playing up the neck more difficult and sticky poly finishes make moving around a chore. An example of guitars with bad neck geometry are many from Carvin which are known to be too thin along with being too wide. Some players can get along with them while others despise them. You seldom see or hear people whining about Strat or Tele neck profiles but you see a lot of complains regarding the odd profile of many Carvin guitars.

I also want guitars that facilitate flat picking, finger picking, and hybrid picking. No one-trick ponies for me. So string-spacing at the nut and bridge are important aspects. The traditional Fender string spacing at the bridge (F-spacing) is great for everything. The Gibson Tune-O-Matic bridge string spacing is a bit narrow for me but offers a nice experience at the nut. Specs on neck and nut width are helpful but not every 1 and 5/8ths, for example, are the same because while the nut may be that width the nut may be slotted in such a way that the strings are crammed in closer to one another and not taking advantage of the whole nut. For example, I had a Yairi and a Martin with the same nut width specs but felt totally different because the Martin spread the string slots out a bit more.

Frets should be tall and not too wide and those made from stainless steel offer a much smoother surface to bend on and will never wear out meaning that all your notes will sound better over the years instead of fretting out or buzzing excessively. I suggest medium jumbo stainless fretwear. Some companies offer frets dressed on a Plek machine. I think Pleking is good for some companies who have struggled for years to deliver decent fretwork (e.g., G&L) while others, e.g., PRS, do fabulous work without needing a Plek.

Guitars with short scales lengths tend to be easier to play as there is less tension on the strings and, speaking of strings, the smaller the gauge the easier it is to play. And pure nickel strings are easier to bend than nickel wound. The PRS SC245 or SC58 is a good example of a guitar with a short scale (24.5") making for an easier ride. Strats and other F-style guitars have a longer 25.5" scale length and will, as a result, increase string tension. Use lighter strings for easier playing.

Generally, pure nickel strings are a bit easier to play on than nickel wound versions. Good brands pure nickel are Curt Mangan and, if you have more money to spend, Pyramid. The heavier the gauge the greater the tension and the smaller the gauge the lower the tension. On a short scale guitar, a set of 9s will play very easily, maybe too easy. On a long scale guitar a set of 11s will be too stiff for most players.

Guitars with double locking vibrato bridges tend to be easier to play because the string is cut at the saddle and does not extend any further, decreasing the length of the overall string making for easier bends. Likewise, the locking nut means the portion of the strings running to the traditional tuners are taken out of the equation.

Anyway, of all the guitars I've played the only two I play every day are from Paul Reed Smith (a '58) and a Suhr Modern Satin with a Floyd Rose bridge and locking nut.

When properly set up these guitars virtually play themselves and I highly recommend them over models from Fender or Gibson. Of the many, many large to medium sized companies out there, hands down, PRS is making the best short scale guitars (SC245 with the aforementioned 24.5" scale or a Custom 24 which has a 25" scale) and Suhr is making the best F-scale guitars (25.5"). They cost more than your run of the mill guitars but you get what you pay for -- guitars you'll love to play for the rest of your life and something you'd be happy to leave to your heirs.

The Suhr Modern has a great neck carve, a 14" radius, stainless med. jumbo frets and a really low action. The PRS SC-58 has a 10" radius (in between the tighter vintage Fender radius and the larger Gibson radius) with a 24.5" scale length, and a comfy neck carve (Pattern which is a tad less chunky than the old Wide-Fat). Both also have rosewood fretboards which I think makes for a better sounding guitar over maple or ebony. Though, morado fretboards (ironwood) and kingwood fretboards play a bit faster to me.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Sociopaths Unite: Gibson, Chris Kyle, and Tim Montana and the Shrednecks

What do you get when you combine the official Teabagger guitar company with a bunch of dumbass rednecks and a mass-murdering psychopath?

The trifecta of Red State awesomeness. The one-of-a-kind Chris Kyle Commemorative Gibson Necrophonic Oooo-wee Gee-tar of Death.

The irony, of course, is that 99.999 % of the folks dumb enough to want this log are too poor to afford it. Except for a handful of dirtbags in the sun belt real estate - development mafia, the totin' and fethin' demographic ain't got no room fer it nohow.

I will say, however, that the American flag qua skull aesthetics are spot on for a world populated by deranged lunatics and moral perverts. Bravo, Gibson. Bravo.

But some lucky clown will own this sweet baby when it goes up for auction (Update: with only 12 days to go, Big D is in the lead, y'all)! You can't make this shit up.

The only real questions izzz: does it have Gibson Bumblebee caps in it!? Will it cost 30% more next year? What will Ralph Macchio think of it?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Gibson Bumblebee Capacitors

Oh, you want that vintage vibe and Gibson has you convinced that $129 for a couple of caps is going to get you there. Dream on, brother.

If you're been following this blog long enough you know that I think Gibson is one of the most rotten companies around -- and for a lot of reasons. But if you want just one perfect example of what Gibson is all about it is contained in their bullshit bumblebee caps. It perfectly encapsulates the entire firm's essence.

Those Bumblebee Caps are hiding $2 Westco caps on the inside.

This has been well-documented (here and elsewhere) but it's always worth amplifying shady, rotten, snaky practices in the guitar world.

Do you, me, and everybody a favor and just boycott Gibson guitars.

Joe Meek Twin Q

I bought one of the first Joe Meek Twin Q units when they hit the market -- geez, that must be coming up on nearly 15 years by now. Anyways, it's been nothing but stellar in all this time and, most importantly, it sounds good. I did send it back to the factory within the first couple of months because they offered me a free mod/upgrade. Other than that one trip it's been permanently installed in my studio rack.

The original unit, as seen above, is pretty much the same as the newer Twin Q2 other than some slight tweaks.

I use the s/pdif output to connect to an Apollo interface and never record at sampling rates at higher than 48kHz so I have no need to upgrade to something that goes to 192. If you're one of those that see no need to record at higher than 96kHz then you can pick one of these up used for a lot less or simply use the analog outs to your interface.

While the unit is overall very good I do think they are very overpriced for a piece of electronics manufactured in China. The markup on the TQ must be pretty high.

The Q is good for any recording situation from voice, drums, acoustic guitars, etc., but where it shines the best is electric guitar. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if you're an electric guitarist this could be your secret weapon. Here's why: the mid EQ is really sweet sounding and musical -- if that amp and stomp box isn't cutting it just crank up the mids on the Twin Q and cop a nice TS808 Tube Screamer mid-boosted vibe.

And the compressor is just perfect for giving control and sustain to single note lead lines. It's so good that I and a few others asked for a stomp box version of this compressor and JM came through with the Floor Q. Guitarists are accustomed to OTA style compressors but the optical circuit in the JMTQ is a nice alternative with it's own thing going on -- a little slower on the attack and smoother sounding. Combining the EQ and the compressor provides a meaty, focused, and rich sound with 'wheels.'

Anyway, I can recommend the Twin Q from Joe Meek but, honestly, I think you're better off going used. It's just not a $1500 piece of kit.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

UAD Plugins are Overpriced

Are UAD plugins overpriced? When the idea of hardware accelerated plugins came about the price was pretty good relative to (a) the limits of native processing power; (b) the quality of low-cost plugin suites; and (c) the high costs of the big players. Instead of buying one piece of hardware you could get many instances of software emulations at a lower cost and with comparable performance and not tax your CPU.

However, with the steady growth of native processing power, and the flood of moderately-priced plugins the giant hardware dongle and high-priced UAD plugin just doesn't seem like the great deal it did years ago. 

UAD plugins perform and sound fantastic, for the most part -- there are a few duds, in my opinion, but many or most really do work well, if, that is, you're after spot-on virtual replicas of vintage hardware units, and, generally, that's fine by me.

I own a bunch of UAD plugs but I waited until Universal Audio had a new year's deal where they threw in a bunch of free plugs (about $1K worth) and also a freebie I wasn't expecting (a nice Helios EQ) as well as a $100 voucher toward another plug-in with the purchase of an Apollo interface. It was a good deal in my estimation.

I did use that coupon toward a Shadow Hills compressor but I couldn't see buying any more until another sale came around.

The key is patience: do not buy a UAD plugin at full price unless you absolutely need to. Just hang on and let a sale swing around (e.g., the delay, chorus, and reverb sale) then get what you want at 40% off. And if you go a good long time without buying any plugins, UA will email you a coupon.

Are they still overpriced when discounted? Yeah, probably. When you compare what you can get for 90% less from Jeroen Breebaart (ToneBoosters) and a bunch of other small developers it seems kinda silly to be shelling out $150 to $300 for a single plugin. Kinda like shelling out $900 for ProTools when you could have Reaper for $60.

Do not buy a UA plugin that you can get in native form somewhere else for less. For example, the Cooper Time Cube is unique and I haven't found an alternative for that. On sale, you can get it for about $100 (still kinda pricey but better than the $150 they normally charge) but the idea of shelling out $150 for a Tube Screamer plugin or a Rat distortion pedal is simply laughable. And $20 for a guitar tuner plugin? As they kids say these days, UA must be on the pipe. 

I'd say, if you want that old vintage sound from the 50s-70s then UAD is still your best bet. But you have to realize that once you go down that road you're stuck for a good long while. Every plugin you buy is only going to work with their hardware. Switch to an Apogee interface and you're kinda screwed because those UAD plugins are not going to work. You'd have to buy an accelerator card and to get a quad would set me back something like $1500 on top of the cost of, say, an Apogee interface. The best approach is simply wait until UA offers a bunch of free plugins with the purchase of an interface but resist buying any more of them and only for those you cannot find a native alternative -- and you frequently can. For example, the Voice of God plugin -- you can do as well without shelling out hardly anything

Friday, April 3, 2015

Chuck Surack: Happy Days Are Here Again

The 'Indiana Boycott' got me thinking about Sweetwater's non-discrimination policy and I started looking at employee composition at the company. From what I can ascertain, Sweetwater is a paragon of non-diversity.

The Executive Team at Sweetwater is made up entirely of white males (18 of them) and the only female employee I could find works in a hospitality role as his exotic car dealership. Weird.

I've received phone calls and emails from Sweetwater for a dozen or so years and I only had contact with one woman one time -- an assistant to my regular sales rep. Weird.

I plowed through page after page of Google images for Sweetwater Sound and couldn't find any images of women that were obviously employees of the company (there must be some but where are they and what do they do?)

I've been watching Sweetwater YouTube videos for years and I don't recall any women.

So, I guess, from what one can glean from Sweetwater's own virtual presentation of self, women are either serving coffee or blending invisibly into the background or are simply non-existent.

I know Chuck Surack spends an inordinate amount of time online managing perceptions and the reputation of Sweetwater Sound (he's popped up at every guitar and recording forum I've ever participated in) so I know he'll be reading this (Hi, Chuck) so I'll be interested to see what rationalizations or explanations he has for the lack of diversity in his sizable labor force, at least at the visible, high-wage end of the spectrum.

Anyway, I'm happy that the Indiana boycott happened as it spurred me to take a look at a company that I always enjoyed doing business with. What I found was, frankly, disturbing. Maybe it's just a Ft. Wayne thing. I noticed that the entire city council is, with the exception of one African American gentleman, all white men. Could be that Ft. Wayne is just one of those 'Good Ol' Boy' towns like so many.

I don't know if Indiana will ever get its act together (the mullahs have tweaked the law a bit but not to much satisfaction) but I will not be returning to Sweetwater as a customer until they manage to join the 21st Century. I just cannot support a company that lags behind, lost in some delusional version of 50s America where all but the mighty white male is pushed into the background or off to the sidelines.

Am I being unfair in singling out one company in a field that may be dominated by white males? Are they any different than other retailers of musical equipment? Well, this is the retailer that shoved a non-discrimination policy in my face as a way to excuse their indifference when it comes to gross social injustice. Policies either guide a firm or they are used defensively and cynically as a diversion.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Fender Musical Instruments Announces new 'Cats for Strats' Promotion

Are you a Strat, Cat?

FMIC is excited to unveil the all new 'Cats for Strats' promotional running now until the end of April.

Participating retailers (locate an authorized Fender dealer) will be accepting your pet cat in exchange for a Squire Strat Mini 3/4 of your choice (limit one guitar per person and to in-stock pink models only).

According to Billy "Famished" Rottweiler, program manager for North American Promotions FMIC, Fender has always had a soft spot in its hard corporate heart for cats and recognizes that now is the time to step up to the plate and give back to our little, furry friends. When asked about their plans for the thousands of cats Fender is expected to be exchanging for guitars, Rottweiler indicated that FMIC "has something wonderful in store" for all the animals.

In the event that your Fender dealer exhausts their inventory, customers arriving with cats-in-tow will receive a raincheck for one free guitar redeemable at a later day (see further details for restrictions and limitations).

Cats must be alive and healthy and owners of cats weighing more than 10 pounds will receive a free guitar strap and vintage-style coily-cable. Veterinarians will be on hand to inspect animals for communicable diseases and edibility.

So get on down to your Fender dealer today and trade in that ol' cat for a new Strat!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Boycotting Indiana Means, Unfortunately, Boycotting Sweetwater Sound

Dear Sweetwater Sound,

I have bought thousands and thousands of dollars worth of musical equipment from you over the last dozen years or so but, unfortunately, you are located in Indiana and I cannot send any more money to a state in good conscience that legalizes bigotry and hatred in the name of religious 'freedom.'

I understand that your company has an anti-discrimination policy and that you may have spoken to the governor of Indiana but that's not enough for me.

I hope Sweetwater Sound takes a vociferous public stand against this new law and vigorously opposes it. When you do I will return as a regular customer.

Until you join the 21st Century, unfortunately, I am boycotting your business.

Hopefully, I'll be singing your praises as champions of civil and human rights here very soon.

Sincerely, IE


Well, as other firms in Indiana took a stand against the tyranny of theocrats, Sweetwater just stood on the sidelines, unwilling to offend their religious friends and customers. That got me thinking about Sweetwater's non-discrimination policy and I started looking at employee composition at the company. From what I can ascertain, Sweetwater is a paragon of non-diversity.

The Executive Team at Sweetwater is made up entirely of white males (18 of them) and the only female employee I could find works in a hospitality role as his exotic car dealership. Weird.

I've received phone calls and emails from Sweetwater for a dozen or so years and I only had contact with one woman one time -- an assistant to my regular sales rep. Weird.

I plowed through page after page of Google images for Sweetwater Sound and couldn't find any images of women that were obviously employees of the company (there must be some but where are they and what do they do?)

I've been watching Sweetwater YouTube videos for years and I don't recall any women.

So, I guess, from what one can glean from Sweetwater's own virtual presentation of self, women are either serving coffee or blending invisibly into the background or are simply non-existent.

I know Chuck Surack spends an inordinate amount of time online managing perceptions and the reputation of Sweetwater Sound (he's popped up at every guitar and recording forum I've ever participated in) so I know he'll be reading this (Hi, Chuck) so I'll be interested to see what rationalizations or explanations he has for the lack of diversity in his sizable labor force, at least at the visible, high-wage end of the spectrum.

Anyway, I'm happy that the Indiana boycott happened as it spurred me to take a look at a company that I always enjoyed doing business with. What I found was, frankly, disturbing.

I don't know if Indiana will ever get its act together (the mullahs have tweaked the law a bit but not to much satisfaction) but I will not be returning to Sweetwater as a customer until they manage to join the 21st Century. I just cannot support a company that lags behind, lost in some delusional version of 50s America where all but the mighty white male is pushed into the background or off to the sidelines.

Am I being unfair in singling out one company in a field that may be dominated by white males? Are they any different than other retailers of musical equipment? Well, this is the retailer that shoved a non-discrimination policy in my face as a way to excuse their indifference when it comes to social injustice. Policies either guide a firm or they are used defensively and cynically as a diversion.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

How to Choose a Gibson Guitar

Hey, you're in the market for a new Gibson! Congrats. I've owned a few Gibson guitars in my day and have some great advice for you. Let's say you want a Les Paul. Here's a great way to get the best Les Paul for your money.

Step one: Buy a Gibson T-shirt that you really like:

Step two: Buy a Paul Reed Smith SC58 that you really like and enjoy playing that while wearing that new Gibson T-shirt!

Seriously, Friends don't let friends buy Gibson guitars any more, especially when a PRS is such a better instrument and you're not left with that sinking feeling that you just supported a bunch of sociopathic whack jobs with your hard-earned money.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

How to Choose a Fender Guitar

So, you're in the market for a new Fender guitar! Congrats! Stratocaster? Telecaster? Jazzmaster?

I've played Fender guitars since the 80s and currently own a beautiful Eric Johnson signature Strat. Lovely guitar, to say the least.

But which one is right for you?

Step One: buy the Fender T-shirt that looks the best to you.

Step Two: buy a Suhr guitar that looks the best to you and enjoy playing it while wearing that Fender T-shirt!

Seriously, if you're looking for a guitar that costs over $1K and you want something Fenderish then forget Fender, and buy a Suhr. Buying used can save you a lot of money and get you within striking distance of a new American-made Fender guitar but the Surh, whether it is a Tele or Strat style, will just kill it in every category: fit and finish, playability, sound, etc.

After I bought a Suhr my Fender Strat pretty much just gathers dust.

What is the most Important Guitar Effect?

Players often wonder what the most important effect or pedal is and I'm here to tell you that the most important thing in your arsenal is simply this: active imagination. After that, tape-style delay; I'll make my case below.

An active imagination get's you half way to home with good ears, healthy hands, and rational practice making up the next 40% and equipment and gear making up, maybe, the last 10%.

Beyond your electric guitar, a cable, and an amp wondering about the 'best' pedal is like worrying about which one is better: blonde, redhead, brunette, etc. There is no 'best.'

Which might be more indispensable, given that they are all more or less unnecessary accessories, is another question.

Cranking your amp should, if it is a good amp, get you the distortion and compression you crave. Place your amp in a room and your ambience (reverb) should be taken care of.

Chorus is a dated effect, used to excess in the 80s so I would consider that totally secondary.

Ring modulators and other crazy stuff like pitch shifting and drastic filtering (wah) is useable a few times per night and everybody gets sick of hearing that stuff rather quickly.

If I could only have one pedal I'd have to go with a tape delay or a digital model of a tape delay. I could pretty much live with just that. Why?

A tape delay is more flexible than you might imagine: you can drive the input and output and use it as a boost; you can turn down the delays and use the device as a preamp to create a smoother, silkier sound; my Strymon El Capistan, for example, also has a spring reverb emulation; and with controls for all kinds of tape and mechanical degradation, lush modulations are possible as well. And, you can also use it for sound on sound and basic looping. What a powerhouse in one compact pedal.

Of course, there are many alternatives on the market and Fulltone makes an actual tape delay....or was supposed to at some point.

Anyway, that's my bid more most indispensable effect. What's yours?

What is the Brown Sound?

There are a lot of misconceptions out there among guitarists regarding the "Brown Sound." If you perform a Google search you will find all kinds of crazy shit -- pun intended.

Eddie van Halen described his sound as being "brown" and it was achieved by lowering the operating voltage on his amp by incorporating a variac (AC transformer voltage controller).

The brown sound is not, contrary to myth, achieved by raising voltages. For a while EVH misled interviewers when he claimed to be operating his amps a higher voltages when, in fact, it was the reverse. He recanted those claims and apologized for destroying many amps.

The brown sound is not achieved by swapping out your speakers.

The brown sound is not achieved by putting an EQ pedal in your signal chain.

The brown sound is not achieved by lowering your amp's bias and running it 'colder.'

The brown sound is not achieved with an attenuator or power soak.

The brown sound is not some mythical note somewhere between 5 and 7Hz that will make you involuntarily poop your pants.

The brown sound does not require any particular guitar, e.g., one with humbuckers.

The brown sound is all about a non-master-volume tube amp (the prime example being a Marshall 100 watt Plexi Super Lead) operated at the loudest volume levels possible with lowered voltage.

EVH's particular sound was, of course, the combination of a lot of factors and if you want to nail that exact, specific sound then you'd need the correct guitar, pedals, amp, variac, dummy load, cabs, but, more importantly, you'd have to be EVH (in combination with his material and personnel resources), and you're not, so just stop worrying about it and don't go out and buy a ton of gear.

The most reasonable way to achieve this 'brown sound' is to do it with modeling software in your DAW.

Line6 Pod Farm, for example, already has a model of a Plexi + variac so you're already close -- and Axe-FX II enables the lowering of voltages in their Plexi model.

If you read the above link you'll see that EVH ran his Plexi head into a dummy load and, basically, used his whole amp as a preamp that would run into effects and another power amp.

So, in your virtual signal chain place the Marshall Plexi model first, crank everything to '10, except for the presence knob, load in your effects after the amp, then insert a cabinet simulation, and then the mic simulation.

If you can't use Pod Farm or the thing from Fractal Audio (or some other alternative that models lower voltages hitting the mains) then the next best thing is to use a real boost pedal (not overdrive or distortion but clean boost like a EHX Soul Food or Klon Centaur....yeah, right) into your interface  It's not the same but in some ways it can mimic some aspects of that 'brown sound.' How? Because the 'brown sound' is as much about "touch sensitivity" as it is about tube distortion characteristics. Obviously, they are linked but if you cannot lower the voltages then a clean boost will have some determination on touch sensitivity, in most cases.

If you had a real amp and voltage regulator how low should you set the voltage? Turn it down until it sounds fantastic. If it starts to sound terrible turn it back up. See what this guy has to say.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

UAD Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor Plug-In

I used a $100 coupon to bring the price of this UAD Shadow Hills plugin down a bit and I think, even at full retail, the plugin is totally brilliant. I've never used the hardware version and there's no chance I'll ever use one but regardless of how close or dissimilar to the hardware original the plugin sounds amazing and really adds three-dimensional sound to the stereo bus.

This thing looks so amazing that I was worried that I was letting my eyes fool my ears but I tried it for two weeks on all kinds of material and on everything it just made things sound deeper, wider, more focused, and coherent. I was even running tracks from iTunes through it and it made them better as well. Vocals went from being centered to being right in your face without collapsing the stereo field. The results are just brilliant.

Basically, I just mix my project and get everything just the way I want it and, at the end, I slap this on the 2-bus and call up a mastering preset, tweak it a smidge, and the whole song just pulls together in a way I could never achieve without it. The Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor does not sound, to my ears, like other 'glue' limiters do.

At first sight one might be completely overwhelmed but it doesn't take long to see that it's not much more complicated than any other compressor / limiter and it rather intuitive to operate. Special features include a choice of three different transformer options (nickel, iron, and steel) and both optical and VCA (voltage-controlled amplifier) dynamics on both channels, as well as side-chaining.

Highly recommended.

Lovetone Ring Stinger

Ah, the Lovetone Ring Stinger ring modulator pedal from hell. I owned one back in the early 2000s and used it liberally on the first Infinite Ego - Savior Onasis album.

Here is what amounts to a product demo of the LTRS in all of its horrifying glory.

The circuit design was brilliant and unique, the sounds were amazing, but, alas, it was the build quality that left everybody dissatisfied.

I never even took mine to a gig and it broke; it sat on my recording desk and was never even stepped on and the thing fell apart. I guess it couldn't handle the punishment my thumb was dishing out.

Luckily for the original owners, they broke their RS pedals and still sold them for a profit.

I used mine for about a year after Lovetone had gone under and then it broke. I ended up selling it in a state of disarray for more than I paid for it and, in the intervening years, the prices have gone crazy.

Homemade clones go for $350 and the real deal can fetch anywhere from $650 to $700 on the bay and on I found one that had sold for over $900.

My recommendation is to definitely avoid buying one unless you are willing to shell out a lot more than it's worth and knowing that it is incredibly fragile as far as pedals go, it will break (repeatedly) and that it will cost a lot to get repaired (repeatedly).

Listen to that demo track carefully: the RS sound is unique but I think that a person can cobble together a few pedals and get close....but there will be no cigar I'm afraid. It is one of a kind.

Hopefully, someday a plugin or true clone with all the features will be manufactured, until then we can only dream or compromise.

Friday, March 20, 2015

UAD ENGL E765 Retro Plugin

The Friedman BE-100 YouTube demo had me 90% convinced I would end up buying the UAD plug-in bundle from Brainworx / Friedman / UAD but in practice I found it to be nearly useless and excessively noisy. By contrast, the online demos of the ENGL plugin left me 90% convinced they were not for me, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the E765 when I used it in my own setup.  While most of the IR recording chains are pretty much worthless, as they are in the Friedman, there are more than a few great tones in the ENGL to make it worth the price once UAD runs their biannual sale.

Again, the biggest drawback is the lame recording 'chains' and the lack of flexibility when it comes to cab selections. It seems a little more work on options in this department would have yielded a more flexible program.

Still, of the current options for Console inserts, the ENGL kills the Friedman, the Chandler (too fizzy), and the horrible Softube amp room stuff. In fact, I'd go so far to say that this ENGL plugin is, for UAD owners, the best sounding guitar amp simulator you can get if you like that elusive blend of modern and vintage tones. The mid can get thick and gooey like a cranked Deluxe, the lower mids and lows have the girth of a Plexi, and the top is smooth yet cuts like a torch like a Soldano cranked sky high.

As of right now, this is my favorite thing to plug my guitar into when I want searing lead lines.

How to Play Guitar by David Fair

How to play Guitar

David Fair

I taught myself to play guitar. It’s incredibly easy when you understand the science of it. The skinny strings play the high sounds, and the fat strings play the low sounds.

If you put your finger on the string farther out by the tuning end it makes a lower sound. If you want to play fast move your hand fast and if you want to play slower move your hand slower. That’s all there is to it.

You can learn the names of notes and how to make chords that other people use, but that’s pretty limiting. Even if you took a few years and learned all the chords you’d still have a limited number of options. If you ignore the chords your options are infinite and you can master guitar playing in one day.

Traditionally, guitars have a fat string on the top and they get skinnier and skinnier as they go down. But he thing to remember is it’s your guitar and you can put whatever you want on it. I like to put six different sized strings on it because that gives the most variety, but my brother used to put all of the same thickness on so he wouldn’t have so much to worry about. What ever string he hit had to be the right one because they were all the same.

Tuning the guitar is kind of a ridiculous notion. If you have to wind the tuning pegs to just a certain place, that implies that every other place would be wrong. But that absurd. How could it be wrong? It’s your guitar and you’re the one playing it. It’s completely up to you to decide how it should sound. In fact I don’t tune by the sound at all. I wind the strings until they’re all about the same tightness.

I highly recommend electric guitars for a couple of reasons. First of all they don’t depend on body resonating for the sound so it doesn’t matter if you paint them. As also, if you put all the knobs on your amplifier on 10 you can get a much higher reaction-to-effort-ratio with an electric guitar than you can with an acoustic. Just a tiny tap on the strings can rattle your windows, and when you slam the strings, with your amp on 10, you can strip the paint off the walls.

The first guitar I bought was a Silvertone. Later I bought a Fender Telecaster, but it really doesn’t matter what kind you buy as long as the tuning pegs are on the end of the neck where they belong. A few years back someone came out with a guitar that tunes at the other end. I’ve never tried one. I guess they sound alright but they look ridiculous and I imagine you’d feel pretty foolish holding one. That would affect your playing. The idea isn’t to feel foolish. The idea is to put a pick in one hand and a guitar in the other and with a tiny movement rule the world.

Source, with typographical errors corrected:

Captain Beefheart's Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing

Captain Beefheart's 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF GUITAR PLAYING as given to moris tepper by captain beefheart. they are not arranged hierarchically - each commandment has equal import. also, to help clarify their intent, each commandment is followed by an exegesis.

that's where all the music comes from. birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. and watch humming-birds. they fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren't going anywhere.

your guitar is a divining rod. use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. a guitar is also a fishing rod. if you're good, you'll land a big one.

wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. if the bush doesn't shake, eat another piece of bread.

old delta blues players referred to amplifiers as 'the devil box'. and they were right. you have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you're bringing over from the other side. electricity attracts devils and demons. [so now you know what you are, dear visitor of this page!] other instruments attract other spirits. an acoustic guitar attracts caspar, the ghost. a mandolin attracts wendy. but an electric guitar attracts beelzebub.

if your brain is part of the process, you're missing it. you should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. if you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.

your instrument has more clout than lightning. just hit a big chord, then run outside to hear it. but make sure you are not standing in an open field.

that's your key-man clause. like one string sam. he's one! he was a detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. his song "i need a hundred dollars" is warm pie. another key to the church is hubert sumlin, howlin' wolf's guitar player. he just stands there like the statue of liberty - making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he's doing it.

you need that stink on there. then you have to get that stink onto your music.

when you're not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. if you don't play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.

keep that hat on. a hat is a pressure cooker. if you have a roof on your house, the hot air can't escape. even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Neil Young Signature Pono Pro Music System

Pono Player had the shit kicked out of it by nearly every reviewer with a brain but Neil Young remains undeterred. Rather than admitting defeat and packing it in, Mr. Young has decided to go long with an upgraded music playback system called Pono Pro, which moves the player out of the pocket and into your living room -- your living room, that is, after it has been professionally treated with an Auralex Ruminators Pro Plus Kit ($1400 + custom installation).

Additionally, the Pono Pro player skips the "files on a player" approach in favor of a new service whereby the original 192k / 24 bit audio files will be downloaded from the studio where the audio was originally recorded via a cloud service:

These high-resolution files will automatically load into a custom configured Mac Pro computer outfitted with a Pono Edition Pro Tools Digital Audio Workstation (including the plugin processors used in the original mix down):

Pono Pro audio will pass through a mastering grade converter (Antelope Audio Zodiac + with Voltikus power supply, $3595):

And the music will playback on a pair of JBL M2 Reference Monitors ($19,998):

The Pono Pro system is not cheap by any measure ($37,995 + tax) but the first 100 customers will receive free Monster brand interconnect cables and a autographed fedora. 

Sources close to Neil Young and Pono indicate that if the Pono Pro system fails to win over the critics they have yet another backup plan (the Pono Oh No So Pro) that involves delivery of audio via 2" tape and a system revolving around refurbished Studer machines:

These tape machines will operate within a replica Ocean Way tracking room for customers with good credit and sufficient yard space (there are hints of a mixing engineer option for a select few):

The projected cost of the Pono Oh No So Pro is unknown at this time but industry observers speculate that it will cost "a shit load of money." Asked if Neil Young has a chance in winning over  customers with these bespoke ventures, one analyst who wished to remain anonymous, told us that even the most sophisticated playback system will have its detractors but that "Neil still has the ace of spades up his sleeve: time shares at Neil's Broken Arrow Ranch where he will just perform this shit for you in person."

Monday, March 16, 2015

Morado Fretboards

What is "Morado" and is it a good alternative to a rosewood fretboard?

Morado is just another name for Pau Ferro (literally Iron Wood) -- also known as "Bolivian Rosewood" though it is not actually a true rosewood.

And, yes, it is a killer fretboard wood: is has a dense grain and feels similar to the Kingwood fretboard on my PartsTele. I actually prefer the feel of Pau Ferro to typical Indian rosewood. The Morado fretboard on my 2013 Martin OOO 15M feels fantastic and, while it was a light brown when new, it has darkened beautifully.

Isn't Morado or Pau Ferro just a cheaper alternative to Indian rosewood? Didn't Martin use Morado just to save money? No, Martin switched back to rosewood to cut production costs. Indian rosewood fretboards cost about $10 a piece for the good stuff whereas Morado costs about $23. If you're buying an all-mahogany guitar, fellas, you're gonna want that Morado. I gotta have Morado! On my Martin OOO, that added snap is a real benefit for added articulation and authoritative attack.

Here's what Warmoth has to say about "Morado" or Pau Ferro:

An excellent dense, hard wood with a very tight pore structure. This means it’s fast, smooth and extremely durable. An excellent choice for fretless fingerboards. Not only is it resistant to wear, but often the wood figuring is striking with variations in color from light tan to a dark coffee. The tone is brighter than Rosewood yet warmer than Ebony with plenty of articulation and attack. One of our favorite woods for fingerboards! No finish required!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Friedman Amplifier Plug-In Collection by Brainworx and Universal Audio (UAD) BE-100 and DS-40 (Dirty Shirley)

The Friedman UAD / Brainworx bundle gives you two modded Marshall emulations: the BE-100 based on the venerable Plexi and the DS-40 on the JTM 45.

Overall grade: C-
Pro: Good tone
Con: noise, price
What beats it? The ENGL Retro plugin

Based on the YouTube official demo I was 90% sure I would end up buying these plugins, however, my experience during the two-week trial period led me to conclude that these were the wrong amp sims for me. Clean and mildly driven sounds were good but what I was interested in were the cranked tones and this is where these plugins let me down.

I've been messing around with the demo of this plugin since its arrival and my impression is that the sounds are pretty mediocre. The YouTube demo had me stoked about the potential as I was looking for something better than the Softube junk that came with my Apollo to use on Console inserts but I'm not getting many pleasing sounds with my guitars (Fender, PRS, Suhr, etc.) in my room or with headphones, though, I have gotten a few useable sounds but literally only one patch that sounds good. $250 for one good (but not great) sound doesn't seem like much of a deal to me.

90% of the IR signal chains are more or less unusable due to their weird and extreme tones and the amp emulations themselves are mostly harsh, frizzy, and brittle on the top, boxy and ultra-wooly in the mids, and murky and undefined in the bottom. Cabinet emulations are limited as well -- no 2X12, for example, and nothing in the way of open-back vs closed back options. These plugs strike me as something that would satisfy a "they all sound the same to me" producer looking for guitarish sounds to hide behind vocals but I suspect many guitarists might object to these tones.

Here is a sample of what I'm talking about: proceed to 3:30 in this track. This is a Suhr Modern into the BE-100 on a factory preset + a bit of HPF to drain of some of the low end and make it sit in the mix better. Usable, but not pretty in my opinion.

I will say that the less saturated settings are better than the highly distorted sounds and the more you mangle the patches with other effects in the inserts the more usable they become but I'm not feeling any sort of plug-and-play euphoria like I do when I plug into a Bogner Shiva for example or even into my Positive Grid Bias plugin.

When I finally found one awesome lead patch (one of the presets) on the BE-100, the noise was so extreme, even with the gate on, that it was unusable. You expect noise with a Strat into a hot rodded Marshall but this was beyond anything I'd ever experienced before. How bad was the noise? Imagine plugging a Strat into two fuzz pedals, cranking your amp, and then standing right in front of one of those old style CRT monitors. Very frustrating.

The great benefit of these (and the Softube half stack) is the non-discernible latency when playing through the UAD Console and that's why I was excited to give them a spin. However, with a powerful machine a person should be able, with some care, to track live in the DAW without crazy latency and, in the event that doing so is not possible, the crappy Softube plugin will serve to provide some dirty guitar sound that can be re-amped later. Or, I may spring for the ENGL Retro 100 amp plugin instead. I don't think the problem here is with Brainworx as I found the Retro to be a much better sounding emulation with much less noise at high gain levels.

Of course, your milage may vary and these plugins will make some folks happy (hey, some people actually drink Coors beer, go figure). Happily, you get a full two-week demo to try them yourself and make up your own mind. If I could grab these Friedman/Brainworx/UAD plugs for maybe $100 I'd reconsider using them for scratch takes and re-amping later but I think I'll stick with what I've got for my Console inserts. If I had no other guitar plugins at all to work with I might be tempted but, again, for the asking price UA isn't getting my money.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Voice of God Plugin Alternative

Don't want to spend the $ on the UAD VoG plugin there is probably already a tool in your arsenal that will get the job done. To quote Music Radar:

"Voice Of God is great, but it’s actually just a resonant high-pass filter - you can mimic its effect with any EQ plugin that features a high-pass filter with Q control. Simply apply the high-pass filter to your signal, narrow the Q width, then set its frequency to boost the desired frequency range. Voila - focused, enhanced bass end!"

There you have it.

If you need a low-cost EQ that can do this that sounds ten times more expensive I would suggest checking out the terribly named but killer stuff from Toneboosters (the latest incarnation of Breebaart's well-respected effects). Specifically, check out the FLX EQ.

I am a happy user of many UAD plugins but these TB plugs are every bit as good and easy on your CPU.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Martin OOO 15M

I've had this Martin OOO-15M for nearly two years and I gotta say, overall, this is a killer guitar, not only for the money, but in general, you can't ask much more of a OOO style guitar.

I had the pleasure of playing around with a Depression-era OO years ago that was just amazing even though it needed a neck reset. I knew then that someday I'd get an all-mahogany Martin and when I gave up my old Yairi I knew the time was right to get that Martin I always wanted.

Mine weighs four pounds and the top, sides, back, and quarter-sawn neck are all solid mahogany. You might notice from photo that I got mine from Sweetwater -- the first time I've bought an acoustic guitar without playing it first. My selection criteria was simply the lightest of the four they had in stock at the time. Honestly, I was worried, but all concerns quickly evaporated after I got to play it for a few minutes. I'd buy another from Sweetwater without hesitation if I had to replace this one for whatever reason.

Playability is superb. With the recommended string gauge (12s) it just plays itself with a buttery action. And the fretwork is sheer perfection (I see that they are Plek-ing these at the factory). The tone is wide, with a deep bottom and velvety highs without being boomy or shrill. Lovely. The workmanship is flawless and the satin finish (cost-saving stuff here) is serviceable and on the neck it wears to a non-sticky gloss.

You'll notice from the attached photo that the fretboard (not rosewood but Morado, a.k.a., Pau Ferro) is a light brown but in less than a year it had darkened up quite a bit with a lot of natural discoloration from playing it so much. It looks like an old beater at this point. You might expect the frets to have a corresponding amount of wear but, no, they are still in great shape. I fully expect to get 10+ years out of them before needing a grind and polish.

The guitar stays in tune well and the case gets the job done.

There's really no other guitar on the market that can deliver made in America solid tone woods at this intersection of price and performance.

One thing that might bug some players is the low, vintage frets but with proper technique (keep that thumb behind the neck and play with your fingertips not the fingerprints) you're in Nirvana. Also, the nut width is 1 and 11/16 inches, a hair tighter than the 1 and 3/4 inches that most finger pickers like. However, I hybrid pick (flat pick + fingers) and the string spacing is just fine for me.

Overall 4.5 out of 5. A great deal and I'd do it all over again.


Martin 000-15M 6-string Acoustic Guitar Features at a Glance:
  • 6-string Acoustic Guitar
  • Construction: Mortise/Tenon Neck Joint
  • Body Size: 000-14 Fret
  • Top: Solid Genuine Mahogany
  • Rosette: Single Ring
  • Top Bracing Pattern: A-Frame "X"
  • Top Braces: Solid Sitka Spruce 5/16"
  • Back Material: Solid Genuine Mahogany
  • Side Material: Solid Genuine Mahogany
  • Neck Material: Solid Genuine Mahogany
  • Neck Shape: Modified Low Oval
  • Nut Material: Bone
  • Headstock: Solid/Square Taper
  • Headplate: Solid East Indian Rosewood 
  • Fingerboard Material: Solid East Indian Rosewood (the 2013 is Morado or "Pau Ferro")
  • Scale Length: 25.4"
  • # of Frets Clear: 14
  • # of Frets Total: 20
  • Fingerboard Width at Nut: 1-11/16"
  • Fingerboard Width at 12th Fret: 2-1/8"
  • Fingerboard Inlays: Diamonds & Squares - Short Pattern
  • Fingerboard Binding: none
  • Finish Back and Sides: Satin
  • Finish Top: Satin
  • Finish Neck: Satin
  • Bridge Material: Solid East Indian Rosewood
  • Bridge Style: Belly
  • Bridge String Spacing: 2-1/8"
  • Saddle: 16" Radius/Compensated/Bone
  • Tuning Machines: Nickel Open-Geared w/ Butterbean Knobs
  • Bridge and End Pins: Solid Black Ebony
  • Pickguard: Tortoise Color
  • Included case

Softube Amp Room

I have an UA Apollo Thunderbolt interface and UA threw in the Softube Amp Room plugin (among others) to sweeten the deal -- but in a world of sweet amp emulation plugins this Softube is a bitter pill. In particular, the free plugin from UA included only the White Marshall emulation but if this is their intro into Softube's modeling capability I'd never consider anything else from them.

I've been using modeled guitar tones since the early days of Line6 (remember the original AxSys from the 90s?) and I have a wide collection at my disposal but am always happy to have more. This offering from Softube is dull, grainy, congested, and noisy. It is quite literally the worst amp emulation I've ever heard. I thought maybe it was me but the reviews at UA were just as harsh. Glad to know my hearing and sense of musical taste is not totally shot. I demoed their 'Metal' amp plugin as well and you cannot get anything to stick out in a mix -- they're all really flat and characterless, which would be fine if you just want some generic 'heavy' guitar sound buried in the background. But for leads or articulate riffing these things are horrible. Even cranking up outboard EQ is insufficient.

I will say this, however, it is nice to have any old guitar amp plugin to place in the UA Console application because I can have an overdriven/distorted tone with 'zero' latency to monitor without committing any of it to my DAW. So, in that capacity, this plugin is a total win. I can play 'through' this Softube plugin while recording a dry, unaffected signal to reamp as I please.

Perhaps in the future I'll get around to buying the Friedman plugin to use in Console and have some tones that are worthy of committing to 'tape.'

The Best Guitar Humidifier

Need a humidifier for your acoustic guitar? I've used many over the years on a variety of acoustics but Oasis OH-1 is about the best thing going in terms of safety, simplicity, effectiveness, and price. The Oasis checks all the boxes for me.

I've used the OH-1 for two winters and have experienced no leaks at all and my Martin OOO is in great shape even though our indoor humidity is hardly ever above 22% around here.

The  only possible improvement might be a slightly larger water tank -- as it is right now I need to refill about once every two or three days; once per week would be about perfect.