AF’s Weblog

September 28, 2010

Mesa Boogie Transatlantic TA-15 Amp Head Review

We have recently seen the birth of some tube amp heads for electric guitars sporting a reduced size and weight, such as the Vox Night Train. This amp head format allows guitarists to enjoy their sound without breaking their back lugging gear to and fro. So now it is Mesa Boogie’s turn to launch its own portable version of a tube amp head, the Transatlantic. It’s up to us to test all of this and see if Mesa Boogie has succeeded …

Let’s Unpack

Mesa Boogie Transatlantic TA-15

First thing we notice out of the box, the very small size of the machine: 12 3/8”W x 6 3/4”D x 5 7/8”H, weighing only 12 pounds.

A “carry on” is provided with the head, just to remind us that this is a transportable amp head format. There are pockets everywhere for storing goodies found at the bottom of the box:

  • A footswitch with a button (Channel ½)
  • An HP cable long enough (about 5 meters)
  • A conventional AC power outlet

The head has a retractable iron handle iron gives it a “Lunchbox” look.  This is not the best example for ergonomics in action, but it deserves to be there (after 45 minutes in the crowded subway, my hands longed for a plastic handle). The Design and the buttons “gas cooker” style provide an unusual looking product, a bit out of time, vintage, but at the same time utilizing modern materials such lots of metals.   Finishes are well cared for and we don’t notice any defects, the “Made in USA” has its effect.

Mesa Boogie Transatlantic TA-15

The highlight of the show is when the head is turned on: a blue light emanates from the bowels of the beast to dazzle the eyes.   Question of taste, I think it looks a little Jacky-tuning, but this sensation disappears when the sound comes out of the speaker.  We would have liked the option to disable the effect of “Neon 205 GTI”…oh well!   Let’s forget this episode in bad taste (which may be felt only by me) and move on to the bowels of the head.

The Mesa Boogie Transatlantic TA-15 is equipped with 4 preamp 12AX7 type tubes, and two EL84 type tubes for power amplification.  Patented technology provides three power modes for the amp section, selectable via switches on the front. In the 5 Watts mode, the head is working on a Class A tube power, 15 Watts mode, two tubes are used in Class A mode Push-Pull, while in 25 watts mode 2 tubes operate in Class A / B power .

Now let’s get to the settings …

Conclusion

It was a pleasure to test the Mesa Transatlantic amp head, once I passed the halo of blue neon light. We like the sound it delivers, rather vintage type, bluesy or rock, as one wishes.  However, we lament the lack of extreme sounds with gain galore for playing a proper palm mute. With all the little options that the amp front panel and independent channels offer, we come to find a pleasant sound very easily.  It can also be well used both during rehearsal, as well as in concert with 25 Watts and a footswitchable channel.  In short, if it did not cost the modest sum of about $900, the average guitarist would be in heaven and it would have been easier to swallow this pill.  Apart from that, the guitarists looking for a portable head with a distinctive sound, yet with many options, will be delighted!

Advantages:

  • Successful design
  • 2 Channels
  • Tweed Sound
  • Small size
  • Convenient carry bag
  • Quality Manufacturing
  • Palette of sounds through the front panel switches
  • Adequate power for rehearsals and acceptable to neighbors
  • Footswitch included

Drawbacks:

  • Neon Blue “Jacky tuning”
  • No FX loop
  • Push / pull for the master / cut
  • A bit expensive
  • No extreme sounds

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Mesa Boogie Transatlantic TA-15 Review

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September 24, 2010

Roland SH-01 Gaia Review

The SH-01 is Roland’s answer to the analog modeling synths market where low budget and ergonomics are not compatible. Let’s see what tradeoffs were made to combine ease of use and a competitive price.

Since the SH-1000 was launched in 1973, the SH series is without a doubt the most comprehensive among the whole product range of the Japanese manufacturer. Modern SH models are very different from their ancestors: they are programmable, digital, polyphonic, incorporate Midi, etc. Their name has more to do with a marketing concept than a sound concept. However, they focus mainly on direct-access controls and are meant to be immediate and easy-to-use instruments. Since the Nord Lead from 1995, the glorious times of modeling synths are way behind us. Japanese heavyweights have partially withdrawn into themselves while Americans don’t move forward anymore and Europeans try to amortize their R&D costs. The market became bipolar: at the top, the quiet kingdom of the Nord Lead, Virus, Origin, Accelerator, and Solaris that changes very slowly; at the bottom, the merciless world of cost killers like the Korg Micro & R3, Blofeld, SH-201, Miniak, etc. These instruments are often affordable but don’t provide the best ergonomics and manufacturing quality. With the SH-01 “Gaia,” Roland wants to enhance the ergonomics absent in budget products. Compromises had to be made. Were they wise decisions?

Easy Handling

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The SH-01 is a compact synth with a standard, velocity-sensitive, 37-note keyboard (three octaves). It is easy to transport and it runs on a power supply or batteries (the manufacturer says battery life is 4-5 hours). This summer, we took it along with a notebook to the sunny French beaches to test it while getting tanned. The black and white plastic housing isn’t as cheap as it seems. It seems to have some sort of reinforcement and it endured rough handling pretty well. The instrument is an invitation to tweaking. Its front panel is packed with clear, ergonomic and logically implemented control elements. Handling is easy with any synthesis form because you can understand the signal and modulation paths right away: D-Beam controller, LFO, oscillator, filter, amp, effects, etc. The 18 envelope sliders and 11 rotary controls recall the design of the prestigious Jupiter-8 or JP-8000. The rotary controls are not screwed down but they are well secured anyway. On the contrary, the sliders with plastic heads are fragile. It is very disappointing that in today’s modern digital era, controls only seem to to “jump,” because this limits their use in live performances.

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

A “Bank” key plus eight dedicated keys allow you to select the 2 x 64 ROM and RAM programs (RAM is for user presets). Editing arpeggios and sequences is harder because controls are reduced to their simplest expression. Many commands use key combinations using the shift button, and many functions are not written on the front panel, which is a serious design flaw in our eyes… To use the SH-01 in real time, you get an optical D-Bean controller you can assign to many synthesis parameters, a pitch+modulation joystick (typical of the manufacturer) and an assignable port for a foot controller. The unit offers some valuable direct performance controls: tap tempo, octave transpose and V-link for image/slide-show control with compatible devices. A “Manual” control allows reckless sound designers to start programming from the position of the physical control itself, or they can start by reseting all parameters all at once.

USB Gets the Place of Honor

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The rear panel makes a very good impression (except for the usual external power supply): stereo audio output and phones output on 1/4″ jacks, versatile assignable 1/4″ TRS input for a foot controller, Midi in/out, and a dual USB port. The USB ports allow you to connect the SH-01 to computers and storage devices, which is rather unusual for a device in this price range. Even better: the “Host” USB port allows bidirectional Midi and audio data transfer with a computer (drivers are provided on the CD-ROM) for direct audio recording into a host application without quality loss. It also allows you to route the audio mix of the host application to the SH-01 analog outputs. We chose this solution for the sound samples in this review… The device can also send the computer the audio signal feeding the stereo minijack on the front panel. This signal can be processed within the SH-01. You can mute it, attenuate it and cut frequencies according to three modes: high/mid frequencies (to suppress vocals and solo parts of a song, for example), low frequencies and full range. On the contrary, it is not possible to route the input signal to the internal filters and effects. (We are still wondering why the device has this frustrating limitation.)

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The other “Media” USB port is conceived for connecting external storage units, (like a USB key) to save and exchange user data (programs, patterns). But there is a fly in the ointment: on the one hand, the USB key can only hold 64 programs + 8 patterns (i.e. some kilobytes) regardless of the memory size of the key. What a waste! On the other hand, a “hot connection” is not possible, which means that you have to power off the device before disconnecting/connecting. No comments… Finally, we have to mention that the SH-01 cannot be USB powered, in spite of its minimum power requirements (9 V – 600 mA), which could be perfectly supplied through the USB port.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Mixed Impressions

In the end, the SH-01 left us with mixed impressions. This affordable standalone instrument is easy to use, includes a real dynamic keyboard and is more sturdy than it seems. With its numerous controls and not very versatile signal path, it was clearly conceived for beginners. However we don’t quite understand why so much DSP power is wasted with three fully independent signals instead of letting them interact. The same applies to the very generous polyphony in detriment of multimbrality for the VA section, and to the three multimode filters and five effect DSPs which can’t be assigned to the external signal source. USB provides you deluxe bidirectional audio transfer but a lousy management of mass storage units. The sound is less controlled than on the 1997 JP-8000. It shows an overall lack of consistency and punch, and tends to become aggressive as soon as high frequencies are not cut. Its very attractive price makes the SH-01 a great instrument to discover subtractive sound synthesis without risks.

Advantages:

  • Attractive price
  • Battery operation
  • Compact size
  • Easy handling
  • Audio & Midi over USB
  • Full-size dynamic keys
  • Generous polyphony
  • Effects section

Drawbacks:

  • Sound is not very consistent and it tends to be aggressive
  • VA section is monotimbral
  • Mono in sync mode
  • Very limited modulation possibilities
  • Very basic arpeggiator/sequencer
  • No external audio signal processing
  • Silkscreen does not mention shift functions
  • USB storage unit management
  • OS could be greatly improved
  • Rather toyish PCM

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Roland Gaia Review

September 20, 2010

Fender Super-Sonic 22 Combo Review

In 2006, we saw the new Fender amps, dubbed Super-Sonic, with 60 watts under the hood and available in head or combo version. In 2010 we see a combo version of 22 Watts, sharing characteristics of its older brother. It sounds very clean and Fendery, with also saturated and high gain tones as well. Focus on the Super-Sonic Combo 22 today…

Fender Super-Sonic 22 Combo

Fender amps are known and recognized for their clean sounds, sometimes bright with models like the Vibrolux, sometimes warm and full with other references, like the famous Bassman.  But for heavily distorted sounds, the story is different, and guitarists are often forced to resort to overdrive or distortion pedals in order to saturate an amplifier lacking a real overdrive channel.  So we could have just stopped there and continued to adore the clean Fender amp sounds and happily connect our pedals to make some noise. But Fender wished otherwise, launching the Super-Sonic series, whose main goal is to offer both clean sounds worthy of their greatest signature amps, and overdriven sounds, very overdriven tones to please biggest fans of sturdier sounds.

The going fashion is to have low power (relative) tube amps.  Fender is spoiling us with a version a bit quieter than the previous 60 Watts. The Super-Sonic has 22 watts under the hood, and is available in two finishes, black or blonde (cream).  We received the black version for this review, but we would have preferred the iconic 1961 blond treatment, which matches better with the cream plastic knobs.  But it’s not too bad, the black version is still very nice…

We Unpack

Fender Super-Sonic 22 Combo

The combo is made of birch/maple plywood 1.9 cm thick and has the following measurements: 21.6 x 61 x 44.1 cm and measures 18.2 kg on the scale, which is quite reasonable without making a traveler’s amp out of it!  The look of the amp is very classic, with the old school script metal logo, the ivory ‘radio’ knobs and the large red LED on switch.  The grille cloth covering is black vinyl on the blond version, and gray on the black versions. The “Dog Bone” handle on the top of the amp is plastic, but looks very solid, and metal reinforcements are placed at the bottom four corners of the amp cabinet.   Everything looks good to handle things down the road and finish is impeccable.  In the box we are provided in addition to instructions, diagrams showing the guts of the amp. The latter, for sure will be the conversation topic at your next dinner party….guaranteed!   The icing on the cake: a nylon cover is provided to protect your precious from dust- classy!

Under the hood, we find no fewer than five lamps for preamp section:  three 12AX7 and two 12AT7, and two 6V6 power tubes for the amplification (modeled on the Deluxe Reverb). The lamps are protected by a gate at the back of the amp, just above the 12 inches (31 cm) speaker, a “Lightning Bolt” model by Eminence.

Let’s see what the Super-Sonic offers us now in terms of settings and connections …

Conclusion

For about $1400, Fender offers us a 22 Watts all tube amp of flawless quality.  The look is very successful and it has ample power to play quietly in groups.   The clean sounds are typically Fender for our delight, the crunch sounds are not standing still, and we have a real distorted channel, to top it all off.   Add to that an effects loop, Fender long-spring Reverb by Accutronics®, robust and complete pedals and a protective cover, and you get a receiver complete and flawless.  We only lament the price and weight, both a bit high for a 22 Watts. But when you get this sound, we are ready to make such concessions!

Fender Super-Sonic 22 Combo
Advantages:
  • Quality Manufacturing
  • Successful Look
  • Available in two finishes
  • Signature Fender clean sounds
  • Some very interesting crunch tones
  • A true saturated channel, ready to rock
  • Accutronics spring reverb
  • Adequate power for group play
  • Boost on the clean channel
  • Pedal 4 switches very robustly
  • Eminence Speakers

Drawbacks:

  • A 22 Watts at $1400
  • Moderately heavy and bulky for a 22 Watt
  • Not suitable for extreme metal
  • Heavily saturated tube distortion and sustain

To read the full detailed articles with sound samples see:  Fender Super-Sonic 22 Review

September 14, 2010

Adam A8X Active Monitor Review

It has become a yearly tradition for the German manufacturer ADAM AUDIO to launch a brand new product for the Musikmesse trade show in Frankfurt (Germany). Trade shows are meant for that, aren’t they? This year was no exception for the trendy loudspeaker manufacturer. The proof is the new active studio monitor speaker A8X that complements the already comprehensive AX range.

A Brief Reminder

If case you don’t know (or you haven’t read our previous ADAM S3X-H Review), ADAM AUDIO has earned itself a solid reputation in the professional loudspeaker market over the years, thanks to its active studio monitors with ribbon tweeters. This technology — developed and patented by the German manufacturer under the name ART (Active Ribbon Technology) — allowed for the development of several speaker ranges, including the famous “S Series” that became very successful very quickly.

Adam A8X

In 2006, the manufacturer introduced a new series that included two compact and affordable active monitor speakers: the A5 and A7. Conceived for very diverse situations, from studio and home studio mixing to small multimedia applications, these speakers have been praised by sound engineers, musicians and producers all over the world. Actually, as soon as they hit the stores, both compact monitor speakers received excellent comments from the specialized press and almost every professional. It was due to the fact that this new product range created a new market segment that combined professional manufacturing and performance with compact dimensions and a very attractive price.

Last year, ADAM AUDIO presented an evolution of its ART technology — the X-ART technology, which still includes folded ribbons as high-frequency transducers. This tweeter development brings new improvements in terms of frequency response and output level. Just like the SX series, the tweeters included in the X series provide a frequency response up to 50 kHz (@ -3 dB) and a level increase of 4 dB compared with the old ART technology tweeters.

Considering the frequency range of the human ear, you’ll probably think this extended frequency response is only a marketing gimmick to sell more based on a technical feat. However, in practice it provides the speaker with a much more linear phase response over the audible frequency range, since it offsets phase errors to the limits of the loudspeaker’s frequency response…

Obviously, ADAM AUDIO upgraded this year its famous A5 and A7 models to the X series, which resulted in the A5X and A7X models. Both models are in the exact same market segment as their predecessors in terms of dimensions and price. However, in order to cover an even wider application range, ADAM AUDIO decided to offer two new loudspeaker models called A3X and A8X. While the A3X is an entry-level model, the goal of the A8X is to open the midfield monitor speaker market to the AX series.

And it’s good so because I have a weakness for high-end products, as you may have already noticed…

Out of the Box

Adam A8X

It will take you no time to understand the position of the A8X in the AX range considering its “impressive” dimensions: 15.5″ x 10″ x 12.5″ (H x W x D)! The overall design — which recalls the previous A series — and the black/gray finish is similar for the whole AX series and it gives the speakers a modern and rugged look. On the front side, the upper corners are slanted in order to minimize reflections on the cabinet.

The A8X weights 28.7 lb.(!), including the X-ART ribbon tweeter and a 8.5″ mid-woofer mounted in a newly developed cabinet that features two bass reflex ports to enhance the lows… While the A8X tweeter is the same transducer as in the top SX series, the woofer is slightly different. Unlike the HexaCone material used for the SX series, the AX woofers are made out of a carbon/Rohacell (structural foam)/glass fiber combination. But don’t worry about the response quality of the woofer! On the front side, right between the two bass reflex ports, you’ll find a control panel with an on/off switch and a main volume control ranging from -∞ to +14 dB. Like the older A5 and A7, the front side of the cabinet is still sleek and simple.

Adam A8X

When it comes to amplification, the A8X benefits from the same improvements as all other X models: The X-ART tweeter is driven by its own class AB amp that delivers 50 watts RMS. The very low distortion of the power amp, as well as its extended frequency response up to 300 kHz, ought to optimize the precision and performance of the tweeter. The woofer is driven by a 150-watt PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) amp. The crossover frequency is set at 2.5 kHz. The frequency response of the monitor ranges from 38 Hz to 50 kHz (at +/-3 dB) and it produces up to 112 dB SPL (120 dB peak). It can be very loud!

The rear side of the speaker hosts the connections and other settings. On the upper left corner you have balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA inputs to connect a +4 dBu source signal (a mixer, a summing amp, a monitoring controller, etc.) or a -10 dBV signal source (CD player, etc.). Well done!

Like all ADAM monitors, the A8X also provides several valuable settings. First of all, you have trim pots that control a pair of shelving filters to adjust the frequency bands above 5 kHz and under 300 Hz (+/-6 dB). A third control adjusts the gain of the tweeter (+/-4 dB) to balance the high-frequency range against the overall volume of the speaker. Last but not least, on the rear panel is also the power outlet with a 110/230V switch.

Now let’s plug the speaker in!…

Conclusion

Upgrading the already very successful A series was no easy task for the German manufacturer. But once again, we have to acknowledge that ADAM AUDIO successfully took up the challenge with this A8X monitor — the flagship of the new AX series.

It’s true that the development of the new X-ART tweeter was the starting point of this evolution. but the improvements in the overall sound go way beyond the tweeter performance. The precision on the low-frequency range and the stereo imaging are important features that make this new series a success. The A8X is not an update of an existing product, but it features the same assets as its predecessors and siblings, and its performance is comparable to much more expensive mid-field monitors…

Announced at $899, the A8X will seduce the masses effortlessly!!

Advantages:

  • Big sounding low frequencies considering the size of the speaker
  • Accurate frequency response
  • Stereo imaging
  • Control panel
  • Price!!!!

Drawback:

  • Lack of “bite” in the mid range

To read the full detailed article see:  Adam A8X Review

September 7, 2010

Ibanez BTB 700DX Review

Filed under: Bass — Tags: , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 8:56 am

The BTB (Boutique Bass acronym) represents one of the nine IBANEZ bass families. It was conceived to provide features of a boutique instrument at an affordable price for the masses. Now, if I can only decide on the red or black finish..

Ibanez BTB 700DX

Need I present Ibanez?

That was a rhetorical question. I have never talked about Ibanez on this site, hence, I will briefly summarize the brand’s history for the curious ones amongst you.

The HOSHINO SHOTEN company was founded six years after the first World War, in the land of samurai soldiers. In those days, the company sold scores and music paper (“Shoten” means bookstore in Japanese). During the following years, the founder and his successor (Matsujiro and Yoshitaro HOSHINO, respectively) gradually changed the activity of the company to importing musical instruments. In 1929, the company HOSHINO GAKKI (which means musical instrument) was created for this purpose. They imported Spanish guitars by SALVADOR IBAÑEZ (which is the name of the craftman who created the workshop, as well as the first double-neck guitar). Some time later, a civil war devastated the land of castanets. The workshop of Salvador’s two sons was destroyed and some members of the staff were killed during violent clashes in the streets of Valencia. Due to this tragedy, the Japanese importer lost its main supplier so they bought the brand to manufacture the products in Japan (in the city of Nagoya). In 1962, Junpei (Yoshitaro’s son) took over the family business and inaugurated a new production facility called Tama Seisakusho Factory. The company manufactured guitars and drums until 1966. From this year on, the company subcontracted most guitar manufacturing and concentrated on drums (under the brand STAR, which later became TAMA).

At the beginning, IBANEZ was exclusively influenced by European instruments, from traditional Spanish guitars to EKO and HAGSTRÖM replicas. Later, the brand followed the trend of American instruments and started manufacturing GIBSON and FENDER replicas. The business flourished until the end of the 70’s when the manufacturer had to face a trial initiated by a parent company of GIBSON. But this setback was positive because it forced the manufacturer to produce its first own instruments (called “modern”): thus the Iceman and Roadstar electric guitars and basses were born. Encouraged by this success, IBANEZ started developing original designs and new concepts (slim neck-through body, two-octave fingerboards, active electronics) to become the reference brand we know today.

Slapper’s Small Shop

The new BTB (Boutique Bass acronym) looks like its grandparent while offering different electronics. Neither Japanese nor Korean, the bass is made in Indonesia, the land of Orangutans and Java.

I have always liked Ibanez necks. In my humble opinion, they are the main reason for the success of the Japanese company. So I’ll start with this component, which I’ll compare with the neck of an SR model (one of the manufacturer’s classic products).

Ibanez BTB 700DX

The first thing worth mentioning is that all necks of the BTB series are neck-through. You’ll either love it or hate it, it’s all a matter of taste! The basis of the concept is sustain, so the neck is made out of five (three maple and two bubinga) plies. The BTB neck has slightly increased dimensions, compared to the SR:

* The scale is 35″ long (instead of 34″)

* The fingerboard is wider at the nut (41 mm instead of 38 mm)

* The neck is wider at the last fret (64 mm instead of 60 mm)

On the contrary, the thickness of the neck has been slightly reduced; the back of the neck is a bit less round than that on a Soundgear (a half millimeter at the first and the 12th frets) — it’s not much but you can feel it. The instrument has 24 frets, which makes two octaves. The neck/body junction is somewhat original: the last fret is cut so that only the G and D strings are over the fingerboard. It looks nice but, honestly, I don’t understand the usefulness of it! A lot of effort has been invested in suppressing two notes (A and E) out of four, that could actually be useful.

Ibanez BTB 700DX

If this feature is for aesthetical reasons, the choice might prove ungrateful. However, considering its place on the neck, it won’t disturb many musicians except for a few solo bass players. In summary, you get a slightly wider and slimmer neck. You have more space to move your fingers without hindering the movement of your left hand. The wide cutaways allow an easy access to the upper frets. The slightly longer scale poses no problems and my left hand feels very comfortable on this neck.

The headstock design matches the body and the fingerboard design at the last fret. The headstock hosts Gotoh-type tuners (I emphasizes the word “type”) which are quite basic sealed lubricated machine heads. To be honest, I personally find they don’t quite reach the level of a “boutique” bass guitar. On the contrary, the bridge provides four independent saddles to make you feel confident. The ash body feels very comfortable. Its shape supports the right arm really well and it gives the instrument a light weight considering it has a neck-through body design. The fret work is not exceptional but it’s alright. The bass is provided with an Elixir string set, like most Ibanez instruments.

Now let’s take a look at the electronics…

A Place to Call His Own…

Compared with its direct competitors, this bass guitar ranks in the higher end of the market. It features a neck-through body, a semi-parametric EQ and a good pair of pickups for about $1,000. The BTB is a nice-looking and affordable active bass. Now it’s your turn to test it!

Advantages:

  • Neck-through body
  • Original EMG pickups
  • Ergonomic body and pleasant neck
  • Integrated electronics
  • Available as five-string version

Drawbacks:

  • Tuners
  • Battery compartment and cover
  • Not available for lefties
  • No gig bag included

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Ibanez BTB 700DX Review

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