AF’s Weblog

June 28, 2012

Distortion… Clean and Simple

To read the full detailed article see:  Distortion…Clean and Simple

Most outboard effects behave in predictable ways as you move from manufacturer to manufacturer. For example, you can pick up any brand of digital delay, set at the delay time to 125 ms, the feedback to one repeat and the level to 50%, and get essentially the same, expected sound. Quality issues aside, you can also get predictable results from an EQ. This is a good thing, as it helps you set up the sound you hear in your head on different rigs. But guitar distortion pedals are the “black boxes” of the effects world; they are all unique, inscrutable, and adhere to no known standards for parameter definition. You don’t know how the Tone control is voiced, which harmonics are emphasized as the Distortion knob is cranked, or even what effect the Level control has (such as whether it works dynamically with the other controls or just boosts the existing signal to a louder level). Often the manuals are no help either, preferring not to reveal the mystery of what goes on inside their magic boxes.

So the bad news is, it’s virtually impossible to tell what the distortion pedal sounds like without auditioning it personally. There are no shortcuts, like reading reviews or scanning spec sheets. You just gotta drag yourself down to the local emporium and plug in. The good news is, it gives you an excuse to go shopping! And you can evaluate these disparate mystical contraptions—and even compare and contrast them— by using some basic common sense.

What’s in a Name

Fig. 1. Behringer’s Blues Overdrive BO100 and the Boss Super Over Drive SD-1. Both feature similarly named controls. The key to the pedals’ tonal character lies in their names.

If you’re seeking a warm bluesy overdrive, you can pretty much a eliminate anything with the word “metal” in the title. Conversely, if you’re trying to make Slipknot’s James Root look like a tone wimp, don’t limit yourself to mere “overdrive” pedals or effects with the word blue or tube in them. Often the best clue to pedals’ sounds are in their names, even if they feature controls that are similarly named, as shown in Fig. 1. You’ll find it’s tough to get any hard information from ads, because companies try to outdo each other with descriptive superlatives.

Also compounding the confusion is that some companies name their controls in a completely nonscientific way. Witness one company that released a pedal with controls called “Butt” and “Face.” The Ibanez Tube King’s Void control is perhaps not as flip, but it’s equally mystifying. Remember though, as odd as these names might strike you, it doesn’t mean the sound is necessarily worse (or better) than a pedal with more conventional named controls. Again, you can’t determine the quality of a pedal sound by looking at it, but you can get clues to its category.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Bench Test

Fig. 3. Though the DigiTech Death Metal has conventionally named controls—Level, Low, Mid, High—the name (not to mention the color scheme!) tells you its tone will be anything but conventional.

Once you have the prospective pedal set up and under your feet, the first thing you should do is establish the pedal’s unity gain setting. That’s the point that produces the same volume level when the pedal is active as when it’s bypassed. This will let you hear the pedal’s effect without the influence of psychoacoustics—that is, the ear responding differently to the same frequencies at varying loudness levels. Typically, your starting levels will look like those in Fig. 4. Kick the panel on and off a couple of times to hear what the pedal does to your tone in its most neutral state. Then slowly crank the distortion control from leftmost to rightmost position, noting not only the differences but how the unit is calibrated—how drastically the unit changes from low to high. Make sure to play real-world examples: lead lines, rhythm figures, arpeggios, percussive, and sustained passages. Then try touching up the sound with the pedal’s tone control. That’s part of the pedal’s character too—how its E.Q interacts with the distortion.

Using EQ with distortion is an important element in tailoring your sound. Generally, the higher the distortion setting, the more treble you’ll need to add. The reason is that the more distorted your signal, the more compressed it becomes, and compression rolls off high frequencies. But should you use the pedal’s EQ or your amp’s? Or an outboard EQ? And if you use an outboard EQ, should it come before or after the distortion? Only your ear can decide. Just remember this paraphrase from Woody Allen: If it’s not done dirty, it’s not done right. He was talking about guitar tone, right?

To read the full detailed article see:  Distortion…Clean and Simple

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August 22, 2011

The Top 10 Effects Pedal Targets

Filed under: Effect Pedals — Tags: , , , — audiofanzine @ 9:27 am

A lot of guitar multieffects have a footpedal that can be assigned to various parameters. Volume and wa are no-brainer pedal assignments, but there are a whole lot of other parameters that are well-suited to pedal control. Doing so can add real-time expressiveness to your playing, and variety to your sound.

Some multieffects make this process easy: They have patches pre-programmed to work with their pedals. But sometimes the choices are fairly ordinary and besides, the manufacturer’s idea of what you want to do may not be the same as what youwant to do. So, it pays to spend a little time digging into the manual so you can figure out how to assign the pedal to any parameter you want.

 

DigiTech’s GNX4 is one of many multieffects that has a built-in footpedal so you can add real-time expressiveness to your playing.

 

Certain parameters are a natural for foot control; here are ten that can make a big difference to your sound.

 

  • Distortion drive. This one’s great with guitar. Most of the time, to go from a rhythm to lead setting you step on a switch, and there’s an instant change. Controlling distortion drive with a pedal lets you go from a dirty rhythm sound to an intense lead sound over a period of time. For example, suppose you’re playing eighth-note chords for two measures before going into a lead. Increasing distortion drive over those two measures builds up the intensity, and slamming the pedal full down gives a crunchy, overdriven lead.

 

  • Chorus speed. If you don’t like the periodic whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of chorus effects, assign the pedal so that it controls chorus speed. Moving the pedal slowly and over not too wide a range creates subtle speed variations that impart a more randomized chorus effect. This avoids having the chorus speed clash with the tempo.

Some other effects…

  • Increasing the output of anything (e.g., input gain, preamp, etc.) before the compressor. This allows you to control your instrument’s dynamic range; pulling back on the pedal gives a less compressed (wide dynamic range) signal, while pushing down compresses the signal. This restricts the dynamic range and gives a higher average signal level, which makes the sound “jump out.” Also note that when you push down on the pedal, the dynamics will change so that softer playing will come up in volume. This can make a guitar seem more sensitive, as well as increase sustain and make the distortion sound smoother.

And there you have the top ten tips. There are plenty of other options just waiting to be discovered – so put your pedal to the metal, and realize more of the potential in your favorite multieffects.

To read the full detailed article see:  The Top 10 Effects Pedal Targets

March 14, 2011

Red Witch Fuzz God II, Medusa, Pentavocal Trem and Titan Review

Music is universal — even people in New Zealand, who live down under, play music. They even make guitar stompboxes. And of course, that’s what interests us more here at AudioFanzine. Focus on four analog stompboxes…

While sheep proliferate in the wide, green and shimmering plains of New Zealand’s countryside, a small company based on the east coast of the North Island manufactures and sells fully analog guitar effect pedals. Why? Who knows! Perhaps they love guitars, or they hate woolly animals, rugby and netball — a female sport similar to basketball. However that may be, their stompboxes crossed half the earth to land up on my desk. After an appropriate Haka (the Maori ritual dance), I grabbed my knife and opened the cardboard box (which, surprisingly, came the right side up!)

All Beige

Red Witch

Something is sure: New Zealanders make things very good! Inside each small box, you’ll find the product itself and a nice denim bag to protect it against dust and during transport. The weight of the pedal and the rugged metal housing give you an immediate feeling of robustness when holding it in your hand. The unit features high-quality controls, connections and switches. The silkscreen is easily readable even if a bit enigmatic. As hard as you try you won’t find manufacturing faults!

Just like James Cook did when mapping the sheep island back in his time, we will look into every detail of the products we received. We’ll start with the golden Fuzz God effect…

Oh My (Fuzz) God!

Red Witch Fuzz God II

The stompbox offers basic connections (one in, one out) as well as four controls, two switches and two footswitches. On the left, the volume control determines the output volume, but not only that: through the last 20% of its rotation it adds a treble booster so that the tone becomes more aggressive. The Fuzz setting allows you to control the distortion amount from a gentle fuzz to steamroller sound. To activate the Fuzz God’s Wrath you’ll have to press the footswitch on the bottom right (the one with the lightnings). This will result in a even more chaotic sound that will make your guitar scream (the other footswitch controls the true bypass). Note that the Wrath control interacts with the Fuzz and Sputter settings. With higher values, you get a very long sustain and interesting low-frequency harmonics. The Sputter setting allows you to shred the sound or smooth it. Just try to find out the setting you like most. Considering that the controls interact, you’ll have to proceed by trial and error! Finally, the small switches above the controls allow you to double the gain amount (!) and to activate a high-frequency boost. A LED indicates that the effect is on. The pedal can be powered with a 9V battery or a Boss-type external PSU.

All in all, we like the sound of this fuzz pedal. Its settings allow you to get a very wide sound palette, ranging from smooth and creamy to aggressive and rough. Some controls affect the bias directly and thus generate crackles when you turn them — don’t panic, it’s totally normal! Moreover, you can open the housing to set the general bias of the transistors to get an even smoother sound. We love the lightning mode that allows you to create really interesting sounds via the Wrath control — somewhere between a huge feedback and a theremin, thanks to an oscillator. Noisy guitar players will love it! The Sputter control works a bit like a rough gate that breaks up the guitar sound. Awesome! Only the high-frequency boost switch didn’t quite convince us because we couldn’t really hear any difference…

Kiwi Medusa

 

Red Witch Medusa

The last stompbox we reviewed is called Medusa and combines two different effects in one stompbox. After five long years of absence —in spite of its huge success among guitar players— the Medusa is back to allow guitar players to activate a tremolo and a chorus effect simultaneously or separately. In fact, only very few people could get the first Medusa launched in 2004 — there were only 74 units ever manufactured. But it doesn’t matter now because the guys at Red Witch decided to take the circuit diagram out and launch a new version… which is even better!

The pedal provides no less than six controls to set the chorus and tremolo. Note that both effects are perfectly in sync when they are activated simultaneously. The pedal is equipped with an input, an expression pedal connector and a stereo out with two 1/4″ jacks. The sound samples are mono because we had only one amp for the review. Note that the stereo mode works only when the chorus effect is activated, i.e. the tremolo always stays mono. In stereo mode, the effect signal is delivered through the first output while the dry signal comes out the second output. In other words, the chorus effect is not really stereo and its name is inappropriate. On the other hand, this mode allows you to make interesting things if you own other stompboxes.

Red Witch Medusa

On the left hand side, you’ll find a Blend control to adjust the balance between chorus and dry sound. The Guise three-way rotary selector allows you to choose between the Tremolo, Chorus and Tremolo/Chorus modes. The Bathos knob adjusts the depth of the chorus effect. On the right hand side, you get an Iridescence control to get a subtle and clean chorus effect or a muddy lo-fi sound. Everything in between is also possible… The Magnitude control adjusts the depth of the tremolo effect while the Velocity knob determines the speed of both effects (tremolo and chorus for readers who don’t follow me). Finally, note that the stompbox can be powered with a 9V battery or an external PSU, and that you can access a clean booster on the inside of the stompbox. Nice!

The chorus effect seduced us with a rather wide sound range, courtesy of the Iridescence control. The fact that this effect can be coupled and synced to the tremolo is really interesting. We created the sound samples in a way that you can check the impact of the different settings on the sound: you’ll notice that the Iridescence setting can add some hum with extreme settings and that the Magnitude control makes the overall volume decrease quite a lot. As a consequence, we miss a volume control like the one on the Pentavocal tremolo…

Now let’s take a look at some of the other stompboxes…

Conclusion

With prices ranging from about $250 (Fuzz God II and Pentavocal Trem) to about $400 (Medusa and Titan), these stompboxes are definitely high-grade products providing a perfect construction and a high-quality sound. They are made for analog sound fans who want more than what they usually get. The Titan allows you to get very interesting results in spite of its limitations. The Medusa is an original and very good sounding product, even if it’s not perfect. The Fuzz God II is our favorite model because it is not so expensive but still provides interesting possibilities. The Pentavocal Trem is also a very interesting tremolo effect pedal, whose different voicings and Bottom control make it very original.

To read the full detailed review of all 4 stompboxes with sound samples see:  Red Witch Stompboxes

December 22, 2010

A Guitarist’s Guide to Multiband Distortion

If you’re a guitarist and you’re not into multiband distortion…well, you should be. Just as multiband compression delivers a smoother, more transparent form of dynamics control, multiband distortion delivers a “dirty” sound like no other.

Not only does it give a smoother effect with guitar, it’s a useful tool for drums, bass, and believe it or not, program material – some people (you know who you are!) have even used it with mastering to add a distinctive, unique “edge.”

As far as I know, the first example of multiband distortion was a do-it-yourself project, the Quadrafuzz, that I wrote up in the mid-’80s for Guitar Player magazine. It remains available from PAiA Electronics (www.paia.com), and is described in the book “Do It Yourself Projects for Guitarists” (BackBeat Books, ISBN #0-87930-359-X).

I came up with the idea because I had heard hex fuzz effects with MIDI guitar, where each string was distorted individually, and liked the sound. But it was almost too clean, yet I wasn’t a fan of all the intermodulation problems with conventional distortion. Multiband distortion was the answer. However, we’ve come a long way since the mid-’80s, and now there are a number of ways to achieve this effect with software.

How it Works

Like multiband compression, the first step is to split the incoming signal into multiple frequency bands (typically three or four). These usually have variable crossover points, so each band can cover a variable frequency range. This is particularly important with drums, as it’s common to have the low band zero in on the kick and distort it a bit, while leaving higher frequencies (cymbals etc.) untouched.

Then, each band is distorted individually (incidentally, this is where major differences show up among units). Then, each band will usually have a volume control so you can adjust the relative levels among bands. For example, it’s common to pull back on the highs a bit to avoid “screech,” or boost the upper midrange so the guitar “speaks” a little better.

With guitar, you can hit a power chord and the low strings will have minimal intermodulation with the high strings, or bend a chord’s higher strings without causing beating with the lower ones.

Now let’s take a closer look at some plugins…

Rolling Your Own

You’re not constrained to dedicated plug-ins. For example, Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig has enough options to let you create your own multiband distortion. A Crossover module allows splitting a signal into two bands; placing a Split module before two Crossover modules gives the required four bands. Of course, you can go nuts with more splits and create more bands. You can then apply a variety of amp and/or distortion modules to each frequency split.

Yet another option is to copy a track in your DAW for as many times as you want bands of distortion. For each track, insert the filter and distortion plug-ins of your choice. On advantage to this approach is each band can have its own aux send controls, as well as panning. Spreading the various bands from left to right (or all around you, for surround fans!) adds yet another level of satisfying mayhem.

Here a guitar track has been “cloned” three extra times in Sonar, with each instance feeding an EQ and distortion plug-in. These have been adjusted, along with panning, to create multi-band distortion.

And Best of All….

Thanks to today’s fast computers, sound cards, and drivers, you can play guitar through plug-ins in near-real time, so you can tweak away while playing crunchy power chords that rattle the walls. Happy distorting!

To read the full detailed article see:  A Guitarist’s Guide to Multiband Distortion

October 25, 2008

SKB Stage5 review

t’s no secret that many guitarists like effects and that some are even addicted to their pedals. But of course there comes a time when it becomes necessary to make all these small boxes easier to transport and connect. That is partly why pedalboards were invented and marketed by brands such as SKB with their Stagefive, which we’ll be taking a closer look at …

Vue générale

In Audiofanzine’s forums or elsewhere it’s clear that when it comes to guitar effects, 2 schools of thought battle it out on this almost philosophical question. If you don’t count the “direct into the guitar amp” believers (poor guys), there’s on one side the multi-effect enthusiasts with it’s cumbersome digital programming and sub-sub-sub menus. And on the other, the stompbox fans (2-knobs and let’s play).

So you ask, how has the ultra-archaic effects pedal resisted the digital invader? There are objective reasons on the one hand: ease of use due to there being only a few knobs, the “one pedal, one effect” concept , the case where guitarists only need one or two effects (yes they exist!), and their robustness compared to the average multi effect. On the other hand, we find more subjective reasons: people talk about the warmth of analog compared to digital, not to mention trying to get the exact effects used by many of our idols, who recorded legendary music way before the advent of digital technology. What would “Voodoo Chile” be without a Wha Wha? “Message in a bottle” without a Boss Chorus, or any U2 song without 2 truck loads of all kinds of pedals?

 

After several weeks of use, Stagefive has proven to be a well thought out guitar pedal tool. The possibilities for routing and electrical power, plus the extra cable tester meets 90% of the needs of digital-phobic effect lovers.. If its weight and dimensions are somewhat imposing (start weightlifting immediately), it is unfortunately the price to pay for a single, comprehensive, and safe solution! And still it’s nothing compared to the weight of some custom wooden pedal boards. Among its slight shortcomings are the too concise manual, and the lack of a switch button between the 2 effects loops. At about 400 €, it’s not for everybody, but its strength and quality, in my view, make it worth the price.

Ruggedness
Quality of power outputs
The integrated cable tester!

Manual too light
Doesn’t handle some less common adapters – check before!
Lacks an A/B switch to go from one effects loop to the other

Read the full review of SKB Stage5 on Audiofanzine.

 

October 14, 2008

TC Helicon VoiceTone Harmony-G review

TC Helicon VoiceTone Harmony-G - AudioFanzineTC Helicon’s Harmony-G: The Test
After having delighted singers with their Voicetone pedals, TC Helicon is trying to seduce guitarist/singers with a pedal capable of simulating vocal harmonies that follow your voice and guitar playing. Extraordinary as this may sound in theory, does the Harmony G keep its promises in practice? That’s what we’ll see in this test …

You won’t feel so alone anymore

Setting up live vocal harmonies has always been relatively complicated. A bad balance between the main speakers and the monitoring speakers will often cause out of tune vocals which will quickly get on the nerves of any audience. But there are worse situations! How do you get harmony vocals when you‘re alone on stage? Even if you have all the talent and determination in the world, your voice is still monophonic. Fortunately, TC-Helicon was thinking of singer/guitarists and singer/ pianists who play solo when they created two pedals allowing them to be, as if by magic, accompanied by two virtual singers who even know the set-list by heart! But how is this possible? It’s simple: the pedal, thanks to the guitar or keyboard that is plugged into the device, follows the chord progression, analyzes it and figures out the vocal harmonies that go along with your voice. That’s, roughly, the idea behind the Harmony G (guitar) and Harmony M (for MIDI, the keyboard is connected via MIDI). Sounds tempting doesn’t it? Being a six-string enthusiast myself, I naturally chose the Harmony G model for this test.

So I eagerly opened the nice looking box with the TC Helicon logo …

C Helicon strikes another strong blow by allowing singer/guitarists to have 2 virtual singers at their command. With its effects and its integrated tuner, the little box is like an audio Swiss-army knife. It will undoubtedly attract many musicians thanks to its ease of use, sound quality, solid construction and very realistic vocal harmonies. The Harmony G also offers small features which have been intelligently thought out (changing the reference tuning or Manual mode) and its few defects are quickly overlooked in light of how enjoyable it is to use. Watch out Crosby, Stills & Nash!

Convincing vocal harmonies
Very good mic preamp
Quality effects
Solid construction
48 V phantom power
Guitar through
Automatic mix of voice and guitar
Tone mode
Integrated tuner
Manual

The balance of guitar, harmony levels and effects not stored in presets
Needs AC adapter
Pressing both switches at the same time is not so easy
Sometimes hangs when changing chords

Read the complete review of TC Helicon Voicetone Harmony-G.

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