AF’s Weblog

July 2, 2012

Fender Super Champ X2 Review

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see:  Fender Super Champ X2

In the world of guitar amps, war is raging. The transistor forces from the digital world are fighting the tubes army. Turning itself into a peace dove, Fender tries to put an end to this war by introducing a hybrid concept: the Super Champ X2. This new amp made in Mexico combines digital technology with tubes has finally seen the light of day. It’s on neutral ground so I can start examining the beast. Hopefully this leads to a peaceful co-existence.

What a Cute Combo

Fender Super Champ X2

I thought I would break my back carrying this new amp. But surprise, surprise, the newcomer is light (considering it’s an amp!), so I was able to climb up the stairs carrying it single-handedly. Aesthetically, it is very Fender looking: black vinyl covering and silver grill cloth with Fender logo. The front panel in Blackface style is not what I’d call original, but it still looks very nice. Manufactured from 1964 to 1967, the Blackface is part of Fender’s legend. Insiders will understand that I refer to the Princeton Reverb, Deluxe Reverb and Vibro champ. The dimensions are somewhat small (9.2″ x 17.5″ x 15″) and the weight reasonable (24 lbs). It will match a vintage environment perfectly. Under the hood, you’ll find all you need to have a blast! You get a pair of 6V6 power tubes for a total output power of 12 watts, one 12AX7 tube in the preamp stage and several transformers matching the tubes. The speaker is a 10” Fender Special Design allowing the combo to stay compact.

Too Much for Beginners?

Doctor J.’s minute!

Vibratone? This effect was conceived in 1941 by Donald Leslie. The Leslie cabinet (better known as Leslie Rotary Speaker) includes its own tube amplifier. A Leslie amplifies the signal and sends it to the speakers. The sound of the low-frequency speaker is sent to a closed baffle through a rotating drum while the sound of the high-frequency driver is sent to a rotary horn. This speaker cabinet creates interesting sound modulations. The source seems to move forwards and also from left to right alternatively while the loudness varies.

One of my worries with digital technology is that you have to turn and push a lot of different controls and you can’t understand anything without the user’s manual. But don’t fear this Super Champ X2: it provides only a few, easy-to-understand controls. The amp provides two separate channels based either on tube or digital technology. Both channels share the EQ section with Treble and Bass controls, the FX selector, the Tap Tempo switch, and the FX Adjust control. Each channel has its own volume control. Plus, there’s a channel selector and a 16-way Voice selector. The rear panel is even more simple: a mains power socket with On/Off switch and fuse. You also get a speaker out, a line out, a footswitch connector (unfortunately, a matching footswitch is not provided), and a USB port. When it comes to effects, we’ve been spoiled: Reverb (Large Room, Concert Hall, spring reverb, delayed reverb), Delay (130 or 300ms), Chorus (fast sweeping, deep sweeping, chorus+delay, chorus+reverb), Tremolo (slow, normal or fast speed), Vibratone (slow or fast speed).

Now let’s take a closer look…

….

Nobel Peace Prize?

The Super Champ X2 is a nice surprise. The amp models sound very good, the tube power amp adds natural warmth and compression to your tone, and you get a dedicated, easy-to-use software. Considering the wide range of amps provided, you’ll easily find your own tone, regardless of your playing style (blues, rock, ska, metal, etc.). Unfortunately, the output power (15 watts) won’t allow you to use the amp in all situations. It’s perfect for playing at home or in a recording studio, but it’s not powerful enough for rehearsals if you have to compete with a drummer. Fender won its bet with this small combo sold for $300 — and this small jewel is also available as an amp head for $250. Unfortunately, the matching footswitch is not included…

Advantages: 
  • Compact size
  • Weight
  • Voicings
  • Effects
  • Tube power stage
Drawbacks:
  • A mid setting on the front panel would be nice!
  • We wish there was a version with more output power
  • Footswitch not included…

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see:  Fender Super Champ X2

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

June 11, 2012

Fender Machete Review

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Fender Machete Review

The Fender Machete represents a new direction for the manufacturer. It’s not like they want to start to making cutlery but rather they want to enter the heavy distortion world. This strategical decision caused many reactions in the guitar world. So, with mixed feelings I leave the sandy roads and whiskey smell of Mississippi to enter the country of tattooed, long-haired musicians.

A Weapon for the Strong!

Fender Machete

I receive the weapon under seal. It hardly fits the trunk of my car with the rear seats folded (for insiders, the JeyMobile looks a lot like the GarthMobile). I come to my place of destination and ask for help to take the cardboard box out of my car because it’s twice as large as me… Right after unpacking you’ll discover that the amp is much smaller than the box (big foam protections inside!) but still not lighter. The physical specs: 24.5″ x 11.5″ x 22″ and 71 lbs. The manufacturer had mercy on us and decided to add clipable casters so we won’t break our backs when transporting the amp. The two-color combo is protected by a black vinyl covering with white edging and a center stripe in the style of a roadster steering wheel. The front plate is made out of black steel and offers nice-looking, brushed-aluminum Telecaster knobs. The overall roadster look is faithful but it might not be everyone’s favorite.

Swiss-Army Knife or a Classic?

Fender Machete

Let’s have a brief tech talk. Under the hood you’ll find five 7025 tubes (also called 12AX7), a pair of 6L6GC and a 12″ Celestion Vintage 30 speaker that matches the roadster look perfectly. The front and rear panel are fully packed. The engine offers two separate channels with Gain, Volume, Bass, Mid, Treble, and Notch controls each. The front panel also includes three selectors: a 6dB pad (for active pickups), a channel switch and a speaker damping selector (damping is the interaction between power tubes and speaker). Finally, the amp offers one reverb for both channels. A small disappointment is that the reverb is not a tube but a digital one…

Fender Machete

On the rear you have Power and Standby switches, an effect loop with send and return level controls, a line output on XLR connector, MIDI in, footswitch connector, and a pair of speaker outs with impedance selector, as well as a pair of PA Mute (mutes the power amp) and Cab Emul (adds the speaker emulation to the line out) mini-switches. The included footswitch provides four options for channel selection, gain boost (ch.1), FX loop, and reverb. It is equipped with two connectors: one for the amp and a second one to chain an additional Machete footswitch (can be useful on large stages). Something tells me it’s time to plug my axe now.

Let’s take a closer look and a listen…

Happy?

Fender’s goal was to offer an aggressive sounding combo to the tattooed, hairy metal community and they have succeeded! The amp is sturdy, so it can be taken on stage and to the studio or stay at home. Moreover, it offers a wide range of clean sounds plus everything from crunch to heavy distortion, while the Notch control allows you to fine-tune your tone. Unfortunately, the amp’s street price of around $1,900 is quite high. Quality has a price, and if you like it, you’ll pay for it…

Advantages: 
  • The sound!
  • Both channels
  • Notch control
  • Reverb
  • FX loop
  • Damping control
  • Footswitch provided
Drawbacks:
  • Price
  • Weight

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Fender Machete Review

June 8, 2012

How to Adjust Your Guitar Pickups for Best Sound

Filed under: Guitar reviews — Tags: , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 8:33 am

To read the full detailed article see:  Adjust Your Guitar Pickups for Best Sound

It occurred to me that for all the tweaking guitarists do with their tone — rolling tone controls up and down on both their guitars and amps — very few ever touch the pickups. Most guitarists I know don’t even look at the pickups and wouldn’t know if they were out of alignment even if they did.

When I interviewed Eric Johnson in his Austin-based studio a few years ago, I was struck by something that at the time seemed rather mundane. With his guitar in hand, Eric talked and played, demonstrating some of his approaches to soloing. But as brilliant as that was, what caught my eye was the periodic modifications he made to the his guitar while he played. In between demonstrating the Mixolydian mode and a string-bending lick, Eric casually reached over and grabbed a small flathead screwdriver, gave the polepiece below the B string on the neck pickup of his ES-335 a quarter turn, and then kept playing. He did this as quickly and as effortlessly as you and I would tune up a slightly flat string. Here’s a guy with total control over his sound, I thought.

Be truthful: When’s the last time you looked at the alignment of your pickups to make sure they were still optimally placed from the strings? And do you even know what that distance should be? Your pickups are as critical to your guitar’s tone production as anything else that follows downstream, and as we know from our devotion to all things audio, there’s no place like the source to really fix a problem.

There are several ways to tweak your pickups without causing a permanent change, so there’s no reason not to have it as an option. If your tone has been lacking, or if it’s out of balance with respect to the individual strings’ outputs, consider adjusting the pickups first, before trying other, EQ-based methods. If you’ve never tweaked a pickup before, just think of Eric Johnson. He would adjust a polepiece as readily as he would roll the tone control from 9 to 8 — if it were the right thing to do. Wouldn’t you like to have that kind of confidence over all your guitar’s parameters?

Pickup Types

All pickups can adjusted with respect to their position to the strings through a simple, reversible (if necessary) turn of a screw. Whether you have single-coil, humbuckers, covered pickups or exposed polepieces, or even pickups with non-adjustable polepieces, you can always move your pickup up or down in relation to the strings. Moving a pickup up, or closer to the strings, will increase the output of the pickup (i.e., make it louder), because you’re moving the magnet and the magnetic field closer to the source (the vibrating string). This is similar to moving a microphone closer to your mouth. In a pickup, moving the magnet closer to the string causes the vibrations to increase the amplitude of the disturbance in the magnetic field, which in turn creates a stronger current at the output.

You would think, then, that moving your pickups closer, for more output, would be a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want maximum output from their pickups? Well, the problem is that two other aspects of the sound change when you move the pickup closer to the strings. For one, the tonal balance of bass and treble shifts, because the frequency ranges don’t produce bass and treble with equal energy. The bass tends to dominate here. This phenomenon gets magnified when you put the pickup closer to the string, where things get boomy fast. The other issue is that the pickup’s magnet increases its magnetic pull on the string itself as you get the two closer together. Putting the pickup closer to the string inhibits the string’s ability to vibrate, causing the string to decay faster than normal. Not the best thing for those sustained string bends on ballads.

In addition to adjusting the overall height of the pickup to the string, consider that you can raise just one side higher than the other. For example, if your neck pickup sounds too boomy or bassy, you have two choices: You can lower the bass side of the pickup (reducing the output), or you raise the treble side (increasing its output). Either move produces the same relative effect: the treble side of the pickup will be closer to the pickup than the bass side, increasing its output relative to the bass side. Because the pickup is now on a slant, the change between the bass and treble strings will be gradual, with a linear, or straight-line, fall-off toward the bass side.

But what if you need even more precise control over the tone? For example, what if just the B string is sounding anemic, with its notes becoming buried when played against its two neighbors, the G and the high E strings? In that case, you can — if your pickups allow — adjust the individual polepieces. For this to be an option, you have to have exposed screw heads facing the strings. This isn’t an option for non-adjustable polepieces (such as those found on a classic Strat), or bar magnet pickup designs, such as many well-known models by EMG.

But if you do have adjustable polepieces (that is, with screw heads), you can try moving them up and down to get your strings in balance. Keep in mind, that as with our side-to-side example earlier, you can increase the presence of the B string in two ways: by raising the B string polepiece or by lowering both the G and high E polepieces. Once the individual strings are in balance, you can raise or lower the entire pickup, or raise or lower either side. This gives you lots of options!

If you do decide to adjust your polepieces, follow these precautions:

  • Don’t screw the polepiece to the extremes. If your screw juts out to within a 1/6th of an inch of the string, you should consider another route. Conversely, don’t torque the screw all the way down, as you risk compressing or damaging the pickup bobbin.
  • Count the screw turns, and write them down. Whenever making any type of adjustment, always note where you started from, so that you can get back to square one if you really screw things up (no pun intended) or become totally disoriented. Also note the orientation of the screw’s slot when you start, and make adjustment in quarter turns, noting the results and checking your work (with your ears) constantly.
  • Have your amp sound together before you start. It’s easier to make polepiece decisions with a clean amp sound. Forget the effects, and get a good workable clean sound before you break out the screwdriver. Then when checking your results, vary the volume of your amp and your guitar to make sure you’re getting consistent results.
  • Choose the correct size screwdriver. If you choose a tool that’s too large or too small for the job, you risk scratching the pickup cover or gouging the screw slots, respectively. Also, take care when using any sharp metal tool near your guitar. You can easily slip and scratch the surface of the top.

    Now let’s take a closer look…

    Manufacturer Recommendations

    Many manufacturers will recommend how to ideally set up their pickups. They typically start from the factory setting, or provide turn-numbers assuming the screw head is flush with the pickup. Here’s one set of instructions using the turn method:

    Set all poles when looking at the screw head from the side that only the rounded part rises above the flat part of the pup.

    Low E: no change

    A: raise 1 full turn

    D: raise 1 ½ full turns

    G: raise ½ turn

    B: lower 1 full turn

    High E raise ½ turn

    Some guitar manufacturers give measurements from the strings to the pickups, as in this example from a Carvin owner’s manual:

    Adjusting Pickup Height:  Each pickup has 2 or 3 height adjusting screws. For maximum power output keep the pickups adjusted as close to the strings as possible while maintaining enough clearance so that the pickup pole pieces will not touch the strings when playing on the upper frets. If you want a mellower sound, then adjust the pickups further away from the strings. For humbucking pickups we recommend 5/32” clearance. For single coil pickups go with 1/8” clearance.

    Adjusting individual pickup poles:  We set each magnetic screw head in both pickups for a balanced sound. If you wish to raise or lower the output of a certain string, then lower or raise the adjustable screw heads until you get the desired power output of that string. Press strings down on the 24th fret and make sure that you have at least 1/16” clearance between the strings and the pickup screw heads, otherwise you may get static as a result. Keep the pickup pole pieces clean as any metallic particles on them can cause static.

    What’s clear here is that both approaches assume you will be adjusting your pickups. They don’t warn you that it will “void the warranty,” and they even offer their recommended setups. You should feel encouraged by this to experiment for yourself.

    Conclusions

    Even the simple act of changing your brand or type of strings (from a light set to light-top/heavy bottom) may require a pickup modification. And if you find your guitar’s tone has been uneven, lackluster, or just wanting in general, try adjusting the pickups first. Your actions are completely reversible, and you can’t hurt anything — except perhaps for the tone if you go too far, but then you can just “hit Undo” in the analog way — by reversing your screw-turning steps!

    To read the full detailed article see:  Adjust Your Guitar Pickups for Best Sound

June 4, 2012

Mesa Boogie Mini Rectifier Review

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Mesa Boobie Mini Rectifier Review

We are living in an era of miniaturization, and guitar amp manufacturers aren’t an exception. Many of them already offer compact amps and now Mesa Boogie presents its second small sized (and with reduced output power) amp head. Let’s see if the Californian brand still sounds as proud!

Everything is Smaller in our Lives

Mesa Boogie Mini Rectifier

Remember the 60′s? It wasn’t that long ago… In the past, the size and the output power of an amp were crucial to the sound of our favorite guitar players. But things change a lot. Housing shortage, noise restrictions… It’s not easy to live the rock ‘n’ roll way of life. Even Lemmy from Motorhead lives in a 54-square-foot apartment… But to take the best out of the 100W power of your nice Dual Rectifier, the famous amp of the US manufacturer, you need to play on large stages… In spite of this, the Dual and Triple Rectifier series were very successful… and unfortunately they are normally used with the master control set to 2! And no amp with less output power was able to produce this typical Recto sound coming straight from California.

So, when Mesa/Boogie presented the Transatlantic some of our was hope restored. But this amp doesn’t deliver the huge sound the manufacturer got us used to: a fat US tone with detailed highs and tight lows.

However, today, all fans of this typical sound can rejoice — the US manufacturer has finally presented the Mini rectifier, an all-tube amp head with switchable output power. The compact version of a Dual Rectifier. Literally.

Mesa Boogie Mini Rectifier

Sold in a small cover, this nice and compact amp head doesn’t have anything to envy its big brothers from an aesthetic point of view. It’s obvious that it’s part of the same family that has been praised by most rock musicians for 10 (20?) years. Black vinyl, aluminum front plate in truck-step look, small transport handle… At first glance, everything seems to be in place.

Taking a closer look, you’ll find the exact same design and settings as in the Dual and Triple Rectifiers. Besides a 1/8″ instrument input and a footswitch connector, the front panel features two independent channels. Each channel offers two different voicings (Clean/Pushed and Vintage/Modern), a gain control, a three-band EQ (Treble, Mid, Bass), and presence and master controls. The Mini Rectifier includes five 12AX7 preamp tubes and two EL84 power tubes, unlike its big brothers that use EL34 or 6L6 tubes.

But the main difference is the possibility to select a different output power for each channel on the Mini. A small switch allows you to choose between 25W and 10W for each channel independently. A clever idea: the technical documentation explains that there is a real sound difference between both output power modes. The 10W mode produces a slightly more vintage and round tone than the 25W mode. The latter comes much closer to the modern Rectifier sound (it would be a mistake to think Mesa/Boogie makes amps for deaf rockers only).

Mesa Boogie Mini Rectifier

On the front panel you’ll also see a couple of power and standby switches.

But it is in the rear panel where you’ll find everything you need: FX loop with hard bypass (sweet!), two four and eight-ohm speaker outs, power socket. Considering the dimensions of the amp, don’t expect much more. Straightforwardness and space saving are the maxims. And that’s a good thing. But let’s listen to what comes out of the beast…

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

With the Mini Rectifier, Mesa succeeds in preserving the typical Rectifier soul and spirit in a compact amp with less output power. The competition is hard in this market segment and many brands already offer all-tube amps for home musicians. However, Mesa has the advantage of offering a faithful variation of its top-range products.

The other side of the coin is the price! Sold for $1,000, the Mini Rectifier isn’t accessible to everybody. Add the matching 1×12″ speaker cabinet for $450 and the bill turns quite high for a 25-watt amp! In spite of the high manufacturing quality, only some additional features (a third, higher output power setting, all four voicings accessible via the footswitch, etc.) would justify the price gap with competitor products that are half as expensive! So Mesa stays clearly above its competitors when it comes to price. Bummer!

However, the design and manufacturing are excellent and this new small beast keeps its promise… it rocks!

Advantages: 
  • Two separate channels, two voicings per channel
  • Rectifier look
  • Nice red glow coming from inside the amp…
  • Comprehensive connections
  • Finish
Drawbacks:
  • High price…
  • The dot on the knobs is not easily readable
  • Footswitch a bit too basic considering the price…

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Mesa Boobie Mini Rectifier Review

April 30, 2012

Gibson Les Paul Faded Blue Stain Review

To read the full detailed article see:  Gibson Les Paul Faded Blue Stain Review

A soft launch last Christmas, the Les Paul Blue with roasted maple fingerboard caught our attention. Get your pick and come meet the beauty.

FBI, Gibson’s official partner?

When special agent Jack Malone arrived at Gibby, we thought it would be for an endorsement contract. But we were wrong. John M. Rayfield (his real identity) was followed by several more agents, who were heavily armed to fight against wood smuggling. In order to cover the event, American media was invited and they broadcast this private showcase to the world. Screeching tires, counter-terrorist arsenal (in case of counterattacks from Nashville’s luthiers), war cries — just like a Hollywood action movie trailer. In spite of a legal loophole to substantiate the claim and ask for the wood purchase and export documents in question, the officer in charge of the investigation, Rayfiled, seized part of the rosewood and ebony in stock, some guitars and computer data.

Roasted? Like coffee?

To make up for the lack of rosewood and ebony, the manufacturer had to improvise in a very unorthodox manner because the only wood at their disposal was maple. Imagine a Les Paul Custom with a maple fingerboard… it’s out of the question! To give the guitars a real Gibson feel rather than a California touch, they decided to roast the fingerboard (yes, in an oven). This made it look like rosewood, but with a dryer feel to it. Skeptical but open-minded, it’s time for me to open the cardboard box and give this new affordable US beauty a try.

Getting Started

Gibson Les Paul Faded Blue Stain

After opening the cardboard box, you’ll discover that the guitar is sold with a classy gigbag with the Gibson USA label on it. Some sort of black quiver with an immaculate white zip. Inside the bag a white and very soft protection foam will fend the guitar against the aggressions of everyday life. First surprise, thanks to a new chambered body, the guitar weights almost the same as an SG (the visits to the physiotherapist won’t be that often, I guess). As for wood, the chambered body and the neck are made out of mahogany with a maple top and the already described roasted maple fingerboard. Everything within typical dimensions: 628.6-mm scale length, 42.8-mm nut width, 22 frets and a ’59-type shape. As for electronics, you get two Burstbuckers Pro pickups, a three-way toggle switch, two volume and two tone controls. The beauty wears a translucent blue dress showing the grains of the wood and the maple top. The faded finish gives the guitar an aged look — you’ll either like it or not at all!

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

Gibson Les Paul Faded Blue Stain

Once again, Gibson adds a new Les Paul Studio to their product catalog, but this time for under $800. Sold with a Deluxe gigbag, this young beauty will fulfill the expectations of vintage-sound fans who want a real US-made guitar. The sound variations emphasize the mid-frequency range because of the chambered body and the maple fingerboard. This will certainly not meet everybody’s taste. Moreover, I asked several luthiers about the roasted fingerboard and none of them could tell me how the wood would age and if the fingerboard would withstand a future refretting. Glossy finish fans won’t be too excited about the “old-school” finish. I had the opportunity to see two different guitars of this same model and I noticed inconsistencies in the finish quality. Thus, I recommend you to choose your guitar in a brick and mortar store.

Advantages: 
  • Design
  • Weight
  • Vintage tone
Drawbacks:
  • Finish inconsistencies
  • Lack of low frequencies

To read the full detailed article see:  Gibson Les Paul Faded Blue Stain Review

April 16, 2012

Fender Modern Player Marauder & Jaguar Review

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Fender Modern Player Marauder & Jaguar Review

This time, Fender comes from an unexpected direction! The Fender Modern Player series includes four different guitars (Marauder, Jaguar, Telecaster Plus, Thinline Deluxe) and three different bass guitars (Jazz Bass, Telecaster, Jaguar), while trying to distinguish itself from the countless Standard Stratocaster and Telecasters variations available either as reissue or special versions (with different neck width, wood type or pickups combination).

The Modern Player is Fender’s entry series. Manufactured in China, these guitars can be considered Super Squier models: for instance, we noticed that Fender was not as thrifty with the lacquer layers… Today, we will review the Gibson-inspired Jaguar and the Marauder, a wink to the instrument that never saw the light of day back in 1966, but equipped with the brand new Fender Triple Bucker. We won’t review the Telecaster Plus (three pickups) nor the Thinline (P-90) nor the bass guitars. All instruments are available at the same price $400 (except for the Jazz Bass that sells for $500).

Marauder, the stillborn baby

Fender Modern Player Marauder

After launching many products in the early 60′s (Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Mustang, …), Fender assembled two different guitar prototypes to create the Marauder, a new instrument based on a Jaguar and a Stratocaster that never hit the stores. The first prototype was equipped with a tremolo bridge, three pickups and nine switches for tone variations! The second prototype had a hardtail bridge and the pickups were hidden behind the pickguard! The Marauder had already been announced, photographed and included in Fender’s product catalog. It had even been ordered… Like the ’57 Gibson Modern, the Marauder remained a mystery due to its high manufacturing costs. The legend says that there were eight Marauders actually manufactured, making it Fender’s rarest guitar…

Let’s go back to our Marauder Modern Player! You’ll immediately notice that the guitar didn’t inherit the myriad of switches from the original instrument. You get two pickups: a Jazzmaster-type single-coil in bridge position plus a triple-coil on the bridge controlled by a Strat-type five-way toggle switch. Yes, you read well: you get a real triple-coil pickup, not a single-coil+humbucker combination — it’s almost like having a volume control going up to 11 on your amp. Here is an overview of the different pickup combinations provided by the toggle switch. A, B and C refer to the three coils of the Triplebucker (A next to the bridge), while N refers to the neck pickup:

  • Position I: A + B
  • Position II: A + B + C
  • Position III: C
  • Position IV: C + N
  • Position V: N
Fender Modern Player Marauder

The other features are less original… The maple C-shape neck has a rosewood fretboard, 22 Medium Jumbo frets and a 25.5″ scale length. The headstock is equipped with vintage-type machine heads requiring you to cut the extremity of each string and insert it into a hole before winding the string up. Two controls (Tone and Volume) and a Strat-type tremolo bridge…and that’s it! There is another unusual detail caught our eye: the body is made out of Koto, an African wood rarely used for guitar manufacturing, at least not often enough to have fans or detractors. Certainly Fender used this wood for cost reduction reasons. However, I noticed nothing unusual when playing the guitar. As a summary, you face a guitar based on two legends: the body recalls the Jaguar, while the electronics and tremolo bridge are inspired in the Stratocaster.

Fender Modern Player Marauder

I had no problems except for the tuning stability of the tremolo bridge. But with a new guitar this is rarely a problem: don’t forget that a classic and simple tremolo bridge can work perfectly if you pay attention to the friction points on the bridge and the nut. Consider carving them a bit so that they match the thickness of your strings (this also applies to very expensive instruments) and rubbing a pencil on the friction points (graphite helps the strings to slide better through). Apart from that, nothing seems to be fragile or improperly made on this Marauder. The neck feels very pleasant and inspiring, although the combination of a long-scale neck and a Jaguar body is pretty surprising. All five pickup combinations are pleasant, appealing and special. The sound ranges from very thin and twangy (position 3 is the least twangy) to full and rich (especially with position 4 combining all three coils of the Triplebucker). To wrap it up, this pickup combination recalls a HSS Strat with the center pickup next to the bridge pickup and the bridge pickup of a Jazzmaster to produce a rather low-level output and a very contoured sound.

Now let’s take a listen…

Conclusion

Both guitars are definitely modern instruments conceived for Brit rock and pop: the different pickup combinations aren’t suited for high distortion because they turn too noisy. The Marauder has something special to it — an extra that will please beginners, experienced players and even pros looking for a “small” guitar with a real sound personality both for live and studio applications. As a summary, the Marauder has something “Asterix”-like to it… What’s that you say? It reacts fast and bravely, and the electronics are really clever! Plus, owning a guitar with a triple-coil pickup can be lots of fun! The Jaguar is also a good guitar but it seems to have less personality compared to the Marauder. Considering the price ($400), there’s no risk in buying a Modern Player guitar, but you’ll have to decide which one. Don’t forget to give the Modern Player Telecasters a try, especially the Tele Plus and its three pickups. The Tele Thinline equipped with P-90 pickups can be an excellent alternative to the Jaguar.

Technical note:

The sound samples were recoded using an Egnater Tweaker amplifier head and a Two Notes Torpedo VB-101 speaker simulation.

Advantages: 
  • Value for money
  • The Marauder is amazing: a real breath of fresh air!
  • Nice finish
  • Triplebucker on the Marauder
Drawbacks:
  • Marauder: for this price, nothing! …Except maybe for the unusual look of the pickguard
  • The Jaguar is not inspiring
  • Volume control position on the Jaguar

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Fender Modern Player Marauder & Jaguar Review

February 23, 2012

Ampeg GVT52 112 & GVT15H Review

Filed under: Amps, Guitar reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 6:41 am

The name Ampeg makes bass players’ ears stand up and tails wag. There is a good reason for that: launched during the 1969 NAMM, their SVT amp still has a leading position in the hearts and minds of most bass players. However, today we won’t review a bass amp, but an amp conceived for six-string players. Focus on the GVT52-112 & GVT15H.

Even though Ampeg has released guitar amps in the past, they are still pretty unknown and even underestimated. What’s more, bass products clearly take the lion’s share in the manufacturer’s catalog: bass heads, bass combos, Heritage Series, SVT Pro, Portaflex… So we were surprised to discover a brand new guitar amp range at the Musikmesse 2011! Called GVT, this series looks a lot like the old SVT monsters (300 watts in those days…) and will seduce Ampeg and vintage gear fans.

With their chrome control panel, buttons evoking a time most people under 40 didn’t know, and old-school logo, these new GVT amps have an appealing look and ride the wave of vintage gear for guitar players. One can easily imagine the sound coming out of the speakers just by looking at them and immediately feel nostalgic.

Let’s start with simple things: the small 15-watt head and its speaker cabinet.

Small But Tough

Ampeg GVT52 112 et GVT15H

I don’t know about you, but personally I can’t resist tiny stacks! They look lovely, don’t they? With its compact size (9.8″x18″x10″) and light weight (27.4 lbs), this amp head is perfect for home use while being easily transportable. The speaker cabinet is equipped with a Celestion Vintage 30 12″ woofer, weights 30.8 lbs and has similar dimensions 16.5″x18x11″. Both devices together weight less than 60 lbs, plus they are easier to transport than the combo: just hold the amp head with your left hand and the speaker cabinet with your right hand, stand upright and you are ready to go.

The two devices look pretty sturdy: 15-mm plywood, thick leather handle and metal front panel. The knobs feel very firm and inspire a lot of confidence, the switches feel pretty tight as well.

And what’s inside?

A Well-Furnished Mind in a Small Head

Ampeg GVT52 112 et GVT15H

The GVT15H features only one all-tube channel (class-A push-pull technology). The preamp stage has a pair of 12AX7 tubes while the power amp uses two 6V6GT tubes. You can halve the output power and get 7.5 watts instead of 15 (15 W = tetrode; 7.5 W = triode).

The Baxandall three-band EQ provides standard Bass, Middle and Treble settings. On the front panel you’ll also find the gain, volume and reverb controls. The Treble setting allows to cut/boost up to 12dB @ 5kHz, the Bass control is set to work on 80Hz, while the Middle knob allows you to cut up to 6dB @ 800Hz or boost up to 10dB @ 2kHz. The spring reverb and the rear FX loop can be disabled with a footswitch. You can connect 4, 8 or 16 ohm speakers to the amp using the appropriate rear output.

And that’s it for the overview of this extremely straightforward amp head. But how does it sound?

C-c-c-c-combo Breaker

Same look, same manufacturing quality, so let’s move on to the interesting parts right away.

Ampeg GVT52 112 et GVT15H

This time, you get two channels, 50 watts of output power and an all-tube class-AB amplifier stage. The amp uses three 12AX7 tubes at the preamp stage and two 6L6GC tubes for the power amp. The triode operating mode is still available and allows you to halve the output power (25 watts). Weight (52.2 lbs) and dimensions (19.5″x24″x11″) are still reasonable. The internal speaker is a 12″ Celestion Custom Design. A good-quality footswitch is provided and it allows you to select a channel and activate the booster. Notice that it is possible to add a second footswitch to enable/disable the internal spring reverb and the FX loop.

The first channel produces only clean sounds and bears a lot of resemblance to the 15-watt head: same three-band Baxandall EQ, gain and volume controls. To switch to channel 2, you can use the small switch on the front panel or the footswitch.

Ampeg GVT52 112 et GVT15H

The EQ in channel 2 is slightly different: the mid boost is set at 1kHz, instead of 2kHz like in channel 1. All other controls are identical. The reverb setting and (of course) the master volume are common to both channels. Even if the combo offers a bit more than the head, it’s still pretty straightforward. There’s an LED that lights up red in standby mode and green when the amp is ready to be played — nice little detail.

On the rear panel you’ll find an effect loop (TS jacks), two footswitch connectors (only one is provided), and the outputs for 4, 8 or 16 ohm speakers. If you’re not sure about this last point, the user’s manual clearly explains the impedance to be used depending on the number of speakers and their impedance. Before listening to the sound samples, notice that the booster is accessible only from the footswitch and is common to both channels.

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  GVT52 112 & GVT 15H Reviews

January 5, 2012

Hiwatt T20 Review

Hiwatt has launched its tube series, a full range of compact amps presented as offering the typical British sound of their legendary brothers in spite of their small dimensions and their more affordable price. You can currently choose between three different output powers: 40, 20 or 10 watts. Every amp is available as a combo or head. Let’s check out if their bet is successful by reviewing the T20 combo.

Hiwatt to Know More

Hiwatt T20

From a technical standpoint, the T20 is based on a pair of EL84 power tubes plus two 12AX7 and one 12AU7 preamp tubes. The amp provides you with two channels (clean and overdrive) switchable via the dual footswitch provided (OD/clean and Reverb on/off). You can also select the active channel from the front panel, which also offers a gain control for each channel plus a master control (meaning there is no dedicated output level setting for each channel). The 3-band EQ is shared by both channels. Notice that the mid-band control is a push-pull potentiometer allowing you to shift the mid boost towards higher frequencies. This can be quite useful, for instance to have a slightly brighter sound when recording lead parts. The front panel also features a reverb level control and a couple of Standby and Power switches… and that’s it with the front panel! On the rear panel you have a connector for the dual footswitch (channel selection & reverb on/off), a line out (to feed a mixer or a power amp with the T20 preamp signal), and an 8-Ohm speaker out. This way, you have the possibility to use the T20 as an amp head feeding an external speaker cabinet. The 12″ speaker in the T20 is a Fane Medusa 150. Hiwatt has been using Fane speakers for almost 40 years…

As a summary, the T20 has all features of an amp conceived for recording applications, for playing at home, and for gigs in small clubs. I tried out the T20 with three different guitars: a Les Paul Custom, a Tom Anderson Strat and a Gretsch Billy Bo.

Now let’s take a closer look and a listen…

Conclusion

The T20 is a very good tool! You get the typical Hiwatt sound in a compact and easily transportable amp (only 35 lbs). Ideal for playing at home, small club gigs (unfortunately not in larger venues) and especially for recording applications… As a summary, this amp offers you an amazing and versatile clean channel and a (too) typical lead channel that you should consider as an extra. For about $625 (street price), it is the ideal choice for a first high-quality amp or for a professional musician who wants to add another sound to his tone palette. For about $100 less you can get the T20 amp head, and for about $200 more, the T40, which will allow you to play on larger stages while having the possibility of reducing the power to 20 watts via a simple switch on the front panel. Yeah!

Technical notes:

The sound samples were recorded with a Shure SM57 in front of the speaker and a Brauner Phantom V as room mic (about 6 ft from the amp). Both mics were connected to a MOTU 896 audio interface. No audio processing was used on the recordings, except for a 120Hz low-cut filter on some distortion sounds.

The other AF samples were recorded with a Shure SM57 and a Sennheiser e906 in front of the speaker.

Advantages: 
  • Clean sound
  • Legendary sound in a transportable format
  • Right output level for recording applications
Drawbacks:
  • Very peculiar distortion
  • No FX loop (…is this actually a con?)

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Hiwatt T20 Review

 

 

December 19, 2011

Native Instruments Guitar Rig Pro 5 Review

Within a few years, Guitar Rig has become a reference in the world of guitar amps and effects simulation. The fourth version, which saw the light of day about two years ago, already brought major sound quality improvements with itself thanks to the new –however limited— Control Room feature… Can the German manufacturer surprise us with this fifth version? Read on…

Guitar Rig Pro is one of the pioneers in the history of guitar amp simulation and thus it is now a pretty mature product. This fifth version doesn’t introduce major improvements but rather fills some gaps in the features list. As usual, this new version includes new amps and effects, an improved Control Room (which first integrated convolution technology into Guitar Rig, see the Guitar Rig 4 Pro review), and some new features that will be useful to certain users…

Let’s start with the two new amps: Van 51 and Hot Solo+.

Two Amps for a Wall of Sound

Native Instruments Guitar Rig Pro 5

One thing must be clear: if you don’t like distortion, the two new simulations aren’t for you. The first one is an emulation of the famous Peavey 5150, the amp of Mr. Van Halen, famous for his high-gain sound, palm muting and tapping, and his drop-D tuning. This amp, appropriately named “Van 51,” has two channels. The rhythm channel features two switches: Bright and Crunch, while both channels share a 3-band EQ, a Post Gain control (master volume), a Resonance control (low frequencies), a Presence control (high mids) and a Hi-Gain switch. Even if the amp wasn’t conceived with clean sounds in mind, we tried it out with a 335 and a Telecaster, and the results are quite ok even if not jaw-dropping. With an ESP or an Ibanez in the lead channel, the amp was much more convincing. The tone is accurate but not too artificial. Moreover, both guitars sounded different, meaning that the software stays faithful to the instrument, which is often not the case with amp simulations. The addition of this amp is good news because Guitar Rig was quite convincing with clean and crunch sounds, but distortion was not at the same level.

With our Les Paul the difference between the two channels is pretty evident. The Rhythm channel sounds very heavy, but the sound is nice! With a Telecaster you can hear the twang of the instrument, which is a good point. In short, the Van 51 isn’t limited to heavy metal guitars with high-output pickups. This is a nice surprise that enriches the software’s already comprehensive amp collection.

Native Instruments Guitar Rig Pro 5

The second amp is the Hot Solo+. Based on the Soldano SLO (Super Lead Overdrive) 100, which is not an amp for dance balls but is considered the ultimate amp by many guitar players. This high-quality boutique amp is eagerly waiting for your high-speed solos! It provides two channels (Normal and Overdrive) with independent gain settings, 3-band EQ, Master, Presence (high mids) and Depth (low frequencies) controls. The good news is that the Hot Solo+ is available with two very different speaker cabinets. We recommend you to combine both cabinets for your guitar recordings because they complement each other very well, allowing you to fatten your sound. We recorded the same takes with the same settings but changing the cabinet so that you can hear the differences. With the 335 and the Telecaster in clean mode, the amp gives better results than the Van 51. The sound is deeper and definitely useful, even if we might prefer some other amps available in Guitar Rig Pro. With the Telecaster and the Les Paul in crunch mode the sound difference between the speaker cabinets is obvious. You’ll notice that the second one is more hollow. In high-gain mode, the Hot Solo+ is very convincing regardless of the guitar (Les Paul, Ibanez RG or ESP).

Check out the sound samples and make your own opinion…

Conclusion

The new Guitar Rig version has more than one trick under its sleeve and is a great tool for users who like to tweak their sound and to make the most of their gear. Containers, side chain and effects like Resochord and Filterbank allow you to get very creative. But Native Instruments didn’t forget standard users: you get a more versatile Control Room Pro and many more speaker cabinets. The two new amps are high-gain specialists, but they sound very good and complement the amp collection precisely where it was lacking the most. If anything, we regret that there are not too many new amps and, as always, bass players will feel neglected with only one amp! The update price is quite affordable considering the new features. And if you are still hesitating about changing to Native Instruments, this new version adds some new arguments to the debate.

Advantages: 
  • More versatile Control Room
  • 23 new speaker cabinets
  • The two new amp models sound good
  • 6 new effects
  • The container is very practical
  • Guitar Rig Pro is still a reference on the market
Drawbacks:
  • Only two additional amps
  • Still only one bass amp
  • Some new effects won’t be of interest for every user

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Guitar Rig Pro 5 Review

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