Sunday, July 20, 2008

Science Meets Tone . . .

I'm constantly amazed at the variety of guitar / guitar-related items on Ebay. About a month or so ago, I was perusing the site for a pair of replacement tubes for my newly-acquired Fender Super Champ XD. While the stock valves sounded pretty good, overall, I couldn't help but think that a better set would improve things in the tone dept. Call it a hunch. Anyways . . .

During my search for a set of 6V6 tubes, I came across a rather interesting listing from a company called Cryoset. If the para-scientific company name doesn't arouse your curiosity, then maybe this idea will: frozen vacuum tubes. Yup. You heard me correctly.

Through a highly specialized process, the tubes are cryogenically treated, which apparently, improves both the strength and sonic capabilities of the tube. While the whole idea is very plausible, and certainly, rooted firmly in its scientific claims - - it seems just a bit on the Dr. Frankenstein line of thinking - or at least to me it is. I can just picture it now - some guy in a white lab coat, pulling a tray of treated tubes out of the cryo-freezer. As a light, misty fog waftes above his creation, he grins, and then erupts in an evil, maniacal laugh, "from the icy caverns of Siberia, I give you - TONE! Ha ha hahahahhahahahaaaaa!!!"

One might think that all of this whiz-bang technology would cost an arm and a leg - - but in fact, it doesn't. After checking Ebay, as well as a few other sites for the same tubes (Electro-Harmonix 6V6GT), the Cryoset tubes were very competitively priced - and in some cases, cheaper than non-treated tubes.

Eventually, I couldn't help but succumb to the icy temptation of "grail tone", and purchased a pair of the Cryoset tubes to try out myself. Once my new Eminence Ragin' Cajun speaker arrives, I plan on doing a bit of mod work to my Super Champ, with a full-on A/B review to follow. - - J.

Rollin' with the Devil . . .

Apparently, the dubious title of "Arena Rock Gods" does not necessarily disqualify any band from participating in sappy publicity schtick. This snap of the original Van Halen line-up in full disco-era roller garb drew a healthy chuckle from me, and most certainly the obligatory, "what WERE they thinking?" - - J.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Brother Mule

I remember a number of years ago when people would ask me who my favorite new guitar player was, and telling them, "that's easy - Warren Haynes." That was the early / mid 90's, when he was mostly known as "the other guitarist in the Allman Brothers Band", or as the frontman of the "up-and-coming" power trio called Gov't Mule. My, how times have changed.

As one might expect, a wide smile spread across my face when I read Guitar Player's May 2007 issue, and saw that Warren had garnered a lion's share of the hardware in ther annual Reader's Choice Awards survey. Indeed, a most deserving tribute to a fine guitarist, musician, and vocalist. I might also add that it's quite refreshing to see a player of Haynes' style /caliber achieving success the old-fashioned way - by letting his music do the talking. Certainly, it's not the norm amidst the image-conscious, mass-marketed, genre-based pablum the recording industry has been spoon-feeding us for the last twenty years or so (*thank heavens for XM!)

Although the "secret" might now just be fully surfacing, fans and players "in the know" have reveled in Haynes' creative genius for many years. From the searing slidework / solos that are a mainstay of the Allman Brothers' timeless sound, to the incendiary playing and vocal work in Gov't Mule, to the occasional sideman jaunts with The Dead, Phil Lesch & Friends, and the Derek Trucks Band (to name just a few), to writing / playing on a myriad of albums for high profile artists of all musical genres - Warren completely exemplifies the "workhorse" attitude of his band's own namesake. Incessant touring, an honest, blue-collar style; stop-you-in-your-tracks guitar tone; and a reputation as a generous and highly-capable collaborator have made him one of most widely respected and sought-after guitarists in today's music scene. Personally, I couldn't be happier, because as fans - we are truly the beneficiaries.

I've had the good fortune of seeing Warren perform many times, and can only say that his playing and singing have left the hairs on the back of my neck standing straight on end on more than one occasion. If you haven't seen Mr. Haynes live - well, brothers and sisters, now is the time. This is what kick-ass guitar playing / music is all about. - - J.

The Tao of Dave . . .

I came across this little bit while sorting through my old issues of Esquire, and thought it was worth including on Tone Farm. TIP: Double-click the photo, and it will enlarge in a separate window. - J

Marshall Law . . .

Let's face it - when it comes to kick-ass rock n' roll tone, a Marshall tube amplifier is hard to beat. Combos, stacks - whatever. From the day I held my very first guitar in my hands, my dream of a owning a Marshall amp has never really subsided. Unfortunately, that dream is quickly dashed by the cost / practicality of owning one - two giant hurdles that I can't ever seem to get over (*married Tone Farmers - interpret that however you like.) Thanks the advent of modern modeling technology, recreational players like myself are able to enjoy a little "taste" of the Marshall elixir via a number of avenues. One of the best that I've found, so far, is the Tech 21 British Character pedal.

Having played a number of modelers over the past 4-5 years (Fender Cyber Twin, Vox Valvetronix, L6 PODxt), I can definitely say that Marshall amplifiers are the hardest amps to model accurately. The complex order of harmonics, throaty timbre, and high-gain capabilities seem to leave most emulations somewhere between barely marginal and moderately usable. Those familiar with the amplifier's lineage also know that finding the "sweet spot" of a Marshall amp often requires face-melting volume levels - - and digital modelers, traditionally, aren't the most capable in that sonic territory. Tech 21's analog-based modeling circuitry, however, seems to be much more adept at capturing the nuances and overdrive characteristics of Marshall amplifiers vs. what I've used in the digital realm. To my ear, it's a rounder, fuller, and more organic tonal interpretation. Understandably, there are traits of Marshall amplifiers that can only be achieved via fire-spitting tubes and sheer, physical volume levels - so trying to compare a $149 modeling pedal to an actual Marshall combo / stack is more or less an exercise in futility. This ain't the real thing, folks. However, I will say with a fair amount of confidence that in the modeling arena, you probably won't find a better, more "authentic" Marshall tone than the Brit.

There are plenty of reviews to be found on the internet, so, rather than bore you with all of the details, I'll cut right to the chase. T21 advertises that this pedal can cop the tonal guise of three primary amps: 1.) a Marshall Bluesbreaker combo (JTM-45); 2.) vintage JCM / Plexi series amps; and 3.) Modern Metalface / high-gain amps. The bottom line: this pedal does what it says it'll do - from the gutteral, bluesy grind of a JTM-45 combo, to the volumptuous, mid-range thunk of a JCM-800, to the searing, high-gain wallop of a modern-era Metalface - what's here smells and tastes like the real thing. The primary amp tones are accessed via the sweep of the pedal's rotary "character" knob, and can be further adjusted using the EQ (3) and gain (1) knobs. The sample settings T21 includes in the package provide an excellent base to work from, so right out of the box, you'll have a few "bullets" in your holster. Stops in-between the primary tone ranges can yield some interesting "hybrid" tones - so by all means, tweak & experiment. As an example, I was goofing around with the Brit one night using my 3TS Strat. To my surprise, I dialed in a very tasty, Bassman-esque Texas boogie tone in-between the Bluesbreaker and JCM ranges. Not quite as spanky as the classic SRV flavor - but every bit as tight and punchy, with a tad more growl. I wrote those settings down on the spot.

I would also mention that the character knob is extremely sensitive, meaning that minute adjustments have a fairly significant effect on the tone (*T21 states this same fact in the owners pamplet). This trait also holds true for the EQ, level, and gain controls - most especially the gain. Two o' clock is about as far as I'd want to take the gain for any of the amp models; from there on it's all but unusable (*at least for an old-school chap like myself).

Another great feature of the Character Series pedals is that each comes with a built-in speaker emulation, tailored to capture the "essence" of each model. For instance, on my T21 British pedal, the speaker emulation has been modeled after a Celestion Greenback. The only drawback here is that the speaker sim can't be turned off - it's on all the time. For me, this is not a big issue - - but for the Steely Dan studio-set, it may present a work-around situation. At any rate - - the speaker simulation adds yet another dimension to the each pedal's signature tones, and to my ears - a very good one.

Over the past two months, I've had ample opportunity to play the pedal in all of its primary use configurations: 1.) A stand-alone pre-amp - here I'm running the pedal directly into a Tech 21 Power Engine (*basically a powered, flat-response monitor housed in a guitar cabinet; a highly-effective tool for modelers); 2.) A front-end pedal - While it can be used like a traditional pedal, it's most effective running through an effects loop, where its tone won't be "colored" by pre-amp processing; and 3.) A line-direct pre-amp / recording device. The pedal performed admirably in all configurations, though its line-direct feature has proven to be the most useful in my own recording / playing activities. A few of you might remember the tone sample I sent out a month or so ago for "Valley of the Kings" - one of my own originals. That was recorded line-direct, with nothing more than a light EQ and a bit of reverb added.

Overall, the Brit's "Marshall-ness" is quite impressive - a nice, fat bottom end; crunchy, agressive mid-order harmonics; and soaring high's for lead work. Everything you'd expect in a Marshall - - but without the mortgage. Bravo Tech 21!

If you'd like to hear some samples of the pedal in action, here's a few Box.Net links with clips. All were recorded direct through a Zoom MRS-8, with only light EQ'ing and reverb added. Samples #1 & #2 are a old jam favorites of mine; #3 & #4 are JN originals - in case you were wondering. Crank 'em up. - J.

  • Sample #1 - Greazy Texas groove (Plexi)
  • Sample #2 - Crunchy Aero riffage (JCM-800)
  • Sample #3 - Lynch / Satriani-inspired intrumental (Metalface - rhythm; Plexi - lead)
  • Sample #4 - Big hair; big tone (Metalface)