Thursday, February 25

Gear Review: Fulltone Fulldrive 2 MOSFET edition

Continuing in the vein of things that every other electric guitar player has known about for years, I picked up a Fulltone Fulldrive 2 (MOSFET edition) for a good price, because dang it, everyone has said it's so great. Everyone has also said that they're bored with it because it's not boutique anymore because everyone has it. That has in turn lead to a lot of people choosing more boutique overdrives (like the Tim, which likely won't be boutique anymore by the time I'm done typing this sentence) and taking it off their boards, meaning, huzzah, I'm special again! Nevermind that no one uses a Fulldrive's just so 2007.

But, yeah. Bonus for me, because I get to pick up one of the most celebrated (at one time), most versatile overdrives available for less than I would pay for a lot of pedals, AND I also get to laugh when people say that this isn't the cool 'drive anymore. Cool enough for me. It sounds amazing.

I've recently gotten some time to myself, so I've been playing around with the Fulltone Fulldrive 2 (MOSFET), which I run at 12v for some reason. Everyone says "more headroom" which makes, maybe, a little sense to me. I haven't switched between 9 and 12 volts (though with my power supply, it's literally as easy as flipping a switch), but I like it at 12v and I think it plays really well with everything. And holy crap, do I love this thing.

Why? It's 3 pedals in one. A clean boost, a top boost and a Tubescreamer. Not literally any of those, but functionally. And you can tack on another boost to the end with another stomp. Classic rock? Vintage. Some kind of shimmery, sparkly drive? FM (Flat-mids, though because it's a lot flatter, and because of the way that humans perceive sound, the top end sticks out beautifully). Just something clean to push your tubes? Comp-cut mode. And mine being the MOSFET edition has an additional flavor to add. Standard mode is, supposedly, very much like the original Fulldrives, and it is a good tone. Switching over to the MOSFET mode, I find the drive to be a bit smoother, but also the individual strings are a bit better defined. Mostly just different flavors, being hard to say that one is "better" than the other. Oh, and being that that particular switch deals with the clipping that happens under distortion, it doesn't do anything (or rather, not a noticeable anything) in the clean boost (comp-cut) mode.

I have found that using the standard overdrive "clean boost" mode, (i.e., volume all the way up, drive at 0) introduces some compression, something that is unaffected by the drive mode (indicating that the three drive modes are flavors of the overdrive knob, and not of the pedal in general). I actually get a nice clear, uncompressed sound in Comp-cut mode by using the volume and overdrive knobs as I'd use the volume and master volume knobs on an amp, respectively. I'll have a whole post on that subject later, but for now we'll say that putting the volume at around 9 o'clock and pushing the drive all the way up results in a very clear sound in Comp-cut mode, much clearer than zero drive and all volume. That's good, because that's almost exactly as I'd expect the pedal to behave, since all overdrive pedals will add some of their own character when the volume is pushed, be it grit or compression (or both).

The boost section feels identical to the "volume" knob, in that it's pretty clean but when you push it, it starts to compress, even (mostly) independent of tube compression. But where I'd like the volume knob to be transparent, having the boost knob compress a bit is actually a good thing, since that's what you're largely looking for in a solo tone. The boost section also feels like it's inputting into the overdrive section, in that it really amplifies the character of whatever mode you've set your overdrive to be. The Comp-cut mode is the cleanest (albeit, compressed), with the FM and Vintage modes adding more and more grit as you raise the boost.

The tone control is pretty unique, at least compared to the crap I've been playing with. In some boxes, the tone control is pretty extreme, going everywhere from ice-pick to woolly by actually boosting or cutting fundamental frequencies. It seems to me that the tone knob on the Fulldrive works more subtly. Everything I've read has said that it plays with the harmonics rather than the fundamental frequencies, which makes sense if you take a listen. Granted, you have to know what you're listening for, not to mention have a decent understanding of Physics and sound to really even know what I'm talking about, but to me it seems like something of an "overtone" control; turn it down, and you get a very straight-forward tone, cutting out a lot of the harmonics, but crank it up and you get a lot of overtones. Again, there are times when you like overtones (playing particularly clean, they add a lot of depth and beauty) and sometimes when they get in the way (heavy distortion), so it's nice to have a control for them. I think all tone controls do this in a way, but where most brute-force it, the Fulltone is more precise. As a result, I can comfortably turn the tone knob all the way up, something that would cause me physical pain with some stomp-boxes.

Having all of those valid tonal options in one box is just incredible. Between this and my Keeley DS-1, I can get pretty much any tone I'd like. The only thing it won't do is the stacking-overdrives thing that's become popular, but that's just because it's physically one stomp-box. If I had two...endless possibilities!

And I'm sorry, I know I use a lot of words. I guess when I don't have a great method of recording what I'm doing, I need to be as descriptive as possible. Actually demoing the pedal would be way more informative, but I hope my descriptions were at least helpful! This one gets a huge thumbs-up. It just gives me so many options while conserving pedalboard real estate and playing well with tubes and pickups. It will probably never get replaced. Until next week. It's a sickness.

Friday, February 19

Gear Review: Keeley DS-1

So because I just can't stay away from gear (even when I have perfectly acceptable gear already and am certainly not overflowing with cash), I found something on Craigslist that was simply way too good to pass up: a Boss DS-1 with the standard Keeley mods applied. For $40.

Take that in for a minute. The DS-1 isn't my favorite distortion pedal of all time, but a new, stock DS-1 is right around $40. I know, I own one.

Come to find out, the reason why it's so cheap (or at least, the reason why the guy wasn't asking anywhere near the full-price of nearly $130) is because Keeley didn't touch it, but rather, the guy selling it did the mods. Pause for concern, but I went over to his house and inspected things and his soldering was actually pretty top-notch; no messy joints, no burned PCB board, looked clean and, well, professional. So that assuaged my fears a bit.

Since I am in possession of an un-modded DS-1, I get to do something that I've never done before: a shootout! I get to hear, first-hand, what the mods did and didn't do, and judge from there. Not that I have the means of recording any of this. I really need an SM57. But behold!

Keeley on left, stock pedal on right

First off, these two pedals are like night and day. The DS-1 has been my only distortion pedal (choosing to mostly use layers of OD and the natural tube break-up to get differing levels of tube distortion), and I've not gotten a better one simply because I don't really want to invest in anything else. I've gotten to know the DS-1 pretty well as a result, and there are some downsides.

Most glaringly, it's 100% un-usable if you work the tone knob clockwise past 12:00. Trebly would be putting it lightly. It's an ice-pick. In your ear. Any distortion tones I've gotten (and there is like one really good one in there) have involved setting the tone knob right around 9:00. Even then, when the "Distortion" knob (or the gain knob, as I'll call it) gets cranked, the treble really starts to re-emerge, meaning that for a good, crunchy, moderately-distorted sound, the DS-1 can do it, but not much else. Crank the gain, and it gets thin and buzzy, losing pretty much any authority it once had. Oh, and it's not a very clean pedal. Even when the gain is set all the way down, a lot of the distortion remains. I mean, it's a distortion pedal, so that's kind of what you're paying for, but a little bit more flexibility would be nice.

At this point, the Keeley mods have fixed those problems. Every one of them. And, most surprisingly, the pedal gets really, really tube-like. It actually cleans up really, really well, in that with the gain knob all the way off, it's almost a clean boost. The eq is still there, but pretty much no distortion. And this sucker is LOUD. It can add a lot more dB's than the stock pedal can, and does so with as much or as little of it's own distortion as you'd want.

I've yet to really, really play with it, but if nothing else, the Keeley mods really made this a much more flexible pedal. Gain all the way up, it's in-your-face and the buzziness is gone. Tone knob all the way up? Still way too trebly for me, but it's not nearly as hard on the ears; in a full-band setting, it's probably just the right amount to bite and cut through the mix, but that's something that needs some testing. Tone all the way down, you get a sweet wall-o-sound effect that is what I think of when I think heavy distortion.

There is also a switch. Keeley says it basically gives you different flavors of distortion. It seems to me that the "down" position is a bit more full, whereas the "up" position has more bite, but I need to play with it a lot. It seems like a very subtle difference to me, at least in the ways I've played it, so maybe it will become more clear with more use.

I'm not a big distortion guy, and I like to stay as far away from metal as I can, but I do love classic and alt. rock, and I love to be able to step on a pedal and get an instant rocking tone. I don't know if it's a tone I'd spend hundreds of dollars on, but there was no way I could pass up a pedal this good for this cheap. Every Christian guitarist I know has a "rock" pedal, and it does get used sometime (mostly in a Crowder sort of sense), so if you need a distortion pedal, and catch one of these cheap, it's got my two thumbs up.

Wednesday, February 17

Drink Spotlight: The Sazerac

So I realized the other day that the last cocktail I'd written about was the Sidecar way back in mid-December. There just hasn't been much opportunity for cocktails lately, having been focused on the retreat that just ended (phenomenally!) this weekend and prepping to play for that. And now that Lent has officially started, drinking opportunities are going to be rather few and far between; not because I think it's evil or sinful or anything like that, but it is a luxury, and I try to keep those to a minimum to prepare for Easter time. But for Fat Tuesday...

I present to you, perhaps one of the greatest cocktails ever invented. Not for the weak, this is a staple of Bourbon street in New Orleans (though it is made with Rye) and it packs as much of a punch as it does history. The Sazerac.

And because this is a special occasion, perhaps one of my favorite drinks, and one wherein preparation is a major, major component, I've included a lot of pictures to hopefully help you in getting this one right.

First, the ingredients:

The Sazerac:
  • 2 oz Rye whiskey
  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2-3 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
  • Dash Absinthe
Prepare as follows:

I'll also take this opportunity to let you in on the second family of drinks: The Old Fashioned. I'll make a proper one someday, but it's perhaps the oldest and simplest of cocktails. Spirit, bitters and sugar with a citrus peel for garnish. In the standard, Whiskey Old Fashioned, you soak the sugar cube in bitters, add the whiskey and ice and stir well, at which point you make an orange peel and add it, et voila. Not much to it, but a lot of ways it can go wrong, particularly when uninformed bartenders start adding muddled fruit or, God forbid, club soda or Sprite. Barbarians.

As you'll see, the Sazerac is very similar, but has a much more in-depth preparation, and adds the extra zing of Absinthe, which is just phenomenal. First, take two old-fashioned (or rocks) glasses. Chill one, and in the other, place the sugar cube. Soak said sugar with bitters.

Next, put the sugar into solution. Here I'm using a muddler, simply because it's the easiest way that I've found. I also add a small amount of water, as sugar doesn't tend to dissolve well in either alcohol or in a cold environment, both of which are going to be present in any alcoholic drink, and so a bit of water turns into some simple syrup, only with precise control over the water content and sweetness.

Add the whiskey and some ice cubes and stir to chill.

Empty the second old-fashioned glass of the chilling material, and pour a very scant amount of Absinthe (or Pernod if you must) into it. Coat the glass with this expensive and dangerous spirit, and dispose of the excess. I chose to use my mouth, but the sink works just as well when you're not serving yourself. Also, patrons tend to frown upon bartenders drinking out of a glass that their drinks are then served in.

Strain the first old-fashioned glass into the Absinthe-coated one. This leaves you with a chilled and diluted cocktail with no ice in it to dilute further, as well as a nifty bit of presentation.

Finally, make a lemon twist, making sure to spray the top of the drink with the lemon oils.

At this point, there's been much debate over whether to leave the peel out or drop it in. My tastes aren't nearly refined enough (and become even less so upon the consumption of this drink) to detect a difference, though be mindful that, in theory, leaving the peel (or, more precisely, the bitter white pith that is attached to the peel) in the drink should increase the bitterness ever so slightly. As I can't tell, and as the striking yellow peel in the orange drink is visually appealing, I leave it in. Perceptually, and as a psychologist, I certainly believe that a garnish can make or break a drink, even when it should have no reason to alter the taste. Sometimes those tiki umbrellas add just the right amount of spice!

There you have it. Perfection. This drink single-handedly taught me about layers of flavor, about the importance of expressing essential oils over a drink when creating a twist, and just how volatile some ingredients (here, the Absinthe) are; it's easy to go overboard, whereas the smallest amounts can sharpen your senses and focus you on tastes you never knew were there.

Also, apparently the Sazerac has made some inroads into popular culture. In Live and Let Die, James Bond's best CIA friend Felix Leiter orders a round (something I've never noticed, and I have something of an obsession with 007), and while I've never seen the movie, it is a favorite drink of Benjamin Button. Thanks, Wikipedia!

Wednesday, February 10

Gear Review: Fishman Aura Pedal (Concert Version)

So I've been an acoustic guitarist for the entire time that I've been playing. My current forays into the world of electric guitar nonwithstanding, I've spent literally every moment of the past few years trying to make an acoustic guitar that's been plugged into a soundboard sound like an acoustic guitar that is sitting a few feet away from you. I've done all of the research; piezo-pickups, contact mics, soundhole mics, anything and everything to make my acoustic guitar sound like an acoustic guitar. I'm the kind of guy who gets really hung up on something as seemingly insignificant (and potentially unnoticed by the listeners) as that.

I went through a lot of "answers". First, I was looking for the best piezo-pickup, but even the very best are a bit quacky and don't have the depth that a real acoustic instrument possesses. Next, I thought it was the Fishman Ellipse Matrix Blend, which literally puts a small microphone into the soundhole and blends the signal between that microphone and the pickup. And it is a fairly elegant solution, but feedback quickly becomes a problem. Contact microphones are good too, but I didn't have a ton of time and money to test out different placements. In the end, the biggest issue comes from the fact that each of these solutions are only partial; a bridge pickup only gets its sound from the strings, and can't capture the depth of tone of the soundboard, because it's just not attached to the soundboard. Even a microphone in the soundhole is gathering sound from a place where no human ear normally is. I was beginning to think that the only way to get a good, honest acoustic sound was putting a great microphone in front of the acoustic. Well, that's what Fishman did. Sort of.

Fishman introduced their Aura system a year or two ago, and they've been sticking that technology into everything they could think of; from a super-customizable DI to these individual pedals to integrating it into their newest pickup systems. For something to truly blow your mind, check out this new Telecaster from Fender with, you guessed it, the aura system embedded. It's not the best sound I've ever heard, but it's pretty damn cool.

Sort of like (okay, exactly like) an Anderson Crowdster Plus, except the electric sound is all Tele. And the Crowdster's acoustic tone is beyond reproach, mostly because it is literally an acoustic guitar with no soundhole. Maybe if they did it with a semi-hollow Tele....the mind boggles!

Anyway, this technology is the real deal. I've posted an example that I whizzed through in ProTools to show you what it's like. The first phrase is just my guitar plugged straight in. For reference, that guitar is a Breedlove AC25/SR Plus with a Fishman Classic 4 pickup. I'll admit, it's been a long time since I've listened to my guitar, dry, closely, through a sound system, and it's not as bad as I'd remembered. But engage the pedal, and it's a whole different world.

The second phrase is after the pedal's been turned on, with the blend knob set to about 25%. The third phrase, blend is at about 50/50, and the last phrase is the blend up to 75%. It's actually not usually correct to put the blend all the way up, as the pickup does add a lot of definition, whereas the image can get kind of muddy.

Also, this is set on image #7, as there are 16 different choices, each different and great. I like this one for general playing (strumming and picking), though I haven't thoroughly explored them all. Different images bring out different frequencies in the guitar, making some more suited for different situations than others, but Fishman recommends finding one that sounds most like your guitar and sticking with it.

Is all this overkill? In a full-band situation, yeah, sure. If you've done any mixing, you'll know that, with electric guitar, drums, bass, piano, all that, the only sound that often comes through in the mix is the percussive sound of the attack. Putting all of that effort into getting a nice acoustic sound in that situation is rather pointless, since no one will hear it anyway. But if it's just you and an acoustic, or if you're at a point in the worship set where you're fingerpicking or otherwise featuring the acoustic, it's great to have something to kick on to really add depth to your tone. As you can hear, even as little as 25% of the blend adds tremendously!

Definitely a gem for my solo acoustic times, and one of those pedals that will define my sound and never leave my pedalboard, and likely never get turned off!

Wednesday, February 3

Luke 18: Let the little children come to me, and have their faces properly rocked off.

I've got a little bit of down-time, so I figured I'd show everyone what I'm working with for the upcoming retreat: Luke 18. For some background, this is the first time in about a year that I've gotten to lead a band, and it's also the first major time that I'm going to be leading from electric. It's going to be me, my friend Bob on bass, and one of the teens, Matt, on drums. I've actually been really impressed with both of them. They're not professionals by any stretch, but they've both got better-than-average skill, and their hearts are in the right place. Not that I'm the one to judge their hearts. Or anything for that matter.

You know what? I probably should have just said "takes direction well." But that sounds a whole lot less like a worship leader, and a whole lot more like a dictator. Either way, neither of them is playing for attention or to show off, which is all I ask!

Since I'm going to be the sole guitarist, I'll be switching between acoustic and electric. On acoustic, there's nothing too new. It's going to be my Breedlove AC-25 -> Fishman Aura Pedal -> soundboard, with or without my Countryman DI depending on if it's necessary or not. With a bass player and a drummer, I won't need to add in any effects to fill up the sonic space, but the Fishman really is something, and it adds a lot of quality to the sound chain. It makes things sound way better when I'm just doodling around, and it adds a little extra something when everyone's playing.

As for the electric side, we have:



This is probably what I'd consider to be the essentials. I also have a volume pedal and a wah that could go in front of the pedal board, but I don't know if I'm going to be playing electric on Mighty to Save, which is currently the only conceivable use of a wah in a 3-piece worship band that I can think of, or at least the only use I've figured out yet. The volume pedal could work, but again, that's much more of a tool for cool electric additions to the songs, like swelling into delay to make a pad or just swelling in general. It might still make an appearance, but I like what I can do with this board.

And for those of you paying attention, you'll notice a few additions. My current chain is Parts-o-Caster -> Digitech Hardwire tuner -> Fulltone Fulldrive 2 (MOSFET), running at 12 volts -> Boss DS-1 -> Voodoo Labs Tremolo -> Boss DD-7 (with tap tempo) -> Fender Blues Jr. I got the tuner for Christmas, which is a life-saver, and I got the Fulldrive in a trade. If by trade, I mean that I traded $100 for a Fulldrive. Once again, in the battle of Craigslist vs. My Bank Account, Craigslist wins. But good Lord, does that Fulldrive sound incredible. I've been using it solely in the "Vintage" (a.k.a. "Mid-humped", a.k.a. "Tubescreamer") setting, and it's playing a vital tonal part in Our God is Greater (wait for that one to come out on the Passion CD - it's going to be huge!) and How He Loves, where I'm actually using the boost section to get the lead-line between chorus and verse. The DS-1 is being used constantly, too. Our "theme song" for the weekend is Let God Arise, and I'm sure you all know how much of a distortion-hog that song is. We're also doing You Are My Joy and Your Name High, both of which are using a lesser setting on the DS-1. The delay is, well, delay, and it makes the earth better. As for the tremolo, I keep trying to take it off my board because I've yet to use it, but I'm constantly thinking "I could use it someday...", and so it hasn't left. But also, there's not really anything else I'd put in that spot right now, so while it's taking up space and adding cable-length, it is true-bypass so at least it's not adding anything when I don't want it to add anything.

I've been really impressed with my Strat, too. Bear with me, because I'm still new to this whole "electric guitar" thing, but it's incredibly versatile. The middle pickup might actually be my favorite, but then I can go to the neck when I need a more hollow sound, or the bridge when I need more bite. In combination with my overdrive/distortion pedals, I can comp pretty much any sound I need. I do still want to own something with humbuckers, and a "real" Telecaster (I've heard incredibly, surprisingly good things about the Squier Classic Vibe, but haven't found one to play yet) since I'm enamored with the Tele's neck pickup, but I think my G&L may be on the way out, since I just don't play it very often anymore. My little Frankenstein's Monster of a guitar is making it happen. It desperately needs a full setup and fret-job (for instance, the high e string actually gets stuck on one of the high frets when I strum too hard) so maybe that will happen before the retreat.

And the Blues Jr. is tone in a box. It's small enough to drive to distortion without killing everyone in the room, but just the right loudness to keep up with my drummer. And, it's got a nice pleasant reverb so I don't have to keep the Verbzilla on my board, though reverb is probably going to be completely unnecessary during the weekend.