Tuesday, February 22

On Transparency and the Theory of Guitar Tone; or, New Gear - Analog.man TS9/TS-808 Silver Mod

I get the feeling that with every bit of gear I get, I move further away from Karl and closer to James Duke. I still think Karl has some great tone and some of the things he does with delay makes me weep. I think James Duke is more like me, though. I'm really messy and stuff. I try to be transparent, but no matter how much I clean myself up, there's still going to be little bits of me left behind. Like a slight mid-hump. I think the thing I like most about his gear is that he's got a few pedals that are "always" on. Now, of course, that doesn't actually mean always. Just, maybe, 80% or 90% of the time. Or maybe actually always. With this last little bit of gear acquisition, I think I've figured out why.

"Transparent" is one of those gear buzzwords that people like to throw out there. From a technical standpoint, I suppose it means that whatever you put in, you get out. The equilization doesn't change, or the level is the same, or there aren't any little nasty digital artifacts or fuzzy analog distortions or anything at all. Or maybe it means that it will preserve your playing dynamics. Or that your guitar and your amp sounds like your guitar and your amp. As a marketing tool, it's an awesome concept. You can buy this new piece of gear and it won't hurt the tone that you've worked so hard to find for so long! As a logical concept, what the hell does that even mean?

What does "your guitar" sound like? Can you even hear "your guitar" in a vacuum? The very nature of the electric guitar is that it interacts with an amplifier. What does "your guitar" sound like? Largely, that depends on what amp you are playing through. A Fender American Standard Stratocaster is going to sound one way through a Fender Bassman amp, and a very different way through a Marshall "Bluesbreaker", and still another different way through a Vox AC-30. Even the impedance of the guitar cable that you use will change how your guitar sounds. And then, what about effects pedals? Every pedal, if it's True Bypass (another great buzzword that can mean pretty much anything) or buffered, is going to affect your sound. If it's connected to your guitar and amp, off or on, it's going to change things. The war is often in how much or how little of a change. Even the most "transparent" of pedals is going to affect your sound in some way. It would be impossible for it not to.

Here's the point. I recently was able to do a straight up trade of my Boss BD-2 with the Keeley Mod in it, for a pedal that I've been questing after the entirety of my guitar journey. From day one, everyone always said, you've got to have a Tube Screamer. Everyone has played through one at one point or another, and it's a major piece of gear that shapes the tone of some of the greatest guitarists who have ever walked the earth. John Mayer. The Edge of U2. Eric Johnson. Stevie Ray Vaughn. Rory Gallagher. The list goes on. So I researched it, seeing that there are many variations. The original Ibanez TS-808 is the Holy Grail, with vintage ones easily reaching $500. Then there are reissues, and mods, and copies, and "new" versions, and everything under the sun. My Fulltone Fulldrive 2 is (in "Vintage" mode) a Tube Screamer clone. The Tube Screamer is literally the most copied, most sought-after pedal in existence. So, naturally, there are good ones and better ones. Most people who are being honest will admit that there is a difference between the $500 one and the $200 reissue and the $100 sound-alike, but they will also admit that they're pretty small differences, not usually justifying all that extra money, and that they all sound "good" (if you're really interested in the full history, there is a really good rundown from analog.man). So as a result, I was happy with my Fulldrive 2, because it's pretty close to a Tube Screamer. Close enough for me, anyway. Until now.

What I got was originally some kind of TS9 (probably a reissue) that was modded to TS-808 specs and then beyond with analog.man's "silver mod". Basically, it's "better" than the original TS-808, but the changes are super subtle, so subtle that you likely wouldn't be able to tell unless you knew what you were looking for and you had both the original and the new version in front of you. In blind tests, most of the differences are so subtle as to be non-existent. But for many, getting a mod done is a good way to get vintage tone for a fraction of the cost and with some upgraded reliability. For me, it only cost me my BD-2, and considering I got that pedal for a significant discount, it was something I just couldn't pass up.

 Pictured above: Tone.

Here's where all of that talk of "transparency" comes back in. I've been playing around with this TS9 for a little while now, and I really like it. It's not "transparent" in the sense that it doesn't affect your tone. It does do a really good job of preserving the dynamics and feel of your playing, so in that sense, it could be called "transparent". At "unity gain" (a fancy term for the same volume level coming in as going out, and no extra gain added), my guitar sounds very similar to when the pedal isn't there, except that it's a little thicker sounding and it's got more sustain. For those of you who aren't familiar, those are generally good things. I know I really like it. Then you can play with the gain knob and get all different levels of distortion, and it's all really smooth sounding. Not harsh. Which is good when that's what you're going for.

I like the idea of an "always on" pedal, because if you like your tone more with it on, why would you ever turn it off? And I think this one is one of them. I've got a DynaComp in my chain right now that is always on, too. Is it going to give me the same tone as going from my guitar straight into my amp? No. But then, I'm not sure I really like that tone, at least not with the guitars and amps I have. It's thin and a bit brittle. Not awful, since my guitars aren't awful, and not something that can't be fixed with a few upgrades (which are most certainly next on the chopping block), but definitely not pleasing to me. I like my tone much better when I've got my compressor going, even though it is by no means "transparent". And now I like it even more with my modded Tube Screamer. It sounds like awesomeness. And I've still got all of the weight of my playing dynamics.

The point is, in many fewer words, if it sounds good to you, then it's good. If it inspires you, then it's good. Jimi Hendrix used a tone-sucking coiley cable his entire career. Mark from the David Crowder*Band has a Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor pedal in his chain. That pedal, objectively, sucks. But ask him about it (because people definitely have), and he'll tell you, "I like my tone better when it's on." And really, that's all that matters.

Don't buy in to the marketing, or even feel free to disregard what I say. Play with what sounds good to you.

Wednesday, February 16

New Look, Same Stuff

I decided it was time to update things a bit around here. Maybe it's the unseasonable warmth or the general, cautious optimism of 2011, but the old design was starting to feel really drab and dull. Now it's bright and shiny! And it's got a few cool new features, too.

Let me know if you've noticed anything that's not working like it used to, or if anything is broken in general.


Tuesday, February 15

Applejack Rickey

The Rickey is a great drink family that has a long history and has, with some slight variations, spawned drinks such as the Tom Collins and the Mojito. It was invented in Washington D.C. during one of the many hot summers of the 1880's when the politicians required a drink to refresh and reinvigorate them. It's an extremely simple drink, originally made with bourbon, the juice of half of a lime, and club soda. So, here's a variation:

Applejack Rickey:
  • 1 1/2 oz. Applejack
  • juice of 1/2 of a lime (about 3/4 oz.)
  • 1 lump of ice
Pour in 8 oz. highball glass, and top with club soda. Garnish with spent lime hull.

This drink is super refreshing. Some of the modern versions of the Rickey will add some sugar or a sweetener to adapt it to modern palates, but with Applejack having some inherent sweetness, it's absolutely not necessary in this drink. The apple and the lime mix well, though the lime hull in the glass adds tons of the more...earthyness? that can come with limes. Not bad, just different. It's also possible that the club soda I used wasn't entirely fresh, so it's not as effervescent as it should have been, which probably would have lightened things up a bit.

I will say, with a drink as delicate as this one, where there really aren't many ingredients that add flavor, quality really, really counts. Use the best quality you can, and you'll get rewarded with a great drink.

Monday, February 14

Applejack Highball

Applejack Highball:
  • 2 oz. Applejack
  • 1 lump (cube) of ice
Put in 8 oz. highball glass and fill with ginger ale or club soda. You may garnish with a lemon twist.

Of course I don't have the lemon. It would be nice, though. Ginger ale has lately gotten a bad rap as a cure-all of mixology. Drink taste funny? Or bad? Or unbalanced? Just top with ginger ale! But often the best drinks that use ginger ale are the Highball family, which includes the venerable Presbyterian and the incredible Dark and Stormy. And this drink.

Good stuff. Applejack + ginger + the theoretical lemon peel is a nice flavor combination, and it's quite refreshing. What's interesting is that you can just as easily go with club soda rather than ginger ale, which certainly makes a very different drink, but awesome. I'd definitely not skip the garnish in that version, though.

Friday, February 4

Tap Tempo Troubles...

(Sorry, this is a super technical and probably super boring entry, but if you're into electronics, enjoy! If not, just go watch that Ryan Adams clip I uploaded in the last entry. It's way more interesting.)

So you remember how I said that I had an ingenious plan to make both of my DD-7's sync up to one tap tempo? By home-brewing a Y cable that split the signal and sent it to each delay? Turns out my soldering sucks.

I would tap in a tempo, and first of all, the delays would only kind of get the idea. Like they'd catch three out of four times I'd step on it. Then one would be a few milliseconds off from the other, so they would drift in and out of sync. Kind of a cool effect, to be honest, but definitely not what I was going for. What could I do? I could of course get one of those cool tap tempo boxes that has two outputs. That would be the easiest. Though if you're looking at my current pedalboard, you'll notice that there's not much room left, so it probably wouldn't have fit. And this was more fun.

Step one involved ordering an insert cable. An insert cable is used to send and receive information from a device. It's got a Tip-Ring-Sleeve (TRS) end on one side and two Tip-Sleeve (TS) ends on the other, where one gets the signal from the tip, the other from the ring, and they share a sleeve. That's pretty much the only kind of split cable with 1/4" ends that you can buy without having something specially made. Since quality literally does not matter to me, I got an $8 job (with shipping and handling) from Zzounds.

Step two was to find a TRS jack. Radioshack to the rescue. $4.

So then a little bit of wizardry. I took out the old jack, saving as much wire as I could on the leads and making a note of what wire went to the Tip (or carried the signal) and what wire went to the Sleeve (or was the ground). Then I connected the Tip and Ring terminals together on the new jack with a little bit of wire that was laying around (you can literally use anything) and soldered it in place. The last step, solder the signal wire, which previously was attached to the Tip, to the Tip/Ring connection, and the ground wire to the Sleeve terminal. Put the little box back together, et voila.

Now, when I tap in a tempo, both DD-7s get a strong signal because I'm not compromising the integrity of the cable, and they both stay in sync. There is, of course, a downside. If I were to use a normal (a.k.a. unbalanced, TS, Mono) 1/4" cable, pretty much like all guitar cables you ever come in contact with, the Ring terminal will come into contact with the Sleeve, short-circuiting things and making it not work. So this is only a stereo tap tempo pedal from now on. Though I would think that if I used a TRS -> TRS cable, it would still work perfectly...something to experiment with. If only I OWNED a stereo cable...

...just don't tell Loopmaster. I may have voided the warranty. ;-)

Thursday, February 3

Ryan Adams

Yes, I know, not exactly a new artist. I think he's already got 5+ albums out. But I just discovered him a few months ago, and I can't stop listening. He's so raw and so poetic. A rare combination, even rarer to do it well. Check him out.

Favorite lyric so far: "Oh the empty bottle, it misses you, and I'm the one it's talking to."

I feel like I must also say that I don't like "country music", whatever that means, but I really can't get enough of this guy. He doesn't really categorize neatly, which also appeals to me.

Tuesday, February 1

Applejack Cocktail

Applejack Cocktail:
  • 1 1/2 oz. Applejack
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. grenadine
Shake and strain into 3 oz. Cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist.

Two points: one, which I may have made in an earlier post, is that when you're doing a lemon twist, do it over the glass so you get the essential oils to spray over the drink. You get all of the functionality out of the twist, in addition to the pretty garnish. Second, Applejack. I had no idea what Applejack was, but our good friends at Wikipedia inform me that it is distilled from apple cider. Whatever it is, it is delicious.

This cocktail is nice, sweet, light, and fruity. It barely tastes like alcohol, which is dangerous. But it is quite delicious. The apple and the sourness from the lemon cutting the sweetness of the grenadine balance out perfectly to make a tasty drink. It's on the list.