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.


  1. Like your Style, imagine it sounds great.
    Do you leave the Comp and the TS on with every guitar? Like it a lot with Fenderguitars, but not with a Les Paul.

  2. Thanks guys for your support. To be honest, I've mostly been just rocking the tele a lot lately, so yes. If there's one guitar that I may take the comp off for, it will be the Strat, just because it's got some really nice pickups and sometimes you need a clean, clean, clean sound, but for most things, I like the way that the compressor and Tube Screamer thicken things up.

    And I really need to figure out a good system for recording, because I'd love to get some sound clips or something up on here. Thanks again!

  3. ya, you should definitely record. would love to hear stuff.
    inspired by your post i played with my comp (boss lm-2) a little and found that i really like it when i cant turn up my amp. with my band we play really loud and the comp turns everything to mud but at home it makes everything more articulate and full at the same time. will try this next time i play an amp at church (usually i just take my tech 21 liverpool).

  4. oh and i also played with different positions in the effects chain and liked it best after the overdrives.

  5. Yeah, there's a few different ways you can use the compressor. I know some guys who put it last in the chain, which is most realistic if you're going for the studio sound (that's how it works in the studio, after all), but I like it before anything else so it makes me sound like a better guitar player and evens out everything going to all of my other effects. Kind of like the volume pedal before/after the drives. Whatever sounds good to you and helps you make the sounds in your head!