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Understanding Those Magic Boxes of Doom By Jon Chappell 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 OverDrive SD-1. Both feature similarly named controls. The key to t he pedals’ tonal character lies in their model 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 (Fig. 2) 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. Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz Fig. 2. It’s pretty clear what you’d use the Ibanez Tube King for. And many of the controls are intuitive. But what’s “Void”? These terms are all used loosely to describe distortion, but discriminating tone freaks will make distinctions between them. Overdrive is what happens as a signal is pushed beyond the limits of the circuitry’s ability to reproduce the sound faithfully. A slight overdrive has a warm, smooth, and somewhat dull sound that is musically pleasing on a guitar signal. The next category, distortion, covers the widest tonal area, because it includes everything from “just beyond tube warmth” to the brittle buzz saw effect of System of a Down. Within this range is all manner of metal, alternative, hardcore, and industrial timbres. Fuzz is almost a caricature distortion effect, producing a nasally, buzz saw tone that is generally useful only on single node lead lines. It was made famous by Jimi Hendrix (who played a Fuzz Face), and is now called for by name, though many producers use the word generically described any distortion beyond the warm blues furriness. There’s no accepted category for “beyond fuzz,” but certain hardcore adjectives are making their way into the nomenclature, notable metal (see Fig. 3). 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 narrowed the sonic field to blues, metal, or subterranean death knell, and are fairly clear on the naming conventions of distortion’s controls, it’s time to check out some pedals. You can do this by going to friends’ houses or visiting the local music shop. But you must be systematic when using your “testing instruments.” You can’t go into a store and try Seymour Duncan’s Lava Box with a Les Paul through the Marshall and expect the unit to behave the same way when you try it in Store B’s Strat and Fender Vibrolux. The best way would be to bring your own rig to the shop. But if that’s not practical, work to get the closest setup at the store to the one you have at home. Hint: approach the store during their downtime so the salespeople will be in a better position to set you up. Bench Test 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? Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).
A Space-Age Approach To An Age-Old Need by Rick Van Horn KEY NOTES Innovative design and functional features Extremely durable construction Cases are heavy Hardware case had fit problems A lot of thought has been given to the design of Stagg's new Advanced Concept molded hard-shell plastic drum cases. You need only glance at their unusual shape and distinctive molded contours to get the impression that somebody planned these cases as more than just "containers." They're meant to be functional pieces of equipment in their own right. The Shape Most drum cases are essentially cylindrical, in order to conform to the cylindrical shape of the drums inside them. There's generally a flat section on the side that allows the case to be placed edgewise on the floor—"standing up," as it were. Stagg cases are much more triangular, combining the cylindrical portion with two extended "corners." These corners provide the flatted edge for standing, and also reinforce the overall structural integrity of the case. That's the upside of the cases' design. The downside is that it makes the cases larger and bulkier than traditional models, which may become an issue in the trunk of a Corolla. The Window Sticker A list of the features offered by the Stagg cases reads like the options shown on the window sticker of a high-tech car. Let's take a look. "Eminently stackable and stable due to Stagg's X-centric design." All Stagg drum cases, no matter what their size, have molded circular protuberances that mate with recesses on all other cases, locking the cases together when they're stacked. Also, instead of stacking each case in the center of the one below it, the cases stack in such a way that their "bottoms" (the more or less flat area opposite the handles when the cases are carried) are all flush. This puts the weight of the stack over the strongest part of each case, and also allows you to back the entire stack of cases up against a wall for further support. Cool idea. "All drum cases are lined top and bottom. The Basic Snare case is fully lined." The lining is a sheet of fabric over a slight amount of padding. This is a nice feature, as far as it goes. My problem is that the cases are of the "telescoping" variety, meaning that each case of a given diameter can expand to accommodate drums of different depths. With any drum that's deeper than the completely compressed case, the lid of the case rests on the top of the drumshell. That shell is actually providing the structural support for the case. I'm not a fan of this design, even though it does help keep manufacturing costs—and purchase price—down, since the manufacturer only has to create one model for each drum diameter. But if a case is going to be a telescoping model, I'd like to see a lot more padding or other protection against top and bottom impact for the drum inside. "Convex-shaped top shell to protect against compressive force from above." Most hard-shell cases simply stretch some material across the top of the drum in a flat fashion to create the lid. Any impact immediately bows the lid down, risking damage to the head of the drum inside. The Stagg cases can't totally eliminate that risk, but the convex shape does "dome" the lids a little to absorb impact before the lid would come in contact with the head below. "Shock-absorbent support zones to disperse external shock to the case and drums." This is a more important structural feature—and a nice one. The shape and molded contours of the case help "spread" any impact around the drum, instead of allowing a localized blow. This should provide much more side-impact protection than that afforded by a traditional cylindrical case. "Case tops feature Water Transport Channels to avoid liquid pooling on the top." You may have seen the recent MD ad with a photo depicting rain beating down on—and pouring off of—a Stagg case. The way I see it, hard-shell plastic cases should be impervious to rain anyway. But at least there won't be a pool of water on the top of the case to dump on your shoes when you pick the case up. "Adjustable large format buckles at the end of each strap for flexibility of shell depth." These molded composite squeeze-type buckles are easy to operate, but it'll take you some time to get used to having to open two buckles on every strap in order to raise the lid on the case. This is another aspect of the "telescoping" design. "All drum cases feature sturdy "D" rings that allow the owner to pass a cable through for locking with a padlock, or to secure the cases to the inside of a truck for transport." This seems like a minor feature, but it could mean the difference between going home with or without your drums after a gig. The D-rings are riveted to each case on a nylon strap, and would not pose much of an obstacle to a determined and prepared thief. But they certainly would help prevent an impulsive "grab and go" heist. "Bass drum and large floor tom cases are fitted with recessed transport wheels." Wheels are great for pulling a case on level ground, going up a ramp, or moving from a dock-level truck into the backstage area of a major venue. But they don't help when it comes time to lift that puppy into the bed of a pickup or the trunk of a car after a gig at the local Elk's Club. With that in mind, this may be a good time to mention the fact that the durability of a thick molded plastic case comes with a downside: weight. For example, the 10" Stagg tom case weighed about 71/2 pounds—exactly the weight of the 8x10 maple tom we carried in it. The 22" bass drum case weighed 221/2 pounds—only a few pounds less than the drum we put in it. By contrast, most drum bags add very little weight to the drums they contain. But, of course, neither do they offer the protection factor of the hard case. I'm just saying that you should make an informed choice. "Hardware cases feature recessed wheels, and are designed with I-beam and triangle construction for maximum horizontal and vertical strength." In general, I liked the 40" hardware case that we tested. It was a very practical, open-topped rectangular container that easily accommodated a fair amount of stuff. The metal reinforcement inside gave it the structural integrity necessary to remain secure and rigid while being rolled or carried. "Height Extension and Stacking Tray Extensions are available for the 40" hardware case." The idea here is that if you need more vertical space for additional hardware, or you want a shelf section for cables, mic' stands, and so forth, you can add them to the basic case. The various sections lock together with rotating ATA-style clamps. And this was where I encountered some problems. To begin with, the clamps didn't seem to lock down very securely. In some cases, the upper and lower halves of the clamps didn't align properly for optimum grip. In others, the amount of "play" that remained after the clamps were closed allowed the various case sections to slide a bit. I never got the sense that the case was going to come apart, but neither did it feel like one solid unit. Also, while I was able to fit the vertical-space section onto the base unit easily, I was completely unable to do the same with the shelf unit. The molded countour of its plastic body did not conform to the contour of the base unit, so there was no way to mate the two. These two problems reflect a need for more attention to quality control and proper fit between the components of the hardware case system. "Address tag and STAGGCase model number designed into the fastening strap." This is another thoughtful touch—although the address tag is a little hard to get out of its holder. Also, the tag is completely removable. So in terms of true security, it doesn't replace the age-old practice of painting one's name on the side of the case. "The air is free." Stagg says that their cases are designed with just enough space between the top and bottom sections to provide the airflow necessary for opening or closing the cases quickly. I've used some drum cases in which a certain amount of "vacuum hold" between the sections was, indeed, a minor inconvenience, and it's thoughtful of Stagg to take this problem into consideration. However, the spacing between case sections in our test group became more pronounced as the sizes increased, to the point where the 16" floor tom and 22" bass drum case lids literally "rattled around" on top of the lower sections. A slight reduction of the space would provide a more solid-feeling case assembly in these instances. Not On The List A feature of Stagg cases not mentioned in their promotional material is their strap-type handles with rubber comfort-grips. Each case has a pair of these—one attached to the bottom section and one attached to the lid section. (There's a single additional handle between the wheels on the bass drum and large floor tom cases, for two-person carrying.) The two straps come together closely when a case is fully compressed. But they'd be spread further apart if the case contained a deep-shelled drum, which might cause a carrying problem. A different carrying problem was created (at least for me) by the rubber grips on the straps. They're fairly large, ostensibly for gripping comfort. However, I have a small hand, and I found it difficult to comfortably grasp both of the grips in such a way as to balance the weight of the case evenly between the straps. I have drum bags with strap handles that fit within a wrap-around cover, thus creating a single grip position. I'd suggest this sort of approach for the Stagg grips. Case Closed I'm impressed with Stagg's innovative approach to the design of what have, heretofore, been pretty unromantic pieces of drum gear. True, some of the positive design aspects create corresponding negative ones that must be considered. And there are some significant quality-control issues that need to be addressed (particularly on the hardware case). But based on the effort that obviously went into the initial design process, I'm confident that those issues will be dealt with in short order. All in all, I'd say that Stagg's foray into the professional drum-case market is a pretty auspicious debut. THE NUMBERS 8" tom case $71.99 10" snare case $79.99 10" tom case $99.99 12" snare case $89.99 12" tom case $99.99 13" piccolo snare case $91.99 13" snare case $99.99 13" tom case $119.99 14" regular and free-floating snare case $99.99 14" piccolo snare case $92.49 14" snare case $99.99 14" tom case $129.99 16" floor tom case $169.99 18" floor tom case $219.99 18" bass drum case with wheels $219.99 20" bass drum case with wheels $269.99 22" bass drum case with wheels $289.99 40" hardware case with wheels $259.99 40" height extension module $119.99 40" level extension module (shelf) $129.99 48" hardware case with wheels $269.99 (877) 231-6653, www.staggmusic.com
Self-Tuning Guitar With Alternate Tuning Presets www.gibson.com by Craig Anderton Even before it came out, the web was already buzzing with controversy: “I want one.” “It’s for lazy guitarists.” “I already know how to tune a guitar, thank you.” “This will be a life-saver for live performance.” “It’s overpriced.” “I’d buy one at any price.” “It’s a dumb idea.” “It’s a great idea.” So of course, it’s up to Harmony Central to check it out, and separate fact from fiction. And frankly, we were very surprised…but maybe not for the reasons you’d expect. FIRST CONTACT Fig. 1: Lurking within that familiar-looking guitar body is something truly different. I pulled the guitar, with its blue/silver finish and white pickup rings, out of its plush, hardshell case. The body shape is (no surprise here) a single cutaway Les Paul. The 60-page owner’s manual (yes, I read manuals before messing with gear—especially pricey gear I don’t own!) does a good job, with info on the history of Gibson, and general care and maintenance for guitars. And I found out something important: Don’t try to tune the guitar manually, unless you disengage the tuning pegs from the peg head. So I read enough to know that you start the standard tuning process by pulling up on one of the volume knobs; this is a special knob called the MCK (Master Control Knob). Then you strum. So I did. Next, the servo motors inside the tuning heads start whirring: It’s the sound you’ve heard in a zillion sci-fi movies. The tuning pegs start turning, as if grabbed by unseen hands. And then…the guitar’s in tune. Really. The first time you see a guitar tune itself is something you’ll likely not forget any time soon, and you have to get over the novelty of the thing before you can arrive at any objective conclusions—it really is a mindbender. A LITTLE BACKGROUND The Robot Guitar is based on the Tronical system that’s been kicking around trade shows for a while. My friend Thomas Wendt, who’s a marketing consultant for several companies, said that I had to see this guitar that tuned itself. I did, and immediately had three thoughts: 1: What a time-saver. 2: Given the price, I think I’ll stick with my tuner. 3: These guys should partner with a big company that can make this happen. Well, it seems like (3) came to pass. Gibson got my attention big-time about a year ago with their Digital Les Paul, so I wasn’t all that surprised they were the company that jumped on the technology. Still, it’s quite a leap to convince guitarists that the wave of the future lies is guitars with things like Ethernet cables (in the case of the Digital Les Paul) or servo motors attached to tuning heads (the Robot Guitar). The polarized reactions on the web are to be expected, but when dealing with something of this nature, you really have to keep an open mind before jumping to conclusions—either pro or con. HOW IT WORKS AND WHAT IT DOES To the casual observer, the only giveaway that this is not an ordinary guitar are the larger-than-normal tuning heads, and the MCK volume knob, as it’s silver instead of black. Fig 2: The tuning pegs are considerably larger than normal, but not obnoxiously so. The MCK has little LED letters representing each string, which glow to let you know what’s happening: Red for string not tuned, flashing red to indicate that the frequency is being measured, flashing yellow to show the servos are doing their thing, and green when the string is in tune. When all strings are in tune, all LEDs flash blue three times, then the robot aspect gets out of the way. (There are two more indications: Purple means the string is way out of range, and solid blue means the signal is clipping—don’t hit the strings so hard.) In addition to regular tuning, there are six “alternate” preset tunings: E major tuning (EBEG#BE), DADGAD, dropped D (DADGBE), G major tuning (GBDGBD), “Hendrix” tuning (EbAbDbGbBbEb), and double-dropped D tuning (DADGBD). But you can also establish an arbitrary pitch reference—fantastic if, for example, you’re playing with a piano that’s not quite in tune—as well as create your own custom tunings, which you can then store as presets. As there are only six preset positions, you’ll need to overwrite one or more factory presets to store your own (but you can always return to the factory defaults if you want). Furthermore, you can calibrate the system to any frequency, in 1Hz increments, between 435Hz and 446Hz. Fig. 3: The MCK keeps you informed about what’s happening with the tuning process. Note that strings E-B are green and therefore in tune; the E string is red and not in tune. And if you’re changing strings, there are two special modes: String Down, which basically unwinds all the strings, and String Up, which winds up new strings to near-normal pitch, at which point you can activate the normal tuning mode. String Up can also be activated for a single string (i.e., if you break a string on stage), but not String Down. I don’t like to take off all strings from a guitar at the same time, as I feel it’s important to maintain tension on the neck while you’re changing strings…but fortunately, you can disengage the automated heads for individual strings, allowing you to do String Down on any string you want. We’re still not done: You can use the system to adjust intonation, and there are some system-level tweaks, like being able to trade off tuning time for accuracy (from 0.02\% to 2.5\% accuracy, in six steps). You do need to calibrate the system if you change string gauges (the Robot Guitar comes set up for .010” high E), but this isn’t a difficult process at all. SO WHAT ABOUT POWER? The system runs off two rechargeable AA batteries, and there’s an included charger. You don’t need to open up anything to charge the batteries, as you can use the included cable to go from the charger to the guitar’s output jack. Gibson says you can get about 200 tunings before you need to charge the battery; of course, if the battery runs out while you’re on stage, you’re not hosed—you just have to tune your guitar manually. HOPE OR HYPE? Robot tuning technology isn't exactly cheap, but if your professional life depends on being in tune quickly—either on stage, or in the studio—it’s not prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, this is new technology. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more guitars, at lower price points, incorporating this technology in the future. Seeing a guitar tune itself is pretty wild, but the option to have a guitar that’s always in tune in a matter of seconds is what really matters. For live use, I feel that it takes less time to give your guitar a quick tune-up using this technology than doing it manually—even if you have a good tuner and a great ear—because the Robot Guitar isn't limited to tuning one string at a time. When I think of all the big-time guitarists I’ve seen playing live who hand off an out-of-tune guitar to a tech who swaps it for one that is in tune, I can’t help but think that turning the volume down and doing the Robot Tune Shuffle would take less time and be less obtrusive. Some have said this will make people lazy, and tuning will become a lost art if this technology catches on. As someone who has no intention of trading in my word processor for a typewriter, or my calculator for a slide rule, I don’t have a problem with anything that makes my life easier. This guitar would have paid for itself when I was recording my AdrenaLinn Guitars sample CD. Being a sample CD, every sample had to be perfectly in tune, and I had to check the tuning between every take. This burned up hours of my time, and tended to be a real inspiration-killer. Given how much I play guitar, and how much time I spend doing tuning, I definitely appreciate this technology. Hopefully, Gibson will make it available as a retrofit to existing guitars (like the Digital Les Paul). All this is very cool and useful, but I think that the system’s “secret weapon” is the alternate tuning options. Alternate tunings simply aren’t very practical for onstage use, but the Robot Guitar ends that problem once and for all. For slide guitar, the guitar was ready to go within seconds. History may look back on the Robot Guitar as interesting for being able to tune itself, but of greater significance for making alternate tunings so much easier to do. When I first started testing the Robot Guitar, I thought “cool novelty.” Then I started thinking “major timesaver.” Now I’m thinking that this is indeed significant, and something that, if the price could be brought down enough, will become as standard as, say, vibrato tailpieces. Sure, some people will think “it’s just not right.” And that’s fine. But for those who reflect back on all the time they’ve spent tuning guitars, this changes everything. Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.