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Chris Loeffler

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  1. LAG Guitars Tramontane Snakewood Series 701EDCE Dreadnought- Quetzalcóatl Returns By Chris Loeffler Unlike the wild, wooly world of electric guitar bodies, acoustic guitars tend to stick closer to a standard design formula. Whereas an electric guitar relies on the pickup to create 90% of its tone, acoustic instruments require acoustic space to amplify and create the tone, meaning that there are relatively few ways to stray from the proven architecture without completely walking away from an acoustically correct instrument. As such, the shapes and woods used to create an acoustic guitar have been more or less codified as “the right way” to build a certain style. This makes for a bit of security for players insofar as they know what to expect when they pick up a new guitar, but it makes for a fairly homogeonous list from which you can choose. Exotic tonewoods certainly make for flash, but the expense of these woods (especially figured) and the extra attention required in bookmatching quickly increases the cost (and, therefor, the price) of instruments to where they are financially unreachable for a player who just wants something that sounds great but looks different. LAG Guitars, one of France's premier distributed acoustic brands, came across a healthy stock of Mexican Snakewood and was inspired to create the limited run Tramontane Snakewood series. The LAG Tramontane dreadnought features a solid AA Sitka spruce top, Mexican snakewood back and sides, and Khaya neck with a satin finish. The headstock, fingerboard, and bridge are constructed from deeply figured mozambica ebony that complements the Quetzalcóatl-themed rosette. Cosmetically, the figuring of the snakewood and mozambica ebony are deep and well-defined, with no aesthetic-breaking snarls in the wood. The binding is rounded, which caught me off guard at first and felt a little "off" until I played on it for a few minutes, after which it seemed perfectly natural. The neck is stained a black satin, which seemed a bit odd given the emphasis of wood appointments on the rest of the guitar, but does stick to the "dark" theme of the guitar's physical appearance and black graphite nut and saddle. The LAG Tramontane benefits from an onboard Fishman Ink Preamp system, which proves a particularly good match for this guitar due to the sonic flexibility, EQ and phase controls. snooker pickup, chromatic tuner, and LED display. The bracing is slightly modified to rebalance the guitar, with a bit less bracing contact at the bottom and beefed up bracing the top (near the neck) to balance out the guitar. The neck is bolt-on, giving a solid connection with the body that's complemented by the enhanced bracing. To top off the visual flare, the included snakeskin-style case is visually impressive and striking without being gaudy. A unique feature of the LAG Tramontane is the battery insert placement, which is at the bottom of the body to avoid the risk of bumping settings on the preamp when changing batteries. Both the input jack and the strap button are included in the same area, and LAG mercifully chose to keep them separate to avoid the undue stress that using an input jack as a strap button causes. Features and hardwoods be damned, you say...how does it sound? Acoustically, I found the Tramontane to be full-frequency and extremely balanced, without too much compression or bloom when strummed hard and yielding consistent projection across the fretboard. Compared to something like a D-28, the Tramontane Snakewood felt a bit tight and lacking in bite, but again, was balanced and well suited to strumming. Electronically, the Tramontane Snakewood really shined, and the slightly muted quality I noted in its acoustic presentation allowed for extremely loud amplification without feedback. Limitations While not a limitation to functionality or tone, the figuring of the snakewood is likely to be a primary motivator in choosing the Snakewood, and the review unit I evaluated had about a 1/16"-1/8” mismatch in the book matching. Conclusion The LAG Guitars Tramontane Snakewood guitar stands out from the crowd of mid-priced guitars with its exotic woods and noir design aesthetics, without sacrificing sound or playability. While the Tramontane Snakewood has a fine acoustic tone, its construction and Fishman Ink preamp system make it shine most brightly when amplified...this guitar is a great choice for someone who wants to play something different-looking without breaking the bank. LAG Limited Edition Tramontane 701DCE Snakewood ________________________________________________ Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  2. Why Their Taste in Music Doesn't Suck By Chris Loeffler A few years ago I attended a concert headlined by a blues guitar player who made a name for himself at the tender age of 15 as something of a child prodigy with his SRV-styled soloing and the voice of a 40-year-old singer with a pack-a-day habit. By the year of this tour, he had recorded five Top 50 albums and had a Grammy on his shelf. Opening for him was a guy a few of you may have heard of by the name of Robben Ford. Robben opened and spent his limited time on stage showcasing what distilling 45 years of studying music theory and the mechanics of what guitar playing can sound like in the hands of a master. His performance was met with the level of enthusiasm and response you would expect from an audience comprised primarily of “music consumers” (as opposed to “music creators”)… they were impressed and applauded at more or less the appropriate moments. As the headliner took the stage the crowd went wild and the band enjoyed almost two hours of unquestioning support. People sang along with the hits and guitar solos were met with consistent roars of approval from the audience. The performance and production was spot on and people spilled into the aisles dancing. When the lights came on after the encore, I obediently joined the crowd filing past the already-closed pop-up concession stands and spilling into the poorly lit gravel parking area. Nearby groups could be heard engaged in various discussions, from “I don’t know how I’m going to drive home” to “That was so great! He’s so cute.” On one side was a group that was clearly made up of musicians (identifiable even without their Fender/Ampeg swag by their haircuts and general attitude, which leaned more towards critical than elated) who were discussing the show. “Man, Robben put that guy to shame.” “Right? That was embarrassing.” “He didn’t even let Robben come up and join him during the encore. He was probably afraid because he knew Robben would make him look like a hack!” “Robben has more taste and talent in his pinky than that guy does his entire body.” That snippet of conversation, overheard in the post-concert shuffle, gave me pause and inspired me to think back on past conversations I’ve had with friends regarding live shows and albums. Discussing what’s “cool,” or “insane,” or even why something “sucked.” Musicians, as practitioners and worshipers at the altar of music, come into and pursue our instruments and songwriting for very different reasons, much like Pollack and Rembrandt using the same medium and materials to achieve diverse goals. For some, it is the perfect pop song, where the payoff is that verse-chorus-verse with “the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and then the major lift,” for others it might be achieving technical expertise over the scales and theory that dictate what notes “should” be played within the context of the chords. Some might invest themselves in the mastery of the instrument and coaxing as many colors as possible out of it, while some want nothing more than a bunch of stompbox effects to warp their instrument and create sonic meditations that are more about soundscapes than they are about creating a lyrical or musical narrative. Whatever aspect of music it is that creates an emotional reaction in us is what draws us to it, and it’s what we seek out in the music we play and listen. It’s what “gets us off.” The disconnect happens, and “music sucks,” when what’s being performed or played back doesn’t serve what we consider the point of music. There is indeed intention behind the creation of every piece of music, and successful artists can convey their intention and engage their audience in a specific way. This is where things get contentious. A person can enjoy King Crimson for their psychedelic assaults of lyrics and music that require multiple listens and careful scrutiny to finally “get” the same way someone listening to Miranda Lambert for her scrappy stories of Southern belles gone wrong laid to a danceable beat can. One isn’t better; they’re serving different wants and needs. The concept of the tortured, starving artist transformed at some point from a description of the state most artists in history have found themselves in pursing their art to the new perceived goal of art. It is a sacrifice to put the time in to master and instrument or songwriting, but the sacrifice isn’t the point, it's the mastery. One can only assume this is why musicians find themselves so offended or turned off by “pop”…it seems too easy. “Pop” didn’t come without heartache and pain (it didn’t?). Pop “artists” didn’t put the time in to even learn an instrument (they didn’t?). You might think a pop-fluff song from Katy Perry has lyrics that don’t stand for anything, is hyper-produced, and is inanely simple...but it’s catchy and appeals to enough listeners that tens of millions of people have a reaction to that song, even if it's just to dance. If all a song or performer accomplishes is to make people want to dance, does that make it any less valid? Are the people it resonates with less intelligent or accomplished than a fan of Phillip Glass because they just want the music to supplement their good time? Does being less than an aficionado at anything make you uninformed or wrong? Returning to the comments overhead after the concert, I think about the implications of their statements- Did the headliner suck for not having Robben Ford not join him for the encore? Did Robben Ford even want to join him onstage? Why did the expectation this would happen exist in the minds of that group? How did Robben put the headliner to shame? Did he want to put the headliner to shame? Did the headliner feel ashamed of his performance? Maybe both artists achieved exactly what they wanted that night, and that was enough for them. The audience’s enjoyment of their performance was no doubt important, but the crowd also came to see artists perform what the artists wanted to perform. Unless the artist so clearly fails to accomplish their goal, through sub-par performance or unforgiveable flawed technical production, attempting to delegitimize the performance or recording of a musician because of expectations set by anybody but said artist is counterproductive and will only lead to disappointment. Music, like all art, is a highly personal experience… even at a live show with 20,000 attendees, there will be 20,000 unique experiences. Everyone will walk away with their own connection to that moment, and all are valid. Go to a Justin Timberlake show expecting a spectacle and catchy songs and be prepared to be pleased. Go there with a desire to hear a guitar-player shredding Hungarian scales and the drummer playing hyper-syncopated multi-rhythms, and you'll be disappointed - with no one to blame but yourself. Respect music and the people who write and perform it. _____________________________________________ Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  3. Some purchases, like a new guitar or amp, are inherently sexy. Others, like strings, capos, and picks, are essential parts of playing but can feel more like obligatory, functional purchases; they are the monthly utilities payments after buying your dream house. However, just as having electricity and water is what makes a nice house a nice house to live in, the right accessories can also be the difference between a good and great playing experience. I use this as an introductory admission of my tempered expectations when I was asked to review a guitar strap. I remember my time as a buyer for an online instrument retailers of amps and effects being filled with regular excitement as big-name and boutique builders brought innovation after innovation to the office while my partner in Parts and Accessories evaluated a never-ending line of skull and flame branded ephemera. Straps are just made to hold the guitar over your shoulders so you can play… how do you improve on that? According to Italia Leather Straps, the California-based strap maker, you start by working with premium Italian leathers and Nappa suedes in a 10-inspection point handcrafting process led by a small team of skilled artisans, collaborate directly with each customer to tailor the strap to their height and playing style, and build them to last a lifetime. The leather-backed, 4” wide Black and Amber strap Italia Leather Straps sent me for evaluation was rugged and sturdy-looking; no sign of the frayed edges or easy-to-scuff characteristics I typically find in lower-end leather products. The strap was firm without being rigid, and I was pleasantly surprised how quickly it settled comfortably into my shoulder. While I initially suspected the 4” width of the strap would be burdensome or distracting (I’m a relatively skinny-strap guy), it did a fantastic job of more efficiently distributing the weight of the guitar across my body. I’m by no-means broad-shouldered, and I found the strap sat naturally over my clavicle and rested against my scapula without applying excess pressure to any one area. The leather material of the strap was heavier than many cloth/vinyl straps I have used, but the design’s exclusion of metal clips and buckles actually summed out the difference, making it equal in weight to those I had around for comparison. Additionally, the pure-leather design added a touch of give to the strap that seemed to reduce the stress of jarring, excessive guitar movement on my shoulder without being so loose as to feel squirrelly or unpredictable. Many online and print reviewers would be tempted to use the summary and conclusion portion of this review to discuss how the strap changed their life and made them better players. While I formally and genuinely applaud (and envy) the player who is one strap from playing perfection, for the rest of us, the Italia Leather Strap is a luxurious, comfortable way to carry your guitar. The quality of the materials and craftsmanship translates not just to a classy visual apperance but, most importantly, an extremely comfortable fit that accommodates proper body mechanics and makes your guitar feel a bit less heavy when you hit your third set. Italia Leather Guitar and Bass Straps- Street $79.00 www.italiastraps.com _____________________________________________________ Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  4. Drasp Lil' Chuckster Guitar Amp A Loud Little Rocker By Chris Loeffler The Drasp Lil’ Chuckster is a single watt, battery-powered solid state guitar combo amplifier. The Lil’ Chuckster runs on either a single 9-volt battery or via a Boss-style adaptor running 9-18 volts. The amp features a ¼” input, a ¼” headphone out, and a ¼” instrument cable out to run into a larger speaker cabinet. Controls included on the amp include Volume, Tone, Gain, and a high-gain switch and the cabinet boasts a Weber AlNiCo 6” speaker. What You Need to Know The Lil’ Chuckster goes from a whisper to loud enough to get dirty looks and injure the hearing of those sitting too close to it as the progressive gain kickin in when the amp’s power section breaks up. The characteristic of the gain is surprisingly variable, with raunchy preamp gain available for that classic MP-1 style distortion (with less treble) or creamier overdriven tones available as the volume is cranked and the power amp section gets a workout. The magic tone combinations, of course, fall somewhere in the middle, with the right amount of preamp gain goosing the power section while the power section smoothes and slightly compresses the ragged edges. The tone knob works similar to most overdrive pedals, adding or cutting treble. Variable voltages yield variable tones. Higher increase headroom and add a touch of sparkle sparkle, whereas 9 volt operation yields a warmer, sagged tone. Both sound gloriously vintage and lofi (in the good way). The overdrive tightens a bit with additional voltage and the treble and bass retain a bit more presence with 18 volts, whereas a cheapo 9v battery creates spongy, fuzz-tinged tones as soon as the knobs go past noon. A great application for the Lil’ Chuckster (other than jamming when there isn’t a wall supply around) is dropping it in a bathroom or tiled area and recording with a field mike. The recorded result is massive classic rock tones that sound like they’re coming from a vintage stack. The build quality is ridiculous. Solid pine cabinet, kevlar textured coating, high-quality PCB and parts, and inpeccable soldering. Each is entirely crafted by hand, and it shows in the sturdiness of the amp. Travel ready indeed. Limitations This is a single, solid-state watt amplifier that runs on a 9v battery… pristine, crystal-clear cleans and modern, bass heavy distortions aren’t possible, and sustain runs a little short. Conclusion The Drasp Lil’ Chuckster is a niche ampthat isn’t for everyone, but those looking for a tube-like vintage sound with extreme portability and an amazingly rugged build quality will find a lot to love. Whether looking for quirky recording techniques or wanting to overpower those acoustic guitars at the next campfire session, the Chuckster has personality for days. Here's a cool video review from Harmony Central's own Bobby D! Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  5. An Exploration of Reverb Effects Continued from Delays and Echo The electrification and amplification of instruments in the 1930’s originally came about out of the need for instruments to be louder in pre-PA days, but an unintentional outcome of electrifying instruments was unique changes to tone and behavior of amplification that added an entirely new world of possibilities. Initial shortcomings of electrified amplification, such as feedback and distortion, slowly became embraced by musicians as additional tools of expression. Given the steady evolution of sound technology, it was only a matter of time before gear designed specifically to alter the sound of an instrument would surface. Time-based effects are devices designed to create a (or many) delayed, parallel path(s) of the original instrument signal with the intention of building sonic space, replicating the natural reflections of a room, or simulating multiple instruments playing the same notes at roughly the same time. While there are many hybrids and effects that live between types, time-based effects can be confidently lumped into Delay, Reverb, Chorus, Flanging, and Looping categories. The Application of Reverb Effects The reverb effect, in its simplest form, is refractions of sound as it travels through a space and bounces off of surfaces. Natural reverb is often referred to as “the sound” of the space or room, and it can have a dramatic impact on the tone of an instrument; playing (or singing) in a small, tiled room produces a snappy, loud reverb while a large padded room produces a more muted and flabby reverb. As recording instruments moved from recording instruments live in a sound room (which would introduce its own natural reverb) to recording instruments individually and mixing them later, sound engineers needed ways to recreate the reverb effect to lend cohesion to the mix as well as fill in the sound of individual instruments. As such, reverb became a discrete effect used in recording, guitar amplifiers, and eventually almost every electric instrument as a way to add depth to any room. The Technology of Reverb Effects The reverb effect typically features controls for depth, decay (often called “dwell”) and effect blend. Other common features in delay effects include the ability to brighten or darken the reverb signal, add modulation to the reverb signal, or even reverse reverb. Before reverb devices, reverb was attained (intentionally or otherwise) simply by ”playing the room” in both live and recording settings. Some of Jimmy Page’s most massive tones were achieved by using a low powered small combo amp blasting in a large room. The reverb of the room filled out the notes and added the depth and presence one would expect from a 100 watt amp cranked to unbearable volumes. Musical venues are often (well, hopefully) designed to take sonic advantage of the room through selective sound treatment and ceiling angling. Obviously, players have little control over the sound of a room while playing (or even recording), so they had to find creative ways to create their own. Spring and plate reverbs popped up around the same time and share the same basic mechanical philosophy- the input signal of the instrument is fed into a plate or spring which vibrates, creating a reverb swell captured by a mounted pickup within the tank. The less common plate reverb, exemplified by the EMT 140, was bulkier in size than spring and created bright, dense reverb with the slightest bit of pre-delay for a more realistic sense of space. It was also considered one of the best reverb sounds around. Oh, and it weighed over 500 lbs. Spring reverb, while similar in approach, became much more common with guitar amps as it was small and relatively cheap. The nature of the spring vibrating creates a looser, almost cartoony reverb in extreme settings that is thinner than a plate. When hit with too hot a signal or physical vibrations, a slinky-like “sproing” occurs that was an essential part of the surf music scene. Spring reverb is still a standard in many tube amps. As the 80’s saw an increase in the use of digital chips, digital reverbs were introduced and brought back iconic reverb styles like “room”, “spring”, “hall”, and “plate” in a single effect. Unencumbered by the mechanics of physical reverb and unaffected by physical jostling, digital reverbs brought the “produced” sheen and tone of studio albums to the live stage. Better yet, rather than just recreating existing reverb effects, even the earliest digital reverbs offered reverb based on the general behavior of specific rooms. Unlike the darker reverbs created by most room and plate/spring technology, digital reverb could actually be brighter than the original signal and could even run in reverse swells. The 2000’s brought in hardware and software technology advanced enough to introduce effect and amplifier modeling, where the instrument’s signal is digitally converted and run through software that emulates (through part-by-part recreations or advanced sampling) physical effect circuits. As such, the most iconic versions of the different reverb technologies found themselves modeled and expanded upon with the control of every parameter only software can allow. The biggest boon to the modeling technology was the ability to offer entirely different delay technology styles within a single enclosure. Today, there is hardly a software instrument or recording suite available that doesn’t include modeled reverbs. Examples of Reverb Effects Classic Spring Reverb- Fender Spring Reverb Tank, Hammond Organ Spring Reverb Classic Plate Reverb- Elektro-Mess-Technik EMT 140 Classic Digital Reverb- Lexicon 224 Reverb, Alesis Quadraverb, Boss RV-2, EHX Holy Grail Classic Modeled Reverb- Line 6 Verbzilla, Strymon Blue Sky/Big Sky Next... Flanging TO BE CONTINUED… Please add comments for any additions. This is meant to be a living document and any and all community input is welcome! Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  6. A Brief History of Time-Based Effects (Part 1) By Chris Loeffler The electrification and amplification of instruments in the 1930’s originally came about out of the need for instruments to be louder in pre-PA days, but an unintentional outcome of electrifying instruments was unique changes to tone and behavior of amplification that added an entirely new world of possibilities. Initial shortcomings of electrified amplification, such as feedback and distortion, slowly became embraced by musicians as additional tools of expression. Given the steady evolution of sound technology, it was only a matter of time before gear designed specifically to alter the sound of an instrument would surface. Time-based effects are devices designed to create a (or many) delayed, parallel path(s) of the original instrument signal with the intention of building sonic space, replicating the natural reflections of a room, or simulating multiple instruments playing the same notes at roughly the same time. The pause in delay time can be as short as a few milliseconds (MS) to thicken a note to multiple seconds in duration between the initial note and the effected signal. Taken to the extreme, the concept of time-based effects blends into recording territory. While there are many hybrids and effects that live between types, time-based effects can be confidently lumped into Delay, Reverb, Chorus, Flanging, and Looping categories. Delays and Echo The Application of Delay Effects Delay effects create a repeat of the instrument signal that is heard some period of time after the original signal. The result is a second iteration of the original signal that mimics the effect of echoes in a canyon or even syncopated rhythms depending on how the delayed signal is mixed. The Technology of Delay Effects The delay effect (also referred to as Echo or Repeat) typically features controls for delay time, number of repeats (sometimes labeled “Feedback”) and effect blend. Other common features in delay effects include the ability to brighten or darken the delayed signal, add modulation to the delayed signal, and tap-tempo control of the delay time. The earliest incarnations of delay came in the form of reel-to-reel magnetic tape or drum machines like the Roland Space Echo, Binson Echorec and Ray Ludbow’s unique Morely oilcan delay. Early delay technology was bulky and required regular maintenance due to the number of moving mechanical parts, but the natural, slightly saturated repeats sat better in the mix against the direct signal and created ambient sound and their preamp sections tended to sweeten the instrument’s signal even when the effect was bypassed. These original sonic limitations in the technology coincidentally (if accidentally) exemplified the organic nature of the effect players still seek today. As the delay effect made its way into smaller format stomp-boxes and early multi-effect devices, the creation of the delayed signal moved to solid-state technology that replaced bulky mechanical delays with discrete-time analog delay line ICs (integrated circuits). The ICs, often referred to as bucket-brigade devices (BBD), passed the analog signal (in the form of a charge) through multiple stages (512 being common in BBD classics like the Retcon SAD-1024 and Panasonic MN3005), creating slight delays in the output of the delay signal ranging from 15-600 milliseconds. Although the effect signal was never converted to digital, filters were implemented at both ends of the circuit to reduce noise and artifacts. These filters warmed the repeats up a bit and rolled off some of the high-end, resulting in a delay that never competed for space and presence with the direct signal. The nature of the circuitry meant that longer delay times introduced exponentially more noise and unpleasant artifacts, so most analog delay devices capped between 300 and 500 milliseconds of maximum delay time. As the 80’s saw an increase in the use of digital chips, digital delays were introduced and eliminated the limitation on potential delay time as noise floors were significantly lower in longer delay times. Many early delays created by digital technology suffered from stiff, lifeless repeats that clashed against the direct signal in ways many players described as “unmusical”, but the fidelity of the delays stayed truer to the original tone, opening the door for U2-style syncopated delay patterns. Later improvements in digital delays cleaned up the sound even further through improved sampling resolution, brought in tone controls to simulate the high-end roll off of analog effects, and added digital and MIDI controls to parameters previously limited to manual manipulation. The 2000’s brought in hardware and software technology advanced enough to introduce effect and amplifier modeling, where the instrument’s signal is digitally converted and run through software that emulates (through part-by-part recreations or advanced sampling) physical effect circuits. As such, the most iconic versions of the different delay technologies found themselves modeled and expanded upon with the control of every parameter only software can allow. The biggest boon to the modeling technology was the ability to offer enteirely different delay technology styles within a single enclosure. Examples of Delay Effects Classic Tape Delays- Roland Space Echo, Maestro EP-1 Tape Delay, Fulltone Tape Delay Classic Analog Delays- Boss DM-2, Ibanez AD-9, EHX Deluxe Memory Man Classic Digital Delays- Boss DD-2, Korg SDD-3000, Eventide H949 Classic Delay Modelers- Line 6 DL-4, Strymon El Capistan/Timeline Reverb TO BE CONTINUED… Please add comments for any additions. This is meant to be a living document and any and all community input is welcome! Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  7. The Futurist Sounds of Yesterday Return as Today's Nostalgia By Chris Loeffler String synthesizers had their improbable start through Eminent, a 90 year old Dutch organ manufacturing company. The Eminent 310 Unique became commercially available in 1972 (the Freeman String Synthesizer was debuted in prototype form at Musikmesse that same year) and featured what was the first commercially available string synthesizer section. While financially unsuccessful, the 310 Unique birthed the Eminent Solina (rebranded by ARP as ARP String Machine in the US) and is the foundation upon which virtually every subsequent analog string synthesizer is built upon. The otherworldly, quivery moan of the string synth became a mainstay for sci-fi and fantasy movies of the era and represented the sound of the future… a machined version of an organic instrument. Waldorf, of synthesizer filter fame, has decided to bring that once futuristic, now nostalgic sound into the present with the Waldorf Streichfett String Synthesizer. Translated from German to mean something between “Fat Strings” and “Fat Prank”, the Waldorf Streichfett String Synthesizer is a love letter to the synthesizers of the 70’s and 80’s that produced the ethereal, gooey string and orchestral leads that swirled through movie soundscapes and the burgeoning prog rock scene at that time. The unit features a String section with controls for Octaves, Registration/Voice, Crescendo, Release, and Ensemble, a Solo section with controls for Tone, Tremolo, Attack, Decay/Release, and Split and an effects section with three modes and a depth control. The Streichfett has twelve storable presets, MIDI In/Out, Stereo In/Out, a Headphone Out, and is powered by USB. What You Need To Know The Waldorf Streichfett features a 128 voice, fully polyphonic String section that covers Viola, Violin, Cello, Brass, Organ, and Choir voicings. Rather than being limited to distinct presets, the control for the voicings glides between settings and creates dozens of in between sounds that are incredibly musical. Blending the bass and grind of the Cello voice with the Violin setting creates thicker, more complex harmonics, much as the area between Organ and Choir reveals uniquely fat and crisp pad swells. Users can tweak the effect to include the base note(s), an octave up, or both and can select between String or Chorus modes. Layering over/under the Strings voicing is a separate Solo section, where the “tone” of the voicing is adjusted. The Solo section features Bass, E. Piano, Clavinet, Solo, and Pluto. Whereas the Strings section is used to dial in the true voicing (setting, crescendo, and release), the Solo section controls the attack and decay characteristics of the “synth”. Bass is round and fat, while changing to Clavinet maintains the same String voicing but gives it a chirpy, percussive feel. At the far end of the spectrum, Pluto is smooth as silk with extended, even decay. Much like the Stings settings, the Solo settings aren’t single settings but rather a continuous blend between two successive tones. The String voice and Solo tone in themselves are meaty and punchy throughout the range, but Waldorf opens up tonal possibilities even further with the inclusion of three modulation effects- Chorus, Phaser, and Animate. Only one effect can be used at a time, and all feature a Depth control to dial in the amount of the effect. While Chorus and Phaser modes experience an increase in modulation depth with the Depth knob, the Animate mode experiences an increased cut to the pseudo sample/hold pattern. There is also a Tremolo control that allows varying degrees of amplitude modulation of the synthesizer that synchs with the other effects. Curiously, Waldorf marketing seems to be tying the Streichfett to “adult film” soundtracks. While I can’t speak to that specific and odd positioning (I thought those were all about bass and envelope filters?), the Streichfett covers classic Jean-Michael Jarre, Brain Salad Surgery era Keith Emerson, Tangerine Dream and Goblin-scored Argento film soundtracks. Tracking is flawless and glitch-free with even the most extended or diminished chord phrasings. The responsiveness of the Streichfett perfectly meets the feel of a well maintained analog string machine. If it weren’t for polyphonic functionality I would have thought it was a true analog device. It opens, breathes, and closes like an analog envelope and is entirely devoid of any detectable digital artifacts. Limitations Musicians living in a purely TRS world may be disappointed that MIDI is the only way to feed the Streichfett. Conclusion The Waldorf Streichfett is without a doubt one of the coolest pieces of gear a player looking for vintage synth sounds can hope to find for under $500. The small form-factor and the ability to seamlessly integrate with any rig makes it a no-brainer for players seeking retro-future tones to add to their ambient mix or synth leads. Buy at B&H Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  8. Iconic Sound Light Lead Optical Analog Cable A New Way to Connect With Your Amp By Chris Loeffler Please note this technology is a working prototype... Iconic Sound is currently working to license this products technology. Think of it as a sneak peek of things to come! Players who dive deep into the world of cables know that everything that touches the output of a passive pickup (typically high impedance output) will have some effect on it… traditional cables all bleed some high-end. The reason certain cables sound better has more to do with complimenting the connection between the guitar and the amp and tonal preference than one being objectively better than the other. Iconic Sound’s Light Lead may be the first substantial innovation on instrument cable technology since, well, the cable was invented. Originally designed to address the issue of traditional cables’ tendency to pick up radio waves or interference, what the Iconic Sound Light Lead does is take and maintain an analog signal and pass it through an optical cable as opposed to the standard copper-wire leads. The result is the world’s first (and only) optical analog jack-to-jack guitar/instrument cable. Patent pending technology I won’t pretend to fully understand ensures the guitar’s signal is never digitized or converted in the cable. What You Need to Know The benefits of the optical cable, aside from removing potential to receive external signals, are zero loading and zero capacitance, two things standard cables can’t touch. In short, it passes through more sound and has no treble roll-off. An additional benefit to the optic cable is entirely removing the possibility of cable crackle. The cable can detect active versus passive pickups and makes slight adjustments. There is also a slider on the side of the guitar jack that adjusts the volume. Very peculiar. Adjusting the volume has zero impact on tone. So does the Light Lead sound fuller and retain more high-end? Yes. The difference is most noticeable with a high-impedance output guitar (Fender Stratocaster, for instance) into a high-impedance input amp (Modified Vox AC-15), basically any vintage-style technology. The cable carries through a noticeable increase in treble when compared to a Monster Jazz or George L cable of the same length. Using guitars with active pickups (EMGs) yields much less of a difference as the signal is already active and less effected by loading, meaning the cable just sounds great and doesn’t have anything to clean up. As a final test, I used the Light Lead between a Fender Standard Strat and a standard germanium fuzz face (MXR). The result was less obvious and obnoxious than a quality buffer but somehow slightly less chaotic in the gain structure than a standard cable with the same setup. The typical reason guitarists avoid buffers (or really any devices) between their guitar and fuzz is because they dramatically affect the interaction the fuzz circuit has with the guitar pickups. Without the cable load present, the saturation and texture of the fuzz seems to fight with itself slightly less through the Light Lead. The amount of gain and volume are the same, and adjusting the volume knob on the guitar still impacts the gain characteristics, but there’s slightly more clarity to the distortion. There is considerably less of this with high output or active pickups, and it was the sort of thing that is only noticed in a quiet room. Limitations The only limitation to the Light Lead is the requirement of an AA battery at each jack and the slightly bulkier nature of the plugs to accommodate the batteries. The swiveling jacks make the bulkiness of the plugs a non-issue once connected. Conclusion The Light Lead I demoed was a working prototype that is representative of (but not guaranteed to be) the final product. Iconic Sound is currently courting cable manufacturers to license the technology for their guitar cables, microphones, headphones, etc. While the Light Lead isn’t on the market yet, it is a very cool application of a new technology that a lot of guitar players would love to get their hands on. Preserve tone! Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  9. The Boss GP-10 Guitar Processor wants to let every player turn their favorite guitar into dozens of different instruments. By Chris Loeffler The Boss GP-10 is a strange and exciting beast… one part guitar multi-effect and one part guitar modeler. It takes these elements both (of which are available in individual forms throughout the Boss and Roland assortment) and combines them into a small, floor unit that processes both a standard guitar signal and a 13-pin signal created by the (optional or included) GK-3 or other GK-style pickup. Sharing the same COSM amp and effects modelling featured in Boss’ high-end multi-effect units like the GT-100, the GP-10 effects engine covers almost every type of guitar effect imaginable, including four compression/EQ effects, seven modulation effects, three pitch shifting effects, 21 famous overdrive and distortion pedals, and 10 delay effects. These effects can be applied to either the direct guitar pickup signal or the GK-style pickup signal and are ready to go head-to-head with the most revered dedicated effects units… Boss-style quality shines throughout the assortment. The modeling section of the GP-10 requires a GK-style pickup be mounted to any guitar and offers a world of sonic possibilities impossible to achieve with a standard pickup. Although the expected synth-type sounds are there in spades (more on that later), one of the most surprising and useful benefits of using a GK-style pickup with the GP-10 is guitar modeling. By taking the neutral tone from the piezo-style pickups and processing it through the GP-10, any given patch can be set to change the guitar being played into one of twelve different electric guitars (including classics like the Les Paul, Telecaster and Rickenbacker), nine different acoustic guitars (including a resonator, banjo, and sitar), three types of bass, or even eight different synths. Because each string is being captured and modeled separately, alternate tunings are available without every touching a guitar tuning peg. Switching from a Drop D-tuned Les Paul to a 12-string acoustic guitar is a single stomp away, even when the guitar is a Telecaster. The models aren’t simple two-dimensional copies of the instruments they are modeled after; electric guitar and bass models have the appropriate pickup selection options and tone controls, acoustic instruments can be adjusted for buzz, body, attack and pickup style, and synth-type instruments offer extensive control over waveform, envelope, filtering, and oscillators. While using similar technology found in the Roland VG-Series, the GP-10 is focused on recreating the fundamental instrument more-so than creating innovative effects not possible with standard guitar pickups. Rather than dozens of spacy, disconnected patches of sounds, the GP-10 turns the guitar into a versatile processor, and adjusting the tunings, filters, and modulation feels much more like an actual instrument than it does tweaking a few knobs on an effect pedal. Dedicated models like the GR-300, Oscillator Synth, and Wave Synth each feature multiple instrument types with dozens of parameters to explore. The GP-10 has 99 preset slots that store instrument type, effects signal chains, open tunings, and even pickup whether one or both of the pickups are processed. Patches can be entirely managed and programed using the in-unit interface. In order to achieve its clean aesthetic and small size, much of the tweaking happens within the menu screen on the unit; players who prefer a more visual and expanded editing experience will find connecting the GP-10 to their computer and using the free Boss Tone Studio software makes programming and tweaking patches easy and intuitive, an effective way to learn the ins and outs of the menu system, and will enjoy sharing and downloading patches and effects from the Boss user community. Speaking of the ins and outs of the unit, the GP-10 features inputs for a standard ¼” instrument cable and GK-compatible cable (the GK-3 and cable are included in the upgraded edition), stereo ¼” outputs plus a 1/4” Guitar Out that passes through the original, unaffected signal from the guitar’s native pickups, as well as a headphone out for silent playing. The GP-10 even allows players to choose from eight different output modes depending on size and format of the amp the processor is feeding. Conclusion In short, the GP-10 does so many things well because it is more than a collection of effects; it is a tone tool for players looking to expand the sonic horizons of their fundamental instrument as much as it is a way to color those sounds down the signal chain. The GP-10 has an amazing collection of guitar tones right out of the box and is easy to enjoy without ever digging in too deep, but the possibilities and flexibility that a few hours of experimentation will yield is where serious players will find their inspiration. *BOSS Tone Studio editing software and specially designed patches are available for free download at BossToneCentral.com. Resources Boss GP-10K Guitar Processor (with GK Pickup) at Musician's Friend (MSRP $699.00, Street $499.00) Boss GP-10S Guitar Processor (without GK Pickup) at Musician's Friend (MSRP $559.00, Street $399.00) Boss GP-10 Guitar Processor Product Page Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  10. What does it mean when Fender releases two new amp lines with similar price points? By Chris Loeffler A Tale of Two Amps Choosing a quality practice or starting amp can be daunting, so when legendary amp maker Fender releases two distinct amp series with similar price points it is worthwhile to understand how they compare. Both the Fender Champion Series and Fender Mustang Series feature 20, 40, and 100 watt offerings with a negligible difference in cost between comparable models, so what sets them apart from each other? Aside from both producing incredible tones, pretty much everything. Fender took their Mustang and Champion series down very different paths to achieve the goal of superior tone and flexibility in a small package. The Champion Series is designed around traditional analog amp controls with supporting DSP effects, whereas the Mustang Series utilizes Fender’s software modelling to digitally craft unique amplifier models and effects. While players should focus on tone over technology, understanding the inherent benefits of the two will help to ensure they are getting the amp that best fits their needs. The Reigning Champion While the littlest sibling in the Champion Series has a traditional, single preamp voicing, the Champion 40 and 100 feature two channels; one voiced for a traditional, clean Blackface tone and a second featuring five unique amp voicings (Blackface, Tweed, British, Jazz, and Metal). These voicings dramatically change the gain structure and fundamental EQ of the amp, effectively giving players access to five different amps before even dialing in the rest of the controls. The clean tones are classic Fender, and the Champions produce gratifyingly tube-like grit and crunch as the Gain control is dialed up. The amp tones are warm, responsive, incredibly varied and all of a quality that wouldn’t be out of place on a recording or live performance. The onboard effects can be used one at a time, are warm renditions of traditional modulation, filter, delay, and reverb effects and are as easy to use as selecting the desired effect, dialing in the effect mix, and setting tempo with the tap-tempo switch. The New Kid in Town The Fender Mustang Series amplifiers share the same onboard controls: Gain, Volume, Treble, Bass, and Master, with the III and IV versions adding Middle and Reverb controls. The Mustang I and II feature eight amp models including Fender classics like the ’57 Deluxe, ’59 Bassman, ’65 Twin Reverb, two faithful recreations of the revered British tone, and three modern, gain-centric amps, making almost every iconic tone in history available with the twist of a knob. The Mustang III and IV up the ante with three additional Fender amp models and a different flavor of British amplifier available onboard (all effects and amps are accessible in all Mustang models through FUSE). There is nothing processed about any of the models, they sound organic and are as responsive as the tube amplifiers they were modelled after. The Mustang I and II are equipped with twelve modulation effects ( chorus, vibrato, tremolo, and pitch effects) and a dozen delay and reverb effects, all of which can be adjusted for blend and delay time/modulation speed. The Mustang III and Mustang IV include additional modulation, reverb, and delay effects and add seven classic gain effects. Unlike their littler brothers, the Mustang III and IV offer deeper levels of onboard editing and give players access to a much greater level of tweaking the effects to their liking. While not explicitly modelled after specific effects units, experienced players will find a lot to grin about as they discover models of iconic pedal effects. Presets for the Mustang I and II are stored in three banks of eight, giving players access to eight factory and sixteen user presets. Because the Mustang utilizes software-based modelling, presets save every control and effect setting, eliminating the need for any knob tweaking between presets. The Mustang III and IV up the ante with 100 presets. Another benefit to software-based modelling is immediately apparent in Fender’s FUSE software and community. While dialing in the perfect tone is easy and intuitive using the physical controls of the Mustang, connecting the amp to a computer gives access to deeper, cleaner editing over than amp and effects models. As a bonus, players in search of inspiration can sample and download presets from FUSE community members… a quick way to spark the creative process. Limitations While both amp lines sound amazing within 90% of the volume range, most live applications will require a microphone with the smaller amps to keep up with the rest of the band. With Great Power Comes (a Little) More Responsibility The choice comes down to preference between wanting a traditional amp experience with multiple amp sounds or wanting more options and deeper control over them… both will get players where they need to go in style. Understanding the differences, it is important to note these amps share the most important qualities one looks for in a guitar amp- they sound amazing, they are well-built and reliable and they cost less than a night in the city. Resources Fender Champion Amplifier Line at Musician's Friend (MSRP $139.99-$419.99, Street $99.99-$299.99) Fender Mustang Amplifier Line at Musician's Friend (MSRP $169.99-$699.99, Street $119.99-$499.99) Fender Champion Amplifier Product Page Fender Mustang Amplifier Product Page Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  11. Chris Loeffler

    MXR Univibe

    The original Univibe was one of the first modulation effects available to guitar players, and the fact that it is STILL the go to circuit for warbley, watery guitar tones is a testament to the original design. Meant to mimic a Leslie rotating speaker, the Univibe was built around the concept of a phase shifter using a light sensitive senors surrounding a lamp that lit to create a lush, three-dimensional sweep. The result is something close to a rotating speaker, but much more syrupy and effected. The crude circuitry created a magical sound, but was also noisy, prone to damage due to the sensitivity of the parts, and cost a bundle. When MXR decided to rerelease the Univibe, their goal was to capture the tone of the iconic effect using today’s technology rather than focus on a part-for-part recreation and having to trouble shoot the original circuit. The result is a much smaller, quieter, and hardier pedal that recreates the sound without the hassle… mostly. The MXR Univibe comes in the pedal board friendly “MXR Small Box” enclosure, features Speed, Depth, Volume, and Vibe/Chorus controls, is true-bypass, and is powered by a standard 9v power supply or single 9 volt battery. The MXR Univibe sounds warm and chewy, phaser-like without the perfect LFO symmetry that makes typical modulation effects a little monotonous… it has the classic offset warble that defines the Univibe sound and does an admirable job of imitating the Doppler Effect and delayed swing of a rotating speaker. The Chorus mode passes about half the original signal through unaffected for a more subtle effect and sounds appropriately like the original signal for the first portion of the LFO sweep. The Vibe setting modulates the entire signal, resulting in a 100% wet output that nears pitch-bending territory. At lower Depth settings the phase sweeping is subtle and adds dimension and movement without jumping out as an effect, while more extreme Depth settings warp the original signal and plunge it in and out of waves of modulation. The Speed control goes from Breathe slow to Machine Gun fast with a smooth, easy to dial in sweep. The Volume control allows for a little extra goose to the output via the pedals preamp section for players who are looking to jump out in the mix… overdriving a dirty amp is a part of the classic Univibe sound. The MXR Univibe is not a direct clone of the original, and critical listeners may hear more than a little of a relationship to MXR’s Phase 45, but those seeking the off-set wobble of the original Univibe units for 1/5th the size and 1/20th the cost will find the MXR Univibe a welcome addition. It’s modulation for people who “hate” modulation! MXR Univibe at Musician’s Friend (MSRP $185.70, Street $129.99) MXR Univibe Product Page Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  12. By Chris Loeffler Going Direct As an amp purist, I have to admit I’ve often been intrigued by the potential direct amp-in-a-box pedals as an alternative to lugging around heavy gear and having to dial in the sound to every room. Not enough to have fully taken the plunge, until recently, but certainly enough to stay on top of the latest gear advances and demo units occasionally. When I noticed a band I was playing in was suffering from bad practice habits and a lack of knowledge in dialing in the sound right for live performances without the help of an engineer I decided it was time to explore the current state of direct technology for guitar and bass and see if it might be a solution to some of the problems we were facing. Direct Gear While there are many possibilities for going direct, the Tech21 Character Series is one of my personal favorites… especially for players who don’t use MIDI or heavily programmable modelers as their main rig. They feature the same intuitive controls of a traditional amp, the series covers nearly every major amp sound, and the pedal board friendly format makes integration into an existing signal chain as easy and unobtrusive as can be. These factors made the Character Series the route I took when I decided to experiment with taking the whole band direct. The Amp-in-a-Box at Practice Practice spaces, be they a garage or a dedicated room built around playing, offer specific challenges to players. The most common consideration of any practice space is “how loud can we play and when do we need to stop to avoid having the neighbors call the police”. Small spaces with proximity to unintentional listeners (neighbors) require fine control over the output volume of instruments. This can be especially frustrating when the inevitable “loud war” breaks out as players slowly turn up their amps to sit where they think they should be in the mix. By placing and mixing all instruments direct into the PA, adjusting the volume of the entire band without mucking up the mix is as simple as adjusting the Master control, and adjustments to the band mix are made democratically. Because practice spaces are often much smaller than a performance stage and don’t easily accommodate optimal gear placement, practicing musicians often struggle with trying to hear their (or others’) instrument. Anything less than a good mix in practice is going to lessen the effectiveness of the practice and could be hiding significant gaps in band cohesion that need addressing before a song or set is ready for primetime. By running all players direct (except, possibly, the drummer) it is much easier to hear how an audience would hear you sound and much more difficult to miss flubs. Smallest. Rig. Ever. The Amp-in-a-Box in Performance After getting comfortable with being direct in our practice setting, we decided to go entirely direct for our next paying gig; a 200+ person private outdoor party. First and most obvious, packing in and setting up was significantly faster and easier without three 50lb+ tube amps to haul in and dial in. Both guitars and the bass were as easy to get ready as dropping the pedal boards where we wanted to perform and running an instrument cable from the board to the PA and positioning a stage monitor on either side of the stage for the band. Sound check is where the real benefit of an all-direct band came to light. Without the need to mic cabinets or balance the amp output with the PA output, getting the mix right took less than half the time and we, as players on the stage, were hearing the exact same thing as the sound engineer at the board across the venue. Subtle use of stereo panning in the mains built out enough dimension within the audience area that the sound still “felt” like it was coming from a series of differently positioned amps, while the mono mix fed to the stage monitors gave an accurate picture to the performers as to what the audience was hearing. The end result after the performance? A happier sound guy, tons of compliments from the music-savvy crowd, and the band having a better idea of what the live mix was in real time. Delay post-amp distortion in a live setting is a glorious thing to experience. The Amp-in-a-Box for Recording Similar to live performances, much of the headache (and art) of studio recording is in capturing the best version of your tone as possible. While there’s nothing that will match the precision and customization of recording a perfectly dialed in, high-quality amp in a good room with high-end microphones, there are also hundreds of ways to get it wrong (or do it differently). Recording direct with a speaker emulator, however, takes all the guesswork out of it and frees players up to focus on what they are in the studio for… to play! Similar to live performance, recording direct takes less than half the set-up time and is much easier to dial in and monitor while playing. One of the biggest opportunities of direct recording when recording multiple instruments at once is the ability to have zero bleed through of the instruments into other channels. Where this becomes incredibly powerful is in situations where the band is playing down the foundation tracks and wants to record live as a group to keep the energy in a performance. With everyone donning a pair of headphones, it was possible to record guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums at the same time with the benefit of having an isolated capture of the miked drum kit. Working with six to eight raw, isolated tracks made post-performance mixing a breeze, and sly use of reverb and a little panning resulted in authentic, breathy instrument recordings. Amp-in-a-Box Limitations While there are a ton of benefits to going direct for performances, there are a couple of requirements or limitations that need to be accepted. Running multiple guitars, keyboards, bass, and vocals exclusively direct requires a reasonably powerful PA with headroom and quality speakers. Less powered systems or cheaper speakers will quickly muddy up the sound. A subwoofer, a common but not obligatory portion of a PA setup becomes almost essential when Bass and Keyboards are running direct. Proper stage monitor is even more crucial than with an all amplified setup, as they are the only source of performance feedback a player will get. Or... You can finally have an excuse to not look at your drummer! Conclusion It is hard for players to give up their prized amplifiers. Heck, the amp is the foundation of the electric instrument’s sound. On top of this (understandable) affinity toward traditional amplifiers, early direct options, be it modelling or analog emulation, fell far short of the mark for discerning players and caused a lingering perception that they aren’t good enough for “professional” application. Direct technology, and the understanding of how to apply it, has steadily improved over the last twenty years and is now undeniably “there” for all but the most close-minded players. There’s a nobility of playing the way people always have, but the reduced cost, increased reliability, ease of setup, versatility, and tone of the current batch of Amp-in-a-Box direct devices can truly free bands to focus on the music and deliver toneful, consistent performances across all applications. That said, you may want to put up a cardboard amp stack in the back to satisfy the traditionalists! Resources Tech21 Character Series Pedals at Musician's Friend Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  13. By Chris Loeffler One of the challenges of the single coil pickup (and one of the reasons it has its distinct sound) is the amount of noise the inherent 60 cycle hum can produce, leading to anything from “barely there” white noise to unbearably, unmusically buzzy depending on the setting and quality of the electricity. Attempts by pickup manufacturers to “buck” the hum (without just creating a humbucker) typically result in a pickup that is “single coil-ish”, but somewhat missing the characteristics or liveliness that make guitar players historically accept the hum. DiMarzio introduced its Area series pickups quite a few years ago as an answer to copping the strat souns captured on thousands of iconic recordings from the 60’s through today with introducing the extra noise. The series, comprised of the Area 58, Area 61, and Area 67, are built to the sonic specifications of the best examples of the strat pickups built at that time. DiMarzio Area 67 Single Coil Pickup The DiMarzio Area 67 was built to capture the sound of a late 60’s Stratocaster pickup and is named after Hendrix’s guitar tone in the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Best suited for the middle and neck positions, the Area 67 sounds like a dead-on classic strat without the 60 cycle hum thanks to the Area technology DiMarzio utilizes to kill the noise. And noiseless they are… even through a rig plugged into an outlet sharing an electrical path with a neon sign, the pickup is dead silent. The Area 67 is bright and clear, easily copping the percussiveness and glassy sheen of traditional strat tones. The pickups are as bright as one would expect a strat pickup to sound without crossing the line into being harsh or ice-picky. Mids sound a bit scooped when compared to modern, high-fidelity pickups, but that’s part of the classic strat sound. The Area 67 excels at cleans and brings an almost piano-like punch to the attack and dirtying up the amp with increased gain yields warm, pleasing harmonics. To my ears, the Area 67 works best in the neck and middle positions as it already has plenty of brightness. For enthusiasts, it is worth noting that while late 60’s strats were built using full strength alnico V magnets, whereas the DiMarzio Area 67s use alnico II magnets. Because of the efficiencies of the design, the alnico II greatly decreases the magnet pull without impacting output and reduces strain to sustain and the likeliness of intonation issues. DiMarzio Virtual Solo Single Coil Pickup Unlike the Area 67, which aims at nailing the late 60’s strat sound, the DiMarzio Virtual Solo is a hybrid of two DiMarzio originals- the DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Solo and the DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Solo Pro. By combining the best elements of these two (now decommissioned) pickups, DiMarzio has created a pickup that is heavy in upper mids and deep and rich in the bass. Compared to the Area 67, the Virtual Solo has nearly twice the output and a bit of high-end roll off that perfectly complements the bridge position. Mids, while far from cartoony or unnatural sounding, are brash and bold and sit well over the extended bass range to create a focused, cutting lead tone. In short, the Virtual Solo has more bite and snarl than a traditional strat pickup but fits perfectly within the tonal range of what a strat should do. Limitations The DiMarzio Area series pickups are best paired with a 500k tone pot, which doesn’t come stock in many strat-style guitars. While not necessary, the small costs of picking up a tone pot with the pickup will pay big dividends when it comes to dialing in the perfect amount of treble character. Conclusion Those seeking vintage strat tones without the noise really need look no further than the Area series pickups. Whereas most strat-a-like pickups that are “noiseless” sacrifice the liveliness and fundamental character that people are seeking in a classic strat, the Area 67 drips “that” sound. The Virtual Solo, by contrast, sounds fantastically vintage but compliments, rather than emulates, the strat sound by kicking up the bass, mids, and harmonics for a distortion-friendly, sustained growl. Resources DiMarzio Area 67 Pickup at Musician's Friend (MSRP $109.99, Street 79.99) DiMarzio Virtual Solo Pickup at Musician's Friend (MSRP $104.99, Street $74.99) DiMarzio Area 67 Product Page DiMarzio Virtual Solo Product Page Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  14. By Chris Loefler Alter Your Amp’s Tone As mentioned in my article covering the 10” line of Celestion guitar speakers, swapping speakers is the most definitive and dramatic change that can be made to an amp’s core tone short of heavily modifying the amp circuitry itself. Speakers are often a good way to give a middle-of-the-road tube amp that final 10% and turn a good amp into a great amp. The cost of a decent speaker can easily compose 30% of the cost of a mid-level tube amp from a pure material standpoint, so it is understandable that most amp manufacturers are going to settle for the speaker that does the amp justice but comes in at a certain price point. Pull off the back of the cabinet and remove the amp chassis... Carefully remove the tubes before pulling out the chassis to reduce the chance of damaging them during the move. Vox AC15 Guitar Amp- An Amp of Many Colors Because the tone of an amp is so heavily influenced by the speaker projecting its sound, stock speakers have become intrinsically tied to the DNA of classic guitar sounds… be it Silverface Fender, 60’s Marshall, or a Soldano SLO. Pressed to call out the speaker/amp combo that comprises “that sound”, most players start with one of the most iconic pairings in the history of rock and roll; the Vox AC15/AC30 with a Celestion Alnico Blue speaker. Today, Vox offers a (killer) reissue of the AC15 with a choice of speakers at varying price points, including a Celestion G12M Greenback, Celestion G12M-65 Creamback, or Celestion Alnico Blue. The most affordable model includes the Celestion G12M Greenback. A stock Celestion G12M Greenback in its native habitat, and a spring reverb that needs to move. Celestion G12M Greenback Guitar Speaker- A Rock Classic The Celestion G12M Greenback is a fantastic speaker to start with, and excels at bringing punch and growl to low wattage amps with heavier distortion as well as presence and clarity when wired in a 4x12” configuration and driven by a higher wattage head. After a few days of break in, the Vox AC15 with the Celestion G12M Greenback has a wonderfully punky sound that deviates slightly from the vintage Vox combination with a Celestion Alnico Blue in that the mid-range focus shifts slightly lower and the high-end is slightly rolled off. The G12M Greenback compliments heavier grit and has a slightly grainy breakup quality without sounding blurry or buzzy. In short, a great combination for copping classic rock and lo-fi garage rock tones. While it isn't necessary, removing the spring reverb tank provides more room for manuevering when swapping speakers. However, the elusive Vox sound, as presented in classic recordings, is different than that. It’s jangly, searing, and rich in even the cleanest of settings while oozing quirky character. To see how much of that character truly came from the speaker, I pulled out stock Celestion G12M Greenback and dropped in a new Celestion Alnico Blue. Screw the new speaker in, taking care to securly fasten the speaker to the cabinet without applying enough pressure to bend the metal speaker fame. Celestion Alnico Blue Guitar Speaker- THE Classic Vox Sound The Celestion Alnico Blue produces warm lows, a smooth mid-range with an emphasis in the upper mids and a bell-like high-end that sparkles without getting too aggressive. The combination of these characteristics creates the signature jangle in late-clean/early-breakup signals that sizzles and builds layers of harmonics around the upper-mids and treble while the bass anchors the tone. The Celestion Blue is a little tight on the top-end and spikey in the mids when first installed, but a few hours of break in quickly mellow these out and by the 20 hour mark the speaker is silky smooth across the frequency range. With the new speaker in, all that's left is to replace the reverb tank, remount the chassis in the cabinet, place the tubes back in, and seal the cabinet back up. What’s the difference? The difference between the Celestion Greenback and Celestion Blue is significant enough that even an untrained ear will notice. Even before it was broken in, the Celestion Blue had more volume and a much more harmonically complex upper mid-range and top end sparkle. A room mic set to record the difference from the exact same location with the exact same settings clipped on some of the higher frequencies with the Blue, lending proof to the volume increase and additional treble. Brighter, louder, and richer in clean-to-early breakup settings, the Celestion Alnico Blue completely transforms the AC15 and evokes Beatles, Brian May, and The Edge perfectly. While both performed well (if differently) in high-gain settings, the Celestion G12M Greenback seems better suited to that more aggressive distortion by adding focus and a bit of roundness to the edges. The Blue, on the other hand, will grab on to every bit of distortion it can and scream it out, making high-gain a little more unruly. Celestion Alnico Blue 15w 12" Speaker at Musician's Friend (MSRP $420.00, Street $279.00) Celestion G12M Greenback 25w 12" Speaker at Musician's Friend (MSRP $185.00, Street $125.00) Celestion Alnico Blue 15w 12" Speaker Celestion G12M Greenback 25w 12" Speaker Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  15. Tweak your amp tone. By Chris Loeffler Utility and availability made the 12” speaker the industry default for guitar amplifiers shortly after guitar amps became a serious business. 10” and even 15” speakers have always been available and have even been stock in many acclaimed vintage amps, but at the end of the day the typical tube guitar amp you find in a music shop is going to be rocking a 12” speaker (or two… or four). While 12” speakers benefit from a rich mid-range and deep bass (not to mention most amplifiers and pickups being tuned to them), there’s a certain higher frequency bandwidth, focus, and speed of response that a 10” speaker brings to the table that makes for easy, toneful guitar recording while avoiding stepping over the bass player’s frequencies. Most major amp builders, especially those featuring a lower wattage line, are capitalizing on theses more desirable characteristics of the 10” speaker and treating them as core to their tone (see the Fender Princeton Reverb, Marshall small valves, and Vox Night Train for current production examples). Most production amplifiers are built to hit a certain price point, so certain “nice to haves” are left to the discretion of the player to upgrade down the line. Because tone is so subjective, it isn’t that stock speakers are “bad” or even “not as good as X”… they’re just there to deliver a particular tone that will appeal to the broadest audience while complimenting the amps they are attached to. But when you jump into the world of tone tools, eventually you’ll need to turn your ear to your speaker to make sure it’s doing what you want. The good folk at Celestion offered us the opportunity to test-drive quite a few models from their current speaker line to see how tailoring the speakers to the sound we want out of our own beloved amps can take us to places we never thought we’d go (or at least give us that final 10% we’ve been missing). To start with, I will compare the 10” series of guitar speakers they sent using two amplifiers (Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb and Marshall Class 5) and a 2x10” Avatar closed-back speaker cabinet from my personal arsenal. Celestion G10N-40 10” Guitar Speaker The Celestion G10N-40 found its start as a custom design for an amp maker, but was refined and released as a stand-alone model by Celestion. Rated at 40 watts RMS, it is made to handle higher wattages than most 10” speakers, in theory giving it a bit more headroom and focus before breaking up. In practice, the speaker sounds fantastic, with a truly balanced EQ range that incorporates strong bass and refined treble with a clear, unexaggerated midrange slightly favoring the upper mids. Cleans are full and musical, with a larger voice than many stock 10” speakers provide. Overdriven, the speaker takes on a slightly darker tone with just a bit of a nudge in the lower mids that made leads sing. Replacing a stock Jensen C10 in my late 2000’s Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb, the G10N-40 brought considerably more volume and focus to the amp’s overdriven tones and seemed to add headroom to cleaner settings. Breakup was still pleasant, but louder and slightly tighter than with the stock pickup. The clean tones were louder and more high-fidelity with a touch more chime and high-end, in general fuller sounding and musical with slightly less warmth (read, “mud”, to my ears). Celestion G10 Greenback 10” Guitar Speaker For fans of historical accuracy, it is worth noting that “Greenback” is a generic term for many different production Celestion guitar speakers, including the G12H and the G12M, that came out in the 60’s and 70’s. All these speakers shared a commonality of a ceramic magnet and a green plastic magnet cover and collectively, while different makes and cones, represented a specific tone that became sought after, much like there are many models of Fender amplifiers under the “Silverface” umbrella. The Celestion Greenback (in its 12” configuration) is a rock and blues icon and has practically defined the UK amp tone for over five decades. The Celestion G10 Greenback is the result of years of effort by Celestion to nail the famous 12” “Greenback” tone (exemplified in their current production G12M Greenback) in a 10” format for those seeking more focused lows and warm, vintage rolled-off treble. Sonically, it is a very close match (I happened to have a G12M on hand for comparison), with the G10 Greenback featuring more bass than a standard 10” speaker and a rich midrange that tends to jump out when pushed by a crunched amp. Cleans sound excited and lively, and the upper mids sing when the harmonic content of the distortion increases. Compared to the stock Jensen C10R and the Celestion G10N-40 in the Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb, the Celestion G10 Greenback sat somewhere between the two, with a greater propensity to add its own distortion when hit hard by the amp than the G10N-40 but louder, tighter, and fuller in frequency (especially the bass and trebles) than the Jensen C10R. Celestion G10 Gold AlNiCo 10” Guitar Speaker The Celestion G10 Gold 10” speaker is Celestion’s top of the line 10” guitar speaker. Featuring an AlNiCo magnet, the G10 Gold is voiced to marry the characteristics of the classic Celestion Blue 12” speaker (famous for being THE sound of a classic Vox amp) with the rapid response of a smaller driver. All the overused descriptors of classic rock tones apply to this speaker… smooth, distinct midrange, tight, punchy bass and chimey but rounded treble. It is worth noting that the G10 Gold by far benefited the most to a break in period. It sounds great upon initial install, but there’s a slight dynamic stiffness and harmonic timidness in the upper register that works itself out after a few hours of dynamic playing. For the purposes of this review, I looped a fairly dynamic twenty second guitar part on my Akai Headrush and slowly turned the volume on the amp up each hour over the course of twelve hours. By the twelfth hour the speaker was demonstrably smoother and richer (and my neighbors were likely ready to kill me). Rated at 16ohms, the Celestion G10 Gold was an obvious replacement more the stock Celestion included in my Marshall Class 5 (sadly, discontinued a couple of years ago). The stock speaker was specifically designed for the Class 5 and is based on a Greenback with tweaks to coax a bit more bass out of the cone. The stock speaker, more so than any other amp I’ve had, was a perfect enough match for the amp to my ears, being exceptionally loud for its size and featuring a nice, raunchy breakup that complimented the amps crunch. The Celestion G10 Gold radically transformed the tone of the Class 5; to my tastes making it even better. While still sounding like a rude, overdriven Marshall, the Celestion Gold really evened out some of the ragged edges of the amp and brought some nice sparkle to the top end and tightened up the flabby bass. The amp sounded less tubby and significantly more open and bright. Run along-side an AlNiCo Weber Silver 10 speaker in the 2x10” speaker cabinet with several different low wattage heads, the G10 Gold brought more articulation and a difficulty to describe snappiness to notes that felt much more reactive than with the stock ceramic speaker. Conclusion There is no point in revisiting your speaker if you’re perfectly happy with how your current speaker sits in the mix, but if there are any doubts in your mind, a speaker swap is one of the most drastic ways you can change the core tone of your amplifier. Between the three 10” speakers Celestion was kind enough to send for review, I found that a lot of things I had settled for and long given up on in my amps were unnecessary compromises. I heartily recommend you make sure you’re not missing out on tweaking a vital part of your guitar tone! Resources Celestion G10N-40 10" Guitar Speaker at Musician's Friend (MSRP $100, Street $69) Celestion G10 Gold AlNiCo 10" Guitar Speaker at Musician's Friend (MSRP $265, Street $175) Celestion G10N-40 10" Guitar Speaker Product Page Celestion G10 Greenback 10" Guitar Speaker Product Page Celestion G10 Gold AlNiCo 10" Guitar Speaker Product Page Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.
  16. With rental prices for student violins easily surpassing $150 per year, is purchasing a complete Cremona violin outfit for a starting violinist a wiser decision? By Chris Loeffler Anyone who's gone through the process of renting an instrument (often because their children are playing an instrument in school) knows why people rent... the first year of learning an instrument has the highest dropout rate and instruments are expensive. What if little Damien decides the violin isn't his thing and decides to play the sax next year? There's a convenience factor (especially when you're not familiar with the instrument's care and setup), and there used to be the relatively high cost of getting a playable instrument (anyone who purchased instruments before the early 2000's knows there wasn't a such thing as a "cheap" instrument that was a "quality" instrument"). Today is a different story and it's time to reconsider the options. The Cremona SV-75 Violin Outfit comes in five sizes (1/10, 1/8, 1/16, 3/4, and 4/4) to accommodate all players and is offered as a one-stop solution to getting started playing violin. Included in the violin outfit is the violin, a hard case, a VP-71 bow, and a rosin/cloth combo). What You Need To Know The Cremona SV-75 Violin comes in five sizes (1/10, 1/8, 1/16, 3/4, and 4/4) and features a hand-carved, solid spruce top that features an aesthetically pleasing wood grain under the warm brown stain, especially attractive for an entry level instrument. The sides, back, and neck of the instrument are hand-carved solid maple, which adds punch and visual highlight to the spruce top. The dyed rosewood fingerboard sits well on the neck and is mirrored by the fittings and pegs. The bridge is well machined and provides a solid connection to the top, and the hardwood chinrest sites comfortably above the tailpiece. Across the board, construction is solid and there are no glue overruns or jagged edges where pieces are bound… common complaints in instruments offered at a similar price-point. Included in the violin outfit is a hard case, VP-71 bow, and rosin. The VP71 is a wood stick bow with rosewood frog and unbleached horsehair. The bow feels appropriately weighted and has the right amount of give when the horsehair was tightened or loosened to accommodate different playing preferences. The included rosin is cheap and lacks the grip of higher quality rosin, but gets the job done until a later purchase can be made. The case is exceptionally well constructed and snugly hugs the instrument and bow in place while providing solid, padded cushion on the outside to protect against jarring impacts. The tone of the Cremona is tight and focused and has a solid presence. It is a little hollow in the mids and has low resonance, but the sound is pure violin. Those expecting the richness and depth of a professional violin might be disappointed, but they would also have unrealistic expectations. The included strings aren't the best quality and had issues with tuning and balance. A $15 set of strings changes that though, and after a break in period the violin held its tuning as well as others. Limitations Thefactory-setstringsare cheap andareclearlytheweaklinkintheinstrument. Buyingadecentsetofstringstoreplacethemwillcost $15andgiveyoutwicethetone. Theviolinshipswithminimalsetupworkdone. Althoughthisisexpectedinanentry-levelinstrument, itcanbeabarrierifitispurchasedforafirst-timeplayer and unfamiliarwiththeinstrument. Therearevolumesofresourcesontheinternet (includinghelpfulsetupvideosonyoutube) thatmakethisafairlyeasyprocess, butcompleteneophytesmayneedtobringittoalocalshop. Conclusion The Cremona SV-75 Violin Outfit provides a more-than-workable package for students or violin novices looking to get their feet wet in an extremely affordable package. Given that everything needed to play and store the instrument is included, a little bit of setup (even from a novice) and a couple of tweaks yields and instrument far more toneful than its modest price. As long as violin rentals run anywhere from $20-50/month for a student-quality instrument, the Cremona also represents a significant savings potential, even for fickle players. Resources Cremona SV-75 4/4 Violin Outfit at Musician's Friend (MSRP $149.995, Street $119.99)
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