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Russ Loeffler

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  1. This brass will kick your .... What You Need to Know If you are downloading Hollywood Pop Brass as your first EastWest instrument library, you will also need to install Play 6 on your DAW (digital audio workstation). Play 6 is an advanced sample engine that powers EastWest’s virtual instrument collection. PLAY 6.1.2 is the latest upgrade for Mac users running OS X 10.7 or higher, and for Windows users running 7 and above. PLAY 6.1.2 is available for free to all EastWest customers. System Requirements for Play 6: Minimum Spec: • Intel dual-core i5 (or equivalent) processor, running at 2.7 GHz (or above) • 8 GB of RAM or more • Mac OSX 10.7 (or later); Windows 7 (or later) with ASIO sound drivers • 7200 RPM or faster (non energy saving) hard drive for sample streaming Recommended Spec: • Intel Xeon E5 (or equivalent) running at a minimum of 2.7 GHz (or above) • 16 GB of RAM or more • Mac OSX 10.7 (or later); Windows 7 (or later) with ASIO sound drivers • 64-bit operating system; and a 64-bit host when running Play as a plug-in. • SSD (Solid State Drive) for sample streaming EastWest uses the Pace iLok system for license management. Licenses for EastWest products can be activated directly on your computer (called a machine-based license), or activated to an optional iLok key. Test Drive Through the HP Brass Sound Library I will cover the features of the HP Brass sound library later. First, I want to cover my reactions to a test drive through this unique library of brass section sounds. This quote comes directly from EastWest’s website. “HOLLYWOOD POP BRASS was created for one simple reason - there's just nothing else out there on the market that instantaneously gives you that fiery, punchy pop brass sound that made songs like Uptown Funk such mega hits.” This caught my attention because I have used different horn ensemble plug-ins (both synth based and sampled horn sections). These horn sounds, whether they were individual horns or horn ensembles, are usually focused on symphonic type sounds. The better, sampled horn sections sound good, but they don’t necessarily fit pop music with funk, soul, blue, or rock music styles. Sometimes, I felt like I was layering the horn section to a Roman army movie soundtrack over a James Brown record. There are some horn plug-ins on the market that focus on the funk and soul type sounds, but they tend to have synth engines and they sound like synthesizers. They don’t deliver the realistic horn ensemble sounds provided by HP Brass. I decided to set up a challenge for HP Brass before I began my test run of the sound library. I recorded a scratch track of live funk guitar rhythm on top of some drum loops as test base for a pop song. After I opened HP Brass in my DAW, I started with some horn section sounds (articulations) by adding some chords as backgrounds. Then, I added some horn “stabs” and licks via my keyboard midi for accents. I was immediately impressed with the attack and feel of the horns and how much they fit the funk vibe of the rhythm guitar. I scrolled through the various articulations and found that they provide a ton of options to deliver the feel of a real, live horn section. I found myself wanting to push the horn section further in front of the mix to bring up the dynamics and accents. I prefer playing plug-ins via midi through a keyboard, drum pads, or a guitar synth trigger rather than drop phrases and licks (OK - except for drum loops) . Having said that, the licks and phrases in the HP Brass library sound just as good or even better than the instrument samples. I added some breaks where I actually dropped out all of the instruments except the horn section to provide some dynamic emphasis between sections. HP Brass is truly a game changer with the punch and power of these horn section breaks. It didn’t take long to see where songs can be enhanced with the use of HP Brass for dynamic intro’s and song endings as well. Hollywood Pop Brass Features Hollywood Pop Brass Horn Ensemble: A 4-piece brass ensemble for all multi-sampled articulations that includes 2 trumpets, a trombone, and a saxophone. A 5-piece ensemble for all phrases and licks that includes 2 trumpets, a trombone and 2 saxophones. Multi-sampled ensemble sections recorded in the famous Studio 1 at EastWest Studios and stylized phrases and licks in multiple keys recorded in Studio 2. Hollywood Pop Brass includes these articulations: Sustain: Contains different types of sustained articulations: fast, medium and long crescendos, sustain accent, crescendo and diminuendo Short: Contains a variety of articulations that have a short duration, including marcato, stabs, staccato, and staccato repetitions. Effects: Contains instruments that feature special articulation techniques like falls and rips in various durations, as well as growls and trills. Legato: Contains an instrument that will playback true legato intervals when two notes are played in a connected fashion (legato), for every interval up to and including an octave in either direction. MOD Combo: Contains instruments that combine multiple articulations and uses the Mod Wheel (CC 1) to select between them. Phrases: Contains instruments that feature phrases and sub-phrases in various tempos. Each was recorded with multiple transpositions, and are mapped across the virtual keyboard on their respective root note positions for use in a variety of key signatures. Licks: Contains instruments that feature short licks (or "motifs") performed at 120 bpm that fall into 1 of 6 chord types. Keyswitch: Keyswitch contains instruments that combine multiple articulations into a single instrument and uses keyswitches to activate the desired articulation. Hollywood Pop Brass Mixer: The default settings for most of the sounds include trumpets, trombones, and saxophones at nearly equal volume levels with the “room” and “Surround” settings up full. These are great default settings straight out of the box. However, I liked the ability to control the balance between instruments and adjusting the “Room Setting” and “Surround” settings. I found that layering the horn section with a different instrument mixes and room/surround settings produced the feel of a much larger horn section. I also tried filtering out individual instruments and then stacking them back with multiple tracks in my DAW. This allows for even more control of the mix and placement of the horns on “stage”. Hollywood Pop Brass Player: The Player view is another option to use some of the DAW stacking and editing functions within HP Brass without having to use multiple tracks in your DAW. The Player view also provides more control with the waveform Sensitivity, Envelope, and Reverb controls. Limitations Some of the Phrases, Licks, and Keyswitch sounds can take a while to load. So, you may want to take advantage of loading different sounds in your DAW or using the Player view to move between instrument sounds Conclusions If you’re looking for a horn section that can deliver pop brass sounds without the expense and logistics of a real horn section, you can’t do better than Hollywood Pop Brass. This sound library will change the way you use horns as part of your compositions and music productions. You won’t hesitate to move this horn section to the front of the mix. Resources EastWest Sounds On Line
  2. Collings Guitar is located outside of Austin, Texas. When I began planning for a trip to the 2019 South by Southwest festival, I knew that I wanted to include a visit to the Collings shop on my itinerary. I called several weeks ahead to reserve a space for a tour of their shop. Shop tours are only held on Fridays at 3:30 p.m. So, it’s a good idea to reserve a space in advance. The Collings Guitar shop is located on Hwy 290 west of Austin, Texas. (512-288-7776) Bill moved from Ohio to Houston in the mid-70’s where he worked as an engineer with an oil field company by day. He built guitars on evenings and weekends. Within a few years he was building guitars for Texas musicians including Lyle Lovett. In the early 80’s he moved to Austin and set up shop with luthiers Tom Ellis and Mike Stevens. A few years later he moved into his own one car garage shop. As the company grew he moved to a 3,200 square foot shop outside of Austin in 1992. The shop grew in size and more employees were added. In 2005 built the current 27,000 square foot shop with CNC (computer numerical control) technology and modern machining equipment. Collings Instruments: Collings builds acoustic, archtop, and electric guitars as well as mandolins and ukuleles. They build some of the highest quality production instruments made anywhere in the world. Bill Collings was an engineer, designer, machinist, and an artist. So, he was constantly looking to improve the building techniques and quality of the his instruments. He pioneered the use of high-tech manufacturing equipment while retaining the use of hand-built techniques. Instruments move from “high tech” workstations to “hand crafted” stations and from one end of the factory to the other several times before an instrument is completed. The Quality Legacy: Bill Collings passed away less than two years ago. The reverence that all of the employees have for Bill was evident by the way everyone spoke of him. Nearly every workstation had pictures of Bill on the wall. The employees and luthiers at Collings are continuing his unrelenting efforts to improve the quality of the instruments they build. The wood for the bodies and necks is stored in a section of the factory where the climate is controlled and maintained at 49% humidity: Finished guitars ready for hardware assembly. Contrasting the modern equipment are workstations where luthiers continue to use hand crafted techniques: The top and bottom of guitar are glued and set in with tape. The binding of this guitar is finished by hand. Fretwire is installed on this neck with a hand press . A luthiers workstation. The luthiers were enthusiastic and willing to share their techniques. Collings instruments are expensive, but the tour only confirms that they are a great value. I recommend the shop tour, but need to warn you that you won’t leave without having a few instruments on your wish list. -HC- ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  3. Austin has been on my bucket list as music town for a while. When I ran into people from Austin at the winter NAMM show, I would ask “Is SXSW the best or the worst time to visit Austin?”. The answer was usually “Yes”. So, I planned my trip with a mix of excitement and apprehension. I spent some time looking on-line, watching Youtube videos, and downloading some apps. I had to filter through a lot of non-music related material to find useful information. Following are some recommendations from my limited experience. Austin Outdoor Art and SXSW Poster SXSW – More Than Music For better or worse, SXSW is much more than a music festival. The includes the film festival, tech conferences, gaming, and a new focus on the cannabis industry. As a musician, I was there for the live music and I filtered out the non-music events which freed up my mornings to explore Austin. South Austin Music Store Badge or Wristband? Badges are expensive - $1125 for music and up to $1650 for all access . They will allow you to get to the front of the line for many events. They are also required for some headline events. I suspect that they provide more value for the non-music events (no data to support this), but I could not see a reason to purchase a badge for the music venues. Wristbands are also available for $225. Wristbands don’t allow you to move to the front of the lines, but you avoid the cover costs for most shows and allow you to venue hop. Signs outside of the venues will include “primary” (first in line) and “secondary” credentials. I’m sure that there must be some shows that require one or both, but I couldn’t find one for a music venue. The cover charges were $5 or $10 (usually credit card only) and most were free. I was there Wednesday through Sunday nights and I definitely did not spend enough on cover charges to justify the cost of a wristband. Uncle Billy’s in South Austin SXSW Apps and Other Sources SXSW has an official app that is a great tool. You can filter by venue, artist, and genre. I found that filtering by genre brings the staggering number of bands down to a reasonable list. I was looking for artists and bands that actually played instruments (folk, rock, blues, jazz, punk, metal) and it helped in my search. I was surprised to see how few blues bands were scheduled. Many of the artists have sample music on the app which will allow you to quickly determine if you want to include the artist in your “favorites”. The app is limited to the “official” SXSW shows. So, you need to reach out to other sources such as the Austin Music app and Bands-In-Town to find the unofficial shows. Some venues will have a list on the wall and it is worthwhile to drop in to see if a schedule is posted. Although you should suspect a scam when anyone tries to hand you something on the street, there are some flyers that will give you up to date show times. Geographic Layout Downtown - This covers several blocks with the heaviest concentration between 3rd and 7th Streets and Red River and Congress avenues. Several streets are blocked off for pedestrian traffic only. 6th Street is famous for its Mardi Gras atmosphere (more focus on partying than music). Punk Band In Downtown Bar Rainey Street - This is one street just south of the core downtown area. The street is closed for pedestrian traffic and I felt it had a better vibe than downtown. Many of the venues had no cover charges. Craft Pride Patio - Rainey Street South Congress (SoCo) - This stretch of Congress Avenue south of the river is worth the visit just for the funky shops and great restaurants. There was a parking lot concert venue near the Austin Hotel in addition to the shows at the restaurants and bars. SoCo Parking Lot The rest of Austin - Some of Austin’s famous clubs are near, but not in the three areas I covered. That means a little more planning is required to get these venues scheduled into your plans. I covered everything on foot, but the south end of South Congress to the north end of downtown can be more than 4 miles. So, you need to consider that in your plans. Traffic during Friday and Saturday evening can be heavy enough that an Uber ride may not be faster than walking. You can try the electric scooters (they’re everywhere) at your own risk (the locals hate them and rules are still being developed). Saxon Pub - South Austin Venues Big venues – The bigger venues had huge lines and they seemed (to me) to be based on the party rather than the band. Although standing in line is a big part of SXSW, I didn’t find one that was worth standing in … considering I could be listening to music somewhere else. Unofficial venues – Many of these are bars and restaurants without cover charges. These are the “follow your ears” gigs where you listen for a song or two and decide whether to stay. My favorites where the patio venues. Some have cover charges and one stamp may be good for the entire evening. That’s worth checking out. Get your stamp early and you can come back later. Lucy’s Chicken - South Austin Hotels – I know that it seems lame to go to SXSW and end up in a hotel lobby to see a band, but that’s where some of the best unannounced bands may show up. I was checking into a hotel my first night and a band was setting up in the lobby. I talked to the hotel manager about the hotel line-up. He had no idea which bands were going to be playing for the festival. They just agreed to provide the space for SXSW. The bands performing at the hotel didn’t show up in Bands-In-Town. I took several detours through hotel lobbies just to see some great bands. Hotels also have some very nice conference rooms and ballrooms set up for live shows. I walked past several clubs with long lines into a hotel with a $5 cover charge and a full night’s worth of music acts (bonus – comfortable seats and clean bathrooms!) Lobby of the Hotel Van Zandt Driskill Hotel - Downtown Marriott Hotel - Outdoor Venue Travel Essentials I found that the same basics for the NAMM show apply for SXSW – comfortable shoes, plenty of water, chapstick, and earplugs. Earplugs not only protect your ears, but a good set of ear plugs can improve the sound for smaller, bright venues with loud drums. Book your flights and hotel rooms well in advance. I was able to get some great deals using hotel points because I booked before the hotel rates shot up for SXSW. I don’t recommend renting a car unless you plan to leave town. I rented a car for one day to visit San Antonio and a trip to the Collings Guitar factory. If you are a foodie, do your research and plan. I am going to limit my recommendations to: Franklin BBQ – if you can commit to 5 lbs. of meat, order for pick-up and take-out several weeks in advance. Detroit style pizza – just ask and you’ll find a cool patio with live music behind a taproom. Classic Guitar Outside the Driskill Hotel -HC- ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  4. Ernie Ball Music Man Majesty Monarch John Petrucci Signature Electric Guitar A signature guitar for the majesty of Dream Theater! by Russ Loeffler Ernie Ball Music Man Guitars are designed and built in California. The Music Man shop incorporates a blend of high-tech automation with hand-built applications in a manner that is common with custom and boutique guitar shops. They build electric guitars that reference classic guitar styles, but they are recognizable with their 4 + 2 tuner headstock configurations. They also design and build guitars with original body shapes and custom features that are unique to the Music Man line of guitars. Ernie Ball specializes in artist series guitars where the designs are detailed collaborations between the artists and the Music Man design shop. What You Need to Know The John Petrucci Music Man signature guitar series include an impressive line-up of six guitar models. Each model comes in 6 and 7 string options. There is a common design approach to his signature models with body shapes and necks that provide access to the upper reaches of the fretboard. The Petrucci models also include piezo pickups to allow “acoustic” playing without changing guitars. Petrucci’s prog rock/metal compositions require a wide range of playing styles and guitar tones. His designs include the “Swiss Army guitar” approach to eliminate the need for changing guitars between songs … or within an epic 20-minute prog metal song. The John Petrucci Monarchy model is the latest of the Majesty series. In my opinion, Petrucci and Music Man have arrived at the best combination of woods, finish, and hardware with the Monarchy model. The Monarchy includes subtle chrome or black hardware (depending on the color option) and black knobs. This subtlety counters, but also compliments the dramatic wood finishes of the guitar body. The body wood is African mahogany with a Honduran mahogany through neck. There is a flamed maple top in the shape of a shield which complements the inlays and overall “royal” motif of the majesty series. The gloss finish makes the wood grain “pop”. The website specs for the Monarch include a glossy front finish and a matte finish for the back. The guitar I reviewed had a gloss finish front and back, but I didn’t notice any “sticky” feel to the back of the neck or body. The benefit was the additional emphasis and “wet” look of the guitar’s wood grain on the back of the guitar. The color options are Royal Red, Majestic Purple, Black Knight, and Imperial Blue. I don’t know why, but I’m not a fan of red guitars. However, the guitar I reviewed was Royal Red and it would be my first choice for this model. For me, the body looks smaller than it is. I confirmed this when I held it up to some Strats and found the body widths at the bouts to be very close. It looks and feels like a standard body shape that has been “shaped” away to arrive at an original body design. This shaping also makes the guitar more comfortable and equipped for playing above the 12th fret. I was concerned that the guitar would be neck heavy, but it is very well balanced when played standing and very comfortable (natural) when played sitting down. I was surprised to see that the neck radius is 17 inches, because the neck does feel slimmer than “traditional” electric guitars, but it still has a rounded feel. The neck width at the nut at 1.685 lies somewhere between the typical spec’s for Strat’s and Les Paul’s. The fretboard is polished ebony with stainless steel medium jumbo profile frets. Overall, the neck is fast and comfortable, but provides enough width and space for fingerstyle playing in “acoustic” mode. I didn’t notice this before, but John Petrucci has designed his Music Man guitars so that the controls fall within the “arc” of his hand when he rests his arm on the body of the guitar. I don’t know if this will be true for other guitar players, but I found that the selector switches and buttons did line up with my fingers as I moved my hand in an arc from top to bottom of the guitar. The controls on the front of the guitar are very intuitive. There is 3-way toggle pickup selector on the upper horn that allows you to select between piezo and magnetic (or both) pick-ups. The magnetic pick-up selector below the strings allows for the typical neck and bridge pick-up sections. The three control knobs include magnetic pick-up volume, magnetic pick-up tone, and piezo volume. The knobs have textured rubber on the circumference which make it very easy to make adjustments to the controls. I own a few Swiss Army guitars from the 90’s with piezo pick-ups and coil splitters. They include push-pull knobs, additional selector switches, and dual output jacks. They work well, but the controls can be cluttered and require some effort to manage them. Music Man and John Petrucci have done a lot to address these issues. First, the push-push control buttons make more sense than push-pull knobs. Pushing a knob is easier and faster. When the knobs are in the up position, you can feel the knob position without looking down. The piezo volume control doubles as a push button to toggle between mono and stereo outputs. This requires a stereo cable, but it cleans up the guitar by eliminating a second output jack. The magnetic pick-up push button engages a boost (up to 20dB). My preference was to adjust the boost level down. The boost provides significant volume increase with clean tones, but the boost acts as more of a sustain function in over-drive mode. The magnetic pick-up volume doubles as a coil splitter, but only for position 2 (neck and bridge pick-up combined). I have guitars with individual pick-up coil splitters, but most of the combinations are not useful. I think Petrucci and Music Man made the right choice to limit the coil splitting to the best combination while avoiding the clutter of additional controls. Additional controls on the back of the guitar include piezo treble, piezo bass, and boost level. This requires a small screw driver to adjust the settings – not something you can do while performing. The guitar is loaded with DiMarzio Sonic Ecstasy pick-ups and a piezo bridge pickup in the floating bridge. The pick-up combinations provide an abundant pallet of tonal options. When I test run guitars and amps, I always start with the clean tones. I ran the guitar through the neck pick-up, clean jazz tones to bright “country” bridge pick-up sounds as well as the piezo acoustic sounds. The tonal options increased when I combined the magnetic and piezo pick-up sounds. I tried multiple options for the magnetic pick-ups with various amounts of overdrive and fuzz. The boost function really shined in overdrive modes. I was transported to “Santana sustain” territory with a push of the boost button and a smooth overdrive. When I moved to higher gain settings on my amps, the guitar tones had a good combination of bite and crunch without sounding harsh on the high notes or flabby on the low notes. The bridge includes a custom John Petrucci Music Man piezo floating tremolo. The tremolo is VERY sensitive, and it took a while for me to adjust my playing. The whammy bar can be removed or pushed in with a single click. Once it is engaged, it locks in tight. This was the first guitar I played where I was able to use a whammy bar with a piezo pickup. At first, I thought it was a novelty. But after some practice, I found that it yields some useful sounds if used with some constraint. The overall tuning and intonation for the guitar was very stable and easy to adjust. The Schaller M6-IND locking tuners are smooth and secure. The floating bridge is surprisingly stable considering how sensitive it is. The bridge cover is rounded and smooth – no sharp edges! The truss rod adjustment at the bottom of the neck is so simple it’s brilliant. No string removal or components are required to adjust the truss rod. Any small screw driver (or even a nail) can be used to reach through the strings to make truss rod adjustments. Limitations The piezo treble and bass EQ controls can’t be adjusted during performance. The EQ settings need to be dialed in when plugged into a PA or amp before a performance. On the other hand, I don’t know how you could add this functionality without adding more controls and increasing the clutter to the front or back of the guitar. The small cover for the rear access to the magnetic / piezo pickup selector looks a little funky, but I don’t see how you could avoid it. The switch could be relocated to accommodate a more symmetrical back plate, but that would counter the “arc” pattern and functionality for the switch. The cover is not visible from the front of the guitar or noticeable when playing. The street price for the Monarch Majesty is $3,299 and it may be limiting for some people. However, this one guitar could check the boxes for 2 or more of the guitars on your bucket list. The elimination of a few guitars has the advantages of reduced maintenance and the hassle of transporting multiple guitars to gigs. Conclusions I admit I started this review with a bias that the Majesty Monarch is a speed metal guitar for shredding. Then, I moved to my next bias that this guitar is another Swiss Army guitar with excess controls. These biases and assumptions are true. However, the design to support playing between the 12th and 24th frets doesn’t mean that the playability of the guitar in the lower frets needs to take a back seat. The guitar’s neck and body design support all styles of playing. I’m sure it would raise some eyebrows, but I don’t see why this guitar couldn’t show up at a Jazz, Blues, or Pop gig. The well thought out arrangement the controls (including multi-function knobs) allows for many tone options without looking like some Radio Shack components were added to a guitar as an afterthought. The combination of build quality, beautiful woods, finish, and functionality make this guitar extremely versatile as well as a great value. -HC- Resources Music Man John Petrucci Fender Majesty Monarch ($3,299 "street") Be sure to check out Harmony Central's exlusive John Petrucci Interview. You can purchase the Majesty Monarch from: · Sweetwater · Guitar Center · Musician's Friend ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  5. Amigo Guitar Shows began hosting guitar shows in the late 70’s. They now host “world” guitar shows in Nashville, Chicago, Southern California, and the San Francisco Bay Area as well as the Amigo International Guitar Show in Texas each year. The winter SoCal World Guitar Show is scheduled each year on the weekend of the Winter NAMM show. The guitar show is held at the Orange County Fair and Event Center in Costa Mesa, less than 15 miles from the Anaheim Convention Center. Before leaving for my annual trek to the NAMM show, my wife asked if was going to that “flea market” again. Flea market! My response to that is: 1. There will be awesome vintage guitars at the show that cost 10’s of thousands of dollars 2. This is not a place to look for cheap instruments 3. Orange County doesn’t have “flea markets”. They have “farmer’s markets” When we arrived at the fairgrounds there were other events happening. This included a farmer’s market (which I must admit looked like a flea market) and a gun show. It was obvious that the gun show was a much larger event. I declined an offer to join the NRA, but it made me think about the possibilities of “guitar control”. If you think about it, should someone be allowed to buy a ’59 Les Paul without a background check? Should there be restrictions on assault guitars …. Limits on the number and output of pickups loaded into a single guitar? Should there be waiting periods or cooling off laws to prevent guitarists from making passionate, impulse buys at the World Guitar Show? These thoughts disappeared when I walked up to the hall entrance and saw the “Welcome to Fabulous Nerdville California” sign. Joe Bonamassa was back this year with another display from his amazing collection of guitars. This year he brought an impressive collection of blonde Gibsons from the 50’s and 60’s. The guitars were stunning and in mint condition. As usual, Joe took the time to explain details of the guitars, answer questions, sign autographs, and take pictures with his fans. He also took the time to look at vintage guitars that people brought to him for comment, inspection and verification. The entrance fee to the show is $20. However, the show was large enough that it takes a couple of hours to go through all of the display rows and rooms. The overall collection of guitars included hundreds of classic and coveted vintage guitars. Most of the guitars weren’t there just for display. They were for sale if you were ready for the price tag that comes with a vintage guitar. Vintage 50’s Stratocasters and Custom Shop Fenders Vintage Martin and Gibson acoustic guitars If you’re not ready to spend thousands of dollars for a vintage guitar, there are always plenty of newer and vintage pedals that are reasonably priced. Between Winter NAMM 2019 and the World Guitar Show, it was a week of guitar over-load ... NOT! I was good and managed not to break my bank, but my guitar lust has been elevated significantly! If you have a chance to catch one of these guitar shows, make certain you either come with money to purchase, or leave your wallet in a lock box at home. -HC- ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  6. Vengeance Sound VPS Avenger Synthesizer The Last Synth You'll Ever Need? by Russ Loeffler Vengeance Sound has released VPS (Vengeance Producer Suite) Avenger. It is a complete and user-friendly plug-in synthesizer with accompanying Avenger plug-ins available for purchase. Amazingly, the street price for VPS Avenger comes in under $200. Here is a high-level summary of features: * 64-bit and VST3 standard (64-bit required) * Over 930 factory presets * 620 multisamples * 218 special samples (attacks, noises) * 154 resampler waves * 168 drum kits, 168 drum sequences * 596 wavetables * 30 FX types (including analog chorus, Reverb, Phaser, etc. from ArtsAcoustic) * 47 Filter types * Resizable vectorized GUI (4k-ready) * 8 arpeggiators, drum sequencer, 8 step sequencers, 18 envelope generators Customizable LFOs, 4 shaper modules (distortion units on OSC level) Getting started with the video tutorials Although Avenger is a very intuitive and user-friendly synthesizer, I recommend starting with tutorial videos, especially Tutorial Video #2, “Resizing the GUI”. The GUI is designed to work with 4K monitors and getting the display size and resolution is important. This short, 2 minute video will ensure that you are starting with the best display for your DAW. Getting started with the presets You will want to learn the layout and the controls for the synthesizer, but nothing beats the instant gratification of uploading some great presets. Fortunately, the hierarchy for file presets is simple and intuitive. The preset browser has three levels and the format is common for all expansion packs. 1st Level – the bank or expansion packs (Factory is the base default) 2nd Level – Category Factory menu of categories: Arp, Bass, Bells, Chords, Drums, Effects, Instruments, Leads, Organ, Pads, Pianos & Keys, Sequences, Synth, Trancegate, Voice (Note: Some expansion packs do not include all of these categories or they may include categories not found in the Factory bank.) 3rd Level – Presets There are more than 900 factory presets Beyond the presets After you are familiar with the factory presets, you’ll want to move on to modifying the presets and creating your own presets. The areas or sections of the synthesizer are- * Browser Area * Oscillator Area o This is where the drums are located o The waveform view is central to the display area o Multi-samples with stacking capability by adding tabs * Amp Section o UP to 4 independent amp modules * Filter Section o Up to 4 independent filter modules * Shaper Section o Up to 4 shaper modules * LFO Section o Up to 4 shaper modules * FX Section o Up to 4 FX modules with 8 effects each Note: the Oscillator, Amp, Filter, Shaper, and LFO sections can be expanded by simply pushing the + button and adding new tabs o Mod Matrix o Macro Area * Central Display o Editor * Free mode with mouse control * Harmonic mode * Bin mode o Arpeggiator o Drum Sequencer o Step Sequencer o Pitch Module o Modulation Envelopes o Mixer o Key and Velocity Zones o System Page * MDI Controller Bar o Keyboard and modulation controls As you can see just from the summary of the synthesizer layout, you can dig very, very deep into developing, editing, and storing you own presets. This may seem intimidating, but the video editorials are broken down by synthesizer area or section. So, you can master one at a time. I recommend starting with the Factory bank and exploring the full capabilities of VPS Avenger. If you want to move beyond the factory presets, the time invested to learn the various sections of the synthesizer will be well worth it. Expansion Packs Once you have mastered VPS Avenger, there are almost 30 expansion packs available for purchase. Each expansion pack provides more than 100 presets, new drumkits, sequences, wavetables and more. They range from analog and digital synths from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s to EDM, Trance, Dubstep, House, Cinematic. I’m not a big fan of EDM or House music and I would lean toward a collection with the classic synths and cinematic sound expansion packs. If you are a fan of EDM there are multiple expansion packs of EDM, House, Trance, and Dub presets. The extensive offerings of expansion packs will allow you to curate your library of sounds to your preferences. Bundled packages of 5 expansion packs are available for a great value. Conclusion Vengeance advertises the VPS Avenger as “the last synth you’ll ever need”. That is a lofty claim, but they may be right. This synthesizer is loaded with very professional sounding presets and the expansion packs provide a huge library of sounds. I’m already looking forward to seeing more expansion packs. Avenger has an incredible quantity of features and controls providing the ability to perform very deep editing. Despite the vast features and content, the layout is very logical and intuitive which allows you to be creative. A bonus is the library of video tutorials which will have you editing like a pro. -HC- Resources Vengeance Sound VPS Avenger Synthesizer Product Page (Startings at $220.00) ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  7. Little Guitar Shop on the Mountain - a Visit to D'Angelico Guitars Aspen high! Who needs legalized drugs with all these guitars? by Russ Loeffler D’Angelico – Aspen Style When I travel to Colorado for the Guitar Town Festival at Copper Mountain, I always add a day or two of site seeing to places like Boulder, Vail, Estes Park, and Aspen. This year, I found something new in Aspen, a D’Angelico guitar shop. The shop has been open for less than a year, but it has the look of a well established gallery. The shop has the largest display of D’Angelico guitars in the world. They have everything from mid- priced acoustic guitars to New York master built archtops, as well as guitars with custom artwork. The layout is an impressive mix of a comfortable lounge and an art gallery. They have some high-quality Vox and Two-Rock amps to demo the electric guitars. The shop offers shipping and they will match prices. The staff is knowledgeable and very friendly. Following are photos that I took during my visit. Fortunately, the orientation of the shop is such that these beauties aren't getting hit by the sun! A veritable rainbow of semi-hollows adorn the jam space lounge. OK... I guess drummers are allowed. The classic single horn electric, in all their glory. The wall where acoustic meets electric. Made to play acoustics. D'Angelico's Grateful Dead Series It's nice to know that Aspen caters to everyone... even high-end guitar afficianados! ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  8. 2018 Guitar Town Festival at Copper Mountain Colorado The 2018 Guitar Town Festival included another great line up for this FREE annual guitar festival. FRIDAY John Jorgenson always performs with bands on both Acoustic Saturday and Electric Sunday. This year, he decided to step it up and also perform with his electric band for the Friday night kick-off on the main stage. ACOUSTIC SATURDAY Rory Hoffman demostrate his unique style of guitar playing. Rory says he learned this technique because he started playing when he was young and too small to hold the guitar upright. He sat in with several of the bands during the weekend on guitar, acordian, piano, and organ. Chiste Lenèe was the 2017 Intermational Fingerstyle Guitar Champion. She is a rising star in two handed percussive style playing pioneered by Preston Reed and Michael Hedges. Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley performed a blend of country, blue grass, and blues numbers. Andy McKee demonstrated his finger style and two-handed tapping techniques on baritone guitar. He played crowd pleasers with his arrangements of 80’s classics like Africa and Everybody Wants to Rule the World. John Jorgenson back on stage with his acoustic quintet. Al Dimeola left his electric guitar behind for the day to play an all acoustic set. Yes …. He shreds just as fast on acoustic guitar when he wants to. A Saturday evening closer with (almost) everyone back on stage for the acoustic all-star jam. ELECTRIC SUNDAY The Sunday morning workshop and Q&A with the electric day headliners. The hardest working man at Copper Mountain … John Jorgenson and his electric band. Johnny A played solo with a looping station and multiple effects. His theme was British rock from the 60’s. After some pedal mishaps, he announced that he was going to change his entire set. He proved that a backlog of classic rock songs will always work. Coco Montoya got the crowd dancing and told stories of learning to play blues guitar from the great Albert Collins. Robben Ford headlined on Sunday. He led some young musicians including the rare second guitarist in his band. Electric Sunday closed with the all-star jam. Usually, a jam with more than three guitars on one stage is a bit too much. Somehow, these end-of-the-day jams at Guitar Town always work. -HC- ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  9. During a recent vacation in Paris, I decided to see if there were any guitar stores to visit. A person needs a break from the great food, museums, and architectural wonders. After a few minutes of on-line searching, I noticed that several guitar shops had similar addresses. In fact, they were on the same street. Rue de Douai is narrow street located in the 9th district, north of the city center. There is a short section of Rue de Doaui between Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and Rue Fromentin where there are a dozen shops with guitars, basses, and guitar related products. The idea of placing several guitar shops in one location may seem strange, if not redundant. However, each shop has its own niche and vibe. The shop owners and managers have an obvious pride in their inventory and the layout of the shops. Some of the shops had the feel of upscale galleries. The staff at these shops tended to provide service only if asked, but they were friendly and knowledgeable. One thing to note - it is not OK to grab a guitar off the wall without asking. This was a typical sign: Following is a brief run-down from my stroll down Rue de Douai: Guitar Legend (technically it has a Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle address) – They have a great Gibson and Fender selection including custom shop Fenders. They also have a good assortment of Fender and Marshall amps. Woodstore – This is not an acoustic guitar shop as the name might suggest. They have a nice selection of Fender’s and Gibson’s beyond the requisite Les Paul and Strat models. Centrale Guitars– This store includes three store fronts. One for electric guitars, one for acoustic guitars, and one for basses. They have a nice collection of mid-level guitars focusing on Epiphone electrics and acoustics as well as Takamine acoustics Centrale Gallery – This shop has a similar name and it is a few doors down from Centrale Guitars, but it has a focus on high end guitars including Gibson, Fender, Martin, and Taylor. The upstairs room is very cool. Acoustic & Jazz – They have large selection of acoustic and acoustic/electric guitars including Gibson, Taylor, Martin, Guild, Cort, Tanglewood and Takamine. Le Gaucher (The Southpaw) – This shop has only left-handed models of guitars and basses. There’s no better place to be a lefty. Guitar Collection – This shop features some one-of-a-kind custom guitars. They have some funky vintage gear as well. Metal Guitar – The name speaks for itself. Custom Shop - They have some guitars on display, but the focus is on strings and guitar parts for maintaining or customizing your guitars. L’ampli a Lampes (loosely translates to: "the amp has lamps” - or "the tube amp") – This guitar amp store is a great complement to the surrounding guitar shops. They have a fantastic selection of tube amps. ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  10. Synthogy Ivory II Studio Grands Because sometimes you can't fit a grand piano in your studio ... by Russ Loeffler Synthogy has introduced two new virtual pianos to their Ivory II series - the Ivory II Studio Grands. The Steinway B Grand Piano was recorded at the Power Station New England in Waterford, Connecticut, while the Bösendorfer 225 Grand Piano was recorded at the Firehouse Recording Studios in Pasadena, California- both world-class studios. Boasting a 112 GB library, Ivory II Studio Grands is the largest Ivory product yet, and with good reason. Each piano includes up to 24 velocity levels, with more release samples, and soft pedal samples for greater sampling detail than any Ivory instrument to date. Click here for the product landing page with Synthogy's description of the two new pianos, which are the first to ship with the new Ivory 2.5 piano engine. For the specs, click on page's Highlights tab. The page also has a tab for System Requirements (at least a 2 GHz quad-core processor, with 112 GB of free hard disk space). What You Need to Know Ivory II Studio Grands is a free-standing virtual instrument, and you don’t need a previous version of Ivory installed. Studio Grands includes its own host program, Cantabile; this acts as a stand-alone host, but it also provides some basic digital recording functions if you don’t have a DAW (digital audio workstation). Studio Grands includes effects such as soft pedaling, piano keyset, release samples, chorus effects, room effects, and synth layers. These effects make Studio Grands an incredibly versatile and powerful instrument. However, these effects require more RAM and CPU power from your computer. If you don’t need these effects, turn them off. It's worth your time to read the comprehensive manual included with the software, and learn more about which effects require additional CPU power and RAM. The Program and Effects pages provide numerous controls, parameters, and settings. You can start with some basic, “dry” piano samples and start tweaking to get a feel for all of the controls. Another option is to run through the several presets for the Steinway Model B and the Bösendorfer 225. This is great way to learn the various settings and start as a base for creating your own presets. The Session Page The Session preset starts with a default setting. You can create your own presets and store them. If you plan to use more than one MIDI keyboard, this is where you can dial in your preferences with the Velocity Map Preset and Half Pedaling for each keyboard. If you have a standard 88-key controller, you can transpose down one octave to capture the lowest register of the Bösendorfer. You can also set the number of voices if you want to reduce CPU power requirements. The Program Page Most of the program presets are excellent and they reveal the surprising versatility of each piano. Within each Program preset, you can apply a preset for the Keyset as well. Release and Soft Pedal samples can be turned off and on independently. All of the control settings can range from subtle to extreme. There are different lid positions, but the Full Stick preset sounded the best to me and is one of the presets that uses the least CPU power. The Stereo Perspective options between Perform and Audience are effective in capturing your physical position with the piano. The Synth Layer provides preset classic synthesizer sounds. Most of them sounded (to me) like 80s synth patches. That’s not a knock on the quality of the sounds, because they are very good. The synth decay, release, and gain settings allow for very subtle enhancements to the piano to full blown synth sounds. I suspect that people who are very focused (obsessed?) on the synth sounds will prefer to layer their high-end synth plug-ins. Effects Page The effects page offers EQ, Chorus, and various room presets. There is a high EQ, low EQ, and parametric midrange EQ. The chorus includes the standard controls that adjust the parameters from subtle chorus to flanger. The Ambience includes room, studio, jazz club, recital hall, concert hall, and curved space. The “size” control is a very helpful feature that works well with the wet/dry, predelay, and damping controls. Some people will prefer to use separate plug-in effects. This is not because Ivory II effects aren’t high quality, but separate plug-ins will allow for applying effects after the recording and during production. The Preferences Page Most users will work with the default settings. Knob Tracking allows setting the knob controller motion as linear or radial, depending on your preference. Limitations There really are no limitations, provided that you have sufficient computing power. The range of sounds from the two pianos is much more than I expected. Conclusions The Ivory II Studio Grands is truly a stand-alone package. If you don’t have (or want) a DAW, this package provides everything you need to play and record two world-class pianos. If you have a professional or home recording studio and you have been wanting to upgrade your library with high quality, realistic piano sounds, Studio Grands is a great choice. There are so many parameters and effects that you can control, it sounds like you are getting much more than two pianos. - HC - Resources This is a link where you can hear some recordings of the Studio Grands Steinway Model B and Bösendorfer 225. ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  11. Spitfire Audio Symphonic Strings Not your ordinary symphony in a box ... by Russ Loeffler Spitfire Symphonic Strings (SSS) is the flagship to deliver Spitfire Audio’s impressive library of symphonic strings as a Kontakt instrument. SSS not only consolidates their Mural 1, 2, 3 and Ensembles collections, it's a ‘core’ product with the best and most diverse microphone positions C(lose), T(ree), A(mbient). Expansion packs will follow with #1 Additional Mics & Mixes and #2 ‘Evolutions.’ But why would they decide to remove the previous Mural 1, 2, 3, Ensembles & Evolutions collections from their shelves? Spitfire Audio explains- “After nearly 4 years of hard graft we’re proud of what we consider to be the definitive selection of Symphonic Strings Samples. However having this broad selection of tools spread across different volumes does make for complications. We also found that without unifying the main body of work, we were unable to take advantage of articulation sharing between the different volumes for greater functionality and ease of use. We also feel if you want to go blockbuster you have to go bold, if you want cinematic you have to go big. So we have decided to take every articulation, dynamic layer, round robin, legato interval and rationalise it into the ultimate encyclopaedic compendium of Symphonic strings sampling to date, recorded in London, with no expense spared. Spitfire Symphonic Strings is the ‘Daddy’.” And while we're letting them do the talking, here's the Symphonic Strings overview from Spitfire: 60 Star Players, 16 1st Violins, 14 2nd Violins, 12 Violas, 10 Cellos & 8 Basses super deep sampled with over 175 articulations, including 59 shorts, 94 longs, and 5 extraordinary performance legato patches programmed by Andrew Blaney. Recorded with multiple round robins, dynamic layers and presented with 3 essential and versatile microphone positions. In addition to each individual section they also have a comprehensive selection of articulations and techniques presented in an 'ensemble' format designed for sketching and composing with 'out of the box' satisfaction. Features: 175 articulations, including 59 shorts, 94 longs, & 45 legatos 60 Top London string players Recorded in situ (ie: in the positions they occupy in a scoring session) Recorded using priceless valve and ribbon mics Neve Montserrat Pre-amps into a Neve 88R desk Recorded digitally at 96k via 2" Studer tape Deep sampled with multiple dynamic layers and round robins Diverse and detailed with essential, additional and some totally unique articulations Legatos designed by Andrew Blaney Individual sections and ensembles 3 essential, diverse and most favoured mic positions: C(lose), T(ree), A(mbient) Kontakt Player included NKS-ready New intuitive GUI with inline help system This chart summarizes the available sounds and articulations. What You Need to Know If you plan to purchase SSS as a download, understand that it is a VERY large file (101.1 GB storage and 202.2 GB required for initial install). It will take several hours (or longer) to download the software. Fortunately, Spitfire Audio has done a great job of allowing you to resume your download if you time out while downloading. SSS is a Kontakt 5 Player library, accessible from the Kontakt library panel. This will be a plus to those who are familiar with Kontakt and Kontakt compatible plug-ins. Kontakt 5 Player can be downloaded for free. However, you will be limited to “demo” mode. This limits sessions to 15 minutes before you must restart with a new session. An upgrade to full Kontakt 5 eliminates this problem. There are six articulation controllers available with SSS (dynamics, vibrato, speed, release, tightness, expression). Your keyboard / controller may limit full use of the articulation controls that allow you to achieve subtle nuances and realistic articulations. Although you can produce great music without these controllers, the ability to control dynamics, vibrato, and expression without resorting to the use of a mouse will greatly improve the quality and reality of your performances. Ideally, you will want at least two or three slide controllers or expression wheels. Spitfire Symphonic Strings is managed in Kontakt 5 as a defined library of sounds. The “basic” sound libraries are (anything but basic): Violins 1 Violins 2 Violas Celli Basses Ensemble Advanced Techniques include: Extended techniques Individual articulations Legato techniques Other patches Performance legato The basses are full and powerful. You can feel the full weight of an orchestra behind you. The celli also have great weight in the lower registers and are very expressive in the upper registers. The violins and violas have beautiful tones from the lower to the upper ranges of the instruments. Violins 1 and Violins 2 are not just additional samples, they are two distinct orchestra sections. If you do nothing more than use the basic Ensembles library, you will have access to some incredible string samples. The sound quality improves when overlaying or stacking individual instruments. This also allows using different articulations for each instrument, which improves the overall realism of your performances. Moving to the advanced techniques library samples allows you to dig much deeper where the individual articulations have their own patches. More finite control of specialized techniques allows for even more accurate and realistic performances. On the other hand, the “Other” patches deliver some more extreme sounds that are very cool - even though they may not sound like real instruments. Panel Views and Articulation Controls If you have an understanding of music theory and classical music notation, the articulation panel / stanza controls will be very intuitive. However, even without formal music training, all you need is a good understanding of how to use sound library plug-ins. With some experimentation, trial and error, and your memory (or good notes), you can work your way through the menus and options to find yourself commanding a string symphony. There are three main panels that allow you to see various views of an instrument with varying levels of articulation control. Basic (Simple) Panel: In this mode, the microphone mix is simplified to “close” and “far.” The articulations are limited to dynamics, Vibrato, Release, and Expression. Advanced Panel: This panel provides more articulation controls and more options. However, the most important feature that makes this the “go to” panel view is the microphone mix control section. The level controls for “close,” “tree,” and “ambience” microphones are critical for shaping your overall sound. Ostinatum: This is Albion’s classic ostinatum generator which they claim is “not quite an arpeggiator, not quite a sequencer.” This very popular tool can serve as both, depending how you use it. The results can vary from realistic orchestral patterns to some very cool synthesizer-like effects. Once again, knowing some music theory will help. Limitations There really are no limitations other than the limitations of the sampled instruments. You just need to understand how to use the samples and where they work well. Unrealistic use of polyphonic chords and arpeggios with tremolo and trills will lead to clipped and distorted sounds. There are some very helpful tutorials via Spitfire Audio’s website and YouTube to guide you from basic use to the advanced use of the detailed articulations. Conclusion Spitfire Audio has done a great job of consolidating almost a decade of symphonic string samples into one package that will appeal not only professional composers and recording studios, but home studio users as well. The library and controls are laid out in an intuitive and convenient manner. All of the samples from the basic ensemble to the detailed techniques and articulations sound fantastic. The kind of results you can get all comes down to how deep you want to dig into this very comprehensive library of sounds. Resources SSS Introduction SSS Home Page http://www.spitfireaudio.com/shop/a-z/spitfire-symphonic-strings/ ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  12. Making Better Art – Timothy Drury Combines His Love of Music and Visual Art When art and music cross paths ... Interview by Russ Loeffler Timothy Drury was born and raised in Los Angeles. Timothy has been adding to his resume since his first big break with Don Henley in 1989. He played keyboards on Henley’s “End of the Innocence” tour and went on to play on the Eagles “Hell Freezes Over” tour from 1994 to 2000. He has also played on tours with Joe Walsh, Whitesnake, and Don Felder. Timothy has several co-writes with Don Felder, former guitarist from the Eagles, on his recently released CD. He co-wrote Henley’s, “Everything is Different Now” and the song “That Made Me Stronger” with Stevie Nicks. Why and when did you become interested in music? When I was very young, maybe three years old or so, I was visiting my grandmother, Father’s mother, in Oregon and she had a big player piano in her living room. Apparently, I was fascinated by the sound of this piano and was very delicate when I first touched the keys and heard the sound that my fingers were making. Most young kids usually bash away wildly at an instrument when they first encounter it, so my grandmother thought maybe I had a special connection to this instrument. My other grandmother, Mom’s mother, was there as well and a few years later, it was she who bought the spinet piano that I first started playing on when I was five years old. The piano arrived at the house one day, and a week later, my teacher showed up for my first lesson. All of this was a big surprise to me, but I gladly dove in to the experience. So, I never stopped playing the thing for the last 50 years! Which instruments do you play? This is sort of a trick question these days since plug-ins allow all of us to play virtually every instrument, to a certain degree. That said, I play the piano, guitar, dulcimer, bass, percussion, and I’m a singer as well. How did songwriting become a major component of your musical interest and career? I started writing my first songs and melodies when I was about 11 or so, and then I was completely hooked. The fact that I could express my thoughts and feelings through the instrument was like having a special super power. That’s when it became more than just a great skill, but more of an emotional tool. As years went on and I continued to hone my skills as a writer, I was lucky enough to land a position as a staff writer at Warner Chappell, still one of the biggest publishers in the world. I was touring with Don Henley as well during that period, so I was writing and performing at a very high level, which all combined to make me a better artist and creator. In 2000, I wrote a song with Don Henley, “Everything Is Different Now” which wound up as a single, and was later included on one of his greatest hits records, “The Very Best of Don Henley.” I also wrote a song with Stevie Nicks that same year that was on her “Trouble in Shangri-La” album. That track was produced by Sheryl Crow, who I’d spent years touring with in Henley’s band. Most recently I co-wrote almost an entire album, nine songs, with Don Felder for his “Road To Forever” CD. I’ve written music for television and short films, music libraries, ad agencies, and continue to write specifically for my own multimedia performances as well. Why and when did you become interested in visual art? I’ve always been fascinated by paintings, photographs, and in particular, cinema, from a very early age. My mother turned me on to so many great classic films, which taught me how important the musical score in a film is to telling a story and having an emotional impact on the viewer. As far as my own journey as a photographer, it started when I was on the road with Henley in the late 80s early 90s. I was looking for a productive way to pass the time on the days off as I traveled around the world, so I bought a camera and started shooting, and I mean a LOT of shooting, on film of course. I shot literally thousands of rolls of black and white film over a period of years, and a style of my own started to emerge. I began doing photography shows around LA, where I was living at the time. People started noticing and collecting my work. I was commissioned to do portraits, album covers and advertising layouts. It became as important to me as playing and writing music. In much the same way that writing hooked me into music, shooting film and then learning how to process and print my own images in the darkroom hooked me into photography. How have you integrated your musical and visual arts during your career? Because of my love for cinema, I’ve always been intrigued by the combination of images and music. Once I started creating my own imagery, I thought it would be interesting to find a way to combine the two parts of my creative world. It was an abstract idea for many years, but one that wouldn’t go away. A few years ago I was preparing for a one-man photography show at a well-known gallery in Carmel, and decided that I wanted to perform music at the opening, while projecting some of my imagery, and also showing framed pieces on the walls. It was an ambitious undertaking, but it all came together wonderfully. Tell us about your new project, the Performance Cube. Since that gallery show in Carmel, I’ve been focusing on this idea of projecting my imagery while I perform and that has led to the creation of the Performance Cube. At that performance, I projected onto sheer fabric, so the images would appear on the fabric, and also on the wall behind the fabric, creating the illusion of three dimensionality. Through experimentation in my studio, I happened upon this idea of a cube-shaped, sheer screen, large enough for me to be able to perform inside. When I rear project images onto the back of this four-sided cube, the entire cube fills up with the imagery, while I’m in silhouette, playing the keyboard inside the cube. I thought it was stunning and unusual, and through continued tweaks along the way, I’ve really found out what works and what doesn’t. I’ve done several performances now with the Performance Cube here in the States and abroad, primarily at corporate events and tech-centric conferences. What are the sources for your music and the visual art? I use all of my own images, stills and videos, as a resource for the films that I edit together and project onto the Cube. The music is also all my own instrumental compositions, some of which were included on my CD “The Crossing.” and some that have been composed since then. Sometimes I have a backing track of stripped-down versions of my songs playing within the films, and I play along with that, live. I usually use a piano sound, or guitar-type sounds which I’ve been experimenting with quite a bit lately. How does everything come together? I edit all the imagery together in Final Cut Pro X and I play the plug-ins I use through Logic Pro X. At a performance, I usually run two MacBook Pro laptops, one to run the imagery to the projector, and one to play the plug-ins through. For piano sounds, I use Ivory from Synthogy. It’s an incredible collection of pianos that sound and play so realistically. I also use Omnisphere from Spectrasonics, which has an endless supply of inspiring sounds to choose from. Logic Pro X also has a ton of cool sounds. Where do you want to take your music and art in the future? A great question, but kind of hard to answer! It will be interesting to see where I go as an artist in the next five years, ten years…who knows? I’m always learning and evolving and exploring new ideas and sounds. I keep shooting images and videos and experimenting with time-lapse, slow-motion video, filters, and just using all of the tools available to me in order to try and express myself. I hope to be able to reach more and more viewers with the Performance Cube and as time goes by, look forward to increasing opportunities to share my vision of the world with audiences. PERFORMANCE CUBE PROMO 2 from Timothy Drury on Vimeo. Performance Cube Gear List: (2)Mac Book Pro Final Cut Pro X Logic Pro X Resident Audio Thunderbolt audio interface Korg Triton Extreme Panasonic PT AX200U HD projector 8’x8’x8’ snap lock aluminum frame, covered in sheer fabric Plug-ins: Synthogy Ivory Spectrasonics Omnisphere Vienna String Library ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  13. Expert Review: Epiphone Limited Edition EJ-160E Acoustic Electric Guitar A Great Take on an Iconic Guitar By Russ Loeffler John Lennon was not the only artist to play the Gibson J-160 (George and John received their first JE-160’s on the same day). However, for many Beatles fans (and gear heads) the J-160E is one of the most iconic guitars associated with John Lennon. Many players covet the Gibson J-160E, but the near-$2,000 price tag is beyond their reach. This is where the Epiphone Limited Edition EJ-160E comes in. The EJ-160E is a full-size Dreadnought with Gibson-style tuners and the classic Gibson Top Hat style volume and tone controls. The stacked P-100 humbucking pickup above the sound hole completes the guitar's historic look. The headstock and logo on the pickguard remind you that the guitar is an Epiphone, and the EJ-160E delivers all of this at an amazingly low street price of $400. Construction and Finish The EJ-160 comes in vintage sunburst or natural finishes; my review unit model was natural gloss. The guitar woods include a solid spruce top, mahogany body, mahogany neck, and rosewood fret board. The vintage-style trapezoid inlays on the fretboard, imitation tortoise pickguard, and classic bindings on the top and neck give the guitar an authentic 60s look and feel. The fit and finish on the guitar were nearly flawless - the only issue I could find was a very slight dimpling of the neck binding where the neck meets the body. Ironically, the one item that needed to be fixed was the Epiphone “e” logo on the pickguard because it was almost falling off. I tightened it down with a small dot of super glue. The guitar seemed to be almost in tune right out of the case (the case is optional), speaking to the quality of the setup job. My initial impression of the acoustic tone was that it seemed bright for a Dreadnought. The body is a full Dreadnought with some taper at the upper bout from the neck (1960’s Slim Taper D-profile body), but it felt smaller. I held it up to a Martin D28 and outside of the upper body taper, confirmed it's a full Dreadnought. A quick consultation with a tuner confirmed the tuning was almost a full step above standard pitch (so much for pitch perfect hearing!). After bringing the tuning back down to standard pitch, there was a slight buzzing in the E and A strings. I adjusted the neck with a less than a full rotation of the truss rod to eliminate the buzzing. These adjustments brought the guitar back into the dreadnought range of tones. However, even after adjusting the tuning, the guitar did not have the projection and bass response that I would expect. The guitar seemed “tight,” so I employed the old trick of hanging the guitar on the wall and subjecting it to a heavy dose of sound from some PA speakers for several hours to "age" it. The guitar did open up and, like many Gibson acoustics whose tone becomes sweeter with age, continued to improve with more playing. Let's Plug In! This guitar is truly an acoustic electric, but in different way from the now-ubiquitous acoustic-electric format with under the saddle (or below the top) pickups and volume/tone knobs on the guitar's side. The electric guitar volume and tone knobs tuners give the guitar its iconic look, but initially it didn't seem quite “right." That feeling went away after playing for just a couple of minutes, and I soon felt like I had been playing this guitar for many years. Reaching to the volume and tone knobs with my right hand felt very natural, and the D-shaped neck was comfortable once I'd adjusted the action. The tones were well-balanced with the exception of missing some of the lower tones, as expected from a Dreadnought guitar, and is not something you'd expect to find in a $400 guitar. Overall, the string definition wile strumming was articulate and clear. The guitar stood up to heavy strumming very well, and did not compress as I would have expected from a guitar in this price range. Single-note lines and fingerpicking tones were also nice and clear, but with slightly less volume than similarly-priced Dreadnoughts. Where the guitar really gets interesting and the sound comes alive is when you plug it in. I evaluated the EJ-160 through four different amplification systems: an acoustic guitar amp, directly into a PA, and also a couple of guitar amps. The guitar played well through all of these systems with very little feedback, even at high volumes. The sound was very much “acoustic” in each of the amplification scenarios. I experimented with some overdrive settings on the amps, and also played through different overdrive pedals. The guitar managed to avoid feedback fairly well at high gain settings, and I was able to control the feedback easily by muting the strings. The tone control proved to be very valuable when moving from acoustic amps and PAs to electric guitar amps; I favored the tone control in the 7 to 10 range when playing into acoustic amps and the PA, while moving the tone control down to the 3 to 7 range worked well with electric guitar amps. Overall, the guitar's build quality is terrific for the price. The look of the guitar is classic and more than handsome. It sounds good acoustically or plugged in, and has a versatility that merits some time experimenting with different amplification systems, including combinations of the pickup and microphones. This is also a stage-worthy instrument, especially if you want to cover some Beatles songs. If you’re thinking about getting one just to hang on the wall as part of your Beatlemania collection, you would be making a big mistake because this guitar needs to be played and heard. Resources Discuss this Limited Edition guitar on Harmony Central's Acoustic Guitar Forum Epiphone Limited Edition EJ-160e Acoustic-Electric Guitar ($665.00 MSRP, $349.00 "street") Official Epiphone Website Buy this Epiphone EJ 160e from - Musician's Friend Guitar Center ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  14. Expert Review: Eventide H9 Max Guitar Multieffects How to Do a Lot with (What Seems to Be) a Little By Russ Loeffler I began my evaluation of the Eventide H9 Max with some skepticism. Putting a programmable, multi-effects system into one pedal seems like too much. The classic Eventide pedals (like the Time Factor) have more than three footswitches and tons of knobs. So, how is this two-footswitch pedal supposed to give me more than that, with less? Well, it really comes down to the programming power and the multifunction operations of the pedal controls, which provides a surprising amount of control and flexibility. And, syncing the pedal via Bluetooth to a hand-held device or a computer takes the programming capabilities to another level. The Effect Processors Eventide offers three H9 Harmonizer effects processors; the H9 Core, the H9, and the H9 Max The pedals look identical, but only the H9 Max comes with 99 programmable presets and presets from all these popular Eventide stomp boxes: Time Factor – 9 delay algorithms + looper ModFactor – 10 modulation algorithms Pitchfactor – 10 pitch + delay algorithms Space – 12 reverb algorithms H9 exclusive effects - UltraTap, Resonator, EQ Compressor, and CrushStation I assume we can expect new algorithms from Eventide to expand the tonal capabilities of the H9 Max with future software and firmware updates. The reverb, delay, modulation, pitch shifting, and compression sounds are truly studio quality, and especially impressive in stereo. The only effects processor that didn’t blow me away was the CrushStation. The more extreme sounds with lots of saturation and octave effects sounded good, but I would not replace my overdrive pedals (nor my tube amps) with the CrushStation low-to-medium overdrive sounds. Maybe the next generation of algorithms will deliver some warmer, smoother tones, but these are only “good enough,” whereas everything else is superb. The Pedal The pedal has a very clean look and the layout is well thought out. Taking time to understand the multifunction uses of the controls is essential. Top - Two footswitches, five push buttons, and a “hot” button that both clicks and rotates. Back – Stereo ¼” inputs and outputs, plus a ¼” input for the expression controller. There's also a mini-USB port to connect to a computer or other devices without Bluetooth capability. Side - One MIDI in and one MIDI out connection. I plugged in my guitar, connected the H9 to my amp, and started playing. I understood the bypass button, hot button, and the X, Y, Z buttons immediately. However, the multi-function use of the tap switch and the buttons was not as obvious, and requires opening the manual and loading the H9 Controller App to grasp fully how it works. The Software If I was skeptical about the cramming too much into one pedal, I was even more skeptical that the H9 Controller Bluetooth app would prove to be a tool and not just a gimmick. However, it didn’t take long for me to see the beauty of the software and the control it offers over the pedal. I downloaded the H9 Controller app on my iPad and iPhone, and was able to sync both devices to the pedal without issue. The app's layout is very easy to follow, with the disadvantage going to the iPhone as some pedal configurations require that you toggle right and left to access all of the controls because of the smaller screen. The iPad layout displays all of the controls on one screen and the tabs between screens are visible as well, which provides an experience akin to a comprehensive studio control center that provides everything you need to operate (and learn about) the Eventide H9 Max. I went to the “Help” tab on the screen and was soon watching H9 tutorials. I highly recommend the several short Eventide H9 tutorials...after 15 minutes of viewing, I had command of the entire system (pedal and Bluetooth app controller). You have the choice of programming directly with the pedal controls, but there's the advantage of the visual layout with the Bluetooth apps. It’s much more convenient than stepping up and down through the menus on the pedal. The software allows for deeper programming than is possible with the classic Eventide stomp boxes. I won’t go into the general settings, ribbon controller, or X-Y controller pad functions available for most of the parameters, as they are best explained in the many demos available by Eventide and others on YouTube. The H9 System So, how does the system (I mean pedal) sound? Most of the presets are too exaggerated for my liking, as they were meant to stand out in a retail environment or demonstrate the pedal’s extremes. However, with the app controller it's very easy to adjust the preset parameters and dial in your sound. For many of the presets, al that took was dialing down the Mix. Extremeness aside, the presets are a great starting point for really understanding what the H9 Max can do. You can find some classic Pink Floyd and U2 patches and add them to straight to your favorite preset groups, or use the factory presets as a platform to dial in your own sounds. I ran the H9 Max through these applications. Electric guitars though the pedal into a single amp or two amps for stereo Steel string and nylon-string acoustic guitars through the pedal to an acoustic guitar amp or PA Acoustic guitars through the H9 and direct into a recording deck Guitar Rig amp models through the H9 effects into recording tracks Live Performance Until you spend some time mapping out and programming your presets, there will be challenges. You don’t want to toggle up and down through 99 presets in a live situation, especially with a new piece of gear. Taking advantage of being able to store preset groups is essential to the live performer. With the H9 Controller app, it's very easy to organize and store preset groups on your iPhone or iPad. You can also limit the range of presets on the pedal. (For example, you can program the pedal to scroll only from preset 3 through preset 6). With some programming effort in the pedal or with the H9 Controller App, this single pedal can be used for multiple applications and performance situations. It's very convenient that you can store preset groups for your blues, rock, jazz, or acoustic gig. There are also some challenges with the limit of two foot switches. The right footswitch requires a two-second hold to engage the tap function. I always use tap tempo with delay effects. Moving back and forth between tap mode and program switching requires some extra pedal dancing. I also like to stack my delay, chorus, and tremolo effects in different combinations on the fly rather than just turn on one effect at a time. I guess that’s why there are guitarists who actually have two H9 pedals on their boards. Studio The H9 Max may be even better suited for the studio than live performances. This is where you have time to dig into the programming and explore some of the extreme sound effects (which are amazing). The cool thing is that you can spend hours programming and storing effects and then bring the pedal to the studio with you. An iPad allows you to bring in your own live editing and programming station to a studio desk while the pedal sits on the floor. The MIDI functions will allow you to sync to recording drum tracks or loops. The Bottom Line At $700 (street price), this is an expensive pedal. However, with the proper investment in planning and programming it is a great value. You don’t have to be a studio engineer to work with the H9 Max, but you do need to invest some time before your drop it onto a pedalboard or take it into a studio. In fact, I recommend that you take some time to view some of the demos and tutorials for the Eventide H9 Max before you consider a purchase. I think you will be more impressed than intimidated when you see what this “little” pedal can do. Resources Eventide H9 Max landing page Available from B&H and Sweetwater ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  15. Festival Overview by Russ Loeffler Guitar Town 11- Copper Mountain, Colorado (August 7-9, 2015) This year marked the 11th anniversary of Guitar Town, the free guitar festival at Copper Mountain resort in Colorado. Every year, world-class guitarists arrive at Copper Mountain to perform in front of an audience comprised mostly of guitar players (and their significant others) - and this year may have been the best artist line-up in the histroy of Guitar Town. The traditional format for the festival includes an Acoustic day on Saturday and and Electric day on Sunday. This year's line-up included: Saturday - Acoustic Day Eric Johnson Andy McKee J2B2 (John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band) John Jorgenson Quintet Trio Balkan Strings Richard Smith & Rory Hoffman Scott Goldman Sunday - Electric Day Steve Vai Robben Ford Sonny Landreth John Jorgenson Electric Band with Special Guest Chris Casello & Stig Mathisen Matt Schofield The event is very well-organized, with all of the performers walking on stage as scheduled. Performances begin at noon each day with a final performance at 6:00 p.m featuring an all-star line-up of the performers from that day. The all-star jams at the end of the day were fantastic. More often than not, seven or more guitar players on the stage at one time is not a good thing; the acoustic jams tend to work better than the electric jams, but this year the festival closed with an amazing all-star electric guitar jam. Steve Vai led extended jams of Jeff Beck's Freeway Jam and Jimi's Little Wing that were musical and inspiring. There's a bonus to the festival performances, too: the workshops held each morning by the performers who will be going on stage that day. The comraderie of the guitar playing "brothers" is genuine, and they were very open to answering questions regarding technique, composition, and musical inspiration. The Copper Town Mountain resort has several restaruants, coffee shops, and bars to keep you from leaving the resort. There are very reasonable accommodations at the resort; just do your homework on VRBO and Air BNB. If you plan ahead, you can reserve condos that include decks with views to the festival stage. For those people traveling with guitar geeks and needing a break from "all guitar - all the time," Breckenridge and Vail are nearby for entertainment. All in all, Guitar Town just keeps getting better - and this year was no exception. ___________________________________________ Russ Loeffler is a freelance contributor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events between fine-tuning his guitar chops and and exploring the more interesting sides of music.
  16. Expert Review: Rob Papen – RAW By Russ Loeffler I was recently looking to add new soundware to my home studio DAW (digital audio workstation) to increase the pallet of sounds for my home recording projects and had heard about the high quality soundware and effects products from Ron Papen. So, during the 2015 NAMM show I stopped by to meet Rob and he gave me a very impressive demo of his latest soundware, RAW. After the NAMM show, I download his latest, full product suite, Explorer III (eXplorer II reviewed by HC in 2013) with intention to review it for personal use. RAW is included in this powerful suite of synthesizers and effects. Let’s start with some background on why Rob designed RAW. At the Dutch Dancefair 2014, a group of DJ’s approached Rob Papen with the idea of a synthesizer that focused more on 'distorted' sounds with an easy to use layout. Rob invited the DJs to his studio for a brainstorming session resulting in a list of 'must have' features and tools for a brand new synth. Armed with this list and several more brainstorming sessions later, Rob Papen and his development team created a powerful new virtual synth - RAW. So, here are my confessions before beginning my review of RAW. I am not a DJ. My interest in synthesizers and sound modules began with 70’s prog rock and jazz fusion. Sounds from Peter Gabriel, Radiohead, and Sigur Ros are closer to my world of electronic music. My main instrument is guitar and I tend to think that the guitar player should “own” the overdriven and distorted sounds. Also, I was skeptical that I would be able to jump in and use this synthesizer in the way that Rob (the guy who designed the instrument) demo’d RAW. Downloading RAW and opening it in my DAW (Presonus Pro) went without issue, I was up and running in no time at all. This synthesizer is much more than a distorted sound generator. There are great synthesizer sounds that are not distorted and the heart of the sound generators are top shelf. RAW has proven to be a very versatile and powerful tool for studio and composition. I could go into detail with all of the functions, but it would not be long before I was writing a technical manual. I suggest going to You Tube to find demos and tutorials of RAW. My review will focus on the applications for home studio use. I have been working with RAW for about 20 hours and I still have not found the need to open the manual (but I will). I started with the 27 banks of sounds which yield hundreds of preset sounds. Many were DJ oriented, but there were also great sounds that could be used stock or tweaked for DAW composition projects. I broke the synthesizer grid down to these grids: Oscillotors (2), filter, amp, EQ, tone generator (wave shaper, distortion, and low-fi), arpegiator, wave shape, modulution, and two FX modules. I could spend hours learning about more each grid, but was able to drill down to sounds that I liked very quickly. Each of these “grids” has extensive controls and the sound quality is very high. I found the arpeggiator very easy to use and a great rhythm tool. I was able to create some very cool rhythm patterns by using the ½ and 1/4 time modes along with the octave functions. Layering the some of the arpeggiated percussive sounds in RAW led to some impressive rhythm tracks. Layer some bass synths and other synth sounds and you will have a full backdrop for playing some distorted leads over the top. Ultimately, the challenge for me was whether I would actually produce good distorted sounds from this synthesizer. This is a challenge for a guitar player who uses Guitar Rig on a limited basis leans heavily towards tube amps. I spent some time focusing on the waver shaper, distortion, and low-fi controls. My goal was to play some power chords with the distorted sounds and see if I could get the sound of an overdriven guitar. I kept tweaking until the sounds were good, but not what I would consider realistic guitar tones. Then I tried backing real guitar power chords with the RAW power chords and I came up with some big, stacked tones. Overall, I was impressed enough that RAW has found its way as a preset track on my DAW. There are a lot interesting sound effects with RAW to supplement intros, endings, and breaks in songs. The distorted sounds are better than I have heard from other synthesizers without using an amp to achieve a full sound. The ability to effectively layer distorted sounds with overdriven guitar tracks earns a place in my recording tool bag. Rob Papen RAW Product Page Rob Papen RAW Demo Download Buy Rob Papen RAW ($179 Street)
  17. Expert Review: Taylor 150E 12-string Guitar By Russ Loeffler Let me start by admitting that I have wanted to review the Taylor 150E since the initial pre-release buzz last year. Apparently, I wasn’t the only guitar player to do so, as the 150E was on steady backorder for most of 2014. The promise of an American built, quality 12-string with a street price of $700 an appealing and unique offering in a fairly crowded mid-price acoustic market. Although I have several guitars, I have never owned a 12-string because I looked at them as a new tool that I might rarely use and not worth the investment given the 12-string guitars that I have played and liked tended to be very expensive. Taylor has introduced a game-changer with the 150E. They have kept the quality while bringing down the price to where a lot of guitar players will find it hard to resist adding this guitar to their collection. Using layered Sapele back and sides of this dreadnaught guitar allows Taylor to keep the price lower without sacrificing looks or tone. The overall look, feel, and sound of the 150e are great, and it boasts the same quality Sitka spruce top and Expression System acoustic electronics offered with higher-end Taylor guitars. The matte finish is a lightly applied varnish that protects without interfering with the wood’s ability to breath. The finish provides a very natural look and comfortable feel to the body and neck. The ornamentation is minimal, furthering the 150e’s “beauty in simplicity” aesthetic: the dreadnaught sized body, the wood grain, and the 12 tuning pegs say all that is needed. The first thing one notices when taking the 150e out of the box is how light it is. The gig bag that comes with the guitar is even lighter. The two combined weigh less than some empty guitar cases. The first impression when playing up and down the neck will likely be how easy the 150e is to play. My only initial concern was a significant buzz on the A and D strings from the 3rd to the 7th frets. A few turns on the truss rod quickly eliminated any buzzing. Once I had the guitar in tune, it held steady and was still in tune the next day. The sound is well balanced with a strong low-end response that compliments the chimey octave strings. The guitar has excellent projection with very little compression. The sound is impressive whether strummed, finger picked, or playing single note runs. It even sounded great when I banged out some “Jimi” chords. Some of the 150e’s best sounds come from playing open chord arpeggios with a pick. This is a guitar is going to inspire and improve many players alternating picking skills, not to mention their vocabulary for open-chord voicings. Played the 150E through a Fishman SA220 Solo Performance System, the Expression system produced a very natural acoustic sound that accurately reflected the guitar’s unplugged tone. There was no need to add reverb, delay, or compression to get a great sound. I was surprised at how loud I could play without any feedback. Running into a PA system with 16 inch speakers gave the same result. With the PA, I had the added bonus of some stereo imaging even though I was plugged in mono with no effects. Out of curiosity, I played the 150E through a Pendulum preamp. The sound was even better and more natural, but I would expect that to happen with a $3,000 acoustic preamp. With or without the additional preamp, this is a great guitar for the stage. It can cut through the mix while adding a rich, full sound. The Taylor 150e is much more versatile than I expected and this new tool holds hours of inspiration in it that far transcends the “yet another color” philosophy of many players. I would recommend the 150E to six string players who have not jumped on to the 12-string band wagon, but I don’t need to. It looks like Taylor’s 150E’s are already selling fast. Resources Taylor 150e 12-String Acoustic Guitar at Musician's Friend (MSRP $918.00, Street $749.00) Taylor 150e 12-String Acoustic Guitar Product Page Russ Loeffler is a multi-instrumental performer and gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.
  18. Fender Blues Jr. – The Fargen Hot Mod By Russ Loeffler I bought my Fender Blues Jr. in late 2001 because I wanted a compact, portable amp for casual jam sessions. The Blues Jr. I purchased has a blonde Tolex covering and it appears to be a “transitional” version of the amp. During this period, some were USA made amps with green circuit boards and some were Mexican made amps with cream colored circuit boards that began production in 2001. The serial number for my amp is post 2001 dating, but it is American made with the green circuit board amp. It does have the purported warmer tone of the green board version. I was impressed from the very beginning with the quality, volume, and tone from this little amp. Although my go to for playing is high wattage boutique amps, I have always enjoyed this amp. I replaced the stock Fender speaker with a Celestion Vintage 30 speaker about three years ago and found it was a huge improvement... I fell in love with this amp again. With the new speaker I stopped using the “fat” button and I enjoyed the clarity, warmer tone, and additional head room that came with the speaker upgrade. Last year at the NAMM show, I saw a little red Blues Jr. keep showing up at different venues. It was being used for lap steel guitar and also a pop/rock guitar performances. The amp sounded great in a large club without being mic’d. After some investigating, I ended up at the Fargen booth and learned that the amp had been upgraded with the “Fargen Hot Mod”. I also learned that Fargen Amplification is based in Sacramento, where I had just relocated. I snagged some business cards and left with a new project on my gear wish list. After a few emails, I ended up communicating directly with Ben Fargen. He was very responsive and even offered to drive across town to pick up my amp. Now, that is what I call great customer service! I declined his generous offer and was able to drop by his shop to deliver my Blues Jr. The Fargen hot mod includes a Mercury Magnetic transformer, plus select capacitors and resistors.It also includes the addition of a “presence” knob near the fat button. This hot mod is not cheap, but I still had the image and sound of the little red Blues Jr. from NAMM in my mind. I was considering the purchase of a 25W to 30W amp to fill the void between my Blues Jr. and my higher watt (and heavy) amps. If this worked out, it would eliminate the need for the next amp on my list. When I picked up the amp, Ben told me that I brought him a great stock amp.He said the original, stock Fender Groove Tubes still sounded great and the speaker upgrade was what he would have recommended.I told him I had a full set of JJ tubes ready to load into the amp and was going to see if I could increase the amp’s headroom.He didn’t think I would need it. When I brought the amp home, I was very impressed.I played it for about two hours with several guitars including Strat’s, Tele’s, Les Paul’s, a semi-hollow body, and an arch-top.The noisefloor of the amp was reduced significantly. At the same time, the increase in the head room of the amp was dramatic. The amp was “singing”.I found myself turning the reverb down from its usual setting because I didn’t need to artificially fill the sound. The new presence knob is a great addition for additional tone shaping. The amp reacted very well with the different guitars.It delivered the requisite spank for the Tele’s and produced bright to heavier tones with the Strat’s and Les Paul’s. It even proved to be a great jazz box with the semi-hollow body and arch-top guitars. I swapped out all of the tubes with JJ’s and was found only a slight improvement in sound. However, the new tubes provided even more headroom. This is one loud amp! It was difficult to get an overdriven tone with colder JJ power tubes even at high volumes. I tried different combinations of tubes and found that the amp sounds great with every combination. It just comes down to a matter of preference, with the neutral to warmer power tubes sounding better for my application of classic rock and blues tones. The next test for the amp was to see how pedal friendly it was. The overdrive pedals included a Zen Drive, King of Tone, Golden Cello, a mod’ed Sparkle Drive, and Route 66. As expected, the amp works best with transparent sounding pedals. The loudness of the amp is even more impressive with overdriven tones. I also played through different reverb, delay, chorus, and tremelo pedals.The added clarity, presence, and head room of the amp reduced the compressed and tanky sounds that were present before the mod. So, was this upgrade worth it? For me, the answer is a resounding “Yes”. Not only does the Fargen Hot Mod make the Blues Jr. sound much better, the mod has filled the gap between the pre-mod Blues Jr. and my larger amps. The upgrade has moved this little amp over the line towards ”boutique”. The best part is that I got this without buying another amp.
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