Talking about gear (104)
I got in a bit of trouble last week with some people - purely because I encouraged a mass troll of a troll. A lot of people thought it was the wrong thing to do, but in my defence, the guy who was trolling us said something so silly I just couldn’t help it. My bad, I should have known better. This guy was dropping one liners on demo videos saying things like “*insert demo artist name here* will endorse anything that is put in front of him”. Once I’d got over the incredulity of such a ridiculous statement, and having discussed it with Brian and Alex (to be fair, we often have discussions about statements online that are plainly ridiculous and wonder what people are thinking when they say them), I came to the conclusion that there are people out there that don’t appear to have a clue what the difference is between the two. So, I thought I’d lay it out in front of you – I will stick with the pedals as it’s all slightly weird, but this will apply to all aspects of the MI industry…
These are the guys that receive some kind of payment to produce a demonstration of a product. Often paid for (in one way or another) by the company that makes the pedal themselves (or by their distributor) and it’s a fantastic way of getting the pedal out there quickly into the ears and eyes (and then hopefully the hands) of the customer. Now, there are a lot of people out there that want to do this so the competition is fierce. When you look at the demo’s that are turned out by people such as Ola Englund, Brett Kingman or Tom Quayle, not only are you seeing the product, but you are seeing expert levels (with pro-level gear) of photography, videography, audio recording, composition and decades of crafting their playing talent. These are not some chancer with an iPhone 4S and a nice guitar who knows a few riffs, these are people that do this as part of their wider job, therefore they receive payment (and this element is not standardised, some people cost a LOT of money compared to others).
In order for them to maintain our business, as the manufacturer looking to get the product into the customer’s hands, it is well worth their effort to make the pedal look and sound as good as possible. Let’s face it, if a demo artist comes onboard with us and their first attempt is utter crap, they won’t get anything else from us, ever again. So, they HAVE to make it sound good for our sake, but most importantly, for their own.
This is where it becomes an art form. I’ve seen countless videos of Brett Kingman where he has straight up said that “it’s a great pedal, if you like that kind of thing” which can be translated to be saying “It’s not for me”… but, he does everything he does to make it sound the best he can in the video. What does that mean? Well – on a personal level, it makes me trust him, I don’t want to sound like him but I know if I listen to his demos, he makes it pretty clear what it can and can’t do, and I know what it will sound like in most situations. Brett has been doing this for a LONG time, he was the first demo artist I dealt with when I started with Brian in 2010 and he’d been going for a good few years then. It’s safe to say that for me, Brett remains the benchmark in terms of professionalism, honesty and dignity in this business. You know what you are going to get, not only from the demo but also from the unit if you buy it.
I think this is where people get confused, as this is where opinions come into play, and as a manufacturer, it’s a bloody nightmare and has legitimately caused me sleepless nights in the past. A great example of people who review pedals who walk this very fine line are Henning Pauly and Dan and Mick on That Pedal Show. Although, to be fair on the both of them, they aren’t really reviewers, they just do what they do but in this industry, they are the closest I can get.
They are both extremely experienced in their appreciation of music and the weapons that are waged war on to make it, but they have both built their channels based on “I’m not going to bullshit you”. So much so, there are times when I’ve watched them both with our pedals and my heart has sunk out the bottom of my shoes, out the front door, into the gutter and then washed out to sea. BUT… they are both ridiculously popular, so we listen to them, and we learn from them. I, and we, have learned very valuable lessons from their videos that have been invaluable to us as a company in the past. Why? Because they approach it differently, Dan and Mick are the excitable tone chasers that know what they like and everything in their show is done to their liking – so, if they like your pedal, you’re going to sell a shitload, if they don’t… Well, some you win and some you don’t. Henning is a no-nonsense kind of guy that says it like it is, you can’t hide ANYTHING when you send a product to Henning, if he thinks something is stupid, he will say so, and is probably right to do so. Probably. Do they demo? Do they review? It’s hard to gauge, but I think they both kinda review, but not in the way you would expect.
I’m not going to get too far into this one as it can get political, but you know, have you noticed how quite often the companies with the biggest adverts in a magazine quite often have the most products reviewed in that issue? ANYWAY... moving swiftly on...
And, in conclusion…
What are the differences? Well, a demo artist is paid to make a pedal look and sound bloody brilliant – it’s an advert. S/He is paid to advertise the product, by playing it, and for it to be launched either to their own following or you use it to communicate to your own. So, it’s all about reach and getting it into newsfeeds and incite that condition known as G.A.S.. A reviewer is someone that will be more open and honest and give you their opinion on it. Which should you rely on and trust more? The answer, obviously, is both and neither at the same time. What you should do though is not take either of them as gospel and watch and read as much as you can about any given piece of gear and then base your decision purely on how it makes you sound, when you play it, with your own gear.
As you may (but you probably may not) know, I use somewhat of a complicated pedal board for the band I play in. We are just a pub band that generally play to a couple of hundred people, with at least 50% of those are generally too drunk to care about what they are hearing. But still, every gig I walk into the venue with literally thousands of pounds of gear. I know a lot of people will say “why bother”, but I do it because it makes me happy and I want to have great tone. So, let’s nip that one in the bud before we get started!
However, an incident at a gig a couple of months ago has made me relook at a couple of items on my board and made me realise I bought a lot of my gear because it’s considered to be the industry standard and it was expected to have that piece of gear if I wanted the feature set. Yes, this means I play each gig with a Strymon TimeLine and Mobius. Before I go any further I do want to say that I bloody love the both of them, they are incredible pieces of kit and it’s easy to see why they are considered to be the industry standard and sell so many every week, month and year.
However… would you be surprised to know that the TimeLine has been out for 6.5 years and that is a LONG time in terms of tech. Granted, it’s received software upgrades in that time (currently on v1.84 as we speak), but from what I understand, the hardware on the new ones you buy in store today is the same as the ones that were first released. Let’s put that into context in a more accessible format. The TimeLine is like having an iPhone 4. Loads of people have them (including my kids) but it’s safe to say, it’s in no way considered to be the cutting edge of technology. If you were considering paying hundreds of pounds for a new phone, would you choose an iPhone 4? No, you wouldn’t. If we are being honest here, the display of the big three Strymons are straight out of a Nokia 3310 rather than an iPhone X.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of new products come out that challenge the mighty TimeLine as the first call MIDI controllable programmable delay pedal. BOSS have come out hard and strong with the DD-500 and to pick the one I have personal experience with, the Source Audio Nemesis is fantastic, albeit a very slimmed down version. I know about the Eventide and TC Electronic (haven’t we all seen endless arguments about which is better), but I’m going to stick with the ones I know properly, otherwise, this will be very long and very boring. When I first got my hands on a TimeLine, I spent hour after hour marvelling over what it could do, how amazing it sounded (I’m a big fan of the analogue through signal that many other pedals do NOT have) and spent literally hours playing with the ICE setting, The Filter, The Dual, Duck, Swell… well, you know, the list is endless. It was great, great fun.
BUT… (and yes, hardened viewers of Game of Thrones may chuckle at that, consider Ned Stark’s opinion of that word) when I had programmed my gig board (which if I am honest, generally only gets played properly at gigs) I realised I didn’t use any of that, I use the dBucket and Digital setting, regular quarter notes and a dotted 8th, and it never goes over 500 or so milliseconds. I have 6 patches I use and they are all pretty standard stuff. Now, if I played a lot of U2 songs or some of the more interesting Floyd stuff etc etc etc, I would use more, but I’m guessing that in so far as a regular gigging musician, I’m pretty much the same as the vast majority of players out there… So, why do I have this beast? It’s simple… because everyone else does and it’s considered, still, to be the best in its class.
To go back to something I mentioned earlier, there was an incident that made me rethink this properly and was somewhat of an enlightening moment for me. The lummox of a bass player that is in the band I play in dropped an XLR on the tap tempo switch of my Mobius and snapped it clean off. I was pretty horrified to notice it had a composite plastic shaft and broke extremely easily. I had a little trouble with Strymon when I tried to order a replacement, but they stood up to the mark and sorted me out, so this isn’t a bitter retort about customer service, but more of a contemplation on how we view and buy gear. I challenged them about the shafts and they said they were the best option for the pedals. Considering they sell replacements for them on their site for $4, I am thinking maybe they aren’t. But, that’s only here because it was the catalyst for my change of thought process.
Simply and honestly, I got the Strymon’s because everyone had one and G.A.S. - I didn’t really think about it.
A good mate of mine distributes Source Audio in the UK and let me borrow the Nemesis after I told him what I actually wanted rather than what I thought would be fun… and guess what, it does absolutely everything I need and no more – and, it’s also over $200 cheaper than the TimeLine in-store. I’m currently in the process of changing the TimeLine over to the Nemesis, and it’s almost hilarious the number of people who say “WHAT? WHY!!!?” when I tell them.
Let’s look at the Nemesis for a minute. It has all the silly stuff, including some interesting pitch shifting type features etc, but it appears to have been designed by gigging guitar players. There are no endless submenus through an awful display to get a decent effect, the selections on the ‘main delay type selector thing’ are incredible – for example, the slapback feature is sublime, the tape setting sounds much more tape like than the Strymon and everything is just there, and just right. Granted, if you are a tweaker, the amount of variables in the TimeLine is quite remarkable, but… for me… well, there is a reason I work for an analogue effects manufacturer I suppose, I just get pissed off with scrolling through things to tweak the lo-pass filter and the subdecaytrouserfilament etc. (on a crappy numerical LCD display - you may be sensing a theme here). I just want something that I can program in a heartbeat, using only the knobs on the top, and save it quickly to a location and then call up that patch via MIDI.
Since then, I’ve also got a BOSS MD-500 here that will probably replace the Mobius. Because for the price I can sell the Mobius for, I can replace with a brand new BOSS pedal (I know, if you are reading this and thinking “Bloody hell, how much do they sell for in the UK?” but I got offered a great price for one… so….) The BOSS outperforms the Mobius in absolutely every situation, much higher processing power, much stronger unit physically and the display is gorgeous, I can see everything I need to see in order to program the thing. So, pretty soon, I imagine I will be Strymon free.
Like I said above, this isn’t me knocking the Strymon, they are fantastic and have served me well. It’s just about time they updated them, physically – because pretty soon, their age and awkward displays are going to be outdated, if not so already. So, I challenge you Strymon, stop messing around with digital distortions and v2 the big three. Updated with OLED displays, increased processing power (as the Source Audio and everything else that is more reasonably priced has either the same, or more powerful, levels of processing) to refine the tones that are in there (at least attempt to put a decent tape emulator in, PLEASE) - because if you do, you will once again set the benchmark that other companies will take literally years to catch up on.
The Gauntlet has been thrown down. Let’s leave 2011 tech where it belongs and show me something that will melt my mind… not with silly pointless effects, but something that a regular gigging guy (with a MIDI controller) can really hit ‘that’ mark and do justice to the G.A.S. your products are still kinda generating. If not a v2, but with maybe a streamlined TimeLine v2 to go with it… Because pretty soon, reputation alone just won’t cut it – your reputation is still there, just, but there are others are gaining momentum, and gaining it VERY quickly.
Oooops, they did it again. Unfortunately for us, and you, a few dealers saw fit to release details of the Tumnus Deluxe before the release date, so this pedal will come as no surprise to many of you. Shame really, but I’m guessing when a pedal is as eagerly awaited as this one is, it’s fairly inevitable that people will want to get ahead of the game.
But, that as we say, is already history. We are managing the release now, we’ve officially announced it, so it’s now out there – let’s just get on with what this thing actually does. As usual, I gigged the pedal last week to get a feel for it, and here is what I found from that night and playing with it afterwards. I’ve also extensively A-B’d it with the mini so…
The pedal. First of all, I must say, it’s bloody beautiful. I’m pretty self-deprecating when it comes to my work, but with this, I give myself a pat on the back. It looks ace. Taking the original concept and expanding on it, complete with white LED in the lamppost :D
When I first plugged it in, my initial reaction was that it was much smoother than the mini. Everything seems to be a little more rounded, a little more pleasing to the ear when using it as standalone overdrive. I always found the mini to be a little gnarly and out the box, the Deluxe has been smoothed a little, with a tweak of the gain and the EQ, you can replicate that gnarliness, but you can get a much smoother tone if you require it. For me, this is a massive bonus. Setting the bass and mids at 12, normal mode, buffer in, you get pretty close to the Tumnus. Increase the gain a fraction and the treble a little, you have an almost identical replication of it. However, when you then drop the mids back a little it smooths out somewhat, and when you bring them back up past to where it was, the tone just jumps out at you. Flicking on to true bypass doesn’t do a huge amount initially, it’s a fraction smoother again, but that just shows what a wonderful buffer Brian put in the mini. However, when I started stacking up over drives over the top (more about this later) the true bypass really started to shine.
I dropped the pedal straight into my gig board in place of the mini (it was most amusing, I had a glove covering it on my board just in case a camera phone was out, highly unlikely, but you never know – the singer thought this was hilarious and made repeated jokes about me throwing the gauntlet down) So, my gain section was Tumnus Deluxe into 2-1 of the PaisleyDog. Right away, I noticed that smoothness and clarity that the true bypass gave, I got the original Tumnus tone by tweaking, but ended up using the smoother version. I found that I was boosting the mids slightly, not quite so much top end and keeping the bass ever so slightly rounded off. This gave me a much fuller sound. The Tumnus for me is almost an always-on pedal, the Bravado is immensely unforgiving in its cleanliness, so I use it to break it up a little. Also, when you have the Underdog growling at you, bringing the Tumnus in behind it makes it sound massive with considerable bite. The Tumnus Deluxe with its expanded EQ options gave me slightly more control over that, and allowed me to really tailor that bite and hone it exactly where I wanted it. The one thing I really noticed was that the whole thing was just slightly fuller due to the EQ, it was slightly more pleasing to listen too as the gnarlyness was gone - when I was stacking two overdrives on top of it, as well as compression before, it wasn’t jumping to feedback so quick. I had much much more control over my tone because the base tone was somewhat more refined.
I’m not going to wax lyrical about it, I want you to make up your own minds when you get the chance to play it, but my initial thoughts of this pedal and what it does remain from when I first plugged into it. And those are: it’s smoother, it’s eminently more tweakable to nail THAT exact tone you are chasing and most of all, it has a white LED within a streetlamp on the graphic. Worth it just for that alone I’d say!
This week I want to tell you about a piece of gear I first played nearly a year ago. I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while, as I wanted to wait until it was released, and it just has.
The company is called Synergy Amps and I’m a fan. And before you start to think cynically, I’m not employed by them!
As always, there’s a story attached to this for context, so I’ll get that out of the way first. When at NAMM I suffer horrifically from jetlag. As Cali is 8 hours behind the UK my sleep patterns are destroyed and I literally get about 4 hours of sleep per night, I’m not there for long enough to try to force it around with sleeping tablets, so I just live with it. The best thing about this is that I’m up at the crack of doom and generally get to the show each morning LONG before the doors are open. I usually take this time to do a line check on the rig and make sure everything is in place before the people attend the show, start attending.
One morning I was there so early the only people on the booth complex we are part of, the wider Boutique Amp Distribution booth, were myself, Bruce Egnator, Groover Jackson and my buddy Steve Elowe. Now, Bruce and Groover being there isn’t integral to this, but I just wanted to make you all sound the name drop horn in your heads – it still freaks me out that these guys are just milling around to talk too, a real pinch yourself moment! The Wampler rig was fine so I wandered off to see Steve who was sat at a computer, with guitar in hand, rocking hard. He was also gently cussing under his breath about latency issues, so I offered to help. He got me to play while he did something to the computer.
I was playing through the new Synergy Amps rig.
At first I just played enjoying the tones, then he started to press buttons and all these different sounds were appearing, so I was playing different stuff on the fly as the sounds were so radically different. He then stood up and said “That’s better”. The computer was now behaving how it should so we had some time to play with the Synergy rig.
Let me fill you in on what this thing is. Basically, Synergy is a modular system that has ports which allows you to add various modules that sound and behave like the amps they are based upon. You buy the dock, a single or double module unit, and then load the amp module in. The docks are 12AX7 driven with a ton of different out options. There is a straight “preamp out” and an emulated out to go into your PA/desk/DAW - I was initially playing through the preamp out to a power amp, but once Steve had sorted the latency on the computer he pushed it over to the emulated out. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, I had an incredibly authentic Soldano SLO100 tone coming straight from the studio monitors that sounded EXACTLY the same as the preamp out, and from what I can remember about playing an SLO (which I have played through a lot) exactly the same as the amp – not only tonally, but in respect of response. The way it responded to my picking dynamics, the volume pot and the gain… man… the gain...
At that point he started to show me the differing modules, which could be changed in a matter of seconds. One minute I was ripping through the SLO, and then quickly through a Friedman BE which was just roaring, then back into a TDLX which had the kind of clean tones you’d expect from a blackfaced, or tweed finished amp, then a Morgan AC that was SO glassy… and then… and then…. and then...
After I’d played it for seemed like 5 seconds, which in reality was almost ¾ of an hour, I was left thinking about the practical uses of this system and where it sits in the market place. The first thing that got me, other than the tone that was coming from it, was the ease of use and how practical it can be in any set up. In a way, it was like having a modelling system but without the endless sub menu’s and degree in computer science to work it, or let’s face it, if you are anything like me, tons and tons of stuff that you would just never, ever use. This I think is where this product is going to sit, right in the place where people want a ton of options, but only the specific ones they require, and something that has real tubes, real knobs and real tone. You can literally have a mountain of boutique amps available, at a fraction of the cost and using a fraction of the room, just ‘there’.
The trouble I’ve always had with the modelling stuff, apart from ‘that’ reaction (which let’s face it, that gap is being bridged all the time), is that you generally have to get rid of your original amp set up and get a full range amp/speaker to go with it. You don’t get the best results from those things going into your amp, they still sound great, but they work best when everything is modelled and you are going direct. Then, they sound incredible. The beauty of the Synergy system is that it can be run direct within the loop of your favourite amp, giving you multiple new channels to play with. For many players, those that don’t want the computery stuff and love their rig already, this HAS to be the best thing, well - as we say over here, since sliced bread. Also it works flawlessly direct into your DAW, or PA, it has a great FX loop (so you can run your favourite effects in there, the ones that were originally in the loop of your amp if you used it that way)… I’m not sure who is behind this system, but I doff my cap in their general direction.
From looking at the website, I can see that the docks are $499 for the single and $799 for the double, there is also all tube heads available and a power amp. The modules are $399. So, let’s look at a boutique level amp, which I’m guessing you will all agree tends to be around $2k to buy and generally only give you the sound associated with that amp, you get what you get and nothing else. So, consider this, If you have a great amp you can buy the dock and 2 modules for ¾ of the price of a new and different sounding head, and then keep adding to it for $399, you will start to build up an amp collection that is worthy of Joe Bonamassa. Then think that these modules are small enough to get two into a single 19” rack unit. Even if you have 8 modules and the Syn2 (double port dock) it comes to less than 2 full boutique level amps. That’s 8 amps for the price of two. Once you have the dock, the modules are so cheap GAS will be screaming for new ones all the time.
I don’t get excited about new technology products very often mainly because I like tubes, knobs and instantly available tone and most of the time these days, all those things appear to be missing in new innovative technology. New gear concepts these days usually consists of “sitting down with a manual the size of a novel and 3 hours just to get the amp tone you want that’s hidden in the middle of other stuff that appears to have no practical musical use to anyone”.
I want one.
A few months ago I wrote a ‘review’ of the Quilter 101 Mini Head here in the Wampler blog, it was an interesting experience using the 101 Mini, but tonally it didn’t work out for me. It was great, just not there yet. There were issues with the basic core tone and most importantly, the strange EQ section.
I’ve subsequently got my hands on the newer version of this head, the 101 Mini Reverb, they’ve upgraded the unit considerably, made the EQ a much easier system to dial in and you guessed it, contains reverb. I’ve been using the 101 MR for the last few gigs as the ‘other’ side of my stereo rig, and something happened this weekend that made me look at it in a different light.
First of all, a quick gear rundown so you get a feel what my rig does. My rig is mono until it hits the incredible TC Electronic MiMiQ which then splits it to stereo. The main side of the MiMiQ (which sits after my pre gain modulation the gains stages and compression – so that’s pre gain Strymon Mobius – mainly Vibe - Mini Ego, Tumnus and Paisley Drive Deluxe) sends the signal on to the post gain side of the Mobius (so that’s chorus, tremolo etc), the Strymon TimeLine, dB+ and then to a Wampler Bravado amp. The other side of the MiMiQ just feeds direct to the Quilter 101 MR – both then feed directly into a stereo 2x12” speakers. I have the MiMiQ set on “slight drunk” so when it’s kicked in I find the difference in tone (I set it pretty quickly, on a scooped setting) and the lack of delays etc do a really good impression of a second guitar player.
I play in a pub band, playing covers, and on Saturday night we were kinda cookin’. The crowd was rocking, so we were. My rig sounded fantastic and I ended the first set on a high! I was just having a lovely time… when it came to the start of the second set we started and I noticed that something wasn’t quite right. None of my delay’s where there, so I checked a different patch (the vibe) and that worked, so I thought – oh shit, the TimeLine is knackered. There was something else going on with the sound as well, it wasn’t quite as attacky or bright as usual (I have the Bravado set on Bright position 4 with the mids scooped out so it’s more like a Fender Deluxe than it should be)… For about 3 songs I felt this thing was wrong, still sounded like me, still sounded great (well, let’s face it, with those gain stages how could it not?), but there was a certain something missing. Trust my wife to spot the problem… It the end of the third song she leaned over to me from behind the P.A. speakers and shouted in my ear “Do you know that the Bravado is on standby?”.
So, I had turned the Bravado on to standby at the end of the first set and forgotten to turn it back on again, which is quite funny considering the piece I wrote about putting amps on standby last year. it was just the Quilter being used and I was blown away with the sound of it. Granted, It was not as clear and concise as the Bravado, and the response was different, but it was close. Kind of felt the same way when I first played through a Kemper, really close but the reaction wasn’t there, because it’s a D class and I’m used to a valve amp.
Once I realised my mistake I tweaked the Quilter a little to try to bring the top end in and it got even closer before bringing the Bravado back in. This little thing is quite remarkable when I think about it, I carry it around in my effects case and it weighs about 2lbs and it stood up against the Bravado and didn’t lose without a fight. It took the pedals like a dream, it responded to my pick attack and expression like a dream. The updated EQ section was SO much better in this one, every issue I had with the original was addressed. Basically, this thing is pretty bloody awesome.
I’ve made the conscious decision that when we do the small, quiet gigs – as we often do – and you can’t get a valve amp up to the required level to make it sound like I want too (yes, we really do play that quiet sometimes, literally so you can talk over it), the Quilter 101 MR will be my main amp and the Quilter 101 Mini will be the stereo field. It won’t be the Bravado (as, you know, valve compression and response of a high end amp, there is nothing like it), but at least I can put it to the level I want to play at and I won’t be disappointed with the tone, which when you think about it, is quite remarkable.
I can thoroughly recommend this little amp, and I don’t say that very often. Everyone should have one in the front pocket of their gig bag as a back up, or if like me you want a stereo field, it’s perfect. Actually, if I wasn’t so fussy (I am, extremely) I would probably use it for every gig as let’s face it, the people listening wouldn’t be able to tell the difference in those conditions... It’s close enough to the real thing to be able to warrant the compromise of tone – that magical thing that can’t be replicated - especially when like me you have a history of sciatica and want to keep the weight down!
As a last thought - when the Bravado isn’t here I use a Fender BDri as my main gigging amp… well, I used to, as if the Bravado isn’t here, from here on in I’ll be using the Quilter…