27 February 2014

David Allen pickups - First contact


How I've ended testing some David Allen's pickups is a curious history that can bore you but, the fact is that I've received three D.Allen strato pickups set, sent by David himself to me for evaluation and demoing.

As already stated in my Read Me page, I am not sponsored or payed by no one and, anyone sending me gear to test is in the risk of receiving a fair and honest review. If I personally love the product, I will recommend it hands down, otherwise, I will highlight the good things and made you aware the wrong things.
I am a guitar lover and, care about my tone so, I would never write a positive article about a negative product. Period.

Clarified this point, let me go ahead with this.

While few years ago, pickups makers were really few and, less the ones with high quality sounding pickups, nowadays it's possible to get top-notch pickups from several big and small pickups makers.

I'm very picky with my tone. My ears are now trained for the small nuances, because of home studio projects needed it. You know, I was happier when tone didn't worried me but, that's the life of a guitarist, to grow in feeling, tone and Technics.

My quest of tone made me to move from standard production pickups to something better, so I was happy to discover Bareknuckle Pickups some time ago, as a class A Boutique Pickups Maker settled in Europe, because most of the makers are in USA.

But, Seymour Duncan, who has a really nice production line (over any other massive pickups production lines, in my honest opinion), has also Class A Boutique Pickups in their Custom lines, as the Antiquity II Surf set.

And to be honest, I would be happy with either of those two makers, among other class A ones, like Franlin, Bill Lawrence, Tom Holmes, etc. So do I really needed some other class A boutique maker?.

I've warned you about it. I am very picky with my tone.
Even that those people are delivering top-notch products, most of time are just reproducing all the parts and materials used for a certain pickup that they've discovered as sounding specially good in some vintage or modern axe. Because, you know that, at the end, there is some unexplained magic that occurs just in certain gear.

But, I had always the sensation that those outstanding sounding pickups could have some margin for improvements, as well. I always wanted to test a combination of different magnets for a strato pickup, to be able to enhance what naturally sounds good in each string and to tame or fix what naturally sounds bad.

Fortunately, David Allen has several pickups lines. Some are 100% vintage-correct (as other Class A makers do) but, he is also doing some R&D and creating some pickups that are based on that vintage-correct sound but, fixing the bad things and enhancing the good ones.
Sounds it interesting for you?.

Then, let's go ahead with this article!.

David Allen: The Man

Probably, good Luthiers and good guitar players already know about David Allen' stuff and, probably they know who he is. If all this is new for you, let's do a quick profile about who runs David Allen Pickups.

David Allen is a Doctor in Physics and specialized in Electromagnetism. He was working for NASA for a while. So the scientific theory, equipment and knowledge is there.

But, you know, cold variable values and awesome theories and formulas know nothing about feeling. Music isn't built based on perfect things, but over things that have some magic just because they have some margin of unpredictable behavior. Transistors can create an amplified copy of the original sound more accurately than any amp tube but, it's just that slight degree of imperfection and the unique character of each single tube, which makes tube amps to sing more musically.

Around everything in a guitar, those things also happen and, nice electronics theories not always can explain why there are so much "this-shouldn't-happen" surprises.
David Allen is also a Guitar Player (and a good one). Same as Tim Mills by Bareknuckle Pickups or, Seymour Duncan. All them are people that love guitars and care about their tone.

So, we are in front of a man with tons of scientific knowledge to know what to tweak every time to achieve a certain tone.

David Allen: The Pickups

Big makers often work with three lines of pickups: those designed as low cost for certain guitar brands, to be mounted in cheap guitars, those of standard quality affordable and delivering a good tone for most of players and, a custom line where used components are different (period-correct, by example) and, the building process is closer to a craftsmanship work than other thing.

Boutique pickups correspond to that third line of guitars that you could find in the big makers. So, it would be unfair trying to compare a sub-production or production pickup against a custom or boutique one.

Honestly, any Custom Shop or Boutique pickup will probably sound good enough for any picky people but, even at this high level of products, you can feel the differences.

D. Allen uses different magnet shapes, sizes and compositions when designing a pickup, whatever is needed to achieve a certain sound or sound characteristics. Maybe some of the characteristics that differentiate his pickups (apart of tone) are:

  • Definition: Not a cold and lifeless definition note to note but a very musical one.
  • Openness: Outstanding frequential representation, together with the magic that scatter wound seems to give to pickups, the sound is wide, open and full of life.
  • Low noise: surprisingly low floor noise, this is key for the rest of characteristics, since a low floor noise increases the signal/noise ration and therefore, the dynamics and definition of the sound.
  • Dynamics: The Dynamic Range of these pickups is awesome, allowing you to fully control your sound just with your picking strength and, that's a good thing when you love to run your amp in that sweet spot where you hear the micro-explosions of the tubes when you pick hard and, the beauty of a silky clean sound when you pick softly.
The only drawback that I can find on Allen' strato-replacement single pickups is that to achieve their best, you will need some patience to play with pickups heights. But this is also very common in such a kind of Boutique pickups, which sweet spot is narrower than the sweet spot of other custom shop pickups but, in that narrow sweet spot, they just sound as heaven.

I will give you some tips about how to face a heights set up with these pickups, maybe during my in-depth review of the StratCats set (which is the best strato pickups set I ever tested or heard).

Well, other drawback would be to have to choose just one single set of his pickups, because you will soon realize that all them seem to sound really nice so, think on what you usually love more: low / medium / hot output and musical style and, leave Allen to recommend you the set that better will work for your needs.

Quick video shot out of David Allen StratCats

While I was setting up the heights of pickups and, just once I had the neck sounding to my taste and, before optimizing middle and bridge, I was so excited with the incredible sound of the neck pickup that wanted to record  quick video to spread the word.

As mentioned, I have three sets to test and just a Stratocaster for this and, I am finding myself a tad worried to unload those Stratcats from my axe #1, even to test other D.Allen options!.
But, I will do an in-depth analysis of each set in further blog entries.

So, take this video as an aperitif.
Not my best improvisation. During performance, I was more concentrated in to try every picking level with those pickups, to check their dynamics and how they work in crunch and distortion.
Bridge height is particularly bad and, during the smoking part of the bridge solo, I missed some legato or sustain but, as said, just the neck was fine tuned before the video.

Gear settings

As people seems to like to see how pedals where setted up, I am attaching here the pictures corresponding to the settings of the amp and pedals used for this video.

Resuming the gear, now.

Amp: Fender Princeton Reverb Reissue

Modifications from stock are tubes and speaker.

Speaker is a Weber 10A150T (Alnico), which I find cuts it better than the stock Jensen P10R.

Tubes are:

V1: Mullard 12AX7 reissue
V4: JJ ECC803S
Power: Tung Sol 6V6GT
Rectifier: Solid State TAD rectifier (plug in the socket of the rectifier tube).

Jetter Gear Jetdrive

This awesome double overdrive owes a separate blog entry. Still testing Jetter Gear stuff, to complete my pedalboard. Blog entries will come.
Used the green channel as a kind of Tube Screamer for crunchy stuff.
Stacked also the green channel for a more driven sound for solos.

Strymon El Capistan

Best digital Tape Echo delay emulation I ever tried. Awesome A/D and D/A converters, nice digital precision and awesome DSP stuff inside. Very natural sounding. Not easy to master but, worths the time.

Wampler Decibel+

Best Buffer pedal I've tested. Very natural sounding. Seems to work better at the end of the chain.
The Clean Booster incorporated, handled with the Gain knob is used here to push the tubes to their sweet spot, since amp volume is relatively low to make tubes to sing.