05 May 2014

One more day in guitarists heaven - intensive pedal, pickups and amp testing


It seems that we, guitarists, are always in the market for a more exciting gain pedal, a better overdrive, a better distortion, a better fuzz, a better compressor...
In early days there was really few choices so, the search could end really fast.

Nowadays, among the very well established pedal companies, there is an explosion of boutique pedal makers and, everybody seems to sell the ultimate gain unit, to discover that most of them are just tweaking a bit very well known pedals, being the Tube Screamer the king of the modified pedals.

This is not good or bad, as it seems that every pedal has a legion of followers and buyers and, since tone is a very particular matter, what works for ones will not necessarily work for others. We are all ok, we are all happy.

Well, I was really happy with two Jetter pedals: the Gold 45/100 and the Jetdrive and, until now, none of the pedals I already own was able to dethrone those two kings of my tone. I did my tests with all my gain pedals and, this includes most of Weehbo's, Wampler's, Mad Professor's, Fulltone's, among many other boutique pedals.

Jetters were my to-go pedals but, still not fully satisfied. An awesome tone but, not exactly MY tone. Some day, I've seen that Mesa Boogie was releasing a line of pedals. I'm not a huge fan of MB amps, since they all have very complex front-end designs and, I am more in the line of having a clean and fair channel to build my tone over with some good pedals. Anyway, I was curious about those and watched and heard some Youtube videos. I thought they sounded really good but, you know, I needed to test them with the rest of my gear, to be sure they will perfectly interact with my "definitively keeper" pedals.

So, I went with my couple of fellow friends to Auvisa store, to check those pedals.

Mesa Boogie pedals time

As always, I've selected a Fender Bassman reissue to run my tests, since I consider it a fair amp, that reveals everything about any gear, the good and the bad. Tweaked the controls to get the foundational clean tone and, started to check Mesa Boogie pedals.

I've decided to insert 3 MB pedals in my pedalboard. First one was the GridSlammer, second the Flux Drive and, third the Throttle. In principle, I wasn't interested on their Booster, since this function is already well covered by my Wampler Decibel+ (buffer and booster).

So, the pedalboard was formed by the following pedals:

  • TC Electronics Polytune (which I am still suspecting is a tone sucker)
  • Dunlop Joe Bonamassa's Wah (which disapointed me)
  • Wampler EGO Compressor
  • Dry Bell Vibe Machine
  • Wampler Decibel+
  • Mesa Boogie GridSlammer
  • Mesa Boogie Flux Drive
  • Mesa Boogie Throttle
  • Strymon Mobius
  • Strymon El Capistan
I've started with MY clean tone, that is, with the Decibel+ correcting signal level and, the El Capistan for a nice Tape Echo delay. Then, first pedal tested was the GridSlammer.

Transparency is which would better describe the tone of the GridSlammer. Is a really good overdrive that pushes the tubes with ease. Sound is crystalline clear, with a British crunch flavor and, sets you in SRV tones and alike.

I said transparency is the key word for this pedal, because it just enhances the natural tone of your guitar and amp. With the tone control at 12:00 (middle position), the pedal straight cuts the mix. The guitar sound was perfectly distinguishable in its right presence range of frequencies. This pedal loves to push the other two MB pedals, also.

Then, it was the turn for the Flux Drive. Once again, the Flux Drive with its tone controls at 12:00, was straight cutting the mix. Not so transparent as the GridSlammer, the Flux Drive is more oriented to get medium distortion sounds in the ballpark of the old MB Mark amp series. 

I have to confirm this by reading the user's manual but, I had the sensation that tone controls were active, instead of passive and, any slight touch had a clear impact in tone. Middle position (which is a detent-stop position) worked flawless with my rig.

Probably, the Flux Drive is deceptively the more anodyne pedal of those three but, once you push it with the GridSlammer stacked before, you are in Hard Rock's heaven. Once I've switched on both pedals in a row, I wasn't able to stop playing.

Since results were so exciting, I've decided to complete the test using backing tracks. I've asked Auvisa's responsible (Rafa) to prepare me some PA system to run my MP3 backing tracks, to check how the pedals will work in real application. Rafa came back with a Yamaha StagePass 200 PA system (just a single speaker) and, the show begun.

Started the test playing over "Smoke on the Water" and, the compulsive dancing of a chinese little girl in front the room's window confirmed that the tone was perfect. While childs are natural, mature people seemed suddenly highly interested on the anodyne content of the shelves that were in front of the window. That confirmed me again that the sound was good enough.

Time to check the GridSlammer alone, while playing "Cocaine". Awesome tone, also.

Time to check first the GridSlammer alone and then, pushing the distortion levels with the Flux Drive, while playing "Old Love" and "Since I've been Loving You".

I had a man entering inside the room and, alternatively looking to the amp, pedals, my guitar and my fingers, while I was performing "Since I've been Loving You" and a "Blues in G". He gave me his "thumb up" before leaving the room. My friends told me that he was a very well known blues-man of this area.

I was funny thinking that maybe people thought that I was there demoing or promoting a particular product, instead of being a mediocre player carefully testing some pedals in a store.
Well, those were just people's reaction that just confirmed what my ears said: these pedals are a perfect marriage for my gear and personal style!!!.

Both pedals had a fair sound representation, with total definition note to note, even in unharmonic chords. They both sounded very open, without killing the attack, while delivering a nice sustain that made solos really easy to perform.

Tested those two from 11:30 to 13:30h and, went satisfied to lunch with my fellow friends.
We were discussing about the sound and, we all agreed they were perfectly fitting my gear and style.

We took a long while to lunch, drink, small talk and laugh then, we went back to the store, around 18:00h.
After our ears were cleaned and not biased, I did a quick test again with a few more backing tracks and, satisfied with the sound, I've decided to check the Throttle.

The Throttle is a Recto-in-a-box. Er... not... let me to reword this... is THE Recto-in-a-box pedal. Not a surprise, being MB the father of Rectifier amps.

While I also love that dense wall of sound of the red channel of a recto, this is not the sound that I will use the most of time but, I wanted to give a chance to this pedal. The "Mids cut" knob is somewhat the Contour control you usually find in MB amps and, completely re-equalizes the tone stack going from clear and bumped-mids settings to dark and deep with recessed mids.

So, it clearly covers lot of ground in High Gain distortion. I liked it more with the Mids-cut control around 7:00 (practically off). Tone, once more was left in the middle position.

Wow, wow, wow, wow!.
With this setting, I was achieving a very polished high gain distortion that clearly cut the mix, with that tasty controllable feedback on sound tails. This setting remembered me more to the sound of a Peavey 5150 or a Diezel Einstein but, you could achieve anything just rotating the Mids-cut control.

Even better, you could even switch on the three pedals and the sound remains well defined and, every single note is clearly recognized!!!.

Decision was clear: I want all them!. Let see how much they cost and, let see how many can I get today.
I've decided to end my pedals tests and, go to check some acoustic guitars, before the store closed.

As I left the guitar, my fellow friend asked me: "Can I..?". "Sure, bro, rock on!".
I left my friend preparing himself  and, went to test some acoustic guitars.

I had two deceptions in this pedalboard: the Bonamassa's wah and the Badgerplex Trilogy.

Bonamassa's wah lacked some sweep range, which made the EQ very narrowed.

The Badgerplex Trilogy is just a tone sucker. It was recommended to me in a forum, selling it as a way better sounding pedal than the good Xotic EP Booster and, since I've sold my EP Booster (and regretted every day), I've decide to try it.

Well, while the Xotic EP Booster just enhances your sound in a way that nobody is able to describe. The Trilogy kills your tone in a way that I can clearly describe.
The Trilogy rolls off high end frequencies, slightly compresses the attack and, kills the natural sustain of your sound. Instead of giving just an enhanced louder sound, it tends to easily force your tubes to break, which wasn't the goal for this kind of pedal.

Definitively, both were a waste of money.

Acoustic Guitars time

I was really interested on to test a couple of Martin's, the D28HD and D35HD but, they had the D28 and the D45, only.

I have to say that I was highly disappointed with both Martins, that sounded very dull in basses and string-to-string unbalanced. My other fellow friend (the luthier) was selecting more other guitars that seemed to have a good look. Tested lots of models of well known US brands, except for Gibson acoustics (the store doesn't work with Gibson anymore). I was highly disappointed with all them, including Martin, Taylor and, other brands.

The  only guitar that sounded with piano like basses, an open voice and a nice balance string-to-string, was a model by Alhambra. We were both surprised. Alhambra is a well known Spanish company that had a good name building Spanish and flamenco guitars but, I didn't know they were in the acoustic market, also.

My friend explained me that the key for tone is the way the air is being conducted inside the body and, this is something Spanish makers were mastered several centuries ago. So, not surprise that a Flamenco Guitar maker could apply its knowledge to build a great acoustic guitar.

Well, I cannot go so deep in luthier' stuff but, I had to agree that the Alhambra was the best sounding acoustic guitar of the around 25 guitars we've tested, hands down.

By the way, while I was testing the acoustics, I was clearly hearing my other friend performing "Hey Joe" and "Whola Lotta Love" and, I thougth: "Man, this is like to be hearing Hendrix and Page in a festival. Yes, I want those pedals to death".

Amp and David Allen's Dover pickups time

We've already tested the brand new Deluxe Stratocaster of my friend, loaded with David Allen Dovers pickups set and, the wiring design I did specially for my friend and those pickups but, from that early time, my amp was improved with a retubing kit from Watford Valves for this Fender Hot Rod III Deville amp.

Since my  #1 strat (also loaded with David Allen's pickups) is on hands of my friend luthier (Alex Tirado, look for that man!), for a complete refretting work and a nut substitution (remove the LRS nut and put a bone nut there), I was crazy to test how the enhanced amp would sound with those Dovers.

While my other friend was playing (Robert Tirado), I was tweaking the controls of its pedals, to adapt the EQ to the amp. Once established, the show begun.

Robert was along any kind of style you can imagine, playing from country to shredding. Backing tracks of Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, Clapton, Prince... anything...

We selected sounds to check every of the 10 pickups combinations of his axe, getting great strato tones and good tele and lp alike tones.

It was a PERFECT marriage. Same as if you'd found the right wine for the right food, same as to play a LP in a old Marshall. We were shocked with the sound. It was professional studio quality.

Alex and I agreed: "Man, you need to buy exactly this amp and re-tube it with exactly this kit. You owe it!".

David Allen's Dovers are, in my honest opinion, the best strato set I've ever tested up to now (I am waiting an Echoes set). Dovers are just PERFECTION. They get anything and deliver with ease.
We tried combinations like a virtual LP Neck, Bridge and Middle positions (combining in series pickups) and, virtual Tele middle positions (both single coils and a virtual humbucker and a single coil).
They covered every style with ease, from sweet silky bells to rough but perfectly defined hi gain sounds.

If you still are in doubts whether to get a David Allen' set or, specially which one to get, I would say, try those Dovers first.

The only I regret is not being so smart to record his performance, because the sound was killer. But, we will do, for sure. This should be heard and spread to the whole World.

Side thoughts

While my friend was playing, achieving such an inspirational tone, I thought that when your gear has the right marriage, the only that you can do is just to create and enjoy. There is no need to think on... this doesn't sound, what's wrong?. Your mind isn't hijacked by negative thoughts and, you just play and enjoy and, if you enjoy, you transmit your feelings to the audience.

The Rock's dinosaurs had that kind of gear. They had the best tubes ever made, they had the pickups that current makers are trying to reproduce. They had the pedal effects that current makers are trying to reproduce or enhance. They had the gear so, they just focused on to enjoy it and be creative.

Watford's retubing kit included a NOS Philips 6L6 matched pair of tubes and, this is a clear enhancement over the stock Groove Tubes. The killer sounding Dovers in a relatively cheap amp retubed with great tubes made a huge difference.

I recall that my Fender Princeton Reverb reissue costed me exactly 1000 Euros, stock. I had to enhance it with a Weber speaker and, new tubes. For slightly less than 1000 Euros, I bought the Hot Rod III Deville and retubed it with a great Watford's kit. This amp has some cheap details, as the power cord in white (while the rest of amp is black) directly soldered to the PCB but, for that price you get a killer machine.

Another thing that surprised me is that I was a Marshall's and EL34s guy, to lately discover that I love Fender's and 6L6s !!!. It's crazy how our "pre-conceptions" go against our real needs.

It doesn't matter which style fits you, the most important thing is to find the right marriage, the one where all the components of your rig complete the full puzzle of your sound. And, it doesn't matter if you achieve it with the cheapest gear on the world (which usually doesn't happen). Forums create trends and overhypen (in both sides, as good or bad) certain products, most of times people that even didn't tried them in person.

To go to the store with your complete rig (if they doesn't have your components) to test a new component that should fit your rig is a great idea. Sometimes, to test a certain device alone gives us good sensations but, when it has to be inserted in your sound chain, the drawbacks suddenly explode in your face.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please, feel free to add your comments.