So, I got to thinking the other day about the venues I play in… I’ve been playing in some of them for 26 years now, some are new, some have disappeared for ever and some have had more visual changes than The Mountain in GoT.
Before we start with this I need to remind you of my location, I live and gig in the South West part of England, a glorious county called Devonshire, better known as Devon, affectionately referred to as The Shire. From around here we’ve seen bands such as Jethro Tull and Muse (as well as many others) spring to life and has been the breeding ground for bands such as Radiohead and Coldplay. So, we’re not shy in having a live music scene.
When I started gigging, waaaaaaaaay back in the early 90’s I mainly played in pubs. Proper British pubs, usually owned by the Landlord and/or Landlady and they loved live music. A few of the pubs were owned by the Brewery, but they were left alone to do their thing. Throughout the 90’s I played in all sorts of bands, from classic rock to tribute bands and even some very early reach into a country rock band. As far as I can remember (and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then) every one of those pubs, or clubs, sounded great. And by that I mean that acoustically they were fantastic, there wasn’t much in the way of sound bouncing around, loads of stuff up to absorb reflections and we could rock up, tune up, turn it up and rock out without fear of the room making us sound any worse than we already are… And let’s face it, I was 17 when I started gigging so just by the gear we could afford we didn’t sound as good as we could have!
Towards the end of the 90’s I left this area to go to University to study stuff that I didn’t need to know, and by the time I had left I was married and kids followed shortly. Most of my gear was sold off, you know the score, and I was pretty resigned to not playing in a band anymore, because ‘life’. I still hung out on the scene sometimes, attended the odd jam to keep my ear in, but it was by then something I used to do rather than still did.
All this kind of changed when I started with Brian, I started to accumulate gear again, my interest in playing the guitar reached new levels of intensity (I was interested in the notes I played now rather than how many I could play) and when an opportunity to join a band again came up last year (the band I took my first tentative steps into country with) I welcomed it with open legs!
Being back on the circuit was a weird experience. Some of the places were unrecognisable from what they used to be, some were pretty well identical, and new venues in locations you would never expect were all over the place. Here is the thing that really became obvious to me though, many of the real venues (of those that are left, but that might be a subject for a more intense rant at a later date) were now owned by large corporations, chain bars, theme bars etc etc. I don’t know if those things are ‘a thing’ over the other side of the pond, but certainly here the local pub seems to have died somewhat. You walk into a venue these days and you’ll be greeted with the same place as the place you played in last week, just in a different town. Guaranteed that these places will have hard floors, very little in the way of seating/tables and there are mirrors everywhere, massive windows… Basically, it all looks like it’s fallen out of a plastic factory into a prefabricated pub construction machine.
Nett result for live music? You’ll sound crap no matter what gear you have. And believe me, in this band the instruments/toys/back line items on display are incredible. We have GREAT gear. But, the sound bounces off these surfaces and just accumulates everywhere and tumbles into itself and the high ends become shrill, the low end just disappears and even a small pub has a lot of overbearing natural reverb. And that’s just plain awful.
Now, I’m not stupid, I understand why these places have changed, well – why a lot of them have anyway. These big chain corporations exist to make money, and mostly they do. They appeal to a transitional customer base, so they have big flat screens all over the place showing live sports, hideous music blaring out and sell high powered small drinks that are designed to have a high turnover. But NONE of this relates to a live music pub. None of it relates to making the band sound good. None of this relates to encouraging the next generation of future rock stars, or old farts like me who just like making music with their buddies, to get out there and do it. A room doesn’t need to be specifically tuned, far from it, it just needs ‘stuff’ to soak up the reflections. Carpets. Curtains/blinds on the windows. Seating. Tables… and don’t get me started on ceiling height!
We have seen many an excited landlord tell us of their plans for refurbishment that means ripping out the carpets and ‘opening the place up’ and every time we hear it our hearts drop through the bottom of our shoes, out the door into a bottle someplace back in to the annals of history. We foolishly thought that when smoking in licenced premises was banned here in 2006 we would see more places embrace the soft floor model (as let’s face it, cigarette burn marks on carpets are disgusting) yet even more now you see the ‘wipe clean’ version appear everywhere. You see hard walls with glass front posters hung, you see endless wide open spaces with the odd stool dotted around and you know that unless the place gets packed with people who intend to stay until the end, you are going to sound painfully loud and harsh for a lot of that room.
So, here is what I would like to say from this particular soapbox. If you are a live music venue and pride yourself in being one, take note of what the bands that play there sound like and ask them what they think of the room acoustics. I can guarantee you that at least one of them (in the band I play in, it’s the bass player) who can tell you exactly what makes your room sound better or worse than the rest of the circuit. Take note of the sound of the band ALL around the room they are playing in. If they sound awesome when you are stood right in front of them but back by the bar it sounds like the guitar tone is splitting your ears apart, there is a problem. Go around to other venues in your area and listen to the bands you have in your venue sound like and think about what the differences are. You’ll be amazed what a few small, and relatively cheap, changes can make to the live music experience. It’s not hard to see why the rooms with the best sound attract the better bands and most importantly, the customers who are going to stay and drink the pumps dry.
I could list all of the places around here that sound amazing, all the ones that sound terrible and all the ones that have recently made a change for the better or the worse. I won’t, because I want to continue playing in them because let’s face it, I’m not in it for the glory or the chicks, I’m in it purely because I love the music we play and I think I play with one of the most naturally gifted bass players alive today. Why he’s playing in a band with a guy like me I’ll never know, but he’s ace. It’s just a shame that a lot of the places we play in you can’t really hear how ace he is.
I’m not one for blatant self-promotion, but if you read this, and you have a venue near you (that is in charge of their own destiny) that sounds great, or not so great, post this on their social media, even if one place puts something up to make the room sound better – and it literally could be something as small as curtains on windows on the back wall, then job done.
*and yes, the header picture of this piece is that bunch of old farts I mentioned above, including me, playing live in a GREAT sounding venue!
… I’m on a learning curve, so we might as well carry on! As I said in my previous idiot's guide, that name firmly applies to me, so I’m researching subjects that I don’t know about, but as someone who has been playing for years should, and posting my findings in this blog. Hope that in reading this you will find it as interesting as I did when I was researching it. I’m going to use some visual metaphors in here that doesn't make much sense, but they have helped me understand what is happening much better.
What causes overdrive, distortion, gain? Well, the first thing we HAVE to get out the way is that those are actually buzzwords that don’t really mean anything other than a term we use to consolidate it in our heads, the true word to use in this is CLIPPING.
Yes, clipping. Overdrive, distortion, fuzz, etc. comes from ‘clipping the signal’. But what does that actually mean? Clipping occurs, in real terms, when the audio signal amplitude exceeds the maximum voltage capability of the system it is in. Or, in real terms, when the wave is trying to get through a hole that it’s too big for. Does that make sense? A true sound wave, a pure one, is a sound wave that is a classic sine – fully up and down movement moving at a certain speed. It is the way this wave moves that gives sound character, so if you listen to this – this is about as pure as it gets I suppose, this is a note produced by vibrating the signal at 440 times a second, or to name it, ‘Hertz’ (let’s not go to the 432hz thing, I might come to that in a later piece).
So, when this signal is pure and it’s vibrating in an unrestricted way, you get a ‘clean tone’ (I’m not going to get into how different amps and guitars effect that tone, as this is a scratching of the surface piece). In order to distort the signal, or overdrive it – or force it through the hole that it’s too big for, we ‘clip’ it. We take the top off, take the bottom off, usually take them both off. Gain is a misnomer, increasing gain actually means increasing volume within a circuit, but after it's been messed with, it increases clipping.
So, here is a basic ‘clean tone’ sine wave.
When we clip that signal, it will look something like this…
This occurs by amplifying the signal a lot and placing a limit on the wave, so it gets ‘clipped off’ before it hits its natural peak/trough and comes back round again, the demonstration above would probably be more in line with soft clipping, as the amplification isn’t too great and the wave is pretty well intact apart from the extremities.
We get more severe levels of clipping, by increasing the initial amplification and making the clip more angular. Like this…
I fully expect that the more scientific/mathematical among you are looking at those and thinking “That’s not right, it needs to be more etc. etc.” but I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, I’m just a guy who knows his way around photoshop and this is the easiest way to show it.
One thing we have to remember here is that clipping is not the same as compression of limiting. We are not clipping the top and bottom of the wave with compression and limiting, we are just reducing the depth of the wave and bringing it more in line with the other waves, so the dynamics will be reduced but the shape of the wave will be retained.
The real joy of clipping comes with, as you may expect, adding in EQ (putting it before or after the clipping), low or high pass filters, or making the clipping asymmetrical and the millions of other things you can do to it… If you think about the classic OD circuits and how they change the tone as well as clip it, you start to teeter closer to the edge of the rabbit hole that is designing effects pedals.
The main thing that surprised me when I started to learn about clipping the signal is that it’s not how you would expect, as when you get to different reactions and requirements, you request the signal be clipped in different ways. For example, the classic ‘tube overdrive pedal’ works best when hitting an already clipping amp, the process aligns up and the result is truly glorious. For this reason, our Clarksdale – with the inherent EQ hump – will just accentuate what is already happening – with soft clipping. A distortion pedal, like the Dracarys, is treating the process completely differently – mostly hard clipping - needs a cleaner platform to work.
As a final point, analog clipping is fantastic, digital clipping currently is just plain awful… however, alot digital overdrive/distortion will replicate the characteristics and traits of analog clipping so progress is there and it's coming...
...let me introduce myself, my name is Jason and I'm a gear idiot.
Now. Having said that, I have been playing the guitar for WELL over 30 years, but I've always been more concerned with trying to play this virtuoso piece or if I can perfect the art of using the whammy bar to drop a note by a perfect 5th rather than thinking about why one amp sounds different than another, I'm guessing that many other players out there are like me as well, so following on from the piece I did about standby switches last year, I'm going to try to educate myself on these things, write them down, and hope that you guys join me on the learning journey as well. I can't guarantee that this is going to be 100% unbiased as I'm considering it all out loud in a real world situation from an uneducated perspective, but here goes, hopefully, it all makes sense...
One of the things that has often comes up, especially in the more expensive amps, is that having a tube rectifier is a good thing (I when I started reading about this I couldn't even begin to understand why some amps even have an option for both) - but, I've always just accepted that, but to be fair I have no idea what one is. So, I've asked people, Google, the dog, and my local milkman and here is the answer. A rectifier converts the power coming in from the wall from AC to DC. Well, that's that answered then. Shall we go jam and have a beer?
Of course, we can't, we have to ascertain the differences between different rectifiers, how different tubes make it sound different, why some amp builders insist that solid state is best - case in point - which was part of the first thing I read when looking at this, Mr Mike Soldano:
"In my opinion, all amps should have solid state rectifiers. I don’t believe there are any really good rectifier tubes on today’s market and, even if there were, why use them? The technology is obsolete; they are horribly inefficient, and far more expensive and troublesome to build into an amp. These tubes, no matter how good, will routinely need replacing, adding to your maintenance expenses. Besides that, tube rectifiers kill the headroom of an amplifier. If you want that spongy, vintage sound, there are other ways to do it. I have successfully designed and built amps that have replicated that soggy bottom, vintage tube rectifier sound using solid state rectifiers and various circuit modifications."
This melted my head a little to start off with because I always thought that tube was best when it comes to tone. So, trying to ascertain why, I read further and talked to the dog some more.
I found that the beauty of the tube rectifier, which in real terms can also be the beast of it, is SAG. And yes, there's that word again. Starting to think it's a nonexistent word invented by guitary types to describe something that the literary genius of before could not describe. So we just call it SAG. Now, SAG occurs when the rectifier is hit with a request for massive amounts of current, usually if it's working really hard. Almost like my understanding of the SAG that happens when you are at high gain and you slightly palm mute, everything goes crunchy and saggy, because the low end is requesting a HUGE amount of power and something has to give. In my head, this is a very good thing, but also it can be a bad thing as well, because if the power you are getting from the wall is under par, you will achieve SAG quicker... if the tube is on it's way out, you will achieve SAG quicker. So, once again (as with ANY discussion with tube amps), consistency is the key. Trouble is, most of us prefer the sound so much we are prepared to run this risk. The effects of SAG on a rectifier is that there is a slight delay, literally milliseconds in the response which then goes on to make the note bloom (as the rectifier catches up) which at the same time evens out the high end. Pretty certain most of us players will read a line like that, gently nod and maybe give a little smile, as that is ALWAYS a good thing. Then you get into differing types of tubes that force this behavior to make it happen quicker (for example, a 5Y3 is quicker than a GZ34), you start to understand that part of the rectifiers character and how it is dealt with plays a massive part in amps, and also plays a massive part many of guitar pedals trying to rectify that sound... Let's face it, if you are anything like me as you were reading that last paragraph you probably thought at some point about a decent compressor and a tube screamer!
Let's look at the other end of the scale now. The Solid State rectifier. These are made from silicon and do the same thing as the tube version, just extremely consistently. In my head, my first reaction to that is "YAY, consistency, GREAT" but then I remember those gigs I've played where my amp has never sounded bad because of the rectifier, just the times when it has sounded glorious. You know the ones I mean, the ones where something happens somewhere and for some reason, everything is compressing at the right time, the right amount, at the right volume, the notes are blooming, harmonics are leaping out and just everything else... I just wish it would happen more often. I suppose the challenge the builders of the future have it to make that happen, all the time, at all volumes.
I asked Brian why he opted for a tube rectifier in his amp designs, his answer was simple:
"To rectifier has a little bit more natural compression, and notes that are distorted sometimes feels more pronounced. Since this amp is fairly clean it just feels better with the tube. Solid-state will be much stiffer feeling"
So, we are back with the whole consistency feel and that "X Factor" thing of things magically happening under your fingers, why is it that when we talk about tube amps, we always come back to that? Playing the guitar is fundamentally an organic experience, for most of us anyway, we tend to dig that whole signal chain reaction that comes from a great player, great guitar, great cables, great pedals, great amp, great speakers. There is something delightful when those things work together to get that point, many many players rely on the inconsistencies of tube amps to get their tone and to keep them on their toes... yet many companies provide their amps with either both, or just SS. Why? I'm guessing that in amps where the gain response (clipping) is everything and the signal is being carefully balanced across gain stages, you will want the same thing, day in and day out and you don't want your amp to one minute to have a much more saggy low end appearing at random times, because with a lot of natural clipping happening, it would legitimately change the entire personality of the amp. Notable amps that have an SS (or both) rectifier: Soldano SLO100, Many Marshall Plexi's, Blackface Twin reverbs... the list is extensive!
As you might expect, one of the things we hear a lot from some people is “How can you charge $200 for a pedal that I can buy the parts for, for less than $50, and make it myself?”
Right, let’s get comfy and pick this apart piece by piece. I’ll do my best to remain objective and not end up in a socio political rant about ethics, but you know, if you poke the bear sometimes you get bitten! But, I’ll try to keep my muzzle on and remain professional! lololz.
Let’s take the Thirty Something. A pedal that we sell for $239 USD. The first thing you have to remember is that Brian didn’t wake up one day and have it all mapped inside his head, he didn’t just do a “Let It Be” and have it ready from a dream. I kid you not that Brian took almost 3 years to design that circuit, it went through more prototypes than any other Wampler I know of (and I’m pretty certain I’m up to speed on this stuff), it was tweaked, changed, restarted, thrown in the bin so many times I actually stopped asking about it. When it was finally ready I remember Brian saying “I’m still not 100% happy with it, but I just can’t see how I can make it any closer”. That being said, when it arrived in Wildling territory and I plugged it in, I was staggered how it reacted and how it felt. I still think it remains the benchmark in AIAB pedals, it does the job perfectly. And I was brought up playing Edge, Queen, The Beatles and Hank Marvin songs… so, I’m kinda fussy with VOX tones.
Thinking about that, and thinking about how Brian is considered in his field, can you begin to imagine how much investment that is? To import a design engineer and have them work at something on and off for 3 years would be hundreds of thousands of dollars, I can’t comprehend how much it would be, but just think about that minute, that is a lot of R&D work, and you know, with a large family to support and employees to pay, that kind of work doesn’t pass unnoticed by the company accountant. R&D aside, then you have to imagine that once again, the designs of everything else doesn’t appear out of thin air, the pedal logo needs designing, the box art, the manual, the marketing, the demo videos, the promo shots… it’s actually quite ridiculous when you think about it, costs a bloody fortune.
Here is a picture I took for the marketing for the release of the Thirty Something. I am very lucky that I live near Manson's Guitar Shop and have a great relationship with them (they stock us). I go in, take over a corner of the shop, use their stock guitars as backing and then spend a long time photoshopping the picture to make it look like this. It all adds up!
Now, we get to parts. Brian is RIDICOUSLY fussy about parts. He will only use parts that fulfil his requirements, and there was a stage at one point in time when we were ditching 2/3rds of a certain part because they didn’t come up to scratch - mere mortals like me can’t hear the difference, but let’s face it, I’m not Brian Wampler, his ears are better than mine and I expect most of yours as well, so you have to budget that as well.
So, let’s get back to the meat of this. You will find websites all over the internet that ‘kindly’ reverse every pedal ever made and post the schematic for all to plagiarise, errmmm, I mean “study". So, once we’ve spent ages designing and marketing a pedal and released it, someone can then probably go to their favorite online parts store and order the parts, an enclosure and get pretty close to how the original is. I say pretty close, because I can guarantee that the components won’t be to the spec Brian demands, it won’t be laid out as well and let’s face it, I expect the basic soldering won’t be that good. We stand by our 5 year guarantee, I bet the places the parts are bought from don’t!
Let’s now look at this from another angle. And throughout this, I’m not going to mention any prices, because people will jump on it, but just think about where we are and what we are doing in this, and where you can buy it. We are not a retailer. We do not sell to the general public (we do offer direct sales through our site, but they account for next to nothing in term of units moved compared to our international sales team). We are a manufacturer. We manufacture a product, and then sell it to people who sell it through their own stores. Sometimes we sell it to a distributor who then sells it to a dealer… taking local and international taxes, shipping, the price goes up. Then I must mention the 5 year guarantee again… So, if you want to try a product in store, have that store stay open to offer you a service, you see where we, and everyone else, is coming from. Having said that, some pedals are overpriced for what they are. I’m not going to mention anything or anyone specifically here, but there are pedals out there that are basic reworked clones, with minimal R&D, with a crappy box, labelled with one of those crappy Embosser Label Maker gun things that are for sale direct from manufacturers that are silly prices, but that’s their conscience, not ours!
Made in USA. What does that mean? You may have noticed we’ve shifted from Made in USA to Built in USA. Why I hear you ask? (and to be fair, it’s another question we get asked a lot at the moment.) Well, to be able to say “Made in USA” with complete honesty means that every component is made in the USA, and as far as I know (and I like to think I’m up to speed) most parts are impossible to source, let alone in the numbers we need them, from the USA. So, we source parts – as does EVERYONE else, from around the world - we just wear that information on our sleeves. The same burden of consistency and quality is applied, and we use only the very best. I would say that if a pedal is sourced from USA components (if it was actually possible) you’d be looking at a pedal that is at least 3 or 4 times the price, and you can imagine how many of them we’d sell! (worth noting that technically, it’s illegal for any pedal company to say “Made in the USA” due to the reasons above. We just found this out recently and changed the wording to be in accordance with US law).
When you think about a $199.97 pedal (also: inflation. www.usinflationcalculator.com a pedal that costs $199 today would have sold for $107 in 1990. Ever since 2007, we’ve had a main price of about $199 unless it’s a deluxe pedal. Accounting for inflation, that pedal SHOULD cost $235.10 in 2017, yet we’ve never raised that 199 price), remove the dealer margin, shipping, taxes and everything else (I’m not going to even go to how we manage to sell our stuff for virtually the same price all over the world, give or take $30 or so dollars) then start to think about production costs, there isn’t a lot of room to think about R&D and then the guarantee period. Now do the same with a pedal that is $149, $129 or $99 - think about how much it costs to build and how many compromises have to be made in those price reductions – kinda makes you wonder doesn’t it. Strip it back, work it out, and then you think about the Built in USA (as our stuff is) you’ll see that not only are we bringing you a quality USA product, but paying quality USA salary for the guys who design, build, test, market, sell and repair (which isn’t very often thankfully) our stuff… Then look at the guys who will sell you a clone of a pedal that is still in production for $50. Do you think that will give you the same pedal? Do you think that will encourage companies like us to continue to make quality products that will inspire you to sound the best you can do?
OK, it’s story time – you didn’t think I would write a piece without a story did you? Pretty certain you all know me better than that!
Picture this, it’s late 1997 or so, maybe early 1998, and I get in from a gig to find my dear ol’ Mum waiting up for me… As I walked in she stood up, looking slightly mad, and just said “You HAVE to watch this, it’s amazing!”. She pressed play on the VCR and there on the TV was Robbie Williams, on a program called TFI Friday, performing his latest single – “Let Me Entertain You”, completely live.
It was a truly stellar performance.
Many of you lovely lot over on the other side of the pond won’t know of Rob too much as he’s massive everywhere but there, so I’ll fill you in. He was part of the first boy band to really take off over here in the UK in the early nineties - left in truly spectacular fashion after a few years and has been somewhat of an interesting character ever since. A lot of it has been expanded by the media, but safe to say that Rob has spent the last 25 years bouncing through life, living it to the maximum, and telling many a good story along the way. When he ‘went solo’ the vast majority of us expected it to be a flash in the pan, his first single I heard was, well, 'not my cup of tea'. After that he released a stunning ballad (that has more than stood the test of time – this was what we were expecting him to do) so by the time this performance came around most of us had written him off.
Seeing him perform that song was quite a moment. Gone were the visions of him being a boy band member who was only releasing stuff to maximise on the teenage girl market, and here was someone who was prepared to unleash his potential on a largely unsuspecting general public. I’m not sure who was more surprised at the success he had back then, us or him. Since then he has grown to be the complete pop star in the truest sense of the world, massive albums, massive singles, massive tours. I’m pretty certain that right now, and for the last 10-15 years, there hasn’t been a bigger star in Europe than Robbie Williams.
OK, enough of the back story, let’s talk about Tom. About 5 years ago Rob parted company with his band and got a new one (as you do), and just as his album was about to be released there was a big gig televised here in the UK – you could say it was somewhat of a comeback after a couple of years off. I was blown away with the band that night, it was far more in your face than the previous band, the guitars were more much more prominent, great tone was everywhere and all in all it was just an incredible gig. I spent a good 10 seconds on Google looking up the new band members, tweeted the new lead guitarist (from the company twitter account) to compliment him on his great tone and how much I enjoyed the show. To my delight he quickly tweeted back with the now legendary comment of “Thanks, I use some of your stuff!” (he was using Plextortion and Ego Compressor)… BOOM! This to me is perfect, this is what I love to find out, someone is using our gear already, loving our tone so much they bought the gear – it took me about 5 seconds to offer an artist deal. Let’s face it, when you find someone who plays that well, has a perfect grasp of what is required to be in a band like this, rocks the pants off a stadium while being part of an outfit that tours the world (playing to literally millions of people) it is one hell of a relationship to make for the company… So many people STILL consider us to be a country brand, but it’s artists like Tom that show that we are so much more than that.
It was 6 months later when I first met up with Tom at Wembley Stadium, June 30th 2013, during the “Take The Crown” World Tour. Unfortunately, it was a 9 days after my Mother had passed unexpectedly (I feel that she is linked to all this as it was her who waited up that day to show me the live performance, which prompted me to buy this album the following day - she was so excited we were going to the show as well). I was a little wobbly, understandably, but in that day I was convinced that this new incarnation of the RW band with Tom was a force to be reckoned with. It was emotional, there are a couple of songs that hit me, but I was bowled over with the power of the band, and how well Tom made our gear sound. To this day I am still a little overwhelmed with the show I witnessed that day. It was great to hear Wampler tone flattening 90k people at the iconic Wembley Stadium!
Fast forward to the present day. Here we are; Cardiff, the Principality Stadium, 21st June 2017 – the hottest day of the year. It was exactly 4 years to the day since we lost my Mother and Mrs Wilding and I were once again in the boiling hot weather, (it was the same 4 years previously, absobloodylutely boiling and this causes issues in itself, my wife suffers from a condition called Fibromyalgia and the heat makes and already terrible condition, unbelievably worse) about to go in… At this point I’d like to say that we nearly didn’t go, the recent events in the UK where concert goers were targeted was playing on our minds, but bollocks to that, we won’t let them win. We won’t let them disrupt our life.
We rocked up to the Stadium early as I had arranged to meet Tom for some photos and general chat about his gear. Tom is a tone chaser, he loves his gear, so it’s always a pleasure to get an insight into what goes into driving the biggest stadium pop tour of the summer. We got through security and were met by the lovely Jaeki Hildisch, Rob’s long time tour manager, who led us through backstage while giving us all the do’s and don’ts. Security is tight, so you have to do as you are told (you know me, so you you’ll know that ain’t easy), but it’s always incredible to walk in behind something like that, the ‘show’ itself is huge, mind-blowingly huge, consider the biggest show you’ve ever seen in terms of set, gear, people… it’s that big. You’d need days to drink it all in properly.
We found Tom and his tech Adam in Adam’s tech area. It’s always a pleasure to meet up with Tom, he’s extremely personable, quiet, and there is no evidence of ego, so once we’d had a catch up chat the first thing I noticed was the rack of guitars…. Unfortunately for my desire to play the guitars personally owned by people I really dig, Tom is left handed, so I can’t pick them up and have a go… never mind!
Tom is more of a Gibson man than anything else, his main squeeze being a ’97 SG (loaded with Bare Knuckle Mules) that has been with him for years. I noticed some recent additions to his armoury, those being a ’01 335 (Bare Knuckle Stormy Mondays), an ’08 Les Paul ’58 reissue (also with Mules), a Bill Nash telecaster (Lollar pickups) and there is an ‘07 ’62 reissue Strat (Bare Knuckle Irish Tours) lurking. Also in there is a Nik Huber Krauster II. The infamous Ibanez LP copy that was his first real guitar is now retired from active duty, and is in the dressing room.
In the middle of Adam’s den are another new addition to Tom’s rig, Kemper profilers. They only use 1 patch, a profile of Tom’s beloved 1983 JCM 800 2204 - The last time I saw them they had 4x12”s under the stage in ISObooths so as you can expect, this is a considerably easier method for them to set up and control during a tour. And, let’s be honest, in a situation like this, it’s the perfect tool for the job.
After this we headed out on to the stage (now, this is where I must gently enter story mode again. Mrs Wilding comes to some artist visits, not many, but as she is a massive fan of Rob as a song writer/musician/performer, she comes with me to these. The look on her face as Tom leads us out on to Rob’s stage is always wonderful, her just face lights up. It’s a beautiful thing to see – probably the best part of the day for me, because she gets to live her dream while I live mine)… Anyway, back to the gear...
At the heart of everything is the impeccable GigRig G2. This controls everything. The cornerstone of Tom’s live tone is kinda clean, just sitting on the edge, and this is enabled by our dear old friend the Tumnus. Tom uses his volume control to balance his level of dirt and power, and uses the Tumnus perfectly to add extra dimension to what is already there. Tom told me afterwards that it was on for virtually the entire show – he just loves the way Tumnus brings everything to life - “The Tumnus is the latest addition to the board and is one of those ‘always’ on pedals! I’m using it a lot. Great mid range boost with amazing transparency.”
Right along the board sits the Velvet Fuzz, for those moments when you need to melt the faces. As we were talking about the Velvet, Tom grabbed the SG so we could get a feel for the power (he has a solitary 4x12” on stage that he brings in via a volume pedal to give feedback when required, and to also give Tom the ability to have the reaction that you just don’t get when purely playing with IEM’s). He uses the Velvet on tight mode so it’s sitting between fuzz and distortion and the sound with that SG was outrageously good, so much power and depth. As Tom says “The Velvet Fuzz is the best Fuzz pedal I’ve tried to date, and I’ve tried a few! I love the ‘tight’ setting to really punch through the mix.” Right there next to it is the old favourite, the Ego Compressor. Not used for much on this tour - but when Tom has to break out his slide in the set the Ego just gives it the sustain, control, depth and consistency you need. I’m telling you, that guitar was just sustaining for ever. “The Ego Comp is a big part of my sound when playing slide. I love the blend feature, as it allows you to retain your original tone and not get too mushy…” (I have to give a little mention to the look on Mrs Wilding’s face as we were on the stage and he played the solo lines of ‘Feel’, one of her (and mine) favourite songs, just for us, to show how he uses the Ego).
All too soon it was time for us to go, sound check time… Jaeki reappeared so we made our way out of the stadium. These are actually the times I enjoy the most, as you get to just talk to the people who are instrumental in making the show happen, you get to see all the backstage stuff, you also get a feel of what it is like to be part of the show. After we left the staging area, we were going through the area where the buses/trucks are and a black SUV pulled up and out poured the rest of the touring band. Tom instantly grabbed the other guitar player, the legend that is Gary Nuttall, for a picture. Realising that I didn't have a picture with Tom and myself, I gave Mrs Wilding my camera to get the shot. Now, she’s not used my camera before so as I was telling her how to do it, and while she was getting confused, Rob’s long time song writing partner and keyboard player Guy Chambers stood behind her… she is a keen piano player as well so she’s a fan of him… I said “Lis, Guy Chambers!” and pointed. Unfortunately, she didn’t hear and just took the pictures - as she handed me the camera she realized what I had said, turned around but he had gone… Such a shame, as she would have loved to meet him and he was right there, inches from her!
After we left, we met up with some old friends in town (we used to live just outside Cardiff and had not been back in 15 years), had a bite to eat, went to the box office to pick up our tickets, and generally soaked up the atmosphere. Safe to say that the people who wish to disrupt events like this did not win. Not at all. We then had to return to the hotel for Mrs Wilding to rest, that heat was killing her, but fortunately we had a hotel that was 5 minutes walk from the stadium so we could make sure she was ready for the show and get properly rested - We hit the show in time for the support act, and then waited patiently for the show to start...
And yes, the show – and that’s what these events are, a show in the truest sense of the world, was incredible. I won't post a review of the show, as that is another story, also there are literally thousands of reviews, videos, comments and everything else you can imagine online to give you a feel of how these events go... Attendance to a show like this should be mandatory for all musicians - I find things like an education on how to play for the song, play for the band, play for the audience.
Walking away, here’s the main thing that struck me after the show. As I was talking to Tom and when I was watching him demo how he uses the Wampler’s, it’s plain to see that guys like Tom are no different than you and me. We are all chasing tone, all the time. We all balance what we want to do in a song with what is required in the song. We are all looking to make sure our tone works perfectly, within every given situation, every night. We just want great tone. It’s a fantastic feeling to know that we can produce gear that “a massive pop tour in Europe” isn’t considered in the design stage, but fits in so perfectly with a show like this.
In regard to the disruption that is in the back of our minds at the moment, I’d like to leave you with the words of Rob who amended the lyrics of one of his biggest hits to send a message to those who think killing innocent people to send a message is acceptable, those who want to stop our way of life. “You know that we’re strong, we’re strong, we’re strong. We’re still singing our songs, our songs, our songs”. To hear the entire stadium singing that back, only a few weeks after the Manchester attack, was incredible.
I’d like thank Tom, Adam, Jaeki and the rest of the crew for a truly amazing show and their hospitality. You all rock, in the best possible way.
About a month or two ago I took possession of a Quilter 101 Mini Head. About time I posted a review of it I think as these amps are causing a big stir in the world of normal gigging guys, guys like me, and probably guys like you.
The first thing that strikes me about this thing is the size and weight, well, lack of weight really. It literally weighs the same as a bag of sugar. 2lbs. That kinda freaked me out a little as I know it’s a 100w head and can flatten the first three rows of any audience in any bar. For this very reason I didn’t plug it in straight away because I was already judging it, as a valve amp guy, weight usually signifies tone. The beefier the transformers, the better the tone. Which means literally, the heavier it is, the better it is more likely to sound.
After a day or so I plugged it in to my 2x12” cab, with a flat EQ (more about that later) and put it on Full Q, which is their cleanest setting. I was surprised, it sounded great! Full, punchy, and was quite alive. So, already it had worked its way up in my estimations and was outperforming most straight up analogue solid state amps.
The EQ on it is bloody confusing, I must admit it leaves me, even now, scratching my head as to why they’ve done it like this. A straight B/M/T stack would have made it easier to use and easier to dial in, but you have to balance a control that can give you a EQ like a smiley face, dead flat or a hi pass, and a Hi-Cut control that goes from flat to low pass. This wasn’t easy to find as I’m more of a turn it and see type of guy and I had to stop and think about how I want my tone forged, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did take an exercise of patience to find a tone I could build on. This leads me onto the “gain stage” selector. The Quilter boasts 5 different voicings, that brings in differing amounts of gain. Full Q is totally clean, Tweed, Jazz, Surf and Lead are quite self-explanatory… I found that for my needs (a clean platform to build on) Full Q or Surf was the best option.
The most important question for me is, how does it take pedals… well, to be completely honest it takes them like a dream. No matter what I shoved in the front it just took them without issue. I even started to bung random stacking options in front to see if I could break it, but it refused point blank to buckle and break. I’m telling you, if it can take the Dracarys maxed going into the Tumnus maxed and not fart out, it’s going to take anything you can put its way.
The only time it showed a weakness was, and this is probably the most important test, was when I gigged it. As most of you know, when I gig I either use a Wampler Bravado head and 1x12” cab, or a Fender BDri into a custom 2x12” loaded with WGS speakers. I tried the Quilter into both cabs and it sounded more than passable into the Wampler cab, but in the 2x12” it really lacked clarity, sparkle… you know, that glass element of a really good clean valve amp. The bass player in the band I’m in happens to be one of musical heroes (he was the person that introduced me to the music of Brent Mason after all) and has ears like a deer. He can hear everything and knows instantly how good something is. His comment was “That would be the perfect back up amp if yours goes down again”. That was enough for me to know that in this band, with this band mate, I can’t use it live.
So, what do I think of the Quilter. Does it have a place in my musical life? The answer most definitely is “definitely”. I will use it live going forward if I play in a band that doesn’t demand such pristine and glassy cleans (I still have my eye on an 70’s-80’s 90’s rock band), and I am severely tempted to follow Brian’s advice and get a TC Electronic Mimiq for the ‘other guitar’ feel – because that pedal doesn’t work in mono into one amp, if you use two it’s amazing. It would be perfect for that also as a wet/dry rig, the possibilities are endless. However, if you stick the Wampler Black ’65 in front of it there is no better option for a live clean rig using an amp you can legitimately put in the front pocket of your gig bag... Simple home recording, definitely. Practice, definitely.
Final verdict – can it legitimately be used to replace as a high end valve amp in a pure clean setting? For me… not quite. Maybe if the EQ was more logical and better laid out, and if they make the EQ of the front end more responsive and make it sound glassy, it would be a killer product and one that would take the world by storm. Maybe we should make a D class amp with some of Brian’s genius in the front end. As for this, right now I won’t ever leave home without it for a gig, as if my amp does go down, I can plug this thing in and it will do a fantastic job of covering the amps I use and love. It is the perfect amp for home use, simple recording and practice? Absolutely. I've put it to such good use already I can't begin to tell you. Right now, I don't think there's anything better out there for these purposes... Plus, let's revisit something I said earlier. I carry a spare 100w amp on a gig day in the slot in my pedal case that is designed for my cables. That alone makes it an invaluable addition to my rig.
Many thanks to my good friend and fellow tone chaser, Justin Hize for organising this for me and throwing it over the pond. It's been quite the eye opener!
Recently I truly haven't had a lot of time to play lately, so when I do I've been trying to kick the habit of messing with my board and pedals so much and just focus on playing. That being said, I still like to use some varying flavors of pedals, but not like I normally would if I had my full board on hand. My solution was simple, and it went against everything I know about proper board setup and powering them: I sat 3 pedals on top of my amp (Compressor, OD and Envelope Filter), used a OneSpot to daisy chain them, and let loose and played like crazy. I set and forget them and only adjusted the Q of the filter occasionally and that was it. It was kind of liberating, and it was really nice having the pedal right there *if* I wanted to mess with it.
Believe me, no one is more glad than we are that the Ethereal has finally been released! We first previewed it at NAMM 2016 - yes, 18 months ago - and we were telling people that it would be a few months. Well, that was the plan. Unfortunately, stuff happens which means that other stuff doesn't happen and things get delayed, so I'd like to thank you all for your patience, I hope it will be worth the wait for you!
I first played the Ethereal at NAMM '16, and to be honest, it was a 'meh' moment for me - but I'm not an ambient type player, I like notes more than I like the space between them (and yes, that means I'm a shredder, either dirty with rock or clean with country) so it didn't hit met at all... fast forward to NAMM '17 and I played the next version of it (also, I was in post spinal surgery hell in '16, so not sure I would have liked anything to be honest) and I liked it much more, the reverb was lush and the delay patterns were really interesting. So, my hopes came up a little... As we approached release day one landed at home and I got to spend some real quality time with it, time to truly appreciated it for what it is.
So, what is it? In a nutshell it's a dual delay and reverb pedal. The reverb is a big deep plate style, it's truly gorgeous. The dual delay has a consistent 1/4 note repeat and on top you can lay triplets, dotted 8ths and a self oscillating ambient thing that makes it sound really lush, I must admit, the first day I played it at home the 20 minute limit I put on myself to explore it turned into 3 hours, which ended up in a Pink Floyd heaven type jam with Mrs Wilding on Piano and two kids that ended up yelling at us to please be quiet as it's now bedtime :D
Here's what I love about it, there is something extremely special about the reverb, it's so lush without being overbearing, it sits within the dry tone so well (even at higher levels) and just makes you feel like you are within it, I've never quite heard a reverb like it. Well, I have, but really expensive Lexicon's back in the day, but since then, nothing. They all seem to leave me cold. The you add the delays on top of it, this is where the fun really starts. I went into some classical heaven (I knew there was a reason I learned Cavatina back in the 90's), some interesting Satriani melodic tapping type thing, chords... Edge, Gilmour... yeah, it's fun. Really fun. I had a great time making the suggested settings with Alex, I could get everything from Floyd's Run Like Hell, to a big Spring style reverb with various reflections, U2's Bad and every ambient thing you can possibly imagine. I found myself playing chords and just enjoying how they fell together with all the repeats floating around behind them, makes you sound so musical.
Also, of course, it's so easy to use you won't believe. A massive ambient pedal that doesn't look like the flight bridge of the space shuttle. Ideal.
Yesterday I had a guitar lesson with Brent Mason. I need to say that again, out loud, because it doesn't feel real. I had a private, one on one, guitar lesson from Brent Mason.
As you may have guessed, o regular reader of thine blog, there is a story attached to this (don't all my posts?), so I will abridge it as much as possible... I've been playing the guitar for as long as I can remember, literally. My brother (who is 3 years older than me) had a cheap nylon string and I always messed around on it, watching him and our friend Rob work stuff out, and then once they left the room instantly copy what they did. I've always learned by stealing others licks! When I hit my teens, I got my first guitar, this was the mid 80's so it was all Iron Maiden for a couple of years and then Satriani happened, then Vai.. and that was that. I was a shredder. I shredded morning, noon and night, a true bedroom rockstar complete with Brian May style hair and an Ibanez Jem. After years of working that stuff out and playing in pub bands I got bored. Completely, so, I effectively gave up. My social life still revolved around the music scene so I was always at jam nights and it was at one of those nights my life was forever changed.
I have complete lucid recall of what happened. It was a Monday night, early(ish) 1998. In pubs I usually shun company and peel off to be on my own, it's harder to offend people that way, and all of a sudden I noticed this beautiful guitar tone coming from the P.A. It was before the jam started, the background music was on, and I just listened. As it came to an end I realised I was captivated and looked around for the guy who put the music on. And then another piece started, stopped me in my tracks again. I listened for a while, it was beautiful - the phrasing... the tone... the musicality. I was in love. I went and found the guy who put it on, Rick (who I am now in a band with) and I asked him who it was - he said the unforgettable line of "A session player from Nashville, Brent Mason, he's on everything - this is his solo album. The next track will blow you away!". Just as he said that, the next track came on and I was blown away. Anyone who knows the album Hot Wired will know that those three tracks were "Caymon Moon", "Mellow Midnight" and "Blowin' Smoke". If by some insane reason you are not familiar with this album, I (you'll see why I say that later) stream it on brentmason.com, here. This moment restored my passion for guitar, for exploring the guitar and guitar music in general. Don't get me wrong, I still love the shredders and to shred, but a part of me will always be in gratitude to Brent, and of course Rick, for opening my eyes to another style of playing. The thing you have to remember is that country music just isn't popular over here, so the radio never played the songs he was on, I just never heard him, or of him, before.
Now we fast forward, I went off to University that year, played the album to death, worked out as much as I could, and tried to play like him. I finished Uni, got married, had kids, and sold most of my gear to buy nappies and shoes. Such is the life of modern parenting. In 2008 Facebook started the whole "like page" thing (as it was called then) and I wanted to do one for Brent, as there wasn't one. So, I contacted him through MySpace (lolololz, yeah, it's that long ago) asking for him permission for basically something I was going to do anyway, but I'm English, so I try to be polite when I can - he answered within about an hour, saying he was cool with it and to contact his wife, Julie, for content. So, nervously I contacted them both, got loads of pictures from them and away we went. As I started to sort through the materials to put on the page, avidly googling him, I kept coming across this pedal called the Hot Wired by some bloke called Brian Wampler. So, me being me, I messaged him asking for details etc... he answered back and well... you can see how that went. Safe to say Brian and I got on, and we have a long running joke about who is his biggest Brent stalker... Anyway, after a while Julie asked that if I could use the content I had collected for the page to put in a new website for Brent, just needed something static, nothing mega, just a communication portal, so I did it. There was I, a no one from Devon, making a website for one of the greatest session players, and musicians in general, alive today. This lead Brian to ask if I wanted to do the Wampler site... and that's where that started. So, I got my job at Wampler via Brent Mason.
Over the years I've got to know Brent and Julie quite well, we are long distance friends, we keep in touch - I maintain the website still and try to sell as many Hot Wired's as possible, around my 40th birthday and to say thank you for all I have done, Brent gave one of his new PRS Brent Mason signature guitars saying "Do with it as you want, you can keep it or sell it, it's yours". This was a really nice touch, they knew we have no money to spare so he was giving me the option of making a fast few quid... obviously, I didn't, it's my pride and joy and I cannot imagine gigging without it.
All this brings us to 2017. Julie has said to me that Brent was considering giving private Skype lessons and could I give advice, so I offered my thoughts on quality of sound, how to get it, and what I would expect if I was paying for it... and then a few weeks later I find myself sitting in front of my screen, waiting patiently when the magic call arrived on my Skype!
Obviously, over the years, I've stopped seeing Brent from the fanboy perspective (mostly) and just 'Brent', but I must admit, seeing him on my screen with the '68 and hearing him talking to me kinda blew me away. We initially caught up briefly (we've met before, at NAMM etc - that prompted the now infamous "Let's look like we are about to start a fight picture" and have spoken on Skype quite a few times), asked about family (he quickly said hi to my wife and kids who were floating around), and he asked about the PRS, and then what I wanted to learn from him. I imagine that many people in that situation will say "Show me how to play 'I don't even know your name'." (or as Brent brilliantly calls it 'the waitress song') but I didn't want that, I can play most of it but the thing that has always floored me about Brent is his note choice and his phrasing. So, I asked him about where all that comes from, which can't be an easy thing to answer, because he just does it. It is his style and I'm asking him to explain a thought process. Not easy, but I'm delighted in the fact he instantly understood exactly what I wanted to know and really opened up about everything. Now, I know some harmony so I can say about the Mixo mode, the dominant 7th and how the chords roll into each other, but what I didn't know was the way he constructed his playing around that and so many other things. He explained fully what he saw in terms of the neck when constructing his lines, how he uses open strings to make them sound interesting, the influences that are behind his playing (I have homework!) and how it falls into place around the rhythmic patterns that exist in his head when playing, what he uses to balance it all, the lead notes, the blue notes, the outside notes, the chromatics, everything that makes him, 'him'. We went over the hour mark, it was closer to 1:20, because once we got going it was hard to stop - the man was beyond generous with his knowledge and imparted it perfectly. I'm not going to tell you what he said, you'll have to have your own lesson with him for that, but I've come away with a completely different thought process about constructing my own voice in guitar, that's twice he's done that to me now. All I say is this, when being Brent Mason, you don't think like any other guitar player I can think off, you think differently, and that through process is available to you. He will tell you what he does and how he does it, now, if you are a Brent fan, isn't that the greatest thing that can happen to you musically?
If you want to have your musical world turned upside down and your imagination fired, or just want him to show you how to play Hot Wired, than you simply HAVE to do this. He tells you exactly what you need to hear, not necessarily what you expect, but what you need. I get the feeling my playing is going to change radically over the next few weeks, as I have a completely different approach to country guitar playing now... My head has been melted. Imagine what it would have been like if you asked him about his approach to Western Swing or Jazz (which, let's face it, is what he's best at)... I expect my head would be melted completely away...