Talking about gear (107)
Way back when… and I mean way back when, I was working in a guitar shop and it was right about the time that the concept of the Superstrat REALLY took off. It was the early 90’s and affordable guitars that allegedly bridged the gap between a Strat and a Les Paul were just about everywhere.
Every month I opened up Guitarist magazine be treated to the latest advert from companies like Washburn, Jackson, Ibanez, Charvel and countless others stating that the perfect gigging guitar was available to you. People wanted the power and the balls of a Les Paul (remember, this was before high gain amps were readily available, so you had to push a tube amp to get it to clip in that perfect way) and they also wanted the option to get that bitey, cutting through tone of a Strat/Tele.
Every advert contained the words of either “Coil Tap” or “Split Coil” Humbuckers to give you the best of both worlds. The trouble is, none of them were ever convincing, they always did the HB sounds well, but the SC tones were always kinda meh.
One of the things that became evident to me is that those two features became a solid marketing point for guitars, and guitarists appeared to buy into it without ever really knowing what makes a Humbucker sound the way it does, or why a single coil sounds the way it does, and why it’s virtually impossible for any player to get the sound of both convincingly from their guitars. In fact, there are SO many issues involved in this that I think I can safely say it’s not virtually impossible, it is impossible.
Let’s look at what makes these things react the way they do.
This is not a one size fits all description and all the names associated with them are used interchangeably. I won’t go into that, but instead we shall concentrate on the pickup developed by Seth Lover, for Gibson, called the PAF. PAF means “patent applied for” and now appears to be one of the generic names for a HB pickup, the irony of that is delicious! Now, a PAF style pickup has two magnets (sitting with opposite polarity) that are wound individually. As the magnets were of opposite polarity it cancelled out the hum, it bucked it completely, therefor giving the name we enjoy today. The generic Humbucker.
This is probably the most common of all the switching types, using a four wire system from the pickup, the switch completely turns off one of the coils therefor giving you a ‘single coil’. This, in theory, appears to be a ‘pick yourself up and dust yourself down Son, job done” moment but as we all know, the first thing that happens is that you get a drastic drop in level (as well as the return of the hum) and it always sounds kinda disappointing.
This does not just apply to HB style pickups, it can apply to single coil as well. Basically, what this does is offer an alternate ‘out’ point from the winding, cutting out some of the coil therefor reducing the power coming out of the pickup – because the more winds a pickup has, the higher the output it has. This, in practice, and rather obviously, only serves to reduce the output of the pickup and doesn’t offer any effective change tonally.
The best way to distinguish these two is like this.
Coil Split - Removing 'one half' of a double pickup.
Coil Tap – Reducing the output of a pickup.
The real issue when thinking about these, for me, is that I was completely hooked by the concept of “Yay, I can have a strat and a Les Paul, all I have to do is flick a switch” and all I was left with each time was a feeling of disappointment. Even today, my main gig guitar is a PRS Brent Mason signature that has the ability to tap each HB independently. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to a really convincing SC sound out of a HB sized pickup, amazingly, there is no level drop between the two either, the SC is just a ‘loud’ as the HB. I don’t know how they did this, but I like it. However, when I pick up a Strat or a tele that little bit of spank you get from a great SC guitar is just that little bit more prominent, that extra little something that is worth it’s weight in gold.
The most important thing to remember is that tele and Strat pickups are NOT the same. A tele pickup is generally bigger, allow for more winds around a wider coil that a Strat. This increases the output and because the pickup is general mounted on a plate (often brass), giving the whole thing more output, or as I like to call it, balls. This will come from all of the above also gives it a little more high and a little more low end (partly because the pick up is at a slightly more severe angle), so when running into a decent tube amp, it’ll clip quicker giving it the reputation of being a more powerful system. So, any guitar advert that tries to tell you it can do humbucker, and sound like a Strat and a tele is really making an outrageous statement that it probably can’t live up to. Because not only are the pickups are constructed differently enough to cause tonal differences, you then have to take into consider that the neck pickup on a tele is completely different again from the bridge which is then completely different from a neck pickup on a Strat… then you go into the wood within the guitars, the amount of wood, the bridge style and you get more and more distinctions.
Can a guitar ever truly sound like a Les Paul, a Strat and a Telecaster just by flicking a switch?
One of the things I hear the most, and it’s literally almost a daily occurrence, is “why does this pedal eat batteries so much?” or something similar…
Here’s the starting point, in my opinion of course… what we should all remember when thinking about guitar pedals is that, with the current scope of power supplies available to us, from the dirt cheap (ba doom tish) to the really expensive, there is really no real need to still use them… It would appear, on a global scale, we don’t appear to have any kind of system for disposing of used single life batteries right now, although local recycling is present in a lot of the Western World. So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s probably best to try to avoid dumping them in the trash, or maybe we should be walking away from them as much as possible.
Now, before you say it, I will… “But Eric Johnson says…” let’s face it, we are not Eric Johnson… I consider myself to have a pretty good ear for stuff, and I truly cannot tell the difference between a fresh battery, of any kind, and a decent power supply (providing the same amount of power). Obviously, when a battery starts to die, it tends to make certain effects sound slightly different. But the power supply people have already thought of this and many now have variable amounts of output to emulate and reproduce the symptoms of a dying battery, but consistently.
Another thing we hear a lot, a sub question to the original, is “why do pedals appear to drain batteries so much quicker than they used to” well, the answer to that is simple, pedals tend to be considerably more complicated than they used to. Back in the good ol’ days you have a buffered bypass, volume, gain and tone. These days you often have relay switching bypass, 3 band EQ’s, multiple gain stages and so on therefor the simple equation is “the more stuff it has in it, the more it’s gonna drain your battery”.
With a pedal like the Tumnus, and other K styles (if the pedal is done properly) there will be some serious power shenanigans happening inside, it’s taking your 9v and bringing it up to about 25v. So that makes the pedal considerably more thirsty than if it was just taking the 9v… when you look at the Tumnus Deluxe you have the power coming up to about 25v, 3 band EQ, relay based switching, extra gain… so, that’s why it’s rated at 70mA draw which will chew up a regular battery in no time.
Keeping with the Tumnus Deluxe, if you are using a regular Duracell battery, or even an Energizer, they are rated at about 310 mAh (milliamps per hour). So, if you were to put one in a Tumnus Deluxe, it will start to feel the effects of the draw within a couple of hours. If you are lucky, it will drop below the 9v required and start to flash at you before that point, so I would very much doubt you’d get a gig out of a standard 9v battery. An Energizer MAX is rated higher than the Duracell, so you might get 30-45 minutes longer. Still not enough, I would say, to warrant the cost of a single use battery.
There is a simple equation to work out how long your battery will last, it’s not exact as it’s averaged down from the strict parameters…
Battery Life = Battery Capacity in mAh / Load Current in mA x 0.70
So, if your pedal takes 70mA, your battery is classed as 300maH, it will give you about 3 hours of power. At approaching $3 a piece, a power supply will very soon pay for itself and you won’t have to worry about it dying on you mid epic solo!
One thing to remember, if you use a single use battery, and it gets thrown straight into the bin and not recycled, the following heavy metals are within most batteries… Lead, copper, Cadmium, Lithium, Mercury, Zinc, Manganese, Potassium etc… so, we don’t want tons and tons of that stuff being thrown away, it’s not good for us when it breaks down and enters into the water system.
A decent power supply, you know it makes sense!
Which order do you put your delay and reverb pedals? For years and years I was a firm subscriber to the most common way of delay into reverb… once I had started to play in LogicX, you know - just messing around, I was surprised at how different, albeit quite subtly, the order of these two effects can make the final ‘product’. When I’m in full gig mode, and I’m guessing this is the same with you, it’s not really something I think about too much, but in recent times I’ve been running them parallel and really started to notice how cleaner and clearer everything is. Which is quite an achievement when you consider what a noisy bugger the drummer is.
I’m going to approach this quite scientifically, with the exact same guitar line running through the various options… the line is only 36 seconds long, it’s not a song – just some ‘stuff’ with some intentional stabby bits in so you can hear what is happening. I suspect you might get bored of the same line by the time you’ve got to the last example, but stick with it, as it’s the end one that really highlights how important this is.
First of all, here is my clean tone (is that copyright Andy Martin yet??). To make this simple for myself I used the Helix Native plug-in set on a fairly standard clean Deluxe style model running through a 2x12”. All you are hearing is my PRS Brent Mason, single coil mode, pickup position 4, straight in. There is a fraction of compression up front (and of course whatever YouTube applies at the end…), I’ve recorded it at 41k, .wav and crunched it out at 1080p in the hope that the sound is as clear as possible. I would definitely recommend listening to this under headphones or through a decent set of speakers, as your phone speakers will mush it up further.
The compression, amp, delay and reverb settings are unchanged in any of the examples – they are the same throughout.
Here is the delay line. As you can hear, it’s a modulated delay with a few repeats, nothing startling, but it’s intentionally quite overbearing.
Here is the reverb line. It’s quite a large ambient thing, definitely not something I would usually use, but I needed something large!
Here is the delay into the reverb. As you can hear, the reverb sounds bigger as it’s also reverberating the delay repeats as well, this is where things start to get kinda mushy if you really listen to it. – the reverb feels like it is starting to take over, and the end result is that the whole ambient reverb side is overpowering the main playing line.
Here is the reverb into the delay. To my ears, the delay has lost a little edge and is further back in the mix. It sounds more ambient and bigger as the reverb is also taking the delay lines and reverberating them. The modulation on the delay is falling over itself in places… it’s kinda cool, and a little trippy, but it’s even further lost in terms of the original piece of playing.
Here is final one. As you can see from the signal chain path on the video, the delay and reverb are running parallel to each other so they are not feeding into each other in any way. The feel of separation is clear and everything rings out the way it does in the separate videos. Now, this is easy on the Helix as you can drag a separate path for each, but these days there are a lot of products out there that allow you to separate them and, run in parallel, and then put them back together afterwards, for example the EHX Tri-Parallel mixer and the EQD Swiss Thing. Personally, I particularly like the WetterBox from the GigRig for this… it has the options and features to make sure your signal path is flawless.
If you would like to hear it all again, running one after the other, here is a longer video with them all back to back! I’ve put the Parallel one in the middle of this, because it I wanted you to listen again with (what I think is the) best way before it gets mushy.
Like I said, it’s subtle when using normal delay and reverb style (normal for me anyway), but I’ve tried to use delay and reverb sounds that will show the difference it would make in the real world, even if these aren’t the kind of delays and reverbs you would normally use, you can hear what a difference it makes how you stack them – remember though, there is no right or wrong way to do this - you need to try it, explore it, see what works for you and then go in that direction, it might be that you use multiples ways of doing it within your playing!
Well, I had my first EVER refret last week. I’ve never really cared enough about a guitar to get it done… well, either that or I haven’t kept a guitar for long enough and played it hard enough to even think about it. Or maybe, in the case of my favourite PRS, the frets have never been so darn weak as these are… were.
When you hear PRS talk about his guitars, all he cares about is the tone they produce. Everything is picked according to their place in the tonal spectrum… I’m all for that as my guitar is the most lively I’ve ever heard (unplugged as well as plugged in), but it would appear that in part of this trade off, the fret wires they chose for the Brent Mason signature modal are about as strong as a soggy piece of paper.
It all started to go really wrong about 18 months ago when I noticed I was getting a ‘sitar’ effect from my open D string, then about 9 months later it also started to happen on the open A string. Not only were the frets weak (I was at this point worried about the wear on them), it would appear that the nut was as well. So, I made do like a proper Englishman and stuck a small piece of cardboard under the strings in the nut. This not only meant my tuning stability went out the window, but also, some of the attack and brightness I love about my guitar went as well. Once this had become completely out of control I thought “Sod it, I’m going to have to get this fixed.”
Cardboard under the strings to stop 'sitaring"
I contacted an excellent luthier who lives some distance from me, and discussed it with him, told him about the nut and showed him this photo of my current fret wear. We arranged for the long ol’ trip to his workshop, so I put my beloved guitar in the car (as I knew I had a week without gigs) and drove it up to him, which was about 150 miles away. As we discussed the work that needed doing, we came to the conclusion that I needed a shim under the nut (as it would appear the nut wasn’t cut correctly in the first place) and a total refret… I decided to go all in and get stainless steel. The PRS BM model ships with PRS’ version of 6100 jumbo frets, which have always been a little high for me, so I took the leap of faith and went down to the slightly lower 6150s.
6 years of fret wear
The only guitar I’d ever really spent any time on with SS frets was Tom Quayle’s signature Ibanez and I liked the attack of them, the slight zing they provide and maybe some brightness… maybe. So, I thought “why not”. At this point, I put the question out on our FB group “Stainless Steel frets, pros and cons” and quickly got a thread full of “My Suhr has them, they are amazing” and so on, so I was confident I had made the right choice!
When my guitar arrived back with me, I had 1 day to familiarise myself with it before I was due to play an all-day gig. But, as work is mental busy right now, I literally only had the time to make sure the neck was good, all the notes sung out and I could still do some of the ridiculous bends I like to show off with (I bend up to a 4th). Once I had this clear in my mind, my guitar went back in the case and the first time I properly played it was at the gig. I know, crazy, right?
The first thing you notice is that they are SO smooth it’s like there’s almost nothing there, it feels like there is hardly any resistance between your strings and the frets, so bending is MUCH easier. The first song in our set has no guitar solo in it, so I was feeling fine… when my first solo arrived in the second song, I totally over-bent the minor 3rd bend and it was hideous, but as I’ve been doing this for a ‘few’ years, I could quickly adapt and from there on in, my intonation was pretty much on point. I found that the bends were easier and took much less effort, but most surprisingly, vibrating the note at the top of the bend was considerably easier as well (my bent note vibrato isn’t great, so any help is appreciated).
Oh!!! Shiny new Stainless Steel frets for the win!
One of my biggest fears is that my string life is going to reduce somewhat, but it’s a minor worry as I am extremely picky about having new strings for each gig. I just can’t play live unless they are new and slinky to the feel and yes, that does mean I use Ernie Ball strings – after 30 odd years, they just feel right under my fingers. I’ve tried all the others, but always come back to EB regular slinky’s. As those strings are nickel wound, they aren’t the strongest strings on the planet, and going up against the SS frets I expect they won’t last as long… purely due to the fact that nickel frets against nickel strings means that the ‘damage’ caused by playing will be pretty well evenly split between the frets and strings. But, as these are now up against a much harder fret material, they will take the majority of wear and tear. However, every time I do break a string, it’s over the bridge or over the pickups (I tend to play hard when I’m really “in the zone” - lol at myself for saying that) and have never, according to my failing memory, broken a string over the fretboard, so time will tell if this will happen.
Tonally, SS frets appear to make everything a little zingier, maybe a little brighter. Although, to be honest, I don’t know if that’s my head playing tricks on me. As they are bright, shiny and new, does it mean my brain is telling the tone is? To test this I recorded my guitar direct through my sound card, the same line I had recorded a week before (this is how I test effect plug ins) and the difference was negligible, maybe slightly more attack. I’m almost certain to the point of arrogance that once it was going through my pedals and amp, the sound coming out the speakers was not that different. I’ve seen a lot of talk online about the frets being brighter, but I’m not sure I can hear it that much, maybe a little, but certain nothing major. It’s more of an attack thing, and that’s more of a response issue than tonal, I think.
The tech who did the job used the phrase “You’ll never regret it, or have to refret it” which is reassuring as I play really hard when I’m in country mode and that tends to be a lot of what I am doing these days. So I am hopeful that the massive expensive I have laid out will be an investment for life. After spending a lot of the day playing this guitar at an all-day gig on Saturday, I’ve come to the following conclusion about SS frets. If you have a guitar you love and you want a refret, just get them done with the SS frets… it’s almost like your finger strength has been increased!
PROS: considerably longer fret life, bends are much smoother, vibrato is much easier, more responsive to your attack, they never get dull.
CONS: string life (if you are using nickel strings) will be diminished, expensive.
Seems to be a no brainer really!
As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m what’s known as a ‘part time’ gigger, or a semi professional musician, or the type of person who sinks every spare penny into a hobby without any monies coming back in… pretty certain many of you can relate! I’ve been gigging now for about 30 years – including some time as a FOH sound engineer - within a variety of different styles of music. So, I thought I would take this moment to pass on some of the hard-earned knowledge I’ve picked up over the years and present it to you in a three-point checklist to make you sound better when you are playing live. I say hard-earned, because all of this was learned the hard way: by sounding pretty crappy before I sounded good (well, I hope I sound good, that’s what I tell myself anyway).
- Understand your EQ and how it changes with the room and the people in it
When we are sat at home, making our tones, or programming our tones, (or however we do it) we have to understand that the room we are in will sound and react differently to the one we end up playing in. It’s massively likely that this room is smaller, with a lower ceiling, with carpets and curtains, or softer chairs… basically, things that soak the sound up. When you go out into a gig situation, the room may well be different – in fact, I’d go out on a limb here and say that 99.9% of the time it will be the complete opposite. It’s likely to be MUCH bigger, with a higher ceiling and fairly sparse in terms of softer material to soak the sound up. You get what are known as ‘hard reflections’ coming back at you, from the hard floor, the back wall, windows, absolutely everywhere. Remember, sound waves are not transverse waves like the pictures we see of a nice sine pattern, but a longitudinal wave (think of a worm squeezing itself together and stretching out to move forward, rather than a sidewinder snake wiggling it’s way), so the pressure from the speakers is pushing the air in front of it in a certain direction. As the bass wave is longer, it will push further and as bass is omnidirectional, it will go everywhere.
This will result in three things happening. The low end of your tone will travel much further than the highs (this is why when you are outside somewhere with loud music, you hear the bass through the walls – those long waves are almost unstoppable) and the high end could sound very shrill, or sharp. This leaves you in a dichotomy, as it appears you won’t be able to win. You can win, definitely, but you have to play wisely.
A lot of players set their amp EQ to be a nice smiley face, because at home, that’s what sounds best when you are jamming along with a record (do we still say record? Maybe track?) and there will be nowhere else for your sound to go. As soon as you take that tone into a live situation, you will notice that without a suitable amount of mid-range, your tone will mush in with the bass guitar and the top end will pierce the ears of all those who stand before you. If that big ol’ room you are playing in isn’t full to the rafters straight off with people standing/dancing right in front of you, your tone will be lost.
When you do your soundcheck, or line check, or level check (which ever you do), try to remember the space you are occupying with your tone. The low end is not necessary, so you need to drop it somewhat from what you had at home. The mid-range needs to be there as that’s what people hear - the human ear is trained to hear the frequencies of the human voice, so balance it at the point where it sounds full, but not woolly. Be very careful with your high end, it needs to sit right there on the top of the mid-range, but not attack the people at the back of the room like a drunken ninja looking to test their new Katana blade. As the room fills up, you may well be able to add a little more top end to your tone, but it’s unlikely you will need to if you balance it properly in the first instance.
Note – in a larger room, turn your reverb and delay levels down, they will just swamp your tone.
- Watch your ‘gain’ levels – consider stacking rather than using a full-on dirt pedal
When playing at home, it’s kinda hard to get that high-volume response from a gain pedal, or even a gainy amp, at lower sound levels. I fully expect there to be a mathematical or physics-based reasoning for that, but quite frankly there’s no need to go into it (translation – I don’t know). In order to make your guitar respond at lower volumes, you need to increase the ‘gain’ to replicate the feel. As you get louder (if you have even a slightly responsive amp), you will find that you can literally put your gain knob at almost halfway back to where you have it at home to get the same response… the same level of ‘alive’ under your fingers.
If you like higher gain tones for your solos, it would definitely be worth considering two (or if you are silly like me, three – three is heavenly!) lower gain overdrives stacked up together to give you that tone, rather than a separate gain pedal for solos. This is a personal favourite of mine, the reasoning behind it is that your solo tones should ALWAYS be different from your rhythm tones (even the most foot stomping rock has surprisingly low gain in rhythm work) but at the same time, not too different unless the song calls for it, this is YOUR tone after all! The best way to achieve tonal stability in your sound is to take what you already have and add to it with an inherent EQ curve rather than a completely different tone. This is why TS pedals are so popular, as well as K style pedals. The midrange hump that they both provide don’t necessarily add a higher-level of gain to your signal, but boy does it feel like it. The power and response is increased beautifully… if you have a favourite pedal (for example, my current squeeze is the Plexi Drive Standard) and add a K style pedal with unity level, low gain and a higher level of treble/tone, your tone will fatten up and cut through. It’s like putting your amp on 6 instead of 4. If you put a TS with a similar setting between the two, your amp will sound and react like it is now on 8. Very little gain is being applied to the front end, but enough to make your end pedal, the one that creates your tone, ‘dirt up’ hugely… you’ll find that the harmonics and response within your playing will jump out at you as well.
- Play into the spaces, don’t fill every gap you can find
In other words, learn when to shut up! This is the one that comes naturally to me as the first band I was in had two lead/rhythm guitar players, so everything was split pretty well 50/50 and we quickly became aware it sounded boring if we played the same thing. So, we used basic chord inversions to fill out the sound rather than duplicating. We also learned pretty quickly that, in order for the band to sound bigger, one of us had to stop playing at certain times. Because when the one who stopped came back in, the sound became huge. These days, the band I am in only has me on electric guitar, we do have an acoustic strummer type, but also quite often a keys or steel player sits in - and they exist in the same sonic space I do.
When it’s just me, I often will play something to compliment the acoustic player as he just strums on regardless. So, I will use a different inversion of the chord, or an arpeggiated strum line thing at the start of the bar, or maybe a complimentary line with the bass player. When the song hits the chorus, I come in properly and the band sounds bigger. When playing alongside a keys or steel player, I tend to sit back even further, giving them the room to fill those spaces and they do the same so, when we are all in there, the sound (the ‘width’ of the band) increases dramatically.
That phrase is the key to this – “leave the spaces clear”. Consider your band sound to be like taking a road trip in a car. If you have four people in the car it’s comfy and you all have the room to do what you want to do, if you put a fifth person in the car with you, space is limited so you all adjust to the situation. It’s the same with the band, as soon as someone is in there and occupying the same space as you are, you HAVE to adjust what you are doing, or it will feel very crowded very quickly.
So, there are three small hints for you to take to your next gig, rehearsal, get together etc. Just remember, you don’t need all that gain, you probably don’t need all that low end and don’t be afraid to shut up now and then to increase the dynamics of the band you are in!!
Some sneaky geeky tips:
- When setting up your PA and the room is boxy, or you are on the stage, consider putting the PA speakers on the floor rather than the stage. Or if they are on the stage, try to get the top cabs slightly pointing downwards. If they are too far above the heads of the people who are in the audience, the sound will fly straight to the back wall and back towards you, and so your nightmare begins!
- Try to never put your PA speaker against a wall. If it is flush with a wall, the bass end from that speaker could be increased by up to 6db.
- If you put your amp on the floor and you not on a stage, your amp is playing to your legs and you’ll have to have it much louder for you to be heard. If the room is emptier than you’d prefer, by the time your sound hits the back of the room, you are likely to be considerably louder than the band.
- If you are using a 2x12” cab for your guitar, also consider bringing your cab up off the floor. The bass response from the floor makes a difference as per above, and if you have the cab up off the floor, you can lift your sound up away from people’s legs. Dependent on the room and whether or not I’m mic’d up, I sometimes have my 2x12” running horizontally as it fills my part of the stage up perfectly. If I am not mic’d up, I will run it vertically (with the best sounding speaker at the top) so the sound flies around the head height of people, as rumour has it that is the place where you hear stuff best!!
- Here’s something that may well blow your mind a little, where you place your P.A. bass bins and your top boxes could mean they are out of synch. If your top box is on a pole that sits in the bass bin, your sound will hit the audience at the same time. If your top box is on a tripod and the bass bin is sitting in front of it (so about a yard in front) your bass frequencies will hit your audience about 3ms before your top end. If your top box is on a tripod on the stage and the bass bins are on the floor in front of the stage (about 2 yards in front), the bass will hit the audience about 6ms before. It may not seem like much, but once you know this, you KNOW it!
If you are anything like me, for the longest time you treated compression as a big ‘meh’ and didn’t understand why virtually all guitar players need it. Yes, I did say that, virtually all guitar players need it. I thought that compression was something country and funk players used, so I thought I didn’t need one when I was younger… this all changed when I got a BOSS BE-5 that had a compressor in it (a CS-2 I think) and I thought it’s only job was to fill some of the holes within my sloppy solo playing. I couldn’t be more wrong, I couldn’t have been using it more incorrectly if I tried. But, it lit a little fire in me to discover what compression was really for, in terms of guitar tone and how, when used with a degree of subtlety, it was the most important pedal to own.
Compression probably IS the most valuable item in your toolbox and one that should be used appropriately. By appropriately, I mean almost all of the time, but in the right way. However, the true key is working out what ‘appropriately’ is…. to truly understand what compression is, you first need to understand all the different elements of compression. More importantly, what they do and how they work together.
The initial logic of compression is to reduce the audible distance between the quieter parts of your playing and the louder. It will make all aspects of your playing heard, the softer will come up and the louder will be reduced. You could say it’s limiting the dynamics of your playing. A great example is when you are watching TV and the person whispering will be loudest thing you can hear… it’s been compressed so you can hear it. Transfer that to your playing - you still want your softer parts heard clearly, you don’t want them to disappear in behind everything else but also, you don’t want your loudest moments overtaking everything. Reducing the amount of space between the softest elements of your playing and the loudest will make your tone more user friendly to just about everyone.
Let’s look at some of the more common parts of a regular guitar-based compressor to understand what each control does.
This is the point at which the compressor activates. So, until you hit the desired level, the compressor will be dormant. The higher the threshold, the longer it takes to kick in. The lower the threshold, the quicker the compressor activates
This is the amount of time the pedal will take to fully compress the signal. The faster the attack, the quicker the compression. This often causes confusion as a lot of compressors attack faster when the knob is CCW and slower at CW. So, the more attack is when this control is turned down! The classic sound for this is country, that instantly recognisable vintage country squish comes from a fast attack, with the more modern style of country being much slower.
The opposite of attack. The longer it takes the note to be released back to its uncompressed state. So, if you are looking to sustain your notes, the release is what you need to tweak to bring the level of those notes up. Release usually happens anywhere from about 50ms up to several seconds, depending on the unit… this has to be treated with respect though, as this is the knob that will quickly send you into feedback – which at times can be great, but at others, can be horrible.
Quite often this is missing on a regular guitar compressor, it has been defined by the engineer at design stage at the optimum place for guitar. However, on more comprehensive pedals it will be there. The ratio is the mathematical aspect of the compression… 1:1 is no compression, 2:1 is when it goes over 2db over the threshold limit the compressor brings it back to one over the limit of 1db – for 10db it brings it back to 5db and so on. When considering the ratio the simple guide is that the higher the first number, the more compression will be added.
3:1 is light compression, 5:1 is medium, 10:1 is getting strong and 20:1 is getting severe. You can get ∞:1 (infinity) which would be ‘limiting’, the hardest compression you can get – a hard shelf of “none shall pass”.
The knee is the shape of the compression and it’s called the knee in order to give you a visual representation of what is happening. A hard knee will be like a leg that is fully bent, as the signal hits the compression level it cuts it off almost at a right angle, the attack is instant and you really hear and feel it. A soft knee will place a curve in there so, as it approaches the limit, it will start to attenuate and level out – looking more like a knee half bent. If the knee is soft enough, you will hardly feel or hear it, until it is turned off.
How to use a modern compressor pedal
A lot of people have tried compressors before and not liked them. Quite often it is because they tried one of the standard basic units that don’t have a lot of control to the finer aspects, or the all-important blend control. Something with a basic “attack” and “release/sustain” setting will often be frustrating and anything but musical. A lot of older compression units also coloured the tone as well (they had a tone of their own) which was delicious if you liked it, but horrendous if you didn’t. Let’s face it, when you are considering a compressor you probably have your tone pretty well thought out… from the strings and pickups on the guitar, the guitar itself, the pedals, the cables, the amp, the speakers, the speaker cab… you like it and more often than not, you don’t want to change it all by adding one pedal. This is where modern compressors come in as they are - and yes, here it comes - they are transparent. They don’t colour your signal, they don’t change your tone, they just compress. It’s my opinion, and we all know what they are worth, but a perfectly compressed guitar signal is one you don’t know is compressed until you turn the compressor off and everything just disappears.
One of the most important aspects of modern compression is something I mentioned above, the blend control. The blend is what is also known as parallel compression – a favourite of the studio engineer. If you have a blend control on your compressor, there will be two, obvious, sonic reference points. 100% compression path and 100% non-compressed path. Straight up the middle will give you 50% compressed and 50% dry. As most compression is heard at the point of attack, you bleed in the blend to reduce that, that feel of your note being compressed. Once that balance of blend is set, the initial squish of the compressed signal is not really heard. You can still feel it, but the rest of the note duration is compressed. You get more sustain, more control, more stability, but without that hard first hit… as the natural signal dies out, the compressed signal overtakes giving you a fatter, longer lasting and fuller tone.
Once you have balanced your compression, you then have the whole “where do I put it in the chain” dilemma. Most people put it up front, so by the time your signal hits your gain stages everything is on the level. This is usually the case when the player is leaning on the heavier side of compression. A lot of players like it after gain stages, this is very handy when using it as an effect rather than as a regulator. Kicking in a subtle amount of compression after your gain stages makes everything fatter and wider, it almost feels like you are going into a cooking tube amp when you are not… the down side of this, obviously, is that any floor noise from your dirt pedals will then hit the compressor and be brought up, this can make your rig much noisier and harder to control. Also, the higher amount of gain (clipping) in your path will add compression as well, so a compressor might not be so obvious a requirement for heavier players (although it’s great for making your chuggachugga sound more CHUGGACHUGGA).
And don’t get me started on multiband compression… you can choose which part of the frequency you want to compress… it could be the lows, the highs, the high mids… absolutely everywhere. This is the reason I want 5 compressors in my rig. But that’s just excessive. Or is it?
Being a confirmed gear head has its down sides, you often have to traverse through the nine levels of Hell to realize your perfect rig… or, as we know it, the nine levels of G.A.S.
- You are shopping online, your offer has been accepted, you transferred the money at least 2 minutes ago and you are sitting there, in a cold sweat, absolutely terrified, waiting for the shipping notification to arrive in your inbox.
You are in G.A.S. Limbo.
- So, you have a great new pedal… it’s everything you could ever want. Well, it is today anyway. You go to bed the happiest you have been since the last pedal. Tomorrow you wake up, and during your morning ablutions you open up your phone and someone will talk about something else and it all starts again, nothing else matters, you have to have it.
You are in a state of G.A.S. Lust.
- Already got 10 gain pedals, 6 delays, 4 reverbs, 3 chorus’, 9 amps, a partridge in a pear tree and 96 fuzzes? Someone drops a GE Fuzz with cool graphics and you have to have it, you don’t care that your friends are all saying “another one?” at you continually.
You are in a state of G.A.S. Gluttony.
- Your favourite store sends out a catalogue, you sit there like an overexcited child on the run up to Christmas working out their ideal present list. You want that. And that, and this and that and this and that and that and that and that.
You have achieved the advanced state of G.A.S. Greed.
- You are flipping gear, you need to raise a certain amount to get the latest toy… you receive an offer… you open it and scream “You offered me HOW MUCH??” This level of G.A.S. is dedicated to the constant reverb low baller. The kind of person that makes you want to reach through the screen of your phone and stick their low ball offer right where the ball ends of their strings go.
Welcome to G.A.S. Anger.
- “Jimi didn’t need no true bypass”… or “If it’s good enuf for Keef”.
You are witness to G.A.S. Heresy.
- No matter what your best friend from school tells you when you’ve had a ‘couple of beers’ on a Friday evening, you cannot relic that Strat yourself to make it look like Stevie’s. He just wants to witness you trash your gear.
You are being being encouraged to perform G.A.S. Violence, by proxy.
- Ever looked at the price of original Klon’s for sale on Reverb? How about Dumble Amps? Have you ever opened up a listing for a ’59 les Paul, or a ’52 Telecaster or absolutely anything pertaining to be new music from Jimi Hendrix?
This is G.A.S. Fraud.
- You walk into a store… you see a guitar that you love… I mean, you really love it, it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen… you take a picture of it as you just can’t afford it right now as your car needs work and the kids might want some food this week. You make the mistake of posting it on social media, bemoaning your lost love and one of your friends buys it. They offer to let you play it. The may even offer to lend it to you.
Make no mistake, this is the worst of all the 9 levels of G.A.S. The very bottom of the sulphurous pit of tone chasing... You have been royally shafted by G.A.S. Treachery. They are no friend of yours and probably already want to sleep with your significant other and will without doubt never return anything you loan them. Cut this person out of your life as soon as possible.
Let’s face it, we’ve all used them before and I imagine that like me you’ve got them confused or not really understand what makes each different. As I started playing properly in the 80’s each of these pedals carry HUGE memories for me and I’ll always have a love/hate relationship with each.
Before we go any further, let’s put on the (my level of) nerd goggles and dig into what separates them. They all come into the family of “modulation”, because… well, they all modulate the signal! Yeah, that doesn’t help much does it… Usually, this means that the signal is in some way split, the something happens to one of the signals and then it is laid back on top of the original one. This creates movement, modulation, and if you go too far, chronic seasickness.
As your signal goes into the pedal, it is instantly split into two. One of those has its phase shifted and then they are laid on top of each other before exiting the pedal. Because you have two opposite phases of the same note sitting within each other, a notch is created where they cancel each other out and then these notches are swept along a range of the frequency band. This where you get that wonderful sweeping ripple.
Name: Phaser Splitter… “Phaser”
Here is my favourite example of a phaser (totally obvious!)
A Flanger is not too dissimilar to a Phaser, but can be much wetter sounding. A flanger happens when the signal is split into 2, one is delayed and then put back on top of the other. The most audibably pleasing Flangers are running at somewhere under 15ms delay, but the rate control changes that. The effect of the flanger going swoooosh is where the delayed signal then has the delay time varied in a constant cycle, up and down.
Name: Legend has it that a producer was running two identical copies of audio and pressed against the flange of the reel to slow one down slightly to make it run ever so slightly out of time… “Flanger”. This is hotly disputed though as George Martin has said that the phrase comes from Lennon during the recording of the Revolver album, Lennon was enquiring about “artificial double tracking” and Martin answered with a nonsense “Now listen, it's very simple. We take the original image and we split it through a double vibrocated sploshing flange with double negative feedback”. Lennon thought he was joking and Martin responded with “Well, let’s flange it again and see”… Lennon went on to call it “Ken’s Flanger” after Abbey Road engineer Ken Townsend performed the process of copying the vocal line and slightly delaying it. The concept was later expanded into stereo and was first credited to Eddie Kramer during the recording of Axis Bold As Love by Hendrix in 1967.
My favourite flanger example
The one that was TOTALLY overused in the 80’s, hence my love/hate relationship with it. Like the flanger, the signal is split, slightly detuned and then delayed, and put back on top The main difference is that the delay used to create the chorus is somewhat longer, usually between 20-50ms . Chorus was first given to us, the guitar community, in the mid 70’s within the legendary Roland JC120 amp. The Chorus element of this amp was then released as a stand alone unit as the BOSS CE-1. To this day, this is, to many people the ultimate chorus pedal. Personally, I love it, but the best one I’ve ever heard was in a Roland RE-501. Although, it does have to be said, I’ve not physically heard one for well over 20 years, I just remember it being the fattest and most lush chorus I’ve ever heard!
Name: Imagine two large vocal choirs singing as close they can get, you could call it a chorus of vocals… put them wide apart, stand in the middle and because it’s almost impossible to singer perfectly on key and at the same time, when they are separated it provides the chorus effect.
One of the best uses of chorus I hear is when the rate is set really low and it’s in stereo. You don’t get the movement but you get the width. Brian May live was the best I’d heard this used, it was so massive I can’t describe it.
Here is my favourite example of regular Chorus
A dimension chorus differs in that it creates two clones of the original signal, both are delayed and then one is flipped 180-degress and then laid back on top. This gives a much bigger effect.. the most interesting thing for me is that the Dimension C pedal gives you four options, which just changed the regular controls… was this the first boss with presets?
My favourite example of Dimension Chorus (once again, totally obvious!)
It’s well worth noting the difference between vibrato and tremolo. Because, well, I don’t know why, in the early days Fender appeared to get these two names the wrong way round, a lot of effect pedals are still incorrectly named. Vibrato changes the pitch of the signal, tremolo dips the volume up and down! One modulates the pitch, one modulates the volume… So, your trem bar, it’s actually a vibrato bar. Or to give it the correct name, the whammy bar!
Following on from Brian’s video about wattage/power/dB, I thought I’d share something that has happened to me recently that has confused me considerably, until I quizzed Brian about it in regard to the video (released 26th Feb 2019, you can see it below).
Like I’m guessing some of you, I’ve been blissfully ignorant of almost everything to do with the whole power thing until that video, it wasn’t a conscious ignorance, but one that I’d never really thought about before, and the question came extremely pertinent once I’d started messing around with digital control of effects.
For the band (we have no sound guy) I run a clean boost at the end of my chain so I can make sure my solos are lifted above the general mix of the band. When I was using a regular pedal booster, I found I had to find the sweet spot that boosted the solos manually, which meant I often had to change it according to my tone. What I found was that my clean solos weren’t as prominent as my dirty ones. I had no idea why, I just thought it was one of those things. It wasn’t much of a turn of the knob, but enough to warrant it…. Once I started using something that was digital I noticed that the actual increase was huge depending on what effects I was using.
Before I go into it properly, here is a run down of my tone and how it is made. I don’t run my rig bass heavy, and it’s not overtly bright, but it’s definitely not the same as when I play at home. This is obvious, because at home you are hearing everything in a sterile environment and you want to enjoy the full scope. When you are live, you need to leave room for the others in the band… so, I don’t encroach on the bass player and I also like to leave room for the acoustic guitar to shine through, so my place is pretty well in the middle and the amp is set as such. My clean tone is never totally clean, a Tumnus at 9 oclock gain and treble at 12 is the best way to describe it with unity level. My main OD is the Pantheon, set at a nice break up – 18v, lowest gain setting with the gain at around 2 oclock… bass and treble are both about 10 oclock, presence all the way off. When I want more grunt for it, the K style drives the Pantheon and it is quite gainy. This is also my main dirt solo tone… when we do the rocky stuff, the Pantheon/Tumnus is the rhythm tone and I bung a TS between them, set at higher output than gain, with a little tone control boost. My rhythm sounds are all pretty unity, none are ‘louder’ to the ears than the others.
Here is the issue, when I wanted to boost the solos for the dirtiest tones, I need just under 3dB to get to the level. About 5dB for when the TS isn’t on, and upto 10db when it’s clean. And yes, this confused the living daylights out of me!
Here is what is happening… and how it also ties in with bDub’s video about power/wattage/dB.
Everything is relative to the EQ of what you are hearing.
When I am boosting the clean tone, it’s about as full range as I can get. There is a slight 1k hump due to the K style pedal being bought in, but it’s not huge. So, when I am boosting that signal, my ears (that are tuned to hear human speech – between 1k and 5k) say I need a lot more power because it’s also boosting the lower frequencies a lot, as you know, bass takes a lot of power, so it’s needing a lot more literal volume to boost it to the level my ears are telling me is an acceptable volume. When the Pantheon and the K style are on, the mids are more focused due to both the circuits being on, so my ears are picking up on the frequencies more as the bass is kinda removed, so it needs less. When I have the TS on as well, that’s three circuits that are pushing the frequencies my ears already picks up on, so it needs even less.
All this for the same physical level of sound, according to my ears.
Once you put this in with the points bDub was making in the video, the physical level of sound cannot directly be related to either the wattage the amp is claimed to sit at (in my case either a Fender BDri or Quilter 101R (on the smaller gigs where I can’t get the amp to it’s sweetest spot), or the dB coming out, or change of dB within the chain. Because EQ and headroom change everything completely. Before you are even hitting the amp, the levels are all over the place so the output of the amp, in terms of actual volume, are going to be wildly different…. And I didn’t even mention that on the clean stuff the pickups on my Brent Mason PRS are tapped for single coil sound and the dirty stuff is often on HB… as the HB ones need about 1dB less of boost, despite to the ears there being NO level drop between the two (one of the main selling points of the PRS BM model).
When scrolling through social media - especially gear groups - you tend to see a lot of the same misnomers and inaccurately assigned labels put on things… One of the most common is the “transparent” overdrive. I mean, how many times have you seen a K style pedal called Transparent? Quite a few I expect. It’s right up there with people saying “I need a clean boost” and someone saying “tubescreamer”.
Firstly, what is a transparent overdrive? Well, it’s one that doesn’t fundamentally change the EQ of whatever is coming into it. So, all that happens is that the pedal/circuit clips the signal, sending it to overdrive and then comes out again. These kinds of pedals are actually EXTREMELY rare as all the fun is in the EQ stack and when you start putting multiple EQ stacks into circuits, that’s when the fun really starts! bDub made a video last week that was discussing this, so I thought I would expand on it further, concentrating on the most famous transparent OD of them all – Paul Cochrane’s “Timmy”.
The Tummy has very little in the way of EQ colouration so what you put it just comes out, but clipped (on certain settings)… but before I jump head first into that rabbit hole, here is some basic information about how EQ is handled and how it is performed on most dirt pedals. Like a LOT of pedals the Timmy tone controls is not active, but passive, so it doesn’t add anything it only takes it away – think of it this way – a basic treble control is a LPF (low pass filter) that is wired backwards. It restricts the amount of bass coming through - it does NOT add treble. So, when the knob is all the way round clockwise, the treble isn’t being added, bass is being taken out. The more you bring it counter clockwise, the more bass is taken out giving the impression that there is treble being added. This is obviously different from a lot of the tone stacks that bDub puts in his pedals (which are 100% active EQ’s) so in those when the control is theoretically at noon there is nothing changed, but take the relevant frequencies away when turned counter clockwise, and then added when turned the other way. Worth noting, the bass control on the Timmy is active, but only adds bass – this is integral to the circuit and the style of clipping, and is quite similarly handled in the Euphoria pedal.
One of the things I’ve ALWAYS loved about the Timmy is that the tone pot is actually wired the correct way, so everything appears to be backwards for people who are used to other pedals. When you have the treble control all the way “off” (counter clockwise), all the treble is still in the circuit, when it is “on” (clockwise), the treble is taken out - so it’s working in the correct way… if you look at it from a nerdy perspective. This means that if you have the gain on the Timmy ALL the way down and the tone and bass control all the way up, you are hearing what I think is the most transparent overdrive currently available. Of course, as it’s going through ‘stuff’ before it gets there, and inside it, and what comes after, it will never be truly transparent but I think it’s the closest you can get, and most people won’t be able to hear any EQ difference in it – the pedal in this state is basically acting as if it were a buffer within minimal difference to anything else. The active bass control is also round the other way as well, so when the pot is all the way counter clockwise, you are getting maximum bass, and none added when it is all the clockwise.
To show this literally, we’ve made a few graphs to demonstrate it visually. Please bear in mind that these graphs start at about 50hz and go all the way up to the 10kHz, most guitar rigs won’t go lower or higher than this, so we’ve removed what happens above and below.
Here is the Timmy at its flattest, so that’s gain off and bass and tone all the way round clockwise. As you can see, that is what we would call over here in England as ‘flat as a pancake’, with a slight roll off at the very top end.
From here, we’ll change the EQ and gain controls to show what is happening in terms of the cut…
Gain 50%, Bass 0%, Tone 0%.
Gain 50%, Bass 0%, Tone 50%
Gain 50%, Bass 50%, Tone 50%
Gain 50%, Bass 0%, Tone 100%
Gain 100%, Bass 0%, Tone 0%.
Gain 100%, Bass 50%, Tone 0%.
Gain 100%, Bass 100%, Tone 0%
Gain 100%, Bass 50%, Tone 100%
Gain 100%, Bass 100%, Tone 100%
To round this up, I want to quickly remind everyone why a lot of us industry types scoff so much when TS and K style circuits are called transparent… the whole point of them is that they add a mid boost, which is what makes them push tube amps so well… the TS has its main peak at around 723hz and the K at 1k. They are anything but transparent!