X Ambassadors Rig_Updated

Inevitably its been quite a while since I've posted in this thread. It seems my efforts to maintain somewhat of a web presence inescapably cycle into lengthy periods of radio silence. Nevertheless, there have been significant changes in my touring rig with XA since I last posted and I feel now would be as good a time as any to make note of them here. 

                                                                                                                                                             Photo: RJ Garcia (@rjgxx)

                                                                                                                                                             Photo: RJ Garcia (@rjgxx)

Principally, I've switched over to using a Kemper rig in lieu of conventional amp(s). This has had the enormous impact in reducing stage volume. In turn, the ability to better isolate individual musical elements on stage has increased and I think we're unanimously (both performers and crew) happier for it. Sometimes I feel bad for folks standing side-stage during our set as festivals. I'm sure they expect a great vantage point for the show, both visually and aurally, when in reality the only thing they're able to hear is the live drums. Though using the Kemper might come at the cost of some level of excitement on stage the benefit it provides in the area of consistency from show to show is invaluable. The quality and reliability of rental backline from city to city is highly variable and had proved a real source of stress; it became a no-brainer to give an amp simulator a shot. I had considered running amp sims via MainStage but the liability of having another computer/interface on stage just didn't seem worth it. Among hardware amp simulators the tangibility of the Kemper units coupled with what, to my ears, were extremely accurate sonics set it apart. 

I'll admit that sorting through the Kemper online library is a bit tedious. The vast majority of user created profiles are rubbish. I blame that, not on taste per say, but rather the fact that I don't think most people know what they're doing when miking a guitar amp. For those unfamiliar with how the profiling process works with a unit like a Kemper I suggest you check out this short, overly-dramatic video on how the job is done. 

There are a lot of touring guitar players who opt to utilize the Kemper as a replacement for not only their amps on stage but also their pedalboards. Though I'm sure that works well for some in my experimentation I found I make too many pedal changes in the set for that to be practical. The setup I arrived on is somewhat of a hybrid wherein I'm still using my drive oriented stompboxes but relaying on the internal Kemper "effects loop" for reverb, delay and most modulation effects. One of the biggest difficulties in using stereo amps, as I had previously, was balancing them. Before switching to the Kemper I would have one Twin positioned behind me (stage right) and the second would be behind Casey (stage left) with an ever-so-slight CE-1 emulated chorus effect (via a 'Tone Print' loaded TC Electronic Gravy stompbox) going on between them. This setup, with one amp on either side of the stage became necessity because otherwise, with both amps directly behind me, it was nearly impossible for Jon (our FOH engineer) to balance the guitar sound in the room, particularly in smaller venues. Additionally, though the seal on my in-ear monitors is excellent it was always difficult for me to set levels with one amp behind me an another 25' away. Having a uniform, perfectly balanced, stereo image in my ears with the Kemper has been a welcomed experience. On top of that, it had only been the chorus pedal at the end of my pedal chain running in stereo previously. Now, having the majority of my delays and reverbs going in stereo via the Kemper has been a total game changer. Furthermore, having the ability to get under the hood and EQ said effects on the unit has helped to clean up the overall mix of the band in a huge way, both in my ears and at FOH. Something as simple as being able to high-pass time-based effects has had a gigantic impact on the clarity of my guitar sound. Side note: more pedal manufactures need to produce reverb and delay pedals with high-pass filters. 

As far a guitars are concerned my '16 SG has remained my main instrument on stage. That said, since my last post I've experimented fairly heavily with different pickups, ultimately arriving on a set of Seymour Duncan 59's. The original bridge pickup, in particular, I found lackluster and far too low in output to be entirely functional. One other change I've made is removing a tone control such that I now just have one master tone. I very rarely touch a tone control with perhaps the one exception of occasionally rolling tone off when I play slide; I certainly don't ever need more than one. I had also been experiencing issues with my patch cable sliding out of the jack because of the awkward angle it was sitting in when I ran it under my strap. Removing a pot allowed me to move the output jack of the guitar to the now vacant 'treble tone' hole and in turn alleviate the issue with the cable occasionally coming out. 

The newer additions to the fold are a a '06 Explorer, a D'Angelico Deluxe DC semi-hollow and a D'Angelico EX-63 archtop acoustic. Each of those three I've been using for specific tunes in the set: the Explorer for 'Love Songs Drug Songs' and 'Loveless', the semi-hollow on 'Hoping' and 'Gorgeous' and the archtop for the latest single, 'Ahead of Myself'. The Explorer is stock with the exception of a Bigsby and roller bridge set similar to my SG and a pair of Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates humbuckers. I found the stock ceramic pickups to be way too hot for the existing gain structure of my rig. The Pearly Gates pickups are great because they're slightly hotter than the 59's but not so hot that they're unruly. Conveniently enough the D'Angelico DC came stock with 59's in it. Beyond the general playability of the guitar my favorite thing has been the 6-way toggle switch that D'Angelico has developed. Instead of more conventional methods of coil-tapping (push-pull knobs or independent switches per pickup) this toggle looks like an unassuming Gibson-style three-way but in actuality has two-tiers of 3 positions: one for humbucker timbres and one for single-coil sounds. I have no idea why nobody thought of this system earlier but it renders all other systems of pickups selecting inferior, in my humble opinion. I'm also a big fan of the "Midnight Matte" finish of the DC which gives the neck a feeling similar to that of a sanded neck. 

As I eluded to, my drive pedals have largely remained unchanged though their arrangement has changed slightly. In moving things around I chose to move my tuner a lot closer to me. I check my tuning probably a dozen times during the set and having the tuner in the far right corner of the board wasn't making my life any easier. You can see in the photo below that my Seymour Duncan Vapor Trails is the only time-based effects pedal that remains on the board. For other delays and reverbs I'm relaying entirely on the Kemper. My 'Main' Kemper profile is a best Fender Twin Reverb profile I could find (and I went through a lot of them). The channel titled 'Lead' below is essentially just a gained-up iteration of the same patch. I use that patch only for my solos in "Gorgeous" and "Renegades", at which point I disengage whatever other pedals I might have going on and that patch has 'analogue' delay and EQ pre programmed; all I have to do it hit that one switch. The 'AC15' patch is my Vox profile just for "Torches" at the moment. It's a bit grittier by itself than my 'Main' profile is and it has the tremolo for that song built into the it. The time for the trem is written in milliseconds so that I don't have to remember to tap. For most other songs, while using my 'Main' patch, I'll tap out the tempo at the top of the tune. 'Slap' is a 90ms (I believe) slapback that I use for 'Low Life' and 'Gorgeous' that I had previously been doing with my Eventide Space unit. As you might suspect 'd 1/8' is a dotted-8th delay; it's in mono. 'Complex' is my most used Kemper effect and is a "gallop" delay a la The Edge, with dotted-8th on one side and quarter-note delay on the other. I use this in pretty much every song, every night. 'Pad VRB' is a high diffusion reverb meant to substitute for my Old Blood Noise Endeavors Dark Star "pad reverb". It's not quite as vibey as that most excellent pedal is but it does have a leg up on the pedal in that it's in stereo. I use this effect in a few places in the set, most notably the throughout "Unconsolable".

Two additions to the board worth noting are a basic Boss EQ and the Radial SGI system that I'm using to get upstage to the Kemper. The graphic EQ I'm only using as a slight boost for one solo passage after the first chorus in "Hoping". I found that I just needed a little lift there so 400hz, 800hz and the overall output control of the pedal are just a hair above unity for that one part. I tried using a compressor there, I tried using a low-gain overdrive; nothing was doing the trick. It was actually working with Tom Morello and seeing that he used a Boss EQ as a boost that inspired me to give it a shot. Sure enough, it was exactly what I need. 

The Radial SGI is a system that I had used several times in studio applications and thought I would give it a go in a live situation. Basically, there are two boxes: one send box and one receive. The send box is powered and connects via 1/4" to the output of your pedals. The receive box is passive lives at your amp (in this case, my Kemper) and also connects via 1/4". However, between the two boxes you run XLR which allows you to run much, much longer cable lengths without signal lose than one would using a traditional 1/4" cable. Typically noticeable guitar signal degradation (while using passive pickups) begins around 15-18'; with these Radial units you can run as much as 300' of XLR without much lose. 1/4" patch cables are unbalanced, XLR is balanced. 

All for now.

X Ambassadors Rig

Somehow it's been almost a year since I last posted here. I seriously need to stay more on top of this. Anyhow, for the geeks out there who might be interested to know exactly what I use on stage with X Ambassadors I figured I'd dish. 

Photo: Lauren Kallen

Guitars

As far as guitars go I mostly play Gibson SG Standards with the exception of the Fender Elite Telecaster that I have with me when we have the luxury of touring with the bus and the rest of our equipment. It was my '03 SG (pictured above at Lollapalooza last weekend) that I started using when I initially came on with the band and I've found that it's the sound of that guitar that really suits most of the band's material. If I have to have just one guitar with me it's gonna be that one. It's got a fat sound that's still able to cut through the mix when I need it too and I find it feeds-back in a very musical way. For a while I would play the SG for the entire set with the exception of "Low Life", which requires having a whammy during the verses. For that song I would pick up a Strat but I grew frustrated with the fact that the output of the Strat's single coils didn't hit my pedals and the front-end of the amplifier with the same oomph as the SG's humbuckers. The sound was thin and I ultimately opted to add a Bigsby system (via a Vibramate plate) to the SG so I didn't ever have to switch. Other than the Bisby the '03 is totally stock. 

If you're thinking about adding a Bigsby to one of your guitars I would encourage you to look into using a Vibramate in lieu of drilling new holes in the body; I now swear by them. Mark Davis at First Strike Custom down in Florida is the man to turn to for guitar hardware and whom I've been sourcing parts from lately. Nobody knows tuning machines, bridges, tremolo assemblies and the like better than he does. It was Mark who convinced me to add a bridge with roller saddles when putting the Bisby on the guitar and I think it allows me to stay more in-tune and keeps me from breaking strings on stage. I'm pretty anal about tuning and consequently always hard-tailed my guitars with tremolo systems. The roller bridge allows me to just focus on playing and I've been super happy with having the Bigsby as a new tool on stage. 

My backup SG, and the one I use for fly dates (which has been the majority of the shoes we've done in the past couple months), has been a '16 SG Standard Traditional (none of that automatic tuner BS). My '03 SG has too much sentimental value to me and I've seen what TSA can do to instruments. I had been flying with just my Tele but was missing the feel of an SG. I called Sweetwater while we were on the West Coast in the spring and had them overnight me a new one right before we did BottleRock and Sasquatch festivals. I figured I might as well have a spare anyway and I didn't feel like troubling anyone back in NY to pack up and ship me my older one. In hindsight I should have just stuck with the Tele for the time being or searched Craigslist for an SG from the early 2000s because the feel of the '16 is nothing like my '03. The neck profiles are pretty different and the timbres aren't exactly the same. Additionally, I probably won't be buying another new Gibson anytime soon because I'm now convinced that their quality control has totally gone down the drain. In a matter of days the plastic truss-rod cover cracked, one of the tuning machines started to slip and I found the output of the pickups to be pretty uneven. I debated with the idea of sending it back to Sweetwater (who has amazing customer service) but ultimately decided to just roll with it. I appointed the guitar with the same Vibramate, Bigsby and roller-bridge as the '03 and I also swapped out the wonky stock tuners for Kluson Revolution locking tuning machines, which have a really great feel and a 19:1 ratio. Both SG's are strung with standard D'Addario EXL115 (11-49) and I try to get two or three wraps around the tuning machines for each string when putting them on; more contact = more sustain/resonance by my logic. 

The '15 Elite Tele I have is light-years better than other Tele's I've owned (and I've owned a few). I really like the S1 switching that Fender has incorporated in the design, which allows you to run the two pickups in parallel or series when in the middle position of the pickup selector. Via said switch (on the volume pot) you can dial in more traditional Tele sounds as well as humbucker-like tones. Other Tele's I've owned have always felt primitive and clunky to me but I appreciate the contemporary appointments on this guitar and the Strat-like body cut helps make it feel more like an extension of myself rather than just a cumbersome plank of wood (as other Tele's often do in my hands). I string this guitar with DR Tite-Fit 10's (10-46); for some reason they just feel slinkier (in a good way) to me than D'Addario 10's or 11's with the longer scale-length. As a note: I was always pretty skeptical of noiseless pickups but the new generation of noiseless that Fender has developed are killer; I don't feel like any character is lost. I'm also a fan of the bound bodies and the redesigned truss-rod adjustment point. Please just put me out of my misery if I have to take the neck off another older Fender to tweak the truss-rod. 

 

Pedals, Pedalboard and Amp

Current signal chain...

Boss TU-2 tuner > Walrus Audio Voyager Preamp > MXR Sub Machine Fuzz > Walrus Audio Contraband Fuzz > Big Ear NYC Woodcutter Distortion > Fulltone OCD Overdrive > Earthquaker Devices Palisades Overdrive > Boss DD-6 Delay > Dunlop Wah > Boss FV-500H Volume Pedal > Eventide SPACE Reverb > Electro-Harmonix Soul Food > Seymour Duncan Vapor Trail Analog Delay > T-Rex Tonebug Phaser > Old Blood Noise Endeavors Black Star Pad Reverb 

Photo: Anna Lee Media

The board itself is a standard PedalTrain Pro but kept in a custom flight case made by Encore A&S out in California. They also made my SG flight case. Both are much lighter, and considerably more durable, than the standard cases for both items. The board is powered by two VooDoo Labs Pedal Power 2 units which are mounted to the underside of the board. When you have that many pedals going I feel like having isolated circuits for them individually is the way to go over the On-Spot daisy-chain style power supply. 

All my pedals are taped (with the exception of the SPACE which has digital recall) so that the settings stay constant. My connectors are a mish-mash of whatever works and is durable. It doesn't look pretty and some people cringe when they see it. That being said, those people probably don't play 200 shows a year. I'm not a 'pedalboard porn' sorta guy; I appreciate great artwork on a pedal and an efficient layout but I use the pedals I use because they sound amazing every time and can be thrown around by TSA without breaking. An audience member doesn't say, "That band sounded fucking awesome", to their friend because the guitar's pedalboard looked good. 

I've experimented with a lot of different pedals with XA. My pedalboard is somewhat of a revolving door but there are a number of constants on there. Pedals are a passion of mine and I'm been fortunate enough to develop great relationships with some very cool stompbox builders who I feel are at the cutting-edge of the game; principally Walrus Audio and Big Ear NYC. I'm shamelessly plugging these guys here because I really believe in what they do and I like promoting good people who make a quality products that are a cut above the rest.  

I'm not much for manipulating a guitar's onboard controls. I rarely touch a volume control or pickup selector during the XA set and I almost never touch a tone control (except to mellow out my sound slightly while playing slide); I'd much rather make changes with my feet. Those of you who have seen me play probably observe how much I ride my volume pedal. It's by far and away my most important tool on stage and my right foot is probably on it for half of the set. The one I use is a Boss FV-500H. I bought it about a year ago and I'm really happy that I made the switch from the omnipresent Ernie Ball pedals that I had used for years. Both the Boss and Ernie Ball pedals are super rugged but the string in the Ernie Ball ones would always break eventually and repairing them is a complete nightmare. As is, I'd rather get punched in the face than have to fix one. Lots of people knock Boss pedals but there are a few things that the company does better than anyone else in my opinion. They're built like tanks and you can find them anywhere if one happens to fail (though they never do). We had the pleasure of working with Tom Morello this past week and his pedalboard is primarily Boss pedals. They get the job done. 

We do so much flying that we hire backline gear on a daily basis. Because my pedals fly with me it's only logical that the majority of my tonal color come from them. Though I always ask for a late-model Fender '65 Twin Reverb Reissue I really never know exactly how it's going to sound. It might have tubes in it other than what comes stock, have different speakers in it or be biased in such a way that it breaks up more easily than most; I never know until I plug it in. Ideally I want a Twin that's loud as hell with a fairly-clean, warm and punchy sound when the volume control is around 3 and the treble, middle and bass are set at 6, 7 and 7 respectively. Sometimes I need to tweak things a bit from that starting point depending on the space we're playing in and the other aforementioned variables. If the distance from stage to front-of-house is particularly short I may turn down a bit or tilt the amp back so as to make life easier for Jon Pennington, our mixing engineer. I'm always in the vibrato channel with the reverb around 2 and the rate and depth for the vibrato all the way down. 

As I mentioned, it's my pedals that I'm leaning on for character, not the amp. The two pedals that I'm primarily relying on to serve that purpose are Walrus Audio's Voyager Preamp and Electro-Harmonix's Soul Food. Those two pedals are always on for me; I never, ever turn them off. Both are Klon-esque pedals that are pretty transparent and allow you to keep your dynamics. You can see in the chain above where I have them; the Voyager is at the beginning (after the tuner) and the Soul Food is towards the end (most importantly after the volume pedal). From these pedals I'm looking for color as well as slight compression. In the case of both pedals the volume is just above unity, the gain control is almost all the way down and the tone control is set pretty flat. I use a combination of buffered and unbuffered pedals throughout the signal chain and I feel like having these two on all the time helps keep my signal strong as well as makes up for the fact that I rarely have my volume pedal all the way on. They particularly ensure that I'm hitting the reverbs and delays with a decent level. 

Jason Stulce from Walrus Audio and I going through some of their new pedals in Oklahoma City.  Photo: Anna Lee Media 

Jason Stulce from Walrus Audio and I going through some of their new pedals in Oklahoma City. 

Photo: Anna Lee Media 

The other drive pedals I use are the MXR Sub Machine, the Walrus Contraband Fuzz, the Big Ear Woodcutter, a plain-jane OCD and the Earthquaker Palisades. That's order they appear on the board and that's their order from grittiest to cleanest. I'm a big fan of layering drive pedals and almost all of the timbres I use for solos during the XA set are the result of a combination of overdrives. The Sub Machine is a relatively new pedal from MXR (I believe it was released at NAMM this past winter) and it's definitely the most versatile fuzz I've ever owned. What's particularly cool about it is that there's a sub octave, variably run in series or parallel, (controlled by a knob) plus an upper octave (controlled by a footswitch). This is what I use (and pretty much the only pedal I use) for "Jungle"; I add the upper octave towards the end of the tune. I also use the Sub Machine for "Superpower". The Woodcutter and OCD are the workhorse drives of the board. Basically if I want a creamer drive ("Unsteady", "Love Songs Drug Songs", "Unconsolable", the overdriven sounds in "Renegades", the tremolo picked chorus parts in "Low Life" and any slide parts, such as "Naked") I'm using the OCD. For tighter, and brighter, distortion sounds ("Loveless", the choruses in "Gorgeous", the choruses in "Giants") I'm using the Woodcutter. Grant at Big Ear modeled the Woodcutter on his favorite Rat from the 80's plus incorporated a bass boost when you really roll the grit on to compensate for the fact that you usually sacrifice some low-end with a Rat when you lay on the distortion. It's a super sweet pedal. The other two drive pedals (the Palisades and the Contraband Fuzz) are relatively new additions for me and I've mostly been using them as additional boosts on top of drives I already have engaged for solos. That said, I've been using the Palisades as a stand-alone for the into to "Unsteady" during the set. That pedal is without a doubt the most malleable overdrive I've ever used; I've barely scratched the surface of it's capabilities in the month or so that I've had it. 

I'm a huge sucker for great sounding delay and reverbs. The main ambience pedal I use with XA is the Eventide SPACE. It's an incredibly powerful pedal but I was initially only able to feasibly utilize a small portion of it's power in a live setting because toggling through presets on the fly was kind of a pain in the ass. I ended up stumbled upon James Toh's Singapore-based pedal company, Morningstar Engineering, on Instagram one day and his MC-6 MIDI controller changed everything for me. The 6-switch foot controller he makes allows one to manipulate up to 8 MIDI capable device at once (via MIDI thru connections) and has allowed me to go from preset #8 to preset #78 with a single footswitch. If you're a Strymon BigSky, Line 6 or Eventide pedal user you gotta get one of James' controllers. On the SPACE I'm mostly using the Blackhole setting ("Unsteady", "Renegades" and "Gorgeous" intros) and the American Slapback setting ("Low Life", "Renegades" verse palm muted arpeggios). The other two ambience oriented effects on the board are the Vapor Trail and the Dark Star. People sleep on Seymour Duncan, in terms of effects, but they actually make some pretty phenomenal products. The Vapor Trail is a really warm analog delay with individual settings for rate and depth of modulation, which I love. It's so much more versatile than Carbon Copy or Memory Toy, both of which simply has on/off switches for modulation (I know you can get under the hood with both of the pedals if you take off the back plate but ain't nobody got time for that). The Vapor Trail is what I use for the choruses in "Low Life", choruses in "Love Songs Drug Songs" and during a lot of the solos during the set. The Dark Star pad reverb can be a super thick reverb effect and that's generally how I use it. I love the Old Blood Noise Endeavors pedals and the whole aesthetic that Brady and the guys down in Norman, OK have developed. I have their Black Fountain oil-can delay on my recording board at home too. Their stuff is just dripping with vibe. I use the Dark Star for the entirety of "Unconsolable" and "Giants". 

The other pedals on the board I would label as auxiliary: the T-Rex phaser I use under Sam's solo during "Gorgeous", the DD-6 I use purely for the reverse effect during my "Renegades" and "Gorgeous" solos and the wah (totally stock standard Dunlop wah) I use only during the "Gorgeous" verses though I've occasionally experimented with using it elsewhere. 

Blindfold Test Results...

I received a lot of great feedback from last week's amp simulator shoot-out. A couple people suggested that would have preferred a straight re-amp but my argument for doing the test as I did (with each recording individually performed) is that in order to use these plug-ins properly you need to interact with them in real time and hear exactly where the simulated breakup occurs. Very few (and by 'very few' I mean 2 out of 15 or so) people that sent me their picks selected the real AC30 correctly. Not surprisingly, IMO, most people picked the Native Instruments Guitar Rig amp sim to be the real AC30. Personally, I lean on that plug-in a heck of a lot and rarely set up a physical amp these days. This experiment has only proved to reinforce my hunch that, even among fantastic musicians, it's incredibly hard to discern the difference between Guitar Rig and the real deal. Throw today's highly compressed audio formats and the horrible means by which most of us consume music (via iPhone and/or laptop speakers) and it's a no brainer for me (in most circumstances) to leave my amps collecting dust in the closet. 

The results...

A - DI (as stated in the post)

B -  Logic Amp Designer AC30

C - Peavey T.G. Raxx rack unit

D - AC30

E - Native Instruments Guitar Rig AC30

Blindfold Test: Amp VS. Plugins

There's been a lot of talk amongst my friends lately about the quality of today's plugin amp emulators. It's a polarizing subject; some people swear by them and others cringe at the very thought of using them for anything other than demoing purposes. Personally, I fall into the former category. I use amp emulators daily for demoing and real-deal tracking alike; though it took quite a long time for me to come around to them. These days I'll use them on just about anything actually: synths, drum buses, vocals, percussion, etc, etc. I think they've become a valuable "studio" tool for generating upper structure harmonic saturation and can significantly help in giving a more organic quality to an otherwise lifeless sound. 

The other day my good buddy Gavi Grodsky sent me some clips to see if I could hear the difference between guitar he had tracked at the Magic Shop, with tangible gear, and overdubs he'd been working on at home with his Torpedo rack unit. The Torpedo is manufactured by a company called Two Notes and they describe it as a "Digital Load-box and Speaker Emulator". Essentially, you plug into your head as you would normally and then run a line from the speaker output of said head into the Torpedo. From there the Torpedo emulates the sonic characteristics of various speaker cabinets and microphone combinations in what is touted to be the most accurate way technologically available today. Thusly one is able to track, silently, in their tiny New York apartment anytime of the day without pissing off their neighbors. The kicker is that the Torpedo retails for $1,850; did I mention that yet?

I've debated with Gavi about the necessity (or rather lack for one) of purchasing of a piece of hardware, such as the Torpedo. I've argued that, if you know what you're doing with gain staging, you can get fantastic results with plug-in amp emulators that exist these days. Furthermore, said amp emulators usually come stock with whatever DAW (digital audio workstation) you might use or are available as freeware on the internet.

Between the clips that Gavi sent me it was immediately obvious which recording was of a physical amp and which clips were made with his hardware unit; I didn't even have to listen twice. I figured it would be fun to try a similar test back at him; this time comparing an actual miked VOX AC30 and software emulations of AC30's. I figured it would be even more fun if I made said test public and asked more of my friends to take it. So, here we are. 

For this test all other variables besides the amp/amp emulators are constant. Recording was done in Apple's Logic X using a Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 audio/digital interface. The guitar, pickup selection, pick and cable used are all constant. The guitar is a 2005 Gibson Les Paul Custom using only the bridge pickup. For the real amp sound the guitar is going through a UK made AC30/6TB close miked with a stock SM57. 

For amp emulation I used both the amp simulator that comes with Logic (set to the AC30 setting) and the Native Instruments Guitar Rig (also set to it's AC30 setting). To put this into perspective, budget-wise, Logic X will cost you $200 for the complete soup-to-nuts version and the basic version of Guitar Rig (which is the one I used) will cost you $0; it's completely free.  I allowed myself to tweak the settings on the amp simulators but didn't allow myself to add any additional EQ to the channel-strips in an effort to get a sound closer to the actual AC30. It's important to note that both amp emulators employed here have SM57 options for cab miking; I restricted myself to using exclusively those options with both plug-ins. All channel strips have the same light compression on them (using the WAVS 1176 "Bluey" compressor) and are high-passed at 100hz using the Logic channel EQ. The order of all plug-ins is identical.

Just to make things a little more interesting I've added a wild card into this test; a T.G. Raxx preamp made by Peavey a couple decades ago. The signal is direct without any speaker simulation and only the same 1176 and EQ plug-ins on the channel strip. 

Here is a DI recording of the guitar as a control...

Below are the rest of the recordings. Their gains have been made uniform. Note that these are not the same audio file simply 're-amped'. Each is a different instance of me, for all intents and purposes, playing the same thing. I believe one tends to play a little differently based on what their hearing back from an amp/the computer. Therefore I think reamping is kinda bogus and something I tend to avoid doing it at all costs. If the sound is ultimately going to go through an amp simulator, or real amp, I want to track that way.  But I digress, here they are...

Take a listen and check back next week, when I'll be posting the answers, to see how you did. Feel free to send me what you think the answers are in the 'Contact' section of this site.  Just to reiterate, one of these is a real AC30, one is DI into Logic's Amp Designer, one is DI into NI Guitar Rig and one is DI into the Peavey T.G. Raxx unit.  Good luck!

GGFO Rig: PART 2

Nearly 2 months after putting up "GGFO Rig: Part 1" I'm finally getting around to putting "Part 2" up. You can find "Part 1" below. It covers the pedals and amplifier I use on stage; this post will cover the instruments I play and how I play them.

My main GGFO guitar, both for recording and performance is a black 1999 Fender American Standard Strat purchased that same year from Sam Ash in Huntington Station (Long Island, where I grew up). I bought the thing when I was a freshman in high school and have probably played it more days than I haven't since then. Everything is stock with the exception of three elements: the aftermarket red pearl Warmoth pickguard, a Lollar Blackface single-coil in the neck position and the conversion of the tremolo system from 3-springs to 5-springs (essentially making it hard-tail).

I'm a big fan of the late 90's American strats. They just feel like home-base to me. The fret work tends to be particularly solid and the necks tend to be really straight. I just had the first grind and polish done on this guitar ever; I believe that speaks to just how well crafted the Fender American instruments of this era generally are. These guitars have two string-trees (which I think really helps with tension) and the bridges on these instruments are worlds more comfortable IMO than the vintage style bridges on other strats. For any kind of palm muting (which I do a heck of a lot of in the GGFO set) it's a no-brainer to me to go with one of the flat, more modern, bridges. 

I believe '99 was the last year they made the 'American Standard' series for awhile. My only complaint, sonically, with the strat as it came from the factory was the neck pickup. After many years I decided I wanted something with a bit more character in that position and so swapped out the stock pickup for the Lollar. For me, the neck pickup on a strat is always my workhorse and the pickup that I'm using 75% of the time in a GGFO set. 'By My Side', 'Not Going Home' and 'You're the One for Me' are tunes that use the neck position exclusively. The only other pickup position I use in the GGFO set, very literally, is the 'quack' position 4 (middle and bridge together). Songs like 'Carried Away' and 'Without You' are played entirely on that pickup position. Many other tunes in the GGFO set involve going between those two positions from section to section. I think switching pickups is underutilized tone-shaping move that most guitar players don't take full advantage of. As a note, position 2 on the five-way of this guitar (neck and middle) is not a 'quack'/hum-canceling position. It's just a product of the mis-matching of the stock Fender middle pickup and the Lollar. 

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I'm going to take this opportunity [because this is my website and I can do what I damn well please] to weigh in on a point of contention among guitar players. I know I'm in the minority and I couldn't care less what any guitar instruction book says: it really pisses me off when people refer to the bridge position of a strat as 'position 1'. The same goes for when people (string manufacturers included) refer to the lowest (pitch-wise) string on a guitar as 'the 6th string'. It is the lowest sounding string. You often play the root of a given chord on it. It's the closest one to your face. Thanks to the 'power-chord' it is also, arguably, the string a rock guitar player has spent the most time on in their lives. When we're looking at a right-handed guitar hanging on a wall the 'low-E' string is to your left. We read left to right in the English language. It's only logical to call it '1'. Lastly, it's called the 'low-E' string for Christ's sake; don't give it the highest numerical value! Please call it 'the 1st string'. Likewise, the neck pickup position is the one that guitar players, as a whole, spend the most time on. It too, is also the closest to one's face when in the playing position and to one's left when looking at a right-handed model on a wall. It too, should be referred to as '1'. 

Now that I've gotten that out of my system let's take a look at the other guitar I take with me when on the road with GGFO: a '98 Fender American Big Apple strat.

Made for a few years in the last 90's the Big Apple strat was a design inspired by late 80s/early 90s New York players, like Hiram Bullock for instance, who loaded their strats with two humbuckers. I believe Fender initially called it the '48th Street Strat' in homage to shops like Manny's (now out of biz) and Rudy's on 48th street where players would get mods like this done. Structurally this strat is nearly identical (same neck profile, 9.5" fretboard radius, tuning-machines, bridge, etc.) to my black strat with the exception of the rosewood fingerboard (in lieu of a one-piece maple neck), the two humbuckers and a standard 3-spring tremolo system instead of the 5-spring. The humbucker in the neck position is the stock Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates pickup; the bridge position is actually of unknown origin to me (I purchases this guitar second-hand). 

The breakdown of the 5-way selector on this guitar is, I believe, really smart and allows for the maximum access to different timbres. Though the bridge pickup was swapped out the original 5-way controls have remained as they were from the Fender factory. Position 1 (neck) is the neck pickup alone, position 2 is the inner single-coil of that pickup alone, position 3 is both humbuckers together, position 4 is a pseudo-'quack' position made by combining the inner single-coil from the neck humbucker and the inner single-coil from the bridge humbucker, and position 5 is the neck humbucker alone [I'm generally against the use of the Oxford comma but I implemented is here for readability]. The only downside to this pickup configuration, and switching, is the guitar's output when using position 3 is considerably hotter than the rest of the pickup options. To me though, it's a small price to pay for the level of flexibility that this guitar provides.

Just as with the black strat, I only use positions 1 and 4 in a GGFO live set.

Both of these guitars are setup with fairly low action. Both are strung with DR Tite-Fit nickel-plated, round-core strings. I use the standard-top-heavy-bottom, 10-50 gauge, set DR makes. I find, with the 25.5" scale length of strats, the heavier lower strings help keep the tension on the respective strings higher; where I want it to be. On shorter scale, like 24.75" Gibson, instruments that I have I tend to use standard 10-46 gauge sets.  I've used DR Tite-Fit strings since I was 16 and I'm not planning on switching it up anytime soon; I used to play D'Addario and Ernie Ball and I broke strings left and right. 

The other thing that hasn't changed in my general setup since I was 16 is the pick I use; Dunlop 500-series 1.5mm. At the end of the day you can hand me any guitar, any pedals and/or any amp and I'll make it work. As long as I have one of these picks I'll be comfortable. They're thick for a rock/pop guitar player to use but I find they help me really self compress and keep my attack even. The way that I hold them (illustrated below) is also a little unconventional for a rock player; with the rounded edge on the strings. It's just a personal preference but I find it helps me be a bit more expressive than if I play with the pointed edge. For me, when held this way the pick sits perfectly in the first joint of my pointer finger.

When finger picking (or manipulating the controls on a guitar, holding a writing utensil or playing a part on synth during a set) I store the pick between my pointer and middle fingers. I've worked it out so can seamlessly go between the two positions pretty quickly and fluidly. 

Though I do most of the work on my instruments myself, occasionally one of the two strats will be in the shop and I'll need to bring another guitar on the road. When that happens I turn to another guitar I've had since high school; an Ibanez S370. 

Though not the prettiest to look at per say this guitar totally gets the job done. It ceases to amaze me how a guitar that I paid $400 (new) for in 2000-2001 has stood up. I mistakenly allowed an ex-girlfriend to give this guitar a paint job when I was a senior in high school. After we broke up I tried to remove what she had done (mostly with a screwdriver, which is not the recommended tool for removing paint). The result of my failed attempt is what you see today. Honestly, I've kind of grown to love how trashy it looks.

The radius on this guitar is much flatter than the strats (I believe it's 14"). Consequently, switching back to a strat after playing it is a bit of a pain. Additionally, thought the Floyd Rose locking system is fantastic for keeping your guitar in tune after preforming dive-bomb pitch bends, it's a totally flawed design in practice. If you break a string on a guitar with a Floyd Rose system in the middle of a gig and don't have a backup guitar on hand you are 100% screwed. Breaking a string entirely throws off the balance of the tremolo system (intern sending every string wildly out of tune) and replacing a string requires at least one Allen key and balancing the who tremolo system. Sometimes it takes a day of playing (and a lot of tweaking) on a new set of strings for the whole thing to reach equilibrium. I would never take this guitar on a fly-date, where often I'm only able to have one guitar with me because of baggage restrictions. I also only change the strings on this guitar when it's completely necessary. You'll notice the black electrical tape across the tremolo springs on the back of this guitar. I found they were vibrating sympathetically when certain notes on the instruments were sounding and the result led to strange overtones coming through an amp. Placing tape across them was a quick fix. That's actually a tweak that I've done to several guitars over the years.

 

Check back soon for #moregear.

GGFO Rig: PART 1

This is truly a geeky post but for those 5 of you out there who might be interested in what exactly I use on stage with Great Good Fine Ok you're in luck. 95% of the time I track GGFO parts DI and Luke and/or I do a healthy amount of manipulation "in the box". When working at Let Em In, down in Gowanus, I like going direct into one of Nadim's Great River MP-500NV (500-series 1073 Neve clone) pres. At home I like going into either my moded ART Pro-Channel II or (newly acquired, thanks Max) vintage Peavy TG Raxx pre . I'm normally looking for some level of tube-ish upper-harmonic generation and breakup but without the 'air' that miking a speaker has the potential to create. Recreating that sort of sound in a live setting is a little tricky. Though it would make logical sense to just go DI, more often than not I do want an amp behind me pushing some air. When I'm on in-ears it's not to much of an issue, but when on floor-wedges it just isn't the same to have your sound exclusively coming out of the wedge with the rest of the mix. 

Looking for an amp that didn't add any additional color to my sound led me to Roland Jazz Chorus. 15-year-old Russ would have said that a JC-120 is just about the most uncool amp choice available, but 15-year-old Russ knew very little about what it takes to sit in a mix properly. I had been a fan of the desert-blues guitar players from West Africa (Ali Farka Touré, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib of Tinariwen) for a while. Those guys use JC-120's to cut, in what are often sonically-chaotic mixes, without having any breakup. I'm not into the contemporary one's; I find they don't have the balls that the vintage ones have. It's funny, because the wattage ratings are (I believe) the same but I find late-model JC-120's, for instance, to have about have the output that older models do.

Now, living in Brooklyn, a JC120 always seemed a little excessive. I did some research and discovered that Roland made a whole line of Jazz Chorus amps, including the lesser-known JC-77 (the smaller 2x10" version of the 2x12" JC120). I purchased a model from the 80's off of Craigslist a few years ago and found that there are a couple other advantageous qualities to the JC-77 that the JC-120 doesn't offer; specifically a 'high-treble' control and a 'fixed chorus setting'. The 'fixed-chorus' setting is a trade off for the 120s vibrato, but I never found the vibrato on those amps particularly convincing to begin with. The 'fixed chorus' is essentially Roland's way of saying, 'This is what you should use, don't mess with it, it's perfect' and, quite frankly, it's just that. Perfect.  For in-the-box modulation (attempting to get close to that on the JC-77) I use Acon Digital Multiplier and the TAL chorus (chorus section of a JUNO emulation) plug-in. Both are free. Get them. 

On stage I'm always using just a plain old SM57 to mic the amp. I detest 609's and 906's. There's a nasty, to me unnatural, sounding bump around 4K on a 609 that drives me crazy. It's too harsh. The top end is a hell of a lot smoother on a SM57; I like how it's response is pretty even from 3-6k and then falls off around 7500hz. 

As far as pedals go, I've swapped a number of them on and off the GGFO board over the past year or so but here's where I'm at currently...

You can see it's pretty straight ahead; tuner, compressor, a couple stages of gain, eq, analogue delay, volume pedal, additional chorus and reverb. Nothing too boutique-y. You'll notice that most of the connections are made with cable-less pedal connectors. I love these things; less opportunity for something to go wrong. The order here is everything folks. I won't name names but I was doing some gigs a couple years ago with an old buddy of mine, a guy who has been playing guitar since he was 12, and I discovered that it never dawned on him that the order of his pedals had an impact on his sound. Every gig he played he would just take his pedals out of a backpack and set them up in a random order. It completely blew my mind. Change the order of any of the above pedals and my sound is going to change completely. Most critical to that idea is that my volume pedal is before reverb but after all gain. I want my tails to sound natural but I want my guitar's output to hit all of my gain stages with all it's got at all times. I also want my eq (which I solely used to cut low frequencies below 400hz) after all gain so that the low frequencies direct from the guitar prompt the overdrives to breakup in a natural way.  Less low end before a pedal that's performing a high-pass is going to result in less breakup. 

I never touch any of the on-board controls on my guitars, with the exception of my volume knob when I'm performing a for really delicate fade outs (like at the end of 'Time' in the GGFO set). Tone knobs are useless in most settings to me; I can't remember the last time I touched one. I always have tone knobs all the way up. I actually have a Mexican strat that I've cut the tone knobs out completely on. 

Three out of eight of the pedals on this board are on at all times: the reverb, chorus and eq. Those three remain untouched throughout the set. The reverb is always set on a plate sound with a long pre-delay and the wet/dry control around 10 o'clock. The chorus is set very low and just adds the slightest bit of motion to my sound; it helps a lot when trying to fit a guitar into the synth-pop context. The eq is, as I described above, only used to cut out the lows. I find that most guitar players have no idea what their doing with the low end of their sound. A word of advice: the more of the bass player's territory you intrude upon the louder he/she is going to turn up to compensate. Let them have that part of the frequency spectrum and don't create a loudness war.

Of the other pedals on the board the Whirlwind compressor is the most essential during the GGFO set; I use it at least once in every song. I used to think that using a compressor was cheating but in a context where you're competing with a lot of synths (most with velocity-sensitivity disabled) it's a critical tool. My life is a heck of a lot easier with the compressor and the Whirlwind Red Box is worlds better than a contemporary Dyna-Comp in my opinion. 

The gain pedals on the board are two of my favorites. The Earthquaker White Light is really transparent and keeps all of the dynamics of your playing intact. The PlimSoul is high-gain and affordable without sounding cheap. I really like that the PlimSoul has two stages of grit with a LED on-board to allow you to visualize when you're really hitting the second gain-stage. My philosophy with grit is that it's always better to have several stages so as to allow a smoother ramp with multiple characters of breakup. Also, you'll notice, high gain before low gain, always. It really helps with keeping a human feel when playing lead lines. 

Stay tuned for PART 2 when I'll discuss the guitars I bring on the road with me...

For my first post...

I'm pumped to finally have this new website up and running. Needless to say it's a huge improvement from the Dynamod (Flash-based) page I had for about 10 years. The good people at Squarespace have their act together and I'm more than happy to give them my business [ironically the page costs less than half as much as the god-awful Dynamod page I was putting up with for a decade].

But I digress. Henceforth, this blog (#MoreGear) will be about, you guessed it... GEAR.

More specifically...

- New recording technology and innovations (plug-ins, pedals, mics, etc.)

- New ways to utilize old recording technology

- Tips and tricks as I happen upon them; wether they be from my first-hand experience or advice by way of one the masters (e.g. Butch in the following video)

Those of you who know me personally know that I have expensive taste but live fairly frugally. In light of that fact there will be an emphasis on technique and technology that is both effective AND affordable. Additionally, I'm a guitar player when it comes down to it; forgive me if this blog ends up guitar-biased. 

Regarding the clip below: I love Butch Vig's work, I love what he has to say in this video and I love how incompatible his and Pensado's senses of humor are. This is an episode of Pensado's Place filmed live at NAMM earlier this month. Butch has a lot of great things to say about working with a live band and getting them to bring their best work to the table in a recording situation. My take away: as a producer, spend time with a band in their rehearsals. It's a lot easier to put the work in on the front side of the recording process than it is on the backside. Get great takes with all the arrangements completely fleshed out. Know every note that every musician is supposed to play during basics.