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Preamp tube comparison

In this post, I will be comparing several different brands and models of preamp tubes commonly used in guitar amps, specifically in the V1 or input stage position. The differences between tubes are still noticeable in other stages, but will not be as pronounced as in the input stage, which is why I focused on this position. My reference amp used for this comparison is a Fryette Ultra Lead, which excels in high gain and clean sounds alike, and has a pretty neutral (not overly bright, dark, or abrasive) character that responds well to tube changes, different guitar pickups, control settings, etc.

First up is the JJ 12AX7. While it’s a fairly high gain tube, I find it actually works best in an amp that will primarily be used for clean or lightly driven tones since it has a very smooth high end that can become undefined and muddy under high gain if the chosen amp isn’t inherently bright. This can usually be compensated for with different settings on the amp itself, though, and the JJ also offers a very thick midrange cut.

Next, the Electro-Harmonix 12AX7. This is my favorite tube overall for an input stage since it has a similarly thick midrange response to the JJ, but is a brighter sounding tube overall and retains clarity even with extreme gain settings. This wouldn’t be my first choice for a strictly clean amp, but it works well enough in a versatile amp that has to cover high gain and clean sounds alike. The EHX is currently what I have in V1 of my Ultra Lead.

The last 12AX7 is the Tung-Sol reissue. This tube is clear and defined like the EHX, but is overall more aggressive and hi-fi in that it emphasizes the low end response and top end detail, but leaves the midrange response fairly smooth and neutral. I like to use this tube in high gain amps that are inherently darker in character, but it can be a nice change of pace in other amps when more aggression is needed.

The last two tubes are also from JJ, but the models are the 5751 and 12AT7. These are both direct replacements for 12AX7 positions, but have about 20% and 25% less gain than a given 12AX7, respectively. This is great for amps that will be primarily be used for clean playing or for amps like a 5150 or Uberschall that may need something to slightly reduce their overall gain to increase the useable range of gain. I like the 5751 for its clarity and midrange focus, which is more centered on the higher mids rather than the lower mids like the JJ or EHX 12AX7 models. The 12AT7 takes those traits and adds extra high end detail, which is nice for glassy cleans, but can become brittle and harsh under high gain.

Kemper Profiling Amp

While this post is still related to guitar gear, it is a little bit different since I’m reviewing a digital modeler as opposed to all analog gear previously. While the Kemper Profiling amp is the only high end modeler I’ve been able to own and play with, I already know it’s different from other modelers because of how it creates different amp sounds. Rather than recreate a digital version of a tube amplifier’s wiring schematic in an attempt to create a similar sound, the Kemper will analyze the signal taken from a microphone in front of a regular amp and cab and create a profile of that sound. Almost like a snapshot of audio, this profile can then be saved and taken anywhere within the Kemper without the need to also carry around the original amp and cab. The Kemper has various outputs on the back to either run the profiled sound to a mixing board like you would a microphone signal, into outboard effects units, or into a power amp and cabinet, which is a bridge between the digital and analog worlds of gear. You also have the option to combine any number of these outputs for flexibility in any live, practice, or recording situation.

The biggest pros of the Kemper are its ease of use, core tone, size, and versatility. The user interface is very simple, and all of the knobs and buttons have a clearly labeled function. Over the last few years, I’ve seen several internationally touring bands make the change over from traditional amps to Kemper units in order to save money on freight while also keeping a more consistent sound from night to night with little to no perceivable difference in tone from their analog setups. This means that extra funds can be used for merchandise, lighting and other on-stage production, hiring more tour crew, or even adding more dates to tours.

However, there are a few minor drawbacks to the Kemper, at least for me. Firstly, the Kemper lacks the ability to run in true stereo since each profile is focused on the sound of one amp. The option is there to run a mono signal with stereo effects through an external stereo power amp, but it will have the same effect and sound as a single amp through two cabs. Close, but no cigar. Second, the built-in effects and stomp boxes are good, but not great in my opinion. Honestly more than enough for most bands touring or recording with them, but it really comes down to taste. All of the modulation, filter, and noise gate blocks are very high quality, but any gain-based stomp boxes like an overdrive or fuzz are noticeably a digital imitation, which can at least be “fixed” with enough tweaking of parameters. My only complaint with the delays and reverbs would be that there aren’t many options to choose from, and few parameters to tweak them. The sounds that are available from them, though, are top notch.

Maxon OD-808 vs. cmatmods Signa Drive

This post will be a comparison of two overdrive pedals: the Maxon OD-808 and the cmatmods Signa Drive. Although I own and have owned several other drive pedals, I thought this would be the most interesting comparison since the cmatmods pedal is essentially a one-to-one clone of the 808, but with an extra switch for different clipping diode options.

The most common context for me to use one of these pedals is in front of an already distorted tube amp as a clean boost. This means using the drive/gain of the pedal at its minimum setting, using the tone knob to cut or boost high and mid frequencies, and the volume to hit the input stage of the amplifier for more perceived gain and better note definition. This application works well for cutting excess low end, accentuating mids, and adding aggression to metal rhythm guitar sounds and was popularized in the 1990’s and 2000’s by bands like Killswitch Engage, Strapping Young Lad, and Unearth, who all used and continue to use the Maxon OD-808.

With the Maxon set up to my normal clean boost settings and the Signa Drive clipping switch set to symmetrical (like the 808) and all knobs set to be identical to the Maxon, the sound is almost identical, but I get a little less low end punch on chugs and less overall coloration to my guitar sound from the Signa Drive. While the difference may be negligible or even unnoticed to most, it’s still apparent enough for me to choose the Maxon for my main rhythm sound despite the extra versatility offered by the cmatmods pedal. However, the Signa Drive may be preferable for a player whose amp already inherently has a lot of low end or similar midrange voicing to what one of these pedals would be adding anyway.

The big difference between these pedals is how they sound when being used for their actual drive/gain characteristics rather than just a clean boost. This application is mostly used by blues, rock, and country artists who want to add a bit of grit to a clean or lightly distorted amp for solos or cutting though a band mix. One major user of the 808 circuit in this way was Stevie Ray Vaughn. With the Signa Drive clipping switch set to symmetrical, the differences between the two pedals are similar to those found while using the pedals as clean boosts. However, with the switch set to asymmetrical clipping, the gain character of the cmatmods pedal becomes brighter, slightly louder, and more aggressive with higher gain settings. With the switch set to diode-free, the midrange accentuation is less prominent and the overall gain range is reduced, but with the most aggressive character.

I would recommend the OD-808 to any metal guitarist to tighten up and aggression to their rhythm sound and the Signa Drive to a guitarist of any genre who wants to add drive to their solo sound and tailor the gain to their exact taste.

Comparison of my 4×12 speaker cabinets

This post will be a direct comparison between two 4×12 cabinets that are popular in the rock and metal communities, specifically the Mesa/Boogie Traditional and VHT/Fryette Fatbottom, which I actually own two of. I have owned other 4×12 and 2×12 cabinets before, but thought it would be best to only include these two since they are the only ones I currently own and can compare side-by-side at home for the purpose of this comparison.

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Although these cabs are nearly identical in dimension, the speakers, construction, and overall sound are all distinct and different from one another. The Mesa features four Celestion Vintage 30 speakers rear-loaded on a straight baffle while the VHT is front-loaded with four Eminence P50e speakers on a baffle that is straight, but tilted slightly upward.

The different speakers, of course, are a large determining factor of the overall sound. The Vintage 30’s in the Mesa are very clear, aggressive, and have a nice spike in the midrange frequencies that help your sound cut through a mix of drums, bass, and any other instruments. Compared to the V30, the P50e speakers have a smoother high end response, less exaggerated midrange spike, and better low end headroom, while not necessarily putting out more lows. While the Vintage 30 will put out all the frequencies and power you need to be heard, the P50e will generally be less fatiguing to the ear and break up into distortion less at high volumes. A full write-up from Steve Fryette about using the P50e vs V30 in his company’s cabinets can be found with more detail than I will be able to provide here.

Front-loading versus rear-loading speakers in a given cabinet is difficult to make a direct comparison about since there aren’t any guitar cabinets, to my knowledge, with the option for either arrangement on the market currently. However, the general rule for rear-loading is that the cabinet enclosure itself will attribute to the sound more, put out more low end, and make the sound dispersion more focused and narrow. Conversely, front-loading will show off more of the voicing of the particular speaker, tighten the low end, accentuate the highs and note definition, and “fill a room” better. The projection of the VHT is even further enhanced by the tilted speaker baffle.

Taking these factors into consideration, the overall sound of each cab is exactly what one would expect. True to its name, the Fatbottom cab puts out plenty of low end without ever losing tightness, lots of thick midrange, and a smooth, but defined high end. It can be picky about what amps and voicings will sound good through it, but the amps that work with it make for what is, in my opinion, an unbeatable sound. The Mesa is a safe choice for most applications and amps. It puts out more sub-lows, higher mids, and a nice aggressive cut. I love both cabinets for different reasons and use them in my full-stereo rig for the best of both worlds.

Noise Gates

It’s completely fine to want to focus on building up your rig and dialing in your perfect tone, but one crucial and often unsung hero of nearly any guitarist’s setup is a good noise gate. All the good gear in the world won’t help you if you can’t control your excess noise, buzzing, or feedback, especially in a high-gain rock or metal context. In this post, I will be looking at several gates I’ve used, how they compare overall, and which ones would be the best fit for various applications.

First up is the ISP Decimator II pedal, which has been a favorite of mine since I got my first one over two years ago. It may not seem like much with only a single knob for the threshold, or level of noise reduction, but it has been the most effective gate I’ve used in my ever-changing live rig. Although it is the most effective at removing excess noise, this pedal has no adverse effects on the sustain or tone of your guitar signal, which makes it great for using in any position in front of your amp. It is also good to use in your amp’s effects loop or after a preamp section with moderate to low gain, but can start to choke out the sound in a high-gain context. I’ve also owned the original Decimator pedal, which is still great, but not quite as transparent on your original sound and is somewhat more sensitive on the threshold. The original would be a nice alternative to the II for a guitarist on a budget who just needs a solid gate pedal for in front of their amp.

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Next is the DBX 266XL compressor/gate, which is the only rack-mountable unit in this comparison.  Though not quite on the same level of tonal transparency as the Decimator II, the 266XL is not only equally effective in noise reduction, but is also far more adjustable with a “release” control in addition to the threshold. This allows you to adjust how quickly the unit clamps down on excess noise from the point at which you stop playing. This unit also has a big advantage for certain uses because it is actually two fully independent gates in one unit, which can save space and money, depending on any other gate units in your consideration. The built-in compressor for each channel is usable, but doesn’t sound as good as a dedicated compressor rack unit or pedal.

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The MXR Smart Gate is a bit of an outlier in that I’ve found it works best and most transparently in an amp’s effects loop rather than out front in your guitar’s signal chain. However, the pedal is still very flexible and does a good job in front of the amp if you just need to hush up a few noisy pedals and don’t need the ultra-fast response offered by the DBX or ISP units. I’ve seen numerous guitarists use the Smart Gate in their effects loops with good results, including Steve Lukather of Toto (Bohlinger, 2016) and Edward Van Halen. (Gill, 2016)

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Lastly is the Boss NS-2 pedal. While this is the most budget-friendly option of the bunch, it is similar to the Smart Gate in that it will clean up some excess noise from certain noisy pedals, but without the tightness of the ISP or DBX units. This pedal is the least transparent of the pedals mentioned, and can start to choke out your sound pretty noticeably in high-gain applications. The best application for this pedal, in my opinion, is for anyone on a budget who only needs to take care of a small to moderate amount of noise caused by other pedals in their signal chain.

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References

Bohlinger, J. (2016, August 31). Rig Rundown: Toto’s Steve Lukather. Retrieved from Premier Guitar: http://www.premierguitar.com/articles/24642-rig-rundown-totos-steve-lukather

Gill, C. (2016, March 17). Eddie Van Halen Reveals Secrets Behind His Live Rig: Guitars, Amps, Effects and More. Retrieved from Guitar World: http://www.guitarworld.com/eddie-van-halen-reveals-secrets-behind-his-live-rig-powered-van-halens-2015-us-tour/26073

Intro

The topic of this blog will be the reviewing and comparing various musical equipment. This could be anything from guitars to effects units, electronic components to speaker cabinets, etc. I chose this for a topic because I have been passionate about music, gear, and crafting my own sound since I was about twelve years old. The idea here is to give my honest opinions on as much gear as I can get my hands on, including gear I  already own/have owned in order to give other musicians a better understanding of what to expect from certain products and form an idea of what might work the best for their particular application.