Posts by Gene:

    Mesa Boogie Triple Crown

    July 14th, 2017

    2017 January NAMM show was drawing closer as I anticipated the arrival of the new Mesa Boogie Triple Crown amplifier that we were going to be using as a booth demo amp for my b3 line of guitars.

    This new series of Mesa amps boasted the highest gain structure ever of any prior Mesa, MIDI switching, Reverb, Solo boost and many more features that really round out the word “versatile” built into this new Triple Crown. Many fans of the Rectifier series will greatly appreciate all additions as Triple rather beckons having three channels on tap and Crown exemplifies that it handles each channel with justice and authority. 50 watts of EL34 power to lean into what I always find to be my favorite zone to play in.

    Taking a tour of its channels you’ll notice that each channel is laid out the same, Bass, Mid, Treble, Presence, Master, Gain with a gain structure switch labeled Tight and Norm on the High and Lo Gain channels, and Drive and Norm on the Clean channel. On the rear panel we have a Reverb level knob for each channel as well. The gain structure switch to me makes the amp behave on the Norm side more like a Marshall with a more dominant midrange appeal or in Tight like those Rectifiers with a more scooped mid and tighter bottom. Or on the Clean channel going from a super clean mode on Norm to a mild Drive which can give your clean channel a hairier response with a little more attitude like some good old Fender non master tube amps when pushed.

    Many of you may have found in various amps you never get the best out of each channel as there is often a compromise either a great clean or a great overdrive channel. This amp focuses on making sure every channel is worthy of doing its job exactly as desired without compromise. I have always lived by a rule of thumb where any good amp you can basically start with all tone to gain controls on 5 then adjust to suit your needs. This amp did not fail me there and found quickly that almost any tonal setting was useable or should I say there was no setting that made we say yuck. So this allowed for a very fast out the gate approach at the starting line.

    I have always appreciated amps that have some sort of a global Solo Boost feature as today it’s often up to us to mix PA systems from on stage with the near death of the soundman. The Mesa features a Master Solo level which balances well across all three channels and adjustable from minimal boost to face peeling levels.

    To round it all out it features a DI Clone XLR out to go straight to a mixer or recording console and the speaker out can be switched off for a Silent mode. I have always been a fan of the PALMER PDI-09 Guitar DI that features a three stage voicing switch to emulate various cabs and the Mesa follows suit there for Vintage, Open back and Closed back cabs. You can take this a step further by mic’ing the amp and using the DI out simultaneously for different tonal layers into any mix.

    Controlling the amp is about as easy as it gets, the standard foot switch features 6 buttons handling, three channels, Solo, Reverb and FX loop. Add the Midi function plus the Store feature you can call up any arrangement of its 6 button arrangements on the fly for less tap dancing during show time.

    For the audio side we will refer to the video blog, but in simple summary this amp serves up clean to classic to down right mean and nasty in the best of ways while doing it all with a simplicity with the least amount of effort to get there and all the tools needed to manage today’s modern guitarist that needs a palette of tonal colors and effects to get the job done right the first time. It also manages to do its job at any volume level for a controlled stage maintaining its tonal stability throughout its overall volume range.

    HeadRush Pedalboard

    While also at NAMM I get approached by a good friend of mine that mentions I need to show you something that I think you’ll dig. So I get escorted to a private room invitation only to witness the birth of the HeadRush pedalboard. It’s built in Eleven QuadCore HD technology while also taking into consideration everything the competition wasn’t hitting or other brands were hitting at a massive cost to the end user.

    I have always been a gear whore, simply meaning I love gear and audition to purchase a lot of it on our endless tonal pursuit of happiness to experience what the ever changing market is improving on to make our stage to studio life faster, easier to operate and excel in our audio experience. We have seem modeling rigs taking all kinds of new shapes to sizes from Fractal, Kemper, Positive Grid BIAS, Line6 getting a make over via Yamaha’s current ownership to other stomp based all in one amp rigs. Past few years I dove into the Fractal Axe FX XL as well as BIAS and pre and post dating using a Line6 HD500X with various real amps to individual stomp-box /loop based pedalboards.

    My biggest problem with many all in one pedal boards is the common need to interface with a computer to get the most out of programming, backup to updates. So if you don’t get your patches worked out perfectly in private then tweaking patches during a show or soundcheck can be a major chore to stressful at times. I have a variety of needs in a pedal board, control my amps channels, have a host of patches, plus be able to access all effects within any given patch and now and then control a real time parameter such as delay time, reverb mix or whammy to wah-wah type pedals. With individual stomp pedal boards you fight all the extra patch cables, added noise issues to power supply’s, then programming a loop based pedalboard to handle your pedals and amplifier channel status etc…. anytime I switch to an all in one unit I often find noise issues are gone and you get a programmable gate/noise filter per patch. Plus all in one removes all power supply needs to a couple dozen patch cables so in that regard most things get simpler.

    Ok now down to the hands on review side of the HeadRush. I am doing this review based only on the 4 Cable Method meaning I am not going to using any amp or cabinet modeling, I am only using the pedals effects placed into the front end for wah-wah, overdrives or compressors and into the effects loop for all time based effects like delay, reverb, chorus and a global EQ I use for solo boost.

    The user interface – For those of you use to working with an iPad or Positive Grid BIAS you will find this a breeze as everything is large, easy to see and very touch friendly. Menus are very real pedal related and you twist real knobs to adjust various parameters. You can access every parameter within a simple swipe, no more going thru too many screens or way too many pages to options so in that respect very much like a simple stomp box pedal board, straight to business. Another feature that will save your ass from hitting a wrong patch is the fact that the pedalboard buttons all self label the self for what they are and it’s very clear large letters and you can alter their color, arranged order, which pedals are visible for added control etc….

    But let’s not stop there…. for tweaking anything on the fly simply hold down the button for a few seconds on the effect you wish to tweak, this enters you into a pedal editor where you see every function of that effect or amplifier etc…. and you can select the knob say Drive or volume, tone, delay time, effects mix etc…. and adjust it with the control pedal for a coarse fast adjust range or hit -/+ buttons adjusting each parameter in fine increments, when done just hit exit and everything just happened without using your hands once or still playing your song.

    Looper – I must say this is the single best looper I have ever worked with yet to date. You can change patches, stomps to whatever you want to do and it does not stop the interaction with the looper so you could lay down beats to bass lines, rhythm guitar, melodies, special effects and it just keeps on building the layers with control on speed to direction and things I have still yet to tap into or master.

    Everything about this unit is BIG on visibility to ease of use and functionality in a big way. You could probably tune from the opposite side of the stage the tuner is so big.

    Updates could be a major buzz killer if you update some gear just before a gig and can sometimes render your pedalboard inoperable until you get on a gear forum and find out the fix and then some long or tedious interface to restore your unit to its once normal self. I think we’re covered here and haven’t noticed anything strange with updates which I must believe is due to the fact that we don’t have nor need any desktop/laptop software to manage the HeadRush, it’s all within itself and any USB interface is more for backing up files or a firmware update. Firmware updates I have witnessed so far have added a screen under Global Settings or added feature to an effect or other.

    Their online user manual gets updated and is deeper in detail then the factory manual which is a normal routine for a brand new designed product as it goes through early release and revisions. Don’t let me stop you at the 4 Cable Method as this unit boats dual/stereo amp rigs and cabinets that’s can access any .wav IR files across developers that share the file extension for cab to amp modeling. For those experienced and happy with BIAS amp and can selections you’ll be at home here with plenty of options.

    Unit acts and feels like real players were involved with its physical design for cable management with a cable channel underneath the unit as well as user interface functionality and construction. Granted it has to sound good first otherwise why bother but when you start with a clear audio chain with excellent visual, fast simple operation in a stout well built unit at a price under $999 for a pedalboard that can do all this, what! I call that a GrandSlam job well done, I look forward to all this unit will become as it has already made its way to my live gig rig and I know HeadRush has some cool future perks in coming updates.

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    Memoirs of a Fender Master Builder

    May 12th, 2017

    1993 was a pivotal year in my life. I was about to get married, and I had been working as an apprentice to Senior Master Builder Roger Giffin at the Gibson West Custom Shop. Gibson was going through some restructuring which was soon going to change to my latitude. Little did I realize the magnitude of what was about to unfold, and how it would alter my career for life.

    Photo Credit Fender Henry Diltz

    So its 1993 and I’m working for the Gibson West Custom Shop located in Burbank CA based out of what used to be the Tobias bass guitar factory which Gibson had recently purchased the brand and relocated its factory to Nashville. They still had a lease on the facility so they moved Roger Giffin and me into the building as we moved out of a larger facility that used to include Oberheim, Gibson Labs, Gibson Artist Relations and the Gibson West Custom Shop.

    We were a small, two-man team and worked on any instrument that walked in the door, as well as specializing in Gibson Warranty Repairs, as well as limited custom building of Gibson models. We catered primarily to the working professionals in the LA area — everyone from studio musicians, touring acts, to the local musicians. What made this job really interesting was that we’d see a lot of vintage guitars that I found a real treat and rare occurrence compared to prior repair shops I had worked in. Because of this, we would often contact the manufactures directly for parts we would need to maintain and restore some of these instruments.

    The Fender Custom Shop became a recurring phone number, and was in its earliest form of growth as the “Dream Team” was starting to take shape. Ralph Esposito was my main contact at the time, so as things were evolving with the Gibson restructure, I took it upon myself to investigate other opportunities as I was embarking on my first marriage, and I wasn’t real sure about my job security, nor did I wish to relocate to Nashville, which was an offer to continue my Gibson employment.

    Ralph mentioned they were looking for some quality help so they invited both Roger and I out for an interview. I was offered a position that began in what was the custom shop’s sand and buff department, working on the set neck models they were producing. The shop was constantly in a form of construction and re-organization; extension cords all over as various departments were literally being built all around us. The shop at the time consisted of about 30 people and grew to approximately 65 by the time I left the company January 1999.

    The shop had an artisan feel to it, as if a variety of businesses were all operating under one roof. There was the Team Built crew, which was comprised of a group of apprentices which were closely watched over by the master builders to maintain quality control and authenticity of detail that supported the Fender tradition. Many of these apprentices were hand selected from the Fender production line for their acquired skill sets and overall Fender product knowledge. Master Builders were the wild bunch, and each builder would operate as a single man team building one guitar at a time for a specific order to guarantee the highest end user results in getting them the dream guitar they had envisioned.

    The day of a Master Builder would often begin around the coffee pot discussing guitar repair horror stories or the weekend’s review of gigs and concerts, as many builders and employees were also working musicians. A quick stop in to greet the custom shop salesmen, John Grunder and Mark Duncan to help verify if an order could be built, and who may be the best builder to assign the project to, or a reality price check on a task that was very out of the normal routine.

    Each builder would be assigned a short list of guitars to build. The builder would call each customer prior to beginning their order to verify the order was correct, as well as to get a feel for the person and any details that would truly help the builder home in on the importance of the smallest of details that could translate into the biggest wow factor for the pending owner. This always helped create a friendship between the builder, dealer, and customer which, for some would spark friendships that would last a lifetime.

    The next stop would be the wood mill, where we would hand select raw wood to cut a guitar from scratch. Custom orders would run the gambit from simple to extremely complicated, sometimes recreating a vintage model or creating entirely new models, allowing the end user to run wild with their imagination. “If it could be dreamed up and put on paper then it could be built” was the concept. The lumber mill for Fender was the equivalent of Fort Knox, with countless boards of lumber prepped and palatalized for use, from Swamp Ash and Alder to highly figured flame or bird’s eye maple, all screaming for your attention to become someone’s guitar.

    The beauty in the shop very much rested on the shoulders of John Page, who was the general manager of the custom shop. He had a very strong knack for knowing what the “Cool Factor” was, and he was responsible for everything from designing to pairing various products together into limited run sets for some unparalleled craftsmanship of product offerings that often sold through dealers for more than the suggested MSRP retail price.  John also had a way with his employees that was comparable to the comedian Sam Kennison — loud, proud, obnoxious, and with an attitude that would bust your balls, then give you a big hug on the way out the door, which instilled an ownership in everything we did. Some days would be like the “Thrill of Victory to the Agony of Defeat,” or as George Blanda, Jr. may note, it was the “Animal House” of guitar building. There were constant practical jokes being played on people and initiations that you were not informed of until the joke was already on you. There are stories I still repeat to this day with a big smile.

    I arrived in what is referred to as the second phase of hiring master builders. I came on board without a lot of history to my skills, so I was in a proving ground. The first few months I simply sanded and buffed guitars and would bring in some side projects after hours that really seemed to get people’s attention and also show them that I was a pretty serious guitar junkie. Meanwhile, Steve Stern was starting to create what became the Carve Top division of the Custom Shop, where he would make D’Aquisto arch tops, and where I would get my first real task of guitar building under the Robben Ford signature line. I was already a fan of Robben Ford, having seen him while attending the Guitar Institute of Technology, GIT. I was to create, with Robben’s involvement, what was to become the Custom Shop’s version of his signature model. After about 6 months of building a variety of ideas, Robben zoomed in on three models that would outline his signature model. Just having the ear of an artist of Robben’s caliber to bounce ideas off of was a dream in itself.

    J.W. Black, who was a Senior Master Builder at the time, was responsible for scouting talent throughout the company and helping bring them up through the ranks. Jay was keenly surprised when he saw the first few batches of Robben Ford models making their way through production, and was very impressed with my chops. Jay was one of the more serious builders in the shop, who always had Fenders best interest in mind; he didn’t mess around much and was very skilled at pin-point accuracy in his vision as to how things should play out. I was 27 years old when I started, and I became the youngest Master Builder to be chosen less than a year after my employment date. So, Jay asked me if I would be interested in becoming a Master Builder, as the Robben Ford model was still considered a Masters Apprentice position where you needed Master results. I was like, “Yeah! How could I not?” Granted, the Robben Ford model was a completely hand built instrument with no CNC support, so everything you did you made yourself, which was a perfect launch pad into becoming a Master Builder.

    A few years go by, and Jay hits me up again to see if I would be interested in a Senior Master Builder position. Again, I say, “Ah, yeah!” The main difference there is you help manage other Master Builders as well as manage a crew of Master Apprentices who are then getting more involved with new product releases and artist signature model development. I have always been very easy going, so I found it to be a lot of fun networking with the Master Builder crew, assigning orders to them, which was as simple as “What do you wanna build?” and assigning tasks accordingly.

    Finally, the day came when John Page left the Custom Shop. To me, it was a sign to spread my wings and try my own hand at entering the guitar world on my own name. Be careful what you wish for. I am forever grateful to the people that helped the world take notice of my accomplishments while at Fender — everyone from music magazines, dealers, to end users and artists. Thankfully, the skills I have acquired have allowed me to enjoy and cater to the guitar industry — to put my own stamp on guitars that bear my name. It hasn’t been easy, yet it has been a lifelong labor of love. Coupled with that, being a very active live performing musician as well, which fits hand in hand.

    So, thirty years later we’re, now at the feet of the 30th Anniversary of the Fender Custom Shop. I got a call from Mike Lewis, VP of Product Development, Fender Custom Shop, asking me if I would like to help get the band back together. I was like, “What you talkin’ about Lewis?” He elaborated, laying out their vision of what they want the anniversary to be, which completely blindsided me as he lays out the plan.

    Fender doesn’t need us, the original Master Built team, yet here they are asking if eight of us builders would like to be involved in the anniversary with a project at hand. To me, it was like the movie “Space Cowboys” where they pull geriatric astronauts out of retirement to save an older technology satellite. So our mission was to design something that really played to who we are as a builder/designer, and could be team built with the idea being to push the envelope in what we think they could pull off with confidence. This anniversary project would also be coupled with a NAMM Show debut release party and video documentaries to capture the event and all its nuances. The release party was a huge success with many people and companies celebrating in this first anniversary. Fender is a brand as iconic and as American as Ford, Chevy, Harley Davidson, and Coca-Cola.

    So, for myself, first I wanted to design the guitar I would want to play myself. But the more I thought about it, I wanted to give the end user something Fender had never done before, yet something the vintage player or collector would truly appreciate, also. The model had many influences that started at the Fender Custom Shop before I was ever employed there. Mike Bump who at the time was one of my Master Apprentices had created a hybrid that was a mash up of a Telecaster and a Stratocaster, borrowing a few details from each model. Mike built a few models, but still nothing really came of anything. So, many years after leaving Fender, a close artist friend of mine, Matte Henderson and I began banging around the idea of mashing up a Strat and a Tele all over again, but with a fresh set of eyes and a renewed focus on its form, fit, and function.

    The model that became the winner came very easily, and the ideas run deep in variation on what the model can be. But for my offering, there was only one model that seemed like the perfect fit and it came to be known as the Stelecaster, coined by artist buddy Tal Morris. The model was literally half a Strat and half a Tele split straight up the middle of the guitar, featuring what we believe are the best details of both models.

    A Strat has always been very round and curvy, with a contoured body fit which hugs your body nicely on the upper bass side of the guitar, while the Tele, being more square-edged, sits in your lap better while working from a sitting chair position. I opted for the Tele bridge pickup (which has a larger coil than that of a Stratocaster pickup and it adds some throatiness to the tone over a stock Strat), Tele control harness, and a Strat tremolo. But the clincher that really ties them together landed in the headstock, which incorporates both of the iconic headstock shapes of the Tele and Strat that really gets people’s heads turning.

    For each Master Builder, Fender will produce 30 instruments multiplied across 8 builder models. My offering of 30 will come to life in October 2017 for a very limited amount of dealers for you to secure “1 of 30” for your own review.

    What does this all mean? To me it’s like, “Hey, we really did something right that made an impact, where people took notice, placing a value to adding credibility on a life time of work.” It also shows Fender really cares about its heritage — past, present, and future. They didn’t need to go outside of the company to pull us back in, yet I am completely humbled and honored to have been asked. Yet, I feel more honored just for having served my time as part of the family and lifelong legacy that the Fender name carries. Looking back, it’s been some of my fondest memories as a growing builder, and a family reunion that was a very long time in coming — an experience which I would repeat any day of the week. Thank you! Leo Fender is smiling, I am sure of it.

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    Extended Range Guitars

    May 1st, 2015

    ERG is a term I hadn’t heard until about a year ago, which is an acronym for a fast-growing underground network of guitars with a wider sonic range than your typical six-string guitar as we know it.

    The ERG requires more strings and longer scale lengths than its six-string predecessor, which extends the instrument’s range into baritone guitar or bass territories.

    Within this ERG category is a thriving social media group known as Extended Range Guitar Nerds, a pack of very aggressive, musically motivated musicians. Most ERG-style music is a collision of progressive rock, shred metal, fusion and hard core melded together in a wide variety of ways, spawning a revolution of how players attack their instrument.

    The birth

    The ERG essentially started with the seven-string guitar decades ago, found early on in jazz players’ hands for a wide range of chord melody and strong bass lines. As the instrument gained popularity, younger metal heads caught on and various builders started stretching its scale length for bigger bass tones as well as fanned frets, which combine two scale lengths to extend the bass range while maintaining a snappy treble with a shorter scale, for example, extending the scale from a 26.5-inch treble to a 28-inch bass. This concept was patented decades ago by Novax Guitars. However, the patent has expired and is open to all builders to use and embrace.

    The introduction

    Matte Henderson

    Matte Henderson

    My introduction to the ERG came far before the phrase was coined. A long-time friend Matte Henderson guided me into building seven-string guitars in roughly 2000. Henderson hails from Bennington College (he has a master’s of fine arts degree) and spent a lot of time with Robert Fripp. Henderson’s music really pushes the mental imagery you envision. It blends vast musical styles that evoke emotion you would normally not experience by hearing most music. I found his music very exciting, as if watching a suspense thriller or horror flick, or soaring sky high over some foreign land. The mind or imagination is still the most amazing theater for artistic creation, and I find it very rewarding when an artist takes you some place you have never been before.

    Henderson has been my singular inspiration to chase these growing guitar trends, as he seems to always be well ahead of our mainstream markets with a keen eye on the future of the guitar and artistic music. His recent solo record “The Veneer of Logic,” dubbed as the first “muttcore” genre — post-rock, metal, industrial to ambient — embodies his diverse talents as not only a player but also as programmer, engineer and composer. It’s a sum of his solo dedication to the music and all that inspired him to this point in time (see the “The Veneer of Logic” video on YouTube).

    Many guitar manufacturers today are pushing deeper into ERGs, and the majority of players buying them are young, 17-28 years old. This model was originated by boutique custom builders, but today a large number of builders create models for well under $500 to $1,000. The ERG is also growing fast among a new breed of high-end builders. Plus, with the aid of modern machinery and technology, the ERG is starting to find its way into mainstream, as more companies create hardware to support it.

    There’s a lot to give credit to for the evolution of the ERG including driving the redesign of amplifiers to handle a wider frequency range, and modern recording becoming so much easier to access from home. As proven over and over, trends cycle and repeat. For a good while, 90s grunge rather killed shred guitar, but now we’re seeing a shred far beyond what predecessors like Steve Vai created, as the throne has passed to Tosin Abasi.

    The Veneerof LogicPlus, with social media and YouTube so strong, guitarists can turn into overnight guitar heroes by creating a simple video while playing along with the core tracks of their record release without the rest of their band. Sometimes, this is due to the fact that they played all the instruments or programmed drum tracks. Most often, these videos are of instrumental songs without vocals. The guitarists can release an EP or full-length record prior to becoming a full band and keep production costs to a minimum, often through home recordings. This allows their fan base to help indicate when the band needs tour support and allows the band to add players for live shows.

    Today, the ERG targets everything from traditional guitar design to more modern headless designs. Seven-string models came in strong with Steve Vai and Korn in the 90s, and now eight-, nine- and 10-string models are still expanding guitar models. In early 2014, I was heavily influenced by ERGs, from the players to the builders, which drove me to design my own headless ERG model. This changed my view of the guitar and the direction of my band Rebel 66 — like a sharp hair-pin turn.

    The future

    Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Simon Hawemann located in Berlin, Germany and moderator of Extended Range Guitar Nerds on Facebook. I first asked him about the future of the ERG.

    “As with everything extremely popular,” said Hawemann, “it could be a passing phase. After the new-metal hype of the early 2000s was over, seven-strings disappeared almost completely for a while. On the other hand, the recent rise of the ERG has brought some incredible players to the surface. It has also influenced bands that have been around for much longer to switch over to extended-range instruments, such as Gorguts, who now exclusively use seven-strings, or Pestilence, who uses eight-strings these days.

    “In general, I feel like the ERG still has a lot of places to go. The vast majority of ERG-related music seems to be super modern metal/core, but I think there is a lot more potential in these instruments. Once the popularity of the more modern stuff declines, we could start seeing ERGs in different contexts, I think.”

    BlueGuitarHawemann added, “As for the instruments themselves, I think there are certain limits of playability and musical use. While tons of musicians were able to utilize eight-string guitars in a very musical way, I don’t see this happening with the nine-string, for example. It has been around for a while, but it hasn’t helped create a lot of great music so far. We will see more options from the major brands in the near future, though. Ibanez is coming out with their fanned fret seven- and eight-string guitars, and I’m sure more brands will follow their lead.”

    I also asked Hawemann how he got hooked in the beginning. He said, “I would have to give Dino Cazares/Fear Factory credit for that. I was way into Demanufacture and Obsolete, and I think they started using seven-strings for the latter. Not much later, I discovered Meshuggah’s Chaosphere and was hooked on that one, too.

    “I got my first seven-string guitar in 2001 or 2002, a Cort Viva 7. All I wanted was an Ibanez and to play as tight as Dino, but I couldn’t afford them back then. When Meshuggah made the move to eight-strings, I was pretty blown away by the unique tone. I remember bugging my bandmates to go eight-string when the RG2228 came out, but we didn’t make the move until 2010, when the more affordable RGA8 became available.”

    When I asked Hawemann how he views the growing ERG community, he said he’s critical, to be honest. “Like I said earlier, I feel like ERGs have a huge potential, but the community seems to be quite young and focused on very modern styles of metal/metalcore, which has lead to a lot of the same music, aesthetics and production styles.

    “It’s funny, because the ERG can extend your musical range, but the result is often the opposite. If the community doesn’t disappear with time, it will grow older and hopefully more musically mature. So all in all, I think the community could have a bright future; it only needs to grow up.”

    Simon Hawemann

    Simon Hawemann

    Thank you Simon!

    Personally, I’m still taking this all in and letting it drip-feed to the music I create and the guitars I build. For your viewing pleasure, I created the Ring Master 8 in tribute to all I have learned, with an eye toward embodying the future evolution of the guitar as we know it (this is in the pre-order stage).

    Headless guitars tailor well to ergonomics and easy plane travel — the guitars are smaller in length, even though they are larger in scale. Stay tuned long enough, and you’ll hear how this has fed my music as Rebel 66 sets out to track a coming record that will target a hybrid of rock, metal and djent flavors

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    PreSonus Studio Live RM-series Mixers

    January 6th, 2015

    by Gene Baker

    Electronic gear market technology seems to take off faster than consumers have time to absorb. Flash back to my article on PreSonus Studio Live mixers that embraced the first release of the Studio Live digital mixers. I had picked up a 24.4.2 mixer which handled larger gigs and a lot of home recording, while the 16.0.2 mixer was smaller and works great for live use for a typical four-piece rock band and is small enough for a coffee house acoustic gig.

    These PreSonus Studio Live mixers made so much of my older technology gear obsolete, from PA mixers to all prior home-recording gear. At the time, it was quite the undertaking to recycle all the older gear on the used market and come up to speed on the new technology. What was nice about these Studio Live, or thesecond series of Active IntegrationTM (Ai) technology mixers, is that they both share hands-on knobs that twist as well as Mac or PC apps for controlling the mix and allowing deep, faster editing, as compared to diving into knobs and menu screens from the mixer directly. Granted, the 24.4.2 mixer has some features that the 16.0.2 doesn’t, and the 24-channel board is larger, which made traveling with it a bit problematic.

    The new, modern RM series

    Now, only about two years since Studio Live’s original debut, PreSonus has released the new RM- series Studio Live mixers: the RM16Ai and the RM32Ai. These mixers embrace modern technology yet require a slight leap of faith in the fact that there are no knobs, and the units are 100 percent controlled by the Mac or PC controller of your choice, from iPhones and iPads to the newer touchscreen PCs. Those of you who have been raised on iPads will find this a pretty painless transition; whereas, someone used to old-school analog mixers may sweat the details a little more — with the absence of real knobs to twist in a panic moment — until you get to know and trust the new RM mixer.


    Today’s modern gear is aimed at size and performance. It’s smaller, more powerful, has far fewer external accessories and has faster setups loaded with presets and scenes to save for fast recall, not to mention the multitrack live recording capability, plus some wireless features for control connectivity to the speakers you use.

    When I look at the new RM series of mixers, it’s clear the engineers were smart. For those of you who embraced external controllers like an iPad for live mixing and deeper editing, it makes perfect sense to follow that trail and essentially get rid of the large mixer and all those moving components like menu screens, knobs or faders that could break or eventually wear out. Plus, the earlier mixers need to be somewhat close to the stage or on stage, or require a snake to extend mike cables and get the mixer where you can operate it without stage interference.

    Downsized components at a remarkable price

    Separating or splitting the “Starship Enterprise” in half was essential. This downsized the mixer by a long shot, allowing the mixer to become a big patch bay for on stage, since if you remove all knobs and faders, you are left with nothing but inputs and outputs. In downsizing components, PreSonus has packed in more channels and auxiliary channels to the point where the RM16Ai fits in a three-space rack, and the RM32Ai fits in a four-space rack roughly 10 inches deep, plus the user cost is lower than  the original Studio Live mixers.

    The goal of PreSonus has been to allow end users to build a 64-track studio for under $10,000, but wait they even did that for under $5,000, with the RM32Ai selling at $1,999. Link up two RM32Ais, and you have one massive capacity for some serious tracking to live mixing.

    With the original Studio Live mixers, you would connect your computer to the board via FireWire and add a WiFi router to connect to all other gadgets for wireless personal monitor mixing via a smart phone and mixing for front of house via an iPad. These newer Ai and RM-series mixers add a network port, so you connect a router directly to the mixer, allowing all other gadgets to be wireless. The only minor issue is there are only two specific WiFi routers on the approved list, so you will have to plunk down about $50 for a dedicated router that you will keep in the rack. This is a small price to pay when you could pay more for a single guitar or microphone cable.

    Sleek, travel-ready 32-channels

    Now you can travel with a 32-channel recording studio as a flight carry on item. SKB has recently released some shallow rack cases and a flight-ready dolly case to hold both the mixer and a laptop that keeps you on the move with minimal luggage . Both the RM16 and RM32 are both  32-channel mixers; although, the RM16 only has 16 channels accessible from the main XLR inputs; the other 16 you have to access via the 25-pin break-out port on the rear of the mixer. The RM32 features all 32 channels available via XLR. Each mixer has a full 16 auxiliary channels, which makes performing on large stages and using several stereo in-ear monitors a breeze.

    What I really like is how well the software user interface is designed. The “virtual knob world” is not confined to the size of a knob or slider, so more visual aids are available in front of you for live visual monitoring of various levels that an engineer likes to keep tabs on. Everything has a full mixer look, from your normal mixing channels to each auxiliary mix or effects bus. You simply select what you want to control, and the entire mixer’s faders change to show everything you need to control without going through multiple screens or menus to find what you need. You’re always one button away from anything you wish to edit.

    For effects, you have four on-board special effects units, which is a plus over the original two effects on the earlier mixers, as sometimes you may want to isolate different effects: two units just for drums and two for vocals. Plus, those already familiar with PreSonus mixers know about the Fat Channel. The Fat Channel is available on every channel — auxiliary or main — and features all your necessary gates, limiters, compressors and graphic EQ to parametric EQ that would have filled a lot of external racks full of gear in analog days. This really helps tailor each channel for a very special use, and you can name the channels and auxiliaries, and add an icon for Vocal Mic , Electric Guitar, Snare, Kick, Overheads, Horn, Bass, etc. This virtual label maker saves to the scene preset for fast recall.

    Engineers using real-time analyzers to read and EQ to a room is something I really haven’t seen since the 80s or 90s, when it seemed like local bands rather lost the “real” soundman. PreSonus builds in Smaart measurement technology into their boards, where on setup, you simply plug in a flat reference mic  and run a white-noise app that automatically presets the board’s main EQ to the room, which you can name and save into any of the mixer’s many preset locations for recall.

    Control of up to 16 devices

    You can add up to 16 devices to the mixer, so the players could use their smart phone to control their personal monitor mix or the sound person might set up multiple devices, each to control a different parameter. For example,  an iPad could handle effects or global monitor mixing, whereas a laptop or larger touch-surface device may handle the main mix. You can assign each device to control specific things, so players don’t accidentally screw with another player’s mix.

    Word of warning: With all new aggressive technology, sometimes it has shortcomings. For example, I decided to upgrade my computer to a Macbook Pro that came with the newest Yosemite operating system. Unfortunately Mac doesn’t let any developers in on their new technology until Mac releases it, so for me this turned into a situation where I can use the mixer all I want live, but I cannot connect with FireWire to live record anything until the PreSonus RM updates for Yosemite come out.

    The Audiobox iTwo

    Since I am rather stuck in Yosemite and not able to multitrack record with the RM mixer until updates come about, I needed a work around to keep things moving, so I picked up the PreSonus iTwo interface and a PreSonus Fader Port. The iTwo is a two-channel interface that features MIDI, so you can control keyboards to electronic drums for software triggering. The iTwo gets its power via a USB connection to a computer, but it can also be used with an iPad, with the addition of a normal iPad wall charger. Speaker outputs from the iTwo allow monitoring of whatever you need, and phantom power is available for input number one. The iTwo also includes two guitar input pad buttons for proper impedance when tracking a guitar plugged straight into the unit. The Midi interface turns out to be a real winner allowing me to  trigger drum software  through the iTwo  via  a Roland V-Drum kit, so I can record drums in silence and change the drum kit tones during the mix session.


    The Fader Port

    The Fader Port is a simple USB-powered transport control for recording and includes a flying fader with an added power supply that you can use to program automation tracks or to manually control any channel. This allows you fast control of the recording process, freeing up the need to use a mouse too much and allows a fast punch in and marker location to access a variety of menus on the fly.


    Professional recording software

    Best of all: With the purchase of any PreSonus device, you get their recording software Studio One 2 Artist (a free Studio One 2 version is available with no purchase required), and upgrades between version levels is about $99 on the average. What I like most is having our band all on the same platform, so each member can track at home or play with mixes, lay down new ideas and share them very quickly by making use of online storage such as DropBox or thumb drives. Engineers do record albums with this software, so it is not an entry-level software; it’s very capable of giving ProTools and others a serious run for their money without a gouging price tag. PreSonus has tons of online videos for user training that have proven extremely valuable to get users up to speed fast.

    Most of all, these RM mixers are best used live and for live recording, and they perform equally well in the home or professional recording studio.

    With all this being said, how many musicians still haven’t used a digital mixer, let alone purchased one? This is a great time to dive in. Furthermore, at the speed PreSonus has developed and released new gear and revisions, it makes their prior gear very affordable in the used market. The original Studio Live mixers are badass to say the least, guaranteed to make every band sound their best in comparison to older antiquated gear.

    But if you need to reduce size to save space and have a good use for more channels and auxiliary channels, the RM series is about as good as it gets in a small, tidy, extremely powerful package. So many people have no idea what all these Studio Live mixers are capable of, and I truly believe they are the fifth Beatle, the man behind the curtain that makes us all sound and perform better while capturing the moments as often as you hit record.

    So hit record as often as possible, it makes us better musicians!



    1 Comment "

    TonePros Founder Dwight Devereaux

    October 28th, 2014

    Sound maximizer for guitars

    Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Dwight Devereaux, “founder emeritus” of TonePros, who is up on what makes guitars sound great and privy to the new and important innovations at TonePros. I also spoke with Gil Vasquez, self-professed guitar geek and TonePros operations manager about the products that maximize a guitar’s sound and performance.

    Let’s talk guitars …

    Baker: To a guitar player who may have never heard of TonePros, how would you describe what you bring to the player?

    ToneProsDevereaux: TonePros products were originally designed to be a “potential maximizer” for guitars. The concept was to find simple and transparent “non-invasive” retrofitting replacement hardware to allow people to get the best possible performance out of the instrument. These improvements generally include improved sustain, tuning and setup stability, increased signal and harmonic response and many others.

    Baker: What kind of guitars can benefit the most from TonePros hardware?

    Devereaux: Any guitar fitted with a Tune-o-matic bridge, stop tail piece or Wraparound style hardware, as well as any guitar fitted with Kluson style tuners.

    Baker: Are the upgrades audible?

    Devereaux: The results are significantly audible and a tremendous improvement. When your bridge and/or tail are locked into position, it allows for superior intonation adjustment and preserves these all-important settings. When strings are set exactly to scale by precise intonation, the strings will actually create more harmonic overtones and a stronger musical signal.

    If this were not true, there would be no real need for intonation, and you could place a bridge just about anywhere on the guitar, as long as the strings were tuned to pitch. These increased audible overtones and increased signal are better transferred to the guitar body due to the TonePros solid locking system. Once the entire guitar is vibrating, the true qualities of the instrument can be heard … The old saying at TonePros is, “It’s not tonewood, if the tone can’t get to the wood!”

    Baker: How did your musical background play into the TonePros company development?

    10356213_702848283121688_6150166538720363070_nDevereaux: Well, as many know, I was one of the original guitar players in Tommy TuTone of“867-5309/Jenny” fame, and later in my career, I had the good fortune to make records or work on recording projects alongside some amazing players. I was invited to play on the “Innocent” and “Jesse’s Powertrip” CDs, which included players such as Marty Friedman of Megadeth, Jeff Watson and Brad Gillis of Night Ranger, Frankie Hannon of Tesla and Ritchie Kotzen, among others. Early in my career, I played sessions with Bill Champlin of Chicago and Tom Coster of Santana …

    Without going into a long resume, I certainly knew what I needed from my instruments, and luckily, I was eventually able to work on creating the improvements and getting these results to the public at large.

    Baker: What was the toughest obstacle to overcome in building the brand?

    Devereaux: No, is always the easiest answer for anything new, when you ask to present it to an industry that has had very little change in many decades. The improvements of TonePros hardware are profound and obvious. Once we got decision-makers to use and evaluate our locking systems on their instruments, the world changed very quickly.

    Currently, our models are featured as standard equipment on guitars from the boutique builder to world’s largest guitar manufacturers, and our products are distributed and available for retail sale on five continents around the world.

    Baker: Who are some of your best noted endorsers?

    Devereaux: Our user group includes many of the most iconic guitarists in history. We regularly supply artists directly, which over the years has included The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and even Les Paul before he passed away. Our endorser family of artists appear in our advertisements, and these iconic players include Slash, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Tommy Shaw of Styx, Peter Frampton, Earl Slick of David Bowie, Dave Mustaine, Warren Haynes and Steve Stevens, to name a few. Really, I could fill the entire page, and I already feel bad that I didn’t mention more of these great players. There’s a better, longer list on the website!


    I will now turn it over to our operations manager, Gil Vasquez. He can certainly give you a more current overview of the TonePros of today.

    Baker: Gil, how did you get involved with TonePros?

    Vasquez: I have known Dwight, since he founded the company, when we had Baker Guitars going. We were one of the first companies to use his products as an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) part. I was asked to come on board when Premier Builders Guild and I parted ways, and I have been running day-to-day operations ever since … about four years now.

    Baker: How have your guitar-building talents helped you with TonePros?

    Vasquez: It helps in the fact that having been involved with numerous guitar companies, I can help answer retrofitting questions as well as be involved with design changes as well as new designs.

    Baker: What is the average day like for a TonePros customer service manager?

    Vasquez: This can include anything from answering questions on the phone and via email, retrofitting guitars, taking care of OEM customers, as well as keeping things flowing. My official title is operations manager/artist relations.

    Baker: What companies do you provide hardware to for their standard to custom models?

    Vasquez: Too many to list here … Some of the notables are Gibson, Fender/Jackson, ESP, Premier Builders Guild (B3, Fano, Koll), Schecter, as well as many others.

    Baker: Are there any new products being developed that you can share info about?

    Vasquez: There are new products that will be out for the 2015 NAMM show, but I am sworn to secrecy for the moment.

    Baker: What do you see as the long-term goal of TonePros?

    Vasquez: TonePros has come a long way since the beginning and is now a global brand name. We are looking to branch out into more countries as well as work on new products for guitar and bass.

    Baker: Where can musicians purchase TonePros hardware?

    Vasquez: You can now purchase online through our website, and the nearest store that has the part in stock will ship it to you.

    Baker: How hard is it to install TonePros hardware?

    Vasquez: Retrofitting a guitar with our hardware is a very simple. In most cases, it just involves removing your old bridge, tail and studs and replacing them with ours.

    Baker: Will these upgrades require modifications that will alter my guitar or its value?

    Vasquez: No, if anything it may increase the value. On vintage guitars with vintage hardware, we always suggest you keep the old parts and set them aside in the case that you do sell a guitar, so the value stays.

    Baker: Has the company’s evolution from start up to today changed much from the original vision?

    Vasquez: The vision has always been to manufacture high-quality components at an affordable price, while improving the overall tone and sustain of the guitar. That’s what our products are and do, so I would say not really. We have not had a price increase, since we started.

    Baker: So what are you listening to today?

    Vasquez: The new Slash studio album with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators — can’t get enough of it — and Tesla’s new one, “Simplicity,” is also plugged in.

    Baker: Anything you would like to say to a potential TonePros customer?

    Vasquez: Once you try our products on one of your guitars, you will want to retrofit the rest. The reason more and more artists and guitar companies use our components is because they work. Put TonePros on your guitar today and hear and feel the difference.

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    FRFR Speaker Cabs

    July 16th, 2014

    Trailblazing Atomic Amplification technology
    by Gene Baker

    Flat response, full frequency aka FRFR isn’t necessarily new technology for speaker cabs, as recording reference speakers and PA speakers have always focused on delivering flat response, full frequency sound from 20 hertz to 20 kilahertz without the speakers coloring or enhancing the audio spectrum to the point where it needs equalizing to reach a flat reference point — all things being even.

    IMG_0186Today, digital guitar amplification is taking a strong foothold on the ever-changing landscape of guitar rigs across the globe with Fractal Audio Axe FX and Kemper profiling amps to iOS apps such as Positive Grid BIAS, iRig and the computer-based Toontrack EZMix amplifier software. Many musicians embrace speaker modeling that involves some very interesting new technology and approaches to capturing audio by recording the actual speaker/cabinet/room/microphone you wish to clone. Some of this is covered in my Fractal Axe Fx II XL review.

    Signature Atomic Amplifiers speaker cabs

    With this new technology has emerged Atomic Amplifiers’s signature on FRFR sper cabs that serve guitar players and as their stage reference speakers. Although these are very capable of being your PA mains to near-field mix- down speakers for your next record. Atomic Amplifiers has followed the trail being blazed by this technology and is poised to dominate the market in guitar FRFR cabs heavily associated with Fractal Audio Systems.

    Six months ago, my quest for the best cabs began after hearing Animals As Leaders. I was bitten by their jazz-fusion meets modern-metal twist of instrumental music created over the span of their three releases. Hearing the trio of two guitar players and a drummer made me say “what?” Hence, I was thrust into the sound of two eight-string guitar players unleashing extremely technical layers of very intense extended-range guitar music — that’s probably the best way to portray it. Steve Vai has described them as, “The future of creative, heavy virtuoso guitar playing.”

    This opened the door to the eight-string guitar that seems to be slowly infiltrating the market, as seven-string models did when Vai, Korn and others hit the scene, say, 15 years ago. Now, many manufacturers have developed entry-level, affordable seven- and eight-string guitars, so young, next-generation players have access to these. They seem to be taking hold with many seven-string artists out there today, such as Conquering Dystopia, Angel Vilaldi, Matte Henderson who introduced me to the seven-string and many more. These artists are breathing new life into the instrument and showing shred is far from dead. With eight- and nine-string guitars already in production, I find it refreshing that music will always find new sound and direction, and those that lead will inspire us.

    The full frequency, flat response rocket ship

    The seven-string guitar requires a certain breed of amps capable of remaining tight in the bottom end without going “flubby,” regardless of what level gain you use. An eight- or nine-string guitar adds one or two more low strings, and you need a rig that’s capable of reaching the moon. Enter the rocket ship — which to me appears to be the Fractal Axe Fx II XL coupled with the Atomic CLR Neo Powered Wedges.

    I still play six-string electric and acoustic guitars far more then I do extended-range guitars, but I enjoy what the extended range models have to offer. Most important is what speaker modeling technology provides that traditional guitar cabs cannot replicate. By utilizing FRFR cabs, you can recreate the intended cabinet model to its closest authenticity. When auditioning various modeled speaker cabs, you may notice they make as much or a bigger difference in your tone then the amp models themselves. Call up a microphone on the cab, and the abilities get deep.

    FRFR means that yes, there is a tweeter in your cabinet, which is the biggest issue to wrap your mind around. Guitarists are used to hearing a guitar sound hit us from say the center of a 12-inch speaker, 2×12 cabinet or 4×12 cabinet to an open-back cabinet throwing sound around a room. There’s a certain way the air movement hits you that makes it feel and sound right. Where as, in most PA speakers, you can clearly hear the separation between the speaker and the horn, as if there are inches to feet between them.

    Atomic Amplifiers has approached it from a coaxial speaker standpoint, meaning the horn is in the center of the speaker. Another big difference is that many PA speakers use time-aligned dual amps to individually drive the horn and speaker. Due to its design, Atomic handles this with one 500-watt amplifier to create a tonal footprint that sounds like it’s coming from one zone, like a guitar cabinet projects. The horn sounds so transparent, you would swear it wasn’t even there — which eliminates horn to woofer standing waves.

    IMG_0177I am a tube purist at heart — having owned more than my share — but I admit I love technology. I love keeping up with where it’s going. I appreciate the tones bred on all recorded history known to mankind, and those waiting to be recorded or not yet created. Granted, none of this comes without some serious time getting to know technology, twisting knobs for countless years or decades through tons of brands, from the real amps to the replicators to new trend setters. It’s what we love, known as gear. But new technology makes it faster to set up, easier to travel with smaller loads and delivers a massive array of sounds from a small powerful modern rig that would have required a few roadies in the day to equal.

    The Atomic CLR Neo Powered Wedge

    When I first asked to check out the Atomic CLR Neo Powered Wedge for review, I didn’t really state what to send me. I just said send me something. Atomic Tom sent out a CLR Neo Wedge, and when I unboxed it, I was thinking, “Ah man, I should have told him to send me a square cab vs. the wedge.”

    But it didn’t take but a few hours of toying with it to figure out the wedge version is far more versatile and Atomic’s most popular cabinet. The reason is you can stand it up like a guitar cabinet as a backline, lay it on its back like a tilt wedge or pole-mount it as a PA. A three-position switch alters the overall response of the cab designed to best work in each of those three stage settings: BL, TILT and FF.

    Another cool feature is the cab has two channels and accepts 1/4 or XLR. Each features its own gain control, and one master volume switch controls the overall cabinet. The extra channel works great for someone who wants to plug in a stereo mix or add an MP3 player to the second channel, directly plug-in two acoustic guitars into the amp, etc. — where ever your mind takes you. The gain knobs both feature a clip light, so you can achieve the correct gain input for your best signal response. A selector switch allows you to tailor which inputs feed through to the LINK XLR. You can send input 1 or input 2 or both through to the PA or another powered speaker.

    One CLR is enough to replace any guitar amp from 1×12 to 4×12, yet two CLRs equal the power deliverance of a full Marshall stack, yet the Neo weighs roughly 32 pounds in a nice small compact 1×12 wedge format with an easy-carry handle.

    If that isn’t enough power, you can add an extension subwoofer with the CLR mounted on its pole stand. Flick the switch on the CLR for the extension sub, and you’re sporting a serious PA system capable of giving QSC, EV or JBL to anyone — a serious quality run for his or her money.

    IMG_0180But don’t stop at a guitar rig or PA system, try the CLRs as stand-alone near field reference speakers for handling some mix-down tasks on your next project. If you A/B them to some of your favorite speakers, I think you will be extremely surprised.

    Best speakers for recording

    For recording, I have always liked to refer to Yamaha’s NS10, but these small speakers have been discontinued for years and used to be an industry standard for mix down in studios across the world. There was nothing extra special about the speakers. Plenty more-expensive speakers sound amazing, but the NS10 was a great, flat reference speaker to give you a good idea of what the music would sound like across many platforms. In my studio, I use Yamaha HS8s along with a 10-inch subwoofer, which is where I spend most of my time dialing in the Fractal Axe Fx for live gigs, running into the PA direct via a PreSonus Studio Live mixer.

    In sonically comparing the Yamaha speakers to the Atomic ones in my small studio, they sound very similar in the overall tonal spectrum, which to me, makes sense — all good things being equal. But the Yamaha speakers don’t have nearly the horsepower. So as an added comparison, I have always loved my QSC K12 powered PA speakers, as being well-balanced PA speakers for vocals/band. Yet when auditioning the QSC and comparing them to the Yamaha or Atomic speakers with the Fractal Axe Fx rig and my favorite patches, the QSC immediately lets you know the horn is there, and larger amounts of bottom-end is present. They basically require more equalizer work at the mixer to tame things down to match what I hear from the others.

    The true test: gigs

    Gig results so far have proved a CLR 1×12 is enough to make most players happy, yet two CLRs unlock all the Fractal Audio System is capable of running, with dual amp and cab models for any three-dimensional audio picture you can draw in your head or inside the Fractal Axe Fx software routing options. Two CLRs sound as big as a house, clean to mean, and everything in between. For small clubs, you wouldn’t need any PA assistance at all for the guitar player, as the sound spreads nicely for a very full picture. Our sound man was very impressed recently, stating “best guitar tone yet,” as I am always messing with different gear arrangements.

    For a final test at a recent gig, we used two CLRs as mains fed by the PreSonus mixer. We were trying to keep things as simple as possible, with no monitors, so we actually set up the CLRs behind us (far L/R), which is typically an audio no-no due to potential mic feedback. Typically, you always put mains in front of the vocal mic line. The bass player plugged in PA direct, kick drum plus the Fractal Axe FX guitar rig and two vocal mikes. We had zero feedback issues, and many people complimented us on the overall sound.

    Two large 2×15 JBL mains sat in front of us, and everyone thought we were playing through them, not knowing they weren’t even part of the audio chain. The CLRs proved to work just fine as a PA rig, and we haven’t even added a sub to them yet. They’re extremely versatile speakers for guitar, bass, front of house and more.

    Bear in mind all quality FRFR cabs will run on average $1,000 each new, so they are serious pro tools. Even at $500 each for a quality amp or unpowered speaker cab justifies the $1,000 price tag, especially for what they deliver in tone, size, weight and versatility. The “Neo” CLR is an added speaker upgrade and drops the weight a few more pounds.

    End result: Serious pro audio tools that guitar players will love.

    1 Comment "

    ToonTrack/EZ Drummer 2

    June 12th, 2014

    NEWS FLASH! EZD2 makes drummers scared and recording gurus CHEER!

    EZdrummer is gaining a lot of attention with their recent release of EZdrummer 2. Many of today’s more popular drum machines to software utilize more actual sampled phrases and beats instead of the traditional drum note sampling. This allows for the average user to create more realistic-sounding drum programs because of the fact that these phrases are real recordings with real drummers.

    The software has a nice easy-to-understand user interface with a column-style library of standard drum riffs from Ballad, Halftime, Mid Tempo, Up Tempo and Extras, each featuring various feels like Straight beats, Swing, Intros, Snare Rolls, Count ins, with varied tempo and time signatures. As you click on column No. 1, it expands a second column of categories such as Funky Swing, Basic Jazz, Swing Metal, Twisty, Radio Rock, Dbl Kick Metal, Up Tempo Metal to Punk/Metal offerings, which also expands into a third column showcasing a variety of samples handling Into, Verse, Pre Chorus, Chorus, Bridge, Fills and Endings.

    To add phrases to a song simply drag the Variation into the song bar, drag its length with a handle bar to make it longer or shorter. Double-click a phrase and it brings up the drum kit to alter Power Hand and drum target, twist up the “Amount” knob, which adds or subtracts hits, or twist “Velocity” to add more dynamic variation to the phrase.

    For use in song writing, a beat can really change the way you compose, the simple ability to select and loop a beat can help you home in, or simply hearing a beat can make you create something fresh. One thing I notice about writing to a beat is you adapt and write to the beat, if for example you need to make something adapt to you, that can be a little more complicated, as you may have to dig deeper in selecting the right phrase or manipulating it to fit your song. Or to keep it simple, I typically just call up a kick drum to be used as click track, which helps piece together a song recording guitar phrases piece by piece and moving them around to build a song by section while also having the beat to help keep phrases in time.

    In most of today’s recording software, EZdrummer will show up as a plug-in, so you can run it inside of your favorite recording software or you can export the audio as a high-quality .wav file or MIDI file and simply import the file into your recording session or import MIDI files into EZD for assigning some great drum tones to your file. There are some other cool features. For example, you can tap in a beat on your keyboard or use an electronic drum kit via a MIDI connection, which quickly locates any similar beats in the library, or use an electronic drum set to create your own new beats and assign any drum kit to the file. This may be an ideal way to convert real drumming into MIDI drum files for endless alterations on drum tone.

    So, as a simple test, I wanted to create a drum solo, as that would be virtually impossible with any kind of quality or realism just a few years ago, because in my decades of using electronic drum machines or software, they always sounded like machines and void of a human-feel-type element. What I noticed quickly while browsing the EZD drum library is that they have an extensive library of drum phrases that all sound very real because they were performed by a human and then converted into individual drum MIDI samples. Details like drumhead overtones ringing on after being hit really help make it sound authentic.

    So I created two samples for your listening pleasure. The first sample is using only one phrase that was pasted in five times. On each phrase I simply altered the Amount and Velocity, keeping them both light beginning with phrase No. 1, then adding more of both into each phrase until reaching close to max on the final phrase.

    In example No. 2, the drum solo, I created this in probably less than 30 minutes, auditioning a variety of phrases, also done with very little knowledge about this software, so bear in mind I have had zero prior experience with this software yet was able to create some cool sounds very quickly. In this test file, I did not alter any phrases. They are exactly as they were dragged in; the only minor tweak was shortening a few phrases by simply grabbing an end and dragging it to the length desired. In past years, this type of file may have taken countless hours to weeks to even get remotely close and would still have sounded like a drum machine.

    Call up a large variety of authentic sounding drum sets to percussion tools, a large variety of styles to handle anyone from a salsa band to full on double kick metal and everything in between. There is also a Mixer section that allows you to tailor each drum’s volume, tone or pan position with an effects rack to boot, allowing you to create the right-sounding environment for what you want to create.

    What’s really cool is EZdrummer 2 is only their average user software; ToonTrack has an extensive selection of other fascinating tools from MIDI sound expansion libraries, EZ Keys, and EZ Mix for a full recording package to Superior Drummer, if EZD2 cannot give you enough. Superior Drummer gets deep into a full-blown studio-type environment, micing techniques, room and much more.

    Cruise their website at; they also have a surprisingly large amount of signature name “Pro Producer Pack” upgrades of meticulously recorded drums in pro environments. This kind of stuff is of huge value to those of us who don’t have the time or resources to create such quality recordings. The site is loaded with great video demos, tutorials to audio previews to MIDI Packs or Bundle upgrades to create a library that’s exclusively tailored to you; all very reasonably priced for home to pro recording needs. ToonTrack is extremely serious about providing quality tools for the everyday musician to make your job faster, easier and more creative.

    The end result is that not only will drummers find the visual live drum set a cool tool for learning riffs, but I was SERIOUSLY awakened and smiling ear to ear at how fast EZD is to use and how KILLER it sounds; this was exactly what I was looking for, as my own band has been moving toward hibernation working on an album we can call our own and this was the song writing tool I was looking for. Granted, nothing completely replaces the human drummer, but this sure helps the individual develop and share ideas fast. Plus it can be used as an important tool in recording your next record.

    “EZD2 HUGE BANG for your buck; look no further.”

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    The Fractal Axe FX II XL

    May 14th, 2014

    Unlocking Sonic Boundaries AND MORE

    The past year has been all about reducing size. I’ve been eliminating larger amplifiers and 4×12 cabs from weekly gigs while also striving to improve on tone delivery and flexibility in a smaller package.  The quest for the Holy Grail of Tone is never ending, some make it rather simple where others its a much more technical matter.

    As always fads come, go, then return with a technology face lift evolving from what we find as cool or driven by a special need. With the constant rise for shipping or airfare rates charging more for check in or carry on luggage, gasoline and downsizing to one band van with back-lines provided, this finds many bands embracing a “less is better” approach from a small local level to the grand scale of Metallica saving HUGE amounts in tour shipping costs by putting Fractal Audio to work as a big part of their touring rigs. Not only are they ripping guitar rigs but they are equally a killer bass rig.

    Fractal Audio having built its family tree starting with the

    1. Axe-Fx Standard – Adopted by Dweezil Zappa, who led the charge among seasoned pros.

    2. Axe-Fx Ultra – capturing the attention of Periphery, Tosin Abasi, John Petrucci, SteveVai, Neal Schon and many more

    3. Axe-Fx II

    4. Axe-Fx II Mark II, – Brought to the table a whole new crop of artists including Alex Lifeson, Guthrie Govan, Deftones and more.

    5. Axe-Fx II XL “NEW” as of March 2014

    Having gained attention by numerous recording touring artists not only for how well they travel but most will boast more about what they offer in the studio to dial in on tones often during mix down via re-amping so you can tweak in the exact tone desired during mixing instead of being stuck with what you tracked with a traditional amplifier.

    So at a time when pedal boards have been getting bigger and bigger with the market flooded with stomp pedals and boutique amplifiers Fractal brings to the stage a very compact tidy package, 2 rack space Axe FX with the MFC 101 Mark III MIDI Foot Controller which fits excellent on the Pedal Train 2 board with gig bag tote. Pack the Axe FX (+ power amp and wireless) into a Road Runner 4 space soft rack with laptop space/ built in dolly and your breezin thru airline check-in as carry on.

    Editing – The software for computer based editing is a breeze to work with allowing easy dragging of  amps and effects known as “Blocks”. Editing at the unit itself is pretty user friendly to find what ya need with minimal navigational buttons to keep it fast and to the point. What I truly dig is the way they setup a patch, not only is the signal patch very clear like a flow chart but for every Patch there are 8 scenes. Also there is a X/Y or can be referred to as an A/B state for every item in your signal chain. Each scene saves the On/Off status of effects being used but also the X/Y status of each block. This allows you to manipulate say channel switching of an amp, different delay times, reverb size, EQ curve etc…. Plus with the addition of some Expression Pedals you can control even more parameters with your feet for wah-wah, volume, effects levels, drive, a slew of options. I loved how the wah-wah auto turns on when moved, then off when returned to the heel position, no button required to turn it on which is a feature I loved about many Morley wah’s like the Steve Vai Bad Horsie.

    And if all of this isn’t quite enough for you over indulging knob tweaker’s of course you have the ability to use two amps and effects chains at the same time, sending the PA a mix that is different then your stage rig both being stereo feeds. Tweaking, altering, controlling anything to pretty much your imagination. You could even mic your stage rig to add to the overall tonal palette with different amp and effect settings. You can dig deep inside any effect, amplifier, cabinet, far beyond the originals functional abilities.

    Tone Matching is a feature Fractal includes which has been getting high praise over that of say the Kemper amps in the same tone capture category. You simply call up a close amplifier patch to what you want to clone then feeding a pre recorded signal into the unit which then reviews/analyzes the audio and alters the amp model you had selected to sound as close as possible to what you Tone Matched. You can actually make a personal library of all your favorite amplifiers and speaker cabinets with an online users group that’s sharing presets from local Joe’s to big time Pro’s. In a cover band or just love a certain artists tone? Search a song name to artist and you just may find something to get you in the arena then dial in the details on the fly.

    Setup – Think about how you assemble your tone and other pieces of gear you feed a signal to, say for example most people will plug into the PA system via the XLR outputs and also to a traditional amplifier for your stage amp. In this situation both signal paths to PA and Stage Amp would basically be identical with consideration taken in what type of power amp you are using, a solid state or tube power amp? If a solid state you will still want to use the power amp sag settings to emulate that of any tube amplifiers you call up. Or if your sending a signal to a tube power amp you may choose to disable the power amp sag turning it down till it says PA, or as in my case I like it at .08 which is the lowest it will allow you to set it and remain on and I find it just sounds fuller running small 1×12 VHT cabs with a 22 or 50 watt tube power amp. I am currently running it thru both the PA and stage amp, which does sound great but I am looking forward to some new experiments with Matrix and Atomic amplification both heavily targeting light weight power amps and FRFR speakers.

    Speaker cabinet modeling is an important tool to help dial in a perfect PA tone, but on stage if your sending a signal to a normal guitar speaker cabinet you will want to remove any speaker block in the signal chain being sent to that stage amp because a traditional speaker cabinet adds color. This leads us into FRFR or “Full Range Flat Response”. In order to get the most out of  cabinet modeling you may prefer sending a signal to a full range speaker like a PA speaker. Although most guitar players don’t want to use a speaker cabinet that looks like a PA speaker so a few companies are developing FRFR guitar cabs and yes they have a tweeter. What this does is when you call up any speaker cabinet sample a FRFR speaker recreates that emulated cabinet best as possible.

    UltraRes –  With new approaches in how the signal takes shape is being called “Impulse Response” which is defined as: “An IR (Impulse Response) is a sampling of how sound behaves with a given thing.” UltraRes gives better IR performance without added latency or CPU usage. Also not only are we capturing IR from amplifiers but also from speaker cabinets, microphones and the rooms themselves in which they are recorded. The endless selections cabs, mics and placement AND MORE!

    Simple edit notes, watch the LED’s for input/out levels and do not let the outputs clip. I highly suggest do all your volume level editing from the amplifier block and not from the master output section, this allows for faster editing as you balance your levels between patches. I keep an EQ at the end of the chain for solo boosting, EQ is set flat and I use a 4 to 6 db boost depending if its a single or dual guitar player gig.

    The new Axe FX II XL boasts much more processor horsepower and a slew of improvements with slightly lower noise floor levels with room for expansion in future updates. Metal heads will smile HUGE as their heads bang long into the night, you can get a ridiculous amount of gain far more than any typical guitar amp and still have it remain tight and controllable with the very intelligent noise gates. Some web comments about earlier models noted having problems getting singing feedback, not a problem with the XL this baby sings like a bird and very touch sensitive, in the right setting you would swear there were tubes in there plus its always predictable you get the same tone every time when you need it most. But no fear the cleans are stunning as well as plenty of boutique amps to reference for any tone desired.

    The Looper is rather interesting what I found cool was you can record a loop and save it to the patch and it stays there until the unit is powered down. I would love to see them add some Flash Memory storage as a future revision so you could call up a library of perfect loops ready any time needed which would be very useful for a single guitarist.

    Amps and Cabs – I am very impressed with the long list of amps vintage to modern and everything in between, clean to down right mean, the list of high profile artists switching to Fractal is impressive and even more what they are saying about it. For players with In Ear Monitors they find it a jewel of a tool. Another new feature to the XL is a XLR jack they call a “FASLINK Port” for communicating with the MFC foot control. Prior versions were all CAT5 which is still there but if you break or lose a CAT5 cable your going to be scrambling to replace it where every sound man has XLR cables to save the day. There is a FASLINK Adapter available so all AXE FX II or MFC owners can get in on the upgrade.

    There are extra Cab Packs or Cab-Lab that can be purchased as add-on’s from a few different suppliers found on their website for fast download developed by guys with some nice studios and a lot of quality gear to sample. Cabs make a massive change in the tonal delivery, room environment etc… Cab-Lab allows up to 8 cabs to be mixed together and saved as a unique Cab model.

    The MFC-101 Mark III  pedal board morphs easily from simple bank/patch changes to Reveal mode which opens you up to the Patch Scenes that are saved, plus effects lit red/green to show status and you can toggle them on/off anytime you wish. All the features you would expect or need from tempo tapping, tuner, 4 extra switching jacks to control amplifiers or other, plus the ability to use 4 Expression pedals for real time control of various parameters.

    Updates – When firmware updates become available they target a large variety of bug fixes with improvements on amps, effects etc … Never update just before a gig, wait till you have time to audition your patches as some levels or mixes may change.

    In summary I have used Line6 HD POD’s, Positive Grids JamUp iOS system, MIDI tube preamp’s and Eventide rack effects, etc … The Fractal is by far the most versatile tool I have used yet, creating a sonically wonderful, inspiring piece of gear. Just be prepared to spend some time dialing in some patches and even though you will create a great tone quickly, you may find the tweaking as endless as the pursuit for the ultimate new tones. Read those manuals and play with those knobs. I have to feel that any player making this gear move will remain pretty satisfied for a long while to come, or until you need the next Fractal.

    Future of Fractal?

    Matt Picone comments: More! We’re always thinking and improving… not only of ways to evolve our current products, and also about totally new products—products with cool and innovative new sounds, products at different price levels, products with totally new paradigms… Artists, players and the press have had extremely high praise for the Axe-Fx and its companion products, and we’re very grateful for the incredible reception. This success has granted us the chance to start to realize some of what comes next. We’re small. New. Still-hungry. We’re driven by the music and the musicians as well as the science and the potential of new ideas. Our future is infinite. Every day is “just the beginning.” I guess that’s why I for one am guilty of massively over-using the phrase “and more!” to describe whatever we’re working on at any moment.

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    The Premier Builders Guild

    March 13th, 2014

    Birth of the masterbuilt instrument
    by Gene Baker

    About a year after my original company Baker Guitars closed its doors in 2003, I launched Fine Tuned Instruments in 2004 as a single man shop and slowly put together each department. It grew from a single man business to a small crew of five delivering the b3 guitar line to the world in limited quantity, not taking any dealer orders and just delivering what I was able to make with the materials I would source. This approach worked well for about four years, allowing the shop to grow slowly, giving me time to design and tool up for a nice assortment of five various models covering solid to hollow-body guitars at various boutique price points through a minimal dealer network until the economy took a turn for the worse.


    Kevin Falerios Photography

    Almost overnight, we scaled back to mainly the core two guys, myself and a long-time jack-of-all-guitar-trades. Having built up a small dealer network and distribution in Japan with zero advertising plus the fan base of the original Baker Guitars, we had re-established a quality reputation yet again found ourselves at the crossroads and needed to make a plan.

    At that time, Cliff Cultreri at Destroy All Guitars was my primary business consultant and investor. He has a knack for hand picking quality music industry talent from the likes of Steve Vai and Satriani to Reinhold Bogner, Top Hat amps and for others, he has donated his godfather-like wisdom with a pay-it-forward approach. He is a true patron to the arts, from simple counseling to financial backing. Cultreri is a tone consultant for customers worldwide, and many of his customers are well off businessmen with a sweet tooth for guitars and amps.

    Survival techniques

    When the economy did a spiral nose dive in 2008-2009, I knew I had to make a change to save the brand and our jobs, so Cultreri and I had a chat about “what if.” I expressed my interest in an sole investor with attorney skills, business management, passion for guitars and someone who would NOT be a silent investor. I wanted a primary owner who would truly drive and guide our ship to success. After a short chat, he said I know of two guys, but one in particular I believe is the best for this venture.

    Within a few days, we had a three-way chat with Michael Berstein, Cultreri and me, and a week later, Berstein flew out for a business overview and met with a few key people including my long time Baker Guitars partner Gil Vasquez and sales rep Jimmy Lovinggood, plus Berstein’s long-time friend Howard Swimmer. Under the Fine Tuned Instruments roof, I was already building products for other brand designers who wanted to use my name to help optimize the build quality of their designs. In doing this, I was used to working with other designers and reverse engineering their models, which allowed them to move out of a pencil drafting world and into computer aided drafting and generating computer numeric control programs for repetitive production of the model. This allowed me to ride through the rough months doing consulting to CAD development for various companies.

    The initial vision


    Kevin Falerios Photography

    One month after our first meeting, a group of people flew to Pittsburgh for a meeting-of-the-minds summit to see if a small group of brand designers could come together with a plan to form a builder’s guild. For three days we delivered round-table idea presentations and brainstormed about Berstein’s initial vision to build legendary brands by giving builders the infrastructure required for them to focus on their skill verses the business aspect. Could these boutique industry underdogs give larger-known brands a true run for their money in a down economy and remain successful in the long run? Only time would tell, but we were off to a very positive start.

    In the original meeting, we met with Jason Schroeder of Schroeder Guitars, Saul Koll of Koll Guitars, Dennis Fano of Fano Guitars, Mark Bartel of Tone-King Amplifiers plus a group of well-versed industry musicians to financial advisers: Cliff Cultreri, Matte Henderson, Lance Keltner, Jimmy Lovinggood, Howard Swimmer, Steve Harplen and more. After three days of getting to know each other, we left energized with an idea and a handshake intent to be followed up with contracts for each interested party.

    The Premier Builders Guild

    So it was written, so it was done. The Premier Builders Guild formed on November 17, 2009. There was a very interesting dynamic between Berstein, Swimmer, Lovinggood and me, all being the same age, all having been friends since second grade, having a passion for live music. There was a mutual connection that was very comfortable out of the gate. With me as the beginning building block, the company began with the addition of Fano of Fano Guitars, Koll of Koll Guitars, Johan Gustavsson of JG Guitars, Roger Giffin of Giffin Guitars, Schroeder of Schroeder Guitars as guitar brands, most of whom I was already close with or had a good reputation with. Bartel of Tone King Amplifiers and Robert Gjika of Gjika amplifiers rounded out a boutique gear package.

    To begin, the plan was to identify departments of excellence and use one sales force, one accounting department, one marketing branding firm, so we could consolidate a lot of work into fewer departments. Immediately, I had to evaluate our production facility, and the choice was pretty obvious. We needed to move into a larger facility with the right space and layout to produce guitars. Luckily, we located a 7,000-square-foot shop only a half mile up the street that was perfect for a guitar shop. It had a separate paint shop that was once an auto-body-restoration business.

    Setting up shop Gene3LR

    We moved in April 1st and added some key crew members, set up shop and by July 2010, we started delivering guitars to dealers throughout the U.S. and Japan. I recruited the aid of a long-time friend and CAD guy Larry Juarez to take on the challenge of getting six guitar brands with multiple models per brand reversed engineered, tooled up, prototyped, designer approved and into production. Within that first year, we delivered 27 different models to the January 2011 Anaheim NAMM Show and had a small showing at the 2010 summer Nashville show.

    PBG likes to do things with class and style. In October 2010, we flew all dealers to California for a three-day dealer meet-and-greet summit, and our entire design team was on hand with some fun festivities planned for their stay. The week climaxed with us taking over a local venue, Mongos in Grover Beach, Calif. on a Wednesday night with a free all-star impromptu, unrehearsed jam. Ronnie Montrose graciously offered his skills, as my personal band MGB basically reproduced the first Montrose release with Montrose at the helm. There’s a few YouTube videos available from the night that left many smiling for a life time, and Mongos has probably never rocked harder:

    Montrose with MGB at Mongo’s Oct 2010

    Premier Guitar Magazine Factory Tour 2010

    Any plan or business must quickly change and react to what it learns on a daily basis to survive. I learned always to expect change and to constantly look for ways to improve speed and quality in how we do our daily job. The first three years were rough, and we earned a lot about what we could or could not do, who our customers were. Not all brands remained; we lost a few for a variety of reasons, and all remain very good friends.

    We’ve encountered many growing pains, as all businesses do, but everyone has been able to put his or her personal agendas aside to focus on what is best for the company. Recently, we added the expertise of Brian Swerdfeger as the president of the Premier Builders Guild. He was the general manager for Taylor Guitars for seven years and was a ground floor guy for the start up of Line 6. Swerdfeger comes in with a wealth of industry knowledge as a long-time professional guitar player and a guy who just loves gear and works very well with people. He has identified what our products are, who they cater to and has a strong knowledge of guitar production. He has become the quarterback that helps challenge and organize the team to rally and perform our best.

    One of my favorite achievements under this family has been the addition of D’Angelico Guitars owned by GTR in New Jersey. John D’Angelico is the godfather of art-deco arch-top jazz guitars. After his passing in the 1960s, the name bounced around, until GTR brought it back home. While I was employed at the Fender Custom Shop, I had the pleasure of building a lot of guitars for Sam Ash Music via Steve Pisani, who is part of the GTR family. At NAMM 2011, he approached me about a project. When he said D’Angelico, it was like this was the job I had been preparing for all my life.

    Ever since then, GTR submits original models to me to reverse engineer, prototype and document for production. This project also brought in another long-time friend from my Fender days, master builder Art Esparza. He called me at the perfect time, wanting to get out of the Inland Empire area of California and into the SLO life of San Luis Obispo/Pismo Beach. His wish came true, as I needed a master builder to build these D’Angelicos. He was also a builder for Steve Pisani, which made for an easy expansion. Today, we reproduce the D’Angelico USA Masterbuilt models consisting of a 1943 Excel and an Excel B Style model, and we have some pretty heavy support from players such as Eric Clapton, Joe Perry, Bernie Williams, Jonathan Butler and many more. It’s been an honor and privilege to bring these instrument back to new life for a true legacy builder.

    Premier life style

    To me, this is the job and life style I have always dreamed of and have worked a life time to achieve. I’m not rich, but I’m rich in friends, family and still play as many gigs as I can book. The company is growing wisely and expanding into many countries around the globe. Fano and his Fano Alt-DeFacto line has proved to be a major hit, captivating a market, as if many vintage-based guitar companies pooled together ideas to design guitars that look as if they should have been released decades ago, which is an art form in its own right. Premier Guitar Magazine noted us as being one of the fastest growing guitar companies and received a lot of interest from their subscriber audience.

    Various people in the company have delegated their skills to help establish the infrastructure of the company and the departments of excellence I mentioned. My shop became the guitar production hub with my strong production background in CNC manufacturing and paint. Two-Rock Amplifiers was acquired as part of the family, which became the hub for amplifier production. Mark Bartel allocated a heavy amount of time to developing an all-inclusive order entry network server database for the entire company to communicate sales, scheduling, purchasing and accounting from any location. Today b3, Fano, Koll and D’Angelico remain as guitar brands, and Two-Rock and Tone King are our amplifier brands. Their original designers are still very much in control of the quality that we produce. Each brand focuses on a different end user, each is in their own niche of what we do best, while constantly sharing ideas as a true guild should — to expand all that we and our products are capable of.

    As for myself I just love gear, playing live music, camping, fishing, and I’m very thankful to be part of a team focused on quality and the evolution of guitar gear as we know it. We have had our share of naysayers that want to shoot us down, but as some people say, quality always rises to the top. Just give us some development time, and we promise to deliver some very cool guitars and amplifiers. In case you’re interested, here are some new clips from NAMM 2014.


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