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Tube Amps: A guitarist’s quest for tone

Quite often on this blog I write about digital guitar technology, whether it is my iOS Strat, an app like Ampkit for my iPad, or something to do with Logic Pro on my iMac, my musical life as a guitarist and bassist really seems to revolve around digital technology. As a bass player, I could not have ever been bothered with tube amps. Give me solid state over tubes any day of the week. And honestly, as a bassist, that is still my mantra. However on the guitar side of things, that mantra changed.

On Facebook and twitter I have been writing a lot about the documentary “Sound City” that Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana on the L.A. Studio where Nirvana recorded “Nevermind”, the record that set the blueprint for the 90's. Being a gear head I have watched the movie a few times now due to the fact that it centers around the Neve console that was the heart of the studio. The movie actually does a good job of showcasing the sound of the Neve console and how it made so many great sounding records, but it also focuses of the fact that to make music, good music, you need people to perform so it can be captured by this mythical gear. There were a few times in the film where I felt they tried to unfairly vilify the digital age, but I completely agree that music should be “performed” vs. “fabricated” or pieced together.

So how do those two completely unrelated paragraphs tie together? Well, between watching the “Sound City” and playing with the Ampkit app on my iPad, I found myself longing for the sound of a real, analog amplifier. The real irony is that what really drove my quest for a tube amp was playing through the modeled version of the Peavey Classic 30 in the Ampkit app. It sounded great, unlike any other modeled amps I had used before, so I started looking for a small tube amp.

I have two small 30 watt guitar amps, both are modeling amps. One is the Fender G-DEC 3 and the other is the Vox AD30-VT. Both are loaded with effects and amp models, but the Vox always had something that set it apart, a tube pre-amp. Something about that amp just sounded better and I figured it had to be the 12AX7 tube. So as you can guess after playing around with the Vox, Ampkit, and watching Sound City over and over, I decided that I needed a real tube amp.

Going back to my opening statements, this desire for tube tones obviously led me into very unfamiliar territory. Since I had no idea what I was doing or even what I was really looking for, I headed down to Pittsburgh Guitars to get some guidance. One thing that I really appreciate about Pittsburgh guitars is that they stay true to who they are and what they like. Meaning that they only sell things that they themselves would use. Over the course of two visits I tried out a Vox AC4 and a Fender Blues Junior. The two amps were similar in size and build, but sounded vastly different. When I asked why, John simply replied “it's a different circuit”. The blues junior had a stronger low end and reminded me of the classic late 60's early 70's tones. As I tried two of the different Vox AC4 amps out, I asked about the circuit in the blue one. I had read about the the circuit being modeled after the AC15, just lowered wattage. This time it was Scott the repair guy who answered my question. His reply? “I'm not sure about the circuit, but what do your ears tell you?”.

That was a very powerful statement. I had shown up that day with two of favorite pedals, my own cables and my Fender Pawnshop '51. Obviously I wanted to know how these amps sounded with my own gear, and Scott reminded me of that. With that one simple statement he also reminded that as much as I enjoy all the technology that goes into the gear, what really matters is the sound that comes out. So I focused on that sound. I really listened to those three amplifiers I was playing. My decision was this: the Fender blues jr really had the low end I wanted, but it was just too loud for what I need right now, but it's on the wish list. The “Blue” AC4 sounded great, but didn't give me the sound I wanted at low volumes. So that leaves the AC4-TV. I loved the clarity of the high end, but it was lacking in low end. That said, when set to 1/4 watt, I could turn everything up full and really drive the amp to get the tones I wanted.

To tie this all back to my opening paragraphs, the technology of the iPad drove me to seek out real tube amps. Watching “Sound City” drove me to record real amps and made me realize that a real tube amp would sound better then the modeling amps I was using. Those two factors drove me to get a tube amp and I now have better guitar tones than I could have imagined, and I am able to get them at a volume that makes my family happy. I am now completely sold on tube amps for guitars and you can bet there will be more “tone” posts in the future.


Episode 23: The Germ Demos


My recording rig for the Germ demos

My recording rig for the Germ demos

I have to say I was really excited to put this episode together. It gave me a chance to try out a lot of things at once. First and foremost I got to sit down with the Germ from Caleb Cook at Hazel Effects and put it through

My Korina G400 and my '51 Pawn Shop

My Korina G400 and my ’51 Pawn Shop

the paces. I really like the sound our this pedal and how it changes from guitar to guitar. It enhances qualities already inherent to the guitar driving it. Next, I experimented with the wattage control on my Vox AD30 VT. One of the big selling points for me on that amp was the variable wattage (from 30 watts down to 1 watt) because I wanted to be able to record the sound I wanted at lower volume levels. So far, I am REALLY loving that feature. The last variable was using the iRig mic to record the amp straight into the Bossjock app for easier play back when recording the actual show.


It was the last variable that made me aphrensive and delayed me from the actual task. When I started recording digitally and recording live guitars, I could never get a sound I was happy with. I read every article and tried every trick the pros used, but still just lifeless sound. I finally made myself sit down and try to record and I used a technique I picked up from the Project Studio Network podcast. The technique is from a book called “Mixing with your mind” and it’s a different way of looking at recording. The technique fir mic’ing the amp revolves around where to place the mic. What the Author says to do is place your hand between the mic and the amp and move your hand around while some one is playing the guitar. When the hairs on the back of your hand stand up, that is where you should place the mic. Sounds simple right? The first three samples were mixed with that technique and the others were not, so you can judge for yourself how it sounds. I am much happier with the first three samples.

Inside the Tremulator

Inside the Tremulator

For the first three audio samples my signal chain consisted of my Fender Pawnshop ’51 into the Germ and then into the Vox AD30 VT. On the Vox I used the boutique clean amp setting to take all the drive out. I wanted just the Germ pushing fuzz. The ’51 has coil splitting built in, so I demo it with the bridge humbucker and the split out single coil. For the second set of audio samples I use the same chain, except I swap out the guitar to my Epiphone Korina G-400. The more I play that guitar the more I like it and want to re-wire it. I am jut not entirely happy with the pick ups. For the other sound samples, I have no Idea what all was used because I forgot to write it down (insert smiley face here, ha ha ha). I know my TS9 and my Demeter Tremulator made it into the mix, but I am not really sure which guitars we used.

Last thing is if you have bee following my social media, you probably know that I am a fan of the Movie Sound City. If you have not seen it yet, check it out. That movie really inspired me to push things with my recording and I recorded a real guitar Amp in stead of using a plug-in. I might never go back. I am finally getting the sounds I have always wanted. Until next time… make some noise!



Episode 22: Joe Cardamone of The Icarus Line

The Icarus Line - Slave Vows

The Icarus Line - Slave Vows

I have mentioned on several episodes and posts that I am metal head. I love Metal, and especially bands like Dillinger Escape plan and Periphery. Before I was a metal head, though my parents and grandparents made sure I had a very wide exposure to music. Growing up I listened to classic rock, big band jazz, 50's and 60's pop and rock. I enjoy the arrangements that went into some of the early pop music. Some songs were very sparse and some were quite elaborate. Some required some amazingly creative thinking on the part of the recording engineers to achieve a certain sound. But then I discovered Metal, in particular Metallica. Metallica had a symphonic quality about them and their longer song structure was like listening to a mini-symphony. But then the “Black Album” happened, and a lot of my metal heroes stopped being metal for a while. So I discovered the Post punk and hardcore scene of the late 70's and early 80's and what ended up being called alternative rock in the 90's. There was a raw quality to the music, and the arrangement was there once again. Of course that scene also dried up and distilled itself into watered down pop leaving me with a craving for something new or perhaps old. It seems while the music that I had enjoyed in my youth was thought to be dead, it was really just a Phoenix getting ready to rise from the ashes. And it turns out so was the post punk hardcore that I enjoyed. And today there is a thriving scene that allows us to not draw lines in the sand and just focus on making great music. And that is What Joe Carmadone does, he makes great music. Listening to the latest Album by the Icarus line is like listening to the audio equivalent of watching someone paint by throwing gobs of it from their brushes. At first it seems like chaos, then a melody emerges. That melody is nurtured and built into a song, and then it all starts again. Talking with Joe, I learned that he a modern guy with old-school sensibility. He knows when something calls for a high tech solution, or when a time tested 50 year recording technique will suffice. How does he know this? Because he is an artist. And artist knows what his tools, respects his tools, and more importantly, knows which tool is best for the job. Joe might have a huge mountain of gear and effects at his disposal, but he uses what is best for the song, for the creation. And that…. is what we discuss in Episode 22. Gear, creating music, and capturing a performance.


Episode 21: The Firefly Pick

The Firefly Pick

The Firefly Pick


Years ago I worked for a small music store. I taught lessons, worked the sales floor, did minor repair, helped with piano moving and deliveries, and eventually built up the small guitar department. It was a fun job and I really enjoyed being a part of so many aspects of the music industry, may favorite part of the job was going to NAMM. We were a samll store so going to NAMM every year did not make sense for us, but we still went a few times, including a trip to the Anaheim show. What I loved about NAMM was seeing new gear before the general public. You always had the old standard guys, like Boss and Fender or Gibson debuting something new, but what I really looked for were the small start start-ups. The companies who did not have all the years of brand recognition behind them. Now don't get me wrong, the Fender booth was my first stop every year, but there is something exciting about discovering a product that could be the next big thing. Over the years I accumulated new sets of guitar strings, picks, Aluminum drum sticks(those things are BEASTS), and a cool light sensitive volume control that plugs directly into your guitar. Some of these products went on to make their mark,while others were not so fortunate. It was fun to see the inventive, entrepreneurial spirit alive and well at the NAMM show.

My last NAMM Show was 12 years ago, but have no fear I have found a new place where the creative and inventive entrepreneurial spirit are turned lose everyday, and that place is Kickstarter. I have spoken and written about Kickstarter many times before, but it was not until I sat down to interview Peter Holm, one of the co-creators of the Firefly pick, that I realized what it was that drew me to Kickstarter over and over. It was being able to see a new product before it was released to the general public. The Firefly pick is one of those products that I would have seen at NAMM, tried out, and then immediately ordered for the store while seeing if they had any available for purchase at the show so I could take one home. I have played a lot of picks, and have enjoyed them for different reasons, but never have I seen any that marry design, technology, functionality, and showmanship in one product, until now. The technology used to design and produce this pick is a miracle of modern electronics, the circuit and components are so tiny I cant even imagine trying to solder them together as Peter described in the interview. Take away the virtual impossibility of this design, and what do you have? A pick that set's you apart from the other players out there. A pick that could allow you and your band to take your light show to a whole new level! The light up aspect of this pick is super cool, but that's only one aspect. Since it is motion activated, I am imagining some young band getting several of these an writing a song or two based on specific light and color. It brings a whole new visual aspect to guitar playing. So if you are looking for something new, and you want to be on the cutting edge, I encourage you to check out the Firefly pick on Kickstarter. And while you are there, see what else catches your eye. You might just find yourself backing the next big thing in guitar.



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