Badcat Unleash—one year later

After using the Badcat Unleash at band practice, gigs and at home over the last year, it’s now become a staple of my guitar rig.  What the Unleash is, is an attenuator/re-amplification device that allows you to take the output of any amplifier between 2 and 100 watts and scale the output of it up or down to fit the venue: your bedroom or a concert hall.

(For my February 2013 Review of the Unleash click here: UNLEASH REVIEW )

In my case, the amplifier in question is a Magic Valve clone of a 1957 Fender Deluxe amp.   The Deluxe has an output of around 12 watts.   Some people would say it’s a loud 12 watts, as when it’s cranked (and it goes to 12) it can almost keep up with a three piece rock band.   Probably the most famous use of one is by Larry Carlton on the Steely Dan cut “Kid Charlemagne”.    A humbucker equipped instrument with the amp’s volume control on about 3 to 4, depending on your particular pot’s volume taper, will render a beautiful singing sustained tone with just a touch of hair.

You can then roll the volume pot down on your guitar to 6 or 7, which cleans up the amp almost entirely, and just ramp it up to 10 for a solo.   If that volume and tone works for the band, music and venue your playing in: you’re in luck.   If you mic the amp and have a great PA system and sound man you’re also in luck.  (If you always have that, then you’re playing better rooms than I am…..)

It’s a fantastic sounding amp and has all sorts of wonderful tones in it.   The one thing it won’t do is play loud and clean at the same time.    For a time I tried using a two amp rig with a 40 Fender  Bandmaster Reverb turned into a combo amp with a single 15″ speaker and using an AB Switch.  This approach can work well, but you need to carry more stuff, convince soundmen you need to take up two microphone inputs, and a few other limitations.     Enter the Unleash.

guitar rig
I’ll explain the whole signal path chart in a second, but it will be easier to understand if I simplify and just explain how the Unleash works in the above rig.   I set the volume on the amp at around 3 to 4, depending on the guitar I’m using.   This allows me to use the “rolling-off -the- guitar’s-volume” outlined above.    The signal leaves the 5E3 and goes into the Unleash.   The Unleash provides a load to the amplifier so it thinks it’s connected to a speaker,  the signal is attenuated to line level, and then re-amplified to whatever volume you choose with a couple of knobs on the front of the Unleash.  The Unleash has a “class D” amp that has an output of 100 watts into an 8 ohm load and 180 watts into 4 ohms.

 

The function of the “Class D” amp is not to be a producer of tone, but just amplify the sound with as little coloration as possible.   This is something that some guitarists seem to have trouble grasping.   Some guy on one of the forums posted that he compared the sound of his Mesa power amp to the Unleash using a mesa Pre-amp as a sound source.   Talk about missing the point.    In practice, the Unleash has enough power so that you have enough headroom to play without the additional (and unwanted) coloration that badcatfront..

When I fist got the Unleash, I went through this whole routine to see how it was impacting on my “tone” trying to get the volume just right so I couple quickly unconnect the Unleash and thus obtain a “true” A to B comparison.   I then realized that I was trying to get the Unleash to do the one thing I would never ask it to do: replicate the sound from the 5E3 at the same volume.   I was worried that I was losing some high frequency information, and then it dawned on me that if I had to resort to “tests” to hear it, it was probably insignificant.    I think I generally turn up the treble on the 5E3’s tone control a little higher when I use the Unleash, but that’s about it.

The guitar’s volume pot controls the level of distortion that the 5E3 generates, and I use the Ernie Ball volume pedal to control the ultimate volume.   I also have a foot switch that controls two pre-set levels that I can set on the Unleash.   Set the guitar’s volume pot to 5, and you can get Twin Reverb like levels of clean with 180 watts to back it up.   Or screaming distortion at virtually any volume level I’ll ever use.

The odd thing is I hardly ever do the one thing that most people associate with attenuators: Crank the amp to 10 and then bring it down to manageable levels with the attenuator.   I did plug my Goldtop into it and after I realized that, yes, I could get it to sound just like “Cinnamon Girl” in my living room without scaring my cat, I lost all further desire to do that.   A little too fuzzy for my tastes, but it’s nice to know I’ll be able to form a Neil Young tribute band in the retirement commune.    (You know, where people will get around in golf carts styled like old VW buses.)

RP360

So why the RP360XP?    90% of the time I just use it for reverb, and maybe a little chorus or delay, but I discovered something it can do that is really cool.    I got the RP to use with a Fender Greta at home but when I plugged it into the 5E3 I noticed that the “Bassman” amp model blended with the 5E3’s sound in an almost seamless manner, especially after I turned the model’s gain control down.     I set it so the amp model would just barely distort, if at all, and then set the output level to just a hair higher than the signal supplied by the guitar.  What’s happened is that I’m basically coloring the signal to resemble the clean sound of a Bassman and then layering the 5E3’s distortion on top of that.   Sort of like an EQ with presets.

You end up with a sound that is definitely “tweed” in character, sort of like  if you could have a Bassman with 6V6 tubes, 2 X 12″ speakers and 180 watts.   I’ve got a “68 Plexi setting”, a “Twang” setting based on a Twin, and a few others.   I’ve been working on an “AC30” patch, but it’s not ready for prime time yet.   The key is getting the blend between the processor and the amp set just rig.

That could be tedious, but the RP has a feature on it that makes all this a piece of cake.   They call it “sound check”, and it allows you to record something on the unit’s looper and then use software to set everything up with the 40 second loop.  You can tweak everything with mouse clicks while the first 12 bars of “Hideaway” plays endlessly.  I’ve got the whole rig connected and can hear what the end result is going to sound like by just dialing the volume down to neighbor, family, and pet friendly levels.   You can sit there drinking a Longfin Lager and marvel at how much easier it is to set levels whilst not playing guitar at the same time.    A lot easier to concentrate on getting an EQ patch “just so” when you’re not going back and forth between playing guitar and twiddling knobs.

At band practice, I had to make a few slight adjustments to deal with the higher volume, but that was real easy to do as I’ve had the Unleash long enough to know things will sound a little different at stage volume.  I learned that you need to program a little less bass at living room volume, and then it will be pretty close to being right at stage volume.   The fact that tone, distortion and volume are totally separate makes the process so much easier, without having to worry about hitting the amp’s “sweet spot”.    I can make something louder, without also increasing the distortion, or get more distortion while lowering the volume, should I feel a need to do that.

The rig worked great at a gig the other night, I used only about 4 or 5  different preset patches on the processor, so there wasn’t a lot of tap dancing on pedals to make things happen.   Much less hassle than individual pedals.    We only play one cover, so I have no concern about “nailing” a sought after tone or a particular amp.  I’m not concerned if my “Bassman” patch sounds like a “real” Bassman or not, as long as I like the way it sounds and serves the tune.     The cool thing is, though, that there were no surprises as the rig sounds EXACTLY the same in my living room as it did on stage, just louder.

 

Some New life for an ol’ buddy in the 21st century.

I’ve owned this guitar for nearly 49 years, since the fall of 1965 when I bought it for $175.    To put things in perspective, this was about 6 months before Hendrix got his first Strat.   It was a couple years old when I got it but it was in very good shape and came with a case.   I played it regularly until the late 90’s.    At that point two things happened.   First, someone stole it.    Although it was already recovered by the police by the time a buddy of mine told me that someone brought it into his shop (thieves are not always they brightest people) to find out how much it was worth…. it was a traumatic event.  The guitar was a security blanket for me, a link to my childhood and the idea of NOT having it seemed unbearable.   After that, taking it to bars made me nervous, and I’d mainly just watch it and not have a whole lot of fun.   The other thing was that the frets were actually wearing out.   By this time, I had been finding other Fender style guitars to play as I’d discovered that I liked both a flatter radius neck and bigger frets.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

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By 1969 or so, the original sunburst finish had started flaking of in large chunks and it was looking pretty beat up.    Nowadays, it would be considered “cool” and I’ve seen relic versions featuring a similar look.   A friend of mine painted it Red While and Blue and it was that way for about 5 years.    It’s been refinished as a natural a couple of times, the last time was about 20 years ago.

In 1970, I installed a Epihone patent # humbucker in the neck position, a popular modification at the time.    In retrospect, although it allowed me to make some sounds I couldn’t with single coils, it never sounded quite right to me, and it always overpowered the bridge pickup.   it was pretty much a “virtual Esquire” from then on, as I mostly played the bridge pickup.    Especially after I got my Les Paul.

Throughout the 80’s I ended up playing a series of Strats for my “single coil guitar” and the Tele sort of got pushed aside.    Then one day in the early 90’s, I decided to take it to a gig, and I “rediscovered” how nice of a guitar it really was: it made my Strat Plus Deluxe seem like a toy.   For the next few years I switched between it and the Les Paul.  

That brings us back to the first paragraph.     Getting it refretted posed a problem.   The veneer type fretboard was not meaty enough to sand it down  to provide the flatter radius I wanted.  I didn’t want to refret it and then end up not playing it, and so it ended up spending a lot of time in a case.  It became a symbol more than a guitar.

I thought about getting a new neck with a 9.5 radius and medium jumbo frets but wondered what it would sound like?   Would there be much left of the original guitar’s sound?  

To cut to the chase, I ended up getting a new neck from a company in Pennsylvania called Source Nation.   Flamed maple in satin nitro, a nice thick rosewood fingerboard and a 9.5 in radius.    Stew Mac medium jumbo frets.     While I was at it, I decided I’d fit a single coil to the neck position and used a Rio Grande Tallboy and a pickguard I had purchased that allows the mounting of a Strat type pickup.   I also replaced the pots, switch and jack with quality parts.   (Switchcraft jack, CTS pots, Solar cap)

The neck mounted easily, everything lined up where it should be and only required some slight adjustment.   I mounted some Schaller locking tuners, and I was ready to go.

The neck is very close to the same profile as the original one.  The guitar sounds the same to me and it plays great, even doing big bends up high on the neck where the old one had to have such high action to prevent fretting out.    The Tallboy is a perfect match for the original bridge pickup in terms of output and since it’s RWRP (reverse wound/reverse polarity) the middle position is now hum cancelling and twangy as hell. 

I’ve used it at band practice and it works really well; I found myself inspired by playing it again.    I’ve always loved the  bridge pickup, which on this particular guitar is a very full sounding, almost P-90-ish item.  Switching to the Tallboy, the volume doesn’t change and the Tallboy might even drive the amp into distortion a little easier.   It’s much more articulate than the humbucker was in this position and as expected very Strat like.  

After the neck settles in, I’ll do a fret level and polish (the fretwork is already pretty nice, this should be an easy job) and then install a Tusq nut in place of the bone.   I should be about finished at that point.   Oh, I’ve found a “Fender” decal for the headstock, and when I do the nut, I’ll apply it and then protect it with a layer of poly.      

It feels like a new guitar, yet it is hyper-familiar at the same time.   I’m half tempted to add a few dings in the same places as the old neck, but think I’ll let it acquire it’s own character.  There’s a time machine element to this as it takes me back to when I first got this guitar, which means, in my case, the 8th grade!   My mom had to come to my bedroom and take it out of my grasp, as I had fallen asleep with it in bed.  I never realized at the time that I would still be playing it a half century later.

Does This Guitar make me sound Fat?

Physically, an electric guitar is a resonant system.   I find a useful analogy is a pond that you throw rocks into and start a wave pattern.  The three main points where the sting’s vibrations enter the body (the pond) are the bridge, and/or the nut or frets.   You can feel the guitar vibrating in your hands and if you touch the guitar to a wall or a door, a certain level of that vibration will set the wall or door into motion and you can hear this quite clearly.  (Try a large glass window)  There’s more mechanical energy that you’d think at work here. Some guitars also continue to vibrate long after others have gone silent.

File:Two sources interference.gif

On the surface of this pond we also have the pickups, essentially floating on top of the body, or the pickguard in many cases.   Whatever surface they are mounted to is obviously going to be vibrating along with the rest of the guitar.    The motion of the guitar’s string in the magnetic field of the magnets in the pickups creates a voltage which ultimately flows into the amplifier and causes all the racket (for good or evil) that comes out.    Since the pickups are not stationary, what the pickups actually react to is the relative motion between the string and pickup.  
guitar4

If different guitars with the same kind of pickup sound different, aside from the location of the pickups on the body, (relative to the length of the string, and/or how close they are to the strings) any sonic difference has to have something to do with the amplitude and frequency content of the mechanical vibration transferred through the neck and body to the attachment points of the string.   Since the structure of the guitar has various types of woods (often a guitar will have different woods used for the body, neck, and fretboard) involved and various means of connecting them together, along with various metallic, bone, ceramic, and plastic parts, we are looking at a fairly complex system.  This complexity is multiplied by the fact that it will be connected through a network of electronic devices to a loudspeaker, which is itself a resonant mechanical system.   If the guitar is close enough to the amp and the volume is high enough, you’ve just introduced yet another variable and created a feedback loop (sometimes totally self-sustaining) between the two systems, further modified by the acoustic information being loaded into the room by the guitar amplifier’s speaker(s). (The reality is only MORE complex that I’m presenting here)

Add to that set of facts by introducing the human factor in all of this, which involves the person playing the instrument as well as whoever is doing the listening.    (Which may very well be the same person).

         Oscilliscope Video

I used to have an oscilloscope, and I was totally fascinated by the difference between the patterns created by my Telecaster and my Les Paul.     It was fairly easy to spot the difference in terms of harmonic content and amplitude.  One might conclude that if there is a visible difference that it would be also quantifiable and thus measurable.    But, would these differences be audible?

A visit to any guitar forum will uncover any number of controversies involving the audibility of various guitar minutiae:  neck, fretboard, and body wood – nut and bridge materials – body weight and shape and a thousand other details.    The discussion usually involves the very audibility of such things, and if someone believes there are audible differences, not everyone agrees what they might actually be.   Some people even post mp3 recordings that prove their viewpoint is the correct one, as if there is some guaranty that the recording process and microphone they used, (to say nothing of the quality of the playback system) wouldn’t introduce more “error” than the small difference you’d be examining.

Most people can spot the differences between, say, a Strat, a Tele, and a Gibson 335, for example.   Discerning the difference between a 335 with a stop tailpiece; (as opposed to a trapeze) becomes a little more difficult.   Or the difference between bone, corian and plastic nuts.   The style of whoever is playing may also be more or less dependent on a particular type of guitar.     It’s pretty easy to hear the difference between Hendrix playing a Strat and a Flying V, but some of Are You Experienced was (allegedly) (recorded with a Telecaster.  (This itself is controversial, but the fact that it  is tells you a lot.)

I have recordings of Carlos Santana playing at least 5 different guitars, yet he is always identifiable as Carlos Santana.   In some cases, I’d have real trouble identifying which type of guitar he was playing.     In interviews with guitarists, I’m often surprised when a guitar player can’t remember which guitar he used to record such-and-such a part back in the day.   (I can’t do this myself, listening to my current band’s previous recordings.)  I was dumbstruck when I learned that most of “Who’s Next” was recorded with Townshend using a Gretsch 6120 through a Tweed Bandmaster.

My bandmates tell me that I seem to endeavor to make all guitars that I own sound alike.    The differences that are so obvious to me when I’m playing seem rather minor to them.    If I’m using the front pickup, I seem to have something in mind that I strive to achieve, and the guitar is just a tool to achieve that.   Since I see myself as a musician rather than a guitar demonstrator, it would only make sense that I’d let the tune, rather than the guitar, dictate what I sound like.  

I recently used both my 52 Les Paul and my 63 Tele at band practice, after not using either one of them with the band for years, and was rather shocked by the experience and rather amazed by how different they both sounded and felt than the “stand in” guitars I’d been using.   

I can’t really account for it.   I’ve owned both of these two for over 40 years, and undoubtedly muscle memory has something to do with it; as well as part of my style and knowledge of what happens when I do various things on both of these two.  I’ve had the Tele since 1965; I’m sure a lot of my style was shaped by that particular guitar and so there has to be a degree of symbiotic development happening.  Or maybe, they’re just really good guitars.  

I’m tempted to conclude with a “this is art, not science” statement of some sort, but that wouldn’t be true.    There’s a certain degree of snake oil and marketing hype involved here, and also people hear what they expect to hear:  Someone buying a $7,000 Gibson custom shop Les Paul has a reason to hear “big differences” between it and the one he bought in a Reno pawnshop in 1979 for $300.  

In fact, if his belief is so strong that he plays better as he has more confidence in his instrument, who’s to say?    Someone else may be just as happy playing his “made in Mexico” Strat (or one made in Indonesia) and wonder why anyone would pay over $500 ($300) for a guitar.   

“IT’S A POOR WORKMAN THAT BLAMES HIS TOOLS”

“YOU’VE GOT TO USE THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB”

The truth lies somewhere in between. 

Another long term relationship—–

  I bought this guitar for $25, in a music store in Albany, Oregon in December of 1970.  

agoldtop1

It had a damaged headstock and was missing a few parts but  I was able to confirm that both pickups and the switch and pots were all in working order.   The body was in OK shape for a guitar that was nearly 20 years old.   A few dings and some buckle rash.    I was able to get the headstock repaired, but that lasted less than a week before one of my college room-mates knocked it over and broke the headstock off of it.    Sigh.

He paid for the repairs, but the guitar was never really stable again.   It was hard to keep in tune even with a new nut and tuners.  But the real problem was the trapeze tailpiece where the strings came out of the bottom of the bridge, which prevented damping the strings: something which I noticed for the first time that I habitually do automatically.  The guitar was practically useless.  It would give you tantalizing evidence that it sounded great, but turn it up and all the strings would be ringing along.   I left it tuned to open “G”.     It sat in a basket in my bedroom, a sad reminder of what might have been.

But I hung onto it long enough that I could eventually afford to have it fixed and turned into a playable instrument in the early 80’s.   I sent a letter to Gibson asking to help me determine when it was made, as there was no serial number.  They responded by asking me if there were any numbers on the pots.   When I sent those back they told me that it was a 1952, one of very few made in the first 6 months of production with no serial # and a bound body.  

Of course, there were no bridges available back then (There are a couple of them, now, Keith urban being the most famous user) to allow the use of the standard tailpiece,  so I had to decide if I wanted a museum piece or a playable guitar.   So I bought a new neck from Gibson and had it set at the correct angle to work with a Leo Quan “Badass”  bridge.    This modification not only increased sustain,  (along with dropping the collector’s value by several thousand dollars)  but made the guitar much more playable.    This was a tradeoff that I was more than willing to make.  To finally hear it as it was meant to sound was a revelation. 

A couple of years later, the only way I had to be able to hear the guitar was by playing through a Scholz Rockman, as I had moved into an apartment.    If you have ever played a guitar with P-90’s through a Rockman, you realize the 60 cycle hum with drive you nuts, especially if you turn on the chorus.    I ended up replacing the bridge P-90 with a mini-humbucker from DiMarzio.   (I kept the original P-90)   This gives the guitar some unique voices with the combination of single coil and humbucker, and I often leave the switch in the central position and vary the proportion with the volume pots.   The freaky thing is how much output the P-90 has, considering the pickup is over 62 years old as it’s as high in output as the Dimarzio, which was a fairly high output pickup in it’s day.  I still have the original bridge pickup, but haven’t really been tempted to put it back to stock.     Interestingly, Neil Young has an old Les Paul and he has a mini humbucker in the bridge position.   Who am I to argue with ol’ Neil?

But, whatever it is, it certainly sounds like a Les Paul to me and you can hear that through almost any level of distortion.    The bridge pickup is probably voiced closer to a P-90 than a full sized humbucker, but it sill has a powerful low end that’s never muddy and cuts through most any mix on stage.   It’s also a great guitar for generating pinch harmonics, Billy Gibbons style.  The P-90 in the neck reminds me of a 50’s crooner like Dean Martin;  (I know it’s an odd analogy, but you hear the guitar one time and it make sense)  it has a very pick sensitive attack that’s more vocal sounding than any other guitar I’ve ever owned: you  tend to play slower and milk every note for what it’s worth.   It just doesn’t sound right to just play “licks” or play so fast that you can’t hear the seemingly endless sustain.   My favorite setting is primarily the neck pickup with just a tad of the bridge mixed in: to clear up some of the fuzz when you’re just starting to overdrive the amp and add a little more articulation to the attack.   

I “rediscover” the Goldtop every now and then.    I’m nervous about it when I go to bars with it, so I tend to leave it at home.   Guitar thieves are usually not also guitar collectors and all they know is that an old Les Paul might be worth a lot of money.    It’s fragile and I’d hate to see it knocked off a guitar stand , something that a Tele or Strat will survive a lot more readily than a  guitar with a glued in mahogany neck.   It’s also easier to take a guitar to rehearsal that can travel in a gig back easily.   I can sling  two gig bags on my back and then carry the amp in one hand and an effects bag in the other.   Most of you will probably recognize these as excuses.    There  have been times when I’ve played it more or less all the time, and there have been times when it’s been in it’s case for a month or even longer.   This is was happens when you own too many guitars.  (I’m in the process of selling about half the guitars I own)

At the end of such a period, I’m always shocked by how good it sounds.   My Tele that I’ve had since 1965 is my sentimental favorite, but if it really came down to having just one guitar, it would probably be this one.    I hear more of “me” coming out of the Goldtop than any other guitar.    I’ve spent a lot of time with this instrument in my lap plugged into some little tube amp, playing for my own enjoyment.    When it’s just the guitar by itself, you notice stuff you might not hear if you are playing with a bunch of other instruments.    I just went through one of those periods when the only time it got out of the case was when I just wanted to hear it myself.  

I recently took it out of the case to  try to compare the sound to an Epiphone Flying V that I’m selling, and found myself captured by it’s voice all over again.    I found myself thinking: “The next time the band plays out, I’m going to bring this one.”  

When I think about it, this guitar is probably the coolest object I’ll ever own.   It’s age alone makes it unique, and time overcomes the mongrel status (at least in my mind) it acquired when I modified it.  There’s a presence to it like a great old car or wooden boat.  I’ve owned it so long that the sheer pleasure of ownership eludes me though.   I never sit and stare at it, and I don’t lavish much attention on it.    I love it for what it does, not what it is.    Playing it is a lot more rewarding than owning it.  I’m reminded of a BMW motorcycle I once owned, which as a LOT more fun to polish than ride.   I’ve had a few guitars like that, but not this one, and maybe that’s why it’s so cool…….  

400,000 Hits and being the one of the leading authorities in a number of obscure fields.

At least according to the counter at the bottom of the page.   If one looks a little deeper one finds that a lot of this traffic consists of bots looking around and if you jettison the hits where someone spends less than 30 seconds before discovering nothing they were actually looking for, you understand the real number is considerably smaller.   But, more than enough people spend enough time here each month to convince me that I’m communicating with someone.   That makes this site sort of a public journal.   It’s largely replaced the mass E-mailings I used to send out to people on an almost daily basis.   But, I’m happy it exists, and I get enough feedback from people to make it seem worthwhile.   Thanks.

So far I’ve published 156 posts that average around 800 words per post, so one can see that writing a book is indeed within the grasp of the average person.   That little factoid alone is sort of fascinating to me, as I really had no concept of the shear quantity of stuff one could create fairly easily.   If I were a novelist I’ve written the equivalent (at least in numbers of words) of two average size novels over the course of a couple years.  Which is amazing to me, for one.

One wonders if blogs will one day be a curious artifact from the early parts of the 21st century when almost anyone could first gain access to such a potentially large group of people.   My biggest “success” has been an entry about Irena Sendler and a Facebook “chain letter” inspired by a Glenn Beck program.  If you Google “Irena Sendler Obama” my blog entry is one of the first you’ll come across.   I also get some “interesting” E-mail from Glenn Beck Fans to this day.  (Who knew some of them were literate.)

I’m also fairly high up on Google for anyone who is looking into either a 1961 Honda C110 or a Datsun 1500 Sports Fairlady.  Or someone who wants to replace the control arms on a BMW Z-3.   Anyone who Googles both Ted Nugent and Jerry Garcia at the same time will find Fauxsuperblogs in the top five.   Seemingly, I’d be a great source for “Trivia” players.

I also was one of the first people to review the Badcat Unleash, (a guitar attenuator re-amp device) and I still get quite a bit of traffic from those who are interested in those.  Curiously, I get a couple of questions a week of a technical nature, which I answer if I’m up to it.

Anyone looking for Horse Butte in Lebanon Oregon will also be directed to my site.    I would also seem to the an authority on Deodorant Shelf alarms as well.   A couple of times I’ve actually been directed to my own blog site when doing research on something, which is hilarious.   It’s a bit like everyone being famous for 15 minutes: “In the future, everyone will be an expert on something.”   Or at least appear to be one. 

Oh, I understand that I’m in the same boat.   I do try to confine my comments to something I actually know about.   But, I could be wrong.   I often wonder if anything I’ve written has been cited in someone’s term paper or research project.     So far, at least, and as far as I know, Rand Paul has yet to plagiarize anything from my blog.   (But one can dream, eh?)  On Facebook, I’ve seen political and economic citations to blog pages of people much like myself.   That, in itself, gives me reason for pause; I mean, “What do I know?”

OK, it’s probably time to sign off here before things get totally silly.   I just couldn’t pass on the chance to reflect on a milestone of some sort, and let anyone who reads this know:  “I’m glad you’re doing so.”

Fulltone OCD overdrive review. (V4 version)

It’s been in my pedalboard since I bought it several months ago.    The funny thing about it is that the reason I even have it is because I was using a Joyo knockoff of it that I liked so much that my curiosity just about forced me to try “the real thing”.  I apologize, in advance for the unprofessional quality of the photo, but when I opened the pedalboard my cat decided it was now his territory and I couldn’t shoo him out of it long enough to take a photo and only had one slightly blurry photo without feline accompaniment:
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The only other overdrive pedal I’ve ever bonded with is my 80’s era Ibanez SD-9, which mysteriously quit working after a quarter century of faithful performance sometime last year.   Sooner or later I’ll get it fixed.   At one point, I had all the knobs on the SD-9 super-glued into place with my favorite settings locked into place.   The event that inspired this bit of madness was when the band I was with at the time was playing a wedding reception and during a break, someone had fiddled with my pedal (it was the only one I used at the time) and turned the gain all the way up.   For some reason after our break I decided to borrow  a band-mate’s Gibson ES-150DC (Now there’s an obscure instrument, extra points if you know what it is) hollow-body. and when I stepped on the pedal I must have rendered a number of people unable to hear anything above middle “C”, at least for a while.   I was using a Fender “The Twin” at the time and I was stunned into inaction until I realized this siren like sound was somehow associated with me and stepped on the pedal again.

One of the main things that I seem to value in an overdrive is the ability to back of the guitar’s volume pot and have the pedal “vanish” sonically.    That was the “magic setting” I had super-glued into place on the SD=9 and you can find this on the OCD by using the little toggle switch on the top of the unit to the “LP” setting and turning the “Drive” knob to a lower setting.   A little manipulation of the  “Tone” knob should allow you to find a setting that sounds quite close to the tone of your amp without the pedal and is handy for adding both a little volume and grit for solos.  In my case, the tone that comes out is very close to what the amp sounds like without the pedal.

A few (a little over 15 years, actually) years ago, my friend Casey Pollock (a profoundly gifted guitarist who played with the Prairie Mutts, which evolved into the Austin based band, Reckless Kelly) was playing through my rig (modified Bandmaster Reverb) and puzzled at my use of the SD-9 pedal with a one word question: “Why?” (he was also wondering why none of the knobs turned)

Certainly a fair question, and one mainly answered by the reality that tube amps have a sweet spot that is often much louder than you can get away with, and you can come close to simulating that sound at a lower volume level with a pedal.   In addition to an overdrive pedal, you can get much the same effect with a clean boost pedal, (and I used to do just that with an MXR Micro-Amp), but using an overdrive allows you to do this at lower and more venue friendly volumes.   What I aim for is a mix of pedal and amp tone that sounds organic and natural, and the OCD excels at this.  That “transparency” is enhanced by using the option of driving the pedal with 16 volts, which gives you more natural, less compressed dynamics and seems to widen the frequency range while also making the pedal even more touch sensitive.

I usually set the “Level” control to produce a slight increase in Volume when I step on it.   This gives me the convenient option of just stepping on it to give me a little boost for solos, along with the ability to control the distortion level with the guitar’s volume pot.   My main amp these days seems to be a Coronado Amplification 5E3 clone (I vacillate between it and a Magic Valve clone of the 5E3) and the OCD can blend with it more or less seamlessly)

What I find I’ve been doing with the OCD, though, is increasingly using it was a way to add a different color or two to my tone and have been both turning up the “Drive” knob and flipping the OCD’s micro-switch to the HP setting.   This produces a different flavor of distortion that can be more along the lines of either Marshall of Vox-like tones, depending on the setting of the “tone” knob.   It still cleans up when you roll off the guitar’s volume pot but it does color the tone a bit, and can actually add a different sounding “clean” tone to your arsenal along with giving your tone a little more midrange muscle, which, if used along with variation in your picking attack can be exploited to add an almost vocal aspect to your playing.

What distinguishes the OCD from the scores of other pedals I’ve tried is a little hard to pin down, but there are a few specific reasons why it’s found a home on my pedal-board.   They would be, transparency, preservation of natural harmonics and dynamics, and the ability to blend with a tube amp’s natural distortion in a more or less seamless manner.  Versatility would also be a factor, and since a 5E3 has only a tone control to change the sound, this ability is a real blessing, and has also allowed me to dispense with the Barber “Barb-E-Q” I’d been using for that purpose.

Since I’ve been using the Badcat Unleash along with the 5E3, some people have been asking me why I still use the pedal as now I can get the wonderful singing tone of the 5E3 and scale it to any volume.  I can only answer that part of it is just the convenience to be able to give myself a hands free volume boost and a little more dirt by just stepping on a switch, but also that I can add a little flavor to my tonal mix that I can’t manage just running through the amp itself.   I still have the unadorned tone of the 5E3 itself as a tonal color and sometimes, by manipulation of the volume pot on the guitar and the pedal I can go from basic 5E3 to a Marshall like growl and enhance a solo and adding some real drama to it.  It’s become a major part of my sound.
catpedal

Whats the difference between Used and Vintage?

Anyone who’s read my blog before will remember these two Chinese SX guitars: they’ve been my main guitars for over the last half a dozen years.    How did THAT happen?twins twoI’ve had the one on the left, with the white pickguard, for 6 years this month.  The band I play with (The Trunkslammers) is doing it’s first gig in a couple of years (with a new lead vocalist) on Thursday the 12th of September.    (9:00 at the Camel’s Breath Inn here in San Diego) I decided that I’d do a little overdue maintenance while changing strings.  Nothing major, just dressing the frets, setting intonation and cleaning the fretboard, and finding a ground problem in one of them.   While doing this, I started thinking about how long  I’ve owned these two.   (I bought the second one about 6 months after I got the first one, because I liked the first one so much.)

My first nice guitar was a second hand, two year old Telecaster that I bought in October of 1965, (I still have it, 48 years later) by the time I was in college, (1970) it was already considered a “cool” guitar because it was, as they used to say “Pre CBS”.  I was never tempted (fortunately) to trade it off for something “new and improved”.

The foundation of the whole “vintage guitar” thing was that the guitars and amplifiers being made by Fender and Gibson (and other manufacturers) of lower quality  that those manufactured in the 50’s and early 60’s.   (I’m speaking of electric guitars as I actually know little about acoustic guitars: I do know that some consider anything build before the explosion in instrument sales brought about by the Beatles.)  “Blackface” amplifiers were already spoken of as superior to the “Silverface” series.  Old Les Pauls were starting to go up in value, (I have a 52 Goldtop I bought in 1970 for $25) and people were saying the newer series weren’t anything like the ones Gibson discontinued in 1960.

The new corporate owners of both Fender and Gibson were producing instruments in such quantity that QC suffered (not that the occasional great guitar didn’t make it out of the factory: Jimi Hendrix played pretty much standard CBS era Strats).   But there were brand new guitars that cost as much as a decent used car that wouldn’t play in tune and other major flaws being foisted on an unsuspecting public at this time.   Most famous professional guitarists in the 70’s played, for the most part, guitars that were of either 50’s or early 60’s vintage.    Eric Clapton used old Fender Strats that were often mongrel guitars built by selecting the best parts from several old Fenders.   Used guitar shops (later morphing into “Vintage” shops) seemed to spring up all over, often with barnwood covered walls and every city had several that would eventually become legendary.

You didn’t see $20,000 guitars at this time, the wealthy collector wasn’t yet part of the scene and there were few guitars bought as “trophies” and hung on the wall.   But the “older is better” philosophy that holds to this very day was already taking hold.   It wasn’t called a “reissue”, but Gibson returned to making  a Les Paul model after not doing so for 8 years when it noticed that older ones were fetching “new guitar” prices because so many Guitar Heroes were using ones made in the 50’s: Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh and a host of “Guitar Gods” were using guitars that nobody had wanted in 1962.   Gibson had discontinued them due to poor sales and the last couple years there were very few “Les Paul” models being built.

Flash forward a decade and the first of the “reissue” Fender Strats and Teles appeared on the market.   These were actually some very nice guitars and they were much closer to the guitars that were built in the late 50’s—early 60’s in terms of materials and features.   I’ve seen some of these “Fullerton Reissues” selling for upwards of  $4,000.  Gibson also followed suit and Fender stated building reissue amplifiers in the late 80’s.  The idea was that you could capture the “Mojo” of the older stuff only be re-creating it as accurately as possible.

Leo Fender conceived the Fender Telecaster as a guitar that could be built in a factory by hourly workers that could be sold to professional working musicians at a price lower than other electric guitars of a similar quality.   I’ve always found it more than a little odd that people would pay lots of money for a “hand built” replica of something that was originally built on an assembly line.  It would be like buying a  hand built 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air for $70,000.

I’ll admit to being a “guitar snob” for a bunch of years and I’ve owned a few “Made in USA” Fender and Gibson guitars, but nothing I’ve held on to.   I always ended up playing either the Telecaster of the Goldtop, and having an expensive guitar just sitting in a case gathering dust didn’t make sense.   I tried a few Fernades replica Strats and a couple of Japanese made “Strats”, as from time to time the desire to make a few of the “Strat” sounds you can’t easily make with a Tele.  After a while the novelty of those tones would wear out, and I’d end up selling the guitar.    I had better luck with finding a substitute for a Gibson 335 with a 1979 Ibanez AS100 that I’ve had for about 15 years, so that at least qualifies as a “keeper”. But every other guitar I’ve had has lasted maybe a year or two, or three at best.  Until now.

In the late 90’s I played a couple of Fender “Custom Shop” guitars I might have been tempted by if I hadn’t already had my Tele.   Some of them, if evaluated objectively, might be considered “better” guitars than my Tele, but none that really sounded “better” or were more inspiring to play.    I could also not get over the idea that they were outrageously overpriced.

In 2007, on one of the guitar discussion pages I frequented at the time, a member mentioned they bought a decent quality, Tele style guitar, made in China,  for $109 from a place called “Rondo Music“.    At the time I was a sales manager for a company that sold consumer A/V equipment.   Polk Audio was having a jam session that fall in Denver that I really wanted to go to, but wanted to bring my own guitar, as the last session of this sort had a cartage company bring some amps and instruments and I found the guitars were quite a struggle to play.   I also didn’t want to bring any of the guitars I had at the time, for a number of reasons.

I found a “Strat Style” guitar with P-90 pickups, (which is something I always wanted to try, a Fender style guitar, with P-90 pickups) so I thought, “What do I have to lose?”.  It turned out to be a MUCH better  guitar than I’d anticipated.   Some of the hardware looked a little cheap, but the basic guitar was great and it had a wonderful luxurious feeling bound neck that felt like it was made for my hands, plus it also sounded great, Fender-ish, but a lot fatter sound from the pickups.  Unique.

(The story of that guitar is elsewhere on this site, go down to the fourth paragraph: SX Story   I own a few other SX guitars, and if you’re curious as to what modifications I’ve made, take a look here:  MODIFIED SX )

I ended up really liking the guitar.  The big neck allows me to play the guitar in comfort with my arthritic fingers without kidney and liver endangering doses of ibuprofen (washed down with a beer) far longer than I can manage with most other guitars.  Ironically, this is counterintuitive, since I have relatively small hands (The same size as Eddie Van Halen’s.  I placed my hand in his hand imprint on the “Rock Walk” in Hollywood, found it an EXACT fit, and then thought: “Well there goes THAT excuse.”) but that’s the way it works for me.

There are only two original parts  on each these guitars, the neck (with the original frets) and the body.  Everything else is new, and exactly as I like it.  They don’t impress anybody, and some of my guitar playing friends give me a hard time about them.   But everyone who picks one up is amazed by it, and if you were blindfolded you’d never guess they were “cheap”  guitars.

But that is what they are, after all.   I never saw an ad for one and then stayed up nights dreaming about it and thinking: “If I had one of those, my guitar collection would be complete.”or that “I will sound like (insert the name of some legendary guitarist who uses one) if I get one.  I never lusted after one.  To date, I’ve spent less on both of them than many people pay for one guitar of similar design.

After a show at San Diego State and young guitar player came up to me and  asked me “Why do you play that guitar?” in a voice that told me he wondered by I was playing such a cheap guitar.  I asked him “You don’t like the way it sounds?”  “Oh, no it sounds good, is it the amp you’re using, then?”, he wondered.  “No, it’s a decent sounding guitar, but I just like playing it.”   He looked skeptical and walked away, unenlightened.

Since buying these guitars, I’ve thought very differently about the “stuff” that I own.   Over the years, I’ve got enough “oohs” and “ahhs” from the two vintage guitars I do own, which, after all, were just “old Guitars” when I bought them.  The best comment I’ve heard about the SX’s has been:  “you must be a pretty good guitarist to make those Chinese guitars sound good”.

These guitars are a lot more fun to play than they are to own.    For years, I’d wanted a BMW motorcycle, ever since seeing one when I was about 13.    I’d often thought how cool it would be to go on 200 mile rides and not be tired, and how nice to own something that was so well made.  When I finally could afford to get one when I was in my early 30’s, I discovered it was a lot more fun to clean, polish, and admire than it was to actually ride it.  It was relaxing to ride on long distance rides, but not as comfortable as a Honda Civic.   Turns out I didn’t enjoy 200 mile rides, I was more of a “25 miles in the mountains” sort of rider.    I have become attached to both of these instruments, but is because of what they can do, rather than what they are.

Taking this full circle, while I was cleaning the headstock on one of the SX’s, I noticed the words CUSTOM HANDMADE” and “VINTGAGE SERIES”.  This stuck me as somewhat wishful thinking on the part of someone, and I seriously doubt the words ever influenced anyone’s decision to buy one.   There is a certain irony in that I’ve taken guitars that were made in a factory by computer controlled machine tools to sell dirt cheap, and completely rebuilt them by hand.  Now I wonder how long it will take for them to actually become “vintage”?

The End of the Big amp Vs Small amp war? (Unleash Update)

twin5e3

What you’re looking at is a couple of 5E3 Clones.  The two of them together form a nice pair and will handle most volume levels I’m likely to encounter in stride, but sometimes one might wish for a little more clean headroom than they are able to deliver.

In an earlier post I reviewed the Badcat Unleash, which allows me to get the sound of a 5E3, but scaled up to a degree that prior to the existence of the Unleash would be complicated and expensive to accomplish, and I’m not sure at quite the same sound quality as you get from the Unleash.  This is sort of an update and how I’m currently using the Unleash and some of the gear I’m now using it with.

I’ve been using the Magic Valve (The black one) clone to use as a speaker cab in my living room for my two “Poodle Amps”, a Fender Greta and a Vox Lil’ Night Train.   I’ve also been using it with the Unleash, since I don’t ever really turn up the volume.  I decided to put an Eminence Texas Heat that I’ve had sitting around unused into the cab, as I thought it might be a decent match for the Lil’ Night Train, which sounds a bit shrill through the Jensen P12R in the MVA  cab. I’ve had the Texas heat in the MVA cab before and it adds a different flavor to the 5E3, but since I’ve been using the speaker with three different amps, I thought I’d experiment.

MVA2While doing this it occurred to me that I should try this speaker with the Unleash, since it’s capable of handling 150 watts, and then it dawned on me that I should try it along with the Jensen Tornado that lives in the Coronado 5E3.   The Unleash’s Class D amp will deliver a full 160 watts into a 4 ohm load, so I thought “Why Not?”.

Well, I now have a very interesting rig, to say the least.  The 2X12″ speaker array with all that power behind it can deliver a major punch on the bottom end.   The kind of full, robust, grand piano like bottom that one usually associates with amps like a Twin Reverb.   The Twang it can deliver with a Tele plugged in is almost baritone like.   In fact, it makes me want to get another baritone.   Setting the 5E3 (either one) to around 2 on the volume control and then turning the Uneash up to set the volume, I can play squeaky clean rhythm guitar at any level I can imagine I’ll ever encounter the need for.  Imagine a tone between a stock 5E3 and a Tweed Twin and you’re probably close to what this sounds like.
pedalboarunleash

I like the Fulltone OCD because it can be nearly transparent at low gain settings and it also seems to blend in well with the distortion in the 5E3 in a very organic, natural way.   I use it more as a tonal flavoring than anything.   The Barber Electronics Barb-E-Q is a equalizer that gives you a three band tone stack with an additional three preset personalities: Tweed, Blackface, and Marshall, it also has a pull boost feature on the Mid Pot which I don’t often use with a 5E3.  Again, more for tonal variety than anything else.   Popping the Blackface setting into the mix really enhances the pseudo-Twin personality and goosing the Treble pot on it invokes a “Bright Switch” ambiance.  The OCD and the Barb-E-Q go into the front end of either one of the 5E3 amps.

Time based effects sound so good through the Unleash effects loop that I’ve recently upgraded them to a a TC Electronics Flashback +4 Delay and Hall of Fame Reverb.   The clarity of the  loop is such that you can hear the effects quite distinctly even if you turn them down to levels where they would be rendered into mush by sending them through a distorting poser amp stage. 

What you hear in the Unleash loop sounds much more like what you’d hear on a recording where effects are added post amplifier.   There are some delays in the Flashback with a slight chorusing effect when applied to a clean signal results in this stunning shimmering sound.  I’m still experimenting here and look forward to when programming software for both the TC pedals comes out next month.

Going back to the original premise of this post, the thing to keep in mind is that all of this is totally scalable;  raging distortion at bedroom levels to thunderous cleans and everything in between.   For very low levels, where people do not hear bass at the same intensity as other frequencies, you can stick an EQ pedal like a BOSS GE-7 into the loop and get as full a sound as you want at whisper volumes. 

The Texas Heat and the Jensen Tornado didn’t strike me as an obvious combination, but they work quite well together and provide a nice contrast with the Jensen adding a little more bottom end than the Eminence.   The Texas Heat is rated as being more sensitive then the Jensen, but I don’t really hear that with them sitting side by side.    You do get that interesting sense of motion though, that you get when using two dissimilar speakers.  There’s a sense of more harmonic complexity as well along withe impression of the sound source moving in location.

Of course, I had to try the Greta and the little Vox through the Unleash with the pair of 12’s and once you get over the novelty factor of having so much power on tap with those little amp’s personalities behind it,  you start to focus on the differences between the two.    The Greta is more touch sensitive and the change from clean to distorted is more gradual; it really thrives in that area before you get a lot of fuzz added to the basic tone, you can get a nice sustain with very little hair on the notes.  You find yourself using the guitar’s volume pot to exploit the amp’s touch sensitivity.

In contrast, the little Vox thrives on more aggressive sounds, and the key to using it with the Unleash is getting the right balance between the setting of the Vox’s Gain and Volume controls.  Since the Vox has separate Bass and Treble controls and the additional gain control, it takes a little while to dial it in  with the Unleash.    It sounds “Bigger” than the Greta and to my ear it sounds more Marshall than Vox, but that may be my own preferred tonal settings more than any intent on Vox’s part.  It makes me play more in the rock idiom and less towards the blues and of the spectrum.

I’ve yet to try the Vox in a full band setting and will hold off on doing a full blown comparison of the two.  At levels I can deal within my house, I prefer the Greta to the Vox at this point.   I think that has to do with the fact that the touch sensitive thing stands out when you are just playing by yourself.   For now, I’ll just say that they are different enough that having both of them makes sense, they sort of compliment each other. 

Comparing them to the 5E3 clones, the Greta at times sounds fairly close the the  5E3’s, but just a tad more scooped in the mids and maybe a little more gradual in the transition between clean and distorted.  The Greta also has a different flavor to it’s distortion, not quite as chaotic or complex (depending on how you look at it.).   Cynical types my call the tone out of the Greta “Generic Fender”, in the same way one might view a Telecaster set up with three pickups Strat style——-   But in reality it’s just it’s own voice, Fender-ish for certain, but really something new, and especially when pumped up with a powerful amp.

The LNT is just begging to be played through a 4 x 12″ cab.  That’s the sort of thing it makes me think of whenever I plug into it.   I’ve found myself playing stuff like the chords to “Sweet Jane” or “You Shook me All Night Long“, or maybe “Baba O’Riley“.   I admit I haven’t spent much time working with the clean side of the amp.  What do expect from someone who has played mainly Fender, or Fender Style amps all his life?

I’ll eventually work through this and get it out of my system, but for now it’s too much high gain fun.  “Hmmm, I wonder that with would sound like with the fuzz box in front of it?”

 

Badcat Unleash Review

Anyone who has owned a tube amp sooner or later discovers that it has a a “sweet spot” where it sounds best.  There is a range where differences in picking attack alter more than just the volume that comes out of the amp; the guitar’s tone changes as well.  Guitarists from Charlie Christian forward to the present day have used this quality to add expressiveness to their playing.  When you get to the upper range of the amp’s ability to produce more volume, the signal not only becomes more distorted, but begins to compress as well. This adds a singing quality to the sound, enabling a guitarist to emulate the long sustained tones of a horn or a string instrument.

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Depending on the amp’s output power, speakers and cabinet design, each amp allows a “window” of usable amp volumes.   Below a certain volume, an amp won’t allow the guitarist to access the “touch sensitive zone”, (which actually might be desired with some styles and types of music) and eventually the amp gets to where additional signal produces more distortion than you might want.  (This does vary from guitarist to guitarist; a country player might want just a little extra “spank” to his Tele’s sound, some people can’t ever have enough distortion.)

For the big time touring guitarist playing large venues this doesn’t pose much of a problem.   What ever rig he uses  on stage, the sound engineers will find a way to feed his sound through the PA system so the audience hears pretty much what he does on stage.  The technologies used to do this are varied and beyond the scope of this review, but suffice that those of use that aren’t headliners have always had the dilemma of matching the amp to the venue.

You can use a big amp that can play loud enough to cover most any situation, and some guitarists (mostly those who have a mostly clean style) can use an amp like a Twin Reverb in any setting, (even at home) and be quite happy with it’s performance.   But some of us, who prefer the sound of a cranked amp to any sort of distortion device, find that we never get an amp such as a Super or Twin Reverb (or a Marshall Stack) to the point—in the venues we play in, (and this can include our bedroom or home studio) where we get into that touch sensitive zone.

Using a smaller amp to get into the sweet spot for solos at more reasonable volumes also means the amp might not have enough clean power to play rhythm guitar without distortion, and forces you to play all solos with a distorted tone if you want to be heard over the band.

There are devices that can help a larger amp produce distortion at lower volumes, distortion pedals and attenuators are two main choices so far.     Guitarists have also resorted to having several amps of different wattages, to cover all possible situations.  There are times when you aren’t sure of what the situation at some new venue is, so you end up bringing a lot of stuff so you’re prepared for all situations.

The Badcat Unleash is an amplifier/attenuator that can take the output of any amp between 1 and 100 watts and shift the sweet spot of that amp up or down to any point between whisper quiet and as loud as most any club level guitarist will ever need to play.  It has as a built in amplifier that will produce 100 watts of output into an 8 ohm speaker or cab.  (even more into 4 ohms, somewhere around 160 watts)

The first thing the Unleash needs to do to make all this work correctly is to fool the guitar amp into “thinking” that is is connected to an actual loudspeaker.  The reason this is important is a lot of the sound of a guitar amplifier is created by the way the amp reacts with and to the loudspeaker it’s connected to. Amps connected to a resistive load (like you find in most attenuators) sounds kind of dull and stiff.

The Unleash features (patent applied for proprietary reactive circuitry that mimics the effects of a loudspeaker on the amp.  This circuitry manages to accomplish the task with a degree of aplomb previously available only by spending considerably more cash than the  $379.00 you’ll pay for an Unleash.  This is remarkable considering that you also get a 100 watt amplifier with foot-switchable volume levels and an effects loop with the Unleash.

This performance level of just this one task is the key to why the Unleash is such a groundbreaking device.  Guitarists have been able to load a tube amp with some device that drops the signal down to a point where it can be re-amplified by another amp to whatever level is desired; but nobody has done it this well and integrated so many useful functions in one affordable, compact device.  But none of this would be nearly as cool if the device didn’t allow the sound, character, and feel of the “host amp” to shine through as well as the Unleash does.

I’ll eliminate the suspense and tell you right now that in terms of this most critical task, the quality of “transparency”, the Unleash exceeds my expectations.  Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this review and my Unleash would be on it’s way back to Badcat.

The rest of this post will be based on my experiences with two amp rigs.  The first one is as follows:

 Squier Vintage Modified Telecaster Deluxe
SX Sortacaster with 3 single coil pickups
Joyo Ultimate Drive pedal (in front of the amp)
ModTone Delay (effects loop)
Biyang Tri-Reverb (effects loop)
Coronado Amplification 5E3 with Jensen Tornado speaker 

This is my normal rig that I use with the band that a play with a Bass-Drums-Guitar combo with a vocalist.  I use George L’s low capacitance cables throughout, and occasionally swap in a Dan Electro Chorus or a rotation of different overdrive pedals, but for purposes of this review, those were not part of the signal chain. I purchased the Tornado speaker (with a 100 watt capacity) specifically to use with the Unleash.

If you look at the above photo, you’ll notice that the front panel has three knobs: the two on the sided are labeled CH1 and CH2 and the center one is the INPUT TRIM level.  The idea with the trim level knob is to set the input level so that it flashes when you hit peaks but doesn’t stay on the entire time.  You set the output of your amp first and then adjust the trim level accordingly.   The Unleash has to have some sort of limiter circuitry as I didn’t hear any nasty sounds if I turned the input level up so the light stayed on most of the time, but I did detect what sounded like a little compression.   I preferred the sound when the light was only flashing on peaks and found that once I got the amps levels set, I could set my guitar’s volume pot at about 2/3 and still crank it to full without causing the light to stay on all the time.   This is how I normally use the pot on the guitar to control my distortion level, so no real changes to my usual procedure were in order.

The other two knobs allow you to set two separate volume levels that you can toggle between by using the supplied foot-switch. I’ll have more to say about the usefulness of this function, later.

Before practice, I’d hooked up the Unleash at home to make sure everything worked, but didn’t have the opportunity to hear it at higher volume levels.  The one thing I did notice is that the delay and reverb effects sounded much better in the Unleash effects loop than they did in front of the amp.   The difference in clarity available by not running through the power amp and thus having distortion added to the effects, was amazing.  I have owned amps with built-in effects loops before, but the loop was always before the tube power stage and so didn’t offer the sonic advantages the Unleash’s loop provides.

At this point, it makes sense to explain that the amp that’s built into the Unleash is not designed to add it’s own sound to the mix.   It’s only function is to increase the gain of the signal without any additional color.   This seems to be a point of confusion to some guitarists as traditionally, guitar amps have been musical instruments in their own right, designed to have an impact on the sound.  The amp in the Unleash has a function much like the amp in a PA system or a home audio system, and that is to be as transparent as possible.  It does that job admirably. I never used the amp in a way that made me think I needed more power. 

When I set my rig up at practice, I realized I didn’t have long enough cables to connect the two time based pedals into the the effects loop, so they are not part of this portion of the review.

Neither of my band mates noticed any change in my tone throughout practice. They did notice that my sound was more dynamic and my amp now could deliver a great clean rhythm sound at volume levels that would have been distorted before.  What I noticed was that I could pretty much do anything I used to do with the amp sounding exactly like it did without the Unleash. But more importantly, I now could do all sorts of things I previously coudn’t do.

The ability to have a preset volume boost that doesn’t involve more distortion is hard to appreciate until you’ve tried it. Step on a pedal, and the sound gets louder, but the distortion level doesn’t change at all.  I’m going to have all sorts of creative things I can do with this.  And that brings up the entire point of the Unleashvolume and distortion are now independent of one another.  I can have set one level that can mimic the behavior of the 5E3, and another one that’s something else altogether.

My little 5E3 now has the clean dynamic ability of a much larger amp.   I can get piano like sounds from the lower two strings with the solidity, clarity and presence you’d expect from a Twin Reverb.  I have a Bandmaster Reverb in a combo cab with a Weber 15″ in it, and this rig seems to have similar dynamic capability: more than I’ll ever use.  I can’t quite describe what the amp can sound like when you turn up the volume a bit, Tweed Twin comes to mind, but it still has the Deluxe character, just “bigger”.  If I want more volume, dynamics, or a more robust bottom end I could add another speaker, or even something like a couple of 4 x 12″ cabs, but I don’t think I’ll probably resort to that extreme.

SONY DSCThe other use I’m planning to put the Unleash to is at home, where I’ve been using a Fender Greta to power an open back cab with a Jensen re-issue P12R speaker.  By and large it works fairly well, but sometimes It lacks the clean volume I’d like and sometimes it can be too loud, by the time It’s really singing.  The rest of the rig is as follows:

Squier Vintage Modified Telecaster Deluxe
SX Partscaster with single coil pickups
Joyo Ultimate Drive pedal (in front of the amp)
Boss GE7 EQ Graphic EQ (effects loop)

ModTone Delay (effects loop)
Biyang Tri-Reverb  (effects loop)
Fender Greta
Jensen P12R in open back cab 

And, Introducing the world’s first 160 Watt* Greta.

unleash 3

First off, the Unleash effects loop is even more effective in this application because I can hear every little nuance, nothing is covered up by the rest of the band.   I also have the option of popping the EQ pedal into the loop.   this is quite important for late night use, when I might not want to wake up the house. 

Normally when you turn an amp down to these levels they sound sort of weak and thin.  This is due to the Fletcher-Munson effect; human beings don’t hear all parts of the audio spectrum with the same intensity at low volume levels.  So, you can use the QP pedal to compensate and still hear a nice full bass at lower volume levels.   If you try this in front of the Greta (or any small amp), you end up with all sorts of distortion right where you don’t want it to be (try 12 Db of boost at 100 Hz and see what happens to your sound) and end up with muddy sound.   Not only does this not happen in the Unleash effects loop, but you can also use the EQ to shape the sound post distortion, which also comes in handy.

As far as transparency goes if the Unleash wasn’t transparent, as with the effects loop, I’m more likely to notice even slight changes in tone or feel when I’m just sitting in my living room without any other instruments.   The naked guitar sound really leaves no place to hide.    Trying my best to be “scientific”, I compared the sound from the Greta by itself with the sound from the Greta running through the Unleash.  I set volume levels with an SPL meter, so I wouldn’t favor the louder one, and tried my best to detect some effect.   Nada.

Again, there seems to be no downside, but the Unleash allows me to listen to the Greta completely cranked and drop the volume down to a level that doesn’t disturb anyone, and also to get a clean sound from the Greta and volumes that is is unable to achieve while remaining clean.

I should note that the only way to get the Input trim light to even flicker with the Greta is to crank it all the way up and then step on an overdrive pedal, and even then I’m not sure I actually saw it light.   But it will produce any level I’m willing to risk the health of the Jensen P12R (and my lease) at in my living room.  I’ll have to try it out with the other speaker at band practice to see how loud the combination will get.

Moving back to realistic volume levels in my living room, I’ve got to tell you that the Greta/Unleash is capable of making some glorious clean sounds if you turn the amp down to where you can just barely see the little meter on the face of the  Greta start to move It has the most wonderful character to it that I can’t quite describe and it brightens ever so slightly when you REALLY dig in to an almost exaggerated degree.   In this behavior, it actually reminds me of an old brown era Fender Pro Amp, that was my previous standard for bedroom level clean tone.

I’ve not begun to explore all the possibilities the Unleash presents.   I have a Fender Bandmaster Reverb that has a output transformer that can deal with an 8 ohm load (which the Unleash requires), but I’ll need to get inside the amp and swap the 2 ohm output (Which I haven’t used in months) with the 8 ohm one, so I can try it with the Unleash.  With that amp, I’ll mostly be using it to attenuate the level, as it’s usually not able to really sing at volume levels that are acceptable for the band I’m playing with.

I still haven’t even tried the line out level, so I will be exploring the uses of that, among other things.    I have another 5E3, so I can possibly try a wet/dry rig, and a host of other things.    I’ll report on these things as they happen.  If anyone is curious about something I haven covered, please send me an E-mail.

For an update on the Unleash (May 2014) and how my use of it has evolved at this point please click here:

 

Unleash Update

 

For more information, try the Badcat website:
                         http://www.badcatamps.com/unleash.html

 

Related posts:

http://fauxsuperblogs.com/1996/jensen-jet-tornado-12-coronado-amplification-5e3-clone/

http://fauxsuperblogs.com/1912/preliminary-review-of-the-badcat-unleash/

 

Photographs courtesy of: Pacific Coast Professional Services, Inc.

“Unleash the————Amplifier?” The Bad Cat “Unleash” and a Preliminary Review

    I’m patiently waiting for one of the little Swiss Army Red boxes you see  below. (Note: It’s now here, Here’s a link to the full review:
UNLEASH REVIEW )

BCBlogTheUnleashI have two 5E3 (Fender tweed era Deluxe amp).clones that are fantastic sounding guitar amps, but they have a relatively narrow operating range, volume wise, if I want them to sound their best.    being only 12 watts, I can’t expect them to deliver much in the way of clean volume, in fact, that’s why I have two of them.  One of them isn’t quite enough to overcome the sound of the rest of the band and still stay clean.  And sometimes, even with two of them, I wish I had just a tad more volume available.  (Three of them would just be too much.) They also don’t sound all that good at bedroom levels. The little red box above should be of help here.

I use them because when they are in the sweet spot of their operating range the advantages outweigh any drawbacks.  The compromises I have to make are acceptable to me.  But, I worry how they might do at an outdoor gig, for example.  I really prefer to hear my own amp on stage and would rather not hear to much of my guitar in the monitors.  And, having to drag two of them around is less than convenient.  In my old age I want a one trip rig.

The BadCat Unleash is a a device that takes the output of a guitar amplifier and applies a dynamic reactive load to it so that the amp responds like it would if it was connected to a speaker, and then feeds the amp’s output to a class “D” switching 100 watt amplifier that feeds the amp’s output to a speaker.   These are all things that have been done before this but this is the first time all of these functions have been packaged in one small lightweight unit.    What this will allow me to do when hooked up to one of the 5E3’s is:

  • Replicate what my 5E3 sounds like when it’s cranked, but at a volume I could talk over.
  • Give a single 5E3 more clean headroom than two of them do now: tweed Deluxe tone in a 100 watt package.
  • Give me a 100 watt amp that only weighs about 5 pounds more than my 5E3, or a little over 30 pounds.
  • Give me two foot switchable volume levels independent of distortion levels.
  • Add a post power-amp-section effects loop that will allow me to add reverb, delay and other effects post distortion.
  • Add a direct out for silent recording
  • Now you know why it’s painted Swiss Army Red

The whole key here is the effectiveness and transparency of transferring the information from the 5E3’s output to the unleashed. I’ve owned three attenuators and this is always a major problem: you can hear them in the circuit.  (The Unleash is not an attenuator but can function like one, and has to deal with similar problems of dealing with passing along the host amplifier’s signature tone.)   I think there is reason to believe that BadCat might have an advantage in dealing with this problem when you realize that BadCat is owned by Inductors Inc., a leading distributor and manufacturer of high quality magneticsinductors, coils, transformers and chokes.  They supply devices to Peavey, Fender, Manly and Budda, among others.  And they have a staff of engineers who are experts in this field.

The custom toroidal interface between the output of a tube amp and the high quality Class D amp is going to be the major factor to this whole enterprise and there is a patent pending on it from what I understand.  All reports I’ve managed to find about the Unleash say that it is amazingly transparent.

I’ve seen photos of the interior of a Bobcat amp which also uses the unleash technology and it looks like the output  amplifier module (actually an amp and a power supply) is a highly regarded class “D” switching amplifier that is manufactured in the Netherlands.   To give you some idea of how highly thought of this module is, it is used by several high end amp manufacturers (Genesis makes an amp using this module that sells for $2,250.00!) and is capable of delivering 180 watts full audio spectrum into a four ohm load and with the much narrower bandwidth of an electric guitar will not likely having any problems delivering  a clean 100 watts into an 8 ohm load. It should sound exactly like the 5E3, only bigger.

If it only has the headroom of my Bandmaster Reverb, (Which is a 40 watt tube amp) it will be more than enough for any foreseeable use I might put the amp to, so I should have a safety margin.   The reason you need clean headroom is that you don’t want the class “D” amp to start imposing it’s own distortion signature on the sound.  In this application you merely want the amp to re-produce the sound of the smaller tube amp, not add it’s own voice.  From the reports I’ve heard, the amp will likely have all the headroom I need.

I’ve ordered a Jensen Tornado for the amp that is rated for 100 watts and has received some good reviews from people when used with a 5E3 clone like the one below (which happens to be one of mine).

I’m excited about the Unleash, and I’ve been watching the news about it for 9 some odd months now.   The more I’ve looked into it the more I became convinced this could be a breakthrough product.   When I spoke to Steph Maffei, senior vice-president of Sales and Marketing at BadCat, when I was pre-ordering my Unleash (He was the guy they routed me to on their phone system: he also answered all my questions in detail and treated me like I was ordering 1,000 of the things) he mentioned that this has taken them  a little by surprise.  In addition to getting the introduction of the product to be just right, interaction with the guitar community gave them some ideas concerning how the device could be made even more useful, such as adding an effects loop.

In a few weeks, when I have the Unleash and the new speaker, I plan on doing a full report on it.  I also plan on using it to record a audition demo with the band and hopefully get it all sorted out in time for an upcoming gig.

For more on this subject, here’s a post on the amp and speaker I’m planning on using with the Unleash:

Coronado Amplification 5E3 and Jensen Tornado 12″ speaker.

THE UNLEASH IS HERE!