Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Everybody, Point and Laugh

What the hell were you thinking, Gibson?

The all-new, 'revolutionary' Firebird X.

It's a non-reverse Firebird with robot tuners and built in effects run by toggles and sliders all over the body of the guitar. It's chambered, unbound ash and it must be close to hollow because the whole damn thing weighs in at under 2.5 pounds.
Gibson Guitar Chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz introduced the new Firebird X at a packed press conference today held at the Hard Rock Time Square. During the press conference Juszkiewicz talked about the leaders of innovation and the history of technology, all leading up to the unveiling of the Firebird X, a guitar which will change the music industry forever. Stunned press looked on when Juszkiewicz smashed a guitar into pieces in front of the crowd ushering in a new era of guitar technology.

The Firebird X Guitar takes the guitar instrument to new heights of functionality and usability for the professional player and the aspiring enthusiast. Using technologies that did not exist even a few years ago, Gibson has enhanced an already outstanding instrument to unbelievable performance and creative heights. The enhancements touch every aspect of the instrument from using improved manufacturing technologies to the latest electronics.

Gibson’s design goal is to bring more creative options to the player while he or she is playing. Thus the user interface has become richer and simpler. Fundamental musical effects are now available with a minimum of motion and disruption from playing the music. At the same time, the player is able to see what is happening with the guitar very easily, again without disrupting his making music.

Juszkiewicz introduced luthier Frank Johns, who took to the stage to demonstrate the Firebird X guitar and then answered a round of media questions. The guitar will be produced in a very limited quantity worldwide and available on December 11, 2010. They will not be reproduced after the initial offering.

Pure theater. Pure bullshit.

How do we know that this is not a revolutionary product that will usher in a new era? They will be produced in limited quantity and will not be reproduced. If Gibson believed for a second that this guitar would do any of the things that their marketing department claimed for this product they would be tooling up to produce them the way that they do the Les Paul.

I'd love to have a Gibson, but I'd buy a vintage one. No sense in buying anything new from them when the last new idea they had was in 1958.

Fender is more forward thinking. They at least have the foresight to take advantage of new trends and offer something like the Rock Band 3 Squier Strat. Putting music in the hands of a new crop of players and giving them a fun way to learn to play for $280 could be pretty revolutionary if any of those players decide to break out of the pop cover mold.

But a $5000 guitar that combines a bunch of existing features into one piece of complicated hardware?

Not that I'm claiming that using the Firebird X is complicated. I don't know. Nor do I care. My point about complicated is that the guitar is set up to run on Windows or OS X. It has a bunch of IC chips built in. When one of those fails -- when Gibson decides to quit offering tech support for the software once MS and Apple come out with new OS -- this guitar goes back to being a regular guitar. Assuming, that is, it still works and can bypass all of the extra circuits in the first place.

Wah pedal. Revolutionary. Added new sounds and new possibilities for guitar players. Plug your guitar into it, plug it into any amp and it works. If it breaks you fix it or buy a new one. It's modular.

Firebird X? No new nothing. Just a lot of existing stuff crammed into a guitar where it's harder to get to if it breaks.

No thanks.

Meanwhile, if you want actual innovation and a revolutionary design, check out Teufel Guitars. Not going to sell a ton of these either, but at least they are genuinely new and innovative.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Rock Band 3 vs. Guitar Hero 5 (and Some Thoughts On Hero Maker)

Three important facts:

1 - I play guitar.

2 - I play video games. In fact, I'm a professional new media scholar.

3 - Despite 1 and 2, I have never played either Guitar Hero or Rock Band.

This is the point at which I slam the games based on some expectation about music and games or anything like that. Simple fact is that as someone who plays video games for professional research and who robs writing time to play guitar (and to blog) I really can't afford to dedicate the sort of time I know would come of trying to learn to play a guitar based DDR-type game. DO NOT DRINK, Alice (Cooper?, In Chains?). That way lies the death both of guitar playing and of progress on my writing.

Still I can't resist the siren call of blogging about this as it overlaps on the Venn diagram of life with so many other things that I hold dear and about which I have blogged.

It's fascinating to me the way that each of these has differentiated itself from the other. As a big fan of the 'Loud' part in "Loud, Bad Guitar' I have to say that I've always preferred the Spinal Tap-esque grandeur of Guitar Hero to the alt-pop bent of Rock Band. Let's face it. GH started as a nod to the arena headlining fantasy buried at the heart of air guitar in the first place where RB has always seemed a little more of a Garage Rock experience. Now GH seems to have decided to channel it's Brutal Legend side for all it's worth and RB seems to have re-visioned itself as training wheels for the garage.

I'll admit -- as far as my own tastes are concerned I'd lean towards GH5 over RB3 because I already have a guitar and I'd rather noodle with it on my own than learn a song note for note. And I'm not interested in having to pick up another guitar just so I can hook it up to my game system and play songs from their Karaoke menu. Call me when they include Opeth or Amorphis or Enslaved, but I'm not interested in learning to play most of the stuff they feature. I'd rather pretend to be Kiss. They are ridiculous. The game is ridiculous. Dreaming of being a gargantuan rock star at 40 is ridiculous. It all fits.

That said, the Rock Band pro mode with the Squier guitar looks to work just fine according to this video. Okay, so the tuning is off. That just shows that it really was the guitar you were hearing.

Of course the Rock Band 3 deal with Fender/Squier reminds me of my earlier post about how Gibson lacks vision when it comes to the power of games like these to open up new markets. Looks like its Fender 1 - Gibson 0.

And I don't mean to bash on Peavey again, but it looks like Rock Band 3 will steal all the thunder from the Peavey/Xivix Hero Maker/Jam Party deal. It's going to take a lot to break into the market with well established competition. Unless Xivix comes up with a viable niche market that makes their product cool with a group of players underrepresented in the Rock Band playlists (country, blues, extreme metal) or incentivizes artists to partner with them I think they are screwed.

Too bad, because Peavey makes good hardware.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thoughts About AmpKit LINK

Looks like AmpKit and AmpKit LINK are out now and people have begun reviewing them. Here's a couple vids to get you started, followed by my own reactions and comments.

TechfastLunch&Dinner gives us a video unboxing of the AmpKit LINK followed by a demo review of the free version of AmpKit. This one lets you hear the app live and watch the player on an embedded screen, which is nice. It's also good to be able to see what the free version of the app can do before being tempted to drop the cash for the full version.

BigGeekReviews gives us a two part review of the software that includes a very thorough demo of what it's like using and tweaking the (looks like) full version of AmpKit and a very useful, if brief, comparison to the iRig hardware. He goes through some backing tracks so you can hear how changes in the settings affect the tone and he includes a recording and some live playing so that you get an idea of the software's capabilities. He also confirms in comments that the hardware works with third party virtual guutar amp apps for the iPhone.

This last bit is very good news as it means that you can choose your hardware based entirely on its performance and not the performance of your software. It also means that once you choose your hardware you can comparison shop your software independently, as I explained in my previous post on the subject. As long as the hardware sends a clean signal and has no latency you can pick it up with no fear that the app software is going to become outdated if the company drops it or loses the market to another app. You can switch to the newer or better app later. If BigGeekReviews is correct, this means that the LINK is the best hardware to date for the iPhone market.

Also, given what I said earlier about Peavey's lack of visible support for ReValver, I am reassured that AgilePartners (the actual developer) seems to be much more web savvy and responsive than Peavey and they need this product more. As a result I'd trust them more than I would Peavey to keep their product on a front burner.

In short: it's looking good for the AmpKit LINK right now.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Product Delays?

I have a habit of going to the different virtual guitar amp sites in order to see when they update and put out another demo version of their software. I like playing around with the different suites and seeing what they can do. I did an extensive comparison review a while back in case you are interested (along with a later revisit I did when I got new model packs and an updated demo of Guitar Rig). One of the things these constant visits to the various virtual amp software makers has convinced me of is that Peavey, despite its decent software, is still essentially a brick-and-mortar company with no web savvy.

Case in point. I went there this week to see if they had any new info on the iPhone amp rig they are developing with Agile Partners, (not to be confused with Agile Guitars, marketed by Rondo Music). Nothing new, despite the fact that they have to play catch-up with the iRig. They really need to pay attention to how the video game franchises do it and feed the tech nerds a constant diet of updates.

While I was poking around Peavey's terrible corporate website I navved over to the press page and saw some press releases from Winter NAMM talking about the upcoming ReValver Mk. III.V release set for, (according to Peavey in January), Q2 2010 -- *last* quarter. No news since then. No mention of the coming update on the webpage for ReValver itself. No reviews of the current software since 2008.

C'mon, Peavey. I know you are un-hip, but this is no way to build your software side. You have to let people know that you have new and better stuff on the way and convince us that we should buy your current version now (at an attractive discount) so that you can get us used to using it. Then when the new version comes out you can sell us the upgrade for a little more (rather than having to convince people to shell out $250 all over again). It's not an amp, it's a software franchise.

I will confess. I like ReValver a lot. It's grown on me. I still mess with the demo long after having deleted GTR3 and AmpliTube (which was good, but did not give me enough time to evaluate it fully before they spiked the demo with enough white noise to make me not want to finish evaluating it). I mess with it more than with Guitar Rig 4. The difference is that, despite my liking ReValver and having fun messing with it, I don't trust Peavey to support it. I know that Line 6 and Native Instruments are always working on their software because they tell me what they are doing. That commitment means a lot. With Peavey it always seems like the software is a novelty that could become an orphan at any moment.

Not a good impression to make when you are trying to get people to spend a couple Benjamins.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

iPhone Guitar - Hardware Matters

I've been thinking about my last entry and the iRig, and one of the things I've realized since I last posted is that the iPhone/iPod market will be a lot like the desktop virtual amp market in that you should probably consider your hardware and software solutions separately, to an extent, and weigh your hardware choices more carefully than your software choices. Here's why.

I do not for a second regret the $49 I spent on my Toneport GX when it was on clearance. It has limited input options, (a single standard TRS input), and the enclosed Gear Box software, (since upgraded for free by Line6 to Pod Farm), is not the best sounding or most versatile on the market. Still, just getting the USB interface allowed me to try out and play with most of the other software on the market for an absurdly low entry cost given what I got for it. And the GX gives me a low-latency, line level input device.

Input level and latency are going to be huge for portable applications. Every complaint I have heard about the PRS Jam Amp/Guitarbud seems to be related to one of these -- either that there is too much latency in the signal or that the signal craps out and becomes unusable as soon as the level gets too high, (and woe to all who have high output or active pickups in their guitars). No matter what the software is like, if the signal from the instrument isn't useable then there's nothing that the software can do to fix it. This is doubly true of portable applications because the memory and processing speeds are much more limited than they are for desktop applications. And, unlike desktop applications, you aren't likely going to want to carry around any additional gear with your iPhone/iPod rig to get it to sound better. It defeats the purpose of all that portability.

My guess is that a signal input that works with one set of iPhone guitar amp software will likely work with any other as well. It has to work with the internals of the phone itself and that is going to limit proprietary approaches substantially. This means that whatever hardware you get now will likely work for the near term no matter what new and amazing software is developed.

Short answer conclusion: If you decide to make the jump into iPhone guitar stuff, get the best hardware you can and keep your software options open because those are going to change a lot faster than the input options.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

iPhone/iPod Virtual Amp Race

Look's like it's on. IK Multimedia just announced their Amplitube iRig for the iPhone/iPod.

Back in March PRS started sending out press releases for their Jam Amp/Guitarbud combo which gives you a virtual amp, play-along capability, recording and a tuner. It looks simple enough -- there's a 1/4" input for your instrument cable, a minijack input for your headphones and a minijack plug for your iPhone or iPod Touch that allows it to process your signal and send it back to you.

I thought it was a good idea when I first heard about it. I had always looked wistfully at the Waves iGTR and thought about picking one up for its convenient form factor, but I never really liked the sound of it or the way the controls were laid out. I have a Vox DA5 for a practice amp and already feel cramped by it on the effects front despite it having a lot of useful effect combinations and three tweakable parameters for each. The iGTR limited you to three each from amps, filters and time effects and gave you only one parameter for each. The results being that everything sounded overprocessed and artificial to my ear. PRS took things a step farther than the iGTR by just using the iPhone/iPod hardward, adding an input for your instrument and letting you purchase the amp software in the app store.

Great idea, but the app/hardware got fairly mixed reviews. I took these with a grain of salt because I know that a lot of users don't have the patience to troubleshoot and tweak things in order to make it work and the bad reviews could just mean that a good product had a steeper learning curve than your average iPod. What made me pass on it, however, was that I was looking for a little more tonal flexibility than a single virtual amp with no effects could deliver.

The iRig, meanwhile, gives you the option of a free model with one amp and three effects, a low cost lite version with one amp, five effects and the option of plugging in more a la carte, or the full version which has eleven effects and five amps and looks to be very tweakable:

I'm going to be replacing my cell soon with an iPhone, which means my old iPod Touch will be free. I'll wait for the first reviews to come in (or the first big sale) before getting it, but this looks really promising. I'm hoping that this is just the first wave of a bunch of new virtual amp options for smartphones and mp3 players.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Guitar Scale Length Basics Pt. 2 -- Fret Spacing, Intonation, and Drop Tuning

Last post I explained a bit about what scale length was and how it worked and why shorter scale lengths weren't automatically easier to play or snappier sounding. (Short version: because [on an electric, anyway] you can easily increase the string gauge to increase string tension, making the shorter scale guitar feel more like a longer scale guitar). This time I want to move on to the bigger differences that a guitar's scale length make. But first a quick review if you have not read the earlier post:

A guitar's scale length is the length of the string from where it leaves the nut towards the fingerboard to the place where the string crosses the bridge saddle. This distance is (more or less) the same as the "speaking length" of the string -- the part that vibrates when the string is plucked.

One thing you should notice here is that scale length only refers to the length of the open string, and that the basic way that a guitar works is by pushing down on strings in order to change the speaking length of the string by pressing it against a fret. Shorter speaking length = higher pitch.

The second thing to notice from this is that a capo works by making your guitar into a shorter scale instrument. Tune down a half-step and put a capo on a 25.5" scale guitar and you essentially have a 24" scale guitar (with screwed up position markers). And since the notes of the musical scale are proportional to the length of the string you will notice that the 12th (octave) fret on the guitar changes from being 12.75" away from the nut to 12" away from the capo. In other words, as the scale length gets shorter, so does the distance between successive frets. If the frets are closer together it makes spread-out chords easier to play, but tighter chords become a little more tight as well. It feels like you're playing farther up the neck on a shorter scale guitar because (as the capo proves) you really are doing just that.

Next point, and one that is a little more involved. If you are trying to adjust your bridge saddles to intonate your guitar yourself you will have to adjust the longer scale bridge saddle just that much farther forwards or backwards to change it than you will the shorter scale guitar. It's the proportion thing again. Looking at the frets on each tells you that you have to move farther on a longer scale neck to change the pitch the same amount. So if an adjustable bridge has 0.25" of adjustment you will be able to adjust the shorter scale guitar more in that 0.25" than you can the longer scale guitar.

These are all reasons that I like shorter scale guitars. I have smaller hands and bad wrists, so the shorter neck and reduced tension makes things easier on me. So why would I consider a longer scale guitar?

Well, for one thing, as heavy music keeps going down in pitch the standard guitar tuning drops as well to give the music that bottom-end "chunk." For decades the guitar was built with standard E tuning in mind and string sets were engineered for that as well. If you decide to tune down to C or go all Sybreed and drop it all the way to Drop A#, standard strings get really floppy and you have to increase the string gauge by a lot to make up for this (which has its own set of issues). A longer scale means being able to use standard gauge strings and standard gauged strings are much easier to find.

Plus, going back to the comment about intonation, no guitar is perfectly intonated for every note on the neck in every key. It's all a big compromise. But since we know that smaller differences in length mean bigger differences in pitch for a short scale guitar we also know that a longer scale drop-tuned guitar is going to have less noticeable intonation problems than a shorter scale guitar would. This becomes even more apparent when lower string tensions make it more likely for you to make the string go sharp just from finger pressure. So the combination of higher tension with standard gauge strings and more forgiving intonation carries the day.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Scale Length Basics -- A Simple Explanation

Of all the things on my blog the one that seems to have brought the most people here is my discussion of scale length and pickup placement on the guitar. It seems that a lot of people have questions about scale length that are in need of some simple answers. Think I can manage that.

First off, a guitar's scale length is the length of the string from where it leaves the nut towards the fingerboard to the place where the string crosses the bridge saddle. This distance is (more or less) the same as the "speaking length" of the string -- the part that vibrates when the string is plucked. The strings speaking length and gauge form the basis for all the math that goes into acoustics that I'm mostly going to ignore here because we don't need all that math to get a basic understanding. Just wrap your head around this one thing:

If two guitars have different scale lengths but are using the same gauge of string, the one with the longer scale length will need more tension on the string to reach the same pitch as the one with the shorter scale length.

Put another way, comparing the same string on two guitars:

Longer string - same gauge - same tension = lower pitch

Same length string - heavier gauge (thicker string) - same tension = lower pitch

Same length string - same gauge - lower tension = lower pitch

Therefore: longer string - heavier gauge - same tension = even lower pitch

As you can see the pitch is determined by all three things (length, gauge, tension) and not by any one of the three alone.

The first myth, or truism about guitars that lots of people throw around but nobody seems to explain:

-- Guitars with longer scale lengths sound snappier or punchier than guitars with shorter scale lengths. Or, closely related, guitarist with shorter scale lengths are easier to play than guitars with longer scale lengths because the strings are looser.

This is sort of true, but only if both guitars have the same gauge strings. A longer scale guitar with extra light strings may have less tension on the strings than a shorter scale guitar strung with heavy strings. It depends on the ratio. That's why D'Addario publishes a spring tension guide -- so that you can keep string tension relatively the same between two guitars with different scale lengths by choosing the appropriate string gauges. Players who play both a Stratocaster (with a 25.5 inch scale length) and a Les Paul (with a 24.75 inch scale length) often times string the Stratocaster with .009s and the Les Paul with .010s for this very reason.

So if the reasoning behind saying that a Strat is more punchy than a Les Paul is because of scale length it's really only true if you have one set of strings to choose from.

Next time -- more about scale length and why players who play drop tunings often choose guitars with longer scale lengths.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Brands with no Vision: Gibson Edition

Last year I taught a writing class organized around the theme of Intellectual Property. In the course of discussion we got on to the topic of counterfeiting and of counterfeit guitars in particular.

Okay, I admit it, they were talking about counterfeit designer purses and I shifted the topic onto guitars. My bad.

Anyway, they got me googling the topic and poking through Chinese knockoffs on dodgy auction sites. But one of the other things that popped up out of that was Gibson's lawsuit against Activision claiming that Activision had infringed upon Gibson's patent for 'simulated musical performance using an instrument'. This is the same Gibson that made a bit of coin off the licensing for the SG, Les Paul, and Explorer shaped controllers that shipped with Guitar Hero games and that gets a shitload of free advertising with all the damn characters using so many Gibson designs on screen.

Any responsible and sane company would look at this as a good thing. Twenty years ago -- no money coming in from video game licensing. Today -- money coming in without the company having to hire a single factory worker or even design a new guitar. All the work was done years back by Les Paul and Ted McCarty. Oh, and Angus and Slash and James Hetfield and Michael Schenker. Gibson corporate didn't have to do a damn thing except hold their hands out for the bags of free money and thank their lucky stars that they have been able to live off of their laurels for the last 30 years while people like Ken Parker and Ned Steinberger were bothering to think about what might be next.

If I were a small guitar company looking to break through I'd seriously be on the phone with Activision begging them to use my guitars likenesses and labels on every damn product they could push for free so long as I could do the same and use the games to market the hell out of my guitars rather than being a greedy, ungrateful wretch like Gibson and grasping for more. This is doubly true when the company hasn't had a successful new idea since before punk. That type of stupid should be criminalized.

Thank the gods they lost the lawsuit.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Eco Guitar Ponderings

Over the weekend I realized that I had no spare strings on hand for my Hag in case I broke one while playing. This led me to a number of searches on-line as I started my typical, neurotic grad student pondering about changing strings.

It started with thinking about gauges. I have consistently been upping the gauge on my strings since getting the guitar in order to deal with the effects of down-tuning to D and looking to get a bit more sustain and a little less oscillation on the strings so that I could lower the action. My last set of strings were D'Addario Medium Top Heavy Bottoms (11-52), which felt and sounded decent, but gave me some issues with the strings binding in the nut. I could take the guitar in to have the nut slots filed, but I thought I'd give light strings another shot first, figuring that this would also be a lot more convenient for getting strings locally and not having to pay shipping and wait.

Meanwhile, related thoughts. I've been using D'Addarios because they are the most forthcoming on their website about their green practices and their ongoing efforts to reduce the amount of waste they produce both in packaging and in production. I saw that Ernie Ball and GHS were both touting their new foil packaging as being eco-friendly, but then other places I saw that they were still packaging strings in envelopes inside the foil packs, so it seems like only a partial solution and more of a cost-cutting move that could be spun as green rather than a corporate commitment to reducing waste. I ended up choosing EXL 110s again.

(Short digression: Having put on the new strings I noticed an increase in fret buzz near the middle of the neck. Looks like I'll have to loosen the truss rod a bit to give the neck a bit of relief now that the strings don't pull as hard. I'm hoping that I don't have to raise the bridge any to kill the last of the clatter. Intonation has improved a tad as well with the smaller gauges, but is still a few cents sharp going up the neck. I'll move the saddles back a bit more where I can to fix this.)

Coupled with my recent thoughts on buying guitars I've been thinking that were I to break down again and get another guitar I'd probably buy used rather than new. The guitar industry is tearing down trees and stringing new guitars at an alarming rate from an environmental standpoint and I think that the best answer to the problem lies not in finding more ecologically sound tonewoods (or recycled alternatives to traditional tonewoods), but rather in recycling the guitars themselves wherever possible. Most of the ecological costs for a used guitar have already been paid and resurrecting an old guitar keeps that much more material out of a landfill somewhere.

Now if only I can find more information on guitar amps and power consumption so that I can have some fair basis for comparing the ecological impact of tubes vs solid state vs modeling and of amp and cab size, etc.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

On the Passing of GAS

Gear Acquisition Syndrome seems to be the bane of many guitarists. Go to any guitar forum and the majority of the attention seems to be focused upon what gear people own and, more often, what gear those people wish they owned to go with what they already have -- what they would buy or replace if they had the money to do so and whatnot.

Five months ago I was listening to a lot of Jeff Beck and Dada and got the jonez for a strat -- or at least for something with a trem and a chunkier neck than my Hag. Two months later I was playing acoustic and looking at OMs with envy. Had I given into my urges I would probably have picked up one of each. Neither one would have made me a better player, though.

Not sure why, but even though I never stop looking at new guitars, I'm really not all that interested in actually getting one right now. I've got my Hag and my Fender acoustic, my Toneport GX and my Vox DA5 and I really don't care if I get anything more in the near future. I've decided to stick with what I have and see what I can do with it, which, in these days of modeling technology, is actually a whole lot. I've got more sounds at my disposal than Pink Floyd had in its heyday. Seriously. Getting another guitar would not add much in the way of variety. It would not transform what I was playing into something wholly new. Only I can do that by becoming a different sort of player, and the biggest changes in my playing come as a response to playing with filters and delays and other effects that change the characteristics of the waveforms that my guitar generates. Throw a couple really wacked out filter effects on and play the same notes you already know from something and try to work with the time and feel constraints and before you know it you are playing something that sounds entirely new and different.

I'm not chasing a sound in my head. I'm discovering the music that's in the sounds I already have. And I don't need anything new to discover those at the moment.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Re-Revisiting: Head-to-Head

Not trusting my impressions of GR4 compared to Pod Farm I went back today and pulled up a fairly basic go-to tone on my Pod Farm that I call 'A Bit Beckish' that has a chain of noise reduction into a Tube Screamer clone dialed just behind 5 with the tone rolled back into a JCM 800 clone with the gain at 6 and bass 4 mid 6 treble 7 running through a matched 4X12 miked dead on using a SM 57 with a bit of air and with the signal going through a reverb set to model a medium room. Pretty much any sim software you buy is going to have these units modeled.

I dialed in identical settings on the Pod Farm, the Guitar Rig 4 and the ReValver Mk II. Not that I was expecting them to sound the same with identical settings. Even real amps and stomp boxes sound different from each other with the same settings. Nor does the comparison imply that I could not get each piece of software to create nearly the same sounds by tweaking each a bit and comparing the range of tweakability present in each model. Mostly I just wanted to compare my impressions of all three as a baseline for what characteristics they present.

I played the Pod Farm first, then dialed in the Guitar Rig and played it, went back to the Pod Farm, turned on the ReValver and dialed it in and played it, then went back to the Pod Farm.

Impressions...the Pod Farm is the buzziest of the three both in terms of hum from gain and in general tone. Compared to the other two it sounds like the Pod Farm has a fuzz unit in the mix as well. I know that the Pod can do nice, sparkly cleans so it's either the Screamer or the JCM model that kicks up the fuzz factor. I found myself looking for a bit more articulation and midrange roundness to give the guitar some character. The ReValver, meanwhile, was very round, but also flatter and less cutting than the other two. It sounded like a cab going into a single mic with little or no air and the reverb never really felt like it added much depth, just a little wetness to the mix. It picked up the least variation in string response as well. The Guitar Rig was very present and deep and articulate with very little background noise or fuzz. The guitar sounded very alive and I could hear the difference in response based on my picking, which, if I were trying to dial something in rather than just comparing would mean a lot less tweaking and a lot more playing.

I'm really impressed with Native Instruments modeling. It's just such a solid overall package. If you have the money and plan on using it for recording or playing out it would definitely be worth the extra. I'm sure that a tech could get them all to sound great in a mix, but the GR4 sounds great even without a tech in sight.

****ETA 10Jun2010****

One thing I discovered a couple months back that I hadn't noticed before is that the ReValver gives you the option of outputting through your computer's soundcard rather than resending it to the USB interface output. This lets you play through your computer speakers like it's an amp. In Pod Farm you have to run it all through Garage Band or another DAW which is doable, but adds another layer of latency issues and memory suck into the equation.

Being able to output to your speakers is handy for sharing ideas or just playing for a friend/spouse.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Revisiting Virtual Amps

Since last time I reviewed a bunch of virtual amps and virutal amp demos (back in Oct/Nov 2009) I've purchased add-ons for my Line 6 Pod Farm and have downloaded the demo for Guitar Rig 4 to compare to the GR3 demo I already have. I picked up the Metal Shop, Collector Classics, and FX Junkie Model packs in mid-December sometime and just downloaded the new Guitar Rig demo this week, so my opinion of the model packs is much more developed than my impression of the new Guitar Rig.

The Model packs are a complete blast. The Metal Shop and Collector Classics add a bunch of new amp models into your virtual studio that add all manner of options and nuance to your sound. Between them there aren't many sounds I couldn't go for within the limits of what one can pull out of a stop tail, dual humbucker guitar. As far as bread-and-butter additions go, though, I most appreciated the addition of the Killer Z distortion box into the mix. The Cat stompbox in the original software was good, but it was a little bright and thin for a modern metal sound. The Killer Z is more modern sounding -- thicker and warmer with some contour control to shape your mids for the right amount of cut. The FX Junkie pack adds in a lot of fun effects that range from classic and subtle to outrageous. They would be awesome for any time one wanted to step away from your guitar god pose and do some postrock experimentation or write some soundtrack stuff for a video game. It extends your tonality into decidedly unguitarlike places and gets you playing things you normally would not. I don't know that I would pay full price for these packs unless I needed them for some project and could not do it with the standard set of sounds that comes with the Pod Farm setup, but they were well worth the package special price that put them all in the same price range as a budget stompbox.

Switching from the Pod Farm to the Guitar Rig 4 demo, the first thing I noticed was how clean and spatial the sound was. The Line 6 sims are good, but they always sound just a little less articulate and more compressed than the Native Instruments sims. This does not imply that the Line 6 sounds aren't as good or as accurate. I'm always surprised when I plug into a normal amp to hear how muddy they sound and how much more string noise they pick up from the guitar, and I'm always a little disappointed that I can't tweak the size of the room in which I am playing it without dropping a lot of money on a good quality reverb unit. The Line 6 may actually be more accurate than the Native Instruments in this regard (much as the ReValver was more like an RL amp in its output than the rest), I just really appreciate the way that the NI software sounds when almost everything I play is just my guitar through headphones. It gives my playing added musicality and dimension and really pulls out the expressiveness of fingers on strings while cutting all the odd, non-musical artifacts down to a minimum.

There's no buyer's remorse here. I saw that the online retailers have been clearancing out the GR3 hardware and while I was tempted to pick it up I really can't justify the cost when I'm not doing anything with my music other than entertaining myself and annoying the cats. I will say, however, that if I had no sunk cost in the Line 6 hardware and were looking at either a full price Line 6 Pod Studio vs. a clearance GR3 package with the direct box hardware and had a chance to play with both ahead of time I would definitely go with the NI over the Line 6. At full price, however, I still think the Line 6 is still the best value of all the virtual guitar studio packages and good enough for most applications.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Acoustic Info and Websites

I'm sidling up on the end of a dissertation chapter and trying to decide between rewarding myself with a new tattoo and a new acoustic. The tattoo would be easier, since I already know the design (Viking spirals and a snake somewhat like the one from Marebro, Sweden) and the artist (Adam Kilss). Acoustic...not so easy.

I know that whatever acoustic I get I'm more interested in fingerpicking than in heavy strumming or bluegrass and country flatpicking. Ideally I'd be playing acoustic stuff a la Opeth or Mick Mills' Antimatter material -- some Zep, maybe. Stuff like that. Price wise I'm looking under $500. Sound wise I want something that is less boomy than a Martin dreadnought but still has decent bass response when played softly.

Other concerns -- my wrists and fingers aren't what they used to be before all that typing from academia (and years of IT work before that) tried to cripple me. Plus I've got strong, square hands, but relatively short (and slow and clumsy) fingers. I love my Hagstrom, but ain't no way I want to try to fingerpick on it. The neck is to slim and fast and too tight at the nut even at 1.68". I want something a little more supportive and hand-filling for chords and a tad more space between the strings. Oh, and that lower bout on a dreadnought is an arm killer, too, but I'm not sure I want to go to a 000 despite my earlier post because I don't want to lose too much bass if I tune down a little. I'd say OM or GC, except that those usually up the scale length and my wrists and fingers keep telling me to stick to a shorter scale if possible.

So far this all sounds like it makes me a candidate for a Seagull guitar. They mostly have shorter scales and slightly wider necks and they have a great rep. And they are made in Canada, eh? I'm down with that.

Anyway, what I'm getting to here is that finding and evaluating all this info has made me wish that online music stores did a better job of organizing their stock and informing their buyers of the crucial things. Guitar marketing is straight up stupid most of the time. I love abalone purfling and quilted backs and sides as much as the next guy, but body size, scale length, nut width and string spacing at the bridge are much more important to whether or not I'm going to like playing the damn thing. And if I'm not going to be able to play the thing myself, I'd like to at least see a picture of someone else holding it seated so I can see where that lower bout sits relative to another body size. I know that a mini-jumbo is bigger than a dreadnought, but with a tighter waist does that put the upper bout in the same place, lower, or higher where it hits the arm? It would be nice to know this. For that matter it would be nice to search for guitars by body size rather than by brand and for acoustics and acoustic electrics together with a check box to filter on electronics if that were a deal breaker rather than having to run separate searches and try to aggregate the results.

It shouldn't take much to build a website right for this. If Elderly or Sweetwater were to put a little design time into it they could really put the other companies on their asses. I'd be there.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cheap, Good Guitar

Tuned the old Fender Gemini II down to C# standard today to noodle after learning a bit of Den Standiga Resan. I picked up some of the intro, but got distracted by some meandering improv. Somehow tuning down three steps made the guitar sound better in addition to making it easier to play with the reduced string tension. I'd always thought the Gemini was a nice guitar for the money I payed way back when (and was the only acoustic under $250 I found that had good intonation and action with no setup), but, like most dreads, I thought it was a bit boomy on the bottom end for my tastes. Tuning down balanced it out a lot more and made the treble sound richer and louder.

I'm honestly surprised by how well the laminate top on the guitar has aged over 20 years. It's responsive and woody, but has never had any of the problems with humidity that a lot of solid tops develop. This was especially nice when I was in Colorado, where the humidity dropped alarmingly in the winters. In fact, other than one little issue with one fret fairly far up the neck (and on one string only...need to tap or file that sucker down), it's been entirely maintenance free for the whole time.

Good little Korean made guitars, those Gemini.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Quiet, Bad Guitar

It's been over a week since I last played my Swede.

It started one of the days of our hectic holiday interim. We were going somewhere and it was unclear at what moment we would be leaving. I hadn't played guitar for a couple days and I was feeling the jones, (and fearing for my callouses). So I dug beneath the Swede's case to the battered chipboard shell that sheathes my battered old Fender dreadnought and dug it out to save having to plug in and boot up my Pod Farm and fiddle with settings only to have to shut down and unplug once our friends showed up and we took off. What could be simpler than an acoustic? You just take it out, tune up, and play.

The holidays are over and I haven't put it back yet.

Somewhere during the time that I picked up the acoustic I also pulled out Opeth's Damnation and listened through it. Then I pulled out Antimatter's Planetary Confinement and listened to it. Then I pulled out Green Carnation's The Acoustic Verses. Before I knew it I was dusting off how to play ELP's From the Beginning and trying to learn a bit more fingerpicking than just being able to stumble through Travis picking Dust in the Wind.

All the playing on the electric has payed off in one respect. I'm starting to get a feel for the fretboard and where notes are in relation to what I'm playing and beginning to be able to play what I'm hearing in my head (as long as what I'm hearing is slow). All the melancholy acoustic stuff gives me a chance to play along, but also to play counterpoint and improv a bit.

It's killed my GAS for a solid body with a trem, (for the time being, anyway), but now i'm GASsing for a mid-sized acoustic with a little wider string spacing at the bridge and some nice mellow strings. Maybe an OM or a 000 with a cedar top or the like.

It's still buzzy, muffled notes, but it's quiet and honest buzzy and muffled notes.

Except that as far as my wife and neighbors are concerned, outside the headphones, the quiet, bad guitar has just gotten louder.