Monday, 5 October 2009

Getting It Down: Power Tab Editor 1.7

Sharing written music can be an absolute pain. Physically person-to-person you could use photocopies, or, at a push, copy the stuff in manuscript. Neither option is really ideal. Over the web things are little better - scan the the music as some form of image file, with all the problems that will present its end user, or find some way of representing it in ASCII.

Things aren't a whole lot better if you're just trying to get a paper record of something. You could get yourself some music notating software and save a huge amount of grief - what you might not save, of course, are money and the imposition of a substantial learning curve.

Enter Power Tab Editor. It's freeware, so it'll cost you nothing to use it, and it's simple to learn, so you can spend your time getting some work done rather than sitting reading helpfiles and tutorials for weeks. It's aimed at guitarists, though, so would-be Mozarts will need to look elsewhere...

Power Tab Editor has a functional and uncluttered interface.

As the name implies, this is a Tab editor. You enter your music onto a Tab stave and the standard music notation stave above is auto-populated, pitches following the tuning you have previously defined for the tab (absolutely great if you use loads of altered tunings but need standard notation that other instrumentalists may need to be able to read). Note lengths are edited on the standard staff. As you might expect, you can define key and time signatures, etc, indicate odd groupings, add expression marks and so forth. You also have access to the whole usual range of guitar technique indications - slurs, bends, slides etc.

The printed output from Power Tab Editor 1.7 is fantastic - clear and very professional. If you want to share stuff over the web then just send the file, the recipient will need a Power Tab reader (or the editing software itself) but these are free, so there's no problem there. Most of the Tab repository sites use Power Tab as one of their standard formats, btw.

This would be a fantastic tool for teachers, I have to say, but frankly just about any guitarist will have a use for this program. It's free, easy to install and use and you know you want it.

You can get it here.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Alden Full-Bodied Jazzer

Here's an interesting instrument, and one that may seem uncannily familiar to regular trawlers of the "Guitars For Sale" parts of EBay and other internet sales sites. Alden are a range of far-eastern built guitars distributed by Cranes, a huge, well-known and (as far as I'm aware, certainly) well-respected music shop in Cardiff.

A quick Google will inform you that: "Alden guitars are the result of a collaboration between UK guitar guru Alan Entwhistle and one of Korea’s leading guitar companies. Alan has been involved in guitar design since the early 60’s and his wealth of experience is showcased perfectly in the Alden range. Alden guitars are inspired by classic instruments of the last 5 decades though thanks to Alan’s creative design input none could be even remotely described as “copies” All feature top quality hardware, Entwhistle designed pickups, premium materials, and superb construction supervised by the man himself!"

However, as I mentioned above, eagle-eyed readers may have noticed a not-insubstantial similarity between this guitar (and various other Alden models) and the offerings of a number of other "makers", notably Jay Turser - take a look here for example and note the headstock motif, which is identical to that on the Alden jazzers. What we would appear to be dealing with, then, are off-the-shelf basic designs tweaked a bit hardware-wise to suit particular distributors. The Alden does feature some unique and rather groovy Art Deco-style pickups for example.

To the best of my knowledge, these rather cool pickup (covers) are unique to the Alden range.

Of course, there's nothing wrong, or indeed new, about this approach to marketing instruments - just think of all those catalogue-branded Stellas, Harmonys, Danelectros and so on out there for example. But there is a problem in that it's not always clear what it is you're dealing with. Is this Alden really an embodiment of one British guru's experience and design expertise? No, I don't think it is and I *do* think it's more than a little misleading to advertise it as such.

It would be great to be able to judge each individual guitar on earth on its own merits but this would clearly be an impossible task even if we could leave aside all the subjectivity that we know will come into the equation. From a practical point of view, we need pigeon holes to put things in. If someone tells me "it'd be great for a £500 guitar, but at £750 it's a rip off" I've got some idea what I'm going to be looking at and the standards by which I should be judging it. Meaningful judgements aren't going to be relative only to the very best, because that way anything but the very best is going to be "second rate" and that sort of rating system wouldn't help anyone.

Some rather lovely faux-abalone purfling sets off the very pretty top nicely.

The central issue is one of context. Whilst it may well be true that to some extent you're paying for the name on a "name" guitar you're also buying into history and a company you can understand and research. It's a little like the difference between buying any other generic vs branded goods, be they pharmaceuticals or breakfast cereals. So here we have a contextless jazz guitar or uncertain origin. What to make of it?

Well it's solidly built and well finished *for an inexpensive instrument*. The fretboard wood might be anything, but does its job just fine, though the fretting is best described as "adequate". The truss rod cover is functional but badly fitted, there are a couple of minor blemishes in the finish. The rather groovy multi-adjustable and lockable bridge has roller-shaped sadles which suggest a bigsby had been anticipated, but the absense of said device doesn't render the bridge any less effective. The allen-key locking of the sadle positions and the bridge height are excellent features, I think. The pickups and switch gear work fine and a range of suitably jazzy tones is forthcoming.

How it plays is, somewhat unsurprisingly, dependent upon your string choice. "Proper" jazz benefits from telegraph wires here, as you might expect. What you might not expect, though, is just how much fun a bit of Rock'n'Roll or Jump Blues can be with a set of .10s on there. All round, it's a flexible, enjoyable box and big on the "grin factor". But it's *not* an ES-175, nor indeed anyway near.

I've really enjoyed owning and playing this guitar and if I lost it and needed a replacement I'd be more than happy to buy another at the right price. But what is the right price? I think Cranes were selling these new for between £250 and £299 - the former is about reasonable, the latter a good bit too much, I think. Personally I'd think a tad under the £200 mark for a new one would be fair. This one'll be on EBay shortly, so take a look and see what it makes...

Update: It's gone for £127, which I think is a good deal both ways. That's a lot of guitar for not a lot of money, too!

Monday, 7 September 2009

Hofner Congress

A little piece of British Rock'n'Roll history, the Congress was the first guitar of a number of great players, none greater, perhaps, than the man who epitomises early British Rock guitar, Hank Marvin. It was the cheapest in Hofner's arch-top range at the time, its more expensive siblings being the Senator and the President. Quite why the UK got these US-themed names whilst identical models were available in the States with only numerical names isn't clear.

The guitar we're taking a look at here is one I've had for a few years now and which I thought it'd be nice to record a few details about for posterity before I - somewhat reluctantly, I have to say - sell it.

This particular example, serial number 2290, is a fairly early one and probably dates from 1954. For an inexpensive guitar that's over half-a-century old it's in remarkably good condition, though it has plenty of mojo-tastic playing wear.

It's an archtop acoustic, with a fairly small (14 1/2" across the lower bout) but relatively deep (sides are 3 3/8", and the curve of the top obviously adds to that) body. Possibly because of the relatively small body, the 24" scale length seems rather longer than it actually is. The neck could probably double as a baseball bat, it's *really* chunky by modern standards though not unduly unusual for instruments of its age, and joins the body at the 12th fret. The neck has no truss rod. The back of the guitar is flat. In versions not much later than this you'll find the neck joining the body at the 14th fret and an arched back, but a truss rod didn't make an appearance until 1960.

The photo above shows a classic piece of Hofner eccentricity - a lovely carved rosewood bridge with a matching faux-tortoiseshell pickguard attached with... a nail! It's nailed at the neck end, too, though the attachment to the side of the body is a somewhat more conventional bracket-and-screw affair.

The Hofner logo is, rather oddly, stamped on the top of the guitar adjacent to the bridge, and the model name and serial number are hand-written on the label within the body of the instrument. In later versions of the Congress the logo moved about somewhat: to the upper bout around 1956/57 (note that there is little consistency in things Hofner, so finding something you hadn't expected on an instrument doesn't necessarily mean there's something fishy about it) before finally migrating to the headstock around 1959.

The finish on the guitar is simply gorgeous, the colour helped no doubt by a fairly lengthy aging process, and has proven to be remarkably hardy. The three-on-a-strip tuners work fine (well, as well as they ever did); on my particular example the sixth string's tuner button has at some point been replaced with a similar but somewhat whiter one. The nut (only a string guide really, like many European guitars this one has a zero fret) is perhaps a bit shallow-cut and aggressive sixth string bends will pull the string out. I suspect this may not have been an issue likely to have been foreseen by the guitar's builders, to be fair.

It's great fun to play, although hard work once you venture past the third position. Dead cool with a slide, though, it really sings! At the end of the day this is a 50+ year old budget guitar and its worth is more in its historical interest than its function as a working instrument. But in the comfort of your woodshed it's just an absolute joy to noodle with. And that, my friends, is what it's all about.

Update: I know I'm not the only one that Gordon's got selling off the family jewels. For those of you looking to price a similar instrument you might like to know that this one sold for £230, which I feel is a fair price - bear in mind this instrument is in very good nick for its age - there are far fewer of these around now than there were even 18 months ago.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Right Side Up Please! Boss BCB-60 Pedalboard

Are you a lover of stompers but look on with envy when your mates whip out their plug-and-boogie multi-FX gizmos and are up and running before you've even got your Wah-Wah out of it's incresingly tatty cardboard box? A pedal board may be just what you need, then: the ease of set up of the multi-FX device with the sound quality and flexiblity of individual stomp boxes.

As with any good niche market, everyone and his dog seems to have jumped in with some or another product. Discounting high-end custom products like the Pete Cornish boards (which I would say are multi-FX units anyway), we have a number of broad categories: manufacturer/product specific boards, "controller" boards which aim to get the functionality of a multi-FX board but using stompers and general-purpose boards designed for use with just about anything. This last class is, unsurprisingly I suppose, the biggest and most popular. It's also the class into which the subject of this post, the Boss BCB-60, falls.

Whilst a lot of use-with-anything boards rely on velcro to attach pedals to the board - the board is faced with velcro and strips of the stuff are then stuck on the back of each pedal to allow them to be secured in place - the BCB-60 uses a fairly rigid half-inch thick foam sheet with cut-outs in which the pedals sit. This has the advantage that you're not lumbered with sticking velcro on the back of your prized pedals but the disadvantage that the pedals are not actually attached to the board - they just don't slide about. In use this is absolutely fine, but you will need to remember not to open the thing upside down. I've done this twice now and, yes, it is very annoying.

The supplied foam sheet (actually it's made of three bits which can be independently removed) has pre-cut shapes for Boss pedals, naturally enough, but can be cut to accomodate pretty much anything you like - the board will quite happily accept a Wah-Wah pedal too. Replacement sheets are available should you change layout, but aren't cheap, hence my current set-up uses sheets rebuilt with the aid of considerable amounts of gaffa tape - this works fine, though it's not particularly pretty.

The BCB-60 comes complete with a PSU and both power and signal hook-up cables. I know some people replace the PSU with a beefier device but I've always found it to be perfectly adequate for my needs. The thing doesn't exactly hold hundreds of pedals: it does hold more than enough for your average gigging guitarist though - you may need to give things a bit of thought but how many pedals do you *really* need/use?

So is it worth the money? Yes, I think so. It's flexible, built to survive (though be a *bit* careful with the latches) and is eminently practical. Provided you can avoid opening it upside down you'll soon wonder how you ever coped without it - I've been using one for three years now and am still very happy with it. There are plenty of alternatives out there but this really is an "all there in one box" solution. Recommended.

Project: Fuzz Face Clone, Part One

I'm not entirely convinced by the boutique crowd's obsession with the Fuzz Face. I've owned a few of them over the years and have never exactly been bowled over by the things. I suppose there's the "rarity value" of the germanium transistors used in the originals and now in the more exotic (read "expensive") boutique clones, but I don't recall the germanium ones I've heard sounding particularly awesome - indeed, part of the problem with germanium transistors is their inconsistency example-to-example and their tendency to behave differently (and even stop working entirely) as their temperature changes, rendering them exceedingly unreliable as a live tool. At least silicon examples tended towards consistency and were prone actually to work. And they *still* sounded like cheap fuzz boxes.

However, there's no denying that the "cheap fuzz box sound" has its uses (even if it's just the guilty pleasure of wigging out with one in the privacy of one's own woodshed). But the little chaps are more than a little expensive these days, particularly when you consider what's actually in them. What better a project for the regular rainy days we've been getting, then, than building one's own?

There are no shortage of "how to build your own effects pedal" articles on the web. I'm not intending for this to be such an article. This series of posts will be from the perspective of an interested novice - me - researching the project, getting the bits and making the thing. More of an electronic travelogue, really.

The journey begins with me looking for the design I'm going to build. After a fair bit of Googling I've settled on the "Pelusa Face", which I found on the excellent TonePad site. Stage one of my plan is just to get the PCB made. There are a whole host of ways of going about this, I'm going for the most basic I can. If I get into this then maybe later I'll chance spending some money, right now "as cheaply as possible" is the rule.

The first stage essestials now sit on my desk, the hardware freshly purchased from my local branch of Maplins. Here we go!

UPDATE: Well I've now got a PCB I think I can use. I drew the design on by hand (taking, as you may be able to tell, a few liberties with the shape of the tracks) and then drilled the holes with a Dremmel and a 1mm metal bit. I reckon I've just about got away with this, but on a more complex circuit I suspect a tower drill would be a must.

It's not a work of art, that's for sure. Perhaps it'll look a tad groovier when it's populated. Next task is to order the electronic bits, and then we can see.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Boss TU-80 Tuner & Metronome

Here's a couple of many people's least favourite aspects of practicing in one small and rather attractive - in a typical boss way - package. Does it ease the chore of tuning, or add fun to your daily scale practice?

The Boss TU-80 is a pretty cunning piece of kit. In its tuner mode you can select between "Chromatic" (tuning by any of the 12 steps in the chromatic scale), "Guitar" (tune by string name) and "Bass" (also tune by string name). It'll happily cope with 7 string guitars, 6 string basses and flat tunings, too. In metronome mode you can select rhythm style, beat and tempo - I've found this functionality to be *really* useful, I have to say.

Input is via standard quarter-inch jack, or you can use the built in mic for acoustic instruments. There is an additional quarter-inch jack for output, so you can use the device inline, where it will operate in true bypass mode. All jolly good.

Problems? Well, yes, a couple. The metronome isn't particularly loud, and you can't output it via the output jack. I appreciate the occasions you'd be likely to want to shove the metronome through your amp live will be next to nil, but Boss might have considered letting the output double as a headphone jack, perhaps, so you could hear the thing over anything other than an acoustic. On the subject of acoustics, the internal mic isn't insanely sensitive, so may be a pain in noisy conditions.

Overall? It's a very handy piece of kit. Personally I'd view it as a home practice tool that you can also get to double as a stage tuner in a push but I don't doubt that other people will be more than happy to keep one in their gigbag. It's not exactly going to take up a lot of space! All-in-all, a good-value, well-made product from a respected manufacturer. You can't go far wrong with that.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Essentials: Shubb Deluxe Capo

A capo is an essential? For everyone who'd agree that yes, one really should at least be lurking in your case there'll probably be a dozen players who'll say the things are the tool of the devil and that you should learn to play properly. There are, of course, arguments in favour of both views but I think we've now moved far enough from the "Play In A Day" learning aids available in my youth that we can see the capo for the potential it has to expand our playing rather than viewing it as a means of never learning a non-open chord.

For the acoustic player in particular, especially I suspect ones with a penchant for non-standard tunings, the capo really is a must unless you're going to confine yourself to forever playing alone.

Capo technology has moved along, too, since the "Play In A Day" days, so you're no longer condemned to using one of those clothes-peg-and-elastic jobs that always seemed better suited to making running repairs to combine harvesters than adorning the neck of your prized guitar. The Shubb shown here is one of a range of three full capos, the company also producing a couple of partial capos. There are plenty of other manufacturers out there, too, so it's not as if you're short of choice.

The Deluxe Shubb differs from its siblings in using a roller and track mechanism (rather than a point-head) which is designed to offer a somewhat smoother action. I can't vouch for it's being smoother than the others, but it certainly *is* smooth to use. Adjustment to suit a particular neck takes seconds and then a lever action securely attaches the thing to your guitar with no adverse affect on your tuning or your instrument itself. It's tolerant of a wide range of neck/fingerboard profiles and should work well with anything you're realistically likely to ask it to and is surprisingly unobtrusive in use. It does the job, and does it well. You can get replacement pads for it too, should you need them.

I really like this little widget and, whilst I'll be the first to admit I rarely use it, I always carry it about with me and I do expect it'll be put into service at this weekend's birthday camp-fire sing-a-long.

I'm happy to recommend the Shubb as a part of anyone's kit, particulary for electric rock/blues players where it's likely to provide all you ever want or need from a capo. The adventurous might well want to take a look at some of the more exotic stuff out there - I have to say partial capos do sound like they've got considerable creative potential - you'll even find ones you can move with one hand whilst still playing. Someone is no doubt going to build a career around that particular feature - who knows, it might even be you!

Monday, 24 August 2009

Hi Ho Small White Box! It's The Burford Sonic Ranger!

It's always struck me as curious that a lot of players spend their lives searching the web/pawn shops/Help The Aged for old bits of kit that their heros used "back in the golden age", despite the facts that a lot of that kit was junk then and is hardly going to have been improved by a 40 year aging process and that said heroes long ago moved on to more modern equipment that actually works.

But plenty of people want to try the back-in-time approach and a whole industry has sprung up supplying these people with reproductions of all manner of improbable kit, which should at least work and can be obtained without spending hours delving through racks of moth-balled de-mob suits.

The subject of this post, the Burford Sonic Ranger, is a modern clone of the 1960s Dallas Rangemaster, a germanium-transistor based "treble booster" used by a whole host of luminaries and which is perhaps most famously known as part of the Beano Album sound. This particular Alan Exley designed unit also features switchable mid/bass boost, a modification used by Sabbath's Tony Iommi amongst others. The Sonic Ranger is hand-made in England and can be bought new on-line for a very reasonable £52.

Sound-wise this has the potential to be the king of overdrives. It's got real presence, balls, brilliance and a wonderful organic, singing quality. Switch the thing on and the guitar seems to come to life in your hands. But whilst you're noodling away in guitar-tone nirvana, take a peek at your sound engineer. He'll be the one tearing his hair out trying to figure out what to do with all that noise your Sonic Ranger is producing and wondering exactly what language the radio station it's picking up is in. To be fair, the background noise is, whilst considerable by modern standards, (a) probably authentic and (b) acceptable in a live environment in a rock/blues band or such. I daresay the radio reception is authentic too, but it is somewhat annoying, to say the least. Again, you'll probably get away with this live, and you can mitigate against its worst excesses by keeping the level control on the device away from its maximum.

So what do we have here? A quite magical-sounding little box with a couple of problems you might rather it didn't have. Years of "progress" have given us modern little boxes which don't have these problems, but to an observable extent our newer toys also lack that magic. It's horses for courses, and all that. If you're looking for some real 70s rock tone, warts and all, the Sonic Ranger could very well be just what you need. Go on, buy one!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Darkly Lovely DOD YJM308

After a lot of EBay trawling I finally managed to get one of these, the Yngwie signature version of the old DOD 250 overdrive pedal Mr Malmsteen has apparently relied on for years. The YJM version - the number reflects the number of the widdlemeister's favourite Ferrari model, apparently - is based on the original grey version of the 250, not the more recent yellow reissue. Note that we're not talking huge variations in the circuit between models, more component variation. In fact, the DOD 250s/308 share a remarkably similar cicuit to the MXR Distortion + - so much so, in fact, that's it's possible to build clones of any of the units using the same PCB. But I digress, this post is about what you can expect sound-wise from the YJM308, not what you may physically find inside the thing.

What you will physically find on the outside *is* relevant of course. The surprisingly heavy little box comes bedecked with a pair of naff/groovy dependent-upon-perspective 70s-style knobs marked "Gain" and "Level", a heavy-duty switch which protrudes seemingly yards from the unit's surface (well, at least you won't stomp on those knobs by accident), in/out sockets and a side-mounted 3.5mm jack DC input socket (bonkers, eh? - you'll need the DOD PS125 DFX and FX Power Supply or at least figure out how to get your board's supply to pretend it's one). You'll notice I haven't mentioned a status light. That's because there isn't one. There's no easy battery access either - you need to remove the four rather large counter-sunk machine bolts holding the substantial base plate in place to gain access.

I'd been expecting to be able to brush aside the lack of a status light with a casual "don't worry, you'll know when it's on" but this is in fact not the case at all. The effect is in fact pretty subtle - most decidedly "overdrive" and not "distortion". It does affect the guitar's tone - adding an almost wah-wah like quackiness to the top end and a touch of brittleness which can reward good technique but is potentially rather unforgiving. As one might expect given the name on the box, fast runs are articulated nicely. I've read a few reviews of this box that describe it as "bright". I'd not go along with that, I'd say the sound is "forward" - this is a sound for someone who wants to be heard. The YJM308 is the sort of device that will only really come into its own at performance volume levels, where it might just inject that extra something into an already-overdriven sound that'll really bring things to life. It will, I suspect, not be lighting too many fires in woodsheds across the land, but then that's what true distortion pedals are useful for.

I'll be replacing the Allums SD-1 on my pedalboard with this for a while and I'll update this post soon to let you know how the Yngwie box fares in battle.

Update: OK, enough is enough, it's back to the Allums SD-1 for me!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Boss SD-1 And Mr Monte Allums

Looking, as most of us do, for a cheap way of getting something that sounds expensive I came across the Monte Allums pedal mod site, and that in turn led me to the Boss SD-1 and some quality time with a soldering iron. The SD-1 is a cheap-as-chips overdrive pedal, built in the usual Boss tank-like manner, employing a very similar circuit to the (rather more expensive) TS9 tubesreamer. Mr Allums offers a number of mod kits for this pedal, all at really rather attractive prices. Do these mods deliver and, if so, just *what* do they deliver?

Monte's mods basically replace a number of key components with ones of better quality and sometimes of different values to those in the stock unit. A couple of mods also provide additional functionality with the addition of a microswitch (or two) - one such mod allows you to select between the stock unit's normal gain and a x2 option, another lets you switch between Boss's patented asymetric clipping and the symetric clipping employed by the Tubesreamer and others.

The kits arrive (very quickly, I might add) in jiffy bags containing instructions and a plastic bag of parts, decent solder and some de-soldering braid. Personally, I'd suggest using a solder-sucker rather than the braid, but its inclusion is a nice touch. You'll also get the instructions emailed to you. The instructions really are as easy to follow as Mr Allums claims and if you've a modicum of common sense, some patience and some basic skill in handling a soldering iron (of the electronics project variety) then you'll have no trouble at all using these kits. I really enjoyed doing them, I have to say.

So do they cut the mustard? IMHO, yes they do, and very clearly so. Monte recommends listening to each individual stage in the overall mod as you've made it (a) so you know where you've screwed up if you're unlucky enough to - easy to correct with this approach and (b) so you know what each specific mod does to the sound. My first effort was the "standard" SD-1 mod, and very impressive it was too. The clarity and transparency of the modded box is quite remarkable, as a clean boost it's truly astonishing and my bass-playing mate Al has grabbed the thing and it's now a regular part of his rig.

For my second go I went for the SD-808 mod, intending to use the two-microswitch approach. In the end I decided against the switches and went with asymetric clipping and the x2 hard-set as, frankly, this is the way I like the thing and I didn't see any benefit in additional complexity. YMMV, but the fact there's a choice is what makes these mods cool. The thing sounds fantastic in the right setting and I'll certainly be keeping it for the long haul, though whether it retains its current place on my working board depends what else comes along, the search for that elusive tone goes on.

Update: well there's a lesson here, I guess. It's now April 2011 and the Allums SD-1 is still my go-to overdrive unit and I don't think I'll be looking for anything to replace it. I've got used to it now and learned how to get the sounds I want out of it and I'm constantly amazed at just how good those sounds are. The modded device is wonderfully transparent and it enhances rather than compresses your playing's dynamics. If you're a classic rock/blues player then you probably can't go wrong with one of these - and at the price you'll pay it's an absolute steal.