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.