Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Making of a Gear Slut

It's hard to explain this recent studio/guitar gear craze of mine. Indeed, I've probably bought more stuff during the past year than in the entire decade before it. One reason is probably the fact that my song "One Rare Moment Together" was a judge's pick for an all-Japan amateur recording contest. (Another of my tunes, "Swarga ki Sans", was only half a point behind it...and the pro producer/studio musician judges said they remembered me and expect more in the future.) Together with requests to make my music available on iTunes, etc., this event has caused me to take my musical work far more seriously than ever before. Another reason might be the death of my old friend David Robison last year; I say this because what I've been doing, wittingly or not, is following advice of his that I'd long mocked.

This is actually the second round of major gear-buying. The first was during my first few years here in Japan, when I first started fulfilling my longtime dream of creating a home studio and recording my work. At any rate, since I keep talking about it on Facebook, I thought I should explain a bit more as to what it has all been about, concentrating on the guitar gear.

In my early high school days, perhaps my most treasured Christmas present was a cheap Les Paul copy guitar and a tiny Guyatone practice amp. Those quickly became a keystone of my world, but since my musical tastes were becoming increasingly progressive, it wasn't long till I wanted to expand my horizons. Thus, a couple of years later, I got my first ever effect pedal, an MXR M117 Stereo Flanger (now called the Micro Flanger) (1981). I actually took some crap for it; in those days Boss pedals were what everyone dreamed of owning, what all the professionals were using, and they were expensive. The MXR pedal was relatively cheap. (The experienced bassist of one semi-pro band I was in said, "Don't use that thing! You're killing your signal!") Still, I loved "that thing". This was then joined by an Ibanez CS9 chorus (loved it!) (1983). My guitar and amp were stolen in the summer of 1983, but miraculously the pedals remained. After I got a new Arbor guitar and Peavey amp, I later (1985) acquired a cheap phaser and analog delay of an unknown brand I grabbed at a warehouse liquidation sale. I used these all through my college days.

Then came my voyage to Japan, my first real occupation, my first real salary, and the creation of my first home studio. To replace the gear I'd left behind, the Fender Precision bass and Yamaha "Yamacaster" guitar I bought within a month of arrival were immediately joined by:
  • Boss OD-2 Turbo Overdrive (1990)- I tried one of these in college and fell in love. It was an upgrade of the original, iconic OD-1 overdrive that included a regular medium gain mode and a high-gain "turbo" mode. As my first Boss pedal, it had special meaning. It also served as my main workhorse overdrive for more than ten years. Now I keep it in reserve. As with most Boss overdrive or distortion pedals, it compresses and colors the tone, which can be good (mainly for unskilled players) or bad (mainly for experienced players).
  • Boss CH-1 Super Chorus (1990) - I grabbed this to serve as a replacement for the Ibanez chorus I'd left at home. I used it nearly to death...and recently took it back out of mothballs rather than replace it. It's a testament to the quality of this pedal that it is still being produced...and still used by professionals. Mine is rather beat up and quirky now, and I'm still debating replacing it, but it's definitely a good pedal. Some complain that it has kind of a tinny sound (like a lot of Boss pedals), but it's easy to fix with its tone knob.
  • Boss HF-2 Hi-Band Flanger (1990) - This was meant to replace the MXR flanger I'd left at home. It didn't. It never really sounded right to me, so I wound up not using it much. I also didn't take care of it, so it wound up in bad shape and mothballed. The funny thing is that I recently found out I'd been using it wrong..and it's now a much sought-after collector's item! I tried using it right this time, 20 years later, discovered it works beautifully, and now it's back in my standby rack.
  • Yamaha Digital Delay (1990) - Owning so many new Boss pedals was like a dream come true back then, but my budget started to protest. Instead of getting a Boss digital delay, I got its Yamaha equivalent for much cheaper...and discovered I really liked it. It was both highly versatile and surprisingly good for its low price. I basically used it to death and was forced to mothball it right around the end of the '90s.
  • Boss DF-2 Super Feedbacker and Distortion (1991) - I tried one of these in college, too, and got one mainly because I didn't know better. It was a version of the famous Boss DS-1 distortion pedal with the addition of a feedback circuit. I got it to get a bit more hard crunch and lead scream out of my guitar. I used it a lot but never really liked it much, and I was already phasing it out by the time it started malfunctioning in 1992 (the only Boss pedal I've ever owned that went bad).
  • Arion Octave Pedal (1991) - This was a really cheap impulse buy and didn't impress me. I fooled around with it a bit and then mothballed it.
  • Ibanez TS5 "Soundtank" Tubescreamer (overdrive) (1991) - When I bought a Fender Stratocaster in 1991, I decided I wanted something better than the Boss Feedbacker Distortion for it. I'd read about how popular and famous the Ibanez TS808/TS9 Tubescreamer overdrive was, but it had been discontinued. I therefore scoured the music shops in Tokyo, and I found this. The TS5 was a new, lower-cost version of the TS9 that was factory-built with cheaper parts. I snapped it up and used it a lot...until it pretty much fell apart in 1994. (Definitely cheap...)
  • Boss PH-2 Super Phaser (1991) - This is another legendary Boss pedal. I got it to go with the Tubescreamer. It is still part of my standby team, and I do use it sometimes. I especially like the fact that it has separate guitar and keyboard modes.
  • Zoom 5050 Choir (chorus/reverb/delay) (1992) - After I'd had the Strat for a year, my style became more progressive, so I sold it and bought a Strat HSS with a Floyd Rose-style bridge. Then I set out to get new gear for it. I only saw this at one shop: a little CD/music store in Itako. I grabbed it on impulse and loved it. I've used it intensely, even onstage, and it is pretty well beaten. Still, my only complaint is the power; it doesn't use a regular 9v battery or adapter but rather uses either a pile of penlight batteries or an adapter of a really weird, proprietary voltage. In other words, it can be inconvenient to use. I still like its sound, though, so I do get it out from time to time. It is now a collector's item.
  • Zoom 5000 Driver (distortion) (1992) - I liked the Zoom Choir so much that I went back and got its counterpart, this interesting digital high-gain distortion pedal. It wound up being my primary lead dirtbox for more than 10 years. Unfortunately, it has the same inconvenient power requirements as the Zoom Choir, but it is designed for direct-to-mixer capability, which was perfect for my needs until I started using processors. It is now a collector's item. It sits in my "second tier" rack, but I may try using it again.
  • Boss CS-3 Compression Sustainer (1992) - Yet another famous Boss pedal that is still in production. I got it mainly for lead use, but it has proven to be quite versatile and is still part of my main team.
  • Ibanez WH10 Wah Pedal (1993) - What can I say? I wanted a "wah" pedal, , so I got this reasonably-priced Ibanez. It's certainly no Cry Baby, but it's not bad by any means; I like its adjustable sweep range. I've used it off and on ever since.
  • Boss FV-50 Volume Pedal (1993) - And while I'm at it, why not get one of these, too? It's dirt simple, which is nice. I haven't needed it much, but it has proven very useful on occasion.
Getting married in 1994 and having a kid in 1996 put a temporary stop to my gear buying. A temporary stop.
  • Marshall DRP-1 Direct Recording Preamp (1997) - The idea of a Marshall JCM-900 amplifier in a tiny box with no speaker designed mainly with direct-line recording in mind seemed too good to be true. In a way, it was. I really liked my DRP-1 and used it in a number of significant recordings such as "Tlesca" and "You, Me, We". However, its controls became corroded after only about a year of use, and it got to the point that certain knobs were stuck in one position. I wound up giving it to a friend...who now wants to give it back.
  • Zoom 505 Multieffector (1998) - In 1997 I performed on guitar at a school event. I used my Zoom Driver and Zoom Choir. Some student band members looked at my gear with a mixture of curiosity and contempt before one of them asked with a snicker if I wanted to borrow his multieffector. Those were very much the vogue, after all, and stompboxes like mine were considered passé. I refused, but I began to think about it. Then I saw someone using one of these 505 mini-multieffectors at a party and bought one out of curiosity. I toyed around with it, decided it was a pain to use (Sorry...I DON'T like having to punch my way through menus to adjust a tone setting) and too artificial, and consigned it to a cabinet.
  • Boss RV-3 Digital Reverb/Delay (1999) - My poor Yamaha digital delay started to wear out from around 1994 and by 1998 was pretty much falling apart. I bought this popular yet controversial pedal to replace it. It's still my standby delay, though I prefer analog to digital.
  • Boss BD-2 Blues Driver (overdrive) (2002) - In 2002 I was invited to join a friend's blues band. I didn't think any of the gear I had was suitable for such a gig, so I got one of these iconic pedals. They're popular to the point of being almost an industry standard, and yet they are also controversial; it's almost a mark of status to have them modified...or not to have to use them at all. Anyway, I wound up not joining the blues band, but this pedal is on my standby rack for bluesy solos and does get used from time to time. It also works well as a treble or midrange boost.
  • Boss TR-2 Tremolo (2002) - I also got this to use in the blues band. It has proven useful.
  • Yamaha FX550 Guitar Processor (2002) - This was a very significant impulse purchase. It was a discontinued model I found for a ridiculously low price in a bargain bin at a Tokyo music shop. Until then, the overwhelming majority of my recording had been done using direct-lined pedals. Now at last I had "real" amp tone...and it started having a dramatic effect on my playing technique, not to mention my whole approach to guitar playing. Unfortunately, though it had great sounds, it was inconvenient to use. (Sorry...I DON'T like having to punch my way through menus to adjust a tone setting.) And so...
  • Line 6 PODxt Guitar Processor (2004) - This purchase, finalized by a rock-scissors-paper match with my daughter at a music shop, marked a serious turning point in my guitar work. It was essentially a whole collection of famous amps and effects condensed into one digital powerhouse that even came equipped with a full set of tone knobs! It finally made me conscious of the concept of tone rather than just noise and effects. I love that thing, and I appreciate what it did for my playing. When I got it, I essentially mothballed my entire pedal collection except the "wah" and even considered selling the lot. I'm glad I didn't. Unfortunately, the one drawback of the PODxt is that its inbuilt effector collection was apparently thrown in as an afterthought; it's limited, and the controls don't work quite like the originals. After a few years passed, I began to miss some of the sounds I'd gotten with my pedals, so I started getting them back out. And then I started wanting sounds I couldn't get with what I had...
  • Marshall GV-2 Guv'nor Plus (overdrive/distortion) (2008) - This pedal, apparently digital, is designed to be a JCM-2000 amp in a box. It has the same 4-band EQ and gain range. It is capable of sounding bluesy, but it is best at making a really fat, beefy, high-distortion sound which has proven very useful. Even better: IT ISN'T EXPENSIVE. The only problem with it, other than those hard-to-see gold knobs, is that it sometimes gets fizzy on sustained chords. It also doesn't give a modern, tight-bottomed sound, so...
  • Boss MT-2 Metal Zone (distortion) (2008) - The PODxt includes a few high-gain amp models, but I still couldn't quite get a certain, ultra-intense distortion I wanted. I'd read some favorable reviews of this pedal, so I got one. It really does produce a sharp, biting, death metal sort of sound that some pros in the genre apparently swear by (even though Boss's popularity among pros in general has declined a lot since the '90s). It also has multi-band EQ, which can be nice. (Listen to the tail end of "The Glowing Zone". It ends with the Metal Zone ripping in the right speaker and the Guv'nor Plus bubbling in the left one.)
  • Marshall RF-1 Reflector Reverb (2008) - I ordered one of these when I bought the Guv'nor Plus. I'd wanted a reverb pedal that had a good spring reverb and/or a reverse-gate reverb sound, neither of which were in my Boss RV-3. This had both. It's digital, but it has a nice, natural sound that I like a lot better than the Boss reverb even though the Reflector costs a lot less! Unfortunately, the Reflector is a troubled pedal; it was widely reported to be prone to malfunction and even stop working. Alas, I was not immune. After a month of trouble-free use, mine suddenly started emitting an awful, crackly distortion followed by weird noises before the effect just stopped. The LED would come on, but only my dry sound would come through. (No, changing the battery didn't help.) I considered sending it back, but I toyed with it a bit, and I seem to have figured out the cause. Now I can use it without any trouble, and I really do like its spring and reverse-gate sounds. Its room reverb is really good, too.
  • Vox Satchurator (distortion) (2010) - I just remembered that I talked extensively about my dirt boxes in an earlier post, so I won't go into so much detail here. I'll just say that I hoped to get a "singing" overdrive box, preferably something a bit more high end than what I had. I found a pedal on my list at a music shop, but it was too expensive, so I wound up grabbing this instead. It was designed in partnership with guitar master Joe Satriani with his sound in mind. His signature sound was actually a combination of the original 80's (i.e. before they cheapened it) Boss DS-1 distortion and Ibanez TS808 Tubescreamer. If you want a guitar sound that is cutting yet ringing, this does it very well...and it is actually cheaper than Boss pedals tend to be.
  • Xotic BB Plus (overdrive/boost preamp) (2010) - Right after I'd bought the Satchurator, I stumbled on one of these in a used gear shop. It happened to be one of the high-end models on my list, but since it was used, the price was a bit less painful. I tried it out, and it went home with me. It's a great lead pedal and very versatile. My only complaint against it is that it tends to be kind of noisy (Maybe a minor defect?), which might be why it's original owner parted with it. The PODxt is supposed to be usable with pedals, but it seems to be highly sensitive to line noise, and my BB Plus was particularly bad in that respect. That was one reason why I finally decided to get an actual amp.
  • Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi (fuzz) (2010) - The PODxt includes a model of this famous, vintage fuzz box (what EHX calls a "distortion/sustainer"), and I really came to like it. I decided I wanted the real thing, however, and I just happened to find one in a second-hand shop. It's a fun, old clunker, and while it isn't very versatile, it does what it does very well. It uses an old-style AC adapter, meaning it won't interface with my powered pedalboard, but its classic sound comes best with a battery anyway.
  • Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor (2010) - My last Boss purchase, this interesting box was intended to cut the noise, especially from the BB Plus. It is a highly effective, fully automated noise suppressor, really quite amazing, but it only put a band-aid on the problem rather than solve it.
  • MXR Stereo Chorus (2010) - This is a famous and powerful chorus unit with an awesome sound and a wide range of possibilities. A lot of famous guitarists (including Slash and Alex Lifeson) have used it. Its only drawback is that it requires two 9v batteries for use, and it tends to eat them quickly. An external adapter can be used, but it won't interface with my powered pedalboard. Therefore, I have to be rather particular as to how and when I use it and stick with a more typical chorus (like my Boss CH-1) when I'm working "on the fly".
  • TC Electronic Nova Repeater (delay) (2010) - I wanted a delay unit that was a bit more versatile than my Boss RV-3, and this one comes packed with options. Since TC Electronic products are generally a bit more "high end" than Boss (which I view as the standard), they are pricier, but this was definitely worth it. It also helped attract my attention to that particular brand.
  • Dunlop Cry Baby (wah pedal) (2010) - Aw, come on...what guitar player hasn't wanted to own one of these?
As 2010 gave way to 2011, I started getting a bit fed up with the noise problem when I used pedals with my PODxt and wondered if a real amp might work better. Then my wife gave me a Vox Pathfinder 10, a little solid-state practice/recording amp, for my birthday. It really is a nice, little amp, especially considering it was cheaper than most of my pedals! Unfortunately, while its speaker has a really good sound, the "specially filtered" line out, designed for direct-to-mixer recording, doesn't. It's tinny even with the treble way down and the bass dimed. And when I tried using it with pedals... *cough* It was obvious the direct line recording was useless, and I figured that if I had to use the speaker, I might as well get a genuine tube amp. Therefore, I got myself a little Vox Night Train NT15H tube amp head...and waited months for the cabinet to arrive. And during that time...
  • TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb (2011) - I've spent quite a bit of time viewing "guitar porn" online during the past year or two, especially demos for pedals. One TC Electronic pedal that definitely caught my eye was this little, red box, part of the new "Tone Print" series. It wound up being my first purchase at the Soundhouse sound & stage gear outlet. It has an amazing array of sounds which offer a lot of creative potential. I still like my Marshall Reflector's sounds for "on the fly" reverb, especially "slap-back" spring, etc., but if I want to create dreamlike textures, the Hall of Fame is the one!
  • TC Electronic MojoMojo Overdrive (2011) - And since I was impressed with TC Electronic's new "Tone Print" line of pedals, I went ahead and got their new MojoMojo, which is actually an analog overdrive, and a very good one (though opinions vary). Its sound is kind of reminiscent of the old "tweed" Fender amps, with a smooth distortion. It took a while to get the hang of its highly sensitive and interactive tone knobs, not to mention its unique characteristics, but this is a great pedal. I especially like its responsiveness; it will give me a biting growl if I bang on the strings and a sweet hum if I strum lightly, even on subsequent strokes.
  • TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion (2011) - I went ahead and got the higher-gain counterpart to the MojoMojo, though the Dark Matter is rather a different animal. It is also a true analog pedal, but its sound is based more on that of a cranked vintage Marshall "plexi" amp. It's not a heavy metal pedal, but that's not what I want it for. I'm still getting acquainted with this one, and so far so good. What's cool is how well the MojoMojo and Dark Matter work in tandem, giving me a nice, open, screaming lead sound.
  • Digitech Bad Monkey Tube Overdrive (2011) - This was a pure impulse buy, and I don't regret it. It's one of those cheap gems that people talk about; it costs half as much as a Boss overdrive but is widely considered to sound better. Some pros apparently swear by it. I had to check it out. You could compare its sound to the Ibanez Tubescreamer or even my MojoMojo, but it has its own qualities. As with a Tubescreamer, it is perhaps at its best used with an already-overdriven amp (or another overdrive pedal!) to smooth out the distortion and warm the tone. It's a digital pedal, built tough, but very light. Sometimes it betrays its cheapness, but it's still very useful. It even comes with a built-in amp emulator, meaning you can play it direct to a mixer. It's a good pedal to carry around in your bag "just in case".
  • Behringer HD300 Heavy Distortion (2011) - This was another one I just had to get to try it out. As with most Behringer gear, it was unbelievably cheap...almost like a joke. It even came in a vac-u-form plastic pack like a toy car, which wasn't surprising considering the pedal itself is all plastic and very toy-like! However, the fact is that it is a copy of the Boss Mega Distortion with the same circuit, same controls, and same one-fifth the price! I don't know how much I'll use it, but it can produce quite an impressive roar. I think it's fun just having the thing!
  • Danelectro DJ-13 French Toast (octave fuzz) (2011) - This is another cheap gem I bought just for the heck of it at Soundhouse. Danelectro is an old brand, but in recent years it has made a new name for itself as a maker of budget pedal effects that work. Its gear comes in different lines representing different price and quality levels, and while some of them budget pedals, some of them are actually quite good. I'd say this is one of them. It is an octave fuzz, and it does what an octave fuzz is supposed to a fourth the price of a "respected" model. A pedal like this isn't for everybody; it is an octave fuzz, after all, and you have to know how to use it. I've found it to be a lot of fun.
  • MXR Micro Flanger (2011) - Here I've come full circle. This is a reissue of the original, 1980's M117 "stereo flanger", the first effect pedal I owned back in my high school days. Although people sometimes made fun of the "cheap crap" almost 30 years ago, now people are praising it...and it's STILL not really expensive! It still sounds great, too...just like I remembered.
  • Subdecay Liquid Sunshine (overdrive) (2011) - This is my latest least until the one I just ordered from PedalGEEK arrives. Subdecay is a well-known maker of boutique guitar effects based in Newberg, Oregon. The idea of buying a pedal from home was enough fun as it was, but this is actually a very good, little box (and was Guitar Magazine's 2007 pick of the year). It's a low-gain overdrive, meaning its effect is more subtle; it mainly warms and colors the tone and/or boosts it rather than provide heavy distortion. It is also unique in that it has two different gain stages rather than tone controls. It works very well in tandem with other overdrive/distortion/fuzz pedals. I'm already in love with it.
  • Catalinbread WIIO (overdrive) (2011) - I will freely admit that I just ordered this from PedalGEEK yesterday, my first purchase from that site I've been happily perusing for the past couple of years. With the dollar-yen exchange rate where it is now, it will cost only a little more than half what the local vendors are asking for it. I guess I also went for it to salve all my recent stress. Anyway, Catalinbread is another highly respected maker of boutique pedals and happens to be based in Portland, Oregon. (Another Oregon pedal!) The "WIIO" (literally "WHO" minus the crossbar) is a "foundation pedal", i.e. it's not only an overdrive, but a preamp designed to act as an amp in and of itself in tandem with other pedals. Its all-analog tone is modeled after the famous Hiwatt DR-103 amp used by Pete Townshend, Alex Lifeson, Martin Barre, and David Gilmour, among many others. It also works well with acoustic guitar. The demo videos I saw were more than enough to make the sale. Anyway, it should be here in about a week. With this, my pedal setup together with my amp will be exactly as I've envisioned it, i.e. no more purchases should be necessary...providing I can get my old Boss CH-1 chorus to work reliably. There's also no telling if I'll end up grabbing another really cheap Danelectro, Behringer, or Digitech box just for the sheer fun of it.

And these are just the guitar pedals!

Looking forward to the next time I can dig it all out and make some NOISE...