april 2013

Sound control is a real problem for all musicians.

The Blackstar HT-1 combo amp drives a whopping single watt of power through an 8" speaker for great tone at a reasonable volume level.

Rivera’s Silent Sister features a 12" Celestion Vintage 30 speaker sealed in an enclosure. Your amp’s speaker output drives the Vintage 30 and a microphone mounted on a gooseneck inside the enclosure sends a signal out of the box to studio monitors or a live sound console at whatever volume level you choose.

MOTU’s ZBox provides a proper impedance match between your guitar and audio interface or other piece of gear so that playing feel is maintained.

So you finally have a couple of hours free for a nice evening of woodshedding in your music room/home studio. Your amp is warmed up, pedalboard plugged in, your favorite axe is freshly strung and tuned, and the changes you’re planning to work on soloing over are cued up to play through the monitors. You switch off your amp’s standby and strum a nice, big, open E chord to set the mood and check your tone.

Then you hear those fateful words: “Honey, Breaking Bad is coming on, can you please turn it down?” Your amp is barely on as is, and if you turn it down any more, your tone will really suffer. Then suddenly, the inspiration and motivation are gone.

A similar scenario can occur when recording because you need a certain volume level to achieve the tone you want. And equally important, you don’t want undesired noise from outside the studio to get onto your tracks. Be it traffic noise, flushing toilets, doors slamming, footsteps above or below—there are countless culprits for unwanted noise making its way into your microphones.

Sound control is a real problem for all musicians. Those with, shall we say, a certain attitude—will say, “Screw it, it’s my place, too, and I’ll make all the noise I want.” Certainly an option, it’s not one that will lead to harmonious relationships with family members and neighbors. Because I hate to be bothered by someone else’s noise, I’ve never taken this attitude. Even more than that, it makes me very self-conscious knowing that someone is being forced to hear me play endless scales and arpeggios, or struggling to perfect a solo by playing it over and over.

Sound waves propagate very nicely through air, wood, drywall, windows, and most doors. So in the interest of keeping the peace, the following are good options to explore and discuss.

Low-wattage amps. It’s common sense: A smaller amp produces less volume than a larger amp. The problem was, until recently, there weren’t many truly small amps (1 watt or so) that sounded very good. Things have changed, though, and Vox, Marshall, Blackstar, and a number of other manufacturers are now making great-sounding small amps.

Power attenuators. A power attenuator absorbs some of the power coming from an amp, reducing the power that is available for driving the speaker, and thereby reducing the volume. An attenuator can certainly drop your amp’s volume, but may or may not also change the tone and feel of the amp.

Isolation boxes. You could also place your amp or speaker in a sealed box to contain its volume. A microphone inside the box can then be routed to your studio monitors for listening at any volume. Many big-stage rigs are run this way now, and it’s an alternative for home use as well. That said, it’s not quite as simple as just playing an amp, and you may also run the risk of changing the tone with this method.

Amps with headphone outputs. Many amps now include headphone outs, which disable the speaker when headphones are plugged in. This allows for truly silent practice, but may not provide the tone you want, and not everyone likes playing through headphones.

Amp modelers. Whether it’s a pedal or a software program, modelers that simulate the sound of an amp are a convenient solution for practicing at controlled volume levels. Opinions certainly vary on how well modelers emulate a real amp. In my opinion, the key is getting the impedance to match properly with your guitar, as the AVID Eleven Rack, the MOTU ZBox, and other devices do, which makes playing guitar through a modeler feel right. Modelers typically offer many other benefits, such as built-in rhythm tracks, MP3 playback or MP3 player inputs, built-in tuners, built-in effects, and much more.

Each of these solutions will reduce your guitar’s volume. How well each one maintains your tone and the playing feel you expect is a matter of personal preference. And how well each works with your preferred way of practicing—with backing tracks, a metronome, a drum machine, strictly from sheet music, or whatever it might be—will vary as well.

Hopefully one of the methods will work for you. I’ve used them all with success for practice, recording, and even low-volume band rehearsals. But there is another way to practice and record with complete freedom: Create an environment where sound cannot escape. A soundproof studio or practice room, while ideal, depends on many factors such as where your space is located, how it’s constructed, how much money you can spend, etc.

Next we’ll discuss how to minimize sound leakage into and out of your studio, and how to optimize the acoustics inside your space—no matter how soundproof it is—so that your guitar and your recordings will sound their best. Stay tuned.

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Carr’s new Impala is a take on the great blackface incarnation of the Fender Bassman—and like a lot of Carr amps, they’ve taken a great idea and run in some very interesting directions.

Historically speaking, the path to Carr Amplification‘s new Impala is a twisting road. A primer: In the early ’50s, Fender changed the bass game not once but twice, introducing both the first mass-produced electric bass and the first dedicated bass amp. The former, the Precision, was a wild success and arguably remains the most popular bass in the world to this day. The latter, the Bassman, wasn’t quite as successful, and it’s preeminence as a bass amp was ultimately usurped by Ampeg.

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With the availability of standard parts like the potentiometers shown here, along with today’s CNC technology, are most modern-day guitars actually built, or are they really just assembled?

With the availability of standard parts like the potentiometers shown here, along with today’s CNC technology, are most modern-day guitars actually built, or are they really just assembled?

Giving shop tours is one of my favorite activities, and I’ve done quite a few over the years. The payoff is always when visitors get to the point where the guitar-building process seems so overwhelming to them, that they get that deer-in-the-headlights look. As their eyes start to spin like pinwheels, I’m often worried that I’ve bored my guests close to death with explanations of wood-cell structure, equilibrium moisture content, grain orientation, proper joint prep, adhesive selection, and finish atomization. But to my amazement, more times than not, they explain their condition with a statement about how they never realized—and are now impressed by—what it really takes to make a guitar.

I’ve been lucky, because I’ve had the experience of working in shops that make guitars from scratch. Sure, there are always going to be components and sub-assemblies that are purchased from contract vendors. I mean, who makes their own tuning machines or potentiometers? But for the most part, my experience has been creating instruments from raw materials to specifications that are not interchangeable with other guitars. That’s to say that my fretboard won’t automatically pin to somebody else’s neck, and “brand X” neck won’t be pitched in exactly the correct way to bond to my body. When I design a pickguard, for instance, my only concern is that it fits my guitar. Of course, this isn’t always the case with building guitars. In fact, in terms of sheer numbers, it’s usually the other way around.

After World War II—and following on Henry Ford’s earlier lead—Leo Fender perfected the production-friendly, bolt-on-style solidbody instrument that has become the king of all guitar forms. The notion that a fretted instrument could be screwed together from interchangeable components and sub-assemblies was possibly the most brilliant and revolutionary idea our boy Leo ever came up with. At the time, the use of what’s known as “standard parts” was certainly nothing new in the manufacturing world, but Fender was the first to apply it to guitars. And though the term might conjure up visions of industrial bins brimming with nuts and bolts, it’s really much more interesting than that. The following is how the FAA defined standard parts in their advisory circular 21-29:

“A part manufactured in complete compliance with an established industry or U.S. Government specification which includes design, manufacturing, test and acceptance criteria, and uniform identification requirements … The specification must include all information necessary to produce and conform the part and be published so that any party may manufacture the part.”

Now, I don’t think for a moment that Leo was systematizing designs for anything other than internal efficiency. Making a buck was the name of the game here. But the very last part of the FAA’s definition is interesting, because the subsequent explosion of Fender’s sales—combined with their product’s simplicity of manufacture—did indeed create a de facto industry standard. Patents, trademarks, and the will to defend them aside—the very nature of the bolt-on guitar invited replication. Beginning with the whisper of aftermarket-replacement parts and, over time, reaching the crescendo that it is today, the bolt-on slab guitar is the musical equivalent of the Shelby Cobra, with more copies available than genuine articles. In fact, there are so many small shops turning out replica guitars that there is a cottage industry for parts suppliers that deal only with “builders,” as opposed to enthusiast musicians.

Sign some endorsement deals with dudes sporting black nail polish and plenty of piercings, hire a few hot babes to wear your T-shirts at NAMM, and badda-bing, you’re a brand.

There is also an abundance of CNC (computer numerical control) machining woodshops right here in North America. And they churn out component parts for what are essentially assembly companies that market the finished instruments under their own name. Hell, if you’re lazy enough, you can just buy the finished product with your own logo already on it. Sign some endorsement deals with dudes sporting black nail polish and plenty of piercings, hire a few hot babes to wear your T-shirts at NAMM, and badda-bing, you’re a brand.

There’s plenty of this going on, but if you really want to go big-time, you’ll need the capabilities and efficiencies of offshore manufacturing. And it’s not hard to find. A month rarely goes by without an email finding its way to my inbox from some factory in Asia fishing for business. Some of these outfits I’ve visited, some I’ve only heard of, and others are complete newcomers, but they all seem to have pretty much the same wares for sale. They are the ghost-building powerhouses that produce and populate what is known as the “private label” guitar business.

The emails I receive from them include lots of photos depicting their manufacturing capabilities—images showing rows of woodworking machinery and carts stacked sky-high with easily recognizable guitars in various states of completion. The final sales tactic—in an unbelievable breach of confidence—is a list of brand names that have utilized their services. Not that it’s needed, mind you, because the logos in the photos are clearly visible. But hey, I thought those guys actually made their own guitars!

I know this matters little to most guitarists—those who just want a good instrument at a fair price. Not everybody cares about where their iPhone is made, or for that matter, if their Cadillac is just a Chevrolet with some bling that’s hot glued to it. On the other hand, however, consumers will pay extra for the same factory-made shirt if it has a little boomerang symbol on it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not claiming that private-label guitars aren’t capable tools. There’s a lot to be said for nice paint, solid assembly, and a good setup. It just doesn’t make for a great shop tour.

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