december 2009

Electro-Harmonix''s Enigma: Q-Balls combines the Q-Tron and Bass Balls for unprecedented levels of funk

Download Example 1
Hi Pass mode with the Start Stop set to play the entire wave
Download Example 2
Band Pass mode with the Start Stop set to play the entire wave
Download Example 3
Lo Pass mode and Distortion engaged with the Start Stop set to play entire wave
Download Example 4
Band Pass mode with all controls wide open
Download Example 5
Band Pass mode with all controls wide open
Download Example 6
Band Pass mode and Distortion engaged with the Start Stop set to play entire wave
Sounds clips were recorded using the Enigma Q Balls and a Kramer Disciple bass with EMG pickups. This was plugged into a SWR Marcus Miller Signature Preamp into a Presonus Firepod and  tracked within Nuendo.
For some years now the entity that is Electro-Harmonix has been wowing us with a variety of toys that are less than conventional by some standards. If it gurgles, wahs, burps, fuzzes, or generally creates something funky, EH has a knack for creating it and making it musical. One of their fortes in the industry has always been their vast array of envelope filters, including the legendary Q-Tron. Guitar and bass players alike have relied on the Q-Tron when it is time to bring da’funk since its inception. Going even deeper into all things stanky is the equally ominous Bass Balls pedal. With its cool filtering effect coupled with a switchable distortion, the Bass Balls has been known for taking the groove even further. Bass players in particular have been known to utilize both of these pedals in their setups, and now EH has combined the two into the uber-cool Enigma: Q-Balls.

As part of EH’s latest line of bass dedicated effects, the Enigma: Q-Balls may indeed be one of the Holy Grails of funkdom. The Enigma is housed in a sturdy diecast enclosure and offers a barrage of tweakability that knob-turners will adore. There are dedicated knobs for controlling Attack, Q frequency, Sensitivity, Decay, and even a blend control for maximizing the tone between direct signal and wet. There is a three-step Mode selector knob for choosing between Low Pass, Band Pass, and Hi Pass filters as well. This alone would be great, but just like a good infomercial, “wait, there’s more.”

The final two knobs are two of the secret weapons of the Enigma. With the Start and Stop knobs you can focus the starting and ending points of the Q filter sweep. You can set them both “wide” to get the effect of the entire sweep or set them “closer” in to get a more focused effect. This works particularly well for fast, dance-type bass lines, giving the illusion of an old analog synth bass. For further tweaking euphoria you can even add an expression pedal to the mix to control the Q frequency. How cool is that, kiddies?

Rounding out this fully-analog beast is the addition of separate Dry and Effect outputs and its other weapon of mass destruction: the footswitchable, bone-crushing analog distortion. With all of this firepower, bassists can now make their presence known, and the fact that the Enigma has a frequency range of 40 Hz to 3 kHz makes it even sweeter since extended range basses like five and six strings should have little worry of crapping out the Enigma’s signal with unwanted clipping.

Firing it Up
For testing purposes, the Enigma: Q -Balls was used both live and in the studio to truly test its capabilities. In both arenas the Enigma delivered from the get-go. The first thing that impressed me was the fact that, unlike some vintage envelope filters, the Enigma didn’t add any unwanted noise when engaged. This is something that players have learned to live with for the sake of tone, but the fact that the Enigma stayed quiet is obviously a priceless commodity especially when tracking parts. Thank you EH for making this improvement over the decades. Many a mixing engineer will love you and you don’t even know it.

So in trying to describe the tones and textures it is hard to focus on a single word. Obviously, “funky” could indeed encompass the joy that is the Enigma. Truthfully, it is quite more complex due to the countless hours of tweaking and sounds you can achieve from a relatively simple pedal. Greasy, furry, stanky, juicy, smooth, gritty, dirty, rambunctious, brutal, and even smelly are all represented in this somewhat unassuming pedal. In more layman’s terms you can dial up everything from Bootsy-style funk sounds to cool ‘80s-esque synth-like sounds without taking up a ton of pedalboard real estate.

The one thing as in all envelope filters that is something to be aware of is watching your gain on your gear with certain settings. Knowing that you are manipulating frequencies, it is real easy to blow speakers or fry tweeters. When going for either super Hi Pass settings or massive Lo Pass settings you should be aware that there is an eminent danger factor. The Enigma can rattle speakers at high volumes for sure, especially in Lo Pass mode. If you are really cranking, make sure you are using a rig that can handle it and you will have a much better day than if you blow your rig going off on a groove tangent.

The Final Mojo
All in all there is truly nothing to gripe about with the Enigma: Q-Balls. Yet again, Electro Harmonix has delivered an “out-of-box” experience that is truly cool. If you have an excuse to put one of these in your rig and be able to utilize it you ought to check it out. The groove will be thick and you will be one with da’funk.
Buy if...
you want to dominate the masses with supreme funkiness
Skip if...
you tend to run away from da’funk like a frightened school girl.

MSRP $189 - Electro-Harmonix -

Valve Amp''s The Valve Model 105 "Bimbo" delivers a low-volume version British tone

Download Example 1
Early '90s Epiphone Sheraton with Tom Holmes PAFs and RS Guitarworks vintage wiring. Set full on all controls, except Tone at noon.
Download Example 2
Same setup as ex. 1
Download Example 3
2008 Fender Strat with Sheptone singlecoils. Hartman Octave Fuzz in front. Attenuator applied second half of clip.
Download Example 4
Same Strat, gain set to 2 o'clock, attenuator applied gradually.
Amp was recorded through a Krank 1x12 closed-back cab with mid-70s Celestion 25 tanback. SM57 into Chandler LTD-1 preamp, directly into Pro Tools HD3 Accel. Slight amount of Altiverb added to the recording. No compression or EQ.
When PG editors told me about an amp that claimed to have the sound, feel, touch response and dynamics of a 1968–72 era Marshall MK II, but at whisper quiet volumes, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to check it out. You see, I’m a Marshall fanatic. Growing up in the ’80s, all any of us guitarists ever wanted was a Marshall, but few of us ever got one until later on. They weren’t exactly the most practical bedroom amps. Since my first, I’ve bought dozens of Marshalls in just about every variation, and I’ve loved them all. Most enthusiasts would agree that the late ’60s to early ’70s was the era of Marshall, and there are thousands of recordings out there to illustrate that point. It’s quite a tall order for any amp to live up to that tone and be built for home and apartment playing volume.

Who’s a Bimbo?
The review model is a head, but the amp is also available as a 1x12 combo with a Celestion G12T-75 speaker. Similar in size to the new crop of low-wattage heads on the market, it comes in at 14"x8.5"x7.5" and 21 pounds. The head is available in either black covering with silver piping or red with gold piping; both feature a “plexi” colored panel that bears a close resemblance to the classic Marshall style. Front panel controls are very simple with just Gain, Tone, Volume and Attenuation, followed by an On/Off switch (Run/Rest) and red jewel power indicator. The back panel is also simple and straightforward with an IEC power cord input, fuses, impedance selector (4/8/16) and single speaker output. It comes stock with 3 JJ tubes: an EL34, an ECC83 and a 12AX7B. Power maxes out at 5 watts but can be brought down to an astonishingly low 1/20th of a watt utilizing the licensed London Power Scaling attenuation, which is controlled by … you guessed it, the Attenuation control.

Play Me
To me, the classic guitar for a Marshall has always been either a Strat or a Les Paul, so that’s what I tested the Bimbo with. Although the manufacturer recommends a Celestion 75, I didn’t have one on hand. I did have a Krank 1x12 cab loaded with a ’70s Celestion 25 (Greenback with a tan dust cap), so I put that to use. Because this amp is meant to be a low-volume affair, it seemed like a logical choice to run a 1x12 rather than a full-blown 4x12. Following the advice of the manufacturer, I dimed all the controls except for the Tone, which was set to 2 o’clock, and plugged my stock ’74 Les Paul Custom straight in. From the first A-chord, it was apparent that this amp means business.

Capturing the crunch and tonal characteristics of a vintage Marshall isn’t an easy feat, but the Bimbo did produce a sound very similar to what I’ve heard many times before, albeit at a much lower volume. How much lower? Well, if you’ve ever had to attenuate a 50- or 100-watt Marshall, this would be the “bedroom” setting on most attenuators. In other words, you’d need to be pulling most of the juice out of a big amp to get it to a volume this manageable. It’s still loud enough that you wouldn’t play it with the family sleeping, but not so loud as to bother anyone on an afternoon. What struck me about the Bimbo’s Tone control was its super-wide range, going from “Woman Tone” darkness at 1 to blisteringly bright and slightly ratty at 10. This is a welcome design choice if you consider that most players will have a range of guitars and pickups, as it will aid in matching the guitar to the amp.

Initially it didn’t feel like the Bimbo had as much gain as a non-master volume Marshall of that era, but the more I played it the more I realized that was a byproduct of not being as loud. Crank a high-wattage amp and there’s interplay between the guitar and amp that makes the pick explode off the strings, and a singing quality that comes from the sheer volume. By design, the Bimbo doesn’t have that. It made me wish for more gain in some situations, but the tone was definitely there. Because of that I spent the majority of the time with the Les Paul playing rhythm guitar and enjoying the dynamic response it offered. When you dig in, you get that great AC/DC kerrang, and lightening up the touch cleans the sound up considerably. Rolling back the volume knob on the guitar further cleaned up the signal, but I had to pull back more than normal to get it as clean as with a higher-powered amp. It’s pretty impressive when you can get an amp to clean up at such a low volume.

Speaking of quiet, it was time to check out the Attenuation control. While playing the guitar I backed the Attenuation down to around noon, which didn’t drop the volume in any recognizable way. It wasn’t until the knob was at 9 o’clock that it really kicked in, and did it ever kick in! By then, I really had entered the “whisper quiet” zone and got the true benefit of the London Power Scaling. Is it perfect? No, but considering the fact that the amp is pushing a twentieth of a watt at that point, you can’t fault the fact that the tone gets a little fizzier (and we can’t discount that the speaker isn’t being pushed at all).

Once again cranking all controls, this time with the Tone full up as well, I switched to the neck pickup of my 2008 Fender American Strat and rolled the volume on the guitar back to about 4. This is a familiar sound as well. It was an impressive rendering of the same rolled-back tone of a cranked Marshall in that clean zone that is so conducive to the Hendrix vibe. Sure, it didn’t have the same harmonic complexity or on-the-brink- of-feedback beauty, but it was definitely on the right track. Ramping the volume up to 10 on the guitar exposed a too-brittle sound that bit hard and had a grumbling fizziness to it. Backing the Tone control on the Bimbo eased that bite and made it much more comfortable to play on. As with most amps when the tone and presence is cranked, it can be difficult to mask just about any mistake or finger noise, so that’s not a setting I’d stay on for most applications outside of the rolled-back clean tone.

Step On It
Seeing as there wasn’t a ton of gain on tap I wanted to find out how the Bimbo handled pedals, so I pulled out a collection of Hartman Electronics stompboxes. I’ve logged hundreds of hours on these pedals with vintage Marshalls, so it was a great test to hear how they mated with the Bimbo. The first pedal was the Germanium Treble Booster (similar to a Rangemaster). Nice! This is clearly where the amp shines. Immediately the feel and response of a big Marshall came into play with the pedal set as it always is, full up with the mid-switch engaged. This conjured up some of my favorite recording sessions, sitting in the control room with the Marshall blowing walls out in the studio. Tonally, it was astonishingly similar and it put a big smile on my face, plus it gave me the explosive pick attack that was missing before.

All of the pedals I tried exhibited similar behavior—this amp loves pedals. With just the amp and a guitar, backing the Gain down took a lot of the power of the sound away but did clean up some of the rougher edges. To me, the amp likes to be full up on the Gain, so you can control the dynamics with the guitar. The same goes for Volume, which allows the EL34 to be pushed harder. It is interesting to hear the difference between the signal being attenuated with the London Power Scaling vs. just bringing the Volume down: two different sounds, the attenuated one being a bit more squashed to my ears.

The Final Bimbo Mojo
So, does the Bimbo live up to its claims? In many ways it does. The fact that it uses an EL34 rather than the typical EL84 or 6V6 of most low-powered amps is an indication of the Bimbo’s ability to nail that Marshall sound. And while it doesn’t have the same controls as a non-master Marshall, the voicing is very Marshall-like. I also didn’t play the Bimbo through a Celestion 75 speaker, which the manufacturer claims aids in bass response and fullness, so it may be a different story depending on the speaker and application. Finally, the fact that it sounded, felt and behaved very much like a Marshall with pedals that was around in that era made a big difference. To top it off, it’s a nicely priced studio amp that records beautifully.
Buy if...
you want ridiculously low volume with convincing ‘60s/’70s Marshall tone.
Skip if...
you’re pedal-shy and prefer a master volume style preamp distortion.

Street $775 (head); $885 (combo) - Valve Amp USA -

Reasons why to buy a new bass, and reasons NOT to buy a new bass. Where do you fit in?

In keeping with the Christmas spirit, I’ve been bass shopping. OK, maybe that’s not really the Christmas spirit, but since I’ve been buying presents for everyone else, I thought maybe I should buy myself one, too. After all, a new bass would fit very nicely under my tree. And, I’ve worked hard this year, so I deserve it, right?

So, I was shopping online and I came across this really great bass. At the same time, (because I am a multi-tasker) I was also evaluating a few stock market picks (hopefully to help pay for the bass!), and I thought I’d struck gold when I saw an article that gave me several reasons why I should buy a particular stock. The funny thing is that when I clicked on the next article, it promptly gave me reasons NOT to buy the same stock. That’s when the light bulb in my head came on, and a new On Bass column idea was born!

At some point we all buy new gear. And for as many reasons as there are to purchase that new bass, there are just as many reasons not to. So, if you are looking to buy a new bass in the coming year, here are a few pointers that may—or may not—make your decision a little easier.

Three reasons to buy a bass next year:

1. You need more weapons in the arsenal. As a musician, you strive for new horizons. So why not explore a little? Maybe your favorite bass has a more edgy and modern tone, and you just got a session call for a mellow, vintage sound. Perhaps you want to go from a 4-string to a 5-string. Whatever the reason, if you broaden your range you will almost surely become a better player.

2. New gear – new direction. If I needed a favorite reason to buy a new instrument, this would be it. For me, the sign of a truly wonderful bass is one that inspires new licks that I wouldn’t have played otherwise. When a piece of wood with some paint and bass strings moves your brain in a whole new direction, owning it is a treasure that rewards you every time you play.

3. Time to grow up. At some point you’ve got to stop sleeping with Star Wars sheets. In other words, if you’re going to play in a big boy’s world, you’re going to have to upgrade your gear. The simple truth is this: buying a new bass will help you grow as both a player and a professional.

Now, here are three reasons NOT to buy a new bass in the coming year:

1. You have enough toys. The words of my mother reverberated in my head as I typed this. For some unknown reason, some of us are just never satisfied with one or two good toys (or bass guitars). So don’t clutter up the house with gear you don’t use and, more importantly, don’t need. And remember, many bass players have left their mark in history by playing just one bass over their entire careers.

2. Money is tight. To put it simply, if you can’t afford it then don’t buy it! And buying gear on credit is crazy. I learned a valuable lesson when I was 15: mow yards in the summer and save up to buy that bass. The irrational rationale of “I’ll have enough gigs to pay for it,” will come back and bite you in the ass every time. (Of course, Flea you can skip this reason!)

3. Everything old is new again. Maybe you’re like me and you have a bass sitting around that you don’t use. And for whatever reason—tone, set up, too many years of whiskey shots filling the pickup cavity— that bass just sits there collecting dust. Why not put it back into service? A little rehab can go a long way. If you don’t like the sound then drop in new pickups. At some point, that bass spoke to you, and there’s no reason why you can’t make it speak to you once again.

Frankly, I hope your new year is a wonderfully successful one, and that none of this advice needs to be followed. I hope your band gets signed, you go multi-platinum, and you can just stroll into a music store and buy anything your heart desires. If not, take a few minutes and think before you make that next big investment. I can make suggestions that help or hurt all day long, but the decision is ultimately all yours.

Good luck and Happy New Year!

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