This entry-level 12-string is multifaceted and finessed.
Many players consider a 12-string an indulgence. In fact, that notion seems to be the raison d’être for the Taylor 150e, a guitar that the company designed as a guilt-free and affordable means to satisfy the occasional 12-string urge.
But the 150e is much more than just a serviceable 12-string that can serve in a pinch. It sounds rich and robust, it’s very playable and easy to record, and it makes a case that an acoustic 12-string isn’t only justifiable for the serious guitarist, but indispensable—especially at less than 700 bucks.
Though the 150e’s satin finish and the light hue of the layered sapele back and sides hint at a down-market instrument from 10' away, it is, somewhat paradoxically, close inspection that leaves you guessing about the price tag. The guitar is flawless—at every seam, at every joint and fret end, and in every last little nook and cranny where a less careful builder might stash an un-sanded bit of bracing or kerfing.
The layered sapele actually has a very handsome grain with a vaguely tiger-stripe pattern that almost shimmers in the light. The solid Sitka spruce top is comparatively plain. And the stark contrast between the pale spruce top, dark ebony bridge and fretboard, and the 1-ply black pickguard give the guitar a kind of two-dimensional look that you’ll either love or find lifeless, depending on your alignment with minimalist design.
Rigged to Ring Like a Mother
Some guitarists reflexively balk at acquiring an affordable 12-string, citing concerns about high action and poor intonation. There are no such issues in play with the 150e. In standard tuning, the guitar feels slinky and even just a bit rubbery and flexible under the fretting fingers. The 1 7/8" nut width gives the fretboard a spacious feel. Fretting a barre chord at the 9th fret doesn’t take much more effort than it does on a good 6-string. And overall, there’s a relaxed sensation to playing chords on the 150e that, depending on your experience with entry-level acoustic 12s, can be delightfully disorienting and counterintuitive.
Flatpicking and fingerstyle techniques both benefit from the spacious feel of the fretboard. Picking fast, articulate blues leads (or Roger McGuinn-styled lead abstractions, for that matter) feels unexpectedly natural and effortless. Fingerstyle picking-hand techniques also benefit from the string spacing and slinky feel—making everything from Elizabeth Cotton to Fahey and English folk feel smoother and a lot less clumsy.
Well-Mannered and Articulate
In standard tuning, the Taylor is a first-class strumming machine. As with any decent 12-string, 1st-position chords sound fat, alive, and absolutely twitching with overtones. The big dreadnought body is surprisingly responsive to a very light picking touch too. That said, you’re likely to be struck right away by a notable lack of oomph and boom in the low end.
And this is not all bad. The mid to high-mid focus of the 150e makes it a breeze to record—especially if you use an acoustic 12-string to support a song rhythmically, à la Tom Petty or Jeff Lynne. And all things considered, sacrificing booming bass for balance and midrange emphasis is a trade-off most stage performers and sound engineers will happily make. It may, however, compel fingerstylists who rely on bass-heavy alternate tunings to look to a different guitar.
Despite the relatively quiet low-end output, the 150e excels in C and D-based alternate tunings. High-midrange tones drone and ring with crystalline presence and the warmth of autumnal afternoon sunshine. Overtones and harmonic details are abundant and clear. And even with a light fingerstyle touch, the Taylor feels animated across a wide harmonic spectrum, making it a superb partner for droning Celtic and Hindustani excursions and languid chordal harmonies.
Taylor’s Expression System electronics are a fine match for the 150e’s midrange-heavy voice. There isn’t a whole lot of dimension to the low-end response, but the system emphasizes mids without sounding brash (no mean feat) and the volume and tone controls are effective at taming more strident high-mids and softening undesirable string attack artifacts. Perhaps the only knock on the system is the odd-looking control set on the upper bout, though you can’t argue the effectiveness of the placement or the tactile response of the controls, which are both excellent.
Taylor’s 150e is a very thoughtfully executed instrument. Taylor’s designers rightly focused on the essentials—relatively easy playability, harmonic balance, forgiving, effective electronics, and positively seamless construction that would impress an obsessive aerospace engineer. The few concessions Taylor makes to keep the price low—the no-frills finish and layered back and sides—never crossed my mind while I played the guitar. The exception: the notion that a layered sapele back is a pretty good call if you want a recording guitar that zings in the midrange.
Sonically, the only thing that’s missing on the 150e is some of the low-end push and overall projection you’d expect from a dreadnought body. But for its hard-to-resist street price, the 150e’s balance, sonic warmth, and smooth, inviting playability are nothing short of remarkable.
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Its circuit is encased in epoxy to deter copycats. Are its organics really that orgasmic?
Greer Amps could hardly be called single minded. The little company out of Athens, Georgia, builds an impressive and extensive line of amplifiers and pedals for a company its size. It is, however, a very focused company in that it specializes in overdrive and distortion in just about every conceivable flavor. Its latest offering, the Lightspeed Organic Overdrive, is a deceptively simple design that’s rich and responsive, with tones that range from clean boost to complex raunch.
Substance and a Little Style
The Lightspeed doesn’t get by on glitz. The enclosure is unpainted, its only adornment being an engraved faceplate held in place by the same nuts and washers securing the knobs and footswitch. Yet it has a rugged, elegant charm reminiscent of circa-1930s industrial design. The loudness knob is, of course, the output level control, while drive controls the gain and the “freq.” EQ control emphasizes high mids or bass presence, depending on which side of noon you twist it.
Reverse-engineers beware: If you’re trying to dissect what makes this Greer organic, forget it. Popping off the four back-plate screws leads you to the 9V battery compartment and a circuit board dipped in a foggy epoxy to protect the identity of it’s secret components. For hardcore circuit nerds, this is a bummer. But there’s certainly something intriguing about what lurks behind the muck, especially on such a simple effect.
Light to Grit, Lightspeed Quick
One of the nicest things about the Lightspeed is its ability to add a range of drive—from light boost to dirtier tones. It can be set up as a very transparent near-clean boost by dropping the drive to the bare minimum. This requires turning loudness to around 3 o’clock to reach unity gain. If you’re using a more powerful amp (in my case, an Orange OR50,) this is a great way to thicken the overall output and add sustain while retaining a relatively clean tone.
If you need an overdrive that also generates thick distortion, the Lightspeed is probably not your pedal (you might want to check out Greer’s Tone Smuggler instead). The Lightspeed starts crystal clear and maxes out somewhere in the mild drive range. The grittiest tones have a lot of character, however, and there’s more than enough attitude to enable a clean amp to take on raunchy riffs like the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Getting this kind of medium-gain grit is easy with humbuckers. And when I needed a dose of Stones- or Faces-like swagger, I loved the sound of a Les Paul neck pickup and the Greer’s drive set around 4 o’clock.
But the expansive sweep of the Lightspeed’s freq. knob makes the pedal friendly to just about any pickup configuration. Set it at high noon, and it delivers a slight increase in mids, which become more pronounced as you twist the knob clockwise. And for all the extra presence the Greer conjures, it’s genuinely difficult to get this little guy to sound harsh. Things can get a little muddy when you mix humbuckers and the lowest freq. settings, but otherwise the response to picking dynamics is superb. Same goes for responsiveness to guitar-volume adjustments: The many shades of clean—yet robust—tones you can get using your volume knob attests to the basic sensitivity and sophistication in the Lightspeed circuit.The Verdict
The only real downside to the Greer Lightspeed Organic Overdrive is its price. Compared to many like-minded boxes on the market, it’s not cheap. But this is a superb overdrive by any measure—it excels at coaxing complex dirty tones in the low-mid gain range, and it can be set up for use as a transparent boost, or to throttle a tube into full-bodied breakup. If you value clarity, definition, amp-like grit, and responsiveness, the Lightspeed may well merit a little extra investment.
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A scaled-down version of the popular audio interface and plug-in host.
Universal Audio’s rack-mountable Apollo audio interface was an hit upon its 2012 release. Its stellar preamps, lucid design, and innovative software were perfect fits for project studios requiring great-sounding components and flexible operation, but not a vast number of preamps. (The original Apollo has four, plus additional analog and digital line inputs.)
I was an early adopter—Apollo replaced two more cumbersome systems in my home studio. Two years later I have nothing but praise for the device. My only beef: I wanted a smaller version for mobile work.
Now it’s here. The Apollo Twin is a 6"x6"x2" tabletop unit offering many of its big brother’s best features in a gig-friendly format. It’s a remarkable tool for the digital guitarist, though it requires a recent-model Mac with a Thunderbolt port running OS 10.8 or higher, plus a DAW. (UA currently supports Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Cubase, and Live.) There is no PC-compatible version.
The Apollo line offers more than great-sounding A/D/A conversion. It’s also a host for Universal Audio’s plug-ins, allowing you to run more plug-ins than your computer could otherwise handle. Such “assisted” hosting is increasingly unnecessary given today’s faster computers, but Universal Audio’s plug-ins are among the best in the industry. For many users, access to them is a major motive for using Apollo, especially since UA’s plug-ins only run on systems incorporating UA hardware.
The Twin comes in two versions: a dual-processor model that streets for $899 (reviewed here), and a $699 single-processor version. The larger version has twice the processing power, but beyond that, the models are identical. At risk of oversimplifying, I’d guess that the single-processor model is adequate for digital guitar gigs, but that you’d want the larger one for mixing multitrack sessions. See the usage charts on the UA website to determine which version best suits your processor needs.
UA specializes in officially licensed software versions of classic analog gear, forging deals to create software replicas of many popular studio components, including preamps, EQs, compressors, reverbs, tape simulations, effects, channel strips, and more. Their sound quality is remarkable—UA sets something of a gold standard for modeled effects. However, only a handful of plug-ins is included with an Apollo purchase, and a complete collection would cost many thousands of dollars. (All plug-ins are available for audition as fully functional, but time-limited, demos.)
Another Apollo innovation is the Console app, a virtual mixing board that not only lets you control Apollo hardware from your desktop, but also insert UA plug-ins on input channels upstream from your DAW. With its ultra-low latency, Console can duplicate the effect of recording via hardware preamps and compressors—an impressive feat. (Console only hosts plug-ins created specifically for the UA platform. Meanwhile, UA effects also appear as AU, VST, RTAS, and/or AAX plug-ins within your DAW alongside your other plug-ins.)
The Ins and Outs
The Twin records at 24 bits at sample rates up to 192 kHz. It has two input channels, switchable between mic, line, and instrument level, plus the option of eight more digital inputs via optical cable. There are three sets of stereo outs: main, monitor, and headphone. You enter most values via a single large knob. There’s phantom power as needed.
The sound quality is… well, identical to that of the larger Apollo, since the Twin uses the same preamps and SHARC processors. To my sub-golden ears, the studio results are as good as or better than from any convertors I’ve owned.
The difference with my mobile laptop rig is more dramatic. I’m one of those foolhardy souls who performs live on guitar via laptop, and the Twin blows away anything I’ve used in both sound and build quality. Mind you, I’m generally amazed that under-$200 interfaces sound as decent as they do, but the Twin delivers more depth and detail than any budget model I’ve tried.
It can be hard to describe exactly how one audio interface sounds better than another—it’s not as if the cheaper ones lack highs or lows, or demonstrate obvious distortion. But with a better interface, there’s more sense of solidity. There’s just more there there.
Not Built to Break
Far too many mobile interfaces are—let’s be blunt—cheap plastic pieces of crap. I’m embarrassed to confess how many I’ve destroyed through clumsy footsteps or hurried packing. (Hint: more than I can count on one hand.) And thank goodness, the Twin doesn’t have one of those horrid octopus-style breakout cables (though it does require the included 12-volt external power supply). With its rugged metal enclosure and quality connectors, the Twin is one of the few small-format interfaces that truly seems suited to the physical demands of the job.
I’ve used the review model Twin for my last few live laptop gigs, connecting through the interface to a MacBook Pro running Apple’s MainStage software, and then back out through the Twin to a Boomerang III looper en route to a pair of Fishman LoudBoxes. My tones have more impact and a greater sense of headroom—they simply feel bigger. And it’s reassuring to have an interface on my pedalboard that seems less likely to disintegrate.
The Analog Classic plug-in bundle included with the Twin is modest: You get legacy editions of UA’s 1176 and LA-2A compressors, not the latest versions. There’s an underwhelming light version of Softube’s Amp Room, plus a channel strip and a reverb plug-in that are both a decade past their sell-by dates. However, the included 610-B Tube Preamp adds fine analog burn to any track—it’s perfect for inserting on a Console input channel as described above.
There’s not nearly enough room here to cover all the plug-ins UA sells separately, though I can’t resist calling out a few addictive favorites: The EMT plates are astonishingly deep and detailed recreations of those classic hardware reverbs. The simulated tape machines—a Studer multitrack and an Ampex mastering 2-track—add warmth and character to anything you run through them. You can hear those simulated devices on the audio examples included in the online version of this review.
The Apollo Twin is a compact audio interface and plug-in host boasting remarkable sound quality and smartly streamlined features. Paired with a recent-model Mac, it’s powerful enough to anchor a busy project studio, yet compact enough to pop into your gig bag for mobile work. The bundled plug-in collection is modest, but I’d still recommend the Twin even if came with no plug-ins. It earns top marks for audio quality, workmanship, and its many useful and innovative features.