A powerful sound-design tool—now on your pedalboard!
If you’ve used software or hardware amp modelers, chances are you’ve used impulse responses. The technology, developed by Sony at the end of the last century, is one way that modelers mimic various mics, cabinets, rooms, and outboard gear. Impulse responses (IRs) are recordings of test tones created in the spaces or through the gear being modeled. IR reverb players compare these recordings to a theoretically dry version, and then apply the resulting variables to any audio you pump through them. Voilà— your guitar can sound as if it was recorded in the Taj Mahal. Or a sewer. Or through a $5,000 outboard reverb unit.
Most modelers don’t let you load your own IR files, though you can do so using dedicated software plug-ins such as Audio Ease’s Altiverb and Space Designer in Apple’s Logic Pro. And now you can add this technology (also known as convolution reverb) to your pedalboard, thanks to Logidy’s EPSi—the first load-your-own IR stompbox.
EPSi reads IR files from an SD memory card, and ships with a 1 GB card containing hundreds of shareware impulse responses. (Many more are available online.) Quality varies, but with searching and a bit of patience, you can assemble a fine IR library at no cost. (And if you have an IR-making utility, like the ones included with Logic and Altiverb, you can make and load your own IRs.)
EPSi is a solid 4" x 4" stompbox with minimal controls: just a terse, three-character LED, a data knob, an enter button, and a bypass footswitch. To select a new sound, simply scroll to the desired IR number and press enter. Same with altering the reverb time or adjusting the wet/dry mix: scroll and enter. This system works fine, just don’t count on changing tones mid-song, or even mid-set. But hey, even if you use only one IR per show (a nice juicy spring to soak the sound of a no-reverb amp, maybe?), you may find EPSi useful in performance.
But the studio is where EPSi really shines. You have access to hundreds of sounds at once, or even thousands with a larger, pricier memory card. You can also swap between cheaper cards. (You can buy 1 GB cards for less than five bucks each.)
Swapping cards may be a good strategy. There are two versions of the latest EPSi software, which the pedal reads from the SD card along with the IR files. One is optimized for reverbs of up to six seconds, and the other is geared toward mimicking speakers and cabinets. (Yes, you can plug your amp’s direct audio output into EPSi, record direct, and clone the tones of countless cabinet/speaker/mic combinations with startling realism.) To switch software, just power up with the appropriate card inserted. Like most powerful digital effects, EPSi requires AC power, but thankfully an adapter is included.
To learn more about using IRs in the studio, check out the recent PG article "Impulse Control: Mastering Fake Spaces." It covers some extreme sound-design scenarios and includes a link to download some cool and free IR files.
Larry Fishman talks about the virtual impossibility of using amplification to exactly replicate the sound of acoustic guitars.
In my past few columns, I've traced some of the historical approaches to amplifying acoustic instruments. I've also gone over the design philosophy behind some of the more common approaches, with a deeper look at the technical details of several currently available pickup designs. At this point, I think it might be useful to step back and consider what this is really all about.
Why do we want to amplify an acoustic instrument in the first place? After all, these instruments already are amplifiers on their own. Their original design intent was to mechanically amplify and enhance the sound generated by a tensioned string when plucked, bowed, or hammered-on so that that resulting sound could be heard at a reasonable volume in an intimate setting.
You're in luck if that's all you want to do with an acoustic guitar. Simply pick out an instrument that responds comfortably to your touch and is pleasing to your ear, invite some friends over to your house, and make some music! This is one of the rare cases where your wants and needs are in almost perfect alignment. You want this particular instrument because of its aesthetics, feel, and pleasing sound, and it's already loud enough on its own to fulfill the need to be comfortably heard in an intimate setting.
The trouble starts when we need an acoustic instrument to perform in an environment that requires it to produce much a higher SPL (sound pressure level) than it was originally designed to produce. Be it a local bar with the band in the corner, a sports stadium, or a converted warehouse, these gigging situations obviously require more than what's needed for the back porch or an acoustically pristine concert hall—the same need that spurred the invention of the electric guitar.
With the development of new sensors, electrical amplifying systems, and digital signal processors, we've fortunately seen some major advancements over the past 30 years in the pursuit of enhancing the SPL potential of acoustic instruments. Today's acoustic guitars can hold their own volume-wise, in any venue. But I caution you: Once we ask an acoustic instrument to perform at these “unnatural volumes," the wants and needs equation becomes much more complicated.
In my work, be it at my place of business, a customer's guitar factory, a concert venue, a night club, a music store, a recording session, a social gathering, or crawling through countless web forums on acoustic amplification, I listen to or directly talk to hundreds (if not thousands) of acoustic instrumentalists each year. The comments and conversations surrounding acoustic amplification range from the sublime to the ridiculous. There is little general consensus regarding the best amplification approach, but there are always steadfast advocates with regard to the benefits of one piece of gear verses another. I do, however, find a common thread in many of these discussions that poses a real dilemma.
For a typical example that illustrates my point, a local singer-songwriter was visiting our facility a few months ago. She was there to have a meeting with our artist-relations guy and discuss amplification gear for a new guitar she had just purchased.
After I was introduced to her and we spent some time talking about what was going on with her career, I asked her what type of gear she had in mind. She told me that she really loved the sound of her new guitar and wanted something that would give her more volume onstage, but would still “sound just like my guitar, only louder." I told her the only way I could help was to recommend a set of heavier-gauge strings. That wasn't what she was expecting to hear. When I continued that I was afraid I couldn't get her what she wanted—and neither could anyone else—she didn't say anything and looked at me like I had three heads.
Herein lies the rub: There is no way to raise the volume of an acoustic instrument by using electronics to make it louder onstage and project better into a room, yet still produce a sound “just like my guitar, only louder." There is no pickup, microphone, amplifier, or loudspeaker combination that can accomplish this, no matter how well designed, sophisticated, or expensive they might be. The real issue is based on the way our ears and brain sense and interpret sound.
Over the course of my next few columns, I'll discuss some techniques and examples that should shed some light on this subject. We'll then investigate if what you think you want is actually what you need to get the job done. Until then!
This bite-sized box delivers big, boss fuzz tones with that twisted ZVEX touch.
ZVEX didn’t make its good name by taking the path most travelled. The same sense of irreverence that’s driven the company from day one guides nearly every creation that emerges from its Minnesota shop. And even as the company enters the raging micro-pedal arms race, where size limitations sometimes demand conservative design, ZVEX shows no signs of surrendering its adventurous spirit.
Take the diminutive Fuzzolo reviewed here. It’s a silicon fuzz that sounds way bigger than it looks, but it also has a blendable pulse width control (borrowed from ZVEX’s Mastotron) that’s a simple, surprisingly versatile, and sometimes radical tool for tweaking the rich fuzz output. The sounds you can get with this 2-knob baby monster are both massive and wonderfully mangled—the kind of stuff likely to stoke heavy riffing thugs and lo-fi sonic sculptors alike.
A Little Rolling Thunder
The Fuzzolo’s microscopic size did not deter ZVEX from indulging their customary flair for the visual. And though the pedal isn’t even 1.5" wide and barely 3.5" long, ZVEX still managed to cram a raging, snorting buffalo, and the flames of some fuzz-driven prairie fire onto a fire engine red enclosure that shows up bold and bright on an overflowing pedalboard. There’s a knob for volume level. But the second knob, which on most 2-knob fuzzes would be a gain control, is a pulse width control that changes the waveform from a square wave to a wave with narrow peaks and wide valleys. The fractured sounds from this control are the key the Fuzzolo’s brutish-to-curious sonic range.
Lest you think that small size means less horsepower, let us say right out of the gate that the Fuzzolo is loud. Unity gain is somewhere just left of the noon setting on the volume knob, and the pedal gets significantly bigger and badder beyond that.
At the full square-wave setting, which is essentially the “purest” version of the fuzz, the Fuzzolo has a complex, deep, and brawny voice—present and growling in the low-mid zone with a trace of octave-up content. The sum is the kind of sassy but muscular tone that silicon Fuzz Face and Big Muff devotees could agree on.
Paired with a neck position humbucker, it’s a slice of stony desert-rock heaven—all wooly, rotund and robust with just a hint of Davey Allen biker fuzz on top. Sustain is superb at this setting, especially when a humbucker is in the mix. Cutting through a loud band means cranking the output a bit and using your bridge pickup. But in smaller ensembles—even a loud power trio—the Fuzzolo has enough gas to rise above the fray regardless of your pickup setting.
Grinding Sabbath-oid power chords and punky eighth-note barrages sound delectable at pure square-wave settings. They brim with just enough high-mid content to add detail and display a purring low end that nestles nicely with a loud, driving bass line.
Move the wave shape control to nine o’clock and you start to hear a little clipping in the high and high-mid frequencies. Here, the low-end output becomes a little more compact and you hear a narrower harmonic spectrum in general. This setting still works great for chords—especially if you’re a fan of Graham Coxon’s lo-fi fuzztones or the sputtering muscle-car grunt of early Dead Meadow.
Up around noon, the effects of the pulse width knob become more pronounced and a bit more hectic. In general, the output’s bandwidth is thinner and more compressed sounding. You’ll also hear less of the low-frequency drone that defines the full-on square-wave setting. But fast lead lines take on a hip, sputtering, exploding-amp quality that adds a taste of controlled chaos, attitude, and a succinct, quick responsiveness that rules for Jimmy Page blues flurries, and adds clarity to pull-offs and hammer-ons.
Like any fuzz that gets spitty and gated at high volume, the Fuzzolo produces smoother output from a neck pickup. But if you’re clever with your guitar’s volume and tone controls, you can effectively manipulate the fuzz voice even further. Reducing guitar volume really enhances the gating effect—especially when the wave shape control is in the third of its range that favors the pulse shape.
With one pickup in the mix you can create fast decaying, near-synth-like tones that add a demented touch to doubled bass lines. But two pickup guitars with four-knob setups (like a Les Paul or Telecaster Custom) let you craft even cooler lead tones with the Fuzzolo. Pairing a wide-open bridge pickup with a neck pickup that’s rolled back a notch generates lead tones that sing in the high end while the low end sputters out—a sort of inverse, mirror image of the pedal’s gating effect that sounds awesome with a little delay. While these settings have predictably filth-ifying (but very cool) effect on double-stops and power chords, they can sound quite precise and controlled if you’re careful with your picking technique.
The Fuzzolo is one bossy and mean little dude. And the small size is an obvious benefit, whether you’re trying to manage an overpopulated pedalboard or just travel light. But what’s most striking about the Fuzzolo is how great is sounds regardless of its size. It’s responsive, versatile, and sonically varied enough to be the only fuzz you need. And at around 130 bucks, it’s a cool way to spice up your sounds with some demented Z.Vex magic at the price of many more ordinary and much less space-efficient stompboxes.
Watch the Review Demo: