may 2009

Peter Stroud looks at the different pros, cons and options for employing or ignoring an effects loop

Guitar amplifier effects loops are quite a controversial topic with tone purists. Common questions go from, Do I run my effects into the front so as not to disturb the amp’s tone? and Do I use the effects loop to get better delay sounds? to the even more drastic, Do I install an effects loop on my vintage amp?

It’s just another aspect of your rig scene, and often comes down to personal preference. There are times when an effects loop comes in handy on a gig, and others when it can cause your tone to suffer, all depending on what you’re trying to get out of your amp.

In a typical guitar amplifier, there is the preamp stage and the power amp stage. The effects loop is almost always placed right between the two. The idea is that your preamp channel switches between clean and overdrive tones, feeds into your effects via the effects loop, then back into the power amp stage. Placing your effects after your preamp works very well if you’re generating all of your clean and distortion tones solely in the preamp stage.

On the other hand, effects loops don’t always work well if you’re generating your overdriven tones by cranking your amp to get overall distortion and compression from both the preamp and power tubes, as with vintage style, nonmaster volume and low powered amps. Inserting the effects between preamp and power stages in this case most often impedes their interaction, and leaves you scratching your head wondering why you have weird levels, funny buzzing from your effects, or general tone suck. The preamp may be sending out such a strong signal that it hits the effects too hard, requiring you to pull back the level (if you have control of the input gain), and then the power stage can’t react properly since it’s not getting hit hard enough.

Analog-digital-analog effects interrupt that preamp-power amp interaction, in which case you’re better off running your rack effects into the front—or getting elaborate with a nice, big eighties-style stage rig: the vintage head into a load box feeding into your effects rack, then into a stereo tube preamp with two 4x12s. Yeehaw! (But remember: never run your amp’s speaker output into your effects input, unless you want to blow it to smithereens.)

Here’s a handful of recommended scenarios:

1. Run your stompboxes into the front, not through an effects loop. They are designed and intended for this both tonally and levelwise, and will cause very little change to your amp’s tone and the power-amp distortion it generates. In fact, many pedals can improve your overall tone by their effect on your input impedance—buffer circuits are designed to allow longer cable runs without loss of signal. Plus, if you run your pedalboard thru an effects loop you’re creating unnecessary excess cable lengths, which can impede your tone or cause noise issues.

2. Run your rack effects into an effects loop. This scenario works best using an amp with preamp, master and channel switching for clean and dirty, with your distorted tones generated by the preamp stage. Delay mix levels generally remain even between clean and dirty. Most rack effects units have bypass footswitching ability, as well as MIDI, which really gives you flexibility using a MIDI foot controller (but be prepared to pull out your propeller hat).

3. Run all of your effects in the front; feed pedals and rack effects into two amps for stereo. This works well if you use a tubepreamp stompbox to generate your distortion and mainly use the amplifiers for overall tone and volume level. And you can swim in stereo heaven onstage.

4. Run a rack tube preamp into rack effects, into a stereo power amp (tube preferred), into a stereo speaker cabinet or two speaker cabinets for full-on stereo bliss. A lot of great sounds you’ve heard over the years have been created this way.

5. Forget all of your pedals and plug straight into the front of the amp. (No diagram needed!)

Well, it appears I could elaborate further, so perhaps I’ll do so in next month’s column. Until then, happy late night hours twiddlin’ with your tone… I’m right there with you.

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A new Cube promises to raise your wattage while reducing your load.

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Roland Cubes are the underrated workhorses of the amplifier world. Sure, real tubes sound great, but if you live in an area where you have to take public transportation to gigs, you can easily grow to love the sound and portability of these lightweight combos. I have an old recording of myself playing through a Boss Overdrive into a mic’d 40-watt Cube, and you’d be hardpressed to tell that it wasn’t a tube stack. A prominent New York session player used to have, “If you don’t like it, mic it,” stenciled in old English lettering on the side of the same amp. More recently, I’ve been bringing the Micro Cube to gigs, either mic’ing it, or— thanks to its COSM modeling and recording output—running direct into the board.

Before now, the highest power available in the Cube line was 60 watts. Roland has now upped the ante with the latest addition: the 80-watt Cube-80X. I tested the 80X with a Fernandes Strat sporting DiMarzio Virtual Vintage pickups and a Stromberg Monterey semi-hollow equipped with DiMarzio EJ Custom humbucking pickups.

The Rundown
The Cube-80X delivers its power through one 12" speaker and what amounts to three switchable channels. The clean channel, labeled JC Clean—after Roland’s famous Jazz Chorus, sports a single volume control. A Lead channel contains its own Volume and Gain knobs, as well as a rotary switch that lets you choose nine additional models: Acoustic Sim (simulating an acoustic guitar), Black Panel (Fender Twin), DLX Combo (Fender Deluxe), Brit Combo (Vox), Tweed (Fender Bassman), Classic Stack (Marshall JMP 1987), Metal Stack (Peavey EVH 5150), R-Fier Stack (Mesa Boogie Rectifier), and Dyna-Amp.

The Dyna-Amp model is touted as offering “unprecedented tonal changes according to your picking dynamics.” Of course, at low to medium gain levels, any good amp should respond to your picking dynamics, and a large part of the appeal of COSM modeling is that the simulations are realistically dynamic. The Dyna-Amp setting pushes these dynamics to interesting, if unrealistic, extremes. Once you get used to it, though, you may find it to be an expressive tool. The third channel, labeled Solo, is programmable. The EQ and Effects settings are shared by the Clean and Lead channels, but you can program the Solo channel to call up a separate set of model, EQ and effects settings. Saving these settings is as simple as holding down the Solo button for two seconds. This section also has its own Volume knob, so I was able to set different output levels for Clean, Lead (or crunch rhythm), and Solo.

Sound Clips to Go
Even if you don’t play raging, loud metal, a high-wattage amp has the advantage of gobs of clean headroom. The Roland JC-120 is favored by funk guitarists for its ability to remain squeaky clean at a volume that can cut through horns and keyboards. Check out Clip 1 to hear how the JC Clean setting on the 80X delivers distortion-free funk, at a little over half the poundage of a JC-120. Another type of picker that worships light, high-powered amps is the jazz guitarist. Both the JC Clean and Black Panel settings neatly handled the low end of the Stromberg with the neck tone rolled down, but I preferred the warmth of the Black Panel (Clip 2).

Switching back to the Fernandes and the Classic Stack, you can hear the realistic dynamics of the COSM modeling on Clip 3, where I set the amp for moderate gain, first picking lightly and then with more attack. Following that you will hear the distortion increase gradually as I build a chord and launch into an AC/ DC style riff. The Tweed sound captured that Texas “thang” (Clip 4), but was smoother, and handled the low end better than most models (and many an actual Bassman).

For my Solo Sound (Clip 5), I chose the Classic Stack, added a bit more gain, boosted the mids, added a little reverb and delay, and saved it. Though it is based on a Marshall sound, the EQ—along with the slight compression that COSM modeling tends to add—gave the tone more Dumble-like warmth. I found that due to a significant midrange bump in the speaker, single coils sounded better than humbuckers. Running out of the extension speaker output of the 80X into a custom 1x12” cabinet with an Eminence speaker opened open a whole new range of tones.

The Final Mojo
Though it is hard to imagine hard rock and metal players using the 80X on a gig (recording and practice—definitely), gigging jazz, country and funk guitarists are sure to appreciate the massive headroom and minimal weight of the Cube-80X.

Buy if...
you want loud and light.
Skip if...
tubes are your thing.

MSRP $399 - Roland -

Danelectro''s Dead On ''67 is a fun throwback that packs a great value for the price

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All clips played through a Tweed Deluxe on Normal channel
Those who didn’t grow up with Danelectro may think of them primarily as a manufacturer of various inexpensive guitar effects pedals. This is only a small part of the story, which began with the founding of the company in 1947 by Nathan Daniel, a former amp manufacturer for the Epiphone company. The first guitars came off the line in 1954 under the Sears brand Silvertone. From that followed an outpouring of guitar models under the Danelectro brand name (and others). All models followed the same formula of simplicity of build, clarity of tone, and above all, affordability.

The company was sold to media giant MCA, who began to experiment with the line, producing some very unusual non-guitar stringed instruments, as well as some very nice additions to the guitar lineup—including the original incarnation of the guitar reviewed here, the 1967 Hornet (part of the Slimline series). Two years later the Dano plant was closed, and it was not until the late 1990s, when the company was purchased by the Evets Corp, that Danelecto reappeared on the retail scene. Danelectro guitars are once more available, albeit in limited numbers and models.

In the early sixties I owned and played a double-pickup, shorthorn double cutaway, which I loved dearly. Unfortunately, because of a loud and bright buzz, my bandmates did not share my love, and I traded for a humbucking model of another brand. Naturally, I was excited to be able to test drive this new axe, especially since it is touted as “totally shielded.” If you want more history and lists of players (you’ll be amazed) there are several good articles online.

On to the guitar itself
The ’67 sports a curvaceous body reminiscent of the shape of a Jaguar or Jazzmaster, but with small, shapely buttocks. It is 1-3/8" thick at its thickest point, near the bridge, but falls away smoothly into a deep contour both front and back, necessitating a contoured shape to the psychedelic mother of toilet seat plastic pickguard and faux satin metal control cavity cover. The body is basswood with paint of a satin texture and expertly applied.

The maple neck is of Fender derivation, with 6-inline Kluson-style tuners and a single-action truss rod. The tuners have a smooth, snug feel. The nut appears to be a hard alloy of aluminum, and the fingerboard is of Rosewood with standard pearloid position markers and a rather flat 14" radius. The fit where the bolt-on neck meets the body is extremely good. There are 21 medium frets, nicely seated, finished and polished. The scale length is 24-3/4".

The ’67 features a vibrato bridge that is the essence of simplicity: a flat satin, nickelplated steel plate with the distal end beveled and notched for the ball end of the strings, and a beveled rosewood bridge. The strings contact the bridge at two points, and there’s a small slot in the bridge plate with a screw that runs into the wood to help keep it centered—and to allow fore and aft movement of the entire bridge for intonation. The pressure of the strings holds the bridge in place.

In this vibrato model, there are two machined holes in the upper and lower forward extremities of the bridge; two slightly rounded Phillips-head wood screws protrude from the body to engage these holes that are machined in a step fashion to support the bridge and to allow height adjustment. Of course, there must be something to hold the bridge plate in place and level, hence a third hole in the rear of the bridge plate through which a countersunk machine screw protrudes downward through the control cover into the vibrato spring cavity, where it engages a spring and is tightened by a steel wing nut.

Holding the head on top of the bridge and tightening the wing nut in the routed cavity on the underside of the body serves to tension the vibrato and hold the bridge plate down and centered. The bridge ground wire attaches to the spring. In my pre-production model this spring tension and the downward pressure of the strings causes a mild bow in the bridge plate.

The aluminum vibrato arm attaches to the bridge plate with a bolt, nylon stop nut and washers, which also control the ease with which the arm may be moved in and out of position. In order to change the fore/ aft position of the bridge or the movement ease of the vibrato arm the bridge must be removed—something I found mildly irritating.

The electronics consist of two of Danelectro’s “lipstick tube” single-coil pickups in satin nickel (redesigned for higher output), with standard controls: two Tone knobs, two Volume knobs and a three-way switch. The pots are full size and of good quality, and the knobs are absolutely classic Dano kitsch.

The Fun Part
The neck has a comfortable “flattened C” contour, and the flat fingerboard radius (once you get used to it) enhances single and double stop bends, not to mention low string pressure for slide playing. Access to upper frets is good. The set up was good right out of the box, although I personally prefer a lower string height at the nut—but of course that’s much easier to obtain from this point than having to go the other way.

The vibrato mechanism will never be nominated for a “Floyd Rose Achievement Award,” but it suffices for some low-amplitude twangin’. The return to intonation is fairly good once you get the feel of the arm, and the simplicity helps maintain the price point. The axe comes strung with D’Addario .010s to help show off one of its main features: the sweet sound of its medium/ low output tubular single coils.

I played through several amps, including a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, an ‘81 Boogie Studio, a Clark tweed Deluxe, a ’64 Ampeg Reverberocket, and an Allen Old Flame. I went for clean tones and found a sweet top end with just enough mids to support and sustain. I went for a mildly crunchy blues tone and was pleased with the detailed attack, articulation, and mild grind. With the Fender and the Boogie I went for full overdrive and really liked the way the top end cut through a very smooth, buttery midrange. The hum level is tolerable, and I’m told by Patrick McGinnis of Danelectro that production models will have a fully shielded control cavity and shielded signal leads, which will decrease hum to even lower levels. He also mentioned that they are fixing the bridge plate warp with a stronger plate and that the production models will sport a basswood body.

The Final Mojo
All in all, this is one versatile axe. Throw in the price, and what’s not to like? Oh, and I failed to mention that there is a baritone version of this same axe—just the thing for all those “spaghetti western” themes you’ve been dying to learn.
Buy if...
you want a fine sounding and playing guitar bundled with a piece of rock and roll history, and low price point to boot.
Skip if...
you don't want to mess with a vibrato tailpiece (which is understandable) or you are a guitar snob (which is not).

Street $349 - Danelectro  -