september 2010

A Ludwig without its "yoy"

Greetings, gearheads! Welcome back to Stomp School. Seeing as we specialize in vintage and rare effects, we get a lot of repair work in our shop. We’ve had a lot of interesting pieces come through, but we recently got one that I thought would be great to share with you. A good customer and collector friend of ours, Gino, recently acquired a Ludwig Phase II Synthesizer. Readers of Analog Man’s Guide to Vintage Effects will recognize this as the second-most rare and collectible vintage effect of all time.

The Ludwig Phase II we received was in pretty sad shape. Although I happen to have an excellent working example in my collection to use for reference, Ludwigs still pose a lot of problems in terms of repair. This unique and complex device was manufactured and sold around 1970, before integrated circuits were readily available. The circuit is entirely discreet, which means that it accomplishes all of its electronic voodoo without the use of IC chips. Looking at the main circuit board is somewhat reminiscent of an aerial view of a densely populated city. There’s a lot going on in this thing. That also means there’s a lot that can go wrong.

Left: My properly functioning Ludwig Phase II bares it all for the cause.
A close-up of the main board, with a plethora of juicy components and tasty tropical fish capacitors.
Our tech, Greg, holds the top assemblies to both Ludwigs for comparison (mine is the bottom one).

A Yoy-Less Toy
I have owned a few Ludwig Phase II Synthesizers over the years, and I’ve had the opportunity to play several more. Every one of them sounded slightly different, which was likely the result of the many discreet components drifting out of spec. The defining sound is the phased, modulated effect that, when properly calibrated, sounds like someone saying “yoy yoy yoy yoy yoy.” The Ludwig Phase II we received from our friend had many problems but, saddest of all, it had no “yoy.”

The initial issues we identified were that the lights on the top panel, as well as the Animation and Formant Trajectories controls, were not working properly. The stereo output switch didn’t work, either. And only a slight phase-like sound could be heard when you used the expression pedal. We quickly got under the hood to see what was going on.

Undoing Abominable Work
The first thing we noticed was that someone had been in there before. This is usually not a good thing. Over the years, hundreds of vintage effects have fallen prey to amateur electronics hobbyists and well-intentioned radio and TV repairmen, resulting in many heartbreaking abominations of electrical ineptitude. In most cases, the person doing the repair had no reference point, and no established outcome that would let them know if the unit was properly calibrated. More often than not, they were in way over their heads.

One of the major obstacles to this repair was that the top board no longer had its original quick connects—the entire board was hardwired. This made it difficult to work on, because all the connections had to be unsoldered (so we could work on the board) and then re-soldered for testing. We reflowed some questionable-looking solder joints, tweaked several trim pots for a quick and dirty calibration, and repaired a few of the quick connects on the main board. We also replaced a couple of dead indicator bulbs with colored LEDs, but we needed to add resistance to keep the LEDs from burning out. Finally, we replaced a faulty jack and footswitch for the stereo output.

I wish I could say at this point that our repairs have been successful. However, at the time of this writing, the patient is still on the table after an operation that has already lasted two-and-ahalf working days. That’s okay. We’ll just keep working until it’s finished. Wish us luck! Until the next time, keep on stompin’.

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A simple-to-use analog delay with high-quality tones

Among boutique and custom pedal lovers, Analog Man enjoys a reputation for building some of the world’s coolest high-end guitar effects, as well as doing expert repairs and mods on vintage and new stompboxes. As a fan of their gear and designs, I was excited to check out their new delay pedal, the ARDX20 Dual Analog Delay.

What it is
Co-designed by Analog Man’s Ohbayashi San and Analog Mike (who—full disclosure— contributes to our monthly Stomp School column along with his partner, Tom Hughes), the ARDX20 is a two-channel, handwired delay pedal that offers between 36 ms and 600 ms of delay time. Housed in a rugged, red metal case, the ARDX20 is powered by either a 9-volt battery or a Boss-style power supply. The pedal sports dual footswitches—a true-bypass on/off switch and a channel switch—six knobs, standard input and output jacks, an effects loop jack, and a delay time expression jack. The easy-to-access battery compartment is on the underside of the pedal.

The knobs are laid out in a very user-friendly fashion in two rows. The upper three knobs— delay time, feedback, and delay level— control the Yellow channel. The lower three knobs provide the same controls for the Red channel. Below the knobs are two small LEDs that alternately blink, speeding up or slowing down as you adjust the delay time.

The ARDX20 is designed to let you dial in two delay settings and then toggle between them with a footswitch. Nifty LEDs on either side of the pedal tell you which channel is in play at any given time. Conveniently, both the on/ off and channel switches sit higher than the knobs, so you won’t accidentally mess up your settings during a quick effects change.

Getting Down to Business
I plugged my ’78 Yamaha SG2000 into the ARDX20 and a ’66 Fender Pro Reverb and started exploring the unit’s sounds. My first thought was that it’s not a transparent delay. This may bother guitarists who want uncolored echo, but I stuck it out, determined to give the pedal a chance. The more I played with it, the more I began to appreciate how it smoothed out the high end and added a lush, organic warmth to my tones. I could see how this sonic coloration could become addictive, leading you to leave the pedal on most of the time.

Within the limitations of a 600 ms delay time, I found that the ARDX20 was flexible enough to deliver whatever I went after, from a short slapback to a trippy wash of recurring echoes. In all instances, the repeats sounded mellow and never spiky, and they didn’t obscure my attack when I’d pick a series of notes.

Having two channels is great for gigs, because you can set up two totally separate delay settings and access either one at the press of a button. I did notice a quick warbling sound when I switched between channels while a note was ringing, but I believe I could live with that, given the flexibility of this two-pedals-in-one design.

The ARDX20’s extra jacks provide even more flexibility. The effects loop—which carries the delay tone only, not the dry signal—lets you bring another pedal (perhaps a chorus or fl anger) into the mix. (You’ll need an optional TRS Y-cable, though. Analog Man suggests the Hosa STP-201.) Even cooler: Inserting an expression pedal into the effects loop lets you vary delay level and feedback on the fl y. Further, plugging an expression pedal into the delay time expression jack lets you control the delay time in the Red channel. In this configuration, I discovered the ARDX20 let me get pitch bends and Whammy pedal-type sounds, but with a more pleasing tone. If you like to experiment, you’ll really enjoy this feature.

The Final Mojo
Analog Man has whipped up a very cool delay pedal that doesn’t try to be all things to all guitarists. It’s simple to use and has a lush sound. Its shining features are the quality of tones, low power consumption, and channel switching. If you’re into going nuts with effects onstage, I recommend getting a Y-cable and an expression pedal. But even as a stand-alone delay, the ARDX20 is impressive.
Buy if...
a warm delay with options is what you crave.
Skip if...
you have no use for slapback.

Street $265 - Analog Man -

Three amp-emulating pedals from Tech 21

Tech 21 has been pioneering the amp-in-a-pedal concept since the late ’80s. The first amp-emulating device I ever purchased was a SansAmp, and I fell in love with it. The combination of the SansAmp, a great guitar, and a 4-track is indelibly etched in my best memories of recording music and demos.

Tech 21 has applied their SansAmp technology to a new line of analog pedals called the Character Series. Each pedal in the line is designed to emulate a specific make of British or American guitar amp. Currently, there are seven Character Series models for guitar (and two for bass). I tested three guitar versions—the Oxford, U.S. Steel, and Leeds models.

Like the original SansAmp, these Character Series pedals are designed to be more versatile than a typical stompbox. You can plug a Character Series pedal into a guitar amp, or, thanks to the pedal’s low-impedance output, use it as a preamp to drive a power amp or as a direct recording device plugged straight into a computer interface or mixer.

The Once Over
I’m a sucker for good marketing, so when I got a look at the “tins” each pedal is packaged and sold in, it instantly brought me back to my youth and reminded me of the days of “collect them all” mania. In a smart move, Tech 21 uses a single, black tin box for the entire Character Series line. Each box is wrapped in a clear plastic slide cover that holds a card with a picture of the pedal on the front and tone settings on the back. The packaging makes you feel like you’re buying a miniature version of the amp each pedal emulates.

Of course, looks aren’t everything. Once you get past the nifty boxes, the question is, how do these pedals sound and, for the price, can you really get great tones that stand up to the classics?

First, let’s investigate the common features: Each Character Series pedal is housed in a metal case and sports the same six knobs: Level, Low, Mid, High, Character, and Drive. As you’d expect, Drive dials in the desired amount of gain, and Level controls the overall volume to the input of your amp or DI interface. Because the threeband EQ controls are active, you can boost or cut each pedal’s preset frequencies with great precision. The variable Character knob moves through different models in the emulated amp line, and it’s this control that lets you explore a pedal’s particular flavor. Each Character Series model sports a Speaker Simulation button that’s tuned to mimic the speakers and cabinet associated with the amp the pedal emulates.

The pedals run on a 9-volt battery or optional DC power supply. When running on battery power, the pedal’s “on” LED starts to dim at around 6 volts—a handy feature for gigging guitarists. Standard 1/4” input and output jacks and a silent footswitch round out the physical package. Like all SansAmp pedals, Character Series models boast a buffered bypass mode, which allows you to run long cables and send your signal through multiple pedals without incurring high-end loss, even when the Character Series pedal is switched off.

Download Example 1
SansAmp engaged
Clips recorded with a 2003 Les Paul Historic R8, Creation Audio Labs MW1 Studio Tool, Pro Tools HD3 with Lexicon LexRoom reverb plugin
The Oxford is Tech 21’s take on a classic Orange head. Whether they were going for an OR-120 or OR-80, I won’t even try to guess. According to the Oxford’s preset card, the Mid knob is centered at 500 Hz with up to 12 dB boost or cut, while the Low and High knobs are based on a ’70s British console EQ and fixed respectively at 120 Hz (offering as much as +22 dB boost or -12 dB cut) and 2.5 kHz (+30 dB boost or -12 dB cut).

The Oxford’s Character knob emulates the famous F.A.C. (Frequency Analyzing Control) midrange sweep that we know and love from Orange amps. Turning the knob counterclockwise tightens up the lows and thins out the sound a little, while going toward noon thickens the tone quite a bit. Beyond that, the sound becomes brighter and more present. Cranked fully, the Oxford’s Character knob admirably mimics the “just about to blow” sound I know all too well from my Orange. It’s a spitty tone that gets a bit flutey and is classic Orange all the way.

Engaging the Speaker

Simulation button turns on the Oxford’s Greenback cab emulation. (Tech 21 didn’t specify if this is a closedback 4x12, but that’s what I hear.) Because I spend many late nights in the studio, this is a great option when you can’t plug into a mic’d guitar amp. There still is a bit of that “direct” sound, but for a pedal at this price, it’s a bonus feature that certainly works well.

As far as plugging into the front end of a guitar amp, the Oxford fared best with a fairly generic clean tone, which allowed the pedal to do the heavy lifting. That said, I did have fun trying the Oxford with a gained-out amp, too.

The Final Mojo
I threw a variety of guitars at the Oxford, including Les Pauls, a Strat, a Hamer Korina Special, and even a late-’60s Gibson EB-O bass. In every case, I was able to get great Orange-inspired tones with ease. The pedal has a surprising amount of gain on tap, and having a full set of tone controls really allowed me to voice the pedal to each guitar. The combination of active tone controls and the Character knob actually yielded more sonic range than the real thing, yet even in the most extreme settings, the Oxford always produced inspiring sounds.
Buy if...
you want classic Orange-flavored tone in a compact pedal.
Skip if...
you need more modern tones.

Street $169 - Tech 21 -

Download Example 1
Clip recorded with Schecter Jeff Loomis 7-string, Creation Audio Labs MW1 Studio Tool into Pro Tools HD3, no EQ, dry. 
U.S. Steel

The U.S. Steel clearly borrows its inspiration from a Mesa/Boogie Dual or Triple Rectifier. Much like the Recto series, the U.S. Steel’s real strength lies in heavier music. The tone controls are voiced as follows: Mid at 450 Hz, Low at 125 Hz, and High at around 3.2 kHz. You can boost or cut these frequencies by 12 dB. The Character knob adds thickness to the Drive control settings, but also brightens up the sound—an effect that gets more pronounced as you turn the knob clockwise. Once again, the Speaker Simulation button mimics a Celestion-loaded speaker cabinet, and my ears tell me they were going for either Vintage 30s or 75s. You can’t be too literal about this, as it’s an emulation circuit, but it does a fine job of getting your tone in that ballpark when you’re going direct into a mixer or computer interface.

For me, Mesa/Boogie’s Rectifier amps have always worked really well for metal, and they particularly excel in the rhythm department. No doubt, there are legions of fans of this tone, which is why we’ve heard it on so many records. The U.S. Steel doesn’t disappoint in this respect—in fact, it covers it in spades.

Inspired by the look of the U.S. Steel sitting next to my Schecter Jeff Loomis 7-string, I plugged directly into Pro Tools through a Creation Audio Labs MW1 Studio Tool and threw up the devil’s horns. I was immediately hit with that ultra-subsonic low you can only achieve from this type of amp. Chugging, detuned riffs flowed easily from my hands and felt very natural and inspired.

However, I was surprised that, when I played a Schecter Hellraiser with EMGs through the U.S. Steel, it sounded very similar to my Les Paul with Sheptone PAFs. There was a slight difference in the gain, which was easy to compensate for, but the overall sound was clearly that of the pedal, not the individual guitars. So, while the Character knob brings in more thickness and heaviness as you crank it, the basic sound of the pedal is always very present.

The Final Mojo
If you’re after a mammoth, Recto-inspired sound but have to record direct, you could easily track with the U.S. Steel and few listeners would be the wiser. The pedal delivers an effective plug-and-play tone that effortlessly channels the spirit of the American metal amp.
Buy if...
you want hulking, Recto-like muscle in a pipsqueak-sized box.
Skip if...
you prefer a high-gain option that lets your guitar’s voice shine through.

Street $169 - Tech 21 -

Download Example 1
SansAmp engaged
Clip recorded with 2010 Godin Passion RG-3,, 65Amps Tupelo mic’d with SM57 into Chandler LTD1 no EQ into Pro Tools HD3 with Lexicon LexRoom reverb plugin
The Leeds pedal is designed to emulate the cool sonic characteristics of a Hiwatt head. The Mid control is voiced at 400 Hz—the lowest of the three pedals reviewed here—while the Low and High knobs are voiced identically to the Oxford. But tonally, this pedal has little in common with the Oxford, as it dwells smack dab in the middle of Hiwatt-land. The Character control has the widest tonal range of the pedals I tested. It not only cleans up significantly in the lowest registers, but it also goes far beyond what a typical Hiwatt would be able to serve up in gain. As the Character knob spins to the highest settings, it really sounds like a full-tilt stack with the bark and bravado we’re accustomed to hearing.

To explore the Leeds, I plugged in my ’74 Les Paul Custom and brought the Character knob to about noon. This instantly transported me into ’70s Pete Townshend tone. With just a little movement of that knob, I could clean up the sound to get that jangle and percussive attack Townshend is so well known for. Though my ’74 has humbuckers, it was easy to dial back the Low knob a little and bring up the High control to mimic the mini-humbuckers on Townshend’s guitar.

The Final Mojo
I spent a great deal of time with the Speaker Simulation button engaged, and while it did create a little of that direct tone, it was still very usable, if not quite as explosive feeling. Plugging into a Krank Rev Jr. Pro driving a 1x12 cab with an Eminence Governor and disengaging the Speaker Simulation feature, I felt like I was playing through a mini Hiwatt. It was really that good. The Leeds’ preset card states the speaker emulation is based on a Fane cabinet, but since I’ve never actually played through one, I can’t verify the emulation’s accuracy. However, given the flexibility of the 3-band active EQ, we’d be splitting hairs to make a judgment on that. Once again, the pedal offered far more voicing control than an actual Hiwatt head. The effect reminded me of dialing in the tone of a mic’d amp using a good outboard mixer.
Buy if...
you want Pete Townshend-style tone with more gain possibilities.
Skip if...
you prefer carrying a 100-pound amp to get that tone.

Street $169 - Tech 21 -