Two things they don’t make well enough but should…

Two examples of how to save space on a pedalboard – both at the front end – that I’m really surprised aren’t made (better) for guitar players, even in these days of trying to compact pedalboard space.

1 Combination wah and volume rocker pedal

Boards with two separate full-size rockers (one volume, one expression) are bigger than many of the venues I play. Nor do I need both to be operational simultaneously.

I have a vintage Italian Jen Mister Cry Baby Super which is a great-sounding wah and also has volume, switchable by pressing the pedal forward.  But on the down side : it was centre-positive; it had no light to indicate anything was on; and the volume doesn’t go all the way to full at the front and only to about 30% at the back because the amount of pot track used for wah is less than needed for volume.

Very few others make a more modern and more effective such pedal. Hotone’s VOW is pretty good and is miniature so it occupies less pedalboard real estate too.

2 Combination wireless and tuner

I don’t use (germanium) fuzzes so I have no issues with putting wireless/buffer first and wah second in my chain. And I definitely want wah before my drives.

Only two such combinations exist – Intellitouch’s Freedom One, which is cheap, not durable (plastic) and has both latency and high-end rolloff issues; and Shure’s GLXD6, which is expensive, especially in Europe.

The Freedom One can work (with reduced operating time) on rechargeable batteries, whilst the more expensive Shure’s transmitter pack battery is a rechargeable type.  But neither product offers the obvious – the ability to recharge the transmitter’s battery from the base (through the jack) when it’s not in use.  Duh.

There is a real opportunity for a mid-price entrant here.

I’ve just seen Hotone’s new Wally+ looper, which is both tiny and yet offers over 5 hours of looper time (!), including 11 storable loops which you can prepare before and access during a gig. If it’s possible to pack such power into such a tiny space, then it must be possible to deliver better combination pedals as described above.

How about it folks?

Comments Off on Two things they don’t make well enough but should…

XTOMP – Long-term user review

So I’ve just caught up with this and other online reviews about a year late, duh.

I’ve been trying to run four XTOMPS on a mini pedalboard for most of this year, for live playing into one or two amps.

The positives : great-looking, well-made pedals; wide choice of models, the vast majority of which are very good-sounding. Continuous update and addition of new models, though this has slowed. Compact and powerful.

The negatives : price (uk£200 each so four = £800 ?).; app and Bluetooth connection still glitchy with multiple XTOMPS, Phone/pad need to be very close to connect.

The biggest downside is when you connect several together in stereo as there is no facility to override individual models’ mono/stereo configuration and therefore the behaviour of the ins and outs.

This is important because some pedal combinations give rise to serious phase issues (sound thins out). And in the worst cases, certain models early in the chain even neutralise models in the chain from working (especially the excellent Helicopter trem, a great model which is therefore unfortunately useless in some chains).

The only way of getting round this is to change connections from stereo to mono according to which model is loaded – not viable in a hardwired pedalboard context.

Some eighteen months in market, these and other common user requests (amp/cab combos, preloaded sounds, assignable controls/colours etc etc) should have been addressed and resolved.

The Hotone guys are quite responsive in a ‘hi fella, happy to help’ kind of way, but actual action is slower or not forthcoming.

Instead, Hotone’s energies seem to have been diverted towards the launch of the new XTOMP mini, the very existence of which suggests that the original Xtomp’s price point

Will Hotone turn their attention to completing this product? Or will they once again turn their attention to the next shiny, new thing, leaving the XTOMP as a great idea that didn’t quite fulfil its promise and leaving users with an incomplete product for their significant investment?

(Experience of other software-based products is that makers are regrettably swift to withdraw support, beaching the early adopters that made their business viable in the first place, eg Fractal Audio and Axe-Fx pre II).

These shortcomings mean that the XTOMP remains an interesting product for the more casual user / toy seeker but despite its sound quality, is not (yet) pro level.


633 Amps does it again!

Regular visitors to this site will know I’m a fan and friend of 633 Engineering founder Cliff Brown and his fabulous amps.  My #1 633 amp, a Custom 36 which I co-designed in small part, received the ultimate accolade, scoring 10/10 in the August 2016 issue of Guitarist magazine.

The October 2017 edition of the magazine carries their second review of two more 633 amps.  My second 633 amp, the Drive King 50 in whose spec I also played a small part also received 10/10 and a fabulous writeup.  A few quotes :

  • “It’s practically impossible to find fault with any 633 we’ve tried.  They blend a range and clarity that we haven’t experienced on any other amp, with superb player-friendly dynamics”.
  • “The competition doesn’t even come close, simply because the Drive King is in a class of its own… sublime tone, exceptional performance and build quality more than justify the price and out top award’.
  • “If you’re in the market, our advice is don’t delay… there’ll probably never be a better time to buy the amp of your dreams”.

Well, enough said.  The full review is reproduced below.  The other amp, the superb Jazz & Blues combo which I’ve also played gets a mere 9/10!

As the first customer and a long-term owner (my Custom 36 serial #1, the first non-prototype, and my Drive King is #17), I can confirm that these amps are everything Guitarist says they are, maybe more.  And the two together?  Valhalla…


Review of new TCelectronic Mimiq doubler stompbox

I was intrigued by this new pedal as I often use a delay pedal to add thickness to tones, set to a very short delay with low feedback and mix and a bit of modulation.

HyperFocal: 0

HyperFocal: 0

The standard-sized TC housing has level controls for dry and effected signal, plus a switch to engage one, two or three effect voices and a tightness control (which should be called looseness as dialling it up introduces more delay between original and effected voice(s).

In use it’s pretty subtle. In mono, both into an amp or in its loop, it can introduce the same slight clanky overtones that many chorus or pitch pedals do, particularly in two-voice mode.

It’s slightly better in an amp’s loop, but frankly, I find I can get a better ‘thickening’ if not doubling effect in mono from my much more versatile Flashback delay.

The Mimiq is rather better and more noticeable in stereo, going through two amps. This seems to give more space without the pitchshift clank, and is probably why the TC demo video is in stereo from the start, though it also focuses on very overdriven & compressed metal tones. There’s much more to music – and doubling.

This effect raises more questions than answers for me.

First, is the effect even audible in mono under gigging conditions? I’m not convinced but will be listening carefully.

Second, to get the best from it, you need to play in stereo.  But how often do you really get to play through two amps? (Me, I play mostly smaller rooms with limited space and setup time).

Third, if the effect is better in the amp’s loop, it needs a lot of wires to put it in both amps’ loops. If indeed it is even possible – if the hum loops don’t get you, the phasing probably will.

Ah, you might say, it’s still a great recording tool. Well, yes and no. Yes, if you record or reamp your guitar parts through it, but no if you use your software to add very controllable doubling simply already.

So a curious and interesting, but sadly not essential pedal. I’m not sure whether to keep it or flip it for a second Flashback. Or another of Hotone’s brilliant programmable Xtomps, several of whose downloadable models already offer different takes on doubling when set low in the mix…


New Mystic Blues amps…

I’ve just acquired two Overdrive Special-style amps by Mystic Blues, and a Catulator, a buffered fx loop/driver, all made by Tommy Cougar.  Both 100ww switchable to 50, powered by 6L6’s.

black-mystic img_0340-2

These things are rare but have a hell of a reputation and are used by two favourite players, Ramon Goose and Philip Sayce.  Sayce, spellcheck, not sauce!

First impressions are very good indeed, more anon…

Comments Off on New Mystic Blues amps…

Shout out to Hofner experts…

I’m trying to find out more background on my ’59 Hofner 500/5 bass.

It has been with my family since ca. ’63 and is untouched apart from a obligatory neck reset about ten years ago.

It dates itself pretty easily from the electrics and pickup, and interior date marking, to january 8, 1959 but I’d really like to know more about the model history.

For example, I’ve read (in Andy Babiuk’s brilliant Beatles Gear book) that a number of models (Golden Hofner, Committee, President and Senator) were made specifically for UK distributors Selmer, making them UK-only instruments.

But mine is unlike any UK Selmer Hofner I’ve seen.

  • First, it has never had a Selmer logo on the upper bout.
  • Second, the woods and finish are quite different.  Selmer Hofner sunbursts are very yellow and the tops all furrow with age as they dehydrate, giving a ridged surface along the wood grain.  They look like they’re make from quite wide-grained spruce.
  • The finish on mine is a completely smooth, gloss, cappuccino sunburst on top, sides and back.  The top is not figured but all other woods are flamey.

So my best guess is that it is a German model that somehow found its way to the UK and a small pawn shop near the corner of London’s Euston and Hampstead Roads (long since redeveloped into social housing) where my dad and I bought it alongside a long-deceased Selmer TV8T combo whose trem never worked (because we didn’t realise all we had to do was replace one of the tubes).

I’d really value any input from Horner collectors/experts.  Thanks!

Comments Off on Shout out to Hofner experts…

My #1 633 amp gets 10/10 in Guitarist Mag review

I loaned my #1 633 amp, a Custom 36, to maker Cliff Brown for photography and review in Guitarist magazine, which was published in the August 2016 issue.

The amps were with them for quite a long time and word filtered back that they were really enjoying them and weren’t in a hurry to return them.  Fortunately, my #2 arrived during #1’s absence so I could get to know that too.

This is borne out by the fantastic review.  Forgive me if I quote : “..the Custom 36’s owner-driven spec hits the performance and sonic bullseye for us – it’s simply the best amp of its type we’ve ever plugged into…”.

NB the amp was rehoused in a rather more universally-appealing black and wood cab for the review and they didn’t even have my matched cabs, one with an Eminence Red Guv’nor and one with a Celestion G12-75 Creamback….

Comments Off on My #1 633 amp gets 10/10 in Guitarist Mag review

Which is better – expensive guitar & cheap amp or vice versa?

Being lucky enough to own quite a few of each, It thought I’d tackle this thorny question.

I actually found it very easy to reach a view.

First thing to say is that it’s important because it’s not just the guitar that’s the instrument.  With electric guitar, it’s the amp too.  The interaction between the two is crucial.  A Les Paul, for example, doesn’t sound that great clean.  Heresy, you might say, but it’s when the amp starts to break up that the magic begins to flow.

This begs the question, why buy a 50’s ‘burst when you’re only going to mash up its sound?  The answer is that it’s the interaction, what the amp does with the guitar’s sound that makes the overall tone.  And what a cranked Marshall does for a vintage Gibson, for example, is the stuff of legend.

Second thing is guitars can be really sexy whereas amps are boxes. Guitars come in all different shapes and colours and are front of stage, hell, front of player.  Amps are behind the player at the back. If you’re image conscious – and who in a band isn’t? – you worry much more about what’s hanging round your neck than the box behind you.

Moreover, guitars are what you touch – though the better the amp is, the more you’ll feel it too.

Then there’s the retail experience. Guitars are arranged in rows at eye height or slanted back on stands, all the different designs and colours complementing each other and drawing the eye. Amps are typically at floor level, sometimes stacked for economy of space. Like boxes. And most tend to be conservatively housed in black Tolex or maybe tweed.

All of this favours the guitar, but in my considerable experience – and in my dealings with the serious players I’ve got to know – it’s the reverse.

Sure, they don’t tend to have dud guitars – though that does not mean they only use expensive instruments, far from it.

Ever since the early Tokais, pro players on a budget have used cheaper instruments which they have professionally set up and onto which they load hardware, notably pickups, of their choice.  Even at today’s prices, it’s quite possible to put a really pro guitar together for about £400, most likely based on a Strat or Tele.

The trick lies in kissing a lot of frogs to find your princess – a good basic chassis onto which to drop better hardware.

Rather, all the pros I know tend to obsess about amp tone, power, headroom and preamp, power amp and speaker breakup.

There are some really nice, low power amps around, and some are incredible value. My 6-watt VHT sounds great and cost me little more than £200 for the head and cab, though its forte is obviously overdriven and not clean headroom sounds.

But these aside, you get close to £1k territory fairly quickly, whether a charming but inflexible vintage Fender Champ or a Deluxe Reverb reissue. Between £1&2k there are a multitude of goodish amps which see you on the way to a nicer sound. By the time you get past £2k you should be finding great-sounding, dynamic, touch-sensitive amps which are big enough to gig with. Or else you’ve been ripped off!

So £500 for a guitar and £2k on the amp takes you to £2.5k for a top-flight rig a pro could happily use.  If, however, you spend, say, £1.5 on a really good US guitar, that only leaves you £1k for the amp.  Ok, you could get a Deluxe Reverb, a classic workhorse.  But in all my experience the cheaper guitar and more expensive amp combination will give you a better tone still and more flexibility for the money.

Case in point : my Chinese Tokai Firebird 1, aka The Comedy Firebird, cost me £200.  I dropped in a custom P90 from the talented and charming Matt @ Monty’s which cost me <£100, making it <£300 all in, and the sound through my Ceriatone Overtone Special (<£2k) or either of my 633 amps (£2k++) is fantastic.

So there you have it. This is only my personal view, but for me it’s clear.  Assuming the care and attention most players put into buying an instrument anyway is diverted into buying the right chassis and aftermarket upgrade parts and a decent setup, within a budget I would have the cheaper guitar and more expensive amp every time.

Comments Off on Which is better – expensive guitar & cheap amp or vice versa?

633 Amp #2 arrives…

In fact it arrived a couple of weeks ago but I’ve been on the road.  It may look almost exactly the same as my fabulous #1, and it has the ‘633 sound’, but this one has cascading gain and is configured to sing more on solos.

If my #1 Custom 36 is like a Super on steroids, this one, a Drive King 50, is more into the singing D-style territory.  It’s still undergoing ‘sea trials’ and the more complicated and flexible controls take a little more getting used to, but I still haven’t found a dud sound.

Drive King

My #1 has been with Guitarist magazine for photography and review for a number of weeks (with an updated fascia and a regular black cab as my modest, unassuming choice of finish may not be to everyone’s taste).

My take is that they absolutely love it and don’t really want to return it, but I’m hoping to see it back around June 8ish.  The Guitarist article is being scheduled to coincide with a piece on the wonderful blesser Kirk Fletcher, who made a 633 Groove King sound fabulous on his last UK tour.

I can’t wait to compare my two 633’s side by side and even better, use both at once.  Oooh. suits you. sir.

Comments Off on 633 Amp #2 arrives…

Hotone Xtomp – was it worth the wait?

Today, 483 days after they announced it at NAMM 2015, I finally received my Hotone Xtomp stompbox simulator.  Or ‘portal to infinity’ as they style it.

Xtomp_Perspective_V01_160405They’ll probably be very glad that I’ve received it as I have been flaming regularly on  social media about the extraordinarily long delay in production and fulfillment.

So after all this time, how is it?

Well the packaging is promising for a start.  A solid and very tidy matt black box with a very discreet stamped gloss Xtomp legend opens to reveal an equally matt black and tidy interior, containing an instruction leaflet, some identification stickers and beneath a dividing bulkhead, the Xtomp unit itself.

They’ve clearly taken some pointers from Apple, because it looks and feels like a Mac.  Solid, smooth to the touch, silver all over and slim.  Very easy on the eye and at 472 grams it’s also reassuringly hefty, not flimsy.

It doesn’t come with any leads, so you’ll need your own 9v DC power supply – and later, for firmware updates or computer-based editing, a usb to micro usb cable.

Like any stompbox, it’s very simple to fire up, you just give it some power, plug in a guitar,  feed the output to an amp and you’re ready to go…

…and you will of course also need to have downloaded the app containing the library of effects from whichever app store supports your phone and/or tablet.

I used my ’72 Tele and my ’60 TV Junior, a reissue ’64 Deluxe Reverb and two Hughes and Kettner Switchblade 50’s, all set completely clean, to test it out.

The preloaded model was one of the combo models – ‘Chorium Dist’, which comprises models of a Boss DS-1 drive and CE-2 chorus.  Straight away it made a pretty nice sound, though the drive sounded a bit clanky as if the chorus was still engaged even when dialed right down.

I like drives, so I moved on by loading the Hermida Zendrive model, which was much more like it.  Similar sound and control to the venerated original.  From there I went quickly through all the drive models before moving on to the modulation and ambient fx.

Each model takes about 20-30 seconds to load wirelessly and as is the way with bluetooth, connection sometimes gets lost.  I found my iPad was rather better than my iPhone for connecting (both are recent top-end models running the latest IOS).  Sometimes I had to close the app and even reboot the pedal by powering down and up again.  But generally, it worked pretty well.

If 20-30 seconds sounds like a long time, don’t be deterred.  I noticed that this was only for the initial loads, the times being considerably shorter, like a few seconds, when I went back to effects that had already loaded earlier.  And you can still noodle away on the previously-loaded effect during long loads.

I also have the excellent Digitech iStomp, which uses a (now outdated 30-pin) cable to load sounds in about 20 seconds, and some TC pedals which cleverly load their ‘Toneprints’ almost instantly via an electronic ‘chirp’ which you play from your phone into your guitar’s pickups.

The quality of the fx in all of these pedals is good and the Xtomp is right up there, probably better.  I found myself dialling back the top end on my Deluxe slightly on the Xtomp’s drive models to sweeten them up a bit, but this was not to the cost of my direct clean sound.

There’s no point is detailing which models appealed to me most in this initial exploration because everybody will have their own tastes.  Suffice to say that everything I tried with both guitars and all three amps, the H&K’s in stereo, sounded very good.

The drives also clean up nicely as you roll the volume back, which you can’t always say even for some pretty high-end stomps.  I didn’t spend much time in the four amp models as I was already playing though tube amps.

The unit has six adjustment knobs in two staggered rows of three, but only the ones in use in each patch light up, so it’s surprisingly easy to figure out what does what.  Easier than the Digitech iStomp – it only has four knobs but because they’re in a straight line and don’t light up, so it’s much more difficult to tell what’s on and which knob controls what.

Given the intrinsic upgradeability of the Xtomp and the promise of ‘300 models to choose from’, what would I like to see next?

…a spring reverb model.  There are currently only two revebs, ‘Hall’ and Room’, both quite ‘digital.  By the way, the predelays on which are really severe…

…a looper model with a decent length loop, like a TC Ditto

…tap tempo in the delay models, activated by holding the footswitch down for a couple of seconds

…a model of one of the modern clutch of drives in the wake of the Klon Centaur, which can mix clean and driven signals (eg Rockett Archer. EH Soul Food, )

 …opto trem, Univibe

…compressor and drive combo and several drive and echo combos

…and for fun, a decent, flexible ringmod

… regular firmware updates

…and an editor, preferably one that works on laptop and tablet like TC’s, Fractal’s Kemper’s, line 6’s….  Hopefully one that enables control of colour of illumination so you can tell what an effect is without having to listen to it (eg red for drive, blue for chorus, or whatever)

So was it worth the wait?  Hotone will probably be relieved to hear me say yes, this is a great product even if the price has risen rather steeply since launch. I’m likely to buy three more so I can build a powerful, compact repurposable board comprising four.