Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Pro Co’s The RAT: The First “Modern” Guitar Distortion Pedal?

Well noted as the first one to extensively use IC op-amps in its construction, can the Pro Co Rat be considered the first “modern” guitar distortion pedal due to its reliability and tonal consistency?

By: Ringo Bones 

The raison d’ĂȘtre of guitar distortion pedals is to replicate the pleasing tone of accidentally damaged electric guitar combo amps – i.e. ripped and torn speaker cone and / or a dislodged vacuum tube, etc. – and thus the birth of iconic and pioneering guitar distortion pedals of the 1960s like the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and the Big Muff Pi which primarily uses early germanium transistors. Despite of their wicked sustain and tone, germanium transistor based guitar distortion pedals from the 1960s are not well known for their tonal consistency – especially in live performance / touring situations – because early germanium transistors were notorious for their wild parameter drift with ambient temperature changes and thus tonal consistency from start to finish of a live performance – never mind from the next concert venue to the next – eludes these great sounding but notoriously unreliable guitar distortion pedals. Legend has it that the late great Jimi Hendrix once bought 10 individual Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face pedals and switch between ones that maintained the most tonal consistency when played live. 

The stated problems of early guitar distortion pedals probably what inspired Pro Co engineers Scott Burnham and Steve Kiraly to hot-rod existing distortion pedals during the mid 1970s – such as the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face - as suggested by their clients in order to make these units sound better. But eventually, the two Pro Co engineers discovered the “weaknesses” of these early guitar distortion pedals and thus paved the way to a better new and improved guitar distortion pedal. 

The original Pro Co Rat was developed in the basement of pro Co’s Kalamazoo, Michigan facility in 1978. It was notable for its extensive use of IC op-amps – or integrated circuit operational amplifiers – such as the 8-pin dual in-line monolithic Motorola LM308 op-amp. The Pro Co “The RAT” in a nutshell is a distortion pedal with a quite simple circuit that can be broken down into four simpler blocks – the distortion stage, tone control stage, output stage and power supply. Given that the basic circuit was based on a public domain Popular Electronics published design based on an IC op-amp that was published around 1966 but was, at first, dismissed by serious guitar players because it’s sustain wasn’t as good as that of germanium transistor based guitar distortion pedals. But Burnham and Kiraly noticed the tonal consistency and immunity from temperature drift of the op-amp based distortion circuit and thus worked on it until they managed to design one with a tone and sustain that is more on less equal to that of germanium transistor based units. 

The IC op-amp based circuitry of “The RAT” inspired a host of copycat models during the 1980s – especially during the heyday of Hair Metal bands. And some of them use other op-amps such as the ubiquitous during the 1980s Motorola LM741. The original Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and Big Muff Pi with their original germanium transistor based circuits may be fetching sky-high second hand prices on eBay these days, but these units can be a pig to maintain tonal consistency in live concert tour situations, never mid if you’re a bar-based working musician. Thus, the Pro Co’s “The RAT” and its op-amp based variants now reign supreme in the loud guitar playing world.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Mutilated Loudspeaker Cones: The Ultimate Electric Guitar Distortion Effect?

Even though there are “insurmountable” logistical issues that preclude their widespread use in live performance situations, are mutilated loudspeaker cones the ultimate sounding electric guitar distortion effect?

By: Ringo Bones 

Tales of guitarists intentionally mutilating the loudspeaker cones of their combo amps by slashing it with razor blades, poking strategic holes using a very sharp pencil or by other means in order to obtain a “unique tone” seems to be as old as the history of Rock N’ Roll music itself. Back in 1956, guitarist Paul Burlison of the Johnny Burnette Trio “accidentally” discovered that a partially broken loudspeaker cone of his combo amp that was damaged during transport during one of their band’s tours resulted in a distinctive tone that Burlison and the rest of the band found “pleasing” – i.e. resulted in a two-tone sound that produced quite clean trebles but sounded really distorted in the low frequencies which the band likened to a horn section playing full blast – but music critics and reviewers at the time noted that the resulting guitar sound as “horrible”. 

During the late 1950s, guitarist Link Wray intentionally poked strategically placed holes in his electric guitar amp’s loudspeaker cones to further distort his tone. And by the way this was during the time when PP3 / 9-volt battery powered guitar distortion stomp-boxes were yet to be invented. In 1964, a fuzzy and somewhat distorted sound gained widespread popularity after guitarist Dave Davies of The Kinks used a razor blade to slash his combo amp’s loudspeaker cones to produce the distinctive tone in the band’s single “You Really Got Me” – an act which also got The Kinks dubbed as the grandfathers of Heavy Metal Music. 

Even though intentionally mutilating loudspeaker cones of electric guitar amps to produce a distinctive tone seems to be a still esoteric practice a few years later, the practice probably got more popular after Brian Eno slashed the loudspeakers of the guitar amp to ribbons using a razor blade that was used during the recording session of his Nerve Net album. Eno described the tone as a little bit like those African instruments called mbiras where you have little tongues of metal that you play with your thumbs and around the base of each tongue is a piece of wire that rattles and buzzes as you play. Eno liked the resulting sound which he described as “this kind of halo that you can get on a sound. And it’s a halo of distortion really.” Thanks to Brian Eno, the most widely known use of razor blade slashed electric guitar loudspeakers in a recording session in recent years was Sonic Youth’s remake of The Carpenter’s “Superstar” in the 1994 album If I Were A Carpenter. Given that intentionally mutilating the loudspeaker cones of your electric guitar amp – why isn’t it in widespread use? 

Setting aside a loudspeaker cone or a whole guitar combo amp’s loudspeaker cone  to be intentionally mutilated might seem viable in recording studio situations, but if you are a touring guitarist or yet a guitarist who carries his or her 40-pound combo amp to a gig night after night, the very exercise seems to engender some logistical nightmares. The most obvious of which - is the realization which sadly only dawns upon to anyone who had performed such a stunt for a long period of time – is that a slashed loudspeaker cone or a pencil-poked loudspeaker cone’s timbre changes over time, especially if you play it loud. The timbre may change for the better or for the worse but you can never go back to a tone that was produced last week or three days ago – unless of course you have recorded that in a recording studio and it is also the very reason why bass guitar players have not experimented with mutilating their loudspeaker cones by either slashing it with razor blades or poking holes in them using a sharpened pencil. It looks like “mutilated loudspeaker cones” are for recording studio use only and leading digital guitar effects manufacturers still haven’t perfected an electric guitar effect that consistently replicates a mutilated electric guitar amp loudspeaker cone that can be used in live gigs. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Re-Amping: The Most Cost Effective Way To Record Killer Guitar Tones?

It may be a still relatively esoteric technique to most amateur or indie musicians, but did you know that re-amping could be the most cost effective technique to record killer guitar tones?

By: Ringo Bones 

Lets face it, recording studios with very good acoustics costs ungodly amounts of money for the musician who has yet to achieve commercial success and given that most – as in a little more than half – of hard rock and heavy metal guitar based music in current mainstream FM airplay have god-awful guitar tracks when compared to classic rock tracks – even those during the hair metal era of the 1980s and early 1990s. But can the “ham-and-egger” musician this day and age even manage to record killer guitar tones like they use to during the golden age of hard rock and heavy metal on a shoestring budget? Fortunately, there is such an electric guitar recording technique and it is called re-amping. 

Re-amping: Running final guitar takes off tape – or other digital recording media – into guitar amps miked in a live room and recording them back onto tape or other digital recording media is one of those electric guitar recording techniques that gives more bang for the buck and yet produces an inexplicably excellent result. Given that it is quite a simple and ingenious method to “fatten the tone” of anemically recorded guitar tracks, clean or distorted, it is quite a relatively esoteric technique and not-so-often talked about studio recording technique. I mean when was the last time a Billboard Top 40 rock guitarist ever mentioned re-amping during press interviews back when Ronald Reagan was still the elected emperor of the free world? It was probably Rollins Band guitarist Chris Haskett who revealed that he used re-amping to record the electric guitar tracks of his solo albums during an interview with EQ magazine that was published in their April 1998 issue. 

Legend has it that it was the funk maestro George Clinton who was the first one to have used re-amping in the studio around the late 1970s. After not being happy with a drum sequence sound during a particular recording session – i.e. it had an “anemic tone” – George Clinton allegedly ran 24-outs to 24 separate loudspeakers placed on chairs in a live room and then miked the set-up in stereo and ran it back into tape. It was said that it not only “fattened the tone” of the drum sequence but also made it punchier. I first heard this particular anecdote about George Clinton’s studio recording techniques back in 1995, but many amateur hard rock / heavy metal musicians since the mid 1980s noticed that live miking guitar amps resulted in a more punchier and fatter tone as opposed to sending electric guitar signals  directly into the mixing board and then to the recording device. 

Back in 1992 while testing the stage mikes for our band’s live rehearsal, out of curiosity I got a Casio SA-1 “pocket keyboard” and placed a Shure SM57 Beta directly in front of its itsy-bitsy speaker and clicked in the “tuba” setting. Unexpectedly, it resulted in something akin to a cross between an electric bass guitar tuned 2-frets down and a very large pipe organ. The resulting tone is so beautiful that it preoccupied my band and I for almost half an hour and an inflated band rehearsal studio bill. On recording acoustic guitars, re-amping tends to make them sound as if the amps and recording equipment as if it uses 1930s era vacuum tubes – i.e. 6SN7s, 6SL7s or even Type 85 vacuum tubes. 

Another advantage of re-amping is not only does it cuts down on your recording studio costs but also you don’t have to worry about blowing the vibe or the take, which, more often than not, happens when you over-obsess the mike placement during the actual recording session. It is almost like working with MIDI – the performance is already there. You have a little bit more leisure about guitar amp placement, and miking and tone so a that point you can do a lot of work very effectively in a small project room and make it bigger later.