Archive for January, 2015

Colorless writings, part 19 – Component Quality

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

Are you talking about the marketing text  we see on many manufacturers’ sites and brochures?

Exactly. The phrases like “Only the best quality components have been used” and “Highest quality components” are something i tend to see around every now and then. I’ll start with this link: http://www.dirk-hendrik.com/boutique.html It is to Dirk Hendrik’s page and this page raises a few valid questions towards all boutique manufacturers. The main questions would be:

  1. Are carbon composition resistor better than metal film resistors?
  2. Are poly box capacitors the best type for an effect pedal?
  3. Are *insert brand name here* electrolytic capacitors the best for an effect pedal?
  4. and so on…

Before taking any of those questions on, i’d like to take a look at “quality” as a word. To me, it seems like high quality is always what we all are graving for, no matter what it means. And sadly, more than often it means the brand and feel of the brand than actual quality in components or actual build quality. I recall someone has said that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. I’m fairly convinced that this applies here too. Anyway. The word itself originates from latin, and we could roughly translate it to “level of excellence”. Now, the higher level of excellence is always better thing to reach after than a lower level of excellence. Right? But then comes the question, how do we determine high or low quality?

Yeah. How do you determine it?

Good question. And i did ask it myself before you, you know. We are on a slippery slope when manufacturer sets him/herself as producing things with high level of excellence. That’s like saying i’m the greatest swimmer in the world because i swim. It does not say anything worth mentioning about the water, the distance or the time. But i don’t consider myself to be the greatest swimmer. This all applies only to the build quality, so let’s get going and finally touch the real subject.

Of course there are differences in component quality between manufacturers and manufacturing methods. But do these differences matter and are they even relevant to sound or durability? I’m fairly certain that these two are the main issues when we try to determine the quality of an effects pedal. So. Are vintage style carbon composite resistors always better than modern, cheap metal film ones? No. For replicating a feature hiss for vintage fuzz face, you’ll need to use what the 60’s units used. But temperature changes will make those “mojo” components hiss even more (or less). So for a modern fuzz pedal, those are probably not the best thing to use. Thus, the quality isn’t better for modern application. As far as resistor go, i’ve rarely seen a broken resistor of any age. The only real difference between the cheapest 1/4W metal film resistor and the most expensive metal film resistor is the price tag.

But what about those poly box capacitors? Or electrolytics?

It’s pretty much the same thing as with the resistors. The audible differences between different plastics around the polybox caps are virtually non-existent. We are talking about 9V powered circuits here. And the signal we’re shaping is coming off from a coil that’s wrapped around a magnet. I can tell you one thing. Those 400V rated capacitors from top shelf brand name are not going to sound better than those modern, cheap chinese Panasonic brand caps that are rated for 63V. You can get 40 of those Panasonics for the price of one audiophile labelled capacitor. And you can take a wild guess which one will be at home in our 9V circuit. And how about those multilayer ceramics! Those are possibly the cheapest thing if we don’t take the plain ceramic disks in to account. So does the price have a say in quality in this case? To me, no. All MMLC (monolithic multilayer capacitors) have always been reliable, solid and cheap. Even the tolerances on those are usually well balanced. All this applies to electrolytics as well. Our 9V circuits are not as critical to caps as the high voltage tube amplifies, for example. Even in those, manufacturing method of a capacitor is more crucial than the price or the brand. May it be what ever. The chances are that the manufacturer will use what his/her chosen supplier has in stock, rather than doing real, objective testing to find out what capacitor is truly the best for his/her application.

The issue comes when these components are advertised as “highest quality”. Are they really the highest quality available in the world? Are they the best suited selections for the purpose? How have you tested or tried the components? Marketing text will always be marketing text, but trying to make yourself look good by lying isn’t probably the best way to go. That has a tendency of backfiring.

There are differences in components. These differences may and will affect the tone in many cases. In many cases the difference will be so small, that it can hardly be described as audible. In some cases the quality of a component may and will affect the life expectancy of an effect pedal. The phone jacks are a great example of this. Those cheapest non-brand jacks that you can get for 20 cents a piece. No. You don’t want to use those. But on the other end of this rope – will you get more life out of ten buck Switchcrafts when compared to Neutrik/Rean open framed jacks? Probably not. Will a pedal with the most expensive jacks be better in quality than the one with reasonable priced jacks that feel just as sturdy and will last the same amount of time and (ab)use? Maybe yes. But since the feel and life expectancy is the same, i see no harm in declaring the second option as a quality product too.

So once again, the quality is in the eye of the beholder?

We could say that. Quality isn’t that simple of a subject that we could just say “it’s like this”. Because it may not be. But we should not make the mistake of advertising the use of quality components if we have not done sufficient footwork to determine the quality. By ourselves. To quote Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

Digitech WH-II Whammy II

Monday, January 5th, 2015

WhammyII

What is it?
Digitech Whammy II, made in canada. Possibly sometime in the 90’s.

It’s rather rare occasion that someone gets a chance of buying a rare western made unit for a low price. For me, the day this one came for sale was one of those rare occasions. I paid good amount of money for this, but didn’t check out any auction sites or anything to determine what there usually go for. And when i did… Boy was i glad i bought this. In reality, i paid about a quarter of what these usually sell for. Of course, the unit had seen use and the switches weren’t making connections in the best possible manner. Nothing that i can’t fix myself though. But in all, the unit was in nice condition. Sure. I had to come up with a power supply for it, but being the pedal freak that i am, there is a medium sized cardboard box full of different DC and AC supplies in my possession. The pedal is powered with 9V AC supply, which isn’t that uncommon – i had one suitable at hand straight away. I cleaned the unit a bit and the condition isn’t bad. Slight wear and tear, but nothing remarkable. What was more interesting was that the labels say “Made in Canada”. I had no idea Digitech had done any manufacturing in maple leaf flag country. But by the looks of it, a lot more brands should have turned to canadians to do their work for them.

WhammyII-guts

The look of the build quality is very pleasing. Sturdy and strong. There is a lot of the board that has been manufactured by hand and that is always a great selling point for me. I hadn’t been too interested in any version of whammys due to simple fact that i do not know how to use one. Whammys are great toys to fool around with, but just don’t see myself having one on my board. Nor would i see myself using it regularly. But while the effect themselves are not the peak of interest, the genre is. Foot controllable pitch shifting. Good idea that has been in the shadow of many other genres since the beginning of time.

The one thing that surprised me the most was the foot control. I did assume the control was done with a pot, like for nearly all the basic wah pedals (Vox, Cry Baby etc.), but this is not the case with a Whammy. The control here is optical. Meaning that there is a LED that moves closer and further away from a light dependent component that is inside that cardboard box on the board. What do you know! There is always something new to learn!

As the features go, we have out rocker pedal, a bypass switch, and. The mode switch on WHII is a stomp too! One can change the mode of the effet by stomping on it. The later Whammies have a know switch for this. The modes are harmonies from octaves to 5th and octaves from one to two. Both down and up. The design isn’t polyphonic, so it doesn’t act well with chords, but it tracks both up and down harmonies/octaves very well with single notes.

How does it sound?
I can only compare this to Whmmy IV at the moment as these two are the only ones i have. But when i do compare them, it just seems like IV is the exactly same sounding effect, just made cheaper in asia. Whammy II sounds like a very decent foot controllable pitch shifter. It can be used as a harmonizer or an octaver by simply not touching the rocker pedal. The modes work well and sound good. Maybe the low octaves aren’t exactly as good as they are in Arion MOC-1, but still very good. As for the harmonies and shimmering up octaves.. Just beatiful. Man i’m glad i have this unit.

Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb

Thursday, January 1st, 2015

Boss-RV5

What is it?
Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb. Made in taiwan, june 2008.

So the Boss RV-reverb line keeps getting duller as it goes further. Can’t help but to compare this to RV-2, which was ground breaking pedal in many ways. First off, the RV-2 was the first compact digital reverb ever produced. Second, the design had some real ingenuity in it. RV-2 has gained its status with its impressive, hard work from the design department, while making things that previously were impossible, possible. Sure it was costly effect to produce. So it was replaced with RV-3, which offered more options by having delay settings. Delays are just simplified reverbs without the vast number of stacked repeats, so adding delay modes wasn’t too big of a deal. It did add to versatility a lot, but while it gained high number of supporters, it still couldn’t touch the original RV-2’s status. Apparently RV-3 got too expensive to manufacture as well and it got replaced by RV-5 in 2002. RV-5 was apparent attempt to recreate the feel of original RV-2, instead of clinging on to multi effect-like feel that was the thing with RV-3.

Opening the box up shows a side of the board that makes me wonder if they were attempting a Guinness world record for number of vias on a compact pedal with a single PCB.

Boss-RV5-guts1

The other side shows couple of dual opamps for buffering and mixing, but the effect itself is just a Boss branded DSP chip. Also note the two crystal clocks. Even though this looks like an elaborate and neat design, the same DSP is circulating for other Boss effects too. Which means that the pedal is pretty much the same as twenty or more other pedals in the series.  Only the code for the DSP is different. The thing that gives me the only real feeling about the board is the “Cheer Time” text on the silk screen layer of the PCB.

Boss-RV5-guts2

As the features go, there are six modes of reverb, including digital modelling of spring, plate, hall, gate and room reverbs. Sixth mode is “modulate” which adds a sort of  chorusey feel to the reverb. Other controls are E. Level, which mixes the clean signal with processed one. Tone, which can be used to cut some highs so user can try to mimic more vintage sounding units. And finally Time, which sets the decay time for each mode. This unit is also built for stereo in and out, so it has more uses on the studio desk than many others that are simply meant to be run with a guitar.

The frequencies are kept well in tact, so this reverb works quite well with all the instruments. We could call it full range device. Not sure if that is too official term, but since it’s not cutting your lows or highs to audible degree..

How does it sound?
Like all Hi-Fi digital reverbs. Even though it gets the job done with flying colors, the amount of lacking personality and individualism is higher than on most tasteless and scentless sounding pedals. All the way to the degree where i would go so far and call it boring. While it is one of the most boring guitar reverbs i’ve ever played with, it’s not that bad. Where the digital design was still rocking in its cradle when the RV-2 was released, that also meant that the deficiencies in that unit turned out to be the strong parts. RV-2 is not a supr dull Hi-Fi device, but great reverberator for folks who want to sound like themselves by adding certain rough edge to their sound. RV-5 does not give you any edge. It works as a reverb and it works well. It has no personality and it has no edge. But it works. In reality, this unit will serve a lot better as a vocal reverb used in the inserts of a mixing console than what it can do with a guitar.

More modern technology doesn’t always add to to better sound.