Archive for the ‘Colorless Writings’ Category

Colorless writings, part 25 – Danelectro Top Five

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Ok. I took a bit of time off since the 11/13 posts a month was practically starting to wear me off. I can promise the future pace won’t be as hectic it was before, but i’m not going anywhere. The comment threads will stay as slow as they have been though…

Anyway. Let’s get back to business. Some time ago i was tipped about an article that listed the best five of Danelectro pedals. If you have any interest, you could look it up. What i did find annoying about that article was that i felt like the writer didn’t know what he was talking about. Sure, there were the obvious Tuna Melts and a few others mentioned, but the foundation for “The Best” left me a bit confused. To me it sounded almost like the list was created out of reputation of certain pedals, rather than the actual sounds or features.

Let’s think of this from another point of view. The actual user. We have only five spots to make up a board and we have take that five from the Danelectro catalogue. As most would see it, the basic pedalboard that most people would want would be something like a Fuzz -> OD -> Distortion -> Modulation -> Delay. Ok, the following may not be the setup i would choose for myself, but that has you covered if you are going for your first board of five pedals. And yes. There is no wah in this setup for one big reason. None of the Danelectro wahs are to be considered as roadworthy. Also, i dropped the tuner out of the equation for similar reason. All Danelectro tuners (yes, all four of them) suck pretty bad and are not to be thought of as usable items. Same goes for the FAB series, which i’ve omitted as well. And as a disclaimer – contrary to the title, i’m not claiming these are undisputed the best five Danelectro has ever made per se. The “top five” here comes from what “I” would use to build up a board. So it’s way more a matter of taste than anything else. And the five here probably won’t be the cheapest choice for a board either, due to some models being rarer every day.

First. The Fuzz.

There aren’t that many Fuzz designs in the Danelectro catalogue. Actually there are only three. French Toast and two revisions of the Cool Cat series fuzz. And these are in fact a slightly modified fOXX Tone Machine derivative, a slightly modified Frantone Peach Fuzz derivative and a another, slightly modified Peach Fuzz derivative. With this limited set of options, we have to choose between a Gibbons style groan or a clever Big Muff recreation (Yea, i know. It’s not a Muff). Since we are now looking for a fuzz that reacts to guitar controls even remotely well, i’d go for the French Toast. In addition to having a decent ear piercing fuzz, we can switch it to cause notable mayhem with the up octave switch. In my opinion, this is the best fuzz from Dano. And the winner is: Danelectro DJ-13 French Toast Octave Distortion.

Second. The Overdrive.

This is a section where the shortage isn’t as bad as with the fuzzes. Pastrami mini OD would be a nice thing. But we do already have one plastic mini series thing in there, we may want to go for something a bit more heavy. Other thing that is somewhat surprising is that there is no TS-style box (neither is there a Dist+/OD250) in the list at all. There is the Daddy-O, which sounds pretty close to the 90’s Marshall overdrives and is up for consideration for its great blues tones. There is also one other that caught my eye. The CTO-1 Transparent Overdrive. With just some slight modifications to a certain boutique design, this was originally claimed to be a rip-off. But it might suit us pretty well. And it sure does. It delivers the modern boutique style soft and “transparent” drive many people love about Paul Cochrane’s Timmy. It also talks very fondly with a fuzz in front of it, so yes. This is where we land with our “the best” Dano overdrive. So the winner is: Danelectro CTO-1 Transparent Overdrive.

Third. The Distortion.

This one should be enough to act as a boost for those big leads and still have enough balls not to sound like 80’s adult contemporary. As this effect type goes, we have more than plenty of choices. To name a few, there’s the Fab Tone from original series, CD-1 and CO-1/2 from the Cool Cat series, plus a few others from the mini series. Fab Tone is slightly too rich on its highs for me, so that won’t do. CD-1 Distortion turned out to be slightly revoiced Maxon Distortion Master and the CO-1/2 are derivatives of something called Obsessive Compulsion Disorder. But. For this purpose and the location, i’d turn to CD-1 Distortion. Decent controls and the overall tone mimics the old Marshall amplifiers driven over the top with nice accuracy. And it is still very close to Distortion Master in its electronics topology. Others may not be that bad choices either, but this sounds just solid enough to call it. The winner for “the best” Dano distortion is: Danelectro CD-1 Distortion.

Fourth. The Modulation.

Not so easy to pick one. Why? Because there are so many different types to choose from. Even if there weren’t different types, the number of modulation effects from Danelectro is quite impressive. Should we aim for a phaser, chorus, flanger, tremolo or perhaps a vibrato? All of those are important part of certain music styles and all have their own pros and cons. For all the boost and dirt boxes, we’ve opted for vintage tones, so i see no harm in doing that here too. If we drop the Phase90 styled ones as well as the flangers and the only tremolo in the list.. It’ll be a chorus or a vibrato. Even then the choices are a bit wide. Three different vibes and  two choruses. Original Cool Cat Chorus captures decently and even rivals the classic Boss CE-2, so the mini series Milkshake goes down at this point. Even though the circuits are pretty close. For the vibes, there are two revisions for the Cool Cat series Vibes with their own faults and strengths, and then there is the actual gem, the Chicken Salad (which is basically a SMD construction derivative of the classic Uni-Vibe). All four do sound extremely good. Chicken Salad will still probably win in my mind due to beautiful depth of tone in the effect. Others are not bad choices either. But since i’m apparently going for the vintage vibrato style here… The winner is: Danelectro DJ-15 Chicken Salad Vibrato.

Last, but not least, The Delay.

And we’re back to limited options. There needs to be good controls so the mini series pedals with two knob control configurations are not an option. Well, the PB&J *could* be, but since i have no experience with the sound (damned blister packaking!), i’m leaving that one out. Which means that we are down to two options. The big boxed Reel Echo and the Dan-Echo. Former has tons of options, such as sound-on-sound looper capability, but the box footprint is rather massive. Another plus side would be the control which is possible to tweak by foot while playing. On the other hand the box is still massive and far from being suited for pedal board. Both of these specimens have PT2395 chip in them, so in reality the tone is pretty close. We’ll get good controls and fairly reliable player if we go for the Dan-Echo. It’s not a bad choice, being cheap and widely available. Wide controls and not much negative to say either way. Only relatively odd thing is that the pedal works internally with 5 volts only. This isn’t an issue, since the pedal is well capable of handling heavily boosted signals without breaking the tone itself. Sure – big enough will be an issue, but it’ll handle line level signals like a champ. Even though i might opt for the bigger one for some applications, i still choose Dan-Echo for it’s footprint, flexibility in controls and, most importantly, the tone. So the winner for the Delay is: Danelectro DE-1 Dan-Echo.

So here we have our board. If we take and think about this setup in terms of the design idols, we have fOXX Tone Machine to Paul Cochrane Timmy to Maxon Distortion Master to Uni-Vibe to PT2395 datasheet example. And in reality this setup today, in 2015, would cost you something around 150 currency units, may it be sterling, dollar or euro. Sure. You won’t be getting the names i just dropped, but decently built (ok, mass produced) units that will sound pretty close. Close enough to most players. Plus the board size will be pretty neat with these.

Like i said before. This list should not be viewed as an authority. It’s just my view of what to pick when there is a need for five pedals from the Danelectro catalogue. And as such, the five that i consider to be the best of the bunch.

Colorless writings, part 24 – Nothing

Monday, May 25th, 2015

I’ve been busier than usual with all the other things going on.. So this time the part for Colorless writings will be about nothing. Nothing, to that extent that there is no article today. Move on. See you again in a month or so.

Colorless writings, part 23 – Learn to read

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

What now?

I think the title says it pretty well. I was thinking about going through the basics of reading schematics, but that is more or less useless. I will talk about it a bit nevertheless. And get to the bigger picture in a while.

If we take a look at any analog guitar effect circuit’s schematic, we notice that there are the same symbols in use all over. Saw line represents the resistor, capacitors are represented by two parallel lines that do not connect in the middle. These are the two main ingredients found in every single schematic. Other important ones are the semiconductors. Bipolar Junction Transistors with either NPN or PNP configuration and Field Effect Transistors that come in N-channel and P-channel types – these can be standard silicon or metal oxide semiconductor (or MOS). Then we have our Operational amplifier blocks of various types.. And let’s not forget the diodes. Sometimes, in contrast to mechanical switching, switching can be handled with CMOS (complimentary metal oxide semiconductor) switches like CD4066 and many others. Some special chips may be used as well. These usually mean regulators (positive and negative), power amps (i.e. LM386), BBD (Bucket Brigade Device) analogue delay chips and timers or DC to DC conversion chips like MAX1044 or ICL7660S. In some relatively rare cases the bypass could be configured with a mechanical relay. This is a quite common way to achieve “clickless” true bypass. In addition to those there could be inductors, but usually very few of anything else. Let it sink in. I know i just listed more than twelve different component types with their own symbols that you need to visualize for yourself.

Next, you need to ask yourself what is a schematic. If you don’t know it as an easy answer, i’ll tell you. It’s a drawing of how the components listed above connect to each other. Once you are familiar with the symbols, you should quite easily get the point of the lines between the terminals on them. All the others have their own symbols, except for the “special” chips. Those are usually depicted as the chip itself, in a manner that the symbol looks just like the actual chip on in the circuit. Sure, sometimes these special chips can be depicted as square blocks with just a number next to the line that connects to the block. This method seems to be quite standard to, lets say for an example, NE571 compander. And yes. Regulator is a “chip”, even though it physically appears and looks like a common transistor. These are commonly depicted as blocks as well.

Then there are potentiometers that are in the simplest terms, variable resistors. Also jacks for the inputs, outputs and the power.

The things above are the components every single circuit is made of. In addition to those, we have couple of more things that are found in every single circuit ever made. The power supply and the ground. Most designs take advantage of switching between a battery and a supply that transforms the wall AC voltage to the 9V we usually want. These connections should be in the schematic for the drawing to be whole. Sometimes we see drawings of the signal path and power supply only. The jacks need to be there in your guitar effect unit, whether they are actually drawn in the schematic or not. Obviously.

I can think of two different types of power supply sections. Once you’ve read enough schematics you’ll spot these out easily. First, the basic 9V and ground supply method. Seen in simple, classic designs, such as Fuzz Face. There isn’t anything else in there but the 9V and the ground. Second, a bipolar supply. In essence this means that there are +9V and -9V voltages present. This equals in our amplifiers seeing 18V. Bipolar supplies must be used with the basic supply on some of the designs. Take a Tubescreamer for an example. The operational amplifier needs the supply voltage and a reference voltage for it to operate properly. We can divide the original supply voltage in half with just two resistors, which will work great as a reference voltage. Note that these both are referenced with ground, being 0 volts. If we don’t divide the voltage, we’ll need +/- voltages present, and the ground will act as a reference for the operational amplifiers. Let this sink in for a while too…

Then there’s the most important thing. Signal path. As some of you probably know, the “signal” your guitar sends is nothing more but an alternating current (AC) signal. This signal basically vibrates in voltage between the ground and the signal path. Faster the vibration, higher the pitch in tone. It’ll pass through of all our capacitors with little trouble and it’ll make its way through our filters and amplifiers too.

With a well drawn schematic, you’ll be able to follow where the signal should be travelling and where the power supply sets the voltage. With this tiny piece of information one could basically learn everything there is to know about any analog guitar effect circuit. Just remember, capacitors block DC voltage by not letting it pass.

Now, if you were able to follow my thought through all the way to here, there are two choices. Either you know all this already and found the text rather boring. Or. You really tried to visualize things and learned something. You probably noticed that i didn’t use any images in describing things. It was surprisingly hard for me to go through these things and explain them as i just did. Words in certain order can teach a lot, but i wrote this from my memories and gut feelings. Both of which i’ve gained from tinkering with guitar effects for nearly five years on a daily basis. The internet is good, but it is also evil. Anyone can write anything they want and if you read just bits and pieces from here and there, you might very well get a picture that’s broken. So please. Learn to read. And more importantly, learn to think about what you just read. There may be two opposing views on any subject. It’s up to you to determine what is true, what is false and what is XOR.

Colorless writings, part 22 – NTS

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

What now?

Short for Note To Self. I’ll keep it extremely short this time. Sort of a check list for myself. Got a pedal that’s not working?

  1. Double checked the power for polarity, voltage and sufficient current?
  2. Polarity protection?
  3. IC/transistor voltages?
  4. Probe.
  5. No signal at the board input? – It’s the switch (mechanical or electronic).
  6. No signal at first/second semiconductor? – Back to number 2…

That’s my standard which will yield results in debugging any circuit.

Also. Keep in mind that bad power supply (dead from pushing too much current or just otherwise dead/bad) is most likely the cause for your problems. Check that before doing anything else.

Also. If something looks physically broken, then there’s your problem.

There ain’t much information on this post, but i just felt i had to sort it out for myself. I’ll talk about something more interesting next time.

Colorless writings, part 21 – Shoulders of the Giants

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Your title doesn’t give much hints this time…

That may be true. I was planning on calling today’s article “evolution”, but backed out. Granted, that would have been more informative. The issue i wanted to discuss is how everything came to be. From a story about The Kinks razoring small speakers in the early sixties to modern high end multieffects that cost more than custom guitars. What happened in between those two points? Between the very first Tone Bender and Kemper Profiling amplifier? A lot. What we are looking at here is a span of 50 years, from around 1965 to 2015. For this time, the guitars have been more or less the same. Only with a few “innovations” along the way. Most of these have failed hard, as the first guitars and basses with onboard effects did. It seems that those onboard effects come back every now and then, but they will never be a sufficient hit. Robotic tuners have been around for 30 years and still never sold well. Reissues of 50’s, 60’s and 70’s Fenders and Gibsons are still selling well. All the modern additions just seem to lower the true value of the instrument. Most players will not go further than using a floating, locking tremolo. That’s pretty much the only big “improvement” that is widely acknowledged. Ok, maybe an occasional Tremsetter is allowed or some high end brands may make their guitar bodies out of aluminum, but that’s it. Aside from hype creating websites or paid print articles, i have not heard anyone praising the current Gibson Minetune robots. Somehow i think that will pass too. And yes, there were the Line6 Variax guitars too. Got a friend who plays with one actively in a band? Thought so. Neither do i.

It may always come down to “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”. I believe this is  the reason why guitars have not evolved as much as the electronics. But how did electronics take so many and so big leaps forward? I believe this is due to the fact that many effects and amplifiers are not as unbroken as guitars. The Tone Bender had room for improvement and that got us the Fuzz Face. Roger Mayer came up with Octavia by blasting a (sort of an) tweaked Fuzz Face trough a small signal transformer and signal rectification. Then there was the Jordan Bosstone that did things in a manner that’s not too far from operational amplifier done with discreet transistors. And as the commonly used germanium transistors had one true fault (temperature changes kiled the tone), the next step was to use integrated circuits for their stability. Use of these chips also opened another realm of tones. And voilá, now we had Dan Armstrong Blue Clipper, followed by MXR Distortion + and DOD OD250. And soon someone in asia was to improve on those with Tubescreamers and OD-1s and number of other, similar designs. This took only ten to fifteen years. Then came the 80’s.

The time where digital was all the rage?

Up until mid-80’s the analog was the one and only option. Then the “digital” became a huge selling point. Just like early stereos were nothing more than a mono speaker pushed out of two cones, the digital was not always the digital we know today. And as the real processing power in a 80’s Digitech multieffect was what it was, the results were often close, but not close enough. As digital effects go, we need to transform the guitar’s signal to a digital form first, apply the effect and turn it back to analog state. This conversion was crucial part in digital effects and it usually required a lot more power to achieve the same things the analogue world had faithfully done over the years. This simply meant that the rack mount effect was the next logical step. It was later in that decade when manufacturers started to move the rack effects back to the pedal form. One of the most successful endeavors was the Boss RV-2 Digital reverb.

Late eighties and nineties was the greatest era for cheap plastic pedals that were mostly analog. The key word is “cheap”. Designwise this era was just reinventing the wheel. The same circuits from past decades were simply toned down in cheaper and smaller form. Of course, as with all evolution, there were tons of improvements on the old designs. I’d be wasting a lot of my valuable time if i was to list every single tubescreamer, rat and big muff derivative made between 1985 and 1999. Number of those derivatives did really improve the original design and some of them are still pretty relevant today.

What about the “attack of the clones”?

I’d be lying if i tried to pin out when there was a time for the “clones”. Every single item modifying your guitar’s tone is always a derivative of something else. I’ve said this so many times before, but there is only so many ways to hook up a transistor or an opamp. All analog effects are small signal amplifiers with filtering and possibly signal clipping. Even analog delays, choruses, tremolos, flangers, autowahs and so on, are all using the same semiconductors for amplifying and filtering. Even those digital effects must have unity amplifiers before their AD-conversion. And after DA as well. So in fact, it’s all the same.

And what comes to “clones”, those have been around since  the beginning of effects. Just compare the schematic of the first Tone Bender against a schematic of a Fuzz Face. And do the same thing with Blue Clipper against Dist+ against OD250.

What’s even more interesting is the number of modern digital effects that have the same board and DSP design for several different effects. Only the code  inside is the differentiating factor. And since these pedals often pack a punch of modern PC’s and/or smartphones, the quality of the tone is usually good. Not necessarily great, but good. In a sense, these are the modern clones. More processing power equals better modeling of analog circuits. If i was to make a guess, i’d say it’ll take at least a decade to model a transistor based fuzz to a degree that it’ll sound close enough. Those uncontrollable overtones of overdriven semiconductors are not there yet. So those Kempers and alike are basically a straight evolved descendents of Strymons and alike, which are basically just evolved descendents of those rack mount effects that were huge in thte 90’s. And those? They were just a logical follower for the previous tone shaping devices. So everything was and is just an attempt to push the previous device just a bit further and make it sound better. Every single designer stands on the shoulder of a giant. The previous designer that made a circuit to sound closer to his/her preferences.

Colorless writings, part 20 – Repair statistics

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

At first, i’d like to say WoHOO! It’s been about 18 moths, and there are now exactly 200 different pedals covered and i’ve also posted 20 of these unintelligible texts about preferences and gut feels.

Anyway. Back to business.

 So we’re talking about repairs?

Yes. Can’t exactly recall when i did my very first pedal repair. But since i’ve been heavily addicted to effects and sounds for something like five years now, the first one must have been around that time. About five years ago. Of course, the circuit debugging skills are something quite different today than what they were back in those days when i was starting out. I still do feel uncomfortable working with massive SMD boards, but to date, i’ve been able to fix every single one i’ve come across with through hole components. One exception being an old japanese Boss DD-3 which had a fried chip. Two pedals that i’ve given up have both been Dunlop manufactured modern “MXR”s.  I do find it to give more of a mental boost to figure out what’s wrong with someone else’s pedal than a pedal of my own. Sure, i’ve bought tens and tens of broken/defect units for myself and fixed them. But still. There is this certain excitement when poking around unit that isn’t mine. After all, i don’t mind throwing something that i own to the trash bin, but that isn’t an option when doing the fix for someone else. Think of it as tattooing. When you tattoo yourself it doesn’t matter all that much, but when you’re tattooing someone else, the results do count..

What is the most common fault with a pedal?

This is very common question i get asked. Almost as common as “how long it takes to build a pedal”. Answer to both questions is simply, “it depends”. Sadly, i haven’t kept a log of all the repairs i’ve done, so i have to rely on my recollection. (I should start to keep a log though, so we can revisit this writing in five to ten years..) Bosses and Ibanezes. For these brands, the most usual situation is that somebody has been trying to use the unit with a wrong polarity power supply. This results in burned (or in extreme cases, exploded) parallel polarity protection. Most cases are easy to fix, but some i’ve seen have had the board burned to the degree that the fix has not been as simple. Bosses are built to pretty high degree of excellence, and other than burning the power supply section, there are not that many common faults. Occasional worn out switch would come to mind, but that’s it. If Bosses are used in civilized manner, they will last years and years of physical (ab)use. This same thing applies with Ibanez boxes. Although, there are noticeable amount of more broken footswitches on those units. Still, the switches and burned polarity protection. Those are the main faults. For more boutique-like pedals, the faults are the same. If there is a parallel polarity protection in place, i’d say it’s pretty likely someone burns it with a wrong power supply. My rough estimate for probability would be around 60% chance of someone being idiot enough not to understand the difference between AC and DC power. I’d still place this “burning polarity protection” as second on my list of common faults.

All the switches, regardless of type, will simply worn out with use. It doesn’t seem to matter if the switch is made by high end brand or it is the modern chinese, cheapest possible part. For example, all the faults within Vox brand pedals i’ve seen so far have been with the mechanical switches. And those switches are the higher end industry standard, mexican Carling brand switches. Same thing with Wampler, Menatone and tons of other higher end pedals. Most common issues with those are the switches. And those usually can take up to several years of active stomping before giving up on you.

Switches first, killed polarity protection second, what then?

Those would be the most common faults. After the user fault of killing the polarity protection, the next common fault would be the burned out semiconductor. I’ve seen burned opamps, hex inverters, CMOS switches, transistors, you name it. The easiest way to kill a semiconductor in a pedal is to burn the polarity protection out first and still not believe that there is anything wrong with the power supply used. Feed the board with a short circuited power for long enough and if we’re unusually unlucky, we’ll have damage to the semiconductors as well. Some designs do not protect the CMOS switching and other sensitive components well enough. Those pedals are bound to end up on my desk more often. Still more rare occasion than killing a switch, but still. Noticeable fault in number of fixed units. Burned diodes, opamps, DC-DC converters.. Yup. I see those every now and then.

What’s funny, i’ve grown to hear a few different faults in effects. Certain type of gating and behaviour has always been due to a broken diode in a signal path. That’s something i’m actually rather proud of..

Burned out semiconductors third. Anything else?

I’ve seen a few instances with dead and/or leaky electrolytic capacitor causing the circuit not work. This can happen, but it is much more unlikely than all the other above. Key idea with all the capacitors would be that if it’s physically broken, then it’s broken electronically too. It’s very rare occasion to see any polyester or ceramic capacitor broken. Electrolytics can be killed simply by reversing the polarity inside the circuit or for a single cap. Tantalums are a thing of their own. I’ve heard stories of these to short out, but i’ve rarely seen that myself. Well. I wouldn’t use a tantalum power supply circuits anyway (they are great for signal paths though).

In all. That’s pretty much it. After all, we’re talking about very simple amplification and filtering circuits in all pedals. There basically only a handful of different components in use. And since there is only a few ways to hook up a semiconductor to have it working, the circuits in every effect pedal have similarities. Fixing a pedal is pretty much like fixing a car. Only with smaller parts. Some parts are brand and model specific, but most are interchangeable between every pedal. I don’t know how to fix a car and i have no plans to learn it. I do, however, have a mechanic to do that for me. This comparison is more true than most of us would like to admit. I recently had a broken tail light glass on my car. I changed it myself, but the procedure was pretty close to changing a broken pot knob on a pedal. I also recently had the water pump and engine sealing renewed, which would be a lot more like changing a CD4066 switch and a quad opamp on a pedal. The latter i can do. The former.. I’d rather leave it to the people who really know what they are doing.

In light of the last few sentences, i’d like to point out that you don’t have to repair your pedal yourself if you do not know what you are doing. In that case, please don’t even try. You’re bound to do more harm than good. You most likely know someone who’s been working with soldering iron for years. Ask him to do the repairs. Or send it over to me…


EDIT!!! Nope. As of this date, 7th of october 2017, i’m saying the text above is full of shit. Dead cap is way more likely to cause issues than a burnt semiconductor. This edit should suffice..

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: 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”.

Colorless writings, part 18 – Buyer’s market

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

So scratching more area of collector’s world?

In part, yes. As some of you may already know, i do buy a lot of factory made pedals. As both new and used. I do trade a lot too, but let’s just focus on the buying part today. Why i named today’s writing as “buyer’s market” is a part of that. As with economy of supply and demand, there are pedals that are cheap and there are pedals that are not. As a collector, to find the sweet spot in pricing versus quality is a walk on a tightrope. Some brands are cheap to begin with, while others, it will be an understatement to call them expensive. Both, and everything in between will lose a bit of their street value the second they are driven out of the  shop. Think of cars as a analogy. This analogy isn’t as far fetched as it might seem at first sight. You buy a Toyota, it will lose most of it’s value once you drive it off the shop. But. If you buy a Ferrari, the losses as percent are not as significant as with that Toyota. But you will drive that Toyota to the market, take your missus to work and it will offer you a lot of mileage before it turns into trash. For the Ferrari, you will only drive it a little to keep the value up. A Ferrari isn’t a tool. Now let’s look at the same thing with effects. I got perfect examples to offer for this thought. You buy a Digitech Tone Driver to boost your highs. It too will lose most of its value the second you take it out of the box. The losses aren’t as significant in percentage if you buy a *insert your top end boutique brand’s effect name here* as new and open that box up. But you will boost your highs with that Tone Driver in all the joints you can get yourself a gig. It will get its share of beer spills and its paint will chip from use, but it will keep boosting a long time before it turns to trash. For the high end boutique pedal, you will only use it a little and keep it out of harm’s way to keep its value up. That pedal isn’t that much of a tool as it is a status symbol.

Let’s face it. You really think 98% of the audience you’ll ever get will notice if you play with a Tone Driver or an overdrive that’s hottest hot at the guitar player forums? Or if they do, you are doning something else wrong that’s taking all the interest out of the music itself) Sure, the high end pedal will be a huge thing when you’re in studio, but is it really worth the money that gets you more than 20 Tone Drivers? Think about those questions for a second.

The examples above give you two separate viewpoints. First, the price vs. usability. Then, the price vs. collector’s value. For me, i always do everything in my power to find the ones that follow the middle of the road. As low price as possible with as high collector’s value as possible. This means that i’m partially stuck with lower end brands (my enthusiasm with the electronic design and the learning aspect do play a big part too). But then again. What’s wrong with these lower brand name boxes? No that much. There are some serious gems in that range which may never gain the recognition they would deserve. The title of this writing goes deeper in to this. The number of Marshall BB-2 Bluesbreaker IIs manufactured vs. their price on the used market is a good example. I think i can safely say that for at least next twenty years there will always be more used and new units available than there is a demand for them. Which translates to Bluesbreaker IIs selling for ~25 €/£/$. That’s a lot of weight in metal and electronics for the price. And it is, in fact, a whole lot better device than the price would let you believe.

These are the units that will be on the good purchase side of things for a long time. That 20 years will pass, but since there isn’t anything resembling a scarcity for these units in sight even then, these will not ever become highly collectable. As another example, let’s take the Danelectro Cool Cat series. The most common ones can still be found as new and for cheap. But there are units like CTO-1 and CO-1 which were manufactured for a short period of time and sold for peanuts when they were released. I’m still missing the CO-1 from my collection at the time of the writing. This pedal should be easy to find and it should sell for cheap. But it isn’t and it doesn’t. Without taking any stance on the electronics inside, the Danelectro Cool Cat series is already a collectable series. Launced in late 00’s and i’m under impression the tese aren’t made anymore. At least none of the big european resellers have any the these on their lists. That’s a way to create a series that isn’t praised on its release, but just five years later will become understood and wanted. For the most of Cool Cat series pedals it is still a buyer’s market. Especially for the units that have their sounds right. Lower end Ibanezes (5 and 7 series) are another good example of low price vs. collectability. 5-series will enter the “vintage” status soon, when the magical 30 years of age creeps on them. The 7-series is still cheap to acquire and the quality of these units will keep their value where it is now, or possibly even take it on the rise in following decades. All these are common and it’s a buyer’s market for all of them. There may be a few units that are more rare, but still. You should have to pay real big money for any of these. It may be just my opinion, but these factory made units are usually higher in build quality and design than many high end brands. These higher end brands do hold their value better, but then again.. Do they sound all that much better? Or is it just that we want to look like we know something that others don’t?

Colorless writings, part 17 – Words

Friday, November 14th, 2014

What now?

With a title “Words”, i’m referring to the difficulty of humanly express the tone and its qualities. You know, almost everyone is familiar with what anyone means when he/she is referring to that “mid-hump” usually associated with Tubescreamers and derivatives. But how does one describe the difference between yellow, red or blue clipper LEDs in the feedback loop of a non-inverting amplifier? Thought so. Like some of you, i do have an aural memory, or recognition, accompanied by strong gut feeling of clipping textures of different materials. This can be easily achieved by just playing and listening to the same circuit with different clippers as many times as it takes to recognize the different textures. The memory develops as you listen. I’ve listened a lot over the last five years. Or how does one define the difference of 2N5089 and BC550C silicon transistors in otherwise exactly the same fuzz circuit? Or a differences in sound of two Tubescreamer circuits, one loaded with JRC4558 and the other with NE5532? If the diode texture takes rehearsing to recognize, these differences aren’t as noticeable. Sure. There are differences in tone, but in all honesty. Really hearing a difference between old glossy JRC4558D and modern NJM manufactured JRC4558D? But for the ones that are more obvious – Why is it so hard to describe what we hear?

Even the most basic questions like does this sound good or does this sound better than the other example, are highly subjective. Artists, fashion designers and all the others have spent decades to come up with peach, fuschia, aero and beaver to name each and every color they can. There’s a full list of colors on wikipedia. Sounds do not have a similar list. Yet, the colors have certain wavelength we humans detect. There may be millions of more colors out in the universe, but we just won’t be able to see them. The sound has similar qualities. We humans can only hear what is an amplitude modulation in frequency range of about 20 Hz to 40KHz (Hz being the modulations per second). We all are aware of lows, low mids, mids, high mids and highs. Sometimes we even recognize upper highs as “presence”. Some more technical minded, or just professional sound people might go to lenghts of  expressing the exact frequncies as numbers. But that’s as far we usually go with the frequency or pitch. Just five or six frequency ranges. But sound has other qualities too. The waveform. The attack and release. Just to name a few.

Could it just be that as opposed to fixed colours, the different qualities in sound make it exteremely hard for us to describe? Sound we want to hear is rarely static or fixed. If the static colors had the ability of changing in short periods of time, the naming would have been a lot more difficult. But. Let’s compare the sound to other aspects of our senses. Taste. Now that’s a closer thing to think of. We have our sour, sweet, salty, bitter and a few others. And for the physical taste, there are same subjective things of good, bad and better as there is for the sounds. Wine tasters have done their best to come up with wild comparisons so they can put the wines in order. I urge you to check the wikipedia page for this subject too. Then, why there isn’t similar list of earthy, black pepper and dark fruits adjectives to describe the sound? This is, after all a much better analogy that the colors. Sure. I could start using the similar words to describe sounds and tones, but i might get simply frown upon for doing so.

If there is a consencus for describing sounds, i’m not aware of it.  Maybe it’s just for the best to stop talking about it and keep on listening. If you like what you hear, there is a great chance you’ll find other people who agree with you. If you come up with a tone that’s “earthy”, you can reproduce it and you’ll find people who agree with you – Let me know. I sure would like to start using that word for a tone.

Colorless writings, part 16 – The Transistor

Monday, October 13th, 2014

A transistor? As in electronics 101?

Yes. A transistor. A rather simple device that we’ll find in almost any stompbox, in form or another. Transistor is usually a triode. Meaning that there are three terminals and all those three terminals have their own purpose. You know, a tri-ode. Three terminals. As opposite to diode – di-ode, which has two. Simple analogy forward to tubes that may be pentodes and so on. Transistors can be used for a few different purposes, most notably as switches and signal amplifiers. The latter one is is the one i’ll be focusing on. And we usually can find two distinct types of transistors – NPN and PNP. I’ll be focusing on NPN type, but i’ll talk more about this later. Just a second ago i said that transistors have three terminals. These are called a collector, a base and an emitter. The base is where you apply your signal. Collector collects and emitter emits. Can’t get much simpler than this. When i was introducing myself to the magical little devices, the obvious thing to assume was that the emitter emits the amplified signal and collector collects the juice for this amplification. This is not true. Emitter emits the juice to inside the device. Collector collects the amplified signal and this is the output we can get out if it. Somehow i don’t think i’m the only person who’s had this misconception when getting to know his/her transistors.

Let’s take a look at the subject in even simpler terms. Semiconductors in general work in a very simple way. The voltage and/or current is passed through the semi-conducting material in one direction, but the other. are you familiar with a diode? For a diode, we have anode and cathode as the terminals. Cathode is the end with a stripe on it.. If we apply 9V DC voltage to the anode, we’ll end up having a voltage that’s close to 9V DC on the diode’s cathode, as this is the direction the diode passes voltage and current. But if we apply the same voltage to the cathode, the anode won’t have any voltage, because the diode doesn’t pass the voltage or current in this direction. This is the fundamental, basic idea for all semiconductors. That’s what they do. Once you get this, everything will start looking a lot simpler.

How does a diode get us closer to a transistor?

I just explained how a diode works. There’s not a lot of options how that third terminal is connected inside this device called a transistor. Since i’m talking about NPN type transistors, think of the transistor as two diodes. Both anodes tied together as a base, one cathode is your collector and the other is your emitter. NPN stands for negative, positive, negative. Now, if we apply that 9VDC voltage to the base, or two anodes tied together, we’ll have near 9V on both, emitter and collector. This doesn’t amplify anything, but it shows us the idea behind the transistor. Let’s play with a thought of it doing some amplification without going into mathematics. To begin with, transistors amplify current, so we’ll need to give it some. Our guitar output is good source of low voltage AC signal and it’ll have hot and cold leads. For this example, cold is the same we have as DC ground, so  we can use just a single signal path. As we’ll need to apply some voltages to get the device doing the work, we’ll need to place a capacitor in series with the base and apply the signal to the free end of that cap. This cap will pass the signal to the base, but block the DC voltage from the base from getting to your guitar. Now it all comes down to bias. I know. It’s a concept that isn’t as clear as pancakes for most people. To get the amplification going, we’ll need to have a voltage on the base, which has to be smaller than the voltage on collector. If we take 1M resistor from the 9V supply to the base and another one with 100k value from base to ground, we’ll end up with something like 0,8V DC voltage on the base. That’ll work. For the emitter, we’ll take a small resistor from it to ground. Let’s say 470 ohm. Finally, we’ll need something like 10-12k resistor from supply to the collector and an output cap to block the near supply voltage from our real output.

What happened?

We applied low bias voltage to the base with our signal. Ground potential at the emitter and the bias, or reference voltage pushed the signal towards the collector. Which collected it and made it to pushed the signal out with way higher current than what we applied to the base. That’s the amplification of  a small signal in the simplest possible way. Four resistors, two capacitors and a single transistor. This is the configuration we’ll find inside EHX LPB-1 Linear Power Booster.Sure. This information doesn’t take you very far. But i’m hoping it’ll offer enough snack for thought, so that digging deeper may become slightly easier. There are tons and tons of good articles and videos around the internet if you feel like going further.