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Thursday, March 7, 2013

The 10 Most Significant Amps Of All Time

Fender Super Reverb amplifier image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture blog
Original Blackface Super Reverb
I recently had a long conversation with a friend and fellow guitar player about amps that were game changers in terms of either starting a trend, their longevity or their desert island desirability. This is a fantasy list, of course, but after some thought, here are the ones I've come up with. I'm sure you probably have your own favorites, and I'd love to hear them. Here we go, in no particular order:

59 Fender Bassman: Still the most coveted guitar amplifier more than 50 years later. Thanks to its four 10" speakers, the Bassman was originally made for the then new Precision bass, but instead found a home with discerning guitarists everywhere who loved the built-in smooth sounding and totally unintentional overdrive.

Marshall Super Lead 1987: Along with the Marshall 4x12 cabinet, the 1987 made up the famed "stack" that became the signature sound of hard rock and metal players everywhere thanks to its brilliant natural distortion and distinctive sound. The circuit was actually a copy of the Bassman, but the sound changed due to the different and more accessible parts (like tubes and transformers) used to make it affordable in the UK.

Fender Super Reverb: An updated version of the 59 Bassman specifically made for guitarists, the Super kept the 4x10 concept yet added reverb and vibrato. The early black-face versions were noted for not only their natural overdrive but also their projection, even with only 40 watts of power.

Sunn 2000S: The first of the super-power amps, the 2000S was specifically built for large outdoor concerts. Fitted with KT-88 tubes and JBL D140F bass speakers for extra headroom and low end, it was the centerpiece of Noel Redding's rig in The Experience.

Ampeg SVT: Perhaps no amplifier screams bass more than the SVT with its 8x10 cabinet and hefty 300 watt output. Still going strong 40 years later, some version of the SVT can be found at nearly every concert you go to. Also probably the heaviest amp you will ever lift (you better have help).

Fender Deluxe Reverb: The Deluxe is different from all other amps because it used a different bias method (called cathode bias) on the power tubes that's hardly used even to this day (the exception being the AC-30). That's the reason why guitar players love its creamy overdriven sound. And with a single 12" speaker, it's easy to carry around too. (UPDATE: Sorry, as was pointed out to me in the comments below, the earlier Deluxe's were cathode biased but the Deluxe Reverb was not).

Vox AC-30: The sound of the British Invasion, the AC-30 is known for its sweet chimey sustain. Listen to any Queen song and you'll hear the king of the AC-30 in Brian May. Its smooth sounding overdrive comes from cathode biasing of the power tubes, one of the few amps to use this scheme. It is not a class A amp, as many believe.

Mesa Boogie Mark IV: The original Boogie Mark IV was significant because it was the first amp built with an additional gain stage and a master volume control specifically so it could distort at lower volumes. This lead the way to the now-common 4 stage amps made by virtually every amp manufacturer these days.

Ampeg B-15: Listen to any record from Motown, Nashville, and New York from the 70s and 80s and what you'll hear is the bass played through a B-15. At 30 watts with a single 15" speaker in a unique flip-top cabinet, the B-15 was and still is the perfect studio amp for bass.

Line 6 Axxess: The first modeling amplifier, the Axxess set the stage for the wide variety of modeling amps, modules and plugins to come. They all owe their existence to this amp.

That's my 10. What are yours?

If you want a really good detailed explanation about what makes an amp sound the way it does, check out The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook. Here's an excerpt about the tonal factors of an electric guitar.

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" Song Analysis

White Stripes Elephant Cover image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture blog
I haven't done a song analysis for a while, so here's a request from Svenhead for a look into "Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes. This is one of the best known songs by the White Stripes and the lead track from their Elephant album, which marked their major label debut. The song went on to become very popular in European football stadiums and with college marching bands.

The album was recorded on 8 track tape and pre-1960s recording gear, as writer/producer/guitarist Jack White refused to use a digital audio workstation at any time during the writing or recording of the album.

The Song
“Seven Nation Army” is about all about the riff that the song is built on. In fact, it’s one of the few songs that has an instrumental chorus that’s built upon the central riff of the song. The form looks like this:

Intro ➞ verse ➞ turnaround ➞ chorus ➞ intro ➞ verse ➞ 
turnaround ➞ chorus (2X) ➞ intro ➞ verse ➞ turnaround ➞ chorus ➞ end

The form is a cross between a normal 16 bar pop music verse and 12 bar blues. It’s 16 bars long, but there’s an two additional bar turnaround that leads into the instrumental chorus. 

The lyrics only state the title once during the song, and reflect how The White Stripes were dealing with their then new-found popularity. “Seven Nation Army” actually refers to writer Jack White’s name for the Salvation Army when he was kid. Considering that the song is based over a repeating riff, the melody is quite good in that it actually develops during the second half of the verse.

The Arrangement
The arrangement for “Seven Nation Army” is fairly simple but very effective. The song begins with the bass sound (actually a 1950s Kay 6 string acoustic/electric guitar through a Digitech Whammy pedal set an octave below standard tuning) that’s joined by the kick, floor tom and hat after it plays twice. After another two times through the riff, the verse vocal enters. Half-way through the verse the snare enters. During the two bar turnaround, a big sounding guitar enters that’s doubled, which continues into the first chorus.

The second verse and turnaround are identical to the first, but the second chorus is joined by a slide guitar and is placed twice as long. Once again the next intro, verse and turnaround are identical, with the exception of some guitar feedback that hangs over onto the intro. The last chorus is identical to the first one, as the slide guitar is not present and it’s the same length. The song has a hard ending, with an additional reprise from what sounds like a previous take.

Arrangement Elements
  • The Foundation: drums and bass guitar
  • The Rhythm: drums
  • The Pad: none
  • The Lead: lead vocal in verse, doubled electric guitar in chorus
  • The Fills: none
The Sound
“Seven Nation Army” was recording on 8 track analog tape in a studio where nothing was newer than from 1963, hence the vintage sound. The song as a number of interesting sonic quirks. First of all, the guitar playing the bass is panned to the left and you can hear a bit of the amp reverb boing if you listen closely. Then the drums are recorded in mono, which is extremely unusual for this day and age but quite the norm back in the days when 8 tracks was the maximum available. Finally, the vocals are somewhat distorted, but you get the feeling that’s on purpose rather than some gear anomaly or poor technique. 

Of course, everything is dry as a bone, and whatever is panned to the right side is more of a ghost double until the very last chord of the song.

The Production
Jack White is a throwback to a previous time in many ways, and his production sense certainly proves that. From the concept of recording on analog and limiting the band to only 8 tracks, to the sparse arrangement and simple song form, “Seven Nation Army” could well have been made in the 60’s, it’s so retro. That said, what is retro to some is cutting edge to others, and the production of “Seven Nation Army” turned out to be a lasting hit that continues to echo around the world.


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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Look Back At Building Hammond Organs

When it comes to a recording, there's nothing better than a Hammond organ to act as the glue to meld everything together. It's tone easily blends with almost any other instrument and the natural sustaining notes are the perfect pad element. But the power of the instrument life is something else, which is why I'm such a big fan.

Here's a pretty rare video that shows how the original Hammond organs were built and how they worked. It's hard to believe that this was once the state-of-the-art electronically, especially when we can accomplish everything that's done here mechanically with ease digitally today. Actually, everything is very hi-tech for the time. Still it's pretty cool to see how manufacturing the istrument was done more than 50 years ago.


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Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Top 10 DAWs For Songwriting

PreSonus Studio One screen image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
Songwriting is such a personal affair. Everyone does it differently and everyone has an idea on the best way to do it. These days, most people write with their favorite DAW to help them either flesh out the rhythm of the tune or simply remember any ideas. For some, that's a heartache in itself as sometimes there's more time spent on the technical aspect of the DAW than on the actual writing.

That said, here are the top 10 DAWs for songwriting as stated by

1. PreSonus Studio One

2. Propellerhead Reason

3. FL Studio

4. Acoustica Mixcraft

5. Apple Logic

6. Sony Acid Pro

7. Steinberg CuBase

8. Avid Pro Tools

9. Cakewalk Sonar

10. Ableton Live

I'm not sure that I agree with everything on this list, especially the order, but then again, to each his own when it comes to DAW choices. I sometimes think that the easiest thing is a simple handheld recorder by Zoom, Tascam or even a recording app on an iPhone to capture the ideas. You can always flesh them out later on the DAW. Then again, if you're writing around beats and loops, then the songs starts in the DAW in the first place.

What's your choice?


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Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

New Music Gear Monday: Aphex USB 500 Rack

One of the coolest pieces of audio gear that I've seen in a long time is the Aphex USB 500 rack. 500 series racks are all the rage these days and with good reason; they're a great way to get some fine analog processing in a small portable space without spending a huge amount of extra dough that would normally be spend on the individual boxes and power supplies for that EQ, mic amp or channel strip. The problem is that interfacing them with your DAW isn't always the easiest thing to do, especially when it comes to mix time.

Aphex takes the 500 series rack to a whole new level by adding a USB port to it so that you easily connect the rack to any DAW, plus they added an easy way to chain the modules to make an onboard channel strip, and included two high quality headphone amplifiers.

What really excites me about the USB 500 is the fact that now some analog modules can take the place of their software plugin counterparts. As cool as plugins are, you do have to constantly update them with every new version of the operating system or DAW, and that usually means you have to pay for it again. With the USB 500, you can always use your analog modules, which don't care about your software version. Plus we all know how much they can add to the sound.

Check out the informative video on the USB 500.


You should follow me on Twitter for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.


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